Great Cameras and Joel Sartore’s Great Course

moose calf d4_nThe drive from Anchorage to Seward can usually be counted on for wildlife viewing. Grizzly bears, black bears, Dall sheep and moose are all possiblities, and eagles are a given. On our first trip of 2013, we found a young moose grazing on pond weeds and willow buds. 

Last year at this time we were shooting with a Nikon D60 and a D90. Our three most frequently used lenses were a Tamaron landscape lens, a Nikon 60 mm prime and a Sigma 50-500. We got some really good photos with this gear, but we were eager to make some upgrades.

moose calf d800

Although it’s late May, Alaska’s Kenai Peninsula is still pretty brown and you don’t have to go very high in elevation to find everything covered in snow. But spring is definitely here. Today (May 24), temperatures in Seward broke 60 under cloudless blue skies.

After months of reading and research and lengthy discussions with a new friend who knows way more about this than we do, we purchased a D800, a D4 and several new lenses. Equally important was taking Joel Sartore’s 24-lecture course Fundamentals of Photography, a first-rate DVD course offered through The Great Courses. We had been reading all kinds of articles and books and we subscribe to Outdoor Photographer. We had also taken a few courses at Ritz Camera back when we were living in Sacramento, California. All of this was useful. But none if it provided the learning experience Fundamentals of Photography gave us. Armed with our new gear and committed to faithfully following Joel’s lessons, we could see our skills improving from week to week.

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Our usual MO while driving Alaska’s highways and hiking the trails is to have either a landscape lens or a normal lens on one camera body and a larger wildlife lens on the other. We still talk about the time when, new to this part of the world, we saw two magnificent bull moose feeding near each other at a small lake. “I’m sure we’ll see lots of these now that we’re up here,” one of us said as the other kept driving. Needless to say, we’re still looking for another shot like that one. Lesson learned. 

Hopefully this summer will be another Alaskan safari – packed with birds, fish, mammals, wildflowers and the kind of scenery that causes one’s jaw to drop and hang.

Last Light: Arctic Foxes, the Coming Dark

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Point Hope, Alaska, along the south beach: An Arctic fox is silhouetted in the gold of a late fall sunset.

On Wednesday, December 5, the sun will rise at 1:37 pm. It will climb for just 19 minutes and 30 seconds before it begins to descend. At 2:16, it will sink beneath the ice-sheeted sea. It will not rise above the horizon again for 28 days. During this time, afternoon twilight will be the extent of our natural light. Cold and darkness will clamp down hard on our village. The Arctic winds this time of year can make a well-built house shudder.

Arctic Fox near old Tikigaq, Alaska. Nikon D90

The photo above and the next two are of an Arctic fox we found hanging around the deserted Old Town site of Tikigaq a mile or so west of Point Hope three weeks ago. They’re intelligent, inquisitive animals and will sometimes approach quite close.

In mid fall, foxes and snowy owls show up in numbers near the village. They patrol the beach for fish and whatever else may have washed up and they hunt the tundra for voles and squirrels. As the days grow short and the real cold sets in, they scatter.

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This one is very likely out on the sea ice now, scavenging the remains of seals killed by polar bears. These foxes often travel vast distances during the course of a winter in search of food.

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Caribou have moved down from the hills, and sometimes we see them now out on the tundra a few miles east of town. Wolves follow the caribou, and a few hardy ravens manage to scratch out a living throughout the winter. Every so often, we see a flock of murres – seabirds – heading out in search of open water.

Dall’s Porpoises – Tasmanian Devils of the Northern Pacific

You might see a pod of them off in the distance, plowing up water in plumes of bubbles and spray, arcing, crossing each others’ paths, zipping like mad across the sea’s surface. As they speed toward your boat, you can almost hear the sound effects that accompany the Tasmanian Devil’s entrance in the Warner Brothers Cartoons. “Dall’s Porpoises!”

At an average length of 6 feet (1.8 m) and distinctively marked in black and white, they look like miniature versions of Orcas. And they love small boats. On any given outing here in Resurrection Bay, you can almost count on a group of these speedsters showing up around your bow. And since they seem to prefer to play around boats that are running fairly slowly, they don’t discriminate between powerboats and sailboats.

Dall’s porpoises frequently come right alongside small boats, seeming to use the vessels as objects to play around and to race against. Here a group of them are cutting back and forth beneath our C-Dory.

Strictly speaking, Dall’s porpoises don’t really “porpoise.” They quickly surface, throwing up rooster tails of spray as they do, take a quick breath and keep on swimming. Fast. Photographing them is a matter of guessing where they’ll show up next and snapping shots until they do.

Like other dolphins and porpoises, Dall’s have teeth. They feed on small fish, such as herring. We’ve noticed that when we’re trolling for salmon, right about the time we spot Dall’s, our rods often start arcing and our reels start singing – probably because both the porpoises and the salmon are keying on herring.

Although groups typically contain a handful of individuals, there are times when they gather by the thousands. They roam both nearshore and offshore waters in the Northern Pacific. Unfortunately, although they are still common, hunting (several countries take an average of 10’s of thousands annually – an unsustainable number) and fatal encounters with fishing nets are reducing their numbers.

A good place to read more is in the book Whales and other Marine Mammals of British Columbia and Alaska, by Tamara Eder.

Sandhill Cranes: Up Close and Personal

Driving into Homer, Alaska one summer we encountered this beautiful pair of gray and rust colored sandhill cranes (Grus canadensis) foraging on an expansive lawn. Cranes are opportunists, and although they are mainly herbivores seeking grains and seeds, they supplement their diet with insects, small mammals and other animals they encounter.

Bird weights can be deceptive due to their hollow bones. Even though adults have wingspans of six to seven feet (1.8 to 2.1 meters) and stand four to five feet tall (1 to 1.2 meters), they typically weigh less than 10 pounds (4 kilograms).

Since cranes are hunted in Alaska and can be quite wary, we felt lucky to find a pair that wasn’t too skittish. 

Other times we’d seen cranes, they were flying overhead, or, as was the case one summer in Yellowstone, far out on a plain. 

We stalked them for awhile, snapping photos, gauging our distance without spooking them into flight, and then we left the couple to continue their hunting. 

Of course, this being Alaska, when we looked up from the field where we’d been intently watching the cranes, this is what we saw – the Kachemak Glacier, which flows out of the Harding Icefield.