Sunday, December 30, 2012

Photo of the Day

Black-capped chickadee

There are a few more in the set, although nothing that stands out.

The frost was amazing on Friday morning when I was walking to work. Very thick and plastered on everything. But it was too dark to take any photos of it. And too dark by the time I walked home. (On the positive side, at least the days are getting longer now.)

The sun was shining Saturday, but by the time I got out to see if there was any frost left it had clouded over. It was warmer (up to -10c) so the frost had disappeared where it had been in the sun, but in the shade there was still some left. However, I wasn't very satisfied with my attempts to capture it - hard to take photos of white on white with flat light.

But someone had put a bird feeder beside the trail and there were a group of chickadees flitting in and out. They were quite skittish and I had to stand there for a while and shoot whenever one landed momentarily. I used the continuous shooting mode to have a chance of catching a good position and focus. Again, it wasn't the best light but this shot (out of 60) turned out not bad.

My mother was fond of chickadees. They are cute birds. I always smile when I hear their distinctive "swee-tie" and "chick-a-dee-dee-dee" calls.

Saturday, December 29, 2012

Books from Christmas

I try to avoid getting "stuff" for Christmas, but books are my weakness. Mostly I buy ebooks rather than dead trees, but I make an exception for books with lots of photos. Here are the ones I got this Christmas:

National Geographic Guide to State Parks of the United States
I also have the National Parks guide in this series. They're good for armchair browsing, planning a trip, or getting ideas for what to visit in an area. Aside from all it's other flaws, the USA is gifted with a wonderful array of landscapes and nature. Another one that I might pick up is their Guide to Scenic Highways and Byways.
Unexpected: 30 Years of Patagonia Catalog Photography
I've always loved the photography in the Patagonia catalogs so it's great to have a collection of them. It won the award for best mountain images book at last year's Banff Mountain Book Festival. There are also some great essays mixed in. (Too bad the photograph by Rob Owens of Murray Hainer and I in Tibet that was in one of the catalogs didn't make it into the book. )

Fred Beckey's 100 Favorite North American Climbs
At 89 years old Fred Beckey is a climbing legend and one of my heroes. Many years ago I was climbing at Skaha (near Penticton in BC) with Ian Marsh. Standing in the parking lot, he said "I think Fred Beckey is here! (Fred was already legendary, even back then.) I was skeptical and asked how he could possibly know that. He pointed to a beat up wreck of a car and said "I recognize his car." And the reason he recognized the car was because there had been a picture in a Patagonia catalog. (Back in those days we studied those catalogs religiously.)

The Responsible Company: What We've Learned From Patagonia's First 40 Years
Yvon Chouinard is another hero of mine, for his climbing and for his business and environmental work. I just started reading this, so I can't give much of a review yet but I really liked his previous book Let My People Go Surfing. (What is the Saskatchewan equivalent? Let my people go tobogganing?) We saw him in person at the Banff Mountain Festival when he launched the 1% for the Planet initiative. (I got this one as an ebook.)

Thanks to my family for the great gifts!

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Cold Christmas

Despite the cold I decided to get out for a little "fresh" air late in the afternoon on Christmas day. I took my camera and managed to take a few photos. I would have taken more but -25c is a different story than the -10c last time. The sun on the frost was beautiful. And I loved the contrast of the warm evening colors against the cold blue of the snow and ice.

click to view photos

I hope everyone had a good Christmas and stayed warm!

Saturday, December 22, 2012

Photographic Confessions


I have a confession to make - I'm not a very "serious" photographer. Don't get me wrong, I love my photography and at times I take it quite seriously. But I don't do most of the things that "serious" photographers do, and tell you you have to do.

A photographer friend recently asked what settings I'd used for one of my winter shots. I had to admit I didn't know, I just shot it on automatic. Honestly, I take virtually all of my photographs on automatic. Most of the time I treat my DSLR like a big point and shoot camera. I don't think it's anything to be ashamed of - automatic is pretty darn good these days.

If you read photography books (as I do) they'll tell you that you have to override the exposure when taking pictures of snow and ice. I didn't, and I think they turned out ok.

They'll tell you you should carry around and use a tripod, preferably a big heavy one. I do own a tripod, but I rarely use it.

They'll tell you you should use polarizing filters and neutral density filters, and graduated filters. I don't. I bought a polarizing filter but I never seem to have it when I need it. Or else I have it, but I forget to use it.

Just to be clear, I'm not saying this advice is wrong. I'm just saying you don't need to interpret it as "you must do this", instead you can take it as "if you want the very best possible results, then you should do this".

I almost never use manual focus, even when I know auto-focus will have problems. Honestly, I don't think my aging eyes are going to do any better than the camera. I do find it quite useful to set the focus to the center point and press the shutter halfway to focus on a particular part of the scene.

If I think camera shake or focus may be a problem, I take multiple shots to have a better chance of getting one that works.

handheld at 1/5 of a second (!)

I have a single 18 to 250 zoom lens. It's slow and because of the large range and relatively small size, it isn't the highest quality. If I was serious I'd have a whole range of expensive fast lenses that I'd have to carry around and switch back and forth. And then because I was switching lenses I'd have to worry about cleaning the sensor. Sorry, not for me.

It's not that I don't know enough to be "serious". I grew up with manual cameras. My father was a "serious" photographer. He used multiple cameras and lenses and tripods and lights and filters and manual exposures and all the serious stuff. I used to help him set up and take down and work in the darkroom. I enjoyed helping him, but it was never my thing.

I do photography to exercise the other half of my brain, to be a little artistic (or at least aesthetic) for a change. I spend all day being logical and analytical, the last thing I want to do is spend my photography time calculating exposures.

You'll hear serious photographers say they want to spend the time to get it right in the first place, rather than adjust it later on their computer. Personally, I'd rather shoot from the hip, and fix minor issues later.  I want to enjoy what I'm photographing, not be focused on technical issues.

