Nature, Landscape, and Night Sky Photography by Zach Schierl

Wildlife

Alaska (Part Three)

White and blue glacial ice contrasts with lush green carpet of vegetation
A valley containing a glacier is partially obscure by a bank of clouds

Morning clouds partially obscure the Exit Glacier, Kenai Fjords National Park, Alaska

The last destination on our Alaskan journey was the Kenai Peninsula and the town of Seward. After a few days respite from the wildfire smoke in Wrangell-St. Elias, it returned with a vengeance as we headed back to Anchorage and down to the the coast:

Tree dotted grassy plain with mountains obscured by smoke

Wildfire smoke obscures the Chugach Mountains en route to Anchorage

After baking in the heat of the Alaskan interior for the last week, the marine climate of Seward was a welcome change. We even had a bit of rain for one of the few times in our entire trip.

While temperatures in Seward we’re somewhat more mild, the coastal location meant the humidity was not. On our first day in Seward, we partook in a brutal hike up to the Harding Icefield in Kenai Fjords National Park. The hike itself was not abnormally difficult, but we were definitely not used to the combination of heat and humidity, leaving me feeling physically ill at several points during the slog up the mountain. The day had started off overcast, but as we climbed, the clouds evaporated leaving us with stellar views of the rapidly retreating Exit Glacier and the Harding Icefield from which it originates. An icefield is essentially a large mass of interconnecting glaciers. The Harding Icefield is the largest — and one of only four — remaining icefields in the United States. The Exit Glacier itself has retreated more than a mile in the last 200 years, leaving trees and other vegetation to begin re-occupying it’s former valley.

A deep mountain valley with a braided stream and some clouds

Looking down the valley partially occupied by the Exit Glacier just a few hundred years ago.

The white and blue ice of the glacier made for a stellar contrast with the lush green vegetation of the alpine zone:

White and blue glacial ice contrasts with lush green carpet of vegetation

Exit Glacier, Kenai Fjords National Park, Alaska

Looking out over the Harding Icefield, Kenai Fjords National Park, Alaska

Deep fissures in glacial ice

Crevasses in the Exit Glacier, Kenai Fjords National Park, Alaska

The wet climate of coastal Alaska results in extremely heavy snowfalls, making this one of only a handful of places in the world where glaciers flow all the way down to sea level to meet the ocean. Known as tidewater glaciers, these glaciers exhibit complex patterns of advance and retreat that, unlike standard alpine glaciers, are not purely the result of variations in climate. While warmer temperatures or prolonged drought can certainly reduce their mass, the movement of tidewater glaciers is also subject to complex interactions between the ice, the geomtery of the ocean floor, and the depth of the water into which they flow.

On our second day in Seward, we took a water taxi into the heart of Kenai Fjords National Park and then kayaked to within about a quarter mile of the terminus of Holgate Glacier. Tidewater glaciers have a tendency to “calve”, in which large chunks of ice break off the glacier and fall into the ocean, necessitating a safe distance. Glacier “social distancing” if you will. It is not hard to find videos on YouTube of people getting too close to calving tidewater glaciers, with quite predictable results. From our safe distance, we observed and heard several calving events in the few hours we were kayaking around the bay, but unfortunately I was not adept enough at kayaking into position quickly enough to actually capture one on camera.

Two kayakers approach a large glacier

Kayaking toward the terminus of the Holgate Glacier, Kenai Fjords National Park, Alaska

A hand holds a small piece of ice that has broken off of a glacier

Tiny iceberg, Kenai Fjords National Park, Alaska

Our boat ride back to Seward through Resurrection Bay also resulted in sightings of sea lions, seals, puffins, and even two pods of orcas: an exciting end to the trip!

The fin and head of a black and white whale is visible just above the water line

Orca, Resurrection Bay, Alaska

Three black fins just upward from the ocean surface

Orcas, Resurrection Bay, Alaska

A small black and white bird with orange beak and feet

Horned Puffin (from the Alaska Sealife Center in Seward, because the photo was better than the wild ones…)


Alaska (Part One)

A cluster of bright pink wildflowers growing in a gravel bar along a river
A cluster of bright pink wildflowers growing in a gravel bar along a river

Dwarf fireweed (Chamerion latifolium) along the banks of the Toklat River, Denali National Park, Alaska

A highlight of summer 2019 was a hastily arranged trip to Alaska at the end of June and beginning of July. With a summer of unemployment (translation: freedom) looming, we obtained surprisingly cheap tickets from Seattle to Anchorage and then rented a car for a two week journey around the state.

