Beauty in art is often nothing but ugliness subdued.—Jean Rostand
Some of the most memorable photographs in history are unflinching documents of the brutality of the world. Think of Matthew Brady’s images of the American Civil War, or Robert Capa’s slightly mis-framed, slightly out-of-focus photo of a falling soldier, shot dead during the Spanish Civil War (Loyalist Militiaman at the Moment of Death, 1936). And who can ever forget Nick Ut’s image of a napalm-burned Vietnamese girl running screaming down a road surrounded by scattered refugees and soldiers?
Nature, like war, offers up some dark and grisly images. As one who is interested in photographing birds, especially waders, in the act of hunting, I often witness and document violent and bloody scenes. Waders, after all, are stone-cold killers. If a sequence of images is taken, a few images are usually relatively tame–the ones I present to friends, or in talks–or on this site. Often, there are others, typically not shared, with jets of blood and streamers of entrails. Is it not right to share these images, too?
Similarly, photographers tend to avoid birds in molt or with injuries, diseases, and deformities. But the more time one spends in the field, the more of these not-so-pretty pictures of nature emerge. Of course, these images may have value as documents of the current state of affairs in a particular place or the world in general.
And where nature photographers should document unflinchingly is where they observe the continued degradation and destruction of nature at the hand of man, whether through direct action or through the actions of human-introduced species. Who knows, it may make a difference.
Do the leg bands on my subjects ruin the shots for you? Me, I’m on the fence. Generally, Chris and I like to capture an idealized view of nature. We travel to state and national parks, wildlife refuges and nature preserves. We try to avoid shots that include fences, telephone poles, signs and roads. We like our birds au natural.
Nature provides a necessary respite from the human hustle—an escape from the man-made. Perhaps its true for you, too. Alas, the escape is an illusion. Even if we agree that humans are not the center of life on earth, we can’t deny that our influence is all but ubiquitous. How I crave those vistas without a trace of mankind—hard to find when you live in a metropolis. But, peering at the world through a camera lens takes me there. I suspend disbelief with a world view framed by the viewfinder and the silent still images that result.
So, when your subject sports a leg band, it kinda bursts the bubble.
Many agencies and organizations use bird leg bands for tracking purposes. For example, U.S. federal agency bands are for birds covered by the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, and state and provincial bands are for game birds (Galliformes). These banding programs are the reason we know what we know about the timing and scale of migration. Some agency programs, such as the North American MAPS (Monitoring Avian Productivity and Survivorship) Program, also produce data on the abundance, survivorship, and ecology of our continental land birds so the conservation community can better address conservation needs.
Chris and I sometimes romanticize the idea of time-traveling to the Pleistocene Epoch and experiencing the world at the dawn of man—before we altered the environment so discriminately in our favor. But here we are, in the Anthropocene, deeply intertwined with so many of our fellow species. And, unlike our fellow species, we know what we do. Conservation science through bird banding places our best foot forward to mitigate some of the damage, or at least learn how to considerately coexist.
So, putting aside all fantasies of a better past, I am compelled to celebrate these unwitting research subjects. They carry a burden for their well being—and so must we.
Sometimes we feel the loss of a prejudice as a loss of vigor. –Eric Hoffer
There is no question that human influence has penetrated into just about every corner of the world. To get to a truly wild place, one would have to go the ends of the earth. That said, the level of “wildness” encountered while out photo-birding falls along a continuum. Rarely, we are able to get to fairly remote and wild places (e.g., Gila Wilderness). But like many, we generally find ourselves going to national wildlife refuges, national and state and city parks, bird sanctuaries, and so on because that’s what resources allow. In these places, the birds are somewhat used to humans and may allow approaches closer than one would normally expect in the real wilds.
On the other hand, in some of these quasi-wild places the birds are less tolerant of people than expected or what is natural. Think about wildlife refuges that allow hunting. In some of these places, we’ve had birds flee at the first sight of us—often from a great distance. In the past, in some truly wild places, the animals have been completely naive, allowing humans to walk right up to them an dispatch them. On some remote islands this is still the case.
