Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Wow! Is that Niagara Falls?

Horseshoe Falls in Mist, Niagara Falls, Ontario, Canada

As I was packing up my camera after photographing from the Canadian side of Niagara Falls, two men came up and asked if they could see what I was shooting. I said, "yes," and pressed the play button on my camera to display the last image I took that morning.

Without asking, one of the men rotated the jog dial on the back of my camera to see the other images I captured that morning. But he rotated it clockwise, and instead of seeing an earlier image, the camera displayed the first image on the memory card — one I took four days earlier.

"Wow!" he exclaimed. "Is that Niagara Falls?"

Springfield Falls, Pennsylvania

The image was of a waterfall, but it wasn't Niagara Falls. It was a little-known waterfall in western Pennsylvania called Springfield Falls. Like Niagara, the waterfall completely filled the frame from side to side, although that was because I zoomed in. Springfield Falls is only a few dozen feet across. The largest of the Niagara waterfalls, Horseshoe, is a half-mile wide.

But what may have been striking about Springfield Falls was the bright yellow wildflowers that ran completely across the bottom of the frame. Or perhaps the lush green forest that ran all the way across the top.

Niagara Falls doesn't have either of those features — at least not anymore.

Just before arriving at Niagara Falls, you have to drive through a busy tourist district full of buildings dripping with loud neon signs. And at the falls, there isn't a vantage point that doesn't include a view of a bright video billboard. The morning I was there, footage of a spinning roulette wheel was on an almost continuous loop. The previous night, a fireworks spectacular upstaged the falls entirely.

The man's question somewhat echoed the thoughts that were running through my mind when I saw the electronic graffiti suffocating what is arguably the most stunning waterfall in all of North America: "Wow! Is this Niagara Falls?"

My experience at Niagara Falls could not have contrasted more with my time a couple days earlier in Pennsylvania. I was there to attend the opening of an art exhibit that featured four of my images in celebration of the 50th anniversary of the Wilderness Act.

Over the past 50 years, the act has helped set aside more than 100 million acres of nature, barring any form of development on it.

No power transmission lines. No oil tanks. No roads.

A day before the art exhibit opened, I hiked through some parts of the Allegheny National Forest that Friends of the Allegheny Wilderness is working hard to protect. We started in a proposed addition to the Hickory Creek Wilderness, which at 8,663 acres is one of the smaller wilderness areas in the country. The average wilderness area is nearly 16 times larger.

The proposed addition of less than 1,800 acres would barely make a dent in that gap, but it would help preserve a scenic second-growth forest that is just now starting to look like a more mature one. And even though the trees aren't hundreds of years old, I found myself saying, "Wow," several times during my hike through it.

Sun Shining Through Forest Canopy, Proposed Addition to the Hickory Creek Wilderness, Allegheny National Forest, Pennsylvania

As the parking area and any sign of civilization faded from view, I was struck by how impressive the forest became. I had to stop and photograph the sun shining through a thick section of the forest canopy. I stopped to photograph a particularly attractive arrangement of ferns. Later that day, in another proposed wilderness area, I spent a half hour photographing the patterns of tree roots on a rock outcropping.

Without manmade distractions, all there was to focus on was nature's beauty. And it was amazing how much of that beauty there was to notice when it didn't have to compete for attention.

In a way, wilderness areas don't just protect nature. They also protect us from ourselves.

I'm guessing the situation at Niagara Falls began somewhat like this. Someone figured that the waterfalls were spectacular, but they would be better if you could stay in a hotel right next to them. And eventually, they figured those hotels would be better if they were also casinos. And that the waterfall would look even better bathed in colored lights and fireworks.

I'm not against hotels, casinos, and fireworks. What I am against is pulling out all the stops to upstage a true wonder of nature. And we don't have a great history of showing restraint.

There was a time when the sheer granite faces of Yosemite weren't dramatic enough for people. For nearly 100 years, Yosemite rangers would push burning embers off Glacier Point, creating a 3,000-foot-tall waterfall of fire. The park finally stopped the practice in the late 1960s when the crowds grew so large that the fragile meadows in the valley below were being trampled to death.

Initial plans for Mount Rainier National Park called for roads and hotels to touch each of the majestic mountain's main glaciers.

I'm not usually one for using food analogies, but let me try one here. If you had an incredibly tender, flavorful steak, would you completely cover it in seasonings? And then bury it under ketchup? And then cover that with chocolate sprinkles?

That's what we're doing when dress up nature in modern clothes and the latest technology.

