Sunday, 21 April 2019

Same old, same old?

By April 21st last year I had seen exactly 89 birds on the patch. I don't do fractions. This year I have seen, oh look, exactly 89 species. There is actually less cross-over than I thought, with seven birds seen this year that I hadn't seen by this point last year, and vice versa, but rest assured that it will all even out in the end. My patch year lists are, barring a few species, identical every time, with only the order being slightly different. I could mix it up I suppose, see how many I can get in March, how many in April etc, but do I look like the Prof? (No I do not).

April is usually excellent, and whilst the quantities have been down - only one Wheatear for instance - the expected birds have all, one by one, found their way onto my list. The latest bird, #89, was Ring Ouzel, a reliable species here year after year. And to think I once twitched one in Hertfordshire so little did I know of my local area. Well, all that has changed now. The where and when hold few surprises these days, but with a fly-over White Stork last week, and the run of fantastic birds last year, you just never know and so you go out every morning with the spring of hope in your step.

Despite what I said about being unable to get up, lately I have cracked it and am hitting the patch nice and early. One of the great benefits of this is that I am alone and I get to see the sun rise. You can generally tell quite early if the birding will be any good or not, and so some mornings you invest the time, and others become perhaps a shorter sortie. Last week saw a mixture of both. A run of ten hours over three consecutive mornings bagged nothing more than a single Yellow Wagtail. The following three days have seen Green Sandpiper, a new Cetti's Warbler, two Sedge Warblers, a Rook, quite a few hirundines and the aforementioned Ouzel. I think I'll stick at it for a few more weeks.

Wednesday, 17 April 2019

Arizona - Antelope Canyon

Antelope Canyon needs no introduction. If you have a windows-based computer, the likelihood is that you will have seen the amazing swirls and deep reds, oranges and ochres that make up one of the backgrounds that it cycles through. Many of the slot canyons from this area exhibit these layers of sandstone, but Antelope is perhaps the most expansive and impressive. When I was initially researching the various photography locations for this trip I had assumed you could just walk up and walk in, but the canyon is on Navajo tribal land and all of that is off limits….unless you pay. 

Antelope Canyon has spawned an industry! Tours leave many times per day, and small groups enter the canyon at barely staggered intervals with a Navajo guide there to point out features and answer questions, but also to make sure you move through and go not linger and cause the whole system to fall over. At times it felt like the only thing missing was a cattle prod, but there is no denying the beauty of the place, even if you are sharing it with 200 other people. Interspersed between the regular groups are specialist photography tours (add $100 per person to an entrance ticket which is already $60…) who are allowed a little longer and are allowed to take tripods etc. I couldn’t stomach that level of robbery, so went handheld the whole way and hoped I would nonetheless get some good opportunities with the low-light capabilities of the 1Dx. 

Most photographs of the Canyon are taken in summer when shafts of light fall into the canyon from the sun high overhead – I can only imagine how busy it must get. Sand trickles into these beams to produce the most amazing images, however In February when we went the sun is never high enough in the sky for this to happen. Antelope had a treat for us nonetheless - falling snow replaced sand for what I hope are some fairly unique shots.

Friday, 12 April 2019

Joshua Tree redux

Coming back to those Joshua Trees I wrote about the other day, it occurred to me whilst there that the plants we had seen near the town of Mesquite on the Nevada-Utah border were different in form to some of the photos I had seen. This led me to undertake some mid-holiday research (all my holidays are this fun) and I discovered that there are two distinct forms of Yucca Brevifolia. I won’t bore you with too many of the details, nor even the names of the subspecies – all you need to know is that one group of plants has a tendency to branch far more frequently than the other, and thus they end up looking far more impressive and tree-like. As luck would have it our route back to Las Vegas took us south of the Grand Canyon and very close to the very dense stands of these Joshua Trees in and around the Mojave National Preserve.

Oh for a drone. I climbed a small windmill to take this....

