Saturday, February 1, 2014

The chase is on: It's not always about the photos...

I’m not a bird photographer, although that doesn’t mean I don’t like to shoot good images of birds. I do! But when I get good shots, I attribute it to luck--being in the right place at the right time—rather than a natural birder’s patience.

Real bird photographers—and I know many--have far more patience than I was born with. They’re willing to stand and wait for a long time, often in the freezing wind and cold or scalding summer sun, in hopes of seeing a bird that has been known to make sporadic appearances.

I’ll go and check out the place a bird is known to be, always hopeful for a sighting, but if it’s not a lucky day, I’ll shift my focus to what ever else I can photograph. I just can’t seem to settle down and wait. Not sure why…but I just can’t. I want to keep moving.

Today, shortly after we’d arrived at Sachuest Point National Wildlife Refuge, Bruce and I learned that the snowy owl had been spotted napping in a tree. We’d never have noticed her had not all lenses and scopes been aimed in her direction. She was far off, out of good camera range. So we walked on, hoping for a closer look at the deer in the meadow. 

Snowy looks much closer through the camera lens.
We passed a group of photographers waiting for a barn owl to make an appearance, which he often (but not always) does later in the day.  We kept walking. Not that I don’t want to see a barn owl. Of course I do, but…he wasn’t there.

By the time we’d walked the trail loop and returned to headquarters, birders and photographers were rushing to a spot overlooking the meadow. So we followed. And sure enough, the barn owl had been sighted. 

 It swooped and caught a field mouse. This roused the snowy owl and a harrier hawk, both of which chased after the barn owl, hoping it would drop the mouse, I suppose. It didn’t. It was all over in less than a minute, and took place at such a distance that I wasn’t able to get any sharp images.  

Barn owl with mouse in talons, snowy springing into action, harrier hawk.

But wow! Who cares?

Sometimes it’s more about the experience—and thrill—of seeing animals in the wild, than the quality of the photos you get.

What a privilege to see nature in action! And how nice to have stumbled upon it at the right time—with no waiting!
When the barn owl disappeared, the snowy landed.
If one way be better than another, that you may be sure is nature's way. ~ Aristotle

Sunday, January 26, 2014

Hunting for the hunters~

With so many snowy owls in the region this winter, birders and photographers have been particularly successful in spotting and shooting (photographically speaking!) these beautiful birds. The well-known locales where snowies have been sighted are big draws for hopeful viewers.

We’re hunters. We seek the thrill of seeing wild creatures close up. We want to experience their beauty and dignity. We bundle up, drag out our gear, and complain about the wind chill, all to witness the real hunters, whose survival depends upon their focus, their senses, their quickness—and freedom from distraction.

Snowies are not easy to spot. Protective coloration works like a charm, and despite being large, once they are patiently hunkered down, scanning for rodents, they can be all but impossible to detect. Even in motion they fly low and are well camouflaged.

Your best bet in spotting one is patience and a pair of binoculars … or watching for clusters of people. When someone spots a snowy, he stares into the distance, and whoever comes along asks, “What do you see?” 

And then they stand with the first guy until the next person comes along and asks, “What’s out there?” And she stays, and so on, until quite the group of owl paparazzi has formed.

Saturday, I was with my husband and was hoping he’d see an owl, which is much more exciting than just looking at the photos I come home with.  But the road to the location that had been successful for me a couple of weeks ago was closed. People reported seeing owls, but they were so far out in the marsh they were invisible to the naked eye.

It didn’t look hopeful. But the point is to enjoy what nature gives you on any given day. So I snapped a picture of wild turkeys on the roadside…because they were there and I had a camera. They foraged and paid us no mind.

 We watched a beautiful red-tail hawk ride wind currents, while scanning for prey. Later he sat, all handsome, on a branch while a crowd gathered beneath him.  He was oblivious to the gathering paparazzi; there’s no time for distractibility when your life depends upon a successful hunt.

We pulled into a turn-off where there was a small cluster of people. I stepped out of the car to see a people looking skyward. I swung my camera up with just enough time snap a few shots of what turned out to be a juvenile bald eagle before he took off for better hunting grounds. Did he notice us? If so we were not of interest.

We headed further north to a spot where people said a snowy had been hunting all day.  And sure enough, the snowy grapevine was correct. She was there…and so were the people.  Thankfully the owl was separated from the crowd by a drainage depression in the marsh, which prevented those who push the limits from getting too close to the bird, forcing it to move on.

If I had to hunt for survival, could I tune out the paparazzi?  I’m not sure. And that thought makes me all the more respectful of the wild creatures I observe. 

I wish everyone was.

Sunday, January 19, 2014

Robins in winter...

