. . . or, all about the genus equus, subgenus asinus-like behavior of all those hee-hawing non-photographers who have managed to barge their way uninvited into my personal space, disrupt my concentration and wreck the warm, fuzzy creative glow that comes from photographing some never-to-be-seen-again (at least not by me) marvel of nature that I had just spent hours (exaggeration alert!) trying to get close enough to capture in digits.
Given the subject matter, readers may wonder why I haven't titled this essay "A*$h@![s I Have Known." But I prefer not to use vulgarities in print. (And, truth be known, in personal life as well -- except perhaps in extreme circumstances, such as when I've just missed a sure fire winning sharply angled cross court backhand passing shot in a hotly contested match. But that's a story for another time. . .) And, when all is said and done, this essay is intended to be fun rather than serious -- well, mostly anyway.
Besides, the great majority of those who stop to chat when I'm in the field with my big lens rig aren't disruptive by intent, they're just well-meaning folks, drawn to photographers like any other set of groupies. Sort of thrill by association, I guess. So I'll make do with the milder donkey epithet out of respect for those who honestly mean no harm but rather approach photographers out of ignorance for the disruption they cause when the photographer happens to be doing something critical.
And, in many cases people are genuinely looking for a learning experience. For such people, I am only too happy to oblige -- with perhaps more detail than was wanted, as my daughter will certainly attest while rolling her eyes in mock disgust!
But, you donkeys out there, those among you who have plagued me with your snide remarks and your nosy questions about the cost of my gear and your untimely and persistent interruptions despite the fact that I'm clearly in the midst of something requiring complete concentration, interruptions that have let that special bird swim just beyond the perfect sun angle while you are soliciting, nay, demanding my attention -- you know what you really are!
We've All Been There
I'm sure every nature photographer has had similar experiences. That once-in-a-decade spotted sandpiper (or whatever) you've been approaching low and slow for fifteen minutes with your supertelephoto rig has finally stopped eyeing you suspiciously, and you've put eye to viewfinder, the perfect frame-filling composition now in view. Suddenly, you see alarm in the bird's posture. You hardly have time to reflect that you've done nothing to cause the bird distress when, BAM, the creature explodes to wing and is gone. Almost simultaneously a braying voice behind you announces, practically in your ear, "Hey buddy, there's a heron back down the road! You should come take a picture of it. With that camera I bet you can photograph it from a mile away! Yuk, yuk, yuk!"
That really is how he laughs. "Yuk, yuk, yuk!"
You look longingly at the now diminishing spec that once held your hopes for a thrilling and productive photo session and then prepare to turn and face this particular donkey that is today's tormentor. But first you have to get up. Having spent the last quarter hour in a crouched position, inching slowly forward, the knees don't seem to want to cooperate. As you struggle awkwardly to your feet you worry vaguely that you're making yourself look weak and unmanly in front of what might turn out to be some young and virile muscle bound macho specimen who's hand holding one of Canon's vintage 1200mm f5.6 telephoto behemoths, all 36 lb of it -- a surefire way to find yourself at a psychological disadvantage in the exchange that is certain to follow.
On your feet at last, you look him up and down and your worries about appearing unmanly vanish. What stands before you is, all in all, a quite representative example of donkeydom -- plaid shorts and a flowery shirt topped by a straw hat, all supported on pale spindly legs, knobby knees and flip flops. Unfortunately, none of the colors match. (Don't the wives/keepers of these equine misfits ever monitor how their charges are released into the wild?) Instead, you're just sad over yet another lost opportunity and annoyed that the denouement of the whole sorry episode is that you have to deal with this misbegotten creature. And, he's still there, waiting expectantly for your words of approbation at the delivery of this vital information. Which, from the expression on his face, he apparently judges will surely save your presumably until now worthless photographic career from oblivion.
Sadly, he probably never even saw your intended subject.
You pause imperceptibly, and in that moment you are deciding whether to take the Mother Teresa fork in the road of interpersonal relational ethics and thank him graciously for the information he has offered or do what you really want to do and flay his donkey hide with the whip of truth. Namely, that you already have dozens of very fine heron images in your portfolio and you don't need an immediately deletable image of a bird situated 50 yards off the road, on a mud flat, backlit by the Sun and framed against ragged vegetation that cannot be eliminated from the composition.
