Hi, and welcome to my blog. It occured to me that when you view the images in my galleries, that you would like have some idea as to the how, when and where. Therefore, through this blog, I will attempt to provide some background and detail about the photo trip that resulted in the images posted on my site.
It is not often that I get to toot my own horn, but here goes. Nature Photographer magazine, my favorite for finding great photography locations, has recently published three articles I had written about great photo locations in Wyoming, Utah and Nevada. The Wyoming article featured the wild horses of McCullough Peaks near Cody, Wyoming. The Utah article highlighted the Grand Staircase - Escalante National Monument established in 1996. The Grand Staircase is often overlooked by photographers in favor of the more famous parks in Utah, but it has some really outstanding photo locations. Finally, Great Basin National Park was the topic of the Nevada article. It is a wonderful park to visit in the fall when the aspen trees are in blazing colors.
You can probably find the magazines at Barns & Noble, or perhaps online.
Jane and I, along with our photo buddy Bruce, spent the last week of June in the rarefied air of Colorado’s high Rocky Mountains. Since there were three of us traveling, and since it was a photography journey, there was too much luggage for the back of the 4Runner. This trip required use of the “Thule”, a rooftop cargo carrier. The Thule had been patiently waiting in the garage for the next trip it was needed. We last used the Thule on our Alaska Highway adventure in August 2013. So the Thule and the three adventurers were looking forward to another great sojourn.
We stayed at a vacation rental cabin just outside Idaho Springs along Chicago Creek. Doesn’t sound like Colorado from these names, but we were definitely in the high Rocky Mountains. From the relatively low elevation of 7,600 feet at the cabin, we made day trips to the top of Mount Evans at 14,000 feet. Why, you ask, would we deny ourselves the dense, thick air of sea level? The answer is to photograph mountain goat families that forage near the summit of Mount Evans.
From our rental cabin, the trip to the top of Mount Evans takes about an hour along a paved, winding, steep and narrow, two-lane, roadway. The scenery along the way was stunning with dense, healthy stands of conifers. Above timberline, the road traverses subarctic rocky tundra with a myriad of delicate, small wildflowers. Above timberline, the road also becomes steeper with numerous switchbacks, limited sight distance, and no guardrails along the steep downhill side of the road.
We typically made this trip early most mornings in order to be at the summit of Mount Evans with good morning light and to maximize the possibility of sighting wildlife. We were not disappointed with these early departures. Every trip to the top resulted in our being able to photograph mountain goat nannies with young kids playing along the boulders, yellow bellied marmots soaking up the warm sun, and small pika, the most elusive of our targets. When not looking through the camera viewfinder, we were entertained by the antics of the energetic young mountain goat kids. At this early age of their lives, they were already pushing and shoving to show who was boss. Their favorite game was to play “king of the boulder” with as many as five or six of the lively white fur balls vying to be the last one remaining on top.
As can be expected on top of a 14,000 foot mountain peak, the wind was ubiquitous, cold and blistering. We had to seek shelter in the 4Runner on several occasions. We were also not alone on the mountain top. Other photographers and wildlife enthusiasts were there to appreciate being so near to these wild animals. During one of our forays to the protection of the vehicle, Jane engaged a fellow photographer in some shop talk. She found out there was a lake some distance north of Idaho Springs that was a sure bet for photographing moose. That night we Googled the location, found directions and decided to head there the next day.
Brainard Lake was nearly a two hour drive from the cabin. In order to ensure good lighting for photography, we were up at 4:30 AM, out the door at 5:00 AM and at Brainard Lake at 7:00 AM. Of course, we had no idea where to look for the moose. After parking the 4Runner in the day-use parking area, we just headed towards the lake. Not knowing where to go, we turned right at the lake’s edge where we ran into another photographer we told us we were heading in the wrong direction. We turned around and hustled over to a dense area of willows behind a stand of pine trees. Jane, our premier spotter, was first to see the moose. We crept through the stand of trees and counted four big male moose with outstanding racks covered in velvet browsing on willow shoots. By about 8:30 AM the sun was getting hotter and the moose wandered off into the cool, dense forest. What an extraordinary experience that was.
