Images, Thoughts on Travel, Equipment and Techniques that somehow relate to Nature & Wildlife Photography.

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"Dreams are the seedlings of realities"... James Allen

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Unexpected Travelers

Monarch Butterfly during winter migration, feeding on nectar of bottlebrush tree flowers.

Monarch Butterfly during winter migration, feeding on nectar of bottlebrush tree flowers.

Butterflies flit

that is all, amid the

field of sunlight…Basho

Monarch Butterflies clustering on tree branches inside forest grove to winter

Monarch Butterflies clustering on tree branches inside forest grove to winter.

You can only stand, your neck craned, looking up into the trees at the thousands of Monarch butterflies (Danaus plexippus) clustered against the chill of winter.  Looking like nothing more than branches covered with dead leaves until an errant breeze or ray of sunlight causes the brilliant orange and black wings to flash like stained glass.

Overwintering cluster of Monarchs.

Overwintering cluster of Monarchs.

Watching a butterfly flit from flower to flower on a warm spring or summer day I always sense the joy that must come with the power of flight.  Although power doesn’t come to mind when watching a butterfly flouncing about like a petticoat in the breeze.  Not like the power and joy that is obvious in the flight of Ravens playing on the wind.

Nonetheless butterflies fly with determination, at least the Monarch does during the migrations that take it as far as the interior of Mexico or the coast of California.  Kinda hard to get my head around this simple fact, migrating butterflies.  Of course birds migrate, some mammal species migrate, even tarantulas migrate a short distance so migration isn’t the problem, but butterflies?  Yes, there are more butterfly species that migrate, Painted Ladies, some Skippers, the Mourning Cloak and others are known to escape the cold of winter or move when food sources become scarce.  There are none like the Monarch or as well-known.   There are two migration paths that these critters take.  The most well known is the trek that takes them from Canada and the US east of the Rockies south into the mountains of Mexico.  The other brings them from west of the Rockies and from western Canada to a number of sites along the coast of California.  These migrations are generational on a seasonal basis.

Monarch Butterflies [Danaus plexippus]

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Monarchs mate, the eggs hatch, the caterpillars feed on Milkweed the only thing they eat and transition into a chrysalis.  The butterfly emerges from the chrysalis and flies on.  Summer Monarchs (those that migrate) live for 6-8 weeks, those that form the wintering clusters are a different creature that lives for 6-8 months.  Here is what no one knows, how do newly emerged butterflies know where they are going?  There are no “old herd members” to pass on the landmarks needed for migration as we understand it.  Scientists have discovered that Monarchs use a “time compensated compass” and a circadian clock in their antenna, so that may hint at the process.   Now I believe in science and all that may mean but here is the reality in this mystery, it is simply a mystery.  It is good to have things that we don’t understand, at least not completely.  Things that make us just stand and marvel.

Monarch Butterfly [Danaus plexippus]

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Monarchs are not on the Endangered Species list but they are in trouble and some think that this miracle of migration may disappear.  The numbers of Monarchs that winter in the Oyamel Fir forest of Mexico have never been lower. In the mid 1990s they covered about 45 acres, this winter the area they wintered on was 1.6 acres.  Last winter the area was about twice that.  The numbers have had peaks and valleys ever since people have paid attention but the trend has been downward.  The culprits are the usual, habitat loss, pollution, climate disruption and the biggie seems to be Big AGs insane love affair with GMO crops and the resultant massive herbicide use.  Kill off the food supply you kill off the creature and that which depends on it.

The western population follows the same downward trend.  At the Butterfly Grove at Pismo Beach, California back in the 1990-1991 season the number of Monarchs was about 230,000.  This winter there were about 34,000 in January, and that number is somewhat better than the past few years.

For the period of late October through February there are overwintering clusters of Monarchs in a number of locations along the coast of California, Pismo Beach is one of the best to experience the event.  In a grove of eucalyptus trees and a smattering of pines the Monarchs find the shelter they need to survive the winter before starting the trek back north and east.  There are volunteers there to answer questions and provide a couple of spotting scopes to get a more intimate view of the butterflies.

Monarch Butterfly [Danaus plexippus]

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Mornings are generally too cool for any of the Monarchs to bestir themselves but as the day warms some fly out to forage or drink water but many seem to fly for the pleasure of movement, not going anywhere.  If you would like to photograph this gathering its pretty simple; find the clusters of butterflies, use a fairly long telephoto lens (we have used both a 200-400mm and a 500mm ’cause they are up in the trees), a flash with an extender is useful, especially on a cloudy day.  Remember that a shorter telephoto could be helpful for that environment shot to give some context to the subject.

