Getting Out

With my husband out of town for the week, I was left to my own devices.  I took the opportunity to get out and shoot a bit further from home than usual.

First there was a road trip to Joyce Kilmer Memorial Forest, tucked in the Cherokee National Forest. To get there, I had to first see to the completion of the repair of our second car, which was in the shop after not having been driven for over a year.

I quickly realized how spoiled I am–my husband normally attends to car maintenance and repair. First I had to arrange with the shop for them to pick me up when the car was “done.” Then I had to take the car to another shop to get the battery replaced, which undid all the settings, including the computer that controls the idle speed, which resulted in the car revving the engine every time I stopped. I’m surprised no one attempted to race me off the starting line at traffic lights!

Then there was the little complication that the fan wasn’t running and I was advised not to go less than 35 mph to avoid overheating. I had visions of driving on sidewalks to avoid red lights. That took a second trip to the shop when the part arrived so I could drive to the mountains without having to take the sidewalks.

By the time I got out of the shop Saturday afternoon and drove to Joyce Kilmer, which turned out to be a 3 hour drive, I had only a half an hour to battle the mosquitos and grab a few shots before Tisen and I had to get back on the road to head home.

On Monday I pulled out my bicycle and stopped at Amnicola Marsh to discover what might have been a Great Egret. Of course, I did not have my camera with me, so back I went the next morning, when, of course, the bird did not appear.

Since the car’s idle speed didn’t reset over the weekend, I returned to the mechanic on Monday. Fortunately, they were able to greatly improve things.

Next I made the drive to the Blythe Ferry Osprey nest with a couple from the photography club who allowed me to drive, in spite of Tisen crowding the lucky passenger who got to sit in back with him. But on the way home, the coolant light came on and we discovered I was losing coolant. Fortunately, we made it home without a problem, but that put an end to my driving career (at least for a few days).

I stuck to my bicycle and made one more trip to Amnicola and Curtain Pole Road Marshes. No Great Egret, but I did meet another photographer and stayed far longer than I intended shooting at Curtain Pole–it’s amazing how much more you see when there are two of you looking.

All in all, I’d say I’m pretty good at entertaining myself.

Brain Fog

Ah, Saturday.  A day to get things done that I want to do instead of things I have to do.  But there seems to have been a problem with that plan.

It all started when I made the mistake of logging on to my work computer.  I did this for the purpose of changing my password because it was about to expire and I didn’t want to be locked out.  The problem started in that I had to open my inbox.  One should never open one’s inbox when one only wants to work for 5 minutes.  2 ½ hours later, I realized I was still in my PJs, my dog hadn’t been out yet, and most of the morning was gone.

After taking care of Tisen, I spent some time trying to get my head around my latest volunteer gig–I’m now the photo contest chair for the local photography club.  I had no idea how complicated it is to organize a photography contest.  The good news is that it’s fun and I’m getting to know more people.

I’m not exactly sure how it happened, but another couple of hours disappeared between testing FileZilla and realizing it was time to take the dog out again.  I decided I was not going to appear for a second time in the park in my PJs and headed for the shower.

. . . .

At the end of our walk, Tisen and I passed a chattering Belted Kingfisher hunting for fish over the wetland.

Now, I know it’s a long shot, but I figured something had to go right today, so maybe it would be getting a shot of the kingfisher?  My trusty iPhone is worthless when it comes to bird photography.  I rushed the last 100 yards of Tisen’s walk to get home and get my DSLR.  5 minutes later, the elevator reached the ground floor at the exact moment I realized the battery in my camera was dead.

Back up.  Back down.  Low and behold!  The kingfisher was still hunting over the wetland!  I crept down the long slope to the water, not looking at the bird.  Carefully, I raised my camera to focus on the bird.  The moment my lens pointed his way, he went chattering off to another section of the wetland, on the far side of a barrier that blocked my view of him.

I tried to move to the other side of the barrier, but as I was climbing over the rock wall, he reappeared, fish in his mouth, and flew off to enjoy his meal where he was never to be seen again.

This is when I discovered it is possible to do landscape photography with a 70-200mm lens and no tripod.  It’s kind of funny, really.  I think I started out doing landscape photography with the “wrong” lens and no tripod.  Today, it felt like a brand new epiphany.  As I searched for a subject, I discovered fog rising off the river.  Now that was fun.

Biking, Birding, and Bystanding

Biking and birding reminded me of several life lessons I have learned, forgotten, and learned again.  First, speed causes us to miss details.

I think back to the native prairie by the bike path back in Columbus, Ohio.  I used to ride by wondering why I didn’t see more birds.  When I went by on roller blades, I saw more birds, but was surprised I didn’t see any hummingbirds.  When I walked by, I saw hummingbirds but was surprised there weren’t any bees.  When I stood completely still, it was like a magical veil was lifted and suddenly I saw an amazingly dense array of life, buzzing and hovering and dipping among the flowers.  I am frequently reminded that sometimes, to really see the abundance of life, you have to sit still.

The second lesson was:  it probably isn’t a good idea to point out birds–even really big ones–to a bunch of people on bicycles.

When we all pulled well off to the side of the path to stop and look, everyone was able to see the differences between a Turkey Vulture and Black Vulture, and many got to see an Osprey soaring overhead with no injuries.

As I watched these birds of prey, I had to wonder if they experienced the same kind of joy in catching a thermal and soaring on the wind as I was experiencing pedaling my bike through the early autumn breeze.  Some may think that birds just do what they do for the purpose of finding food, but I have to believe there is a joy that comes from doing what you were born to do that even birds experience, particularly on a beautiful day.  I find it impossible to watch the grace of soaring raptors without being moved.

