Archive for the ‘Nature and Wildlife’ Category

Happy Summer Solstice!   10 comments

Sunrise over Klamath Marsh, south-central Oregon.

Sunrise over Klamath Marsh, south-central Oregon.  Click on image for purchase options.

It is that special day today, Summer Solstice!  It’s the longest day of the year and the first day of summer for the Northern Hemisphere.  For all you Southerners it’s Winter Solstice, the shortest day of the year and start of winter.  For today I’m posting one sunrise, from Klamath Marsh in southern Oregon, and one sunset, from the Pacific Coast just south of the Oregon-California border.

Please let me know if you’re interested in fine-art prints of the images here, or want to buy rights to the high-resolution files.  They’re not available for free download except with my permission.  Please contact me, thanks!

You may already know this but the Earth is tilted on its axis about 23.5 degrees.  This tilt gives us our seasons, and means as we go around the Sun there are four moments (not whole days) when things line up.  In March and again in September there’s a moment when the North Pole is tilted precisely along our path of travel, our orbit, at a perfect right angle to the Sun’s direction.  These are the equinoxes, when day and night are equal the world over.

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In December there’s a moment when the North Pole points directly away from the Sun.  In June, usually on the 21st but sometimes on the 20th, a moment comes when the North Pole points directly toward the Sun.  This puts the Sun as far north in our skies as it can get.  In the Southern Hemisphere it’s low in the sky, leading to short days.  In the Northern Hemisphere it’s high in the sky, leading to long days.

In the far north above the Arctic Circle, where I spent a couple summers a long time ago in Alaska, the Sun never sets at this time of year.  It skims along nicely above the northern horizon throughout the wee hours.  I went on several long hikes in the Brooks Range when I was up there working.  I’m a person who needs darkness to sleep, and I was having trouble staying asleep.  So I used the time to see the midnight sun trace its path across the sky above the Arctic Plain.

Our encampment was down in a valley with a fairly high ridge to the north, so you couldn’t see the midnight sun for about 8 full hours.  It took about an hour and a half to climb the ridge, and I”m sure it would take twice that long for me now!  In good weather there was a clear view out to the Chukchi Sea to the west, the Noatak River Valley to the north.  The glowing sun glided not far above the horizon.

I recall seeing a few grizzlies on their rounds down below.  I never ran into one close, but being alone I was cautious.  I avoided obvious passes and other places a bear might use to cross from one valley to another.

So enjoy our long days all you fellow Northerners.  If you live relatively close to the equator, I’m sorry but all this talk of seasons and change is a bit lost on you.  But heck, go ahead and celebrate with the rest of us!

The rugged Pacific Coast of far northern California witnesses many a fine sunset.

The rugged Pacific Coast of far northern California witnesses many a fine sunset.  Click on image for purchase options.

Single-image Sunday: Patterns in Sandstone   5 comments

Since the Foto Talk this week was all about not getting too caught up in the search for abstract patterns in your photography, I thought I’d post an image whose sole aim was to abstract the subject.  But is this really an abstract?  I could have made it more so, for example by moving the camera or otherwise blurring details and color.  Or by getting experimental in post-processing.  But I wanted the close-up features of this dune sandstone to be very clear.

The abstraction is created by simply getting  close with my macro lens and framing so as to exclude the tiny flaws that are scattered through the rock.  I captured this at the famous Wave in southern Utah’s Vermilion Cliffs National Monument.  The sandstone has been worn smooth by water and wind erosion, but up close you can see how rough it is, like sandpaper.

The tiny sand grains are frosted by winds that blew them into dunes during the early Jurassic Period nearly 200 million years ago when this whole region of the American southwest was a vast desert similar to the Sahara of today.

The thin layers (laminae) of alternating color are at an angle to the main sandstone beds.  This is called cross-bedding and is characteristic of dune sands.  The wind blew in grains that had been stained brick-red by iron.  Then it turned around and blew in cleaner, lighter-colored grains from a different source.  These grains would cascade down the steeper lee side of dunes, creating the cross-beds.

The flatter, thicker layers have been eroded into steps, a characteristic of the Wave.  Because of variation in their hardness, their ability to resist erosion, the layers stand out or are recessed.  This differential erosion is caused by variation in the amount and hardness of cement binding the sand grains together.

So what this image shows on a micro-scale is an ancient sand dune in cross-section that is now being sculpted by present-day winds.  In other words, it shows winds in a desert of the distant past, when early dinosaurs roamed the area.  And it shows what the desert of today is doing to those ancient dunes

So an abstract image can tell you something real about the subject.  I believe that’s the best kind of abstract in fact.  I’m hoping the image shows what nature can do, not what me or my camera can do.  Please let me know whether or not I succeeded.  I hope your weekend was a lot of fun.  Thanks for reading.

Undulations

John Day Fossil Beds: To Clarno & Beyond   9 comments

Good day Central Oregon!

This is the last post in a series on the Painted Hills and John Day Fossil Beds in Oregon.  Be sure to check out the last two, which have tips for visiting the Painted Hills and Sheep Rock Units of John Day Fossil Beds National Monument.  It’s at Sheep Rock where we pick up the big counter-clockwise loop.

