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Crisis in Confidence

Wednesday, December 19th, 2012

Last Friday morning, I got up early and drove up to the San Jacinto Mountains near my home.  A storm had been in the area and I wanted to go for a hike in the fresh snow, as well as to make some images.  Living at low elevation, it felt good to be back in winter for a while.  I wanted to hear the sound of snow crunching under my boots.  I wanted to breathe deeply and soak up the silence and sheer peace that comes with newly fallen snow.  I made some images–some that I’m quite happy with–but the morning would have perfect even if I had not.

As I drove home, I turned on my car radio and slowly started piecing together the events that had happened thousands of miles away in Connecticut.  Profound heartbreak is really the only way I can describe the emotions I felt as I listened to the radio, and when I arrived home, I turned on the TV and saw the images.  So much devastation, so much innocence needlessly lost.

On Monday morning, I read Guy Tal’s blog post, “Heal Thyself.”   His advice on how to heal after this tragedy?  Unplug.  Go away from the hype, the media, everything, and allow yourself to heal.  Today, that’s just what I did.  I went to the Mojave Desert and started walking.  When I came home, I told myself that although some might consider it cliché or derivative to write about this tragedy, I still feel the need to put words down, so here I am.

As far as days go, today was pretty miserable outside.  It was windy and very cold, but I found a lovely and verdant little canyon to hike up.  In contrast to the mountains just a while before, it still felt autumn-like in the desert; at least the colors of fall were still around me.  Several of the wetter spots I passed through must be hotspots for desert bighorn sheep: droppings were everywhere, and with good reason.  Water is hard to come by out here.   A little while later, underneath a grove of alders, I found the remains of a desert bighorn.  Maybe it fell from the cliff above (not likely) or was killed by a mountain lion.  Or, maybe it just found a peaceful place to lay down and die.  Either way, I sat quietly with its bones for a little while, enjoying a reprieve from the wind, as well as the solitude.

The remains of a desert bighorn sheep (Ovis canadensis nelsoni)

Desert Bighorn Sheep (Ovis canadensis nelsoni)

I hiked a little further up the canyon, exploring mostly, before turning around and walking back toward my car.  For the first time in nearly a week, I felt peaceful knowing that hope is not lost.  When I got home, I saw reference to Jimmy Carter’s 1979 speech, in which he refers to the nation’s energy crisis as a, “crisis in confidence.”  We are getting over something much more visceral than an energy crisis, but those words–crisis in confidence–echo in my head.  Events like this, not just at home but abroad as well, shake our confidence to its core.  They shake our confidence that hope still exists, and if we are going to continue on, we must find a way to hang onto that hope.

So, I want to thank Guy for his advice, and I want to repeat it as well: unplug yourself from everything and find a way to reconnect with the good in the world.

An autumnal scene in the Mojave Desert

Desert Bouquet

Desert Sentinels

Friday, November 11th, 2011

In the deserts and canyons of the southwest, water can be tough to come by; as a result, charismatic megafauna that rely on that water are often elusive and secretive.  The desert bighorn sheep (Ovis canadensis nelsoni) is a widespread, but uncommon resident of the southwest.

They truly are sentinels of the desert; on any given afternoon in Joshua Tree National Park,  you might see one surveying the landscape from atop a granite boulder.  In southwest Utah, they return to the canyons from the high country when the temperature starts to fall.  In the desert communities around Palm Springs, they illustrate the interaction between man and nature very well; bighorns have taken to eating ornamental cactus and other plants, so large fences have been erected to keep them out (which is ironic, because some people would pay to see a sheep!).

Desert Bighorn Sheep (Ovis canadensis nelsoni) in Joshua Tree
Desert Sentinel
Desert Bighorn Sheep (Ovis canadensis nelsoni), Capitol Reef National Park, Utah

The interaction between humans and bighorns isn’t a recent thing, though.  In fact, humans have been interacting with them since the southwest was first settled, probably thousands of years ago.  If you take any interest in rock art at all, you’ll quickly find that bighorns were a ubiquitous subject of prehistoric artists.  Indeed, I wonder if the Ancestral Puebloan and Fremont peoples who lived with these animals found them just as captivating as we do today.

