Monthly Archives: May 2010

Sea Birds of the Pacific Northwest


As I was driving along Highway 101 to my new temporary home town of Arcata, California, I stopped overnight in a charming fishing town of Newport, Oregon. Besides great CouchSuring hosts, another highlight of Newport was the Oregon Coast Aquarium, with their Passages of the Deep and the Sea Bird Aviary. Even though it was January, and the birds weren’t in their bright mating outfits, it was still very enjoyable to watch and photograph their frolics.


The very top photo is of the Common Murre or Common Guillemot in its winter plumage. According to Wikipedia, “It has a circumpolar distribution, occurring in low-Arctic and Boreal waters in the North-Atlantic and North Pacific. It spends most of its time at sea, only coming to land to breed on rocky cliff shores or islands”. The photo just above is of a Black Oystercatcher. Again, from Wikipedia: It is “found on the shoreline of western North America. It ranges from the Aleutian Islands of Alaska to the coast of the Baja California peninsula”.


The last photo is of the Tufted Puffin, albeit in its winter plumage, which would account for the lack of white ear “tufts” and the chalk-white face.

Lighthouses of the Pacific Northwest

OK, so it’s actually the Pacific Northeast, from the Pacific point of view, you know, but I’ll leave that for another discourse.


There is something about lighthouses and waterfalls that stand out as destinations for so many people. Personally, waterfalls have never been a draw for me. I would rather have a trail end at a tree – or a so much more useful tree stump – for lunches and resting, or even a non-discreet destination – than a waterfall. But then again, I haven’t tried climbing them in the winter, when they’re frozen.

On the other hand, lighthouses have a magnetic effect on me, and not just because pictures of them sell like pancakes. Or the Israeli pickles. No, it’s the sea rat in me. These messengers between tiny fishing and merchant boats on the high seas and quaint and quite harbors make me reminisce about my days on the water: on fishing vessels in the Bering Sea in the winter. On a rumbling bright-orange U.S. Coast Guard icebreaker Healy north of St. Lawrence Island. The trips on my beloved Alaska Department of Fish and Game Research Vessel Pandalus in the Gulf of Alaska. The surreal night fishing trips on wooden dingies in Lake Tanganyika in East Africa. My very first research cruise on NOAA vessel Ferrell to the Gulf Stream in the Atlantic. Hot days spent on skiffs on the Illinois River setting traps and surveying fish while trying to avoid flying Asian carp. Or, on a wooden chartered boat full of dedicated researchers scrubbing and measuring the intertidal life on the major islands of Prince William Sound – an unforgettable experience. Or, … but I better stop myself.

So, when I ended up on San Juan Island in Washington, I knew I had to visit the two lighthouses there. The Cattle Point Lighthouse, above, sits on a desolate bluff on the southeastern part of the island. No being very photogenic, I made a point to hike to it with a flashlight before sunrise, in hope of getting an interesting photo with the rising sun. With almost no clouds, the sunrise wasn’t particularly captivating, so I added my own mood to the photo digitally, if you will.


The Lime Kiln Lighthouse, above, the much more visited lighthouse on the west side of the island is more photogenic but too crowded for my tastes. The first time Chelsea and I were looking for it, we had only several minutes left before the sun set, as we managed to miss all the road signs pointing to it. In a rush to see it before the sun would completely disappear, we ran down a trail without paying attention to any of the signs, assuming that all the trails from the parking lot would lead to the main attraction in the area. Well, they would have, had we headed in the proximate general direction. At least, with the sun set, we also missed the last of the crowds for the day.


While visiting Coose Bay in Oregon, my CouchSurfing host took me to the nearby Umpqua River Lighthouse. With the fog rolling in from the Pacific, it created a fast-moving light-catching blanket around the head of the lighthouse. I was going to add a cacophony of frogs to the background, but now that I think about it, it was January in Oregon. There were most likely no frogs “cacophoning”.