Just north of Cant Ranch on Hwy. 19 is a great hike.  Blue Basin is a fantastic section of blue-green sedimentary rock that rivals the Painted Hills.  It is the Turtle Cove member of the John Day Formation, some 30 million years old.  The blue-green color results from weathering of the volcanic ash in the rock to oxygen-poor iron oxide (green) and the clay celadonite (blue).

You can do a short in and out hike with interpretive panels, or a longer hike that takes you up and over the formations on a 3+ mile loop.  Make sure and take plenty of water, especially if it’s summer when this area can get very hot and dry.

Blue Basin with purple sage in bloom.

Blue Basin with purple sage in bloom.

Continuing north of Blue Basin, you’ll come upon an interesting geology stop.  A large lens of conglomerate is bisected by the road at Goose Rock.  The cobbles within the rock are perfect, like they had been plucked from a rocky stream.  But that stream flowed millions of years ago.  Continuing north you come to Cathedral Rock, which in the right light offers great photos with the John Day River as leading line.  Continue to the town of Kimberly, then follow the highway west along the John Day River to Service Creek, where lodging and camping is available.

Service Creek is a popular place for rafters and canoeists to put in for a float down the John Day.  In late spring, the river is perfect for this.  Rapids get up to class 3 but in general the river is quite mellow.  If you can handle a canoe through moving water, I recommend this over rafting, though both are a great idea.  It is an easy 2-night, 3-day float to the bridge crossing at Clarno.

Springtime brings green along creek bottoms in central Oregon.  Osage orange blooms on the right.

Springtime brings green along creek bottoms in central Oregon. Osage orange blooms on the right.

Keep on Hwy. 19 north through pine forests to the town of Fossil.  On the way, a detour can be made to the ghost town of Kinzua.  Two small forest service campgrounds are found along the route; they’re in pine trees not far south of Fossil.  Near these is Pioneer Park, which is perfect for a picnic.  A cold spring is one of its features, great for filling up with fresh clean water.  The creek running through is perfect for hunting crawfish.  If you have kids with you, this is a must stop for burning off some of that excess energy.

In the town of Fossil are two spots I recommend visiting.  One is the General Store, a very authentic old place that turns the pages back to a simpler time in America.  The other is the High School.  Why the High School?  Well, the hill next to it is one of the easiest places to find fossils I know of.  It’s an ancient lake bed that some 30 million years ago filled with sediments rich in volcanic ash.  Now perfectly preserved leaf fossils are revealed on dinner-plate rock surfaces.  The best part about it is you can dig your own fossils, and for a very small fee keep your favorites.  Recently established, the Oregon Paleo Lands Center here has a very helpful staff who will get you started and make sure your dig is successful.

A fossil leaf is perfectly preserved in lake-bed sediments rich in volcanic ash.

A fossil leaf is perfectly preserved in lake-bed sediments rich in volcanic ash.

From Fossil, take Hwy. 218 west toward Clarno.  Along the way an old homestead on the right makes a great photo stop.  When you begin to see tall cliffs on the right, you have arrived at the Clarno Unit of the National Monument.  There are a couple hikes here worth taking.  One, which takes off from a parking lot with bathroom, follows Indian Creek up to a shallow cave with pictographs.  This gives you a great feel for central Oregon’s ranching country.  Beautiful flowers bloom in April.

Another short hike takes off from the same parking lot, heading along the highway a short way before following a couple steep switchbacks up to the base of the cliffs.  You may see birds of prey hunting here.  The spectacular cliffs, called the Palisades, are made up of the Clarno Formation.  The Clarno, Eocene in age, is the oldest major formation in the Monument.  It is most famous for its fossils of huge mammals, along with one of the world’s premier fossil nut beds.  Very near here is an exposure of rocks where perfectly preserved nut fossils weather out like marbles.  It’s amazing:  some look as if you just reached into a bowl of walnuts – except they are heavier and made of stone.

A diorama depicting life in central Oregon when the area closely resembled modern Panama, but with early mammals prowling the forest, many now extinct.

A diorama depicting life in central Oregon when the area closely resembled modern Panama, but with early mammals prowling the forest, many now extinct.

A rare nearly complete skull of Eusmilus, a saber-toothed pre-cat of the John Day Fossil Beds.

A rare nearly complete skull of Eusmilus, a saber-toothed pre-cat of the John Day Fossil Beds.

If you want to visit the nut beds you can keep going on the trail up Indian Creek, but ask a ranger (back at Sheep Rock) for detailed directions.  There is also a fossil tree along the way that is upright and even includes traces of the roots!  But be aware that this area is shared by a science school.  In season (April – October) there are sessions taking place, with schoolkids getting a great field-based science education.  It’s best to give groups of kids and instructors their space and not attempt to hang out with them.

Following 218 west you cross the John Day River and climb over a pass to the tiny town of Antelope.  This was the base for a bizarre chapter in Oregon history.  In the 1980s a man from India, the Baghwan Shree Rashneesh, bought a ranch near here.  Having started his own religion, he brought a large group of followers and moved in.  The quiet ranching atmosphere was changed overnight, caravans of luxury cars and strangers running around.

