Friday, December 23, 2011

Reflecting on 2011, and a Sanderling for Laura

Photo of a sanderling reflected in the tidal flats

Time is such a funny thing. Sometimes we feel that it flies by faster than we can keep up with, and sometimes it feels like it has slowed to nearly a stop. But in the end, we mark its passage at concrete intervals, which allow us to take a moment to stop and see just how much time has passed. A year often proves to be the most logical interval for reflection, as our bodies and minds seem to fall into rhythm with the predictable changing of the seasons, and the lengthened evenings spent indoors in the winter are ripe for reflection.

There have been many years in my life that have seemed to go by without much notice, simply the formation of another tree-ring in my life story, passing by and starting new. This year, 2011, was not such a year. There have been few years that I have felt more strongly and that have been more formative than this particular revolution around the sun.

I started the year in Berkeley, California, happily plugging away as a graduate student feverishly trying to wrap up my experiments and write my dissertation. As my wife and I tried to figure out what our next step would be after graduation, I started to realize that my time in California was running short, and I increased my efforts to get out and enjoy and photograph the landscape that had truly become home for me. The spring flashed by in an instant, seemingly gathering more speed as it went, and soon enough I was walking in my graduation, and collecting signatures on my dissertation. By August I had formally completed my PhD, and we began to prepare for a cross-country move to Massachusetts.

On September 1st, we put the last of our belongings in the car and started our migration east. We said goodbye to California, and spent a glorious 10 days exploring Grand Teton and Yellowstone National Parks. The wildlands of the American West have inspired me since I was a young child watching “Marty Stauffer’s Wild America”, and it was a dream come true to spend so much time exploring that particular stretch of the Rocky Mountains. During our stay, each day seemed to stretch out to twice its appropriate length, leaving us with so many full and lasting memories. We then spent the next 4 days watching the country pass by our car windows, and soon enough, we were getting settled in Massachusetts.

All of these events were so important to the story of my life, and it was incredible to sit around our kitchen table in September and think about the fortunate changes that 2011 brought to our lives -- the grand accomplishments of finishing our PhDs and starting the next phase of our lives in a new city. But 2011 wasn’t over yet, and the steady beat of the metronome propelled us forward along the unseen arrow of time.

When we celebrated the start of 2011, we did it as a much fuller family than we’ll have for the beginning of 2012. In October, we lost my step-father to cancer. He had been receiving treatment for a year and a half, and we knew that our time together had a distinct, but unknown, limit – but we didn’t realize that this stretch of time was accelerating to a rapid finish much sooner than we expected. Fortunately, our recent move to the East Coast allowed us to be there at the end.

As we tried to recover from that loss, we didn’t know that we were again accelerating towards another finite endpoint in time. In November, my wife’s sister, Laura, and her boyfriend, Kristopher, were taken from us in a random, senseless, and horrific act of violence in Seattle. My sister-in-law was only 26, and was almost ready to write her PhD dissertation at the University of Washington. She was a fun, generous, and compassionate soul who cared deeply about improving the world with her research and education. She and Kris had so much love and life yet to give, and they certainly did not have enough time.

In the wake of these tragedies, you find a way to put one foot in front of the other and to keep moving forward, because you know that as much as it feels like it should, time doesn’t stop. It just keeps flowing with a perpetual steady beat. Soon enough the last seconds of 2011 will tick by and we’ll count down to the beginning of a new year. The incredible joys and sorrows of 2011 will always be with me, but they will also be secured behind me with the turn of the calendar – encased behind the mark that separates the new tree-ring from the last.

As my reflections on 2011 naturally turn towards the prospects of 2012, I look forward to a fresh beginning of another year full of expectations and surprises. What will I have to reflect on after the next 365 days? I’m ready to turn the page and find out – to face the challenges, to experience the joys, and to continue to share what inspires me.

I want to thank each of my readers for joining me for the journey that was 2011, and I wish you only the best for the New Year. May your lives be ever fuller by the love of your family and friends, and may you continue to make progress towards getting that perfect shot!

I wish you all a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year!

The image I selected for this post is dedicated to Laura. She always commented that she loved my photos of sanderlings, and she enjoyed watching their cute way of life as they cruised in and out with the waves. As I thought through the images I could dedicate to her, my mind was drawn to the recent series I took that included reflections. While Laura’s time with us was far too short, she lived an amazingly full life and impacted an incredible number of people. Her zest for life and fierce love of family, friends, and science will be forever reflected in those of us who knew her – and we will each be a better person for carrying her spirit with us as we move forward.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Favorite Photographs of 2011

Inspired by Jim Goldstein's Annual Blog Project, here are my favorite photos from 2011. They may not be the most technically correct images I made this year, and they aren't necessarily the most popular images that I posted, but these are the ten that mean the most to me.

