Nature, Landscape, and Night Sky Photography by Zach Schierl

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Crossing the Channel

Close-up of a small gray and red fox sitting in the grass
A small ocean inlet with blue-green water along a rugged coastline

Potato Harbor, Santa Cruz Island, Channel Islands National Park, California

Just a few dozen miles off the coast of Southern California lie the Channel Islands, eight motes of land jutting out of the sea a stone’s throw from the hustle and bustle of the Los Angeles metropolitan area. Of the eight islands, the only one with a significant human population is the tourist mecca of Santa Catalina, which draws over one million visitors per year. The remaining seven islands are sparsely populated and draw far fewer tourists. The four northernmost islands form an archipelago that is protected by Channel Islands National Park and the Nature Conservancy.

Back in March, we briefly visited the largest Channel Island: Santa Cruz. At 97 square miles in area, Santa Cruz is reached via ferry from Ventura or Oxnard. Our hour-long journey across the Santa Barbara Channel was choppy to say the least, but included close up views of Pacific white-sided dolphins and several majestic oil drilling platforms. Upon arrival, we were greeted by one of the most lush landscapes imaginable. Abnormally abundant winter rains had produced a tall, dense carpet of green grasses that blanketed the entire island. One of the resident rangers told us it was the greenest he had seen Santa Cruz in the seven years he’d worked there.

A trail passes through dense green grass with sunset-lit mountains in the background

A trail winding through the lush spring grasses on Santa Cruz Island, Channel Islands National Park

A view of an island covered in green grass with the deep-blue ocean and other islands in the background

Looking east from Santa Cruz toward Anacapa Island, Channel Islands National Park

An illuminated tent beneath a tree. The landscape is illuminated by moonlight.

Campsite on Santa Cruz Island, Channel Islands National Park. Landscape illuminated by a first quarter moon.  

Given their relative geographic isolation, the Channel Islands are notable for their high concentration of endemic plant and animal species found nowhere else on Earth. They are also home to some of the earliest evidence of human habitation in the Americas. Archaeological and geological evidence suggests that humans inhabited Santa Rosa, just east of Santa Cruz, as far back as 13,000 years ago. At this time, sea levels were much lower due to the massive amounts of water locked up in glaciers and ice sheets farther north. As a result, the four northernmost islands (Anacapa, Santa Cruz, Santa Rosa, and San Miguel) were united into a “mega island” whose eastern edge was much closer to mainland California. This made it easier for plants and animals to reach the island, either by air (birds, plant seeds, etc.) or on floating rafts of debris (mammals, reptiles, etc.) Some species may have even been deliberately brought to the islands by humans.

As the most recent glaciation ended, sea levels began to rise, eventually splitting the mega-island into the smaller landmasses that exist today. Once isolated, the plant and animal populations that had established themselves on the islands, either organically or after being brought there by humans, began to evolve into species distinct from their mainland cousins. In some cases, distinct subspecies have evolved on individual islands in response to unique conditions.

Close-up of a small gray and red fox sitting in the grass

Close-up of a small gray and red fox sitting in the grass

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

For visitors to Santa Cruz, the most obvious example of this phenomenon is the ubiquitous Santa Cruz island fox (Urocyon littoralis var. santacruzae). Coming from the mainland where a sighting (especially a daytime sighting) of a fox is a rare treat, we were surprised to see one within minutes of getting off the ferry. The island fox is descended from and appears very similar to the common grey fox, but is much smaller. A fully grown island fox weighs just 4-5 pounds, and is similar in size to a large house cat. Often the lush spring grasses exceeded the foxes in height, making them challenging to spot! Nearly extinct in the early 1990s, a highly successful habitat restoration and captive breeding program has the species thriving today. We ended up seeing several dozen in our short visit to Santa Cruz. Other subspecies of the island fox exist on five of the other seven islands, each with slight differences evolved in response to local conditions.

A small fox lies hidden in the grass

An island fox lurking in the tall grass

A small gray and red fox sits alongside a dirt path

An island fox on the trail to Smugglers Cove, likely hoping for a food handout.