It soon became clear that this was a cult.  The followers turned into a problem after several strange incidents and standoffs with local and state government officials.  It came to a head when they were caught poisoning the salad bar in a restaurant in the nearby town of The Dalles.  The Baghwan had also been dodging taxes.  The cult soon collapsed and broke up, and the Baghwan deported.  The ranch remains; I have toured the place and it is creepy-fascinating.  There is an old crematorium tilted over and rusting away in the sagebrush.  The followers included many talented engineers and other skilled people.  And they had not been idle.

Turning north at Antelope and staying on Hwy. 218 through a series of tight curves takes you up onto the plateau, to a ghost town named Shaniko.  Though a few people live here (which to me means it isn’t a ghost town), it is a shadow of once it once was.  You can get some good pictures wandering this little town.

Shaniko was once one of the busiest centers of sheep-ranching in the west.  This is the historic Shaniko Hotel.

Shaniko was once one of the busiest centers of sheep-ranching in the west. This is the historic Shaniko Hotel.

From Shaniko, if you follow Bakeoven Road, you come to the little community of Maupin, straddling the beautiful Deschutes River.  You can go white-water rafting or kayaking.  Continue west on Hwy. 216 back up out of the sagebrush and into the forests near Mount Hood.  You’ll hit Hwy. 26.  This is the fastest (and most scenic) way back to Portland.

I hope you enjoyed this little tour of central Oregon.  You may have heard that Bend is central Oregon, but it’s really not.  This large region, the John Day Basin, is both the geographic and cultural heart of central Oregon.  It is much more than the Painted Hills.  If you want to explore a fascinating and non-touristy part of the west, a region with great photo opportunities and interesting human and geologic history, you can’t do much better.

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John Day Fossil Beds & Climate Change   4 comments

An old dairy farm along Bridge Creek in eastern Oregon near the town of Mitchell, it appears to have once been a going concern.

An old dairy farm near the town of Mitchell, Oregon appears to have once been a going concern.

As mentioned in my last post on the Painted Hills, this area of Oregon is about so much more than some colorful formations.  A little preview at the end of that post last Friday was a short description of the old dairy farm near Mitchell (see above).  And it’s from there that we’ll continue our road trip through John Day Fossil Beds National Monument in Oregon.

Travel east from Mitchell on Hwy. 26 toward the monument headquarters at Sheep Rock.  You will first come to Picture Gorge, a spectacular cut through stacks of basaltic lavas.  The Picture Gorge Basalt is a southern outlier of the great Columbia River Basalt flows to the north.  The gorge is named for ancient Native American rock art found on the walls.

Since I can't find any very good images of Oregon rock art, here is a pictograph from Chaco Canyon in New Mexico.

Since I can’t find any very good images of Oregon rock art, here is a pictograph from Chaco Canyon in New Mexico.

To see and photograph some pictographs, drive to the east end of the gorge and park alongside the John Day River.  Look up to the walls across the road.  From here, if the river is low enough, you can get a much closer look at great rock art alongside the river.  Just drop below the road and walk a hundred yards or so upriver, looking for short, smooth walls to your right.  A rare pictograph of a salamander can be found.

Midway through Picture Gorge you’ll turn north on Hwy, 19 and drive a short distance to the Sheep Rock Unit.  There is a great museum that explains the areas rich fossil heritage.  This is an important region of the world for paleontologists.  Along with Wyoming’s Green River area, it is where well preserved fossils of ancient mammals, plants and other creatures can be found.  These remains, preserved within colorful sedimentary rocks shed off  ancient volcanoes that were eroded away long ago, document the explosion of mammalian diversity in the Eocene (56-34 million years ago).

The typical bloom you find near water in eastern Oregon is monkeyflower.

The typical bloom you find near water in eastern Oregon is monkeyflower.

Mammals started off very small, literally in the shadow of dinosaurs.  Once the dinosaurs went extinct 65 million years ago, mammals slowly evolved and diversified until an inevitable point.  Just as happened with dinosaurs near the peak of their diversity, mammals began to evolve into huge forms.  This is well documented in the John Day.  In fact, the region has abundant mammal fossils all the way up through the Miocene (23-5 million years ago).

One of the largest mammals of all time was the huge rhino-like brontothere.  Enormous ground sloths roamed here as well.  Other mammals of the John Day:  early horses the size of dogs, camels, a large variety of canids, cats (including early saber-toothed varieties), rodents, even early primates.  And it’s not just mammals:  huge fossil turtle shells are found.

A very important part of the John Day fossil beds is the amazing variety of plant fossils.  This allows the environments in which these animals once lived to be worked out in detail.  A period of global warming is documented here, followed by a long slow cooling and drying trend that has continued to the present day.  Nowadays of course humans are busy driving the climate in the opposite direction, toward a climate last experienced by those now-extinct mammals of ancient North America.

The old homestead  Cant Ranch, with Sheep Rock in the background.  Click on image if interested in it.

The old homestead Cant Ranch, with Sheep Rock in the background. Click on image if interested in it.

An Aside:  Climate Change – The Debate?

I recall having a group of high school science students at the museum at Sheep Rock.  I was showing them the fossils and how they told us the ancient climate was lush and subtropical.  On the wall was a chart that showed the estimated CO2 levels in the atmosphere during that period, and how they coincided with the types of plant and animal fossils.  A man and his wife were listening off to the side.

