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.
~~~~~
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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