nocturnal

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Unsolved Mystery

Monday, October 31st, 2011

It was just another evening in the desert.

My Dad and I, along with another friend, were visiting the Vermillion Cliffs Wilderness along the Arizona Strip for a couple of days of photography and hiking.  Although it was August, the heat wasn’t too bad, if you stayed in the shade during the hot part of the day.  With evening coming on, we emerged like lizards from our burrows to enjoy the final vestiges of our vacation.

The plan was to hike back to an interesting rock formation we had found earlier in the day for some night photography.  After shooting sunset, and moving into position, we waited for darkness to fall.  In August, that happens slowly, so after our cameras were set up, we went for a short hike.

As stars began dotting the sky, returning to “our spot” seemed like a good idea.  Cresting the final ridge, and looking down, we saw a very unusual sight.  The rocks near our equipment were glowing red, and we could see small red lights moving around them very quickly!  Watching in amazement, the lights moved faster and faster, and although we could see no figures, it seemed almost as though the lights were dancing in the evening light.

Almost as soon as they began, the lights disappeared.  For three grown men, it took us a while to get the guts to return to our gear.  Without any discussion at all, it seemed like a good idea to pack up and go.  Although we’d marked GPS waypoints to help us over the two miles back to the car, we didn’t seem to need them, and we sure didn’t look back!!

When I got home, I began looking at the files on my memory card and saw the most curious thing–whatever it was making those lights, also made a few images.  A supernatural photographer?  Perhaps.  I did some homework, and found reference to a group of spirits in the area–los espectros de las animas–the specters of lost souls, who sometimes haunt visitors in the area, although they’re seen rarely.

The next time you venture into the wilderness and think you’re alone, you might think again.  You never know what may be lurking under the cover of evening skies….

Light painting at Dali Rock

Supernatural, August 2011

Happy Halloween from Alpenglow Images!

Nocturnal

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

Kangaroo rats galore!

Thursday, August 26th, 2010

In my opinion, kangaroo rats are among the most charming of all animals.  Their cheeks–usually stuffed full with seeds–and their huge hind feet make them adorable in my opinion.  Those namesake feet are also useful: when combined with their long tails, kangaroo rats can be extremely fast and agile, which is useful when you are avoiding predators like owls and rattlesnakes.

I gained an appreciation for kangaroo rats when I was helping one of my professors in graduate school trap Ord’s and Panamint kangaroo rats for a project he was working on.  When we released the animals, they would sit in our hands, almost not wanting to leave.  Indeed, it was hard to walk away from those big black eyes, and that cute face.

In southern California, we have several species of kangaroo rats, and they can be fun to photograph.  Near my home, the most common are the Dulzura (Dipodomys simulans) and the Stephen’s kangaroo rats (D. stephensi).

Dulzura Kangaroo Rat (Dipodomys simulans)

Dulzura Kangaroo Rat (Dipodomys simulans), August 2010

Stephen's Kangaroo Rat (Dipodomys stephensi)

Stephen's Kangaroo Rat (Dipodomys stephensi), July 2009

Yeah, I know, they look pretty much the same.  Most species of kangaroo rats do.  In fact, if an expert on these little creatures hadn’t confirmed their identity for me, I probably wouldn’t be able to tell the difference.  These photographs were taken less than one mile from each other; the Dulzura k-rats like rocky country, and the Stephen’s k-rats like open, grassy areas.  In fact, the chosen habitat of the Stephen’s kangaroo rat is probably partially responsible for the fact that its Federally-listed as an endangered species.

You see, open grassy areas are also the preferred habitat of housing developers.  As huge areas of land have been cleared for new housing in southern California, habitat is being taken away from these small creatures.  While some people had serious problems with the idea that a ‘rat’ was being protected by the Federal government, I hope you can see that this little creature is much more interesting and charming than your typical rat.  To see all of my Stephen’s kangaroo rat images, click here.  To see all of my Dulzura kangaroo rat images, click here.

If you venture further into the Mojave Desert toward Joshua Tree National Park, you’ll find the Merriam’s kangaroo rat (D. merriami).  Again, you’ll see there’s not much difference between this species and the other locals, but apparently enough genetic distance exists to warrant the creation of a new species.

Merriam's Kangaroo Rat, Joshua Tree National Park

Merriam's Kangaroo Rat (Dipodomys merriami), November 2009

While photographing nocturnal creatures can take a bit of getting used to, and may take one or two tries until you figure out a system that works for you, the rewards are definitely worth it–fantastic photos of these charming little rodents!

A strange visitor at Badwater

Tuesday, February 23rd, 2010

This weekend, a friend and I drove to Death Valley National Park.  I had heard there is currently water in Badwater Basin, and wanted to see it, as well as photograph it.  Since Death Valley usually does not get enough rain to allow for standing water in the basin, this is a rare event (since January 1, Furnace Creek has received over 2″ of rain).  On Friday, we arrived at Badwater about 3pm, and immediately headed to the West Side Road in search of photo opportunities.

On Friday, another storm moved into the area.  In my experience, bad weather can either lead to amazing light conditions, or to very poor conditions for photography.  Unfortunately, in this case, it was the latter.  There wasn’t much of a sunset on Friday night.  However, after dark, we headed back over to the Badwater parking area and walked out on the salt flat.  Because conditions were poor for star trail photography, my friend and I did some light graffiti–one of his newest hobbies.  I have to disclose that I really did nothing here, except for stand behind the camera, but this one is called ‘Badwater Blooms’.

light graffiti on Badwater Basin in Death Valley National Park, California

"Badwater Blooms", Death Valley National Park, February 2010

As we were experimenting with different bloom configurations, the strangest thing happened.  We thought we were alone on the salt flat, but off in the distance, we could make out a figure walking towards us.  Ours was the only car in the parking lot, and no one had arrived, so we tried to say hello, thinking the person may be lost or need help.  The figure didn’t say anything, but as it got closer to us, a bright light appeared behind it, and the figure disappeared, almost as quickly as it had appeared.

