Thursday, April 30, 2015

Greater White-fronted Goose: Day 154

Winter has broken its silence. After months of a bleak soundless landscape, it's been refreshing to hear new birds calling around our yard, and the honks of geese formations overhead, as spring arrivals pour into the interior of Alaska. Generally only found west of the Mississippi, Greater White-fronted Geese overwinter in the Central Valley of California, Mexico, and along the Gulf Coast, migrating north in the summer to the arctic tundra of Alaska and Canada where they breed. The pair in this photo, being harassed by a Canada Goose, have stopped over in Creamer's Field to fatten up a bit before continuing north.

Canon EOS 60D, Canon EF 70-200mm f/4L USM + 1.4x, ISO-200 f/6.3 @ 1/800 sec.

Wednesday, April 29, 2015

House Buds: Day 153

Leaf buds are poised and ready to spring open when conditions are just right. Days, weeks? We'll have to wait and see.

Canon EOS 60D, Canon EF 17-40mm f/4L USM + Canon EF 25mm Extension Tube II, ISO-400 f/20 @ 1/30 sec.

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Trumpeter Swans: Day 152

With an impressive wingspan of up to 8 feet and weighing in at roughly 20 lbs, Trumpeter Swans are by far the largest species of waterfowl in North America. Once widespread and common throughout the contiguous United States, Trumpeter Swans were heavily targeted for their feathers, and by the end of the 18th Century populations were severely reduced to near extinction from over-hunting. The long flight feathers required to lift these heavy birds into the sky were highly valued for use as writing quills in a time before 'Sharpies'. Swans that bred in the more remote areas of Alaska and Canada managed to avoid the onslaught of the feather trade, and current populations in these areas are considered to be increasing and in good health, while efforts to reintroduce Trumpeter Swans to the lower 48 have been less than successful.

Canon EOS 60D, Canon EF 70-200mm f/4L USM + 1.4x, ISO-200 f/5.6 @ 1/2000 sec.

Monday, April 27, 2015

Spring Walk: Day 151

There's a good chance that in a week or two, all of these trees will be full of green, but for now, brown remains the dominant color. I'm told by Fairbanks elders that green-up happens when daytime highs consistently reach 60 degrees, and within a matter of days the buds will burst forth and fill the forest canopy with leaves. Temperatures have been getting very close to 60, and the buds around our house look ready, so hopefully by the end of this week the acceleration into the growing season will occur.

Another sign of spring. While typing this post, glancing out the window above my desk I saw two American Robins and one Dark-eyed Junco digging around in the leaf litter in our front yard. New arrivals on the mass migration north.

Canon EOS 60D, Canon EF 70-200mm f/4L USM + 1.4x, ISO-200 f/6.3 @ 1/200 sec.

Sunday, April 26, 2015

Pinhole: Day 150

This image of a lamp in our living room, with a bulb that simulates a real flame I found at Home Depot, may look, well...crappy. It's out of focus, the colors are desaturated, and it's riddled with black specks. The quality is simply not up to par with modern standards, and with good reason. The basic method of this type of photography dates back to the 5th Century BC. This image was taken using a pinhole camera, where I replaced lenses of precision cut glass elements with a simple opaque plate with a tiny pinhole at the center. The physics behind it might be complicated, but the idea is simple. Think of a camera as a dark sealed box with some sort of light sensitive film on one side and a single small opening on the opposing side. Light from a subject moves in straight lines through the pin-point sized opening (analogous to the aperture or "f/_" of a lens) and an inverted image gets projected onto the film in the back, or in this case the digital sensor of my camera. If the opening is too big, the film or sensor will be overwhelmed with light coming in all directions, whereas a tiny opening only allows a small amount of focused light in. If you play around with different aperture settings of the same scene, say a portrait of a friend in the woods, you'll discover that a small aperture (big number like f/22) will bring the trees in the background into focus, and a big aperture (small number like f/1.8) will blur the trees into a soft wash of color. Anyway, I bring this up because apparently it's world pinhole day. Who knew? Pinhole cameras are easy to make and create an interesting "old-timey" look to photographs. Give it a try yourself.

Canon EOS 60D, NO LENS, ISO-200, f/the width of a needle point, 20 sec.

