I’ve always had a fascination with gigantic trees and I finally got the chance to see some of the most gigantic of them all in person. I went to California at the end of February. It’s home to giant coast redwood trees, beautiful coastlines, and lots of birds (many of which I don’t get to see in Ontario). My trip started with a flight from Toronto to San Francisco that was noteworthy for two reasons. Firstly, I was mistaken for a different person at US Customs. Secondly, my plane was covered in snow just prior to takeoff so I got to witness the de-icing process in its entirety.
Lester B. Pearson airport in Toronto is large enough that on a flight to the United States, you actually pass through US customs in Toronto. That sounds like a good idea and it has worked out well for me in the past. However, this trip was a little different. As I carried my camera case and laptop bag through US Customs, the gentleman asked what was in my camera case. I told him it was camera gear and he asked me the value of the contents. When I answered, he asked if I used it for any commercial purpose (which I don’t; I’m an amateur photographer). He didn’t seem to believe me so he told me to proceed to secondary inspection through another door.
The second door led to a waiting room that had six desks and room for about 50 people. There were around a dozen people waiting when I came in. I approached the first desk and was told to wait until my name was called. It is not a good feeling to know that your ability to make a scheduled flight is completely out of your control. I waited for about 20 minutes before my name was called and I got to speak one-on-one with a customs officer. He asked me how much I sold my photographs for. I reiterated that I was an amateur and do not sell my photos. His reply was “I know that you sell your photos. I’ve already looked at your website. This is not a commercial port and you will not be able to enter the United States here.” Um, what? So many thoughts raced through my head, but I remained calm and said once again that I am an amateur and don’t sell my photos. “But you’re Bob Blaney, right? I can see on your website that you sell your photos.” My legal name is Robert Kyle Blaney, but I eventually convinced the officer that I was actually Kyle and not Bob (who I learned is a professional nature photographer from Sudbury, Ontario) and I was on my way. Lessons learned! One - have proof of purchase of expensive gear with you when you cross the border. (Since this trip I have been to the Canada Border Services Agency office at CFB Trenton to fill out a Y38 form. It’s a free service where you file the serial numbers of your gear with Canada Customs so that they know when you re-enter Canada that you’re not trying to avoid paying duty. It was really easy and I recommend it.) Two - make sure you don’t get confused for someone with a similar name!
The de-icing process was another interesting experience. I’m a huge fan of the documentary series Mayday, which explains airplane disasters and what is done to ensure that similar accidents don’t happen again. (The reasons for airplane mishaps are often very similar to the reasons that large software projects fail, but that’s a story for another time and place!) One safety feature implemented as a result of the crash of Air Ontario flight 1363 is when and where de-icing occurs. They used to de-ice planes where people get on board, at the terminal. However, there were cases when a place was de-iced, then delayed on the runway prior to takeoff. The result was that ice built up on the plane as it waited to take off, making it too heavy and causing it to crash at the end of the runway. The lesson learned is that you need to de-ice a plane just prior to take off and that’s what I saw. The de-icing truck came out to our plane on the runway, hammered it with pink and purplish liquids and totally destroyed all the snow and ice on the airplane. I was in the emergency exit row right over the wing so I had a great seat. It was a good feeling to know that we probably weren’t going to crash due to a heavy aircraft.
The trip to San Franciso was uneventful and I got my luggage, picked up my rental car (a hybrid Hyandai Sonata… awesome!), and was on my way north towards Novato, California. I drove across the Golden Gate Bridge (spectacular!) and got to my hotel in Novato. It was nearing dinner time, so I decided to check out the area around my hotel. It was very close to the interstate, but also had huge fields behind it that I hoped would yield some new bird species. I was not disappointed as the first bird I saw was a Say’s Phoebe, something not usually seen east of Manitoba.
There was also a flock of House Finches scurrying around the hotel property:
I was hoping to find more new species as I ventured away from the hotel for dinner. I found a great spot for birds behind the Taco Bell in Novato (obviously… even birds are smart enough to want to be near the sweet aroma emanating from a Taco Bell). There was a little island in a tiny body of water in the Napa-Sonoma Marshes and it was full of pelicans, geese, gadwalls, gulls, cormorants, and my favourite, black-necked stilts!
The next day I headed over to Point Reyes National Seashore before sunrise and I was not disappointed. I liked this place so much that I returned two more times even though I only had four days in California. You can walk right on the San Andreas fault and see a fence that had one part separated from the other part by 16 feet during the 1989 earthquake! I spent much of my time wandering around near the Bear Valley Visitor Center, where many birds were easily seen:
Note that I found the bluebird early in the morning when there was very little light. Therefore, I had to crank up the ISO to 3200 to get a shutter speed fast enough to freeze the movement of the bird.
There was also a strange white deer which I initially thought was an albino:
Note that as with the bluebird, I had to crank up the ISO to 3200 to get a shutter speed fast enough to freeze the movement of the deer.
After my first day at Point Reyes, it was on to the stars of the show… giant redwoods! I drove north on Highway 1 along the Pacific coast and it was gorgeous! I spent my second night in Fort Bragg and on the way there I stopped to take some pictures of the coastline:
I also stopped at Western Union State Park and was disappointed that it was obviously closed. I soon found out the reason for the closure:
After Fort Bragg, I continued north on Highway 101 and opted for the Avenue of the Giants. What an amazing road! Huge redwoods everywhere, some as wide as my car, often on both sides of the road at the same time. It was spectacular!
This shot is poor, but note that I used a shutter speed of twenty seconds. Can you believe twenty seconds for a daylight photograph? That’s what was needed to get the depth of field of f/16 at ISO 100 because the area in front of the tree is in extreme shade even in the middle of the day.
Note that I had to change the ISO to 3200 and use an aperture of f/4.5 to get a shutter speed of 1/50 second that was suitable for freezing the action of my jump.
I eventually made my way to my northernmost stop, Eureka. I waited at the nearby public boat launch as my hotel room was cleaned and a flock of marbled godwits landed right in front of me. I was happy to see a single godwit earlier in the day so a whole flock was awesome!
The next day I started my southerly trip back to San Francisco. On the way, I stopped at Humboldt Bay National Wildlife Refuge. It has a great walking trail through the marshland that yielded several new bird species including Cackling Goose and Orange-crowned Warbler. There were also many teals, buffleheads, coots, grebes, herons, egrets, swans, gulls, marsh wrens, and northern harriers.
I spent my last night in San Rafael and made one final stop at Bolinas Lagoon before catching my flight home. I finally found one of my target species - a long-billed curlew! There were a couple searching for food in the tidal flats and I watched as two gulls tried unsuccessfully to steal a meal from one:
Only a few days in California but I was impressed. I shall return!