Whale Tales!

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Ocean Light II

In August we boarded the Ocean Light II, a 71 ft sailboat for a one-week trip off the northern tip of Vancouver Island with the primary objective of photographing marine mammals.  It was our first time exploring this remote region but we had booked the trip two years in advance to insure we were going at peak season and had the best opportunity to catch some action so we could tell some tales of our own!

We were NOT disappointed!!!

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Area of exploration

This patch of ocean had a lot of activity!   Within the first twenty four hours we had seen a plethora of life, including a variety of birds (click here for our dedicated post on the bird action).

One of our favourite shorebirds are black oystercatchers.  Despite their name, they seldom eat oysters and instead forage for limpets and mussels which an oystercatcher can easily and quickly pry open with the sharp jabs of their bill tips.  The birds are also known to “sneak up” on open mussels, quickly stab their beaks between the shells, sever the muscle and quickly swallow it.

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Black Oyster Catchers

Another favourite are the cute harbour seals lounging on the rocks.  Harbor seals come in brown, silvery white, tan, or gray.

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They tend to stick to familiar resting spots, generally rocky areas where they are protected from adverse weather conditions and predation, near a foraging area.

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And now for the star of the show!!!

We had hoped to see a breaching whale, but never dreamed we would be blessed with a “serial” breacher!!!  This particular individual gave us an amazing show, repeatedly breaching over 8 times!  As massive as they are, a breach happens lightening fast and trying to capture it on film or video is a challenge!  Here are some of the best in show!

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Breach #1

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Breach #2

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Breach #3

Humpbacks are very acrobatic, often breaching high out of the water and then slapping the water as they come back down. Sometimes they spin 180 – 360 degrees around while breaching. Scientists do not know why wales do this — it may be purely for play, a form of communication or may be used to loosen skin parasites.

We managed to get a fantastic video (filmed in slow motion 4K video) doing a 360 degree spin!  We hope you enjoy it as much as we did!

 

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Breach #4

 

At least 3 different species of barnacles are commonly found on both the flippers and the body of the humpback whale. A humpback whale can have up to a thousand pounds of these barnacles attached to it!  It is also home for a species of whale lice called Camus boopis.

They can also swim on their backs with both flippers in the air.

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Whale swimming on its back doing pectoral slaps

 

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Tale Slap

If the whales were the star of the show then Northern Vancouver  Island gets the People’s Choice Award for best set.  The scenery was truly breathtaking and sometimes it was difficult to know what to concentrate on.

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We hope you enjoyed our “Whale Tale” and thought we would leave you with a little teaser of what Part II will feature.

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Can anyone guess what creature this is???

Marcy & Ray Stader
StaderArt

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Top 3 Things to do around Panama City!

With an upcoming trip to Panama City in less than three weeks, our thoughts have turned to the tropics.  Panama City is an energetic cosmopolitan city where you can enjoy fine dining, shopping and a plethora of city attractions.  But take a quick trip outside the city and you are immersed in nature and you feel like you have entered another world.

Our top three things to do around Panama City

Monkey Island

Monkeys are fascinating creatures and a trip to Monkey Island is an absolute must for any visitor to Panama.  Located in Gatun Lake (which forms a large part of the Panama Canal), it’s about a one hour drive from the city.  You can easily arrange a tour of Monkey Island through a travel agency in the city (and they will often include other attractions to make a full day trip) or you can drive to the boat launch on Gatun Lake and hire a local fisherman to take you out.  Ironically, it is not an island at all but is comprised of a number of small islands and shoreline around Gatun Lake that are are home to a variety of species.