One thing that really helps, if you're going to shoot from the hip like I do, is to shoot RAW. This gives you a lot more leeway to adjust the photos on your computer. That means you need a camera that will let you shoot RAW. Most consumer level point and shoot cameras don't.

RAW isn't anything complicated, it just means that the camera records the image without a lot of processing. That means you need to do some processing afterwards, with a program like Lightroom or Aperture. (the modern day equivalent of having your own darkroom) On the other hand a camera that records JPEG's (like most consumer cameras) processes the images into "final" form within the camera. Because the JPEG images have already been processed you have much less ability to adjust the afterwards.

I accept that by not being "serious" I'm sacrificing a certain amount of quality in my photographs. But I'm not trying to sell them or make a living from them. As long as they please me, and hopefully a few of you, then I'm happy.

Of course, that doesn't stop me from being jealous of the results of serious photographers. I look at their super amazing images and I want to cry with jealousy because I know I'll  never be that good. But then I remind myself that what matters is that I enjoy my photography.

I hear people say they want to "learn" photography, by which they usually mean "serious" stuff like shutter speed and aperture. There's nothing wrong with knowing that stuff. But really, if you want to learn photography, my recommendation is to take photographs, lots of them, and enjoy doing it.

the plant in my office, taken sitting at my desk

Sunday, December 16, 2012

Winter Photo Walk

Saturday afternoon the sun was shining gloriously so I decided to walk to work (more for the walk than the work) and take my camera in case I saw anything worth photographing.

Two hours later (on a 20 minute walk) I arrived at work, somewhat chilled, having taken over 400 photos. Obviously, I found a few things to photograph :-) Considering I've done this walk countless times it's amazing that I found that much of interest. That's one of the things I like about photography - it helps you look and see.

I've been taking about 6000 photos a year so 400 is quite a few. It's not all that long ago that I would have been shooting film. I might have shot a roll (36) or two if I was extravagant. And then taken them for processing, and waited to see what I got, and had very limited options for tweaking them. The ease of digital makes a huge difference. I doubt I'd be doing anywhere near as much photography if it was still on film.

Thankfully it was only about -10c, not that cold (for Saskatchewan winter) and I'd taken some light gloves to wear while operating the camera. Although if I'd known I was going to stand around that much I would have put on long underwear!

400 photos took me about 4 hours to go through and tweak. I'm not big on black and white - I love color too much, but I did convert a few. My rule of thumb is not to show more than one in ten of the photographs I take. I thought that would be easy this time (because I shot a lot of similar ones), but it took some culling to get it down to 41 photos. That's still a lot, my apologies for inflicting so many on you. Some day I'll learn to be more ruthless.

I stopped for coffee on the way home and the sun was going down by the time I was finished. I put the camera away in my pack but I had to pull it out again - I can't resist the colors of sunrise and sunset.

click to view photos

I recently traded my three year old Pentax K7 for the new K5 II and I haven't had a chance to do much with it, so I was happy to take it for a spin. Physically it's pretty much identical, but it has an improved sensor (the same as the Nikon D7000) and an improved auto-focus system, giving it better low light capabilities. (Plus all the improvements that were made in the K5.) Some of the sunset photos were at 6400 ISO yet the noise was easily cleaned up by Lightroom. That's a lot better than the K7 would have done.  In theory it'll go to 51,200 ISO, which is amazing, even if the results are noisy. Pentax is known for their good ergonomics, and I would agree, but I wish the LiveView button was somewhere different. I often hit it by mistake when changing the focus selector, or even with my cheek when shooting. For me, the other big advantage to this series is that they are weather sealed and cold resistant. It's also one of the smallest DSLR's which is an advantage for travel and hiking.

Sunday, November 25, 2012

The Nest Thermostat

I recently bought a Nest thermostat. The idea is that it saves energy by being smarter. I also suspect people (including me) buy them because they're cool :-) One of the Nest founders was former VP in charge of iPods at Apple. The clean design, packaging, and user interface are reminiscent of an Apple product.

I'm mostly going to talk about an installation issue I had. For more of a general overview check out Scott Hanselman's Nest review.

I wanted to buy one when they first came out a year ago but they weren't available in Canada. Later, I used their compatibility checker which said it wouldn't work on my system. When the second generation Nest came out, I checked the compatibility again and this time it said it would work. At first I thought this was a result of improvements in the second generation, but I think it might have been my mistake the first time around - I may have entered all the connections that my current thermostat had, instead of just the ones that actually had wires connected.

Nest offers the option of having them arrange a local installer, but the instructions looked straightforward, so I just ordered the device.

It was easy to install. They even supply a screw driver, and the device has a level built in so you get it straight. I had to use the optional backplate to cover up the mess behind the old thermostat since I didn't want to get into filling and painting. Which is too bad, because it would look even slicker without the backplate.

The setup process was straightforward and I didn't have any trouble getting it to connect to my home wifi. (Other than the awkwardness of entering a long password without a keyboard.)

I had to shake my head when the first thing it did was start downloading updates. I get tired of every computerized device I own having to endlessly download updates. Actually, it's not the updates I mind, it's bothering me with them. Just handle them invisibly behind the scenes.

One tip - set the display brightness to auto rather than the default medium. This adjusts the brightness depending on the ambient light, making it less blinding at night.

Everything seemed to work fine and I patted myself on the back, prematurely as it turned out. I noticed that it seemed to have trouble turning off the furnace after it got to the correct temperature. It would cut in and out for quite a while before finally stopping. I emailed Nest but it was the weekend and I didn't hear back. The second night it crashed and rebooted. And in the morning the display would not turn on automatically when you approached.

