Volunteering

Right now, a group of us at the Chattanooga Audubon Society are planning a Halloween haunt called “Acres of Darkness.”  For 4 nights, a ¼ mile trail will be haunted with all kinds of terrors to raise money for the organization.

Last year I did some shooting at the event, but I wasn’t involved in planning it.  This year, the planning committee asked me if I would help after we completed the Birdathon event in April.  How could I resist?

I love Halloween.  You can try out an alter-ego, eat endless amounts of candy, and experience whatever level of terror you’re comfortable with.  It’s just fun.

Saturday morning, I went out to setup one of the stations on the haunted trail.  I realized several things about myself.  First, although I have worked on things from setting up campsites to roofing to changing the oil in my car to repairing garbage disposals, I have never done them alone.

When we decided to each take a station and be responsible for setting it up, I experienced sudden panic.  I realized these are the kinds of jobs where, if pointed in the right direction, I can be helpful, but I’m not adept at deciding what needs to be done.

It was a strange sensation.  Most things I do, I am perfectly able and willing to decide how to go about doing them.  I am not shy about telling other people what to do, either.  Yet, when faced with the simple problem of how to hang some tarps and other props, I found myself at a loss.

Fortunately for me, a far more experienced person was there when I arrived who was willing to help me.  I walked out to the site ahead of him, having been told that everything we needed was already at the site.  There was one, long, yellow nylon rope, two large tarps, and a length of misting hose.

This is when I (re)discovered a second thing about myself:  I really only know how to tie one knot.  That’s the knot I use to tie my shoes.  I learned it from a book of knots my nephew got when he was about 10.  It prevents your shoelaces from untying, but you can still pull out the knot with one pull.  It’s a great knot for shoes; not so great for tarp hanging.

In spite of my years in the Camp Fire Girls, even a basic square knot comes out a tangled mess.  This made me feel especially grateful for the Eagle Scout and long-time Scout Master who was helping me.  I would still be there trying to tie up that tarp if he hadn’t been there.

While I was there, I did a little shooting of a River Rescue volunteer crew picking up trash in the creek that runs through Audubon Acres.  I got to wade through the creek, see a Belted Kingfisher, and hear a Red-shouldered Hawk.  Great start to a Saturday morning!

 

Events and Portraits

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Elle finds a rock–or maybe it was a feather?

I am not excited by event photography.  Every time I review my photos from an event, I realize that this is apparent in the images.  I have not found the energy to learn anything about event photography other than individual portraits, which I interest me after landscape, wildlife, nature, architectural, macro, and sports photography.

In spite of this, I regularly shoot events for the Chattanooga Audubon Society and I feel bad that I can’t deliver better results than people who know nothing about photography, like this one:

The kind of event photo that makes me cringe with embarrassment

The kind of event photo that makes me cringe with embarrassment

I have dozens and dozens of images that look like that–random groups of people poorly arranged not paying attention to the camera and often caught with strange expressions on their faces.  I am very good at capturing the moments no one wants captured during an event.

My latest endeavor was at the 69th birthday party for the Chattanooga Audubon Society.  People were sitting in chairs or standing in lines around the walls of a large room.  They were eating cake and ice cream and talking.  When I would attempt to shoot small groups of people, they often either hid their faces or moved out of the frame.

Elle showing me a leaf

Elle showing me a leaf

This led to stealth shooting of the whole room.  Which, in turn, resulted in images like the one above.  I was quite relieved when one of the young guests needed someone to take her for a walk–she was a much easier subject.

I did manage to sneak up on the cake.  The cake is rather funny.  I ordered a cake with an outdoors theme and asked for trees and birds.  I’d never ordered a cake from the place I got it, but since the place I planned to get it from stopped making sheet cakes and I was ordering 1 ½ days ahead, I didn’t have a lot of choices.  I crossed my fingers and hoped they would come up with something good.

Elle pausing to pose for me while looking for the next interesting find

Elle pausing to pose for me while looking for the next interesting find

They did a lovely job creating a lake–they said they “didn’t have any birds.”  I’m not sure why it’s so difficult for people to create a bird outline in icing, but I didn’t ask.  The funny thing is that while the Audubon has 3 properties–an island in the Tennessee River, a property with a mixture of a stream, woods, and open meadows, and a wooded mountain property–none of them have a lake.

