Monday, November 28, 2011

Travel TidBits: Sandhill Cranes and Snow Geese

... and then I saw them!

After traveling to far away places, I was eager to get back to wildlife photography and exploring what our local environment had to offer.  Winter is the time for migrating birds and California offers some stunning photo opps since the West Pacific Flyway passes through, and California has restored important wetlands that attract sand hill cranes and snow geese as they travel from the arctic to their southern winter places.

I took off armed with my long lens (Nikon 200-400mm) and tripod, and on a grey day headed for Lodi in the Central Valley.  This being Black Friday after Thanksgiving and with everyone focusing on shopping, the ~100 miles drive was easy.  Lodi is probably more known for its budding vineyards than the sandhill cranes.  Before going out to the Woodbridge Ecological Reserve, I checked out the West Landing campground right on the Delta since I had packed my car to be self sufficient.

Years ago I had been in the Delta Region for the sandhill cranes and marveled at their grace.  Migratory subspecies of sandhill cranes breed in the Northern U.S., Canada, Alaska, and Siberia.  Each winter they undertake long southern journeys to wintering grounds in Florida, Texas, Utah, Mexico, and CaliforniaWhat attracts them to our area are the harvested grain fields that provide enough ‘spilled’ grain to provide winter feeding as well as the flooded fields that serve as protection from predators.  They are opportunistic eaters that enjoy plants, grains, mice, snakes, insects, or worms.  The season begins with the arrival of the sandhill cranes into the Delta and Central Valley in about late September, where they will spend the fall and winter months.  During the day they forage in the fields but at sunset they descent by the hundreds onto the flooded fields since the islands in the shallow water hinder foxes and coyotes from predating during the night.

Arriving on Woodbridge road, I spotted several groups of cranes in a field not far from the road.  They were peacefully feeding, and occasionally their call sounded over the valley.  Cranes ‘dance’, run, leap high in the air and otherwise cavort around—not only during mating but all year long.  During mating, pairs vocalize in a behavior known as "unison calling." They throw their heads back and unleash a passionate duet—an extended litany of coordinated song.

At sunset I proceeded to the wetlands where a small group of people has assembled to watch the nightly show:  Sunset was not as colorful as I had hoped for but as the light fell, I first heard them – their distinctive call announcing their arrival.  The sky was full of birds descending onto the wet lands.  What a spectable!  

I stayed well beyond into the evening until it was dark – well beyond the ability of my camera to capture the beautiful grace as the cranes landed and hopped a bit to find a place for the night.  There was lots of greeting among the birds – a community that had formed in the preceding weeks where everyone was welcomed.  And that allowed us to observe nature in action.

The cranes arrived at the last light.

The sandhill cranes settled on the protected islands in the shallow water 
where coyotes and fox wouldn't reach them during the night.

Fog covered the central valley the next morning as I emerged outside.  

A quick McDonalds coffee wakened me – I had left the Starbucks country some miles ago! – and I was off driving north in search for snow geese.  One benefit of a McDonalds McCafe in the morning is that the refills all along the way are free – I discovered this years ago when on an overland trip – you just stop at the next McDonalds and voila a fresh cup of coffee awaits you! 

Two hours later I stopped in Williams, a very small central Valley farm town with a sign indicating that about ~5000 people live and till here.  Driving through town in search of a place to have breakfast I discovered that Williams is a food ‘desert’.  A Burger Kind and a McDonalds were the only choices besides El Torrito, a small Mexican market.  So, McDonalds it was with a fresh cup of coffee.

Leaving the highway heading for Colusa National Wildlife Reserve (NRW) I was in search of the snow geese over-wintering here in the wetlands.  This reserve offers a car loop – no foot traffic allowed – an advantage for observing the birds and wildlife from car window.  As I later learned outside the reserve, birds can be very shy and elusive since they have learned that man are hunters.  

Approaching the NRW, I had heard gun shots and seen hunters with dogs in the fields (left) leading up to the Colusa NRW.  No wonder the birds are shy of man.

It was early enough that mine was the only car slowly driving the loop.  The early fog had lifted and the sun tried to peak through the clouds.  The dew from the night still clung to the grasses.

On the wetlands, American coots and lots of ducks enjoyed the morning.  Raptors were gliding overhead.  I saw lots of red tail hawks and a kestrel but even from the car window it was difficult to ‘catch’ them.  Blue herons and white egrets fished in the shallow waters.  But the snow geese were nowhere to be seen.