I did some research on the web and found that the display won't come on automatically if the battery gets low. I also found other people had similar problems with cycling on and off. I learnt more than I really wanted to know about "power stealing". (Old style thermostat wiring was not designed for smart devices that require their own non-trivial amounts of power.) I ended up having to remove the Nest from the wall (it just pops off the base) and charge it with a USB cable.

Finally, I broke down and phoned Nest. (I hate phoning for customer support since it's usually such a frustrating process.) I got through fairly quickly to someone who was quite knowledgeable.  He had me check a bunch of things and play with the wires. The Nest has a bunch of helpful debugging information under Settings > Technical Info, including the battery voltage, and the input voltage and current. My battery was showing about 3.7 volts. The input voltage is a little misleading. These are 24 volt systems and mine were around 26 or 27, so I assumed I was good. But according to the rep, you have to divide by 1.4 and the result should be around 24 volts. Which means the Nest should show around 30, in which case mine were too low. I assume this is something to do with AC versus DC and how the Nest measures it. But given that the Nest is obviously computerized, I don't understand why they don't just divide by 1.4 before displaying the voltages. My input current was 20ma but he didn't say if that was good or bad.

It also seems strange that the customer support guy had to get me to manually read this information from the Nest. The device is already sending a bunch of information back to them (e.g. for the web interface) so why doesn't it send the technical info as well, so they don't have to get the user to give it to them.

The end result was that Nest said the problem was that the voltage coming from my furnace was too low and I'd have to get someone to check the furnace. I tried the company that installed the furnace (Greggs), but they couldn't come out for a week. I could have put back the old thermostat and waited, but that wasn't appealing!

I contacted Brent Veitch from Rock Paper Sun (the folks who did my solar panels) to see if he knew anyone who might be able to come and look at it. He offered to come himself although he's not a furnace specialist. Coincidentally he had just heard about the Nest recently so he was interested to see it.

I told Brent about Shelley asking "Why does the furnace keep cutting in and out?". He said, "Just tell her it's because you replaced a perfectly good thermostat with an expensive new toy". Ouch! Shelley laughed.

It turned out the problem wasn't really with the furnace. It just wasn't designed for the power stealing the Nest was doing. Ideally, there should be another C wire that could supply power, but the old wiring in our house didn't include it, and it would have been a major undertaking to run new wiring.

Brent had already talked to Nest and they had suggested adding a resister at the furnace end between the C wire and the Y wire (air conditioning) that was being used to "steal" power. They suggested 220 ohms but I believe he eventually went with 270 ohms. (Note: it needs to be a high power resister e.g. 5 W) That seemed to do the trick. The furnace now shuts off properly. The only question is whether this will cause any problems turning on the air conditioning. But considering we haven't used it for two years, I'm not too worried. (The battery voltage now shows about 3.9 V, the input voltage about 29, and the input current 40ma)

Although Nest's telephone support was quite good, they seem to be in a bit of denial about this issue (or at least deliberately vague). There's no mention anywhere about the resister fix. They do mention the power stealing and C wire issue but only in general terms. I'm not sure what percentage of installs have this problem, perhaps it's rare. And if you paid someone to install it, presumably they would deal with it. I can understand they don't want to broadcast their problems, but better to have information about how to fix it than try to pretend it doesn't exist.

Since then, the Nest has been working great. It's very cool that I can view and control it from the web or from an app on my iPhone or iPad (they also have an Android app). It's fun to be able to turn the heat up from my iPhone when I'm on the way home so the house is warm when I get there. (Although I'm sure the novelty will wear off quickly.)

In theory, the Nest will automatically learn your schedule based on manually turning it up and down, but I was too impatient to wait for it and manually set up my own schedule. (Based on the first couple of days, the learning did appear to be working.) I sure like being able to edit the schedule from my computer instead of the painful scheduling interface on our old "smart" thermostat.

Another nice feature is that it will automatically detect when no one is home and turn down the heat. I was a little skeptical of this feature, but after a week or so of "learning" it seems to be fairly accurately detecting when we're away from the house. It's somewhat conservative so if you just go out for a short time it won't kick in. But that's probably best, and you wouldn't save much energy anyway. (Even without this feature, if you forget to turn the thermostat down when you go out you can always do it from your phone.)

As much as I like the Nest, the initial problems made me a little nervous. A thermostat is a pretty critical piece of equipment in Saskatchewan winters. But since resolving the power issue it has worked flawlessly so I'm feeling better about it.

If you want help installing a Nest, give Rock Paper Sun a call. (They've also applied to be one of Nest's official local installers.)

Also check out Scott Hanselman's Nest review with more photos and screenshots. He had no problems at all with his install. (I notice from his photos that he did have a C wire - perhaps a newer house.)

Saturday, November 24, 2012

Stuff That Matters

Warm Sky, Cold Hands 2

The other day one of Shelley's friends complimented some of my photographs and said I was in the wrong business.

My immediate response was "Hard to make any money in photography."

Followed by slapping myself (figuratively).

What happened to the guy who goes around telling people to follow their dreams and do what they love, money secondary?

Honestly, I love photography, but I love it as a hobby. I don't think I'd enjoy doing it full time, or trying to make a living at it.

But it made me think. I'm not sure just doing what you love is enough. It's definitely better than doing something you hate. But what if what you love is eating ice cream? Should you make a life of that?

I think if you want to be happy with your life you also want to do something that counts. Or as Tim O'Reilly says, "work on stuff that matters"

I don't feel like I've done as well on that front. It's a bit of a stretch to say my company's software is saving energy by helping streamline the transportation industry. It's part of why I started EcoFriendly Sask. I'm not sure that's enough, but it's something.

Warm Sky, Cold Hands

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Stops Along the Way

We drove 12,000 kms on our recent trip to Baja. On driving days, the highlights are often the coffee and restaurant stops. For my own memory as much as anything, here are some of the places we stopped on the way back. For a change we drove up the coast through California. The coastal highway is spectacular. But I hate the endless freeways through San Diego, Los Angeles, and San Francisco.