Saturday, April 25, 2015

Creamer's Field: Day 149

Nothing says spring more than the return of migratory birds. Creamer's Field Migratory Waterfowl Refuge is a 2000 acre matrix of fields, wetlands, and woods that make up important refueling and breeding habitat for numerous bird species. Located within the city of Fairbanks, Creamer's Field provides a unique opportunity for the public to view a rich diversity of wildlife right in their back yards, with an extensive network of walking trails and boardwalks. The refuge even allows dogs! Creamer's Field was originally the largest and most successful dairy in interior Alaska, founded by pioneer families during the Goldrush era. The large open fields and discarded grain began attracting waterfowl over the years, and when the land went up for sale in 1966, the community of Fairbanks raised enough money to preserve the farmland as an important stopover for migrating birds. It is now managed by the state of Alaska.

See if you can identify the following species in this photo:

Trumpeter Swan (that one's easy)
Canada Goose
Cackling Goose....I think.
Northern Pintail
American Wigeon

Also in the pond that day but not pictured were Sandhill Cranes, White-fronted Geese, Glaucous-winged Gulls, and I believe a female teal.

Canon EOS 60D, Canon EF 70-200mm f/4L USM + 1.4x, ISO-200 f/6.3 @ 1/1000 sec.

Friday, April 24, 2015

The End of Night: Day 148

The 2014-15 winter aurora season is now closed. We're down to less than 2 full hours of "darkness" at this latitude, and by the end of April the glow of twilight will basically consume the entire night, concealing those distinctive green bands with a shroud of blue. No more late hours in the negative 20's chasing lights. I had no idea before moving up here how frequent the aurora would be, and how addicted to watching them I would become. Looking forward to what next winter has in store.

Canon EOS 60D, Canon EF 17-40mm f/4L USM, ISO-800 f/4 @ 20 sec. 

Thursday, April 23, 2015

Reindeer: Day 147

This is one of several new calves born at the Reindeer Research Farm at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, visible from pens along the main campus road. The program maintains a breeding stock of roughly 97 animals for the purposes of studying nutritional requirements, quality of meat, and management strategies for captive Reindeer herds. Although nearly identical in appearance, in Alaska Reindeer (Rangifer tarandus tarandus) are taxonomically considered a sub-species of Caribou (Rangifer tarandus granti). Driven by selective forces through thousands of years of domestication, Reindeer have developed physical characteristics that differ from their wild ancestors, such as shorter legs, a flatter face, and a stockier build.

Canon EOS 60D, Canon EF 70-200mm f/4L USM + 1.4x, ISO-200 f/5.6 @ 1/200 sec.

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Owl-fred?: Day 146

This noisy image might be our first photograph of Owl-fred. He spends the daylight hours tucked away in the forest canopy somewhere, hunting only under the veil of night, so we almost never get to see him.With prolonged twilight and limited darkness in the summer this far north, however, Owl-fred might soon be forced to break his cover. While taking pictures of the crescent moon around midnight last night, I noticed an owl-like shape perched on a branch near the nest box. Owl-berta should still be sitting tight on eggs, so I figured it must have been Owl-fred. I snapped a few shots, working my way closer for a better look, and as I neared the tree the owl hopped up to the nest box, gave out a meal delivery call, and to my surprise swooped down at my head before flying off into the forest. This was the first time our owls have gotten defensive. Not wanting to disturb the pair I retreated to the deck where I sat and watched for another 20 minutes or so. In that time, presumably Owl-fred made a second foraging trip from the box and returned minutes later with another meal delivery. I could hear rustling and what sounded like possibly Owl-berta bashing Owl-fred's fresh kill against the box walls. Looking closely at this photo and others from last night it appears Owl-fred is clutching a vole in his talons. Interestingly, throughout all of this activity, I could hear I male continuously calling nearby, possibly a second male from an adjacent territory. The plot thickens.

Canon EOS 60D, Canon EF 70-200mm f/4L USM + 1.4x, ISO-6400 f/5.6 @ 1/6 sec.

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Crossbill: Day 145

White-winged Crossbills are another common inhabitant of the boreal forest, often seen perched atop the cone covered canopies of dense spruce stands. Crossbills, as the name would suggest, are finches that have evolved a unique bent lower mandible which provides leverage to pry open the heavy scales of spruce cones and access the seeds within. The yellow head and neck of this bird indicates a female, male White-winged Crossbills are red.

Canon EOS 60D, Canon EF 70-200mm f/4L USM + 1.4x, ISO-400 f/10 @ 1/640 sec.

Monday, April 20, 2015

First Paddle: Day 144

I dusted off the old kayak from under the porch and went for the inaugural paddle of 2015 at Delta Clearwater this past weekend. Ice sheets clinging to the shoreline provided a pseudo dock to lunch from. Spotted dozens of Trumpeter Swans and Canada Geese, a pair of Mergansers, a single Goldeneye, several Mallards, a few American Dippers, and a handful of Beavers. Spring is in the air, life returns to the far north.

