Swans’ Song in Skagit Valley

Winter in Northwest Washington is home to large variety of birds.  In fact, birdwatching is at its best here during the winter months when these feathered friends frequent our waterways and fields.  One of the many species that come here to winter is the largest waterfowl of them all, the trumpeter swans.  They arrive by the thousands to take over the farm rich fields of the Skagit Valley where they feast and rest until time to return to Alaska for the summer.

The farm fields of Northwest Washington's Skagit Valley provide a winter home for rumpeter swans.
The farm fields of Northwest Washington’s Skagit Valley provide a winter home for thousands of trumpeter swans.

Last winter, nearly 12,000 of these majestic birds landed in Skagit Valley.  Their population, once threatened nearly out of existence, have rebounded, according to the Skagit Audubon Society. In fact, the trumpeter swans who spend their winter in this area make up the largest winter population in the country.  I decided the other day to take the a drive down the winding Chuckanut Drive that hugs the coast south to the beautiful open flat expanse of Skagit Valley, about 19 miles.

A couple of trumpeters wade together through the mucky mud.
A couple of trumpeters wade together through the mucky mud.

Once you hit the flat land, heading into the little junction of Bow, Washington, you begin to see spots of white dotting the barren, brown fields.  On this particular day, I continued straight out from Bow following Chuckanut Drive or Highway 11.  I hadn’t gone far when I came across a fields full of the swans.  Turning off Chuckanut, I found I could closer to the birds in one of the fields on Thomas Road.  The birds are protected from harassment so the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife ask birdwatchers to stay in their cars when visiting or photographing if possible.  My husband pulled the car off to the side of the road, I rolled down the and pulled out camera.

The beauty of the swan's wings can be seen as this swan stretches its feathers.
The beauty of the swan’s wings can be seen as this swan stretches its feathers.

The birds stopped splashing in the muddy water standing in the field to check us out but after a few minutes decided we were no threat and resumed their chorus of honking.  The swans seemed not to mind as I started to photograph. The birds honked.   My camera’s shutter clicked open and closed as I patiently tried to maneuver from my seat in the car to capture a few images of the big birds.  Mallard ducks mixed in freely with the swans, as they waddled around the fallow fields. But it’s the swans that attract everyone’s eye.

The swans in flight are a incredible sight wtih wings that can span eight feet.
The swans in flight are a incredible sight wtih wings that can span eight feet.

In flight, against the day’s gray-white sky the birds outstretched wings looked immense and .  In fact, these wingspan of the swans is enormous and can be up to eight feet wide, according to Department of Fish and Wildlife sources.  They can weigh as much as 32 pounds and when standing erect will reach four feet tall.  Big birds.

The agricultural fields of Skagit Valley make a pcituresque setting for swans and mallards alike.
The agricultural fields of Skagit Valley make a pcituresque setting for swans and mallards alike.

After a while, satisfied that I might have a few images I would later like, we moved on. The swans were content to remain in the field, honking to their hearts’ desire as the light cold wind that had picked up ruffled their big snowy white wings. There’s still time to view the swans if you find yourself in the area.  Eventually, these magnificent birds will take off for the spring and summer, not to return again until next November.

Walking in a Winter Wonderland

For the past several years, I have ushered in the New Year on January 1st, with a celebratory paddle in my kayak on Bellingham Bay with my ever-faithful paddling partner, Pat. But this year, Pat was away visiting family, temperatures had dropped to below freezing and I had welcomed the New Year until after 2 a.m. Consequently, I was less motivated to get out on the water this year although I did feel a little guilty when, later in the day while out walking with a neighbor, I note how flat and alluring the water was.

Instead, I answered the call from another buddy to go snowshoeing on the second day of the New Year. I had already been out the day after Christmas and was anxious to go again. So it wasn’t a hard sell for her to get me to agree.

We rounded up a couple other friends and by 9 a.m. were headed up to our local mountain, Mount Baker, only about a 90 minute drive away. We decided not to go all the way up to the ski area which we knew would be crowded on this sunny, but bone-chilling day. Instead, we opted to stop at the Hannegan Pass picnic area where you can follow the road, now covered in snow and groomed for snowshoers and cross-country skiers.

The views along the Hannegan Pass Road are stunning for snowshoers.
The views along the Hannegan Pass Road are stunning for snowshoers.

It’s not as high in elevation and comes just before you begin to make the twisting turns up to the ski area. And when we pulled into the parking, there were still plenty of places open. Also, the trail is relatively flat, which made it appealing to another of our party who had recently recovered from a rotator cuff surgery and wasn’t sure how much of a challenge he could handle.

One of the biggest challenges of snowshoeing is simply putting on and fastening the darn things before you can set out. Sure, the clips and snaps and latches make it a lot easier than having to lace up anything in frigid temps, but it still is a bit cumbersome when you’re layered with warm clothing.

Our snowshoe group hits the trail.
Our snowshoe group hits the trail.

I’ve learned that it’s best not to overdress for snowshoeing. During my outing the weekend before, I finally had to shed the sweater I was wearing on top of my long underwear and beneath my sub-zero rated down coat because I was overheating. This time, I economized and started out with only the underwear top and bottoms, my ski pants and my coat. That turned out to be just the right combination even though the thermometer said 20 degrees. I also switched out the bulky, but warm, fingered gloves I had worn the previous time for the warm, lined mittens with a  top half that could be buttoned back to expose my bare fingertips so that I could more easily handle my camera.