Since we didn't have internet access when driving in the US, we often relied on our Garmin Nuvi car GPS to find coffee shops and restaurants. It doesn't have everything, but it's a whole lot better than nothing. There are challenges to using it though. It doesn't have any information about the coffee shops or the restaurants, so you have to try to figure out from the name what it's going to be like. When there are no local coffee shops we'll fall back on Starbucks, but even that can be frustrating because the GPS doesn't differentiate between a "real" Starbucks and one in a grocery store or casino.

Fourchette (Ensenada) - We stayed overnight at the Best Western El Sid in Ensenada. It was nothing to write home about, but it was ok. The area around it was full of bars and seemed designed for young americans visiting on spring break. Luckily we asked at the hotel for a recommendation for someone quiet and good and they sent us to this italian place just around the corner. The food wasn't anything special, but it was small and quiet, exactly what we were looking for. There was also a good tea and coffee house right across the street from the hotel. (And a Starbucks a few blocks away.)

Santos Coffee House (San Diego) - There were lots of Starbucks as we got into San Diego from the Tecate crossing, but we opted for something else. This was a nice little neighbourhood place with friendly staff and good coffee.

Novo Restaurant Lounge (San Luis Obispo) - The deck overlooking the river is a great place to be on a nice day, and the food is good.

Eric Ericssons on the Pier (Ventura) - We made a pilgrimage to the Great Pacific Iron Works in Ventura, Patagonia's first retail store that opened in 1970. We asked at the store where to eat and they suggested Eric Ericssons on the Pier,  not so much for the food, as for the view. We had a decent meal and a fantastic view of the sunset over the ocean.

Miss Pearls (Oakland) - We stopped overnight at the Joie de Vivre Waterfront Hotel, mostly because I'd stayed there before, and it was on our route. After driving all day we didn't feel like going out so we ate at Miss Pearls in the hotel. It also has a nice view over the waterfront. Joie de Vivre is an interesting company, check out its founder Chip Conly on TED or his books.

Urban Blend Cafe (Oakland) - An interesting coffee shop in an old gas station. I visited here on previous trips. I like the black and white photos on the walls, I wonder who's they are?

Trinks Cafe (Gualala) - We were looking for somewhere to eat in this small town with a view of the ocean. We pulled into the parking lot for the Seacliff Motel. There was a small restaurant but it didn't look like anything special. Before we left, we stopped into the Ansel Adams gallery next door. As we left, we asked where to eat and he recommended Trinks next door and it turned out to be a good choice.

Requa Inn (Klamath) - We had planned to camp in the Redwoods, and actually managed to reach the turnoff to the campground while it was still light out. But it was closed for the winter (as were many of the campgrounds). After driving all day we couldn't get motivated to search for an open campground in the dark so we consulted the GPS and it came up with "Historic Requa Inn" which sounded interesting. It turned out to be a lovely little place. We sat in their comfortable lounge area and drank some Oregon Pinot Noir :-) In the morning they suggested a back road through the Redwoods. It was a small windy road, but I loved the chance to see the big trees. I only wished we had more time to spend there.

Barrio (Bend) - We stopped in Bend to check it out - it seemed like a nice town. We went to The Wine Shop to pick up some Oregon wine to take home, and they recommended Barrio. It's a small, cozy place, not too fancy. The tapas were excellent. On the way out of town we picked up coffee from Looney Bean.

Catalyst (Missoula) - We were expecting just a coffee shop, but this is a cross between a coffee shop and a restaurant. Had a great breakfast here before hitting the road.

Twist (Medicine Hat) - We haven't spent much time in Medicine Hat and weren't sure what to expect. We were pleasantly surprised with this place. Chosen by "Where to Eat in Canada" as one of Canada's best for the last three years in a row.

Monday, November 12, 2012

Wild in the City

I left work early for a change today (it was a holiday after all) so I could enjoy the sunshine. The first thing I saw was a coyote beside the railroad tracks. Initially I thought it was a fox, but it was larger and didn't have a bushy tail. The other possibility was a dog, but it didn't look or behave like one. It was digging in the snow and when it saw me it trotted off down the tracks, stopping several times to look back at me.

On the other side of the railroad bridge someone was taking a picture of an animal beside the path. I assumed it was a rabbit but there were a couple more people there with binoculars who said it was a northern hawk owl eating a pigeon. I started to get my camera out of my pack, assuming that, as usual, it would fly away before I could take a photo. But it stayed there busily eating the pigeon. I was afraid to approach too close, so I didn't get great photos (only had the G12). This was my first view, you can see how close to the path it was.

I didn't linger since I was headed to Museo for coffee and they were closing early. On my way home from Museo I wished I had spent more time watching the hawk owl, after all, I can go for coffee anytime. Luckily my wish came true - the hawk was there in the same spot eating a pigeon. Given that it was an hour later, and judging by the rate it gobbled its food, I'm guessing it was a different pigeon. This time I wasn't as worried about scaring it away, since it obviously wasn't too concerned about people. I got some good photos in the lovely evening light. What a beautiful bird! (click for a larger view)

Northern Hawk Eagle

I even thought to take some video. (full screen recommended.) You can hear the cars going by on the road right beside us.

My iBird Pro iPad app (recommended) confirmed, "They have little fear of humans" and "Eats mostly voles and other small mammals; also takes birds, especially in winter; active during the day." And "A group of owls has many collective nouns, including a 'bazaar', 'glaring', 'parliament', 'stooping', and 'wisdom' of owls."

There were also lots of geese on the river, presumably stopping on their way south.

