Auroral reflection

Beautiful green aurora reflected in the still waters of English Bay. And all because I went out onto the balcony to watch the International Space Station sail by…

I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve missed seeing the aurora in Vancouver. The one that still annoys me is the spectacular display on Thanksgiving 2012, the day we went home after a weekend backpacking at Garibaldi Lake (mentioned in my earlier post, Long Exposure). But last night I got lucky.

Earlier in the evening, I’d stepped out onto our balcony to look at the crescent moon slipping towards the horizon, when I noticed something bright in the sky, and moving from west to east. I looked over to Jupiter to compare its brightness and quickly realized that it must be the International Space Station (ISS). I watched it drift overhead (I always want to wave to the astronauts…) and then went back inside. I checked the timing and found I was right, and of course that the next sighting would be in a little over 90 minutes’ time.

Well, by now, it was getting late, and we had closed the balcony door as the apartment had finally cooled to a reasonable temperature after a hot sunny Saturday. But just at the time of the next flyover, I decided to go back out and look for the ISS again. Sure enough, there it was, its arc passing a little further north than earlier taking it a few degrees higher than the pole start. And then I did a double take: was that a green glow over the mountains? Maria confirmed that I wasn’t seeing things. I’d seen the alert from spaceweather.com but dismissed it on account of so many previous false alarms (Vancouver is not a great aurora-viewing spot for a few reasons). Yet there it was before my eyes: a faint green sky.

There was no question in our minds: grab the camera, tripod, and a jacket and walk down to the beach. The water was the flattest calm, it was a balmy evening (well, morning by this time I suppose), and we were treated to a gorgeous auroral display, which I photographed until the camera battery ran out. I think I have a few I’m happy with, though I would have loved to have been able to take a time-lapse as we could clearly see movement. Maybe next time.

Make no mistake: it’s never as in-your-face-green as the photographs, and it was evident to us that the young folks partying on the beach had no clue about the aurora. (At one point, we were approached by one of them, and I expected a question about the aurora or the photography. But all they wanted was a cigarette. And they sounded so disengaged that we decided it wasn’t even worth trying to point out the green sky.) But it was obvious to us, we had a near-perfect spot to capture it, and it was a very peaceful hour on the beach.

A bear walks into a bar…

Waiting for service… Flashback Friday to May 2007 and a road trip to Port Renfrew, where we rounded a bend and spotted this bear wandering along the shoulder. He (?) stopped to check us out, placed his paws on the barrier as if waiting for a drink, before getting up onto the barrier and walking along it for a moment until startled back into the forest by the next car.

We’d just bought our shiny new compact superzoom Canon S3IS and I was more than happy to make use of the long zoom to get this photo. Sadly, once I got home and looked at the photos on our computer monitor, this photo also alerted me to how bad the colour fringing was on high-contrast edges (look at the edge of the road for an example – and that’s after a bit of processing). A lot of it can be taken out with “purple fringing” corrections, but it’s hard to get rid of all of it. Sure, I’d read the reviews that mentioned this aberration, and figured I could live with it. Looking back, that was really the time we should have gone straight to buying an SLR, instead of making-do with the inferior compact camera image quality.

But, having said all that, I still really like this and the other photos I took at the time. It’s quite the memory, and possibly our most fun bear encounter.

Snakes on a mountain top

A snake – on a mountain summit? Yup – this cute little garter snake was merrily swimming around a little pond on the third peak of the Chief last Saturday.

We’d just been photographing a beautiful reflection of the Copilot in a small pond on the summit of the Chief when movement caught my eye. I looked over and saw a snake swimming away from us, too quickly for me to get a photo or video. I followed it round to the other side of the pool and inadvertently startled it back across the water where it rested, this time with its head in plain sight, and in the sun too, that allowed me to take a couple of photos and a boring video clip (the first 5 seconds or so). As I stood up, the snake swam off again but this time I was ready for it and hit the video record button again (the interesting bit!).

We’ve encountered more than a few garter snakes in BC, but I think this is the first time we found one on a mountain top!

Eye see you…

Ever had that feeling you’re being watched…?

Hiking up to the third peak of the Chief last Saturday, we had cloudless blue skies with endless views all around. Except for Mt Garibaldi, which had two little nebulous eyes keeping watch on all us hikers below. While the light wasn’t great for the photo, I liked its whimsical nature and wasn’t surprised when, a few minutes later, I saw that the clouds had dissipated. That is, until I looked again after another short time had passed only to see two new eyes over the mountain… Spooky? Or just atmospheric physics at work? 🙂

Stellar Steller

Steller’s jay sightings are pretty much guaranteed at Fawn Lake. We sat and watched this one pick up leftover popcorn from previous hikers to feed its recently fledged chick. While these birds are pretty good at begging for handouts, I haven’t yet encountered any as bold or aggressive as their grey cousins.

