Archive for the ‘Wild animals’ Category

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.

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Wordless Wednesday: Desert Bighorn Sheep   9 comments

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Mountain Monday: Maroon Bells & Moose   7 comments

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No internet for the past few days, so I missed Single-image Sunday.  I know about Macro Monday, but having been in the mountains, this seems more appropriate. This post is all about the letter M!

I’m in the Rocky Mountains trying to soak up the last of autumn’s atmosphere.  It seems that this year winter is coming early to these parts.  I did some morning photos at Maroon Lake the other day. Finishing up at a small beaver pond, I had already gotten ready to leave when this cow moose showed up.  She quickly waded right into the pond and began to munch away on the water plants, plunging her big head all the way under and coming up with a mouth-full of moss and such.

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I’ve had the opportunity to see moose wading belly deep on numerous occasions.  But I’ve never had this spectacular a backdrop at the same time as having camera equipment at the ready.  The mountains are called the Maroon Bells, fairly famous because of their proximity to Aspen.

If you are interested in any of these images please contact me.  I’m on the road now and will not have them up on my website until I can get to a faster connection. Clicking on any of the pictures will take you to the gallery on my site that is animal-focused.  Thanks for reading and have a fantastic week!

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Single Image Sunday: A New Friend?   5 comments

This is the second time I’ve risked my skin climbing up Rooster Rock to get eye level with my new friend, the osprey.  The nest is at the top of a big fir tree that has had its crown lopped off by lightning.  The view over the river for sunset was my original motivation, but I think now it’s really about the fish hawk.

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She was not happy the first time I did it, and this time she was only slightly less noisy.  I can see progress though.  Sorta have to cling to a perch while taking the picture, so I’m glad the Mister was far too busy fishing to pay me much mind.  He did do a flyover however, to see what she was squawking about I suppose.

I’m definitely thinking of returning at least a couple more times.  I want to see the chicks when they hatch.  Of course her gradually increasing comfort with me might vanish when the little ones appear.  We’ll see.

Happy Mother’s Day!   4 comments

This is the day to celebrate all the things your biggest fan has done for you.  So I have put together a short series of photos from my travels.  Pictures of my own mom remain in printed form only.  Just click on any image you are interested in to be taken to the main part of my website where purchase options are easy (just click “add image to cart” and then choose your option – download, prints, etc.).  They are not available for free download, sorry.  Please contact me if you have any questions.  Enjoy!

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 the hottest days of the year in Botswana’s Chobe National Park.

 

A woman in the Himalaya of Nepal is proud of her vegetable garden, and her grandson.

A woman in the Himalaya of Nepal is proud of her vegetable garden, and her grandson.

 

A family of vervet monkeys stick together in Kruger National Park, South Africa.

A family of vervet monkeys stick together in Kruger National Park, South Africa.

 

Mother's day is a great time for a new hairdo!  A Himba mom in Namibia.

Mother’s day is a great time for a new hairdo! A Himba mom in Namibia.

 

A white rhino mom is not about to let the stranger with the camera get anywhere near her baby.

A white rhino mom is not about to let the stranger with the camera get anywhere near her baby.

 

A cheetah mom shades and protects her cub while she scans the bush for dinner in Etosha National Park, Namibia.

A cheetah mom shades and protects her cub while she scans the bush for dinner in Etosha National Park, Namibia.

 

 

 

 

 

Learning to Love Reptiles   4 comments

An alligator lizard basks in the warm spring sunshine of the eastern Columbia River Gorge in Oregon.

An alligator lizard basks in the warm spring sunshine of the eastern Columbia River Gorge in Oregon.

 

I used to be a bit of a sissy when it came to snakes, and by extension nearly all reptiles.  A few of my childhood friends had pet snakes of course, but I never even got into going to the reptile house at the zoo truth be told.  The only reptiles I liked were turtles, and they are so different as to be considered by most of us as a separate group, incorrect as that notion is.  So turtles were the only reptiles we kept as kids.  We even dug a nice little pond in the backyard and filled it with water for those box turtles who were “lucky” enough to be saved from predators in the nearby woods.

Boomslangs are highly venomous snakes native to southern Africa, here emerging from a tree in Kruger National park.

Boomslangs are highly venomous snakes native to southern Africa, here emerging from a tree in Kruger National park.