I’ve never seen a robin in the dead of winter, but this year I saw a flock chirping together in a downtown Bridgewater tree while snow fell. When I saw another large flock on Plum Island, I added robins to my “Google list”—a mental list I keep of topics I want to know more about. 

I’ve never paid much attention to robins. They’ve always seemed aloof to me, hopping along by themselves with one eye to the ground, scouting worms.  Before the ground is frozen or snow-covered, they’ve flown south where the worms are still churning the soil.  They follow the worms, I thought. So why are they still hanging around?

It turns out that the robins that nested in my fruit trees have flown south to a more comfortable zone.  The birds I’m seeing now have most likely come down from the Canadian Maritime provinces. Massachusetts certainly provides more tolerable temperatures in the winter for these guys.

The robins clearly aren’t digging up worm popsicles from under the snow and they aren’t the least interested in my bird feeders. In fact, if a robin ate seeds, he’d have the same kind of tummy trouble we'd have if we ate nuts and bolts.

What they do eat in winter is fruit and berries--this leads them to the woods and explains why we don’t usually notice them. But with more people planting shrubbery with winterberries, we’re more likely to see these “harbingers of spring” in winter.

I’d always assumed the red berries were poisonous because I'd never seen a bird touch them in late summer or fall.  But the fact is, the berries are pretty bitter as they ripen, so the summer birds ignore them. Not until they’ve frozen and thawed several times do they become tasty to birds. And that means the berries don't get eaten before the winter visitors arrive. Pretty cool how things work!

One thing crossed off my Google list. One hundred ninety eight to go...

The free bird thinks of another breeze 
and the trade winds soft through the sighing trees
and the fat worms waiting on a dawn-bright lawn 

and he names the sky his own.  ~Maya Angelou

Sunday, January 12, 2014

The magic of winter...

I’ve taken plenty of cold, windy walks on snow-covered beaches, but I realized when a friend and I stood on the shore at Parker River National Wildlife Refuge, watching thick, fluffy flakes fall, that I’d never actually been on a beach during a snowfall. 

Boy, have I missed something in all these years of living in the Northeast!

I had my camera. Of course! And there was nothing I wanted more than to capture the beauty of the landscape—the sweep of the ocean and the rise of dunes with the beach between, softened and muted by the falling snow.

But the purpose of our two-hour drive had been to get some shots of one of the several snowy owls that have settled on the Plum Island for the winter. So I'd left my landscape lens in the parked car and had only my long lens on the camera. This lens would give me the focal distance I needed to get the details of a distant owl, but it would show only a narrow slice of landscape, not the snow-filled panorama I wanted at that moment.

Still...I snapped the shutter—it’s what photographers do--and I love what the camera caught. Even a tiny piece of the bigger scene looks magical.  And if that had been the way the day had ended, I'd have been happy with just these images.

Continuing the owl search, we started down a boardwalk. Plump birds bartered for space on the bare branches while waiting their turn for the berries on a nearby bush. When we got closer, we saw that they were robins--sort of an unnatural sight in winter--but there were dozens. I snapped away, hoping I caught some birds with berries in their beaks. If this was all we saw for the day, I wouldn't have a complaint in the world.

Then we hit the trifecta when we spotted the snowy owl on a jetty of rocks, slippery from melted snow and sea water.  It was a tricky go, maneuvering slowly and carefully so as not to fall. The goal was not to scare the snowy, not to drop camera equipment, and not to fall and get hurt--in that order. We made it! The snowy posed for quite a while before getting bored and flying to the beach.

So just when I thought I was as happy as could be, I got happier still!

A perfect winter day!  And more to come!

“Snow flurries began to fall and they swirled around people's legs like house cats. It was magical, this snow globe world.” ~Sarah Addison Allen

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Now for the sad part...

I clicked open the email with “Hello from the past!” in the subject line to find a note from from a former student, Josh. How I love hearing from former students. I remember Josh well: a little imp of a guy with a perpetual grin and a frizz of curls and an insatiable curiosity. He played the saxophone…or was that his brother Matt? I think both. I’ll let the email exchange speak for itself … 

Hello Mrs. Douillette -

Would you be, by chance, the same Mrs. Douillette who once taught at Cedar School (at least, I think it was Cedar School?) in Hanover 30 years-or-so ago? If so, I believe I was one of your fortunate students. I seem to remember spending countless hours--and reams of magical tracing paper--gleefully working on projects about dinosaurs and whales while under your tutelage. Happy days indeed.

Anyway, if this is really you, hello! I'm sure I can conjure some more memories of those heady days that will make us both feel much older!


