A Year in Photos

Photography, fiction, and personal essays form my three primary creative outlets. For this blog's first 18 months, I used it primarily for photography. As I've returned to creative writing, I'll use this blog for fiction, too. Sometimes, when reality needs to be discussed more than truth, I write personal essays.

This blog will continue to showcase as many above-average photos as I can muster. Hopefully my written work will be as good or better than the visual. Whichever drew you here -- photographs or fiction, I hope you enjoy both.

Thursday, March 21, 2013

Lime Ridge: Cellular Landscapes

I like to set photographic goals for myself. This, for fun and challenge, gives me something to strive for. My goal preference tends toward the attainable: subjects, quality, and personal improvement; away from the unattainable: awards, contests, or gallery openings. Last year I explored sculptural and architectural photography. This year I'll continue to do so, yes, but will also expand into more natural photography. On my hikes this week I've pondered this a lot. So, here are my goals for this year:

1- Photograph a golden eagle, mule deer, rattlesnake, bobcat, coyote, and (optional) tarantula all in their natural environment.

I managed the golden eagle right off the bat, but I had been cogitating that goal for a few days prior. I will, hopefully, get to photograph it again and get a better shot. Spoiler for next week's blogs: The mule deer is off the list, too.

2- Get a worthwhile astronomical photo.

Last year I managed a few star trails. One of them was okay, but none made my top 20. One would have, I think, had I known what I was doing and gotten solid trails instead of dotted lines. So for this goal, I'm hoping to obtain a good star trails photo and a good long-exposure star-tracking photo. Other options include the comet that's about to become visible, the comet that will be very bright in the fall, and the Leonids or another meteor shower.

3- Learn how to take an HDR photo.

I don't think much of over-slidered HDR images. You know the ones that I'm talking about that look like paintings and, if real, would make you throw up in your mouth a little. But, an HDR photo can be a good tool to balance high-contrast scenes.

4- Become very familiar with my 4X5 camera and take at least one very good photo with it.

This is going to be the hardest.

So, in the interim, while I work on these goals. Here are some photos from about a week ago that I took with my Galaxy S3. I managed two hikes on March 13 -- sunrise and sunset. Both were about two hours. Here are some photos from each.

HEY! Did you know you can find where many of my photos were taken by visiting Panoramio? So if you see a shot you'd like to improve on or replicate, or just an area that seems photogenic, you may be able to find the exact location ON THIS MAP.


Sunrise in Lime Ridge


Sunrise and Hill


Walnut Creek


Sunset After Mule Deer

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Walnut Creek: Rara Avis

On my Wednesday hike the other week, I explored a new area. This led to an interesting discovery -- a northern burrowing owl (Athene cunicularia) in its burrow. Now, how big a deal is this? From 1989 to 2000, only 17 burrowing owl sightings were recorded in Contra Costa County. Of those, only five could be reliably re-spotted. So this is not a common bird.

Nationally, burrowing owls are considered 'at risk' -- the technical term is "national bird of conservation concern." In Canada, they are endangered. In Mexico, they are threatened. This means there's no habitat protection for them and that these birds, which seek the same refuge year on year, are vulnerable to development and habitat destruction. And there's not way to stop the habitat loss because they are not yet endangered.

Burrowing owls, however, don't construct their own homes. They use the abandoned (forcibly or not) burrows left by ground squirrels for nests and shelter. This means that where ground squirrels are eradicated as pests, burrowing owls are also preventing from taking residence.

One cause for special concern is that burrowing owls like exactly the type of land developers like. In 2010, in Antioch, not far from Walnut Creek, a developer (whose name I will post if I can find out who it was) forcibly evicted 12 burrowing owl families from land prior to development. The process involved placing eviction doors over burrow entrances. This allowed the birds to leave, but not re-enter. This apparently happened during the breeding season leaving one to wonder if the owls, returning home and unable to re-enter their nests, had chicks left to starve.

So why should we protect these owls? Aside from humanity's duty to be good stewards to our planet, these owls benefit people a great deal. During the day they hunt insects. At night they hunt mammals, like mice. So everything they eat is a nuisance. That should be enough reason.






In addition to the burrowing owl, though, the hike showed off even more animal species.