Never one to harm poor suffering beasts, you opt not to follow the flogging fork in the interpersonal ethical road. You avert you eyes and mutter something noncommittal about having seen the heron on your way past the marsh where it was located. With this reply, his eyes first take on a puzzled look and then the expectant smile slowly fades as the idea dawns on him that you do not value the sighting he has brought. It's not that you already knew about the heron that is bothering him. He's read from your evasive tone of voice and your defensive body language that, having seen it you didn't consider it worth stopping to photograph. You didn't actually have to say this. Donkeys can infer such things quicker than a clinically trained psychoanalyst.
His fading smile morphs at last into a sullen frown, his eyes narrow to slits and he fixes you with a malevolent glare. Somehow you know what's coming next. It's all going to be your fault. "Well," he intones in disgust as he prepares to turn away, "I thought a real photographer would want to know where the good stuff is." And with that he stalks off, flip-flops smacking against the bottom of his heels. You're left to pack up and wonder how you could have handled the interaction in a way that satisfied this asinus intruder while keeping your own frustration at the lost opportunity from spilling over.
And, when you'll ever see another spotted sandpiper!
Credit Where Credit's Due
To give credit where it is due, this essay is devoted to one special donkey whose antics, after years of being subjected to the hit-and-run buffoonery of other donkeys in the wild, finally prompted the writing of this testimonial to our equine brethren. Needless to say, it was but the most recent in a long line of many such incidents. This particular asinus was a passenger in a car that drove by as I was loading my big lens bird rig into my SUV at the beach collocated with my favorite refuge. I happened to glance toward the car as it approached. The passenger window rolled down and the vapid face of a teenager or twenty-something leaned out. Having evidently seen the size of the big lens, the face of the occupant contorted into an enormous toothy grin, resembling that of a jackass in full grimace, and brayed, "CHEEEESE." With that the car was gone -- the donkey inside no doubt hee-hawing uproariously at his oh-so-original gag -- and a resolve was born that had begun to germinate earlier in the day.
It had been a slow day and I was using my 300mm on a beanbag inside my car to photograph laughing gulls on a fence separating lanes at the beach parking lot. Laughing gulls are my favorites because of their beautiful wine colored bills, legs and eye orbital rings and their high contrast black, white and gray plumage. That day, gulls were lined up on practically every fence post. Because beach gulls are so acclimatized to cars and people one can get very close without bothering them if one approaches slowly. Things were going great. Then, along came a kid with a stick. He began whacking every fence post, frightening away each gull in turn, as if it were a game. Soon, there were no gulls to photograph. A donkey in the making, if ever there was one.
My resolve was finalized the next day, the last of this particular trip. The entire week had been poor; wind and rain had left me with few memorable images to show for the effort. But that final day dawned calm and sunny. I was out early and was happy to see plenty of activity. I soon spotted a trio of oystercatchers on a strip of cove beach away from the ocean. This is an ideal setting, sheltered from wind and waves, and there's green marsh grass in the distant background, depending on angle of view. I have made many of my best images here over the years.
Just as I getting my rig out of my SUV I noticed a mother and young daughter heading across the sand to the cove. I wasn't sure what they were after. Possibly it was seashells, because mother began looking down carefully as she walked along the beach. If so, the nearby Atlantic Ocean beach would have offered better prospects by far. This wasn't good, but the beach was fairly long, and if they stayed away from the oystercatchers I might still be able to approach the OCs. I finished putting the rig together and started toward the beach. Could mother and daughter, oystercatchers and I coexist? Sadly, the answer was no.
Soon they were walking directly toward the oystercatchers, which were by now distinctly alarmed. The OCs began scurrying away, running rather than flying, thankfully. My chances were plummeting by the moment -- but I kept going because, well, they hadn't flown yet and oystercatchers are among the most striking of shorebirds. And then it happened. The daughter broke into a run directly at the OCs, waving her arms wildly, clearly intending to flush them. Another child playing a game with wildlife -- and the effect was the same. The oystercatchers were gone for good.
