Lens Envy

Once again, I have celebrated a birthday.  I question the wisdom of having 4 annual milestones occur within a month of each other.  Nothing like reminding yourself you’re getting older every time you turn around.

First there was our wedding anniversary on the 21st, rapidly followed by Christmas Day, which also happens to be my older brother’s birthday (and he turned 50 this year), New Year’s immediately follows, and then there is my sister-in-law’s birthday, my friends and neighbors’ birthdays, and finally my own.

All of this serves to make me rather reflective at this time of year.  Sensing I might be getting into a bit of a funk, I decided to celebrate my birthday (a few days late) by taking a Blue Moon Cruises Eco Tour of the Hiwassee Nature Preserve.

Last year, we went to the Sandhill Crane festival in the same preserve.  However, during the festival, you have to take a bus into the refuge and there is only one area you can view birds from.  On the plus side, there are volunteers from the ornithological society who setup scopes and point out really great birds.  For this reason, last year we saw a Whooping Crane (albeit as a white dot amongst the grayer Sandhill Cranes).

I thought the Blue Moon Cruise might yield some better photographs since we would theoretically get much closer to the birds.

Armed with two cameras and my two longest lenses, after we boarded, I got out my gear and started getting everything setup.  Across from me was a man with a case containing a 600mm lens.  It’s hard not to stare at a 600mm lens.  Much like a breast-obsessed man trying to keep his eyes on a well-endowed woman’s face, I found myself struggling to just look away.  Lens envy–something Freud never wrote about.

In truth, I don’t think I could lug a 600mm lens around for long.  I tell myself that since I am unlikely to ever decide it’s worth it to spend $13,000 on a lens; it makes me feel like I’m not missing out on anything other than a sore back and tired arms.  If you have never seen a 600mm lens in person, it’s about the size of a bullhorn, but longer.  Much longer.

I did what I could with my 70-200mm and 100-400mm lenses.  The cruise did get us closer to the birds, but not quite close enough that a 600mm lens wouldn’t have come in handy.  I am still working my way through the 1500+ images I ended up with during that 3.5 hour tour, but I did grab a few to share today.

I think we saw about 20 Bald Eagles, mostly juveniles.

It’s bound to be a good day when you see 20 Bald Eagles.  Although I was slightly disappointed we didn’t see any Whooping Cranes this year, the cruise itself was wonderful.

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Sandhill Crane Festival

View of the refuge from the main viewing area

View of the refuge from the main viewing area

Every year, the Chattanooga chapter of the Tennessee Ornithological Society volunteers for the Sandhill Crane Festival.  While we’ve gone to the Hiwasee Wildlife Refuge two years in a row to see the Sandhill Cranes, we’ve never gone to the actual festival.  We decided to give it a try this year.

A small flock of sandhill cranes flying overhead

A small flock of sandhill cranes flying overhead

Because it’s a wildlife refuge, dogs are not welcome.  So, Tisen had to go to doggy daycare for a few hours.  This put a slight damper on the event for us, although I understand why dogs aren’t allowed.  We chose not to stay for the birds of prey show the Eagle Foundation was scheduled to provide, for example.

Same flock, regrouping

Same flock, regrouping

The cool thing about the festival was the TOS volunteers.  They set up scopes on the observation decks and called out sightings of interesting birds.  Were it not for the TOS volunteers, I would not have seen a Whooping Crane for the first time (although I’m hesitant to count it–it was so far away that even with my binoculars, it was just a flash of white amongst a flock of Sandhill Cranes) or a Golden Eagle.

A trio of cranes

A trio of cranes

The Golden Eagle was perched amongst some trees on a far away island.  I could only see it through a scope.  It had its back to us, so were it not for one very experienced TOS member who knew how to tell the two apart, I’m not sure any of us would have realized what we were witnessing.

We saw immature Bald Eagles, one adult Bald Eagle in the air and a second on a nest through a scope, Ring-neck ducks, and Canvas-back ducks all thanks to the skills of the volunteers.  I would have spent a lot of time figuring the ducks out and then not felt confident I had it right.  It’s just more exciting to bird with people who know what they’re doing.

Same trio with wings down, up, and flat

Same trio with wings down, up, and flat

The weather also made it exciting to be outside again.  Bright blue skies, tons of sunshine, and warming temperatures all made me smile ear-to-ear.

Although, during the festival you have to park at an elementary school in the nearby town (village might be more accurate) and take a bus to the viewing areas.

The recent rains created a slight delay in our return shuttle ride.  A couple of miles from where we were parked, a flatbed tow truck pulled out across the road, blocking traffic in both directions.  They stopped to pull a backhoe out of a muddy ditch where it was stuck.

This ended up taking about 20 minutes.  So, we got to sit on a school bus and watch while these guys used a winch from the truck and another guy pushed the backhoe with a front loader and together, they hauled the backhoe out of the mud and onto the truck.  When we got going again, we passed the giant mud puddle–it was a red, gooey mess that looked like a giant wound.  Hopefully the sun will “heal” it quickly.