And while nobody's talking about building a giant water park in the proposed addition to the Hickory Creek Wilderness, it's threatened by modern times, too. There isn't much to stop new roads from being built through it, or even logging and oil drilling.

I'm sure there are people who feel a little development here and there won't hurt things, but it can. On one of the forest hikes that day we came across an oil tank. And it stood out on the landscape not unlike the video billboard at Niagara Falls. Once I noticed it, it was hard to notice anything else.

We cannot protect everything from development. We need lumber. We need gas. We need places for homes and offices. But we should protect truly special places, and when we protect them we should try leave them in their natural state as much as we can. Declaring them as wilderness areas guarantees that they will remain "untrammeled by man."

On my last morning at Niagara Falls, I got a taste of what it must have been like there hundreds of years ago. Because of the high humidity, mist from Horseshoe Falls hung in the air. The mist blocked out the casinos, and at times even obscured the rising sun. I could see the power plant, but the mist temporarily blocked out almost all other development.

And I was in awe.

If anyone doubts that we need the Wilderness Act, I would ask them to stand at the edge of Niagara Falls and then travel a couple hours to hike in the Allegheny wilderness. And I would ask where they felt closer to nature.

It isn't much of a contest, because it took a blinding mist for me to say, "Wow! That is Niagara Falls!"

(For more information on the Wilderness at 50 gallery exhibition and to see the images Kevin is showing, visit his special Wilderness at 50 page. You can also follow him on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.)

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Happy anniversary, Wilderness Act

Whitehorse Mountain, Boulder River, Washington

The Wilderness Act, which has preserved some of the most pristine areas of the United States, turns 50 next week. My absolute passion for nature photography has just turned 14.

The two are more related than they might seem.

The Wilderness Act is based on the idea that some land is so valuable, we should do absolutely nothing to it. We won’t build hotels on it. Or homes or offices. Or even roads.

But in the process of doing nothing, we’ve actually done a lot. We’ve created something special.

Growing up, art was one of my least favorite subjects. Art was about painting, drawing, cutting, and gluing, and I was terrible at it. I honestly would have rather spent more time doing math.

Fast forward several decades. I have a degree in economics and journalism. I have a so-called good job in a big city. But every job is stressful, and to blow off steam I start hiking after I get off work.

I often end up in the Alpine Lakes Wilderness, a giant reserve made up of more than 700 mountain lakes and ponds in the Central Cascades of Washington state. A busy interstate takes you right to it, but after a few minutes on the trail you forget it’s even there.

A funny thing happens when you’re surrounded by nothing: You notice everything.

With no manmade features to distract, all you can do is take in the incredible beauty of ragged mountains reflecting in still lakes. Or notice a spot where a small river carved a slide into a bolder. Or see how the patterns in the tree bark kind of look like an impressionist painting.

This heightened sense of awareness didn’t dissipate the moment I hopped back into my car at the end of a hike. The Alpine Lakes caused me to be more in tune with the world around me and I began to notice interesting features even in busy city parks.

I was no stranger to nature. Growing up, my family made frequent trips to national parks and monuments. But at least the areas that are relatively easy to access are like small cities themselves with visitor centers, stores, and traffic jams. The Alpine Lakes, however, was different. Many parts are easy to access, but it’s quiet.

The result was that I wanted to capture my experiences and share the wonder with others. I found something I was incredibly passionate about, and I wanted to create images so others could see what I saw and felt — and inspire them to care about it, too.

When you think about it, that’s all art really is. I just didn’t realize that until I found something I was so passionate about and could be in a place where I could hear myself think.

Early this year, I was asked to join 10 of the top landscape photographers in the country for a special exhibit to honor the anniversary of the Wilderness Act. Each of us were invited to provide four framed prints for the exhibit. The only requirements were that the images had to be from federally-designated wilderness areas and the prints have to be huge. We want people who step up to view our work to almost feel like they’re being pulled into the scene.

I had to say, “yes.”

Without the Wilderness Act, there’s a chance the four images I’m exhibiting wouldn’t exist. The Wilderness Act prevented them from being destroyed before I photographed them. And it’s preserved them in their same state since.

But, for me, the Wilderness Act also goes beyond that. If not for it, there’s a chance that none of my images would exist.

(For more information on the Wilderness at 50 gallery exhibition and to see the images Kevin is showing, visit his special Wilderness at 50 page. You can also follow him on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.)

