Journal

Friday Night at the Races

The offer was irresistible: meet in the pits at the Ocean Speedway in Watsonville and take 8 laps in the #15 American Stocks race car during one of the preliminary heats. Are you serious, I thought to myself. I’ve been a fan of auto racing for years. Lots of exciting times spent at big road tracks like Laguna Seca and Sonoma Raceway (Sears Point back in the day) and at some short dirt ovals like San Jose Fairgrounds and Baylands in Fremont. And these days, I never miss a Formula 1 race. So my response was an enthusiastic Yes! 

The idea was of course, to bring my camera and in a photo-journalistic style capture the flavor and appeal of this hugely popular sport.

A lot of the appeal of this racing has to do with the fact that the all the drivers and their backers are local residents and businesses. So while there’s nobody driving named Jimmie Johnson, Kyle Busch or Dale Earnhart Jr., the fans are rooting for drivers that hail from Watsonville, Aptos, Santa Cruz, Prunedale, Morgan Hill, Gilroy, San Martin, Hollister and Los Banos. Of course, the racing is thrilling with the sprint cars and IMCA (International Motor Contest Assoc.) modifieds providing a double-dose of high-speed (75-110 mph) action on the ¼ mile dirt oval track.

Jill Merlin

Jill Merlin

My invitation came from Jill Merlin, a project manager at Adobe Systems in San Jose who has been racing for years in the American Stocks class. As young girls, sisters Sonja and Jill got an early introduction to the sport watching their father racing on dirt tracks. Older sister Sonja went on to win rookie of the year honors in a late model modified car at the 3/8 mile Stockton 99 Speedway.

These days, their father watches Jill race the car he built and maintains. That car is a 1970’s Pontiac Firebird that has been stripped of everything non-essential and reinforced with a full roll cage; doors are welded closed; and windshield replaced with heavy mesh wire (more on that later). Power comes from a crate 350 CID small-block V-8 motor. Like the other cars in this race class, the body has gotten pretty banged up after several seasons of wheel to wheel racing.

My ride began by donning a one size too small Firesuit, fire-proof gloves and full-face helmet. Entering a car through the window takes some effort. With memories of Bo and Luke Duke leaping into the General Lee to guide me, I shimmied feet-first into my high-backed aluminum racing seat. Next, Jill helped me with the 5-point safety harness and then explained how to quickly free myself in the event of a roll-over. To say I was snug in there would be an understatement. Now I was really ready to hit the track.

I’ve read that dirt track racing is the single most common form of auto racing in this country. The sport was created in the U.S. and goes all the way back to the 1920’ and ‘30’s. Ocean Speedway is like most tracks being that it’s an oval with a length between an 1/8 to a 1/2 mile long. It’s also partially banked. The track was completed back in 1960 and was an immediate hit  -it was the place to gather on Friday nights. And based on my experience, Friday nights at Ocean Speedway are still as popular as ever.

So there we were, strapped in and just waiting for the track to clear and the announcement for our cars to proceed to the dirt. And then it was our turn. Jill fired up that big V8. Lots of noise. No more talking. And off we were to line up and then be directed onto that wet dirt track. Wet? WTH? Keeping the track wet helps to reduce dust but mostly makes the track tacky. It also means the cars are always throwing up piles of chunky mud and rear ends are sliding out big-time in the curves. I dare say, it’s almost beautiful –like choreographed dancers. All those car, nose to tail and wheel to wheel, sliding sideways through the curves. Only the first place car is safe from the barrage of mud chunks thrown off by the cars in front of you. Because we weren’t in the lead, my face, body and camera were getting a generous coating of mud. Sometimes so much mud collects on the front mesh that the driver (or lucky passenger) will have to clear it with a poker stick. Anyway, all my great ideas for in car photography went out the window as the mud came flying through it. I could only laugh at the preposterous conditions that reduced my photographic effort to uncovering the lens for a few seconds and aiming the camera in a generally forward direction. But never mind the crazy photo conditions –I was having a freakin blast as we tore around that track. I think you could probably say that I had a mud eatin’ grin stuck on my face. And I gotta say, that Jill can really drive too. No fear, just pedal to the metal. Just an absolute thrill ride.

My time in Jill’s car ended way too quickly. And while the racing season at Ocean Speedway comes to its conclusion October 10th, there’ll be plenty more racing in 2015. If you haven’t ever watched it, I highly recommend it. Just a whole lotta good ol’ fashion fun.

