The Grass Is Always Greener

What I Learned during COVID-19

Photo of a small bird, perched on a pine branch, facing the camera. A ferocious looking song sparrow perched on a tree in my front yard. NIKON D7100 at 500 mm, 1/60 second, f/6.3, ISO 100 © Sastry Karra
A ferocious looking song sparrow perched on a tree in my front yard. NIKON D7100 at 500 mm, 1/60 second, f/6.3, ISO 100 © Sastry Karra

By Sastry Karra

During 2020 and the COVID-19 quarantines, many of us took the time to think about what is important to us and what truly makes us happy. I am just one of the many people who did some self-reflection and now view my life with a new and different perspective. Like most of us, I realized that we don’t need to travel far to enjoy nature’s beauty. It took a pandemic to show me that beauty is also in my backyard or in a small county park close to me. Before COVID-19, I didn’t really see the beauty that surrounded me or, perhaps, took it for granted. COVID-19 showed me that many different bird species visit my backyard and that the species sometimes change with the seasons; that a wide variety of flowers bloom in my community; and that there are several local animal species that I have overlooked for the past 15 years that I’ve resided in New Jersey.

This article is part of a series on how the coronavirus pandemic has changed our photography and how we see the world. What practices did you develop, what stories did you tell during COVID lockdowns? What do you want to keep with you as life moves back towards normal? Share your thoughts and we might use them in a future blog article.

The part of New Jersey I call home doesn’t have massive mountains, spectacular waterfalls, or herds of elk. It’s not Bosque del Apache, Grand Teton, Acadia, or Yosemite. I had always assumed I had to travel to get good photos. When the coronavirus pandemic hit, and things started shutting down, I was filled with fear and anxiety . During the lockdowns, I missed enjoying nature.

Fortunately, I have started seeing things differently.

Photo of a small bird, perched on the side of a bird feeder, curiously looking around. A funny and curious red-breasted nuthatch visited my feeder. NIKON D7100 at 400 mm 1/200 second, f/6.3 ISO 100 © Sastry Karra
A funny and curious red-breasted nuthatch visited my feeder. NIKON D7100 at 400 mm 1/200 second, f/6.3 ISO 100 © Sastry Karra

Towards the end of January 2021, during some cold and snowy days, I noticed some birds searching for food outside my home. So, I bought a bird feeder and some food appropriate for local birds. Hanging it on a small tree in my front yard and filling it with seeds, I was happy and a bit surprised to see the variety of song sparrows, blue jays, house finches, and other interesting birds that came for a snack. I used this as an opportunity to practice my bird photography. Some of the birds posed in very funny poses and, as you might imagine, squirrels were regular visitors, too.

I live near Bridgewater, which is a far cry from Bosque or Blackwater. It’s nothing like the coastal beaches and wildlife refuges along the Atlantic Flyway or the tens of thousands of snow geese wintering farther south, but I found we still get a surprising variety of migratory birds and a number of e-bird hotspots are located nearby. A canal, several ponds, parks, and small wetlands attract a number of species both during migration as well as some who stay all year long.

Painted turtles enjoy hanging out in the sun at Duke Island County Park. NIKON D7100 at 500 mm, 1/800 second, f/6.3, ISO 800 © Sastry Karra

Starting in May 2021, I started taking small walks in Duke Island County Park, just two miles from my home. One of the many beauties of this county park is its boundary: the Delaware – Raritan Canal. It was built in the 1830s to carry coal from the Pennsylvania coal fields to New York and the remaining sections of the canal are now a state park that attracts people and wildlife. I started to notice turtles basking in the sun during my walks and found out they were a native species, painted turtles.

Photo of snow-covered, frozen waterfall spilling over some large, brown rocks with a frozen, snow-covered pool at the bottom. Frozen Hemlock Falls NIKON D7100 at 18 mm, 1 second, f/5.6, ISO 100 © Sastry Karra
Frozen Hemlock Falls. NIKON D7100 at 18 mm, 1 second, f/5.6, ISO 100 © Sastry Karra

I used to take day trips and overnight excursions to photograph waterfalls, but I avoided traveling very far, especially during the early months of the pandemic, when waterfalls were at their peak flow. This winter, when the temperatures were below freezing, I only felt comfortable going to the nearest waterfall, Hemlock Falls. It’s not as big as some of the falls farther away but it was frozen, and that presented some interesting challenges that I’m still working on.

Close up photo of a flower head that's still at the bud stage and hasn't opened yet. The flower petals are red and are just about ready to burst out. Practicing macro with spring flowers. NIKON D7100 at 200 mm, 1/50 second, f/6.3, ISO 100 © Sastry Karra
Practicing macro with spring flowers. NIKON D7100 at 200 mm, 1/50 second, f/6.3, ISO 100 © Sastry Karra

I’ve always enjoyed flowers but hadn’t done much macro work. With the arrival of spring, I noticed some of the flowers blooming in my community and that gave me an opportunity to practice macro-photography.

Two ducks swimming in water, one behind the other, going left to right. One day I spotted a pair of photogenic hooded mergansers swimming in our community lake. NIKON D7100 at 500 mm, 1/80 second, f/6.3, ISO 100 © Sastry Karra
One day I spotted a pair of photogenic hooded mergansers swimming in our community lake. NIKON D7100 at 500 mm, 1/80 second, f/6.3, ISO 100 © Sastry Karra

Occasionally, I went around the nearby Delaware – Raritan Canal and to our community lake. I was surprised to find that they’re both e-bird hotspots and I could often find birds there, especially ducks. In the spring, I tried to look around for mallards and their chicks. I was also fortunate to spot a few hooded mergansers.

Photo of a great blue heron standing on a rock looking out over a pond. Great blue heron on the lookout for fish at Duke Island County Park. NIKON D7100 at 95 mm, 1/200 second, f/5.6, ISO 100 © Sastry Karra
Great blue heron on the lookout for fish at Duke Island County Park. NIKON D7100 at 95 mm, 1/200 second, f/5.6, ISO 100 © Sastry Karra

I am so happy that the COVID-19 restrictions taught me to look around, appreciate, and enjoy all of the natural beauty that surrounds me. I will still enjoy traveling to photogenic parks, waterfalls, and birding hotspots in the northeast, but I now know I don’t have to go very far to find wonderful things to photograph.

Maybe sometimes the grass really is much greener where we are instead of on the other side.

Jaganadha “Sastry” Karra was born in India, but left when he was 24 years old. For the past 27 years, he’s worked as an IT professional, and has been living in NJ since 2004.During his spare time, he goes outdoors and takes nature photos, especially waterfalls. Along with his wife (who loves hiking), they go to many nearby state parks where he can experiment with different compositions. In the summer, when his friends play cricket, he’s been experimenting with sports photography. Find him on Instagram at @sastrykarra, where he posts most of his pictures. On Facebook, he’s active in some photography forums, like NANPA. “Maybe I’ll see you there!” he says.