Sunday, October 18, 2015

The Effects of Drought

The Effects of Drought in California

Will California's wine growers have a good wine year?

It is mid-October, and I am searching for fall colors in the Napa wine country.  Early in the morning, I expected sun filtering through the mist over the fields of vine stock.   

Fall colors

Instead the sun rose to a crystal clear day, it is already quite warm with mid-day temperatures expected in the upper 80ties F.  It is a beautiful day for cruising and I enjoy the quiet of ‘hinterland’ away from the busy highways in the Napa and Sonoma valley.  But for the wine makers, these hot days seem to be detrimental to the harvest.

Stopping at a field expecting the grapes either already harvested or ripe and plumb to be picked, I was saddened by so many fields that were neither.  The grapes had shriveled on the stock never to be picked.  

In another field, the red grapes are still hanging from the vines.  However,  most of them are not plumb and full of juice but look dried out.

The leaves on the vines look dried and most of them have gone from green to brown, few sport the beautiful fall colors of red and yellow seen in other years.

Shriveled up before harvest?

Few grapes looked like this!

Drought – yes, we all have heard much talk and have read many stories how the lack of water is effecting the agribusiness in our State.  But seeing the devastating effect I wonder whether the year of 2015 will be remembered as a year in which the crop did not yield a stellar wine for the Napa and Sonoma – or for all of the California’s -  wine makers?

Four years of drought have left us wondering what will happen if the rains don’t come this winter.  The warming ocean at our Pacific coast have brought anchovies much further north than they ever were and with it we enjoyed humpback whales and even a blue whale feeding in our waters.  There is much hope that the warmer ocean temperatures will have the effect that is called ‘El Nino’ that in the past has brought a very wet winters.  This year we all are hoping for ‘El Nino’ to work as expected and we are hoping for rain.

For my readers in colder wetter climates, this must sound strange to hope for wet weather, but we need it or otherwise our communities, our State is in deep trouble next summer if the drought continues.  California’s agriculture is producing much fruit and vegetable that feeds the Nation.  The State is the prime almond producer for the world.   Our water comes from as far away as the Sierra Nevada from the snow pack in the winter.  During the last winters, the snow pack was far below average and our water reservoirs are frightfully empty.

So not only for the wine makers but for all of us in California, we are hoping for rain so that the next year’s crop of wine will be plentiful again.

Storybook Bear by Jared Lloyd, Wildlife Photographer

Before I go, I want to share with you a wonderful story written by biologist and wildlife photographer Jared Lloyd.  I have traveled with Jared and learned so much from him: not only many tips of making better images but also about the environment where to find wildlife.  As a biologist he researches the locations where wildlife is typically found but also knows what their food is during the various seasons of the year.  With that knowledge, targeting areas where food sources are plentiful will give the wildlife photographer a much better chance to see and capture great images. 
Jared is also a great story teller:  In one of his recent blogs, Jared describes a wonderful encounter with a bear sow and her cubs.  Observing this bear mom and her cubs play, Jared gives us a deep understanding into the lives of wildlife and nature as you read the unexpected outcome of this encounter.  I so agree with Jared that we as humans are not the only beings that have feelings, experience joy and grief as has been documented for elephants and orcas.  Having just been in Yellowstone with Jared in search of bears, how I would have liked to encounter what he describes so eloquently.  I share this story with you, my readers, since I know that many of you will never have the opportunity to be out in nature with the wonderful wildlife to experience it for yourself.  Jared's story may help you see another side of our environment that is precious and needs all our help or preservation.

Please click here to read Jared's Storybook Bear: 


Til next time,

Thursday, September 3, 2015


Beautiful California Coast

Capturing the changing mood over the ocean as night falls.

A salute to my friends and readers:  I have been traveling in the North, Alaska and Canada, quite extensively during the summer and my blog has been quiet.  I want to thank you for your continued interest, and your supportive feedback.  While I brought back many images, coming back from travel I always look forward to revisiting my favorite places here in California:  the mountains with Lake Tahoe and Yosemite Park, the coast with its rugged cliffs and beautiful sunsets.  During the summer the coast is often shrouded in the marine layer fog, so when the evenings are clear and the stars come out, it can be special.  I was hoping for those special clear nights as I went to Pacifica and its old pier several evenings – alas, it did not happen but even with clouds  and mighty winds, these trips were worthwhile and I want to share the images with you.