For more Ocean Speedway images click here

 

 

 

 

Getting to know Sequoia

I don’t know anyone who has seen a Bald Eagle who doesn’t agree that this is one mighty cool bird. We all know that the Bald Eagle is the national emblem but to see one in person is to know why.

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I imagine, no bird lover is entirely happy until they’ve seen a Bald Eagle in the great outdoors. Same for photographers who find birds a captivating subject. Birders and bird photographers are willing to travel as far as necessary to fulfill their need. Close to my home in the San Francisco Bay Area, I have seen Bald Eagles at Crystal Springs Reservoir and Calaveras Reservoir. However, a pair of binoculars or a spotting scope was needed to get a really good look. But that all changed recently when I had the pleasure to see and photograph “Sequoia,” a captive Bald Eagle from Palo Alto’s Junior Museum and Zoo. 

Sequoia, who will turn 25 this year, has led an interesting life. In 1988, she was one of a dozen eaglets that were relocated from British Columbia to Big Sur as part of an effort to re-establish eagles in California. After being fitted with a radio transmitter, she was released latter that year. Researchers tracked her to the Bay Area where she stayed for a number of days before continuing northward. Unfortunately about two months later, Sequoia was found by a rancher in Humbolt County –she was emaciated, dehydrated and suffering from a small caliber gunshot wound. After being treated for her injuries, including a permanently paralyzed tail, Sequoia was determined to be non-releasable. She was subsequently accepted at the San Francisco Zoo as an “ambassador” for bald eagle reintroduction efforts. And it’s worth noting that those efforts have helped bald eagle populations rebound in California and across the lower 48 states. 

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John Aikin (Director of Avian Conservation) and John Flynn have been Sequoia’s handlers/trainers while a resident at the S.F. Zoo for 23 years. Last year, Sequoia and her handlers arrived at the Palo Alto Junior Museum and Zoo (JMZ) where she will continue to serve as a goodwill ambassador. JMZ is home to 50+ species of animals, including bobcats, raccoons, snakes, turtles and more than 200 specimens in total. Many of these animals, including Sequoia, are brought to classrooms for hands-on learning. JMZ provides a variety of science programs for schools and community groups as well as special events. Click here for the JMZ website 

Sequoia’s transfer to JMZ has allowed the trainers greater flexibility in her exercise activity. For several months now, she has been a regular visitor to Byxbee Park at Palo Alto Baylands. At Byxbee, Sequoia is allowed to fly freely. And what a sight she is. High in the sky, bald eagles appear huge. Now imagine, Sequoia with a wingspan of approximately 6 1/2 feet and weighing about 11 lbs. flying fast and low –seemingly within arm’s reach. What a rush! And Sequoia seems to enjoy her flight time too.

Typically, she flies from the heavily gloved arm of one handler across the rolling hillside to another trainer where she receives a meal of quail, fish, and mice. 

Sequoia is an intelligent animal with a mind of her own, and occasionally diverts from the regular exercise plan. In fact, she made national news just this February when she went “AWOL” after being spooked by high winds during a free flight session. For 3 days she was on the lam. Her trainers tracked her with the aid of the radio transmitter she wears and located her perched high in a tall tree in nearby Redwood City. Eventually, when she was hungry enough, the lure of tasty food treats offered by the trainer helped her in overcoming a fear of descending into an unfamiliar area.

While allowing Sequoia to fly freely involves a certain degree of risk, the handlers feel that the benefit to the bird’s health and well-being as well as the benefit to the public is important. Sequoia has resumed her routine of daily exercise now. If you want to see this magnificent bird, she is usually out around 4pm on weekdays and 2pm on weekends. It shouldn’t be too difficult to spot her.

To view my photographs of Sequoia click here for lightbox gallery.

My Favorite Images from 2012…

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First, in order to select my favorite images from the past year, I like to distance myself from them so that I have a somewhat fresh eye. So three months into the new year, I went back to review last years images for the first time. My criteria for favorites is mostly subjective rather than technical. Put simply, I picked the images mostly on how I responded to them upon review. Also, I wanted the selected images to be representative of the whole year, so my choices include at least one photo from each month.