Later I heard him telling his wife, “see, what did I tell you?  Global warming happened in the past and was natural.  We don’t have anything to do with it, even if it was actually happening.”  Or words to that effect.  I wanted to correct his misinterpretation of the meaning of the evidence but realized it was not a good idea for several reasons.  For one thing, a person who uses faulty logic certainly missed something early in their upbringing/education.  When they got older they internalized this way of thinking, so that any faulty interpretations they make are perceived to be merely “common sense”.  Very difficult to explain anything to such a person.

Though it’s true that a warm, tropical climate is very conducive to a diversity of life, it is the change to those conditions that poses the risk.  And that’s especially true for very rapid changes like the one we’re entering now.  A transition to an ice-free world is upon us, and we can only pray that it will only be accompanied by a drowning of our coastal cities and dramatic changes to agriculture and water supplies.  The worse-case scenarios are much more dire.

Scientists are much too conservative to talk about these darker scenarios with the press.  But trust me, they aren’t pretty.  Picture enormous clouds of poison hydrogen sulfide gas spewing out of stagnant oceans, killing everything that breathes unless it is hidden underground.  There is evidence that this happened during past mass extinctions.

Old homestead in central Oregon.

Old homestead in central Oregon.

Leaving aside all these sunny thoughts, it’s amazing to think this semi-arid region of grassland looked like present-day Panama in the early Eocene (about 50 million years ago).  It had active volcanoes and the coastline was closer.  With no Cascade Mountains, there was no rain-shadow effect.  The warm Pacific Ocean sent abundant moisture over a lush river-laced landscape dotted with volcanoes.  Many of the animals (e.g. camel, rhino & elephant) that during present times are found only in Asia or Africa roamed (in early form) the jungly American wetlands of the west.

Animals like horses and camels evolved here in North America, then migrated across the Bering Land Bridge to Asia and eventually Africa.  They went extinct here.  Many other now-extinct animals, like brontotheres, oredonts (large & pig-like), creodonts (looked like a cross between a hyena and cat but more heavily built) and nimravids (a sleek & agile saber-toothed pre-cat) all lived, died and eventually went extinct here.

A mural depicting life in Eocene Oregon.

A museum mural depicting life in Eocene Oregon.

I’ve spent quite a bit of time out here teaching science.  After a time, I got to where I could experience that ‘other’ Oregon.  Believe it or not, for paleontologists or anyone who sees enough fossils, absorbs enough knowledge, and then quiets themselves while out in the places where the fossils are found, it is possible to time-travel with your mind.  You can bring up vivid images of that other world in the silence that surrounds you during semi-meditative states.  You actually start to feel the humidity and hear the buzzing of tropical insects.  Very cool.

So check out that museum!  Right across the road lies the historic Cant Ranch and picturesque Sheep Rock.  This is a great place for photos, with the old barns, the John Day River and Sheep Rock begging to be part of your compositions.  The rangers run tours of the historic ranch, giving you a picture of the old homesteading days when the west was first being settled by whites and their livestock.

The last part of this series covers the northern part of our loop, including the Clarno Unit of John Day Fossil Beds National Monument.  Thanks for reading!

Sunset, John Day River Valley, central Oregon.

Happy World Water Day!   8 comments

Yesterday I found myself caught in drenching rain at this waterfall in Oregon's Columbia River Gorge.

Yesterday I found myself surrounded by water, caught in drenching rain at this waterfall in Oregon’s Columbia River Gorge.

Fresh water is something we all take for granted until it is in short supply.  Though the world will not soon run out of fresh water, it is a precious resource that we waste as if it is created out of thin air.  Only 2.5% of the earth’s water is fresh, the rest is in the oceans.  And over 2/3 of that 2.5% is locked away in ice caps and glaciers.  Most of the rest lies below ground.  All this means that only .03% of the total fresh water on this planet is fresh and on the surface (in rivers and lakes).

I hope you enjoy these images.  Just click on any image you’re interested in to go to the full-size version, where purchase options are a click away.  They are copyrighted and not available for free download without my permission.  These versions are too small anyway.  Please contact me if you have any questions.  Thanks for your interest!

At Lava Falls in the Grand Canyon, the Colorado River carries a lot of sediment, giving it the power to erode some of the largest landscape features on earth.

At Lava Falls in the Grand Canyon, the Colorado River carries a lot of sediment, giving it the power to erode some of the largest landscape features on earth.

There may come a time that our population is too great to feed.  Not so much because of lack of land or soil, but for lack of water.  We mine it at unsustainable rates from ancient aquifers and when our wells run dry we simply drill another one and dip a longer straw into the drink.  These aquifers replenish themselves on geologic not human timescales, so we are guaranteed to run short eventually.

Then we will need to transport water long distances from places where the groundwater is not yet depleted.  We will also need to figure out a way to cheaply desalinate water, but this is always going to be energy-intensive, so may not be a great option unless we figure out how to exploit solar on an enormous scale in the future.

Life may have evolved in a pool like this one, Grand Prismatic Spring in Yellowstone National Park.

Life may have evolved in a pool like this one, Grand Prismatic Spring in Yellowstone National Park.

