Thursday, July 21, 2011

Searching for Birds in the Adirondacks

—for Jan & Ann

While at magnificent Elk Lake in the Adirondacks this year, I had cause to think of John, that consummate birder, over at Hedgeland Tales.  I was thinking particularly of a post about butterflies he’d written when “birds were scarce” at Nene Washes (which looks to be a wonderful nature reserve in Cambridgeshire, England).

In the three years at Elk Lake and on many walks closer to home, I’ve got some lucky shots from time to time, but more often the birds see me long before I see them.  To make matters worse, my aspirations for photographing birds have increased:  not enough to get one perching nicely, oh no.  Instead, I’ve got to hold up my lens long enough to catch it in flight.  Not enough to get a close-up, but, as I learned from reading Nature Photography, by Audubon photographer Tim Fitzharris, the light and focus have to catch the glint in a bird’s eye.

On local walks, if other birds are eluding me, I, too, default to butterflies.  (The first thing to know about photographing butterflies, though, is they don’t necessarily cooperate by sitting still with wings outstretched.)

At Elk Lake, there are other options:  changes in the light on the island-studded lake with its backdrop of mountain peaks, or the kaleidoscopic mirroring of branches and rocks in the water when it’s still.

When my mate and I go to Elk Lake Lodge, where we’ve been lucky enough to snag one of the cottages these past two years, we hurl ourselves out of bed at the 7AM breakfast bell (earlier than I, at least, get up even on workdays) and, fortified with a fine breakfast, get into a canoe and out on the lake.  Our aim, always, is to be the first ones to The Narrows, at the far end of the lake, for the best chance at spotting birds before they’ve spotted humans and skedaddled out of sight.

We understood, from the moment we entered The Narrows for the first time, that it was a precious place.  Just how precious, we only learned later, when a guest who was a Forty-Sixer—he’d climbed all 46 Adirondack peaks that are more than 4,000 feet high—told us he knew of nowhere else in the Adirondacks where you could get to a place like The Narrows without hiking miles to get in.

In past years, in the Narrows, and courtesy of my mate’s excellent J-stroke (learned from another guest—if you saw us trying to get in a canoe, you'd know immediately what amateurs we are), we’ve been able to get up close and personal with a great blue heron diverted from worrying about us in its quest for fish.  We’ve seen squadrons of ducklings lined up obediently behind their mom, and on the bushes near Wagon Wheel Landing, where we pull up the canoe to rest before heading back, more cedar waxwings than we’ve seen before or since.

On the way back across the lake, we once happened on a flotilla of baby mergansers being squired about by three female adults.  Another time, loons bobbed up so near the canoe I had to reel back the telephoto lens.

This year, though, the closest we got to a loon was when a pair came within feet of us as we were engaged in the awkward acrobatics of getting into the canoe.  My camera was packed up with no time to get it out.  Then, when we entered The Narrows, we spied a great blue heron standing sentinel on a far-off rock.  As we approached, it took off.  Though now I had my camera up and ready, it was too far away to get in focus as it flew.  We spotted it twice again, with the same result.

Way off in the lily pads, we saw a squadron of ducklings, but mom saw us too.  The next we knew, she’d tucked them behind her in the tall marsh grass.  I had another couple chances with a loon, but I knew from past experience I wasn’t going to come away with a good shot.  The light was behind it, and when that’s the case, even in close focus, the eyes disappear into the black of the loon’s head.

As Fitzharris says, “as a rule, you can photograph at close range only at the subject’s forbearance.  Except for the photography of birds from blinds, the senses of wild animals are too keen for you to shoot undetected for more than a few seconds.  Generally you must seek out animals that don’t mind being near you.”

Despite his friendly warning, I persist.  After all, I’m not aiming to be an expert.  Instead, just as writing about a poem or a piece of music pushes me to focus more intently on what I read or hear, photographing birds and butterflies—well, anything of natural beauty—pushes me to focus more intently on what I see.

And, every now and then, I do get a lucky shot.

