Category Archives: Photographs

Amusing Monday: Wildlife cameras keep advancing in technology

There’s nothing like spending some relaxing time in a natural environment. It does a body good — mentally and physically — to go into new or familiar surroundings while basking in the full-bodied sights and sounds of a forest, a stream or a marine shoreline.

We are fortunate in the Puget Sound region to have easy and free (or low-cost) access to all sorts of natural places. If we are lucky, we may catch a glimpse of wildlife and incorporate the sighting into our memory of that place.

What we don’t normally see, however, are the natural behaviors of wildlife away from people, because the presence of humans often changes what they are doing — nor would we want to impose on their lives any more than we already do.

The best nature photographers learn how to stay out of the way, often spending hours, days or weeks waiting quietly to capture an amazing image of an animal or group of animals worthy of sharing with the rest of us.

I’m taking a long-winded approach to make a point about live wildlife videos, brought to a wide Internet audience by placing cameras in strategic locations — often before the animals arrive. All sorts of creatures are left to do their own things as the cameras spy on their activities. While you might not experience the smell of a great blue heron nest by sitting in front of your computer, it is great to know that you can watch all day long without disturbing the animals.

I sometimes wonder what the animals would do if they knew they were being watched. Would they put on a show, mug for the camera or just go and hide somewhere else? For the sake of the viewer and the wildlife, it is better for us to stay out of sight.

The technology for live video cameras has gotten better and better. The images sent over the Internet are generally crisper than ever before, and many places use microphones to pick up the sounds. Meanwhile, the number of live feeds has expanded to more places all over the world, not just in zoos and aquariums. A few cameras have been shut down for lack of money to maintain them.

Explore.org, a division of the Annenberg Foundation, has become the go-to website for connecting people with animals via live webcams. As I write this, the number of live video feeds listed on the website totals 161, although the number changes frequently as a result of shifts in animal activity as well as technical issues. Scroll down below the video player for text messaging related to each camera as well as notes from video operators and online observers. Those who maintain and sponsor the specific camera networks are recognized.

The Explore.org website has a fairly consistent format from one camera to the next. Functions allow viewers to take and save snapshots of an interesting scene. Instructions on that feature and many other features are provided in a 30-page “Website Handbook” (PDF 7.2 mb).

The first video on this page shows a bald eagle nest near a trout hatchery in Decorah, Iowa. The young eagles are now nine weeks old and have grown to the size of their mother, who is often gone from the nest, but she brings back plenty of food, according to observers.

The second video is mounted in an ideal location to watch marine mammals in Blackney Pass in British Columbia. The site is the headquarters of OrcaLab, managed by Paul Spong and Helena Symonds on Hanson Island. This is one of the primary travel routes for Northern Resident killer whales as they make their way through Johnstone Strait. When night approaches, this location provides a view of some spectacular sunsets.

Chesapeake Conservancy operates several wildlife cameras, including the Osprey Cam featured in the third video. Observers have been following the activities of the nesting pair, Tom and Audrey, who have been at the site on Maryland’s eastern shore since 2009. Audrey laid three eggs this year. One was not viable, but the other two chicks hatched about a week apart in late May.

For a bird of a different character, check out the Puffin Cam at Seal Island National Wildlife Refuge in Maine, shown in the fourth video within a burrow. Audubon’s Project Puffin operates a field station on the island where the puffins on the island were wiped out by hunting in 1887. The birds were reintroduced by bringing puffins from Newfoundland and now more than 50 pairs nest on the island. Four live videos are set up to show the puffins.

Always great to watch are the brown bears at Brooks Falls in Alaska’s Katmai National Park and Preserve, shown in the last video on this page. The bears come down to the falls to catch salmon trying to make their way upstream. The bears’ fishing activity reaches its peak in July or August. Observers say they occasionally catch sight of a wolf or a moose.

Other great wildlife cams:

Salish Sea photo contest emphasizes local species, habitats and activities

I’m eager to see the photographs judged as the top 100 in the Salish Sea nature photography competition, called “Salish Sea in Focus.” If you have a favorite photo that tells a story or captures the essence of an animal or a place in our inland waterway, you have until June 4 to submit your image.

Kelp // Photo: Pete Naylor

I’ve featured many nature photography contests in this blog, but I don’t believe we’ve ever had one focused exclusively on the Salish Sea. I hope everyone takes a little time to consider whether a favorite photograph deserves special recognition. The competition is organized by The SeaDoc Society.

