Winter in Washington State brings snow to the mountains, but to the Skagit River delta, it brings snow geese by the ten’s of thousands. And right now is prime snow-goose viewing on Fir Island. In addition to snow geese, there are thousands of trumpeter and tundra swans, as well as dozens of bald eagles and other raptors. Throw in a random flock of ducks and a great blue heron or two and you have a birder’s paradise.
Last Sunday, Tanya, Nahla and I headed up to the Skagit to check out the birds. This is one photo opportunity where you don’t have to get up early in the morning. The snow geese spend the night our on the bay, but fly in to congregate on the agricultural fields of Fir Island (as well as other parts of the delta). They fly in flocks of dozens to thousands, and in my experience, as the day progresses, they tend to gather in larger and larger flocks. Indeed, on Sunday we arrived about 12:30 p.m. and the geese were largely congregated into two huge flocks. It’s always a bit of crap shoot on how close they will be to the road (and you want to shoot from the road, not only are the fields private property, they are extremely muddy), but last Sunday both large flocks were very close to the road. The edge of one flock was within 10 feet of the southern side of Fir Island Road and the other was perhaps 50 feet from Polson Road.
I think most photographers like to get a shot of a huge flock of geese in flight. Normally the geese are gathered on the ground, grazing on the fields, with small groups flying in and out. But now and then, something startles the birds and the entire flock takes off at once. If you wait long enough, you can often capture such a mass takeoff. Last Sunday, I had the perfect vantage (perfect for me, not for the geese) with the flock off Polson Road. The flock was north of the road (in a field closed to hunting), so I was not shooting into the sun, while south of the road were perhaps a dozen hunters (in a field open to hunting). When a few geese would fly over the hunters, shotguns would ring out (see what I mean about not being perfect for the geese), which would scare the flock north of the road and they would all take to flight. The flock would circle north a ways, land, but eventually a few dozen or hundred at a time, come back to where they had originally been and the cycle would repeat.
In addition to the geese, we saw several flocks of swans (a mix of trumpeter and tundra swans), the largest being probably over 1,000 birds. And along the river were plenty of bald eagles, typically in groups of three to seven hanging out in the trees along the river banks.
I normally don’t shoot a lot of bird pictures. I don’t have big enough glass for most bird photography (my 28 – 300 mm zoom is my largest lens and all the bird images in this post were taken with it), and I don’t have the patience that is often needed. But this is why I like going up to the Skagit in winter. Often, as was the case Sunday, you can get decent images without a huge telephoto lens. And you don’t have to wait for a lot of bird action – just drive around on the roads covering Fir Island looking for a flock of geese or a congregation of eagles.
The other thing I like about going there, is that it is close to Deception Pass State Park. Deception Pass is a favorite place of mine to shoot. So, after we had enough bird viewing to fill our day, we drove over to Deception Pass for sunset. From the middle of Fir Island, Deception Pass is about a 30 minute drive away (just over 20 miles). I shot a few images of the Deception Pass Bridge and then hustled down to Bowman Bay to shoot the sun setting over Deception Island.
All and all a good winter’s day.
I can’t count the number of times I’ve been through Longmire in Mount Rainier National Park; dozens at least, maybe a hundred times over my life. Usually I drive right past on the way to Paradise, but even so, I have stopped many times over the years. The main reason I usually don’t stop at Longmire is that I’ve always considered the view of Rainier to be, frankly, not so good. I’m sure it was great then they built the lodge, but it’s my supposition that over the years, the trees have grown up around Longmire meadow, blocking much of the view of the mountain. Additionally, if you shoot from the lodge, the road runs through the foreground.
Last week I discovered I was wrong. Longmire has a great view of Rainier! Perhaps this is old news to everyone out there whose ever been to Mount Rainier National Park, but it was news to me. Last week my photographer buddy, Mark Cole, and I went to the park to go snowshoeing and take a few pictures. We stopped at Longmire, not because that was our destination (we had planned on going to Paradise), but because the road to Paradise was closed due to the snowplow needing a replacement part. I was resigned to the fact that our photography would be limited to snowy forest scenes, perhaps a few shots of the Nisqually River, and maybe a view of Rainier from the Rampart Ridge trail if we decided to snowshoe it.
