Monday, September 05, 2011

Central Texas Fires

I'm a little shell shocked tonight. The images I've seen online from the Bastrop Fire are apocalyptical. Flames so high they make the cars look tiny. It is hard to grasp a fire that has burned 16 miles long and at least 4 miles wide, and leaped the Colorado River.

I've spent a lot of time over the years at Bastrop State Park. 2,000-3000 acres out of 6500 have burned. I took my Master Naturalist training at the Lost Pines Chapter. I have friends and family in the Bastrop area. One I've touched base with told me the fire was 2 miles from their home and they were packed and ready to go. I know that people I know are losing their homes tonight. While I grieve over the loses at Bastrop State Park and the potential loss of the historic CCC buildings there, that pales with the thought that early in the evening over 300 homes had burned. Homes with treasures, memorablia, family pictures, heirlooms, memories . . .

I also have friends in the Steiner Ranch area. I'm hoping their home is far enough to the east that their home will be spared. But tonight cannot be an easy night for them, not knowing what is happening to their home.

I have other friends that live in Spicewood, another area that has fires tonight.

I am grieving for what is lost, but praying that the winds are not as bad as forecast tomorrow and that God protects the firefighters as they battle through the night, that they are able to get these fires under control and . . . that God comfort and strengthen all those who have lost everything in these fires.

Tomorrow I'll try to post links to some of the more amazing footage and still photos that I've seen tonight.

Saturday, September 03, 2011

Cape Pine Light

Cape Pine Light is at the southern most point of Newfoundland.  Located along the scenic Irish Loop, it is a 5 mile gravel road drive off the main road to get there, but we were rewarded by seeing the only caribou on this trip.  With gray cloudy skies, shooting for High Dynamic Range (HDR) was a must.  I shot multiple exposures and hoped that post processing would give me a useable image.  I used Photoshop to merge the images and then Photomatix to do the tone mapping.  I then used Topaz products to brighten the reds and make it a more vibrant image.

Cape Pine, built in 1851, is still a working lighthouse.  It flashes white every 5 seconds and is visible for 16 nautical miles.  Michigan Tech has been using it as a pollution research station with funding from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the National Science Foundation.

Just north of Cape Pine Line, we spent the night in Trepassey at a lovely hotel, the Trepassey Motel and Restaurant,  that included a dining room with views of the sea.  With friendly owners, good food and comfortable rooms, this would be a good place to spend several days and spend more time along this lovely coastline.

Friday, September 02, 2011

Ferryland Light

One of my favorite memories from my Newfoundland trip was my hike up to the Ferryland Lighthouse. While it was an uphill hike of 2 kilometers, it was pleasant.

But the views at the top were amazing. I had to walk alone because Henry's knee was not up to the 25 minute walk. When I got to the top, there were so many people who were taking advantage of the picnic lunches. It was hard to get a photo of the lighthouse without people in the frame. There were couples and families scattered on the green carpet of grass eating what looked to be wonderful picnic lunches. There were kids romping and exploring. A minke whale even surfaced near the shore close enough to hear the blow.

Ferryland Light was built in 1870 and manned until it was automated in 1970. After being abandoned for about 20 years, Lighthouse Picnics began serving picnic lunches and also began restoring the lighthouse. Today, the menu boasts food made fresh each day - molasses oatmeal bread, fresh made scones, orzo and fresh mint salad, and freshly squeezed lemonade. Coffee and specialty teas add to the charm. They use local and organic products as much as possible. The cold water shrimp, salmon and crab are harvested from Newfoundland waters.

The town of Ferryland is also interesting to visit. The Colony of Avalon was founded in 1621 by George Calvert who later became Lord Baltimore. The settlement ruins were undisturbed for centuries, but are now being excavated. Archaeologists have found over a million artifacts. An Interpretation Center and a walking tour give you a sense of what life in the 1600's was like.

Ferryland is about an hour's drive south of St. John.

Thursday, September 01, 2011

August 2011 Weather in Central Texas

A week ago tonight I had been watching the weather radar and knew we had storms in the area.  When I finally started hearing thunder at my house, I knew I should get out and try for some storm photos.  Henry joined me and began using his phone to track where the storm was. I was driving, heading in the direction I could see the flashes.  While the radar indicated storms between Taylor and Hutto, I saw no flashes so I kept heading east and south.

Just north of Elgin, I was seeing clear enough flashes that I found a place on a country road where I could set up my camera with my window mount and be at the right angle to attempt lightning photography from the safety of my car. 

I began to notice that I had a utility pole that was obstructing some of the bolts of lightning, so I began to move farther south past Elgin.