The cake--that's about all that can be said about this photo

The cake–that’s about all that can be said about this photo

I’m sure there is a more artistic way to capture a cake, but I feel like the straight-on, from-the-top framing that one might expect from the average soccer mom at a kid’s party is completely appropriate for this cake.  Perhaps with a spot light and some fog it would be possible to shoot this cake artistically, but there wasn’t a fog machine handy.

Oh well.  I would start reading up on event shooting, but I think I’m going to leave it on the bottom of my “to-do” list until it’s time to prepare for the next event.

One last image of the endlessly curious Elle

One last image of the endlessly curious Elle

 

Flowers and Fungi

These early bloomers captured rain drops

These early bloomers captured rain drops

On a nature walk on Saturday, we were surprised to discover spring wild flowers in full bloom tucked amongst the leaf litter on the forest floor.  I don’t remember the name of these blooms, but they are often among the earliest to appear in the spring.  The thing is, it’s not spring.  We haven’t even reached Imbolc yet–it seems horribly risky for a delicate spring flower to appear so early.

The likelihood that it will manage to set seed before the weather turns too cold for survival seems very slim.  But it blooms anyway.

A completely different kind of "bloom"

A completely different kind of “bloom”

A flower, presumably, doesn’t ask questions about risk and reward.  It simply responds to the external events of water, sun, and temperature.  It doesn’t check the calendar before the seed begins to sprout.  Collectively, perhaps the seeds will have slightly different trigger points and only a few will sprout now.  The rest will require more warmth longer before they come to life.  And, in this way (I hope), the next generation will come from the seeds whose triggers allowed them to survive long enough to produce more seed.

Wood ears may not quite qualify in our traditional definition of "bloom," but they sure are interesting

Wood ears may not quite qualify in our traditional definition of “bloom,” but they sure are interesting

If we think of these flowers as a single entity instead of individual flowers, perhaps the lesson is more applicable to us as individuals.  Otherwise it may be tempting to take a lesson along the traditional lines of “only the strong survive” when the reality is that often it is not the strong that survive, it is the timely.

If we think of those early bloomers as the first attempt in the process of trial and error, perhaps the lesson is more applicable to our own lives.  After all, being timely requires a lot of luck.  If we sit around dormant until the exact right time, we’ve already missed it when we realize it’s come.  But if we put up a few sprouts too early, we get to practice and practice some more.  And when the right time comes, we’re there, ready and blooming at just the right time.

Layers of mixed fungi make a fascinating display on a rotting log

Layers of mixed fungi make a fascinating display on a rotting log

Fungi work differently.  They largely reproduce via spores, which are different from seeds in that there’s no pollination.  While I know very little about fungi, reportedly, at least some of them produce spores on their own time clock without regard for environmental conditions.  Others require environmental factors that include nutrient levels, carbon dioxide levels, and and light levels (see microbiologybytes.com).  Another study I found suggests that atmospheric moisture (which I assume is the same thing as humidity) has the greatest impact on how much fungus grows.  This seems a bit like saying the ground will be wet when it rains to me–after all, do we really need a study to tell us that more humidity drives more fungal growth?

This is neither a flower nor a fungus--it's a Lichen

This is neither a flower nor a fungus–it may look like lettuce, but it’s a Lichen

That being beside the point, the continual, misting rain for the past few weeks has created a unique kind of bloom.  Although the fungi had faded a bit from their peak, there were still some really beautiful colonies.  Beautiful fungi–words I never expected to write together.

Final look at the more colorful fungus we saw

Final look at the more colorful fungus we saw

Holding Steady

A shelled and partially chewed hickory nut lies on a bed of moss

A shelled and partially chewed hickory nut lies on a bed of moss

I went on a nature walk with the Chattanooga Audubon Society Saturday.  I ran late leaving because I was so engrossed in a book.   When I realized it was time to go, I grabbed my camera with a 100mm macro lens on it.

I haven’t shot macro in a long time.  This is in part because it takes a lot of time.  To get good macro shots, a tripod is essential and I spend a lot of the time on the ground, sometimes crawling through things I’d rather not crawl through.

