Carla Brennan's Blog

Reflections and Photos from The Big Trip and Beyond . .

Pinnacles National Park: California Wildflowers and Condors

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Pinnacles National Park: California Wildflowers and Condors
April 29-May 2, 2019

After witnessing the splendor of Carrizo Plain National Monument’s superbloom in March, I was determined to get back to enjoy more flowers. But by the time I had a few days available to make the trip, the superbloom had passed. I will have to wait until the next one, which could be next year or in 10 years or ?

Fortunately, the regular spring wildflower season wasn’t over and I could go somewhere closer to home to find them, possibly Pinnacles National Park, Henry Coe State Park or Mercey Hot Springs. These are not places of superblooms but good choices for reliable yearly wildflowers. I decided on Pinnacles, only two hours away. I’d been there once before on an unpleasantly crowded weekend. This trip, I was arriving on a Monday. Pinnacles is also home to condors, a bird I’ve long wanted to see.

Arriving without a reservation, I was still able to find a good campsite, #59. It was spacious, shaded by oaks, with a small stream running through it. California quail, acorn woodpeckers, juncos, scrub jays, spotted towhees, gray squirrels and ground squirrels made frequent visits. After one hike, I sat quietly for a long time, watching the various animals come and go, sometimes photographing them. On the last night, raccoons decorated my car with muddy footprints. The only downside to this spot was that it was near group campsites where boisterous excitable teenagers had gathered for an outdoor adventure.

My first full day was cool and cloudy, perfect for hiking and photographing flowers. After getting a suggestion from a park ranger, I hiked five miles round-trip on the Old Pinnacles Trail. It was a leg punishing day, not because the trail was long or steep but because photographing flowers meant I was constantly doing deep knee bends while caring weights (cameras, telephoto lens, water, lunch). It was six hours of walk 15 feet, deep knee bend, walk 15 feet, deep knee bend, walk 15 feet, deep knee bend.

The next day I went on a shorter, steeper hike, the Condor Gulch Trail from the trailhead to the Overlook, only two miles round-trip. At the Overlook I met a couple from Walnut Creek and a young American woman living in Tel Aviv. We ate lunch together, sharing stories about nature and birds. (It turns out that Israel is a great birding destination.) The couple had seen condors the evening before from the campground and explained where to meet at sunset to see them again.

After lunch I meandered a little farther on the trail, admiring in silence the towering cliffs and volcanic rock formations. Turkey vultures flew in and out of view above the tallest pinnacles. Then I saw it. A soaring bird much larger than the vultures with white on its underside. A condor! It only appeared for a few seconds. I grabbed my bridge camera with its 600mm zoom (my good telephoto lens was still in my pack.) It appeared again for a few seconds and I took some quick, what I call, panic shots. It disappeared again. Then I waited. And waited. And waited. My good camera poised for action. Eventually I gave up and put the camera down to pack up for the hike home. At that moment two condors soared right overhead, like low-flying aircraft, darkening the sky with their nearly ten foot wingspan.

There are only 160 condors in all of California and about 27 are in Pinnacles. As you probably know, during the 20th century, their population was decimated by poaching, lead poisoning and habitat destruction. The few remaining condors were captured and became a part of a captive breeding project. In the 1990’s, they began to be introduced back into the wild.

Back at the campground that evening, I joined others at sunset to watch the arrival of condors taking advantage of the last updrafts from the sun’s dwindling heat. Above the hill behind the campground they soared acrobatically, being lit by the sun’s last rays.

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Guatemala: Tikal National Park

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Guatemala: Tikal National Park
January 2019

Life has carried me away the last few months, but now, at last, I am back reviewing my photos and remembrances from my trip to Central America in January 2019.

From the San Ignacio area of Belize we crossed into Guatemala to visit the ancient Mayan ruins of Tikal.