All that is pretty depressing.  But let’s step back and appreciate water for the wonderful thing it is.  Water is the most important reason why life evolved on this planet.  It is not only the ‘universal solvent’, where all the chemistry necessary for life can take place, but it also literally keeps our planet breathing.  Water in the atmosphere transports heat from warm areas to cold, making agriculture possible in many places where it would otherwise be too cold.  It is the most powerful greenhouse gas.

Primeval water:  This Indonesian volcano is spewing water and other gases into the air every day.  The lake color comes from all the minerals.

Primeval water: This Indonesian volcano is spewing water and other gases into the air every day. The lake color comes from all the minerals.

(But please ignore those who doubt the role of CO2 in global warming.  These ‘skeptics’ believe that water dominates as a greenhouse gas and will keep us from warming.  They don’t know what anybody who takes Meteorology 101 knows, that the effects of water are buffered and even out over short timescales.  CO2 and methane are still the most important greenhouse gases as far as climate change goes.  Water’s role as greenhouse gas is important only in terms of weather- not climate change.)

A pristine spring feeds a rushing river in Oregon's Cascade  Mountains

A pristine spring feeds a rushing river in Oregon’s Cascade Mountains

Water is also responsible for erosion, transporting materials from the mountains to make the soil we grow our food in.  Water deep inside the earth is critical for melting of rocks, creating volcanoes.  Volcanoes are crucial for recycling gases back into the atmosphere, including CO2 and water itself.  We would have frozen over long ago without volcanoes.  Water essentially lubricates the earth, making plate tectonics possible.  Without plate tectonics the earth would be dead or nearly so, with only submicroscopic life.

One of the Columbia Gorge's prettiest waterfalls is Faery Falls.

One of the Columbia Gorge’s prettiest waterfalls is Faery Falls.

So let’s celebrate water today and every day.  Enjoy it but respect it too.  Take shorter showers, turn off the faucet while brushing your teeth, never leave a hose or faucet running, plant your yard with plants that do not need extra water beyond what falls from the sky.  Install low-flow fixtures.  Remember the old saying “If it’s yellow let it mellow, if it’s brown flush it down.”  You can, I’m sure, think of many other ways to conserve water.

The flooded wetlands of Botswana's Okavango Delta are a magnet for Africa's amazing wildlife.

The flooded wetlands of Botswana’s Okavango Delta are a magnet for Africa’s amazing wildlife.

Friday Foto Talk: Photographing Rainbows   12 comments

A rare morning rainbow in the desert graces my campsite one morning on the Baja Peninsula, Mexico.  Click for purchase options.

A rare morning rainbow in the desert graces my campsite one morning on the Baja Peninsula, Mexico. Click for purchase options.

With springtime right around the corner, the weather in many areas, including here in the Pacific Northwest, will be ‘unsettled’, prime conditions for one of my favorite things: rainbows!  Throughout the world’s temperate regions in fact, the change of seasons that is about to happen results in clashes of warm & cool air masses.  That means frequent showery weather and a sky that’s often broken into clear and cloudy parts.  When the sun is relatively low in the sky, whether morning or late afternoon, and there is precipitation in the area, you’ve got the perfect setup for rainbows.

By the way, all these images are copyrighted and not available for free download without my permission.  They are small versions anyway.  Click on the image you’re interested in to go to the main gallery part of my website, where full-size versions are available for purchase.  If you can’t find what you’re looking for, have any questions or special requests, don’t hesitate to contact me.  I’m happy to get your email!

Some photographers turn up their noses at rainbows.  I think I know why; they believe them to be ‘cliche’.  But I don’t at all understand how anyone, photogs. included, could be cynical about something as beautiful as a rainbow.  It’s true, I don’t like over-done subjects.  And when a certain look or technique catches on (courtesy the internet), it tends to start looking gimmicky to me.  But rainbows are one of nature’s wonders.  So they will never be cliche to me.  It is a small step from there to thinking that beautiful skies and light are cliche.  And then you are well on your way to becoming a photographer of the grim.  That’s not me!

Another morning rainbow, this one a very bright one over the Pacific from high up on a cliff on California's Big Sur.

Another morning rainbow, this a very bright one over the Pacific from high up on a cliff on California’s Big Sur.

I think it’s safe to say that most of us love rainbows.  They are a beautiful way to add color and interest to any landscape image.  And they are sufficiently rare as to always elicit a reaction whether viewing a picture or in person.  So if you want to go chasing them, don’t ever let anybody make you feel less the photographer because of it.  By the way, one of my followers requested this subject.  So thanks Annette, it was a great idea!

This post will focus on standard rainbows, the kind that are formed by slanting sunlight hitting moisture-laden cloudy skies.  I’ll leave oddball bows like moonbows, waterfall rainbows, etc. to another time.

A storm moves through Oregon's Alvord Desert, and leaves behind a rainbow!

A storm moves through Oregon’s Alvord Desert, and leaves behind a rainbow!

How Nature Creates Rainbows

Before we get to tips, it’s helpful to know exactly how a rainbow is created.  We aren’t going to get too sciency here, but optics are involved.  Sunlight is made up of all the colors of the rainbow: red, orange, yellow, blue, indigo and violet (Roy G. Biv is how so many students have memorized it).  When a beam of sunlight passes through a glass prism, as Isaac Newton first discovered, the light is split up and the colors hidden inside are visible to us.  Normally they are all smushed together (that’s a science word I swear!).  The colors appear because each one is bent at a slightly different angle as it passes from air to glass and back out again.

