Wildlife

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Late January my parents visited for my brother’s birthday so we used the opportunity to also visit the Wildlife Learning Center in Sylmar. The learning center is a small wildlife way-station that has taken in many animals due to injuries or illegal pets.  We took the deluxe tour with a personal guide allowing us to touch and interact with some of the animals.

My brother feeding a N. American Porcupine

There were 5 porcupines in the enclosure and they seemed very curious and friendly, but they made us nervous as they crawled around our feet.  We got to feed them and they were very cute standing on two feet and grabbing the food with their hands.  I could see how people might think they would make good pets until a loud noise startled one and he pulled back the soft quills exposing the razor sharp ones…not cool.

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We also got to hold an owl, which was pretty cool.  I wish we could have let him fly, but i don’t think he was able to because of an injury.

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We also got to touch a sloth, desert fox, flying squirrel, and various reptiles!

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The deluxe tour made the visit worth it.  The facility is pretty small in comparison to some of the large zoos in the area, but the hands on interactive approach was worth every penny.

Last year we checked out the elephant seals and monarch butterflies around Pismo Beach.  It was a fun trip and pretty amazing seeing the unusual seals and butterflies, but we were a little late for the prime viewing.  This year we thought we would go a little earlier to catch the thousands of migrating butterflies and the seals giving birth.

 

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Although there were tens of thousands of butterflies they were so dense they only cover a few branches, which didn’t look that impressive.  At first its hard to see the butterflies because they are so close together and their wings are folded with the lighter underside exposed.  

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Also the branches they chose to rest on were 30 feet in the air, which is probably wise with all the curious people around.  As the sun rose and began to shine through the trees small sections of the brach began to warm up and flex their wings. After an hour there was a couple hundred butterflies fluttering around.

We then headed up the coast to check out the seals near Piedras Blancas.

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We quickly noticed there weren’t as many seals as last year, but there were more spectators.  We stuck around and watched the cute new borns huddle next to their moms, but we didn’t witness any births.

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It may have been the difference between seeing the seals in the evening rather than the morning, but the bulls were not actively guarding their harems.

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As we drove back along the coast on the two lane highway we noticed many hawks perched on the fence poles.  It was too good to pass up so we stopped and I got to use my new 70-300mm L lens to capture these birds of prey in the sunset glow.

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It’s interesting what you capture at 8 frames per second when you’re not sure what the animal is going to do next…

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It eventually did take off and I got a couple OK shots, but I would have liked my shutter speed to be a little faster to catch the tips of its wings.

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Although its flight path wasn’t ideal and the next frames had the barbed wire fence across the bird it still provided some good practice for future birds in flight (BIF) photography.

All in all it was a nice and relaxing trip for us and a great way to start off the new year with some wildlife photography.

 

 

By Nathan

We took a couple days off in early October and headed up to Lake Tahoe for a photography focused vacation.  The goal for the trip was to photograph black bears, aspens, and a couple unusual rock formations.  Unfortunately we never did see any bears, which was definitely disappointing, but we saw a lot of other cool sites and enjoyed a long weekend in Tahoe.

The 10 hour drive to Tahoe was broken up with a stop at Mono Lake to check out the unusual rock salt columns protruding out of the water.  These columns (tufas) are formed by the high salinity lake’s level receding.  The lake has a salinity of 78 g/L compared to ocean saltwater at 31 g/L.

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Of course with Katharine’s planning we hit the lake right at sunset and were quickly swamped by a photography class.  You know you’re in the right place when you move your tripod and it’s quickly replaced with another.

Just down the road we enjoyed an unusual gourmet meal at a gas station, the Tioga Gas Mart and Whoa Nellie Deli.  It is a little pricey, but so much better than typical gas station food/regret.  We recommend it to anyone who’s driving along the Highway 395 south of  Tahoe, north of Mammoth or east of Yosemite.

One of the main reasons we went to the Lake Tahoe area in October was to time our visit with the Taylor Creek salmon run. Taylor Creek is unique in the fact there is a land locked salmon run where the salmon come out of Lake Tahoe and spawn upstream in Taylor Creek.  This mass exodus of salmon usually attracts the attention of many black bears in the area.

