Monday, April 11, 2011

Chasing Swans

This is a second edited excerpt from the talk I give in January this year, “Writing Outside: Crafting Prose In and About Nature,” presented at Finlandia University for the Writers on Location seminar series. I posted a first excerpt, Waiting for Eagles, last month.

My 1990 trip to Klamath Basin with photographer Don Jackson turned out to be unforgettable. We spent our first day waiting for bald eagles in a freezing-cold bird blind above Tule Lake. Despite the miserable cold, the day ended well after several close encounters with eagles flying close enough that we could hear their wingstrokes. Some landed just a few feet away from us.

The next day we went to Lower Klamath Wildlife Refuge, right next to Tule Lake, and traveled its auto-tour routes, designated roads on levees around wetlands within the Klamath Basin's refuges. These wetlands provide habitat for huge numbers of waterfowl as well as attracting raptors on the hunt. To get good shots on the auto-tour routes, Don asked me to drive his van while he stayed ready with his cameras and long lenses, scanning the territory for good shots.

My role as driver involved a lot of quick driving reflexes. As we cruised past the huge flooded fields filled with ducks and geese and herons with hawks and eagles off to the sides watching for prey, Don was continuously (it seemed to me) getting very excited about various birds he was seeing and calling out instructions: "Speed up! Slow down! Stop here!” If you're a birder or a photographer you might know this drill. A few times we did park the van and just sat watching. As Don scanned for good images, I scribbled notes about some of our experiences. Here is an edited selection from these notes.

Up on the right, two tundra swans hear us coming. The noise of the van startles them into a pre-flight waddle. They spread their wings, bodies moving rapidly back and forth, and flapping awkwardly, they lift off the ground. In flight, though, awkwardness drops away. The gawky teenagers become graceful dancers, wings and bodies tracing rhythmic patterns through the air as we give chase.

I'm driving the van. Don rides in the back, surrounded by cameras and lenses. The swans fly right alongside the road, above the irrigation canal to our right. At first they are ahead of us; keeping them in sight, I accelerate to catch them.

"Go on! Go on!" Don urges me as he sets up his camera gear, lens aimed out the window. I speed up again; now I must be going 20, 25, maybe 30 mph on the sloshy road. I lose sight of the birds as the van overtakes them. It's all right, though, because Don has them in his sights and I hear the shutter click and click again. For a few minutes he loses them, as the swans traverse a graceful diagonal in front of the van, bodies lifting slightly with every wingstroke. They cross the road and fly along our left flank. But then, cooperatively, they fly back to the right again and parallel to the road, just in front of the camera lens.

The van rattles as we give chase, sliding back and forth a bit on the snow and ice and crusty mud. We hope that somehow it will be steady enough. Don is shooting at 1/1000th of a second, trying to compensate for the van's bounce and vibration as well as to freeze the motion of the birds. I hear the shutter click again and again; we give chase for another 200 yards before our road curves off to the left and the swans veer off in the other direction. We slow down, stop and watch as their pale silhouettes disappear into the backdrop of snow-covered mountains and patchy gray-clouded afternoon skies.

Photo copyright Don Jackson and used courtesy of Don Jackson Photography. For more of Don's award-winning photography, visit Don also produces green banners -- high-quality banners and signs made from earth-friendly materials, for events and more.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Waiting for Eagles

In January this year, I gave a talk called "Writing Outside: Crafting Prose In and About Nature" to kick off the Writers On Location seminar series at Finlandia University. This post is an edited excerpt from that talk.

Back in 1990, I paired up with nature photographer Don Jackson to do an outdoor story about Klamath Basin. The basin straddles the Oregon-California border and includes six different wildlife refuges as well as numerous lakes and wetlands within its borders. It’s an internationally famous birding spot along the Pacific Flyway, visited by large flocks of migratory waterfowl during spring and fall migrations. Klamath Basin also supports the largest overwintering population of bald eagles in the lower 48 states, usually with hundreds -- and some winters more than 1,000 -- eagles counted at peak.

As a photographer with an affinity for birds, Don Jackson is someone who loves Klamath Basin. When we became friends and he learned I was a writer, he suggested we team up to do an article about the area’s overwintering eagles.

I had never been to Klamath Basin, but Don talked so enthusiastically about it I was keen to go. We decided to drive up in his van – about a five-hour trip from where we both lived at that time, in Santa Rosa, California. He'd haul along his camera gear, I'd take notebooks, and we’d stalk eagles with lens and pens.