Categories are:

  • Birds and mammals of the Salish Sea
  • Fish of the Salish Sea
  • ‘Scapes of the Salish Sea
  • Invertebrates, plants, and kelp of the Salish Sea
  • People of the Salish Sea

The rules actually allow a photograph to be taken elsewhere if the subject can be associated with the Salish Sea, which includes Puget Sound, the Strait of Georgia in Canada and connecting waterways, such as the Strait of Juan de Fuca. Be sure to read the rules carefully, along with specifications for submission.

The entry fee is $10 per photo or $50 for six photos, with proceeds going to SeaDoc’s mission of research, education and stewardship.

The Grand Prize winner will receive $1,000, followed by $500 for first place in each category; $250 for second place in each category; and $100 for third place in each category. Among entrants under 18, special first-, second- and third-place winners will be chosen.

Where is the Salish Sea? Map shows watershed boundaries. // Map: The SeaDoc Society

Some 100 finalists will be named, and those photos will be displayed on the contest website and featured on SeaDoc’s homepage.

A reception and awards presentation is planned for Oct. 4 at Seattle’s Pacific Science Center, where the winning photographs will be displayed.

I’m hoping to see pictures that convey the uniqueness of Puget Sound, including marine and terrestrial animals in their natural settings, such as streams, estuaries, salt marshes and so on. Good luck to everyone who enters.

On a related topic, the end of May is the deadline for The Nature Conservancy’s 2018 Photo Contest, which promotes connections between people and nature. Some of the judges’ favorites, with comments, can be viewed on The Nature Conservancy’s Instagram page.

Amusing Monday: Time-lapse captures beauty in normal ship movements

When Bremerton-based aircraft carrier USS John C. Stennis left Sinclair Inlet two weeks ago, a Navy sailor captured the movement with a series of photos turned into a video. See first video.

The Stennis, a nuclear-powered supercarrier in the Nimitz Class, remains at sea, where the crew is undergoing training in flight operations, damage control, firefighting, seamanship, medicine and other crucial functions.

The carrier is part of Carrier Strike Group 3, which is scheduled for deployment later this year. Details have not yet been released. See Navy news release by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Charles D. Gaddis IV and Kitsap Sun story by reporter Julianne Stanford.

The time-lapse video was posted on the Stennis Facebook page, where it attracted about 120 comments from friends, relatives and community members. The Facebook page also includes photos taken during the training. Here are a few of the comments written to the sailors from folks back home:

  • “Thanks for the time-lapse photos, and thank each and everyone for your service.”
  • “My heart is soaring with pride…God speed sailors….and my special sailor love you with all my life.”
  • “A lot of love for our children on this and all deployments….”
  • “Fair winds to my son and all those aboard this mighty ship! May you return safely soon. You are loved and missed!”
  • “Be safe and lots of love to my nephew on CVN 74!!! I have great respect for all the men and women in our armed services past and present.”
  • “Fair winds and following seas. Bless all of you on journey. Thank you all for your service!”

The Stennis time-lapse reminded me of another stunningly beautiful video covering 30 days on a mega-container ship. Jeff HK, who describes himself on YouTube as “a sailor with a passion for photo/videography and drones,” mounted a camera on the ship and created the video from 80,000 still photos.

The ship and its crew went through all sorts of weather, experiencing rain and sunshine, sunrises and sunsets and lots of stars on clear nights. At other times, the clouds created a show of their own. The route included the Red Sea, Gulf of Aden, Indian Ocean, Colombo, Malacca Strait, Singapore, South China Sea and Hong Kong.

Captions on the video help tell the story. One commenter who enjoyed the video said when it was over he felt like he had been on a trip.

The video, which also captured loading and off-loading activities, has been viewed 5.6 million times since its release in September.

Amusing Monday: Contest reveals amazing underwater photos

Exceptional patience, unusual skill and a certain degree of rapport with animals were all needed to capture a split image of swans above and below the water as they feed.

“Love Birds” by Grant Thomas, British Underwater Photographer of the Year
Photo: © Underwater Photographer of the Year Contest
Click on all images to enlarge

The picture by Grant Thomas won first place among British photographers in the annual Underwater Photographer of the Year contest. With more than 5,000 entries, the competition is becoming one of the most interesting photo contests in the world.