Canada Geese

On a lighter note, when I stopped at Museo for coffee on my way home, my latte even came with a creature :-)

Then an attractive young women walked up and asked if she could sit with me. (But don't read too much into that, all the tables were occupied and a middle aged guy alone at a large table was an obvious choice.) She asked what I was writing and when I explained it was a blog post about the creatures I'd seen on the way home she suggested I could add a wild red head (her words) to my post. And then she left.

Weir Reflections

Friday, November 09, 2012

It doesn't get much better than this

I was walking home from work today. It was dark already - the consequence of living in the north. The wind was blowing and the snow was flying - there was a winter storm warning out. It wasn't too cold, maybe -10c, but enough to give the wind some teeth.

And it was glorious! I laughed in delight and smiled at the snowflakes. I was dressed well enough that I wasn't really cold. I'm not sure why it felt so good. You might think I'd resent the cold weather having just got back from the warmth of Mexico. But I didn't. It reminded me of weather in the mountains, of other glorious days. Crossing the railroad bridge was as exposed as an icy mountain ridge.

But why would being reminded of bad weather in the mountains, by bad weather in Saskatoon, make it any better? I don't really know. Extreme weather makes me feel alive. To be comfortable while the storm rages is a powerful feeling.

Drivers hate bad weather, even though (or maybe because) they're not out in it. They're in another world in their hermetically sealed metal boxes. The weather is irrelevant except as far as it inconveniences their commute. We had a big storm a few years ago where roads were impassible and people were getting stranded in their cars. I walked home happily, enjoying the wild weather.

I remember storms during winter climbs in the mountains, where you could hear the wind gathering and building in the distance, growing as it approached until it blasted you like a freight train. It's best from a snow cave that you know won't be blown away. A tent is ok too, but you're never quite sure if it's going to hold. And getting out in the middle of the night to shovel snow that's threatening to collapse it can be an adventure in itself.

As I grow older I find myself reminiscing more. When I was young I used to feel sorry for "old" people that valued their memories so much. When you're young, the past holds little of interest or value, the future is everything. I'm still excited about the future, but I no longer think there's anything to feel sorry for about valuing one's past. I've been fortunate to do a lot of things with my life, but so have we all, in one way or another. We all have moments we cherish. To ignore the past is to throw away an increasing portion of our lives.

I have this habit of trying to identify times when I can honestly tell myself "it doesn't get much better than this". I don't mean trying to identify the "peak" moments of my life. It might "only" be sitting in the sun enjoying a cup of coffee, it might "just" be watching a sunrise, it might be walking home in a snow storm. I try to recognize as many of these moments as I can. To "catch" them, if only ever so briefly. To not let them slip by unnoticed. Because life is glorious, and all too often wasted. I could have wasted my walk home, grumbling to myself about the weather. Instead, I loved it, and I brought back happy memories of other times in other storms. It doesn't get much better than that.

Thursday, November 08, 2012

Baja Birds

I'm not a serious bird watcher, but I enjoy seeing and photographing birds. Here's a list of some of the ones we saw on this trip (as far as I could identify them). It didn't seem like we'd seen that many different kinds until I started listing them.

(click on the name of the bird for more information, click on the photos for a larger view)

American Oystercatcher
American OystercatcherI love the bright red beak and eyes.

Belted Kingfisher
We saw kingfishers a few times, but never got a good look. I'm guessing the type from the range and the sound of its call.

Blue-footed Booby & Brown Booby
Blue-footed Boobies
We saw these in Galapagos as well. Their blue feet seem so improbable. It's fun to watch them dive bombing into the water to catch fish.

Brown Pelican
Brown pelican
These are common but I still like them. They seem to have a lot of character!

Chihuahuan Raven
There were hardly any crows or ravens, but we saw a pair on our kayaking trip. They looked and sounded more like ravens than crows, but they were smaller so I'm guessing they were Chihuahuan Ravens.

Costa's Hummingbird
I'm guessing at the identification. We could have been seeing several kinds.

Crested Caracara
We just saw one of these, sitting on a telephone pole, as we drove by.

Double-crested Cormorants
Lots around. Hard to identify the type of cormorant when they are sitting low in the water in the distance. Easier to get a better look when they are out of the water.

Gila Woodpecker
Gila Woodpecker
Usually saw these on the palm trees in Loreto. They had a distinctive call that would alert you to look for them.

Greater Roadrunner
Saw a couple of these when we were driving. Just brief glimpses but their shape is distinctive. I was happy to finally see them, but I'd like a better look

Magnificent Frigatebird
Frigate birds and cormorant
Lots of these around. Easy to identify by their distinctive wing outline when they're flying.

Osprey with fish
We saw a number of these and their nests on poles and cliffs. Also saw a couple of them flying with fish they'd caught.

Reddish Egret
Reddish Egret

Royal Tern
Royal tern


Snowy Egret
Snowy Egret

Turkey Vulture
UntitledThese are everywhere in Baja. Beautiful flyers, but their bald red heads are something only a mother could love!

A few more miscellaneous bird photos from the trip:

Sunday, November 04, 2012

Jumping Joel

I took a sequence of photos of Joel (our kayak guide) doing this jump. When I got home I figured out how to combine the images with Photoshop with the help of Image Sequences in Photoshop. This is the first time I've done this. It took a few tries but came out ok in the end.

Jumping Joel

It's pretty amazing (to me) how slick Auto Align, Auto Blend, and Content Aware Fill work.

Thursday, November 01, 2012

Kayaking Baja

Horrendous bugs, oppressive heat, scorching sun, and six days accumulation of sun screen, insect repellent, salt, and sand. But if you let those things discourage you you're missing a real treat.

The negatives pale in comparison to the positives. Beautiful clear sunny skies, calm blue water, lovely beaches, great snorkeling, dolphins, whales, colorful tropical fish ...