 

I taught science some years ago in an outdoor setting, a semi-desert chock-full of snakes and lizards.  I simply had to overcome my distaste at touching snakes at that point, since the school-kids who I taught there would have never taken me seriously if they knew I was afraid of reptiles.  I learned that handling a large gopher snake was not at all as unpleasant as I had believed.  Like anything you just need to go slow and get used to it.  It did not take me as long as I expected it would to get over my aversion to the slimy-muscular feel of their skin.

A deadly fer de lance (mapanale in the local language) hangs out near Angel Falls, Venezuela.

A deadly fer de lance (mapanale in the local language) hangs out near Angel Falls, Venezuela.

 

I encountered plenty of rattle snakes on this job as well, and there were a couple close calls.  One dark evening I was approached by a young girl, just as I was packing up a telescope after an observing session.  She said there was a rattle-snake in their cabin.  I was skeptical but went up the hill to find all of them standing outside in their jammies, beyond excited (imagine a group of school girls on a camping trip and you have the picture).  I scoured the cabin but found nothing.  On the way out, smirking at yet another city-kid over-reaction to being in the outdoors, I heard the tell-tale rattle.  I shone the flashlight around and heard it again, coming from underneath the eaves of the A-frame cabin.  I crouched down and there he was, a big rattler coiled and glaring at me.

A close-up of an alligator lizard.

A close-up of an alligator lizard.

 

I moved the girls further away, getting their slightly less-panicky chaperone to keep watch on them while I fetched a snake stick.  This is a pole with a sort of grabber on the end.  It allows you to grasp a snake behind its head and capture it without getting too close.  I then crouched down and while shining the flashlight with one hand reached under and slowly approached the snake with the snake stick.  Just when I thought he was mine, he decided to make his move.  He slithered right for me.  Since I was laying on the ground, I couldn’t move out of the way quickly enough and had to make a capture attempt before I was ready.  Luckily my coordination was with me that night and I got him.  I don’t like to think about the alternative, with that big ugly snake wanting out of there with nothing in his way but my big ugly face.

A gopher snake shows off the tip of his tongue in eastern Oregon.

A gopher snake shows off the tip of his tongue in eastern Oregon.

 

Since then, I have gotten close to some fairly impressive snakes and reptiles.  There was one in southern Nepal, a rock python who had recently consumed a deer.  This was the biggest snake I’ve ever seen.  And my guide, who grew up around there, had never seen a bigger one.  He estimated it was at least 7 meters long!  I’ve been to the San Diego Zoo and this one was bigger than any they have.

My that's a long tongue you have: a komodo dragon sniffs out a lunch option, the one holding the camera.

My that’s a long tongue you have: a komodo dragon sniffs out a lunch option, the one holding the camera.

 

In Venezuela, I got pretty close to a fer de lance, the deadliest snake in the Americas (see image).  I saw a black mamba crossing the road in South Africa, and got much closer to a boomslang (see image).  And in Indonesia I visited the islands of the Komodo dragon, the world’s largest lizard.  It is very disquieting watching these monsters watch you.  The look they give you is unmistakable: they are waiting for you to make a mistake, just calmly waiting for you to become their dinner.

A small lizard perches on the back of the largest lizard in the world, the Komodo dragon in Indonesia .

A small lizard perches on the back of the largest lizard in the world, the Komodo dragon in Indonesia .

 

On a hike recently in the eastern Columbia River Gorge near home in Oregon, I saw a couple snakes and an alligator lizard (see images above).  It’s been a long winter and a long time since I’ve seen a reptile.  I suppose I am completely over any lingering fear of snakes and lizards.  Now all they do is make me smile, as I know they are harbingers of warm sunny afternoons ahead.  In addition, they are fascinating creatures, real holdovers from Earth’s bygone days.  All they want is a slow-paced lifestyle with plenty of sunbathing.  What’s not to love?

Close-up view of a geometric tortoise's shell, in the western Cape, South Africa.

Close-up view of a geometric tortoise’s shell, in the western Cape, South Africa.

 

Click on any photo to go to the main part of my image portfolio, where there are purchase options.  Sorry these are not available for free download.  Thanks for your interest, and please contact me if you have any questions.  Thanks for looking!

