Under the wire

Trumpeter swan Cygnus buccinator adult and cygnetSo, in a post on August 10 of last year, and again on August 13, I mentioned a trip that we’d taken that I was going to feature “shortly.” Given that there is no firm definition of this word, I maintain that I still made this deadline.

Also, I had waited for both The Girlfriend and a friend who had traveled with us to forward me some of their own images to feature, which never actually happened, so I remain ahead of them. But yeah, this is kind of a long delay since the images were taken, and I’m using it to fill in during the long cold season.

Anyway, we had returned to Sylvan Heights Bird Park and spent the day checking out the various species that inhabit the park. I had been trying to make it a point to do more than basic bird portraiture this time, but unfortunately the conditions (and perhaps my lack of inspiration) were working against me, so I have a nice collection of images but fewer than I wanted, and none that really bowled me over. This happens, more than sometimes, and it’s one of those things that make nature photography hit-or-miss – you certainly have to accept the bad days along with the good, because you can’t control many of the factors at all, and I have yet to find a locale that’s ‘guaranteed’ to produce bountiful subjects in ideal conditions.

Case in point: this image of a trumpeter swan (Cygnus buccinator) and its cygnet. The light was actually pretty good for shooting a bright white subject, the poses quite charming, and the background hideous. At times, a shift in your own position can change the background into something more useful, but this wasn’t one of those times. Patience can be very useful, since the birds were not going to remain in this same spot all day, and might move to a better location, get into the water, or display some really photogenic behavior, but naturally it’s easier to exploit this if you’re not traveling with other people who really don’t want to stand unmoving and stare at the same birds for long periods. And I admit, my own patience often doesn’t last that long anyway; what else might I be missing while I’m waiting, perhaps unsuccessfully, for the subjects in front of me to improve?

Toco toucan Ramphastos toco behind fenceThen there’s one of the prime reasons why captive photography in zoos and parks often doesn’t work as well as imagined: fences. And, to a lesser extend, glass, and the enclosures behind the animals as well. Getting a nice image without any of these distracting, telltale traits in it can be challenging, but I will (with extreme reluctance) admit that this is one place where smutphone cameras can be useful. A typical SLR [read: proper] camera lens is wider than the gaps in the fencing, so they’re going to show no matter what, but the tiny lens on a phone camera can easily shoot through the openings. Now all you have to worry about is non-selective focus, no control over depth of field, automatic exposure control that somehow thinks 12800 ISO will produce usable images, and so on. But the fence will be out of the shot! Also, there’s a chance that badasses like this toco toucan (Ramphastos toco) will slip a beak through and take your phone away…

In my previous two posts about Sylvan Heights, I mentioned the impressive bird calls, and I came prepared this time with a small digital recorder. This naturally meant that virtually none of the birds wanted to demonstrate their vocal abilities. I managed a couple of recordings, which were often interspersed with comments from other visitors – which reminds me. When planning such trips, always try to avoid the weekends, but also try to avoid days where school trips are likely – I’ve found that Tuesdays and Thursdays are generally best. Hordes of excited, ill-mannered kids are not only annoying as hell, but very likely to interfere with any images you’re after and uncannily skilled at chasing off critters that were providing evocative poses for you. While we were there, a church group of the noisiest and most obnoxious yard apes came through, able to be heard across at least half of the park (I am not exaggerating in the slightest) and could only have been more disruptive if they’d been wielding firearms. Had I owned a taser I would have run the batteries flat. I am very sorry I did not take a photo of the side of the church van when we left as a reminder, because I’ve since forgotten the name and they really did deserve special recognition for their efforts. And if you’re someone chaperoning such trips, try to instill at least a passing awareness that other people are there to enjoy the parks too, okay?

The same goes for photographers – we need to be on our best behavior in public areas, and unfortunately I’ve seen a few too many that fail to recognize this themselves. While we may be trying for a particular image that takes time to get, or waiting for some appearance or behavior, other people have just as much right to use the area, so common (heh!) courtesy is to stay out of the way, not block views, be aware of the tripod and how it might interfere, and be nice overall. I’m not really sure where the arrogance that I’ve seen from some photographers originates, but it’s not only unwarranted, it works directly against them. If you believe you’re some hotshot, what the hell are you even doing in a public park, and not out in a blind in Zimbabwe? Why haven’t you paid for private access to the place? Seriously, if you’re that skilled, you’ll have no problem letting someone else into your special shooting position, because they still won’t be able to produce the images you can anyway. I always make it a point to be aware of those around me, and yield the superior viewing area when I’m not actively shooting, especially to kids – that may be hard to believe with the paragraph above, but it’s obnoxiousness that I don’t like, not kids themselves, and it’s usually much worse when they run in packs. I’ve even dropped the camera lower on the tripod so kids could see through the viewfinder (and the long lens I have affixed) and have invited people shooting with compatible makes of camera to go ahead and affix theirs to my lens when I’ve got something interesting lined up. A little goodwill goes a long way.