I managed to snap this photo before it disappeared.

a strange silhouette in Badwater Basin, Death Valley National Park, California

A strange visitor, Death Valley National Park, February 2010

Was the visitor from another dimension?  Did it exit through a portal that’s only open when Badwater Basin is full of water?  I’m not sure.

Unfortunately, we didn’t have much better light the next morning; in fact, we had really poor light.  However, Saturday night, we had the best light I’ve had in quite some time.  I’ll share those images in my next post.

You can see all my Death Valley images here.

Sphinx moths

Tuesday, September 22nd, 2009

A friend of mine in Laramie Wyoming reported snow yesterday; here in southern California we’re baking in nearly 100 degree temperatures, but that means that insects are still out, and I can still photograph them!  One of my favorite insects is the sphinx moth.  Sphinx moths are a family of moths (Sphingidae) comprising about 1,200 species; the white-lined sphinx moth (Hyles lineata) is very common here in southern California.

White-lined sphinx moth, 2009

I caught this individual flying around in my garage one evening (they’re nocturnal).  After catching it, I did what any good biologist would do: I put it in the fridge.  Why?  Because I wanted to do what any good photographer would do: take pictures of it.

After letting it cool down, I placed the moth on some vegetation in my front yard.  Using my 300/4 lens with a 1.4x teleconverter, I was able to fill most of the frame with the moth at the minimum focusing distance.  I used a flash with -1 2/3 stops compensation to act as a fill flash.

Moths–like all insects–are ectotherms, meaning they are “cold-blooded”.  In other words, they have to derive their body heat from somewhere other than metabolic sources.  You and I are endotherms–we produce our own body heat via our metabolism.  So, as this guy warmed up from being in the fridge it started to move around more and more.  But, it still needed more heat to be able to fly.  That’s when things got interesting.

Ectotherms have to derive their body heat from external sources (usually the environment–this is why you see lizards and snakes sunbathing), but sphinx moths display something called ‘periodic endothermy’–they flap their wings at a very rapid pace to build enough body heat to be able to fly:

White-lined sphinx moth beating wings in a display of ‘periodic endothermy’, 2009

Beating the wings in this manner generates a large amount of heat, which can then be used for flight.  This moth displayed this behavior for about 3 minutes, then took off.  It was a great interaction, a good physiology lesson, and I got some great pictures out of it!

Beating the heat

Sunday, August 30th, 2009

Southern California has been baking in a heatwave this weekend.  It was 107 F at my house yesterday and 105 today.  When its that hot, drinking beer in the air conditioning sounds like a much better way to spend an afternoon than being outside.  To still get outside and take some photos, a friend and I went out last night to take pictures of kangaroo rats.

Because we’d had such good luck last time, we decided to try the same spot.  Again, we arrived for sunset.  The fires currently burning have left a lot of smoke in the air, which created a colorful sunset.  I couldn’t find a landscape that captured my interest, so I tried a skyscape instead:

cotton_candy_sky1Cotton Candy sunset, August 2009

Once it got dark, we set up, and waited for kangaroo rats to come out.  And out they came!  One individual was particularly cooperative, and we were able to get a number of shots of it:

Stephen’s Kangaroo Rat, August 2009

We set up near its burrow in lawn chairs with our tripods in front of us.  We were able to sit in relative comfort (i.e. ~78 degrees) while we interacted with these wonderful little critters.  About midnight we headed home.

A good night indeed!

Seeking the creatures of the night

Monday, August 10th, 2009

If you’ve done much photography/camping/hiking/being outside at all, you’ve surely heard all of the nocturnal critters starting their nightly rounds shortly after the sun goes down.  Have you ever wondered who is out there?  Seeing them isn’t all that hard, but photographing them can be a little challenging, and often downright hilarious!

Last night, a friend and I went to the University of California’s Motte-Rimrock Reserve, near where we live.  The Motte is prime habitat for Stephen’s kangaroo rats, Dipodomys stephensi.  However, life for kangaroo rats is hard: they have to contend with rattlesnakes, owls (both great-horned and barn) as well as photographers with big cameras trying to take their picture!

Our method was pretty simple.  We scattered a little bird seed near the rats’ burrows and waited for them to find it once the sun went down.  It didn’t take long; within about 20 minutes after dark, “k-rats” were bombing the bird seed from the safety of their burrow.  Seated about 20 feet away, my friend and I waited with a bright flashlight and our cameras.  

Once a rat was comfortable with our presence, one of us would spotlight it, and the other one used the light to autofocus on the rat, and fired:

Stephen’s kangaroo rat, 2009

Its not too bad of a system to take turns doing this, and doesn’t take a lot of extra equipment.  I shot my frames at f/8, ~1/60 of a second–it doesn’t really matter though because the flash will freeze the action.  

After you get bored with the k-rats, its nice to look for other critters.  While owls were flying around, they weren’t being conducive to being photographed.  But, like I said, there are other creatures who seek k-rats.  Locally we have a fairly large population of red diamond rattlesnakes (Crotalus ruber).  

We found this fellow curled up alongside the dirt road, about 20 feet from us.  It was clearly waiting for a meal:

Red diamond rattlesnake, 2008

The snake was very compliant, and gave us about 15 minutes to photograph it before it had had enough, and slithered back into the bushes.

After appreciating the creatures of the night, we headed home, allowing them to resume their nightly routine.  Its always nice to experience new wildlife, it is important to make your impact as little as possible.  No photograph is worth endangering an animal.

So, get out there and look at your favorite wilderness area in a whole new “light”!