Reflections of a heron

I’ve rarely gotten so close to a Great Blue Heron, especially as it took off right in front of me. I think this might have been a juvenile heron, one a little less leery of human presence. There were three of them chasing each other around a settlement pond at Campbell Park in San Jose CA the other day, and the heron’s reflection in the shallow water seemed very artsy.

When Great Blue Herons get ready to take off, you can really appreciate their immense wingspread (more than 5 feet!) and the perfect contour of every one of their many feathers. No wonder they spend so much time preening to keep all those feathers looking good.
Lift-off seems effortless as this almost 4.5 foot tall bird rises into the air. Hollow bones and economy of internal organ mass reduce the bird’s weight to just 5-6 pounds, so once it spreads its wings and catches some air currents, the bird can easily neutralize gravity.
Each of the outer (primary) wing feathers can be manipulated to generate propeller-like power, or stiffen to produce a gliding surface. Slow wing flaps produce enough power for graceful forward motion.
This heron wasn’t going far, and its neck is still outstretched. But in powerful forward flight, the neck will be tucked back so the head is barely ahead of the wings, which reduces the drag on its body moving through the air.
Coming in for a landing, birds increase the drag to slow their forward momentum by tilting wings back, and erecting feathers to “catch” the air. You’ve probably looked at an airplane wing at touchdown and seen the same thing happening there.

the things you find in the woods

It’s pretty quiet in the backyard these days, and even the deer aren’t stopping by. But a walk in Reservoir Woods the other day produced some surprises, even if the wildlife weren’t cooperating.

I hadn’t visited this area since last spring when the warblers were here, and I didn’t notice this fir tree then, but with its bright Christmas decorations against the white snow, it’s hard to miss. I photographed the tree 8 years ago, when it was barely head high — and look how it’s grown.
Apparently, it’s become a tradition to decorate this little tree each year, and where the tree was decorated with mostly natural products like sumac seed heads and goldenrod flowers in 2012, now it has a wide variety of bulbs and home-made trinkets donated by what must have been dozens of individuals.

Continuing on down the trail, I found a variety of forts had been built around some of the cottonwoods and oaks in the forest. Some were simple constructions that might fit one pre-teen sized kid inside…

But one was a mammoth collection of sticks and logs, measruing about 30 feet long and 15-20 feet wide, with multiple niches inside for shelter.
Entry to the “fort”. I wonder if fort building is part of the P.E. program at virtual school now — at least it seems some kids (and maybe adults) are spending a lot of time outdoors during our covid quarantine.

But this next find was the real gem of my 4 mile stroll through Reservoir Woods.

This one made me chuckle, and I had to explore what was behind the little red door in the woods.
It seems to be Merlin’s Cave and it still has a present inside.

Even with all the very bad experiences that 2020 brought us, there are also quite a few pleasant surprises. People who take time to decorate a lonely little fir tree and who bring a moment of joy to a walker with their humorous construction are just a few of the “benefits” of time away from our usual busy routine to think more creatively, to get out and enjoy the natural world, maybe leaving a little piece of ourselves to bring joy to others.

a walk at sunset

The sun came out this afternoon to give us a brief reprieve from the gray gloom that set in after the recent snow. I thought the new snow might look pretty in sunset colors, so I took a walk through the woods in the backyard.

It’s only 3:40 p.m., and the sun is just about to set behind the trees that border the big pond in the backyard. A week past the winter solstice, we have gained 2 min of daylight but the sun is only 6 degrees above the horizon at this time of day.
10 minutes later my walk down the woodland trail gives me a view over a marshy wetland of the sunset.

Somehow, I changed the settings on my camera without trying, and took a few photos using the “watercolor” picture effect. This might be a nice start to a watercolor painting, if I knew how to do that.

My camera never fails to surprise me with what it can do.

Colorful Quebec City

Even on a foggy day with intermittent drizzle, Quebec City shows off its colors with beautiful fall foliage, its festive shops, fall harvest decorations, and incredible fresco artistry on the sides of public buildings.

View from the upper town of Port Quebec

View from the upper town of the port in Quebec City. The walk up a steep cliff and hillside was worth it.  Quebec city’s iconic landmark, the Hotel Frontenac, towers over the rest of the skyline.

View across the St. Lawrence seaway from Quebec City

View across the St. Lawrence seaway from Quebec City shows a lot of fall color in the trees.