To complete our Colorado adventure we spent the first week of July at Mesa Verde National Park and UNESCO World Heritage Site. Although over 7,000 feet in elevation, Mesa Verde is far enough south to result in temperatures much higher than the cool atmosphere of the high Rockies. We changed to cooler attire and put away the long telephoto lenses in favor of the shorter wide angle ones. The popularity of this unique archaeological area has resulted in the Park Service limiting access to the most outstanding cliff dwellings only by Ranger led tours. Fifty tickets are available for each tour and could only be purchased up to two day in advance. We were in the Park long enough to be able to get tickets for all three of the Ranger led tours.
Photographing the Ancient Puebloan ruins was a challenge. It is not like photographing wildlife where the unique characteristic of the animal carries the image. This is landscape photography where the need for a dynamic composition, exceptional lighting and a dramatic sky are mandatory. All I can say in my defense is that I tried.
You can be a judge. The images from Mesa Verde are located in the National Parks and Monument gallery. Images from Mount Evans and Brainard Lake are located in the Mount Evans 2017 gallery for the time being. I will probably be moving them to the Hooves, Antlers and Horns gallery and the Young Animals gallery in the future.
How can one possibly describe three weeks in the highlands of the Central Andean Mountains and the low rain forests of Amazonia, other than simply unforgettable. Over a year in planning, this unforgettable adventure turned out to be ever so much more than Jane and I had envisioned. It started out simply enough as a two week bird photography tour to Peru, but then we extended the trip with an additional week of bird photography in Ecuador. We rationalized the additional week to maximize the adventure since we would already be in South America. All in all, we were gone nearly a month when you throw in travel time.
We commenced our travels by flying from San Diego, via Dallas/Fort Worth, to Quito, the capital of Ecuador. As is our custom, we arrive a day before the start of the photo tour and experienced a hasty exploration of Quito’s historic district, designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Founded in 1534 by Spanish conquistadors, on the ruins of an ancient Inca city, Quito has one of the best preserved historic centers of Spanish America, according to UNESCO. Situated at over 9,000 feet in elevation, we experienced our first signs of breathlessness as we wandered along the steep, narrow streets of Quito.
Every Monday morning there is a changing of the guard ceremony in front of the presidential palace in Quito. This ceremony includes a lot of pomp and circumstance with a military band and mounted soldiers in elaborate, historic uniforms. We stumbled upon this festive celebration during our exploration of the old city center. The Plaza Grande, filled with locals and tourists alike, was inundated with scores of street vendors hawking their trinkets and treats. After the ceremony, and away from the crowded plaza, Jane consummated some intricate negotiations with a street vendor for several colorful scarves.
The next day we met up with David Hemmings of Nature’s Photo Adventures (www.naturesphotoadventures.com) to start our Ecuador bird photography tour. Our first destination was the Tandayapa Bird Lodge located about 70 kilometers (43 miles) northwest of Quito. By car, this trip took about 2 hours and that should give some idea about driving conditions in and around Quito. In general, streets in all metropolitan areas we visited are narrow, with limited sight distance, and extremely congested with people and cars. Streets are aligned in a random, haphazard grid system dating back to a time when there were no cars. Drivers compete fiercely for any space between vehicles, much like bumper cars, particularly as multiple cars and buses attempt to make turns onto the many one-way streets. That is why you need a local driver who knows the rules of engagement and shortcuts to avoid the most congested areas.
We arrived frazzled but without incident at the Tandayapa Bird Lodge to enjoy our first foray into photographing the unique hummingbirds of Ecuador. The Tandayapa Bird Lodge is located in the rain forest and we certainly had our share of rain during our brief visit. Several times we had to retreat inside to avoid the worst of the rainy weather. We surmised that we experienced more rain during our two days at Tandayapa than during the entire San Diego rainy season. The chef made up for the inclement weather by creating some extraordinary deserts for us.
From Tandayapa, we traveled to the Cabanãs San Isidro, located about 187 kilometers (115 miles) to the southeast. Unfortunately, that meant we had to go back through the labyrinth of streets in Quito again. Scenery along the way, however, was fantastic and more than made up for this inconvenience. We journeyed through narrow, winding canyons with high, steep towering mountains, covered with pristine, verdant rain forest vegetation. Gigantic waterfalls were encountered dropping hundreds of feet from the steep mountain sides. We also crossed over one of Ecuador’s highest Andean mountain passes, Papallacta, at over 13,000 feet.
Of the lodges we visited in Ecuador, Cabanãs San Isidro was by far the most luxurious. Our room was like a large sun porch, spacious with a huge bed and tall, floor to ceiling, windows on three sides. Lodge facilities were some distance from the main, dirt track leaving us with the feeling of being absorbed into the rain forest. The grounds had abundant, vividly colored native flowers, hosting butterflies that fluttering from flower to flower collecting nectar. We also encountered some unique bird species at this lodge that were a challenge to photograph.