2011 was a productive year for me photographically. In addition to posting over 150 entries on this blog, I participated in my first art show, made my first print sales, had my images appear in a variety of conservation publications (including a cover for Naturalia AC's magazine), and had one of my images selected as Highly Honored in the 2011 Nature's Best Photography Windland Smith Rice International Awards competition. Additionally, I completed my Ph.D. at UC Berkeley and relocated to the Boston area this fall. My wife and I had an awesome road trip across the country during our move, and we spent 10 days in Grand Teton and Yellowstone National Parks -- a childhood dream come true for me!

Without further ado, here are my favorite photographs of 2011, in no particular order, with a link to the original blog post of each.

A sanderling for Laura
This first image on my list is the one that is most meaningful for me, since I dedicated this sanderling and its reflection to my sister-in-law, Laura, after she was taken from us by a random act of violence in November. While Laura’s time with us was far too short, she lived an amazingly full life and impacted an incredible number of people. Her zest for life and fierce love of family, friends, and science will be forever reflected in those of us who knew her – and we will each be a better person for carrying her spirit with us as we move forward.
A sanderling with its reflection dedicated to Laura

Bull moose at sunrise
Finding moose to photograph was a high priority during our trip to Grand Teton National Park, and we were fortunate to find some each morning. I was amazed to see how large these animals really are, and it was a great pleasure to watch this bull and his female companion browse in the sagebrush in the early morning light.
Bull moose in the sage brush at sunrise in Grand Teton National Park

Quail on gnarled branches
I had great luck with quail this year in Point Reyes National Seashore, and it would be easy to make a post of my favorite 10 quail images from 2011. While I had a hard time deciding which image I wanted to include in this list, I went with this handsome male perched on an old coyote bush because of the interesting shape and texture of its perch.
Quail on gnarled branches of coyote brush in Point Reyes National Seashore

Pronghorn in the grass
Heading into our visit to Yellowstone National Park the chance to photograph pronghorn was high on my wish list. Much to my surprise and delight, there was a group of about 8 individuals that were hanging out by the Gardiner entrance almost every day we were there.
Pronghorn in the grass in Yellowstone National Park

Young bull tule elk
This was my favorite shot of my last trip to Point Reyes National Seashore before moving to the East Coast. Point Reyes is where I fostered my passion for photography, and it will always have a very special place in my heart. The pose of this young elk set against that foggy background perfectly captured the emotion of that final trip.
Young bull tule elk standing in tall grass on a foggy day in Point Reyes National Seashore

Burrowing owl at the Berkeley Marina
Every year a small group of burrowing owls take up a winter residence at Cesar Chavez Park at the Berkeley Marina. I took a number of weekend trips to watch these lovely (and surprisingly small) owls, and this was my favorite shot of the grumpy looking one that made its home on the rocks.
Photographic portrait of a Western Burrowing Owl

Song sparrow singing
As I was photographing wildflowers on an overcast June day in Point Reyes National Seashore, a loud song from this tiny bird caught my attention. I looked up from my viewfinder and discovered that it had perched quite close to me. I watched it sing a few more stanzas before it flew away.
Song sparrow singing from a perch in Point Reyes National Seashore

Quiet glance
On this February trip to Point Reyes National Seashore, I was able to sit in my car along the road as a large herd of tule elk surrounded me. It was such a pleasure to be in the middle of their daily activities, and I just love the quiet look that this beautiful female gave me.
Portrait of a female tule elk in Point Reyes National Seashore

Got him! A plover catches a worm
I took a few spring trips to Pillar Point Harbor with the hope of photographing some black-bellied plovers in their dramatic summer plumage before they migrated north. It was a delight to watch these beautiful birds hunt for worms right in front of my lens, and I loved how much tension you could see on the worm in this shot just before it pops out of its burrow.
Black-bellied plover pulling a worm from the sediments

Elephant seal at sunset
One of the things I will miss most about no longer living in California is my annual trip to Año Nuevo State Reserve to see the northern elephant seals. They are incredible animals to behold, and were absolutely one of my favorite subjects to photograph.
Northern elephant seal bellowing in front of sandstone cliffs