I continued to the small town of Colusa.  What I noticed is that all the small towns that I passed through seemed to be struggling.  Lots of boarded storefronts, lots of signs for lease, closed coffee shops, motels and restaurants.  Larger towns were dominated by strip malls and the ‘downtown’ character seemed to be lost.  From the town of Colusa I spoke to my friend Judy who had been here several times telling her of the absence of the snow geese.  She felt it was too early in the winter season.  So I continued east from Colusa to Yuba City since I had never roamed in this area. 

And then I saw them:  in a wetland next to the highway, hundreds and hundreds of white snow geese. 

Turning into a muddy farm road, I had to get closer to them.  Armed with my big lens on the tripod, my shoes sinking more and more into the mug under foot, I approached along the ponds.  All of the sudden amidst lots of bird calls it appeared the pond was awash in clouds of ascending birds.  Wave after wave they flew up only to settle back at the far end of the wetland. 

Was my solitary figure walking along the wetland frightening them?  We were outside the protected wildlife reserve and I can only surmise that lots of hunting is going on in these wetlands.  It is so sad.  I observed a pair of geese that had not flown away only to discover that one of them had a broken wing and as much as it tried to get airborne it could not. The wing would just not stretch and just flop uselessly.  Its mate – lots of birds mate for life – was first coming back through the water calling its mate, then flying overhead calling and calling.  Will the one with the broken wind survive the night?  I’ll never know.

I walked along the wetland and stationed myself under a tree – hoping for camouflage – and waited.  Earlier, these birds were happily feeding at this side of the wetland, why not come back.  An hour passed and the birds were slowly, very slowly swimming towards the middle of the wetlands but by no means closer to me.  So what is a photographer to do?  I shouldered my tripod and slowly walked towards the white mass of birds covering the water.  I had only walked maybe 100m when I heard the familiar sounds and clapping of wings – they again receded to the far end of the wetland in large flocks overhead.  

So here I had my answer:  they did not have anything to do with me – hunter, gun or not – they did not differentiate me as a friendly photographer.   So I extracted myself out of the mug, and marched back to my car about a mile away happy that I had been able to observe these beautiful white birds with their black wingtips, their graceful flight and characteristic songs.  Sadly, they were not calling out for me but rather saying ‘stay away from these humans”.  Well, survival depends on learning and these birds had learned well.  It’s probably incorporated into their DNA.  As I drove on I was still happy that the snow geese had made it back to the Central Valley and found a place to winter, to feed, and rest for their long flight back north in the spring.

Til next time,

To see all workshops and photo travel opportunities 
offered by M. Raeder - Photography, please click here.
Join me for the next great outing to photograph the elephant seals and 
their newborn pups in January 2012!

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Travel TidBits: Udaipur, Rajasthan

Udaipur, the City of Lakes in southern Rajasthan, also called the Venice of the East, was a nice reprise from the hustle and bustle of New Delhi.  Although a city of ½ million people, it felt like a much smaller town specifically along the lake front and in the old town.  We lodged in a hotel at the waterfront built right over the Lake and early in the morning (4am!!) I could observe the activities on the other shore where the women gathered for their morning prayer – more of this later in this story.

Hotel Lake Pichola

After arriving, we rather enjoyed the Lake Pichola with its islands, among them the Jag Mandir Palace Island and Lake Palace Hotel each on its own island, from a boat at sunset.  The lake was originally created by Maharana Udai Singh II 400 years ago and is about 4km long and 3 km wide.  The city grew around it and its shores have many ghats, typical places for people to come in the morning and bathe and wash clothes.  The Lake Palace, now a renowned hotel, covers an entire island, Jag Niwas, and was originally built as a royal summer palace. 

Lake Pichola with Jag Mandir island (left) and City Palace (right)

City front along Lake Pichola

Jag Mandir Palace and gardens guarded by magnificent elephants

The Jag Mandir, also a former royal palace where Shah Jahan took refuge while revolting against his father.  We will learn a lot more about Shah Jahan in Agra when visiting the Taj Mahal since he built this impressive marble tomb on the banks of the Yamuna River in memory of his wife who died during child birth.

Invitation to a smoke – Jag Mandir Gardens                                      Jag Mandir Palace Island

City Palace, Udaipur

Beautiful sunset over Lake Pichola, Udaipur 

I woke early in the morning – if one can call 4am early morning?! – and stepped onto our balcony overlooking the Lake.  Still pitch dark, but armed with tripod and a comfortable wicker chair, I started observing the   activities on other side of the Lake.  As I learned later from our guide Ashim, it is typical for women to arrive at the ghats along the lake front to light candles and do their early morning prayers, followed by chores like washing their laundry later.