Might not want to leave your room just yet:  a large komodo dragon prowls the grounds of my guest house on Rinca Island, Indonesia.

Might not want to leave your room just yet: a large komodo dragon prowls the grounds of my guest house on Rinca Island, Indonesia.

Elephants are too Awesome to Lose Forever   2 comments

Driving in Botswana has its particular hazards.

Driving in Botswana has its particular hazards.

This is a rare type of post for me.  I think that, sometimes, predictions of a species’ demise are exaggerated.  Why is extinction always (reflexively?) ascribed to humans when natural forces often play the most important role?  But what is happening to the elephant is personal for me.  A little over a year ago I spent 3 months in southern Africa.  I saw plenty of elephants, and observed their behavior sometimes for hours at a time.  Elephants once roamed across Africa, but now they are largely limited to a few sanctuaries: the national parks.

A bull African elephant (Loxodonta africana) in Botswana's Okavango Delta begins a short charge, just to make sure we are paying attention.

A bull African elephant in Botswana’s Okavango Delta bluff-charges, just to make sure we’re paying attention.

But even in the parks elephants are under constant attack.  They have always been poached of course, but recently the slaughter has increased in intensity.  There are several factors at work here.  The most important is the increasing price for ivory in SE Asia.  For example, the Philippines is a big consumer of ivory where it is shaped into religious icons.  Talk about a sad irony!  The unusually hard ivory of the forest elephant of western Africa is particularly prized.

Ivory where it belongs, attached to an African elephant (Loxodonta africana) in Botswana's Okavango Delta.

Ivory where it belongs, attached to an African elephant in Botswana’s Okavango Delta.

A large African elephant (Loxodonta africana) shows off his prehensile trunk at a waterhole in Namibia's Etosha National Park.

A large African elephant, fresh from a mudbath, shows off his prehensile trunk at a waterhole in Namibia’s Etosha National Park.

Now since these parks are poorly patrolled, and because they aren’t very far from hotbeds of Islamic extremism such as Mali, the slaughter is on a massive scale.  Parties of men, equipped with high-powered weapons and often flown in by helicopter, have been recently wiping out whole herds: mothers with their babies included.  I can’t bring myself to post pictures of the dead elephants; it’s just too upsetting.  You can easily find them on the web.

An apparent assignation between two African elephants (Loxodonta africana) beneath a tree on the banks of the Chobe River, Botswana.

An apparent assignation between two African elephants beneath a tree on the banks of the Chobe River, Botswana.

It’s all done for money of course.  The sight of these butchered elephants hits most people like a punch in the gut.  At this pace, we will lose the forest elephant very soon.  The larger African elephants of eastern and southern Africa are also being poached in record numbers.  Complicating all this is that countries like Kenya are hoarding their ivory, collected from legal culling operations.  That just drives up the price of course.  Even parks like Kruger in South Africa are losing elephants (and rhinos).  I visited this park and was very impressed by the high, electrified fence encircling the huge park.  But this doesn’t stop poachers.

A partial screen of grasses allows a close approach to a grazing African elephant (Loxodonta africana) in Botswana's Okavango Delta.

A partial screen of grasses allows a close approach to a grazing African elephant in Botswana’s Okavango Delta.

Given the amount of corruption in Africa, I believe that ivory smuggling is very difficult to stop.  I also believe that convincing people to stop buying ivory, while very worthwhile, will never make a difference in time to save the species.  I believe strongly that a two-pronged approach is necessary.  First, attempt to lower the price by forcing Kenya and other countries with abundant localized populations in their parks to continue culling the herds and releasing that ivory on the market.  The second step, which is most important, is to use high tech weaponry to kill every single poacher in these teams.

A large bull African elephant challenges any intruder to his piece of the Okavango Delta in Botswana.

A large bull African elephant challenges any intruder to his piece of the Okavango Delta in Botswana.

We should use armed drones (which are being brought home as the U.S. gets out of their ill-thought-out conflicts) to go after these criminals.  After a time, and in conjunction with satellite surveillance, we should be able to get them before they do their dirty business.  We should get them coming out if we fail to get them going in.  I think, despite the potential of a big payout, that knowing they have a better than even chance of dying during the attempt will keep potential poachers from signing up.

An African elephant blocks the main channel in the Okavango River in Botswana.

