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Photography: The Thing With Feathers

“Hope is the thing with feathers that perches in the soul – and sings the tunes without the words – and never stops at all.” Emily Dickinson

Rose Breasted Grosbeak in flight in our back yard!

For years I’ve been taking photos of the birds in our yard using my cell phone or cameras, trying to capture the spirit of their flight, the flutter of their wings, the intensity of their diverse colorations, or the way they assume human characteristics in my mind. I’d share them on social media, quickly learning that there are a lot of bird lovers out there. And a lot of birds.

Bluebird in snow on our back deck

Once I retired from teaching full time and switched to part time last spring, my husband and I would set aside one day a week to explore outdoor spaces and I would bring my camera along. The raptors, cranes, and owls we would see on our hikes fascinated me and this began my focus on capturing birds in flight. This Great Egret soared overhead at The Trustees’ World’s End property in Hingham last April:

Great Egret in Hingham

While birds in flight continue to challenge and delight me, I have learned that sometimes capturing a bird standing still can be just as exciting, especially when the bird has the potential for anthropomorphism, such as this Black Vulture who was literally just standing around looking like a Puritan minister from the 17th century on the grounds of the Bear Mountain Inn in New York.

Black Vulture in Tompkins Cove, NY

Or this Bald Eagle standing on the ice in Walpole, MA:

After seeing this eagle in January 2022, I decided to invest in my photography by purchasing a reconditioned Nikon 200-500mm lens. I’m using a Nikon D3500 camera body, which is pretty small for this big lens. I hope to get a bigger, faster camera body later this year, until then, I’m making the most of what I have:

Bald Eagle in flight in Walpole

Over time I have learned to pretty much take my camera along in the car when I know there is a birding hotspot nearby. I’ll reward myself for completing a necessary errand or appointment by following it up with a stop for birding when finished. Continually, I’m spotting birds in the sky, in the landscape, or in the seascape as below:

Sanderling in Maine

Even driving down the road, catching the sight of a vulture or hawk flying overhead, I want to keep looking and have to remember to keep my eyes on the road. As winter wore on this year the impact of seeing and photographing eagles inspired us to seek out Snowy Owls, who winter here in the northeast before returning to Canada in April. We were met with beginner’s luck on our first outing to Salisbury beach, where a Snowy Owl touched down beside the parking lot as we pulled in:

Snowy Owl at Salisbury Beach

We continued to take day trips to the Massachusetts shore to look for Snowy Owls and other raptors:

Snowy Owl in Duxbury
Juvenile Bald Eagle in Newbury
Snowy Owl in Duxbury
Northern Harrier in Duxbury
Snowy Owl in Duxbury

Meanwhile, in our own yard and at neighboring Power Line Park, we frequently saw Red Tailed Hawks and Pileated Woodpeckers, which continued to inspire us to get outside even when it was really cold.

Red Tailed Hawk at Power Line Park
Male Pileated Woodpecker at Power Line Park

And we continued to visit the eagles in Walpole, especially in the afternoon on weekends when ice fishing was over for the day at the pond:

Eagle carrying a pickerel back to the nest in Walpole

Getting outside throughout the winter months for just a local walk or on our weekly excursions gave us goals and kept us healthy, especially during the pandemic.

Dick with his binoculars
Me with my 200-500 and my little D3500

And messing around with shutter speeds and ISO and other camera settings keeps my mind working as I learn new things. Focusing on the technical side of photography can turn even the most common sights into something special:

Ring Billed Gull in Westport, MA

Grateful to my neighbor, Dave, who told me about the Cornell ebird site, I began seeking out species based on hotspots and postings on the site. In March, we went to a site in Wrentham where there were reported to be Great Horned Owls nesting in a Great Blue Heron rookery. Sure enough, we saw a female GHO with her owlet in a Heron’s nest across the swamp. The photos below are a little rough because the nest is a good 300 feet from the vantage point.

Great Horned Owl and Owlet in Wrentham late March
Great Horned Owl and Owlet in Wrentham – mid-April

We went back almost weekly, hiking in about half a mile to the vantage point, and were delighted to see a second owlet on a visit in mid-April. The light had a big impact on the photos, if bright, it created halos around the bright white owlets, so I especially liked our visits on overcast days.

Great Horned Owl and 2 Owlets in Wrentham – mid-April

The photo below shows how much the owlets had grown by early May, getting ready to branch.

Great Horned Owl and owlets in Wrentham – early May

By May 6 all of the owls had left the nest leaving us with the awkward beauty and grace of the Great Blue Herons to photograph:

Great Blue Heron in Wrentham
Great Blue Herons
Great Blue Heron in flight

As the days warm and the sun shines brightly, turning spring into summer, our destinations will be those along the ocean. A couple of weeks ago we went on our first whale watch of the year and although I kept a ready eye on the ocean for whale tails, I was also alert to the shore birds flying overhead.

Double Crested Cormorant over Stellwagen Bank

And so it goes. And will continue for me as another way to capture and make sense of the world around me. I am enjoying setting aside time to learn more about digital photography. My experience with 35mm film photography started in high school in the 1970s and ended in the late 1990’s with my son and I exploring film processing in a darkroom in our basement. And then came point and shoot 35mm cameras followed by cell phone cameras. Synthesizing all of these experiences into my photographs today is truly fascinating and challenging. I love it.

Snowy wink – Salisbury

When wasn’t taking or processing photos this winter, I painted with watercolor when I could, trying to grow my craft beyond small watercolor sketches I usually make, especially when traveling. My next post will share that process. Thank you for reading. Thank you for viewing my work.

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