Sunday, March 4, 2018

The Magic of Point Reyes National Seashore

Last light across the valleys of Point Reyes National Seashore

During the two years that I let the blog go dormant in 2016-2017 I actually had a couple of really nice photographic outings. I was even able to return to California for about a week in the summer of 2016, which included a couple of days spent in Point Reyes National Seashore. It wasn't the most productive trip photographically, but it felt so great to be back in my old footsteps on those well-trodden trails. For those of you that have followed my work, you already know that Point Reyes National Seashore holds a special place in my heart -- and in some ways I can't believe it's taken me this long to share some some images from the trip.

July isn't necessary the best time to be in the park for photography, I personally think that the fall is ideal with the shorebird migrations and tule elk rut, but I was treated to some spectacular fog-less summer sunsets on this trip. While living in California, I most often visited the park for sunrise, which usually involved a heavy cover the marine layer fog, so it was a treat to have the warm colors of sunset on multiple evenings (although I almost didn't know what to do with the light!).

While driving out Sir Francis Drake Boulevard on so many prior trips to the park, my eye had often been drawn to the gorgeous rolling agricultural valleys. On many occasions I pulled the car over, swapped on my landscape lens and attempted to capture some of what had caught my eye. I was never really able to do the scene justice though, especially since so many of my trips were under the coastal fog. I love overcast light for wildlife, but it really left the landscapes feeling flat and far less interesting than then actually were. I was driving around the park on this summer evening while the light was absolutely spectacular, and hoping to find something to photograph before it was gone. I struck out on sighting any wildlife in the golden glow, but as I passed this valley, I was completely drawn in. The last rays were fading fast, and I knew I wouldn't have time to set up my tripod before it was gone. So I rolled the window down, leaned across the passenger seat and fired off a few frames. I love that the low hanging sun left a tiny sliver of "alpenglow" across the top of the coastal hillside. That's part of the magic of Point Reyes National Seashore -- it's given me fleeting moments that are so special and unexpected on so many visits.

While I was taking the photograph above, I noticed out of the corner of my eye that I could see myself in the passenger-side mirror. Being a solo trip into the park, I didn't have any other photographs of myself there, so I took advantage of the opportunity to make an unorthodox selfie from this unexpected scene in one of my favorite places.

Selfie of landscape photography from a car in Point Reyes National Seashore

After spending the night in Inverness Park, I set out for a sunrise hike at Abbotts Lagoon. Just like old times, I began the day as the first car in the parking lot as the daylight was just beginning to break. It was wonderful to breathe in the cool coastal air, and to be invigorated by the feeling of the warm rising sun under clear skies. This is a wonderful place to look for quail and not too far from the parking lot I found a handsome male keeping an eye on his covey from an old scrag of coyote brush (which I posted yesterday for my 500th blog post). I slowly worked my way closer, trying to get clean shot of the quail who was glowing in the warm sunrise light. In the meantime a second car arrived at the trailhead and another photographer set off down the trail behind me. As he approached, he politely waited to pass until the quail had decided to hop from its perch and head into the brush. Further down the trail, at the bridge between the freshwater and brackish lagoons, I encountered the photographer again. We chatted briefly, and he shared his new found love for the park. It seemed that this amazing landscape had recently cast a spell on him, the same as it had on me nearly a decade ago. He was now regularly driving up from the East Bay on the weekends to search for wildlife -- which sounded awfully familiar to my ears! We chatted briefly about the gravitational pull of the park, and neither of us could easily express a specific reason for why it captured our creative imagination so strongly over all of the other great places in the Bay Area. But perhaps the vague mystery of that deep-felt love for that beautiful peninsula is part of the magic all the same.

A summer lupine is bathed in the warm glow of sunset at Abbotts Lagoon in Point Reyes National Seashore

Saturday, March 3, 2018

Post #500: California quail in Point Reyes National Seashore

A male California quail on a branch at sunrise in Point Reyes National Seashore

In the fall of 2009, I started this blog with my first post of semipalmated plovers at Point Reyes National Seashore. At this time, I was in the middle of graduate school and had found that escaping to the coast with my camera on the weekends was critical to managing my stress levels. I had taken my first nature photographs over two years before that, and was regularly sharing pictures on Flickr, but decided that it would be nice to branch out into my own corner of the web. I didn't really know what I had intended to do with a blog, but I was inspired by the work of others like John Wall who was blogging about his explorations of similar places in the Bay Area, and myriad other California photographers (like Jim Goldstein, Gary Crabbe, G Dan Mitchell, and so many others) that were sharing their work on the web.

When I started this blog, posting a photo while I ate breakfast was a pretty regular part of my daily routine, and over the first few years, I added about 150 posts per year. At that rate, I figured I'd reach 500 posts in no time! But a move to Massachusetts and start of my career reduced my rate to about a third of that for a while, and over the last two years almost to zero. Yet I still find myself drawn to sharing my work through this venue.