A ground squirrel. These animals are very skittish. Getting close enough to obtain this photo with the Wondertube was exceedingly difficult.


Great Egret. This bird is enormous, and much faster than it would appear to be.


Anna's Hummingbird. About 1.5 million of these hummingbirds live in the wild -- worldwide. That's not actually very many. They survive on nectar and insects, catching the latter in mid flight.


Black Phoebe. This is a juvenile, so it's still in its brown feathers.

Sunday, March 17, 2013

Lime Ridge: Quest for the Golden Eagle

As part of my Achilles tendon surgery recovery, I've been hiking in the Lime Ridge open spaces over my lunch breaks. Walnut Creek has a number of fantastic open spaces (for more info, visit www.wcosf.org) that are free, clean (because the users respect them) and a great place for people to see and appreciate wildlife.

A few weeks ago I saw a golden eagle flying over one of the Lime Ridge open spaces on my drive to work. The next week I set out to photograph it. Using my K-7 (bird photography with film is tough and wasteful) and Vivitar (Tokina) 400mm 1:6.3, I set out at lunch on Monday for my first attempt.

There were a number of birds, but no golden eagles. This was fine, I decided. I had four more days to reach my goal of photographing the golden eagle that week.

Red-tailed hawk or some kind of Merlin

The first bird I found, and the last later in the hike, I have not yet positively identified. All I can say for sure is that it's reddish and has darker-red spots on the back of its head. I'm not a bird expert, so I'm poor at identifying some of them.

The winds in Lime Ridge move quickly and gives predatory birds ample up draft for hunting. And it's always a thrill to watch these raptors dive and fly off with a field mouse.

The Vivitar 400mm, the same lens I used for the air show last year, is very difficult to focus. It back-focuses somewhat (this may be a function of my focusing screen, not the lens) and the DoF at f6.3 is thinner than a guilty man's alibi.

White-tailed Kite

As I oriented myself, I noticed a white-tailed kite hunting prey about 75 or 100 feet above me and up the trail a bit. I hiked a hill until I was slightly below the kite and took about 55 or so photos. This one turned out the best of them.

For the bird photos, I simply set my camera on auto-drive mode and held the shutter release. On my Monday trip, in one hour, I took more than 800 photos.

I followed the kit a bit, but at considerable distance. The 400mm lens functions similarly to a 600mm on my K-7 due to the crop factor; add to that the image cropping I did and the kite appears much closer than it actually was. But that's why people have super telephotos -- birding.

I decided for this image to convert it to monochrome and give it a film grain look. No reason why, except that I thought the result would look good.

Lime Ridge Bike Path

As I continued my hike, from the top of the hill I decided to take some scenery shots. No birds were out and I was beginning to feel my hunt for a golden eagle would be a fool's errand.

'What if you catch your foot in a hole and damage the tendon? What if you fall and hurt that foot and break your camera? What if you get too tired to walk back to your car, or simply can't?' I punished myself with self-doubt and looked extensively at the three paths down the hill, judging which would be the least strenuous.

I opted for a path with a wind-gnarled oak tree. It was not the easiest, but would put me close to where a hawk was gliding, hunting for a squirrel, mouse, or vole.

The bird flew to a different hunting ground, and I decided to practice my tree photography. Last year a friend asked me for a tree portfolio with the chance of doing some tree photography. I realized, assembling the portfolio, how weak my tree photographs were. So one goal for this year was to take better -- and hopefully one good -- tree photograph.

I like Lime Ridge for this because the trees exude character. They seem to almost come alive out of the landscape. In singlets or small, but disparate groups, they yield little or not usable shade, but instead provide a visual interest to otherwise barren and similarly shaped hills. They make the hills something other than two-dimensional cutouts in a diorama and provide depth, purpose, and interest. And some look good in monochrome, too.

I headed down the path, back to my car, having spent much of my lunch hour worrying too greatly about re-injuring my Achilles tendon or damaging the hardware which was only three months into its remainder-of-my-life service. Someday, if I am cremated, what will remain will be a pile of ashes, four metal anchor assemblies for plastic reinforcing bands, and some tiny screws. And a pile of ashes. In a perfect world, my ashes will be scattered in the bottom of a barbque pit so that I my remain can flavor steaks and burgers.