It was a fun yet somewhat strange trip, for a number of reasons. For one, Alaska was experiencing record high temperatures (90 degrees F in several places that we went) and extensive wildfires during our visit. Two words that summarize the trip would be “hot” and “smoky”. We were prepared with a LOT of warm clothes and rain gear and used hardly any of it.

We were not mentally prepared for the omnipresent light. Even though we never ventured above the Arctic Circle, and thus the Sun did technically set each day, it did so only for a few hours between about midnight and 3 am, never getting far enough below the horizon to result in true darkness. It’s one thing to know in your mind that it won’t get dark out, but another another to actually experience it. It’s even more disorienting when you are sleeping in a tent or the back of a Subaru Outback most nights. I hadn’t really considered (again, a hastily arranged trip…) the photographic implications either. With the ideal light for photos coming in around 11 pm-midnight and 3-4 am, it was hard to be out and about at the “golden hours” while also taking advantage of the few pseudo-dark hours to actually sleep.

Anyways, after a day of stocking up on supplies and food in Anchorage (I’m told there is a gorgeous mountain range at the edge of town, but we never really saw it), we headed north to our first stop: Denali National Park. We were fortunate enough to catch a distant and smoky view of Denali itself as we approached the park. While we would be much closer to North America’s highest mountain later in the trip, we wouldn’t see it again.

View of snowy peak through a layer of smoke

Denali, the highest point in North America, seen through the smoke from Denali State Park.

Denali National Park is unique in that, while a road does exist, you can’t take a private vehicle into the heart of the park. Travel along the main park road is on foot or via concessionaire-operated school buses. We opted for the cheapest bus option, the “un-guided” tour that allows you to get off the bus pretty much where ever you want in order to have a look around. We took the bus into Denali on two consecutive days, made a few short forays on foot into the backcountry, and explored some of the maintained trails near the park entrance:

Gray clouds hover over a landscape of scattered trees and shrubs

A roadside scene in Denali National Park, Alaska

A landscape of barren rock, green vegetation, and distant glaciers and snowy peaks

View of the Teklanika River Valley and Alaska Range, Denali National Park, Alaska

A landscapce of brown and red rocks and soil, and green vegetation

Oxidized volcanic rocks of the Teklanika Formation on the slopes of Cathedral Mountain, Denali National Park, Alaska

Bright pink wildflowers growing on a rocky slope

Scammon’s springbeauty (Claytonia scammaniana) clings to a rock slope on Cathedral Mountain, Denali National Park, Alaska

A river flows through rocky crags, as someone stands on a bridge over the river

Exploring a trail along the Savage River, Denali National Park, Alaska

A caribou stands alongside a river flowing out of a snowy mountain range

A caribou grazes along the banks of the Savage River, Denali National Park, Alaska

Aside from the geological scenery, Denali is also crawling with wildlife. I can emphatically say that the bus makes for a pleasant and safe place from which to observe grizzly bears, caribou, moose, and other potentially threatening organisms at close range. A few of the wildlife encounters we had off the bus were decidedly less enjoyable.

Three grizzly bears amble in a field of green grass

Three damp grizzly bears in a grassy meadow, Denali National Park, Alaska. Photo taken from the bus. 

Three moose forage in a pond

Three moose browse the bottom of a shallow pond, Denali National Park, Alaska. Not a bus photo, but we were at the top of a hill several hundred feet above the pond. 

Several white sheep clamber among a cliff of rocks

Three Dall sheep (Ovis dalli) scramble on rocky cliffs high above the Denali Park Road. 

A tourist stand alongside a river scanning the mountains with binoculars

One human (Homo sapiens) observes the previously pictured Dall sheep (Ovis dalli) through binoculars.

After four days in Denali, our rental car no longer possessed a complete set of safe and functional tires, resulting in a new rental car and an unscheduled detour to Fairbanks before our next destination: Kennecott and Wrangell-St. Elias National Park. Until next time!


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


Rocks and (Musk)Rats of the Rockies

stream meanders along the Fall River, Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado
stream meanders along the Fall River, Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado

Textbook stream meanders along the Fall River, Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado

A few weekends back I led my semester-ly geology field trip to Rocky Mountain National Park. Each time I end up finding new gems that I had previously overlooked, such as the spectacular stream meanders along the Fall River pictured above. One good flood and the stream will erode through the narrow strip of land separating the two meanders, leaving the bend in the middle of the photo high and dry. Places like this are a great opportunity for students to see in action a geologic process that every introductory geology instructor teaches in the classroom.