With its pastoral landscape and unique wildlife, Santa Cruz feels a world away from metropolitan areas of Southern California. However, nightfall brought a stark reminder of just how close the islands are to the urban sprawl. Light pollution from Los Angeles, Oxnard, Ventura, Santa Barbara, and the numerous oil drilling platforms in the Santa Barbara Channel dominated the night sky from Santa Cruz.

A panorama of the California coastline showing many large light domes degrading the view of the night sky.

Nighttime panorama from the cliffs above Scorpion Ranch on Santa Cruz Island. See annotated image below for a description of the different features.

Nighttime image of Light Pollution from Santa Cruz Island with sources labeled

Our return trip was delayed because the choppy seas prevented the ferry from reaching the anchorage on Santa Cruz on time, giving us a few extra hours to sit on the beach and enjoy the peace & quiet of the island. The winds died down enough for a smooth ride back across the channel where we even spotted a couple of migrating gray whales. Apparently I need more practice shooting photos from a moving platform, as the whale pics all turned out pretty blurry. Have another fox instead!

A small fox sits in the grass


2019 Joshua Tree Bloom and Responsible Nature Photography

Joshua trees in bloom with colorful cliffs in the background

Joshua trees in bloom during March 2019 in the Virgin River Gorge, Arizona.

Joshua trees (Yucca brevifolia) are some of the most iconic figures of the southwestern deserts. While most often associated with California and Joshua Tree National Park, a tiny portion of their range extends into our corner of southwestern Utah. Not actually a tree but rather a tall gangling species of yucca, Joshua trees are frequent companions on low-elevation hikes in the St. George area, where the Mojave Desert makes its last stand before disappearing into the higher altitude mountains and valleys of the Colorado Plateau and the Great Basin.

Like many species of yucca, Joshua trees don’t flower every year, but instead only when temperature and rainfall conditions are favorable. We had yet to see a flowering Joshua tree in our three years in Utah, only the dry brown stalks of blooms gone by. This winter has been abnormally wet however, and in early March we started to notice large flower buds forming on a handful of Joshua trees (in the median of Interstate 15) that we drive past regularly. By the end of March, the bloom was in full swing! We decided to head into the Virgin River Gorge of extreme northwestern Arizona for a closer look.

A desert scene with colorful cliffs and sparse vegetation.

The stark Mojave Desert landscape in the Virgin River Gorge, Arizona.

Joshua trees produce truly massive flower stalks: 1-2″ feet long and densely packed with large, rubbery, cream to nearly yellow-colored petals. Perhaps even more impressive are the flower buds, which resemble gigantic green and purple artichokes in the days and weeks before the flowers emerge:

A cluster of white and yellow flowers on the end of a Joshua Tree branchn

 

This year’s Joshua tree bloom wasn’t limited to Utah and Arizona. Throughout the Mojave Desert, Joshua trees have been flowering in large numbers, thanks to a series of wet and cold winter storms over the past few months. In fact, some Joshua trees in California were observed blooming as far back as last November. This fact may seem innocuous, but actually gives ecologists cause for concern given that Joshua trees are pollinated by just one insect: the yucca moth. Yucca moths are the sole species with the proper behavior and anatomy to pollinate the Joshua tree. Consequently, Joshua trees are 100% dependent on the yucca moth for reproduction and survival, while the larvae of the yucca moth are similarly dependent on the Joshua tree seeds for nutrition. For these symbiotic species to survive, the timing of the Joshua tree bloom must coincide with the life cycle of the moth. As climate change warms the southwestern deserts, there is concern that this could cease to be the case, as described in the linked article above. Joshua trees are a keystone species of the Mojave Desert, providing food and shelter for a host of other animals large and small. A decline in their populations would be devastating for the desert as a whole.

All of this is reason to work toward protecting our remaining stands of Joshua Trees, and a reminder to always be mindful and respectful when photographing sensitive species and landscapes. The “superblooms” of poppies and other wildflowers in the southwest over the past few months have highlighted the ecological damage that occurs when swarms of folks looking for their next Instagram photo descend en masse on delicate landscapes without regard for the environment.

