I’ve been to 25 National Parks over the years, many of them several times and Denali NP in particular six times. Two popular parks that I have not been to yet are Acadia National Park in Maine, and Great Smoky Mountains National Park in Tennessee/North Carolina. One thing that makes this odd is that they are the two national parks that are closet to my home. In April 2018 I decided to add one of these to the list of visited parks. I booked a short photography tour of Great Smoky Mountains with Slonina Photography tours, run by local photographer John Slonina. I considered this short five-day trip to be an introduction to the park. It was the first trip to a national park which I did not plan independently, and it was my first trip with John. [Read more…]
Day 3 – February 2 – Orne Harbor and Cuverville Island
The day started with heavy overcast as we cruised toward Orne Harbor, where a large glacier is the main feature at the end of the harbor and a large hill of exposed rock is on the south opening to the harbor. This is the location of the Chinstrap Penguin colony we were scheduled to visit. A few chinstraps were in the water near the shelf of rock that served as a landing area, but there were thousands of penguins along the ridge. The path to the ridge was on the other side of the ridge, which we saw when the ship rounded the point on the way to the afternoon landing area. Oceanites reported 1000 chinstrap penguin chicks on the ridge. [Read more…]
Day 2 – February 1 – Paradise Bay and Neko Harbour
The day began with clear skies, flat seas, and reasonably warm weather. Our morning stop on this day was the Almirante Brown Station, a scientific research station built by the government of Argentina. The station had been mostly abandoned for a time due to fiscal problems and appeared uninhabited, although there were signs that repairs were being made to some of the buildings. Gentoo penguins were nesting in the areas around the buildings and allowed close observation of the nesting areas along the trail up the hill. I was surprised to find a Sheathbill, a.k.a Antarctic Chicken, a land based bird that is an opportunistic feeder, stealing krill and fish from penguins, eating their eggs and whatever insects they can find. Surprisingly, we were told they also eat penguin poop. [Read more…]
Day 1 – January 31 – King George Island
Our first stop, Bellingshausen Station, is a Russian Antarctic research facility at Collins Harbor on King George Island. Adjacent to this set of buildings are research stations operated by Chile and China. One of the South Shetland Islands, the summer temperatures here are relatively warm, with much of the accumulated melting away, and giving opportunity to lichens, mosses and other vegetation to grow. Unfortunately, much of the snow free areas are muddy. On land, we were allowed to wander around the area, follow one of the expedition staff on a hike along some of the roads, and visit the small Russian Orthodox Church. There were a few Chinstrap penguins along the beach and it was our first exposure to observe these medium–sized seabirds as they interacted with each other. [Read more…]
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This was my second visit to the Galapagos Islands. My wife and I visited in April of 2005, and I never figured I’d return since I have a lot of other locations on my list of places to visit and photograph. This trip was one of the prizes awarded to me as grand prize winner in the 2010 Audubon Magazine photography contest. The cruise was provided by Lindblad Expeditions aboard the National Geographic Endeavor. Lindblad and Nat Geo do organize a great trip, with top notch naturalists, including a few trained by National Geographic photographers to provide advice and guidance to the less experienced photographers among the passengers.
Each day was similar in schedule, but widely different in experience. We’d awake anchored in the location for the morning excursion. Occasionally a choice of activities was offered which might include a long walk, a short walk, or just a stay on the beach but mostly one walk was offered. There was always an alternative activity, usually a zodiac ride along the coast, for those not wishing to take the offered hike. Most landings (all but two) were wet landings; the zodiac would get close to the beach, and the passengers in turn would get off into the water and wade to the beach. The water was never more than knee deep, and towels were provided on the beach to dry off feet and put on shoes for the walk. Upon embarking the ship from the morning excursion, we’d sail during lunch to a second location for the afternoon activity. Between shore excursions were afternoon lectures, occasional deep water snorkeling or kayaking opportunities.