At the bottom of the hill, an Anna's Hummingbird sat on an impossibly thin, fragile, dried shrub branch. Even at only an ounce or three, however much these weigh, the dried branch bent precariously under its weight. In the wind, the branch swayed toward and away from me with each gust, more as the bird's profile caught the air. 

Anna's Hummingbird

Behind me I heard mice or lizards in the grass rustle, and I saw a new bird hovering, hunting, biding is time for the now-spooked rodents to regain their courage or need for food and scurry from cover. The red-tailed hawk hovered and watched carefully at the ground. I took a few pictures, bu decided to find a better vantage point. I wanted to be directly in front of it, to see about what a mouse or vole would see when leering up from the grass, searching for a raptor and gauging the safety or looking for seeds.

Red-tailed Hawk

But before I had taken five steps, it was gone. Disappeared into a tree that quickly. And then a shadow moved across the ground in front of me. And a second. No bird I had seen yet cast a shadow. Only one bird I could think of was large enough to cast that shadow. And above me, circling, hunting, and screeching appeared two golden eagles. The sun back-lit their feathers and gave them trails of fire. They circled slowly, like lumbering jets, moving with the confident, timed pace that comes from knowing nothing higher on the food chain.

Golden Eagle

They circled together, and then opposite, and rose, as though caught in an invisible tornado, higher, even higher until my eyes could see only dots and my lens could not find feather detail.

Golden Eagle

They flew in front of the sun, invisible, circled there, descended carefully, but casually. Their heads moved around slowly, but in time they both focused on one area, one general spot, one specific target, and with the speed of a mouse trap their wings folded backward and they dove faster than I could track with my lens, faster than I could follow with my eye behind a hill and there was a scream and silence.

After some seconds they flew back up from the hill and off. They were too far for me to see, even with the Vivitar, what they had caught. They flew off toward they nest and, hopefully, a chick.

A Year in Photos: Week Twelve

This week is going to have some fun and some technical stuff. I've been experimenting with mega macros lately and this week will talk about how I obtained 5.5X magnification. I suspect I can do better. My goal is to achieve 10X magnification, which is the border between macrography and miscroscopy. So that's going to be on Friday. Mostly this week I'll share photos from my recent hikes in Lime Ridge, here in Walnut Creek. I've been lucky enough to see a wide array of birds and some other animals, too. In fact, one of the birds I'll have photos of this week -- the Northern Burrowing Owl -- is very rare in Contra Costs County and has never been documented where I found it. And no, I will not share where I found its burrow. For now, though, here is a look at what's ahead this week.

White Tailed Kite

Mallard-domestic Cross

Anna's Hummingbird

Ground Squirrel

Great Egret

Thursday, March 14, 2013

Nightmares in Wax: Parts 2 of 2

For the second part of this post, we have the entertainers. Cleopatra herself may not have been an entertainers.


Liz Taylor as Cleopatra


Mata Hari. Okay, technically not an entertainer, either. This blog is off to a weak start.


Whistler's Mother. Paintings can entertain, right? Well, I can tell you for sure she doesn't LOOK entertained.


Another painting.


A scene from the Sermon on the Mount


Vivien Leigh


Tom Hanks


Groucho Marx


The Tin Man


Elvira, Mistress of the Dark (Cassandra Peterson is her real name.)


Bonus picture so both days' posts give you terrible dreams. Salvador Dali looking quite frightening.

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Nightmares in Wax: Parts 1 of 2

Today I've got 10 low-key portraits from the San Francisco wax museum at Fisherman's Wharf. These are all wax figures -- sculptures -- though some look incredibly lifelike. Most of these were shot wide-open and at high ISOs due to the very low light in the museum. I don't recall who all of these figures are.




Napoleon (NOT Dynamite)


Valdimir Putin and Barak Obama.


George H.W. Bush




Gerald Ford and... I forget who the other guy is.


Prince Charles looking like Christian Bale


Nelson Mandela. I saw him speak when I was in grad school. It was amazing.


Some Civil War guy whose name I forget.


Tojo and Hitler

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