From Cabanãs San Isidro we backtracked about 50 kilometers (30 miles) along the paved highway to the Guango Lodge. This time we did not have to traverse all the way back to Quito. Guango is a large property and we ventured out on several trails along the Rio Quijos looking for birds to photograph. Although the lodge is popular with birders we were the only overnight guests at Guango during our two day stay. We did have a few birding groups stop by to share the spectacle of feisty hummingbirds competing for sugar water at the many feeders scattered throughout the property. Jane added a few new species to our bird list while we were at Guango.
Guango Lodge was our last bird photography location in Ecuador. From there we traveled back to Quito and then flew to Lima, Peru, for the next phase of this unforgettable adventure. In Lima, we met Dali and Neil Solomon who joined us for the two-week Peru portion of the photography tour. We did not dawdle in Lima but continued on to Cusco the gateway to Machu Picchu. Far from being the quaint and charming small village we imagined, Cusco was a sprawling, bustling city with nearly half a million people and its own congested maze of streets and byways.
From Cusco we continued on to Machu Picchu. That excursion turned out to be a unique adventure of its own. By car (with a driver guide) we maneuvered through the hectic traffic jams of Cusco and through the high and dry Andean highlands from an elevation of over 12,000 feet down to the small village of Ollantaytambo at 9,000 feet where the habitat begins its transition to rain forest. At Ollantaytambo we boarded a train that follows the Urubamba River down to an elevation of 6,700 feet at Aguas Calientes (aka Machu Picchu Pueblo). The train ride was a pleasant, relaxing break from the tense, “back seat driving” along the busy, two-lane highway from Cusco. All in all, by car and train, it took most of the morning to arrive at our destination in Aguas Calientes even though the overall distance is only about 120 kilometers (75 miles).
Aguas Calientes is a hodgepodge of buildings built on steep mountain sides. There is no vehicular traffic in the town. All provisions, supplies and construction material arrived by train and are transported by hand, mostly in wheelbarrows, from the train depot to final destinations. The town subsists on tourism and is crowded with inns, hostels, B & B’s, lodges and restaurants of assorted price range and quality. Our lodge, the Inkaterra Machu Picchu Pueblo Hotel was one of, if not the, best in town. It was a pleasure to stay there, removed from the hustle and bustle of the main village. The gardens are well tended with hummingbird feeders strategically located throughout. We were able to photograph some very colorful species of tanagers that were feeding on bananas.
To get from Aguas Calientes to Machu Picchu requires a bus ride from town up to the citadel. Bus tickets and departures are carefully monitored to control the total number of people entering this historic icon of the Inca civilization. We visited the Inca ruins twice, once on the afternoon of our arrival in Aguas Calientes and again the following morning. Each time, the entrance gate was crowded with visitors queued to gain access. Once inside the historic site, however, the crowds quickly dispersed into the vast area of this ancient Inca city.
Machu Picchu did not disappoint. Even after seeing many published pictures of the ruins and reading about the Inca civilization, being there and seeing this magnificent edifice with its many buildings, temples and terraces was indeed a gratifying and humbling experience. Sitting quietly on the same bedrock that the citadel is built upon and contemplating Inca life at this remote location, deep in the rain forest jungle, it was not difficult to develop a deep appreciation for the ingenuity, creativity and vision of the people living and worshiping here. Visiting Machu Picchu had been a long time “bucket list” item that has now been realized.
After the majesty of Machu Picchu and the ambiance of the Inkaterra Hotel, we continued with our Peru bird photography tour. We journeyed back to Cusco and then on to Peru’s Manú National Park and Biosphere Reserve. According to our guide Steve Sanchez (www.perubirdingexpeditions.com), the park is as large as Switzerland. To put that in a context familiar to us, Manú is twice the size of Yellowstone National Park and about three times larger than the state of Delaware. It is a big, remote, rugged place!