The weather was mild and cloud covered for sunrise, with the clouds burning off as the day went on, with the afternoons mostly sunny. Seas were mostly calm even when on the edge of the archipelago north of Isabella Island. Sunrise photography was not great, and only one evening was good for sunset, with the exception of the last evening at sea, when we were circumnavigating Kicker Rock, unique rock formations which are the remnants of a volcanic cone. Just before we sailed away from this rock, the light turned golden and the rock appeared on fire. Based on the week of dull evening light, this last evening was spectacular. The ship was sailing into the sunset, I hurried to the bow of the ship, where both feet slipped out from under me, I landed flat on my face spread out on the deck, my camera skidded across the deck . . . and no one noticed. I dragged myself up and looked around; everyone was intently watching the sunset and hadn’t noticed my acrobatics at all.
23 September — 6 October, 2011
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At the end of September, my wife, Chris, and I visited Yellowstone National Park and Grand Teton National Park hoping to see and photograph the yellow and orange fall foliage, abundant wildlife preparing for winter, and perhaps a touch of winter itself. We arrived with the leaves just starting to turn, scant wildlife, and temperatures in the 80’s for the first few days. We did find a herd of 200 or so bison spread out in the Lamar Valley and on the return to Mammoth Hot Springs we found a herd of ten pronghorn does with a buck keeping order. One evening we also had a few bighorn sheep come down the cliffs to the Gardiner River. The first evening we planned on eating at the park dining room anticipating the evening show; 30-40 elk cows with two or three bulls vying to keep track of their respective harems, and try to coax a few more cows from another harem. We saw one nice bull, and four cows. Where did they all go? The introduction of wolves to the park did reduce the elk herds, but to a greater degree than initially expected. This was a result of the overwhelming success of the wolf packs, which have done better than predicted. The wolf/elk ratio has probably hit an equilibrium; if there are not enough elk for one reason, let’s say a bad winter, there will be fewer surviving wolf pups due to less food available, then the elk with have greater success, and then the wolf numbers will increase.
We spent the first three nights based in Gardiner, MT, at the north entrance to Yellowstone NP. From there it is convenient to travel to the Lamar Valley, Tower Junction and the Canyon Village section beyond, and to Norris Geyser basin. Basically, the northern half of the park. Mammoth Hot Springs is the northern headquarters of the park services with lodging, dining, and conveniences (general store, fuel, post office, etc.). The springs for which the area is named, and the travertine cliffs here have changed over the years as geologic activity redirects the hot spring water below ground though subterranean limestone, dissolving calcium carbonate and depositing it as travertine (a bone white mineral) as the water cools on the surface. But that is not what creates the rainbow of colors at this, and all other, thermal features: it’s the thermopiles (heat-loving microorganisms). The color of the thermopiles is due to the temperature of the water. Cooler waters support the growth of orange, brown and green thermopiles while clear and yellow thermopiles thrive in the hottest water.
The Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone has several viewpoints to easily view and photograph both the upper and lower falls and the Yellowstone River. There are also a number of trails that lead down into the canyon for a more intimate view of the falls. We visited the canyon on different days and at different times of day to get a variety of light into the canyon. While overcast conditions greatly reduce shadows in the canyon, the light is not dramatic nor does it bring out the intense colors of the rock. The sun cast heavy shadow on half the canyon for our visit to the canyon at midday, and a return visit a few days later at 3pm with cumulous clouds in the sky provided a brightly lit inner canyon.
Our next stop was in Jackson, WY, near Jackson Hole and the Grand Tetons National Park. Since we were so late in planning this trip,we opted to stay in Jackson, even though we would have an additional 20 minute drive into the park for sunrise. Sunrise opportunities are numerous in Grand Teton; Schwabacher Landing, Oxbow Bend, Molton Barn and Mormon Row. In our exploration we found a beaver pond near the road (about a foot away from the road) where one evening we watched two adult and two young beavers feeding on the bark and leaves of small branches within fifteen feet of us. We visited the location several times during our four days in Jackson and did repeat the experience.
Again, wildlife was somewhat scarce, with the exception of the beaver. We saw several elk cows and a couple of bulls in the early evening hours, but did not see a single moose. We did see osprey on a nest but the position made photography impossible, and saw a red tail hawk flying. In any case, the landscape photography opportunities were reasonably decent, even though proscribe forest fires at the south end of the park resulted in ground smoke at the base of the mountains. This is evident in the images that show a grey pallor on the lower half of the mountains.