Perhaps the saddest part of this situation was not my lost photographic opportunity -- although that stung, because it was to be the best setting I would encounter all day -- but rather the fact that the child's mother paid not the slightest attention to her daughter's inappropriate behavior toward wildlife. And, I might add, no wonder oystercatchers are among the most skittish of shorebirds -- at least at this refuge.
So you see how it is, dear reader, that I came to write this essay.
My First Donkey Encounter
My first ever encounter with a donkey, an individual who surely qualified for the more biting appellation that shall not be mentioned in print, came early in my days of bird photography, at my favorite photo location, a place I call Egret Alley. It is a pool located along a channel at one of the east coast refuges. The configuration is such that a channel connects the pool to a managed impoundment for waterfowl, waders, shorebirds, etc. There is also a culvert that links the pool, eventually via and a long, meandering stream, to the Atlantic Ocean.
Flow thorough the culvert is managed by refuge staff so that unless there is excess rainwater to be drained off the pool is usually still. There is always a supply of fresh fish from the impoundment, and there is also a small sandbar at the pool, which makes for an ideal fishing habitat for herons and, especially, egrets. Hence, the name, Egret Alley.
One sunny summer morning, with the Sun in excellent position for frontal lighting and with blue sky reflecting off the water, I found a tolerant snowy egret that allowed me to gain access down the bank and onto the sand bar without flushing. I was close enough for what I hoped would be outstanding frame filling images with the only "long lens" I could afford at the time, my tripod-mounted 200mm APO! This was in the days prior to image stabilization, and even with a 200mm lens and teleconverer I always used a tripod.
Just as I put eye to viewfinder, with bird totally comfortable with my presence, there was a huge SPLASH! The snowy was gone in a heartbeat, winging away down the channel. I looked out to see most of the pool covered with an enormous fishnet. Dumbfounded, I scanned the top of the bank -- to find a most unwelcome equus asinus standing there, an amused, mocking expression on his face. "Don't worry," he brayed smugly. "He'll come back." And he ambled away, hooves clicking and tail switching flies away.
Of course, the snowy never did return. But it didn't matter because the fishnet now covered the best part of the fishing area, ensuring that no bird would fish there anyway. I have to admit, I was sorely tempted to take that fish net and toss it onto the bank. But, I was none too sure how the refuge staff would view such an action if the hee-haw reported it. In the end, I could do no more than retreat to my vehicle to reflect on the fact that, like kudzu, fishermen are an invasive species and will drive out birds and photographers wherever there are fish to be found.
After mulling over this newly discovered and sad reality of life, I began searching elsewhere for another egret.
What Donkeys Do
Over the years I've had many people come up to me in the field and ask questions. The most common ones are, how much does that big lens rig cost and, how far can you see with it. If the latter question is asked, and if I'm not doing much I let them take a look through the viewfinder. Most people are vaguely disappointed once they've had a view, especially if the subject is distant. Even a 600mm with a 2X gives only the equivalent view of 24X magnification on a full frame camera, far short of the view offered by the 60X spotting scopes that birders routinely use.
I try to be patient with people who ask about money, but I'm just naturally reticent when it comes to revealing the cost of a bird capable rig to a total stranger. Anyone who has priced a Canon or Nikon 500mm, 600mm or 800mm lens, a pro digital body, a carbon fiber tripod and a gimbal head, along with the requisite flash, flash arm and external battery for flash fill, knows how much these rigs can cost. So I try to give a noncommittal reply (hopefully with a smile), something like, "More than I can afford!" or maybe I answer a question with a question. "How much do you think?" Inevitably people guess radically too low. "A grand at least!" "Yeah, that's about right," I reply with a deadpan voice, and the problem is solved.
Perhaps the next most common interruption is from people asking for bird identifications -- and these I almost always try to make time for. For the places I go, I usually have the right answer and I do like to help out those who are interested enough to want to know a bird's ID. However, I have to admit that one of my most embarrassing moments came in a somewhat related situation.