Fremont River petroglyphs, capitol reef national park, utah
Badly weather damaged petroglyphs depicting desert bighorn sheep
Wolfe Ranch Petroglyphs, Arches National Park, Utah

In some ways, the desert bighorn sheep embodies the spirit of the west: it is largely solitary, is resilient, and has shown a great ability to adapt to the desert environment.  Its a true steward of the ecosystems it thrives in.  The Desert Bighorn Council is a great resource to learn more about the biology and conservation of desert bighorn sheep (they list links to many local organizations as well).

Wind Song

Monday, May 30th, 2011

If you have never listened to the wind, you should.  It can really have a lot to say.  This last week, it screamed, violently, through the midwestern United States, leaving a terrible path of destruction in its wake.

Some areas are known for their wind.  Medicine Bow, Wyoming (home of the Virginian Hotel, made famous by Owen Wister), for instance is one of the windiest places in the United States.  When I lived in Wyoming, a rancher once told me that the wind doesn’t blow 24 hours out of the whole year in Medicine Bow.  I’m not sure how true that is, but I do know that a still day is difficult to come across.  The wind’s constant howling through the rafters and windows of homes has driven people mad in Wyoming.  Although it can’t be stopped, it can be used.  Wind farms are becoming more and more common in the windy areas of the West as an alternative to coal-powered energy.

However, just as easily as it can destroy, wind can also be gentle, almost loving.  The wind is a vital component of the weather, moving storms the feed plants and animals alike.  The wind is a pollinator, and in polluted areas, it helps to clear the air.

Recently, on a quick trip out to Joshua Tree National Park,  the wind blew all afternoon, and it must have been really blowing in the upper atmosphere, because a breath-taking lenticular cloud formed over the park.  It dissipated before sunset, but these Parry’s Nolina (Nolina parryi) almost looked like they were dancing, sexily swaying their hips, in the late afternoon light.  You can see the tail end of the lenticular in the sky.


Parry's Nolina, Joshua Tree National Park
Wind Song, May 2011

The wind is definitely talking.  What do you hear?


Wednesday, May 25th, 2011

After the grim nature of my last post, I thought I’d share some of the positive wildlife encounters that can be had in the desert.  Last summer, a friend and I discovered huge number of common poorwills (Phalaenoptilus nuttallii) that roost on the roads in Joshua Tree National Park after dark.  As a kid I remember nighthawks–another member of the Nightjar family–that would swoop through the evening sky, scooping up insects with their oversized mouths.  So, the discovery of these poorwills was welcome and nostalgic.


A Common Poorwill (Phalaenoptilus nuttallii) in Joshua Tree National Park, California

Common Poorwill I, May 2011

I assume the poorwills–which are ground-dwelling birds–roost on the roads for a clear view of the sky, and the insects they are hunting.  They fly upwards, grab their prey, and return to the ground fairly quickly.  They can also be quite tame, when approached by a car.  By getting out slowly and crawling on my belly with a short telephoto lens, I was able to get within about 7 feet of this poorwill before it flew away, letting me get a couple of intimate portraits.

One thing that’s evident here is the amazing camouflage these animals have–they blend in very well to their surroundings, making such an open roost probably quite safe.  In addition to that, you can see the large eyes (great night vision) and “feelers” around the mouth, to help locate prey in the very immediate vicinity.

With summer approaching, keep an eye out for these charming birds on the roads!


A Common Poorwill (Phalaenoptilus nuttallii) in Joshua Tree National Park, California

Common Poorwill II, May 2011

In Memoriam

Monday, May 16th, 2011

This weekend, a friend and I made a last minute trip out to Joshua Tree National Park to search for photography opportunities.  After doing a short hike, we drove into the main park entrance about 5:30pm.  Although the temperature was starting to drop, the asphalt was still warm; it didn’t take long before we discovered this freshly road killed Speckled Rattlesnake (Crotalus mitchllii pyrrhus).  Its a species I’ve always wanted to photograph–just not like this.

Speckled Rattlesnake in Joshua Tree National Park, California

In Memoriam, May 2011

Its always somber to see road killed reptiles, but this was just the beginning.  Not five minutes later, we pulled a very badly injured (fatally, I’m sure) coachwhip (Masticophis flagellum) off the road, and over the course of the evening, we found a gopher snake (Pituophis catenifer), and a red diamond rattlesnake (Crotalus ruber) that had been killed earlier in the day.  It was carnage–easy to see why–with cars whizzing by us at 50-60 mph (25-35 mph over the posted speed limit).

