Tuesday, May 28, 2024

Aurora Magic

Seeing the Northern Lights has been on my bucket list for years.   I wanted to experience the brilliant colors and moving shafts of light, like I'd heard you could see over the far northern latitudes during winter months.  But I thought I'd have to travel someplace far north, such as Iceland or Alaska to realize my dream. 

Although every once in a great while auroras are seen near my home, they are usually very faint.  Then about three weeks ago the sun started experiencing several extremely severe solar storms.  These geomagnetic disturbances were of a level not seen for over 20 years.  The sun began producing large numbers of sunspots which led to something called a coronal mass ejection.  On the night of May 10th, an unusually large number of charged particles from the sun streamed into the earth's atmosphere, creating auroras that were seen all over the world, as far south as Texas and Florida.

On May 10th, I happened to be visiting my son in Montana.  I'd heard lots of chatter about the recent huge solar storms, but didn't really think much about aurora potential.  Then later that day my Facebook feed started to fill with aurora photos from places further east.  It was everywhere!  Hmmm.....maybe I needed to stay up a bit later tonight.

Where my son lives, in early May it really doesn't start getting dark until after 9:30 pm.  After the sun finally dropped, I kept running outside his house to scan the sky overhead.  Finally a bit after 10:00, I started to notice a faint pillar of light in the northwestern sky.  Somewhere I'd heard the auroras were more visible by taking a photograph, so I snapped a shot with my cell phone camera.  There on my screen were several green pillars of light against a faint purple background.  The aurora had arrived!

Excited, I ran into my son's house to grab my big camera, shouting to him that the aurora was here.  We stood in his yard snapping photos for a few minutes.  Then my son suggested we drive up to a large hill on the outskirts of town for a better view of the night sky with less light pollution.

My son's idea was a winner.  From our high perch we could see the entire sky unfolding above us.  Faint streaks of light stretched across the horizon, from east to west.  Although dim, we began to make out colors.  Then the lights appeared to slowly move across the sky.  My son and I were absolutely spellbound.  It was magical watching the light bands change shapes and directions.

Again, photographing these streaks really brought out the colors, producing images of dazzling greens and purples.  Because cameras have higher apertures than the human eye, they let in more light (aka they see better in darkness than we do).  That's why the auroras became more visible when photographed.  I alternated between using my DSLR and cell phone camera, and found my Samsung S22 did nearly as good a job.

Properly capturing the northern lights with a camera requires long exposures.  Although I usually tote my tripod with me wherever I travel, on this trip I'd left it at home.  I was kicking myself about now!  To compensate, I turned up my camera's ISO and hand held it as steady as I could manage for about a third of second exposure.  Luckily, I'd packed a wide angle lens with a f2.8 aperture so that helped.  The images were a bit dark, so a bit of creative post-processing with Lightroom brought out the lovely light show colors.

My son and I sat on the hill for nearly an hour watching the light show.  But I had a 10-hour drive the next day and needed to get some sleep, so finally we headed back to his house.  Despite quite a bit of light pollution, the northern lights were also visible in town, so I snapped a few final sky images above a church steeple and in front of the nearby water tower.

The next day one of my son's friends who'd stayed up all night, said the colors really intensified around 1 am.  A few of my fellow photography buddies back home reported the same.  I felt a bit of FOMO for not burning the midnight oil a bit longer to witness this.  But on the plus side, at least I was able to complete my long drive without feeling sleepy.

I'm happy I got to experience and photograph this historic aurora show over the Montana skies.  It's definitely a phenomenon I never thought would happen so far south.  Scientists are saying that the sun is still quite active, and more solar storms are predicted in the next few months.  So maybe I'll get another chance to see the aurora where I live.  

If all else fails, I can always plan that trip to Fairbanks next February.......

Tuesday, May 21, 2024

Spring Babies!

Besides producing lovely blooms, spring is also a time when many animals bear their young. February starts with the song of birds trying to attract a mate, and by April lots of babies begin to appear in the local parks and nature areas.

Three baby eaglets!

My neighbor and photo-mentor Cheri knew of an eagle's nest at a state park in Central Oregon.  A pair of bald eagles return here every year to breed and rear their young.  Hearing that the couple had recently hatched three eaglets, we both wanted to go and check it out.

Protecting her baby

Cheri and I got up really early one April morning for the 3 hour drive.  Luckily, the weather was good and we arrived in no time.  Then we walked a short distance from the parking lot to where we could see the nest.