We arranged our trip through Baja Kayak Adventures. We discovered the company on a previous trip to Baja and found out they were connected to Silva Bay Kayak Adventures who we later did a trip with from Gabriola Island in BC. This was the first time we'd done a trip with them in Baja. We were lucky to get one of the same guides we'd had in BC - Joel, who is from Mexico. Joel was very low key, and because it was a private trip he left it up to us where we went and what we did.

After all the crazy weather we'd had, including a hurricane, we were a little concerned with what it would be like for our trip. We lucked out - it was beautiful and calm the whole six days. A little warmer than average, but we could live with that.

We started just south of Puerto Escondido (south of Loreto), crossed to Danzante Island, and then over to Carmen Island. Both crossings went smoothly in the calm water. map of points (point 4 is the furthest we reached, the others are our campsites)

The mosquitos and flies were worst the first night. After that they eased up and we managed to keep them under control with insect repellent. Still, by the end of the six days I estimated 100 bites from my ankles to my knees. Thankfully, most of the bites didn't bother me too much. Apparently the bugs aren't normally so bad, but the recent rains have brought them out.

The first day as we were eating lunch a big group of dolphins swam by quite close to shore - a delight to watch, as always.

We snorkeled every day, sometimes several times a day, partly just to cool off. The water was warm but it was still cooler than the sun! It was great snorkeling and fun to explore the different bays and rocky points.

One night a noise woke me and a few minutes later it was repeated. In the morning Joel asked me if I had heard the whale. It must have come in quite close to shore and the sound we heard was it breathing. Pretty cool to have a whale visit in the night.

Crossing one sandy bay I saw a dark patch on the bottom. There were lots of dark patches of rock or seaweed, but this one seemed different. I circled back in the kayak, trying to keep my eyes fixed on it. The water was very clear, but 30 or 40 feet deep so it was still hard to see. My feeling was right - it was a sea turtle swimming along the bottom. It didn't seem to be aware of me, or if it was, it didn't get spooked and it swam quite leisurely. I called to Shelley but she was quite far ahead and by the time she paddled back to me I had lost it in deeper water. Afterwards, I dawdled across the bay hoping to see another turtle. Instead I counted 10 sting rays swimming along the bottom, silhouetted against the white sand bottom.

We saw a few more sea turtles along the way, but just glimpses of them when they came up to breathe and then disappeared again.

Another morning at sunrise Shelley opened the tent door to grab her shirt hanging on the outside of the tent to dry. She was startled when a huge insect entered the tent. My immediate response was "cool!" I reassured Shelley that it was safe and wouldn't bite. It was a large praying mantis. I've seen small ones before, but this one was about 2 inches long. I grabbed my camera. It was still very early and quite dark so I managed to get it to climb on my hand so I could take it outside where there was a bit more light. After some photos I carried it away from the beach and up the arroyo to where there was some vegetation. I took a few more photos in the more natural setting - it blended in well. Praying mantises are fascinating creatures. They are hunters and unlike most insects they can turn their heads. It was a little eerie when it turned its head and tracked me with its huge eyes.

There were a variety of birds along the way, turkey vultures, osprey, herons, egrets, oystercatchers, kingfishers, ravens, cormorants, gulls, and more. And of course tons of fish in the water. At one point I was taking photos of a great blue heron and I happened to glance down into the water below my kayak. There was a big school of king angelfish right underneath me. These are quite common, but usually just one or two at a time. The big group was beautiful to see.

When I was a kid I could sit and watch the flames of a campfire for hours. (And come home saturated with the smell of wood smoke.) I don't make many campfires these days. On this kind of trip it's the water and the reflections that fascinate me. The ocean varied from blue to turquoise to green and from transparent to black. Reflections of the red rock added even more colors to the mix. And as you can see from the photos we also had some colorful sunrises and sunsets.

click to view photos (75)Untitled

See also Shelley's posts: Paddling the South IslandsSalt Mining and Big Horn Sheep, and Snorkelling Photos

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Misión San Javier

On one of our rest days of diving we drove up to Misión San Javier. The last time we went up there (a number of years ago) it was a very rough dirt road. Now it's almost all brand new paved road, better than the highway. There's not much there besides the impressive old mission church, but it's a scenic drive into the mountains. And it's pretty impressive that they built such a place in 1758.

We intended to bring my sisters up here, but got rained out. This time we made it before the hurricane hit!

Here are a few photos I took of the mission and around it.

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Photos Around Loreto

Here are some miscellaneous photos from around Loreto, including some of the hurricane weather and its aftermath.

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* Shelley has lots of photographs of me taking photographs :-)

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Diving from Loreto

This is our fourth trip to Loreto and one of the prime attractions for us is the diving. There are other places in Baja with good diving (e.g. Cabo Pulmo) but we love going out with Rafael from Dolphin Dive, and we enjoy staying in Loreto. Our connection with Joel at Baja Kayak Adventures makes Loreto even more attractive. (We went on a sea kayak trip with Joel in BC a few years ago, and this coming week we're heading out for six days of kayaking with him here.)

Baja doesn't have big coral reefs, but it has lots of fish and soft corals and other sea life. And seeing the dolphins and sea lions and whales is a big treat in itself.

I'm still struggling with underwater photography. I have a decent camera (Canon G12) so now my main limitation is light. I use the camera's built-in flash with the underwater case's diffuser, but it's still ugly lighting. I've resisted getting better lights because of the added size and complexity, but I'm getting tempted! Occasionally I get a shot I'm happy with, but mostly I wish for better. It's especially frustrating when I see something awesome and I'm unable to capture it in a way that does it credit. But, to be honest, I often have the same feeling on dry land!

Nonetheless, here are the results from our six days of diving. I hope they give a feel for the incredible underwater world here.

click to view photos (77)

Monday, October 15, 2012

Ends of the Day

On our rest days from diving Shelley has been going out running early (to beat the heat). I've been going out and photographing the sunrise (which is at an almost civilized time of 7am). I also took a few shots at sunset while having a drink outside Pasada de las Flores. Enjoy.

click to view photos

Sunday, October 14, 2012

Volunteering can be an Adventure

Yesterday we volunteered to help out with a five kilometer open water swimming race. Unfortunately, there was a strong wind and the water was rough. There was some discussion but they decided to go ahead with the race, warning the swimmers that the conditions were for experts only.