The border crossing was our first challenge. Traveling in a car rented from Belize triggered a series of bureaucratic reactions from the Guatemalan side. Standing in numerous lines, often repeatedly, forms had to be presented, often repeatedly. Money was changed and fees paid. The process was mysterious and convoluted. A young man with basic English attached himself to us, offering to guide us through the process, expecting, or at least hoping for, a tip at the end (which he got). This type of money-making arrangement is found around the world in developing countries. In his New York baseball cap he effectively shepherded us through the chain of command. My niece who speaks fluent Spanish also interceded. It was unnerving to see Guatemalan soldiers in spiffy camouflage uniforms with large automatic weapons guarding the border.

On the road again we had 80 miles to Tikal National Park. The drive was scenic, passing lush farmland and forests, small villages, and the narrow east end of Lago Peten Itza.

We encountered more confusion when we reached the Park entrance. They only wanted Guatemalan money and we hadn’t changed enough cash. We discovered that when changing or using US dollars, they will only take large bills, $20 or more, in absolutely mint condition. The slightest mark or tear would disqualify the exchange.

A tour guide, Jose, hoping to be hired, talked to my sister while the rest of us tried to figure out how to pay our entrance fee. Eventually, we made it through. We found out from Jose that a general strike had been called for the next day to protest the president of Guatemala’s decision to kick UN representatives out of the country. The UN was investigating governmental corruption. All the roads might be closed and we could be trapped in Guatemala. Fortunately the roads stayed open and we made it back, without incident, to Belize the next day.

We had reservations at the Jungle Lodge in the National Park. Our casita was comfortable and attractive. The open air restaurant at the Lodge was surrounded by large flowering ginger plants and the jungle fragrances and sounds were intoxicating. As we checked in I saw a social flycatcher and a gray-necked wood rail, both birds I had never seen before. During a quick trip to the swimming pool I spotted my first spider monkey, traveling from branch to branch in the tall trees. From the front desk, we hired a guide, another Jose but much younger, to take us on a late afternoon tour of the ruins. His English was excellent and we discovered he had spent a few years in western Pennsylvania, not far from where my sister and I had grown up.

Walking the main trail through the jungle we were happy with anticipation, excited to reach the ancient remains of the large and sophisticated Mayan culture. I had seen Aztec pyramids in Mexico but had never been at a Mayan site before. Our first stop was the Great Plaza, with its temples, palace ruins, altars, ball courts and acropolis. Climbing the stairs to a viewing ledge at Temple II, we peered across the Plaza to Temple I.

Looking down I tried to imagine what life would have looked like, a dreamlike world of color and costume. Here there would have been processions of kings and queens, complete with gold and jade jewelry, elaborate ornamentation and flowing feathers. Tournaments of a sacred ballgame were often held near Temple I, some games ending in bloody human sacrifice. The architecture would have been covered in sculptures depicting their complex mythology. Some buildings – entire temples – were painted red. In the hubbub of daily life, one would have seen children playing while merchants, artists, farmers, and toolsmiths displayed their wares.

The Great Plaza has a connection to the resplendent quetzal, a bird of importance to both ancient and modern Central American culture. When you clap loudly and sharply in the center of the Plaza, the echo mimics the quetzal’s call. Am interesting phenomena, but was it intentional or coincidental?

As the light diminished, coatimundis appeared, searching for any treats left behind by a full day of tourists.

The next morning we rose before dawn to meet with our first Jose, the Older, for a longer tour of the fauna and flora of the park in addition to the Mayan remains. We traveled through more areas of restored buildings, including Temple IV, the tallest still-standing structure within the entire Mayan empire. After climbing a long wooden staircase we reached a viewing platform above tree line that revealed the vast expanse of jungle broken only by the crumbling stone tops of other temples. During the height of Tikal, most of the trees between temples would not have been there, and we would have seen great causeways, ponds, smaller buildings and many splendidly dressed people.

Probably without knowing it, you have seen images of Tikal. In “Stars Wars: A New Hope,” views of Tikal were used as the site of the rebel base.

You might be interested in a recent NatGeo TV show called, “Lost Treasures of the Maya.” The four part series explores new discoveries of the ancient Mayan civilization revealed by LIDAR, a technology that is changing archeology around the world. By using special radar in low flying airplanes, the unknown remains of 61,000 Mayan structures can be seen through the previously impenetrable blanket of jungle vegetation. Scientists now realize that the Mayan empire was more massive than ever imagined. Even at Tikal, which has been excavated for years, new structures have been found.