An African elephant blocks the main channel in the Okavango River in Botswana.

It’s important to kill every single person involved in a poaching attempt.  If we approach this like we approached the war in Iraq, we should be able to make these better than even odds a reality.  I strongly believe that funding for this should come from the U.S. and Britain, along with a few other countries, big donors and even NGOs.  Money from western governments should come directly out of the aid budget for Africa (so it does not add to the deficit).

An African elephant (Loxodonta africana) reaches into the trees for succulent fruit, on the Chobe River bank in Botswana.

An African elephant reaches into the trees for succulent fruit, on the Chobe River bank in Botswana.

I have seen firsthand how intelligent, how caring, and how incredibly awesome these creatures are.  I really want to help save elephants, as well as rhinos.  If I can make that happen, you will see me blogging from Africa in the future.  I do not want to see these magnificent beings disappear forever.  I really don’t.

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 the hottest days of the year in Botswana’s Chobe National Park.

Visiting the California Coast near Big Sur   3 comments

In my last post I ranted about the crowds along this stretch of the California Coast that includes the stunning Big Sur.  Well, if you insist on visiting this area instead of the slightly superior (in my opinion) Oregon Coast, please do so during a week other than this one – the week between Christmas and New Years.  I would think much of summer would also be too crowded.  First the bad news, then the good with some recommended stops.

The view north along the California Coast near Big Sur is a classic.

The view north along the California Coast near Big Sur is a classic.

CONS: ACCESS PROBLEMS

I’ve noticed many of my fellow travelers here are on a different wavelength than I am.  They’re dressed to the nines, with heels and nice clothes.  So for them a simple drive with stops to snap photos is what they’re after.  With some exceptions, this is what they get in California.  Coastal access is hampered in this state by lack of foresight.  In Oregon, during the 1960s, Governor Tom McCall passed a law that was brilliant.  In that state, nobody can own the beach; it’s all public.  You will never see a fence with no trespassing signs stretched across the sand in Oregon.

Anna's Hummingbird Feeding

Additionally, there are many many more state parks along the Oregon Coast than on the California Coast.  There are places to access the coastline here, mostly north or south of the Big Sur area.  But a combination of geography (the San Jacinto Mountains are a long and unbroken rank of mountains that keep Highway 1 well up above the ocean) along with the private property have blocked my attempts to experience this coast in the way I like.

I like to take long hikes along the coast, exploring coves and headlands.  This is harder to do here than in Oregon.  Shorter explorations can be done in California, but I’ve found that around Big Sur it’s very difficult.  The Redwood Coast is a little better in this regard.

A green home on the California Coast south of Big Sur basks in winter sunshine.

A green home on the California Coast south of Big Sur basks in winter sunshine.

PROS: 

Redwoods: On the California coast, even this far south, you’ll find the famous Redwood trees.  This is, by the way, something Oregon lacks except for one place in the far south.  Of course if you really want to see the big trees, go up to the Redwood Coast, just south of the border with Oregon.

Golfing: I am not a golfer, but you could do much worse than the Monterrey Peninsula for this sport.  Pebble Beach and a plethora of other courses carpet the land.  By the way, in Oregon, Bandon is a similarly great golfing center.

Elephant Seals and Sea Otters: The stretch of coastline south of Big Sur has many places from which to see these sea creatures.  I would add gray whales to this, but you can see these giants anywhere along the west coast.  Go to Baja in Mexico if you want to get up close and personal with them in their breeding grounds.

Wine & Dine: Although wine country is inland and north from here, there is no shortage of restaurants and wine bars featuring great wines.  In fact, the fine dining in this area is pretty special.  I don’t go in for this type of thing generally, preferring funky cafes and eateries.

Moderate Winter Weather: One winter while living in Alaska I was sent to a conference at Stanford University.  Talk about being thawed out!  The winters south of San Francisco are famous for being rather warm, though big storms are not uncommon.

An Anna's hummingbird rests in the sun before an incredibly energetic feeding session.

An Anna’s hummingbird rests in the sun before an energetic feeding session.

A flower in the gardens of Big Sur Coast Gallery, blooming here in December, is shaped especially for Hummingbirds.

A flower in the gardens of Big Sur Coast Gallery, blooming here in December, is shaped especially for Hummingbirds.

