A Bear Story

I did something I’ve never done before: I went hiking alone in Grizzly country.

I took my camera and, with no other hikers pushing me onward, my hike was pretty much doomed. Rather than hiking the 5 miles I’d planned, I spent about 3 hours loosing myself to photography without covering much ground.

At one point, I found myself panning with a flower that was whipping around in the wind, shooting a fly acting shockingly like a bee. I suddenly realized I’d been sitting there for more than 45 minutes.

That’s when I decided I needed to make some tracks. No sooner than I’d gotten some momentum going, I ran into a man hiking the opposite direction who told me he’d seen a grizzly about 10 minutes back on the trail (or 2 hours in photographer time).

I was both excited and worried. I was alone and had no bear spray. Neither condition is recommended in grizzly country. But, the man said the bear was far from the trail and distracted by the huckleberries that were in peak season.

I went on. Minutes later, I encountered a couple singing loudly. A sure sign of a bear sighting! Sure enough, they too had seen a grizzly a few minutes back. The moment they shared this information, I looked up and said, “Oh, look, there’s one now!” A grizzly had just crested the ridge above us and was headed in our general direction, although still 200 yards away.

I immediately did what any photographer does and grabbed the camera with my longest lens on it and started firing. Except, I was so excited I failed to read my meter and had to readjust and shoot again. As I fired off 3 more shots at good exposure (but with a heck of a lot more motion shake than usual), the bear started running towards us.
“And now he’s running towards us,” I said to the couple. The woman immediately asked her husband if the safety was off their bear spray can. I suggested we start backing up slowly.

The bear was closing the distance at a pace fast enough to scare the life out of anyone experiencing a grizzly running towards them for the first time.

We moved slowly for a few steps, and then more quickly, soon walking at a fast clip while glancing over our shoulders and talking loudly. When we passed trees that were between us and him, we lost sight of him (which was almost scarier).

We never saw him again. I suspect he was running towards a huckleberry bush that happened to be in our direction. However, it was scary enough that I decided to hike out with the couple and call it a day.

It took us 20 minutes to cover the distance that took me 3 hours on the way in.

My only regret is that I didn’t stay long enough to get a better shot.


The Great Smoky Mountain Wildlife Shoot

Last weekend we went on a river cruise in search of Whooping Cranes (well, in honor of the Sandhills).  While there, two people advised me to go to the Cataloochee Valley to see elk.  On a complete whim, I talked Pat into spending the weekend in Asheville, North Carolina and getting up at 5:15AM on Saturday morning to go shoot some elk.

Let’s recap:  I looked up the Cataloochee Valley, determined how long it would take us to get there, looked up sunrise time to make sure we would get there for the best light (and at a time the elk were likely to be active), looked at the weather forecast to ensure I owned enough layers to possibly stay warm, carefully decided which gear I would carry, found a hotel that didn’t charge more to have a dog than to stay in the room, and determined where Tisen was allowed to go in the park.

Fast forwarding back to Saturday morning, we arrived at the designated intersection only to realize that was the entry to the park, not the entry to the actual valley.  We wound our way up through the mountains slowly, encountering more and more snow as the elevation increased.  Behind use, the sun started coming up.  We paused long enough for me to snap a shot with my iPhone–my “real” camera being out of reach without climbing out of the car on a 1 ½ lane mountain road with 2-way traffic.


We made it to the Cataloochee valley gate before the light got too bright.  But alas, the gate was closed.  And locked.

Since dogs are not allowed on any trails in the Cataloochee area, we decided to take Tisen for a walk along the closed road.  Given that there was no one else there, we even cheated and let him off leash.  This may have been the first time he ever frolicked in snow.  He’s never run free in snow in the 2 years he’s been with us, at least.

Since there were no elk in sight, I practiced shooting my playful pup.

No elk appeared.  Pat was pretty sure we were still 10 miles from the prime viewing area when we turned around.  We we got back to the car, a Dark-eyed Junco was kind enough to pose for me, even in a wind strong enough to ruffle his feathers.

