Friday, December 28, 2012

A busy day

Yesterday was an interesting mix of activities.  In the morning we headed over to Canyons for some skiing. Before we got up the mountain we got a text from Cathy Clark.  She met up with us and we had numerous runs skiing powder. Cathy is the head of Furburbia, where we adopted Jasper and Cosette. She's also the wife of Chad, who I go out with searching for elk.

We got lunch just before the huge Christmas mob arrived, at which point we went home. One of the biggest advantages to living in a ski town is that you can chose to stay home on the busiest days, and the week between Christmas and New Years is off the charts.
Last night we got dressed up and went to the Silver Queen Ball, a fundraiser for the Park City Museum.
The musical entertainment for the evening was none other than Otis Day and the Knights. Yes, that is the band from the 1978 movie Animal House. I'm just glad Otis didn't die during the evening.  As old as he is, singing at  an elevation of 9,000 feet was a bit much.  He was literally sucking from an oxygen tank between songs.
A little trivia:   Did you know that Otis was actually lip-synching in Animal House? The songs Shout and Shama Lama Ding Dong were actually sung by Lloyd Williams.

Owning a nice camera for birdwatching

When I am out with my camera, I tend to be a pretty mediocre birdwatcher.  Rather than chase around for identifying marks, I will often just shoot a quick photo to try and figure out what  it was later.  Photography first.  Birdwatching second.

To make this work, you need to be able to get a shot that's decent, with enough light and details for an id.  While down in Bosque del Apache, we saw a hawk sitting on a dead tree about a quarter mile away. Of course, the hawk is only about 18" tall.  Step one is to have an excellent lens, and I love my Nikon 500mm.  I could have taken the time to put on a teleconverter to get closer, but I didn't want to take my focus off the other photography we were doing.
 The second step is to have an excellent camera.  This is the crop from the picture above.  Not only can you see details of the hawk, with a little local knowledge, you could probably figure out what he is in the middle of eating.
Pretty amazing what you can resolve with a nice camera (D800e), a nice lens, a sturdy tripod and some decent lighting.

Sunday, December 23, 2012

Photography at Bosque del Apache

Dick Pick and I flew down to Albuquerque, New Mexico and drove 70 miles south to Socorro.  We stayed in the town and drove each day to the national wildlife refuge Bosque del Apache. Dick is a friend who I met while being a mountain host at PCMR.  We both do a lot of wildlife and landscape photography.
You love it when a trip starts smoothly, but this one wasn't that.  We were both getting ready to go the night before, planning on getting on a 9:50am flight.  Independently we each discovered that we had booked the 9:55pm flight. After numerous calls to Delta, we ended up stuck on the evening flight.  That meant getting to the hotel at around 1:00am, only to get up well before sunrise for a long day.  Not sure how we both screwed up and neither of us ever realized it.