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White-faced Capuchin checking us out as we approached in the boat

White-faced capuchins are very acrobatic and intelligent–they have learned what an approaching boat signifies as they have been fed by the locals and tour operators for years.  Food is the universal unifier among all animals, including humans–providing some very close encounters with these curious animals!    A simple offering of pineapple to this Capuchin and the expression on his/her face says it all…

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Connecting with a White-faced Capuchin

 

Geoffrey’s Tamarin monkeys are really unique looking with a distinguishing white mohawk and goblin-like ears–they kind of resemble Gizmo in the Gremlins movie but are quirky and seldom seen.  On this particular day we encountered a small troop of them and captured some cool shots!  These monkeys are only found in Panama and Colombia and are also known as the Panamanian Tamarin, Red-crested Tamarin and Rufous-naped Tamarin.  This little guy had some serious attitude sticking his tongue out at us!

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Geoffrey’s Tamarin

 

Insider Tip:  Go early!  Like most animals they are most active in the morning and are lazy in the afternoon after all the boats have exchanged their fruitful bounty for photo ops.

 

Casco Viejo

Casco Viejo (Spanish for Old Quarter) is the old historic district of Panama – and it’s got quite a spicy history too!  Built and settled in 1673, after Welsh pirate Captain Henry Morgan sacked the original city, Casco Viejo went into a state of disrepair and by the 1950’s it was in pretty bad shape; however, starting approxamitely 20 years ago, the old town has being painstakingly revitalized one building at a time.

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Casco Viejo was designated a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1997

Casco has a vibrant atmosphere, narrow cobblestone streets and beautiful architecture that is a mix of Spanish, French, Colonial with a pinch of Neoclassic design thrown in.  While walking the streets you feel as though you could be in a European city or New Orleans, but all the while it has its own special latin Panamanian vibe.

There are many plazas with large beautiful trees, park benches, small cafes, boutique hotels, and chic restaurants lining the perimeter.  The main square is called Plaza de la Indepencia and it features the impressive Metropolitan Cathedral.

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Metropolitan Cathedral at Plaza de la Indepencia

Casco is an eclectic mix of traditional and modern culture.  Plaza Francia at the very tip of Casco Viejo, has many arts and crafts on display by various indiginous groups, such as this lady from the very colorful Guna group from the San Blas islands on the Caribbean side of Panama.

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Lady from the Guna indigenous people in traditional dress

 

Casco Viejo stands in stark contrast to the very modern skyscraper studded skyline of Panama City.  We took this photo on our very first trip to Panama in 2006, before the ring road around Casco Viejo was built and before many of the skyscrapers were finished.

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The modern city in 2006 as seen from Casco Viejo

 

Insider Tip:  If you are a first-time visitor to Panama, take a taxi or the red hop-on hop-off busses if you plan to visit Casco Viejo.  The maze of narrow one-way streets and lack of parking can make it a stressful experience to drive!

The Panama Canal

We have been to the Panama Canal at least half a dozen time over the past 10 years and it never gets old – many guide books rate this the top “must see” in the country.  The Canal is the economic lifeblood of Panama and it is an amazing feat of human engineering.

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Photo taken from Ancon Hill.  Miraflores locks are in the foreground, Pedro Miguel locks in the middle/right of the image, and a ship passes under the Centennial bridge in the background.

 

There is nothing like standing on the observation deck at the Miraflores Locks watching a massive ship squeeze into the locks with only a few feet to spare on either side.  Even better is to have dinner at the Miraflores locks and watch the ships enter and exit the locks all night long.

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A massive cargo ship is being lowered in the locks

 

With the opening of the new larger locks and widened canal only a few months ago, we are excited to visit the canal on our next trip to see ships with 2.5x the tonnage transiting the canal!

Insider Tip:  Get there before the tour buses deposit hoards of people and lines swell!

 

Thanks for reading!
Marcy & Ray Stader

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The Icefields Parkway – Beyond the Glaciers

The Icefields Parkway, in Alberta’s Canadian Rockies, is one of Canada’s national treasures.  We spend a lot of time in the mountains every year and the 232 km road stretching through the heart of The Rockies is always one of our favourite areas. Of course, the Columbia Icefields (the largest icefield in the rocky mountains of North America) is the namesake attraction along the parkway, but beyond the glaciers and ice, this magnificent journey through Banff and Jasper has a lot to offer those in search of beautiful landscapes and wildlife.