Feeding the little guys

Although the nest is high in a tree, it can be viewed at eye level from the rim of an adjacent cliff.


Not long after our arrival, one of the parents flew into the nest bearing a recently killed animal.  The other adult eagle that had been sitting at the nest (I assumed it was the mother) immediately began tearing apart the critter and feeding to to her young.

The best photo I got of all three eaglets

Three tiny, gray fluffy heads popped up from the nest.  One eaglet was a bit larger than the others.  I learned that the first egg had hatched a little over a week ago, the second three days later, and the third three days after that.  So one of the eaglets was practically brand new!

A mother's love

It was sweet to watch the mother eagle feed and nurture her babies.  We stayed for about three hours, before the action died down.  A very special morning indeed!  (A huge thanks for Cheri for driving the entire way there and back.)

Mama hummingbird feeding her baby

Of course, eaglets are not the only babies around my home.  A nearby park that features a small lake (affectionally nicknamed "the duck pond") is always a good place to spot goslings and ducklings in the spring.

Gosling flapping its tiny wings

When I'm walking around the "duck pond," my camera with its huge zoom lens always attracts attention.  Many times people will see my camera setup and generously share their bird sightings.  One April morning a man who had noticed my big white lens told me of a hummingbird nest he'd spotted in a nearby tree.  The guy took me over to the tree and pointed to a tiny nest hidden in a branch overhanging the paved pathway.

Gosling eating

As the man and I were peering at this sweet, moss-lined home, who should fly in but the mother hummer!  A wee orange beak rose from the nest and I witnessed the mama hummingbird feeding her young.  Lucky for me, I already had my camera focused and was able to capture this sweet moment.

Goose family going for a swim

After watching the mother hummer for a bit, she finally flew away in search of more food for her  baby.  I tore myself away and continued my walk around the pond.  Baby goslings were everywhere and I spent the remainder of the morning capturing hundreds of images of these cute, fluffy youngsters.

Goofy gosling

There were three goose families with young.  After feeding on shore for a bit, all three groups headed towards the water for a swim.  The sun came out and I was able to get some great shots of the goslings gliding through the water with their folks.

Tiny duckling

There's another nature area within walking distance my house.  When my hubby works from home, he sometimes walks there during his lunch break.  The same day my hubby returned from his outing to report he'd spotted a brood of ducklings in the park.  Of course, I quickly grabbed my camera and headed over there.

Beating a hasty retreat

Sure enough, I found the mother and ducklings swimming around a small stream lined with tall grasses.  Unfortunately for me, once mama duck saw my huge zoom lens, she hustled her babies into the grass-lined shore, hiding them from my sight.  I was able to grab just a few good images before the ducklings disappeared.

"Here we come!"

A couple of weeks later, I was back at the duck pond with my camera.  There were more goslings, some that had grown out of their cute, fluffy stage and another brood of newborns.  Hearing some pitiful-sounding peeping, I noticed two ducklings swimming by themselves in the middle of the pond.  It appeared they'd become separated from their family.  I was able to get some photos of these adorable little guys, but I was concerned that if they didn't soon find their family, these ducklings would become food for a predator.  (I know it's the "circle of life" and all, but sadly, this happens much more frequently than I'd like to admit.)

This little guy lost his mother

It was another good spring of baby bird photography.  I'm lucky to have the plethora of parks and natural areas nearby.  Not only flowers, spring brings a lot of great photography subjects to my area!

Tuesday, May 7, 2024

The Labyrinth

I can't get enough of the eastern Columbia River Gorge in springtime.  The first place where wildflowers bloom in spring, it's a welcome relief from the winter gray.  After hiking the Catherine Creek area two weeks prior, I was ready for a return trip.

Bright green new leaves at the trailhead

So on April 1st (April Fools day!) I hatched a plan with friends Debbie and Barry to hike the nearby Labyrinth Trail.  Hands down my favorite trail in the area, it's beautiful any time of year.  But in spring, with plentiful wildflowers and bright green new foliage, the scenery is stunning.

Beautiful waterfall

The weather looked great for our chosen day - sunny and dry.  But what I hadn't paid attention to was the wind forecast.  Stepping out from my friend's car, it blasted my face, threatening to blow the ball cap from my head.  Ok, I wasn't expecting that!  But the Gorge had a reputation for strong winds, and although annoying, it wasn't a deal breaker.  My friends and I simply tightened down our hats and carried on.