Despite many areas of the park still being covered in umpteen feet of snow, wildflowers are beginning to appear in the lower elevations around Estes Park:

Early blooming pasqueflower in Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado

Early blooming pasqueflower in Moraine Park, Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado

Longs Peak shrouded in a late-season storm, Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado

Longs Peak shrouded in a late-season storm, Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado

The biggest cause for excitement actually occurred after the field trip was over. I had intended to stick around in the park for a longer hike after setting the students free, but I quickly realized I had left my filled camelback on the kitchen counter. Lacking any sort of water carrying device, not wanting to shell out the cash to buy one, nor desiring to try to fashion one out of ungulate intestines, that plan was foiled. In lieu of a hike I headed for a short stroll around Lily Lake to try to get some pictures of the incoming storm enveloping Longs Peak.

While snapping the above photo, I was startled by what sounded like a cannonball being dropped into the lake behind behind me. My initial suspicion of hooligans launching boulders into the lake was discredited when I turned around and saw no one within half a mile. I made my way to the edge of the lake and remained motionless; after a few moments, this little guy appeared:

Muskrats in Lily Lake, Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado

Beaver? Otter? Furry fish?

Lily Lake, Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado

Lily Lake, Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado

Noticing the presence of a nearby mass of chewed up sticks (above), I hastily assumed I was in the presence of a beaver. In short time, a second critter appeared and the pair began to tussle, albeit sadly behind a willow bush from my point of view. It soon became clear that these animals were more agile and less chunky and rotund than your typical beaver. Not being able to see them clearly with the naked eye, my next guess was river otter, which persisted until I got home and took a closer look at the pictures below. Otters would have a tough time leading their carnivorous lifestyles with only those gigantic incisors to work with. I was out of ideas (this is why I lead geology field trips, not wildlife watching trips…) , so I was forced to the internet where I learned that I had just seen my first muskrat.

Muskrats in Lily Lake, Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado

Two combative muskrats in Lily Lake, Rocky Mountain National Park

Muskrats in Lily Lake, Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado

Nice teeth!

Finally, on the way home, I made a quick stop at a rock shop in Estes Park that I’ve driven past dozens of times. I quickly discovered that knowledge of basic geological principles is not a prerequisite for owning a rock shop when I found a large bin of black limestone labeled:

estes_park_rock_shop

{facepalm}


A Sheep, a Sheep! My Kingdom for a Sheep!

2 bighorn sheep ewes in BIg Thompson Canyon
2 bighorn sheep ewes in BIg Thompson Canyon

Two bighorn sheep ewes in Big Thompson Canyon, Colorado.

After some memorable elk encounters this past fall, I’ve been on the lookout for more wildlife viewing opportunities over the past few months. A flock of several thousand Canadian geese passing overhead while extricating my car from a foot of snow at the Denver airport didn’t quite cut it so on a recent weekend, we headed out in search of one of Colorado’s most iconic creatures: the Rocky Mountain Bighorn Sheep.

It turns out that late November and early December is the best time of year to view Rocky Mountain Bighorn Sheep here in the foothills of the Colorado Rockies. This time period marks the annual bighorn sheep rut, or mating period. While the bighorn sheep rut attracts far less attention than the fall elk rut, at this time the sheep descend from higher elevations to avoid deep snowpack and are frequently seen along canyons such as the Big Thompson, just a short half hour drive from Fort Collins (where I now live).

If that name sounds familiar, it’s because Big Thompson Canyon is better known as the site of a number of large and particularly deadly floods in the past few decades than as prime bighorn territory. But in late autumn and early winter, this is the place to be for some serious sheep spotting and shooting (with a camera of course!). This is not to say the sheep are always easy to spot. The beige bighorns, with the exception of their white butts, blend into the brown and shrubby landscape extraordinarily well. Here’s a view of the second pack of sheep we spotted to better illustrate the challenge:

Four bighorn sheep in Big Thompson Canyon

Find the FOUR bighorns!

You can see the problem: brown vegetation + brown rocks + (mostly) brown sheep = hard to spot sheep. It’s like Where’s Waldo, only in real life and with sheep instead of fictional characters with questionable fashion sense. Anyways, when whizzing by at 50 mph (the minimum speed required to avoid being rear-ended by folks hellbent on getting to Estes Park) on a road with little to no shoulder, it helps to have at least one pair of eyes apart from the driver to scan the cliffs and ledges so loved by the sheep for movement or a flash of a white rump.

In the end we spotted two groups of bighorns in about two hours in the late morning, the first group containing one ram and three ewes, the second two rams and three ewes. The first group was bedded down right along the Big Thompson River, just a stone’s throw from the highway right at the entrance to the canyon. With a little creative parking and scrambling, I was able to get some good close-ups of the sheep (see top photo and below). The second group was larger and more active, but was in a gully across the river over a hundred yards from the road, well outside the range of my pathetic telephoto equipment.