On the drive back down, we stopped to shoot some cattle.  They were quite curious about us.  Enough so that I found myself wondering if the feed truck happens to be a mini-van very similar to ours.  I started getting nervous when they all started walking toward me briskly–including a bull with a large ring in his nose glinting in the increasing light.  The fence between us was about 3-feet high and consisted of 3 flimsy strings of barb-wire.

With the exception of a Junco, I ended up with images of the domestic version of “wildlife.”

Lens Envy

Once again, I have celebrated a birthday.  I question the wisdom of having 4 annual milestones occur within a month of each other.  Nothing like reminding yourself you’re getting older every time you turn around.

First there was our wedding anniversary on the 21st, rapidly followed by Christmas Day, which also happens to be my older brother’s birthday (and he turned 50 this year), New Year’s immediately follows, and then there is my sister-in-law’s birthday, my friends and neighbors’ birthdays, and finally my own.

All of this serves to make me rather reflective at this time of year.  Sensing I might be getting into a bit of a funk, I decided to celebrate my birthday (a few days late) by taking a Blue Moon Cruises Eco Tour of the Hiwassee Nature Preserve.

Last year, we went to the Sandhill Crane festival in the same preserve.  However, during the festival, you have to take a bus into the refuge and there is only one area you can view birds from.  On the plus side, there are volunteers from the ornithological society who setup scopes and point out really great birds.  For this reason, last year we saw a Whooping Crane (albeit as a white dot amongst the grayer Sandhill Cranes).

I thought the Blue Moon Cruise might yield some better photographs since we would theoretically get much closer to the birds.

Armed with two cameras and my two longest lenses, after we boarded, I got out my gear and started getting everything setup.  Across from me was a man with a case containing a 600mm lens.  It’s hard not to stare at a 600mm lens.  Much like a breast-obsessed man trying to keep his eyes on a well-endowed woman’s face, I found myself struggling to just look away.  Lens envy–something Freud never wrote about.

In truth, I don’t think I could lug a 600mm lens around for long.  I tell myself that since I am unlikely to ever decide it’s worth it to spend $13,000 on a lens; it makes me feel like I’m not missing out on anything other than a sore back and tired arms.  If you have never seen a 600mm lens in person, it’s about the size of a bullhorn, but longer.  Much longer.

I did what I could with my 70-200mm and 100-400mm lenses.  The cruise did get us closer to the birds, but not quite close enough that a 600mm lens wouldn’t have come in handy.  I am still working my way through the 1500+ images I ended up with during that 3.5 hour tour, but I did grab a few to share today.

I think we saw about 20 Bald Eagles, mostly juveniles.

It’s bound to be a good day when you see 20 Bald Eagles.  Although I was slightly disappointed we didn’t see any Whooping Cranes this year, the cruise itself was wonderful.

Big Bone Lick

The sign at the entrance to the park

The sign at the entrance to the park

What’s in a name?  That which we call a park by any other name would smell as fresh.  So why not call it something that makes people think, “Hmm.  I really must go see what that is some time.”  I think that’s what the creators of Big Bone Lick State Park in Kentucky thought when they chose the name of the park.
Never mind that the area was a “lick” (as in “salt lick”) in ancient (and even more recent) times that attracted animals large and small with its mineral deposits.  Never mind that native americans talked about the “big bones” left behind by the giant animals that were trapped in the bog.  I’m pretty sure that someone in marketing decided naming the park “Big Bone Lick” would attract more tourists.

The one short stretch of shade on our way to find the bison

The one short stretch of shade on our way to find the bison

They were right.

After all, how many times have I driven by signs advertising parks I can’t remember the names of?  But “Big Bone Lick” has been the subject of several conversations–visitors often comment about it when they arrive at our place after having made the journey from the North.