I spent a few hours every morning hiking up and down Taylor Creek looking for black bears, but as I mentioned before we didn’t see or hear about any bears that weekend.  One rainy morning I was crouched in some bushes completely hidden when 4 hikers checking out the salmon got within 20 feet of me before I waved at one of them and got a pleasing startled response.

You can see hundreds of salmon waiting their turn to jump up stream.

Click to enlarge the photo and see all the salmon

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The Taylor Creek Visitor Center also has a nice exhibit, which is a tunnel with large aquarium connected to the stream holding salmon, trout and other native species.

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The scenery around Lake Tahoe is pretty nice and is worth the trip alone.

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We also enjoyed a couple hikes in the mountains on the south side of the Lake.
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Granite Lake Hike (2.5 miles, 1,000 feet of gain), overlooking Emerald Bay

Round Lake Hike (6 miles, 1,000 feet of gain)

Every sunset we tried to position ourselves along the lake shore to get the best shot.  The first evening we started at Emerald Bay, but the mountains along that shoreline are too high leaving the bay in the shade.
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Emerald Bay
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The second evening we headed across the lake to Sand Harbor, which has unique rocks in the foreground, but the water was choppy from the wind and there weren’t any clouds to make the sky more interesting.  Although we did try some shots with a slow shutter speed, which gave kind of a mystical look to the photos.
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The last evening we went a little south of Sand Harbor and the wind cooperated, giving us the best sunset of the trip.
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We also managed to time our trip with the Aspens turning yellow. On our last day in Tahoe the mountains got a dusting of snow which made a picture perfect landscape with the aspens in the valley on the drive home.
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Despite not seeing any bears, Lake Tahoe was beautiful and we had a lot of fun getting a taste of West Coast fall. We’d love to return for summer and winter too!

By Nathan

While Katharine traveled to the east coast I headed down the coast to San Diego to visit my family.  I met up with my brother, dad and grandpa for a half day of deep sea fishing of the coast.  I find most activities I enjoy require me to wake up before sunrise: fishing, hunting, long hikes, and wildlife photography.  Luckily I’m a morning person and if there is something worth waking up for I don’t even need an alarm clock.  We loaded up on the boat before sunrise and headed to the bait docks to load up on sardines.

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It was a beautiful fiery sunrise as the sky turned from purple to pink to orange and red.  The ocean was calm with no wind and a sunny forecast for the day ahead.  A couple years ago we went fishing for father’s day and it was cold and rainy. So, even if we didn’t catch much, as long as the weather was nicer we would consider it a success.

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The bait of the day was chopped up frozen squid!  We baited our hooks and dropped the lines overboard 200+ feet to the bottom.

 

(This is where my mom is grossed out and stops reading the post)

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It didn’t take long before my grandpa was hauling in the first fish of the day.

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The bright orange rock fish would only put up fight for the first 10-20 feet of line.  This was understandable once you brought the fish on board and could see their bodies couldn’t handle the rapid pressure change.

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Pretty soon we were all catching them – in fact the entire boat of 50 or so people were catching the spiny fish.  We weren’t too keen on the idea of rock fish for dinner so when the deck hands asked what bag number we had, we just picked random numbers, basically giving out fish to unsuspecting fisherman until my grandpa caught by a deck hand who remembered his first fake number.  We were busted, but to keep the boat count up the deck hands went along with the idea of distributing the fish amongst the other people.

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After catching a decent amount of fish we took a break to share jokes and stories while others kept dropping their lines over hoping for the big one.  There was some commotion from the back of the boat and as I got a closer look it was a pale looking sea monster thrashing in the water.

Wolf Eel

The fisherman broke the line and the monster slithered back to the bottom of the sea.  The eel was probably 5 feet long and it made you wonder what else was down there and I was glad to be on the boat. Later the boat jumped in excitement when a young guy next to us hooked onto a yellow fin tuna.  It gave him a good 30 minute fight and ended up being almost 30 pounds.  It was the largest fish I’ve ever seen caught in real life and was pretty amazing how the thin fishing line could have the strength to hold a fish that strong.  To top off the great story, the guy was from Arizona and this was the first time he’s seen the ocean!  I’m sure he’ll be telling that story for the rest of his life.