Thus attired, we struck out on the trail. This particular trail, or road, follows along the scenic, winding North Fork of the Nooksack River. The snow glistened, just like in the song, in the late morning sunshine. The river sparkled. It was truly like walking in a ‘winter wonderland.’

Just like in the song, 'Winter Wonderland', the tree glistened along the trail.
Just like in the song, ‘Winter Wonderland’, the tree glistened along the trail.

As we rounded one of the first turns, someone had even built a snow couple and just across the trail was another, larger snowman who could have been, I suppose, Parson Brown.

We continued on, talking, laughing and stopping every so often so that one of our friends who was having some equipment issues could rebuckle his snowshoes.  But it didn’t matter, we were in no particular hurry to get anywhere and didn’t really care whether or not we reached a destination, although our intention was to go to where the trail, or road, stopped, a little more than two miles from where we had parked.

The trail had been fairly compacted but was still good for snowshoeing overall. There were some places where the dirt and gravel beneath were exposed but by and large, it was fine.

The white barren birch trees stand stand starkly in the snow.
The white barren birch trees stand stand starkly in the snow.

Along the way, we marveled at the long icicles that clung to the cliff beside us or on the rocks where water still trickled down the gully. We’d stop to gaze at the snow-covered treetops and thickets of trees while catching our breath or take a swig of water. Very important to always carry water with you when you snowshoe as you work up quite a thirst and sweat as you push along. Hydration is essential.

One in our group, Maria, had brought along a beautiful new leather-covered flask filled with an apple liqueur that a friend of hers had brewed for the holidays. We each had a taste and agreed that it was far superior to water although probably not as good for us.

Finally, we arrived at the trail’s end, another parking lot where, during the summer the hike up to Hannegan’s Pass actually begins. It was ‘snack time’, always something to look forward to when snowshoeing. Out came the trail mix, the thermos’ full of hot soup, the energy bars, and sandwiches. Funny how the treats you eat everyday at home taste so much more delicious on a hike or snowshoe adventure.

The author enjoys a snack and water before heading back on the trail.
The author enjoys a snack and water before heading back on the trail.

After a short rest and the consuming of snacks, we turned around and headed back out the way we came. As a photographer, I’m always aware how even the same path can look very different coming from the opposite direction and how you’ll often see things that you missed the first time simple because looking at it from a another perspective. I suppose that same thing could be said of the things we encounter in our daily lives.

On the way back, we encountered many more people along the trail, after being somewhat surprised earlier at how few people we had met. I even saw a couple of other friends who had come up to enjoy the day in the snow and we stopped for a few minutes to chat and wish each other a “Happy New Year.”

The parking lot, when we returned, was now full to literally overflowing with cars. Families were out along the river and on the trail with children and sleds in tow. Despite the cold, everyone seemed to savoring the brisk, cold sunny day. Or perhaps they were just destressing.

A family enjoys a romp in the snow by the river.
A family enjoys a romp in the snow by the river.

In the January issue of National Geographic Magazine, writer Florence Williams describes how some researchers believe that we ‘do our brains a favor’ when we get closer to nature. I believe it.

As we rode back down the mountain, about six hours from the time we had initially departed, I felt tired but refreshed, relaxed and renewed. A hot shower would certainly be welcomed but it had ‘been thrillin’ to go ‘walking in  a winter wonderland.’

You can view a few more of my images from this adventure in my Portfolio by simply clicking here.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Autumn Hike Destresses the Day

There’s nothing like a hike to escape the stresses of a workday.  Especially in autumn. Especially here in the Pacific Northwest.  So when I found myself overloaded one day last week, I picked up the phone and asked one of my buddies if she would like to join me for a short hike.  She had the day off and was happy to spend part of it on the trail.

We had originally hoped to hike that day, to leave early in the morning, drive up to the Mount Baker National Forest and take one of the many wonderful hikes up there. But an eye appointment for her and work issues for me preempted our plans. Besides, the weather forecast was a bit ‘iffy’, as it so often can be here this time of year. Rain was in the forecast and neither of us were excited about hiking in inclement weather.  So we cancelled our plans.  Yet as the day wore on, no rain appeared although the wind had steadily picked up causing white caps to appear on the water in the bay.

There's nothing like an autumn hike to help destress the day.
There’s nothing like an autumn hike to help destress the day.

I spent the morning tackling the things I needed to do in my studio. And when I felt I had most of it under control, I shot off an e-mail to my buddy, whose vision was blurred by the dilation from the eye exam and consequently stuck at home, to see if she’d be up for taking a shorter hike closer to home.  Fortunately for us, we live in a place that has an abundance of greenways, trails and wilderness areas within the city and county limits.

The Lake Whatcom Trail quickly leads you into a woods of towering trees.
The Lake Whatcom Trail quickly leads you into a woods of towering trees.

It’s easy to quickly get to a trailhead within minutes of your home, no matter where you live in the city.  It’s one of the reasons I love living here. The problem is deciding which one to take because there are so many choices.

We settled on one of the easier but still scenic and beautiful trails–the Lake Whatcom Park trail.  It’s a mostly flat, well-maintained trail that starts at the north end of the lake and follows the shoreline for three miles south.  I had not walked that trail for more than year and quickly agreed when my friend suggested it. I picked her up and together we drove out to the park entrance and the parking lot.  This trail, because of its proximity and relative ease, is a popular one for people with families and dogs. The parking lot is usually full, particularly on our warmer summer days. As this was a weekday, and in the middle of the afternoon, there were only a few cars.

