The Sun-kissed Aurora

I’ve got some new aurora science and colors for you. On Saturday night the aurora turned a royal purple in a show like I have never seen before! I have often heard that the blues of the aurora are most often seen in spring or fall, but did not know until recently the scientific reason behind that observation. In step the science of the Sun-kissed aurora. Known as “Sun Aurora” or “Day Aurora” the blues seen in the photo below are a result of the sun’s rays reacting with the upper plasma of the aurora (webexhibit.org). The highest chance of that occurring is in the spring or fall when our nights are relatively short and the aurora begins in the twilight hours. On the warm March night when I observed the phenomenon, the purple started out as a single pillar which was fairly dim to the eye, but discernible against the black of the stars. From the pillar it spread smoothly across the sky like aurora jelly on its celestial toast. After only ten minutes the purple had faded away as the sun moved lower behind the planet.  

Be sure to check out a timelapse of the night:

Purple Aurora Comparison
Since I have seen other purple aurora shots before, and assumed they were photo-shopped, I have decided to show you what the original image looked like right out of the camera. I did not have to touch it up much!

During the night I got the opportunity to mix together two of my passions. Many know that I’m avid musician, and I enjoyed spicing up the shoot for the night with my trusty guitar. If only my skills were good enough to play Jimi Hendrix’s “Purple Haze”. It certainly has an appropriate title for the night! I hope you enjoy the aurora selfie and guitar in the foreground, I would love to know what you think of those shots!

Happy Dogs, Happy Days, Happy Trails!

Well folks, this post is officially #100 on this blog. A huge thank-you to all who have supported me and followed in my growth as a writer and photographer! It’s amazing to go back to old posts and reflect on how this site has changed. Some things have not changed much; it is still my mission and joy to bring you photography of wildlife, landscapes, and adventure, and couple some science along with it! Have a favorite moment on this blog from the last 100 posts? I would love if you left it in the comments below! Don’t worry – this site won’t be going away anytime soon 🙂

Early this afternoon I was being pulled by six eager sled dogs. Trails had been degraded and made icy by the recent 50 degree temperatures, and the sled which normally has some drag in snow, slid like it was on Teflon behind the twenty-four turning legs. The excited dogs would have fun as fast as I allowed. Of course my preservation of self made sure to reign in their energy; dumping a sled on these crystallized trails hurts more than on the snow! My sleeves were rolled back and my ungloved hands gripped onto the handle of the sled. The passing breeze did not even feel cold in the 55 degree temps. Leaning around turns and dodging spruce trees, I made my way along the fire break of Old Murphy Dome. Not a cloud was in the sky as we passed impressive vistas stretching to the north.  In the distance, the snow of the White Mountains was starkly white against the tree covered hills of the lower foothills.

I passed by Jeff, who had stopped his team in front of me. He wanted me to practice passing another team, and commands of “Gee”, “Alright”, and “On-by” ensured that the leaders knew to keep moving past the other team of stopped dogs. We practiced the procedure a couple more times. Over the winter Jeff has done a great job getting me comfortable with the sled, and teams. It was important to practice passing for our upcoming trip to the White Mountains. More dog-sledding adventures will be reported I return from Crowberry Cabin!

We made several stops along the way to help cool the dogs down. The warm spring temperatures are a dramatic change to the -30 degree temperatures only three weeks ago! Each time the dogs would dive into the snow banks, and push their faces into it. Their panting faces were obviously smiling. It was a beautiful and great day to be a dog or a driver. I did my best to capture their doggy-grins and the excitement of the day. I hope you enjoy!

Rio Grande Valley and the Joy of a Naturalist

It is a joy being a naturalist in an area of high ecological diversity. The melding of the tropical zones of northern Mexico, and the arid regions of southern Texas are dominated the Rio Grande River. Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge epitomizes the diversity of the region. Walking through the refuge throughout  the year can yield over 400 species of birds, 450 species of plants and over half of the species butterflies found within the United States. Although our trip to the region was targeting birds the opportunity to enjoy the ecology of the region while strolling through sable palms or meandering through desert scrub is a tremendous treat! Every region has a secret to give to one who watches long enough.Spending time being in nature is therapeutic. Mornings and evenings birding offer a time of enjoyment, relfection, observation, and exercise. A much needed relief from the routines of Daily Life, which I would encourage you to explore, maximize, and enjoy. 