Lower town, Quebec City

Decorations on the doorsteps of shops in lower town, Quebec City

Halloween decorations in Quebec City

Halloween decorations in Quebec City were elaborate and found everywhere.

Halloween decorations in Quebec City

Hurluberlu = hullabaloo?  I’m not sure what these decorations in front of the Hotel D’Ville were for…

Wall murals on buildings in Quebec City

Frescos on the walls of buildings in Quebec City were incredibly life-like and tell a story.  You can’t tell where the building leaves off and the wall painting begins.

These frescoes have popped up just in the past 15 years and were commissioned to celebrate the 400th anniversary of the city’s founding by Samuel de Champlain.  Most depict some features of the city’s history and its notable landmarks.

Wall frescoes on buildings in Quebec City

Birds in Art

On the road again, we stopped off in Wausau, Wisconsin to visit the Leigh Yawkey Woodson art museum and see their amazing exhibition of birds in art.  This place is definitely worth a weekend field trip, and in addition to all of the paintings, carvings, and sculptures to marvel at, there are classrooms and materials for creating your own bird art (primarily for kids).  A small sample of the pieces…

Outdoors, pieces are scattered around the extensive gardens.

Bird art at the Leigh Yawkey Woodson art museum, Wausau, WI

15 foot tall Sandhill Cranes greet you by the parking lot.

Bird art at the Leigh Yawkey Woodson art museum, Wausau, WI

A life-size sculpture of an ostrich

Bird art at the Leigh Yawkey Woodson art museum, Wausau, WI

Turkeys in bronze.  I like the way the bronze yields the same iridescence that turkey feathers do.

Indoors, smaller sculptures and paintings draw you over for a closer look.

Bird art at the Leigh Yawkey Woodson art museum, Wausau, WI

One of several rooms in the Leigh Yawkey Woodson art museum, Wausau, WI

Bird art at the Leigh Yawkey Woodson art museum, Wausau, WI

Metal sculpture of a Kestrel. It’s minimalist in construction, but captures the most important characteristics of the bird that make it instantly recognizable.

Bird art at the Leigh Yawkey Woodson art museum, Wausau, WI

A Bittern carving in tupelo wood and painted with acrylic, and amazingly life-like.

Bird art at the Leigh Yawkey Woodson art museum, Wausau, WI

The photo doesn’t do justice to this amazing wood sculpture of two skuas chasing a tern. There are no external supports for the free-flying forms, and the wings only touch in one small area. Instead the support is internal within the sculpture somehow.

City of contrasts — old and new

Russia!! More specifically, St. Petersburg, what a gorgeous and hospitable city.  A two-day, whirlwind tour of palaces, gardens, city sights, museums, etc., but no biology, unfortunately.  What contrasts from new, modern skyscrapers and malls to old Soviet style offices and huge apartment complexes to 18th century or earlier palace constructions.  It’s definitely spring here, and we hit two of the 9 sunny days they average here each summer.

Apartment buildings, St. Petersburg, Russia

Apartment buildings, St. Petersburg, Russia

Church of spilt blood, St. Petersburg

Church of spilt blood, St. Petersburg , what a contrast after looking at city dwellers residences.  The interior is covered with thousands of square feet of mosaics depicting the life of Christ.

Canals in St Petersburg

Canals in St Petersburg connect the dozens of islands that make up the city.

The Winter Palace, St. Petersburg

The Winter Palace, St. Petersburg is one of four museums of art and antiquities that make up the Hermitage. Only 20% of the more than 3million acquisitions are displayed at any one time.

Gardens at Peterhof, St. Petersburg

Gardens at Peterhof, St. Petersburg. Summer residence of Peter the Great, on the Gulf of Finland

Catherine's Palace, St. Petersburg

Catherine’s Palace, St. Petersburg, ornate and lavish with its own set of art treasures

T-shirts for sale, St. Petersburg

T-shirts for sale, St. Petersburg

Some like it hot…

Yellowstone national park has the highest concentration of thermal features anywhere in the world, but it is far from a sterile place as far as living organisms are concerned — even in the hottest of the hot springs, “life has found a way”.

Yellowstone hot spring

Bands of color in the hot pools reflect the types of microorganisms that live there. Clear blue or bluish green water in the center of the pool bubbles up just below boiling temperature, but cools rapidly toward the periphery, allowing various bacteria to colonize.