Canon EOS 60D, Canon EF 17-40mm f/4L USM, ISO-400 f/11 @ 1/160 sec.

Sunday, April 19, 2015

Delta Clearwater Lights: Day 143

Rivers and lakes around Fairbanks, locked in by thick sheets of surface ice, are just beginning to thaw after a long cold winter. Delta Clearwater River, however, has remained open throughout the cold months, despite frequent extreme sub-zero temperatures. Unlike most rivers which are fed by snow-melt, the 20 mile long Delta Clearwater is supplied by spring water just enough above freezing to hinder the formation of ice. Casey and I camped along its banks on Friday, and even with very low solar activity received a bright, albeit brief showing of aurora over the placid water.

Canon EOS 60D, Canon EF 17-40mm f/4L USM, ISO-800 f/4 @ 15 sec.

Saturday, April 18, 2015

Ice Slabs: Day 142

The Tanana River busting free from its banks as winter breaks up into spring.

Canon EOS 60D, Canon EF 70-200mm f/4L USM + 1.4x, ISO-400 f/5.6 @ 1/6400 sec.

Friday, April 17, 2015

Valley Fog: Day 141

Digging through photos from winter. This one was taken back in the inversion layer days.

Canon EOS 60D, Canon EF 70-200mm f/4L USM + 1.4x, ISO-640 f/5.6 @ 1/4000 sec.

Thursday, April 16, 2015

Murphy Dome Success: Day 140

My previous attempts to capture the aurora from Murphy Dome have been unsuccessful. Either the lights never appeared or the clouds drew the curtains. Last night, despite having to wait until after midnight for twilight to finally subside below the horizon, the aurora kept its part of the bargain and put on a descent late-season showing. I'm fairly certain the bright smudge directly above the radar dome is the Andromeda Galaxy.

Canon EOS 60D, Canon EF 17-40mm f/4L USM, ISO-800 f/4.5 @ 10 sec.

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Short-Lived Snow: Day 139

Winter might be reluctant to release its icy grip, but it would appear spring is equally as eager to steal the show. The roads, temporarily white again from a recent series of snow flurries, have melted back into a matrix of muddy tire tracks and puddles. Time to put away the insulated snow shoes and break out the muck boots.

Canon EOS 60D, Canon EF 17-40mm f/4L USM, ISO-125 f/20 @ 1/15 sec.

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Minto Flats: Day 138

A view of Minto Flats, nearly 500,000 acres of wetland habitat soon to be the destination for hundreds of thousands of waterfowl once the ponds are free of ice.

Canon EOS 60D, Canon EF 70-200mm f/4L USM + 1.4x, ISO-800 f/7.1 @ 1/6400 sec.

Monday, April 13, 2015

Owl-update: Day 137

Two weeks have gone by since we first spotted a boreal owl using the nest box in our yard. For three days following that initial sighting, a single owl, who we assumed was a female, was regularly seen hanging out at the entrance of the box. Whenever we would approach the tree she would pop out and give us a stern looking over. About a week ago, however, she became less visible and stayed in the box despite our attempts to lure her out. We began to question whether or not she had abandoned the box altogether, until one night, again while watching a movie, the male swooped in and shattered our doubts. He landed on a branch below the box, gave out a quick call, and hopped up to the entrance hole to deliver a fresh kill to the awaiting female. With boreal owls, females handle all of the incubating and brooding duties while males provide territorial protection and food.  It would appear the female we now call Owl-berta, is sitting on a clutch of eggs, and the male we named Owl-fred, is hunting at night, provisioning Owl-berta while she incubates. With an approximate lay date of April 3rd, and an incubation period of roughly 29 days,  if all goes well we should have chicks by the first week of May.

Canon EOS 60D, Canon EF 70-200mm f/4L USM + 1.4x, ISO-320 f/5.6 @ 1/640 sec.

Sunday, April 12, 2015

Vole: Day 136

One to two inches of fresh snow provides just enough cover for this vole to tunnel around and forage on seeds beneath a bird feeder on our deck. In the words of Casey, they are the plankton of the terrestrial environment here in Alaska. Martens, weasels, foxes, coyotes, hawks, owls, gulls, jaegers, pikes, everything seems to eat them. If this vole is not careful it might become dinner for Owl-berta and Owl-fred if it hangs around our house for too long.

