Back to the beginning

Since I had some business in Raleigh yesterday, I decided afterwards to go back to one of my old haunts, the head of the Neuse River where it spills from Falls Lake. I haven’t been back there in a while, but years ago when I started getting serious about photography, it was one of my routine shooting locations, probably helped by it being 11 kilometers (7 miles) away from where I lived at the time. Many of the first slides in my stock drawers come from there, and this image from my galleries. It was also where I took the images that netted my first sales, a fishing spider and water striders, and beyond that, it’s a fun place to explore – most especially if you wear shorts and wading sandals. Come to think of it, it probably inspired the website/business name too.

Wake County has decided to “improve” the area to make it more alluring to the general public, I suppose, and they did this by cutting through many of the trees to provide a “riverwalk,” or a paved and aproned area suitable for joggers and baby strollers and, of course, bearing no resemblance to anything natural anymore. I didn’t bother following this very far, since the day was hot and it was far from ideal shooting conditions, but I can say that the river remained invisible from this riverwalk in the areas that I was in. And since these were the most interesting areas, I located one of the old beaten paths that had truly followed the river and made my way down to the water.

I was, in fact, trying to duplicate the same position and angle seen in that linked page above when I spotted a great blue heron (Ardea herodias) surprisingly close. Herons can be funny – while they might typically maintain some distance from people, they seem to be able to habituate, not to humans, but to an area, and thus allow closer approaches therein. I found this often in Florida, where they would visit fishing docks in the hopes of snagging the fish used as bait, but wouldn’t let anyone within 40 meters out in the Everglades. Standing as I was in the Neuse River, in a bright white shirt and not trying to be quiet, I wasn’t subtle in any respect, but the heron was stalking the shallows just ten meters (30 feet) away.

This is the reason I will never own a photo backpack and heartily recommend against them. Switching lenses with such things usually requires taking them off and setting them down somewhere, something that isn’t going to happen in knee-deep water, while I was able to switch out the wide-angle lens for the telephoto zoom since they’re all in pouches on the main bag, which can be worn on a shoulder sling (as today) or on a beltpack (when I’m doing a less casual photo trip.) I had neglected a tripod because I had considered this “just a side trip,” and I really do know better, but I bumped up the ISO to help improve the shutter speeds for handholding a long lens. Simple rule: the more you magnify an image, the worse the effects of twitching the camera will be because you magnify them too, so your shutter speed needs to go shorter the longer you go in focal length (or the closer you get in macro) – the prevents the effect of camera motion from showing up in your images. With the conditions I was in this wasn’t going to help a lot, but it was better than nothing.

While doing this juggling, the heron watched me suspiciously and I tried to be subtle and casual. Finally, I raised the camera to my eye and… nothing. The batteries had chosen this moment to go dead. Now, I’m not that unprepared, and had a spare set – yes, I shoot routinely with the expanded grips that allow for extra batteries – but it did mean even more fumbling while my subject awaited nearby. Finally, I got my shit together and began stalking the heron. There were no trees or rocks nearby to brace against and improve my stability, so I had to wing it. Worse than that, somehow I had changed my digital settings to high-contrast, low saturation mode, which was pretty much the opposite of what conditions called for, and this is very noticeable to me since I have so many vivid slides from exactly this location. But at least the heron remained pretty mellow with my presence and wasn’t spooked by my strolling upriver for better light angles.

In fact, it actually drew closer on its own, as it found some tasty tidbits in the water plants closer to mid-stream. Or maybe it was simply showing off, because once it had speared a small fish, it displayed it quite distinctly for over a minute before swallowing and returning to the river’s edge. And I do mean spear – the lower beak passed clean through the fish. I have had the experience of handling injured herons, and the first thing that you do is immobilize that beak, since it can actually kill you if the heron takes a shot at your face (and it will.) In fact, I recommend grinder’s face shields, the clear full-face sheets, for anyone handling any of the waders.


Very few of the images that I took yesterday are going to make it into my stock, since even my standards are higher than what I got, but at least I have a little something to show for it. And I certainly saw a lot more of interest than anyone utilizing the walk nearby, as I remained hidden from them entirely by its distance from the actual river. But, if it keeps people from trashing or over-using what is still a neat shooting locale, I’m fine with that. They can enjoy the asphalt, and I’ll be in the rocky riverbeds.

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