The amazing thing about these photos is that this lightning was really not close to where I was. I was just south of Elgin and these storms were at La Grange and Halletsville, many many miles away.  The tops of the clouds were very tall and the lightning strong enough to be seen from 50 miles away. 

 According to the local weathermen, August 2011 was the hottest August ever recorded at Camp Mabry as well as the hottest month ever with an average temperature of 91.6 beating the old reacord of 88.4 in the summer of 2009.  A new record for the consecutive number of 100 degree days at Camp Mabry was 27 compared with the old record of 21 days set from July 12-August 1, 2001.  As of August 31, 76 days of above 100 degrees.  To put this in perspective, an average summer in Austin yields only 13.5 days over 100 degrees.  Last but not least, August 28 tied the all time record high of 112 degrees at Camp Mabry. 

The worst drought in Texas history was between 1951 and 1956 when I was a small child. I do remember dust coming in the house under the closed windows.  Throughout the state,  October through June has been the driest 9 months on record.  We've had very little rain since then.

On my way chasing the storms, I did drive through enough rain to have to turn on my windshield wipers for maybe 5 minutes.  When we returned home, the ground was dry, but the deck was wet and the air at home gave the hint of the fragrance of rain. 

I've been telling people that I'm a believer . . . I believe that the weather WILL cool down this fall. I believe that it WILL rain again.  We have a cold front with possible rain this weekend.  It is sad  that I am thinking that 99 degrees as a high is going to feel so comfortable!  I've gotten a little used to these high temps, sweating everywhere I go.  But with the turning of the calendar page, I'm looking forward to the first hints of fall.

Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Texas Bridge Bats

I've been fascinated with bats for a long time.  I've gone down to Town Lake to see the bats emerge from the Congress Avenue Bridge. I've been to the Old Tunnel Wildlife Management Area and seen the bats emerge a number of times.

If I'm on I-35 in Pflugerville or Round Rock at dusk, I've seen bats emerge from the Wells Branch Bridge, the Howard Lane Bridge, and the McNeil Bridge.

I've gone out a couple of times to try to get some good bat photos. The first time I tried, I couldn't get the right angle for the shot I visualized - the silhouettes of the bats against a colorful sunset sky.  I've been helping with the bat interpretation at the McNeil Bridge, but if I'm talking to people, I'm unlikely to be taking time to photograph.

But Friday night things came together, the clouds in the eastern sky took on a pinkish hue, the bats were a little later than normal coming out, and another picture that I had visualized looked promising.  When the bats emerge from the bridge, they fly to the east to forage over the agricultural fields and pastures in eastern Williamson County.  They make beautiful patterns in the sky as they disperse.  I wanted to capture those beautiful and actually mathematical patterns.

It takes over several hour for the 1.8 million bats to leave their roosts.   But it is an amazing spectacle.
It is amazing to me how the flow of bats weaves itself across the sky, at times almost moving as though there is a common intelligence guiding the patterns. 


Late summer is a good time to view the bats because this year's pups have joined the flow.  

My article about the free-tailed bats is in this week's Hutto News.

Henry has a new app for his phone, Radarscope.  He came into my office near sunset asking what time the bats come out.  It turns out that you can see the images on the radar from this app that show the density of the bats emerging from a number of places around us in Central Texas.  Check out his blog and see the video he made of the radar images this evening.

Monday, August 08, 2011

Couch's Kingbird vs Western Kingbird

With a Couch's kingbird in my neighborhood,  I wanted to get better at distinquishing the Couch's from the Western kingbird.  I knew that I had western kingbird photographs from an Amarillo trip.  I wanted to compare them side by side.

Western Kingbird

This picture of the western kingbird was taken at Lake Tanglewood in Amarillo.  These birds swarm the area behind lawnmowers catching tons of insects.  In comparing the two species, the western kingbird has a dark, blackish square tipped tail with obvious white outer feathers.  While it is a beautiful yellow bird, the yellow is not as bright as the Couch's kingbird and the top of the breast is more gray.  The beak is smaller and thinner than the Couch's kingbird.  The western kingbird is found throughout the western United States during the summer and winters in Central America. It prefers open habitats of grassland, desert shrub, pastures and even urban areas.  

Couch's Kingbird

This photo of the Couch's kingbird was taken in Central Texas in Hutto.  The Couch's kingbird is a vibrant yellow, much brighter than the Western kingbird. The yellow extends all the way to the neck.  The bill is stouter and larger and the tail is lighter in color and slightly forked but  without the white tail edges of the western kingbird.  The Couch's kingbird has a gray head with a dark eyeline.