“I chose Loch Lomond as the location for this shot due to its idyllic scenery, water access and friendly swans,” said Thomas, who now lives in New Zealand. “My initial idea was to frame a split shot of one swan feeding below the surface. But when I noticed how comfortable they were around me, I was confident, with some patience, I could get that magical shot of the two.”

“The fisherman” by Filippo Borghi, winner in the “Behaviour” category
Photo: © Underwater Photographer of the Year Contest

Martin Edge, one of three judges in the contest, noted how this photograph impressed the judges more and more as they looked at it. The split between water and air forms a perfect curve at the traditional one-third line, with the scene punctuated by blue sky and puffy clouds, he said.

“The eyes have just enough base at the bottom of the frame to look into,” he added. “Like archways, the curved neck of both swans draws the eye even further into the frame.”

Out of the 5,000 images, 110 were called out for awards and featured in the 2018 UPY Yearbook (PDF 37.2 mb), which can be downloaded from the UPY website. A video presenting all the winners can be viewed at the bottom of this page.

“Seahorse Density” by Shane Gross, winner in the “Macro” category
Photo: © Underwater Photographer of the Year Contest

“I do not believe that you will find a better selection of underwater images anywhere else, either online, in magazines, books, journals or any other publication I can think of,” said Edge, who has published several of his own books on underwater photography. “In my opinion, this particular edition is a universal experience in superior underwater imagery.

“Since the conception of this competition four years ago, we have seen a number of groundbreaking techniques, which have inspired and encouraged other creative photographers to continue to push the boundaries,” he added.

“Black-Saddle Snake Eel” by Marchione dott. Giacomo, highly commended in the “Macro” category
Photo: © Underwater Photographer of the Year Contest

Speaking of pushing boundaries, the photograph judged to be the overall best in the contest this year is a composite panoramic photograph of a shipwreck by German photographer Tobias Friedrich. One can see amazing details on the cargo deck of the SS Thistlegorm, a British merchant ship sunk by German aircraft in World War II. Trucks carrying motorcycles remain as they were before the ship sank 77 years ago.

The image simply does not work on a small scale, so I’m not showing it on this page. But you can click and zoom in on the award-winning photograph titled “Cycle War.”

The winner in the “Behaviour” category is Filippo Borghi of Italy, who spent two days in shallow water near Osezaki, Japan, to get the shot of a cormorant with a sardine in its mouth.

“Breathtaking” by Tobias Friedrich, highly commended in the “Wide Angle” category
Photo: © Underwater Photographer of the Year Contest

Edge’s note to the photographer: “Filippo, this is one of my top four images in this year’s competition of UPY. Flawless in every way. Congratulations!”

A picture of three seahorses together in perfect profile was the winner in the “Macro” category. Photographer Shane Gross of Canada placed his off-camera strobe and flashlight on a small tripod behind the trio and waited for them to turn the right way, as the sun set and plankton began to rain down.

“Sand tiger shark” by Tanya Houppermans, winner in the “Portrait” category.
Photo: © Underwater Photographer of the Year Contest

One of my favorite photos among the winners is a “highly commended” image in the “Macro” category showing a black-saddle snake eel with a tiny shrimp on the end of its nose. I’ve been writing a lot lately about the Puget Sound food web, and I’ve learned that a key to successful energetics is the size of a predator compared to its prey. This miraculous photo, taken by Italian Marchione dott. Giacomo in Indonesia, captures in fine detail this sense of scale.

From a photo of a tiny shrimp, I’d like to jump to a “highly commended” shot of a killer whale in the “Wide Angle” category. The picture was taken near Skjervoya, Norway, by Tobia Friedrich, the same photographer who revealed the shipwreck Thistlegorm. He noticed a pod of killer whales circling a net filled with herring and used a 8-15 mm fisheye lens to provide a mystical feeling.

“Evening Snorkel” by Brook Peterson, third in the “Wide Angle” category
Photo: © Underwater Photographer of the Year Contest

“This is an image that transports you to a wondrous moment in an extreme location,” said contest judge Alex Mustard. “Tobi had the inspiration not only to shoot the orca, but to also tell the bigger story with the snow-covered mountains surrounding the fjord.”

The winner in the “Portrait” category showed a sand tiger shark in the midst of a “ball” of bait fish near the wreck of the Caribsea off North Carolina. U.S. photographer Tanya Houppermans laid on her back and aimed her camera upward until the fish parted and she got a clear shot of the shark’s white underbelly.