On a recent visit to the City of Albuquerque Botanic Garden during the middle of the day, we were delighted to find an associated pond with a variety of waterfowl, including Wood Ducks, Canada Geese, Ring-necked Ducks, American Wigeons, and Mallards. Some of these species are typically shy, at least around the Texas Gulf Coast. On the off chance we see Wood Ducks at Brazos Bend or Anahuac NWR, for instance, they are off in a flash. Used to being around humans (and perhaps hoping for a handout) the Albuquerque ducks paddled right up to us. As in the “wild,” the American Wigeons were still distrustful of humans and generally kept their distance, though.
Realizing that in an hour or two the light would be beautiful, we went back to the car and got our gear. For the next few hours we blazed away and collected some nice images. Is this nature photography? Probably not. Technically, these are still wild birds—or wildish birds. In a world of ever-dimishing nature, sometimes you have to take what you can get.
Listen in time
Taken so high
To touch, to move
Listen to life —”Going for the One” by Jon Anderson (as recorded by Yes)
I was highly flattered when long-time friend M.P. wrote to me saying that he thought there was something special in just about every one of my images. Thinking about it, I guess that’s what I have been trying to achieve, even if it was often being done subconsciously.
Because we work, we can’t travel as often as we’d like. We generally frequent the same half-dozen local birding sites again and again. This is good and bad. I’m not seeing the species diversity I’d like, but it forces me to look for those special little behaviors that really provide insights into avian lives.
I’m willing to sit and watch a bird for hours if I suspect that it will do something that not seen in many images. Feeding, singing, calling and courtship rituals provide many of these special moments.
There are so many photographers out there these days, the chances of catching something unique are slim. But documenting scenes slightly out of the ordinary is very doable, even for someone who doesn’t have a lot of time to spend in the field. Perhaps someday I’ll have time to really go for the one.
When I go to a party, nobody says hello. But when I leave, everybody says goodbye. –George Gobel
Last weekend we were on our knees on a hot, humid mudflat getting chewed up by sandflies photographing Least Sandpipers as they plucked insect larvae from the sand–when it started to pour warm rain. I looked up to see blue skies overhead. Noting the trajectory of the rain drops, I noticed that they were being blown at about a 45 degree angle from a small gray cloud coming up behind us from the Gulf. Geez. One good thing: We’re likely not far enough south to contract leishmaniasis from the fly bites!
Elisa beat me back to the truck. Once I got there, we mopped off the equipment with my handkerchief. We sat there, in silence, grimy and soggy with rain and sweat. And then, suddenly, I announced that I was finally done for the summer . . . . I will return to the field only after the the first blue norther, maybe in a week or two (or three).
Summer has many wonders: singing, nesting, and baby birds, flowers, and zillions of cool insects. But enough is enough. Texas, you finally beat me.
A friend who has long since retired and moved from Houston to the hills of Tennessee explained why September is the most trying month in Texas. He found it tough looking at the news and seeing the cooling temperatures and changing colors of the leaves up north—when it is still 95 degrees in the shade here. Houston summers, though, give a great excuse for travel!
In about a month, there will be a few nice days per week. In two months, it will be nice almost all the time. In three months . . . I will be in love with Texas again.
Our dried voices, when
We whisper together
Are quiet and meaningless
As wind in dry grass . . . . —T.S.Eliot, The Hollow Men
I think I once read that T.S. Eliot, when asked if he would again write his poem’s famous last lines about the end of the world, replied that he would not have written a word. His rationale being that victims of aerial bombing during the Blitz never heard a thing before impact . . . . If the story’s not true, it should be.
Perhaps it’s because of working on my other website (trilobiteseas.com) that deals with an entirely extinct group, perhaps it’s because of what I keep seeing (and hearing) in the field while photo-birding, but I’ve got the end of the world on my mind. Of course, as humans in the early 21st Century, we’re experiencing the end of a world, not the end of the world. Without getting into the semantics of to whether humans are part of nature or not, the world that is ending is the natural biosphere, and it is ending with a whimper, not a bang. Songbird populations are collapsing everywhere, and human fingerprints are on their demise.
Fact is, wherever I go in the Lower Forty-eight, I am hard-pressed to find a completely natural scene.
Always there is the hand of man. Roads, trash, roadkills, and everywhere invasive plants and animals brought in by humans. A colleague at work who is quite knowledgeable about wildlife recently showed me some images of birds from her backyard feeders–because she had never seen anything like some of the birds before. They were Scaly-breasted Munias, exotics introduced into Texas from Asia. Those birds were eating someone else’s lunch!
