2018 has been a whirlwind of activity and unexpected twists and turns. We stayed close to home for the most part, just a couple of minor California road trips, but we kept ourselves pretty busy. It was our most unplanned year of travel so far – we did a lot more “winging it” than usual with unknown destinations and last-minute plans.
On New Year Day we visited the bluffs at Fiscalini Ranch Preserve in Cambria and then went down the coast to Morro Bay. We live in an amazing place and I’ve often said (and will probably say again) that if I drove through San Luis Obispo County on a road trip I’d want to move here. Today we were visited by a pod of dolphins just off the shore at Fiscalini Ranch and got to see some beautiful herons in a small city park in Morro Bay. What a great way to start off a new year!
Morro Bay is one of the premier birding locations in California, if not the United States. Thousands of birds winter on the beaches and estuary, and residents like this heron can be seen throughout the year. For more on Morro Bay, see my blog post “Featured Location: Morro Bay California“.
January also had us visiting visiting other local landmarks: Montana de Oro State Park, where we found a little stone friend, Atascadero Lake Park where we were lucky enough to see and photograph a Sora, and Mission San Antonio de Padua which sits on an Army base in Monterey County.
I got a new Tamron 150-600mm lens in early January. I was struck by “lens envy” after going out in late 2017 to photograph a pair of bald eagles who had taken up residence at Atascadero Lake. While I was using a slow-focusing Nikon 80-400mm lens, other photographers had big, long 150-600mm lenses. I had planned to get a new lens – one that could focus faster than the old Nikon – but I couldn’t justify the expense on a new Nikon 80-400mm or 100-500mm when the Tamron was half the price and rated so well.
To celebrate my new lens I was given the gift of a morning lesson with an old friend and excellent photographer, Donald Quintana. I’ve been taking photos for a long time, but wildlife and such a long lens were new to me so I really appreciated being out there with a real pro. Donald’s a great teacher and I highly recommend him, whether you’re a novice or just want to get a refresher on things you learned and had forgotten through lack of practice. We went out to Morro Strand State Beach for a morning of bird photography, and when the lesson/hanging out with an old friend was over we left Don and headed to the the T-piers in Morro Bay harbor. There we were incredibly lucky to find an Osprey, who decided not to fly south for the winter, enjoying some fresh jacksmelt on the mast of a fishing boat.
In February we took a weekend road trip to the Merced National Wildlife Refuge. This is one of California’s premier places for birding. The light wasn’t great and the weather was foggy on the weekend we went so it was hard to get any good photos. That’s one of the problems with a long telephoto lens – you can get “closer” to your subject, but you’ll just be shooting through that much more fog, mist, heat waves, swarms of tiny bugs, or anything else between you and your subject. One lesson from Don was “don’t use the lens as a telescope,” and even though I know he’s right I’m still tempted to try and get anything because I don’t want to leave empty-handed. So I end up shooting a hundred photos that I know aren’t going to come out clear. That’s were photos fall into three classes: good enough to print for sale, good enough for Facebook or the blog, or not good enough for anything.
I did get some photos that I’m really happy with though: a beautiful Great Egret. It was standing alone in the marsh as we approached in our car on the auto route. I got one shot and was hoping for more when a little black American Coot meandered into my frame and took up position at the egret’s feet. And so I waited for it to move on so I could get my AMAZING EGRET PICTURE. And waited. And waited some more. That coot wasn’t going anywhere. I decided to just make the coot part of the image and got this wonderful interaction between the two birds.
March took a different turn. Actually, it took fourteen turns at the 24 Hours of LeMons race at the Sonoma Raceway at Sears Point. The “Lemons Race” is an endurance race for $500 cars that my brother occasionally drives in. You can’t get much farther from the quiet of a wildlife refuge than the auto races. I love sports photography. It’s probably my favorite and it’s a style I don’t get to engage in much. San Luis Obispo County isn’t exactly sports central. I’m not going to get too much into my LeMons experience here because I’ll be posting a blog in the near future that features the LeMons race. If you just want to see the photos you’ll be able to find them in my store.
In April we went on a Meetup with the local North American Nature Photography Association group. It was our second outing with this group (our first was in early May to Santa Margarita Lake but it was too foggy and I didn’t get any worthwhile photos so I didn’t bother mentioning it…until now, I guess.) This was a flower and landscape trip up the coast past San Simeon, California. CalTrans had just realigned Highway 1 and had seeded the surrounding areas with native wildflowers. We photographed the flowers in the area and headed south to the old Piedras Blancas Motel, where there were more wildflowers in bloom along the route of the old highway.
