a photoblog of God's handiwork.

Archive for March, 2012

A Red, White & Blue Celebration…in March?

March is not generally a month particularly known for patriotic celebrations in the US, but the early arrival of Spring brought forth a lot of colorful activity of the avian variety here in the Rocky Mountains.  While working in Colorado for a couple weeks, I was able to schedule in a little time at Barr Lake State Park.  Located near the airport and hotels I normally base from, Barr Lake is convenient to visit and relatively inexpensive.  The weather was extraordinarily windy during my visit, so there weren’t very many critters out-and-about, however I did get several miles of exercise and a few photos for my efforts.  During my visit I got my first Red-Winged Blackbird of the season, as he was crooning a hopefully seductive tune.

Red-winged Blackbird at Barr Lake State Park

A number of birds remain resident year-round here on the 20-Acre Wood in the Bull Mountains of Montana, among them is the White-breasted Nuthatch.  These busy little tree-clingers rapidly forage from branch to branch, searching for bugs, seeds and nuts.  They will commonly place a seed (like the one this fellow is carrying) into a crevice of a limb or bark, and then pound the seed with it’s bill to open it.  These courageous birds frequently fly directly at me when I am taking pictures, and will often land within only a few feet of my position.

White-breasted Nuthatch on the 20-Acre Wood

In my March 10th post, They’re ba-a-a-a-ck!, I mentioned that the Mountain Bluebirds made a very early return this year.  And, as is normal, it didn’t take them long to settle in and become relatively at ease around us.  I haven’t seen them hauling nesting material yet, so perhaps they are still seeking a location to raise their young.  This fellow’s mate remains camera-shy, but she is generally not far away.

Mountain Bluebird at the 20-Acre Wood

So there you have it,  a RED-winged Blackbird, WHITE-breasted Nuthatch, and Mountain BLUEbird celebration!  There is a lot of social and economic turmoil happening in the world, and right here in the U.S.A.  In the midst of an election year, it is easy succumb to a jaded-attitude regarding our country, and thoughts of patriotism may elude us. Patriotism can be defined as “devoted love, support and defense of one’s country; national loyalty.”  While the colors of these birds may remind of us the colors of our flag, they should be an even better reminder of the love and loyalty our Creator has for us.  He makes Himself known to us through His creation, and by other means.  “For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, even His eternal power and Godhead, so that they are without excuse... (Romans 1:20).  The many frustrations we may have about life and the world we live in are really only temporary distractions to us.  Our Lord has provided us an escape route, so that we may enjoy eternal salvation with Him in Heaven.  The best part is that it won’t cost you a penny!  Acts 2:21 cites a passage from the book of Joel, “And it shall come to pass that whoever calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.”  Yes, it really is that simple; come to Him in prayer, serve Him, and devote yourself to Him.  That is patriotism anyone can afford, and it will last forever!


Crossbill Crookedness

Until a couple years ago, I didn’t even know these birds existed.  In fact, the first time I photographed a crossbill in May 2010, I posted the image to an internet bird ID forum and asked for confirmation that the bird’s beak was deformed.  Over the course of a couple days, we had several crossbills foraging through the Ponderosa Pines here on the 20-Acre Wood, but then they disappeared.  Despite my vigilant effort to find them, their return wasn’t apparent until January of this year.  We have noticed them actively foraging in the morning hours, when I typically don’t have much time for photography.  Two months ago I was able to get a couple shots of a male Red Crossbill, but the lighting was harsh, and he wasn’t a cooperative subject for very long.  This evening I took a short walk, actually intending to get some Mountain Bluebird images, and found a “warp” (collective name for a group of crossbills; also called a “crookedness”) of them watering from snowmelt in a small horse feed bucket.  Tonight they were fairly cooperative, but remained aloof, not allowing me to get very close.

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Evidently the crossed bill gives these birds a unique advantage when it comes to extracting seeds from pine cones.  I am not going to pretend that I know how it works, but pine nuts are a preferred food of this bird, and in 2010 I watched a bird successfully clean out a pine cone in short order.  Crossbills are in the Finch family, and as you see in the slideshow, there is a lot of variation to their coloration.  By the way, I was successful in getting a decent Mountain Bluebird picture.  Yesterday’s post noted the early arrival of bluebirds, and I was hoping to get a better image to document their return.