Fortunately, many photographers are aware of the threat photography can pose to these beautiful environments and are working to combat the problem. I’m pleased to share that I have joined Nature First: The Alliance for Responsible Nature Photography. The goal of Nature First is to promote responsible nature photography through adherence to seven core principles:

  1. Prioritize the well-being of nature over photography.

  2. Educate yourself about the places you photograph.

  3. Reflect on the possible impact of your actions.

  4. Use discretion if sharing locations.

  5. Know and follow rules and regulations.

  6. Always follow Leave No Trace principles and strive to leave places better than you found them.

  7. Actively promote and educate others about these principles

If you are a nature or landscape photographer, check them out and consider joining. Following these principles will ensure that spectacular events like Joshua tree blooms are still around for future generations of humans and yucca moths to enjoy!

 

Nature First Photography Logo

 


Wonderful Waters of the Escalante

A large waterfall dwarfs a hiker approaching for a photo.
A large waterfall dwarfs a hiker approaching for a photo.

Lower Calf Creek Falls sits on a tributary of the Escalante River. It’s not everyday you find a waterfall this large in the desert! 

The Escalante River in south central Utah was supposedly the last river in the continental United States to be “discovered” and mapped. You don’t have to spend too much time with it to see why. First of all, it’s not large. “River” is a bit of an overstatement for most of the year, when it is easily forded on foot. Only during torrential summer monsoon storms does it resemble anything that the rest of the world would call a river. Secondly, even the most easily accessible stretches of its ~90 mile course take some time to get to. The Escalante is crossed by a grand total of one paved highway, a remote stretch of Utah Highway 12 that is among the most scenic drives in the west.

The lower reaches of the Escalante’s sinuous canyon pose even more of a challenge, reached only by boat on Lake Powell, or via a combination of hellish dirt roads and long hikes, something we undertook on a backpacking trip a few years back when we entered the Escalante via one of its tributaries, Coyote Gulch.

Upper portions of the canyon are far more accessible, if not as imposing, requiring only an occasional wade across the river to see sights such as the Escalante Natural Bridge:

A natural bridge spans a canyon wall above green cottonwood trees.

Escalante Natural Bridge, more than 100 feet in length, blends in well with its surroundings. 

A small arch sits at the top of a colorful sandstone cliff.

Streaks of light mud and dark desert varnish coat towering cliffs of Navajo Sandstone in the upper Escalante River canyon. 

Streaks of mud and desert varnish coat a sandstone cliff

Cliff dwelling in a cliff alcove surrounded by pictographs.

A cliff dwelling and pictographs in a high alcove along the Escalante River. This alcove looked thoroughly inaccessible from below, but the relatively modern graffiti visible through the telephoto lens sadly indicated otherwise. 

One of the most significant tributaries of the upper Escalante River is Calf Creek, best known for a pair of waterfalls that are refreshingly out of place in a place not generally known for its aqueous wonders. Lower Calf Creek Falls, the larger of the two cascades, is reached via a ~3 mile hike along a broad canyon carved by the creek:

Sitting on a rock looking at a waterfalls tumbling from the sandstone cliffs.

Enjoying a peaceful and relatively uncrowded visit to Lower Calf Creek Falls.

Green moss clinging to a sandstone cliff beneath the waterfalls.

Various colors of brown, tan, and black desert varnish on the sandstone cliffs.

Desert varnish is a common sight throughout the southwest, but the palette of colors on the cliffs flanking Calf Creek seemed especially varied.

A bright red desert paintbrush flower in the sand

One of the few wildflowers left standing in late September: a single desert paintbrush (Castilleja chromosa)

A few miles north, reaching the smaller Upper Calf Creek falls requires a short but steep scramble down a slickrock slope into the depths of the canyon:

The moon sets over white and yellow rock formations.

The 3rd quarter moon sets over sandstone rock formations in the Upper Calf Creek drainage.

Upper Calf Creek Falls plunges into a verdant green pool

Enjoying the solitude at Upper Calf Creek Falls.

Multicolored mosses and other planets cling to the rock beneath a waterfall.

Clumps and mats of moss and other plants coat the cliffs beneath Upper Calf Creek Falls.

Surrounded by some of the least developed land in the continental United States, the night sky from the Escalante canyons is a prime attraction as well!

The Summer Milky Way sets over the southern horizon

The summer Milky Way sets over the southern horizon near Escalante, Utah. No light pollution in sight!