When big puffy storm clouds invade the sky, there are of course zillions of tiny water droplets inside the clouds.  But high up in the clouds and even outside of clouds there are also ice crystals.  Both water droplets and ice crystals can act like prisms, but as you might expect, the ice does a better job.  That’s why rainbows are more common when there is a cool, unstable air mass creating tall, puffy and energetic clouds with cold, ice-rich tops.  The reason why rainbows more often occur in afternoon than morning is because the atmosphere is more turbulent, with rapidly rising air forming ice crystals high in the clouds.

Rainbows are potentially visible to you when the angle between light source (sun), rainbow and you the observer is close to 40 degrees.  This is because the light is bent (refracted) at a shallow angle when it enters the drop or ice crystal.  It’s bent again once or twice more as it curves around and is concentrated on its way back to you.  On it’s way through it is split into the colors of the rainbow.  With ice crystals there is also reflection involved, which increases brightness and intensity.  To check this out for yourself, play around on a sunny day with a water hose set on spray.  Point it at varying angles with the sun to find the one that produces the best rainbows.

Green Heaven

What does this tell us about chasing Rainbows?

I have caught plenty of morning rainbows,  But combine the fact that the weather most often is suitable in late afternoon with the angle of 40 degrees and you can see that starting a couple hours before sunset is a great time to look for them.

When the sun is still fairly high, the triangle forming the 40-degree angle between the sun, rainbow and you is nearly vertical.  As the sun gets lower, that triangle starts to lay down on its side.  Then rainbows will not appear directly away from the sun but at an angle to it.  And you are more likely to see partial and nearly vertical rainbows.

When you’re looking directly away from the sun, when that triangle is standing straight up, that’s when the classic rainbow with a full, tall arc will most often appear.  When the sun is nearly set, you can still get full rainbows looking directly away from the sun.  They’re just going to be very flat and shallow

A rare place to spot a rainbow, the desert of Namibia.

A rare place to spot a rainbow, the desert of Namibia.

The Green River flows through Dinosaur National Monument in Utah, under a rainbow!

The Green River flows through Dinosaur National Monument in Utah, under a rainbow!

So here are some tips for catching that rainbow!

      • Be Prepared:  When the weather is unsettled, when the weather-guessers are calling for thunderstorms, have your camera gear handy early and late in the day, with an eye to the sky at all times.  Or just set aside time to go out and try your luck.  Pay particular attention to the half of the sky away from the sun.  Don’t forget raingear for both you and your camera; they don’t call them rainbows for nothing!  Keeping your camera relatively dry and yet being ready for rainbows is a delicate, sometimes frustrating balancing act.  But it’s worth it!
      • Remember the Angle:  Remember you get rainbows most often in the afternoon when the light makes an angle of about 40 degrees or less with the earth’s surface.   So if you go out two or three hours before sunset, start by looking directly away from the sun.  As the sun approaches the horizon, keep an eye out for partial rainbows at oblique angles away from the sun.  For full rainbows that have a big arc, look an hour or so before sunset.
      • Use a Polarizing Filter:  To make the colors of a rainbow really come out, similar to what you observe with your eyes, use a circular polarizing filter.  This will make a huge difference.  In almost all cases, you want to rotate the filter so that the rainbow is at its most colorful.  If you are very close to an especially large and colorful rainbow, you may want to minimize the color, either by leaving the filter off or rotating it only partway to max color.
One of Portland, Oregon's many parks, on a weathery spring day.  Click on image for purchase options.

One of Portland, Oregon’s many parks, on a weathery spring day. Click on image for the full-size version & purchase options.

      • Composition is still Important:  Sure a rainbow is a great subject on its own, but your composition will still make or break the image.  Your foreground and background, how the rainbow cuts through the frame, how the other elements are situated in the frame, all of these things matter more than the fact you’re shooting a rainbow.
      • Exposure is a Breeze (usually):  Since the sun is over your shoulder shining front-light onto your rainbow and landscape, exposure is easy.  You can even shoot in auto and get great results.  Most modern DSLRs do a great job with the metering mode called Evaluative (Canon), Matrix (Nikon), or similar names.  Even other metering modes work most of the time, but sometimes the rainbow is very bright and dark clouds are in the background, so there’s a chance of messing up your exposure.  You could get underexposure if you point the center of your frame right at the brightest part of the rainbow or overexposure if you point at the darkest clouds.
      • End of the Rainbow:  Speaking of composition, you will do well to find an interesting element for the rainbow to come down to.  This is particularly dramatic with partial rainbows, where there is a spotlight effect on something interesting, with the rainbow hitting ground very nearby and beautifully lighted (or dark and dramatic) sky and landscape beyond.
A small barn in rural Oregon, at day's end on a typical showery spring day.

A small barn in rural Oregon, at day’s end on a typical showery spring day.