As you start driving the Icefields Parkway from the south end near Lake Louise, within 3 km you will come across a little gem called Herbert Lake.  It’s easy to miss because there are no signs for the lake and there isn’t a proper place to pull over with  your vehicle, but it is very much worth making the effort to check out – especially when you have a picture perfect morning with fog hanging over the lake like we had on this day.

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Herbert Lake

Love bears???  The parkway contains  prime bear habitat for both black bears and the mighty grizzly bear.  If you want to see wildlife, early (very early) morning always gives you the best chance.  One morning we came across this massive male grizzly bear eating dandelions along the road.  We watched him for about 15 minutes and he made direct eye contact with us several times (which is why we always photograph from the safety of the vehicle).  Grizzly bears can reach 48 km/h from a standing start and can cover a distance of 100 m (327 feet) in 6 seconds!

This is one of our most memorable encounters because he was a BIG male, the lighting was perfect and the dandelions added a soft, dream-like component!

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Field of Dreams

On a good weather day, your neck will need a massage at day’s end from all the jaw-dropping scenery, so make sure you book yourself into a spa ahead of time!  At an altitude of 1920 metres, and at the headwaters of the Bow River, the scenery around Bow Lake is exquisite.  This particular day was so beautiful we didn’t get past Bow Lake  which is located about half way up the Parkway, as we were in search of a colony of pikas that live in the rocks nearby.

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Bow Lake

The Pika is the smallest member of the rabbit family which lives in rocky areas where the climate is cool.  These guys are really cute and they make a very high pitched “eeeep!” sound – that’s usually your first clue they are in the area.  Getting a good photograph of one of them requires a lot of patience sitting in one spot motionless, waiting for them to get comfortable enough to go about their daily business, like grabbing a mouthful of grass and taking it back to the den!

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Pika

This is merely a small taste of what the Icefields Parkway has to offer and we’ll be sharing more images from this amazing part of the world in the near future.

Thanks for reading!
Marcy & Ray Stader

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Royal Reflections

Palau, West Pacific

Marcy was in the midst of styling her hair for dinner when Ray came crashing through the door, emphatically yelling, “Marcy, you have to come NOW–this is the most amazing sunset!” Hair half pinned, Marcy threw on the first thing she could find, grabbed her camera and was out the door.

The sky was a kaleidoscope of blazing colour, so we quickly scouted the area and were drawn by the perfect palm trees and reflections in the pool. We set up and started shooting and soon after, other people started to take notice.  We were glad we were the first on the scene because soon the area was crowded with people and getting a “clean” shot without someone in the frame was impossible.

It is, without a doubt, one of the most memorable sunsets we’ve ever experienced…
We had just finished two and a half weeks of intensive diving with Adventures in Scuba (one of Calgary’s best dive shops) and decided to take a few days of R&R at the Palau Pacific Resort before continuing to Chuuk to do some wreck diving. It was a spectacular way to end the first segment of the trip.

An hour later we finally made it to dinner (which was great), but if you ask us what we ate we can’t recall the details.  The sunset was the quinissential “moment in time” we will always remember.

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Royal Reflections (Palau, November 24, 2013)


Marcy & Ray Stader

StaderArt

Faces of Nepal – Part 1

Candid portraits – a guileless moment of naked sincerity when you feel like you’ve captured the spirit of a subject – those are our favorite.  When we published the image of Beny Wilson in Sometimes Misfortune is a Blessing in Disguise—Discovery of Birding, we were surprised by the volume of email we received requesting more portraits to be included in our blog.

Nepal offered exceptional opportunities for this type of photography when we embarked on a three-week trek in the Nar-Phu region of Annapurna.  We were privileged to capture some of the unique faces that personify these diverse Himalayan cultures.  These photos are some of our personal favorites and have never been published before, so we hope you enjoy them as much as we do!