A Ruddy June
It was a June afternoon and I happened on a male and two female ruddy ducks in summer breeding plumage at a managed pool at one of my favorite refuges, a place my family and I have been making an annual June Father's Day pilgrimage to for 20 years. It was the only time I had ever seen ruddys in summer plumage, so I was frantic not to miss this opportunity. I parked on the shoulder and set up as quickly and as unobtrusively as possible.
The ruddys were some distance off shore, cruising back and forth, but well aware of my presence. The sun angle was forty-five degrees or so off-axis, which meant that getting a good image was a matter of careful timing -- waiting for the right body posture and head turn. I was on the shoulder of a beach access road, so there was constant traffic behind me, which meant that at any time this beautiful little trio might be spooked, take to wing and disappear. It was a nerve wracking experience.
They had made a pass down sun and were returning when I heard a car stop behind me and a door close. The ruddys reacted by bending their path outward from the shore, and I groaned inwardly but kept eye to viewfinder. They were slowly increasing their distance from shore and getting smaller in frame with each passing second, but I continued pressing the shutter release each time the male, largest of the three, looked my way and the sun glinted in his eye. Then, right behind me someone asked, "Hey, have you ever seen ruddy ducks in breeding plumage like that here in June?"
Now, I'll have to admit that at this point I was no longer a civilized being, governed by the rules of polite society. Even though this guy sounded like a really decent fellow and was obviously educated enough in bird lore to know that ruddys in summer dress were out of season at this time and at this location, none of that mattered. Some atavistic part of my brain had taken over and all I could think of was capturing as many images of that beautiful male ruddy duck before it got too far away to be large enough in frame to be interesting.
But the donkey, be he ever so fine a fellow, nonetheless had to be dealt with. What to do? How to end all conversation immediately without resort to overt rudeness or more extreme measures -- which, of course, would require that I abandon the viewfinder, however momentarily? Out of the depths of the necessity of the situation, and almost without conscious thought, the answer issued forth unbidden from my lips.
"I've never been here in June."
Behind me there was silence. I kept shooting. Soon there came the sounds of a door closing, engine engaging, gravel crunching and car pulling away. But this barely registered. I made image after image as the ruddys gently swam in an avoiding arc around my position and continued away, not to return. I chimped through the files and realized with satisfaction that, although with the off-axis sun angle some extra effort would be required in post processing there were probably some good results from this miraculous ruddy apparition.
Then, a thought began to nag at me. I really had been rude to that guy, donkey though he may have been, and intrusion on a once-in-20-years photo opportunity though he may have posed. And, I had blurted out a "little white lie" too -- something that didn't sit well in retrospect, even if it had come in the expediency of the moment and as a means of insuring that I could harvest a few more precious images of those glorious ruddys. Of course, there was the fact that in a perfect world he should have know better than to interrupt someone with obvious serious intent as evidenced by the big lens rig. But still, my reply now felt wrong, and I lamented that I had let irritation guide the outcome. It would have taken only a few seconds more to say something like, "I've been coming here 20 years and this is the first time I've seen ruddys in breeding plumage in June."
I was happy with the ruddy images but it definitely was not my finest hour in interpersonal relationships. I had the distinct feeling that while I was not a donkey I might well deserve my own place somewhere in the barnyard. From this uncomfortable feeling came a resolve to grit my teeth and meet each request with at least a modicum of politeness, no matter the cost in missed images.
Blasting the Ducks
Perhaps the most egregious example of donkeydom I have ever run across happened several years ago, once again at my favorite refuge. This time, although the encounter resulted in a lost opportunity for me the more important point has to do with photographer interaction with wildlife. My observation is that most nature photographers are very respectful of nature. But we all know of exceptions -- and we also all know that a few bad examples can make life miserable for the rest of us. All it takes is one smartphone video posted to Internet or one negative thread on a birding forum or one incident reported to authorities at a park or refuge to compromise the prospects for all of us.
I know that personally I try to approach all wildlife as slowly and as quietly as possible. And, of course, there is no substitute for knowing one's subjects. For me, wildlife is almost exclusively birds, and in just about any situation one can usually tell by the behavior of the subject whether one can approach and how near one can get. In the early years I inevitably tried to get too close too soon. Now, I move very slowly, keeping the camera between my face and the subject, and using any obstacle as a temporary blind to move a few steps closer whenever possible. Of course, some birds are wary no matter what, but more often than not I can get as close as I need to. Sometimes the problem becomes one of the bird falling asleep when what I really want is a nice alert portrait image! I'm sure other long time bird photographers could relate similar stories -- it just takes patience and understanding of the subject.