      • Use the Rainbow as a Frame:  With a full rainbow especially, using it to frame your entire image is a great idea.  If it’s a partial, you can still frame your main subject, as I did with the image above and at bottom.
      •  Light Matters:  Usually your light will by definition be good when it’s a rainbow day.  But there are cases when the light is especially great and those when light is so so.  Rainbow-making weather should make you think about going out and photographing no matter the time of day, but try to get to that great spot with the special composition very early or very late in the day.  That way the light has a chance of being that much sweeter for the stronger composition.
      • Chase that Rainbow!  What mostly happens of course, is that a rainbow appears while driving or otherwise engaged.  Then you find yourself trying to pull over and shoot it before it’s gone.  This is a fine idea, but be safe!!  My personal approach is to (as quick as is safe) drive, walk, run, somehow get to a spot where I have a decent composition, where the end of the rainbow comes down near something interesting.  I don’t just stop and shoot it.  I need to tell myself I don’t care about missing the rainbow, that the overall shot is the most important thing.  So I miss a lot, but those I do get are better for it.

I’m wishing every one of you the best of luck catching all the rainbows that come your way.  To return home from a shooting foray with a shot of a rainbow gives you a special little feeling, like you were given a sort of bonus or gift.  Not quite as great as coming away with a pot of gold, but special nonetheless.  Have a great weekend!

A rainbow works with a tall tree to frame Vista House in Oregon's Columbia River Gorge.

A rainbow works with a tall tree to frame Vista House in Oregon’s Columbia River Gorge.

Wildflower Wednesday: Bring ’em on!   10 comments

Wildflowers and insects are inseparable!

Wildflowers and insects are inseparable.

Pink rhododendron bloom in the forests of Mount Hood in Oregon.

Pink rhododendron bloom in the forests of Mount Hood in Oregon.

Pink monkeyflower and a yellow aster bloom in a meadow fed by a spring in the Cascade Mountains of Oregon.

Pink monkeyflower and yellow aster bloom in a meadow fed by a spring in the Cascade Mountains of Oregon.

One of my favorite flowers of the subalpine zone in the Cascades is blue gentian, here at Mount Rainier, Washington.

One of my favorite flowers of the subalpine zone in the Cascades is blue gentian, here at Mount Rainier, Washington.

My favorite flower of the dry steppe region of the Pacific Northwest is the always solo mariposa lily.

My favorite flower of the dry steppe region of the Pacific Northwest is the always solo and always beautiful mariposa lily.

Let's  not forget tropical flowers.  This one attended by red ants I found in a forest in Thailand.

Let’s not forget tropical flowers. This one I found attended by red ants in a Thailand forest.

Wonderful lupine and balsamroot decorate this hillside in the eastern Columbia Gorge of Oregon.  Note the moon peaking through.

Wonderful lupine and balsamroot decorate this hillside in the eastern Columbia Gorge of Oregon. Note the moon peaking through.

Speaking of the eastern Gorge, this is its most famous flower, the arrowleaf balsamroot.

Speaking of the eastern Gorge, this is its most famous flower, the arrowleaf balsamroot.

Not all flowers are colorful.  This one is the pasqueflower, which blooms then immediately goes to a "wild hair" seed head.

Not all flowers are colorful. This one is the pasqueflower, which immediately goes to a “wild hair” seed head after blooming.

The deep forest of the Pacific Northwest hides wonders like these fairy bells, lit by a shaft of sunlight.

The deep forest of the Pacific Northwest hides wonders like these fairy bells, lit by a shaft of sunlight.

The glorious indian paintbrush is a common wildflower of mountains in the American West.

The glorious indian paintbrush is a common wildflower of mountains in the American West.

Flowers bloom in profusion in the aptly named Paradise meadows of Mount Rainier.

Flowers bloom in profusion in the aptly named Paradise meadows of Mount Rainier.

A summer flower around these parts that is particularly eye-catching, the tiger lily.

A summer flower around these parts that is particularly eye-catching, the tiger lily.

 

A welcome export to Oregon, the California poppy, likes roadsides.

A welcome import to Oregon, the California poppy, likes roadsides.

I hope you like these wildflower images.  Please click on an image to go to the main gallery part of my website, where some of the full-size versions are available for purchase.  If you can’t find one, or have any questions or special requests, please contact me.  They are protected by copyright and not available for free download, sorry.  Thanks for your interest, and happy Wildflower Wednesday!

Travel Theme: Dry   17 comments

It’s been too long since I’ve participated in Ailsa’s travel theme posts.  This week the topic is Dry.  Enjoy these images from southern Africa.  I was there for three months a couple years ago, at a time that straddled the end of the dry and beginning of the wet seasons.  My better desert landscapes are from the American Southwest, but these show the real impact of dry.

It was amazing the sense of anticipation among the animals (and also people) as they awaited the rains.  It is for many of them a time of life and death, a time of anxiety.  This is especially true with respect to their young.  Most animals there have babies not long before the wet season.  Then they have to wait out the worst days, the end of the dry season while watching their young suffer.  Maybe it’s a way for them to make sure the young are strong, I don’t know.

If you are interested in any of these images (copyrighted and not available for free download), please click on them.  If you have any questions or specific requests, please contact me.  Enjoy and thanks for looking!

A lone wildebeest stands watching the wet season's first storm sweep into the Mbabe Depression of Botswana.  No rain came at first, only wind and incredible dust.  A moment after I shot this, the wildebeest ran for shelter.