We stopped in to talk to the ranger, largely to see if the road to Paradise would open later that day, but we also asked about where to snowshoe at Longmire. We mentioned the main purpose of our outing was photography. He told us about Rampart Ridge, but said the best view of Rainier was at the Community Building right in Longmire. Both Mark and I had never heard of the Community Building nor the road to it. The ranger told us of a road which travels through the employee living area, crosses the Nisqually River on a suspension bridge, and runs down the south bank of the river to the Community Building (and a short distance beyond). We drove to the Community Building and couldn’t believe our eyes, the view of the mountain was awesome. Some of Longmire’s buildings are visible on the north bank of the river, but by wandering along the river, and through careful composition, the buildings can be eliminated from a photo. The bridge is also in the view, but it is pretty scenic, so I kept it in my compositions. I’m not sure what the view looks like here without snow, but with snow, it is great.
We ended up spending an hour of more there, snowshoeing along the river, taking photos of the mountain from several different locations. By the time we finished, we didn’t have enough daylight left to do the Rampart Ridge loop, so we wandered up the Wonderland Trail toward Cougar Rock looking for more shots of the river. But as sun set approached, we again crossed the bridge at Longmire and took shots of the alpenglow on Rainier with the river and bridge in the foreground.
Thanks to a broken snowplow, I discovered the Longmire does have a great view. Who knew?
On Christmas Day, Tanya received a phone call from a friend of ours. The friend and partner had been in a car accident on the Oregon coast and were in the hospital in Tillamook, though luckily the injuries appeared to be minor. Their car, on the other hand, was totaled. Was it possible for us to drive down and pick them up? Both Tanya and I love the Oregon coast, so it wasn’t too hard for us to agree to drive down.
We drove to Tillamook the day after Christmas. I hoped to get some sunset shots on the coast that day, but by the time we checked the friends out of the hospital, it was getting dark. Besides, it was raining. Maybe at sunrise the next morning? The friends wanted to sleep in, so perhaps I’d have time in the morning to run to the beach.
Tillamook itself is inland off the coast, but it is close to three capes and many beaches. The Three Capes Scenic Route leaves Tillamook and is extremely scenic. I’ve driven it several times, and I highly recommend it. However, last week I only had a limited amount of time, so I picked Cape Kiwanda, the southernmost of the three capes, to go to. Cape Kiwanda is quite unusual for the Oregon coast. It is formed by an yellow to orange sandstone, unlike the black volcanic capes common elsewhere on the coast. Plus it is more accessible and not totally tree covered like the other capes. I have been there once or twice before, but never had time to explore it beyond the adjoining beach. I also picked it because of an added bonus of high tide occurring in the morning – perfect for capturing images of waves crashing on the rocks.
I got up early and convinced Tanya to come with me. We drove down to Cape Kiwanda, about 25 miles south of Tillamook. We got there about 7:45 a.m., a little before sunrise. It was raining, but at least it wasn’t completely overcast like the previous evening. There were even a few patches of blue sky and pastel-colored clouds to the northwest. I bundled up against the wind and rain, walked down the beach to the cape.
Cape Kiwanda is formed by sandstone cliffs jutting out into the water and a large, tree-topped sand dune plastered against the mainland. It is not large as far as Oregon capes go, it only sticks out into the the ocean from the beach perhaps a 2,000 feet. Nor is it tall, with the sand dune rising to a bit over 100 feet in elevation and the sandstone cliffs being half that. It is quite easy to walk out onto the cape by traversing the side of the sand dune from the beach up to the top of the sandstone.
The first thing one notices when climbing up onto the cape is a fence with warning signs attempting to keep the public from getting near the cliff edges. The fence is very easy to cross (in some places, sand has piled up against it so you can easily step over without any effort). But don’t be mistaken, Cape Kiwanda is a dangerous place. IT is perhaps the deadliest place on the Oregon coast; six people have died deaths there in the past two years. The pounding waves of the Pacific easily erode the sandstone cliffs, which helps create their natural beauty, but also makes them unpredictable. The edges of the cliffs can collapse at any time. As a geologist, I agree getting near the edge of such cliffs, particular when waves are hitting them is foolish. Additionally, it contains an area known as the Punchbowl – an inviting rocky cove with a sea cave that becomes a cauldron of white water at high tide.