In another engaging photo by a U.S. photographer, multiple elements — colorful coral, intense sunset and human silhouettes — were all put into a single frame by Brook Peterson. The image, which took third place in “Wide Angle,” was captured in Egypt’s Red Sea.

“Cooking Sausage” by Pekka Tuuri, highly commended in the “Wide Angle” category
Photo: © Underwater Photographer of the Year Contest

“This lovely sunset split shot is enhanced with the other snorkelers on the pier,” wrote judge Martin Edge. “Most of us would have avoided them, but Brook had other intentions, which made for a dynamic different image.”

A whimsical image of an underwater campfire — fire under ice — came “highly commended” by the judges in the “Wide Angle” category. Photographer Pekka Tuuri of Finland pulled together a bunch of props to create this picture. Dry ice was used to create bubbles, and a piece of orange gel over a dive light provided the proper color for the “fire.” Pieces of firewood were nailed together, and the sausage came from a local gas station near Kuortane , Finland, the site the frozen-over Kaatiala quarry.

One of the photographs surprised me as an optical illusion, although that was not mentioned in the notes on the photo. When I first looked at the image called “Battle of the Tompots” (click to view), I saw two owl-like eyes staring at me. It looked like the creature had a yellow beak and whispy feathers over both eyes. But this was actually two fish biting each other’s lips as part of a mating battle. The photo, by Henley Spiers, was the winner in the “British Waters Macro” category.

Amusing Monday: How one composer connects music to nature’s wonder

Classical composer Alex Shapiro, who lives on San Juan Island, has a nice way of connecting music with her passion for the local waters in Puget Sound.

“When I’m not crawling around the shoreline and shooting photos of wildlife, I’m working on becoming a more adept note alignment specialist,” she writes in her blog “Notes from the Kelp.” “I compose music, mostly for chamber ensembles and symphonic wind bands who kindly offer my notes to the air and anyone within earshot.”

“Notes from the Kelp” is a nice play on words, since it is both the name of a blog and an album of music, two ways of communicating with people about what Alex calls a “heartbreakingly beautiful part of the planet.”

The first video on this page is Alex’s composition “Deep” from “Notes from the Kelp.” When I close my eyes and listen to this piece, I think about scuba diving along the bottom of Puget Sound in very cold waters. In my vision, I first encounter all sorts of bottom-dwelling organisms, such as sea pens and sea urchins, but the music also inspires a feeling of doom, which I associate with low-oxygen dead zones where nothing can live.

Here’s what Alex writes about “Deep”: “Sometimes I make the mistake of believing that I’m not being unless I’m doing and moving. This piece was my challenge to myself to be still and present. And in doing so, I’ve never been as much before. Like the sea, my truth lies below, and I am happiest when I am immersed.”

The second video shows clarinetist Jeff Gallagher performing Alex’s “Water Crossing” during a concert in Santa Cruz, Calif., in 2016. Alex writes about what she was thinking during the composition process in the “Recordings” section of her website. She describes a mythical voyage in a canoe that turns into a sailboat. Dolphins dance ahead of the boat before it returns to the safety of shore.

I have spent some time lately perusing this “Recordings” page for a smorgasbord of music and observations on life. It’s here you can find a list of Alex’s musical contributions, listen to recordings and read about her music.

I first learned about Alex and her work from the third video on this page. It was created as a promotion for the University of Washington, yet Alex finds a way to talk about the importance of science and how her music is like scientific exploration. The San Juan Islands, where she lives, has always been an important place to study sea life and shoreline dynamics — and it’s not just because the islands are home to the UW’s Friday Harbor Laboratories.

Alex has been traveling a lot lately and working on various projects, as she freely describes on her Facebook page. Also, as it turns out, she is moving from the home on San Juan Island that she has written so passionately about. But she’s not going far, since her new home is another waterfront location on San Juan Island. I look forward to further notes from the kelp.

Composer and music professor Kyle Gann wrote about Alex and her life in Chamber Music magazine (PDF 108 kb) in May 2008.

Become a witness for ‘king tides’ in Puget Sound now and later

Witnessing Puget Sound’s “king tides” could return as a more popular outdoor activity this year, as Washington Sea Grant takes the lead in promoting the event.