In this particular instance, I had spotted a pair of mated mallards swimming in a channel alongside a busy beach access road. In fact, the channel was next to a parking lot which was across the street from the beach visitor center, so there were plenty of parked cars to serve as blinds. Mallards at this refuge are notoriously flighty, and being situated in a heavily trafficked area I knew that the slightest disturbance would flush them. So I parked some distance away and set up my big lens rig. I could have gone with a shorter lens hand-held but I opted for the big rig for greater standoff, hoping to minimize the likelihood of flushing them. As it turned out, I needn't have bothered.
I moved slowly from car to car, carrying the long lens and tripod and taking care to remain hidden from the mallards. At last I was ready to place the tripod ahead of me around the last car and ease behind it. At that moment, a most reprehensible donkey appeared from nowhere, running literally at a sprint and shouting with glee as he came, holding a camera to his eye with what appeared to be a 70-200mm zoom attached and blasting away at full high speed continuous shutter release. Whack-whack-whack-whack-whack. He slid feet first down the shallow bank of the channel, a mere three feet or so to waters edge, like a runner sliding into second base, continuing to blast away all the way to the bottom. Needless to say, by the time he reached water's edge the panicked mallards had exploded into the air, wings beating wildly.
I watched this disturbing spectacle with a mix of disbelief, horror, disgust, disappointment and a sense of uncertainty as to how to react. Was this guy really that stupid? Should I say something to him? If I did, how would he react? After all, I didn't wear an official hat there. Should I report it to the park rangers? The beach visitor center was just across the street. And then, there was the fact that this individual's ancestral beginnings were clearly different than mine. What exactly would be the outcome of a cross-cultural encounter under such circumstances? While I pondered these existential questions, he climbed up from second base and walked away without so much as a glance in my direction, despite big lens and tripod as well as my person being clearly visible from his vantage.
To this day I do not know what I should have done. Nor do I particularly mourn the lost imaging opportunity -- even though mallards are difficult at that refuge, and even though I had spent considerable time working my way into a favorable position. What sticks with me is the panicked flight of those mallards and the casual and unconcerned, almost nonchalant way this particular individual sauntered away once they were gone.
Shoe on Other Foot
I've always been an amateur, a hobbyist, with no desire to become a "pro." But, in earlier years, after I could afford a big lens, and as I was starting to actually develop some skills (big acknowledgement to Arthur Morris' book, The Art of Bird Photography), I couldn't help but become conscious of others around me with comparable equipment and wonder about their situations. Which ones were amateurs like me and which ones were pros?
Then, one day as my wife and I were driving the loop at our favorite refuge we spotted a very expensive SUV pulled off on the shoulder ahead of us. I slowed down and took in the scene. A rather distinguished and experienced looking gentleman was extracting a big lens rig from the back of his SUV and setting up. I had already looked over the marshy pool we were traversing and decided there wasn't anything I wanted to spend time on, but this fellow looked the part so maybe he knew something I didn't. His gear was top of the line, compared to my photo vest his looked like a dinner jacket, and his SUV was, well, I wish I could have afforded it. In a sudden flash of realization, it came to me. He was a pro!
In that moment, reason departed. Like groupies everywhere, I just had to be a part of his world! As we came parallel, I powered down the window on my wife's side, leaned across her and, as the gentleman looked up from his big lens, I blurted out, "Have you seen anything good to shoot?"
The look he have me in that moment can only be described as one cold enough to turn every living creature in the refuge to stone. In a flash of horrified realization, I saw my action for what it was. I had unwittingly become what I decried in others!
I drove away as fast as circumstance permitted, face burning with shame, and found a vantage at another pool as far as possible within the confines of the refuge from the pro. Or, at least that's what I took him for. Only an authentic pro could transfix you with that kind of withering glare. Amateurs were peasants compared to such exalted nobility.
