Archive for the ‘National Wildlife Refuges’ Category

The risks our rangers take

Wednesday, January 18th, 2012
The risks our rangers take

In August of 2007, I was camped at the confluence of the Malamute Fork and the Alatna River, waiting for a National Park Service plane to pick me and my NPS Ranger companion, Tracy Pendergrast, up from a 12-day backcountry trip as part of my Artist-in-Residence experience in Gates of the Arctic National Park & Preserve.  Soon, word came that our pilot would not be picking us up; he had been retasked to take law enforcement rangers out to investigate a report of Dall Sheep poaching.  Often, these backcountry rangers receive spotty information but still have to head out quickly before the evidence trail runs cold.  It was my first exposure to the life of a natural resources law enforcement ranger.

It is so easy for those who visit our national parks or other public lands to chide those who are tasked with enforcing the law.  I  have heard many photographers complain about NPS rangers in Denali National Park & Preserve enforcing the rules of the road or distance limitations to certain wildlife, calling these rangers “Ranger Dick.”  But our rangers face so many hazards and pitfalls when performing their duties, none with more clarity than the story of Park Ranger Margaret Anderson, who was killed in Mount Rainier National Park, Washington, on January 1, 2012, as she set up a road block to stop a driver that had run a chain-up checkpoint.  The driver opened fire, killing Ranger Anderson before she had a chance to get out of her vehicle.

We don’t think of the hazards that our natural resources rangers face in the performance of their duties.  Heck, in Alaska, for many of them, just getting out and doing their routine jobs can be dangerous: lots of small plane flights, heading out into hazardous conditions, heading out where there are few resources to help, facing down possible law breakers who are likely armed with some sort of weapon.  This last point is now a reality for all National Park Service rangers, no thanks to President Obama signing a law that makes it legal for people to carry firearms in all of our National Parks.  At least before rangers didn’t have to worry about that factor as much when confronting law breakers.

Natural resource rangers have been dealing with law breakers for decades, but mostly the kind that violate fish and wildlife regulations.  Snaring instead of hooking fish, taking too small of a deer or taking a moose out of season.  Using the wrong kind of traps or other methods of taking wildlife that are not authorized.  There are several great books out there in the genre of natural resources crime fighting that are a an excellent read to understand this world better.  The best one I have read is Wildlife Wars: The Life and Times of a Fish and Game Warden by Terry Grosz.  Mr. Grosz has written several books since and I will have to start getting caught up in his work.

But there is an insidious trend happening in our country where the crimes of “civilized” society are creeping their way into our public lands.  The incident with Ranger Anderson is an extreme example.  Quietly, behind the scenes and pretty much out of the scrutiny of corporate media, the drug wars have spilled into our public lands as well.  I am talking about the massive amounts of marijuana cultivation going on right now in approximately 67 national forests nationwide.  There is story after story of these grow sites being found from the northeast to the southwest, with the enormous costs (up to $300,000 per acre) of restoration not to mention the incredible risk of rangers encountering armed individuals tending to these marijuana fields.

It’s hard to imagine a world where our park rangers have to face deadly armed gunmen on a shooting spree or drug cartels in the performance of their duties.  Our public lands are supposed to be places of solace and refuge from the darker side of our world.  Rangers should be able to spend their time offering interpretive lectures, answering silly questions about natural features, showing visitors all the wonders that await them in our public lands.  I cannot recall the number of times I have been impressed by the kindness, courtesy and knowledge of a park ranger.  Entering into a dialogue with them is always one of my favorite parts of visiting our national forests, parks, monuments and wildlife refuges.  Yet, increasingly, they face these outside threats and do so with an ever-decreasing budget, slashed by politicians in Washington, D.C. who rarely visit our national parks and don’t see the value in continuing to fund them what they need.

So, in honor of Ranger Anderson and all other natural resources rangers who protect us and our public lands, I hope that you will consider what you find valuable in their work and the places they protect, and contact your Congressional delegation and tell them how you feel.  Also, to honor Ranger Anderson, I am posting some images from the place she died serving: Mount Rainier National Park in Washington.  And next time you visit a national forest, park, monument or wildlife refuge, please thank a ranger for what they do.

 

Last lap

Monday, February 16th, 2009

It was an eventful last lap around the two main loops at Bosque.  Right off, I found a heron that was very cooperative, allowing me to get close to him while he preened and posed.  Around the next bend, I found a nice marshy scene that, with the clouds, lent itself to some really nice landscape photos.  Then there was a group of about six or seven buck mule deer, some little guys and some bigger ones, that kept me and later Roy and Mark, busy for a while.  Then there was a kestrel, a red tailed hawk, and all kinds of neat reflections and other activity.  Although I had to be back and checked out of my room by eleven, I still took my time for this last tour, savoring every bend and pond.