Check back for the 3rd and final installment from our Central American trip: “Belize: The Ocean.”

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Scenes from a Superbloom

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It rained a lot this winter. That’s what it’s supposed to do in the coastal redwood forest of Northern California near Santa Cruz. After seven years of drought, the last few years of close-to-normal precipitation have been a relief.

We don’t get superblooms here, just the expected spring flowers. Superblooms occur in arid areas that usually don’t have wet winters. I hadn’t been paying attention to the weather farther south so the news of a possible superbloom came to me late and I had to scramble to figure out how to fit in a trip. During the superbloom of 2017, Chris and I went to Carrizo Plain National Monument (CPNM). I was adamant about going again.

The deserts of Southern California, which have been in the news for their fabulous flower displays (and destructive crowds of people), are a 10-12 hour drive from here. But Carrizo Plain is a mere 4-5 hours.

We packed up the camper for a three night stay. The wildflower hotline said it was pre-peak at CPNM but I figured there would still be plenty to see. It was indeed stunning, a heavenly spectacle of color and verdancy. Yellows, followed by purples, dominated the hillsides and valley floor. Then came the oranges, blues, pinks and whites. Everything was held in a great embrace of green.

The first night we pulled off Soda Lake Road and bumped along a rough single lane dirt path into the hills where dispersed camping is allowed. We found a rise with an open view across the great plain to the Temblor Mountains to the east, with the Caliente Mountains lifting up behind us.

We saw little wildlife during this trip, only indirect evidence of it. The ground was pockmarked with the borrows of ground squirrels and other rodents with larger holes for foxes, coyotes and badgers. The holes were so numerous that walking became an obstacle course. The first evening, distracted by photography, I twisted an ankle in a dirt opening. I limped for a day or so and it is still a bit sore, two weeks later.

We saw only a few birds, mostly ravens and sage sparrows, and a couple jackrabbits. Walking with the midday sun, we kept an eye out for rattlesnakes, but none were spotted. The rodents remained invisible, even at dusk or dawn. At night I shone my flashlight across the ground, hoping to catch a busy nocturnal creature. But saw none.

We wanted to camp on the eastern side of the Monument which we had not done before, but several of the main roads across the valley plain were closed due to poor conditions. The CPNM Visitor Center directed us to cross over on Seven-Mile Road, just outside the park, to reach Elkhorn Rd. Seven-Mile Road turned out to be quite a treat on its own. The valley was covered with goldfields, hillside daisies, tidy tips and occasional phacelia.

Unbeknownst to me, this road also led to an iconic view (one I had only seen in photographs) where Highway 58 passes through the Tremblor Mountains. The hillsides glowed in gold with complementary patches of purple. Cars had pulled off the highway and lined the roads. Families trekked up a path to a fairyland of color. It was Sunday and it was crowded. After a few photographs we opted out on the hike and chose to continue south on Elkhorn to find a spot for the night.

We pulled off Elkhorn and had another vast view, this time facing west. Coyotes barked, yipped and howled at night and in the morning. Near us was a dry arroyo. I surmised this would be a good place to find flowers since it would have been wetter than the surrounding hillsides. It was indeed a wildflower haven. While the flowers in this part of the park were not so widespread to be seen from space (https://www.cnn.com/travel/article/california-super-bloom-space-trnd/index.html), they were abundant, delightful and diverse at close range. I saw varieties that were new to me such as desert candles, evening snow and blazing stars as well as familiar hillside daisies, phacelia, lupine, poppies, fiddlenecks, filaree, owl’s clover, cream cups, thistle sage and more.

The sky was sunny and cloudless the next two days. This sounds great, but it’s actually not ideal for photography. On the last morning I got up before sunrise so I could see the flowers and the terrain bathed in the subtle light of dawn.