We turned off the main road at a town called Searchlight. The road was long and straight, and either side of us were hundreds upon hundreds of Joshua Trees. As we progressed west down the road they became denser and denser until they were the dominant vegetation. Turning off onto a dirt track and we were in a forest. Compared to the scattered trees we had found near Mesquite this was another level entirely.  Many of you will be familiar with the album “Joshua Tree” by U2, and so will know what these plants look like. Within the album artwork, at least on the CD I have, there is a photo of the band with a lone tree in the background, as well as one with Bono standing up against a trunk. They were clearly aiming for the desolate look. What Henry and I were looking at was positively verdant! Joshua Trees as far as the eye could see, and not only that, these were huge! No stunted trunks here, instead thousands upon thousands of immense candelabras. Just imagine how old these are, think what they have seen. Nevada saw no persistent white explorers until about 1775, and migration didn’t really start until 1840 so almost every single tree that we could see almost certainly predated what we think of as modern America. Think about that for a minute, trees that are older than the country in which they stand. Half an inch a year means a 20ft tall tree will be approximately 500 years old – this landscape has not changed for centuries. Long may that continue.

Tuesday, 9 April 2019

Arizona - Horseshoe Bend

Gradually we left the snow behind as we descended from Zion down towards Page in Arizona. Things began to look a lot more desert-like, and the physical elements of the landscape started to look like a Roadrunner cartoon. The famous Horseshoe bend was our destination for the evening, an impressive overlook gives a full view of the entire loop in the river complete with dramatic cliffs. It was both monumental and terrifying. Monumental as the great yawning chasm opened up in front up us. Terrifying due to the absurd selfie-takers putting themselves and in some cases their children at risk as they posed on the edge, well away from the safety railings at the main view point. With my own son there I was taking no chances with either him or me, but my heart was in my mouth for almost the whole time as people behaved like utter idiots. Only a month before someone had died doing exactly what people were doing today, and presumably every hour of every day. It made me sick to watch actually, just the thought of what could happen and what the result would inevitably be. You can take the view that Darwinism will prevail, or you can just be unbelievably heart-in-my-mouth nervous for the safety of perfect strangers. I chose the latter, I’m not sure why.

We were there for the sunset, which in common with the rest of our trip basically failed to materialise. We got the briefest of rays before the cloud swallowed everything up again. No matter though, it was still quite an occasion, and we knew we would be back for the sunrise the following day. Guess what? We awoke to another winter wonderland, with a decent amount of snow on the ground and light snow continuing to fall. We went back to the overlook to find the canyon shrouded in mist to the extent we couldn’t even see the other side, let alone the river. It cleared a bit as the morning progressed, however with people continuing to behave like complete muppets but with added ice my delicate constitution could not cope and we left to do something else, namely breakfast. Meanwhile the snow continued to fall in the desert.

Saturday, 6 April 2019

Mandarin Madness

It is not often that one gets to see grown men embarrass themselves. Well, apart from every day in Parliament at the moment. Today however I was able to enjoy this pleasure a little closer to home. The patch had been truly dire -  a week of pent up expectation dashed before 8am, and with the coffee and bacon bap already done very little to remain out for. Tony and I wandered around disconsolately, kicking stones, and talking about the likely candidates, knowing how fruitful a similar chat about Garganey had been last weekend. Although it had been a crap morning all it would take was one bird. And so of course about two seconds after we had stopped discussing Mandarin Duck Nick went and found one on Alex. 

Or rather it found him. He was actually looking the other way when the Mandarin saw him from the other side of the pond and made a beeline for him. I can't remember exactly what he said but it was something like he felt something on on his left side and all of a sudden there it was perched on his left shoulder. Or maybe his right? Regardless, I have never seen Tony move so fast. One minute in deep depression at another unreasonably early start for no reward, the next sprinting to Alex - I could barely keep up! We crested the slope and there it was right in front of us. Tony shed a tear, there is not much that is up there with a patch tick. But wait, why was it swimming directly towards us? A fresh arrival from China would surely be far more wary? 

Hunger, pure and simple. It was desperate, fat reserves almost totally depleted from the long flight from the wetlands of Ha Lau Pons, it put fear aside and swam straight to us, but once it realised we had no food it flew off and around the corner. We agreed this has been an incredible experience with a wild bird. We walked around the pond to join Nick and Bob, still shaking with excitement. Had this really just happened? What a way to get to 141! 

A sudden revving of engines and the squealing of brakes signalled the arrival of James, also keen not to miss out on this eastern mega, his 130th species for the patch. When he joined us a short while later he also commented on the slavering hunger of this remarkable vagrant. Think how far it has come I exclaimed, gesturing grandly. Just as I did that the bird swam around the corner, and seeing my hand movements swam directly towards me. What happened next was very special. With all of us crouched down on the bank the bird actually got out of the water and stood in the middle of us....