Hi Josh!
You've reached the right person and I'm so glad to hear from you. I'm not
the greatest at keeping track of time, but I'm guessing you must be late 20s, early 30s (?). Am I close? I think I had you in the REACH program. ...  I remember you clearly, and you DID have a thing for dinosaurs! :>) Where are you living now and what are you up to?

Mrs. D. (aka Ruth)

Well, sorry to say (for both of us) that I'm 41. That said, despite the fact that my memory is such that I can't remember changing my kids' diapers, I vividly remember that REACH class. My best friend at the time (and ever since) was John Goff. Somewhere in his mom's house there is a cassette tape of John and I recording some sort of presentation about dinosaurs or whales for the REACH class. I remember that I had terribly laryngitis and that the school bell kept interrupting us! John's a teacher in Maine now.

I have to tell you that your class had a tremendous impact on me. I think about it all the time. Just about everyone in that class went onto excel in life in one way or another. You were the launching pad for a lot of successful kids, and I can't thank you enough for making me feel like I could do things that were creative and engaging, rather than just the ABCs. ...

Now for the sad part - I share this not for any sort of sympathy or to be a downer but, rather, because I was admiring your blog and wanted to show you mine. Over the summer, I was diagnosed with stage 4 stomach cancer. I'm currently in the middle of that fight (I just finished my first round of chemo treatments). I've always been a writer on the side, so I decided to start a blog about the cancer experience. I thought it would be an interesting, real-time dissection of a life-changing event, and it has also proven to be quite therapeutic. Anyway, if you want to check it out, I'd love to know what you think about it.

Ahhh, Josh. Big sigh. I was just getting a warm glow from your memories of my class (Thank you.) and then the punch to the gut. Not at all the news I expected to hear. ...

No need for the rest of my email. This isn't about me. I hope you visit Josh's blog, Stage Four Sarcasm, to wish him well--literally-- and for a dose of his fantastic humor in the midst of crisis.

We all travel along on whatever road we find ourselves, but some endure rides bumpier than others. ~RD


Friday, October 5, 2012

Mothers and butterflies...

When I visited my 92-year-old mother at her assisted living home, I thought of butterflies—the painted ladies I’d seen sipping the last sweet nectar from the buddleia in my back yard.

Painted ladies don’t live long, and my 92-year-old mother certainly has. So that’s not the comparison. And she certainly wasn’t sipping anything when I walked into her room; she was sleeping in front of a blaring TV. And neither was she painted. She’s never been much for make-up.

But nonetheless, painted lady butterflies that popped into my mind as I watched her sleeping.

“Mom?” I said softly.

She startled and I could see in an instant that she didn’t have a clue who I was.

So I told her.  “It’s Ruthie,” I said.

That’s always been enough for her face to blossom into a smile of recognition.

“Ruthie!” she always exclaims with pleasure.

But this time her smile wasn’t convincing--she didn’t exclaim--and I could tell she didn’t know who I was. 

But she went with me anyway on a drive to the clinic to get her blood drawn. She chatted pleasantly along the way. She only asked twice where we were going and why.

On the way home I asked if she knew who I was.

“Not really,” she said.

I needed to know once and for all if she remembered me, if not by sight at least by name.

“I’m Ruthie. Does that ring a bell?”

“I know it should mean something,” she said with a little chuckle.

“But it doesn’t?”

“Not really.”

So, it’s final.

Now I know for sure I’ve been erased from her memory banks. It’s been a long time coming and I’ve been preparing myself, even fooling myself into thinking she DID still remember when it was pretty obvious that it was “not really.”

So it feels … okay. Expected. Sad.

When I got home I look at the photos of painted lady butterflies I’d taken recently trying to determine why they came to mind when I saw my mother.

They butterflies were still beautiful, but tattered and torn, with chunks missing from wing tips. They’d done a lot of living, these butterflies, and it showed. Like someone else I know.

If a tree falls...

"If you're always battling against getting older, you're always going to be unhappy, because it's going to happen anyhow." ~ Mitch Albom

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Function over form~

I spent the last day of 2011 with a group of photographers, taking pictures in Saint Anthony of Padua Church in New Bedford.  The ornate interior, decorated for the Christmas season, was beautiful. Gleaming floors and polished wooden pews reflected color and light from stained glass windows and detailed carvings. 

 Despite the color and detail available to shoot, I found myself drawn to the light that played through the rails of the drab stairway leading to the second and third levels of the church.

The stairs were off to the side of the foyer, easily overlooked by anyone intent upon entering the splendid sanctuary.  Probably those who trudge up to the choir loft, which looks out over the gleaming center aisle in the nave,  don’t give the stairs a second thought, but they are as necessary as the marble columns that support the arched ceiling. 

