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Fitness and Photography for Fun - A blog on staying fit by hiking and doing photography by David Mendosa

Entries Tagged as 'Photography'

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North to Alaska

September 29th, 2013 · No Comments

A journey of 1,000 miles begins with a single step. This is the usual translation of the words of Lao Tsu in the Tao Te Ching. My journey from home in Boulder, Colorado, to Alaska began on June 15 this year with a 382-mile drive to the town Buffalo, Wyoming, and ended nine weeks later after I had driven 8,720 miles. I took seven airline flights for another 2,300 miles and five trips by ship and boat for 2,000 more miles. The total journey of at least 13,000 miles was the longest and best trip of my life.

En route to and from Alaska, I traveled through Wyoming, Montana, Alberta, British Columbia, Yukon Territory, Washington, Oregon, Idaho, and Utah and have now driven almost all the paved roads in the state of Alaska. I took uncounted photos of birds, animals, flowers, and landscapes. I am thankful for the gracious hospitality of my dear friends Marveen and Wayne Coggins in Nikiski, Alaska, where I stayed for five weeks, and to Martha and Tom Schulte in Redmond, Washington, where I stayed overnight. I made many other new friends along the way. I had a great time.

My health and that of my trusty SUV remained fine throughout. No major mishaps marred the journey and the only thing that I left behind was one sock that Marveen found and mailed to me. I am a lucky man.

The most plentiful wildlife on Wyoming’s rolling hills were pronghorn. I saw at least 60 of them between Casper and Buffalo. After settling in to my motel room, I went out to see what I could find nearby. The name Klondike Road attracted me, probably because I was headed off to Alaska. There I found more pronghorn and a herd of about 20 horses.

A Pronghorn Climbs a Ridge Near Buffalo

A Pronghorn Climbs a Ridge Near Buffalo

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I don’t know if the horses are wild mustangs, but they weren’t fenced in and were roaming freely down the road past a sign where it told me to proceed at my own risk (as if I would blame someone else for my problems). I stayed with the horses until the sun began to go down, all the time photographing them in the beautiful light of the late afternoon in an attractive area of rolling hills.

This Handsome Stallion Is the Leader of the Pack

This Handsome Stallion Is the Leader of the Pack

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Soon, Some of His Friends Followed

Soon, Some of His Friends Followed

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My long journey was off to a splendid start.

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The Orchids of Colorado

June 12th, 2013 · 2 Comments

Many people are surprised that orchids grow in Colorado. While they are common in the tropics, we also have them here in the cool mountains.

I have seen only two species of wild orchids in Colorado. But they are probably the most beautiful of at least 33 species of orchids that grow here. Scott Smith has photographs of each of them at Colorado Orchids. By comparison, subtropical Hawaii has only four species of orchids.

Another nature photographer who also lives in Boulder, Rich Wolf, brought those links to my attention. Even more importantly, when Rich found a Spotted Coralroot (Corallorhiza maculata) on the North Mesa Trail last week, he alerted me immediately. Later, he posted his photo essay at “Improbably Parasites on the Mesa Trail.”

I made sure to look for this orchid beauty as soon as I could and found it easily using Rich’s precise directions.

The Spotted Coralroot (Corallorhiza maculata) May Look Tall in this Photo, But They Don't Grow More Than 20" High

The Spotted Coralroot (Corallorhiza maculata) May Look Tall in this Photo, But They Don't Grow More Than 20" High

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This morning I found Colorado’s other exceptionally beautiful orchid. I made sure to return the favor and alerted Rich immediately.

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Prospect Park

June 11th, 2013 · No Comments

Sharon and I planned to celebrate her birthday by finding birds on Clear Creek in Jefferson County, Colorado. But the usually clear and plaid creek was a muddy and raging torrent from the heavy snowfall last month in the Rocky Mountains last month. Every bird had flown to calmer waters, and we followed.

Since Clear Creek runs through Prospect Park, we looked for birds on the three lakes there instead, and we found them. On the shore of Tabor Lake we found the bird that I had most hoped to see on the creek, a male Wood Duck.

A Male Wood Duck (Aix sponsa) Is the Most Colorful Waterbird Native to North America

A Male Wood Duck (Aix sponsa) Is the Most Colorful Waterbird Native to North America

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We also saw the usual species. But some of their activity was unusual.