Gorgeous sculptural tree roots cling to the boulders and old growth stumps.
Gorgeous sculptural tree roots cling to the boulders and old growth stumps.

The great thing about this trail is that you are quickly into the forest.  And a few minutes later, the trail descended out of woods to follow the shoreline. From there on, we had the lake on side and a densely green woods on the other.  Occasionally, there would be outcroppings of huge boulders from which trees somehow found a way to cling.  Surprisingly, much of the deciduous foliage was still very green. I had expected to find much more color on the leaves and had brought along my capture to hopefully record it.  I guess the nights have not yet been cold enough to bring out all the fall brilliance although in the section of the city where I live, which is at a little higher elevation, autumn is in full swing.

Trees along the trail hadn't yet changed to autumn color although this little leaf seems to be doing its best to encourage the rest.
Trees along the trail hadn’t yet changed to autumn color although this little leaf seems to be doing its best to encourage the rest.

There was still plenty to photograph and kindly, my friend waited patiently as I stopped along the way to set up and capture a shot.  The clouds above the lake were dark and threatening, but no rain.

The Lake Whatcom Trail follows the beautiful northern edge of the lake where stormy clouds added to the drama on this day.
The Lake Whatcom Trail follows the beautiful northern edge of the lake where stormy clouds added to the drama on this day.

The white-capped waves crashed against the logs that had fallen and lay on the shore as we set out, but later calmed some. The waterfalls that ordinarily tumble full down the cliff side were there but only a thin stream of what they would have been during a wetter year. It was possible to see them  from the trail through the branches of golden leaves but could have been easily missed. Still there was plenty for my friend and I to stop and admire and investigate.

Neither I nor my friend were sure what this growth was at the end of the fallen and moss-covered log.
Neither I nor my friend were sure what this growth was at the end of the fallen and moss-covered log.

We only encountered a handful of people on the trail this day.  It was nearly like we had the place to ourselves.  We didn’t walk all the way to the end, turning around to retrace our steps at the two mile marker.  By the time we arrived back at the parking lot, we had been out just about an hour and a half.  Not so long that I couldn’t get back to my desk and finish up what I needed to do but long enough to give us both a much-needed refresher from the stresses of that day.

Conquering the Skyline Divide with My Son

Whenever my son, who lives in New York, comes home for a visit, we take a hike together.  He misses the green of the Northwest and coming home gives him a chance to get a ‘nature’ fix.  In summers past, we have gone up to nearby Mount Baker and usually set out on one of the trails from Artist’s Point, the highest point to which you can drive and open for only a short period of time from late July to early October.  This year, however, my son requested that we find a different trail for our annual outing.

After conferring with a friend who hikes the area frequently with the local Mount Baker Club, we settled on the Skyline Divide Trail. The trail is, according to the National Forest website, one of the most popular hikes in the Mount Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest although it’s recommended for more experienced hikers.

The road to the trailhead is rugged and follows Glacier Creek much of the way.
The road to the trailhead is rugged and follows Glacier Creek much of the way.

The two-mile trail up is quite steep (and harder on the knees going down than climbing up) but well-kept. I might add the mostly unpaved road to the trailhead parking lot, off the Glacier Creek Road turn-off, can be rough and, as we discovered, full of humps.  Next time I’m taking an SUV or a car that sits higher off the ground than my own.

But the rocky ride up is well worth it, as are the aching calf muscles on the hike up.  As my friend put it: “When you think you can’t keep going, just do because when you get to the top you feel like you should be wearing a drindl skirt.”  Of course, what she was referring to was that famous scene from the film, “The Sound of Music” in which actress Julie Andrews, as Maria von Trapp, swirls in an alpine flowered meadow against a spectacular mountain backdrop. I myself had experienced that feeling and scenery years ago on my first trip to Salzburg, Austria and was anxious to see how this one would compare.  The Skyline Divide trail was much more strenuous than the easy walk I made from my Austrian gasthaus. But the thought of a splendid alpine meadow view of the mountain without flying thousands of miles to Europe, was enough to keep me pushing.  Hiking sticks are a definite plus as well.

Nearly like a scene from the film, ‘The Sound of Music,’ the majestic Mount Shushan rises behind a hiker taking in the view from atop Skyline Divide.

It helped that a couple of hikers on their way down told us that we were “close”, even when we really weren’t.  Nevertheless,  when we reached the top, the view was breath-taking, in more way than one.  Upon rounding the last switch back, we came into an expansive alpine meadow still bursting in color from the summer wildflowers and a view, that while not the same as the rugged Swiss Alps, was equally as gorgeous.  Mount Baker’s glacier-covered peak rose in the near distance, and seemed not that far from reach. To the north, stretched a view of the Canadian Cascades.  It made for a perfect spot to eat the snacks that we had carried along.  Several other hikers joined us on the day we were there, taking in the powerful mountain panorama set against the late afternoon brilliant blue sky. One woman, a volunteer for the Cascades Butterfly Project,  gathered a few curious hikers around her as she explained her mission to count the Lucia’s Blue butterflies, Celestrina lucia, that flutter about there.  She showed the onlookers one of the delicate beauties that she had caught in her net before releasing it back into the air.

A volunteer with the Cascades Butterfly Project shows her 'catch' to hikers.
A volunteer with the Cascades Butterfly Project shows her ‘catch’ to hikers.