Lastly, none of the photos shown here were commissioned but rather are simply examples of my creative recreation. Reviewing my 2012 photos reminded me of how much I enjoyed making each one and it’s my hope that you enjoy viewing them too. All of these images are also available as high-quality prints in a variety of sizes.

28 images are presented in chronological order –as captured from January through the last day of 2012. 

To view the images click for lightbox gallery.

15 Favorite Photos from 2011

Traditionally, the beginning of a new year is a time to reflect on the past 12 months, to make resolutions and to plan for the future. So often, however, the past year is something of a mental blur unless you can refer to a diary or in my case, review my images made during that time period. Sorting through my images by month provides a visual reminder of the year in a progressive manner and refreshes the memory. 

In the process of this review, I decided to also select some of my favorite images and present them in a new gallery. Initially, the plan was to pick a “top ten” but that quickly became a “baker’s dozen” and finally 15. My criteria for picking these favorites has less to do with technical aspects then being a reflection on that creative moment in the field where natural beauty inspired me. Let me know if any of my favorite 2011 images are your fav too.

American Bittern

Spent quite a lot of time hiding in the reeds photographing this elusive bittern. Even with 800mm of reach, most of my photo ops were still too far away. But near the end of the day, much to my delight, the bittern following the curve of the pond finally reached my position. In fact, it was so close that I was unable to photograph the entire bird without the possibility of making my position known. Still, I really like the symmetry of this image and how the background of reeds blend so well with the plumage. This was also the first time I’d ever been able to observe an American Bittern for any significant time. What a joy.  

Burrowing Owl

Burrowing Owls are such endearing creatures. I’ve spent countless hours observing them from a distance. This owl was photographed in the spring near its nest with its mate nearby. This owl became so acclimated to my presence that it rarely ever looked my way but when it did, I was ready.

Snowy Egret

Shoreline Lake in Mountain View is a wonderful place to enjoy nature. In addition to recreational activities, this relatively small man-made lake is a source of food and rest for a variety of birds. Of the hundreds of images captured at Shoreline Lake, this photo of a Snowy Egret was one of my favorites because of its overall vividness and the “decisive moment” posture caught at 1/2000 second. 

 

Forster’s Terns

Springtime is in full swing by the time these terns are courting. I’ve enjoyed the noisy behavior of Forster’s Terns for many years and have captured almost every aspect of this birds behavior. Graphically, I like how the white plumage pops off the blue water. But this image is a favorite primarily because of the sense of joy expressed by this pair with their heads pointed skyward, bills open as they announce loudly their commitment and wing position suggesting this new bond.


Orchid

This potted orchid in my backyard is a dependable source of springtime beauty. This image is a favorite pick for its sharpness, DOF (f/32) and insane colors but mostly because it just seems to want to reach out and pull you into its maw. Simply irresistible. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Lily / Spring Spear

Since shooting these two images in May, I continue to find myself drawn to them for their simplicity, softness and bokeh. And as I view them here again in January, maybe with a bias for an early spring.




 

 

 


Fawn

Sweetness, gentleness, tranquility, gracefulness; these are just a few adjectives that come to mind when I revisit this image. While taken with a long lens, this image retains a sense of intimacy with the little fawn as it rests at the shady base of a redwood tree. It’s a baby –what more is there to say?

 

 



Great Egret

Another one of those “decisive moment” captures but I really like the feeling of the bright background and the white plumage blending together and highlighting an effective camouflage. The bird’s bill actually spearing the fish is cool too.

 

 

Great Egret

Find a way to put a spotlight on a beautiful bird and you’ve got the makings of a good image. But this is also a favorite because I spent hours allowing this bird to acclimate itself to my presence while I slowly approached it and as a result, I was able to use a relatively short focal length (240mm) that provided both a sense of intimacy as well as habitat. I also like how the captured fish and water movement give the image energy.

Agapanthus

Each summer our yard is filled with scores of these perennials. And each year, I study them with my creative eye in an attempt to get “artsy.” I was happy with a number of my attempts but this particular image is a favorite because of the isolating effect of using a telephoto lens (300mm) with an extremely shallow DOF (f/2). Overall, the resulting purple bokeh and sharp dew-laden buds is pleasantly luscious. 