 A friend who saw my photos called the stairs “grungy and worn and burnished with age.”

And I thought …  if we live long enough, we’ll all end up worn. But burnished?  That’s something that comes only to those who allow the stresses of life to polish them, rather than scrape them raw. Not an easy thing. It comes, I think, from a willing acceptance of our purpose in life. As I said, not easy to accept that our function is ultimately greater than our form...especially in this world where glamor and glow distract us from inner beauty.

You can take no credit for beauty at sixteen.  But if you are beautiful at sixty, it will be your souls's own doing.  ~ Marie Sropes

It is the pervading law of all things organic and inorganic,

Of all things physical and metaphysical,
Of all things human and all things super-human,
Of all true manifestations of the head,
Of the heart, of the soul,
That the life is recognizable in its expression,
That form ever follows function. This is the law.
~ American architect Louis Sullivan

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Inside the box~

At Thanksgiving time, I always think back to my years as a young teacher. It was traditional to have students list all the things they were thankful for. But I was a think-outside-the-box teacher, and I urged them to think beyond what I thought were the obvious things to be thankful for.

Yes, yes, mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers, I'd think, as I listed their comments on the board. Sure, food and pets. Yes, of course, your house.
"But what ELSE?" I'd ask.

They were silent.

For these seven- and eight-year-olds there really was nothing else. What they were thankful for fit neatly into the box.

And I've come to realize this is true for me, as well. My box is full of the obvious blessings. What ELSE could I ask for? What else really matters?

The blessings outside my box--and there are plenty-- are mere frosting on the cake...or should I say, stuffing in the turkey?

Happy Thanksgiving. May your boxes be full. May all your thorns have roses.


Giving Thanks For *You* (2007)

Some people are always grumbling because roses have thorns; I am thankful that thorns have roses.
Alphonse Karr

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Just for fun...

Sometimes it’s fun to photograph something different, something playful,  to take a break from  landscapes and sunsets, as much as I love them. Fun to shoot something I could never do on my own.  So I was happy to have the opportunity through the Plymouth Digital Photographer’s club to do just that. 

Roy Marshall, a member of two local camera clubs, did the prep work, setting up a sophisticated system that relies on perfect timing, with strobes designed to flash in time to catch the split-second of action--in this case,  a splash of colored water.

Roy partially filled three brandy snifters with colored water and set them on a platform. About twenty of us stood behind our cameras, which were perched on tripods, and focused on the glasses. Then Roy pulled the platform up a short incline, and lights were turned out.   

In this pitch-blackness, we clicked open camera shutters, using "bulb mode," which allowed the shutter to stay open until released. We waited for the platform to be released to slide down the incline and come to an abrupt stop. This triggered the high-speed flash to light the snifters so we could capture the resulting slurp of the colored water.

Fun. Different. Pretty cool!

Roy's Suggested Camera Settings
• ISO 200

• F Stop: about f/11 to f/16

• Manual focus

• No auto focus and Anti Vibration off

• Camera on Blub or able to have a 2 to 4 sec. exposure.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Cause and effect ...

A local man, Michael, was killed when the North Tower of the World Trade Center, where he worked on the 105th floor, collapsed on September 11, 2001.

For the ten-year anniversary of 9/11, a monument in Michael’s memory was designed and built by an architect from his town, and was to stand somewhere in the section of the town cemetery dedicated to veterans. 

The architect wanted two things: granite of a certain grey color that to him signified somber respect, and granite that was quarried in America.

He searched for granite wherever it is architects search, and eventually found just the grey he’d envisioned. And it was quarried in America -- Shanksville, Pennsylvania, to be exact – a perfect and symbolic touch for a 9/11 monument.

It didn’t take long for those in charge of the 9/11 ceremony to pick the proper spot for Michael’s monument.  It was placed just behind the Iraq memorial … because the attack on the World Trade Center had spurred another man from this town, Shayne, to enlist in the Marines.

Shayne served in Iraq, where he was killed, in effect, because of the attack that killed Michael.

I don’t know why it is that these connections have stayed with me since September 11th, when I covered the 9/11 ceremony for the paper.  But I keep thinking about the links people share.

Sometimes, as with Michael and Shayne, the connection is tragic. But I’d like to think that more often good comes to others through the unseen threads that stretch from person to person.

Then there are the coincidental connections that tie up the ragged ends of loose threads in a more satisfactory way -- such as finding the perfect granite from a town that serves as a burial ground for passengers of United Airlines Flight 93.

This story, of course, begs for further examination of cause upon cause, decisions upon decisions, going way back that ended with these men, and so many others, in a cemetery.


"A hidden connection is stronger than an obvious one." ~Heraclitus

The rest of the story...