Just as blue as the butterfly were the subalpine lupines that covered the mountainsides.  By now, I’m sure they have all disappeared, along with all the other bright wildflowers, as the autumn color takes over.  The trail continues on from this meadow another 1.5 miles, which we did not do this time, and then another less maintained path up Chowder Ridge goes on from there.  A number of backpackers were making their way on up, planning to spend the night and catch a spectacular view of the night sky.

We lingered for about hour, breathing in the fresh mountain air, relaxing in the warm sun and chatting with other hikers.  It’s a time with my son that I treasure because it’s just us, the mountain and the meadow. There are no distractions at the top, no cell phone service, no Internet, nothing but nature.  We talk without interruption. Or just stay silent together. At 5 o’clock, we decided to start back down although I could have easily stayed another hour or two.

The snow-capped summit of Mount Baker is the prominent peak  on the Skyline Divide and makes a breath-taking  backdrop for my son's picture.
The snow-capped summit of Mount Baker is the prominent peak on the Skyline Divide and makes a breath-taking backdrop for my son’s picture.

I must say that the hike down didn’t seem as far but was fairly steep.  A couple of young 20-ish women flew by us, running down the trail. I surely would have tripped up if I had tried it. Even so, we were back at the parking lot before we knew it.

The Skyline Divide trail is open year round although the best time to go is in the summer and early fall.  I frankly can’t imagine making my way up that slippery slope during the rainy season.  And I would certainly be sure to check on the road condition during the winter and spring months before driving up.  The hike is a favorite among locals and visitors so expect company whenever you go.  Once you’ve taken it you’ll understand why it’s so popular.  It’s not likely that I’ll be going again this season, but it will be on my list for a repeat visit next summer.

Hit Mount Baker Trails Now for Hikes and Photos

Autumn is pretty spectacular around my section of the Pacific Northwest, as it is in many places across the United States. And it is prime time for hiking at nearby Mount Baker, located only a 90-minute drive from Bellingham in the Mount Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest. The highest point to which you can drive is Artist’s Point, at 5,140 feet elevation. But due to the mountain’s long snow season, the road up is open for only for a short period usually from late July to early August, until mid to late October. On weekends, the parking lot there, and the trails which lead off from it, can be pretty busy as locals and visitors to the area run up to take advantage of the great weather, breath-taking scenery and the many accessible trails.

I try to go to the mountain for at least one or two big hikes during this transitional time from late summer to early fall.  So far this season I’ve been fortunate to get in four separate trips to hike and photograph in the area. I thought I’d share a couple with you in separate posts in case you’ve never traversed into this territory. Or, if you have, perhaps this will remind you to take a hike before our weather turns and closes the trails.

Do I look like I'm ready to lead an expedition into the wilderness?
Do I look like I’m ready to lead an expedition into the wilderness?

The first of my mountain outings was my ‘birthday hike,’ so named because it was on my birthday. Two of my sons and a girlfriend went along. It was the girlfriend’s first visit here and my son kept telling her that she was in for a treat. On the drive up, just outside of the town of Glacier, we stopped at the Park Service Ranger Station to check on trail conditions and pick up a day pass for the hike. Everyone who visits, whether you hike or not, is required to purchase a permit. A day pass is only $5, or, you can buy an annual pass for $30.The rangers on duty are generally very helpful with information too about trail and road conditions, things to do and hazards for which to be on alert, such as bears. And there are trails maps available should you need one.

We chose one of the less strenuous trails known as Ptarmigan Ridge.The Northern Cascades. Some of the area’s hikes can be difficult, lengthy and have quite a gain in elevation. The Ptarmigan Ridge hike is a great one for visitors who don’t hike much or who don’t have a lot of time to spend up at the mountain but still want to experience some stupendous views of the volcanic peak.

Mount Baker's majestic peak is fully in view from the Ptarmigan Trail.
Mount Baker’s majestic peak is fully in view from the Ptarmigan Trail.

The Ptarmigan Ridge hike leaves from the Artist’s Point parking lot along the Chain Lakes Trail. From the outset, the snow-covered peak of Mount Baker looms in the distance at 10,775 feet and unless the day is heavily overcast and cloudy, is visible for the entire route. As a safety precaution, be sure to sign in as you enter the trail.

The well-kept trail winds along the southern slopes of Table Mountain. Even in late summer, the wildflowers here were still in full bloom. Folklore says that once the magenta flowers on the tall stems of the Chamerion angustifolium, commonly known as ‘fireweed’, is done blooming summer ends and fall begins with winter not far behind. On this late summer day, the fireweed growing along the trail, was still largely in bloom.

The Fireweed's bright magenta blooms contrast beautifully with the blue and greens of the mountain landscape.
The Fireweed’s bright magenta blooms contrast beautifully with the blue and greens of the mountain landscape.

Looking south from the trail, you can see down and across the large, open expanse of Swift Creek and Rainbow Valley and perhaps catch a glimpse of Baker Lake in the far distance. If you look carefully, you may even see mountain goat grazing and playing in the meadows below. They looked not much more than white dots against the verdant green to us but as another hiker, a television cameraman from Seattle, pointed out to us, if you breathed in deeply, you could get a whiff of their wild smell. Unfortunately, the lens I was packing that day, a Nikon 28 mm – 200 mm, wasn’t hefty enough to get a great photo of them.