Last morning on the pond

Monday, February 16th, 2009

So, there I was, sitting at the Holiday Inn Express, mooching a free breakfast off of Roy and Mark, when in walked Art Wolfe.  He was starting a workshop on that day that would lead into the NANPA summit.  We chatted, I reminded him that I photographed with him in Katmai four years ago, and then we were all off, on the photographer caravan, to the refuge for a morning of shooting.  When I first stepped out in the morning, I was pleased to see stars in the skies.  The overcast had cleared.  There turned out to be some clouds on the horizon, but all they did was add some nice color and texture to the skies; they did not interfere with the light.

We parked at the main pond, and waited.  A little eariler than yesterday, the swarms of geese moved in, chatting in the cacophony of thousands of voices chatting over eachother.  I decided to try some different techiques this morning, working on using more slow shutter speeds to create more artistic images.  I spent a little time after sunrise over at the Flight Deck, watching and listening to the cranes.  I could easily have spent a couple of more mornings here, but it was time to move on to the next destination.  It’s always hard, leaving a place as productive as Bosque has been for me, but, White Sands awaits.  Of course, there would be time for one more circuit around the Marsh and Farm Loops.

All around the loop

Sunday, February 15th, 2009
All around the loop

Once the geese have moved on to the farm fields to the north to feed for the day, the only thing left to do for the next hour or two, before the light gets too harsh, is to drive around and look for opportunities.  Since I have previously only driven the Farm Loop, I thought to take the wider route going out on the Marsh Loop.  It’s quite a bit different than the look of the farm loop, much more like a wooded marshland than the captured ponds and canals of the Farm Loop.  It’s quite beautiful in several areas, and I made mental notes on where to return for first light tomorrow after the flight of the geese.

Along the way, I catch a flight of cranes, a little late in making their way north to join where most of the cranes have gathered.  A buck mule deer also suprises me.  I had begun to wonder if I was going to see any kind of wildlife other than birds in the refuge.  There was the coyote that ran across Highway 1 in front of me this morning, but hardly a photo op.  I pull over along a particularly picturesque marsh setting and set up my tripod to take the featured image, when I notice some sort of owl far away in a tree.  The coloring of the breast and shape of head tell me it’s an owl, but it is too far away, even with the 500mm, to get an idea of what it is. 

On the way north out of the refuge, I stop at the Visitor Center to spend some time with a rather large group of redwing blackbirds clustering in several of the trees in the area.  A pristine pond plays host to a gaggle of ducks further north on a pond to the west of the highway; another good morning scenic location. 

Geese of a morning

Sunday, February 15th, 2009
Geese of a morning

Heading out to capture the birds at dusk in Bosque is a bit unlike any other photo location.  Normally, when you are a photographer, you are generally alone in the dark and the cold, waiting for the light to come and wash its warmth and color across the landscape.  But in Bosque, with the birds following somewhat of a daily routine, and the sun coming up at a certain time, you are never alone in the dark.  In fact, once you take the Highway 380 exit off of Interstate 25, you find yourself among a stretched out line of cars, all heading to one place for one purpose.  You are one of many photographers, joined by a host of birders.  The families with the annoying rock-throwing children, fortunately, are too lazy to get up that early. 

At first glance at the main pond this morning, shortly after 6:00 a.m., there was no sight of the geese.  Joined by Roy, Mark, Eric, Donna and Cathy, we decided to go around the Farm Loop to see if the geese were at their late-afternoon spot yesterday.  No sign of them.  By the time we got back to the main pond, a moderate-sized group had formed.   Several waves come in, one by one, to join the main group, forming a large flotilla, the size of which I would not know how to estimate.  There were some thin, high altitude clouds in the skies, adding a nice detail that was absent yesterday. 

Consistent with yesterday, a massive group of geese exploded from the water and took the skies the moment that the sun came up over the mountains to the east.  But different from yesterday, a smaller group, but still numbered in at least the thousands, remained behind to bathe in the warm light of the sun.  This presented a nice opportunity to capture the geese in warm side lighting, and added a nice bonus to the morning.  But, eventually they left as well, joining the group in the fields to the north. 