To get close-ups of eagles, Don wanted to use one of the bird blinds maintained by the refuges for photographers. Using this blind meant getting up early enough to hike for an hour up a steep rocky ridge to get ourselves hidden before eagles started flying up-basin at dawn. Once in the blind, we would have to sit quietly for hours in freezing weather and cramped quarters, hoping for eagles to show. This image shows the view from the blind.

The experience promised to be miserable – but also, we hoped, unforgettable. My job was to capture in words why someone else might want to do this, since ultimately we aimed to sell a travel article to our regional newspaper, the Santa Rosa Press Democrat. I spent my time up on the ridge scribbling the following impressions as we waited for eagles.

My toes have never felt so numb. My lips cannot move quickly enough to shape the words I want to say. The clock in the dashboard reads 6:15 a.m. The thermometer on the door of Don’s van says it's minus 10 degrees. It's dark outside, and where we are the fog obscures our surroundings so totally we can barely see a few feet.

Why are we here?

This morning we're here in search of bald eagles. We're on Hill Road, a pocked gravel route that runs along the base of Sheepy Ridge in Tule Lake National Wildlife Refuge. We’re shivering in this van because this region is home to the largest wintering population of bald eagles in the lower 48 states, and we want to see eagles. More specifically, Don wants to photograph them, I want to write about seeing them at close range, and if we can make it up to a blind near the ridgetop by sunrise, we'll have a good chance of doing both.

Gathering our energy, we venture out of the van, boots crunching lightly on the snow-dusted gravel. We leave our permit from Refuge headquarters on the dash and pull out our packs. They're loaded with 50 or 60 pounds of camera gear plus as much other stuff as we can carry to help us keep warm as we sit waiting for eagles to land near us in the blind.

Shouldering our packs, we begin the climb. Although we'll be going up only a few hundred feet, the ridge is steep and we'll spend the better part of an hour reaching our destination.
Turns out we're here during a cold snap.

We hadn't planned it that way; phoning the refuge a few days before our planned departure date, Don had learned that a thaw was in progress. Sounded good to me: that meant more open water and more waterfowl activity at the refuges. The thaw also meant that sitting still for a full day in an outdoor bird blind wouldn't be quite so challenging.

But as luck would have it, an Arctic cold front met us just as we arrived in this mostly forgotten northeast corner of California.
An uneven layer of new dry snow now coats the slope in front of us, sometimes a foot deep, sometimes only a scant dusting atop the volcanic rocks below. Weeds and brush poke out from under the white blanket, icicles dripping from their higher branches.

Daylight, only a vague pink glow over the horizon behind us as we start out, blooms more quickly than we expect. This is a hard climb, and with each of us carrying so much gear, we stop frequently to catch our breath.

We are perhaps 2/3 of the way up the slope when we spot our first eagles of the day. Sometimes individually, sometimes in loose-knit groups of two or three, they fly over us, coming from behind the ridge and gliding out for a morning feed on the flat expanses of Tule Lake.

But they’re a bit early, or we’re a bit late. We don't want too many eagles to spot us on the open slope, before we're under cover of the blind. Their sharp eyes catch irregularities in their natural world, and they'll give us a wide berth if they see we've invaded their territory. We want to reach the blind as soon as possible; refuge headquarters wants us in there, too, requiring that anyone using the blinds be in them by 7:00 a.m. to minimize disturbance of the birds.

“Run!” says Don, and so, though we're already sweaty and winded, we hasten our stride.

When we finally reach the blind, drained but relieved to be there, the sun has emerged almost completely from behind the mountains east of Tule Lake. As we get set up, there are distant eagles on the frozen lake, but none close by.
We settle down to wait for closer shots. We wait. And wait. We begin to wonder if our late arrival ruined our chances for close encounters with eagles this day. I scribble notes, and in between scribbles, I sip tea and struggle to stay warm.

About mid-day Don sees the eagles on the lake begin to scatter. Morning feeding may be over, he thinks, and perhaps a few of the big birds will fly in our direction. Sure enough, within half an hour the eagles begin to fly south along the ridge, some just over us.

Don's eyes are wide, watchful and at full alert, his body tense with anticipation behind the camera. "Incoming!" he hisses, following a bird's progress through his viewfinder. “Immature eagle at 40 feet! At 30 feet! Will it land? It’s landing!”

And then his shutter is clicking, clicking, clicking.

Some eagles fly so close – cruising by within just a few feet of us -- that we can hear the whistle-stroke of their broad wings through the air. Don alternates between keeping quiet and erupting with excited whispers. "We've got another one coming right toward us. Right on track, eye-level. Here it is – hold still – okay, don't move!"

The motor-driven shutter goes off again and again and again. After each big bird goes by I realize I've been holding my breath and let it out in a whoosh.

Don runs out of film.

