Friday, January 21, 2011

Knowledge of Very Small Places

It’s not really a fancy kind of knowledge or an impressive one, but I’ve taken a special joy in cultivating a knowledge of the local area. Sometimes that means something like knowing where to get the best cheese (Caseus) or the best house-roasted whole bean coffee (Common Grounds), and sometimes it means exploring the little-trod backways of a piece of town land.

And sometimes it means trying to learn the sounds and habits of my smaller neighbors. I’m not sure what’s so charming about a Chickadee who flies down to the suet when you’re quite close and gives a quick chide in your direction before he eats, but charming it is.

Look at a Common Grackle once, and you might mistake him for a Red-winged Blackbird or even a European Starling. Take your time, and you’ll learn about his striking yellow eye, and the rainbow he carries on his back, just at the edge of the human’s visible spectrum. He’s blue, green, bronze, red, and purple.

And he’s a bully at the feeder and one of a thousand squeaky barn doors when he and his friends spend the day in the trees above your house.

Take even more time, and you might notice a duller bird that’s harder to pick out from the background. Unlike the male, the female House Finch is dressed to hide out. She lacks the showiness of her partner, but there’s a subdued beauty in even the dullest bird.

The little brown birds blur if you don’t stop to drink them in, but they’re each patterned in their own unique and often striking way.

So some days I learn about big things and think about weighty topics like taxes and foreign policy, and some days I stand on the deck with a mug of tea and enjoy a somewhat one-sided conversation with a chatty Chickadee. Sometimes they know things we don’t.

“It is the ancient wisdom of birds that battles are best fought with song.”
Richard Nelson, The Island Within

In My Mind, I've Gone to the Suet Feeder

We set out suet for the woodpeckers and nuthatches, and in the relatively short time it’s been out, I’ve seen White-breasted Nuthatches, Downy Woodpeckers, Red-bellied Woodpeckers, and Northern Flickers visit it.

Another frequent visitor to the feeder is a pair of Carolina Wrens. Perhaps I’d written off sightings of these wrens in the past as sightings of House Wrens, since they’re fairly similar—though impossible to mistake once you know the difference—but when they kept coming to the feeder, I realized they were something new to me, so I IDed them and then staked them out with the tripod and a telephoto.

It took about 1/2 hour standing absolutely still, freezing, and 75 exposures as the sun came and went and the feeder slowly rotated in the shadow of the cedar tree, but I finally got a good one.

My telephoto is only a 75x300, so if I want to take a picture of small birds, I need to get fairly close and then wait, absolutely still, until they come back. Thus, it’s easier to get pictures of less skittish, more feeder-oriented birds like Finches. The Carolina Wren was quite a challenge, since he would hide in the bushes whenever I came outside, so I had to set up the telephoto and wait him out.

The Flicker and the Red-bellied Woodpecker have proven impossible so far. The Red-bellied doesn’t just hide nearby; he flies off through the trees entirely if I open a door.

I like this picture because it seems a bit like an advertisement for the feeder. Just set out thistle, and as soon as one Goldfinch finds it, you’ll have a couple of dozen visiting your yard regularly. And while they’ll fly up into the trees if you move too much, they’ll come back fairly quickly once you stand still again.

Monday, January 17, 2011

My Favorite Gold

My favorite kinds of Gold are the kinds you don’t really own. My father handed this particular Gold down to me, and I am absolutely rich.

Almost anywhere in America, all you have to do is set out some thistle seed in the right kind of feeder, and you’re Midas.

In the winter, the American Goldfinch isn’t as spectacular as the males can get in summer—and I promise to try to catch that on film too—but they’re handsome birds at any time of year.

Catch them in the right light, in fact, and you can see muted hints of all the gold you could want. By today’s gold prices, an average Goldfinch would be worth about $68. My yard is full of jewels.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Fresh Powder

January saw the east coast absolutely hammered with snowstorms, and not every day was a great one for a walk. However, we also did see a few bright, milder days, so I made an effort to get out and slog through the snow for a mile or two so the dogs could get their exercise and I could get mine.

While snow hiking requires tremendous effort on my part and starts me thinking about an investment in snowshoes, it seems to energize the dogs rather than exhaust them, at least for the duration of the hike.

Both dogs love to run around in the snow, but Jax was absolutely ecstatic. I have literally a dozen pictures of him with those two sparks in his eyes and that expression of happiness so profound it borders on insanity.

Did you not believe me? The dog loves his deep powder.

I have plenty of shots of Comet running around too, but he’s more interested in balancing his running time with rolling time, so you also get these thoughtful moments as he decides whether to chase Jax or get back down in the snow and give his back a good scratch.

This trail goes through a section of the quarry that’s been abandoned for at least 40 years, judging by the trees. We call this trail the “Icicle Loop” because the huge boulders retain heat and melt small amounts of the show which refreeze as they run down the rocks. There are spectacular ice walls and massive conglomerations of icicles sometimes. We break some off and feed them to the dogs, but we also stop to appreciate just how beautiful they can be.

Sunday, January 9, 2011

Back Around Another Time

Another year, another kickoff with photos of dogs running through the snow. We do another loop of a trail in the bigger loop of another year, and I hope the dogs are a little better trained and in a little better shape, and I hope I’m a little wiser (and in better shape too).

At this point, I have thousands of pictures of dogs running in all kinds of weather, so I’ve gotten much pickier about what I keep and relatively picky about what I’ll post here.

I try to play with light a little, but I’ll admit to a bit of laziness with camera settings. I might try this or that with ISO or shutter speed, but more often than not, I’ll just trust the camera’s sports setting and spend my energy trying to find the right angle or light or moment and make up for problems with exposure in post-processing.

I do OK, though. I take a lot of exposures, and I’m not afraid to get down on the ground for the right angle or to stand still in the freezing cold to wait for a bird to come back from the bushes.

It’s all about taking lots and lots of exposures. The camera allows you to hold the shutter button down and take about three pictures every second, perfect for grabbing those well-lit action shots. Then you can sort out the best (or most ridiculous, as the case may be).

Sometimes I even mess around with focal length.

I still can’t get over the difference in the dogs’ personalities. Comet is just happy to be a good dog and do what he’s asked (in this case, a sit-stay). Jax is happy to work and will hold a good sit-stay too, but he itches to go. He stops panting in order to hear the release command a nanosecond earlier.