Accidents happen, especially with fast-moving snakes like gopher snakes or coachwhips–they can jump out in front of a driver, with no hope of being avoided.  But, as my friend pointed out, there is no excuse for killing a rattlesnake in a park where the speed limit is 25 or 35 miles per hour.  They’re visible animals, and when following the speed limit, they can be avoided, largely because they are slow-moving.

April and May is peak camping season in Joshua Tree–the campgrounds are full, and people are everywhere.  Right now, that time of day is suicide for a basking snake.

To make it worse, the red diamond rattlesnake we found later in the evening was missing its rattle.  I hate to think about someone hitting the animal purposely to take the rattle (although I know of people who have done just that)–its a despicable act.  Even if a later driver stopped to take it, I wouldn’t want to be that person if a park ranger came down the road!

I know I sound like a real square with this post, urging people to stick to the posted speed limit, but after what we witnessed this weekend in Joshua Tree, its obvious that slowing down could really help to save some beautiful wildlife from needless deaths.

(Mis)adventures in Joshua Tree

Friday, September 3rd, 2010

Last week, a friend and I headed out to Joshua Tree National Park to continue our search for kangaroo rats.  Also, partly due to the hot temperatures in the Mojave Desert (110°F+), we also were treated to some magnificent thunderstorms over the mountains and desert.  Indeed, it felt really good being back in some weather.  At times, thunder and lightning were within 1/2 mile of us, and I had forgotten how much I missed the smell of a summer thunderstorm.

A thunderstorm in Joshua Tree National Park, California

August Thunderstorm, Joshua Tree National Park, 2010

As the sun neared the horizon, I got what I had been hoping for: a magnificent sunset.  Even though the light show didn’t last long, it was one of my favorite times as a photographer: a state of suspended animation where time seems to slow to a halt.  It was one of those times when you almost forget to be a photographer and stare at the sky with your mouth open.

Dramatic, fiery sunset in joshua tree national park, califronia

Fiery sunset I, August 2010

Fiery, dramatic sunset in joshua tree national park, california

Fiery sunset II, August 2010

After the show ended, we started a drive through the park, hoping to find some critters along the road…kangaroo rats, snakes, toads, or anything else.  Indeed, we found something very interesting (and unexpected): Common Poorwills (Phalaenoptilus nuttallii).  Poorwills are nocturnal birds that roost on the ground, flying straight upwards to catch insects.  We found several Poorwills in a short distance and decided to use my car to drive close to them, hoping to photograph them.  It was at this point we added the “mis-” to our adventure.

In trying to get the Poorwills to cooperate, I had my car engine off for five minutes but left my headlights on.  Yeah, you can see where this is going.  Or can you?

After doing that, i started my engine and drove around for a few minutes.  I shut my engine off again a few minutes later (headlights also off), while we photographed a Poorwill along side the road.  However, when I tried starting my engine again, nothing happened.  It simply didn’t make sense, but I could only assume that I hadn’t run the engine long enough for the alternator to recharge the battery.  Maybe the starter motor had broken.  Whatever was happening wasn’t good–it was late (about 9:30pm) and we were not on the main park road.

We managed to get the car into neutral and to the main road.  After this, we waited.  It took about 1.5 hours for someone to drive by.  Unfortunately, he didn’t have jumper cables, and I had moved mine to my wife’s car only a few days before this trip.  The gentleman who stopped did offer to call our wives once he had cell service.  At least they wouldn’t flip out when they woke up the next morning to missing husbands!

My wife did call a wrecker, which showed up at our location about 2 hours later.  The driver gave us a jump start, and we were on our way, laughing about lessons learned, arriving home about 3am, without photos of kangaroo rats.

What does one do when waiting for help in the middle of the night?  This photographer takes photos.

night scene in joshua tree national park, california

Waiting for a tow, August 2010

Oh, and just to prove there actually was a nocturnal bird at fault for our misadventure, here you go:

Common Poorwill, Phalaenoptilus nuttallii

Common Poorwill (Phalaenoptilus nuttallii), August 2010

Coloration in collared lizards

Friday, July 16th, 2010

Last week, I blogged about the huge variety of wildlife present in Joshua Tree National Park during the hot summer months.  Among my favorite animals in the park are the collared lizards, Crotaphytus bicinctores.  Collareds are aggressive, carnivorous lizards and are extremely flashy this time of of year.  They mate in late May-early July, and because of that, they have some fantastic colors.