Next post: "Chasing Swans"

All photos copyright Don Jackson and used courtesy of Don Jackson Photography

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Plumes Happen

Scientists from the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI) have taken what they characterize as a major step toward establishing that the Deepwater Horizon disaster created underwater plumes of oil in the Gulf of Mexico.

In a study appearing in the August 19 issue of the journal Science, the researchers gave measurements for a plume they studied in June, before Hurricane Alex forced them to abandon the work. They described it as about 1,100 meters below the Gulf's surface, over 35 kilometers long, 200 meters high and up to 2 kilometers wide. It also contained about 6 to 7 percent of all the BTEX hydrocarbons -- the variously toxic benzene, toluene, ethylbenzene, and xylenes -- which leaked from the Macondo well. In addition, quantities of dissolved oxygen the WHOI team found around the plume had not dropped to levels that would suggest bacteria were breaking down the oil.

The plume might be hard to discern with the naked eye. "It looks like spring water," said Chris Reddy, one of the study's co-authors, describing the samples taken from the plume area. Photos of the water column, however, show a change in water color and turbidity at the level of the plume. In addition, it was clearly detectable using mass spectrometry from an autonomous underwater vehicle which traversed the plume area and found abnormally high levels of hydrocarbons which could be tracked back to BP's Macondo Well.

Remotely operated vehicle (ROV) still images taken during descent through the water column from a location less than 500 meters southwest of the well site on June 1, 2010. Still images were recorded from a forward looking video camera on the ROV. A highly turbid oil-emulsion layer was evident in the depth region between 1065 and 1300 meters, with small oil droplets temporarily collecting on the camera lens within this depth interval.
[Credit: R. Camilli, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution]

The picture painted by WHOI scientists at a press conference today suggest that while the Macondo well might now be sealed, the story of the massive leak's effects is far from over. In answer to questions from journalists, researchers spent as much time detailing what they don't know as what they do. They don't know whether the plume they measured in June still exists, or where it might now be. They don't know its level of toxicity, or how it might be affecting fisheries in the Gulf or consumers eating seafood at NOLA restaurants. They don't know whether its existence might contradict recent government estimates that 75% of the oil spewed out of the shattered Deepwater Horizon rig has somehow been removed from the Gulf.

Given, however, that the very existence of these plumes had initially been denied by BP or had been attributed to natural seepeage, researchers considered this study a very significant scientific step.

"One of the most important aspects of this is to document that these plumes do exist," said Richard Camilli, the study's lead author. "To understand other ecological complications, we have to first establish a base case, plume or no plume."

This research, Camilli added, was able to "document using a fairly rigorous approach not only that the plume did exist but it was stable at a particular depth interval, and that it was not produced by natural seeps."

The study team hopes to learn more about the nature of the plume as they continue analyzing samples over the next several months.

For a series of commentaries on the Gulf oil disaster please visit

Saturday, July 31, 2010

Summer Heat ... in Lake Superior?

"They're swimming in Superior," read part of a headline in the Detroit Free Press this morning. The item, written by Patrick Condon of Associated Press, reported some news I'd heard already from local friends: Lake Superior is hot this summer -- relatively speaking, of course.

Except in late July and August -- and in the past, sometimes even then -- swimming in Superior generally has required wearing a wetsuit. In summer, it is "normal" for lake temperatures to "warm up" to 60 degrees Fahrenheit, but this year, weather buoy readings have reached as high as 71 -- only one degree shy of the record. And we're still a month ahead of summer's peak heat.

Comments on Superior's current warmth have become as prevalent in local conversation as last winter's comments about the lake's lack of ice cover. There is, of course, a relationship between the two, as lack of ice allows lake waters to absorb more heat. Jay Austin of University of Minnesota at Duluth, quoted in this morning's report, explained some interesting nuances of this ice cover/lake heat relationship for Keweenaw Now a few years ago.

The warmth might feel good for swimmers, but it has worrisome ramifications for wildlife and for business. It is consistent with global warming trends, could promote the growth of invasive species, and might lead to greater evaporation which in turn could lower lake levels. And the effects might not stop there.

"Scientists and fisheries managers are concerned," wrote Patrick Condon in the Associated Press report. So enjoy your swim -- but be prepared for more changes in and around Lake Superior, and all the Great Lakes.

Friday, April 30, 2010

Slow Death by Rubber Duck

I’ve just finished reading Slow Death by Rubber Duck, a surprisingly charming book about a not-so charming topic: the proliferation of toxic substances in common products and how this exposes us to cancer-causing, brain-wrecking, hormone-disrupting chemicals. Subtitled The Secret Danger of Everyday Things, the book chronicles an experiment cooked up by its authors, Canadian environmental leaders Rick Smith and Bruce Lourie, who decided to shut themselves in a condo with several ubiquitous but highly health-damaging substances, then measure the effects on their bodies.

