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.)

Friday, February 28, 2014

Icy Falls Redux

Icy Glaze, Banks of Snoqualmie River, Washington

I realize it was only a couple months ago that I wrote about photographing frozen waterfalls without actually showing the waterfall in the image. Shortly after I posted that, Washington state was hit with another week-long deep freeze, and I got the opportunity to create images like that again.

I'm writing this follow-up because I managed to create an image that demonstrates how waterfalls can generate ice a great distance away from the falls itself.

The image here is of the Snoqualmie River, several hundred feet downstream from Snoqualmie Falls. The river plunges 268 feet (82 meters) at Snoqualmie Falls, a bigger drop than Niagra Falls. Even when the temperatures are into the mid-teens Fahrenheit, the waterfall doesn't freeze completely. Surrounded by ice, there's always a channel of water that makes that dramatic plunge and some of the water becomes airborne again as mist after it smacks the base.

The water that follows essentially creates wind that blows that mist downstream, and it can travel several hundred yards before finally hitting the ground yet again.

By this time, however, the mist has been exposed to subfreezing temperatures and is turning to ice in mid-air. When it hits the super-cooled ground, it freezes on contact. If these conditions exist for a few days, ice freezes on top of existing ice, which is then covered by even more ice.

What you see in this image is the rocks and logs at the edge of the Snoqualmie River encased in thick ice. But what I really like about this image is that you also see a cloud of frozen mist approaching, ready to make that glaze even thicker.

I've photographed Snoqualmie Falls in its icy glory several times, but I think this image, which shows the natural mechanism that creates the spectacle, may be one of my favorites.

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

Snoqualmie River in Winter, Snoqualmie Washington

Friday, January 31, 2014

Fields of white

Large Flock of Snow Geese, Motion Blur, Skagit Valley, Washington

From November into March, the fields on Fir Island in the Skagit Valley of Washington state are often white, but it's not the result of snow. It's the result of snow geese.

About 80,000 snow geese winter in Western Washington. The vast majority of them winter in the Skagit Valley.

It's a long way from their summer breeding grounds, which are on the northern tip of Wrangel Island in northeastern Russia — well into the Arctic Circle. After they have raised their young, they make a beeline for the Skagit. Even with rest stops on the coasts of Siberia and Alaska, the geese make the 3,000-mile trip in a week — and sometimes even faster.

The reward is the ability to spend several months feeding on what's left of farmers' crops. The snow geese have been making this journey since at least the 1940s. And now there's even more incentive: the state supplements the farmers' leftovers by growing winter wheat on a wildlife reserve specially for the birds.

While the agricultural area of the Skagit Valley is plenty big — the snow goose reserve alone is more than 200 acres — the geese tend to flock together, feeding in one or maybe two neighboring fields at a time.

It's a blinding, noisy scene. From a distance, the muddy fields appear pure white. And the high-pitched honks from a field of the geese can be heard from miles away.

The only time the geese are silent is immediately after a hunter has fired a gun. The entire flock will observe 10 to 15 seconds of silence before resuming its deafening ways.

If the birds have cleared a field or they feel threatened, they will move on. And if they move on, they all move on.

There's no warning. All of the sudden the field will erupt with snow geese. The honking reaches a feverish pace. Together, their wings sound like tens of thousands of flags flapping in a strong storm.

In flight, they're just as close to each other as they are on the ground. The mass of geese travels as a solid unit and is dense enough to completely obscure the volcano that normally dominates the horizon.

Even though I've witnessed this dozens and dozens of times, this scene is still just as amazing to me as it was the first time I saw it 15 years ago.

If you go, just take Fir Island Road, located off the Conway exit from Interstate 5. (The Klamath Basin in northern California and Bosque del Apache in New Mexico also have particularly large concentrations of snow geese.) Just make sure you don't park in the middle of the road to observe them. Farmers hate that even more than the mess the geese leave behind.