The only other real problem was Wednesday afternoon.  We headed up north to a New Mexico state wildlife refuge called Bernardo.  It held a lot of promise, but the incoming cold front was cranking up some serious winds, which seemed to pick up all the dust New Mexico had to offer. This is one of the only times I can remember seeing a wall of dust coming at me from miles away.
The two main things that Bosque del Apache has to offer during the winter are Snow Geese and Sandhill Cranes. This week the estimate was 40,000 geese and 10,000 cranes. There are lots of other things there, but these are the main attractions.
Every morning started early, getting to wherever you were going to shoot before the sun thought about coming up.  The trick is how to photograph something that is flying around at a good clip in light that you couldn't read by. One trick is just to expose for the sky and get some silhouettes.
Snow Geese are not as big as Canada Geese but they are fairly large and quite pretty.
The amazing thing with the geese is when the take off in groups. These "blast offs" occur every morning just at sunrise and then randomly throughout the day.  The best description is loud, energetic chaos.  It's actually so much sudden noise and action that I would describe it as thrilling. I kept expecting to see a collection of dead and injured birds laying on the ground every time they took off. How do that many birds, each that large, fly in such a tight space?
It is interesting to think about "who gets to decide when it is time to go?" and "who decides where they are going next?".   Sometimes they all fly up, circle a few times and then land in the same field.  That seems to be when the "time to go" bird said NOW but the "where to go" bird just wasn't ready for a change. Certainly too many birds to vote on either.
We were standing in a raised blind taking these last few shots.  Sometimes the mass of geese would fly by so close and so fast, making photos impossible.  When they would back off a bit, it was very pretty.
As I mentioned, the other bird to see is the Sandhill Cranes.  They are beautiful to watch, matching a gangling awkward style on the ground with smooth, graceful soaring in the air.
I think the cranes look more prehistoric than other bird.  Their wingspan is up to six feet across and it looks just like the pterodactyls drawn in dinosaur books.
Even just standing around they look unique.
Compared to the geese, which often land at high speed, the cranes are more like a skydiver, pulling hard on the parachute at the last second, slowing to an air stall, and then dropping ever so slowly to the water.
Look at the photo above and the photo below.  It's hard to imagine that something so thin and boney can fluff itself up to look more like a plump Thanksgiving turkey.  Of course the wind chill was down around 0, so we were dressed like fluffy animals ourselves.  Someday someone needs to invent a DSLR camera with giant buttons that you can work with heavy gloves on.
One frustration was trying to catch a crane just as it started to take off.  You might be watching a flock of a hundred, looking through a long lens with a narrow field. It's tough to see them fly until they are halfway gone.  Then we got smarter...  We noticed that a crane getting ready to fly would almost always start leaning over, often for a minute or more.  Once we verified that the pattern was very repeatable, we were able to get a lot better pictures at take-off.
Huge and gangly but still so graceful.
You just can't beat the 10 minutes at sunrise and sunset when the light is just perfect.  They call it the "golden hour" but I have never seen it last nearly that long.

Late in the evening, the light is so low we are back to shooting silhouettes. This one has his landing gear down.
Not a great picture, but just something different.  The moon was fairly high in the sky and few of the birds appeared that high on the horizon. The nights were supposed to be very dark, so we were going to do some star shooting, but it was just too cloudy.
While the geese and the cranes were the main attractions, there were lots of other birds and animals around.  We missed the refuge's big mammals, which include elk, mountain lions, bobcats and coyotes.  Both Dick and I were really hoping for some bobcat photos.

I think our prize bird was the Roadrunner.  He was extremely cooperative and did exactly what his name suggests, running along the road.  We followed him for a while before he cleverly turned down a road we weren't allowed on.
I like watching the blackbirds fly as a flock.  They are like the geese, taking off and traveling as one, but they change direction a lot faster.  I was taking some shots of this group when they suddenly made a nearly perfect heart shape. Keep it around for a bizarre Valentines card.
One approach to taking pictures in insufficient light is just to give up sharpness and try to get a pleasing blurred look.  I tried it a number of times with the geese and never got anything I liked.  I did like this shot of some blackbirds flying by.
We had a couple of shore birds wandering along the edges of ponds including Snipe and Long-Billed Dowitchers.  I haven't figured out what this little guy was.  He wasn't much bigger than a sparrow with long legs.
This Killdeer stopped to admire a goose feather..
We saw about a dozen varieties of ducks including mallards, shovelers, widgeons, buffleheads and pintails (below).  We were going to stop by the Albuquerque zoo on the way home to photograph some wild Wood Ducks, but we ran out of time.
A Great Blue Heron was frequently found hanging around the entrance to the refuge.  He didn't do much for a setting because he was fishing in a fairly ugly ditch.  However, he was kind enough to let us get close enough for a head shot. If you double-click on the photo you can see all the nicks and tears on his bill.
While we didn't spend much time photographing it, there is definitely some nice scenery in the refuge.  The first afternoon the winds were almost completely still, which gave the pond a gorgeous reflection of the blue sky and clouds.
It is a lot of work, but a photographer could do very well shooting raptors in the refuge. With almost no effort, we saw Bald and Golden Eagles, Swainsons, Red Tailed and Coopers hawks and a Kestrel.  They also have falcons and owls, but we weren't hunting for them.

