Musings with Camera in Hand

Belinda Greb – The Photographic Journey


The Birds and Where They Take Me

“A wise old owl sat on an oak;
The more he saw the less he spoke;
The less he spoke the more he heard;
Why aren’t we like that wise old bird?”
– Old English Nursery Rhyme

At the end of January, I drove back up to William L Finley Wildlife Refuge.  Going there gives me a chance to see wildlife. Though I am surrounded by wilderness where I live, it is a lot of wilderness and unlike Wyoming or perhaps Colorado, the wildlife is not abundant; many times when I’m out hiking, the woods seem devoid of animal life. While I’ve seen otters or beavers on the rivers, it’s been the rare exception and not the norm.  At the wildlife refuge, I can practice taking photographs of birds, and I also have really  started to love the type of terrains that have been set aside for the wintering dusky Canada geese and other birds.

Anyway, while I was there, there were herons and egrets, and of course lots of geese and ducks – the usual treat.  As I’ve gotten older I’m drawn more and more to birds, but they are a challenge to me as a photographer. They’re small (compared to mammals) and they’re fast. I have a telephoto lens, but not as big as the ones that professional bird photographers generally use.  Another challenge birds present for me is that, to be honest, I’ve never really been a patient person. I consider “patience” to be right up there on my list of life lessons – a recurring theme, and one I have improved at, but certainly haven’t mastered. However, I’ve been given the opportunity to practice this skill as over the last two years I’ve “discovered” a number of bird reserves nearby; William L Finley and Fern Ridge both are within an hour’s drive from me.

Near the last viewing area at Finley, I met a woman and we chatted about the refuge a bit, and she asked me if I had seen the snowy owl.  Apparently there was one seen at Fern Ridge Wildlife Area (down by Eugene and closer to where I live).  I had been to Fern Ridge last summer, but had liked Finley better.  The woman indicated the owl was out by a rock bern. That night, when I looked up the area, I discovered I hadn’t been to this part of Fern Ridge.

The next afternoon I got there and started walking out. I walked and walked, carrying tripod and camera. It turned out to be a mile, but felt much longer because it is a very long straightaway and also a rough gravel path that is not very comfortable to walk on.  There hadn’t been much rain, so the marsh was pretty dry that day and for a winter’s day, fairly warm, but finally there was the rock bern as described. I had seen another couple far ahead of me on the path and they hadn’t come back, so I went around to the west side of the bern.  There was the couple and there was the white head of the owl, which was about all you could see.

The couple left and I had just taken a few photographs, when suddenly the owl decided to fly away. What a let down feeling that was! The square bern was about 5-6 feet high and probably 100 feet long on every side so initially I had no idea where it went, but fortunately it had just relocated to the north side of the bern and was actually more visible.  For the next 30 to 40 minutes I had the owl to myself.  I took a lot of pictures, and despite spot metering and adjusting my exposure for his whiteness, later I still had some images with blown highlights. The owl would be facing away, and I’d try to creep forward. Then its head would swivel around and I’d freeze. I felt like I was playing Simon Says!

At the end of the period, the owl suddenly stretched up its neck and looked towards the south with its eyes getting very round and large. I guessed other people were coming.  Sure enough, the owl took off.  I thought this time it was gone for good. I  picked my way across the soggy marsh, going west, south until I was back on the path and heading east. I could now see a couple of new arrivals and some more people coming from further down the path.  When I got to the east side of the bern, I was surprised to see the white head of the owl, again just barely visible behind the rocks.  I pointed it out to the new arrivals, but I wasn’t going to stay – however I started talking to one man who had been there a few days before.  He recommended a book to read about snowy owls, Wesley the owl.

Meanwhile two serious photographers had arrived with their equally serious and huge camera lenses and heavy tripods.  One proceeded to climb up the bern (despite the sign saying it was a restricted area). He moved stealthily towards the owl.  The other photographer set up his equipment near myself and the other bird watcher. He allowed me to look through his lens which was a prime 500mm with a 1.4 converter. What a treat that was! Meanwhile the photographer on top of the bern startled the owl. It flew forward, but only a couple of feet and again became more visible – so I ended up staying another hour at least 🙂 and had fun photographing with the one photographer who is a very talented bird photographer.

I went back to the area a couple of days ago. The owl was still there but not in a mood for visitors.  I had set my mind not to have expectations, so I decided just to enjoy the environment.

A few days before I had watched Maleficent.  I’m not really a Disney movie fan, but there was one part of the movie that really got to me. It was when Angela Jolie’s character was talking about her wings which had been taken from her. I’ve always had this special feeling about flying.  From a young age, I had flying dreams, and there was never anything that could compare to that feeling. Later when I went through a period of having lucid dreams, immediately I would choose to take flight in my dreams. Later, I’d take myself to task for not trying anything else while in a lucid dream, but no, I’d always end up in the air!

That afternoon I was walking back from the bern.  The day was ending, the shadows were long. There’s a peculiar stillness that seems to settle in almost imperceptibly – a calm that is peaceful rather than silent. Overhead a group of Brant geese took flight and circled round. I went to sit in a blind. I heard and then saw a red-winged blackbird in a nearby tree. Below the blind, two geese paddled away from me in the water and then waddled onshore. I heard the cry of a hawk. I was tired and made my way back to the car, taking one last look across the marsh. I heard their honking, and overhead there was a V-shape of Dusky Canada Geese flying past. I felt my heart tug. They fly as if they are one, as if the air connects them telepathically.  They fly, a single-minded arrow with purpose. Unlike the Brant geese earlier, these geese are higher in the air, soaring over the beautiful marsh, rising like a balloon freed from a child’s grasp, and as they are leaving, they continue to call. They call to one another, but it feels like they are calling to me. If I could, I would have given anything in the world in that moment to rise up and join them.