I hope you enjoyed my favorites from this year! If you're interested, please check out my 2010 Favorites and 2009 Favorites, or browse my portfolios and full body of work at

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Dunlin in a crowd, Parker River National Wildlife Refuge

Dunlin resting on one leg in front of a flock of sandpipers

A pair of dunlin (Calidris alpina) rest at the front edge of a very large flock of mixed sandpipers. This image is from a morning that I spent with this flock as they tried to stay just above the waterline of the rising tide during my first sunrise trip to Parker River National Wildlife Refuge this fall. The squatty shape of sandpipers, especially when they are tucked in to rest, doesn't always lend itself to an interesting vertical composition. In this case though, I thought that the background of the large flock fading into the bright blue of the early morning ocean was compelling. It's so easy to view the world through only one orientation, especially since the camera is layed-out to be most comfortable that way, so I always try to remember to rotate the lens to vertical as I work over a scene.

View more of my photos of dunlin

Submitted to World Bird Wednesday -- follow the link to check out this week's posts.

Friday, December 9, 2011

Quail along the fence, Point Reyes National Seashore

California quail on a fencepost with barbed wire

A male California quail perched on top of a fence post in Point Reyes National Seashore. This quail is from the same trip as my previous post of the peeking sparrow, and I found the quail along the road to Drake's Beach. I have often seen quail dotting the fence posts along Sir Francis Drake Boulevard on my way to the outer reaches of the Point Reyes Peninsula, but it was fairly uncommon to see them along the short road to Drake's Beach. Perhaps its because there is not as much scrub vegetation out there, as its mostly pastures.

California quail are of my favorite species to photograph -- view more photos of these lovely birds in my Quail Gallery.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Peeking Sparrow, Point Reyes National Seashore

White-crowned sparrow peeking out from behind coyote brush

A white-crowned sparrow peeks over the branches of a coyote bush along the Abbott's Lagoon Trail in Point Reyes National Seashore last June. This shot is from a terrific early summer day spent in the park. There was a late-season rain system moving through the area that would bring rain later that day, so the sky was filled with gorgeous purple clouds and nice diffuse light.

View more photographs of sparrows in my Song Birds Gallery.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Pronghorn in the grass, Yellowstone National Park

Pronghorn standing in golden autumn grass in Yellowstone National Park

Pronghorn were really one of the highlights of my trip to Yellowstone National Park. As I've mentioned previously on this blog, I've been fascinated by pronghorn since I was a child, and it was really a dream come true to have had the opportunity to photograph them at close range nearly every day during our week-long stay in Yellowstone. We found this handsome buck strolling through the tall grasses along the northern edge of the park near Gardiner, Montana. He was the largest of three males traveling together in a small group, and we watched them browse for a meal until the sun had on our last evening in the park (just before I took the moonrise image I posted a few days ago).

Browse more photographs of pronghorn in my Pronghorn Gallery.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Dunlin Devours Prey, Parker River National Wildlife Refuge

Dunlin pulling a clam from the sand

A dunlin in winter plumage pulls a clam from the sand at low tide and swallows it whole. This image is from a nice trip I took to the Parker River National Wildlife Refuge on Plum Island last month. I was there for the sunset, and watched a good-sized flock of sanderlings, dunlin, and plovers feeding during the very low tide. For my shots that evening, I picked a spot in the sand near where the flock was feeding, and in front of the general direction they were headed. I put the sun to my back, placed my tripod flat on the ground, made myself look as small as possible, and started to wait. Soon enough the entire flock had circled around me, and I was able to watch them feed up close. A few dunlin eventually came so close that I couldn't even keep focus on them (and my lens has an 8.5' MFD!). I always enjoy these intimate encounters with shorebirds, and it makes the drive home with wet clothes all the more worth it.

Dunlin swallowing a small clam whole

View more of my photos of dunlin.

This post submitted to World Bird Wednesday -- follow the link to check out this weeks posts!

Monday, December 5, 2011

A Full Moon Rises in Yellowstone National Park

Full moon rising over the mountains at dusk in Yellowstone National Park

A full moon rises over the foothills in northern Yellowstone National Park on our last evening in the park during our September trip. Prior to taking this shot we had been watching a small group of male pronghorn feeding in the fading daylight on the gravel road through the plains near Gardiner. After the sun had dropped below the horizon in the west, we began our trip out of the park for the night, and were greeted by the rising full moon while the rest of the landscape was still in the pastel colors of twilight.

View more of my landscape photography in my Landscapes Galleries.