The northern range for the Couch's kingbird is the far southern tip of Texas in the Rio Grande Valley and it extends south through the eastern coast of Mexico down through Central America.   It prefers woodland boarders and brusy streamside thickets but is also found in abandoned overgrown agricultural fields and  urban areas. 

This sighting in Williamson County is only the second record for this species in the county. The first sighting was back in 1993.  It is the first record of nesting Couch's kingbirds in Williamson County.  This summer there are nesting Couch's kingbirds in both Williamson County and Bastrop County.  

Saturday, August 06, 2011

Couch's Kingbirds in Williamson County

I am grateful to a local birder who gave me a head's up about the nesting Couch's kingbirds in my neighborhood.  I went out a couple of days ago and located them easily, but it was mid-day, not the right time of day for photography not to mention the heat.

I got out tonight with my big lens, hoping they would be cooperative.  Henry and I saw them immediately upon parking. One was even in good position for a photograph, but before I could get it located in the lens, it flew to the top of the tree.  The adults were vocal when we first arrived, so I was glad to hear their call.

These birds are listed in TEXBIRDS on the Austin Rare Bird Alert. This is only the second record of this species in Williamson County.  They are normally found in Texas only in the Rio Grande Valley.

I had another opportunity when one of the birds landed in the interior of the tree.  I suspect this is near the nest, although I have not seen the nest itself yet, although I have looked for it.

I have pictures from the Texas Panhandle of Western Kingbirds so I am anxious to dig them out and compare so that I will be better able to distinguish between the two species. 

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Bird's nest

Henry pointed me to this abandoned bird nest. There was a broken egg underneath it.  I'm hoping someone will be able to identify which bird built it.

Bird's nest

Henry pointed me to this abandoned bird nest. There was a broken egg underneath it.  I'm hoping someone will be able to identify which bird built it.

Monday, June 27, 2011

Light Painting

I like to try new techniques with my photography.  For a long time I had been wanting to try light painting and star trails.   Last night, the moonrise was going to be in the early morning hours, the stars were out, so we drove over to Lake Granger. I was hoping to find an interesting tree with a clear area around so I could get star trails.  

I found my tree and set up my camera.  As I started "painting" the tree with my flashlight, I noted the windy conditions and how the branches with leaves were moving too and fro.  I figured that was probably a sign that this was not going to work well, but since I was experimenting anyway I kept going.  Since I was using long exposures, I didn't take that many shots.  I was using an older, much used Canon 5D and the noise level and "hot" pixels were excessive in my longest exposures.  I went ahead and bumped the ISO to 1600.  With some noise removal, this was the best of the lot.  

While this is not the image I had visualized, I find that I like it.  The wind action through the leaves creates almost a watercolor look.  

Perhaps I'll go back again soon and try again.

Friday, June 10, 2011


My back surgery occurred on April 20, 2011.  I went in to it with an optimistic attitude.  I was blessed that I had a number of friends who had been successful with back surgery to encourage me.  While I knew that things don't always go to plan, I believed that this was something I need to do for my quality of life. If it needed to be done, then God would be with me, guiding the surgeon's hand and strengthening me during recovery.  I was mentally at peace about doing this procedure and was disappointed when I had to wait until April 20th - almost three weeks or so at the time.

Awakening from surgery in the recovery room, there was the immediate initial pain from surgery which was quickly dealt with by the medical staff. Pain medication is a GOOD thing. I was pleasantly surprised that yes, indeed, I would be able to lie on my back even with the incision there.  They kept me two nights in the hospital, but I started walking the hallway the first day after surgery. Getting out of bed the first morning had a different pain than before, but it was EASIER!

I went home on Friday.  My first walk at home was up to my mailbox - about one tenth of a mile.  I regularly extended my walking paths until I had made a mile by my two week visit.  My six week visit was this week and I have walked 1 3/4 mile as my greatest distance so far.  Granted I'm not walking that far without my "pauses" or enjoying park benches along the way.  But I am gradually increasing my stamina and aerobic capacity.

I had some momentary discouragements as I felt like that my stamina was so slow to return.  Back pain and knee issues weren't slowing me down, but I was getting winded (still am). But this past week, I've noticed a positive change.  When I walk somewhere I haven't walked in the last week or so, I'm walking it BETTER!  I walked at the Georgetown Rec Center on Tuesday. I hadn't walked there since before my surgery - what a difference!  Before the surgery (but during physical therapy) I had to pause on the first lap and then pause more frequently as I tried to continue with more laps.  On Tuesday, I made three laps before the pause and two more laps.  I had limited walking time because my daughter and I wanted to swim as well.  But I walked almost half a mile and then swam laps.