Canon EOS 60D, Canon EF 70-200mm f/4L USM + 1.4x, ISO-800 f/5.6 @ 1/125 sec.

Saturday, April 11, 2015

Winter Returns: Day 135

Yesterday really felt like a change in seasons. Vibrant cumulus clouds full of moisture, a sense of freshness to the breeze, and what little snow remained was so brown it could have almost passed for mud. This morning, winter returned. It's snowing. Like powdered sugar over a slice of french toast. Out our living room window the sky, once again, a monotone grey and the ground a dusting of white.

Canon EOS 60D, Canon EF 85mm f/1.8 USM, ISO-800 f/2 @ 1/320 sec.

Friday, April 10, 2015

Pinwheel: Day 134

The trouble with aurora is, and this is obvious, you have to be awake to see it. Apparently I was premature in my "the aurora season is ending" talk. Last night the earth received a nearly direct hit by a coronal mass ejection (CME) from the sun, igniting lights across Alaska and as far south as Montana, North Dakota, and Washington. It doesn't get dark until about 11pm in Fairbanks now, and I was long in bed by then. This photo of a pinwheel like pattern, with green ribbons spinning off a central blob, was taken back in February during another CME strike.

Canon EOS 60D, Canon EF 17-40mm f/4L USM, ISO-320 f/4 @ 6 sec.

Thursday, April 9, 2015

The End of Aurora: Day 133

Long cold winter nights, crisp and clear from an absence of moisture and deafeningly silent, have been replaced by the cloudy restless nights of spring. With a rapidly shrinking window of darkness as the sun prolongs its attendance in the sky, by the end of April alone, the time between civil twilight will span a mere four hours. The aurora season is coming to an end. The solar wind will continue to blow, periodically sparking geomagnetic storms throughout the summer months, but the sun and clouds will make most viewing opportunities impossible. A small price to pay for the reappearance of sunshine.

Canon EOS 60D, Canon EF 17-40mm f/4L USM, ISO-1000 f/4 @ 5 sec.

Wednesday, April 8, 2015

Holes: Day 132

The pair of boreal owls that have taken up residence in a nest box we installed in our yard, who we've named Owl-berta and Owl-fred, naturally make use of tree cavities excavated by woodpeckers; such as those seen in this cottonwood. These particular holes were most likely carved out by a Northern Flicker.

Canon EOS 60D, Canon EF 17-40mm f/4L USM, ISO-400 f/10 @ 1/250 sec.

Tuesday, April 7, 2015

Warped Reef: Day 131

If this photo makes you nauseous, you're not alone. By using a slower shutter speed and zooming the lens in or out while the shutter is open, a warp-like effect is created around the center of the frame. This effect really draws attention to Reef's new green light we picked up for night walks, while simultaneously giving you a headache.

Canon EOS 60D, Canon EF 17-40mm f/4L USM, ISO-800 f/4 @ 1/8 sec,

Monday, April 6, 2015

Morning Sundog: Day 130

High stratus clouds create sundogs in the harsh morning light at Eleazar's Cabin.

Canon EOS 60D, Canon EF 70-200mm f/4L USM + 1.4x, ISO-200 f/7.1 @ 1/6400 sec.

Sunday, April 5, 2015

Eleazar's Lunar Eclipse: Day 129

Casey and I were invited on a group trip to Eleazar's Cabin this past weekend, twelve miles in from the Elliot Highway along the White Mountains trail system. Our group included six people, five dogs, and one snow machine for hauling gear. With little to no experience with winter sports, Casey and I hoofed it in on foot, while the others enjoyed perfect spring skiing conditions. It was a long and at times very painful walk, full of expansive vistas and gorgeous scenery.

The trip happened to coincide with a total lunar eclipse, when the moon passes within earth's shadow, or "umbra", during its transit across the night sky. The photo above is a composite of 16 shots from early yesterday morning taken 10 minutes apart, representing the first 2 hours and 30 minutes of the complete eclipse. The partial eclipse began at approximately 2:10 am Alaska time, the fourth moon from the left, when the moon first entered the umbra. For just under two hours, which felt a lot longer standing out in the cold, the moon was gradually erased from the sky as earth's shadow crept across the lunar surface. Finally at 4:00 am the eclipse reached "totality", where the moon was completely engulfed by the umbra. Earth's shadow is actually a scattering of red light, essentially the culmination of light from every sunrise and sunset happening around the globe, that turns the moon a rich amber color during the totality phase of a lunar eclipse.

