My first experience with the apex predator of the far north: Part I—Planning the Trip
Polar bear in the Canadian Arctic, near Churchill, Manitoba. (c) Jim Clark
Somewhere I read that once you gaze into the eyes of a polar bear, it will change your life. Just a couple weeks ago, I did indeed gaze into the eyes of the foremost apex predator of the far north. In fact, for a week I looked into the eyes of several polar bears during my first-ever trip to Churchill, Manitoba. The experience is something that neither I nor my wife Jamie and son Carson will ever forget. Continue reading →
On the eve of my first trip to Churchill, Manitoba, to photograph polar bears and other arctic wildlife, I’m reminded of my son’s first encounter with a bruin. Carson was only seven, and his reaction to the experience serves as a lesson for all nature photographers. After all, it’s not the age from whence wisdom comes, but instead, it’s the true value of the wisdom that matters. But I digress.
For several summers, Carson and I would take a week-long trip to explore our favorite places in West Virginia. This became a time for father and son to have fun, discover new things, eat pizza nonstop (Don’t tell his mother!), and spend time as best buddies. Oh yeah, we photographed a bit, too.
One June, we visited the usual locations: Canaan Valley and Blackwater Falls state parks, Beartown Natural Area, Falls of Hills Creek, and Cranberry Glades Botanical Area. Carson’s love for nature photography (especially wildlife) had just begun, so he was hoping to find something special to photograph at one of the locations.
While walking on the boardwalk at Cranberry Glades, I showed Carson recent signs of a black bear—scat on the boardwalk, broken alder branches and partially eaten skunk cabbage. Well, that got him excited. So, with camera in hand, he decided we should walk the boardwalk several times that morning to see if we would actually see the bear.
In an earlier column I gave praise to the seaside sparrow, a species common to the salt marshes of the Atlantic and Gulf coasts, but rarely sought after by nature photographers. This column is on one of my all-time favorite songsters: Cistothorus plaustris, the marsh wren, a denizen of freshwater and tidal brackish marshes with robust stands of bulrush, cattail and cordgrass.
The marsh wren is every bit as inconspicuous as the seaside sparrow, but two qualities make it stand out. It is curious as all get-out, and it loves to sing.
Marsh wrens have to figure you out, and they will approach as near as arm’s length to do so. Even when you can’t see them, they are likely watching you; sometimes closer than you think.
The other giveaway is its song. Once you hear the marsh wren’s bubbling repertoire of chattering melodies, you will have little trouble recognizing it on future ventures into its wetland domain. A marsh is not a marsh without the wren’s enthusiastic and rapid chatter resonating throughout the tidal landscape. And this little feathered ball of dynamism not only sings during the day, but also at all hours of the night. Continue reading →
We are all overbooked these days. Our lives are commandeered by everything we deem uncompromisingly critical. Add those electronic devices that have become as indispensable as an appendage, and we are saturated with an excess of things to keep us too preoccupied to even take a breath.
Remember a time when you hiked into a meadow, laid down and watched the clouds float across the blue sky? Did hawks and vultures glide into your view, and did you wonder what it would be like to fly? Watching, admiring, thinking and developing—that is slowing down at its essence. Continue reading →
In 2007 my wife suggested that our son and I do a book together. I had already published a few, and although Carson was only eight years old, he had already won national and international awards for his nature photography. What better co-author, photographer and partner could I have asked for? It was a perfect combination.
So, during the winter of 2008, Carson and I decided to do a children’s book about a family of beavers at a local nature preserve. To give Carson the full experience of a nature writer and photographer, I had him do a bit of homework. The more he understood nature, the better he would become at photographing it. Continue reading →
One facet of nature photography that has always fascinated me is the natural history of what I’m photographing. Maybe it comes from my love for nature or maybe just because I’m a curious guy. I’d like to think it is in my DNA. Regardless of its origin or catalyst, the natural world has always been a critical component of my fabric of life.
So on occasion I will offer tidbits of natural history of select creatures I have photographed. Some may be high-profile, charismatic megafauna, but more often than not, I will offer insights on lesser known but equally fascinating creatures and landscapes. To start off, here’s a little natural history about one of my favorite marsh critters: the seaside sparrow. Continue reading →
It’s that time of the year when nature photographers are either embarking on a summer season filled with photo adventures, or they are making the final preparations to do so. They have their tripods, lenses and cameras all cleaned, inspected and primed, ready to go into action. Watch out nature, here we come!
Often, we forget to bring along the little things—the whatchyamacallits and thingamajigs—that can save us from those minor and major inconveniences we encounter in the field. During my workshops, I have a show-and-tell session to disclose to my students some of the lesser known items I keep in my camera bag or vest—very handy and inexpensive stuff that can make a difference in having a good photo shoot or a bad one.
Here are just a few items you might consider adding to your photographic toolbox:
Portable Powerbank Charger: Can’t get around it, everyone has in their possession a cellphone and/or a tablet these days. They are indispensable and can certainly have apps that help us in our quest for photographic perfection. Of course, the issue is power. To maintain a full charge while in the field, I keep a portable powerbank charger with me. These units are compact and designed for easy storage. The ones I use even have a handy built-in flashlight. Just remember to charge the charger before you go into the field.
I tend to get stuck in my ways for photographing landscapes: sharp and focused. But I’ve started experimenting with another technique that I refer to as ambient light painting.
Ambient light painting may not be what you think. It is not using artificial light sources at night to paint light on a tree, old barn or other subject. Instead, ambient light painting uses both natural light and slow camera movements to create abstract compositions. The results can be something resembling a Monet painting.
When I discovered how much my students embraced this technique, I decided to include it in my workshop resources to help them develop their own vision of nature. Turns out, ambient light painting is fun for them, and that fits right in with my goal to get folks to love nature through their photography.
Expect the unexpected. All nature photographers, regardless of skill level, have had moments when the unexpected happens. Nature provides no script beforehand or studio that we can set up the way we want. What happens is not announced ahead of time. We know from experience that unforeseen and special moments will occur, so we improvise and use what we have to make the best of the situation.
Through our knowledge of the natural world and our willingness to endure whatever challenge is placed before us, nature photographers make it work. We know that going directly from point A to point B rarely happens in nature, and we are blessed for it.
I had planned to photograph a northern harrier frequenting the marshes of Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge and Assateague Island National Seashore in Virginia this past winter. For days, I watched this raptor as it swooped and glided over the salt marsh. Yet, I was never able to get set up in time to photograph it.
One picture-perfect morning I hiked along the bay side of the seashore determined that some feathered creature would not defeat me! My only challenge was that I had to be at a friend’s house for lunch at noon, and he would not appreciate my being late. The day held the promise of fun exploring this side of the coastal barrier island. Then, something unexpected happened. Continue reading →