At Innisfree Garden last year, I focused on an adult American Robin because it was sitting still and I’d had no luck with anything else.  Here’s what happened next:

Aside from birds, while I was on the telephone with Mom one day, I looked out the front window of our house and saw two fawns that my mate had previously claimed to exist, but I’d not seen.  “Mom!  The fawns!”  I grabbed the camera, and (I have a phone headset), reported to her what I saw as I took shots.  Of course, they were all a little blue-toned from shooting through the windowpane, but Photoshop had a way to help with that:

And this year, at Buttercup Farm, midway through a photographically unsuccessful walk, I turned to cross the creek and spotted a green heron—a bird I’ve not seen at Buttercup before:

For lucky shots from past years at Elk Lake, I offer this:  Photographing Birds in the Adirondacks.


Jane and Lance Hattatt said...

Hello Susan:
As we are complete camera virgins, there is absolutely no way that we could ever hope to capture, let alone achieve, any wildlife photographs of the wonderful quality to which you treat us here.

The Adirondacks, seen from the water, have such a powerful presence and we cannot imagine climbing all 46 of them [or one, for that matter]. The closest to Elk Lake that we know of in the UK is Slimbridge in Gloucestershire. Founded by Peter Scott [relative of Scott and Antarctic fame] it is the most beautiful sanctuary for birds.

We have discovered you via the delightful Friko and look forward to many happy returns.

Friko said...

Hi Susan, here is the post I've been clicking on in vain for days. Well worth waiting for.

I didn't know you count photography among your many excellent talents. The birds may not have kept still long enough, but you captured some beauties. The green heron is my favourite.

But my all time favourite is the shot of three boats on the bank of the lake. The shot is wonderfully composed and you have captured a feeling, the true essence of nature and man's very limited importance within creation.

Jane and Lance, clever of you to follow me here and thanks for mentioning me; I can promise that Susan will not disappoint.

David said...

and the gold medal goes to the three boats (is it?), the quay, the water, the hills and the sunset sky. Better copyright that one quick. How you make me long for the hills - but urban grey with splashes of green is all I'm going to get for the next fortnight. And meanwhile it pours and pours...

John said...

Hi Susan,
What a stunning place, absolutely fantastic scenery! Such stunning birds, just to see them would be amazing, you have at least a photo in your mind!
Love the photo of the American Robin feeding its young, lovely!
Thankyou for the name-drop! I don`t know about being the consumate birder, but I do try my best! ;)

Elaine Sexton said...

so soothing to read and look and listen to the sounds in the short video... tip of canoe... lovely..

David said...

Just one more question, Sue, if I may: is this anywhere near Lake Saranac? At last night's Prom I was reminded that it was here Bartok got the inspiration for the fabulous wide open spaces and 'night music' of the middle movement in his Third Piano Concerto, and though I should bother to go and look at a detailed atlas, I thought it might be quicker to ask you.

Linda said...

Hey Susan!
I feel like I've snuck in through the back door and find myself in awe of all the great things you talk about. One moment you're writing about Rimbaud and the next you're out in nature taking fantastic photos. Amazing!
And speaking of amazing, these photos are so alive. I also especially like the Robin and baby, along with the fawns.
I've always been a sucker for babies.

klahanie said...

Hi Susan,
Ah the beauty and tranquillity of it all. I just loved the video and reminded me of the times I have canoed in the great outdoors. Such an awesome experience.
What a fascinating and informative posting you have submitted. I've seen photographs of the Adirondacks in the autumn and the resplendent colours were breath taking.
Thanks for this and the wonderful accompanying photos.
Here's wishing you a most peaceful weekend and that the weather has finally cooled down, over there.
In kindness and appreciation, Gary.

Mark Kerstetter said...

Hi Susan. You may have gotten lucky with some of the shots (the light on the fawns is beautiful) but the ones you composed of the canoes are both great. The 3 canoes on the dock is an outstanding work of art.

broken biro said...

Hi Susan! Beautiful photographs - that one of the three canoes is absoultely gorgeous. After a hectic morning at the library I'm so glad i visited here in my lunch time... feel much calmer now, with the lap of paddle in water and whisper of wing in flight... *sighs happily*

Britta said...