Single crane over the lake

Single crane over the lake

If the Boats a Rockin’

It’s Saturday.  Marcy’s Playground comes to mind every time I say that.  With “It’s Saturday” running as the soundtrack in my head, I start gathering up the stuff I will take with me on our kayaking trip today.  We have signed up for an Outdoor Chattanooga outing kayaking at the Hiwassee Wildlife Refuge.  The Sandhill Crane is migrating through the area and it’s an opportunity to see (hopefully) thousands of them up close.

I, of course, want to shoot.  I’ve never tried to shoot from a kayak before–it will be interesting.  But, I have gone to great pains to make sure I can keep my camera dry when not shooting.  I purchased a Pelican waterproof box and carefully sculpted the foam in the box to hold my camera safely.  I’m not quite clear on where I will put this special box so that I can get the camera in and out without rolling the boat, but we’ll worry about that when we get there.

Pat is convinced that we will be going into the river today.  In spite of the fact that we will be in a sea kayak (much more stable than river kayaks) and that we will be in a tandem (even more stable), Pat is sure we are going to roll.  He bases this assuredness on past experience.  We were once on a tandem sea kayak in the Caribbean sitting perfectly still and I (at least, he thinks it was me) managed to flip up.  I contend that it was him, or the ocean, or the wind.  But I have to admit that my track record is at least pretty good circumstantial evidence against me.

However, it’s December and it’s not exactly a warm day with a high expected in the mid-40’s.  I’m pretty determined that we are not going in the river.  I find myself somewhat superstitious about this, however.  I take the approach of fully preparing for a dip in cold water as a measure of ensuring that it doesn’t happen.  It’s the theory of, “If you don’t want it to rain, carry an umbrella and put off washing your car.”

As I dress for our adventure, I choose carefully.  Under Armour tights, hiking pants, rain pants, Under Armour top, wool pullover, fleece, rain jacket.  Each under layer dries quickly and retains heat even when wet.  The waterproof top layer will protect me from splashes and help retain heat as well.  I hate being cold.  I also pick out a goofy hat.  The wind is pretty strong out there and it will only be worse on the water.  I want to be comfortable more than I want to look good.

Satisfied that my camera is well-protected and my clothes will keep me warm even if we fall in, we load up and head on out.  We have a bag with a change of dry clothes so we won’t have to ride home wet in the worst case.  We also have both of our day packs with a bladder of water each and big lunches, two pairs of binoculars, and my waterproof box.  For people who have been downsizing for years, we manage to look like pack mules every time we go somewhere.

We arrive at the park where we’re meeting for the tour.  One of the guides has a Newfoundland dog.  When we walk up, the dog leans against me, laying the weight of his head against my belly.  I rub his big old head and think for the millionth time how much I miss our dogs.

When everyone is ready to go, we load all of our crap and ourselves into the van and head on down the road.  By the time we get to the refuge, I think my body temperature is over 100 and I’m stripping off layers.  As soon as we get out of the van, I am quickly putting them back on.

Everyone gets settled in their boats, adjusting foot pedals and positioning their stuff.  One of the guides, Terry, helps Pat lash my waterproof box to the top of the kayak in front of me so I can easily get my camera in and out.  This is a good thing–I couldn’t figure out how I was going to get the thing in and out of the tiny space for my legs.

Before we get started, Pat has troubles with the rudder and while a guide is helping him sort it out, I spot a juvenile Bald Eagle soaring overhead.

We paddle our way across the main channel and then head along the shore of the refuge, trying not to get close enough to scare the birds.  A large white bird is standing on the shore ahead of us.  It turns out it’s a White Pelican, not a typical bird for the area.  We were hoping for Whooping Cranes, which migrate through Hiwassee every winter, but no such luck.  The pelican decides to take off as we approach, but manages to fly at an angle so that he has his back to us the entire time.  I’m frustrated by my shots.

As I shoot the White Pelican, I see a cluster of Sandhill Cranes standing on the shore behind the flight of the pelican.  There are only a dozen or so gathered there, but we can hear what must be hundreds of Sandhill Cranes gabbing away at one another.  They are an impossibly loud bird whose voice can carry a mile or more.

Across the channel we spot a group of smaller white birds floating on the water.  Someone says they are ring-billed gulls, but I don’t get a close enough look to decide if I agree.  I’m busy looking at the grassy bank above them.  Pat asks me if the bank is covered in Sandhill Cranes.  Unfortunately, the kayak won’t hold still and we bob up and down as I try to look through my binoculars.  For a moment I am convinced they are cows, then I realize I’ve misjudged the distance (and therefore the size).  They are Sandhill Cranes after all.  I blush at having thought they were cows.

We continue on our way, seeing many Great Blue Heron, Double-Crested Cormorants, Coots, possibly Lesser Scaups, and Bald Eagles.  I’m not as familiar with water birds, so I don’t even attempt to identify the gulls that fly by.

We make our way around the island, paddling ferociously against the current until we get around the tip of the island and start floating back with the current.  As we complete the trip, three more bald eagles appear and a group of cranes fly by.  It’s hard to believe we’ve been out on the water for nearly 3 hours.  Even more unbelievable, we never fell in!

When I click through my photos, I have to laugh out loud.  If I scroll through fast enough that the shots are movie-like, I feel like I’m back in the boat again.  The rocking of the boat is capture in the movement of my subject in the frame from one shot to the next.  I can’t tell on the small LCD if anything is in focus or not, but I hope my fast shutter made up for all the motion in the boat.