The presence of two rams in the second group was exciting because it afforded the possibility of seeing the famous bighorn sheep head-butting combat ritual in action. Alas though, these rams seemed much more interested in quietly grazing on the scant remaining greenery than in slamming their heads together at speeds of more than 30 mph (who wouldn’t?)

Bighorn Sheep ram in Big Thompson Canyon

A good look at the large curved horns on the male bighorns, used in head-butting competitions with other males for the right to mate with prime females.

A bighorn sheep ewe in Big Thompson Canyon

The bighorn sheep will continue to be visible in the Big Thompson area throughout the winter (as they avoid the deep snowpack at higher elevations) although once the rut concludes they become much more averse to human contact and populated areas. Unlike some other notable large mammals of the Rockies, bighorn sheep tend to be most active during daytime hours, making them relatively easy to spot if you have a keen eye.

 


How to see Yellowstone in just 9 hours

yellowstone bison reflection

Legend has it that many years ago at Yosemite National Park, when asked by a visitor what to do if she only had one day to see Yosemite, a park naturalist responded, “I’d go down to the Merced River, put my head in my hands, and cry.” By extension, if one day to visit Yosemite necessitates tears, then surely allotting just one day to see Yellowstone, a plot of land nearly 3 times larger, is some sort of federal crime. Yellowstone is after all, 3 times larger than the state of Rhode Island (Pyroclastic Pixels fun fact™: 16 of our 59 national parks are larger than Rhode Island). Recently I found myself in Bozeman, Montana (just an hour or so north of Yellowstone) for a geology conference with 24 hours to spare so I rented a car and headed to Yellowstone for the day. The key to seeing anything in such a large park in such a short amount of time is focusing on one very small area. Since I actually hadn’t seen any geysers during my last trip to the Yellowstone area a few years back , I decided to head to the Old Faithful and Upper Geyser Basin.

yellowstone blue spring

A beautiful aquamarine hot spring in Yellowstone’s Norris Geyser Basin.

Before I get to the geysers, let me take a moment to describe a game that I highly recommended you play when visiting Yellowstone. The game is titled “How long can you be in the park for before seeing someone taking an ill-advised wildlife photo” and my score on this visit was 23 seconds, shattering my previous personal best by several minutes. While still in sight of the Roosevelt Arch (the iconic stone portal erected at the north entrance to Yellowstone in 1903), I witnessed a family of four exit their minivan and the parents proceed to usher their children, with their backs turned, to within about 10 yards of a herd of grazing bison in order to take a photograph. Fortunately no one got gored, but not everyone is so lucky. As interesting as the geology and thermal features are, for me the preponderance of wildlife is unquestionably the prime appeal of Yellowstone. When one is bombarded by sightings of elk, bison, bears, coyotes, herons, swans, and bighorn sheep within 5 minutes of entering the park, it can be easy to feel like you are touring some sort of very large zoo. But it is important to remember that these animals are still very much wild and there are no cages or fences between you and a very, very, very bad day. If you want to get a close look at wildlife, bring a pair of binoculars or a good telephoto lens and keep your distance. There is, after all, a very good reason why these are handed out at the entrance station.

yellowstone bison reflection

A solitary bison wanders along a pool filled with late-season snowmelt.

grand prismatic spring terraces

Terraces of mineral deposits surround Grand Prismatic Spring, the largest hot spring in the United States.

I arrived at Old Faithful just in time to witness an eruption (the crowds gathered around on benches tipped me off). After watching from amongst the masses, I decided I wanted to spend the rest of the day somewhere a little quieter. A long hike into the wilderness was sadly out of the question, in part because of time and in part because hiking alone in grizzly bear country is generally considered to be inadvisable. Instead I decided to head up the short trail to Observation Point which, while only about half a mile from Old Faithful, is still long enough to leave 99.99% of other park visitors behind. I watched the next eruption from the Point, several hundred feet above the geyser.  Honestly the most fascinating part of watching from this vantage point was observing the number of people sitting on the benches ringing the geyser steadily increase over the half-hour preceding the eruption and then incredulously watching more than half of them leave before the eruption was even over.

old faithful observation point

An eruption of Old Faithful is observed by hundreds of visitors.

