2009 Hein Natural History Photography Calendar

Each Fall I create a unique limited-edition calendar containing some of my favorite images captured during the past year. I try to include a mixture of landscapes, plants, and animals and also try to match the image with the season as best I can. The calendar is printed single-sided on 8.5×11″ cover stock and is spiral bound at the top. I only print a small number of these unique calendars.

2009 Hein Natural History Photography Calendar

I also create a separate “Images of Diablo” calendar for Save Mount Diablo that is a gift to supporters who make an end of year donation of $250 or more.
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Pelagic Birding Trips to the Cordell Bank

The Cordell Bank National Marine Sanctuary

A few times a year Claudia and I join a group of friends on a pelagic birding/wildlife trip from Bodega Bay into the Cordell Bank National Marine Sanctuary. The Cordell Bank is a seamount located 18 nautical miles due west of the Point Reyes Lighthouse that rises to within 115 feet of the surface. Rich ocean currents and upwelling around the Bank make it a spectacular destination for pelagic wildlife observation.

Whenever you visit the Cordell Bank, there is also the possibility that you might encounter an extreme rarity – for example the Northern Hemisphere’s first record of Great-winged Petrel occurred on one of these trips.

Pelagic Trips to the Cordell Bank

These trips aboard the 65-foot New Sea Angler typically depart at 7:00 AM from the Port ‘O Bodega. The ride out to the Cordell Bank usually takes 2.5 to 3 hours depending on the wind, the sea conditions, and whether or not we get distracted by wildlife along the way. If the seas cooperate, we will sometimes head even farther west to deep water hoping to find seabirds that resist visiting nearer to shore. It is not uncommon to spend 10-12 hours on the water.

Our trips are privately organized, but Debi Shearwater (Shearwater Journeys) runs commercial trips to the Cordell Bank aboard The New Sea Angler several times a year.

The New Sea Angler

The Bodega Bay Data Buoy

As our friend Rich says, the Pacific Ocean usually isn’t (pacific that is). During the summer months there is often a continuous 15-25 knot northwest wind. The combination of wind and the swell it helps create can result in uncomfortable conditions for humans trapped on board a small boat for 10-12 hours. For those (like me) who fight seasickness, the sea conditions will largely determine what kind of day we will have.

For better or worse, you can easily monitor the nearshore weather conditions from the comfort of your home. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) maintains a series of coastal data buoys that transmit the current sea and weather conditions to the National Data Buoy Center web site. Here is a link to the Bodega Bay data buoy web site:


In a perfect world, you would like to have wind speed less than 10 knots (but you want some wind so that the seabirds will be flying), wave height less than 5 feet, and the wave period as long as possible. It is rarely a perfect world…

A 3-Meter Discus Data Buoy
(photo from the NOAA/National Data Buoy Center web site)

Our Trip on 11/16/2008

Did I just say “it is rarely a perfect world…”? On Sunday, November 16th, we arrived at the Port ‘O Bodega at 6:30 AM, and I almost threw up as soon as I got out of the car. I had been fighting a stomach problem for the last day and it had not gotten any better (and the early start and anticipation of a pelagic trip never helps a questionable stomach). Although I considered bailing out, friends convinced me that I should suck it up and give it a try. After all it would be at most, only 10 hours of misery.

Sometimes you just get lucky…

The seas were calm, there was enough wind to keep seabirds in the air, and the light was good for photography and visibility. In the first couple couple of hours we observed seven species of Shearwater (Sooty, Pink-footed, Flesh-footed, Black-vented, Manx, Buller’s, and Short-tailed). We also encountered semi-rarities like Laysan Albatross and Tufted Puffin in addition to many of the expected “usual suspects”.

At one point we stopped, shut off the engine and could see and hear 20-30 Humpback Whales all around the boat – sometimes seeing ten “blows” at once. We also saw Blue Whales (and felt their underwater calls through the hull), had Pacific White-sided Dolphins and Dall’s Porpoises surfing the bow wake, and watched a pod of six Orcas and their encounter with some nearby Humpback Whales. It was a glorious day at the Cordell Bank!

Mini Photo Gallery

You can also view more photos from this trip on my main web site:


Shearwaters: Flesh-footed, Pink-footed, and Buller’s

Albatross: Black-footed, and Laysan

Alcids: Cassin’s Auklet and Tufted Puffin

Mammals: Pacific White-sided Dolphins, Orcas, and Humpback Whales

Our friends on board the New Sea Angler enjoying the
unusually calm seas and wildlife of the Cordell Bank

Comments on Pelagic Bird Photography

Pelagic bird photography has to be one of the most difficult disciplines of wildlife photography. While standing on a moving deck (sometimes pitching violently) in windy, rainy, and/or overcast, low-light conditions, you must try to locate, frame, and focus on fast-moving seabirds in order to capture sharp images. You are often either seasick, or trying not to become so (and peering through a camera viewfinder doesn’t help). The “keeper rate” is very low – suffice it to say I have many images of a sharp ocean and an out-of-focus, poorly-framed seabird. However, occasionally the gods smile on you and you are blessed with a combination of calm seas, light winds, and good light.