After a time photographing the wildflowers, it was time to head south with the group. We all got to our cars, I reached into my pocket, and…well, nothing. No keys. It turns out that they were in my jacket pocket, and when I took it off I had put it in the trunk and locked it. Great. Now we were stuck. Luckily I had my phone, so I called for roadside assistance to get my car opened up. The wait time for someone to come out and break into my car in the middle of nowhere would be over an hour. We bid farewell to the other photographers as they headed south.
The motel was surrounded by wildflowers, and the elephant seal rookery was within walking distance, so we made the best of our delay and I got my best photos of the morning.
When I was looking at the photo on the left (see below) on my computer I noticed that the color of the swallows was an exact opposite of the paint color of the motel. This inspired me to create “Positive Polly and Negative Nellie,” where I just took half the photo and made it into a negative.
Memorial Day weekend brought the Golden State Classic Car Show to the Downtown City Park in Paso Robles, California. This annual event brings in custom cars from all around the state and across the country. It’s one of the best car shows in the state and there are usually between two- and three-hundred entries. It’s always a good place to get some nice close-ups of metal and chrome.
June – August
These months were quiet for photography and the cameras pretty much stayed in their bags. Good thing we got a rest, because in September things got a bit bumpy…
In September we had planned on a camping trip north to the Columbia River in Oregon, down the Oregon coast, and to Lava Beds National Monument and Redwoods National Park in Northern California with a possible stop at Lassen Volcanic National Park. We loaded up the trunk with camping gear and headed north.
We spent the first night at my mom’s house in San Jose. We spend a lot of time in San Jose but have never really explored the surrounding area much, so we decided to see something in the Bay Area that wasn’t San Francisco. An online search led us to the first destination on our road trip, the nearby Black Diamond Mines Regional Preserve near Antioch, California. The park spreads over 6,000 acres and it’s main feature is the Hazel-Atlas Mine, a sand mine that operated from the 1920’s through late 1940’s where silica-rich sand was extracted for use in making glass. There are also abandoned coal mines, abandoned townsites, and the Rose Hill Cemetery. After exploring the mine we continued north to spend our first night on the road. We made it as far as a little campground off of I-5 in Red Bluff before our plan literally went to Hell.
Everywhere we were going to go was either being rained on or on fire. I-5 was closed through Shasta. The Redwoods were covered in smoke. Lava Beds National Monument was freezing cold. Oregon, from the coast to the center of the state, was getting dumped on by rain. And so we headed east, made a short stop in the Devil’s Kitchen area of Lassen Park, and spent the next night in a little motel in Susanville trying to figure out where we would go next. We decided that instead of heading north to Oregon, we’d head south to Mammoth Lakes where we had stayed once before in a nice little hotel surrounded by forest. While in the area we’d make a day trip to Devils Postpile National Monument.
A day’s drive south and we were there. But now behind the hotel where we once looked into a forest was a new set of condos still under construction – with the promise of tractors going from 7am to 7pm every day. We pulled out the trusty Hotels.com app and found a place that looked promising and was priced surprisingly well. The address was provided so we went to have a look. When we got there, there were no signs of a hotel. It turned out to be a condo complex – more an AirBnb than a hotel, and we were made an offer we could not refuse – pay cash and get three nights in a two story, four bedroom condo for $300. So we made that our base to explore Devils Postpile National Monument and Yosemite National Park. Not too bad for an unexpected trip.
Work was encouraging me to use up vacation days so we took another trip in October. This time we chose a more relaxing trip. We decided on an AirBnb between Lake Arrowhead and Big Bear and then to play tourist in Los Angeles. We picked Big Bear because it would root us in one spot for four nights in a quiet place with nothing to do but explore the lake and the woods. No long drives to major attractions, no driving all day to spend a night in a funky motel only to head out the next morning. Then we would drive to LA, stopping by Santa Anita Park for an afternoon of horse racing (which I hadn’t done since I was about 10 years old) on our way to another AirBnB near Pasadena. We would stay there three nights with plans to visit the LaBrea Tar Pits, the Museum of Natural History, and possibly do some urban photography downtown.
Big Bear was all we expected. It was relaxing – we could get up late and come back early and not feel we were missing anything and just spend long nights sitting in front of a fire. The cabin we found on AirBnb was perfect – clean, quiet, and very comfortable. (The listing is here – hopefully it’s still available when you read this.) Located in the town of Running Springs almost exactly between Lake Arrowhead and Big Bear Lake, it was a great base for visiting either lake and the surrounding fire lookouts, trails, lakes, and the Big Bear Solar Observatory.