We then moved on to Old Faithful Snow Lodge for the last five nights of our stay. This location gave us good access to the southern half of the park, and even drives to the Canyon Village area were not that far away. A large number of visitor accessible thermal features is in this area, including Old Faithful geyser. Photographing hot pools and geysers can be challenging as they produce large amounts of steam. Your luck will depend largely on the direction and speed of the wind, and the air temperature. On my winter visit here, there were times when you could hear a hot pool bubbling, but couldn’t see it for all the steam surrounding it. The higher daytime temperatures (low 70’s) while we were there offered up some interesting views of the thermal features. I concentrated on areas of the thermal features that had striking color or interesting compositions.
The wildlife activity did eventually perk up as the nights became cooler and the daytime heat finally abated. We saw several herds of elk along the Madison River, and bison herds could be seen at many locations with about 50 animals each, except for the big herd in the Lamar Valley. By far the best experience was viewing a pack of wolves in the Lamar Valley returning to an elk they had killed the day earlier. At one of the pull-outs overlooking Hayden Valley we overheard this tidbit of information from a couple that was deciding where to go next. One at a time the wolves would come to the carcass, chase off the ravens and magpies and try to pry meat from the bone. Since the carcass was in the river, one wolf tried to pull it up onto the bank to get at the meat that was previously submerged. Another big spectacle was the number of photographers who had lined up shoulder to shoulder in two locations.
Selva Verde Lodge
We spent three days at this tropical rainforest lodge located on the banks of the Sarapiqui River. The attraction here is the abundance of green and black poison dart frogs and red poison dart frogs as well as masked and red-eyed tree frogs. One back lit basilisk lizard was a challenge to photograph as we tried to move through the undergrowth off the path and not chase the lizard off. There were also lizards climbing a tree next to the dining room, and we even saw a baby fer-de-lance on the side of the path. It couldn’t have been more than three inches in diameter coiled less than a foot from the path. The lodge naturalist moved the snake into the forest for everyone’s (and the snake’s) safety. When Greg was selecting some vegetation for nighttime photography of a red-eyed tree frog, he explained that we had to carefully look under the low vegetation to make certain no fer-de-lance were there. We could hear numerous birds throughout the forest, but they were elusive with the exception of a mot-mot, a chestnut billed toucan, and an ochre bellied flycatcher on the nest. We also had some time with howler monkeys which were very close and almost eye-level from the balcony of the lodge’s classroom. The naturalist believes they come to see their reflection in the floor to ceiling windows.
One morning we traveled to a nearby farm owned by a local family that has preserved some of its property as forest. Great Green Macaws and Scarlet Macaws live in the forest and stay close to the farm to roost and feed. He also had a large enclosure that injured birds, which locals had found were rehabilitated and allowed to go free. There is an opening in the cage where birds can come and go as they please. The owner also rescued two jaguars from being hunted and killed by local villagers for killing cattle. The farmer got the villagers to agree to let him capture the animals rather than just kill them. He built an enclosure to house the jaguars and takes good care of them; they look healthier than some zoo animals I’ve seen.
After attending the Natural Exposures Yellowstone in Winter Photo Tour described in Part 1, I picked up a rental car in Bozeman and continued my winter adventure based in Gardiner, MT. Gardiner is only a few miles from the north entrance to the park and Mammoth Hot Springs. Highway 212 passes through the northern section of the park to Cooke City just outside the northeast park boundary. This road is maintained year round and is the only means to reach Cooke City during the winter.
Yellowstone National Park in Winter — Part 1
I’ve always wanted to visit Yellowstone in winter to photograph the scenery and wildlife. After considerable internet searching, this year I signed on for a February trip with National Geographic contributing photographer Daniel J. Cox (Natural Exposures). The trip schedule included four day-long excursions by snow coach into the park from West Yellowstone and a day on either end to travel from/to Bozeman. Since I was going to travel to Montana, I added on three days of photographing the park from north entrance at Mammoth Hot Springs, the only area of the park that clears the roads for automobile travel during the winter. More about my independent travels in Part 2.
Part 1 is long and includes both my trip report and a review of the Natural Exposures Yellowstone in Winter Photo Tour for those considering this trip or this tour company. [Read more…]