For pelagic bird photography, I am currently using a Nikon D2X digital SLR with a 300mm f/2.8 lens and a 1.4x teleconverter, which results in a 420mm f/4 lens. This is a heavy combination, but it can still be hand held and it provides an extra stop of light over other lenses with a maximum aperture of f/5.6 that are commonly used for pelagic bird photography. The extra stop helps with auto focusing in low-light conditions and allows a faster shutter speed to be used.

I usually also bring along a second camera body with a mid-range zoom lens to take photos of marine mammals that might come close to the boat (bow-riding porpoises and dolphins for example).

Additional Links:

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Nature’s Beloved Son: John Muir’s Botanical Legacy

Claudia and I attended a release reception for a new book this past week: “Nature’s Beloved Son: John Muir’s Botanical Legacy”, published by Heyday Books. The book documents a lesser known aspect of Muir’s work – his interest in botany and the botanical specimens that he collected during his travels. The book’s authors are Bonnie Gisel and Stephen Joseph.

Stephen Joseph is a friend and fellow photographer who is known for his stunning panoramas of Mount Diablo. Stephen spent years photographing and scanning Muir’s actual botanical specimens borrowed from herbarea around the world. As you can imagine, some of the specimens were in very poor shape, so he had to spend many hours digitally “repairing” them in Photoshop. The results are spectacular.

Bonnie Gisel is a Muir scholar and environmental historian who is also curator of the LeConte Memorial Lodge in Yosemite National Park. Bonnie contributed her extensive knowledge of Muir’s writings and his travels and interspersed that wonderful history with Stephen’s photos.

Heyday Books, did a magnificent job designing the book. The first printing will likely sell out quickly, so if you are at all interested, you should try and get your hands on a copy of this unique book sooner rather than later.

Additional Links:

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Memories of Alaska: Gambell and Wasilla

All the recent political talk about Sarah Palin, Wasilla Alaska, and what constitutes foreign policy experience got me thinking about our last trip to Alaska in June of 2004. One of the places we visited on that trip was the Alaskan village of Gambell, which is situated on the northwest tip of St. Lawrence Island.

The Gambell Alaska Post Office (Claudia Hein)

St. Lawrence Island is located in the middle of the Bering Sea, and although it is part of Alaska, it is actually closer to Russia (35-40 miles) than it is to mainland Alaska. On clear days you can, in fact, see Russia from Gambell (but not from Wasilla, Anchorage, or Juneau).

Map showing St. Lawrence Island located between
mainland Alaska and Russia
(Google Maps)

View of Russia taken through the window of the plane on
final approach into Gambell.

Gambell is a Yup’ik Eskimo village of about 800 people and is a destination for birders due to its proximity to Russia/Asia and the possibility of seeing Asian birds like this Common Ringed Plover, which are rare in the US:

Common Ringed Plover at Gambell, Alaska

Gambell is also known for spectacular colonies of nesting seabirds like these Least and Crested Auklets:

Adorable Least Auklets on Gambell’s Seabird Cliffs

Crested Auklets on Gambell’s Seabird Cliffs

Our trips to Alaska have also included multiple stays in Wasilla (Editorial Note: Sarah Palin was mayor of Wasilla when we visited in 2000. She was chair of the Alaska Oil and Gas Conservation Commission when we visited in 2004 and was elected Governor in 2006. To our knowledge, she has never actually visited Gambell, Little Diomede Island, or any other place where you can actually see Russia from Alaska – not that this really matters in the grand scheme of things.)

Wasilla is a convenient place for a stop over on the way to or from Denali National Park and other destinations in the interior of Alaska like the spectacular old Denali Highway that runs between Cantwell and Paxson.

Denali Highway Reflections

Tangle Lakes along the Denali Highway

Lesser Yellowlegs near Paxson, Alaska

More Alaska Galleries:



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Open Space an Important Factor in National Ranking

A recent story in the Contra Costa Times reported on US News and World Report ranking Walnut Creek as one of the best places to retire in the United States:

A moderate climate combined with roughly 2,700 acres of open space and other attributes landed Walnut Creek a spot on the national magazine’s list of cities that offer “ample opportunities for active retirees to focus on their physical and mental health.”