Larkspur in bloom

Our hike today started out following an abandoned road for a half mile.  Along with sweeping views of the Columbia River, the old road also passed by a beautiful waterfall.  Surrounded by green moss and yellow desert parsley, the cascade made worthy camera fodder.  The morning light even hit the water at the right angle to produce a rainbow.

Prairie stars in bloom

Leaving the abandoned road, my friends and I began winding uphill through an area of rocky promontories.  Wildflowers lined our trail from the very beginning, a mixture of desert parsley, purple larkspur, and frilly white prairie stars.

Interesting cloud

Scruffy oak trees were the predominant vegetation here.  While I admired the wildflowers, Debbie and Barry scoured the tree branches for birds.  Although we'd seen several Lewis woodpeckers in the vicinity a couple of years ago, today the rascals were nowhere to be found.

Debbie and Barry are all smiles!

Our trail led us past a small creek, complete with a gurgling waterfall.  Then we climbed higher, past a tall monolithic rock of columnar basalt, surrounded by a dense patch of desert parsley.

More lovely larkspur

The wildflowers continued to impress, with more larkspur lining the trail - and even a few patches of bright yellow balsamroot - the first blooms of this flower I'd seen for the season.

I've always liked this oak tree perched in a scenic spot

We came to a trail junction and opted to head away from the Labyrinth Trail, eastward towards the Catherine Creek area.  A path I've traveled many times before, I was looking forward to seeing more stunning scenery along this leg.

Mt. Hood sighting

We contoured across a hill, our views of the Columbia River continuing to impress.  Climbing above the trees, this area was one large open grassland with views for miles.  The Columbia River flowed below in a shining blue ribbon.  At one point, I glimpsed Mt. Hood's white pinnacle rising over the opposite shore.  Now totally exposed, we felt the entire brunt of the wind's wrath.  I pulled my neck gaiter over my hat to keep it from blowing away.  

Pacific hound's tongue

This open ridge was occasionally interrupted by small copses of oak trees.  Passing through one wooded area, I spotted some tiny bright-blue flowers.  Thanks to Barry and his iNaturalist app, they were identified as Pacific hound's tongue.

Lots of yellow desert parsley blooming

My friends and I passed through an area thick with blooming desert parsley.  The flowers, coupled with views of the Columbia River made for some nice lens candy.

Debbie stops to take in the scenery

Mt. Hood also made another appearance!  Looking towards its snow-capped peak made me wonder what the skiing conditions were that day.  Judging from all the clouds swirling around its summit, I guessed it might be windy there too.

Interesting clouds on Mt. Hood

After a quick lunch break where my friends and I opted to sit on the trail instead of the grass (this area has a reputation for plentiful ticks!) we were off again, heading towards some tall, rocky cliffs.

First balsamroot of the season!

Weaving our way through a narrow opening in the rock walls, we navigated a talus slope that led my friends and I to the cliff's rim.

Cliffs near Catherine Creek

If we kept heading eastward, we'd end up at the Catherine Creek trailhead.  But today our goal was to hike along the clifftop uphill to a junction with Atwood Road.

Oodles of shooting star flowers!

I was delighted to see a bumper crop of purple shooting star blooms brightening the nearby grasslands.

Shooting star close-up

My friends and I began our climb along the exposed cliff rim.  The winds gusted mightily, and we all had to secure our hats and anything else that happened to be loose.  The day was warming up and I was actually glad for the wind during this uphill trek, as it kept me from overheating.

Our route took us along the cliff's rim

One of the good things about this otherwise grueling climb, the views were mighty fine.  More vistas of the mighty Columbia and nice panoramas of the river's opposite shore.

Nice views of the blue Columbia River

Finally we all reached the Atwood Road junction.  A relatively level mile along the top of the bluffs took us back to the Labyrinth Trail, the final leg of today's trek.

Downhill through the desert parsley 

Back down through the huge desert parsley patch, with the lone pillar of columnar basalt in the background.

The desert parsley was thick!

When I'd hiked here a couple years ago, my friends and I had spotted two climbers attempting to ascend this large basalt block.  But not today.

Columnar basalt rock

The late afternoon light was illuminating the trail quite nicely.  Although tiring from the hike, I still couldn't resist snapping just a few more images.

Amazing springtime views!

The wildflowers were definitely the star of today's show.  I'm not sure how many varieties I photographed that day (and if I included photos of them all, this post would be twice as long!)  But that's why I hike here in the spring.

Another great day in the Gorge!

A great day to be out in the Columbia River Gorge!