Although I’ve spent some time lately cursing the camera for not focussing properly, I have to admit that eventually I was able to get quite a few nice photos of this jay as it hopped around. (I think I have a dozen that I’m happy with – most of which won’t go on Instagram because, well, there’s not much point in posting a dozen almost-identical photos!) Of course birds are rarely still, so getting a good shot becomes an exercise in predicting where it might go next. I’d watched it hop up onto this rock a few times, so I let it do its rounds, saw that it was approaching the rock, and set up my composition and focus. Oh and I made sure that the sun was behind me to avoid just getting a silhouette. As soon as it appeared in my viewfinder I took as many shots as I could (I forgot to put the camera on continuous shoot though). Bingo!

They’re such photogenic birds with brilliant blue feathers taking on shades of azure, cobalt, and sapphire among others. We’ve seen them at this same spot almost every time we’ve visited, and I’ve been wanting to get a good photo of one for some time. I think this’ll do just fine.

Spahats Falls

Spahats Falls, a panoramic view from 2011, because it’s waterfall Wednesday.

At the time we visited Wells Gray back in 2011, we only had the standard 18-55 mm lens for our SLR (28-82 mm 35-mm equivalent). The gorge into which this waterfalls drops is immense and can’t be captured in a single shot, so I took about a dozen photos to capture the scene and stitched them together later in Hugin. And I have to say I’m pleased with the end result. There’s still little idea of the actual scale of the waterfall – it’s a 60-m/200-foot drop – but overall, I feel it captures the gorge quite effectively. It definitely helps that the spring runoff was at its peak as later in the season the waterfall was barely a trickle by comparison.

One of things I remember most about Wells Gray is not the waterfalls, but the volcanic features: the canyon walls contained enormous thick layers of columnar basalts. It must have been quite the scene to see such a huge lava flow.

Dinosaurs in the sky

I, for one, welcome our new giant flaming pterodactyl overlords.

I hadn’t even seen that shape when I took the picture – I just liked the contrast between the deep red sky and the frame provided by the blue-grey foreground clouds. It was only when I showed it to Maria that I said I thought it looked like a dragon. “Or a pterodactyl” was Maria’s reply. And so it came to be a giant flaming pterodactyl head. At which point the quote from the Simpsons immediately popped into my mind, and I just knew I had to post the photo on Instagram.

Telescopes in the desert

Flashback-Friday to that time I went for a job interview… May 2003.

I first visited the Very Large Array (VLA) in 1996 and immediately fell in love with the desert. Fast forward a few years and I found myself in Socorro interviewing for a job that – unfortunately – disappeared in the time between arranging the travel for the interview and turning up at the door of the NRAO building. In the days before the ubiquity of cell phones, my would-be interviewers could only leave voicemail on my work phone while I was away on holiday (exploring the National Parks of the Sierra Nevada), so it was only when I read my work email just before I left for Albuquerque that I found out. Disappointed, I still went if only to meet the folks there and catch up with one of my colleagues about a project we were working on.

Of course, given a few days there, I couldn’t resist driving out to see the telescope array itself. It’s a fun drive and I remember seeing pronghorn along the way. On arrival, I checked in with the operators and let them know I’d be wandering around taking photos. Thankfully, the array was in one of its more compact configurations so I was able to size up this shot with multiple telescopes in the frame. Looking back at the photos I got that day (with our first distinctly-crappy digital camera, too), I think this is the best of the bunch.

If I remember rightly I enjoyed some good pizza and fine local beer that night!

Not bluebells

Fields of camas – I was amazed to see so many around the park! Such a beautiful sight! I think I’ll be spending more time here next spring…

Recently I’ve been seeing lots of camas (and other wildflower) pictures from various Instagrammers and it’s been making me want to drop everything and head over to Vancouver Island (or one or more of the Southern Gulf Islands) to check out the spring wildflowers. Vancouver seems a little lacklustre in the spring wildflower department by comparison, and the only ones I make an effort to photograph are white fawn lilies and trillium.

I hadn’t even thought about looking for flowers at the time we arranged a trip over to Vancouver Island to visit some friends, but the sight of all those Instagram pictures had me suggesting we head into town for the afternoon. And I was really quite blown away by how extensive they were in Beacon Hill Park. I didn’t expect that at all, thinking that with it being a city park that it would be dominated by cultivated flowers and manicured grass. So it was a wonderful surprise to find the park has patches of unmanicured meadows and trees. And the camas was growing everywhere! I’ve never seen such a bloom. My first reaction was that I was seeing a field of bluebells, but I was delighted to find that it was a lovely spread of camas instead. They even look similar when first budding and I really had to look twice in a few places.

So my mind is made up: I think I need to make a spring pilgrimage to southern Vancouver Island every year now… 🙂

Mountains at sea

A view of Golden Ears from the entrance to Active Pass on our ferry ride home.

I’m sure I’ve said this before, but I love being out on deck as the ferry goes through Active Pass. I’ve seen killer whales here several times, seals most times, eagles, and the occasional sea lion. On our outward journey on Friday, I saw a couple of deer feeding in one of the meadows on Mayne Island.

As usual, I was up at the bow, primed to get take a picture of the other ferry coming towards us, only to be reminded of the glorious view of Golden Ears framed between headlands on Galiano (left) and Mayne Islands. Since it caught me by surprise, I was a little late in taking the photo, and as a result, it’s not as well framed as I feel it could have been; I would like the headlands to be a little closer together. I’ll have to make sure I get it right next time! Maybe the light will be more favourable too?