While driving through southwest Oregon recently I saw weird, huge, orange flowers growing by the side of the road. What in the hell are those? I thought. Turns out they were red hot poker plants. Like the Bottlebrush, this plant is a big favorite of birds . . . in southern Africa where they come from! Perhaps some North American bird species will find a use for them.
If you want to get bummed out, read birding accounts from the 1950’s . . . .
Man’s deleterious influence on the wild is always, always moving inexorably ahead altering and killing as it goes. Cars, buildings, cats, windmills . . . all slaughtering birds in the billions. Introduced invasives are replacing natives all around us. And although some of the introduced plants and animals are pretty, the havoc they’re causing in ecosystems isn’t!
Is there a reason for today?
Is there a reason for today?
Do you remember? –Gail Collins/Felix Pappalardi, “World of Pain” (as recorded by Cream)
As I write this, I have less than a week remaining of my summer vacation. As a teacher, I, of course, look forward to summer every year. The two-and-a-half months off give us a chance to travel, and me a chance to get caught up on house repairs and maintenance. I usually go into summer with a long list of things to accomplish, and I’m lucky if half gets done. The prospect of being able to go out every day photographing plants and animals is exciting. But usually after about a month or so of shooting frequently, the grind of the Texas heat starts to take the edge off the enthusiasm at bit, productivity trails off, and I start to long for the first blue norther of fall.
Summers off for students and teachers is a holdover from an agrarian past. Objectively, summer off is obsolete, and I would love to see the school calendar changed. Nine months of instruction is fine (unless you want to expand content, but no one but the most hard-core AP teachers want that), but summer vacation should be at most a month long lest student knowledge and skills tank. The additional time should be distributed throughout the year—longer mini-vacations in fall, winter, and spring. Of course, as a birder it would be wonderful to be able to travel to see major birding hotspots at the proper time of the year. Big Bend for Colima Warblers in May, anyone? Cape May for waterfowl in November? Anyone? Remember: The birds always decide when it’s the right time to be somewhere.
During this summer, like every other one, I tried to cram as many new experiences as I could into available time. As the clock runs out, I always ask myself: Was the time as well-used as it could have been? The answer is almost always a resounding no. But as a life-long learner, that failure gives something to aspire to next time.
Why has not anyone seen that fossils alone gave birth to a theory about the formation of the earth, that without them, no one would have ever dreamed that there were successive epochs in the formation of the globe? –Georges Cuvier
Readers of Two Shutterbirds may know me as an obsessed photo-birder who traipses around the country doing his best to master his birds and bird photography. A few of my readers know that before my ornithology obsession, I was an obsessed fossil-nut who traipsed around the country (often with Elisa, too!) hunting for fossils, especially trilobites, trying to learn how these fascinating creatures lived their lives so many millions of years ago.
I have enjoyed our Two Shutterbirds blog so much and have felt it has lead to so much personal growth in ornithological knowledge and photographic capability, I have decided to take a similar approach with trilobites. It has been years since I have thought seriously about these creatures, and I hope preparing articles about and taking photographs of trilobites, as well as corresponding with whomever chooses to write me on this topic, will get me back into the trilo-world. So, without further ado, I launch Trilobiteseas.com: Paleobiology of a Paleozoic Icon for the Collector and Enthusiast with a new article, Cryptic Strategies in Trilobites. Enjoy!
Just to reassure: Devoted twoshutterbirds.com readers should not fret. My trilobitic escapades should in no way hinder the flow of bird-related images and prose. Cheers!
Dans les champs de l’observation le hasard ne favorise que les esprits préparés.—Louis Pasteur
Pasteur’s brilliant and famous expression above (“Chance favors the prepared mind” in streamlined English translation) is undoubtably one of life’s great truths. Ultimately, seeing a particular bird species or avian behavior is a matter of chance. In all the singular sightings of difficult-to-see species (Tropical Parula, Red-faced Warbler, Clay-colored Robin, Black Rail, etc) that I’ve made, I realize that had I been looking in a slightly different direction for a fraction of a second, I would have missed the bird entirely. But being in the right place at the right time to even have a possibility of making the observation in the first place is decidedly a matter of preparation (and effort), not chance.
