I generally avoid people when I stroll around White Rock Lake (or anywhere else for that matter). Nothing chases away nature faster than a legion of yammering halfwits or a crush of unobservant dweebs. Yet I’m not always antisocial: I rarely turn down an opportunity to talk to like-minded or sincere parties if they offer real interest, such as asking questions about what I’m photographing or pointing out a worthwhile subject.
But children tend to be a wholly different animal, up to and including teenagers. They simply lack the awareness of nature’s needs, and often they lack any semblance of humanity (especially when traveling in packs, though individuals can surprise me).
So imagine the shock I felt during a walk in January 2009 when a family strolling along the norther floodplain of Dixon Branch towed along a young boy who couldn’t stop stopping. He had to point out everything of interest, from simple flowers to birds to the neat design of sunlight dappling the ground as it passed through naked branches. I heard this from quite a distance and made an effort to watch them indirectly.
Once they caught up to me, which I allowed against my better judgment, the boy wandered over even as his parents told him not to bother me. I had been watching some birds in the barren canopy, so he followed my gaze and immediately asked, “What are you looking at?”
Before I knew it he was sitting on my knee looking into the treetops through the camera. I should point out that the camera, from viewfinder to lens hood, was almost as long as he was tall, so we’re not talking about a large kid. He couldn’t hold the camera due to its weight, so I held it for him as he snapped photos and scanned the area. (I didn’t mind if he took pictures since he was only wasting digital space, not film.)
His mother said repeatedly that he should leave me alone and let me enjoy the day. I countered that he wasn’t bothering me at all—a truth that shocked me. How could I not feed his hunger to know about nature, to notice all it had to offer? It would have been a crime had I turned my back on that opportunity.
The spark of a true naturalist seemed to be lurking inside him. I wasn’t going to waste the opportunity to throw fuel on the fire. I answered his questions and identified the various birds, plants and insects he pointed out. But finally his parents insisted that they should move on. So with a downtrodden expression the boy thanked me, then the group of them continued east toward the bridge.
Imagine my surprise to see in all the various haphazard images he captured that somehow he’d focused on this nonbreeding male American goldfinch (Carduelis tristis). Some of the other photos seemed to be close to the mark as well, but this one really showed that he was in fact looking at something and not just intrigued by the 400mm zoom.
Other than cropping it, I left the picture just as he took it. Sure, the camera settings were wrong and he’d actually focused on a branch just above and to the right of the bird, but the bird was almost centered and no doubt was precisely the object he was interested in.
His parents seemed genuinely supportive of his naturalist’s heart, answering his questions as best they could and often pausing longer than they’d like so he could look—really look. If he’s an example of the next generation, perhaps there’s hope for the world yet.
In early May 2009 we suffered torrential rains that flooded the entire area. So much water washed into the lake that the Sunset Bay sandbar vanished as the confluence ripped it apart with rushing rapids. But floods always mean something interesting here, always mean the standing water on the floodplains will bring all sorts of life to the once grassy fields.
I drove by slowly on my way home and immediately noticed two white-faced ibises (Plegadis chihi) strolling through the deep pond that sat along the southern edge of Dixon Branch. Wow! I rushed home and grabbed my camera and tripod, then I ran the short distance back to the park.
But here’s where the frustration of the day materialized. There was simply too much water to get close to them; they stayed on the opposite edge of the field. Each time I stepped into the water, I’d sink, lose a shoe—or both, or the tripod would sink (even with tripod coasters). Sometimes all three happened at once.
The only way to take photos was to keep moving, to stay ahead of the constant sinking. The tripod stayed upright no longer than a few seconds before one or more legs would plummet (several times I thought I lost the coasters). I slipped and fell more often than I’ll admit. My shoes had more mud inside than outside. It just wasn’t working out the way I’d hoped.
But ibises weren’t the only floodplain visitors, so I wasn’t giving up no matter the obstacles.
A large flock of Wilson’s phalaropes (Phalaropus tricolor) swirled and swam in a temporary waterworld. Along with mallards and blue-winged teals, the phalaropes seemed to be having a swimmingly good time.
I knew there had to be plenty of food available since the standing water would bring loads of invertebrates to the surface. No doubt all of the birds appreciated the veritable buffet.
Just like the ibises, however, the phalaropes remained far across the floodplain. This plethora of avian visitors was proving difficult to photograph due to the environmental issues.
By the time I saw them, I was drenched, muddy up to my knees, struggling to keep the camera from falling in the water, and starting to curse not having a canoe or kayak. Still, half a dozen lesser yellowlegs (Tringa flavipes) wandering about the swamp put a smile on my face.
They and the phalaropes tended toward the same areas, though not always.
I do have additional photos of both which I’m hoping to fix. Some of them show the proximity of the two, including one that looks like the yellowlegs are acting as advanced guards for the phalarope flock. Hopefully I can fix those images (which is not one of my strengths).
After walking out of both shoes simultaneously, kneeling in the mud and deep water trying to locate two of the three tripod coasters, and finally realizing I was losing the battle, I decided to head to the opposite side of the lake. So off I went…
But things didn’t improve when I got there.
I saw two Canada geese (Branta canadensis) standing along the edge of the lake just beyond the paddle boat house. They seemed unconcerned with my presence, so I slowly approached hoping for some great snapshots.
That’s when I slipped in the mud and landed flat on my butt.
Do you think the geese remained unconcerned? Hardly. The litany of vulgarities streaming from my mouth coupled with my loud and graceless crash to the ground caused them to immediately take to wing.
I rolled over in the mud and snapped one picture as they glided above the lake’s surface.
Probably my favorite bad bird photo: a common moorhen (Gallinula chloropus) standing in a marsh at the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge in May 2009.
What makes it my favorite? The circumstances, of course!
I had just spied the moorhen swimming amongst the reeds. After finding a usable opening in the surrounding brush, I focused on it to get a feel for the scene, then decided to change a few settings to get the image I wanted.
From behind me came a rather abrupt crash in the thicket lining a tidal marsh. I pressed the shutter button as I turned to see what was approaching.
A large American alligator (Alligator mississippiensis) was climbing up a gator slide and in my direction. It couldn’t have been more than six feet/two meters away.
Knowing how to move through nature without being seen, heard or smelled is an advantage in that it allows you to get closer to wildlife than most people can imagine. The flip side of that coin is the disadvantage of wildlife not knowing you’re there and stumbling upon you with little or no notice.
As for the alligator, yes, I got a photo. In fact, several. Mind you the large reptile entered the trail then did an immediate u-turn when it saw me swing around in its direction. A quick slide back down the hill and into the water gave it an easy escape.
Without missing a beat, I aimed and fired the camera sans worry for the settings. Here’s the u-turn sequence for those interested in close calls.
I immediately followed the critter. After stepping over to the slide and finding a clear view through the brush, here’s the alligator retreating back into the marsh.
It quickly disappeared behind the reeds.