A gathering place

Saturday, February 14th, 2009
A gathering place

Bosque del Apache is a superb gathering place for birds, as well as photographers.  At 57,191 acres, it provides a wide variety of habitat to birds of all needs, whether the dust traveling road runner I photographed earlier today, or the snow geese who favor the more wet areas of the refuge.  These days, the birds are not being predictable, as I noted earlier.  This evening, the snow geese and cranes decided to settle down in a completely different part of the refuge than they did yesterday.  I don’t know if this means that they will stay there for the night and I will have to look for them there in the morning.  It will probably be prudent to get to the park as early as they allow visitors and scout out the morning location.  I think it makes much more sense this way.  Wildlife should never be too predictable.  They are wild animals after all. 

Of course, all of these birds in one place brings a lot of people who are interested in observing and photographing them.  Birders and photographers fill out the vast majority of the visitors here.   Then there was the annoying family who not only allowed their screaming children to thrash about in the bushes near the main gathering of snow geese and cranes, but joined with their children in throwing rocks into the water.  I was too baffled and in a state of disbelief to say anything, like, “Take your children to the McDonald’s playground in Socorro, please.” 

But, back to this being a gathering place.  Since NANPA is holding its annual conference in Albuquerque in a few days, there is probably a higher concentration of photographers in the refuge at this time of the year than usual.  I am pleased to be in the field again with my friend Cathy Hart from Anchorage, along with other ASONP colleagues Jim and Robin from Anchorage.  Then, as circles of friends go, joining us today as well are Cathy’s friends Eric and Donna from Louisiana, as well as professional photographer Roy Toft from California and his friend Mark, from Canada.  As several of us sat having drinks and dinner at the Socorro Springs Restaurant & Brewery this evening, I felt a warmth, not just from the beer, but from the added bonus of being a nature photographer that I get to know such fine people. 

Around the loop

Saturday, February 14th, 2009
Around the loop

After my chance encounter with the roadrunner, I continued on around the Farm Loop to see what I could find. I wanted to at least catch a glimpse of where the snow geese and sandhill cranes go during the day before they return to the ponds for the evening.  Along the way, I saw all sorts of birds and waterfowl, from the bald eagle being harassed by the crows in the main pond to a glimpse of the daytime location for the geese and cranes. 

Road encounter

Saturday, February 14th, 2009
Road encounter

As I first started my way east along the Farm Loop, I saw some movement along the side of the road.  A roadrunner skimpered away from the shoulder of the road and into the bushes.  But as I continued down the road, I saw him in my rear view mirror back along the shoulder of the road again.  I pulled over, grabbed my tripod and camera, and walked back along the road.  Surprisingly, he not only let me approach me, but eventually worked his way down the road, passing me along the way. 

I am going to have to do some research about road runner behavior to understand what he was doing.  He wold make his way along the road, then stop and look into the bushes.  After a few seconds, he would puff out his feathers and sometimes chat into the bushes.  My guess is that he is looking for some love.  I would think it would be a bit early for that, but, hey, it is Valentine’s Day.  He simply kept repeating the behavior over and over, until he disappeared along a side maintenance road in the refuge. 

Sandhill Cranes

Saturday, February 14th, 2009
Sandhill Cranes

Sandhill cranes are a bit more interesting to observe for the long haul compared to the snow geese.  Sure, the snow geese are fun to listen to, constantly chattering back and forth, rising and falling sometimes in volume.  But the action is limited to the short bursts when they take off and go somewhere else.  Cranes, particularly in the mornings, are a hoot.  While many are still trying to get as much out of their night’s sleep as possible, others are strutting around, chatting at each other, sometimes hopping and dancing, all along the way to the take off zone. 

First morning

Saturday, February 14th, 2009
First morning

Nature can be a funny thing.  I have read countless logs, journals, articles and commentaries on how mornings go at Bosque del Apache.  The geese in the refuge now aparently did not get the memo.  Normally, they do their mass take-off about a half hour before sunrise.  This morning, as another fellow Anchorage photographer, Jim Liebetz was asking, “I wonder what makes them all take off at once?”, the sun peeked over the horizon and their was an explosion of birds.  I had set up my digital with a shutter cable so I wouldn’t have to look through the viewfinder; instead, my attention was on the viewfinder in my Hassleblad.  While my right hand was clicking away on the D300, my left hand was on the cable release for the Hassleblad as I looked through the viewfinder waiting for the right composition of birds filling the morning sky.  Click. 

After the geese did their thing, I moved over to the “Flight Deck,” a viewing platform along the main pond, to photograph the cranes for a while.  Unlike the geese, the cranes work in smaller groups and, much like aircraft at an airport, take turns “taxiing” to the main take off area.