Greetings from the Windy City

Zoo Lights at the Lincoln Park Zoo

My wife, daughter, dog and I are currently in the Chicago area spending time with family.  So far, it’s been a very enjoyable holiday season.

There’s no shortage of fun things to do in this town and one pleasant discovery was the “Zoo Lights” display at the Lincoln Park Zoo that lasts until January 6th.  This exhibit features luminous displays of creatures large and small, strolling carolers and other seasonal activities all under the canopy of 2.5 million lights.  And the best part – it’s free.

The not so cowardly lion

Of course free comes with its price and in a city of three million people, parking isn’t easy or cheap.  It took us a while to find a place to ditch the car and it wouldn’t have happened without the phone app “Spot Hero” that located what may have been the last open parking slot in the city.  What did we ever do before the invention of the smartphone?

This display prompted a discussion about the color of a real giraffe’s eyes.  Anyone know?
A fire-breathing dragon – a species not found in most zoos

Chicagoland is currently devoid of snow except for a few piles left over from the Thanksgiving weekend storm that practically shut down the airport and stranded thousands of travelers.  The temperature for our light-gazing excursion was in the low 40’s and with no wind to speak of, the night air was both refreshing and tolerable.  Together with my wife’s siblings we set out on a unique winter wonderland safari.

A zebra brought to you in living color
An otter and “anotter” otter

Having been to Africa and seen animals in the wild, zoos don’t interest me much anymore.  However, when the wildlife are constructed of wire and brilliant lights, well that’s a horse of a different color.  Seeing these glowing creatures was a fun treat.  Knowing that no real animals were harmed was a bonus.

I trust that you all had a fun-filled holiday and I look forward to sharing more photos and thoughts with you in 2019!

 

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Be Open

Dunstan Crossing Pond just down the street from my home

Common complaints among photographers include: “there’s nothing to shoot; the light sucks; I don’t feel inspired”.  It’s a rabbit hole I’ve found myself in many times and the only way out is to grab the camera and photograph something, anything.

Streetlight as seen from my front porch

One exercise often assigned to photography students is to capture images within close proximity of one’s home.  The goal is to see everyday subjects in a different light or perspective in hopes of creating something appealing from the mundane.   I took on that self-assignment recently.  I’ll let you be the judge of the images’ visual appeal.

Early morning sun casts a shadow of the antique bottle sitting on our windowsill
The lamp in our spare bedroom takes on a whole new look at the right time of day
The front door curtains project a pattern on the adjacent coat closet
One of the many blue bottles that my wife collects
Blue bottles assembled into a stained glass piece adorn one of our windows

The bicycling season hasn’t ended for me yet, although some rides have been rather chilly.  Nevertheless, they afford me the opportunity to check in with my feathered friend, a Great Blue Heron, who seems determined to weather the cold at Scarborough Marsh.  I’ve had mixed reports whether he/she will survive the winter.  Some have told me that this heron may be the same bird that spent all of last winter at the marsh, while others have reported that its chances for survival are slim.  Time will tell.

Scarborough Marsh’s determined heron

As I look to 2019 I’m not setting any specific photography goal.  Rather, I’m taking the advice of my favorite photographer who professes that only two words are necessary to become a better photographer:  “be open”.  In other words, don’t seek images; let them come to you.  Embrace them when they do.  That’s my plan.

An equally determined pooch at Pine Point

I wish all of my readers a wonderful holiday season and a very happy new year!

Can’t pass through York without stopping at Nubble Lighthouse – especially at Christmas time

 

It’s Not Just About the Photograph

Great Blue Heron – Scarborough Marsh

For the past several months I’ve been inspired by a wildlife photographer named Doug Gardner who is host of a television series called Wild Photo Adventures.  The show airs on the Natural History Channel but past episodes can be viewed on YouTube.

Herons aren’t known as cold weather birds but this guy refuses to head south
Poetry in motion

Gardner travels across the country and generally hooks up with a local guide and together they set out in search of big game such as grizzly bears in Alaska or more delicate subjects like exotic wild flowers hiding in the Great Smoky Mountains.  The show is both instructional and captivating and always ends with Gardner’s signature phrase: “it’s not just about the photograph, it’s about the outdoor experience”.  You can watch an episode where Gardner photographs moose in the north woods of Maine here: Wild Photo Adventures

Ducks invading Mr. Heron’s personal space

Whether it’s traipsing through a murky, bug infested swamp searching for alligators or crawling through the snow in 30 below temperature stalking wolves in Yellowstone National Park, this guy definitely has the right stuff and attitude for success in his profession.  In fact, he’s been referred to as the “Navy Seal” of wildlife photographers for his stealth movements tracking and hiding from his subjects – all accomplished without violating his cardinal rule: don’t distress the animal.