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Horned Owl

This was a relatively easy choice for favorite because it represents the first time I’ve ever really seen this species so openly. This bird and its siblings were also the favorite subjects of countless photographers and birdwatchers that paraded to this location in Golden Gate park. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Shorebirds

For me, this image is all about “atmosphere.” This late September day saw another huge congregation of shorebirds pushed up along the Beach Park Blvd. (Foster City) shoreline by a rising tide. On this day, high tide came just after sunset and this image was made possible because of camera equipment that can capture beautiful images even at ISO 3200. I like this image for its limited DOF achieved with a long lens, shot wide open (400mm @ f/2.8).   

Trumpet Vine Flowers

I like this flower image for its vivid colors and 3-dimensional effect. Feeling restless after spending a rainy day indoors, I took advantage of a bit of a break in the weather in search of a photo. It would have to be a quick search, however, as the sun had already disappeared for the day behind clouds. I was drawn to this pair of trumpet vine flowers because they were the only ones remaining on a trellis in my backyard and I liked the beaded up raindrops. Although the vast majority of my photos are taken with available light, sometimes the only available light is the one you bring. In this instance, nearly all of the light is from a handheld speedlight bounced off of a gold reflector. Reviewing the image that evening brought a modest sense of accomplishment and enjoyment for my efforts. There is beauty all around us; on some days it’s just a bit harder to find.

Harbor Seal

I’ve observed and photographed plenty of harbor seals in my life but always from a fairly long distance. For months, residents of Redwood Shores were treated to fairly regular appearances by this juvenile seal in and about their man-made lagoons. And this little seal was ever so curious of its surroundings. On one exciting encounter, while I was preoccupied with photographing herons from the edge of a lagoon, this seal popped up out of the water and proceeded to swim directly to me for a closer look. While I remained motionless, the seal actually touched my boots that were almost in the water. I felt so lucky to have this wild creature interact with me. I call him “Rusty”.

To view larger images shown here click for lightbox gallery.

Assignment: Echelon Gran Fondo (Napa)

Postcard commemorating Echelon Napa Gran Fondo

Postcard commemorating Echelon Napa Gran Fondo

As a photographer, I’m pretty much a generalist. That is, I’ll happily take on just about any photo assignment, especially if it offers something new.

Living in California, it goes without saying that I love the outdoors. And so it’s no wonder that nature photography is a favorite pursuit of mine. Alas, nature photography while personally very gratifying isn’t especially lucrative. More often than not, my work involves photography either in a studio or a business location setting. But whether indoors or outdoors, each setting and subject presents its own interesting challenges.

 

Case in point: a recent assignment was as an event photographer for the Echelon Gran Fondo in Napa, CA. This mass cycling fundraiser had nearly 1000 participants and ran nearly all day. My instructions were to shoot the event in a photo-journalistic style and chronicle the overall feeling of an Echelon event. The images that I created are to be used in a variety of web and print materials produced by Pixel-Gym to promote future Echelon riding events. There were other photographers hired to take the “vanity” shots of individual cyclists and some photographers were working for the sponsors. But my goal was to visually showcase the event as a day of fun for the riders while funds were raised for two local hospitals specializing in cancer treatment.

Promo using a photo from Echelon Napa Gran FondoWhen I’m photographing wildlife, my usual approach is to blend in—that is to be as unobtrusive as possible. I think the most successful nature images are ones that depict wildlife in its natural habitat doing what they naturally do. So often, this approach involves a great deal of patience working a specific location.

Covering the Napa Gran Fondo was interesting for me as it was my first cycling event and something of a challenge in that it’s literally a moving target. The Echelon Gran Fondo offers riders three rides of varying length up to 100 miles. So to cover the event it was important to capture all of the hoopla: the riders; the beautiful Napa countryside; the party; and, moreover, the spirit.

So with a convertible as my mount, we followed, sometimes lead and more often chased the riders along the designated route. Ideally, I would have had the opportunity to scout the course under the same lighting conditions as when the event takes place. But as often the case, you have to make the best of any situation. I did drive a portion of the course in the preceding afternoon but there really is no substitute for seeing cyclists riding along the route in morning light. Rather than just follow the group, we often times would surge ahead of the pack in an attempt to instantaneously scout out a scenic location. When an attractive location was spotted, we’d make a quick stop and I’d hop out of the car and set up as quickly as possible as the speeding group of riders rapidly approached my position and just as quickly raced away. You really only have just a matter of seconds to make your shots. Its kind of exhilarating yet a little nerve wracking because you want to capture as much as possible and avoid missing an important moment. And as with my nature photography, capturing moments of spontaneity or gestures is always something I’m specifically on the lookout for. It takes a quick eye and an even quicker finger.

