Not Working too Hard on Easter and Taking Pictures of Birds

A front view of a tree swallow. 

When I was a kid, we had many relatives over for Easter.  We would cook for the holiday as if we would not be eating again until summer.  Dad would smoke a large turkey in a contraption he had made.  He would track the whole process year after year, in fifteen-minute increments, in his perfect handwriting, on yellow graph paper.  We would make 10 pounds of potato salad; 20 loaves of Easter bread.  The table would be set with the Noritake china, which made a nice complement to our other method of food presentation, which was to lay everything out on little yellow Styrofoam trays.  (We had a thousand of these trays.  Dad got them at a discount.  We used them for everything from food to bolts and screws and boat parts.  We still have some of them around my Mom's house, I think.)  We covered the trays with clear sheets of Teflon film that Dad smuggled from work.  The film was intended for use, and I have no idea how, in the manufacture of helicopters, but we used it for years in place of tinfoil and saran wrap.)  And for some reason, we would suddenly decide to complete a big project on the morning of that very day.  Once for example, we laid linoleum in the kitchen, with the skilled and efficient labor of the six of us young children.

So to be out taking pictures on Easter morning with the table set and the cooking done.  Well… it was a wonderful thing. 

I was out at the hatchery at first light.  Malcolm Greenaway had given me a book on bird photography, and I was trying a new technique.  I had always assumed that to track a bird in flight I had to set the camera so it could automatically adjust to changes as the bird flew against a blue sky or against the trees or the grass or the water.  But no, his book said to be completely manual… to set everything for the bird and for the bird alone.  That way the background could be over or underexposed.  Whatever.  But the bird would be fine.  It was all about the bird. 

This is the kind of shot, against a bright blue sky, that can easily create a very dark bird.  The manual exposure gave much more detail.

It was true again with this bird... There was at least some light from the side and the much less contrast, so I was able to get a very good rendition of the feathers on his back.

I should also say I love the chaos of the twigs and branches around him, the way they fall into messily perfect patterns, and the way they are just beginning to bud.

I had some trepidation, departing from my known procedures.  I decided to try it and you know it did work.  It worked very well.  Something that I thought would be difficult was really quite fine. 

And after many long months … the air was finally warm.  It felt good and I could only imagine how good it felt to the birds.  They now had energy to burn.  They were pairing up… flirting… defining and defending territory.   

Here is the mate for the tree swallow up above.  They were sitting nicely, one facing one way and one facing the other.  Then they flew off together.

Eagle defending his perch.  The eagle held its place, even though the osprey came several times.

And then the eagle was perched on the high electrical pole.  At first I thought the second bird was another eagle, but it was an osprey… and it started a fight.  I had never seen this, ever. 

It was all happening on this morning…rich and alive and warm and busy and budding or nesting or pregnant or newly born.  And the camera was bringing me to it… allowing me to see it as if I was right in the middle of everything.  I loved this.  I was happy. 

I was almost back to the car when I met a man with his two boys, four and five years old, on their way to a morning of holiday fishing.  They carefully petted Wilson and Molly and I showed them my pictures of the eagle.  They were at the age for questions:  “Why do you have two dogs?”  (I said, "Why are there two of you?"  That got me a look.)  Then, “Why is your camera so big?”  “To take pictures from far away.”I said.  One child spread his arms.   “Yes.  It’s to take pictures of very big eagles from very far away.”, he said.  And he brought his hands in.  “And if you have a little camera you can take pictures of little birds from very close together.”  I nodded.  I said, “That makes sense.”  He nodded also. 


On the way home I spied what I thought were eleven hawks circling over what was once the Moosup Baptist Church, but has recently become Iglesia di Christo.  When I saw them up close I realized they were turkey vultures.  I thought this was a little apocalyptic for Easter but I got some good, if disquieting pictures.

I got home and everything was easy.  (My sisters and my mother and my cousin and I had decided to keep it simple.  We limited the menu.  We actually agreed on this.  So all we had was Russian Easter bread, other bread, crackers, cheese, home made gravlax, smoked salmon, trout and blue fish, with associated side dishes and garnishes, deviled eggs, an entire spiral ham, many links of fresh kielbasa, sauerkraut, mashed potatoes, potato salad, roasted peppers, marinated asparagus with rosemary, caramelized onions, kale, lobster pie, salad, blintzes, and fruit, and lemon ice, and an Easter egg hunt, unless I’m forgetting something.)  But we only had to lay out the food we had made, finish the vegetables and gather the food as it came in the door with the other people. 