Doug Gardner as shown on his website

I’ve learned quite a bit from watching his productions.  He offers both technical advice about photography as well as practical information regarding animal behavior and dealing with Mother Nature.  He’s passionate about protecting the environment and serves as a great ambassador for this cause.

The requisite seashells by the seashore shots

Gardner knows that not everyone can simply hop on a plane for a photography trek into the remote regions of Alaska one week, then head to the Everglades for a gator expedition the next, so he encourages people to seek out the wildlife in their own area – even if it’s just  in their back yard.  He stresses that practicing close to home (the rudimentary wax on/wax off phase) will better prepare photographers should they ever encounter that National Geographic moment in an iconic location.

Dogs on Pine Point Beach sometimes qualify as “wildlife”

Fortunately, I live in a place with a fair amount of bird life nearby so I’ve been practicing a lot lately.  This also suits my current situation of caring for my wife and our dog as they both recover from recent surgeries.  I am happy to report that the two of them are gaining strength and mobility with each passing day – to the point where I can wander away from home for short periods and they can fend for themselves.

Gardner advocates photographing animals at their eye level.  That sometimes means getting wet.

I’m fine with that right now.  At last count there are about 50,000 grizzlies still residing in Alaska so I don’t need to book my flight just yet.

Closed For The Season

One of the few heron holdouts at the Scarborough Marsh

The wildlife at Scarborough Marsh apparently didn’t get the memo that summer has ended and it’s time to head south for the winter.  There are still egrets and herons hanging out there despite twenty degree early morning temperatures.  Can’t they read the signs along Route 1 and nearby Old Orchard Beach that (sadly) state “Closed For The Season – See You Next Spring”?

Great Egret

I imagine these birds won’t be inhabiting the marsh too much longer.  Maine is bracing for a Nor’easter that’s barreling up the East Coast. It likely won’t bring snow to coastal parts of the state but inland areas may see some.  Snow! Say it ain’t so – it’s not even Halloween yet.

Along the banks of Millbrook Pond in Old Orchard Beach

One thing the impending storm will do is knock a lot of the remaining leaves off the trees.  Most of Southern Maine is now passed peak foliage but several colorful pockets can still be found. I’m keeping my fingers crossed that the high winds forecasted won’t put a complete kibosh to a couple of fall photo locations I still have in mind.

The Great Egret in flight is the symbol of the National Audubon Society

I for one am not ready for winter. Even though I’ve already surpassed my 2018 goal of cycling at least 1,500 miles, I have no plans to put the bike away just yet.  Rather, I’ve dug out the Smartwoool socks and fleece gloves and hit the road these recent chilly mornings.  Several times I was humbled by other cyclists still riding in shorts while I was bundled up from head to toe but I can now rationalize that I’m a retired senior citizen and they are young studs with something to prove.  At this stage of my life I’ll take being “warm” over looking “cool” any day.

Snow is inevitable so I might as well bite the bullet and embrace it.  I recently saw a Facebook post that read “If you choose not to find joy in the snow, you will have less joy in your life but the same amount of snow”.  Makes sense but it’s still a tough pill to swallow.

I never tire of cycling the Eastern Trail

My snowshoes hang not far from my biking gear.  I hope I don’t have to use them too often this winter, but if I do, I’ll try to find the joy in them.

Down Under Again

Milford Sound – New Zealand

It was exactly a year ago that my wife and I spent three weeks in Australia and New Zealand.  It was a wonderful trip and people often ask me if I’d like to go back someday and the answer is, absolutely!  But . . . 20 hours on a plane to get there . . .  nope, not gonna do it anytime soon.  Instead,  I’ve chosen to virtually re-visit this experience by re-examining some of the photos that I overlooked as “keepers” the first time around.  You just never know what lurks in the “rejected” file and I found quite a few images that I now deem blog-worthy.

Some Kangaroo antics

Throughout the past year my wife and I have frequently asked each other “what was your favorite part of the trip”?  After much deliberation, I’ve whittled my list down to these top three excursions:

  1. Tracking kangaroos and koala bears in the wild
  2. Climbing to the top of the Sydney Harbour Bridge
  3. Searching for dolphins off the East Coast of New Zealand

Everything else we did was certainly enjoyable but not as remarkable as those three activities.

My lone goal for our time in Australia was to photograph kangaroos and that was quickly accomplished.  Since there are approximately 30 million of these bouncy marsupials on the continent, finding one wasn’t much of a challenge. Many open spaces away from urban areas are home to kangaroos.

In addition to kangaroos, we saw many of their cousins, the wallabies.

What I didn’t expect was to see multiple koalas in the “bush”.  These elusive creatures sleep about twenty hours a day – typically nestled high atop a eucalyptus tree – and spotting more than one in a day is rare.  Fortunately, we  had an expert guide who, working in conjunction with her team of spotters, led us to three different sightings.  All were asleep and unaware of our presence but they put on an entertaining show nonetheless.