When I went in to the doctor for the 6 week checkup, I left euphoric.  Music to my ears: "You are ahead of the curve!"  Since I had already been to physical therapy, he told me to get started back on the exercises I had been given without overdoing at first.  And . . . he sent me to a knee doctor so I can get off naproxen!  I've had my first knee injection and will get the gel injections in about three weeks.

I visited a friend in the hospital yesterday. She was in the far building and I made the entire long walk to and from her room at a brisk pace and no pain!  And then, yesterday, for the first time I walked all the way around Hutto Lake Park. I had been having Henry drop me off at the dam and doing a partial walk. While I still had to pause and catch my breath, and yes cool off as well - I walked earlier in the evening when it was hotter,  each time I walk a longer stretch in an area is a victory!

Getting back my stamina to do the bird walks and photography hikes will still require a lot of endurance training and consistent exercise, but now many things seem SO possible that were not before!

God is good . . . all the time!

Wednesday, May 04, 2011

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Thursday, April 28, 2011

A different kind of journey

Many of my blogs are about our travels.  I really like to write about the places we visit.

However, since December, I've been on  a different kind of journey - a spiritual and a physical one.

On December 23rd, I was doing an ordinary, daily task - feeding the horse. Because it was a bright moonlit night and I was feeling good, I walked up to the barn rather than driving up with the car (which I usually do because it gives me light to see what I'm doing.)  Gambler was acting a little edgy as I put the feed in his trough. And then . . . in a quick moment in time . . . he was in my space . . . I was falling . . . I was looking up at the roof of the barn, flat on my back.

When I fall, I tend to lay still for a few moments, to let unexpected pain sensations die down to a dull roar so I can access if I've just gotten the wind knocked out of me or if I am truly injured.  While I lay there making these accessments, I noticed that Gambler was over by the fence, nowhere near his trough and grain, head down.  I brought myself to a sitting position and Gambler immediately got on to what was most important in his mind . . . dinner!

I pushed myself up to a standing position and truly went OOOEEEYYY-OUWEEEYY all the way home.  My wrist hurt and my back muscles were most upset with me.  But I was happy to have gotten back to the house on my own steam.

A trip the next morning to minor emergency gave me a wrist brace for a hairline fracture and muscle relaxants for the back.  

Within a few days, the back pain had dulled and I thought I was well on the road to recovery.  With each passing day, movement was better, the wrist was doing well.  I was in good spirits.  And I started the year with ambitious plans of getting many things done both on a personal level and a professional level.

January 6th was a particularly productive day. I worked at my desk all day, happy with what I was getting done.  But at the end of the day, my back started speaking to me.  A visit to the hot tub didn't dull the increasing discomfort.  By the next morning, I knew another trip to the doctor was in order.

X-rays showed deterioration from L-1 down.  That didn't surprise me a lot because I had fractured L-1 when I turned 40. Falling through your ceiling from the attic to the ground floor is not a prudent thing to do.  Physical therapy was ordered and I went gladly and with optimism.

The first few weeks were painful.  I hobbled when I walked.  I kept up with much of my routine, but even short distances seemed excruciatingly long.  However, if I had responsibilities, I made sure I fulfilled them.  Other things had to be put on the back burner.  We bought a new heating pad and we already had a good ice pack.  I alternated heat and cold.  We used our inverter so that I could drive to and from my obligations with the heating pad.  Fortunately, most of my responsibilities could be done sitting which I could do with minimal discomfort.  I was doing well with therapy, but the one area that I couldn't make work was walking 15 minutes a day . . . Standing or walking even a short period of time left my body demanding that it was time for me to sit.

By the end of February, I was thinking longingly of the things I could do before the fall in December.  It seemed such a long time and far away.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Balsam Mountain Road

Henry and I make a practice of driving all possible roads when we are in a National Park.  However, sometimes roads are "hidden" and off the beaten path. On our 2008 trip to the Great Smokies we discovered the Balsam Mountain Road.  It is a one way, gravel road and we took our time stopping for photographs and in camera motion shots.

I loved the way the sun was highlighting the yellows in the background, HDR processing helped even out the exposure.

 On our fall trip this year, we went back to Balsam Mountain Road, but even though we were taking it a  couple of days earlier in October than in 2008, the foliage was more advanced. More leaves were on the ground.  Even so, this road is quiet and peaceful.  While we are not the only ones who drive it, we have the road to ourselves most of the drive.

Monday, January 17, 2011

Sunset at Klingman's Dome - Practicing Patience

Discipline is a part of every professional photographer's habit. One of my disciplines is to get myself into position at the right time of day, hoping that the lighting will be "magical."  One evening a couple of years ago, I headed up to Clingman's Dome. The sky was mostly cloudy and not promising. But because my time on location is limited, I put myself into place.