Tonight’s photo-walk actually took an interesting and humorous turn.  When I am photographing wildlife, I don’t take Luke (pictured on my avatar) because he wanders too much and tends to scare off the birds.  Well, we have a young barn cat that must think he’s a dog, because he frequently tries to join me on my walks.  Normally I lock him in the feed shed to keep him from following, but he joined me after I passed the shed, and with the rapidly falling sun I grumpily decided to end my walk and return home.  Not wanting to come home with an empty memory card, I stopped to shoot a couple pictures of our horses.  As soon as I did, a bluebird landed on the powerline above them.  Then Dickon (the cat) began staring and quasi-stalking something across the horse pen, which turned out to be the warp the crossbills!

Call it what you will, but to me this was yet another life-lesson that God planned for my edification.  Recently I have been studying the character and nature of God, and one of the Scriptures I read last night was Psalms 33:10-12; “The Lord brings the counsel of the nations to nothing; He makes the plans of the peoples of no effect. The counsel of the Lord stands forever, The plans of His heart to all generations. Blessed is the nation whose God is the Lord, The people He has chosen as His own inheritance.”  I had a goal in mind, a plan to achieve it, and the execution of that plan was underway; in the end, my plan was useless and another means of success was chosen for me.  When we are seeking direction in life, our path must be in-synch with God’s plan for us.  Just as answers to prayer may be different from what we hoped to receive, God’s plans and our plans are often not the same thing.  If He is truly the Lord of our life, we must be obedient to His will and instruction. We must recognize, “For My thoughts are not your thoughts, Nor are your ways My ways,” says the Lord (Isaiah 55:8). Many people view yielding to God as a threat to their own control, which it really is. But that is the whole point, God wants control of us, because His intent is for our benefit…“For I know the thoughts that I think toward you, says the Lord, thoughts of peace and not of evil, to give you a future and a hope” (Jeremiah 29:11). Besides, if we really think we have the ability to control our lives, we are really fooling ourselves!

They’re ba-a-a-a-ck!

It looks like I have to quit denying that Spring is really here early this year, because it is hard to argue with the arrival of our normal harbingers of the season.  This weekend brought us the first pair of Mountain Bluebirds and a solo Robin.  Each spring I generally try to photograph the new arrivals, so I reviewed the date stamps on my images of these birds over the past three years, and it looks like they are a full month ahead of schedule.

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The quality of the bluebird images isn’t the greatest, but there will be plenty of better opportunities later in the Spring, after they have settled in and aren’t so skittish.  If the normal pattern of arrivals holds true, the American Goldfinches and Western Tanagers will be along within a month.  Although this happens every year, it is always exciting to see them come back, as they announce the season of renewal.  Watching the dormant trees fill with leaves, seeing the dry grass become overtaken by new growth and interspersed with wildflowers, welcoming the offspring of livestock and wildlife; all are amazing and refreshing to the soul.

There is another, and more important, renewal that we can experience any time of the year.  That is the new life which is created when we put our faith, trust and obedience in the Lord, Jesus Christ.  We are instructed in 2 Cornithians 5:7; “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; old things have passed away; behold, all things have become new.”  Sure, we may look the same and our voice will sound the same, but we become a new being spiritually, with a new, eternal future in His kingdom.  And the same way that Springtime often urges us toward hopefulness and anticipation, following Christ yields a new outlook on life built on the promises and love of God, the Creator.

Farewell Sand; Hello Snow!

Well, our short trip came to a rather abrupt end, at least in terms of climate change.  We departed sunny California on Sunday with 70 degrees weather, and woke up Monday morning in beautiful Fernley, Nevada, where it was 19 degrees and light snow!  The remainder of the trip home was relatively uneventful, which is usually a good thing when I’m driving (and some would say miraculous, considering how I drive!).  The past several posts on His Creation have featured a number of the landscapes and wildlife from our trip, but I still have a few more to share that didn’t seem to fit the other topics.