Early Morning at the ghat:  It is 4am and life on the other side of the Lake is already in flux.  I am looking at the waterfront of the old city where the road ends under an arched gate.  The night is still pitch dark but a small group of mostly women is gathering, sitting on the landing, chanting.  Some have candles or small lamps but mostly the scene is eliminated by one strong light mounted high on the gate.  It is peaceful and there seems to be a morning payer interrupted by chanting of the women’s voices.  A nearby temple, a conical stone structure with delicate carvings that we had seen on our walk yesterday is a place of worship:  the women get up and walk over and touch the stone and pray.   Nearby, I can already hear the rhythmic slapping of the washing of clothes in the river.  As I saw yesterday morning, this lake shore is a gathering place and the early mornings belong to the women.  The pre-dawn calmness may be their only time of reflection before the hard work begins.  For the poorer people, the lake and in other places the river is an integral part of life.  Without running water at their home, the public waters become the bathing place, the place for washing, and community.

As dawn arrives the sky illuminates the water and reflections become more pronounced.  By 6am, the city seems to be awakening and I can see the first foot traffic over the bridge linking the lake fronts.  Rural herders arrive with their donkeys that are used for moving construction materials to and from wherever it is needed. 

Bridge linking the waterfronts in Udaipur

But for me, it is time to get ready for another day of exploring.  Breakfast on the rooftop of the hotel offers a welcome hot cup of tea and soon we are off to more adventures.

Til next time,

To see all of the workshops and photo travel opportunities 
offered by M. Raeder - Photography, please click here.
Join me for the next great outing to photograph the elephant seals and 
their newborn pups in January 2012!

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Amusing and Amazing

I marvel at the creativity!

Check out other amazing creations here:


Friday, November 18, 2011

Travel TidBits: Streets of India

This week, the New York columnist Thomas L. Friedman wrote an article reflecting on his recent visit to India.  Visiting the town of Jodhpur, his guide pointed to the traffic light and noted “It’s the only stoplight in Jodhur, a city with 1.2 million people!”  Friedman must have experienced the same amazing picture on the streets of every city we visited: utter chaos and yet albeit slow people manage to get to their destination.

Madness on the streets of India

We are in Jaipur, the capital of Rajasthan, a city of more than 5-6 million people.  As in the other cities, we are mainly staying in the old city with its narrow alleys around the City Palace and the Govind Devij Temple.  By now we should be accustomed to the chaotic traffic picture on India’s roads – but it continues to amaze us that traffic doesn’t come to a complete stand-still.  Like a river meandering around obstacles, Indian drivers just adjust, crawl forward in a flow of humanity and steel.

Tonight we visited a vegetable market and attended the prayer service at the Hindu Temple.  After night fall returning to the main road and waiting for Lucky, our driver, we observed the street life and more specifically the absolutely dense traffic – unimaginable for us Westerners.  The 2 lane thorough fare road is packed with pushcarts under man power, bicycles rickshaws, bicycles stacked high with goods almost swallowing the poor driver, motor rickshaws, motorbikes, cars, trucks, an occasional horse-drawn cart or maybe a camel cart, and of course the pedestrians weaving thorough the traffic to get from one side to the other.   It is not uncommon to see a holy cow leisurely crossing the street and all traffic just flows around them!  We were waiting on a busy intersection where traffic lights that were mostly observed.  “Traffic lights and lanes painted on the roads are mere suggestions” our guide had explained earlier!  The images that follow show impressions from this absolute street madness during the day as well as into the night so typical for city traffic and that we had previous marveled at New Delhi.

[My apologies for the less crisp images – but I had to share this spectacle which we encountered many times.]

The bus just stops in the middle of the street and people rush through traffic to catch it.

Finally, Lucky arrived and we hopped into the car only to advance at a snail’s pace.  The inner city streets are packed also with pedestrians doing their evening shopping on their way home. 

A rare moment of just one rickshaw driver on the street – amazing.

We passed by a stage at a round-about with a street performance of a belly dancer on a platform above the traffic which of course added to the further distraction and congestion. Add to that pedestrians weaving between lanes to get to the performance…. And amazingly no one gets upset about it besides the honking of horns that is common practice to make sure the others know you are coming.  It seems to take us a long time just to go a short distance, yet our driver is as calm as could be as he drops us at our hotel, a welcoming oasis after the madness on the streets.

Til next time,

To see all of the workshops and photo travel opportunities 
offered by M. Raeder - Photography, please click here.
Join me for the next great outing to photograph the elephant seals and 
their newborn pups in January 2012!