Shelley and I were in kayaks, accompanying swimmers. The guide for our upcoming kayak trip had asked if we wanted to help since they were short of volunteers and we said sure. We imagined a nice sunny calm day of paddling but that did not happen.

Just launching the kayaks was a little rough (at least for us) and I spent the first few minutes pumping the water out of the kayak from waves breaking over me.

From our experience with adventure races, we know how hard it is to get everything coordinated. This race was no different. The kayaks were supposed to wait in a group and pick up the swimmers as they came by. But it wasn't clear where we were supposed to be and several groups of kayaks developed, none of them really in the right place.

To their credit, the race started on time at 8 am. I picked up one of the first swimmers, partly because he was wearing a florescent green cap that I figured would be easy to spot (and it was). (If you want to be seen bright colors are definitely a good idea - people in black wet suits are very hard to spot.) It turned out to be a lucky match for both of us since he spoke English (he was from California). Shelley and I had been a little nervous about how we'd communicate with Spanish speaking swimmers.

The hardest part of the kayaking was keeping in position beside the swimmer. I've never tried to follow a swimmer in a kayak and it's a little tricky. Most of the waves weren't breaking, just big swells, although the occasional one would soak me and add more water inside the kayak. I heard someone said the waves were about five feet.

It would have been a lot drier with a spray skirt, but because some of the kayak volunteers were inexperienced they decided not to use them. Trying to stay within about ten feet of my swimmer didn't leave any breaks to eat or drink, or even to pump out the kayak. He only stopped once, briefly, about half way. He asked for water and I gave him some of mine. I'd wondered whether they got anything to drink during the race. Certainly in a two hour running race there would be water stations.

From a kayak, low on the water, it was hard to see to navigate. For the swimmers it was even tougher. The route was quite simple - from Picazon to Coronado Island. But in between there is a small island that you can go around either side. Last year the course had gone around the south side since it's slightly more direct. But they had run into a strong current so this year they had stressed to everyone that the course would go around the north side. Except somehow the markers ended up leading to the south side - confusing.

My swimmer ended up depending on me for directions which wasn't really my role and made me uncomfortable because I wasn't sure the best way to go. I made a judgement call and led him around the south side. The wind was from the north so if nothing else it was slightly sheltered. Luckily there was no current this year. It was a toss up, Shelley followed instructions and went around the north side. From later reports it sounds like south was possibly slightly better.

One treat along the way was a bunch of dolphins that probably came to see what was going on. They never got too close, but they hung around for a while. The swimmers saw quite a few sea turtles, probably because they were looking down into the water. I didn't spot any.

My swimmer was tenth to the finish, in just under two hours (out of about 100 swimmers), which was pretty good since he was 67 years old. I have nothing but admiration for the swimmers, young and old - I wouldn't be up to it in calm water, let alone in these conditions.

One of the kayakers was the son of a swimmer. He lost sight of his father (easy to do in these conditions) and in the process of looking for him he got flipped over by a wave and was unable to get back in his kayak, not surprising as it can be tricky in the best of conditions. As he was bobbing around, he was joined by a swimmer who was throwing up. (Either sea sick or from swallowing sea water, or both.) They were picked up by one if the motor boats and he was fine, but he felt bad for failing at his duties and was quite worried until his father made it to the finish.

As the morning went on, the conditions got worse and they decided it was too rough to kayak back from the island. We waited quite a while as the swimmers straggled in and then as boats ferried all the swimmers and kayakers back. One women was missing and Shelley and I went out in one of the boats looking for her. It was very difficult conditions to try to find someone in the water. The boat was rocking and rolling and we were getting drenched in spray and waves. We didn't have any luck. They still hadn't found her when we went home. The next day we heard they had found her on the wrong side of the island after five hours in the water - yikes! I've never had anyone lost for that long on any of the adventure races I've organized, but I can imagine how stressful it must have been for the organizers.

Even the boat trip back to shore was exciting. Again we got bounced around and totally drenched from waves and spray. It's a good thing the water and weather were warm. It was too rough for the boats to land on the beach so we had to jump out and swim the last 100 feet through the surf. A bit of a challenge with a hat and sunglasses on and a dry bag in one hand. Luckily the waves pushed you in so swimming wasn't really required.

Although we only kayaked for a few hours (albeit in rough conditions) we were exhausted by the end of the day. Liberal doses of ice cream and beer pulled us through :-)

For Shelley's viewpoint, and some photos see: 2do Cruce a Nado

Friday, October 12, 2012

Morning Coffee in Loreto

Happily, the coffee shop next to the square (Latte Cafe) is open when we arrive. The sign says 8 am but that just seems to mean sometime after that, maybe 9, maybe 10. And being open is just the first hurdle, you also have to find someone to serve you. It's run by the same people as the restaurant next door (Cafe Olé) and I'm guessing since its still the off season it's not worth paying someone to work there. So sometimes you get a guy who I think is the owner, and sometimes a woman with a baby or two, probably his wife. A couple of tourists just came by and eventually gave up because they couldn't find anyone to serve them. (The trick is to get the attention of someone at the restaurant.)

It's a rest day so we have time to relax over morning coffee. Shelley is a keener, she'd dive every day but as a concession to my shocking lack of motivation and stamina we are only diving two out of every three days :-)

It's just the perfect temperature (around 26c) to sit outside and have a coffee and watch the world. Later it'll be too hot even in the shade.

There's a little dove pecking around in the street. I take its picture although it's as common as the sparrows it's still cute. And of course there are sparrows chattering away noisily in the trees.