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

Mount Baker Hidden By Snow Geese, Skagit Valley, Washington
Snow Geese, Lined Up, Skagit Valley, Washington

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

Best of 2013

In terms of the images I produced, 2013 was an unusual year for me. Over the course of most years, I shoot a wide variety of nature images. But 2013, like the title of the book I just completed, was for me the Year of the Eagle. Easily two-thirds of my images were about bald eagles as I worked hard to fill gaps in the story I wanted to tell.

But the year wasn't just about bald eagles. I made my third trip to Iceland. While there, I photographed the inside of an old volcano's magma chamber, the only known one in the world people can climb inside. I also got to capture an incredible northern lights display perfectly reflecting in a lake that is normally quite choppy. I also worked hard to capture beauty close to home.

In the end, I think my annual best-of collection is still quite varied. Here are a few of my favorite images of 2013:

Bald Eagle Perched at Sunset, Kirkland, Washington

It's hard for me to pick my favorite bald eagle image of the year, but this is a strong contender. It was one of the last images I shot for the project and it became the final image in the book. At this point, the young eagle I observed was very independent and returned to the nest only at night. Here, its mother waits for it to return.

Wall of Magma Chamber, Thrihnukagigur, Iceland

This is a portion of the wall inside Thrihnukagigur's magma chamber. Thrihnukagigur last erupted 4,000 years ago and I thought the pattern here looked like an hour glass. It's one of the most colorful places I've visted.

Northern Lights Over Lake Mývatn, Iceland

Lake Mývatn can be a miserable place. It's named for the biting midge flies that live there. Located near the mountains, wind often makes the water incredibly choppy. But the wind stopped and the flies were not biting as I captured this bright northern lights display reflecting in the lake.

Icebergs and Milky Way, Jökulsárlón, Iceland

I had hoped to capture the northern lights over the icebergs in Jökulsárlón, Iceland's glacial lagoon, but the aurora borealis was too dim that night. I caught part of the Milky Way instead. I lit the icebergs by “painting” them with a flashlight.

Red Leaves Lined With Frost

This is one from my backyard. A gorgeous oak tree managed to hang on to its fall color through the first frost of the winter. I spent more than an hour photographing it from various angles in early morning backlight to bring out the color.

Great Blue Heron Landing on Hood Canal

During one of my trips to Washington's Hood Canal to document how young eagles learn to hunt, I caught this great blue heron landing on the water as the sun was rising. Sometimes what you get is better than what you planned.

Barred Owl and Owlet on Nest

In addition to a bald eagle nest, I also spent the summer observing a barred owl nest and caught this tender moment between a mother barred owl and its owlet.

Secondary Falls, Snoqualmie Falls, Washington

When it's really windy, spray from Snoqualmie Falls in Washington can travel some distance, forming a secondary falls in the punchbowl. This is one of the secondary falls there. I was drawn by the way the falls seems to emerge from the mist.

Ice Patterns, Horsetail Falls, Oregon

The Columbia River Gorge waterfalls in Oregon were quite striking during a week-long deep freeze. I thought the ice next to Horsetail Falls looked like frozen jellyfish.

Young Arctic Fox Curled Up, Iceland

Even in summer, Iceland's weather can be tough. This young artic fox was curled up near the summit of a mountain, trying to keep warm during a storm.

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

Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Waterfalls without falling water

Ice Formations, Horsetail Falls, Columbia River Gorge, Oregon

Is a waterfall still a waterfall if the water is frozen in place?

About an hour away from where the Columbia River meets the Pacific Ocean, dozens of waterfalls plunge down the walls of the gorge, adding even more water to the river, which at that point is more than a half-mile wide.

The waterfalls, some of which are several hundred feet tall, are spectacular year round. When spring weather melts the mountain snow, the waterfalls can swell well beyond their normal size. At the peak, you can look across the river from Oregon into Washington and easily spot dozens more waterfalls that aren’t normally there. The flow may decline during the summer, but the lush greenery can make up for it. While evergreen trees dominate the forests here, maples grow next to a few of the falls, creating a strikingly colorful scene in autumn.