Things for me to remember, or for any other photographers reading this:
  • Staying in Socorro is great. Close to everything. We stayed at America's Best Value Inn which was basic but very clean and comfortable.  The owner is up putting out a simple breakfast well before our pre-sunrise departures.
  • The brew pub across the street had great food. Frank and Lupi's Sombrero Cafe was also good.  There's a nice coffee shop about a half mile from the hotel, but they don't open until 7:00.  We did get lunch there and it was very good.
  • Make sure you don't just do Bosque del Apache. 
    • Give serious consideration at sunrise to the crane ponds on your right, just before you get to the visitors center.  The sun is rising right behind you and you get great light on the birds.  You miss the big goose blast-off, but we didn't care.
    • Head north 20 miles to Bernardo.  It's 3 mile loop was spectacular in the middle of the day.
  • Pay serious attention to the wind direction.  The birds take off and land into the wind.  If they are landing away from you, all you get is their backs which makes for boring photos.
  • It would be nice to have a day to just focus on the other stuff: bobcats, coyotes, ducks, hawks, ...
  • We got lucky with our rental car.  We rented a full-sized Sedan, but Alamo was out of them.  They gave us a minivan, which is great for throwing cameras and tripods into the back.  I hung out with my gear in the back seats while Dick drove with his cameras next to him. I would definitely try and get a minivan on any other photography jaunt with two people.
I still have a bit of photo cleanup to do, but I wanted to get this out on the blog.

Monday, December 17, 2012

Our bodacious Christmas party

We are done with the bulk of our travels and will be here for the holidays so we decided to have a big holiday party. With all the other parties going on, travels, and family arriving, we didn't know what to expect for people attending. In rough numbers, we invited 50 and 45 came, and some of those missing were out of town. Awesome!  It's great to have that many friends gathered together.

Julie is a great chef and normally does a huge amount of work for our gatherings, but serious food and beverage for 45 people was out of the question. She found a local catering company, Ellie's. This turned out to be an incredible choice. The food was outstanding and the service was friendly and close to perfect. For anyone in Park City looking for catering, you can't go wrong with her company, which you can find on the web here.  It is a wonderful thing to get done with a long night of partying and discover that your kitchen is clean and put away!
One of the most intriguing laws of physics, much like Newton's laws of attraction, is that everyone will always end up gathered in and around the kitchen.  We have a large house. Right next to the kitchen are a big living room and dining room.  Downstairs there is a huge family room with a pool table and a bar.  Where did all 40+ people gather?  Within about 15 feet of the poor catering people, who were trying to keep food going.

Alison, Arnie and Manette are standing within three feet of the caterers' work space.
Christmas head gear was in style.  Here we have Frank, Julie and JW.  Julie is sporting a Christmas tree hat given to her by Alison. Frank and JW were University of Maryland college buddies of our home builder, Rob Schumacher. It is amazing that they have all settled in Park City.
We kept trying to find things to make the party more fun, and it came together perfectly in the last few days. Our friend Diane, in the red dress and mistletoe hat, offered us the use of her portable dance floor.  We cleared out a big chunk of the family room and made it dance central. What a great thing to own, or better yet, to have a generous friend own one.
And what is dancing without at least once instance of the Village People's YMCA?
Our neighbors Sally and Hannah, tearing up the floor.  Hannah was focused on how all the women danced and did her best to mimic it.
It's scary to have this much trouble so close together:  Derick, Doug and Bill.  Derick and Doug are both snowboarders.  I guess no one ever explained to them that it was for the younger generations. I need to ask them if Medicare covers snowboard accidents.
Manette and Theresa hamming it up. 
Taking a brief pause on the dance floor, me, Lisa, Mario and Julie.  I love how Julie's necklace took the flash from the camera and concentrated it into a little flash.
More on the dance floor.
Loris and JW mellowing out and watching the dance entertainment.
If there was any one true accomplishment for the evening, besides the obvious good friends, food and drink, it was getting this many people out of the kitchen at once.
Julie did a great job decorating the house, finding an excellent caterer, and making sure the entire event ran smoothly.  As your typical guy, I moved furniture and shoveled the driveway snow.  Now we are just trying to decide whether to give Diane back her dance floor or just have weekend dance parties for the next few weeks.