At this point I got it in my head that it would be fun to make a time-lapse video of an eruption cycle, which involved me hiking back to my car to get my tripod and then climbing back up the hill. Once I had everything set up, I realized I had forgot my remote timer (not at the car but at home several states away) and would have to try to do the time-lapse by hand. This didn’t go so well for a couple of reasons. For one, whenever you set up a tripod anywhere, other people automatically assume you are some kind of expert on the area and start asking you lots of questions that you are in no way qualified to answer. And second, about a minute into the eruption itself, my focus shifted to a grizzly bear and cub that I spotted ambling out of the forest at the bottom of the hill (I ran into the same two bears on my hike back to the car about an hour later). The time-lapse didn’t turn out too well but it was still a fun day of people-watching, geyser-gawking, and wildlife-spotting. My tally after 9 hours in Yellowstone: three Old Faithful eruptions, hundreds of elk, dozens of bison and trumpeter swans, four grizzly bears, three marmots, one coyote, one bighorn sheep and 288 photographs!

beehive geyser observation point

An eruption of Beehive Geyser from Observation Point.

yellowstone grizzly and cub

A mother grizzly and cub hanging out just a few hundred yards from Old Faithful.

Clepsydra Geyser sunset

Late-evening sun peeking through the clouds behind Clepsydra Geyser, which erupts nearly around-the-clock.

 


A Serpentine Spectacle

I’ve had some fascinating wildlife encounters the past few months. I’ve seen a mule deer give birth, encountered a herd of mountain goats at 14,000 feet, had some interesting run-ins with cows while camping (okay, cows aren’t technically WILD but still…), and even seen my first two porcupines. But the undisputed winner took place about five feet outside my bedroom door. The hill outside my door is covered in tall grass and shrubs. Anytime I have the door open, I hear the constant rustling of squirrels, chipmunks, cottontail rabbits, and the occasional coyote making their way through the grass. One day though, the rustling turned out to be this:

A Garter Snake consumes a Smooth Green Snake

Just to be clear, that’s a garter snake (likely either Thamnophis elegans or Thamnophis marcianus…any snake people out there?) going NOM NOM NOM on a smooth green snake (Opheodrys vernalis). Now that’s not something you see every day.

I was fortunate enough to observe this spectacle in its near entirety, which in this case was almost two whole hours. The garter snake moved little; it was so focused on its meal that it seemed not even to notice me or the handful of other people watching the blatant act of serpentine cannibalism unfolding before our eyes. Every 30 seconds or so, the garter snake would open its mouth wide and constrict its jaw muscles slightly, entombing a few more millimeters of the green snake into its gullet. The green snake, which was consumed head-first, remained alive as it was being swallowed, as if being subjected to some diabolical form of medieval torture. Every few minutes it would engage in some futile thrashing for a few moments before the garter snake would wrestle it back into submission. At one point, a second green snake arrived on the scene and made a few jabs at the garter snake before retreating back into the grass.

A Garter Snake consumes a Smooth Green Snake

Things got really wild in the final minutes. In what appeared to be a last ditch effort to avoid being completely ingested, or perhaps just a metaphorical middle finger to the garter snake, the green snake managed to tie the remaining few inches of its tail into an enormous knot. This befuddled the garter snake for a short while; it was already struggling with its decision to swallow a snake equivalent in size to itself and the knot didn’t make things any easier. After a few minutes though, the garter snake managed to open its mouth even wider and down the remainder of its meal, knot and all. Shortly after, the garter snake sluggishly slithered away, likely with a bad case of the meat sweats, and I went back inside feeling glad that I’m not as low on the food chain as the green snake.

The Smooth Green Snake ties its remaining tail in a knot to make life difficult for the Garter Snake

Garter Snake wrestling with a Smooth Green Snake it has partially eaten


A Little Southern Utah in Western Colorado: the Dominguez Canyon Wilderness

Pedestrian Bridge over the Gunnison River

Pedestrian bridge over the Gunnison River at the entrance to Dominguez Canyon

Colorado is known for its mountains, and with an average elevation of 6,800 feet rightfully so, but tucked away in the far western part of the state are a number of spectacular red rock canyons and landscapes that look like they were lifted straight out of a Southern Utah travel guide by some sort of magical, three dimensional silly putty. Colorado National Monument is home to the perhaps the best known of these canyons but several equally impressive chasms can be found just to the south in the Dominguez Canyon Wilderness Area.

Wind-sculpted boulders on the floor of Dominguez Canyon

Wind-sculpted boulders in Dominguez Canyon

Dominguez Creek is a tributary of the Gunnison River just north of Delta, CO that flows year-round through a series of spectacular canyons cut into sedimentary rock of varying red, orange, and pink hues. About a mile upstream of its confluence with the Gunnison, the canyon splits; Big Dominguez Canyon to the west, and Little Dominguez Canyon to the south. Gentle trails undulate along the floors of both canyons for dozens of miles, all the way up into the headwaters of the drainage system on the Uncompahgre Plateau. I chose to hike up Big Dominguez Canyon, which I knew was home to some year-round waterfalls (ended up being nearly dry…) and impressive rock art. This turned out to be a really good decision as you’ll see shortly. Since most of my hiking recently has involved steep mountain trails at elevations often 11,000 feet, trekking along a relatively flat trail at 5,000 feet was a welcome respite that allowed me to cover quite a bit of ground.