A hummingbird is flitting around although there are no flowers so I'm not sure what it's up to. There are quite a few here but coming from Saskatchewan, it's still a treat to see them.

Several butterflies pass by. There are tons of them around but they never sit still so it's hard to identify them, let alone photograph them. Occasionally one agrees to pose, but they are temperamental super-models. Apparently this is the season for butterflies but I wonder if the recent rains make a difference too.

Shelley is reading her book (Kindle) and normally I would be too, but instead I'm just enjoying the coffee and watching what's going on. (At least until I decided to write this.)

A quad just went by on the mostly pedestrian street in front of the coffee shop. And then a whole parade of dirt bikes on the main street - probably an organized tourist "adventure". I know I'm in the minority, but if I was king of everything I'd get rid of all noisy motorized "sport" vehicles. I hate 'em. Of course, as usual that's somewhat hypocritical since you could argue that includes the boat that takes us out diving :-(

One of the sparrow lands at my feet and chirps loudly at me. Probably looking for crumbs. I ask him "¿que pasa?" but like most locals he doesn't understand my Spanish and just looks at me quizzically.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

La Paz again

We stayed one more night in La Paz on our way back from San Jose del Cabo to Loreto. Thankfully, the highway was not under water this time! We stayed at the Pasada de las Flores since we hadn't tried it before. Penny and Clare had stayed there prior to meeting us and liked it. And of course, we like their hotel in Loreto. It is quite small (eight rooms) but it has a wonderful second floor outdoor seating area with a view of the ocean, and a tiny pool to cool off in. The only (minor) drawback is that it is quite far north on the malecon. Especially since our favorite coffee shop (Cafe Exquisito) is at the south end!

We tried out Café Corazón for supper. It had been recommended to us and we had a great meal. They have a nice courtyard and a few more vegetarian options than Las Tres Virgenes.

click to view photos

Tuesday, October 09, 2012

Saturday, October 06, 2012

Turtle Release Photos

I finally finished going through the hundreds of photos I took of the baby turtles. We stumbled on the turtle release by Tortugueros Las Playitas purely by accident. We'd seen information that it occurred here, but we assumed the timing wouldn't be right. But we arrived at the right time and turtles were hatching every day so we went back the next day with my sisters so they could see them. We were also approached by someone in town offering to take us to see the baby turtles, for a fee. We were smug that we had discovered them by ourselves for free.

I think these are Olive Ridley sea turtles, judging by the signs that said "tortuga golfina". At first we thought they were Leatherbacks but they didn't look like the pictures I found online. The web site says they release Olive Ridley, Black (aka Green), and Leatherback sea turtles. Olive Ridley's are listed as endangered. They are one of the smaller sea turtles, growing to less than a meter in length and 50 kg in weight. They are found in warm waters all over the world, but the west coast of Mexico and Central America is one of the prime nesting areas.

I hope you enjoy the photos as much as I enjoyed seeing these amazing creatures at the very beginning of their lives. This initial sprint to the ocean is the last time they'll see dry land, until the females return to nest. It is incredible that something so small and so inexperienced can make it through the surf and survive in the wide open ocean.

click to view photos

Friday, October 05, 2012

Coffee in San Jose del Cabo

I searched for coffee places in San Jose del Cabo on the web but didn't find anything. Of course, Cabo San Lucas has coffee places, including Starbucks, but we prefer the old town. But don't despair, there is a nice coffee place - Cafe Calafia. It's not fancy but the espresso was good. The guy who made my coffee (the owner?) was very friendly, took care in the making of my lattes, and asked me if it was ok. They advertise some food as well, but I only had coffee.

It's located just near the Casa de la Cultura on a side street off the plaza. Easy to find if you look for it, but easily overlooked if you're walking around.

The sign said they opened at 7am but the one morning we went early, they didn't open till 8am. But it's still off-season, so that might explain it.

I later saw the guy who served me riding around on the mountain bike I'd seen parked outside the cafe - to me that's extra brownie points :-)

PS. Calafia is a fictional warrior queen who ruled over a kingdom of Black women living on the mythical Island of California.

Tuesday, October 02, 2012

Photos from La Paz

Some photos from La Paz. We enjoyed our stay at El ángel azul bed and breakfast. (first time staying here) It has a lovely courtyard full of plants, a cat and a dog, lizards, and hummingbirds that visit.

We took a boat trip to Isla Espiritu Santo to see more sea lions (biggest colony in Baja) and to do some snorkelling and kayaking. The water was a little rough, but it was a good day. Definitely cooler out on the water than in town!

We ate supper at Las Tres Virgenes in their outdoor courtyard. We'd eaten here before and enjoyed it.

click to view photos

Monday, October 01, 2012

Liberación de Tortugas

We walked down to the beach at sunrise this morning (about a 30 minute walk from where we're staying in Todos Santos). We ended up getting to helping release newly hatched baby sea turtles! For a turtle lover like me, it doesn't get much better than that. More photos to come.

I think the organization is Tortugueros Las Playitas

Friday, September 28, 2012

Around Loreto

A few more photos from around Loreto. (click to view more)


Luckily we got out snorkelling with the sea lions before the weather socked in. (hurricane / tropical storm off the west coast) And we were lucky enough to see the dolphins - always a big treat. They haven't had rain here for three years, so I'm sure they're glad of it, but for us it meant a day hanging out around the hotel. And the drive from Loreto to La Paz today was a little scary with many sections of road flooded (Shelley should be posting some photos). We're hoping to get out snorkelling and kayaking tomorrow, but it'll depend on the weather. There's now a tropical storm in the Sea of Cortez (to the east of us). We knew it was the rainy / hurricane season, but hopefully it clears up soon!

Monday, September 24, 2012

Baja Photos

A few photos from our drive down through Baja, Mexico. (click on the photo to see more)