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After a long morning of fishing and storytelling we headed back to the docks.  While headed back to shore, the deck hands clean the fish and throw the unwanted parts overboard creating a feeding frenzy for the seagulls and pelicans.  I used the oppotunity to get some close up photos of pelicans flying next to the boat.

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That afternoon we headed to the beach to watch my dad surf with his new board.

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My dad grew up in San Diego and spent many days surfing so this was nothing new, but the last time we took photos and video it was on actual film and VHS.  The waves were okay, but it’s hard to capture a lifetime hobby in a 2 hour window.

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I’m sure I’ll be taking many photos and videos in the future and hopefully next time I’ll have a new telephotos lens!

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It was a fun weekend packed full of fishing, surfing, jokes and best of all old stories.

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As our final training for Mt. Whitney we headed into the White Mountains, which are east of the Sierras, right across the Owens Valley from Mt. Whitney. Although it was a pretty long drive for just a weekend trip, it gave us a chance to get some real altitude experience. White Mountain Peak is at 14,246′ and is the third highest peak in CA, but since there essentially is a fire road leading to the top, the hike has a very gradual accent. Thus most people consider it one of the easiest 14-ers to summit (apparently even unicyclers have done it), but it’s still a 14 mile hike with 2800′ of gain and at such a high altitude it can be tough.

So once again we drove out Friday night after work and arrived quite late at Grandview Campground (8500′) and went straight to bed. For Saturday we just planned to hang around and acclimate, so we slept in and then started the slow drive to the trailhead (which would also be our campsite for the night) at 12,000′.

Driving through the White Mountains

The first thing we noticed when we got to the trailhead parking lot was all the flat tires… even a Jeep with off-roading tires had a flat! We were lucky and didn’t have any problems.

That’s going to be a pain to change after a 14 mile hike…

Soon after we arrived, it started raining so we just hung around and tried to take photos of the dramatic lighting without getting too wet.

Rain over the Sierras

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We were hoping for clear skies to see the Perseids meteor shower since there is very little light pollution up there, but unfortunately the weather did not cooperate and it was cloudy all night, even raining quite a bit. We did get to enjoy a pretty nice sunrise though…

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Since we didn’t stay up to see the stars, we were able to get an early start Sunday morning (for us – ate breakfast, packed up the tent, and on the trail before 7:30!) which was good because it’s better to get off the summit before afternoon thunderstorms hit. The hike up felt long, but considering we started at 12,000′, we made good time on the trail. We definitely appreciated the gradual slope though.

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And along the way we saw tons of marmots which distracted us from the hiking (and slowed us down since Nathan had to photograph every single one!)

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About 2 miles into the hike, we passed the UC Barcroft Research facility, where they study the effects of altitude on animals (like sheep and apparently they even tag squirrels for their studies!)

Check out the radio collar

The rest of the trail was pretty uneventful, just a gradual climb but with spectacular views across the Owens Valley, and then we finally got to see the peak.

White Mountain Peak

The final mile to the top was quite a bit steeper and felt tough at such high altitude, but we eventually made it to the peak just as a storm started making its way toward us. We took a few quick pictures and decided to head back down.

Storm brewing from the summit

The hike down was uneventful, but we did feel some drizzles and quick bit of hail as we hiked essentially between two storms.

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After we made it to the car, we treated ourselves to a hot meal and started the drive back out. On our way we made a couple short side trips to see the groves of Bristlecone Pine Trees – the oldest living creatures in the world. Clearly an exciting stop for Katharine! Although the afternoon rain did sort of put a damper on things, so we didn’t spend as much time there, opting instead to drive home in time for dinner.

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It was quite the weekend adventure for us, but more importantly gave us experience sleeping above 11,000′ and hiking above 14,000′. Luckily for us, we don’t seem to be too sensitive to the altitude, which gave us a lot of confidence heading into our Mt. Whitney trip!