Locations where people have posted king tide photos on the Witness King Tides website

“King tides,” which are recognized in coastal areas across the country, is the name given to the highest tides of the year. These are times when people can observe what average tides might look like in the future, as sea levels continue to rise.

The highest tide of 2018 is forecast for this Friday around 8 a.m., although the exact time depends on the location in Puget Sound.

Activities include taking pictures of shoreline structures during these high-tide events and then sharing the photos with others. One can try to imagine what the landscape would look like in a given location if the water was a foot or more higher. King tide activities can be fun while adding a dose of reality to the uncertainty of climate change.

King tides by themselves have nothing to do with climate change, but these extremes will be seen more often in the future as new extremes are reached. As things are going now, experts say there is a 50 percent chance that sea levels in Puget Sound will rise by at least 7 inches in the next 22 years and keep going from there. They say there is a 99 percent chance that sea levels will be at least 2.4 inches higher by then. Check out the story I wrote in October for the Encyclopedia of Puget Sound.

Washington Department of Ecology, which had been promoting king tides each year, has backed away from the event in recent years. In the beginning, I thought the idea of king tides seemed kind of silly, because high tides are affected by weather conditions on a given day. But I came to embrace the idea that watching these high-tide events will help shoreline residents and others understand the challenges we are facing in the Puget Sound region.

Addressing sea level rise may not be easy, but some waterfront property owners are beginning to face the problem, as I described in another story in the Encyclopedia of Puget Sound.

During a king tide event in December 2012, the Kitsap Sun and other newspapers covered the resulting flooding by running photographs of high water in many places throughout Puget Sound. A low-pressure weather system that year made extreme high tides even more extreme. In fact, officials reported that the high tide came within 0.01 feet of breaking the all-time tidal record set for Seattle on Jan. 27, 1983. See Water Ways, Dec. 18, 2012.

Washington Sea Grant, associated with the University of Washington, has now taken over promotion of king tides, and we should soon see an improved website, according to Bridget Trosin, coastal policy specialist for Sea Grant. Bridget told me that she hopes to promote more local events, such as getting people together to share information during extreme high tides.

Sea Grant is sponsoring a King Tide Viewing Party this Friday at Washington Park boat launch in Anacortes, where Bridget will spell out what high tides may look like in the future. Warming refreshments will be provided, according to a news release about the event.

Wherever you live around Puget Sound, you can go down to the water to document the high tide, perhaps starting a new photo gallery to show how high tides change at one location during king tides in the future, as some folks are doing in Port Townsend.

For tips on preparing and posting photos, visit the “Witness King Tides — Washington State” website, then check out the page “Share Your Photos.” To see the locations where photographs have been taken, go to the map page. One can click on locations on the map to see the photographs taken from that spot.

King tides occur when the moon and sun are on the same side of the Earth at a time when the moon comes closest to the Earth. Their combined pull of gravity raises the sea level. The presence of a low-pressure system can raise the tides even higher than predictions published by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Friday’s high tide is predicted to be 13.2 feet in Seattle at 7:55 a.m. We won’t have a tide that high again until January of 2019, according to NOAA. Still, Feb. 2 will see a 13.1-foot tide in Seattle, and tides exceeding 12 feet are predicted for June 16, Nov. 27, Dec. 1, Dec. 10, and daily high tides from Dec. 26 through the end of this year.

Amusing Monday: Amazing images through the magic of LIDAR

Spectacular images produced with the latest LIDAR technology ought to be considered works of art, at least in my humble opinion.

LIDAR software reveals current and historical stream channels for the Sauk River, a tributary of the Skagit.
Image: Washington State Geological Survey

The images on this page, which show geologic features in Washington state, were produced as part of a large-scale project to study the state’s geology. Funded by the Legislature in 2015, the project is largely designed to identify landslide hazards, but the LIDAR data has many wide-ranging uses for scientists, educators and political leaders.

Aside from LIDAR’s practical uses, I cannot get over how beautiful the images are, a feeling enhanced by the knowledge that the fine details reflect actual structures on the ground. All these images and 14 others are available as screensavers on the state’s LIDAR website.

At the Great Bend in Hood Canal, moving glaciers once carved out small hills, known as drumlins.
Image: Washington State Geological Survey

I asked Dan Coe, a GIS cartographer responsible for many of the final images, how much of an artist’s touch he uses when producing such amazing depictions of the landscape. Dan works for the Washington Geological Survey, a division of the Department of Natural Resources.