As we made our way up the Riverwalk to the Curtain Pole Road swamp area, I learned the third lesson of the day.  Sometimes, it’s not the birds that are the most interesting part of a bird walk.  One of the other participants spotted turtles and frogs.  Although the wood ducks were still my favorite (see photos from yesterday’s post), the turtles and frogs were pretty darn fascinating.  By the way, one attendee pointed out that in the last Wood Duck photo in yesterday’s post, there is a camouflaged turtle right in front of the Wood Duck.  I totally missed that!

The final lesson for the day was that we all have different levels of excitement about the same birds.  I was so excited to stand and watch the Belted Kingfishers at Amnicola Marsh.  I could have stood there all day with them swooping across the marsh, chattering away.  In the meantime, most everyone else was looking for something more interesting.

Regardless, I think we all enjoyed the outing. For me, it doesn’t get any better.  A beautiful day, a bike, a new group of interesting people to meet, some really cool birds, and my camera.  What more could anyone ask for?

Bike and Then Bird

I have been riding the Tennessee Riverwalk twice a week for a few months now.  It’s one of those places that makes me happy.  It’s just a beautiful way to wake up.  Riding along the river on the mostly quiet trail, exchanging smiles with the dozen or so pedestrians who also haunt the riverwalk just after dawn–there just isn’t a better way to start the day.

I have also been leading bird walks a couple times a month.  And, I went on a biking tour of the Chickamauga and Chattanooga National Military Park last year, which was organized by Outdoor Chattanooga.

Thus, it was only natural that, as I rode past great birding spots along the riverwalk, I would think “I should organize a bike and bird!”

Allow me to clarify for safety reasons:  I am not advocating birding while riding a bike.  That would be dangerous.  However, a bird walk is a usually a slow meander through a relatively small area with a good bird population and does not afford the opportunity to cover much distance without driving.  It seems counter-intuitive to me that we would increase the amount we drive in order to pursue an activity motivated by the desire to learn about and appreciate creatures quite dependent on an unpolluted environment.

To give credit where credit is due, a friend of mine back in Columbus, OH previously organized “eco bird walks” where all participants agreed to walk, bike, or take public transportation to the starting point and they walked from there.

So, I my idea was not exactly unique.  Regardless, I get a special pleasure out of combining activities.  I formed a plan:  Outdoor Chattanooga organizes bike tours all the time.  Why not ask them to do a bike and bird?  They have a fleet of bicycles so even people without bikes could join.  I would invite the Chattanooga chapter of TOS and the Audubon Society and we could have a lovely morning of riding and birding.  Or, to be more accurate, riding, stopping, and then birding.

And so it was.  It took a few emails and phone calls, but that was it.  Outdoor Chattanooga did the rest–and what a great group of people they are!

Finally, the Saturday selected was upon us.  I’m not sure which of the folks at Outdoor Chattanooga was in charge of arranging the weather, but they did a fabulous job.  I suppose if it would have been a little less breezy, we might have had an easier time spotting small birds among the trees, but the clear blue sky with little humidity and the cool breeze kept me smiling the entire ride.

We saw quite a few good birds, although not quite the bonanza I was hoping for.  As I told our guide from Outdoor Chattanooga, it was such a beautiful day that I would have enjoyed it even if we hadn’t seen a single bird.

Wild Ride

Having gotten a decent shot of a red-shouldered hawk at Audubon Acres yesterday, I have the itch to practice wildlife photography today.  I also have the itch to ride my bike.

I slather on several layers of 50 SPF and head off.  It’s about 2PM in the afternoon–not exactly prime time for either wildlife or light.

I cruise casually along the Tennessee Riverpark–the 94 degree heat dissipates as I coast down hills and suffocates me when I go uphill.  At least riding generates a breeze.

I continue on to the Amnicola Marsh.  I find a shady spot to set up and I wait.  This is where I start to question just how much desire I have to be a wildlife photographer.  It’s ridiculously hot for early May.  I feel the heat pounding at me the way I feel the beat of a bass drum at a high-powered rock concert.

Then, the bugs find me.  I am the incarnation of Pig Pen–I have my own cloud.

Sweaty, bitten, itchy, and aching from my heavy pack, I have a hard time being patient.  I have been in the field 5 minutes.

Then, low-and-behold, two green herons fly in and land in a dead tree.  The lighting is horrible, and I’ve arrived without my polarizer, but I do my best to get a decent shot.

I am too far away.  I decide I should try to get closer.  I carefully creep through the scratchy weeds, leaving my bike behind, but hoisting my pack back onto my sore shoulders.  I pick my way around thorns, through spiderwebs, and avoid poison ivy until I am all of 10 feet closer to the tree in question.

I consider moving further in, but the underbrush looks a little thick, I won’t be able to keep an eye on my bike from there, and, well, it looks like my feet might get wet.  I decide to shoot from where I am.

I see a flash of white in my peripheral vision and I swing the lens around to find a snowy egret landing among the lily pads.  Then, it disappears so completely that I believe I’ve imagined it.  The lily pads blow in the breeze and flash white glare back at me, fooling me into thinking there was never a snowy egret at all.

A belted kingfisher makes an appearance.  Although the light is pretty hopeless, I fire off a few shots anyway.  Then, the green heron starts to make his way from a low perch to a high one, catching my attention once more.

Eventually, I head on home. Tisen, having spent 2 whole hours at home alone, had foraged through my not-yet-unpacked suitcase and found the squeaky balls I brought back from Columbus.  I’m happy he entertained himself.  I’m even happier when I see my photos on the big screen and realize there really was a snowy egret!

Not a bad way to spend a Sunday afternoon.