We approached the park from the south, a long 150 kilometer (93 mile) drive from Cusco. Most of the approach to the park was on a rough graded, dirt track that became even rougher, muddier and slower as Juan, our driver, maneuvered the many switchbacks and drainage dips within the park. Rain also hampered our progress as we were blocked by a substantial mud slide that has washed out a portion of the track. Fortunately, we were able to backtrack to our first accommodation in the park, the Wayqecha Cloud Forest Biological Station. That is when we came to appreciate how remote and primitive lodges in Manú National Park are. The room was small, rustic with few amenities, but in general adequate. The downside was the lack of hot water and electricity. The biological station created its own electric power with a generator, but only ran the generator for three hours in the evening from 6 to 9 PM. During our stay, there was a generator failure and power did not commence until about 7 PM, about an hour after sunset.
By the time we left the Wayqecha Cloud Forest Biological Station, the mudslide area had been sufficiently restored to allow us to slowly and cautiously pass over the damaged roadway, and we proceeded to the Cock-Of-The-Rock Lodge, just 35 kilometers (22 miles) further into the park. Here our room came equipped with candles to light the cabin when the generator was not operating. Hot water, however, continued to elude us when we learned that the water supply to the water heater had been damaged by recent, heavy rains. Regardless of these little setbacks, we thoroughly enjoyed our stay at Cock-Of-The-Rock Lodge. In addition to hummingbird photography, this is where we encountered a Woolly Monkey troop that liked to raid the dining hall at the lodge.
The national bird of Peru is the Andean cock-of-the-rock and only a 15 minute drive on the Manú Road from this lodge was an Andean cock-of-the-rock lek, a traditional place where male Andean cock-of-the-rock birds assemble during the mating season and engage in competitive displays that attract females. The best time to observe this display ritual was during the late afternoon hours, which in a dark rain forest is not the best for photography. We visited the lek twice and observed the birds perform their competitive displays from a crudely built, wooden blind. It was most fascinating and intriguing to watch. Several males would swoop in from the dense forest and perch on tree branches where they could be observed by females and competitors. The birds would then proceed to show off their bright red plumage by bowing, jumping along their perches, spreading and flapping their wings, all the while vocalizing loudly with sharp calls. Then, as if an alarm had sounded, they one-by-one disappeared back into the dense forest.
Just as we assumed our adventure had reached its peak, we departed the Cock-Of-The-Rock Lodge for the Amazonia Lodge. This required not only another 45 kilometers (28 miles) of navigating the treacherous Manú road but also a 20 minute ride in a long, narrow, wooden boat on the Madre de Dios River. Just this voyage was sufficient reason to rate this trip as an unforgettable adventure. The photography at the Amazonia Lodge was challenging but had its rewards with some unique species, including the rufous crested coquette hummingbird and the prehistoric looking hoatzin, added to our bird list and portfolio.
From the Amazonia Lodge, it was a long haul back to Cusco where we dropped David Hemmings off at the airport for his flight back to British Columbia, Canada. Dali, Neil, Jane and I spent another day and half in Cusco where we enjoyed some guided tours provided by Tours By Locals (www.toursbylocals.com). After that, it was a flight back to Lima and then home via Miami. Nearly a month from start to finish this will always be remembered as one of our incredible journeys.
Images of the many birds photographed can be viewed in the Ecuador Birds and Peru Birds galleries. Images of Machu Picchu are in that gallery.
Following the March Madness of Death Valley, I looked forward to Spring Break. For our spring break Jane and I traveled to Tucson, Arizona, for some photography in the Sonoran Desert. My primary objective was to find and photograph the fragrant white blossoms of the saguaro cactus. By all accounts, I knew that it was early in the season for saguaro blossoms, but early April fit into our overall travel schedule. So we packed our bags (mostly my bags stuffed with photo gear) and headed east to Tucson where Jane had found a quaint, out-of-the-way casita to rent. The location, like the casita itself, turned out to be perfect. We were only ten minutes from the Saguaro National Park visitor center and about fifteen from the Arizona – Sonora Desert Museum.
We met some friends from the Photonaturalists Camera Club, Neil and Dali Solomon, who had been photographing birds near Sierra Vista, and spent our first day with them. Together we toured the Arizona – Sonora Desert Museum in the morning and enjoyed a night sky program at the Kitt Peak National Observatory. Neil is an avid bird photographer and his images can be found at www.nsolomonphoto.com. The program at Kitt Peak was fascinating and was highlighted with night sky observations through a telescope. Pretty neat!