Rio Grande Video:

Our trip built on our trip from 2014, which was a great introduction to the region.  In 2015 we added on several more ‘lifer’ species including but not limited to vermillion flycatcher, burrowing owl, cactus wren,painted redstart, audobon’s oriole, and red-crowned parrot. These were just a fraction of the 125 species we observed during the trip which is a modest number of species compared to some birders. Our time there focused on watching behavior by spending significant time with the birds and habitat. Since we are approaching the breeding seasons, many of the birds were a bit randy. We listened to breeding calls and watched many, many birds carrying nesting material. The video above shows some of that behavior; in particular watch the a cute lousiana waterthrush puff out his chest feathers, a black-necked still splash water around its mate, and a pair of parrots cuddle. The pictures below further capture some of the incredible birds, plants, and landscapes behind the lens of a novice naturalist. 

If you have made it this far and enjoyed the pictures, you can always check out the the gallery The Birds of Southern Texas, or more broadly Birds From Across the United States!

These images are from a variety of locations including:

Estero Llano Grande, Bentsen Rio Grande Valley, Olivea Park, Sable Palms Sanctuary, Laguna Madre World Birding Center, South Padre Island Convention Center, Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge, and Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge. Many of these locations are discussed in this post from 2014.

Night Divine at the 2015 World Ice Art Competition

As you walk through the fairyland of ice art sculptures at the World Ice Art Competition, it feels like you may be in the trophy room of the White Witch From C.S. Lewis’ “The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe”. Perfectly carved features of animals and humans etched in ice blocks provide never ending visual splendor.

The show provides insight into cultural preferences and beliefs, as well as “what the artists finds interesting”. High diversity is not surprising considering 100 artists are competing from over 30 countries. Serpents, meditation, the superbowl, super heroes, mermaids, and sea life were just a fraction of the pieces and viewpoints presented by artists competing in abstract and realistic categories of the single-block and multi-block competitions. In many cases, the carvers are from regions not associated with ice; it would be interesting to talk to Brazilian or Middle-eastern carver to understand how they got started!

Single Block

Single block carvers are given a one 8x5x3′ block of ice and 60 hours. From the point the time starts, carvers work around the clock to finish their work in teams as large as four. The single block style demands that ice be used wisely. Economically it is in high demand with a limited supply! Artists often create sculptures over 10 feet  from the 8 foot block. It requires precise cutting of the ice which is then welded together. As the sculptures grow out and up, many of them seem to balance on their pedestals precariously, and with impossible precision. Some of the most impressive sculptures extend 4 feet in any direct around the base. If the sculpture were to tip the fragile fingers of lizards, noses of swordfish, and tails of tigers would be sheered off. However, these artists know that with high risk comes high reward. Taking first place in a competition such as this a source of pride and accomplishment when competing against some of the best in the world!

The diversity of carving techniques and attention to detail makes this competition special. A basilisk lizard feature below had skin which was textured using a method to make it bulge and pop three dimensionally. A purple lion fish had huge fin rays a mere inch thick etched with textures so real that if the fish had swam away you would not have been surprised, but would have simply stepped aside to let it pass.

The images below capture only some of single block competition sculptures. The event space allows 40 entrants to the competition. One of the hardest things to capture is the size of these sculptures. Keep in mind that most are 6 feet tall minimum, and may extend to 10 feet!

Multi-Block

Multi-block carvers are given ten 6x4x3′ blocks and 132 carving hours. The final creations glued together from multiple pieces of ice may tower 20 feet tall! A caveat of the competition is no equipment may be used to move the ice pieces, but you are allowed help from other teams. Sounds a bit like assembling the pyramids!

It is impossible to capture in an image the scale of these projects horizontally and vertically.  For instance the purple dragon featured below its dimensions are about 12’tall x 12′ long x 4′ wide. An absolutely stunning piece! The scence of the ship being taken down by the Kracken extends nearly 25 feet!

The experience of the World Ice Art competition is well worth the price of admission. By the time you have walked through all of the sites, your imagination will be popping neurons as you consider the creativity of the artists, and ponder the technical execution of these incredible pieces!

