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?
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.
This is the post I was preparing when my friend Gary died. I had hoped to post this while it was still possible to hike to Ingalls Lake, but it is quite possible it is snowed-in for the season by now. I took the hike on October 10th, hoping to find good fall colors.
As I’ve mentioned in a previous post, to find good autumn colors in Washington State, you need to know where to look and have good timing. My goal for the hike to Ingalls Lake was to see some of those fall colors – specifically the subalpine larch trees. Larch trees are conifers, but unlike other conifers, they are not evergreens. The needles on larch trees turn a beautiful yellow then fall off in autumn. What makes them extra special is their setting. In Washington State, they are only found high in the mountains, which can create some incredible autumn scenery.
Even without the nearby larch trees, Ingalls Lake is spectacular. An alpine lake set in a rocky bowl at the base of Ingalls Peak with a view of the spectacular Mount Stuart that just won’t quit. The conditions were nearly perfect for my hike. It was partly sunny after a rainy weekend – at least it was rainy in the lowlands. At Ingalls Lake there was fresh snow, which just enhanced the scenery.
This nine-mile roundtrip hike immediately starts uphill from the parking lot as the trail switchbacks up to Ingalls Pass where it enters the Alpine Lakes Wilderness Area. The lower part of this portion of the trail is through forest, but the later part is not and has great views of the Esmeralda Peaks and Fortune Pass to the southwest. Once Ingalls Pass is reached, the view expands dramatically to include Ingalls Peaks and all the Stewart Range, anchored by Mount Stewart directly across the valley.
Ingalls Lake is not visible from the pass and is separated from it by the lovely Headlight Basin. The southern side of Headlight Basin has impressive groves of larch trees. The basin also includes many small streams, meadows, bare rock slopes, and boulder fields.
Just past the pass, the trail splits. The more direct route to the lake cuts downhill then uphill again through Headlight Basin. The main trail circles around the west side of the basin, not gaining or losing much elevation. The trails meet up again about 1/4 mile from the lake. From there, the trail scrambles uphill to the lake.
Since I was searching for fall colors, in particular the larch trees, the lake was a secondary objective. But what a secondary objective! I think you’ll agree from the images I’ve included here that the lake is spectacular. And neither was I disappointed by the larch trees.
I had hoped to stay in the basin until sunset, but as the afternoon wore on, more and more clouds were moving in and I thought the sunset might be a bust. So instead, I headed back downhill, stopping in the forested section of the trail to take more images of autumn color in the forest underbrush (the trees here are evergreens). As it turned out, the sun did break out again at sunset. Being back down low, I didn’t get much in the way of sunset shots, but I can’t complain, overall it was one of my best photo hikes in years. Perhaps, based on the images above and below, you will agree.
I hope you are having a great summer (or winter for my friends down south). I’m not sure where the time has gone this summer. It seems like I’ve been busy, but have little to show for it. I know my time has not been taken up by photography. I sort my image in my Lightroom catalog by date, and the catalog for July only has two dates in it. Same with August – and those two were from consecutive days of a non-photography trip where the camera barely left the bag. The purpose of the trip earlier this month was a family reunion. Us Beckers gather every year the first weekend in August.
This year, the get-together was at my sister’s house in Lyle, Washington. For those of you that don’t know where Lyle is, it is a small town in the Columbia River Gorge, on the Washington side of the river, ten miles or so east of Hood River, Oregon. My sister actually lives north of town another 10 miles or so in a house with a fantastic view of Mount Adams. However, I didn’t take any shots of Mount Adams when I was there, the air was quite hazy.
Tanya and I stayed right in the town of Lyle in an Airbnb house with a view of the Columbia River. The only photograph I planned to take that weekend was the image above. I knew by checking the Photographer Ephemeris that the crescent moon would be setting directly down the gorge from Lyle. In fact, I didn’t have to travel far to get the shot. The image above was taken from the deck of our rental.
So why is this post called “Rookie Mistakes?” Because I made a mess of my photo shoot. For those of you that have been to the Columbia River Gorge, you probably know the wind blows there a lot, and the night I shot this image was no exception. So, one would think that I, being somewhat of a professional photographer, would take precautions against camera shake. Well, I thought I did. I used my sturdiest tripod, I bumped up the ISO to 800 and used wide apertures to make for shorter shutter speeds. I shot some 30 images. All of them had camera shake to a certain extent. The one above, the last image I shot that night, was the best of the lot. I used Photoshop’s shake reduction filter, and that helped, but I could have done more. I should have used a weight on the tripod. I should have left the stabilizer on my lens, which I normally turn off when shooting from a tripod, turned on. Bad mistakes. I’m lucky I had even one halfway decent shot.
Mistake number two – the moon (and the planet above it in this image, Jupiter, I think) moves fast. My shutter speeds were between 2.5 and 30 seconds. When shooting stars at night, a 30-second exposure is typically not long enough to have star trails show when using a very wide-angle lens. However, I was not using a very wide-angle lens; I was using a telephoto lens. In everything I shot with a shutter speed over 2.5 seconds, the moon was horribly blurred due to the earth’s rotation. The image above is actually a composite, the moon and Jupiter are a 2.5 second exposure, the rest is a 10 second exposure.
All I can say is that when I downloaded these images to my computer, I was very disappointed. I let the excitement of the photo shoot overwhelm good technique. That’s why it is important to get out and practice your craft as much as possible. Keep working on your technique until it becomes second nature. I guess I’m not there yet. Here I encountered two different, unrelated phenomenon that, had I been thinking properly, should have made me use a fast shutter speed. Neither did. I failed and am lucky to have anything to show. But, I learned a lesson and, hopefully, will not make these mistakes again.