Photographing birds is even more subject to the vagaries of chance than simply seeing birds. A passing cloud, a wind gust, a stray blade of grass in front of the subject, stepping in a hole or ant nest, or getting stung in face by a nasty bug at the precise moment a shutter should have been activated can all doom a photo that, a fraction of a second before, held great promise. The fact that rare, unpredictable natural events can be captured at all is sometimes a matter of some amazement to me given the difficulty of the problem. I think, for example, that after thousands of hours of photo-birding I’ve seen birds eating walkingsticks a total of three times in my life, and, incredibly, I was able to photograph it each time! On the other hand, I’ve never captured a single decent image of some species of birds I’ve seen dozens of times!
From time-to-time, I talk with photographers who have quit trying to photograph birds, or are at least considering quitting. They cite the difficulty and not getting any good results. What they seem to be hoping for is serendipity, or at least great good fortune. But after slogging through swamps and jungles, being pelted by rain and blasted by the sun from deserts to plains and mountain-tops, and shooting tens of thousands of images, I’ve started to doubt that serendipity or even good luck is much of a factor in photo-birding. I think that there are only drive and statistics. If you want some bird photos, then clear your calendar, break out the sunscreen and bug repellent, and get out there and photograph some birds (and enjoy the process)!
Nostalgia is not what it used to be.–Simone Signoret
My father had an interest in German optics and occasionally used a twin-lens medium format Rolleiflex with Carl Zeiss lenses at work. He also had a Rollei SL35 (with Schneider-Kreuznach glass) and a Leica R8 of his own. I inherited his camera equipment last year. A few years ago, Elisa also inherited some nice old Canon equipment from her grandfather. With my collection of old Contax/Yashica stuff, we now have access to a variety of quality glass from the 70’s through the present available for reversed-lens work.
Oklahoma artist Thomas Shahan has achieved some spectacular results with pretty modest equipment, namely a Pentax DSLR and old manual focus lenses mounted in reverse on extension tubes for macrophotography. Inspired by Shahan’s work, I’ve started experimenting with old glass, rigged for macro.
My recent tentative macrophotography experiments have involved reversing old lenses with an adapter, Fotodiox or Promaster. These adapters are available from Amazon for about ten bucks. This reversal process essentially turns a short focal length lens (in the normal range) into a powerful macro lens.
Disappointingly, my dad’s Leica 90mm f/2 Summicron-R will not form a focused image on a Canon EOS 7DII when reversed. The focal length is likely too long. In contrast, my old Contax/Yashica-mount Carl Ziess (Japan) 50mm f/1.4 Planar from the 90’s worked very well reversed (for both Elisa and me). Likewise, I had Elisa’s grandfather’s Canon FL 55mm f/1.2 from the 70’s taking pretty nice images in a matter of minutes—but the Planar has a slightly greater depth of field. Incidentally, along the way I thought I had a brilliant idea by buying an inexpensive ($35) LED video lighting panel for outdoor macro work, but it simply is not bright enough. I went back to flash.
As an informal comparison, I also shot some images of similar-sized objects (from a few millimeters to just under a centimeter) under identical conditions with our 100mm f/2.8L IS Macro plus 12mm extension tube II. The 100mm Macro is, of course, easier to use with autofocus and metering. My sense is that the Planar, despite being almost twenty five years old is very sharp and has better color than the 100mm f/2.8 L Canon Macro. It also produces a dreamy, Leica-like quality not present in any of the other lenses.
On the other hand, the Canon 100mm is a really nice lens and a real workhorse with great functionality over a range of sizes and distances. If I needed to get a shot, it’s what I would reach for. The Planar, however, seems to have potential for making some really gorgeous images, albeit with lots of effort and trial and error. The results with the Planar were encouraging enough for me to order a Fotodiox reverse adapter for my dad’s old Rollei Schneider 50mm f/1.8 from the 70’s. We’ll see.
In our throw away society, it’s nice to find a way to use and derive unique benefit from some “obsolete” technology. Can’t wait for the warm buggy and flowery Texas weather! With lots of practice I hope I can at least get in the same ball park as Mr. Shahan.