Whenever I am fortunate enough to photograph something that is rarely seen, I get pretty excited.  And, because I mostly photograph wildlife, particularly birds, when I get am image of a seldom seen critter, it is really exciting.  I was blessed with the opportunity to get some shots of a Greater Roadrunner.  Now this isn’t the most attractive bird in the world, but perhaps having grown up with the Bugs Bunny & Roadrunner Show gave this bird a special place in my heart.  It also may have something to do with a vivid memory I have of my brother and I chasing one of these birds through a sagebrush covered hill, actually thinking we might catch it!  Thinking back, we probably looked the part of Wile E. Coyote to anyone who might have been watching us.

In our neck of the woods we have a lot of Magpies, and for many years I thought all Magpies were the same.  It wasn’t until just a few years ago that I realized that here in the Rocky Mountains, we have Black-billed Magpies, but Yellow-billed Magpies reside on the west coast.  So, after chasing several uncooperative subjects around, I finally found one that seemed to enjoy posing for a portrait.

I find it humorous that some critters are considered pests when they are in your yard or farmland, but when you see the same animals in a park or at the beach, they take on a different significance.  Over the years I have spent hundreds of hours and untold cases of ammunition in attempts to reduce ground squirrel populations from the farms and ranches I’ve worked on.  Yet now I find myself shooting them with the camera!

Because the weather was still cold and snowy at Zion National Park, wildlife was pretty scarce during our visit.  We saw a few birds that were not particularly photo-worthy, but we did spot a Pacific Wren, which is another first-time sighting for me.  This little guy was flitting around the Virgin River as we hiked upstream to the Narrows.

I consider myself truly blessed to have the opportunity to enjoy and experience so much of God’s wonderful creation.  My routine travels take me to many wonderful and awesome places, some so unique that the camera can’t do justice in representing their grandeur.  Over the course of last week’s trip, we crossed the Continental Divide several time, wandered through parts of Zion National Park at roughly 8000 feet elevation, and walked the beaches of the Pacific Ocean.  We experienced beautiful, warm sunny days, fog-laden mountain passes and wind-driven snowstorms.  As amazing and incredible as all this is, the pinnacle of the week was coming home.  While we live in a nice home, surrounded by timber in a beautiful part of Montana, the excitement about coming home has nothing to do with those things.  It is all about getting back to a place where I belong, because I am wanted there, loved there, and there is place for me to occupy.  Coming home is always the best part, and I think it is just an inkling of how great it will be to finally go home to God’s kingdom.  Just think for a minute about what we have to look forward to; “Let not your heart be troubled; you believe in God, believe also in Me.  In My Father’s house are many mansions; if it were not so, I would have told you. I go to prepare a place for you.  And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and receive you to Myself; that where I am, thereyou may be also.”(John 14:1-3)  Sounds like a great place to spend eternity, does it not?  Everyone of us has the option of taking up residence in His house, we only need to find the way.  Fortunately we have been given the map to get there by the greatest Guide of all, Jesus Christ; “…I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through Me.” (John 14:6)  If you don’t know Christ, and if you haven’t asked Him to be the Lord of your life, you will never find the way.

Lions and Elephants and Otters, Oh My!

Okay, perhaps the title of this post is a little deceptive.  Some of you may be thinking this is another post about Loxo the Elephant, but you would be mistaken.  (Although, if you haven’t kept up with the developing Loxo, I highly recommend you pay him a visit at home or on Facebook!)  The title more correctly refers to Sea Lions, Elephant Seals and Sea Otters, but that seemed too wordy and descriptive.  This post actually builds upon last week’s trip to the Pacific coast of California (see Long John Silver Slept Here, for the first installment), featuring some of the landscapes and wildlife encountered between Morro Bay and the Monterey Bay.  We wound our way up the Pacific Coast Highway (US Highway 1) on a splendid day, filled with sunshine and mist from the ocean.  For those of you who have never traveled this route, let it suffice to say that this is not a place to be if you are in a hurry.  On the other-hand, if sight-seeing and enjoying the splendor of God’s Creation appeals to you, put this destination on your to-do list!