I don’t pack a lot of camera gear with me when I hike. If I’m hiking, as opposed to making a photo trek, I don’t want to be slowed down by the weight of a lot of big lenses and equipment. I don’t even take a tripod but I will use a unipod because it can double as a good hiking stick too if needed. I have a handy bag, made by Lowe Pro, that clips around my waist in which I can carry my SLR digital camera,  (it would also accommodate a Mamiya 645 when I was shooting film) an extra lens, lens cleaner, a filter or two, spare SD cards,extra battery, sun tan lotion (don’t forget that), chapstick, and a compact point and shoot camera if I want. That leaves my backpack open for snacks, an extra bottle water in addition to the one slung over my shoulder, a first-aid kit, bear bells (if I need them), a light jacket (preferably waterproof because up there you never know) or sweater. I was a Girl Scout. As such I learned to ‘Be Prepared’ so even if I think I’m only going out for a few hours, I never leave without these essentials.

Table Mountain as seen from across the tundra on Ptarmigan Ridge trail is just one of the many stunning scenes along the way.
Table Mountain as seen from across the tundra on Ptarmigan Ridge trail is just one of the many stunning scenes along the way.

From a photography standpoint, I know that I’m likely to miss something due to not having the right lens or maybe a tripod, but the way I figure it now, if I can’t get it with what I have, I can’t get it. I do the best with what I have, which usually turns out pretty well, and enjoy the experience without worrying about getting the perfect shot.

That’s not to say that I’m not looking for a great photo opportunity. Those are plentiful no matter when I hike at the mountain. Of course, the early morning or late day will yield the best images because that’s when the light there bring out the best colors. If it’s foggy or cloudy, that can add mood although you might not get a clear shot of the mountain’s summit.

Our day was sunny and clear when we set out about 4 p.m. We passed by the turn-off for Chain Lakes Trail (that will be another post) and continued on towards Mount Baker. From this point, the trail starts to head into the more tundra-like terrain. The little yellow flowers, Mimulus tilingii known as Alpine monkey-flowers, that grow along the mountain streams, created by the snow pack run-off are delicate and compact.

The brilliant, delicate yellow flowers of the Alpine monkey-flower grow on the tundra along the mountain run-offs.
The brilliant, delicate yellow flowers of the Alpine monkey-flower grow on the tundra along the mountain run-offs.

Occasionally you can spot the trail’s namesake, the ptarmigan, a chicken like bird, running around. We didn’t see any.

We hiked about 90 minutes which put us just short of the snowfield that leads further up the mountain. We decided to stop and take in the panoramic view surrounding us. After all, if you don’t stop to see where you’ve been then you miss half the reason for going at all. We crunched handfuls of trail mix and ate the freshly baked chocolate chip cookies that my son’s girlfriend had made earlier while stretching out on the rocks. Other hikers with backpacking gear for camping passed by on their way to the campsites ahead. The light was starting to deepen. We put away our food and water and headed back out the same way we had come.

It’s funny how the views change depending upon the direction you are going. Headed in you see one perspective, going out, quite another even though you remain on the same trail. Walking back you are presented with outstanding views of Mount Shuksan’s jagged peak. The trail back didn’t seem as long either, probably because we didn’t stop for as many photos or maybe we were moving at a slightly faster pace in order to get back to the parking lot before dusk set in.

You must be sure to take in the views on the way out as well as the way in because it will be different. Mount Shuksan's jagged pinnacle takes prominence here.
You must be sure to take in the views on the way out as well as the way in because it will be different. Mount Shuksan’s jagged pinnacle takes prominence here.

Round trip, the Ptarmigan Ridge trail is 10 miles. We covered about four or maybe five of it this day. It wasn’t a long outing, but very satisfying. It’s exhilarating to be so high, breathing the clear air and taking in the view that extends well into Canada to the north, towards the San Juans to the west, the wilderness of the National Forest to the south and the other mountains in the Northern Cascades range to the east. And it made for a very wonderful birthday.

An Oystercatcher Family Catches My Eye

One of the joys of living where I do is being so close to the water. After a long day at work or on the weekend I can paddle in my kayak and escape the distractions of cell phones, computers, televisions, radios and anything else that competes for my attention on shore.  It restores me–if the water’s not too rough–and I emerge ready to take on the world again.  Sitting on top of the water puts me at eye-level with the nature that surrounds me. Often, those surroundings bring pleasant surprises too.

A month ago, for instance, I took an evening paddle with my sister-in-law, who was visiting, to a favorite place where I take visitors who aren’t experienced kayakers. It’s a sheltered bay where the water tends to be warmer and shallower, especially at low tide and it’s just a short paddle out to an island designated as a wildlife and bird preserve.

We had just reached the rock separated from the island at high tide but adjoined by a sandbar during low tide, when I spotted them.  Actually, I didn’t see them at first.  First I saw two sea gulls perched on the rock’s highest point, proudly sitting on a nest. Then, coming round to the rock’s southern face, I came upon the other birds. “You’re in for a treat,” I told my sister-in-law coming up behind me. “There are a couple of oystercatchers here.”

An oystercatcher looks almost comical with its orange beak and bright orange ringed eye.
An oystercatcher looks almost comical with its orange beak and bright orange ringed eye.

Indeed, sitting on a scraggly rocky shelf above the water’s edge, were a pair of the jet black and long, narrow orange-billed birds known commonly as oystercatchers. They are almost comical in appearance with that orange ring around their eyes. These shorebirds, about the size of a crow, are exciting because only an estimated 400 of them exist in Washington state.  In fact, the Northern Pacific Coast Regional Shorebird Management Plan has identified the Black Oystercatcher as a regional species “of high concern.”  This pair, I suspected, were probably the same couple I have seen in recent summers when paddling that bay because not only do these birds tend to mate for the long-term but they also return to the same territory year after year.