Photographing wildflowers here also turned out to be grueling exercise for my legs. In addition to long walks, I was popping up and down constantly, doing deep knee bends, to reach the low to the ground treasures with my close-up macro lens. And I was always carrying weights, AKA two heavy cameras.

I longed to stay more days, go on more walks, find more and more unique flowers. But we had to leave. Before getting on the highway we stopped again at the pass through the Tremblor Mountains and this time I scaled the trail into the yellow rounded hills. I was alone and the view was breath-taking, pure magic.

I plan to go back but my schedule won’t allow it until the end of April. It will be post-peak then, but I imagine the late blooming varieties will still be showing off their fleeting, heart-breaking beauty.

Please do not reproduce any photographs or videos without permission. If you are interested in purchasing a photograph, contact Carla at: brennan.carla@gmail.com.

 

This gallery contains 72 photos

Belize: The Jungle

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Belize: The Jungle
January 2019

In January, myself and four other family members celebrated the Holidays and New Year by going to Central America, primarily Belize. We’d had talked about this idea for several years and this year, my sister made it happen. My blog posts will be divided into three parts: Belize: The Jungle, Guatemala: Tikal National Park, Belize: the Ocean.

Our first stop was to travel west to near San Ignacio. After driving directly from the airport and getting a little lost, we finally made it to our rental house, called “The Treehouse,” in Bullet Tree Falls. It was an extraordinary place. Three round peaked rooms were connected by rectangular rooms up on stilts. The expansive upper outside deck was built around a large bullet tree which towered over the house. The lower deck had a swimming pool complete with fountain and lounge chairs. The sloping manicured lawn reached all the way to the banks of the Mopan River.

The warm humid fragrant air was filled with birdsong and frog trills. Evenings were surprisingly cool. Crowing roosters and barking dogs added to the ambiance. From the main paved road through Bullet Tree Falls our house was down two miles on a rugged potholed dirt road. This became the first of a series of very bumpy rides.

The first full day we went into San Ignacio for a good breakfast at Pop’s Restaurant. Then we headed to an iguana rehabilitation center. Our guide, Nigel, was devoted to and passionate about his iguanas, just as his mother had been before him. Injured iguanas are brought here, then nursed back to health, allowed to breed and then some, especially the offspring, are release back into the wild. Iguanas are declining in population primarily because people eat them, or more precisely, their eggs. It is actually outlawed but no one enforces the ban. (It is the same iguana species that is invading and overpopulating Florida. Maybe an exchange can be made!)

It was mating season and there was activity between the sexes in the screened-in enclosures where they are cared for and protected. At least on of the females was already pregnant with eggs. A large wild male iguana sat on the top of the enclosure, wistfully looking at all the females inside beyond his reach. These rehabilitated lizards are acclimated to humans and don’t mind being touched or held. I enjoyed getting close-up reptile portraits.

We followed that with a trip to the open air market to stock up on fruit and vegetables, purchasing, among other things, the sweetest, most delicious pineapple I have had in years. (Actually pineapple is off my diet but I had to make an exception here.) Absolutely heavenly. Markets like his look similar whether you are in Central America or Southeast Asia.

English is the official language in Belize (it was formerly British Honduras), but out here, knowing a little Spanish was helpful. There are something like 12 languages spoken in this small country. The money is in Belizean dollars which is valued at half US dollars, making it easy to calculate the exchange rate. Most places will take either Belizean and US Dollars.

I am also including in his post our trip to the Belize Zoo. This zoo has only rescued native animals. So it is a good opportunity to see some of the more exotic species that are hard to locate in the wild. It was set in the jungle with winding maze-like paths leading to the various animal enclosures. Some of the birds were in what I would call cages, but most of the residents had large natural environments in which they could roam, at least a little. They had big cats including jaguars, mountain lions, ocelots, and jaguarundis. I don’t have many good photos of these animals since the conditions were difficult and dark for photography. It was often hard to shoot through the mesh enclosure walls. It poured much of the time adding to the challenge. Some of the animals we saw were not actually residents of the zoo but were visitors like us. Agoutis (rabbit-like with longer legs and small ears) ran around, several bird species came and went, and I saw a large spiny-tailed iguana sprawled on a fence.