Two groups of microorganisms (Archaea and Bacteria) are the foundation of Yellowstone’s thermal ecosystems.  By utilizing the chemical elements liberated by steam and boiling water from the rocky matrix, they build vast and deep mats of bacteria that encircle the hot pools, different species existing in different thermal gradients from just below boiling temperature to simply “hot” water.

Gradient of hydrothermal life in Yellowstone hot springs

Types of organisms found in the thermal strata around a hot pool can often be identified by the colors they produce.

Yellowstone hot spring

Clear blue water with steam and bubbles arising from the surface indicates this pool is probably too hot to support life.

Yellowstone hot spring

Blue-green (cyano)bacteria are some of the most heat tolerant organisms. The color of the water in the pool is actually a blend of blue reflected light that normally occurs in clear water and the yellow light reflected by the carotenoids pigments of the blue-green bacteria.  Higher concentrations of the bacteria are growing next to the pool, giving it a more yellow color.

Yellowstone hot spring

This is a much cooler pool, indicated by an orange ring of thermophilic bacteria surrounding organisms that reflect dark green to brown colored light. According to the chart above, we might expect organisms like algae, Protozoa, and fungi, rather than just bacteria here.

Ephydrid flies specialize on eating the bacterial and algal mats in the hot pools, although they too (especially their eggs) must be heat tolerant.  These consumers in turn attract a variety of predators, like spiders and dragonflies, who must be mobile to escape sudden spurts of boiling water.

Dragonfly in Yellowstone hot spring

Half a dozen dragonflies met their demise at the edge of one hot pool. Perhaps wind blew them into the hot water.  The substrate here is not sand or rock, but clumps of bacteria that have formed small columnar structures.

Yellowstone hot spring

Sometimes the patterns formed by bacterial growth take on the form of familiar (to me at least) structures. This looks just like a huge capillary network, branching off an arteriole on the left.

Or how about this one — what do you see in this accumulation of bacterial growth at the edge of the hot water?

Yellowstone hot spring

What am I?


I’ve been trying out a new, quick photo editing program on the iPad, Snapseed.   It’s a real time saver, compared to my usual method of editing images in Lightroom.  It’s easy to get carried away with special effects, though, with these landscapes from the geyser basin at Old Faithful in Yellowstone National Park.

Old Faithful geyser basin

Olf Faithful geyser basin

Kayakers on Yellowstone Lake

Kayakers move through the steam from a shoreline fumarole on Yellowstone Lake

Old Faithful

Crowds turn out for Old Faithful’s eruption about every 90 minutes.

Old Faithful

At peak eruption, Old Faithful shoots steam and water about 100 feet into the air.

Buffalo at old Faithful geyser basin

I don’t know how often bison fall through the thin crust of the geyser basin, but they must enjoy the warm steam baths.

Hot pools in Old Faithful geyser basin

Mirror reflections of the landscape show on the surface of the hot pools in Old Faithful geyser basin.

Channeling Ansel Adams

Ansel Adams introduced us to the grandeur of Yosemite and the Sierra Nevada mountains in his early photography in the 1920s and 30s, but his famous capture of the light on the Grand Tetons and Snake River was made about the time he invented the 10-point zone system of tonal contrast (varying from pure white to pure black) in the early 1940s.


The winding path of the Snake River draws one’s eyes right to the dramatic peaks that stand out so starkly and definitively in black and white.  Adams added some additional contrast to the sky to bring out the drama of the clouds and weather in this location.

It’s hard to reproduce that scene today, because the vegetation has changed quite a bit — in fact, the trees have grown so much they obscure part of the view of the river.

Grand Tetons-in-fall

Our view was marred by smoke from the Yellowstone fire, as well as low fog and haze.  The hill on the left lined with evergreens still dips toward the river, and the river’s path is about the same, although not obvious through the trees.

On another day (with better air clarity), we got a good sense of the rugged texture of those famous peaks, punctuated with a little fall color from the yellow aspens.

Grand Tetons-in-fall

The clouds constantly drifted by the peaks, uncovering various new aspects of them over time.

Landscape photography with Rick Sammon

This was going to be a 5 minute photo stop for the group of photographers in this Rick Sammon workshop, but turned into an hour long session, as the clouds drifted over the peaks presenting amazing new views.

This location provided an opportunity to try to “channel Ansel Adams”, for some dramatic Black and White photography.  So, here’s my rendition of the Grand Tetons a la Ansel Adams.

Grand Tetons


What a location for landscape photography, to say nothing of the wildlife we saw as well.