Access to a large amount of open space was one of the important factors in the ranking. In fact, Walnut Creek residents enjoy quick and easy access to a number of large, adjacent parks including Lime Ridge Open Space (jointly owned with the City of Concord), Shell Ridge Open Space, Castle Rock Regional Recreation Area, Diablo Foothills Regional Park, and Mount Diablo State Park.

The City of Concord has the opportunity to take similar advantage of adjacent open space by supporting a large, world-class Regional Park as part of the reuse plan for the Concord Naval Weapons Station (in the interest of full disclosure, I am a member of the Community Advisory Committee for Concord’s reuse planning process).

Large Regional Parks obviously provide much more than “dirt and weeds” (as some Concord City Council members seem to think). In addition to the recreational and interpretive benefits, easy access to large public open space can also bring local, regional, and even national recognition to a city as a desirable place to live, work, and retire.

Lime Ridge Open Space
Walnut Creek, California

Shell Ridge Open Space
Walnut Creek, California

Hikers on the Kovar Trail overlooking Walnut Creek at
the start of Save Mount Diablo’s “Four Days Diablo” hike.

Additional Links
Walnut Creek Open Space Foundation
Concord Commnity Reuse Project

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Support East Bay Regional Park District’s Measure WW

From Save Mount Diablo’s E-News:

If you live in Alameda or Contra Costa County, the most important thing you can do to help our local environment this year: Vote Yes for Measure WW.

Measure WW will not raise your taxes. It will fund Regional Park acquisitions, open space preservation, new parks and trails for walking, hiking and biking, environmental maintenance, and the rehabilitation of aging park facilities, wildlife habitat restoration, and more.

Measure WW is a local measure and requires a two-thirds approval. It is close to the bottom of the ballot and a long list of other measures, so we need everyone to make sure they remember it and talk to their friends.

Additional Links:

Yes for Parks Web Site

SMDs Latest Newsletter Article on WW and EBRPD

Mount Diablo from the Stewartville Trail
Black Diamond Mines Regional Preserve

Summer Buckeye Grove
Morgan Territory Regional Preserve

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Fall is Here!

According to the calendar and the morning news, fall arrived at 8:44 AM this morning when the sun’s path crossed the equator (the Autumnal Equinox). However, Claudia and I use a different metric based on observations of the natural world – in our case, fall begins with the arrival of the first White-crowned Sparrows to our back yard.

White-crowned Sparrow

According to my records over the last 14 years, we have seen or heard our first back yard White-crowned Sparrow somewhere between September 19th and September 28th. However, this variation in arrival dates is probably due more to poor observation on our part than to the bird’s migration habits – I believe the actual variation in arrival dates to be much smaller.

We happened to be home for most of this weekend, and paid particular attention to the sights and sounds coming from our back yard as we went about our chores. Although we did have one relatively unusual sighting at our feeders (a migrant Black-headed Grosbeak), for the most part it was the “usual suspects” who have been with us for the summer: Mourning Doves, House Finches, California Towhees, Western Scrub Jays, Northern Mockingbirds, etc. However, this morning (September 22nd, 2008), I knew that fall had officially arrived when I heard the first White-crowned Sparrow singing outside our window at dawn. I didn’t need to look at the calendar to know fall was here – it was singing to me from all directions as I walked outside to retrieve the morning newspaper.

That song will be with us through the winter into late spring when the sparrows leave, seemingly as suddenly as they arrived, for their breeding territory to the north (we have heard that same song emanating from willow thickets in Alaska during early June). Until then, we will simply enjoy their company and this reminder of one of nature’s patterns that continues on around us (or maybe in spite of us) as we go about our busy lives.

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The New California Academy of Sciences Museum

Claudia and I were in line at 8:15 this morning for a member’s preview of the new California Academy of Sciences museum in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park. The new museum is spectacular.

The most exciting new exhibit is the rain forest dome. The photo below shows the Amazon flooded forest tunnel, which is at the bottom of the rain forest dome (you can see the walkways spiraling up to the top of the rain forest canopy at the top of the photo). The Rain Forest exhibit holds a variety of tropical birds, butterflies, reptiles, amphibians, and insects. Among the birds in the rain forest dome, I recognized both Violaceous Euphonia and Silver-beaked Tanager from our trip last winter to the Asa Wright Nature Center in Trinidad.

The Amazon flooded forest tunnel.

The Rain Forest dome.

The Water Planet exhibit.

The California Coast exhibit.

The Cal Academy will reopen to the public with a free day on Saturday, September 27th, 2008.

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Launching the Heinphoto Blog…

I am launching this blog to supplement my photo web site as a place to post photos, personal thoughts, and other content that doesn’t fit into my photo galleries.

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