TRAVEL TIPS:

I will focus on photography and nature, since that is what I’m into.

  • Elephant Seals on the beach at San Simeon near the Hearst Castle: These big-nosed seals haul up on the beach and are fairly used to photographers, so you can get pretty close. Don’t get too close though. Males especially can be extremely dangerous.
  • McWay waterfall:  A gorgeous cove and waterfall are accessed by a short trail from Julia Pfeifer State Park, near Big Sur itself.  See image below.
  • The garden at the Big Sur Coast Gallery Cafe:  Up on the headland, you will pass a few lodges and restaurants.  Behind the gas station here (Big Sur’s only one), you’ll find a little cafe with good (but expensive) coffee.  There are cactus all around the place, and they dominate the garden.  But there are all sorts of plants, including those with flowers that draw hummingbirds.
  • Point Lobos:  Not far south of Carmel, you’ll find the Pt. Lobos Reserve.  Hiking trails wind through the trees, and the rocky coastline is chock full of great foregrounds for sunset shots.  This place is very popular, so if you want more solitude try…
  • The headland just south of Point Lobos:  If Pt Lobos is too crowded, go south to the very next headland, just past the public beach.  There is not much parking, but pull in on either side of the hill next to the highway.  A trail heads around on an ocean-side bench.  South of the hill, downhill toward the ocean, a bit of scrambling will take you down to a small beach. There are great tide pools. Back up on top of the bench, work your way around to the north to find all sorts of rocky foregrounds.
  • Lucia: The people at this little lodge south of Big Sur are very friendly and it is a world away from the hoity toity atmosphere of Carmel.  Their restaurant is perched well above the Pacific, with a view into a cove where sea otters play.  You’ll need a big telephoto to get photos of them though.
  • Carmel by the Sea: You’ll find plenty of eating and lodging options, all fairly spendy.  This is a fine town to stroll, but it’s crowded on holidays.  There is an oyster bar named Flaherty’s, so you know I had to visit (that’s my last name).  While it is necessarily more upscale than oyster bars should probably be (it’s Carmel after all), the food is good and the atmosphere not as stuffy as other places in this town.
  • Carmel Mission:  Especially nice if you are religious and want to attend one of the services, this old mission a few minutes west of Hwy. 1 towards Carmel by the Sea is worth a stop and a few photos.  It is well preserved.
  • Monterrey Bay Aquarium:  A can’t miss destination, this aquarium is regarded as one of the best in the country, if not the world.  It lies on the north side of the Monterrey Peninsula, facing the bay to the north.
  • Garland Ranch Regional Park:  This is a nice change from the coast, lying inland in the Carmel Valley about 10 miles from Hwy. 1.  Locals take their dogs for leash-free walks in this beautiful 4500-acre park.  It consists of valley bottom oaks and sycamores, but also ascends to 2000 feet (if you need real exercise).  There are historical remains, both American Indian and that of the Rancho Don Juan.  You can hike, bike or ride horseback on trails of varying lengths.  There is also a visitor center.
A couple walks the trails of Garland Ranch Regional Park in Monterrey County, California.

A couple walks the trails of Garland Ranch Regional Park in Monterrey County, California.

An old wagon sits on the grounds of the old Rancho Don Juan in the Garland Ranch Regional Park near Carmel, California.

An old wagon sits on the grounds of the old Rancho Don Juan in the Garland Ranch Regional Park near Carmel, California.

A simple but beautiful fly appears to be trying to figure out how to get the nectar from this cactus flower in the garden of Big Sur Coast Gallery.

A simple but beautiful fly appears to be trying to figure out how to get the nectar from this cactus flower in the garden of Big Sur Coast Gallery.

A waterfall on the California Coast near Big Sur drops directly into the Pacific.

A waterfall on the California Coast near Big Sur drops directly into the Pacific.

So that’s it for now.  It’s a pretty subjective report I know.  If you’re not really a photo or nature geek, I would recommend some further searching of more standard travel sites.  Just try to visit during an off week.

The rocky Monterrey County, California coastline includes some granite, which looks great with the low plants in December sunshine.

The rocky coast of Monterrey County, California includes granite, which looks great with the low plants in December sunshine.

Waves crash up onto the shore of the California Coast near Big Sur.