Instead of a single photo of the moon during totality, I wanted to capture the entire progression of the moon during the different stages of the eclipse, with some interesting foreground for context. After most of the rum was consumed and everyone was off to bed, I dawned my layers and headed outside for the show. Framing the shot with Eleazar's Cabin in the foreground and the moon moving from left to right, I monitored the clock and took a photo of the scene every 10 minutes. Lunar eclipses happen very slowly over many hours, so fortunately the aurora came out and provided me with entertainment during the down time between shots. Technically speaking, due to changing light levels from minor clouds passing in front of the moon and the eclipse itself, this photo required 10 different exposure levels to complete. With a fixed ISO and aperture, I adjusted the shutter speed for what I felt would be the correct exposure for each 10 minute interval and bracketed by +/- 2 stops. I also needed to use a completely different exposure to capture the cabin in the foreground. In post, I selected the best photos from the night and blended them together using the "lighten" option in Photoshop. I was a bit nervous about the weather, and the clouds did eventually overtake the moon during entire second half of the eclipse, but I'm pretty happy with the results.

Here's a breakdown of the individual photos from this image.

Camera: Canon EOS 60D
Lens: Canon EF 17-40mm f/4L USM

Eclipse settings: ISO-800 f/8 @ (see below)
1:40 am, 1/500 sec
1:50 am, 1/500 sec
2:00 am, 1/500 sec
Partial Eclipse
2:10 am, 1/500 sec
2:20 am, 1/500 sec
2:30 am, 1/100 sec
2:40 am, 1/100 sec
2:50 am, 1/100 sec
3:00 am, 1/60 sec
3:10 am, 1/13 sec
3:20 am, 1/30 sec
3:30 am, 1/6 sec
3:40 am, 0.5 seconds
3:50 am, 3.2 seconds
4:00 am, 5 seconds

Foreground settings: ISO-200 f/4.5 @ 5 seconds

Saturday, April 4, 2015

Eleazar's Cabin: Day 128

We just finished a 24 mile overnight hike to Eleazar's Cabin in the White Mountains. You can see the trail extending into the vast wilderness in front of Casey and Reef. Blisters, pizza, and beer for now - stories and recovery tomorrow.

Canon EOS 60D, Canon EF 17-40mm f/4L USM, ISO-400 f/16 @ 1/320 sec.

Friday, April 3, 2015

Attention on the Moon: Day 127

For those living on the western portion of North America, or anywhere in the Pacific from Alaska to Australia, be aware a total lunar eclipse will occur in the early hours of Saturday morning. Also known as a "blood moon", the earth will cast a deep red shadow on the lunar surface during the total eclipse phase. As a bonus, a solar wind has just struck the earth's atmosphere, which has the potential to spark a geomagnetic storm in the far north tonight in conjunction with the lunar eclipse. The weather forecast for Fairbanks is questionable for tomorrow morning, so lets hope the clouds stay at bay.

Canon EOS 60D, Canon EF 17-40mm f/4L USM, ISO-640 f/6.3 @ 8 sec.

Thursday, April 2, 2015

Spring: Day 126

I think it's safe to say the breakup has begun. Or should we call it a brown-up? Increasing day lengths and above freezing temperatures have transformed a land locked in snow to a land riddled with deep puddles and brown slush. We even found sings of new growth emerging from the leaf litter of this cottonwood grove. With 14 hours of daylight and gaining nearly seven minutes more each day, it's only going to get brighter and warmer from here on out.

Canon EOS 60D, Canon EF 17-40mm f/4L USM, ISO-400 f/5 @ 1/1600 sec.

Wednesday, April 1, 2015

Boreal Frog: Day 125

The Boreal Frog is a unique species of amphibian native to the sub-arctic forests of Alaska. Bound by two formidable barriers, the Brooks Range to the north and the Alaska Range to the south, its distribution is restricted to the valleys and riverbeds of the interior. Emerging from the permafrost each spring during the melt, the bright red skin of the Boreal Frog, pictured above, contrasts sharply with the dull bleak landscape of late winter. It's flashy coloration would suggest a poisonous skin, however this is just a ruse. Unlike the poison dart frogs of tropical rain forests, which secrete toxic alkaloids to deter predators, the red skin of the Boreal Frog is benign and merely a mimic. Very little is known about the mating and reproduction of this secretive resident of the north, but like it's close relative the Boreal Chorus Frog of Canada, the male's song is frequently heard in the bogs and lakes of summer.

April fools by-the-way.

Canon EOS 60D, Canon EF 17-40mm f/4L USM + Canon EF 25mm Extension Tube II, ISO-200 f/22 @ 1.6 sec.