The waves aren’t the only factor in eroding the cape. It’s famous hoodoo, known as the Pedestal or Duckbill Rock, was destroyed by vandals in 2016. What a waste. (This is another example of photograph it while you can because you will never know if you will have another opportunity.) Prudence is definitely called for if you venture beyond the fence. However, I freely admit I did to get the shots shown here, though I was careful to stay away from the edge.
By the time I hiked up onto the cape, the rain had stopped, though the wind was still blowing hard. I set up my tripod and shot the Punchbowl from a couple different angles, trying to capture the fury of the waves. Though I shot a few images with slow shutter speeds to create water blurs, I was worried about the wind causing camera shake, even with the tripod, so I increased my shutter speed and ISO setting (with the sun covered by clouds, it was a bit dark). I moved around a bit and found a nice view of a sea arch being pummeled by crashing waves. Unfortunately, the rain returned with a vengeance, and I packed up the camera for awhile. But just as quickly as it came, the rain let up, and I continued shooting. The sun even came out for about five minutes, lighting up the tops of the cliffs.
I was running short on time (we needed to get back to Tillamook to pick up our friends), so I huffed up to the top of the sand dune for a quick overview and then headed back to the car. I easily could have spent several more hours there. Tanya and I headed back to town, picked up our friends, made a visit to the cheese factory (a seemingly mandatory stop in Tillamook), and drove back to Tacoma. It was a quick trip, the result of an unfortunate accident that, based on the shots I later pulled up on my computer, had real Kiwanda benefits.
Every December my day-job company, Robinson Noble, puts together a calendar to send to clients. I provide all the photos in the calendar. This year is no exception, and our 2017 calendar will be mailed out probably next week. As part of the process, I annually write a post on the Robinson Noble blog telling a bit about the photos in the calendar. It is always interesting picking the images to be used in the calendar, which I do with the help of our business development manager. We select images from throughout the Pacific Northwest, since that is where most of our client are from. But it can be a bit of a challenge to pick images that not only represent differing parts of the Northwest, but also represent the months and seasons. Plus, you don’t want too many sunset pictures or too many images of Mount Rainier (I’m not sure, but the 2017 edition may be the first one without any images of Mount Rainier).
I took the image above at Griffiths-Priday Ocean State Park, which is located at the town of Copalis Beach on the Washington coast. In the calendar, it is the April photo. Washington has a lot of broad sandy beaches, and I always struggle to capture interesting images of them. Thanks to the curving stream on the beach at Griffiths-Priday, I think I succeeded in finally getting a good image of a sandy Washington beach.
You can use this link to see the rest of the images in the 2017 calendar, and to read the stories behind the images.
Between family obligations and work, I haven’t been able to get out and do any photography this month. So instead of showing something new, I’ll show something old. Six years ago on November 24th, I shot the above image of Snoqualmie Falls. This is in total contrast to the present November. This year, we have not had a frost yet at my house in Tacoma. But six years ago, a blast of freezing Arctic air descended on western Washington, first bringing snow, then bitter cold.
That Thanksgiving Day in 2010, I packed up Tanya and our newfie, Carson, and drove up to Snoqualmie Falls to see what it looked like in the deep freeze. It was magnificent. The mist off the cascading water had encased the canyon walls in huge icicles, creating a very unusual, and photogenic, view of the falls.
There are several viewpoints at the falls, but only the one close to the parking lot was open due to the ice. While a nice viewpoint, it looks down on the falls, rather than being more level with the falls, and I do not think it is that great for photography. So I carefully walked around a barrier and carried my tripod down to one of the lower viewpoints to capture this shot. Yes it was icy, but not overly so. Plus, there was no one else around, so I could more easily position my tripod where I wanted. I think this little bit of rule-breaking was worth it. (Not that I would ever suggest any photographer should go into closed areas without permission to make an image!)
I’m very thankful about what that freezing Thanksgiving Day six years ago gave me. And thank you to all my friends and readers of my blog – if you are American, enjoy your Thanksgiving holidays, and if not, just have a great end of November.