Then I discovered the surprise, three surprises to be exact.  Huddled up against the rock wall were three small fluffy grayish offspring. They barely resembled their parents except for their spindly legs and long beak . In the  many years that I had been paddling around this island, I never had seen oystercatcher chicks and here, now, was a complete family!

The oystercatcher parent keeps a close eye on the chick exploring on the water's edge.
The oystercatcher parent keeps a close eye on the chick exploring on the water’s edge.

My boat drifted quietly towards the rock but floated at a respectable distance so as not to frighten the birds or intrude on their nesting territory. The parents eyed me suspiciously. Satisfied that I had no aggressive intentions, they relaxed a bit. The chicks darted in and out between them, undaunted by my presence. Their beaks were not yet as brightly colored as their parents, nor were their legs. I bobbed up and down in the water watching quietly. After a long while, I backed off slipping my paddle into the water as silently as I could so as not to alarm them with my departure. The family seemed to content to let me leave.

Two weeks later, I paddled back out to the same spot to check on the young birds. They had relocated from their home on the rock over to the main island. I guessed that they had walked across at low tide as the chicks couldn’t yet fly. The family found a comfy new spot on the south side, where there was plenty of space for the five of them to move freely about. The chicks were now quite a bit larger from when I first met them.

Two of the family's chicks stroll down towards the water. They don't yet have the bright beaks nor the ability to fly.
Two of the family’s chicks stroll down towards the water. They don’t yet have the bright beaks nor the ability to fly.

Two were scrambling and playing down towards the water while mother keep a watchful eye on them (and me) from her place on the shelf above. A third chick was clinging precariously to the side of the rock, scaling it as if rock climbing. But unlike rock climbers, the young bird had no belay and when suddenly lost its footing, tumbled down several feet to the hard ground below. “Ouch!” I thought seeing it hit with a thud. Was it hurt? The concerned mother bird got up to  check on her youngster, ‘tsk-tsking’ her baby as she moved in. But in typical youngster fashion, the bird bounced back on its feet after being momentarily stunned.

The antics of these young chicks entertained me as I attempted to capture a few images of the chicks with my telephoto lens. Finally, as the sun started to set, I reluctantly turned my kayak around and started towards shore.

Whether the chicks will still be there the next time I paddle out I don’t know.  But it’s precisely these kinds of little surprises that turn an ordinary end of the day into an extraordinary adventure.

As the sun sets, the lone oystercatcher keeps guard over its island home.
As the sun sets, the lone oystercatcher keeps guard over its island home.

Having a Blast in the Big Apple

My memories of the Fourth of July are mostly of awakening to the sounds of firecrackers popping off somewhere in the small town in Kansas where I grew up.  As soon as I could get myself dressed, I’d be out there too with my little brothers lighting a string of Black Cats, setting off sticks of sparklers, or watching a jet black pellet, sold as a ‘snake’  grow into a delicate twisting cylinder of carbon ash when a match was held to it.   But three years ago, I was treated to a different kind of Fourth of July, an aerial spectacular staged in the largest city in the U.S.–Fourth of July New York City style.

I arrived in the city with my husband early that morning on a flight from London where we had been visiting friends.  My cousins, Terry and John, who live in Manhattan, asked us to join them for their holiday celebration that evening if we weren’t too jet-lagged.  One of the things I love about travel is the opportunity to experience how other parts of the country or the world celebrate holidays.  So when my cousins extended their invitation,  I was going to be there. By flying in the early, we could go my son’s apartment, shower and clean up and then grab a nap in order to be awake for the festivities that night. Falling asleep wasn’t hard, as neither of us had dozed much on the seven-hour flight across the Atlantic.  Waking up in time to go to Terry and John’s was harder.

Old Glory hung from the balcony faded by the sunset and offering a glimpse of the high rises behind.
Old Glory hung from the balcony faded by the sunset and offering a glimpse of the high rises behind.

But by early evening, I was ready to party. We hopped a cab across town to my cousins’ apartment building in Chelsea. They had recently moved from the first floor to the tenth floor. One side of their three bedroom apartment faced towards the Hudson River, where the fireworks show was to be that year. Macy’s, the department store that sponsors the big event, rotates the show every other year between the East River and the Hudson River, so as to give New Yorkers living on both sides of the island a fair chance to see it.  Terry and John’s place couldn’t have been a more perfect place from which to watch that year’s extravaganza.

The colors of the sunset itself against New York's skyline rivaled that of the fireworks that were to come on this Fourth of July.
The colors of the sunset itself against New York’s skyline rivaled that of the fireworks that were to come on this Fourth of July.

Folding deck chair filled their little balcony so everyone could sit for the show. At one end of the balcony, John was manning the grill where hot dogs and hamburgers were sizzling hot.  This was a backyard barbecue, Manhattan style. Terry, who’s a great cook, had all the trimmings ready as well as some tasty side dishes and a dessert just in case you got hungry later. When you stepped in off the balcony to ‘dress’ your dog or burger, you could still catch the pyrotechnic spectacle being broadcast live on the living room’s big screen television. That option also included live performances by various entertainers that took place on Liberty Island before and during the big show.