After the last rider crossed the finish line in downtown Napa, I created a Flickr gallery for my client and uploaded the image files. The response from the client and participants has been favorable. With my first cycling event now completed, I’m already thinking of ways to improve my coverage of future Echelon events.

Follow this link to see photos from the Echelon Gran Fondo taken on May 21, 2011.

http://www.flickr.com/photos/echelongranfondo

And if you want to see some of my other photography, you can go to my Flickr site or click the Flickr icon at the bottom of the Stronckphoto.com homepage. And of course, you are welcome to check out the galleries here on my website.

Elusive & Endangered

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The new year has brought me the good fortune of finding and photographing four of the most elusive and endangered bird species found in the S.F. Bay area: the Least Bittern; American Bittern; California Clapper Rail; and, Burrowing Owl. Like most birders in this area, I had never seen the Least Bittern and rarely seen the others.

The California Clapper Rail is a Federally and State listed endangered species (meaning it is in immediate danger of becoming extinct) primarily because of loss of wetlands. Similarly, Burrowing Owl numbers have declined steadily since the 1940’s because of habitat loss through urban development and are listed as a Species of Special Concern in California. In addition to habitat loss, non-native predators (domestic and feral cats, Norway rats, Red fox) also present threats.

Observing any one of these four birds in the wild is rare not only because of limited populations but because the appearance of these birds (their plumage) and their behavior is so well adapted to their habitat that they are difficult to find.

Both the Least Bittern and American Bittern are secretive and solitary birds that spend their lives in marshes, moving very slowly, often times remaining motionless amongst tall, dense vegetation such as reeds and cattails. However, when prey such as fish, frogs or crustaceans get close, these birds will strike very quickly. Unlike most other herons which will flush when disturbed or threatened, the Bittern will freeze –typically with it’s neck stretched skyward. In fact, sometimes they will even slowly sway in this position to resemble the surrounding waving reeds.

Burrowing Owls have a unique symbiotic relationship with ground squirrels. The two animals don’t share burrows but rather, the owls take over vacated burrows for their nest. And yes, they actually do dig to expand their burrows. In exchange, the ground squirrels benefit by having another set of wary eyes looking out for mutual predators. Burrowing owls are also unusual, as owls go, as they are active during the day and at night (diurnal). For more info on these owls and their preservation, check out the following link to the Burrowing Owl Conservation Network (http://burrowingowlconservation.org/index.html). 

The California Clapper Rail is another furtive bird that is best seen during periods of plus high tides in the winter months when it is flushed out of its dense saltwater/ freshwater marsh vegetation habitat. This is a medium-sized bird (13-19 inches long and about 8 to 14 oz) with a narrow body (“skinny as a rail”) and a conspicuous whitish tail. They are well adapted to moving through marsh vegetation quickly; rarely fly but can swim short distances well. Although the Clapper Rail can conceal itself very effectively, it will often give away it’s presence with an unmistakable loud clattering call.

As recently as 40 years ago, about 5,000 Clapper Rails were located in the S.F. Bay estuary but today, that number is estimated in the1,000-1,800 range. Again, habitat destruction and non-native predators are primary causes. Clapper Rails spend most their time feeding on small fish, snails, marine worms, mussels, crayfish, crabs and bugs found in shallow waters along tidal channels and mudflat edges.

Click this link to see a gallery of images of these elusive and endangered birds. /new-photos/elusive-endangered/

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Also included in the photo gallery are images of a Merlin. Merlins and Kestrels are both small sized Falcons with the Merlin being a bit larger of the two. I have seen Kestrels fairly often but only twice have I spotted a Merlin. So, it has been an elusive bird species for me. The Merlin diet consists primarily of other birds that it attacks and captures mid-air.

And finally, I’ve also included photos of the White-faced Ibis. The WF Ibis is a medium-sized wading bird (it stands approx. 2’ tall with a 3’ wingspan) with a long, slender downcurved bill and fairly dark plumage that on closer inspection has an iridescent sheen of bronze, purple/red and green (although winter plumage is somewhat duller). In California, this bird is most often seen in the central valley during the winter months but occasionally a few isolated birds find themselves visiting the S.F. Bay. This individual bird was found foraging at Palo Alto’s Baylands Nature Preserve. Interestingly, I saw a WF Ibis in this same location last year at this same time. 