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A Drama at Betasso Preserve

June 10th, 2013 · 1 Comment

The black bird paced back and forth on a horizontal branch of the Ponderosa Pine. I had never seen any bird behavior like that before, so I stopped to see if I could understand it.

Black birds don’t interest me much. I generally prefer to look at and photograph birds with colorful feathers. And this black bird was a European Starling, birds that are now so common in North America that many people consider them to be pests.

The presence of these starlings here is, of course, the fault of a guy named William Shakespeare. A group called the American Acclimatization Society decided that bringing every bird that Shakespeare wrote about to the New World would be a great idea.

Shakespeare’s biggest mistake was mentioning starlings in Henry IV, Part 1. Because of that blunder, the society released a few hundred European Starlings in New York’s Central Park in 1890 and 1891. European Starlings liked America as well as European people used to that they (the starlings) now number more than 200 million here.

I had gone to Betasso Preserve for two reasons, and looking at black birds wasn’t one of them. I did hope to find Mountain Bluebirds, which I had found there before, but didn’t see any. The other reason was to read a new novel by Zane Grey on my Kindle (a novel about the Sedona area called Call of the Canyon that was new to me, although he wrote it back in 1924). I didn’t find any bluebirds, but I did continue reading that book on one of my favorite benches.

When decided to head back home to get dinner, the shadow of a bird passed over my head. I noted where it landed and for at least 10 minutes watched this black bird and another one who soon joined it before figuring out what was happening. I had figured that the birds had a nest nearby. But I couldn’t see it. At least, I couldn’t see it until the European Starlings dive-bombed the tree. That’s when I began to wonder if they had gone insane, like people sometimes do.

A European Starling (Sturnus vulgaris) Dive-Bombs a Hole in the Ponderosa Pine

A European Starling (Sturnus vulgaris) Dive-Bombs a Hole in the Ponderosa Pine

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Bosque del Apache

June 1st, 2013 · 2 Comments

This may be the off-season for birding in Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge. But it didn’t matter to me because it’s still a birders paradise.

Bosque is in the desert of New Mexico about 100 miles south of Albuquerque. I first visited it in December 2011 on a photo safari to photograph the huge numbers of Greater Sandhill Cranes that gather there in the fall and winter. The cranes have now flown far to the north, and the masses of photographers have left too. This time I had the refuge almost totally to myself — along with many other species of beautiful birds.

Bosque del Apache means the woods of the Apache Indians who often camped there among the trees that grow along the Rio Grande between the Chupadera Mountains to the west and the San Pascual Mountains to the east.

The Last Light of Day on the Trees of Bosque along the Rio Grande and the San Pascual Mountains

The Last Light of Day on the Trees of Bosque along the Rio Grande and the San Pascual Mountains

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Bosque was my second stop after Great Sand Dunes National Park along my route to Southeastern Arizona. Unlike Boulder and the park, which were still cold, spring had already arrived at Bosque. The grass was green, and the cottonwoods and other trees were beginning to bloom.

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Great Sand Dunes

June 1st, 2013 · 2 Comments

When someone leaves on a trip, an ancient blessing goes something like this:

“May all your surprises be happy ones.”

Maybe you were the person who said or had that thought when I left home in Boulder on May 5 for a three-week swing through the American Southwest. I drove 3,400 miles and stayed in southern Colorado, in central New Mexico, in southeastern and northern Arizona, and in Utah. While the 5,800 photos that I took may seem like a lot, it was only 1.7 photos per mile.

Whoever blessed my trip did a great job of it. Everything worked out.

The impetus for this journey was to return to Southeastern Arizona. I went there 13 months ago and visited two of the three main naturalist areas. I wanted to visit the third one, and I wanted to go in May when the birding migration was in full swing. The migrant birds were there, including several Elegant Trogons that I had only briefly glimpsed last year. That worked out.

Plotting my route from Boulder to Southeastern Arizona meant two overnight stops. The obvious first one was the Great Sand Dunes National Park in south central Colorado, 240 miles from Boulder. While I had enjoyed two previous visits to the dunes, I wanted to climb them again and get better photos of the sand.

Now, sand isn’t easy to photograph and is just as hard to climb. But when I climbed to the top of a dune on this trip early one morning, a brief rain the previous evening had made the sand firmer and the air clearer.

My first view of the sand dunes on this trip was from my room at the Great Sand Dunes Lodge. In the photo below they look like they might be a few feet high. But they rise nearly 750 feet from billions of grains of sand blown by wind across the San Luis Valley. They cover about 39 square miles and are the highest dunes in North America.