As Rick and Bruce take turns dosing themselves with phthalates, mercury, and more, the first eight chapters of their book raise awareness about the ways everyday products regularly bring us into contact with chemicals that endanger our health. A ninth chapter tells us how to “detox.” In the course of their experiments, the authors’ facetime with chemicals is somewhat concentrated, but they make a point of only exposing themselves in ways we normally encounter these substances.

In Chapter Two, for instance, Rick exposes himself to phthalates – a group of chemicals used to soften plastic and carry scents – by using a complete set of phthalate-containing body care products over 24 hours. During this same period, he also hangs out in a room with a plug-in air “freshener,” another prime source of phthalates (I can’t think of a more oxymoronic product than these toxin-spewing devices turn out to be). Children, as it happens, regularly consume phthalates when they chew on rubber ducks and other soft plastic toys. Adults and children inhale them because they are in almost every commercial fragranced product on the market, including soaps and other toiletries. With his 24-hour experiment, Rick manages to substantially increase the phthalates in his urine. And if they are coming out in urine, it means they have first traveled into the body and bloodstream, where they mess with hormones.

In Chapter 5, Bruce more than doubles the mercury levels in his blood by eating a series of seven tuna meals and snacks over three days: tuna on sushi trays, tuna sandwiches, tuna steaks. He reports feeling irritable by the time his mercury levels have spiked, perhaps an indication of the neurotoxic action of this heavy metal. Mercury is linked to a wide range of neurological and behavioral problems, and at high enough levels can kill. At this point, thanks mostly to the coal-burning that disperses mercury into the air and from there into the food chain, we all have it in us.

In other chapters, our heroes bravely dose themselves with flame retardants, bisphenol A (BPA), the ubiquitous (and largely unnecessary) antibacterial chemical triclosan (think: Microban®), and Teflon® ingredient PFOA. They also look at pesticides and nanotechnology. Variously cancer-causing, mutagenic, and/or linked to birth defects and developmental problems, all these things contaminate our lives in hidden and unexpected ways.

A good example of this comes from coffee. Buy it organic, fair trade, or shade-grown all you want, but if you run it through a typical coffee maker – most are constructed with polycarbonate plastic – you’ll get BPA in your brew. Rick discovers this when he attempts to lower his BPA exposure before deliberately attempting to raise it in his experiment. In determining how to prep for the procedure, he realizes he can’t drink his coffee from home or office coffee makers, since they’re both mostly plastic. He decides instead to get his coffee from a café that uses a stainless-steel cappuccino machine. But when the café owner gives him a tour of the shop’s entire coffee-making process, he sees two places where beans meet BPA: they sit in one polycarbonate plastic storage tank before grinding, and land in another one once ground. As Rick notes, “The possibility of some serious BPA contamination was there in the grinding process.”

This is typical of the way chemicals have insinuated themselves into our everyday lives. They’ve seeped so far into the cracks and crevices of our existence that it’s impossible to avoid them entirely. However, we can reduce our exposures. In the case of his coffee, Rick finally hits on the solution of using a glass French press coffeemaker. There are similar solutions that can reduce exposures to many toxics, and this book includes very helpful guidance on how to do that.

Equally enlightening and entertaining are the true stories of political struggles over these chemicals. Yes, this book does focus on one side of the issue. These are tales told by environmental campaigners. But this is the side we don’t hear nearly as often as the billions of dollars worth of “Better Living Through Chemistry” messages that inundate us via advertising and public relations campaigns. Slow Death by Rubber Duck reports things that are important for consumers to know, and I don’t doubt that the book serves to balance the overall body of information about chemicals in consumer goods.

Particularly inspiring – even moving – is the story of events leading up to Canada’s 2008 ban of BPA-containing polycarbonate plastic baby bottles. I can understand why the authors saved this chapter for nearly the end of the book, as it closes on a very triumphant note and affirms their opening line: “The book that you’re holding is downright hopeful.” After reading how a horde of stroller-pushing parents swayed Canadian politicians to enact the BPA ban, we’re left with the feeling that similar triumphs are imminent, or at least pending. In the meantime, the book gives enough information to enable readers to watch out for these problematic products and reduce the quantity of toxics in their everyday lives.

This is a very readable blend of science and storytelling, in places even laugh-out-loud funny. Most of us need to raise our awareness about how the chemicals around us can affect our health, and I can’t think of a better way to do so than by reading this kind of book.