Thursday, July 31, 2014

The protection of Protection Island

Harbor Seals, Protection Island National Wildlife Refuge, Washington

Protection Island is a small island in the Strait of Juan de Fuca whose name now has a double meaning.

Harbor Seals and Mount Baker, Protection Island, Washington

Located at the mouth of Discovery Bay, the name originally referred to the island’s usefulness to humans. The island nearly stretches across the entrance to the bay, shielding it from some of the strait’s choppy waters.

The island still offers that protection, but now it protects a whole host of wildlife as well.

Hundreds of homes, perhaps even a thousand, were once planned on the island, until Zella Schultz, a wildlife biologist and artist, discovered just how important it was to wildlife. Illness claimed Shultz’s life before she was able to stop the bulldozers from destroying auklet burrows and breeding grounds for gulls, but her friend Eleanor Stopps continued conservation efforts, including buying up available lots on the island.

Bald Eagles on National Wildlife Refuge Sign, Protection Island, Washington

Protection Island became a national wildlife refuge in October, 1982. Everyone you talk to points out that it is the only wildlife refuge created when Ronald Reagan was president. While some may mean that as an indictment of Reagan’s environmental priorities, they all agree that it shows just how special the island truly is.

Technically, the island is not in Puget Sound, but unless you’re talking about lakes, the boundaries of a body of water can be hard to define. Given that the island is just a few miles from the mouth of the sound and that it shares more traits than differences with the sound’s islands, for wildlife statistics, it’s counted as a Puget Sound island.

Under that math, nearly three out of four seabirds that nest in the Puget Sound area now do so on Protection Island. It’s home to largest nesting colony of rhinoceros auklets in the world, and the largest colony of glaucous-winged gulls in Washington state. It is one of only two tufted puffin colonies left in the Puget Sound area. About a thousand harbor seals also raise their young on the island.

When the refuge was established, nine homeowners were grandfathered access to the island; only one still uses it now. Boats travel past, especially during the summer months, but they’re not allowed closer than 200 yards.

Even from that distance, you can hear the commotion on the island. Harbor seals bark as they’re tending to pups that are only a few weeks old. Gulls scream as bald eagles mount another attempt to feed on their young. Black oystercatchers “wheep” as they fly in groups over the shore.

Tufted Puffin, Protection Island National Wildlife Refuge, Washington

The only silence comes from the tufted puffins who swim just offshore to feed on herring.

Watching young harbor seals squirm their way through a dense pack of adult seals laying on the beach flipper to flipper, it’s amazing to see how many animals have moved here since the humans moved out. But it’s also clear that at some point, the animals will have to move yet again.

West Shore, Protection Island National Wildlife Refuge, Washington

As we travel around the west side of the island on our way back to Port Townsend, the first thing you notice is that a huge piece of Protection Island is missing. While the island’s bluffs are as much as 250 feet high, they’re made of sediment dropped by retreating glaciers — not solid rock. Giant pieces break off and tumble into the Strait of Juan de Fuca. At the rate they’ve been going, some believe the island may vanish in as little as 800 years.

Until then, Protection Island is an incredible home for thousands of animals — so many that you can still appreciate the magnitude from a boat 200 yards away.

(This fall, Kevin Ebi will be publishing his first comprehensive portfolio of his nature photography in a book called Living Wilderness. Join the Living Wilderness email list or become a Living Wilderness Facebook fan to learn how to order your copy. Your personal information will not be shared with anyone.)

Pigeon Guillemot Running on Water, Discovery Bay, Washington

Monday, June 30, 2014

Never the same arrangement twice

Corn Lilies and Lupine, Mount Rainier National Park, Washington

My style of photography has always been to capture a "living wilderness." I believe the Earth is as alive as we are. And that means it is dynamic — always changing.

Because our lifespans are so short, it's hard to fathom a time when Mount Rainier wasn't there, when the Hawaiian islands were tiny buds on the bottom of the ocean, when the Grand Canyon was filled. But there are plenty of changes that we can witness.

For me, one of the most visible changes is with the wildflowers in the mountain meadows of Washington state. Some of the meadows are buried under snow for more than half the year. As summer arrives, a carpet of yellow glacier lilies replaces the snow. A few weeks later, they're replaced by white avalanche lilies. Eventually, they're replaced by a wide assortment of flowers, including lupine, bear grass, and paintbrush.

In addition to that change within a year, there can also be dramatic change year-to-year. If the weather is ideal, wildflowers in every imaginable color can completely cover a meadow. In an average year, there are fewer wildflowers both in terms of variety and absolute number. And some years, the wildflowers may not bloom at all.