Waves crash up onto the shore of the California Coast near Big Sur.

Valley of Fire, Nevada   4 comments

The Valley of Fire State Park in Nevada has a history of visitors that goes back thousands of years before Sunday drivers from nearby Vegas.

This is Nevada’s oldest and largest state park, located about an hour’s drive from Sin City.  On my way out of southwestern Utah (sad), I turned off Interstate 15 and slept near the entrance to the park.  The stars were affected by the bright half-moon but were nonetheless amazing.  So I did a couple starscapes (see below).  In the morning the sun rose into a clear sky and light became harsh within a half hour.  I captured the photo above about 15 minutes after sunrise.

The fall-blooming desert chicory adds color to Valley of Fire State Park in Nevada.

I had stopped at a small picnic area called Lone Rock, which is at the turnoff for “the cabins”.  There was nobody around, it being early on Black Friday, so the rock was indeed lonely.  But I was joined in spirit by those moccasin-clad travelers of a different age.  It was a big surprise to find these petroglyphs on a rock behind the Lone Rock.  There are other better-known rock art panels throughout this park, like Atlatl Rock on the Petroglyph Canyon Trail.  Park at Mouse’s Tank.  They date from as old as Fremont Basketmaker people, about 3000 years ago, but there is also art from as recent as several hundred years ago.

I stopped at a little pull-off with a sign explaining some geology – pretty basic stuff, of course, but interesting.  I wanted to do a hike into the maze of shallow canyons and slickrock that you view when you stop at Rainbow Vista.  It was still early, with nobody around.  There is a military firing range not too far away, and the boom-boom of the big guns echoed off the rocks.  This is one drawback to a visit here, but quiet does return when they stop.

It was during one of these quiet periods that I heard what sounded like somebody knocking rocks together.  I looked around and finally saw some movement in the distance.  There was a small herd of sheep some 1/2 mile away, and they were running around, making the noise.  I thought I was hearing their hooves knocking on the rocks, but I noticed as I drew closer to them that the rams were butting heads.

A desert bighorn ram at Valley of Fire State Park in Nevada watches for danger as the herd he is part of gets down to the business of mating season.

I stalked closer, using the terrain to conceal myself.  I cursed the fact that my 100-400 lens had been stolen.  In fact, I had only brought my little Canon S95 point and shoot camera with me on the hike, as I thought I would only be shooting pictures of the odd flower or cactus.  Dumb!  I got my first good view of them, but they had seen me first.  Some of the rams had enormous full-curl horns.

Several large rams make up the most obvious part of a November mating herd of desert bighorn sheep in Valley of Fire State Park, Nevada.

It was very clearly mating season, and so the extent of their interest in me varied enormously between the sexes.  The females kept leading the herd away from me (there were a couple young ones).  Meanwhile the males only glanced my way from time to time.  I stalked them for quite some time, even crawling on my belly along washes to get close enough.  I was hoping the photos taken with my p & s camera would show more than specks for animals.

Seldom noted during the discussion of the battles between bighorn rams is the point of it all.

Not surprisingly, the pictures did not turn out that well.  I am sitting here right now in Vegas thinking about a return.  I wonder if I could find the herd.  When I finished my bighorn hike and got back to the road, I noticed that traffic had gone from an occasional car to a stream of them.  The horde had arrived from town, having finished their Black Friday morning shopping.  It was actually crowded; such a change from the quiet and empty morning hours.

I left and drove through the enormous desert landscape of Lake Mead Recreation Area.  The lights of Vegas formed a glowing dome above the horizon as the November dusk quickly took over.

 

Oh Zion, How You’ve Changed   5 comments

In Zion National Park, Pine Creek flows down a canyon nearly as spectacular as Zion Canyon itself.

The last time I visited Zion National Park in southwestern Utah, it was with my uncle about 15 years ago.  It was my stay-at-home uncle’s only western road trip.  He has never had a driver’s license.  We visited Death Valley too, and we had a grand time.  But this post is not about that trip, it’s about my most recent one (which is still going).

Now that was not that long ago, in my opinion.  But this park has changed.  It is much more heavily visited than a decade and a half ago, of course.  It’s become one of those heavily visited parks, like the Great Smoky Mountains, Yosemite or Yellowstone.  There is a shuttle system in the canyon now, and I learned there has been since 1997!  Although I’m visiting in November, when the Park Circus allows you to drive into the canyon, it is busy enough to imagine how much of a nightmare it would be if they did not ban private vehicles from April through October.