Hawk Migration

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Beginning in Autumn, thousands of hawks commence a southward migration in search of milder climate and more plentiful prey. Along a route that for some raptors may extend from Canada to South America, the Marin Headlands (specifically, “Hawk Hill”) is well known as an excellent location to observe this migration. For 25 years, the Golden Gate Raptor Observatory (GGRO) group of volunteers has been tabulating the annual fall migration of birds of prey. GGRO commences their count in mid-August each year. Check out their website and the “Daily Hawk Count” for current reports (www.ggro.org). Even on a “slow” day, the GGRO Hawkwatch team has counted 155 raptors at the rate of about 26/hour!

Hawks are visual navigators that prefer to fly over land, often times following the coastline. So it’s not too surprising that hawks are frequently spotted riding the strong winds along the rugged San Francisco and San Mateo coasts. And where there are open fields, opportunities to observe hawks hunting can be almost a sure thing. Who hasn’t seen one of these large birds of prey (up to 3 lbs.) perched along a highway? One of my favorite locations for raptors is Half Moon Bay –specifically in the open fields of Bluff Top Coastal Park and at Wavecrest Open Space and the adjoining northwest area of Wavecrest Rd. /Hwy. 1. During the last four months of the year, it would be difficult not to find hawks in these areas. A good pair of binoculars can be a big help when it comes to studying these birds in detail.

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Last year (2009), opportunities to observe and photograph red-tail hawks at Bluff Top were especially good following a vole irruption. I visited this area numerous times in November and was rewarded with many good photo ops. This year, I started looking for raptor activity at Bluff Top on Sept. 1st and plan to visit these sites regularly through at least the end of the year. So I hope to be able to update this site with new images. Meanwhile, I’ve updated my Avian/Raptor gallery to include a number of hawk photos captured late last year. All of my raptor photographs are of wild animals and were typically taken using a telephoto lens in the range of 400mm to 800mm. Follow the link below to see a gallery of various raptors I have photographed in the S.F. Bay Area, including many from Half Moon Bay. www.stronckphoto.com/avian/raptors

Hawks that can be observed during the migration include:

• Red-tailed Hawk

• Sharp-shinned Hawk

• American Kestrel

• Cooper’s Hawk

• Turkey Vulture

• Red-shouldered Hawk

• Peregrine Falcon

• Merlin

• Northern Harrier

• White-tailed Kite

• Ferruginous Hawk

• Swainson’s Hawk

• Golden Eagle

Autumn already?

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Where did the summer go? This summer was short and mild –OK, it was actually unseasonably cold. September 23rd marked the beginning of Fall with schools back in session, shorter and shorter days and beautiful weather. For me, however, I’ll know the season has changed when I hear the characteristic song of the Golden-Crowned Sparrow:  “oh dear me.” And along the bay, it won’t be long before migratory ducks fill the ponds and waterways.

During the past two months, I’ve made the usual rounds of the bay lands but honestly, it’s been rather dull. I prefer to photograph birds in their most striking plumage rather than the relatively drab appearance of most during the summer.

But this summer was exciting for one unusual encounter. Redwood Shores is notable for it’s numerous man-made ponds and lagoons providing an attractive visual amenity to the adjacent townhouses and homes. These aren’t stagnant bodies of water but rather connected to the bay with submerged pipes allowing fresh water to circulate as well as providing access for a variety of interesting wildlife. I have seen bat rays, leopard sharks and even seals in these ponds. While I’ve observed groups of Pacific Harbor Seals hauled out on secluded rocky spots in the S.F. Bay, I’ve never had a close encounter with one until this summer.

No doubt, the Redwood Shores ponds are a safe place for a mother seal to have her single pup. And it was in one of these local ponds that I saw the seal for the first time around Memorial Day (of course, I didn’t have a camera with me on that occassion). This pup was already fairly large, maybe about 35 lbs. So, I’m guessing it was born in March or April –which would correspond to the normal time frame for newborns. And like about 20% of the harbor seals in the S.F. Bay, this little guy has an orange or rusty colored coat. Over the past several months, this plump pinniped has grown and appears quite healthy.

