Gorging 2015

Arrowleaf Balsamroot (Balsamorhiza sagittata) atop Dog Mountain
Relatively speaking, my time spent in the Columbia River Gorge during my recent spring trip was short. Of all the things I “wanted” to do during my time in the Gorge, a return trip to Dog Mountain during the balsamroot bloom was at the top of the list. It’s been about 6 years since my last visit up Dog Mountain and, although I intended to return much sooner than this, something always happened to thwart my plans. To recap for the uninitiated, the wonderful meadows of balsamroot on Dog Mountain are reached after a 3 mile hike with a 2,500 foot elevation gain. The views don’t come easy!

Despite the legitimate workout it provides, this hike has become increasingly popular. Locals have almost swore off visiting on weekends due to the steady stream of people on the trail. This year, there were well over 50+ cars at the trail head at noon on a weekday (a far cry than my last visit in 2009). After two hours of slogging up hill, I finally made my return to the meadows. I’d like to say I felt inspired upon my overdue return to the meadows but…..I wasn’t. The flowers were in fine shape and any breeze was fairly manageable but I was obsessed with what time it was. You see, this day (the third day of my trip) was the first day where a reasonable chance for sunset was present. I planned on shooting sunset over Mount Hood and that required me to be mindful of what time it was and when I needed to leave Dog Mountain in order to make it to my sunset destination in enough time.
Arrowleaf Balsamroot (Balsamorhiza sagittata) atop Dog Mountain
Arrowleaf Balsamroot (Balsamorhiza sagittata) and Small Flowered Lupine (Lupinus micranthus) atop Dog Mountain
Arrowleaf Balsamroot (Balsamorhiza sagittata) and Indian Paintbrush (Castilleja hispida) atop Dog Mountain
The end result of being so preoccupied with the time was feeling pressured or rushed when I finally did pull the camera out of my backpack. Whenever this happens, your odds of coming come when great photos is quite low. To be fair, this was self induced pressure so I won’t beat myself over this. As I’ve come to learn, visits to some locations just require more time to properly explore.

One location in the Gorge that is more amenable to a quicker visit is Wahclella Falls. All told, my visit about about 2 hours total from car to car. The falls are reach in just over a mile of trail and only 250 feet of elevation to gain. The parking area at the trailhead is small and unluckily for me, it was completely full. I ultimately discovered why on my hike in as dozens of elementary aged kids and their chaperones passed me on their hike out. Bad timing for parking at the trail head but good timing for my time spent at the falls.
Wildflowers at Puppy Point on Dog Mountain
Wahclella Falls, Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area
Wahclella Falls, Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area
Despite the occasional sunshine, it really didn’t impact my photography at the falls thanks to the high canyon walls which shaded the falls from any harsh, direct light. Spray can be a problem here if you’re shooting directly in front or towards the left of the falls but it’s not really apparent how much that threat is. I did happen to notice the indicators of a spray zone so I was pretty vigilant about keeping the front of my lens wiped dry and covered when not in use. I should have explored the creek downstream of the falls a little more but I was thinking about getting to my chosen destination for that evening’s sunset.

My last Gorge-ish destination was a return to Panther Creek falls over on the Washington side. I had a potential idea for a slightly different composition that I wanted to check out in addition to it just being a cool place to hang out. Well, my composition idea didn’t quite pan out and for whatever reason, the cliffy downclimb to reach the base of the falls just seemed different this time around. Maybe it’s age but I swear that there were more handholds to use the last time I was there. Oh well. I was still able to take a few photographs from the viewing platform by balancing my exposure with a graduated neutral density filter. I think I might visit Dry Creek falls instead next spring. I have a line on something interesting in that area that I’d like to check out…
Panther Creek Falls, Wind River drainage
Panther Creek Falls detail, Wind River drainage

Florida’s Natural World

Pond Cypress forest scene at Audubon's Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary, Collier County, Florida
It’s hard to deny the importance of Florida’s landscape on a global scale. Thirty percent of all bird species found in North America have been sighted passing through the greater Sanibel Island area. The same conditions that attract all those birds also attracts another species- humans. Typically, when nature and humans compete for the same land, humans typically win. Sanibel Island, however, bucks that trend and did so long before conservation came to mainstream America. If you’re not familiar with the development history of Sanibel / Captiva Islands, it is well summarized in the nature guidebook Living Sanibel. The Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary, located in nearby Collier County, is about 29 miles to the southeast of Sanibel Island and is HUGE- nearly 13,000 acres in size. Nearly half of that acreage had been already preserved by 1955, and the rest followed in the subsequent years.

Unlike the Ding Darling Refuge on Sanibel Island, the Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary is privately owned and managed by the National Audubon Society. From the visitor’s center, just over 2 miles of elevated boardwalk trail traverse through five different “ecosystems”: pine flatwoods, wet prairie, Pond cypress, Bald cypress, and the central marsh. Our visit in July was outside of any “peak” visitation by migrating birds but don’t let something like that from deterring you from visiting. We were not able to visit the sanctuary first thing in the morning so we saw less wildlife than we might have otherwise. The afternoon thunderstorms were beginning to establish and the combination of the sounds of distant thunder and insects in the wet prairie were very peaceful and mesmerizing.
Swamp Lily (Crinum americanum) at Audubon's Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary, Collier County, Florida
Brown Anole (Anolis sagrei) at Audubon's Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary, Collier County, Florida
Barred Owl (Strix varia) at Audubon's Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary, Collier County, Florida
The swampy landscape and “tropical” nature of the plants were very foreign to my familiar surroundings back in the Pacific Northwest. The land is very intricate & complex and that makes it quite difficult to pre-visualize compositions. Now add 85% humidity, 90° F temperatures, and mosquitoes and you have a struggle on your hands. I gambled on just using a monopod and, in a situation like the swamp where I wanted to also incorporate some landscape photography, I didn’t do so well. A traditional tripod support would have improved the quality of some of my opportunities. The beauty of the surroundings was obvious and I appreciated it; I just had trouble capturing it. I think the key to recognize it, admit it, and move on. I can always make a return visit so it’s not worth ruining one’s enjoyment in the moment.