Pacifica is a small coastal community a bit south of San Francisco.  The ocean front is a State Beach and is graced by an old pier where the local fishermen cast their fishing poles to catch the evening dinner.  The southern end of the beach butts against a rocky outcrop so typical for he California coastline.

Late afternoon along the beach, you will find many people walking their dogs on the coastal trail where windswept trees adapted to the fierce winter storms reaching away from the water and stretching their limbs to the calmer meadows in the adjacent marsh land.

At the southern end of the beach are remnants of an old hotel where fishermen found refuge from storms a century ago.  Now, only a few walls are still standing graced with colorful graffiti.

As sunset nears, I hustle back to the pier to see the sun dipping beyond the horizon and it appears that for a moment the world is at peace.  The dog walkers stop and join me in gazing out to the ocean, with their dogs sit quietly at their feet as the ocean waves sing their eternal song.

Each trip to the pier offers different moods, different light, different clouds in the sky.  Flocks of birds appear out of nowhere on their way to their nesting ground.  

As the light drops it is quiet here on the pier.  Pacifica is a small coastal community and people I have talked to like their sleepy town.
After sunset, the hazy ‘marine layer’ or fog often creeps from the west often covering the town in a misty shroud. 

At other times, angry clouds roll in, and the sky colors in the afterglow of the disappearing light.

As night falls, the lights on the pier reflect on the waves below. The fishermen take their catch home, and the waterfront soon will be deserted.

The occasional walker often wonders why I am still here with my camera on the tripod and I welcome their stopping by and wondering what I am still capturing with the light gone.   I invite them to see the images appearing the back of my camera.  

Each evening on the pier is unique and I never tire of capturing the different mood over the Pacific Ocean.

Although I came for starry nights, I am happy to capture the ever changing clouds and moods offered by the ever changing ocean and sky.

Til next time,

Monday, June 1, 2015

Mono Lake, CA

Amazing Storm over Mono Lake, California
Amazing Rain Storm over Mono Lake, CA

Mono Lake, Tufa Area

Last month is spend a weekend in the Sierra Nevada visiting Lake Tahoe and the Eastern Sierra, Mono Lake.  As I have traveled to Lake Tahoe quite frequently in May, I was not surprised by the late season snow fall that blanketed the higher elevations (>6700 ft) with fluffy new snow.

From there I drove to the Owens Valley in the Eastern Sierra to visit the Ghost Town Bodie and then Mono Lake.

Today, I want to share some amazing images made at Mono Lake late in the afternoon when a storm passed over and 'got stuck' over the northern part of the Mono Lake Basin.  Heavy rain made for curtains of rain visible from the shores of the Lake at the Tufa Area.
Needless to say that my plans for star trails over Mono Lake were foiled but what a great reward to be able to capture these amazing images!

Heavy rain on the other side of the Lake

Storm clouds over the Sierra

The rain clouds just never made it over the pass at the northern end of the Lake

A Glimpse of Sunset over the Eastern Sierra

Finally, a bit of light over the eastern end of the Lake before the clouds turned around heading for the southern shore.

Although I had come to capture the stars in the sky, I was not disappointed with my evening at Mono Lake.  What a fantastic storm!  When the rain-laden clouds moved over the southern end of the Lake, it was time to leave.  Most of my fellow photographers, and there were quite a few,  packed up trying to avoid being soaked.  The small community of Lee Vining close by offered a late meal and a well-deserved glass of beer!

Til next time,

Saturday, May 2, 2015

Bull Elephant Behavior

(C) M.Raeder-Photography
The Fascinating World of Bull Elephants in the Wild

When we think of the wild elephants in Africa, we most often depict the matriarchal groups of female elephants lead by the oldest and wisest female.  We see the groups of females with grandmothers, aunties, cousins and young babies, both female and male, all working together to raise the next generation of elephants.  The female elephants will never leave this tight-knot group whereas the bull elephants will leave when they mature and enter teenage hood.  They will go in search of other male elephants, band together with other young bulls or find a heard of male elephants who might take them in and teach them the ropes of being a male elephant.