Dominguez Canyon is located within a federally designated wilderness area, one of 43 such areas in Colorado. The Wilderness Act of 1964, which celebrates its 50th anniversary next year, defines wilderness as “an area where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain.”

In many ways, these values were on display in Dominguez Canyon; despite the area’s proximity to Grand Junction, I hiked about 15 miles (told you it was flat) and didn’t see another human soul until I was almost back to the trailhead. Apart from some rumbles of thunder that echoed magnificently through the canyon in the early afternoon, the landscape was perfectly silent, despite its location only a half dozen miles from U.S. Highway 50. In other ways they were not, such as when I came across piles of metal equipment associated with an old mine (likely copper based on the abundance of azurite and malachite in the surrounding rocks), although being geologically inclined I’m never one to complain about this sort of thing since there are few things as fun and adrenaline-inducing as poking around old mine dumps for an hour!

Dominguez Canyon Petroglyphs

One of the larger petroglyphs in Dominguez Canyon? A turtle? A chunky centipede? Other ideas?

Dominguez Canyon is also known for being prime Rocky Mountain Bighorn Sheep habitat, yet a quick glance at the trailhead register told me that seeing these creatures is by no means guaranteed. The BLM asks people to record the number of sheep they spot in the register on their way out, and I noticed that the handful of groups that had visited in the last few weeks had either A) seen more than 20 sheep or B) seen zero sheep. Hit or miss indeed. Despite my best attempts at making convincing sounding sheep noises, my visit was sadly a miss; I had the pleasure of recording a big fat zero in the register as I departed, despite frequently taking breaks to scan the red cliffs for any sign of movement and feeling insanely jealous of the groups just days before that had hit the bighorn sheep jackpot. Despite the lack of sheep, some smaller and less wooly residents of the canyon made themselves known and were even nice enough to pose for a few photos:

Western Collared Lizard on a rock

Western Collared Lizard, Dominguez Canyon Wilderness, CO

A Canyon Treefrog in a puddle

Canyon Treefrog, Dominguez Canyon Wilderness, CO

Despite the nearly continuous presence of distant thunder, which almost prompted me to turn back about an hour into the hike, I didn’t feel a single drop of rain the entire day. Yet when I returned to the junction between Little and Big Dominguez Canyons late in the afternoon, I discovered that the creek coming out of Little Dominguez Canyon, which had been nothing more than a pathetic looking transparent trickle at 10 A.M., had been transformed into a thick brown torrent of mud and debris accompanied by the extremely potent aroma of fresh cow pie. Yum.

A muddy Dominguez Creek following a flash flood

This waterfall along Dominguez Creek had been nearly dry just a few hours earlier.

In hindsight I wish I had taken a “before” picture for comparison but that morning the creek was flowing with less gusto than your typical garden hose so my camera and I weren’t exactly drawn to it. Clearly the headwaters of Little Dominguez had gotten a lot of rain in a short amount of time and seeing this dramatic transformation was a good reminder that flash floods can strike areas far removed from any significant precipitation and validated my decision to hike Big Dominguez Canyon instead.

As spectacular as the canyon was, I can only imagine how enchanting it would be at sunrise or sunset when the low-angle of the Sun illuminates the fantastic geology or in the spring when snow melt swells the creek. Always good to have an excuse to go back!


From the San Juans to the San Juans

They are separated by more than 1600 kilometers. One barely rises above sea level while the other boasts six peaks exceeding 14,000 feet in elevation. One is most easily accessed by kayak or porpoise, while in the other it is difficult to escape the incessant drone of Jeeps, dirt bikes, and ATVs that trawl the vast network of old mining roads. One is beset by a  deluge of by rain eight months out of the year, whereas the other is inaccessible except by ski, snowshoe, or helicopter for six. To the untrained eye, the San Juan Islands of NW Washington and the San Juan Mountains of SW Colorado couldn’t be more different.  My current job situation has me living about an hour away from the mountains for 3 months out of the year, and an hour or less away from the islands for the other 9 months. And viewed through the lens of a camera, I have discovered that there are more similarities that you might expect. The first of which will probably be rather obvious:

They both posses stunning scenery:

View from Deception Pass State Park towards the Olympic Mountains

View from Deception Pass State Park on Fidalgo Island looking southwest across the water towards the Olympic Peninsula.