A lone wildebeest stands watching the wet season’s first storm sweep into the Mbabe Depression of Botswana. No rain came at first, only wind and incredible dust. A moment after I shot this, the wildebeest ran for shelter.

A clump of grass grows at the base of an enormous orange dune in Namibia's Namib Desert.

A clump of grass grows at the base of an enormous orange dune in Namibia’s Namib Desert.

A large female African elephant shades her baby from the hot direct sun during the hottest days of the year in Botswana's Chobe National Park.

A large female African elephant shades her baby from the hot direct sun during one of the hottest days of the year in Botswana’s Chobe National Park.

The standing snags of camel thorn trees trace a dry watercourse in Namibia.  the mountain-sized dunes of the Namib Desert lie in the background.

Standing snags of camel thorn trees trace a dry watercourse in Namibia. Mountain-sized dunes of the Namib Desert lie in the background.

Ostriches seemed to be most abundant in the dry grasslands of Namibia.

Ostriches seemed to be most abundant in the dry grasslands of Namibia.

During their incredible migration into the Makgadikgadi Pans of Botswana, a zebra mom uses her tail brushes insects away from her foal.

During their incredible migration into the Makgadikgadi Pans of Botswana, a zebra mom uses her tail to brush insects away from her foal.

A desert plated lizard in the dunes of the Namib desert uses its armored head to dig quickly into the sand.

A desert plated lizard in the dunes of the Namib desert uses its armored head to dig quickly into the sand.

Plants adapted to dry conditions normally grow very slowly, but it's hard to beat the ancient Welwitschia of Namibia.  Some are well over 2000 years old.

Plants adapted to dry conditions grow very slowly, but it’s hard to beat the ancient Welwitschia of Namibia. Some are well over 2000 years old.

The long horns and large ears are characteristic features of the gemsbok, an antelope living in arid regions of Africa.

The long horns and large ears are characteristic features of the gemsbok, an antelope superbly adapted to the arid regions of Africa.

This lioness in Botswana's Kalahari Desert is preserving her energy during an incredibly hot day in order to hunt in the relative cool of the evening.  Wish I had as good an excuse to be lazy!

This lioness in Botswana’s Kalahari Desert is preserving her energy during an incredibly hot day in order to hunt (the above animal) in the relative cool of the evening. Wish I had as good an excuse to be lazy!

Namibia's Skeleton Coast is by far the driest, most empty place I've been, an extremely arid coast with plenty of shipwrecks.

Namibia’s Skeleton Coast is by far the driest, most empty place I’ve been, an extremely arid shore with plenty of shipwrecks.

Anyone who has spent a lot of time in deserts knows about the annoyingly dry thing that happens inside your nose.  This giraffe in the Kalahari has the solution!

Anyone who has spent a lot of time in deserts knows about the annoying, dry thing that happens inside your nose. This giraffe in the Kalahari has the solution!

Then he smiled mockingly at me for having far too short a tongue!

Then he seemed to smile mockingly at me for having far too short a tongue!

A mirage of a lake appears on Namibia's Skeleton Coast.

A mirage of a lake appears on Namibia’s Skeleton Coast.

Sunset in the dunes of the Namib Desert.

Sunset in the dunes of the Namib Desert.

Happy Thanksgiving! Arch Leftovers   2 comments

To all of my U.S. friends I wish a Happy Thanksgiving.  And I send the same wishes to anyone else who might choose this day to give thanks for this wonderful world (and universe!) we all are privileged to live in.  (To Canadians, sorry I’m late!)  I am most thankful for all of you, who are sticking with me on my blog, even though I’ve not been great about checking out all your blogs while I’ve been on the road.  Thanks for this!

With so much food around on Thanksgiving it’s certain there will be leftovers.  Leftovers (and specifically turkey sandwiches) were always one of my favorite things about Thanksgiving.  So I’m posting this recent image I have titled Arch Leftovers.  It’s a picture I captured at Arches National Park in Utah.

When arches form by weathering and erosion from the sandstone fins in Arches and the surrounding region, one question comes up.  Where does the rock that occupied the spaces go?  Believe it or not, this is a great scientific question.  Weathering breaks the blocks that fall from the forming arches into smaller and smaller pieces. Eventually you end up with sand.  Since water does run in the desert washes, however infrequently, you’re safe assuming that most of the sand is carried away in streams. Actually, most is transported down to the nearby Colorado in dramatic flash floods.

Because this is a treeless desert region, erosion by wind, though it takes a back seat to water, is quite prevalent.  Sand is picked up by strong winds and, like sandpaper, wears away and sculpts the arches and spires in the park.  When it has done its job, the sand is unceremoniously dumped, unneeded and forgotten, into dunes.

These are not dunes the size of those in the big sandy deserts of the world.  Water carries away much of it before it can accumulate into big dunes.  Nevertheless the dunes that do pile into alcoves and niches in the cliffs take on graceful shapes and curves, especially in beautiful late day light.  It was windy just before sunset when I shot this, and the blowing sand gives the dunes a certain soft texture.

The wind blows often in Arches National Park, Utah, and these small dunes accumulate near the sculpted arches from which they are eroded.

Arch Leftovers.  Please click on the image for purchase options.  It’s copyrighted and not available for free download.  Thanks!

Wordless Wednesday: Desert Bighorn Sheep   9 comments

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