What is unusual, however, is that this little seal appears to be quite curious of its surroundings, including people and dogs at a dog park as well as folks strolling along the Bay Trail. According to the Marine Mammal Center, it is not normal behavior for a harbor seal to initiate contact with people or dogs. But I have watched this seal swim across a lagoon in order to get closer to people, even those with pets. I too have been the object of this seal’s interest. While set up on the rocky shore of a pond photographing a green heron, not 10’ away from me up popped the seal’s head out of the water quite unexpectedly. The seal did a 360 degree spin and then made a bee-line to my position for an up close and personal look. It was pretty cool to look directly into the big dark eyes of this curious juvenile with it’s friendly dog-like face. If I didn’t know better, I’d say it was lonely and wanted to play. 

Reportedly, the MMC as well as a Fish & Game warden are monitoring the seal and have determined that the best course of action is to leave it alone and try not to encourage interactions with people. Sooner than later, the seal will undoubtedly head out to the bay but in the meantime, I think this friendly little seal has made a lot of people happier for the visit and even more appreciative of our bay side location and the diversity of wildlife it offers. Follow this link to see a gallery of new images featuring the harbor seal and other local wildlife. /new-photos/autumn-already/

War …birds

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Maybe it’s about growing up in the 1960’s watching “Twelve o’clock High” on TV and the numerous movies depicting WWII as fought in the skies but no doubt, I am fascinated by vintage war birds. The Collings Foundation is a non-profit group that is dedicated to “preserving the machines that helped build the world and helped keep it free.” Many of these war planes are flown around the country for display and educational purposes. I have now seen these aircraft at Moffett Field (Mountain View, CA) three separate times over the past 4 years. Aircraft on display for the “Wings of Freedom Tour” include the famous B-17 “Flying Fortress,” the B-25 “Mitchell,” the B-24 “Liberator,” and the P-51 Mustang. Flights in each of these aircraft are available to the general public ($425 for the B-17 or B-24). One of these days, I hope to enjoy a flight in one of these great planes. In this photo gallery, I’ve collected 32 photos taken at Moffett Field in 2006, 2008 and just last month (May 2010). Click any thumbnail image to start gallery: http://www.stronckphoto.com/new-photos/

May by the Bay

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The month of May is always a busy one for birds and birders (and me). There are many new arrivals –both newborns and Summer visitors. I tend to spend the majority of my time looking for interesting  birds and behavior in the Redwood Shores area and at Palo Alto Baylands Preserve. These areas are great for birding and convenient for me to visit frequently. At P.A. Baylands, the Bullock’s Oriole continued with at least one nest that contained fledglings. I say that in the past tense as on June 1, I witnessed the nest predated by a Cooper’s Hawk. In that attack, I observed two fledglings dropped to the ground with the hawk returning and the Orioles defending while searching for their young which were hiding in bushes. Who says birding is dull? While I have new photos of the Orioles, I wasn’t able to photograph the “action” as it literally came out of the blue and took place in a split second.

P.A. Baylands was also good for watching several Avocet and Black-necked Stilt pairs with their chicks. The most active area, located across from the eastern-most parking lot was wisely protected by park rangers from people intruding on their space. Unfortunately, there are still a few who don’t seem to get it by getting too close to these very protective birds. It’s pretty simple, if these birds are reacting to your presence, you’re too close –so back off.

Construction work continues around the Radio Rd. retention pond in Redwood Shores and I think that has resulted in reduced breeding there. For example, in years past, Forster’s Terns have used this area but this year they seem to have mostly relocated to the flooded area behind the new Redwood Shores Elementary school. Even the number of young Mallards seems lower than last year. But there’s no shortage of Canada Geese. In fact, there might be more than ever! The May photo gallery contains several Forster’s Tern images in flight and even a couple of attempts at capturing them emerging from the water after a “splash down.” This action will continue into June and I’ll post more photos soon. To view the May by the Bay photos click the link to the New Photos gallery - /new-photos/

April action!

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Well this April has been fun for me and I've made quite a few new images. I've posted a couple dozen of these new photos at the following link... 

