Odd memories, part eight

When living in Florida in 2004, I was in an apartment complex with a central pond, which was only six meters from the back side of the apartment. This was a sliding glass door leading onto a screened patio, and during the warmer months, this door remained open while I was home (during the hotter months, however, the air-conditioning was on so the door stayed closed.)

At about three AM one morning, while I was working on the computer, I heard the resident Muscovy ducks starting to fuss. Ducks tend to be inactive and very quiet at night, so I knew something was up. Without turning on any lights, I went silently to the door and began watching the central court and pond area. My suspicions were rewarded by a small dark shape moving at the edge of the pond.

At the time I was using a borrowed Sony F717 camera, one with a couple of night-vision options. Unlike the military version of light enhancement technology, the Sony simply used its high infrared sensitivity, augmented by a couple of infrared LEDs mounted near the lens; this could be used to achieve sharp-focus in dark conditions, allowing the normal camera strobe to illuminate the scene for the image, or it could actually capture an image in infrared without emitting any visible light. Taking this in hand, I eased quietly out the door and began approaching, very cautiously, the shadowy figure nearby.

Let’s put it this way: when you’re hearing sounds in the early morning and it’s a small critter playing in a pond, there are not a lot of choices you have to sort through. The camera failed to lock focus from the distance of the door, and the flash was inadequate, but there’s no mistaking a North American raccoon (Procyon lotor, one I can recite from memory.) Now, raccoons are one of the few wild animals that almost scare me, believe it or not, and this is largely because I’ve had more than a little experience with them, having worked in wildlife rescue and rehabilitation. They’re practically fearless, and if they decide you’re a threat they don’t hesitate to bite fiercely. The reason there aren’t too many raccoon attacks is precisely because they’re not very afraid of people – maintain a safe distance and you’ll never trigger defensive action. So I crept forward slowly, keeping an eye on the intruder’s behavior.

For its part, it wasn’t very concerned, to such an extent that I suspect I was dealing with a female. While checking up on me frequently, she went about her business at the pond’s edge, rooting around carefully for crayfish or small molluscs. Raccoons rely on feel for much of their foraging, especially in the water where looking down through the surface can be difficult, so while their forepaws are busy they may be staring off into space, like someone doing the dishes while bored.

She worked her way along, and I followed at a discreet distance (the zoom lens and my cropping make it appear that I was right on top of her, but I was a little more circumspect than appearances.) I was trying to get a nice head-on shot, but she wasn’t inclined to accommodate me quite that much. Soon, however, she approached the small footbridge that crossed the pond, and when she disappeared under it I quickly slipped on top, hoping to catch her popping out from underneath.

Now, this is where I screwed up. I’m not sure what I was doing at the time, but I’d switched the camera from the IR-focus-assist mode that I’d been using to full infrared. Abruptly, she poked her head out from under the bridge right at my feet, and looked up at me curiously. Since the bridge was only about 40cm or less off the bottom at that point, I was just over her head. Intrigued, she stood up on her hind legs as I maneuvered for a clear shot, stretched out across the floorboards of the bridge, and tickled my bare toes with her agile little fingers. All I could do was quickly snap the shot in infrared. Remember what I said above about zooming in and cropping? Yeah, this one’s full frame and not far beyond a “normal” focal length. The blur over her nose is probably the lenscap dangling on its leash as I aimed straight down.

Disappointed, perhaps, that my toes did not match anything in her database that read “food” (they probably needed a wash at the time,) she dropped back down and under the bridge again. I could only smile as I pondered her fearless curiosity, and curse inwardly that I failed to catch a decent image of it. I seemed to get the better part of the experience, since she wandered off immediately afterward, but I wasn’t a world-famous blogger at that time*, so I suppose she can’t be blamed.

* I’m not a world-famous blogger now, either, but that doesn’t make my statement untrue.