Below is a condensed interview with renowned elephant researcher Caitlin O'Connell where she specifically sheds light on the male elephants behavior and gives us insight into the fascinating world of bull elephants.

(C) M.Raeder-Photography


Why Elephants Are As Ritualistic and Violent As the Mafia

An Interview with Caitlin O’Connell
Caitlin Elizabeth O'Connell-Rodwell is an instructor at Stanford University Medical School, scientific consultant, author, co-founder and CEO of Utopia Scientific, and a world renowned expert on elephants. Her elephant research was the subject of the "Elephant King", an award-winning Smithsonian Channel documentary, and she participated in a new documentary "An Apology to Elephants", 2014 [Wikepedia].  Caitlin O'Connell has published several books on elephants and their behavior in the wild.

Every summer, Caitlin O’Connell, author of Elephant Don: The Politics of a Pachyderm Posse, packs her bags and travels to northern Namibia to study a group of male elephants.

What she witnesses as the males jockey for power and position around a water hole is both shocking and heart-warming: violent conflicts, tender scenes of affection

But, above all, the elephants show her the importance of family and ritual behavior.

An African elephant herd is on the move in Etosha National Park in Namibia – Photograph by Des and Jen Bartlett, National Geographic Creative
Talking from her home in San Diego, she explains what a smelly T-shirt contest can teach us about elephants, why it is no easier being a teenage elephant than a human one, what she did when she discovered a deadly, black mamba snake behind a canvas wall at the camp, and why it is crucial for humans and elephants to learn to live together.

Your book is based on fieldwork in a place called Mushara, a little known part of Namibia. Put us on the ground.

Our field site is in Etosha National Park, Namibia. It’s a remote area of the park where there are very few water points. It’s great for us because the elephants have to congregate at this particular site and we don’t have traffic from tourism. We have a seven-meter observation tower, with viewing platforms and tents, where we set up camp for the month of July. That’s when elephants concentrate in the area, and we can see the soap opera unfold.

You use the term “Don” to describe one of the male elephants you study. Tell us about Greg—and why he is the capo dei capi?

The way male elephants interact with each other is very similar to a ritual society, like the Mafioso. A subordinate elephant will take its trunk, lift it up and place it in Greg’s mouth. That’s why I call him The Don. There’s this reverence around him, but also a brutality. He has figured out how to wield the carrot and stick to keep his constituency. I’ve seen very aggressive bulls that are not able to hold the kind of posse he does. They’re too aggressive and individuals aren’t interested in following them. But he solicits the subordinate individuals to follow him. It’s a fascinating, secret society.

How old is Greg? Describe him for us.

We estimate he’s in his mid-forties. He’s not the largest bull there, but dominance has more to do with character than physicality, although you have to be very fit to challenge other bulls. He doesn’t have the biggest tusks. In physical appearance he wouldn’t stand out as the most impressive bull at our field site. But your eye is drawn to him because of how he holds himself and how others view him. It’s like there’s a spotlight on him.

The male hierarchy is all about who gets the best water, right?

When one social animal has dominance over a resource, you assume that there’s dominance over others. At the water hole, it’s like the ritual lining up and kissing of the Mafioso ring.

There is one spot at the water hole that is the source of a spring. Elephants are very particular about their drinking water and they fight over access to the best water. So that spot is reserved for the Don. When he comes in, it’s like the parting of the waters. The other males step away so that he can have that spot without contest. Others jockeying for position will ask his permission to drink by putting their trunk in his. Individuals that are low ranking don’t even bother going to the best water. They go straight to the more salty water at the end of the pen. [Laughs]

Elephants gather around a waterhole at Etosha National Park – Photograph by Michael and Patricia Fogden, Minden Pictures

It sounds like the struggle for hierarchy can be pretty violent among males.

Oh, yes! They know how to use those tusks. Even if they don’t have big tusks, they really clash. It doesn’t happen very often, and the clashes are mostly in relation to two musth males competing for a female. You can hear their heads clashing and the tusks clacking, and see how violently those tusks can jab. If you’re off center, you’re leaving your flank vulnerable to being stabbed by a huge tusk. So, they will square off like sumo wrestlers, and never turn their backs. If they do, they immediately run. It’s an amazing thing to watch.