Unique Observations of an Iditarod Observer

As I stood at the start-line of the Iditarod in Fairbanks it occurred to me that we, the crowd, were all having the same experience. Each of us attended the start-line to see 78 mushers set out to tackle the “Great Last Race”, which was beginning in Fairbanks for only the 2nd time in the race’s 43 year history. Our fingers, toes and nose were all going numb from -3 degree temps, the same orange fence separated us from the teams in “the chute”, and many of the same looking,gloved hands were getting into our shots attempting to capture the moment. Not only were we having the same physical experience, but we recorded it in similar ways. Hundreds of cameras, phones, and TV crews captured the racers from every possible angle and moment. Each image owner would go home or on air to syndicate their message to friends and family. They would all be reporting on the dogs as athletes (a very true statement), the goals of the mushers, the logistics of a changed trail, and snow conditions. So what could I do that would be unique?

I stopped staring through my camera’s viewfinder and focused on the moment I was in. I watched the cheering people, barking dogs, loaded sleds, and lined up cars. My observations of them are unique, much more so than any photo I could capture that day. There were many stories to tell as I looked around; these are my unique observations of the Iditarod start.

On Mushers

Mushers are a diverse group of people, and the Iditarod attracts mushers from across the world and cultures. During the morning, the only time the expectant audience got to meet the musher was as they approached the starting line. All of the mushers had their team brought through the “chute” by a group of handlers. The chute is the equivalent of a sports team dashing through a tunnel behind their mascot. As they passed through, some of the mushers wanted to incite the crowds. One of these goofballs was the “Mortician” (when not running the Iditarod he runs a funeral home) who raised his hands asking for cheers. He was certainly enjoying the moment! Others were stoic and seemed to be thinking of the race ahead as they stared at the lead dogs. However, regardless of personality, if you were lucky enough to make eye contact with the driver and grin, every musher would surly give you a smile a nod back. If they heard your cheers of “Good Luck!”, they would reply with a grateful, “thank-you”. Mushers, it seems to me, are the salt of the land and are just generally good people.

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“The Mortician” makes his way with a cart-full of family down the chute and to the starting line.

On Dogs

The dogs are excited to run. Very, very excited! Their bays reverberated off the surround areas in gruff, whining, or rapid tone. This year’s Iditarod had 78 mushing teams. A team is composed of 16 dogs, meaning there are 1248 dogs minimum at the race! If all of the teams made it to Nome, the dogs would have accumulated 1,216,800 miles total over the 975 mile course. The Arctic Circle is 10,975 miles in circumference meaning in “dog miles” they would run around the whole Arctic Circle 110 times – such an incredible feat! One of the greatest focuses of the race is the celebration of the dogs as athletes. Although the endurance and mental fortitude of the racers is paramount, the ability for the dogs to get through the race is what determines if a musher makes it to Nome!

Observers get a great opportunity to see the excitement of the dogs as they are brought out by 10 – 12 handlers with leads clipped to the gang-line. There were several times that the dogs were able to topple the teams of handlers with their eager bursts forward, it was in those moment I realized just how POWERFUL a full team of dogs is!! If the dogs felt they had to chance to run they took it, and a 16 dog team is like a wrecking ball that has just been released. It is pretty hard to stop, and gains momentum fast! I can only imagine the thrill of taking off from the starting gate like a drag racer under the strain of a fresh team!

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An excited sled dog leaps into the air and gives his partner a friendly poke in the eye.
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An intense look ahead – this dog is ready to run!
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I love the blue eyes of some sled dogs!
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Some dogs need more protection than others from the elements. a front jacket and booties for this excited dog!

On the Atmosphere

The attendees of the Iditarod do it because they want to be there. They want to see the mushers, hear the excited dogs, and watch the amazing fur hats of people. Wait, “fur hats”, you’re thinking? Yes! The large and ornate fox, raccoon, seal, and wolverine hats and garments are a staple of any mushing event. Bobbing tails and swinging claws are held above the hairline and temples of many warm heads. The designs of these lavish head warmers will make you smile! Fur has a long history in the sport, any musher knows that a wolverine “ruff” is indispensable for keeping the frost from building up around your face during a long run.

