—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.
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.
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.
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:
Photographing Birds in the Adirondacks.