The Great Sand Dunes Stand Between the San Luis Valley and the Sangre de Christo Mountains

The Great Sand Dunes Stand Between the San Luis Valley and the Sangre de Christo Mountains

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Nearing the Top of the Sand Dune

Nearing the Top of the Sand Dune

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Standing just below the dark bulk of this dune crest felt oppressive. I could feel the power of the sand.

Another View from Almost the Same Place

Another View from Almost the Same Place

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I took the second and third photos from near the top of the dune. When I reached the top, I could see the same mountains that you can see in the first photograph, although I was just a little closer. But I found the true beauty of the dunes on the way to the top rather than when I stood on the summit. Like all in life, the journey is what counts. It works that way for me.

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An American Dipper in a Clear Stream

March 19th, 2013 · No Comments

American Dippers are the only aquatic songbirds in North America. They are unique in finding almost all of their food underwater in swiftly flowing streams. They dive into the water and walk on the bottoms of streams where the current can be too fast and the water too deep for us to stand.

They can stay underwater so long because they have more oxygen capacity than any other songbird. In the rest of the world are four other dipper species, but the American Dipper lives only in Western North America on streams where the water is clear and unpolluted.

That’s where I found one yesterday. I watched it for an hour as it fed in Boulder Creek in Boulder County, Colorado.

We now call them American Dippers (Cinclus mexicanus) because they jauntily bounce their bodies up and down as they look for food. But for at least 800 years we called them Water Ouzels, and some people, myself included, still prefer the old name.

This American Dipper or Water Ouzel lives year round on Boulder Creek, where I had found it before. But I got my best photographs of it yesterday.

The day was chilly and windy, but the sun shown brightly. However, most of the creek where I found the dipper was in the shade, so I waited patiently for the bird to move into the sun.

An American Dipper Takes a Break for Some Sun

An American Dipper Takes a Break for Some Sun

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Up for Air after Finding Some Food Under Water

Up for Air after Finding Some Food Under Water

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As I watched the dipper from the bank of the stream I was cold in my down jacket and gloves. But even in water barely above freezing it was all in a day’s work for this remarkable bird.

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A Flicker Launch

March 14th, 2013 · 4 Comments

I didn’t have my best camera and lens, and the temperature wasn’t a record high for the day. But on both scores it was close.

Since both my Canon 7D and my 100-400mm telephoto zoom lens are at the local camera store for cleaning, I had to rely on my backup equipment: a Canon 50D (which I recently bought to replace the one destroyed by water damage in the Galapagos) and a 300mm prime lens with a 1.4 teleconverter. The 7D takes more frames per second and the 100-400mm lens focuses faster, but the backup equipment will do in a pinch.

The temperature reached 72° here at 4:15 p.m. in the shade. I guessed that might be a record, but back in 1925 it had reached 76° on this date.

Anyway, I didn’t go out for the photos. The day was so unseasonably warm that I took my Kindle Touch, where I am reading Ron Chernow’s new biography of Alexander Hamilton, to a bench in Tantra Park where I sat and read.

One passerby asked if I had got any photos with my big lens. No, I replied, and I didn’t expect any. But if I didn’t take it, I continued, I would be sure to kick myself for a missed opportunity.

I didn’t have to kick myself when I heard a loud drumming off to my right. At first I dismissed it as some joker with a jackhammer. But then I recognized it for what it was — a woodpecker. A red-shafted Northern Flicker was announcing its presence, not to me but to others of his species.

Quickly stowing my Kindle in the back pocket of my jeans, I grabbed my camera and took off to the path at the right. But after a few steps the drumming started up again. Behind me. The flicker was at the top of the light fixture close to the bench where I had been sitting.

Taking pictures as fast as the 50D will work, I shot the flicker from all angles. Then, he stood up and I knew he was ready to fly. I was ready too.

A Northern Flicker (Colaptes auratus) Launches from the Light

A Northern Flicker (Colaptes auratus) Launches from the Light

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A Sandhill Crane Migration

March 5th, 2013 · 5 Comments

Sandhill Cranes have probably flown through the San Luis Valley for 10 million years. I drove there at the end of February to watch them for three days.

These large and graceful birds belong to the oldest known surviving bird species. “A crane fossil found in Nebraska, estimated to be about 10 million years old, is identical in structure to the modern Sandhill Crane,” according to The Nature Conservancy.