The east side of Zion National Park is higher and sees frequent dustings of snow in the fall.

Perhaps not surprising but still disappointing is the change in the surrounding communities.  Springdale at the western entrance is the most heavily affected.  When I visited in the 90s, this was still just a quiet ranching community.  St George nearby had started to grow as a retirement haven, but the surrounding communities were still quiet, with very few services.

I drove through Springdale the other day and was disappointed.  It resembles Gatlinburg, Tennessee, at the entrance to Great Smoky N.P.  All Springdale needs is a Dollywood!  Okay, it’s not as bad as Gatlinburg, but I think it’s catching up.  There are a cluster of restaurants, motels, and assorted ugly garbage clogging what once was a glorious entry into Zion Canyon.  They have one of those big theaters, IMAX I think, to show you on a screen what you can simply go into the canyon and see for real.

On the bright side, the towns a bit further from the entrance, Rockville and Virgin, are free of tourist clutter.  From Rockville you have some nice views toward Zion Canyon.

The road in Zion Canyon, Utah is lined in places with cottonwood trees.

Luckily, the entrance on the other side of the park is not like this.  If you come through the east portal, near Mount Carmel Junction, it still looks like rural Utah.  Long Valley on Hwy. 89 as well as Utah Hwy. 9 cutting west to the park, still have a nice feel.  There are some housing developments springing up nearer the entrance, but I’m keeping my fingers crossed.  I approached Zion on Hwy. 9, after a snowy morning at Red Canyon near Bryce.  It was night-time, and cold.  There were more deer on the road than you could shake a stick at, including some very big bucks with huge racks.  I drove slowly, and found a camp off the road to Orderville Canyon.

A sandy wash in Zion Canyon, Utah has seen a freezing night.

Next morning I drove into the park, and immediately noticed I had company.  Granted, it was a gorgeous Sunday, but after the Grand Staircase, it felt confining.  And I was on the quieter east side of the park!  When I drove through the spectacular Mt Carmel tunnel and down into the canyon proper, the traffic tripled.

But this time of year, being chilly and relatively uncrowded (relatively being the operative word), is an excellent time to explore the backcountry a bit.  Trails are uncrowded and trail-less canyon routes empty.  So I took a couple short hikes up side canyons, and I was feelin’ good in the sunshine.  I even saw a couple desert bighorn sheep (see image below).  The day was capped off nicely when my football team won big (I have satellite radio).

A desert bighorn sheep prowls the slickrock country of Zion National Park in Utah.

I ran into some serious-looking photographers, and only a couple seemed to want to use their feet to help their photography.  This is the biggest mistake would-be landscape photographers make in my opinion.  I think most (not all) know that their brain not their fancy gear is their best tool.  But their second-best tool, two legs & two feet, too many people ignore.  Sometimes I feel a bit foolish, running about, scrambling down road embankments, climbing roadcuts and spending perhaps too much time with one subject.  But then I say to myself, “Oh yeah, this is the only way I get half-way decent shots.  At least for me!”

The grass grows tall in Zion’s Pine Creek Canyon bottom.

I’ll admit this aversion to easy vantage points isn’t as important when the light is fantastic.  But at the very least I think you’re guaranteed to get shots that look a little different from everyone else’s.  When I saw a line of tripods on a bridge over the Virgin River, for example, I stopped a half-mile down and walked along the river bank to get the shot at bottom.  It’s not an award-winner, and it might not even be a better photograph than the group at the bridge got.  But I sure enjoyed the process!

Fallen autumn leaves litter mule’s ears in Zion National Park, Utah.

Okay, that’s my tip for the day: use your feet!  The conditions here now are not ideal (too clear), but I’ll stay and hike some.  I missed the end of the storm that passed through over the weekend.  I guess I’m too used to the Pacific Northwest, where the storms don’t clear up nearly as quick as they do here.  The light in Long Valley was so great at sunset the other day that it is hard not to regret not getting to Zion in time for it.  Stay tuned for more Zion!

A view of the Virgin River as it exits Zion Canyon near Springdale, Utah.

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