Rosy Paintbrush with Red Mountain #1 in the background

Rosy Paintbrush in an alpine meadow near Red Mountain #1 (yes, nearby can be found Red Mountain’s #2 and #3. The old miners were a creative bunch.) in the San Juan Mountains.

Both offer opportunities for “extreme” sports:

A paraglider enjoys a view of the San Juan Islands

A paraglider enjoys a serene aerial view of the San Juan Islands and several tankers headed for the oil refineries in Anacortes, WA.

Descending Mt. Sneffels in the San Juan Mountains

Descending a scree-filled colouir after summiting 14.150′ Mt. Sneffels in the San Juan Mountains. While most of the climb is straightforward and requires only a hefty amount of scrambling, there is one tricky section near the summit during which a fall would likely mean the end of one’s mountain climbing days…or any other days for that matter.

Both were shaped and sculpted by vast quantities of ice:

Glacial striations in the San Juan Mountains near Ouray

Glacial striations in slate high above the Uncompahgre Gorge in the San Juan Mountains. The parallel grooves in the rock were carved by rocky debris trapped along the base of a long-gone glacier that was partially responsible for scouring out the gorge.

A ferry passes rock outcrops in the San Juan Islands

A Washington State Ferry passes a cliff of glacially scoured rock in the San Juan Islands. Glacial striations identical to those in the previous photo are ubiquitous throughout the San Juan Islands, evidence that the area was buried beneath more than a mile of ice during the peak of the last glaciation, about 15,000 years ago.

And finally, both are home to curious wildlife:

An American Pika in the San Juan Mountains

An American Pika investigates a bush at 11,000 feet in the San Juan Mountains.

A Blood Star in a tide pool A Blood Star investigates a California mussel below sea level in the Strait of Juan de Fuca.

In case you didn’t know, that’s what starfish look like when they are curious.


Starfish. Starfish Everywhere!

Twice a month, the positions of the Sun, the Moon, and the Earth all lie in a straight line. It is during this time that we see the Moon as either “new” or “full”, depending on whether the Moon lies between us and the Sun, or we between the Sun and Moon. Never content with a simple geometrical description, astronomers call this alignment of celestial bodies a syzygy, a word that surprisingly will net you just 21 points in Scrabble given that it requires a worthless blank tile in order to play. While a syzygy’s effect on your board game exploits may be negligible (unless you manage to plunk that “Z” down on a double letter score and the final “Y” on a coveted triple word score…in which case, whoa! You’re up to 93 points and the game is most assuredly yours to lose!), the effect of such an alignment on our planet is actually quite pronounced. The gravitational fields of the Sun and the Moon exert an attractive force on us; the difference in the magnitude of this attraction on opposite sides of the Earth is, in part, what gives rise to the phenomenon we know as tides (for an explanation longer than two sentences, I refer you to NOAA). During a syzygy, the force from the Sun and the force from the Moon are aligned, with the result being that the range in tides we observe is larger. In other words, high tides are higher. Low tides are lower. And when low tides are lower:

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Starfish_field

You can’t quite see them all in this photo, but by my count there were about five dozen starfish visible in the field of view when I took this photo. The first syzygy of March 2013 provided me with some abnormally low, mid-day low tides and consequently the opportunity to photograph the plethora of starfish that call Larrabee State Park just outside Bellingham home. During typical low tides, such as the ones we get when the Sun and Moon are at right angles to each other and their gravitational pulls partially cancel each other out, most of these starfish are comfortable below sea level. Even then, a little searching will undoubtedly reveal a handful of starfish clustered beneath rocks or under piles of slimy, green, washed-up seaweed. But when the tide drops below  the typical low tide level, the most common starfish in the area, Pisaster ochraceus, the purple or ochre sea star, is literally EVERYWHERE. The quantities can actually start to make you feel somewhat threatened until you remember that starfish move at like 0.0003 miles per hour and have something called “tube feet”. As you can see, the starfish tend to cluster in cracks and crevices within the rock. This is annoying because the cracks and crevices are about the only place you can put your feet without running the risk of losing your footing and smashing your skull open on the sandstone and exposing your brains for the seagulls to pick at, given that most of the rock is covered in slick seaweed that makes banana peels look like coarse sandpaper when it comes to the degree of traction provided.