At the very end of April our friends Aidan and Aditya joined us for a hike to bag 4 peaks in 7.5 miles in the Angeles National Forest: San Gabriel Peak (6161′), Mount Disappointment (5960′), Mount Markhan (5742′), and Mount Lowe (5603′). This trail was recently reopened due to a rockslide near the tunnel.

Mueller Tunnel Constructed in 1942

Each peak was somewhat unique; San Gabriel Peak is the highest of the 4 and has old concrete foundations from a fire lookout post, Mount Disappointment is covered in humming radio towers, Mount Markhan is narrow and less traveled, and Mount Lowe has a few welded pipes for viewing other peaks in the area.

Mt. Baldy (future day hike)

Mount Markhan’s trail is narrow and is more of a boulder scramble to the top.

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On the way up an unusual creature crossed our path.  Although they are hard to see these horned lizards (Phrynosoma) aka horny toads are found throughout the southwest.

Can you spot the extremely camouflaged young lizard?! (HINT: In focus just to the left of the stick)

Prehistoric looking creatures

To my surprise we saw two in one day even though we’ve been hiking all over Southern California for years now without ever seeing one.

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Many times when we reach a peak on our hikes we are greeted by these pale yellow butterflies that  fly circles around us.  I’ve tried many times to catch them in flight, but settled for this one resting on a plant, you can actually see the hairs on its back!

Female Eastern Tiger Swallowtail (Papilio glaucus)

By Katharine

When I was planning the trip to see the elephant seals, I discovered that nearby there is a grove of eucalyptus trees near Pismo beach that support thousands of wintering monarch butterflies. At the peak of the season there are over 20,000. Apparently we missed the peak by a couple weeks, so there were “only” ~5,000. It still was quite a sight to see them covering the tree branches

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They tended to cluster in the sunshine to stay warm, but there were also many flying around from tree to tree. There also were some mating – they flit about in the air and then on the ground or in the air the male grabs the female and tows it up to the highest branches where they ‘hang out’ for a few hours.

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The butterflies were beautiful and it was amazing to see so many at once. They were up pretty high in the trees though making photographs pretty challenging. It was worth it though!

 

By Katharine

At the beginning of the year I started researching different trips we could do, and especially tried to find some interesting opportunities for wildlife photography. I expected to mainly find information on bird migrations or the like, but instead discovered that there is an elephant seal rookery in the Pismo Beach area. Although you can see seals there at any time of year, Jan-Feb is best because the females give birth while the males fight to gain and protect their harem. I decided to design it to be a full photography trip, adding a stop at a grove with thousands of wintering monarchs and some exploration of the beautiful coastline. We invited Nathan’s parents since they are always up for new experiences, so they met us in LA and we made the 4 hour drive up the coast on a Friday night.

If you’ve never seen a picture of a male elephant seal, there’s not much to prepare you. They are huge, weighing up to 6000 pounds, and their noses are just ridiculous.

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The females and babies have the more traditional cute seal face though.

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The rookery at Piedras Blancas has a boardwalk overlooking the beach, allowing us to get a great view of the action. These seals were definitely the most active and interesting animals that we’ve seen. The males were constantly moving around protecting their harem of females, threatening other males and chasing them off. We saw a couple fights where they attack each other with their teeth until one retreats into the ocean. And their chests were covered in rough scar tissue, proof of previous battles.

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The females meanwhile were mostly trying to avoid advances from the males, constantly barking and fighting among themselves.

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They also flip sand on themselves, probably for sun protection. Many were nursing their pups although they only do that for about a month before leaving the beach and their pup behind to fend for itself. Generally once they’ve given birth, they breed again and head back into the ocean for another 9 months.

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The pictures give you an idea of these incredible animals (more at the end of the post), but you really should check out the video… watching these huge animals move across the beach is quite a sight. Also, nothing can prepare you for all the crazy sounds they make, nothing can describe it.


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So, if you ever have the chance to visit in the winter, it’s definitely worth the stop. We are already planning to go back again next year, maybe a little earlier when there are more births and the males are fighting more to decide which females they can claim for their harem.

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