From the balcony, we could see a steady stream of people heading down towards the river hoping to stake out a good observation point.  Their arms were loaded with picnic baskets, bags of food, folding chairs and ice chests as if they were camping there for a week.  Thousands of excited kids and their parents scurried down the streets, looking like, from our vantage point high above them, little ants in one of those clear plastic ant houses.

 

Sky rockets burst around a New York high rise like a halo of light.
Sky rockets burst around a New York high rise like a halo of light.

Excitement mounted as darkness descended over the city’s skyline. The first of the big fireworks went trailing high into the sky and at its pinnacle burst into sparkles of color.  Our little party all ‘oohed’  together as people always seem to do when watching fireworks en masse.  Five or six barges had been anchored in the middle of the river and loaded with nearly 30-minutes worth of sky rockets, giant cones and Roman candles that sped high over the skyline when ignited before exploding into bright, chrysanthemum-like bouquets against the black sky.  Each subsequent explosion seemed bigger and better than the last and elicited even grander expressions of delight from our balcony full of celebrants.  I couldn’t imagine anyone not being thrilled by this cosmopolitan Independence Day display.

For me, it was a very different venue from anywhere I had been.  I had watched fireworks erupt over the empty ball field in my home town, seen the shows spread out all over Los Angeles’ San Fernando Valley from a friend’s hillside backyard and watched the late night pyrotechnics over Bellingham’s bay. Now I experienced the Fourth set against a backdrop of skyscrapers silhouetted by the bursting embers of light that drifted slowly down into the Hudson.

The exploding sprays of revolutionary red fireworks silhouetted the water tower atop one of the nearby buildings during the Fourth of July spectacular.
The exploding sprays of revolutionary red fireworks silhouetted the water tower atop one of the nearby buildings during the Fourth of July spectacular.

I photographed what I could, steadying my camera on the balcony railing and shooting through the fine mesh protective screen that enclosed my cousin’s balcony. It wasn’t the best of shooting conditions but it was definitely the best of evenings.  When it was over, we cheered and watched as exuberant spectators below headed home or joined friends to continue the festivities elsewhere. The mood was definitely as bombastic as the show we had just witnessed.  This was a Fourth of July that I have cataloged as one of  my most memorable.  For what could be better than celebrating our national holiday with family, friends and fireworks in such a great city and setting?

Spring Colors the Northwest

The first day of spring was a sparkling, clear, cool day here in my part of the Pacific Northwest. I took an early morning walk through the park with a friend.  Everything looked so fresh and ready to pop into the spring season.  Thought I’d just share with you a few of the images that I made yesterday to celebrate the awakening of spring. Hope your first day was just as beautiful.

These two mallards were enjoying an early morning swim on the pond.
These two mallards were enjoying an early morning swim on the pond.
The morning light streams onto the gushing water of Whatcom Falls.
The morning light streams onto the gushing water of Whatcom Falls.
The moss-covered, Chuckanut stone bridge at Whatcom Falls Park was a WPA project.
The moss-covered, Chuckanut stone bridge at Whatcom Falls Park was a WPA project.
This doe popped out of the woods and was unconcerned about two walkers passing by.
This doe popped out of the woods and was unconcerned about two walkers passing by.
The pond was clear and calm on the first day of spring.
The pond was clear and calm on the first day of spring.
Almost overnight, the plum tree burst into bright pink blossoms.
Almost overnight, the plum tree burst into bright pink blossoms.
The bright colors of pink and green greeted the spring day.
The bright colors of pink and green greeted the spring day.
 

 

 

 

 

Plantations Star in Oscar-Winning Films

Since winning the Oscar for Best Picture at the Academy Awards last Sunday, the film, “12 Years a Slave” has reappeared in the theatres all over the country for people like me who missed it the first time. The film was shot entirely in and around New Orleans and at four different outlying historic plantations–Felicity, Magnolia, Bocage and Destrehan. All four are open to the public for tours.

Intricate scrolling in the ironwork graces the top at the front gate at Evergreen.
Intricate scrolling in the ironwork graces the top at the front gate at Evergreen.

But these are not the only plantations to have starred in an Oscar-winning film.  Last year’s Academy Award winner for Best Original Screenplay–Quentin Tarentino’s “Django Unchained“–was filmed on location at the Evergreen Plantation located on Louisiana highway 18, otherwise known as River Road. Evergreen is one of several historic plantations found on this two-lane stretch of road that winds along the southern side of the Mississippi, blocked from view by the large, earthen levee. I have driven this route many times over the years during my annual visits to New Orleans. Recently, I took friends on a day trip to see Evergreen.  The trip takes only about an hour from New Orleans, if you don’t stop to see all the other interesting places along the way.

The 'big house' at Evergreen was built in 1790 in the Creole style but later changed to the Classical Revival architectural style. To the right you can see one of the garconniers' and one of the cottages.
The ‘big house’ at Evergreen was built in 1790 in the Creole style but later changed to the Classical Revival architectural style. To the right you can see one of the garconniers’ and one of the cottages.

Evergreen distinguishes itself from many of the other plantations in that the 250-year-old property is the only intact, antebellum sugar plantation remaining in Louisiana. In fact, it is one of the few intact plantations in the South, according to our plantation guide.  In addition to Evergreen’s ‘big house,’ there are 22 cypress slave cabins lining the oak alleé, more than any other plantation in the area. Some of these structures were built in 1830.  And, our guide informed us, the cabins “have never been restored, only repaired.” Interior walls once divided the cabins into two separate living spaces for slave families but were removed at some point.  Otherwise, they remain much as they did when as many as 200 people lived at Evergreen during the antebellum period.