Friday, 5 April 2019

Utah - Zion NP

No visit to Bryce Canyon would be complete without a stop-in at near neighbour Zion National Park. Despite near white-out conditions on the way down, Zion itself was passable, and so our number one viewpoint of Canyon Overlook was actually attainable. It was surprisingly busy given the weather outside of the park was making access a little tricky, but we got a parking space within a short while and walked the short distance up the trail – very easy despite the snow and ice, and took no more than about 20 minutes. What greeted us was immense.

We are fortunate enough that we have also seen Yosemite, and there is a spot there when arriving from the western entrance where you round a bend in the road and suddenly the whole of the valley is there in front of you. The overlook view reminded us of that, and not particularly in miniature either. The view is the classic tunnel type, with the walls of Zion Canyon rising 2000ft from the valley floor at the far end, and as with everything in America, is as grandiose as they come. We gazed out across the valley for a while, willing the clouds to part and allow at least some sunlight to warm up the ochre cliffs. Are these places in fact better with wild skies, or is a perfect blue sky the desired state? Maybe the answer is that to fully appreciate somewhere like this you need to experience it in all seasons and in all conditions, and the transitions between them. In that respect tourism can be quite one-dimensional, and the thousands of selfies and other photos taken daily are wholly unrepresentative of these places. Nonetheless this blog post demands at least something, so here’s a flavour of what we got on the day.

Wednesday, 3 April 2019

Utah - Bryce Canyon

To be fair it didn’t start well, but travel is rarely completely straightforward.

I pride myself in being extremely organised. This time I had booked the rental car for precisely one month ahead of when it was needed. Great. The local office in Las Vegas could do nothing, and after being offered a number of extremely unpalatable last minute alternatives I reluctantly switched on my phone and called the UK travel agent. It was sorted in under five minutes. Oh and by the way, could I upgrade to a 4x4? Apparently there is a little bit of snow forecast…

Henry is 15 and a nice boy. This was a half term treat, just the two of us, to the American south-west. With a photography GCSE just around the corner, what better than the buttes, hoodoos and canyons of Arizona and Utah, all in vibrant shades of orange. Or how about white?

Finally we were on our way. Henry had said nothing whilst his father tried to unpick what could have been a trip-ending administrative cock-up, but you could see the relief on his face. He might be a teenager, but the grunting insouciance has yet to fully take over. We headed north on the I-15 towards Utah – first stop Bryce Canyon, that incredible bowl of rock formations which are a photographer’s dream. We had talked on the flight, and indeed for many weeks beforehand, about the sunrise over Bryce and where we would stand, how we would shoot it. Part of the plan, now scuppered, had been to visit at sunset to assess the vantage points and get our timings right, but it was now clear we would not arrive before dark. Not to worry though, the mental imagery would see us through.

The next morning we awoke in the dark and peered out on a white landscape. Huge icicles dangled from the guttering, and the ground glistened. Gathering our gear we set off on the short drive to the canyon. The car temperature sensor reported minus 15 centigrade, what were we doing? I had known it would be cold, but this was unexpected to say the least. At least it wasn't snowing, the views would be magnificent. I had visited once before, over 30 years ago, with my own parents. That had been in August when the canyon was an orange dust bowl. This would at least be different. 

All dreams of an amazing sunrise evaporated about two miles out, we were driving into a blizzard. At the first of the viewpoints visibility was about five metres. I switched the heated seat back on and settled in to wait in the dark. We were here now, we might as well see what would develop. Ten minutes before the designated sunrise we went on a short recce to the lip of the canyon. A few hoodoos loomed out of the mist, but photography was a distant dream. It wasn't even possible to get a sense of the scale. 

Sunrise came and went with no discernible difference in light levels, but a quick check of the weather radar online predicted a short break in around an hour, so we decided to wait it out. It was cold, but not so bitter that we couldn't remain outdoors, and gradually we began to perceive more and more shapes. One benefit of the weather was that we were more or less alone, and it was a special moment when the snow flurries began to clear and the hints of impending grandeur were fully resolved as the horizon finally revealed itself. Natural beauty comes in many forms, but few landscapes capture the imagination in quite the same way as the sandstones of the American south-west. There might not have been any sun, but really the photographs became secondary to taking these views in.