The annual change can be a reminder not to take anything for granted. Miss this year's bloom and you may not get another chance for a few years.

But it can also provide an exciting opportunity. Even if you've photographed a particular meadow before, it will be different this summer. And next summer. And the summer after that.

I can't wait to see what this summer's wildflower season brings.

(This fall, Kevin Ebi will be publishing his first comprehensive portfolio of his nature photography in a book called Living Wilderness. Join the Living Wilderness email list to learn how to order your copy. Your personal information will not be shared with anyone.)

Saturday, May 31, 2014

The other side of water lilies

Water Lilies from Underwater, Washington Park Arboretum, Seattle, Washington

S-Channel in Water Lilies, Washington Park Arboretum, Seattle, WashingtonIt's May in the Seattle arboretum. Woodpeckers and flickers are finishing their nests in brittle trees. Mallard ducks are taking their newly hatched ducklings for their first swims. And water lilies are beginning to turn the open water into a maze of lanes.

The fragrant water lily, formally known as Nymphaea odorata, is found all over the arboretum's wetlands, as it is on virtually every lake in western Washington. The water lily isn't native here. Until the late 1800s, it was found only in the eastern half of North America. But as the area grew, new residents brought the ornamental plant with them.

Fragrant Water Lily in Bloom, Washington Park Arboretum, Seattle, WashingtonThe water lily is quite gorgeous during the few months when people are likely to be on or near the water. Throughout the summer, large, bright flowers — typically white, pink and yellow — spring up from the green pads.

But the water lilies also grow fast — and quite easily.

Washington's ecology department tells the story of Griffin Lake, located on the other side of the state. In the mid-1970s, as little as 10 percent of the lake was covered in green. Just 20 years later, the entire 110 acre surface was covered with water lilies.

In many areas that is cause for concern. The floating lily pads are firmly tethered with thick stalks to the muck under the water. On lakes throughout the country swimmers have become entangled and drowned.

The ability of the water lily to spread seems somewhat limited in the arboretum, though. The water lilies like calm water. The constant parade of waterfowl and canoes seems to help keep the water channels open.

And while not native, the water lily seems to have become a key part of the ecosystem in the arboretum's wetlands. Over the years I've rowed in the arboretum, I've watched the wildlife make great use of the lily pads. I've seen frogs rest on them. I've seen young ducklings crawl on them to feast on trapped food. I've even watched damselflies and dragonflies use them as a platform to find mates.

They vanish nearly as fast as they grow. After flowers fade in late summer, the green pads begin to disappear, too. Until next summer.

(Follow Kevin Ebi's photography on Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram.)

Damselfly on Lily Pad, Washington Park Arboretum, Seattle, Washington

Wednesday, April 30, 2014

March of the penguins

Yellow-Eyed Penguins, Jack's Bay, New Zealand

Think of penguins and you typically think of long lines of the flightless birds gathering on ice. New Zealand, however, is home to several types of penguins that march across bright scenery reminiscent of central California beaches, even if the temperature is closer to the Antarctic.

One of these types is the incredibly rare yellow-eyed penguin — one of the rarest penguins in the world. Considered by some scientists to be the oldest species of penguin in existence today, there are only about 4,000 left. And they’re all in New Zealand, where the natives call them Hoiho.

Despite the fact that they are so rare, if you see one you’ll soon see more.

One of the most amazing sites to see is to watch the yellow-eyed penguins come ashore in the evening. About 90 percent of their diet is fish. During the day, they will venture as much as 16 miles (25 kilometers) from shore, diving to depths of up to 400 feet (120 meters).

They spend the night, however, on shore, typically roosting in the brush on rocky slopes overlooking the Pacific Ocean. As the sun starts to set, you might see the head of a bird bobbing in between the waves. As it gets closer to shore, it will eventually select a wave and bodysurf onto the beach.

Yellow-Eyed Penguin Waiting, Nugget Point, New Zealand

Even though it has likely spent all day at sea, it then turns and faces the ocean. And waits. And waits.

Eventually, another penguin surfs onto the beach. And another. And another.

Once there’s a group of at least three or four penguins, they will start marching together up the beach toward their roosting spots. But every minute or so they will stop and look back at the water. If they see another penguin coming ashore they will awkwardly run back and greet it.

When the group reaches a half-dozen, the penguins spend a bit less time looking back. And if the group starts climbing the bluff, the penguins aren’t likely to run back.