I saw a number of other people in cars, photographers I was assuming. Since it was cold and the sky was uninviting, we were just there, waiting, hoping that as the sun traveled below the horizon, that a slit would open in the clouds.  Truthfully, I wasn't hopeful, but discipline had me out with camera and tripod, just in case.

The time for sunset was past, but there it was, the beginnings of an afterglow, lighting the colors a subtle pink.  All of a sudden the photographers in the cars were leaping out, grabbing their equipment and trying to find their spot.

The color started spreading across the sky.

The colors got brighter and brighter, filling the sky with a beautiful crimson glow.  The sidewalk was filled with photographers trying to capture this magic moment.

As I worked the images later, I put multiple exposures together to try to recreate the beauty of that sunset with the amazing sky color and the beautiful ridges of the Great Smokies.

While I am not always rewarded when I wait out a dull looking sky, it is always peaceful and tranquil to be on location.  And, many times, it is worth practicing patience when the sunset or sunrise exceeds your expectations.

Wednesday, January 05, 2011

Sunset at Clingmans Dome

A favorite sunset place for photographers in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park is the summit of Clingman's Dome. Photographers begin to gather and line up to get the "best" spot an hour or more before sunset.  It is the tallest peak in the park, the tallest peak in Tennessee, and the third highest peak east of the Mississippi.  At 6,643 ft on a clear day you can see for 100 miles!  It is a wonderful place to catch the multiple ridges.  When I visit the Great Smokies I try to be there at sunset at least once.  

Each evening will be different depending upon the clouds, the natural haze or air polution.  

This pair was shot the same evening, seconds apart but with different compositions.

I used my new HDR software to create this version to capture the sky, the sun and the ridges.

Tuesday, January 04, 2011

Musings for a New Year

As I say each year, a new year is a new beginning. A time to reflect on what went well in the past year and what needs to be done better. While any day can be a new beginning, the change from one year to the next is symbolic. The tradition of New Year's Resolutions helps give us the push to work on the things in life that we know we need to do better.

As I reflected back on 2010, my first thought was that I didn't work my plan. My feeling was that I did not accomplish what I had wanted, that as the old year closed, I was not where I had wanted to be. Because I knew that feelings can be deceptive, I knew I needed to look back at my written goals to evaluate 2010. I needed to know whether my feelings reflected the reality of what I had accomplished.

There really are some advantages to writing down your goals, your plan for the year. Writing things gives ideas form and structure. The act of writing helps clarify in your mind what is important. Thinking about the year ahead and visualizing what you want to accomplish gives you goals to work toward. If you don't think, plan, and visualize, you are less focused and you may not live up to your potential and your dreams may not become reality. Planning makes the seemingly impossible become possible.

Evaluating is also very important. Looking at what worked and what didn't gives you insight and wisdom for future planning.

Yes, I am biased. I value myself based upon what I accomplish. While I know there are flaws in that thinking, I think that as humans we are here on earth for a reason. What we do, how we spend our time, what impact we have on the world around us . . . these are very important. Life needs to be lived consciously.

I was pleasantly surprised when I looked back over the goals I set last year. While I was certainly accurate in thinking that I fell short of the mark of what I had dreamed, I had made progress on some of my goals.

Some examples:

Goal: Go through my entire house, organize, throw away, get rid of clutter. I can choose to see all of the things I didn't get done . . . or . . . I can see that on a monthly basis, I had made some small dents - clearing small areas, making small, but noticeable progress.

Goal: Art Shows - I did three shows last year. While they were not stellar successes in terms of sales, they were each valuable learning experiences. The important thing was not how many things I sold, rather the fact that I made the effort. (And, in some cases, I sold more than those around me . . .) Sometimes the action is more important than the immediate results.

An accomplishment that was not specific on my goal list was redoing my web presence at my Mary Ann Melton PhotoShelter site.

The other thing my evaluation showed me was that I spent a lot of time on a project that was not on my written plan at all. While I was not the only one working on the project, the end result is something that benefits many people and the world around me. This was my biggest, most positive effort for the year.

Today's reading from the Artist's Way Every Day - A Year of Creative Living, by Julia Cameron sums it up quite well:

Growth is is an erratic forward movement: two steps forward, one step back. Remember that and be very gentle with yourself . . . Growth occurs in spurts. You will lie dormant sometimes. Do not be discouraged. Think of it as resting . . . Marathon runners suggest you log ten slow miles for every fast one. The same holds true for creativity.