male great basin collared lizard, joshua tree national Park california

Male Great Basin Collared Lizard, July 2010

The rich yellows and oranges on the legs, blue under the neck and black in the pelvic and pectoral areas are all characteristic of this species, and in my opinion, what makes it so beautiful.  The lizard above is a very accommodating male we found on the 49 Palms Oasis trail.  The females, however, are much less vibrant.

female great basin collared lizard, joshua tree national park california

Female Great Basin Collared Lizard, July 2010

Despite her more drab appearance, I still like the subtle hues present, especially the orange markings on the lateral sides of her body.  After the breeding season, these orange markings will fade, leaving the females a brownish color.  What do they mean?  While its long been known that animals change color, plumage, etc during their breeding season, a 2004 study published in the journal Herpetologica suggests that in female collared lizards, the orange markings signal to males that she is sexually receptive.  On average, orange female collared lizards were courted 5 times more frequently by males than non-orange females.

Its always important to remember that things that may just appear pretty (or sometimes, even ugly) to us very often have a function in nature.

Bighorn Sheep in Joshua Tree

Wednesday, July 14th, 2010

In my last post, I talked about some of the wildlife one can expect to find in the Mojave Desert on a hot summer day.  As it happens, that’s really only a small fraction of the diversity you’re bound to see.

After photographing birds, reptiles and insects, we headed over to my secret bighorn sheep location in hopes of finding at least one species of charismatic megafauna.  My spot did not disappoint: within about 20 minutes, I spotted a bighorn sheep ewe high on a rock, overlooking the landscape.

Desert bighorn sheep (ovis canadensis nelsoni) in joshua tree national park, california

The Sentinel, July 2010

The ewe let us walk closer to her, probably because (a) she had a good view of us, and (b) it was too hot for her to care.  Because of her cooperation, I was able to make closer images, especially using my friend’s 800mm lens.

Desert bighorn sheep (ovis canadensis nelsoni) in joshua tree national Park, california

Desert Bighorn Sheep, July 2010

After about 10 minutes, another sheep walked up to join the one we had been photographing.  I made a few more images, then left, so as to not stress them out too much–especially on a hot day!  To see all of my desert bighorn sheep images, click here.

Two desert bighorn sheep in joshua tree national park, california

The Sentinel's relief, July 2010

A visit to Joshua Tree, part 1

Monday, July 12th, 2010

Last week, a friend and I headed out to Joshua Tree National Park in search of summer wildlife.  There’s no doubt the desert is not a fun place in July–we started the first of three hikes in 80+ degree temperatures and ended up hiking in 100+ degrees, but it was a productive trip.

We started the day near the Black Rock Campground in hopes of finding Scott’s Orioles to photograph.  We did see several orioles, but they buzzed by at top speed, with no interest in stopping for us to photograph them.  Instead, we did find several very accommodating Ash-throated Flycatchers, and I got some nice shots of these pleasant birds.  To see all of my Ash-throated Flycatcher images, click here.

ash-throated flycatcher, joshua tree national park, california

Ash-throated Flycatcher, July 2010

After spending a couple of hours hiking in this area, we headed over to the 49 Palms Oasis trail, which is a fantastic place to photograph Chuckwallas and Collared Lizards.  We weren’t successful in finding many Chuckwallas, but we did find a few flashy and cooperative Collared Lizards.  These are some of my favorites, and I was very happy to find some that were so willing to let us photograph them.  To see all of my Collared Lizard images, click here.

great basin collared lizard, joshua tree national park, california

Great Basin Collared Lizard, July 2010

Great Basin Collared Lizard, joshua tree national park, california

Great Basin Collared Lizard, July 2010

When its over 100 degrees Fahrenheit outside, its easy to see why these heat-loving lizards would seek refuge in the bushes rather than the rocks–its much cooler!  Even in the upper photo, you can see the lizard’s toes lifted off the rock–presumably they stay cooler this way.

After these two very hot hikes, we headed into the main part of the park to look for antelope ground squirrels and dragonflies.  No squirrels were to be found, but we did find a scavenger-like scrub jay, as well as several dragonflies, including a new one for me: red saddlebags.

scrub jay, joshua tree national park, california

Western Scrub Jay, July 2010

Red Saddlebags, July 2010

In addition to this, we found several desert bighorn sheep (future post), and a few other cool things.  Despite the heat, it was a great day in our local National Park!