Winter, however, may be my favorite time to visit. Perhaps once or twice a winter a deep freeze hits the gorge. After about a week of subfreezing temperatures even the most powerful waterfalls can be glazed with ice. Waterfalls typically have minimal flows in the winter, so falls that were barely more than a trickle can freeze entirely. More powerful falls may have a small ribbon of water sandwiched by thick ice.

I’m not alone in my appreciation for frozen waterfalls. On a morning when the temperature is in the mid-teens, Fahrenheit not Celsius, the waterfalls can draw crowds that rival those that you would see on a busy summer weekend.

While I have taken my share of pictures of frozen falls, over the years I’ve grown to be much more enamored with the patterns of the ice. Mist from a waterfall often freezes to mist that froze before, creating unusual ice sculptures that resemble jellyfish.

Lower Multnomah Falls in Ice, Columbia River Gorge, Oregon

Near some of the taller waterfalls, the spray can travel a greater distance before it freezes. Near Elowah Falls, for example, I found fascinating ice sculptures that looked just like the ferns that provided their initial base. Some of the creeks flowed underneath a layer of ice. In other creeks, splashes from small cascades completely encased some plants along the banks in ice.

In my experience, the waterfalls are best when the lowest temperatures of the day are in the mid-teens or below and the high never reaches the 30s. At least in the Columbia River Gorge, if that temperature pattern holds for at least three or four days, the waterfalls should be quite spectacular. And it’s better if the temperatures are even colder.

If you go, plan to go as early in the day as you possibly can. There’s often at least a trickle of water running under the ice, which can break its grasp on the steep rock wall. Seeing mammoth chunks of ice break off and crash to the base of the falls is always quite impressive, but if you want to maximize the ice you see, there is almost always more first thing in the morning than late in the day.

And if you get a chance to go, go! One of the things I have experienced through photography is that the same scene can look dramatically different day-to-day, season-to-season, year-to-year. Seeing a waterfall when the water isn’t falling is an amazing experience.

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

Ice on Deer Fern, Elowah Falls, Oregon
Plants Encased In Ice, Columbia River Gorge, Oregon

Saturday, November 30, 2013

Inside a volcano

Inside a Volcano, Thrihnukagigur, Iceland

There are about 1,500 volcanoes on land — and even more underwater — but only one that you can truly climb inside.

It’s called Thrihnukagigur, a name that even some Icelandic locals have difficulty pronouncing. The name means “Three Peaks Crater,” and one of the three peaks is a gateway into the volcano’s magma chamber, the heart of a volcano. It’s the only known magma chamber in the world that’s possible to climb inside.

When Thrihnukagigur last erupted more than 4,000 years ago, it did something unusual for a volcano: It erupted, but it didn’t really explode or collapse. When we typically think of a volcanic eruption, we imagine vast amounts of ash, rock, and lava being ejected from a volcano’s cone. In this case, the eruption was much, much less violent.

There was plenty of magma, molten lava, inside. But instead of building tremendous pressure and blasting out the top, most of magma appeared to just drain back into the earth. And since there was no major explosion, the magma chamber itself is essentially intact to this day.

The magma chamber itself is like an upside-down funnel that’s 400 feet (120 meters) tall. There’s more than enough room for the Statue of Liberty. The bottom is more than 200 feet wide in places.

Some Icelanders have been exploring this chamber for years, and a couple of years ago they made it a bit more accessible, at least on a temporary basis. For the past two summers, a company has erected scaffolding across the top of the cone, providing people who aren’t experienced cavers a means of exploring the chamber. That means involves being lowered in a window-washer basket.

Just below the scaffolding, the cone is so narrow they’ve attached wheels on the side of the basket so that it can roll across some of the especially tight spots. As we descend at a slow, but steady pace, a minute later, the magma chamber comes into view.

The first thing that struck me was the colors. There are so many different colors.