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Even though the weather has been wet and wild throughout the month, I've managed to visit my favorite locations regularly. Along the bay and sloughs, sightings of ducklings were frequent. Nothing out of the ordinary, just lots of mallard ducklings and even more Canada Geese goslings. As I mentioned in the preceding post, I had been carefully watching a Stilt nest which had 4 eggs ...hoping to have the chance to photograph their chicks. But after about 3 weeks, the eggs vanished and the Stilt pair resumed their normal behavior with no chicks to be seen. With Night Herons, Great Egrets, Great Blue Herons and Crows always on the lookout, it's a wonder any eggs survive. But it's all about numbers, as I observed the first Avocet chicks in the last week of April at Palo Alto Baylands. And also at the Baylands, my first ever sighting of a Bullock's Oriole (there were at least 2 males and a female). Thanks to folks posting on Sialia.com, I successfully located and photographed a beautiful example of a male Lazuli Bunting at Rancho San Antonio Open Space Preserve. The month of May will bring even more ducklings and hopefully more good photographic opportunities. Let me know what you think about my new photos or if you see something interesting. More to come...  

They're Back

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Spent some time on Tuesday and Wednesday at the Radio Road pond in Redwood Shores where I spotted the first (Mallard) ducklings of the season. It's only a matter of time before the Night Herons commence to gather in anticipation. Also on the pond, Shovelers continue in number. And a small group of Skimmers has returned to one of the mini islands. I also observed a Stilt already guarding it's nest -I'll be keeping an eye on this with the hope of photographing the chicks (if they make it). Located nearby, on the slough side of the levee, up in the high-tension transmission tower, there are two Great Blue Heron nests with nest building activity underway. Great views of these birds can be had with binoculars or a spotting scope.  

I added a few new photos to my Birds of San Francisco Bay gallery.

With any luck, there will be more photos to come.

Springtime has arrived!

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Finally, after months of rain, freezing nights and shorter days, Spring arrived on March 20th. Although some may point out the lack of a serious demarcation between seasons in California, one clear sign that Spring has emerged can be found in the appearance and behavior of birds, especially waterfowl and shorebirds. Our local feathered inhabitants know when it’s Spring and display it by changing from drab grayish color patterns to a more colorful appearance designed to attract the opposite sex. As a photographer, this is always the time of year that I look forward to. Not only are the birds more photogenic but there is also the opportunity to capture the fascinating behavior that only occurs during the breeding season.

In the San Francisco Bay Area, where I live, shorebirds such as Avocets and Black-necked Stilts make good subjects as they aren’t too difficult to find and display what I might describe in human terms, as a sweet mating ritual.

In contrast, duck courtship is somewhat more complex, if not more aggressive. A female Mallard duck will incite male attention by flicking her bill from one side of her body to the other. And male Mallard ducks (drakes) seem to vigorously compete with one another to win the attention of a female. Drakes also perform what is referred to as the head-up/tail-up display. The act of copulation typically involves the drake nipping at the hen’s neck feathers while pushing her almost beneath the water.

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All of this randy behavior of course results in a number of fertilized eggs which after an incubation period of about 3-4 weeks, will provide the next generation and even more photographic opportunities! Is there anything cuter than a fuzzy duckling?

Click here to view my gallery of Springtime bird activity.

UC Berkeley Botanical Garden

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Last Friday, I was able to cross off my list of places in SF Bay Area that I've yet to visit -the UC Berkeley Botanical Gardens (200 Centennial Dr., Berkeley,CA). And to be sure, the Botanical Garden is definitely a place worth visiting. If I lived closer to it, I would be a frequent visitor. The Botanical Garden is cultivated with 13,000+ different kinds of plants from around the world set in naturalistic landscapes over 34 acres.

My 2-hour visit was hardly enough time to fully explore the place. In fact, on this first visit, I was captivated by the variety of life found at the Japanese Pool. The brochure for the Garden states that this pool is an important breeding ground for newts (both California and Rough-skinned -but don't ask me to tell you which is which). It wasn't hard to spot several newts in the fairly clear water as they fed on algae and other aquatic material. It's my understanding that conspicuous breeding occurs mostly between January and February. While I didn't see any breeding, there was plenty of evidence of it. Dispersed throughout the pool, there are many spherical cloudy masses about the size of a large marble or maybe a ping-pong ball that contain 1-2 dozen eggs. And if you look closely, some of these eggs already have very small larvae visible in them. 

During my short time at the Japanese Pool, I also saw a Common Garter snake successfully capture one of the many Pacific Chorus frogs that also live there. You don't see that everyday. 

It cost $7 to visit the Botanical Garden (and a few more bucks for parking) but I'd say it's money well spent. And of course, the Botanical Garden is also a great place to bring your camera. Click here to see photos taken at the Japanese Pool.