“There is definitely an artistic touch that is added to these images when they are produced,” he wrote in an email. “While each one is a bit different, depending on the landform featured, most follow a general process.”

LIDAR reveals changing stream channels where the Black and Chehalis rivers merge in Grays Harbor County. // Image: Washington State Geological Survey

LIDAR stands for light detection and ranging. When used from an airplane, LIDAR equipment shoots a laser beam along the ground. Sophisticated equipment and a computer interpret the reflected light as precise differences in elevation.

Dan blends the elevation data with other GIS layers provided by the software, including the outlines of landforms, shaded relief and water bodies.

“I then bring these layers into graphics software (usually Adobe Photoshop or Illustrator), where they are merged together,” Dan said. “This allows me to emphasize the features that are important to the viewer, usually with colorization and blending techniques.”

LIDAR reveals details of Devil’s Slide on Lummi Island in Whatcom County that cannot be seen otherwise.
Image: Washington State Geological Survey

The primary purpose of the images is to translate the science for a nontechnical audience, he said. That’s not to say that scientists don’t appreciate the effort, but the colorful images are somewhat simplified from the more detailed LIDAR data, he added.

“If done well, they are a good example of the ‘a picture is worth a thousand words’ adage,” he said, “and can go a long way to bridging the gap between science and public understanding.”

When it comes to his choice of colors, he acknowledges that he strives for a bit of a “wow!” factor, while enhancing the contrast “to draw the viewers eye and to emphasize the features more clearly.”

The video at right offers a good description of how LIDAR works. Early uses involved examining the topography and geology of an area with the trees stripped away. The surprising images revealed unknown features on the ground — including a piece of the Seattle fault at the south end of Bainbridge Island, where an earthquake raised Restoration Point about 20 feet some 1,100 years ago.

Since then, LIDAR has been refined for greater image resolution, and the improved software is providing new ways to interpret the data. For example, relative elevation models, or REMs, help to better visualize changes in river flows over time. The baseline elevation (0 feet) is defined as the surface of the river, so old river channels emerge as slight changes in elevation. Dan explains the REM process (PDF 16.5 mb) in a poster on the LIDAR website.

The mysterious Mima Mounds southwest of Olympia, as shown with LIDAR
Image: Washington State Geological Survey

The early use of LIDAR for revealing unseen geology has gradually given way to much broader applications. At first, the returning light that reflected off trees and vegetation was considered useless “noise” to be filtered out by computer. Later, scientists discovered that valuable information could be found within that noise — such as the size and type of trees and other vegetation growing in specific areas. These uses are explained in a video called “Introduction to Light Detection and Ranging.” Both videos mentioned in this blog post were produced by the National Ecological Observatory Network, or NEON, which is researching conditions and changes in ecosystems across the country.

A little-known lava flow, called West Crater, can be seen easily with LIDAR. The site is between Mount St. Helens and Mount Hood in Gifford Pinchot National Forest in Skamania County.
Image:Washington State Geological Survey

As Coe and his colleagues find new uses for LIDAR, they are also looking for new ways to encourage the public to understand the process and results. A nice two-page summary about the LIDAR program (PDF 2.6) can be found on the state’s LIDAR website. The website also includes descriptions of how LIDAR can be used in geology, forestry, graphics, navigation, meteorology and fire management, land-use planning, archeology and agriculture.

The page also includes an interactive story map called “The Bare Earth,” which takes you through various geological features. Interesting comparisons between LIDAR images and aerial photos of the same areas are shown in the story map.

Amusing Monday: Stunning photos shared from around the world

More than 25,000 photographs taken throughout the world were submitted for judging in this year’s prestigious National Wildlife Photo Contest.

Second-place in category Baby Animals: This leatherback sea turtle was seen at Sunset in Trinidad.
Photographer: Sean Crane, Scarsdale, N.Y.

Subjects ranged from an elephant trudging across a barren plain to a green sweat bee perched on a blue flower. Without exception, the winning images were stunning, to say the least.

The annual contest is sponsored by the National Wildlife Federation and “National Wildlife” magazine.

First- and second-place winners were named in seven categories: Baby Animals, Backyard Habitats, Birds, Landscapes and Plants, Mammals, Other Wildlife and People in Nature. In addition, a grand-prize winner was selected from among all the best entries. Images on this page can be enlarged by clicking on the photo.