You have used the term musth several times. What is it and how does it affect male elephant behavior?

Musth is an Indian word. One definition is “drunk.” An elephant goes into a state of elevated testosterone, similar to rutting in deer or antelope. But elephants are unique in that they go into this state serially, not altogether, so there’s a turn-taking element when some elephants are in musth and others aren’t.

They have very specific behaviors that signal they are in musth. They dribble urine and have swollen temple glands which secrete a sticky fluid. They take their trunks and swing them across their face, smearing themselves with this smelly substance. They prance and wave their ears and curl their trunks. It’s quite a spectacle [Laughs].

Like the teen male, elephants have a coming of age period, with testosterone spikes and oscillations.

It’s as though they are on stage and it’s their turn to mate with females. Other males will back down, except for those overlapping in their musth period. Then they will challenge each other. Something that’s very unconventional here is that Greg, the dominant bull of what I call ‘The Boys’ Club’ at Mashara, appears to be able to suppress others within his group from going into musth. We’ve never seen that before. So we’re hoping to shed some new light on musth.

Being a teenager is no easier for elephants than it is for humans, is it?

A bull elephant at a water hole in Etosha National Park. Males jockey for position and fight for access to the best water – Photograph by Alex Saberi, National Geographic Creative

No [Laughs]. Like the teen male, elephants have a coming of age period, with testosterone spikes and oscillations. Older males try and put these youngsters in their place, so they’re constantly getting harassed. It’s a very emotional time. It’s like they’re getting their driver’s license. They want to be free from their family but they still want to come home at night [Laughs]. So there are two things pulling at these young bulls.

Once they do make that break with family, they are all alone, and have to find a new family that will accept then. Some of them band together and solicit support from older individuals. Not all older individuals are interested in adopting them. But some are, and Greg is one of the great ones. He will, literally, take them under his wing. He will take his head and put his ear over them and rub them.

You deploy a lot of human behavioral tests on your subjects. Tell us about the smelly T-shirt contest and how it relates to elephants.

[Laughs] It’s a very clever study that a group of Swedish scientists did to show that humans are just as subject to olfactory decisions as other species. They had different men exercise in T-shirts. Then they put those T-shirts in a box and had women at different stages of their ovulation cycle smell them to see which one they preferred. What they’re actually smelling is what’s called a major histocompatability complex. It’s a gene related to our immune system. It’s also connected to what would be called a pheromone: our individual perfume.

The theory is that women select smells that are not so foreign from herself, but yet not so familiar. The not so familiar part is to prevent any species from mating too close to their kin, like mating with your first cousin. A lot of different species have this to protect them from inbreeding, but also to protect them from mating too far outside their gene pool.

Despite the fact that these animals have a trunk and look different from us, they show us how important ritual and family are.

I was curious whether it applied to this group that Greg had formed with his male posse. So, we did the genetics on their fecal samples, and the results were surprising. It turned out that they were more related to each other than the individuals I tested from outside that group. This is something we’d also like to test on long-term memory with elephants in captivity, looking at recognition of a trainer or a mate that they haven’t been with for many years.

An elephant tosses dust on its hide as protection against the African sun on the flats of the Etosha Pan, a prehistoric lake bed in Etosha National Park – Photograph by Annie Griffiths, National Geographic Creative

You are also surrounded by lions in the field. Is it as wonderful as it sounds?

Oh, it is so wonderful! I feel so lucky to be able to have this experience, being out there in the wild every season, reminded of my place in nature and the universe. Listening to lions roar every night—from a position of safety, of course [laughs]—is a real privilege. The night sounds are otherworldly, so is the night sky in Namibia. It’s so brilliant at night. It feels like you can reach out from the tower and touch the Southern Cross.

Your field station also has some serious dangers. Tell us about black mambas.

The black mamba has a formidable reputation for a reason. It’s an incredibly aggressive, poisonous snake. A friend of a friend had his arm out the window as he was driving in a Land Rover, and this mamba reared up on the side of the road and bit him on the elbow!