Here is a mystery that I can’t fathom, one of the worlds many.  As Ed Abbey said regarding a plant he was contemplating in the desert “we know what it is called, we don’t know what it is”.

Monarch Butterflies [Danaus plexippus]

On the Beach

We headed north out of the traffic cluster that is LA having attended an October wedding in the City of Angels.  Not our idea of a place to hang out, so having never visited the central California coast this seemed to be a good opportunity to see and photograph some of the wildlife found between Los Angeles and San Francisco.  After some research we knew there would be opportunities to see and hopefully photograph the monarch butterflies gathered for the winter at Pismo Beach.  We also knew that sea otters were common at Morro Bay and from there north of Cambria there would be elephant seals.

Northern Elephant Seal bull, the "beachmaster"

Northern Elephant Seal bull, the “beachmaster”

 

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The Celestial River

After a hiatus of about 12 years we felt that it was time to return to Costa Rica.  We had spent a good deal of time traveling around in the country starting back in 1990.  By 1992 we started on a project that, after 14 years, became the book “A Field Guide to the Plants of Costa Rica”.  We needed to see if the magic of CR was still there for us so in September we headed down. We knew that much had changed over the years but we didn’t have any real idea how considerable that change was.

Some places seem timeless. Things change but at a pace that seems reasonable, maybe in ways that aren’t noticeable, and then… Of course 2 million tourists a year are going to transform anyplace, particularly a small country that had an economy based on agriculture.  Places on the tourist circuit have changed and not always in good ways, still very nice but certainly not the “way it was”.  Fortunately not every place is on that circuit.

I hesitate to mention this area in northern CR but it is so special that people need to experience it.  There is a small town called Bijagua, near Volcan Tenorio and the national park of the same name.  A little town with a couple of places to eat, at least one of those is very good and a couple of places to stay, some very nice (if you find yourself there, check out Sueno Celeste) but not overrun with touristy stuff nor tourists.   There are a few places to stay closer to the park entrance.

Backroad view of Volcan Tenorio from Tierras Morenas to Highway 6 south of Bijaguas.

Backroad view of Volcan Tenorio from Tierras Morenas to Highway 6 south of Bijagua.

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When Bad Weather Isn’t

Evening light fades with a few clouds, doesn’t seem too threatening so off to bed.  Sometime in the night it starts with the wind rustling and sighing through the trees.  Then there is a swishing and scampering across the camper roof as if an assemblage of mice were dancing, probably the wind scattering leaves.  The gusts get stronger and other than the sound of wind the night becomes silent.  First light comes late and seems subdued but we are in a high mountain valley surrounded by higher peaks, the sun always seems overdue.  A look outside is at first a shock and then the giddy realization, snow!  Just a few inches, 3 or 4 but enough to transform the fall beauty we came to photograph into something more magical.   There is an adage that tells us that bad weather makes for good photography.  Does it?  As in all things it depends on what the subject is and what the photographer is trying to capture.

Fresh new snow decorates an autumn landscape along the Cimarron River in the Uncompahgre Range; wilderness; Uncompahgre National

Fresh new snow decorates an autumn landscape along the Cimarron River in the Uncompahgre Range.

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“Working to Stop the Yellowstone Slaughter”

Just a brief addendum to our recent blog on the killing of wild Bison in Montana with the help of the US Park Service and others.  A book on this issue was recently authored by Dan Brister with a foreward by Doug Peacock, published by WestWinds Press, titled “In the Presence of Buffalo”.

Dan Brister has been on the front lines of this ongoing travesty since 1997 and this book is a must read for anyone who cares about wildlife, Yellowstone bison, Yellowstone National Park policy or the welfare of animals in general.  Warning, it will make you angry.  This is a small book of only 92 pages but is succinctly well-written and documented, neatly tying the history of the massive bison herds destruction to the ongoing ignoring of Native American treaty rights regarding bison and of course the current “management” debacle.  Available through Amazon or the Buffalo Field Campaign’s website (order from them, they need our help at www.BuffaloFieldCampaign.org)  Read it and pass it on…..send a copy or 2 to your Senator or Congress person as well.

Rainbow arches over mountain meadow as bison graze peacefully; Yellowstone NP., WY

Rainbow arches over mountain meadow as bison graze peacefully; Yellowstone NP., WY

Fear and Loathing….in the Smoke

Smoke from West Fork complex wildfire, about 90 air miles southwest of us, obscures evening sun.

East Peak, West Fork Complex, Black Forest, Bull Gulch (our “backyard”, small but….), Royal Gorge, all 2013 wildfires consuming the forests, the nesting birds, the fawns and bear cubs that can’t out run a fire being pushed by 35, 40 or even 50 mile per hour winds. Read the rest of this page »

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