The Sandhill Cranes gather around the National Wildlife Refuge near Monte Vista, Colorado. This refuge is close to the southern end of the San Luis Valley, the largest alpine valley in the world. About 7,600 feet high, the refuge sits between the Sangre de Cristo and San Juan mountain ranges. This is the western edge of the Central Flyway where about 25,000 Sandhill Cranes migrate every spring and fall. They spend their winters in southern New Mexico, including the Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge, which I visited and wrote about in December 2011. Near the end of March they begin to fly to the area around Grays Lake National Wildlife Refuge in Idaho, where they breed and make their nests.

Among the approximately 25,000 Sandhill Cranes that come to the San Luis Valley each spring and fall are some Lesser and Canadian Sandhill Cranes, about 3,000 to 5,000 of each species. Differentiating between the three sub-species is difficult, according to the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, which manages our wildlife refuges. “The Greater is larger and lighter gray than the Lesser and Canadian. The Greater Sandhill has a head/bill shaped similar to a Canvasback while the Lesser Sandhill has a head/bill similar to a Redhead duck.”

Greater Sandhill Cranes can be as big as 5 feet tall with a wingspan of up to 6 feet. As big as they are they are among our most graceful birds. On the other hand, the huge flocks of Sandhill Cranes along the Platte River in Nebraska consist largely of the smaller Lesser Sandhill Cranes.

During my three-day trip I went to the Monte Vista National Wildlife Refuge six times. The three mornings were better, not only because of the light but because the cranes were more active then. But while I had to get up early, this was an easy trip because the cranes were present and the light was good for less than an hour at the beginning and end of each day. Still, the mornings were cold, down as low as 11°F. I made sure to get there and to get my gear set up before sunrise, as in this photograph:

Sandhill Cranes (Grus canadensis) Awaken into a Cold Dawn

Sandhill Cranes (Grus canadensis) Awaken into a Cold Dawn

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I like to know why birds have the scientific names they do, and Paul A. Johnsgard has a nice explanation. “The Romans referred to the cranes as grues, apparently from the sound of their calls,” he writes. “The related Latin word congruere, meaning to agree, is the basis for the modern English word, ‘congruence,’ and both derive from the highly coordinated and cooperative behavior typical of cranes.” He wrote this in one of his many books, Crane Music: A Natural History of American Cranes.”

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A Male Mandarin

February 26th, 2013 · No Comments

When I saw a male Mandarin Duck one cold morning two months ago, I was happy enough with some of the 1,348 photos I took that day that I didn’t need any more. Instead, the reason why I went back there yesterday morning was that I wanted to show my friend Marveen one of the world’s more colorful and beautiful birds.

I found it for her on Clear Creek as it flows through Prospect Park in Wheat Ridge, Colorado. Marveen told me that she had never seen a Mandarin Duck before. We saw in on a cold, sunny day right after the heaviest snowstorm of the season when almost all of the lakes here are frozen solid, so the birds fly to creeks that are free of ice.

But I found the Mandarin for me too. No matter how often I have seen and photographed a beautiful bird or landscape, every time is different. Sometimes the situation can be better. In fact, I told the students in my nature photography seminar a couple of weeks ago about my experience of photographing the Mandarin in December and mentioned that almost all of the conditions were right. The one exception, I said, was that I was up on the bank looking down at it. All bird and animal photography is better when the subject and the photographer are at the same level.

Yesterday I had no exceptions. For some of my images the Mandarin was on a section of the creek where we could get close by walking down to the very edge of the bank and kneel. It didn’t matter that I had to kneel in wet snow. As one of my mentors says, “Don’t worry about dirty clothes; that’s what the laundry is for.”

Even better, the Mandarin fearlessly swam much closer than ever before. It came so close that I had to turn off the focus limiter on my camera’s 100-400mm lens. I usually limit its focus range to 6.5m (21 feet) to infinity because it finds focus quicker that way. When it’s turned off, I can focus on a subject as close as 1.8m (6 feet).

The result was that both Marveen and I got photos we like. This is my favorite from yesterday.

A Male Mandarin Duck (Aix galericulata) Seems to Study Clear Creek

A Male Mandarin Duck (Aix galericulata) Seems to Study Clear Creek

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Yesterday, I took only 255 photos of this beautiful bird. That was enough.

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