Tisen casting a dark shadow that he tried to figure out how to stand under

Tisen casting a dark shadow that he tried to figure out how to stand under

Since I’d decided to take a day off work to drive home from Columbus with Tisen at a leisurely pace, this seemed like the perfect opportunity to find out what Big Bone Lick was all about.  As is typical of Tisen and my walks, we hit the park at the peak of the afternoon sun.  But on this day, I was surprised just how hot it was as we made our way up the trail in the harsh light.  Tisen couldn’t stop panting–I’m sure he was wishing his fur coat had a zipper so he could take it off.

If bison could pant, I think this guy would be panting

If bison could pant, I think this guy would be panting

But the park had something I wanted to see–Bison.  I guess it’s appropriate and historically accurate that the park should have bison.  I just wish they could roam free throughout the park rather than being fenced in.  For a moment, I flashed back to Montana’s approach to “fence them out” vs “fence them in,” but then I remembered the dead horses we saw on the road outside of Glacier National Park and decided I didn’t want to see any run over bison.

Even the bison were shedding

Even the bison were shedding

We followed the signs that said, “Bison.”  When we got to the “Bison Viewing Area,” there were no bison.  Just empty pastures with nothing like bison in sight.  I think someone was confused about what “bison viewing area” meant.

When I first spotted the bison, I thought I was seeing round bales of hay or something

When I first spotted the bison, I thought I was seeing round bales of hay or something

I felt betrayed by the park signs.  I looked at my poor, hot dog standing in a shadow panting like it was 100 degrees out and decided we’d better head back rather than keep looking.  However, there was another path that headed back towards the car.  I thought it would be shorter and, since it bordered a bunch of paddocks, perhaps we would see bison by going that way.  Both turned out to be true.  Although Tisen was less patience than usual waiting for me to take pictures, we left the park happy.


Otters and Smiles

This playful otter had quite a routine established--he used every inch of his tank that simulated a rushing river

This playful otter had quite a routine established–he used every inch of his tank that simulated a rushing river

There are certain things in life that make it impossible not to smile.  A toddler laughing.  A dog wagging like mad.  An amazing sunset.  And otters.

Who can possibly watch otters at play without smiling?

The Tennessee Aquarium has otters in their River Journey display.  I have been to the aquarium at least a dozen times in the past year and a half.  The otters have always been sleeping.  Otters sleeping are cute, but not quite so provocative of a smile as when they’re playing.  Discovering they were wide awake and having a ball on our recent visit with friends was quite a joy for me.

One might think the otter needed a rest, but he really was looking for a diving board

One might think the otter needed a rest, but he really was looking for a diving board

The Otter takes a spinning leap as he makes a dramatic dive back into the water

The Otter takes a spinning leap as he makes a dramatic dive back into the water

This might have been a great time to switch over to the video mode on my camera.  But, alas, I keep forgetting it will shoot video.  So, I have created a video from a series of rapid fire stills instead.  I didn’t actually shoot with the intention of making a video, so there are gaps.  The biggest gap is that I missed when they were swimming upside down.  How is it that otters can swim upside down as easily as right side up?   According to the National Geographic website, they can close their ears and noses.  I imagine that would be a big advantage during graceful rolls and swirls through the water.

The first time I thought I saw a river otter in the wild was in Colorado.  As it turned out, it was a beaver.  When it smacked its flat tail against the water at us, I realized my mistake.  In retrospect, a sea otter would be closer to the size of a beaver than a river otter, so I really should have known it was a beaver.  Seeing a beaver was pretty exciting, but I’ve always wanted to see wild otters at play.  So far, the closest I’ve come is when we saw river otters in a mountain lake near Mt. Hood in Oregon last fall.  They were fun to watch, but we were a bit far away to get to see much besides their heads when they would pop back to the surface after diving for fish.