Back at The Treehouse I went for several walks on the dirt road, looking for birds, butterflies, flowers and enjoying the abundance of biomass and jungly sounds. I’d hoped to swim the Mopan River or, with a little preparation, go on a kayak or tubing trip. This never happened so I will have to return some day! Sitting by the river at sunset one evening I saw as many as 75 cattle egrets fly down the river, interspersed with small groups of cormorants.

One aborted adventure was an attempt to get to the minimally developed Mayan ruin called El Pilar, not far as the crow (or groovebilled ani) flies. We were in an Indiana Jones mood so we started down the seven mile dirt road to the archeological site. But after two miles of slow bumpy progress, we realized the road was in too bad a condition to proceed and we turned around. Either hiking or horseback would be a better way to go. The extent of the ancient Mayan empire in that area is truly mind boggling. So much of it has barely been discovered or unearthed.

Please do not reproduce any photographs or videos without permission. If you are interested in purchasing a photograph, contact Carla at: brennan.carla@gmail.com.

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Snow!

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Snow!
February 5, 2019

Snow was predicted for last night above 1000 ft. in the Santa Cruz Mountains. Our house is at 1400 ft. so I woke up excited this morning to see what had fallen during the night. We only get snow here about every 5-10 years so this is a special event; the higher elevations have it a little more frequently.

There was a teensy bit of snow on our cars and in small patches on the ground. However, since the top of our mountain is at 2500 ft., I knew there would be more up there. I drove the two miles up Alba Road to Empire Grade in my trusty Subaru. Yes, it was a winter wonderland! There was only about an inch or so, but enough to turn the redwood forest into a beautiful lacy filigree.

Alba Road is not built for snow and ice; it is narrow, steep, winding, with drop-offs and no guard rails. And people here don’t know how to drive on snow and ice. I parked at the intersection and wandered a bit. A little Kia was parked behind me, also taking photos. When they tried to leave, their wheels just spun. I flexed my muscles getting ready to help push them out when they finally got traction and left.

I also watched several cars make the turn from Alba to Empire Grade a little too fast, fishtailing their way down the road, barely in control. One ignorant lad actually gunned the accelerator when reaching Empire Grade, causing an impressive sideways slide and coming to an eventual stop facing the wrong direction. There are no such things as snow tires or snow plows here. This reminded me of being in Amherst MA during the first fall snowfall when all the new foreign students at the University, who have never seen snow, try to drive.

It was gorgeous driving home: sun, snow, fog, dripping trees and god rays, all mixed together. After some breakfast (winter weather, makes you hungry!) I walked up and down the same two miles taking more photos. Better take advantage of this now; it will likely be another 5-10 years for the next opportunity.

I have always been a snow lover (except for the part when it’s all over the cars, roads, sidewalks, etc. And when it turns into ice.) Having snow today was like a visit from a dear old friend. One that leaves you with joy and inspiration before disappearing.

BTW, I did all of that while still in my pajamas. When there is SNOW, who has time to get dressed?

Please do not reproduce any photographs or videos without permission. If you are interested in purchasing a photograph, contact Carla at: brennan.carla@gmail.com.

 

 

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UNEXPECTED ELEPHANT SEALS

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UNEXPECTED ELEPHANT SEALS
Photography from Ano Nuevo State Park, CA, Sunday Jan. 27, 2019

On Sunday the weather was splendid and Chris and I decided to go to the coast. Living among the big redwoods, especially in winter, can make the entire day seem dark, even when the sun shines. I suggested we go to Cove Beach at Ano Nuevo State Park. I thought we would forego the elephant seal colony that resides on a beach about a mile from the visitors center and instead meander to the closer Cove beach. You need a reservation to visit the seals and it was mid-afternoon by the time we got there. We were unlikely to get permission to make the walk to the colony.