First place in category Landscapes and Plants: Thunderstorms billow across a Kansas plain.
Photographer: Donald Caffrey, Goddard, Kans.

One of my favorite pictures shows a newly hatched leatherback sea turtle facing his future in the wide-open ocean. The image was shot at sunset in Trinidad by Sean Crane of Scarsdale, N.Y., who helped other volunteers protect three nests of hatchlings from circling vultures. The picture took a second-place award in the category “Baby Animals.”

Growing up in Kansas until age 17, I’ve seen plenty of thunderstorms, including a few funnel clouds. But I have never seen a blue refracted light in the clouds, such as revealed in an image by photographer Donald Caffrey of Goddard, Kans. The details captured in the billowing clouds stand in stark contrast to the simple landscape that goes on for miles. The photo captured first place in the category “Landscapes and Plants.”

First place in category Mammals: A mother lion rests nose-to-nose with her young offspring in Kenya.
Photographer: Majed Ali, Kuwait City, Kuwait.

Who can resist the emotional connection between a mother and her offspring? A photo of a lion and her cubs exudes a feeling of comfort, whether or not this arises out of our human perspective. Photographer Majed Ali of Kuwait City, Kuwait, spotted the eye of the mother lion through some brush in Kenya’s Olare Motorogi Conservancy. Majed recalled this moment when he wrote, “This photo attracts me because of the tenderness of the family. There is love in the frame.” The photo took first place in category “Mammals.”

All the winning entries can be seen on the National Wildlife Federation page “Eye of the Beholder.”

Next year’s contest will be open for submissions on Jan. 8. For details, check out the photo contest page of NWF.

Amusing Monday: Calling all citizen scientists to help with online research

Just about anyone with a computer can become part of a scientific research project through Zooniverse, which focuses the intelligence of thousands of people on tasks that are not well suited for computers.

The research projects are real, and prospective citizen scientists can choose from dozens of topics in various fields, including climate, biology, medicine, history, language, literature and the arts. More than 100 published papers have come from the work.

The key is observation, and participants make judgments about images they are given, such as photographs, drawings, hand-written pages and other visuals. Together, the large number of observations help professional researchers find things that they could not easily find alone. In most cases, computers don’t have the observational capabilities of humans, although some of the projects are trying to teach computers to do a better job.

Participants become part of an exclusive research community, as each Zooniverse project includes chat forums for discussion. Citizen scientists can talk among themselves or pose questions to the researchers in charge. I’ve tried out a few of the projects, and I can see how this could become an interesting, amusing and ongoing pastime for some people.

One of the projects that I find interesting is called “Old Weather,” which involves perusing ships’ logs from the 1800s and early 1900s to see what the weather was like on particular dates in various parts of the world. The focus at the moment is on 24 whaling voyages as well as expeditions to the Arctic by the U.S. Navy and Coast Guard. The information is going into a database to help reveal how climate is changing.

The online work involves identifying what the log books have to say about weather, ice and sea conditions. One task involves reading through the books and marking such observations along with time and place. Another task is to transcribe the observations and link them together. Of particular interest is locating sea ice, a primary indicator of climate change.

Other projects:

The Plastic Tide involves looking at photographs of beaches taken from a drone to identify pieces of plastic in the sand and gravel. Researchers in England are using the observations to develop a computer program that can recognize bits of plastic and estimate the amount of plastic on a beach. If successful, global estimates of plastic distribution can be created with the use of unmanned aircraft. Volunteer observations are being used to “train” the computer to identify plastics.

Snapshots At Sea uses pictures of sea creatures taken by professional and amateur photographers to extract information about whales and other marine mammals. Citizen scientists are asked questions about each photograph to classify the images and determine whether a whale expert should take a look. So far, citizen scientists were able to locate an extremely rare killer whale, known as Type D. Meanwhile, they have also helped to locate and identify known and unknown humpback whales and plot their movements with unprecedented resolution off the California coast. By the way, Cascadia Research Collective in Olympia is one of the collaborators on the project.

Notes from Nature digs into the records of natural history museums throughout the world, where handwritten observations are tagged onto all sorts of plant and animal specimens. Volunteers transcribe the notes from photographs of the specimens to help to fill in gaps about biodiversity and the natural heritage of a given region. At the first level, museum staff and others are photographing what are estimated to be 10 billion specimens, including birds, bugs, butterflies and microscopic fossils. At higher levels, researchers are compiling the data to tell a story of ecological change.