We were definitely too early in the season for saguaro blossoms. The forest of tall, tree-like saguaro cactus with arms growing in all directions, displayed many buds but no flowers. Many other cacti, however, were in bloom, particularly at the desert museum cactus garden. There we found some extraordinary hybrid cactus varieties with huge, colorful flowers. Although disappointed that there were no saguaro blossoms to photograph, Jane and I discovered a tall saguaro with nesting northern flicker woodpeckers. Best of all, this saguaro was located only about a quarter mile from the casita, along the dirt driveway to the main road, and we visited that cactus on several mornings. Another serendipitous discovery was a single blossom on a saguaro located right next to the casita. This blossom was a favorite attraction for gila woodpeckers and we spent a lot of time watching and photographing, with coffee mugs in hand, the comings and goings of these striking birds.
One afternoon we made a day trip to two local, old Spanish missions. The first mission we visited was Tumacácori, a National Historic Park, about an hour south of Tucson. The mission was originally founded in 1691 by a Jesuit missionary from Spain. By 1848, after decades of hardship the mission was abandoned. On our way back to the casita, we stopped at Mission San Xavier del Bac, a historic landmark. This mission was founded in 1692 by the same Jesuit missionary as Tumacácori. The current church was completed in 1797 and has been in continuous operation since. Mission San Xavier del Bac is the oldest intact European structure in Arizona. The inside of the chapel is exquisitely decorated. The original mural paintings are beautiful and the altar and statues amazingly detailed. Our visit to these old, original national historic places well worth the effort.
This spring break trip was also planned to coincide with the full phase of the moon. I wanted some more practice with night sky photography after only mediocre results in Death Valley. My ability to locate where the full moon would appear in the sky was accurate, but the timing between moonrise and sunset was off. The location I selected had a high mountains ridge in the foreground that resulted in the moon showing its face much later than I had anticipated resulting in a foreground too dark for proper exposure.
Even so, we had a great time and on the way home we decided to put the casita in the pending travel file for a possible future visit. From the casita we were able to make early morning visits to the Arizona – Sonora Desert Museum where we were rewarded with some outstanding photo ops with only a few visitors to contend with. One morning, we had the hummingbird aviary almost to ourselves. The woodpeckers flying back and forth to the saguaro next to the casita gave me plenty of opportunities to photograph birds in flight. And last, but not least, was the relaxing atmosphere of this quaint, out-of-the-way casita where we watched the sun come up from the front patio with our morning coffee and go down from the back patio with our glass of wine.
Images from this spring break journey can be found in the National Parks, Monuments & Historic Landmarks gallery. Look for the Mission San Xavier del Bac, Saguaro National Park and Tumacacori National Historic Park sub-galleries.
My March “madness” consisted of trying, for me, a new aspect of photography. I traveled to Death Valley, during the full moon, to try my hand at “moonscape” photography, that is, photographing iconic locations in Death Valley by moonlight. March is high season in Death Valley and I had made reservation at Furnace Creek Ranch far in advance of my trip. It was good I did. The valley was filled with tourists, speaking a wide variety of different languages, and Furnace Creek was totally booked. Many of these visitors were also photographers that I ran into as I attempted my moonlight photography. Perhaps the most iconic landscape location in Death Valley is Manly Beacon at Zabriskie Point and that is where I concentrated my efforts and met fellow photographers from as far as Germany.
I was accompanied on this new adventure by Bruce Hollingsworth. We like to travel and photograph together and he was also game to try something new. I had researched the internet for information about how to go about this unique type of photography. What I discovered was that reading about how to obtain well executed moonscape photographs is so much simpler than actually implementing the process during the dark of night. Although my planning and preparation for obtaining moonscapes was good, my ability to create “keeper” images left a lot to be desired. Obviously, much more practice will be needed before I can brag about my moonscapes. I also attempted photographing the full moon. Looking at my results from that endeavor, full moon photography is also a skill I will need to work on. It is not that my attempt at this night time photography was a complete bust. The resulting images were just not up to my expectation and standard.
All was not lost, however. There was a killer sunset in the valley that I was able to photograph and get some decent images. Also, during a telephone call with Jane, I learned that the Anza Borrego Desert State Park was experiencing the best spring wildflower display in ten or more years. So a short jaunt to Borrego Springs was called for. The wildflower bloom was pretty impressive with flower displays in areas I had not seen any flowers before. Of course, with this kind of colorful flower exhibit, and the associated publicity, hundreds of other people had also ventured to Borrego Springs to experience the remarkable phenomena. I did manage to obtain some images without extraneous people in them.
My two short trips in March provided ample photographic challenges and demonstrated the need for more practice. That means more trips!