The only pair of wild river otters I've ever seen taking a break from fishing in Oregon

The only pair of wild river otters I’ve ever seen taking a break from fishing in Oregon

River Otters are one of the many creatures I envy.  They are perfectly equipped for their lifestyle.  They have all the special features they need to not just survive through cold winters and hot summers, but to thrive in them.  They embrace their lifestyle with verve and frolic through life.

Of course, there are downsides.  For one, they are apparently very vulnerable to environmental pollutants.  For another, that warm, waterproof coat is something humans want to have.  They had disappeared from much of the country as a result.  Fortunately, through reintroduction and habitat management, they’ve made quite the comeback and are even considered a nuisance in some localized areas.  However, there are still many parts of the country that have very few river otters.  These must be the parts of the country I usually go hiking in.  I keep hoping, though.


Christmas Bird Count

One of my favorite winter birds--I love to hear their song when I walk the dogs.

One of my favorite winter birds–I love to hear their song when I walk the dogs.

This was a somewhat rare sighting at Audubon Acres--I have a much easier time shooting them at Renaissance.

This was a somewhat rare sighting at Audubon Acres–I have a much easier time shooting them at Renaissance.

Not 100% sure, but I think this was a yellow-rumped warbler flying away.

Not 100% sure, but I think this was a yellow-rumped warbler flying away.

The only thing better than a Yellow-bellied Sapsucker is two of them.

The only thing better than a Yellow-bellied Sapsucker is two of them.

I love these birds.  Just a great name.

I love these birds. Just a great name.

I’ve always wanted to participate in the Christmas Bird Count, but never really understood how it worked.  Every year, the National Audubon Society sponsors a Christmas Bird Count.  Each area organizes a specific day for participants to count birds.

The idea is to collect data on how many birds of each species seen are present in a given area at Christmas time.  Counts are scheduled from early December through January–I don’t know of any that actually happened on Christmas Day.  Ironically, the name of the event always prevented me from participating–I assumed the Christmas Bird Count happened on Christmas Day and I wouldn’t be able to join.

This year, because I’ve been volunteering for the Chattanooga Audubon Society, I learned that I didn’t have to count birds on Christmas Day to be part of the event.  In Chattanooga, the count was scheduled on December 15th.

The most challenging part about the count (other than getting any decent photos) was trying not to double count birds.  We walked around Audubon Acres for 3 hours before I had to leave.  It was pretty tough to ensure the Eastern Towhee we heard on one part of the property wasn’t the same Eastern Towhee following us to another part of the property.

The guidelines are clear for counting at a feeder.  You only count the maximum number of a particular type of bird you see at one time.  That way, you know you’re not counting the same bird over and over as it returns to feed.

Because we were roaming over 4 miles of trails, we had to try to segregate areas in the hope that the birds were staying on one part of the property.  For birds that we saw few of, that was a little clearer than birds that were everywhere.

I can’t remember ever seeing so many Flickers in one day.  There are either hundreds of Flickers at Audubon Acres or we were being stalked by a group of 5-10 of them.

I discovered several things during the Christmas Bird Count.  First, I really need to get back in the habit of hiking every weekend.  I felt like it was a desperately needed breath of fresh air to get back outside after many weeks of neglecting that part of my life.

Second, there is something wrong with my brain that makes me see only similarities and not differences.  The problem is worsened when the light is bad.  I was mistaking bluebirds for robins.  That’s not good.  They’re not even close to the same size–even in silhouette they can be distinguished.  But, I would see red on the breast and automatically go to Robin even though there are as many Eastern Bluebirds at Audubon Acres as there are Northern Flickers.

Finally, 400mm is not enough for shooting song birds.  Although, I was very pleased with the shot of the two Yellow-bellied sapsuckers (it’s cropped).  Now I just need to win the lottery to get a 600mm lens.


Shooting Elk

I really enjoy wildlife.  The more wild, the better (well, until I start to look like dinner).  I get a bigger thrill out of seeing a deer in the park than I do at the zoo.  I get an even bigger thrill seeing a deer in the backwoods than I do at a park.  The more remote an area, the bigger the thrill.