Wildwatch Kenya, which started this past summer, asks volunteers to review photos taken with trail cameras placed in two nature preserves in Kenya. Information about wildlife seen in the photos is used to track animal movements, determine what they are doing and help with their conservation. In the first three months, more than 5,000 volunteers were able to retire a backlog of more than 160,000 photographs — about two years’ worth of images. For information, see the news release from the San Diego Zoo, which manages the project.

Steller sea lion ~ 100 is the “sea lion of the month” for October. // Photo: Steller Watch

Steller Watch, like Wildwatch Kenya, uses remote cameras to capture hundreds of pictures of Steller sea lions — an endangered species whose population has declined by 94 percent in the Aleutian Islands. Volunteers help classify — but not identify — animals seen in the photos so that experts can complete the identifications and track the movements of the animals. One feature is the Sea Lion of the Month, who this month is ~100, a sea lion with a somewhat unusual story.

Cyclone Center includes 300,000 images taken from infrared sensors on weather satellites. The colored images reveal temperatures, which are closely related to whether the clouds produce wind, rain and thunderstorms. Volunteers are given a pair of clouds and asked to determine which one is stronger based on the colors. The human eye is better at this job than a computer, experts say. The information is compiled with other data to form a record of storms and to help predict future events.

Shells from Quarterly Journal of the Geological Society of London, 1866

Science Gossip relies on millions of pages of printed text produced in scientific journals, notebooks and other publications from the 1400s to today. Researchers and artists, both professional and amateur, produced the documents during their investigations of science. Cataloging and describing old drawings are helping historians understand who was studying what down through the years. In my first leap into this project, I was presented with the drawing of a scale from an extinct fish. I found myself reading the associated article to learn about a dispute over how to classify the animal, and then I went to other sources to learn about the notable scientist and his work. After that, I completed the questions about the drawing. (I guess this was beyond the call of duty, but I just wanted to know more.)

The Milky Way Project endeavors to locate celestial objects of interest to astronomers by searching through tens of thousands of images from the Spitzer Space Telescope and the WISE satellite observatory. Training is provided to identify bubble nebulae, bow shocks and other notable features.

Solar Stormwatch II involves working with images of solar flares from NASA’s STEREO spacecraft. Volunteers help to classify and describe the intensity of flares by defining their outer edges with the use of a computer mouse. The original project, Solar Stormwatch, contributed to seven scientific publications. The new project will examine images from 2010 to 2016, during which time the sun went through a period of peak activity.

Farewell to Cassini, which found wondrous worlds not so far away

I’d like to take a moment to celebrate the discoveries of NASA’s Cassini spacecraft — including the finding of water on Saturn’s moons Titan and Enceladus.

Water vapor escapes from geothermal vents on Saturn’s moon Enceladus. // Photo: NASA

The 13-year mission ended Friday when Cassini, running out of fuel, was directed to self-destruct by burning up in the atmosphere of the ringed planet.

“This is the final chapter of an amazing mission, but it’s also a new beginning,” Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate, said in a story on NASA’s website. “Cassini’s discovery of ocean worlds at Titan and Enceladus changed everything, shaking our views to the core about surprising places to search for potential life beyond Earth.”

Cassini was launched from Florida’s Cape Canaveral in 1997 and reached Saturn in 2004. NASA extended the mission for two years and then again for seven years, as new findings continued to emerge, with a later focus on Saturn’s moons. An amazing surprise came when a subsurface ocean was found on Enceladus.

“Cassini may be gone, but its scientific bounty will keep us occupied for many years,” said Linda Spilker, Cassini project scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. “We’ve only scratched the surface of what we can learn from the mountain of data it has sent back over its lifetime.”

The video on this page reveals some of the feelings that welled up and lingered among the Cassini team after the spacecraft came to its fiery end on Friday.

If you are interested in space discoveries, I recommend a glance at the text, photos and videos shared on NASA’s website. I also enjoyed the “most inspiring, beautiful, and historic” photos taken during the mission and pulled together by Brian Resnick for Vox Media’s website.

As Linda Spilker aptly described it, “Things never will be quite the same for those of us on the Cassini team now that the spacecraft is no longer flying. But we take comfort knowing that every time we look up at Saturn in the night sky, part of Cassini will be there, too.”