The 22 cabins that once served as slave quarters line the plantation's oak allee.
The 22 cabins that once served as slave quarters line the plantation’s oak allee.

The main house, prominently visible from the road through the big black iron gate, was built in 1790 by German immigrant Christophe Heidel. Heidel constructed his home in the Creole manner, with the main living quarters raised on pillars above the ground floor protecting it floodwaters. Christophe’s great-grandson, Pierre Clidamant Becnel, renovated the house in 1832 to reflect the then popular Classical Revival architectural style. The ground floor was enclosed, as was the back gallery.

The graceful curved stairway leads to the upper gallery porch of the plantation's big house.
The graceful curved stairway leads to the upper gallery porch of the plantation’s big house.

A graceful, S-shaped curving double stairway was added to the front of the house. Other outlying buildings, known as ‘dependencies’ were erected including a pair of garçonniers, where the family’s adolescent boys lived and pigeonaires. A parterre garden was designed to be admired from the home’s rear gallery. A kitchen, a milking barn, a caretakers cottage, a carriage house and an outhouse for the owners were also built.

The parterre garden as  seen from the rear gallery. The outhouse at the rear was moved there from its original location closer to the house.
The parterre garden as seen from the rear gallery. The outhouse at the rear was moved there from its original location closer to the house.

The plantation, however, began to decay 1930s when the Songy family, who occupied it then were forced to leave when the bank foreclosed on Evergreen. The once splendid sugar plantation continued to decline until a wealthy Louisiana oil heiress, Matilda Geddings Gray, purchased it and began to bring it back to life again in 1944. Gray’s efforts continued after her death with the current owner, her niece, Matilda Gray Stream, who inherited the plantation in  1971.  Stream has received numerous awards for her preservation work on Evergreen.

Today, the plantation and its 37 buildings are on the National Register of Historic Places.  In fact, it was featured in Preservation Magazine‘s Summer 2013 issue where you can read more about the plantation, its history and restoration. (I am proud to say that I have been a long-time member of the National Trust for Historic Preservation.)

Evergreen is not only a working plantation again, but an educational center where students learn about antebellum life, where archaeologists search for artifacts about its cultural history, where tourists can glimpse into the past and where filmmakers, like Tarentino and others, can create award-winning films of days gone by for the cinema.

The statue stands in the corner of the parterre garden looks to the rear of Evergreen's 'big house'.
The statue stands in the corner of the parterre garden looks towards the rear of Evergreen’s ‘big house’.

An Autumn Hike

Autumn is in full bloom here in beautiful Bellingham and the Pacific Northwest.  The season has made for some fabulous portrait photography settings for my high school seniors and family clients.  (Will share a few of those in a separate post.) I promised a while ago to share with you some of this year’s autumnal photographic treats from my personal portfolio and am finally taking a breather from my portrait work to do exactly that.

I have been itching to get out and take advantage of the gorgeous weather and color to take a photographic hike.   I decided this morning was the morning.  The fog was thick this morning but it makes for great mood.  I picked up a friend and the two of us went for a short hike nearby.  Just enough to quench my thirst for photographing some fall foliage.

The overhanging tree limb frames the leave-strewn trail.
The overhanging tree limb frames the leave-strewn trail.

I always think of the great nature photographer, Eliot Porter, when I’m on one of these outings. His work has long inspired me.  I have several books of his photographs in my collection and have been fortunate to see some of his work firsthand.  The composition, printing and color control of his images is masterful.

This has been a great fall for spider webs. They are such works of art. This one sparkled in the early morning sun.
This has been a great fall for spider webs. They are such works of art. This one sparkled in the early morning sun.

For most of his career (he died in 1990), he used a view camera, which is why his images have such depth and detail to them.  What he would have done with a digital camera one can only guess.  If you ever have an opportunity to see his work in a museum, gallery or work, I urge you do so.  Am sure you’ll be just as inspired as I am.

Often it's the smallest details that make the shot.
Often it’s the smallest details that make the shot.

One of the things that studying Porter’s images has taught me is to look for the little details, As a journalist, I did this all the time on my assignments. It’s those small details that can make the story or photograph.

The Pacific Northwest is so lush with vegetation that it's at times almost too rich for the eyes.
The Pacific Northwest is so lush with vegetation that it’s at times almost too rich for the eyes.

Sometimes it’s hard to focus in on the smaller details, especially when you are faced with such, rich, lush and verdant surroundings as we have here in the Pacific Northwest.  The question then becomes, for the photographic artist, how to take it all in? When do you include it in its entirety and when do you zoom in to limit the view to one significant aspect?  Those artistic decision become the fun, as well as the challenges to evaluating your images.

Hope you’ve enjoyed this ‘virtual’ autumn walk in the woods with me.  And if you have, please ‘follow’ my blog for future posts and share them with your friends.  Together, we can have great photographic adventures!

So many spiders had taken up residence in this one area that I just had to made a visual record of their 'urban village.'
So many spiders had taken up residence in this one area that I just had to made a visual record of their ‘urban village.’

The turning maple leaves,  their edges polka dotted with dark spots, dramatically contrast against the morning's gray, foggy sky.
The turning maple leaves, their edges polka-dotted with dark spots, dramatically contrast against the morning’s gray, foggy sky.