Sunday, July 31

A Moving Image

Spending more than a decade devoted to watching birds can change a person (well, let’s be honest—all it takes is one quick glimpse). Anyways, I picked up photography simply because I wanted to document the birds I was seeing, and in recent years, it has become quite a passion. Reading Harry Potter can also change a person, however, and this is when I realized pictures could move! I was amazed that the wizarding world had found a way to make this possible. It’s not all that surprising, in retrospect…they’ve managed cooler things. But when I realized muggles had found out about this, and called it “video,” it rocked my world. I now have a DSLR that can capture HD video, and have just begun experimenting with it in earnest.
I’m starting to see that video is like photography, except better in so many ways. It’s also a lot harder to do. You can’t just snap off a bunch of pictures and pick the sharp one later, and crop it to your liking. You have to have the bird’s movements in mind, ideally, even before the bird does. And every minute move you make behind the lens is recorded in your extended composition—the shuffling around of the focus as the bird moves, the panning of the lens, your fingers scuffing about the mic, the tiniest swish of clothes, and your breath breathing. So, with this in mind, I am hoping to gradually acquaint myself with the finer points of this closely related but significantly different technique. And in the meantime, my videos will comprise short clips with poorly controlled audio interspersed with the humbler, kinder medium of days past: photographs1.
Below is my most recent project, a collage of footage and photos recounting a transition into an unfamiliar summer– a subarctic summer. A summer whose sun never rests for more than a few hours, whose June is still flecked with deep drifts of snow, whose July is clouded with thick masses of mosquitoes, and whose every change is closely paralleled by its wild residents. As the snow melts, revealing vast areas of muddy bogs and leaving open water, Snow Geese pass by the thousands, making whirlwind stops to fuel their northward journey to the high arctic; as the brown and green tones of the tundra are slowly unveiled, Willow Ptarmigans follow suit, molting their snow white feathers in favor of a mottled brown, and stand out awkwardly as their patchy transition trails behind the seamless recession of snow. As temperatures rise and migrant passerines and shorebirds arrive on their breeding grounds, they begin to court and build nests, so as to hatch chicks in accordance with the peak in insect abundance. While the birds are pouring their existence into rearing young, predators take advantage of the propensity of eggs; Parasitic Jaegers descend on incubating birds and fiercely defend future meals from other would-be predators, like Herring Gulls; Red and Arctic Foxes prowl the bogs and tundra, sniffing out meals for their kits. This is the scene that I wanted to capture, on a new level that I have not yet explored, and here is the result:

(HD viewing may only be available by clicking the "youtube" icon in the lower right)

1 Disclaimer– I still, of course, have the utmost respect for photographs and their unique ability to convey a message or an emotion via a still image– they will never be obselete.

Sunday, July 3

King of the Arctic

My heart was pounding and I was frantically (and visibly) shaking with excitement. I simply could not believe what I was seeing– it was so surreal that even now, three days later, I still can’t wrap my head around it. But let’s back up a bit. Let’s imagine I was having an incredible day birding (and this really is conjecture, because I wasn’t). Maybe I was driving down Goose Creek Road, a hotspot in Churchill, and I was lucky enough to see a Red Phalarope, Little Gulls, maybe a flyover Pomarine Jaeger, and then an American Three-toed Woodpecker flew across the road in front of me. Then maybe I made a stop at Cape Merry, an overlook at the Churchill River mouth, and picked out a Black-legged Kittiwake, and– we’ll just go crazy here (why not?)– a Northern Wheatear frolicking on the coastal bluffs. At this point, on my way back along Launch Road to the Studies Centre, I would happily joke that, given my luck, there should be a Gyrfalcon sitting by the side of the road– ideally perched on that lichen-covered rock right there. And then I might be so crazy as to imagine this bird being cooperative for photos, and sitting there on the lichen-covered rock on the Hudson Bay, just minding its own, hard-core Gyr business while I watched to my heart’s content. And then– no, never mind, I wouldn’t even dare to torture myself with imagining it was a white morph.

And this is the point (after another utterly failed attempt to photograph Pacific Loons) where my heart nearly stopped. In fact, had I eaten a Big Mac that day and clogged up my arteries just a bit more, I’m convinced I would have immediately died of cardiac arrest. Because as I glanced over my left shoulder to take yet another casual gaze at the beautiful, hazy blue Hudson Bay, I happened to notice a large, white falcon, sitting aloof on a lichen-covered rock, in a bed of coastal wildflowers, not twenty feet from the road!

I slammed on the brakes (gently, of course) and frantically cranked the window down. I clumsily stuck my lens out the window to grab a quick record, hoping it would stay put for another split second. Then I took another picture, and another. Then I took the time to adjust my awkward, twisted position behind the wheel, and was amazed to see the falcon still watching me, unamused. I slowly got out of the opposite side of the car, crept around to the back, and gradually made my way across the road, settling on my own lichen-covered rock, leaving just enough room in the frame to allow a flight shot, should it suddenly take flight.

In the meantime, my friend Madi had biked up to the falcon as well, and was watching from just a bit down the road. A few cars had slowly driven by, and a few stopped to watch for a few minutes. Despite all of this, the magnificent, white Gyr held his ground, absolutely unfazed. He was unstoppable, he knew it, and it showed. He sat, lifting his talons to clean the large weapons with his bill, watching flies and mosquitoes pass by, and occasionally sizing up one of the eight, young Bald Eagles circling overhead, or maybe one of the heavy Eiders zipping past. To behold this king of the far north, basking in its slot on the top of the food chain, was a rare and humbling experience.