 

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Weathered Wisdom

Buddhist New Year is one of the most exciting annual events in the Kathmandu Valley and we were honoured to be invited to participate in the local festivities. Seated on a stone courtyard floor under a sheet-metal overhang, we shared food with the locals as the religious procession wound its way up to the small monastery in the rain.  As with most moments in time… when time stands still… the rain stopped, the sun appeared, and this old lady stepped from the shadows into the light clutching her prayer beads.  The lines on her face and hands stood out in bold relief and told the story of someone who had weathered many years and had gained an immense amount of wisdom.

 

Modern Man

Modern Man

Walking through the village of Phu is like taking a two-thousand year step back in time. Many homes do not have running water or electricity, and are constructed from very simple materials. The texture and colour in this scene were so incredibly coordinated and striking, it literally stopped us in our tracks. The juxtaposition of old and new was poignant and the man’s face looked as tan and leathered as the animal hide he was repairing. The running shoes and modern sunglasses were the epitome of the “Modern Man” in Phu!

 

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Namaste

While trekking we passed through a beautiful rural area lined with colourful houses and verdant fields.  Unbeknownst to us, this stunning lady was the sister of one of our porters.  Upon seeing our group approaching she enthusiastically waited at the fence to greet her brother and say “Namaste” as he passed, a warm Himalayan welcome that was felt by all of us.
Marcy & Ray Stader

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Sometimes Misfortune is a Blessing in Disguise – Discovery of Birding

Panama Professional Bird Guide

16C_1032-1-2(Beny Wilson, Panama Bird Guide:  507-6112-2082,  veniciowilson@gmail.com)

When we first met Beny 2 years ago we were not avid birders… Ray had suffered a back injury that required us to change our usual activities to something more “tame.” A friend suggested we might like birding because of our interest in wildlife–we were skeptical but decided to give it a try and Panama seemed like the perfect place.

After our first 8-hour day on the famous Pipeline Road, dripping with sweat and swatting bugs that had no respect for bug spray, we weren’t sure what to think… until we downloaded our memory card and started looking at the pictures we took.  Suddenly those small, twitchy creatures jumped out of the screen in amazing detail, allowing us a small glimpse into the avian world – we were hooked!

Location: Summit Ponds

16A_3227 1-1-2.jpg(Blue-crowned Motmot.  Sometimes birds surprise you and come so close, they are almost out of the focal range of the lens, but the detail you can capture is mind-blowing!)

16A_3837 1-1.jpg(Male Crimson-backed Tanager.  These birds are quite common in Panama, but the colour is so vibrant we never tire of watching them.)

Location: Ammo Pond

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Beny has the eyes of a hawk and a guide of his caliber can make such a difference.  When he starts acting like a kid at Christmas, you know you have been gifted something special, like when he spotted a Yellow-breasted Crake at Ammo Pond.  These birds are extremely rare–the last time Beny saw one was three years ago!

16A_3591 2(Yellow-breasted Crake.  We would normally not include such a “bad” photo in our blog but the rarity of this bird made it an exception.  Due to the dense vegetation of its habitat it is very difficult to see, much less photograph.  Just getting this “head shot” was a challenge.)

 

Location: La Laguna Sendero

Sometimes you get lucky and lightening strikes twice on the same day.  While hiking the Laguna Trail, Beny spotted a bird he wasn’t sure about (needless to say we were shocked).  It turned out to be a dark-phase juvenile Gray-headed Kite.  The dark phase was a “life bird” for Beny (which undoubtedly means it is also one for us)–score two!

16A_4038 1-1.jpg(Dark phase juvenile Gray-headed Kite)

16A_4130-1.jpg(Black-bellied Whistling Ducks)

As we finished the Laguna Trail we ended up by the Canal and saw several waterfowl wading about in a picturesque setting.  It was the perfect end to the perfect day.

Thinking back to the circumstances under which we first met Beny we can’t believe how our misfortune turned into such a blessing.  One that we can appreciate for many years to come!