Dear Susan,
your photographs are really breath-taking and very, very beautiful! I admire your skill and patience to get animals on your pictures - and birds are so nervous little dears, they hop around and away - I would be content just to get them on my film, let alone see the glint in their eyes!! And butterfies: I tried, and I tried - till I went back to flowers and other willing victims.
I especially love your beautiful landscape photographs - what a majestic landscape you choose! Have a good time there! Britta

Hilary Melton-Butcher said...

Hi Susan .. these are lovely - we get to see different aspects .. and then the magic happens and you have wonderful photos of memories .. the evening sky - that's beautiful, but the robin feeding its young, and the deer .. quite delightful. Loved the stories surrounding the post as you led us through .. the Adirondacks look superb .. one day I'd love to visit .. cheers for now - Hilary

Anonymous said...

S Lovely area and the fawns are adorable. We see deer once in a while up here in Kula but mostly at night so hard to get pictures. Your photos are fantastic! J

Susan Scheid said...

Jane and Lance: Welcome! I’m so glad you enjoyed the post. Thank you, too, for noting Slimbridge, which now must go on my ever-longer “must visit” list.

Friko: I’m so pleased you liked the heron. I was lucky it posed for me so long, and particularly liked the pose in this photo.

Friko, David, Mark: Wow! Such high marks for the 3 canoes! The cloud formations that evening, the colors of the sky, and the reflections in the water were unusually beautiful, even for the extraordinarily photogenic Elk Lake, so I really had no excuse not to get a decent photo out of it. Funny, though, how much a humble aluminum canoe can add to a photograph, isn’t it?

John: I really do enjoy your bird posts, and I was struck when you noted a lack of bird action and then took such splendid shots of butterflies (and you know their names!). I couldn’t resist a mention, particularly after that.

Elaine, broken biro: I am really pleased to have been able to capture the tranquility of the place in a way that allowed you to experience it, too.

Linda: I was utterly amazed when that baby robin popped up out of the branches. I had no idea it was there. I’m with you, there are few things more appealing than getting a glimpse of birds and animals while they’re still young.

Gary: I’ve not been to the Adirondacks in the fall, but they’re supposed to be beautiful. Interesting, about your comment, as a kid, we spent a lot of time in Lake of the Woods, Ontario. Elk Lake has some of the feel of that. The open water, the smell of piney woods, the loons. Canada has so many beautiful areas, doesn’t it?

Britta: Well, you know, your photographs of flowers are always lovely. You know so well how to show them off at their best. That is, indeed, its own kind of magic!

Hilary: It’s been wonderful to discover this beautiful landscape, and I feel lucky to be able to capture, preserve, and share it in these photographs.

jms: Thanks for stopping by! You do get a lot of great wildlife there on Maui. Funny, it didn’t occur to me, but why wouldn’t you have deer as well? (Though perhaps they are a different sort than we get here?)

Oh, and FYI to all: I’d written to David over at his blog about Lake Saranac, but just to say so here: it is also in the Adirondacks. It’s a huge park. Here’s a bit about it from VisitAdirondacks:

Created in 1892 as one of the first Forever Wild Forest Preserves in the nation, the Adirondack Park is a unique wilderness area. At 6 million acres, it is the largest publically protected area in the contiguous United States. The state of New York owns approximately 2.6 million acres, while the remaining 3.4 million acres are devoted to forestry, agriculture and open space recreation. The Adirondack Park is not a National Park - there's no fee to enter and the park doesn't close at night, nor is it a state park, a common misconception. It's also the largest National Historic Landmark, covering an area larger than Yellowstone, Yosemite, Grand Canyon, Glacier and the Great Smokies National Parks combined.

Wide Open Spaces said...

Love, love , love your photographs! You make it look so easy to take a wonderful photo. I also love the deer photo!

My son will be at Lake Saranac next week, I hope he sees at least some of this beauty! Thanks again. . .

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