The evolution of an image, and the value of critique forums

Saturday, January 30th, 2010

Like any artist or hobbyist, photographers spend a lot of time learning skills to make themselves better–they want to make their images better, they want to better define their vision, and, alas, they try to make their websites better too.  In the midst of all the things out there to help you improve your photography, a very simple move you can make is to start participating in an online community that includes image critique forums.  Both Bret Edge and Justin Reznick have recently blogged on this topic, but I wanted to throw my $0.02 in, with a slightly different twist.

I began participating in photo critique forums over at in 2005, not long after I started shooting.  At the time my images were pretty bad–by all measures, they simply weren’t that good.  While I did receive some constructive feedback, I mostly got images bashed by non-nature photographers.  They weren’t trying to be mean, but as I said, the images were pretty bad.  However, in 2006, I discovered and began participating in earnest.  My photographs, well, they still weren’t good, but I quickly became part of a community that helped me learn to improve not only my technique behind the camera, but also my post processing skills as well.

There are many important steps you can take to help improve your photography, and I believe that participating in a forum is one of them.  If you decide to participate, you SHOULD expect to put in just as much as you get out of it.  In other words, you need to participate, not just post a photo now and then, expecting everyone to fix your problems for you.  Also, you SHOULD feel free to ask questions.  In my personal experience, the forums I participate in are filled with people way more knowledgeable than I am, and I know I’ve looked like a doofus more than once with my questions.  While they may be snickering, people are always very nice in answering questions.  You also SHOULD have fun with it.  Although we are critiquing others’ photographs, forums are really a celebration of what we love doing: photography. Embrace that.

That said, if you decide to participate in a forum, you SHOULD NOT take it personally if someone says they don’t like one of your photos.  Ideally, that person would give you some reason as to why they don’t like it, but if they don’t it shouldn’t matter.  Photography–like any art form–is highly subjective, and if someone says s/he doesn’t like it, it shouldn’t stop you from liking your photo.  Beauty in photographs goes way beyond the surface, and viewers cannot always detect the special meaning behind a photograph. With that in mind, you SHOULD give critiques as you would want to receive them.  Not only will receiving critiques make you a better photographer, critiquing others’ photos will help that as well.  In that sense, participating in a forum will help crystallize your own photographic vision.  Finally, you SHOULD NOT be intimidated or threatened by other peoples’ outstanding images (yes, I know of people who feel very threatened…that for every good image someone else makes, they lose business….hogwash).  I feel honored to be able to share my work with these fantastic photographers; their work continues to inspire, motivate and humble me.  That’s the way it should be: photographers should encourage and inspire one another…not compete.

So what does the title of this post have to do with all this?  I write the above because I know what a valuable resource photography forums are, and I’ve just had (yet another) experience that proves it to me.  Last November, I made a quick run out to Joshua Tree National Park, with the intention of photographing Arch Rock.  That night, I took a star trail image, with the arch as the main subject, but I could never get it to work for me…something about the processing just looked “off”.  Last weekend, I saw a similar image of another arch, and thought, “Hey, I’ve got a shot very similar to that…maybe I can get it to work for me!”

When I got home, I pulled up the RAW file and processed it.  I wanted the arch to have a very warm feel, as I’d painted it with my headlamp, and I wanted it to stand out against the sky.  What I ended up with was a cool effect, but not what I remember seeing.  I posted it to and, while everyone agreed it looks cool, it just seemed a little too bizarre.

Arch Rock at night, Joshua Tree National Park, Californi

Attempt 1, Joshua Tree National Park, California, November 2009

Even with city lights nearby, I do not remember the sky looking that golden…er…pumpkin…that night.  While it occurred to me to use some layer masking, Alister Benn made some invaluable comments in guiding me on re-editing this image.  Alister is a master of night photography, and with his comments in hand, I re-edited the image, really making it pop.

Star trails over Arch Rock, Joshua Tree National Park, California

Star trails over Arch Rock, Joshua Tree National Park, California, November 2009

What I didn’t do is make a bombastic, unrealistic image from a RAW file.  I used valuable comments from a critique and discussion forum to process an image so that I had a realistic representation of the scene.  Many thanks to Alister, and to all my online friends for making for making this a great community of photographers!