After a peaceful few days in the mountains we headed down the hill to the San Bernardino Valley on our way to Los Angeles. On the way we made our stop at Santa Anita Park, then it was off to our BnB in Highland Park.
LA…well, everything didn’t go as planned.
The B&B in Highland wasn’t at all what we expected. We had asked about quiet since that’s really important to us and were assured it was. It turned out to be next door to barking dogs, just a block or less from the busiest road in town, and on top of all that the room had an in-window air conditioner so we couldn’t even close the window all the way. AND the plastic panel that is used to fill the space around the air conditioner had a hole in it. This would not do at all. I called AirBnb and let them know that we would not be staying and expected a full refund. Damn, back to hotel-hunting.
We stopped at a Starbucks in a supermarket for a cup of cocoa, and more important to get on the Internet and find a place to sleep. We ended up staying in a well-reviewed motel in Eagle Rock. It was nice, but being off of Colorado Blvd, the main drag through Eagle Rock, it had the usual traffic noise. Way different than Big Bear. We spent a night there and looked for places to go and to stay the next night. We found a little free car museum in a town called Sylmar that was a possibility, but it was way out of LA and I wasn’t sure how great a free car museum way out there could be.
The next morning we decided to stick to at least one of our plans and drove down to the Natural History Museum to see a spider pavilion where thousands of spiders lived in a large walk-in enclosure usually used for butterflies. We spent the whole day at the museum among spiders, dinosaur skeletons, and the incredible dioramas combining taxidermy animals and beautiful paintings of their natural habitats.
Our day at the museum over, it was off to another Starbucks for a cup of hot cocoa and to find a place to spend the night. We didn’t want to stay in LA anymore and were done with funky places, so it was off to a Best Western on the way home in Canoga Park. The room was fantastic and we were looking forward to a night of relaxation. I picked up dinner from the restaurant in the bowling alley next door and we were in for the night…or so we thought. Out of nowhere there came a mechanical sound that filled the room with a loud hum. After walking about the hotel we found the most likely culprit to be the guest laundry room that was downstairs. Ugh. The staff was quick to move us to another room that was far away and with nothing next door but the staircase leading downstairs to the lobby area. Surely this would be a quiet place to spend the night. Helpful hint – do not stay in a room next to the stairs. When the aforementioned bowling alley closed the guests came plodding up those stairs with a thump for each footstep. But it did quiet down once everyone made it to their room and we were off to sleep.
We were done for this trip and decided to come home a day early. Before we did though, we were to stop at that little car museum for lack of anything else better to do before driving home. And it was amazing. The Nethercutt Museum turned out to be one of the best automobile museums in the United States, if not the world. It was started by one of the co-founders of Merle Norman Cosmetics and contains over 250 automobiles. On top of that, the museum also houses a four-story building that holds “the collection” – extraordinarily rare automobiles in a recreation of a 1920’s automobile dealer salon and an amazing collection of mechanical musical instruments.
In November we took a day trip to the California Academy of Sciences in San Francisco. First we stopped at the nearby Japanese Tea Garden for a morning stroll. California fire season was still in full-swing and people were wearing paper or cloth masks to protect them from the smoke in the air. We explored the garden with it’s streams, bridges, and Japanese structures for about an hour.
After the tea garden we went on over to the Academy of Sciences building, where high above the floor and mounted on a wall are four-hundred California Sea Lion skulls in the “Sea of Skulls” exhibit. We proceeded to the four-story glass dome that houses a reproduction of a tropical rainforest which is where we spent most of our day. We entered the rainforest at ground level, where trees grow up from the soil or out of the water towering up towards the canopy. The walkway curves around the perimeter of the dome and climbs up through the mid level and up to the canopy. Surrounding us the entire way were hundreds of butterflies among the birds and orchids, bromeliads, and other plants that fill the rainforest.
After our three-story walk to the rainforest canopy we got in an elevator and descended four stores down. The doors opened and we found ourselves at the entrance to a clear acrylic tunnel that passes through the 100,000 gallon Amazon Flooded Forest aquarium. This is the lowest level of the rainforest exhibit where tropical fish swim all around the roots of mangroves. Light filters from the skylights above through the trees and silhouettes the turtles and fish swimming overhead.