Koalas are marsupials and mothers carry their young in the pouch

One of the highlights of my trip to Africa in 2012 was the many unusual species of birds found there and so I was happy to see a diverse population of bird life in Australia also.  The rainforest is a prime habitat for colorful and exotic birds and we found more than our share of feathered friends under the canopy.  Although this trip was by no means a wildlife adventure, I was very pleased to photograph a variety of animals not found in the States.

The galah, or rose breasted cockatoo, likes to nest inside tree cavities
Cockatoos are not only found in the “bush” but often out on the streets of town
Ibis are plentiful within the rainforest
Getting the “stink-eye” from a bird I have yet to identify
View from our hotel balcony on the Island of Tasmania

No trip to Australia is complete without a visit to its largest city, Sydney.  Even though this is a world class metropolis, prior to my visit I didn’t know much about it.  Aside from seeing fireworks over it’s harbor as the first noteworthy place on the planet to welcome in the New Year every January 1st, watching the 2000 Summer Olympics from Sydney was my only exposure to this impressive city.

Sydney is home to about 4.5 million people

I knew it had an iconic bridge that spans its harbor but up until just a few days prior to our departure, I was unaware that people could climb to the top of this structure.

Over 3.5 million people have climbed to the top of the Sydney Harbour Bridge 

Now, I’m not that fond of heights but climbing the bridge wasn’t a frightening experience at all.  In fact, after ignoring our guide’s advice to “not look down”, I snuck a peek at the dark blue water and bustling traffic beneath me and quickly found my bearings and my nerve.  The rest was a cakewalk.

Britain’s Prince Harry recently climbed the bridge but his pregnant wife, Meghan, wisely chose to opt out

One disappointment was our time snorkeling at the Great Barrier Reef.  Although it was warm, the rain, rough seas and overcast skies made for viewing the reef challenging to say the least.  What we did see lacked the vibrant colors that I expected.  It’s an item checked off my bucket list but sadly, not that memorable.

The city of Cairns in Northeastern Australia is the launchpad for excursions to the Great Barrier Reef
Divers are dropped off onto a sandbar in preparation for exploring the Reef

New Zealand is a gorgeous country and the South Island is absolutely stunning.  The Southern Alps mountain range may not be as impressive as its European counterpart, but still spectacular.  I especially enjoyed the Queenstown and Milford Sound areas and those two destinations alone are worth traveling halfway around the world. My only regret is that we didn’t spend more time in this region and that we didn’t do more hiking there.

View of Lake Wakatipu and Queenstown Bay from the Bob’s Peak observation deck

Speaking of hiking, airport security and Customs in New Zealand were particularly focussed on examining travelers’ hiking shoes for potential agricultural contaminants from foreign soil.  Domestic flights within New Zealand are not subject to airport screening – something that seemed odd to us in this day and age – but Customs agents at the point of entry into the country insisted on inspecting our footwear.  Even the sniffing dogs seemed more preoccupied with our boots than our luggage.  My advice to those trying to smuggle drugs into New Zealand: don’t wear hiking shoes that have traipsed through a cow pasture in Australia otherwise the Customs dog will start barking immediately upon your arrival.

We were told to “take the back roads” through the Southern Alps and didn’t regret it
Off the beaten path near Glenorchy, New Zealand
New Zealand is best known for its sheep but they don’t pose for photos as well as cows
View from our hotel balcony in Queenstown
All roads lead to mountains on the Southern Island
New Zealand offers no charge “freedom camping” on most of its public lands

Making our way to the east coast of the South Island was somewhat challenging as an earthquake several years ago significantly damaged the roads in that region and many had yet to be repaired.  We were encouraged to take several mountain pass routes on our way to Christchurch and to later fly rather than drive to the North Island.  It turned out to be good advice but some of the mountain roads led to some major-league white knuckle driving – particularly the last dozen or so kilometers to the resort town of Akaroa Bay

The road to Akaroa Bay from Christchurch, New Zealand

It was in Akaroa Bay that we went on a dolphin watch that came highly recommended by an American we met in the hotel’s laundry room.  The sun was bright and the seas were calm as we set out for the two hour cruise that included complimentary drinks – something I desperately needed after the nerve wracking drive.

A small dog aboard the boat would bark whenever he heard dolphins approaching.  Canine sonar at work.
Traveling organist in Akaroa Bay

The scenery on the North Island is not nearly as spectacular as in the southern part of the country, but cities such as Wellington, Rotorua and Auckland offer a great deal of interesting things to do.