I showed the vultures to my niece and nephews.  The older boy, (He’ll be eight in May.  He knows a lot.) explained that a vulture has no feathers on his head because would you want your feathers to get dirty if you had to eat what they eat?  And the twins (They are six, and I should mention that they are no slouches either.) pointed out that even though they had not personally seen a snowy owl they knew someone who had.  Their Auntie Grace.

So we had a nice Easter, made nicer because everyone did something and no one did too much and because the children were thrilled (and I mean as thrilled as I was with my pictures) because the Easter egg hunt included marshmallow peeps and because everyone was healthy and happy and clear-eyed and because we used paper plates, which is the answer for holidays.

I went out the next morning and realized that I didn’t want to go back to the hatchery after such a lucky day of pictures because I didn’t want to hope for more.  So I went up route 14A to see if there were any hawks in the marsh.  I was surprised by a line of trees at the edge of a field and the sun coming up through the fog.

Foggy at the hatchery.  The heron love to sit in these trees between the ponds.

Then I realized that the hatchery would also be foggy over the ponds.  I said, “That’s a completely different situation.”, and I hurried to the hatchery.  It was much darker than the day before when I had been in sunshine.  I pushed the ISO (the sensitivity of the camera) as much as I could to get a workable aperture and enough speed for the long telephoto.  I got some pictures of heron. 


This blue heron began to fly and then came back down, which is very unusual behavior.  Look at the second picture.  I wonder if his foot might have been stuck.

Here is a closer look at the third picture in the series.  I love the beauty of these birds.  I also appreciate the fact that the second bird remained imperturbable throughout, and stayed that way after the other bird flew, and also stayed after I left and went around the hatchery and came back to check on him.  That's one calm bird.

If this heron had his foot stuck, it ruins my theory about the perfection of bird behavior, at least for this particular bird.  It did however, allow me to take many pictures.

I made some very nice roasted vegetables this Easter, and my gravlax was good and the ham was good.  But there is something rich that has come to my life through photography, and I think it might be feeding my family more than the food.  It certainly feeds me. 

I have told you all of this because my life used to be about cooking for people (and working in Human Resources but that's another story).  I am so lucky now, at this time in my life, to have something that is so heart-driven, so much about the depth and energy of life. 

I never knew when I started what would be possible for me with photography.  I was afraid to take the camera out of the box, for fear that I would break it.  Every technical thing seemed like something that I would never be able to do.  But now I do all the technical things and it's fine.  I still do many other things, but the photography gives me ground for all of them.  And I've developed a way of knowing what is beautiful and trusting what I see.  And I see things that only I can see in my particular way of being.  And I'm sure this is true for each person.

PS.  You might be afraid of using manual settings on your camera.  (Check out the technical info section.)  But you get control in certain situations and you become a student of light.  I find this a worthy aspiration.  For example, I was taking my pictures and everything was fine.  And then I walked for about three minutes.  The sun was coming up just a little bit and the fog was burning off just a little bit.  My eyes adjusted and I didn’t realize how things had changed.  I overexposed some pictures.  That taught me to know the light was changing even though I couldn’t see it.  Now I pay closer attention to what happens with light, whether I am taking pictures or not. 

PPS.  I am back on the island since last night. I’ve driven out by the water. I have a slight head cold but I’m sitting in the car so the dogs can have an outing while I’m writing this post. I’m looking across Great Salt Pond to the Coast Guard Station and it’s warm enough and very windy.  The water is sparkling.  I am a lucky person.

PPPS.  Bill just got on a plane in Bangkok.  I put my emotional radar on when he’s on his way home. I like to think of him getting closer and closer, as if I had been holding my breath and I’m starting to let it out, or as if there had been something out of place and it’s rectifying by the minute.  The next time he calls he’ll be in Chicago, and the next time he’ll be in Providence and the next day he’ll be home.

Here is another blue heron, taken the second day, just as the fog was starting to burn off.  The background is a little overexposed, but the heron is good.  It is especially good to see the detail on the part of the wing that's in shadow.