The image below will give you a glimpse of what the landscape along this portion of the coastline is like.

Along the route between Morro Bay and Monterey, California

I had some phone calls to make, so Leah spent about an hour combing the beach at Morro Rock collecting sand dollars and sea shells.  Afterwards, we wandered the wharf, taking in the sites and smells that are so unlike home at Montana.  Most of the anticipated shorebirds were in plentiful supply as we traipsed our way around the docks, warehouses and shops.

Brown Pelican playing a little camera-shy

Seagulls; a mainstay of every coastal community

We stopped in Cambria for lunch at the Moonstone Beach Bar & Grill, and I can give a hearty recommendation for their Moonstone Chowder (clam chowder in a sourdough bowl).  However, make sure to fill your gas tank well-before arriving here, as their fuel was a full dollar per gallon higher than either San Luis Obispo or Monterey!

If dining on the ocean-view patio at Moonstone, you will need to guard your meal from the Grackles!

Not too far north of Cambria, at Point Piedras Blancas, there is a beach inhabited by a multitude of elephant seals.  Having done virtually no research on what to anticipate on this trip, we were delighted to discover this popular tourist site.  There were at least several hundred of these critters sunning themselves and sparring for space in the sand.  One particular young elephant seal was barking and nudging at an adult female, which we guessed to be it’s mother.  The youngster became annoying enough that “mom” finally barked back, and silenced the pup quickly!

Mom issues a stern reprimand to stem youthful exuberance!

Male elephant seals can grow to 15 feet long and weigh over 5000 lbs, so it was no surprise that this female let out a loud scream when the adult male ran over her!

Female elephant seal voices disapproval at being squashed by an adult male

Many years ago, I remember watching a television documentary showing male elephant seals doing battle for breeding ground.  As large as these animals are, it is amazing how well they can “stand up” to fight, which consists of slamming their tusks into the foes neck.  Far across the beach, a couple adult males were engaged in such a battle, and third eagerly joined in the games.

Two adult male elephant seals are engaged in battle, while a third approaches from the rear to join in the fun

Elephant Seals posturing to strike

To the victor, go the spoils; but there is always a price to pay.  The battle scars manifest in large callous patches along the neck, as shown on this male.

A decorated veteran of the Elephant Seal wars

Arriving in Monterey, we were greeted by the ever-present Sea Lions.  As in common for these animals, they often perch on buoys and socialize in the groups near the shoreline.

Sea Lions enjoying a warm, sunny day at Monterey Bay

A raft of Sea Lions in Monterey Bay

Walking along the shore at Pacific Grove, we encountered a Sea Otter enjoying a fresh shellfish breakfast.  You may notice that he sports orange and yellow tags, as this endangered species is being closely studied as the population recovers.

Sea Otter enjoying breakfast-in-bed

This crop seems to identify crab on the breakfast menu for this Sea Otter

Rounding out this portion of our travels were a couple birds that were first-time sightings for us.  Leah was quick to notice a visit by a Black Turnstone that was picking its way through the rocks.  The color of this bird allows it to blend in with the dark rocks, and become fairly inconspicuous.

Black Turnstone at Pacific Grove

A “gulp” of Brandt’s Cormorants was taking in the morning sun, and I was really taken by their bright blue throats and wispy,white plumes adorning their bodies.

A sharp-looking Brandt's Cormorant at Pacific Grove

And finally, another gulp of cormorants setting on rocks amid the incoming surf.  They seemed to enjoy the regular spray of salt water from the crashing waves.

A gulp of Cormorants enjoying the ocean spray

The Psalmist wrote, “This great and wide sea, In which are innumerable teeming things, Living things both small and great,” Psalms 104:25.  Indeed, God created the seas to benefit mankind in numerous ways.  Not only are these bodies of water a useful means of conveyance, they also play an intimate role is seasonal weather patterns, a source of food and industry, and abound in the beauty and magnificence of the Master’s hand.  For all the space that oceans occupy across the globe, God did not create them in vain; they were created to be inherited by man for our service.  As the products of His creation, He cares for us and seeks to guide us in our lives – we should do the same for what we inherit from Him.  Our proper stewardship of the blessings He allows us, is a way we can show respect, reverence and gratitude to Him.