And we end with a transition.  This is Julie with Dick Pick.  I met Dick as a fellow Mountain Host at PCMR.  He's an avid photographer and today we are heading down to New Mexico to do a few days of wildlife photography. Hopefully that will generate a lot of nice pictures.

Also, I put a lot more pictures from the party out on DropBox here.

Sunday, December 16, 2012

Good snow

Finally got some good snow here in the mountains.  Julie and I went out to ski at Deer Valley and ended up skiing and lunching with our next door neighbors, the Lutzkers. 

If you can't figure us out, from left to right:  Sally, Julie, Hannah, me, Monty.
We should get another foot or two in the next two days, but I will be down in New Mexico.  Julie will just have to ski it for me!

Saturday, December 15, 2012

Steve's Security Update

The other day I was reading this lengthy article in Wired magazine. It's a story explaining how a technical journalist got hacked (very easily) and lost a lot in the process.  If you have 10 minutes, I would suggest reading the article.  If not, here is my quick synopsis:
  1. Too many people use the same password for lots of important web sites (email, banking, ...) and there have been lots of hacking events where millions of userid and passwords were stolen and posted to the Internet.
  2. It is very easy to buy most of the important personal information for anyone.  This includes things like your social security number, previous and current addresses, and even mother's maiden name.  When you call into a service, like a credit card company, this information is 99% of what they ask you.
  3. If someone can get into your main email account, then it is very easy for them to get into most of your other accounts.  They just go to the password reset page and it sends your new password to your registered email account, which they can read, and then put in the trash so you don't see it.  That's sure simple.
There's more in the article, but I found it a bit disconcerting.  I am not going to dive into a cave of paranoia, but I did make one change. My primary email is through Gmail and Google has added an option called two-step verification.  Instead of just wanting you to know a password, it wants you to know a password and have your cellphone.  I will let Google explain it to you, but it took me about 20 minutes to set up the first time and for my day-to-day email with Outlook, my iPad and iPhone, it won't take any additional time.  If I try to log in from another computer, phone or application, it will require another minute or two.

Here is Google's  little video explaining it and there's a link to take you to the setup.

By the way, I think this works best with phone's that get text messages, but you can set it up so that you can do the same thing with a voice call instead.  As an aside, if you still don't get text messages on your phone, I would offer that you may want to join us up here in the 21st century. 

Thursday, December 13, 2012

A wee bit of skiing

Julie and I went over to Deer Valley for our second day of skiing this year.  Honestly, the snow sucks so we are working on a lot of man-made stuff.  They are doing a nice job with what they have, but we could certainly use a few big dumps. With two days of skiing, we have to be getting close to four hours on the mountain. 

Here Julie is styling her optic yellow pants so she can be spotted anywhere on the mountain.
 One of the houses just to the right of Julie's left ear (were it showing) is ours. 
Think snow!!!

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Last Moments of a Bison Calf

I was reading one of my photography blogs when I ran across this story from a very impressive photographer.  It is one of the more moving things I have read and it really makes me wonder how we can treat other animals around the planet like such garbage.

Grab a Kleenex, click here and read...

Monday, December 10, 2012

The office window view

I was sitting at my desk typing this afternoon when I caught a bit of movement to my left.  Here is what I saw. This mule deer was right outside the window, snacking around the bird feeders.
 Julie and I watched him for a few minutes before he finally got tired of eating there and wandered off down the driveway.
Yes, there is a fair amount of snow on the driveway.  I refuse to run the snow blower until the snow stops and the wind dies down.