The “noise” which made it hard for me to make sense of everything also enabled me to walk right past a Barred Owl just mere feet away from the boardwalk! Thankfully, the people I was with made sure I was aware of it on the return trip back to the visitors center. The owl seemed fine with the attention and didn’t show any signs of uncomfort at my presence. I still gave it space and used the length of my 500mm lens to bridge the gap. I was able to photograph the owl for several minutes before I needed to catch up with my group. During our brief stay, we barely scratched the surface of what Corkscrew has to offer; I hoped to make a second visit during our stay (the entrance fees are good for 2 consecutive days) but that did not work out. I will have to make another visit in the future.
Yellow-crowned Night Heron (Nyctanassa violacea) & crab, J. N. 'Ding' Darling National Wildlife Refuge, Sanibel Island, Florida
Snowy Egret (Egretta thula), J. N. 'Ding' Darling National Wildlife Refuge, Sanibel Island, Florida
Snowy Egret (Egretta thula), J. N. 'Ding' Darling National Wildlife Refuge, Sanibel Island, Florida
Back on Sanibel Island, the heart of the island’s natural world is the Ding Darling National Wildlife Refuge. While it’s not as big as Corkscrew, it’s still over 6,400 acres in size (2,800 of which are federally designated wilderness). The majority of this land is on Sanibel’s bay side and it’s focal point is the 4 mile long one-way road which traverses through some of those lands. The road makes its way through the mangrove forest which is broken up by several large expanses shallow water that the road bisects. I made two visits to the refuge on the same day- once at late morning and then later in the day around 4pm.

The noon visit was very quiet, except for the noseeums (or sand fleas) which attacked me voraciously. A local photographer whom I had met earlier at sunrise warned me about them but they focused their attack on whatever skin that was left exposed. This was not fun! I would echo the photographer’s recommendation of long sleeves & long pants but would add some DEET or other bug spray to help ward off these relentless foes. I was advised to either visit the refuge before 10am or after 4pm and that seemed to ring true. At midday, the refuge was pretty quiet and most wildlife is off somewhere else. Despite this fact, I still managed to quickly see an alligator, Yellow-crowned Night-Heron, and a little later, a Snowy Egret up close.
Reddish Egret (Egretta rufescens), J. N. 'Ding' Darling National Wildlife Refuge, Sanibel Island, Florida
Reddish Egret (Egretta rufescens) pursuing a Longnose Gar (Lepisosteus osseus), J. N. 'Ding' Darling National Wildlife Refuge, Sanibel Island, Florida
Little Blue Heron (Egretta caerulea) and prey, J. N. 'Ding' Darling National Wildlife Refuge, Sanibel Island, Florida
A bit dejected, I returned to where we were staying for the week to relax and wait for the late afternoon. Sure enough, my return visit in the late afternoon was a different story. Maybe it was the DEET but the noseeums weren’t eating me alive which allowed me to relax a bit more and focus on photography. The water levels were lower and the birds were more active and closer in than before. I was able to enjoy the hunting ritual of the Reddish Egret as well as Yellow-crowned Night-Heron & Little Blue Heron. I eventually developed a shadow- another wildlife photographer with a 3 foot long prime lens of undetermined length. I’d stop- he’d stop. I’d pass him, he’d pass me and so on and so on.

If I saw him stopped, it was a pretty good sign that something was nearby. Towards the end of the wildlife drive, I came upon his parked car and the photographer was behind the opened hatch of his SUV and he was pointing his mighty lens up the road. I creeped a little forward in my car and finally saw what he was photographing- a river otter. The otter was on the road, drinking from a rain puddle. I immediately parked and tried to get out & access my camera from the trunk from my rental car as quickly (and silently) as possible. About the moment I turned the lens towards the otter ahead of us, another car pulled up behind me. It paused for a few seconds, and then proceeded to drive past us towards the otter. As you can guess, this spooked the otter which ran off into the brush. A huge missed opportunity!

I only got a brief glimpse at what this area has to offer. I can only imagine what the area is like during the height of spring migrations. A trip earlier in the year would yield far great opportunities and that’s something I would like pursue in the future.
Juvenile Yellow-crowned Night Heron (Nyctanassa violacea), J. N. 'Ding' Darling National Wildlife Refuge, Sanibel Island, Florida
Snowy Egret (Egretta thula) and reflection, J. N. 'Ding' Darling National Wildlife Refuge, Sanibel Island, Florida
Double-crested Cormorant (Phalacrocorax auritus), J. N. 'Ding' Darling National Wildlife Refuge, Sanibel Island, Florida
Roseate Spoonbill (Platalea ajaja), J. N. 'Ding' Darling National Wildlife Refuge, Sanibel Island, Florida

Great Blue Heron (Ardea herodias) and reflection, J. N. 'Ding' Darling National Wildlife Refuge, Sanibel Island, Florida
Juvenile Heron and crab, J. N. 'Ding' Darling National Wildlife Refuge, Sanibel Island, Florida

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