Mural at the New Zealand History Museum in Wellington
A warrior at a Maori Village re-enactment
Auckland, New Zealand is a city I could relocate to if the cost of living wasn’t so expensive

Australia and New Zealand are relatively safe countries and mass killings and terrorist acts are extremely uncommon.  Yet, several weeks after our return to the States, some deranged individual purposely drove his car into crowd of people on a busy sidewalk in Melbourne directly across the street from the hotel we stayed in. The incident injured about twenty people, some critically.  Some of the news clips appeared to be filmed from the front steps of our hotel. It left my wife and I with the eerie thought of “what if”.

I highly recommend traveling to Australia and New Zealand.  The people are fabulous, the food is great and the experience is unforgettable!

 

Leaf Peeping

Lake Chocorua, New Hampshire

Now that I’m retired, I suppose that qualifies me as an official “leaf peeper”.  However, until my hair turns completely white or totally disappears, I refuse to board a tour bus with other senior citizens to view nature’s autumn spectacle in the White Mountains, the Catskills or the Adirondacks.  That day will come soon enough but for now I still prefer to take in the fall foliage by bicycle or hiking boots.

Albany Covered Bridge, New Hampshire

This year I made it a point to not only travel to my favorite destinations but also on some roads that I have never been on before.  Part of what prompted me to seek new surroundings was something that a friend of mine recently posted on Facebook.  It said: “don’t let your age control your lifestyle; let your lifestyle control your age”.  Now that I’ve reached what is likely the final third of my life, I’m feeling the need, more and more, to experience new sights and adventures. I have a lot of the world left to see – including what’s in my backyard – and I hope see it.

The new Dunstan Crossing Trail near my home

Unfortunately, it won’t happen in the very near future as I am currently a “stay at home husband” caring for my wife who just had significant back surgery and a dog that is still recuperating from an operation to repair a torn ACL in her rear leg.  The bike and hiking shoes aren’t going anywhere soon but I’m not complaining.  My two girls will be back to health by New Years and I look forward to when we can be out and about together once again.

Somewhere near the Scarborough-Buxton line
Along the Ossipee River just over the New Hampshire border from Maine

Spending more time at home has offered me the opportunity to peruse my favorite photography websites with more regularity and this week I stumbled upon a very thought provoking quote.  The photographer said:  “if you want to impress me, don’t tell me HOW you took the picture, tell me WHY you took it”.

In photography and other endeavors, sometimes “know-why” is better than “know-how”.

Canoeing on Lake Chocorua
Biking on this road in Buxton, I wasn’t exactly “lost” but doubtful I could find it again.

 

The Maine Lighthouse Ride

Spring Point Ledge Light – Start of the Maine Lighthouse Ride

The Maine Lighthouse Ride is an annual cycling event that serves as a major fundraiser for the Eastern Trail Alliance.  Riders suit up for one of four distances: 25, 40, 62 and 100 miles – all with views of Southern Maine’s lighthouses.  This year’s ride drew 1,285 cyclists – some from as far away as California.  I, along with three other friends, rode the 62 mile “metric century” (100 kilometer) route and enjoyed every minute of it.

No lighthouse ride would be complete without passing by tiny “Bug Light”

Starting from the Southern Maine Community College campus within eyeshot of the Spring Point Ledge Lighthouse in South Portland, the course took us along the Eastern Trail and through Scarborough Marsh – eventually passing all the major area beaches on its way to and from Camp Ellis in Saco.  The weather was refreshingly cool and the filtered sunshine made for a pleasant day.

This heron was frequently spotted on my early morning training rides through Scarborough Marsh
Riders along the marsh were treated to Snowy and Great Egrets on display

Although I ride these roads frequently on my own, doing so with 1,200 other like-minded people is a whole different experience.  Seeing how other cyclists gear up and equip their bicycles elicits both some good ideas and some chuckles.  Overhearing people “from away” marvel at the natural beauty of our rocky coastline makes me appreciate my Maine roots.  Encountering the many volunteers that help make the ride safe makes me thankful that there are people willing to give up a perfectly good late summer Saturday to allow this event to take place.

I photographed this gorgeous light at Pine Point in Scarborough several days before the Lighthouse Ride
The advantage of pre-dawn rides – spectacular skies 
The Bait Shed deck at Bailey’s Seafood in Scarborough

Riding in and amongst a large group of cyclists demands a bit more attention than when out on the roads by one’s self.  Although I trust my riding partners to point out road hazards and other potential obstacles, I was pleased to see the vast majority of riders doing the same.  A constant chorus of “car back” and “walkers ahead” could be heard on every stretch of the course.

The rest stop at Old Orchard Beach
A group of cyclists from Washington, DC were also raising money for leukemia research

Since the rather drab weather wasn’t conducive to good photography, I have included some images taken at other times while out on my bicycle training for this ride.  Some were shot with my cell phone and others with my “real” camera

Portland Headlight is the major attraction along the Maine Lighthouse Ride
Each participant received a pair of “lighthouse” cycling socks

This was my first lighthouse ride and won’t be the last!