Young, old, rookie, veteran, construction worker, nurse, well dressed, sweatpants : the start of the Iditarod is a conglomerations of diverse observers. There are many who made the trek to Fairbanks because they had never been there before. And I have no doubt that some of the attendees had seen nearly every start in 43 years. Everyone was enthusiastic, and after the countdown of “5!…4… 3!!…2…1!” rang out from hundreds of voices for every musher the crowd cheered as they rocketed away. With  mushers coming down the shoot at exactly two minutes apart the enthusiasm of the crowd was evident when they were still cheering to the last one!

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Throughout the day I did shot some video capturing the excitement of the dogs. This short 90 second montage brings you to the front-line of the Iditarod, and highlights cheering crowds and baying dogs.

The chance to see the start of the Iditarod was truly a lifetime experience! If you ever have the opportunity to see the first hand the out pouring of community support, love the sport, excitement of the dogs, and dedication of the mushers I suggest you jump at the opportunity.

On the Frontline with the Aurora

As fast I could muster, my batteries, cards, camera, and tripod were quickly gathered for my unplanned trip. With my boots pulled on and winter clothes layered, I hurried to my truck, started the engine, and backed out out of my spot without even letting the engine warm. I justified that it was worth the wear and tear on the vehicle because it was imperative to hurry out of Fairbanks to see what I hoped would be a stunning aurora. My justifications ended up being correct, but I didn’t know I was in for my most memorable night of the aurora season. 

During the afternoon, snow had been falling heavily, and was forecasted to do so through the evening with strong winds in tow. Cloud cover was going to hide the effects of a G1 storm from solar winds emitting from a coronal hole. However, in opposition to the forecast, the skies opened up and revealed crimson red and shining green, and resulted in my rapid exodus from the house. Knowing that the aurora can disappear as quickly as it starts, I was anxious to reach my shooting spot on Old Murphy Dome Road.

The wind shook the truck as I parked, and snow laid down during the afternoon was transformed into biting crystals which targeted and stung any open skin; they were catalyzed by 30 mile per hour winds which gusted to 45. However, it was easy to forget the inconvenience of the wind, because my focus was on the aurora which stretched in front of me. Spanning across the sky it shimmered and danced, and patches of the heavens were lit in crimson red. Grabbing my camera, and stuffing some extra batteries into a chest pocket, I descended through thigh deep snow and set up my tripod. I simultaneously clicked my shutter and watched the sky. Aurora photography is a pretty active endeavor. I always make sure to address any “greener pastures”, so as the aurora constantly waxed and waned in front of me I fiddled constantly with camera settings and position.

As I sat and watched the aurora the most extraordinary thing happened : it went completely dark. I do not mean the aurora, I mean the whole landscape. I had not considered how bright the moon was until the clouds smothered its light. In fact, as I watched the dazzling light of the moon reappear, I realized I was on the edge of the weather and cloud front which appeared to be divided by the ridge line of Old Murphy Dome. Low clouds over the ridge line were pushed northeast by the howling winds like race cars, and applied a filter to the moon’s light as they moved past with a kaleidoscopic effect. The moon beams were composed of euphoria, or at least they must have been, because that is what I felt as I watched the soft moonlight dance across the snow like rays of the sun. Wave after wave of moonlight started to the south and passed over me. For ninety minutes I sat on the edge of the frontline, and the clouds provided opposing motion to the fluid dance of the aurora. It was amazing to consider that the solar winds which controlled the aurora, also created the wind on the ground which was still pushing up clouds of biting crystals.

I have never been in a more dynamic nightscape. The pushing wind, racing clouds, dancing aurora, and light of the moon were a pleasure to be a part of. The chance that I would sit along such a dynamic front may never happen again!

A timelapse of being on the “front line” during tonight’s aurora show. Note those moving clouds and the ground-storm:

Below is a gallery of the “snow storm” and the “aurora storm” from today. Be sure to click on images to enlarge them.

A downy woodpecker looks on at the snow falls.
A downy woodpecker looks on at the snow falls.
It is going to take more than a little snow to stop a feisty red-squirrel!
It is going to take more than a little snow to stop a feisty red-squirrel!
A Black-capped Chicadee hunkers down in the snow
A Black-capped Chicadee hunkers down in the snow
A spruce tree bears the burden of the winter
A spruce tree bears the burden of the winter