A New Approach

A new home. A new job. A new approach to photography.

At the end of 2016 I accepted a job with The Nature Conservancy in Oregon. I packed up my belongings, moved to Medford, OR, and completed my two and a half year “lap around the U.S.” In the last three years I’ve lived in New York, Maine, Florida, Nebraska, and Montana. I’ve learned so much  about conservation and gotten to know some inspiring photographers, namely Michael Forsberg, Chris Helzer, and Mac Stone. From them I’ve learned the immense value of being in one place for a long time. In doing so, you develop an intimate understanding of the local issues and form crucial relationships to other people. It’s this level of understanding and dedication, I’ve learned, that makes truly great photography.

In contrast, for the last three years I’ve mainly been taking pretty pictures, writing opportunistic blog posts, and occasionally working on small video projects. This has been incredibly fun and important practice, but after seeing positive change other photographers have achieved with more focused projects I’m inspired to take a new approach. I’ve decided to focus my photography on two specific causes.

I took a lot of pretty photos like this in Montana, but so what? Everyone already loves mountains. For a while I’ve been searching for a cause to apply my love of photography to.

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Black-and-chestnut Eagles

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While I was working on my latest video about an organic farm in Ecuador, my thoughts drifted back to an incredible bird I filmed while living in that country. I went onto YouTube to see how many people had viewed the remarkable video from that experience and was horrified to discover that I had never published it! Because of the dire conservation status of this bird, as well its sheer beauty, I made it a priority to share this story and rare footage. (Trust me, you want to watch this one). Continue reading

Platte Meditations

This is a post that I wrote last January while living in Nebraska but didn’t get around to publishing. I’ve been waiting for some cold weather to publish it since.

On a sub-zero Saturday morning last month I got up early to catch some photos of the sunrise. I had planned to go to a prairie, but as I was driving I noticed a line of steam rising on the horizon like the trail of dust a pickup makes as it races down a dry gravel road. Curious, I headed towards the steam and realized that it was coming off of the Platte River. When I arrived at the bridge I was stunned; the entire river was steaming, and the vapor was being backlit by the sunrise. An endless procession of ice chunks slowly floated by, quietly scraping against the snow on the bank. I spent almost two hours photographing, filming, and recording audio, and I never even felt cold. There was something special about that morning, something about the stillness that made me feel content and peaceful. I wanted to share that feeling with other people, so I edited a short video of how I saw the Platte that morning:

There’s really something special about the Platte and I don’t know if I can explain it. Maybe it’s my instinctive attraction to water. Maybe it’s the languid pace of the Platte that relaxes me. Maybe it’s simply the change in scenery and stark contrast between river and prairie. Or maybe I’m surprised by how beautiful it is each time I make a visit because no one ever seems to talk about it. It’s hard to take a trip in Nebraska without driving over the Platte, yet how often do we stop and explore what’s below those bridges?

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Part of the problem is that there’s so little public access to the Platte. I know of a few observation decks and one tiny trail along it, but the vast majority is private property. Even if you set foot on the middle of the riverbed you are trespassing! This is such a shame because in my opinion the Platte is one of the greatest recreation opportunities in southern Nebraska. On a sunny weekend it is my favorite place to sit and read, and every time a friend visits I make sure to bring him or her to a sandbar for a picnic. As an employee of The Nature Conservancy, I have the luxury of being able to access a couple sections that we own.

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Fortunately, even if you don’t have access to a section of the Platte the best option is still available to you: kayaking. I did this with a friend twice last summer and it remains one of my favorite Nebraskan memories. When there’s enough water for a decent flow you can cover 20 miles in an afternoon while hardly paddling. And boy was I surprised how beautiful the scenery was! I expected the river to be bordered on both sides by corn fields, but the section between Minden and Wood River is actually surrounded by trees, creating the feeling that you are far, far away from it all. No place other than the Sandhills has given me that feeling of isolation in Nebraska. Kayaking the Platte requires two cars to shuttle and renting kayaks if you don’t own them, but it is well worth the trouble.

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The Platte River has a long history of abuse, and now it is often taken for granted, in my opinion. But if more people had a meaningful connection to it maybe we would treat it better. I challenge you to find your own special place or activity on the river; get to know this wonderful feature if you haven’t yet. The Platte deserves it.

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Public Access to the Platte:

  • Platte River State Park, Louisville
  • Louisville State Recreation Area, Louisville
  • Two Rivers State Recreation Area, Waterloo
  • The Crane Trust Visitor Center, Alda
  • Alda Rd. and Shoemaker Island Rd. (observation deck), Alda
  • Audubon Center at Rowe Sanctuary, Gibbon
  • Lowell Road and Elm Island road (observation deck), Gibbon
  • Riverside Park, Sottsbluff
  • Platte River Landing, Valley

Sea Serpents

I was walking along beautiful Quake Lake when I startled a snake resting on the rocky shore. He gracefully slid into the water and disappeared in the blue shallows. Ironically, I later identified the species as a Western Terrestrial Garter Snake (Thamnophis elegans). After taking a few more steps I startled another. Pausing to scan the rocky shore more carefully, I spotted two more. What was going on? Why were so many snakes drawn to a frigid lake on a chilly day?