Elk are more exciting than deer proportional to their weight.  I think there’s probably an algorithm out there that someone has developed to calculate the level of excitement any given creature produces based on their size, elusiveness, rarity, and number of people they encounter in an average year.

Seeing an elk is more exciting both because it’s bigger and because it’s more rare.  At least for someone who’s lived East of the Mississippi for most of her life it’s more rare.  Where elk can be found in the East, they have been recently reintroduced.  They wear large tags around their necks that I suspect say things like “My name is Leroy.”

I don’t know why they look less wild than their relatives in the West, but they do.  Even though it’s more likely that you’ll run into an Elk while cruising down a highway in the Canadian Rockies than in Great Smokey National Park, when you see the Elk in Great Smokey National Park, you’ll swear it’s one of the ranger’s pets.  The “more rare = more wild” equation just doesn’t hold true in the East.

What all this adds up to is an inappropriate level of excitement about seeing a bunch of elk who live about an hour from Portland.  I thought we would have the best chance of seeing the Elk at dusk, so we stopped on our way back from Astoria at the Jewell Meadows Wildlife Preserve.  Granted, the website told us that the best time to see the elk was between November and April, but since we weren’t planning to be in Oregon between November and April, we figured we’d better take our chances.  Besides, it was pretty much on the way back to my dad’s.

We did not get to see the full herd of 200 elk, but we did get to see a couple dozen elk from a distance.  I thought they would be roaming around grazing a bit more than they were–I guess they go to bed earlier on the coast.

For about the thousandth time during our trip I wished I had a lens longer than 400mm.   I shot the elk anyway, hoping the resolution of my camera would be enough to allow me to crop the heck out of the photos.  Unfortunately, the photos didn’t withstand the crop.  Between the motion of me hand-holding the camera and the motion of the elk, the images are just not sharp enough.

Regardless, I’m still glad we stopped to shoot the elk.  I’m also glad I was shooting with a camera.  🙂

Pelican Jarts

While birds are pretty darn fascinating to watch, there is no bird like a Brown Pelican for entertainment.  I don’t know what it is about watching their repetitive pattern of rising over the water, nearly hovering as they reposition their bodies for a dive, and their sudden transformation from giant seabird to giant feathered jart as they dive, leaving behind a splash that probably wouldn’t get them a gold medal if this were the Olympic diving competition.  But, I could watch them perform this dance between feast and famine over and over again.

On the Washington side of the Astoria-Megler Bridge, which, if I were inclined to bet, I would bet is called “Megler,” we found a park where we could sit and watch the Brown Pelicans in their unique approach to dinner.  It’s amazing to me that such a large bird can so completely disappear under the water for several seconds after diving head first after a fish.  I feel certain the military could learn a lot from these birds.

The Brown Pelican is, in fact, the only pelican who dives from the air after its prey.  If I were a White Pelican and I watched the Brown Pelicans I shared my territory with snatching up fish from below the surface of the water this way, I would probably want to give it a try–it looks awfully fun.

Mt Hood and the Mighty Ducks

If the Tualatin River Wildlife Preserve wasn’t enough for one day, taking a drive up to Trillium Lake by Mt Hood sure did top it off nicely.  Trillium lake has a lovely two-mile trail  around it and we were promised a great view of Mt Hood by the internet, which is always right.

We decided to get there a couple hours before sunset so we’d have plenty of time to walk the two miles and pick out the perfect spot to shoot Mt Hood as the light changed.

We didn’t get there two hours ahead of sunset.  In fact, by the time we parked and were walking to the lake, sunset was about 45 minutes away.

Thankfully, the best view of Mt Hood was about a 5 minute walk from the car.  In fact, they built a deck there and put some benches on it so we could be comfortable while we watched the sunset.