Marcy & Ray Stader

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Sharp-tailed Grouse – So you think you can dance?

Move over Calgary Stampede, there’s a rival to your claim of being the Greatest Outdoor Show on Earth!

When we were offered a rare invitation to witness Sharp-tailed Grouse at a lek in southern Alberta, we couldn’t pass up the opportunity.  A lek is an open area where male birds carry on courtship behaviour each spring.

As this location is on private land we are not permitted to disclose the location of the lek to protect the species, but we can certainly share the experience!

Males arrive at the lek very early – around dawn.  As spectators, we had to get up at 4:15 am in order to arrive on location before sunrise so as not to disturb the birds once they start the courtship rituals.  We carefully made our way to the site and used a blind to remain hidden from the birds.

There were about 30-40 male Sharp-tailed Grouse at the lek and they were “dancing” all around the site.  Heads down, tails up, wings outstretched and stamping their feet rapidly – about 20 times per second !  We can see where all the native dancers at the Stampede got their moves from!  When you hear, and see, 30-40 grouse doing this simultaneously it is truly an amazing act of nature to witness.  Their feathers rattle, they inflate their purple neck sacks, and they make very interesting cooing and gulping sounds at the same time–much like festive Macarena dance!

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(male courtship dance at first light)

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(head down, tail up, and gyrating!)

The males were competing for dominance, as only the dominant male (or two) out of the whole group, will be selected by the females to sire the next generation.  The males faced off in head to head battles (often striking one another) until the matter was settled.

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(males facing off for dominance)

Eventually about 3 females arrived and that’s when the males really ramped up the jigging and shaking!  The females walked around slowly perusing the wares on display, selected the male that had the best moves, made quick work of the business at hand, and carried on.

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(female arrives to evaluate the dancing – note the abnormal “crossbill-like” beak)

Our lek experience lasted about 3 hours and eventually, when it was evident no more females were coming, the males became quiet and still (probably exhausted from the effort).  Just a silently as they arrived, they all flew off.

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(closeup of a male – nice eyebrows!)

It was an awesome outdoor show, one we have never been privileged to witness before!  We never cease to be amazed at the variety of wildlife and birds right here in Alberta.  We think the Sharp-tailed Grouse know how to dance 🙂

Marcy & Ray Stader

StaderArt

Great Horned Owls… In Our Yard!!!

We moved to an acreage near Spruce Meadows about two months ago.  The very next morning, while enjoying our morning coffee around 5:30am (yes, we are “early birds” lol),  we heard a soft “hoot hoot hoot” nearby.  We recognized the sound as a call from a Great Horned Owl  – we were thrilled!

Over the next few weeks this owl remained elusive. We often heard it in the wee hours of the morning but never saw it.  Then one morning something changed– there was an answer back — there were TWO owls communicating with each other!  Needless to say we were pretty excited and wondered if they had a nest somewhere nearby — although we searched we couldn’t find it.

Finally last week we had our first sighting!  We were sitting down to dinner when a large bird flew low along the back fence-line and then swooped up and landed on the very top of a 45 foot tall spruce tree.  It was dusk but we managed to snatch a few photos of the owl while perched on this high vantage point as it began its evening hunt for food.  OUR dinner got cold while all this happened 😉

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(on the tree top in low light at dusk)

This morning we were walking outside when two owls flew out of a spruce next to the house and and landed in another tree about 150 yards away.  They were perched in plain view, with good light, and we were able to capture a few good photos of this lovely owl couple 🙂

16C_0495-1(this appears to be the smaller of the two which would indicate it is the male)

16C_0571 copy-1-2(if we’re right about the male, by default this would be the female.  Any comments?)

Now the big question is… do they have a nest in the tree and do they have young ones?  We intend to find out (without bothering the owls, of course).

Stay tuned…hopefully we’ll have some photos of cute owlets soon!

Marcy & Ray Stader

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