A Terrestrial Garter Snake (Thamnophis elegans) sunbathes on the shore of Quake Lake

A Terrestrial Garter Snake (Thamnophis elegans) sunbathes on the shore of Quake Lake

To learn wildlife’s secrets it’s often necessary to spend a long time watching them. Unfortunately for us naturalists, animals are very good at doing nothing for a long time. Fortunately for us photographers, minutes pass quickly while photographing a critter, so I grabbed my macro lens, crouched down, and started photographing the snakes as they warmed themselves in the sun.

Terrestrial Garter Snake (Thamnophis elegans)

A Terrestrial Garter Snake preparing to enter the lake.

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A snake appearing to blow bubbles.

After a while I noticed a pattern in their behavior: a snake would enter the water, go for a one-minute swim, return to the shore, and rest for about five minutes before repeating the process. I tried to follow them into the water to but would lose sight of them if they went too deep. Finally, one snake stayed in the shallows I saw what he has doing: hunting minnows!

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A Terrestrial Garter Snake slides into the shallows of Quake Lake.

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The snakes navigated choppy water beautifully on their quest for seafood.

Terrestrial Garter Snake hunting minnows.

Terrestrial Garter Snake hunting minnows. Look carefully; the dark streaks are fish.

Upon entering the lake, the snake first poked his head underneath some rocks, probably trying to flush the minnows out of hiding places or maybe looking for crayfish. When the snake located a school of minnows he went bezerk, rapidly undulating in a wide “s” with his pink mouth wide open. Compared to the quick and agile minnows darting about, the snake seemed hopelessly slow and clumsy underwater. I never saw one grab a fish, but the snakes must have succeed somehow; otherwise why would there be four hunting there?

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I asked Dr. Stevan J. Arnold about this behavior and learned that there are two distinct types of Western Terrestrial Garter Snakes. The one I saw is found on lakeshores and eats primarily fish and leeches. Interestingly, these lakeshore snakes grow faster, die younger, and breed more frequently and copiously than Terrestrial Garter Snakes that live in meadows and feed primarily on slugs. According to a paper that Dr. Arnold co-wrote, this is partly because lakeshore snakes have higher rates of predation and more consistent sources of prey. From another paper I learned that these lakeshore snakes shift their diets from year-to-year based on what prey is most available. Toads seem to be their preferred prey, but they’ll switch to fish when toad populations decline.

A Terrestrial Garter Snake returning to shore after hunting minnows.

This information reveals how remarkably adaptable Terrestrial Garter Snakes are. As if it weren’t impressive enough for a cold-blooded species to hunt in a frigid lake, they also adapt their hunting behavior and even their growth and breeding traits in order to meet the demands of their changing environment. Snakes are one of the most under-appreciated animals, in my opinion, but I have always found them uniquely graceful and beautiful. Now, I can also admire their grit.

Predatious Pinedrops

20160723_montana_2102While walking walking through the shady forest on the way to Lava Lake last July, I stopped to look at one of the more unique plants in Montana. As I admired its dangling, urn-shaped flowers,  I noticed a couple dead insects stuck to them. Looking closer, I realized that the flowers were practically covered in tiny beetles, bugs, flies, and wasps, some dead and others still struggling to free themselves. As you might know if you’ve been reading this blog for a while, I’m a carnivorous plant lover, but I’ve never heard this plant, Woodland Pinedrops (Pterospora andromeda) mentioned as a carnivore. I did some research and learned a lot of interesting things about this sticky plant. Continue reading

Happy Halloween!

Happy Halloween! Here’s a post from last year about a very spooky yet fascinating animal.

How many naturalists does it take to spot a parasitoid? In this case, two. While we were harvesting seeds in a wet prairie, my supervisor, Chris Helzer, spotted this caterpillar. He noted that it seemed to be mimicking horsetail (Equisteum sp.), a very common wetland plant, for camouflage. That was a really interesting idea, but it turns out be far from the truth, and you’ll soon see why.

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Video: American Dippers Part 2

One week after my first visit to the American Dipper nest I was back in the water, hoping to film some clumsy and adorable fledglings. Instead of going directly to the nest, I entered the creek downstream of it and began wading against the current. After some perilous crossing of slippery log jams, I came across the wonderful sight of an adult dipper hunting in the shallows. As she made several trips carrying food upstream and back, I was eventually led not to her nest, but to a young  fledgling waiting patiently on the shore.

A young American Dipper dreams of the next delicious beakful of wriggling aquatic invertebrates his mother will bring.

A well-camouflaged American Dipper fledgling dreams of the next delicious beakful of wriggling aquatic invertebrates his mother will bring.

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Late Bloomers

It’s the time of year when, sadly, only a few wildflowers are still in bloom. As the summer rolls into August, the flowers that dazzled us in June and July wither and go to seed. This may be a small loss to us people, but there’s a huge group of animals that depend on blooming flowers for survival: insects.

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Video: American Dippers Part 1

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The mountain streams of western North America are home to one of the continent’s most amazing animals: American Dippers. At first glace, a dipper is an unremarkable bird: small, plump, and gray. The only strange thing about the bird is where she’s standing: on a rock in raging stream. The dipper takes two steps closer to the rapids, then two more. Now her toes are in the water. Careful little bird! Then, as if an act of suicide, she throws herself headfirst into the raging water. Continue reading