Instead of sitting and relaxing, I got busy setting up the tripod I’d borrowed from my father and getting my camera ready to go.  Moving quickly kept me warm–even with my many layers (a light fleece plus a leather jacket plus a huge, thick fleece borrowed from my dad), it wasn’t exactly toasty.  The wind was whipping up a pretty good froth on the lake, meaning there were no glass-like reflections to be had of Mt Hood.  But, it was still beautiful.

And, sunset took long enough that we had time to take a break from shooting the mountain to walk part way around to get up close enough to identify some ducks that eluded me.

After looking at them through binoculars, shooting them with a 400mm lens, and after enlarging the images to look closely at them, I’m pretty sure the little ones are Pie-billed Grebes and the larger ones are Ring-necked Ducks.  I feel more certain about the Pie-billed Grebes than I do about the Ring-necked Ducks.  They were fun to watch in any case.

We returned to the deck so I could shoot as the sun faded.  The light turned amber and the mountain shifted from gray rock to glowing orange.  The trees below timber line moved from green to purple on the color wheel.  It’s almost hard to believe I didn’t change the tint or white balance between the early and late shots, but the sun did all that for me.

I kept hoping the wind would die and let me get one good shot of the mountain reflected on smooth water, but the wind only got stronger and I only got colder.  About the time we were going to call it quits, we spotted two otters making their way towards us across the lake.  This was the first time I’d seen wild otters anywhere other than the ocean.

Pie-billed grebes, check.  Ring-necked ducks, check.  River otters, check.  Mt Hood at sunset, check.  Definitely time to call it a day.

Two Strangers at Tualatin

While in Portland, we made a stop at the Tualatin River Wildlife Preserve to see what birds had stopped over on their way South.

When a sparrow appeared to me, I was hoping it was going to be something I don’t see at home.  However, I would say it’s either a Chipping Sparrow or a young White Crowned Sparrow, both of which are also found out east.  I’m rooting for a White Crowned Sparrow–it’s more exciting than a Chipping Sparrow.  Plus, it has an orange beak–although this isn’t normal for a young White Crowned Sparrow as far West as we saw this one according to Sibley.  But a Chipping Sparrow doesn’t have an orange beak, either, so I’m going with the White Crowned.

Sparrows are often tortuous to identify.

This leads me to a species definitely not seen East of the Mississippi–the Scrub Jay.  I don’t know who named this poor guy after something that sounds like it should be used to clean toilets, but they really must have been annoyed with these noisy, persistent buggers when they named them.  After all, the Scrub Jay is a beautiful, brilliant blue bird with gorgeous markings.

My appreciation of the Scrub Jay reminds me of a visit from a Korean family when I was a teenager.  They were amazed by the Northern Cardinal.  We had dozens of them visiting the feeders during their visit and the Korean children couldn’t get over how beautiful they were.

What is it about rarity that makes us prize beauty more?  Once it becomes a common occurrence, we forget to be amazed.  This seems related to the old adage, “we only want what we can’t have,” usually applied to dysfunctional relationships.

Instead of appreciating the ubiquitous Northern Cardinal when we are in the East and the equally ubiquitous Scrub Jay when out West, we look for the birds that are hard to find.  We revel in sighting the birds yet to get a check mark on our life list.  We yearn to see a bird we’ve never seen before.

I admit I fall into this thinking.  I was excited to add two birds to my life list while at the preserve.  First, there was the Cackling Goose (or the Crackling Goose as it seemed to come out more often than not).  I had dismissed them as Canada Geese to be honest.  I had no idea there even was such a thing as a Cackling Goose.

Fortunately, my father had recently learned about the Cackling Goose, which led me to play its call compared to a Canada Goose.  Sure enough, different calls.  All of the birds in flight were Cackling Geese.  They seemed to be confused as they tried to create a formation.  Perhaps that’s why they were still as far North as Portland in October.

But more exciting than the Cackling Goose, we also got to see a Red-breasted Sapsucker.  Definitely a nice treat, although probably a daily sighting in this preserve.