But we were lucky to discover that six immature males (adolescents 1-4 years old and sub-adult males 4-7 years old) had fled the “designated” area and were lounging on Cove Beach instead. The designated area is roped off and monitored by docents while at Cove neither the seals nor the humans were supervised. A sign said to stay at least 25 feet from seals but it seemed I was the only one who had read it.

These young males had probably escaped the colony to get a reprieve from being harassed by the mature males. The occasional bands of curious humans that came close to them probably seemed benign compared to their older aggressive brethren. They lolled on the sand in massive blubbery lumps occasionally lifting their large heads and improbable proboscis noses to eye the two-legged strangers. As you will see, sometimes discerning the features of their head and faces amid the lumps and bulges was challenging. It can be hard to know what you are looking at. They can seem bizarre or as Chris said, “kind of gross.” The seals were huge, probably close to 10 feet or more in length.

One elephant seal found comfort in the coolness of a salt water pool formed by the last high tide. Most of the time, he looked dead, inert, and sleeping or a least resting with his head submerged. But periodically he would resurface and stretch, blow bubbles and yawn, creating strange and amusing poses.

Also included are two photos of common fossil rock strewn on the beach. They are Purisima Formations from the Pilocene period.

California elephant seals made the national news the same week I made this post. Here is a CBS newsclip: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BeApgSmqth8

Here is a video Chris made of the bubble blowing elephant seal:

Please do not reproduce any photographs or videos without permission. If you are interested in purchasing a photograph, contact Carla at: brennan.carla@gmail.com.

 

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The Mendonoma Coast

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I am in Gualala writing this. After the coming week here I will no doubt have a slew of photos to share. This post includes some of the backlog of images from previous trips in September and November.

The term “Mendonoma” is the marriage of Mendocino and Sonoma counties; together they possess a long stretch of stunning seascapes. I am guessing this word was thought up as a publicity gimmick for tourism but it makes sense to pair these counties since they share a similar geography. On our regular trips to Gualala we travel Highway One from Bodega Bay in Sonoma through Jenner to Gualala which sits on the county line between the two. While here, we often take trips north to beaches or towns such as Bowling Ball Beach, Point Arena and the town of Mendocino. So the so-called Mendonoma Coast is our regular playground.

The most exciting event was when gray whales came into Gualala Bay in September and swam by the cliffs just below us. We happened to be home and I had my tripod and camera already set up on the deck. It was thrilling to watch them spout and swim from from the comfort of the house. Whale photographs, unless the beasts are breaching or diving are not very interesting (gray humps) but I included several to prove how close they were.

The next most exciting experience was successfully taking long exposure photographs of the Milky Way (and Mars). These were taken from a different deck on the house. The camera is much more sensitive than the naked eye so many, many more more stars appear in the photograph than we can actually see. I am gradually learning to become better at astrophotography and will continue to experiment.

Some of the birds included – the peregrine falcon, common mergansers, and green heron – were photographed during a kayak trip on the Gualala River. On one side of the river is Sonoma County and on the other, Mendocino, so this was a true Mendonoma experience. It was windy that day, as it had been all week. You can see the fluffing up of the falcon feathers from the stiff breeze in the tall tree. The mergansers were hunkered down to withstand the wind. Fortunately, I didn’t have to kayak far inland to be out of the coastal breeze (otherwise kayaking would have been a nightmare.) When I saw the green heron, the air was light.

There is a bald eagle pair who live in the Gualala area. The photograph included appears to be in a wild and remote place but it was actually only a block from “downtown” Gualala.

A few words about beach hoppers, Megalorchestia corniculata. Although they are common they are nocturnal so you don’t usually see them. I got to Bowling Ball Beach one morning before the sun had risen over the cliffs and these little beach-dwelling shrimp-relatives were busy sparring with each other and going in and out of their burrows. They would soon disappear for the day. Their bodies are about an inch long.

I am experimenting with black and white photography and have included a few examples here. This opens up a whole new vision for places and subjects I’ve photographed many times before.

Please do not reproduce any photographs or videos without permission. If you are interested in purchasing a photograph, contact Carla at: brennan.carla@gmail.com.

This gallery contains 38 photos