Whooping crane Grus americana portrait through fenceSo, another fence shot – seriously, I got less than half of the useful images I’d intended. The only reason I’m featuring this whooping crane (Grus americana) is to show something I’d never realized: the red spot atop the head isn’t feathers, but actually a (mostly) bald spot, and it’s true for the similar sandhill cranes as well – I’ve photographed those numerous times and never noticed, but I suspect you have to be really close. The light angle wasn’t very useful for a better portrait either, with no opportunity to pick another, and had I used a fill-flash to get light into those shadows, it would have illuminated the fence far worse – the best I could have done was to have someone else hold the flash off-camera and away from the fence, and it really wasn’t worth the effort (now you’re starting to see why I didn’t rush this post up, aren’t you?) This particular crane was quite happily greeting visitors, though whether it was in the hopes of a handout, or to protect its territory, or because it was nearsighted and thought we were potential mates, I cannot confirm. But it’s one of the few birds where I got a usable audio recording as it grunted softly; one of the people I was there with was engaged in this conversation, so that’s the other voice you hear.

Masked lapwing Vanellus miles on nestIn a lot of the enclosures within the park, numerous species were all housed together, and in fact visitors are free to enter many of them, separated from the avians by only a low railing (that the birds occasionally disregarded themselves.) Guests gained access through gates that kept the birds within, and vast stretches of netting overhead completed the enclosure, as well as maintaining a barrier to local predators – we observed an opportunistic but frustrated coopers hawk, a native bird-eating species, make an attempt at one of the residents only to be thwarted by the netting.

In a few different locations around the park could be found masked lapwings (Vanellus miles,) a pigeon-sized bird but with much longer legs, members of the plover family and common in Australia. Running around in their yellow masks like anxious opera phantoms, they mixed freely with other birds in the enclosures, but it was a pair tending an open nest that caught our attention. The nest was about as minimal as you could imagine and still be considered evidence of expended effort, but the female was noticeably animated at times, and it took a long lens to confirm that, indeed, there had been a new hatching while we watched.

masked lapwing Vanellus miles with newborn chick
The discarded shell blocked our view for quite a while, and the mother would nudge it at times without actually moving it out of the way, but eventually the chick’s head peeked up from behind, visible here directly above the empty shell to the right, in protective dark plumage but with a white stripe extending from the back of the eye and curving down the cheek. Since I was at the park with three other women, you can imagine the articulations taking place.

What you can’t imagine, and I’m going to have a hard time adequately conveying, was the event that occurred soon after this. There came a sudden surge of bird calls, a cacophony of alarms, that spread seemingly throughout the entire population of the park, a couple of seconds before a large escapee flew overhead, something that I didn’t get the chance to identify but looked to be about the size of a bittern (so somewhere between a duck and a turkey.) What struck me was how the racket started a few seconds before the bird flew overhead, so before I would have thought any of the other birds could have seen it. A lot of them, including both lapwings, raced to the end of the enclosure in pursuit, leaving the nest completely unattended for about ten minutes, much to the chagrin of The Girlfriend. Even when returning, the pair remained somewhat agitated, chattering quietly to each other like disapproving elderly ladies who’ve just witnessed skateboarders in their neighborhood.

And yes, we saw a park attendant following the bird, calmly so as not to drive it further off in panic, but we did not get the chance to see if it had been recaptured quickly. While it is certainly harder to capture escaped birds than mammals, there are a lot of tricks that experienced handlers have available, so it was likely just a matter of time.

Great green macaw Ara ambiguus trying to hideSomehow, just about every image I got is oriented to the left, meaning they need to sit to the right of the text, preventing much variety in the post layout – another reason I held off on this one, but now I’ll just make you suffer over it (I can picture hundreds of readers clawing at their eyes crying, “The repetition! The repetition!” – but then I’m weird, I think we’ve agreed before.) This great green macaw (Ara ambiguus) seemed quite pleased with itself deep in the foliage, and I kept shifting slightly to keep one eye in view, just to maintain a focal point – it’s at least a little better than a straightforward portrait. Unfortunately, I would greatly prefer to have gotten more shots of species people don’t often see, over something usually found hanging out at the local pet store. For some reason, I never even spotted a mandarin duck, which you should definitely look up – perhaps the most gorgeously-colored bird that I know of. There’s one that lives at Duke Gardens too, and has so far defeated my attempts to snag a decent portrait, though I admit to not staking him out like I really should, if I want such images that badly.

Last trip that I made to Sylvan Heights, I managed to find some insect subjects to shoot as well, because it’s me after all. And I did it this time around too, even though I wasn’t trying either time. Previously, it was a mating pair of wheel bugs, which are fairly sizable insects for this area, so I suppose it makes sense that I ended up going in the opposite direction. Actually, that doesn’t make any sense at all…

minuscule spider on pink flowerFrom a hanging basket alongside the path dangled a collection of delicate pink flowers, and as I went in close for a detail shot, I spotted this occupant, prompting me to get the flash out. I’m not going to try identifying it, but I can tell you it could fit comfortably on your pinky fingernail. The sparkle from the flower petals isn’t dew, or really anything particular to this species – it can be seen on a lot of flowers, but you have to be looking really closely. At an average viewing distance it usually can’t be made out very well. The results would certainly have been better with the softbox attachment, but I hadn’t planned on doing any dedicated macro work and so hadn’t brought the equipment I typically use for that – I know, right? How can I call myself a photographer? Believe me, it was a struggle to even admit this to you, but my therapist tells me it’s good to get it out in the open. Plus there’s all that stuff that I never tell anyone…

Despite the my results, I can still recommend Sylvan Heights Bird Park for a visit – definitely a cool place with a lot to see, just be prepared for some variables (as you should for anyplace you visit.) Spring is a good time, because birds are in their colorful breeding plumage then, but since the lapwings were hatching eggs in August, you’re not likely to be missing much if you go at practically any time of the year. Have fun!

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