Pisaster ochraceus comes in three different flavors…err, I mean colors. The purple stars dominate, but orange and pink individuals are not uncommon. I was able to locate one extremely diverse constellation of starfish (I have absolutely no idea what the collective noun for starfish is, but it would be pretty cool if it was “constellation”…) hanging out under a rock:

A group of multi-colored starfish

The wide range of color variation exhibited by Pisaster ochraceus.

I never cease to be fascinated by the robust rigidity of starfish. The purple ones in particular look like they should be nothing more than wet, sticky, gelatinous blobs of silly putty, but alas you can’t even copy newsprint with them, much less mold them into an sphere, which is the ACTUAL shape of a star—that is unless the star is rotating rapidly, in which case its shape may be more closely approximated by an oblate spheroid.

I have no idea what this starfish is trying to accomplish...

I have no idea what this starfish is trying to accomplish here…

Some of the stars exhibit signs of multiple personality disorder, giving us some bizarre orange and purple combination stars like this one here:

Starfish_closeup

As brightly colored as they are, the sheer abundance of Pisaster ochraceus along the NW Washington coast makes them the black bear of the starfish world. Impressive surely, but not really what we came to see. A closer inspection reveals some less commonly spotted species. For example, meet the “grizzly bear” of sea stars:

Pycnopodia helianthoides

The find of the day: a 20-armed sunflower star, otherwise known as Pycnopodia helianthoides.

I think we can all agree that Pycnopodia would be one of the most utterly terrifying species on the planet if it was capable of moving at any rate of speed that could be considered “fast”. Sure, it doesn’t eat humans but neither do spiders and this thing pretty much looks like a gigantic, orange, 20-armed spider with spikes. Given that I know plenty of folks who start to dial 911 at the sight of a spider the size of a pin-head, there is no doubt in my mind that there would exist an entire industry devoted exclusively to Pycnopodia extermination if it had managed to move more than the 3 inches that it did in the 20 minutes I sat there watching it. Clearly Alfred Hitchcock never encountered a sunflower star or I think his film-making career would have featured less birds and more marine life.

Dermasterias imbricata

Two spotted arms of a leather star, Dermasterias imbricata, poke out from under a rock.

For a list of upcoming sygyzgies, check out this handy moon map, and to see when starfish viewing will be ideal along your favorite beach, you can find no better resource than the official NOAA Tides & Currents website.


Sleepy Seals and Sea Lions

I’ve tried napping on rocks before.  Apart from a nice long snooze on a flat, polished slab of gneiss along the Gunnison River this summer, I haven’t had a whole hell of a lot of success, but that’s a story for another day.  After much thought, I can see only two possible ways in which one could enjoy a nice long nap on a rock: #1: you have an air mattress and pump with you (or a really thick ThermaRest), or #2: your internal organs are cushioned by a several inch thick layer of blubber.  This collection of photos of seals and sea lions getting their beauty sleep in some seemingly uncomfortable positions deals predominantly with option #2.  These creatures all call Monterey, CA their home and are content to take a siesta on just about any exposed knob of rock they can find. Either that or somebody accidentally dumped a semi-truck load of Ambien into the bay. Anyways, in summary, my quest to use the word “blubber” in a blog post is now complete and I’ll be going to bed now. In a nice, warm, soft, mostly level but with a slight sag in the middle, Queen-sized bed mind you.

Spotted Seal? Or moldy sausage?

Don’t let the passive appearance of this adorable sea lion fool you! Just moments later this enormous pile of blubber was actively trying to bite off a rivals head!

It’s really funny when the one on the bottom wakes up first

Can’t….keep….eyes….open…

Seal1

Sea lions behave much like a viscous fluid; they take the shape of their surroundings.


Pile o’ Marmots

I could probably write a full-length entry about marmots if I really tried. After all, I did write entire essays on chocolate chip cookie recipes and the Twilight saga for English class last semester. But that really doesn’t sound like the way I want to spend the next hour and a half of my life. I would much rather spend that time sleeping instead which is sort of appropriate since marmots supposedly spend a lot of time doing that too. So instead I will simply give you these pictures of some plump Yellow-bellied Marmots proudly standing watch over their burrows in the San Juan Mountains. And also tell you that a common nickname for the marmot is “whistle pig”  due to the loud whistle the creature emits to alert nearby marmots when it feels threatened. So far I have failed in unearthing the origin of the “pig” part of this nickname, given that marmots are actually most closely related to ground squirrels and bear about as much resemblance to a pig as I do (I realize that this is making a rather bold statement about my personal appearance, if you disagree for some reason, feel free to discuss in the comments).

I didn’t even see the two below until after I had taken the picture. Only a fool would attack a burrow being defended by three of these vicious and intimidating rodents.

Another marmot doing its best to blend in with the lichen…