Long John Silver Slept Here!

Well, maybe.  Local legends persist that the Pacific Ocean coast around Monterey, California, specifically at Point Lobos State Nature Reserve, fueled the imagination of author Robert Louis Stevenson, as he wrote Treasure Island.  There are many coves and features of this part of coastline that seem virtually identical to those featured in the book.  My daughter and I spent a day exploring this region last week, and listened to the unabridged audiobook of Treasure Island on our trip home, and we felt like we had seen the settings for much of the action that took place.  On our visit to Point Lobos, we were blessed with wonderful weather, active seas and a variety of wildlife to enjoy.

Whaler's Cove at Point Lobos State Nature Reserve

We hiked around much of the perimeter of the reserve, and encountered a variety of wildlife along the way.  At one point we noticed a Western Scrub Jay hopping vertically in a rather odd fashion.  Leah soon noticed that the Jay was actually attacking a snake, and soon was victorious!

Scrub Jay wrestles with a snake at Point Lobos SNR

Quietly hunting through the undergrowth of the trees, we spotted a Steller’s Jay.  He didn’t give us much time to photograph him, and we didn’t see another the rest of the day. So this departing shot is all we came away with.

Steller's Jay at Point Lobos SNR

A couple Sea Lions were either playing, fighting or courting in Bluefish Cove.  They seemed to be swimming in a tight circular pattern, and would alternately pop their heads out of the water.  One of them was dark with darker spots, while the other was light colored with brown spots.

Sea Lions at play in Bluefish Cove, Point Lobos SNR

The surf was becoming more lively late in the day, and I wanted to capture the energy of the waves crashing into the rocks.  You would think that this would be pretty simple, but I found it difficult to get just the look I was after.  After sorting through way too many images, this is the best I ended up with!

Surf's up at Point Lobos SNR

Watching the foamy water run off the rocks after the waves was almost as entertaining as seeing the surf-explosion itself!

Water runs off a rock at Point Lobos SNR

One of the unique features of the coastal oceanography off Point Lobos is that the ocean floor drops very quickly to depths much like the middle of the Pacific Ocean.  Because of this, the tidal activity results in heavily oxygenated water, supporting an incredible array of sea life, both plant and animal.  It is difficult for us to fathom how deep the ocean floor is, only a mile or two from shore.  Similarly, understanding the depth of God, the Giver of Life and Creator of such a wonderful place, can be tough to comprehend.  I found a short anecdote (author unknown) that attempts to help us get a feel for His depth.

At one time, that thoughtful man who became St. Augustine was greatly disturbed because he could not understand the essence of God. “I admit there is a God,” he mused, “but how can I know of what He consists?” Christ had come down to earth with the claim that He was God. By His resurrection, which He Himself predicted, He proved that claim. He revealed that God is a Trinity: God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit. But how could a mind as developed as that of Augustine accept this? One day as he was walking by the sea, he saw a small boy who, with the help of a shell, was emptying water from the ocean into a hole he had dug in the sand. “What are you doing, son?” asked Augustine. He was impressed by the naive answer, “I’m going to empty all the sea into this hole.” Augustine smiled. An inner voice, however, was saying to him, “You are trying to do the same thing by thinking you can understand the depths of God with your limited mind.”

Some things just don’t fit!

Over the past year, I have made a number of panorama images by stitching together several frames.  If they are included in a regular post, they don’t show very well because the width is restricted by the sidebar.  In order to display them in a better format, I’ve created a new Panorama Gallery, under the Before the Mountains gallery.  While they still don’t show as wide as I’d like them to, I think this is the best I can do for now.  If you click on the images, you will view them in a larger format. Presently there are six panoramic images, including the Grand Tetons in Wyoming, Zion National Park in Utah, Red Mountain near Dubois, Wyoming, and three from last summer’s trip to Ireland; The Burren, rural countryside from County Cork, and suburban view along the western reach of the Ring of Kerry.

More photographs should be added to the gallery in the near future, and I hope you enjoy the residents.