Once out of the rainforest we continued on through the Steinhart Aquarium, where sea life from around the world lives in aquariums ranging from the 212,000 gallon floor to ceiling Philippine Coral Reef to smaller tanks holding specimens like Pacific Sea Nettles, anemones, and much more. The aquarium originally stood as a stand-alone structure in Golden Gate Park from its beginnings in 1923 until it was condemned and finally torn down in 2005 due to damage sustained in the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake. The new Academy of Sciences building integrated the aquarium with the the other divisions of the Academy. Over 40,000 individuals of over 900 species live in the various tanks.
We started off December with a trip to Morro Bay where we got to see the Peregrine Falcons at Morro Rock and the tall ship Lady Washington in the harbor. See my blog post “Featured Location: Morro Bay California” for more photos.
I still had three more days vacation for the year. What to do…? What to do…? We couldn’t come up with anything that we wanted to see in winter. Everywhere except San Diego was expecting cold and rain and we didn’t want to be out of town more than two nights which made San Diego a bit far. We had no idea what to do at all. I didn’t even want to take the time off work, but the company I work for frowns on paying out vacation so I was strongly encouraged to go. We decided at the last minute to go back to the Merced National Wildlife Refuge. And so we loaded up the Mustang, made a quick pit-stop for gas, and headed out of town…or tried to anyway. The car made it as far as a construction zone and stalled. The Mustang was not going to Merced. Triple-A to the rescue. We had the car towed home, transferred everything to another car, and headed to Merced with a much later start than planned.
We got there after sundown and went directly to our motel. This was one of the nicest motels I’ve stayed in. The beds were amazingly comfy, the room was in great shape, and the staff was very helpful. Unfortunately it was in Merced with the traffic sounds that go with it. I think I’ve decided to never read a motel review again but instead Google Map the place and see what it’s near since reviewers have no clue about what “quiet” really means. Anyway, the next morning it was off to the refuge.
The weather wasn’t cooperative so we only did a couple of circles around the auto loop. The sky was overcast making it very dark and there was a lot of mist in the air so we decided we would move on. On the way out of the refuge I noticed something in the trees. Could it be….? Yes! There was a Great Horned Owl in the trees. It was perfectly camouflaged and I don’t know how I managed to see it, but we stopped the car and tried to get a few shots. None came out printable due to the extremely high ISO needed to capture the bird, but I did manage to salvage this one for screen viewing. It’s times like these where you have to remember that it isn’t all about the pictures. Spending time with the owl was an amazing experience, photos or no photos.
We went from the Merced National Wildlife Refuge to the nearby San Luis National Wildlife Refuge. This refuge has two auto loops. The Waterfowl Tour Route goes through the flooded area of the refuge and is where you can see egrets, ducks, swans, and other waterfowl. The Tule Elk Tour Route circles a huge enclosed area that contains a herd of Tule Elk. This enclosure was built in 1974 for a herd of 18 Tule Elk that were brought in to save the species from extinction. Elk from this herd are periodically relocated to join existing herds or to establish new ones.
We returned to the Merced refuge for the remainder of the afternoon. We stopped at a turnout near a flock of thousands of Ross’s Geese on the ground. Without warning they suddenly all took to the air almost simultaneously. This was incredible. Their wingbeats filled the air with a roar and the sky was filled with geese. They circled around and flew directly over us and to the other side of the refuge where the huge flock landed again. Next time I think I’ll forego the 600mm lens when among the huge flock, or at least have another camera set up with a wider lens and ready to shoot video.
Lighting was better the next day and we returned to the Merced refuge in the late morning. We took a walk on a trail and came across an American Kestrel standing on a shrub. These are skittish birds that are very hard to approach. We would take a few steps, take a few photos, then take a few more steps and repeat. This was as close as we could get before she took off, and is just the center crop of a shot taken with a 600mm lens. We continued driving around the loop one more time for some last photos and headed on home.
We left early with the intent of arriving home in the early afternoon. We made a stop at the same post office where my car had died two days before and the most amazing coincidence happened. After getting the mail our other vehicle wouldn’t start. (Insert expletive here.) Another call to roadside assistance for a second tow home. The truck arrived, I explained what the car was doing and not doing to the tow truck driver, and he suggested we try to start it so he could hear what it sounded like and maybe we just needed a jump start. So we popped the hood, turned the key…and it started. Now I know how others feel when their computer acts up, I show up, and it works fine when I’m watching. Tow truck ride averted, we drove home and looked forward to figuring out what was wrong with two cars instead of relaxing on Sunday.
I spent the rest of 2018 editing photos and working on this website in a mad dash to get all of my 2018 photos posted before the new year. Hopefully our 2019 will be more, uh, predictable.