Over the past few weeks, I've read back through each of my 499 previous posts, which brings up a cacophony of feelings -- from bittersweet nostalgia for my favorite places in California and being able to visit them regularly, to joy of remembering some amazing wildlife encounters (some that I vividly remember, and others that I had almost forgotten), to relative embarrassment of the quality of some of my earlier pictures. I was getting out with my camera so much more regularly during the first few years, which led to a more temporal aspect to my blogging, and it's fun to now have a narrated log of my weekend trips from that time period of my life.

As I roll through the beginning of my tenth calendar year of photo blogging, finally reaching the round number milestone of 500 posts, I guess I still don't know what I'm really trying to accomplish. I've long since passed the naive dream of being read by a huge number of subscribers, but still feel drawn to have a place to share my experiences with the incredible natural world around me. Seeking a connection with nature is one of the major things that drives me as a person, and I want to continue to seek out these experiences for my own self-interest. But beyond that, I like to share these small glimpses with anyone else who cares to find them. I know from personal experience how photographs have the power to connect people with our natural world, to cause them to care, and allow a window to share in a joint experience even if the observer wasn't physically present. I wish deeply for others to care about our environment and the amazing creatures that inhabit it, and any small thing I can do to spread that connection is worth it to me.

As I think about what it means to move forward, I'm sure that my opportunities for serious photography will continue to be limited. However, I know that even a decade after I first picked up a camera with the intent of photographing the natural world, I still find that when the cacophony of noise that is modern life becomes overwhelming, my mind yearns for the simplicity of a shared moment with a wild animal from behind my lens. Wildlife photography is meditation for me, and I hope that having a place to share my artistic expression of these experiences (even if really only for myself) will continue to drive my pursuit of seeking out those powerful moments, no matter how frequent or infrequent the opportunities arise.

Wednesday, February 28, 2018

Warm spring light, Piping plover at Sandy Point State Reservation

Piping plover running over the sand at sunset in Sandy Point State Reservation, Massachusetts

Developing my photographic vision under the cool marine layer in the San Francisco Bay Area has turned me into a sucker for overcast skies, but I still enjoy a lovely golden hour when I have the chance. The last few days in Massachusetts have been gorgeous -- with unseasonably warm temperatures and spectacular evening light! It's been a pleasure to get out for few short walks after work to enjoy this wonderful taste of springtime, and it's great to notice the days getting longer. Even if it is still February, spring is in the air at least for another day or two.

This photograph is from a springtime trip I took last year to Sandy Point State Reservation. There were a handful of piping plovers cruising the beach, and I was able to get a few close encounters with this particularly curious bird as it searched for a meal before losing the daylight.

Sunday, February 25, 2018

Willet catches a fish, Bunche Beach Preserve

Wildlife Photography by Pat Ulrich: Willets &emdash; Willet probing the sand

Willets are a really fun shorebird to watch and photograph. What they lack in interesting plumage patterns and elegance, they more than make up for in character. I've had so many fun encounters with these curious birds on various beaches over the years. On this trip to southwest Florida, I had a chance to photograph so many interesting species, many of which I have no opportunity to see near home on the coasts of New England, but on each of my morning outings to Bunche Beach Preserve a willet caught my attention and left me delightfully entertained.

Wildlife Photography by Pat Ulrich: Willets &emdash; Willet feeds in morning light

This willet was working a shallow tidal pool near the main entrance of the park. It was wading through the water in a much more heron-like pattern, clearly hunting for moving prey. For the frame above, it was working hard to pull something to the surface.

Wildlife Photography by Pat Ulrich: Willets &emdash; Willet washing prey

It continued to manipulate the prey under the water, attempting to find the right grip. Much to my surprise, when it finally pulled its prize free from the water's surface, it was some type of small flat fish. As many times as I've enjoyed photographing willets in the past, never before had I seen one with such an interesting type of prey! Unfortunately, in the excitement of finally freeing its meal from the water, I lost the lovely backdrop of the sand and mangroves in the distance as I tracked its movements sprinting out of the pond with its catch.

Wildlife Photography by Pat Ulrich: Willets &emdash; Willet with a flat fish

Sunday, February 18, 2018

Eye on the prize, Little Blue Heron at Bunche Beach

Little blue heron ready to strike at Bunche Beach, Florida

With no recent trips to pull from, here are two frames from a fantastic trip to southwest Florida I had a few years ago. I spent two mornings at Bunch Beach Preserve in Fort Myers, and came back with so many images (many of which are still waiting to be shared). That area is truly a bird photographers haven!

Little blue heron snatching a fish from the tidal pool

I watched this little blue heron hunting in a shallow tidal pool for over a half an hour. It strolled back and forth through the water, constantly searching for prey, and I saw it pull a surprising amount of fish from the small pool. When the image above is viewed at 100%, you can see the small fish caught in its bill behind the splashing water, which it shows off quickly below before swallowing it down.

Little blue heron with a fish in the bill