Yellow-Eyed Penguin Marching Up Hillside, Nugget Point, New Zealand

Their ability to walk and climb over obstacles is only marginally better than their ability to fly. They seem to do the penguin equivalent of a cost-benefit analysis, considering the amount of effort they will have to expend to greet the new arrival on the beach against the time that arrival will have to wait for more buddies to wash shore.

While they refuse to climb alone, they insist on nesting alone. They will not nest where they can see another penguin. Social hour is over.

(Follow Kevin Ebi's photography on Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram.)

Monday, March 31, 2014

Can birds learn to be better parents?

Pair of Bald Eagles on Nest, Puyallup, Washington

If you would have asked me a decade ago about how a bird knows how to fly, I would have regurgitated the answer I was taught in school: They are hatched knowing how. But after intensely studying a bald eagle nest for three years, I not only believe the young eaglets learn to fly, but that their parents also learn to be better parents.

A young bald eagle doesn't rush into its first flight. Contrary to popular belief, its mother does not kick it out of the nest when she is ready for it to leave. By the time a young eagle makes its first flight, she's hardly ever on the nest anyway.

Despite the fact that a young eagle is nearly as big as its parents after six weeks, it usually takes at least another month before it flies for the first time. In spends those weeks looking from the edge of the nest, sitting in the middle of the nest and furiously flapping its wings, and gradually working up to the point where it can leap from branch to branch, adjusting its technique to reach more distant branches safely.

We can't ask an eagle what's going on in its mind, of course, but if a human child was developing in a similar manner, we would say it was demonstrating curiosity and taking progressively larger “baby” steps until it was able to perform the task. Which sounds a lot like learning.

But one of the things that surprised me most over the course of the project, documented in the book Year of the Eagle, was that the parents appear to learn as well.

Here's my belief: If the parents operated purely on instinct, all things equal, any given pair of bald eagles should perform the same parental tasks the same way year after year. In essence, genetic programming should be like a computer program. If the input is the same, the output should be the same.

But at least at the nest I observed, it is not.

The young eagles I observed in my first year at the nest site took seemingly forever to make their first flights. They didn't start flying until mid-July, late by eagle standards, and didn't leave the nest for good until practically Labor Day.

They were unsteady in flight and seemed to crash more than land. And everybody knew when they were flying. The entire time they were in the air, they were screaming. Practice flights began at the first light of day, waking their human neighbors each morning.

Contrast that with the young eagle that hatched in Year Two of my project. It was flying in early June and had left the nest for good shortly after the Fourth of July. The experience of the pair of eagles that hatched in Year Three was much more like the experience in Year Two.

There were some notable differences in the parenting styles year-to-year, the most visible of which was the amount of time the parents spent on the nest. In the first year, once the young eagles could regulate their own body temperatures, the parents spent very little time with them. The eaglets had plenty to eat, but the only time they got with their parents was during the brief food drops. The parents were on and off the nest typically in 15 seconds or less.

In the second year, the food drops often lasted a minute or more. Their time with their young increased even more in the third year. They were still breaking off pieces of food and individually feeding it to their eaglets long after they were capable of doing that for themselves.

There are a number of ways that this increased time on the nest could help their young be better fliers. It's possible that their presence results in both young eagles getting a fair share of food. When they don't have to compete as much for food, the young may be able to concentrate more on their flying skills. Or maybe somehow they're able to pass on knowledge as they're on the nest with their young. Whatever the case, they weren't doing in Year One of my project.

Others have uncovered anecdotal evidence that also suggests the parents learn how to parent. For instance, the PBS show Nature, in an episode called American Eagle, tracked a nest where the experience of the two parents differed. Bald eagles mate for life, but they will find new partners if their mate dies. In this case, the male had raised young before; the female had not. The male knew to walk on the nest with his feet balled up to avoid puncturing the eggs with his sharp talons, something he had to demonstrate for his new mate.

Scientifically, I cannot prove the eagles I studied learned to parent. I could not control all other variables, such as the weather or supply of fresh fish. But scientists have also yet to prove that the birds do not learn. And based on the observations of myself and others, before tossing around the term “instinct,” maybe we should study them and learn.

(Kevin Ebi is the author of Year of the Eagle, which documents a year in the lives of Pacific Northwest bald eagles. He will be speaking about what he learned at the community center in White Salmon, Washington, on April 18, 2014, at 8 p.m. More details are on his Facebook page.)