Eventually I found a cooperative great egret and set up my own big lens rig. By now it was late afternoon and the light was getting good. The only negative was that the sun was at an oblique angle to the pool's bank so I had to set up a good distance from the egret to get full frontal sun on the bird. This necessitated use of a teleconverter, but I was (and am) used to shooting with teleconverters when needed so I settled in to take advantage of the situation.
Soon thereafter, to my dismay the very expensive SUV pulled onto the shoulder in front of my location and directly across from the great egret. At first I thought the pro had come for me, to tell me what a rank amateur I was and how I should never speak to a real pro again, unless I had something meaningful to say. Like name, rank and dog tag number or phone number of next of kin. Then, I noticed that he was setting up his rig at the location where he had parked. Hmm, I thought. That will never do. From that location the egret is side-lit. He's not going to get much there. Could it be that I've made a better choice than a pro?
I soon dismissed the thought, put eye to viewfinder again and clicked away busily. Some indefinite time thereafter a voice caused me to look up. "It seems you've chosen the best location to take advantage of the sun angle." It was the pro, and he wasn't frowning! Amazingly, he chatted photography for a few minutes, left me his business card (he really was a pro) and departed. The final courtesy was that he did not intrude on my location, which I greatly appreciated as good subjects weren't plentiful that afternoon.
As I reflected on the incident afterward I realized that not everyone who behaves like a photo groupie is given an opportunity for redemption. I was most appreciative of mine.
Learning to Live With Donkeys, Bless Their Pea-Pickin' Hearts!
Over the years I've had many people come up to me and ask questions. From this, I've learned to accept -- grudgingly -- and live with the fact that not everyone understands the intensity and concentration with which I pursue bird photography in the field. When people see a big lens they're just naturally drawn to it, and in most cases it is an opportunity to educate and spread good will toward nature photographers rather than to discourage them with a gruff dismissal.
The same thing is true with astronomical telescopes, by the way. When I'm out with a scope I'm inevitably asked similar questions. "How much did that cost?" "How far can you see with it?" etc. Of course, in the case of the second question it's a little trickier with a telescope. I'm tempted to reply, "Well, how far do you want to see?" The question is so earthbound in its thought process. If I'm feeling particularly curmudgeonly I'll reply offhandedly, "Oh, millions and millions of light-years."
But a better answer would be to explain that in astronomy "how far" isn't usually the important question. We're limited by how much light our telescopes can gather and how bright, or faint, if you prefer, our target object is. So a bright object a long distance away can be just as visible as a dim object nearby. Of course, this kind of generalization, while true, satisfies no one, and pretty soon someone pipes up with, "What's the fartherest away thing you can see?"
I really should memorize a standard set of facts for such situations, but I'm a first principles and big picture (pardon the obvious pun) kind of guy, so the answer I've settled on is this. At an apparent magnitude of 12.9, quasi-stellar radio source 3C 273 in the constellation Virgo is the brightest quasar in our skies. Its red shift of 0.158 places it at two billion light-years from us. At that magnitude 3C 273 should be just within reach of a quality 4-inch refractor on a good night -- although one would struggle to find it against faint field stars, making it a more suitable, albeit wholly uninteresting object ("quasi-stellar" means it looks just like every star up there!) for larger scopes.
However non-relevant it may be to enjoying an evening of stargazing, two billion light-years seems to satisfy most questioners!
But, whether astronomy or photography the message is this. Most individuals who approach someone with expensive gear does so with a set of implicit expectations. They assume the person with the gear a) knows what they are doing, and b) will be willing to share what they know with some degree of polite tolerance. And rightly or wrongly, they will form an opinion of all photographers based on how they are treated during that interaction.
One could say that it doesn't matter what most people think of us -- and one might even be right, most of the time. But, inevitably there will be instances when someone is put off who could have become a helpful friend to our community. Or someone is turned off to nature who might have become an enthusiast. And, underneath it all, for some of us there is a more personal question: What kind of person do we want to be, one who shuts out others or one who welcomes the opportunity to share with others a little of our knowledge about the activity that brings us so much fulfillment.
So, the conclusion I have reached is this. If birds can tolerate my presence in their world I can tolerate donkeys' presence in mine!
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