As we neared the top of the chamber, we crept past a lava chimney, a small vertical vein that transported some lava higher into the cone. The center of the vein was fire engine red, its walls were deep purple, and it was surrounded by gold.

The astounding variety of color continued throughout the chamber. Scrambling across the bottom, I was struck by one wall where a deep purple hourglass shape appeared on an otherwise golden wall. Another wall was solid gold.

The colors come from the different types of minerals in the rock. Some rust faster than others.

Travel in the magma chamber is slow going. The bottom was likely uneven to begin with. And 4,000 years of erosion peeled large boulders off the inside of the cone, scattering them on the floor as well.

The photography was even slower. Even with the temporary lights installed in the chamber, it was dim. Most of the images I made there required exposure times of more than 10 seconds.

The amateur geologist in me appreciated how remarkable it was that I got to explore a place that you typically only get to read about in textbooks. The photographer in me was drawn to the colors and patterns.

Thrihnukagigur delivered for both.

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

Inside a Volcano, Thrihnukagigur, Iceland

Thursday, October 31, 2013

You don't see northern lights like these

Northern Lights, Lake Mývatn, Iceland

I’ve seen the northern lights a number of times in the North Cascades of Washington state, but when I was presented with an opportunity to see them near the Arctic Circle, I knew I had to take advantage of it.

Outside of Alaska and in years when the sun is particularly active, you may get a handful of chances per year to see the aurora borealis from northern states like Washington, Maine and North Dakota. The lights are gorgeous, but it’s not the full experience. The aurora circles the poles. If you’re close to the poles, the lights dance overhead. If you’re very far away, the lights are so low on the horizon that you may only get to see the top of the show.

I was in Iceland to photograph the inside of a volcano. I’ll save that story for another time. But while there, I repeatedly checked forecasts to gauge the probability of photographing the northern lights there as well.

To see the northern lights you need two things: an active sun and clear dark skies. The space forecast indicated there were two days during the trip when there was likely to be enough solar activity to result in an aurora. The weather forecast indicated the only place likely to have clear skies was on the opposite side of the country from me.

With 36 hours of notice, I drove up and over the middle of the country to arrive at the shore of Lake Mývatn, a name that sounds pretty unless you know Icelandic. Mývatn means “midge flies.” There are many of them and they bite.

I chose the lake because it was in the center of the patch of clear skies. The rest of the country was socked in. I did not plan to photograph from the shore of the lake. The flies are annoying, the wind is usually strong, and there’s a small village nearby. I was worried the “city” lights would ruin any photos.

My plan was to use Mývatn as a base for venturing deeper into the Icelandic wilderness, plans that were ruined when I discovered a flat tire as the sun was setting. There was no time to get it fixed. The lake was going to be my shooting location.

And then something wondrous happened. The wind stopped. The lake, which is normally quite choppy, was as smooth as glass. And then the northern lights appeared.

The show I witnessed wasn’t anywhere near record strength, but it was still quite dramatic. I could easily see the arc of the northern lights stretching from the western to the eastern horizon.

At times, the aurora borealis seemed to be as bright as the brightest stars in the sky and it was somewhat active. The arc would form waves and ripples across the sky. Pillars would occasionally develop and shoot straight up. I stood out in the cold for three hours watching them dance, reframing the camera and triggering the shutter when the display was particularly attractive.

The one thing I couldn’t see with my own eyes was the color. The northern lights are too faint for the color receptors in your eyes to work. You can tell that they’re green, but you can’t pick out the red or purple pillars and you can’t see the intensity of the green.

On one hand, the images I made capture more color and detail than I was able to witness with my own eyes. People would be inclined to say they photograph better than they appear.

To my eyes, however, the images come as close as anything to demonstrating the experience of the northern lights. The image may not perfectly represent the light registering in my brain, but looking at it now, it perfectly captures the experience. The image looks like what it felt like to stand there at the edge of the lake.

And that’s my goal as an artist.

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