We had one in camp once. Everyone was in the tower watching elephants, my husband, Tim, and I were down by the door of the camp and he heard some rustling behind the canvas wall. He said, “Caitlin, I think I just heard a snake.” So we stepped over and there indeed was a snake sitting in the shade behind the canvas door! It was a younger one, with that distinctive dark olive color, small head and black, beady eyes. It’s called the black mamba because the inside of the mouth is black.

We looked at each other and thought: Oh my god, what are we going to do? Luckily, there were some two meter-long pieces of PVC for the electrical fencing. So Tim said, “Let’s take that, run a string through it and make a noose.” So we made two of these long nooses and erected some tables as shields. As we moved closer, we placed the two nooses on top of the mamba’s neck, and pulled!

Most of us assume that poaching is the greatest threat to elephants. But human-elephant conflict is also important. Just as no one wants a highway built near their house, NIMBYism plays a role here, doesn’t it?

I think there are three things at play for elephants. One is the urgent poaching crisis. Because I worked with farmers on elephant-human conflict mitigation, I’m also keenly aware of two other problems. One is habitat loss. If we make cornfields instead of elephant habitat, we’re going to say goodbye to the elephant. Third is elephant-human conflict. If elephants are trampling a subsistence farmer’s crops, eating their whole year’s worth of food in one night, you can’t blame them for not wanting them in their backyard. So, we have to help people mitigate conflict so that it’s easier for people to share space with elephants.

What do you love about working with elephants? And what can they teach us?

I love watching ritual behaviors between elephants, seeing how sensitive and caring they are about each other, like when two females kneel down and pull a baby out of the mud. Despite the fact that these animals have a trunk and look different from us, they show us how important ritual and family are. Even shaking someone’s hand and looking them in the eye is an important part of the ritual of interacting.

When you see elephants behaving terribly to each other, it’s also a reminder. Humans can treat each other terribly, too. But can’t we rise above that? We’re not so driven by our environment that we are competing for resources in the same way. It’s a reminder to look in the mirror —and try to be better.

This interview has been edited and condensed by Focusing on Wildlife.. 
This article was first published by National Geographic on 19 Apr 2015.


Til next time,

(C) M. Raeder-Photography

Thursday, March 19, 2015

Searching for Spring

Searching for Spring Wildflowers

The weather has been unusually warm and everywhere the flowers are sprouting.  The roses in front of my home were starting to bloom at least 3 weeks earlier than usual.  Although officially, Spring is only starting March 21, here California it definitely looks and smells like Spring.  The daffodils are long gone even in the higher elevations.  The Daffodil Hills Ranch in the Foothill of the Sierra closed their doors this week but 2 weeks ago it was in full bloom and a delight to see.  It was quite crowded the afternoon I visited and seeing the profusion of yellow and white was for sure delightful.


McLaughlin Ranch, an old working ranch



Closer to my Palo Alto home, Gamble Gardens and Filoli Gardens are a-wash in tulip blooms – a colorful palette of reds, pinks and white and all colors in between.

An inviting place to sit and contemplate.
A visitor on a forget-me-not

With the weather almost like feeling like summer, I continued searching for poppies and wild irises spending a day on the coast around Mount Tamalpais and Point Reyes and was rewarded to find the wild iris in full bloom.  The coastal hills were lush green with the occasional poppy [probably in full bloom in a week or so] but lots of yellow mustard along the road.



Pierce Ranch
Heart's Beach
 I ended up photographing the abandoned boat on Tomales Bay and stayed into the late evening/night capturing the north star above the boat.  There I met Lauren, a young photographer who wanted to try her hand with astro-landscape photography and star trails.  It is always nice to share the night and have the time go by faster than being alone.  Lauren, this image is for you!  I hope you got something good out of your efforts to capture the beautiful scenery!

... and a beautiful night it was!
For those of you who are still living with snow and cold, don't despair - Spring will come to your area soon.
Til next time,

[Technical Note:  all images except for the night image were taken with the Olympus OM-D E-M10, a mirroless micro 4/3 that I am evaluating with pleasing results.]
All images:  Copyright M. Raeder-Photography