Roosevelt Elk: The Overture


One of the largest mammals of North America are a mere half-hour drive from Arcata, northern California. Roosevelt Elk (Cervus canadensis roosevelti), the largest sub-species of elk, can often be spotted between Humboldt Lagoons and Prairie Creek Redwoods State Parks. In fact, after the Redwoods, they are the easiest to spot drive-by attraction here, spending most of their time grazing in open pastures or resting on creek banks.

In early spring, the cows are busy giving birth and tending to their calves, which are spotted, as is common among deer species. The bulls, which stay in groups separate from cows and calves, begin to regrow antlers that they shed the winter before. Towards late summer, the bulls will have grown their full sets of antlers for the rut, the mating season,  when males challenge each other for females, and to protect their newly-founded harems. Males, females, and calves will also grow thicker winter coats and neck manes for the winter.

Roosevelt Elk

So for now, I am just getting the stock shots of the elk and looking for the more interesting mother-calf interactions. It will be a wait of 4 months or so until large male bulls, with full antlers and manes, will begin challenging their opponents. I have found one spot where cows give birth and hide the new-borns. I am still figuring out how close I can safely approach them on foot without harassing them (i.e., having them charge me). I carry my red can of slightly-used (Alaska!) bear spray with me, just in case, hanging on the waist belt next to the lenses. With bears it was easy – what Alaskan hasn’t petted or held or posed for pictures with a black bear cub, while his mom was busy eating salmon berries or fishing for salmon in a nearby creek. But, if I got too close to a calf, would his mom try to trample me with her head up and eyes open, thus being susceptible to the spray? Or, would a 900-pound bull, with tiny velveted antlers try to charge me with head down and eyes closed, thus preventing any capsaicin (“and related capsaicinoids) reaching his lungs and eyes in time? Do they bluff-charge? Can I use a stick as a rapier (and will I remember anything from my childhood’s two years of fencing)?

Roosevelt Elk

And to make things more interesting, according to Wikipedia, In California, the container holding the defense spray must be less than 2.5 oz. Mine is 8.1, minus what I accidentally sprayed myself with, while quietly crawling close to brown bears fishing for sockeye salmon on Prince of Wales Island in Southeast Alaska last summer. But that’s another story.

Surfperch fishing on California North Coast

Fishing for Surfperch

And so I found myself in Arcata, on the California North Coast, smack in the midst of Coastal Redwood forests, delicious produce of local organic farms and farm markets, and remnants of the 1960s.

I was feeling restless by the end of last year, and it seemed like an extended hiatus from my home town of Juneau, Alaska was in order, to explore and photograph the rest of the West Coast. I packed my car with whatever (my friend Carl, miraculously) could fit in it, plus my tortoise and my cat, and a couple of favorite plants for good measure, and set sail on the Alaska Marine Highway Ferry for Bellingham. I spent a month at a friend’s house on San Juan Islands, visited old friends and made new ones along the way, replaced cars, and in February threw anchor in Arcata. And here’s where the story really begins. And it begins for two good reasons – to share my favorite photos from this area and to keep me from loosing a bet and having to make and wear a chicken costume…

Fishing for Surfperch

I spent two days last week in and around the Prairie Creek Redwood State Park, watching the elk and scouting locations for possible shots of Rhododendrons flowering amongst the Redwoods. The classical Redwoods Forest picture, of course. It’s still a bit early – another couple of weeks before they will start blooming in full force, but I am ready!. The Prairie Creek Park, which is roughly half way between California’s northernmost coastal city, Crescent City, and Arcata has become one of my favorite spots. I spent several days exploring it in January, and with so many old-growth trees, lots of day-long hikes, a couple of campings spots, and the famed Fern Canyon, it is certainly a gem.

While settling for the night on the beach at the Dry Lagoon (where, officially, you can’t camp), I met two U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologists – a fishery biologist and a herpetologist, to be exact – who came to fish in the surf for surfperch. Unfortunately, the waves were too big for the fish to be close enough to the shore, but I did get several interesting shots. I hope to try fishing for surfperch myself soon – it seems quite removed from combat-style fishing for salmon in certain areas of Alaska, yet has the high energy of breaking waves and expansive beaches.

Fishing for Surfperch