Contrived durability is a strategy of shortening the product lifetime before it is released onto the market, by designing it to deteriorate quickly. The design of all consumer products includes an expected average lifetime permeating all stages of development. Thus, it must be decided early in the design of a complex product how long it is designed to last so that each component can be made to those specifications.–Planned Obsolescence, Wikipedia
Last week our big, beautiful iMac computer passed away. In the middle of the night, funny orange dashes appeared across the screen. When I rebooted, blue stripes appeared and then faded to bright white. A few quick looks around the internet led to a few attempts to revive, but in my heart I knew . . . it was over. This was our bird photography computer . . . .
A day or two later I took the lifeless hulk to the Apple Store Genius Bar so a technician could have a look. Sure enough, the video card had croaked. But then the technician kept talking (but not smiling) . . . He said that because the machine is over five years old (it was built in late 2009 by Chinese paupers and bought by us in early 2010), it is considered a vintage machine and Apple Stores will no longer service it. He said that even if he wanted to, he couldn’t work on such a machine because after five years the Apple stores ship all the replacement parts back to corporate.
Five years. Five years! After five years, a multi-thousand-dollar machine will not be serviced by its manufacturer. Sure, I could find a third party operation that might be able to fix it with “old” spare parts, but that’s a big “if.” Wow. Luckily we had ordered a replacement the night before. It will take ten days to arrive.
So, if you are planning to buy an Apple computer to service your bird photography addiction, then start saving for its replacement now. They cost about $3k and last about five years. Period.
Until I know this sure uncertainty, I’ll entertain the offered fallacy.–William Shakespeare, The Comedy of Errors
Birding is something I do alone, with Elisa, or with very small groups of people—so the impact and embarrassment of personal screw-ups has been limited. Field blunders have ranged from the minor (like calling a female Orchard Oriole a Prothonotary Warbler in front of the late Steve Gross) to silly, like hustling out the woods in grizzly country feeling like I was being hunted only to decide that it was all in my head! Probably.
In the imagination-getting-the-better-of-oneself scenario, a week or so ago I was on the levee between 40-acre and Pilant Lake when I heard a loud rustling coming from the rice on the edge of Pilant Lake. Whatever it was sounded big—and it sounded like there were several somethings. Would I see a row of feral pigs? Otters? Raccoons? Otters would be great! This could be exciting! A similar thing had happened before and a bobcat had poked its head out less than five yards in front of me!
So I fiddled with my gear in eager anticipation . . . when who popped out? A group of the noisiest grackles on the planet emerged from the vegetation, and they had nesting materials in their beaks. At least I got a few shots of that, I thought disappointedly. Later, while reviewing the images, I realized that it was not nesting materials that they had, but straw-colored katydids! The birds must have been in a line to flush out the insects. Without knowing it, I had likely observed avian cooperative hunting. I have seen Cattle Egrets doing much the same thing. So much for otters.
In the not-knowing-what-you’re-looking-at scenario, last week I was watching American Goldfinches chiseling into stems of an unidentified plant and plucking out tiny somethings. That’s weird, I thought, what could these birds be getting out of stems? Later, I brought up the question to a naturalist friend, and he quickly offered that insects had possibly infested the stems and the birds were simply fishing them out. But later while reviewing the images trying to identify the “insects,” I realized that the stems were not stems at all, but rather dried-out elongated seed pods, and the birds were (unsurprisingly) simply eating seeds! The whole conversation about insects in stems was like the Peanuts episode when Lucy and Linus wonder about how potato chips could migrate from Brazil (after misidentifying a potato chip as a beautiful yellow butterfly).
In my own defense, once in a while I see something unusual enough that I don’t feel silly when I misinterpret it. I remember photographing the Yellow-crowned Night-Heron below and feeling sorry that the poor animal had a growth on its lower bill. A few years later, while sifting through the archives I noted that it was not a growth, but rather a gar tooth that was protruding from the bill. The bird must have been hunting in the water when a gar bit it through the lower jaw. In the ensuing struggle, the tooth must have broken off.
Finally, this post reminds me of a question I often pose to myself: Do I see more when I am out photographing or when I am binocular birding? I’m pretty sure that I see more with binoculars alone because I’m not worrying about light, perspective, and so on. But then again, without images to check what I’ve been seeing, how do I really know that what I’ve been looking at it is what I thought I was looking at?