But today, I decided to try shooting macro without the drama.  No tripod.  No garbage bag to lie on.  No loupe to check focus.  No reflector to bounce light.  No baggage to get in my way.  This has become my modus operandi of late–just grab the camera and one lens and see what I can get while I’m out doing something else.

I learned this often beautiful fungus (although past its prime here) is commonly called "Turkey Tail"

I learned this often beautiful fungus (although past its prime here) is commonly called “Turkey Tail”

Of course, reviewing my photos, I missed my equipment.  Standing in awkward positions, hovering over various fungi and tiny plants is not the best way to get sharp images.  But was I on a nature walk or was I doing macro photography?  I was on a nature walk and I happened to get a few shots I kind of like.  I also got a bunch of shots I don’t like at all and a few in between.

A funny fungus that's supposedly edible.  Can't imagine it's good.  Unfortunately, a little motion blur in this one

A funny fungus that’s supposedly edible. Can’t imagine it’s good. Unfortunately, a little motion blur in this one

A lot of photographers will not share photos they don’t think are really good.  No photo is perfect.  And at some point, it takes courage to say “this photo is enough” and share it.  In fact, it probably requires more courage to share something you think is really good than it does to share something you think is just good enough.  After all, if you really believe your work is fantastic and someone knocks it down, it hurts a lot more than if you didn’t think it was that great to begin with.

The entire length of this Box Elder looked like this--a deep carpet of bright green moss

The entire length of this Box Elder looked like this–a deep carpet of bright green moss

I find myself wondering if I am a coward hiding behind grab shots rather than putting something up that I really believe is beautifully executed.  Sometimes, not putting yourself all-in can indicate a lack of courage.  If I’m not all-in, you can’t hurt me–at least not all of me.

Here's something you don't expect to find in January--wild violets (a spring ephemeral) popping up

Here’s something you don’t expect to find in January–wild violets (a spring ephemeral) popping up

On the other hand, to be willing to do things halfway allows time and energy to do more.  After all, if I went on the nature walk without my camera, I would still be out shooting and not sitting here pondering the philosophical aspects of deciding to be a “real” photographer vs playing at being one when it’s convenient.

Ultimately, is going halfway an act of cowardice or just setting a limit that allows me to enjoy more?  I think the answer lies in how much I want to end up with better images–how passionate I feel about producing an image I’m proud of.

While I’m busy figuring it out, please enjoy what I’ve got.

Tisen has decided he's OK with my halfway photography (taken with iPhone)

Tisen has decided he’s OK with my halfway photography (taken with iPhone)

Christmas Bird Count

One of my favorite winter birds--I love to hear their song when I walk the dogs.

One of my favorite winter birds–I love to hear their song when I walk the dogs.

This was a somewhat rare sighting at Audubon Acres--I have a much easier time shooting them at Renaissance.

This was a somewhat rare sighting at Audubon Acres–I have a much easier time shooting them at Renaissance.

Not 100% sure, but I think this was a yellow-rumped warbler flying away.

Not 100% sure, but I think this was a yellow-rumped warbler flying away.

The only thing better than a Yellow-bellied Sapsucker is two of them.

The only thing better than a Yellow-bellied Sapsucker is two of them.

I love these birds.  Just a great name.

I love these birds. Just a great name.

I’ve always wanted to participate in the Christmas Bird Count, but never really understood how it worked.  Every year, the National Audubon Society sponsors a Christmas Bird Count.  Each area organizes a specific day for participants to count birds.

The idea is to collect data on how many birds of each species seen are present in a given area at Christmas time.  Counts are scheduled from early December through January–I don’t know of any that actually happened on Christmas Day.  Ironically, the name of the event always prevented me from participating–I assumed the Christmas Bird Count happened on Christmas Day and I wouldn’t be able to join.

This year, because I’ve been volunteering for the Chattanooga Audubon Society, I learned that I didn’t have to count birds on Christmas Day to be part of the event.  In Chattanooga, the count was scheduled on December 15th.

The most challenging part about the count (other than getting any decent photos) was trying not to double count birds.  We walked around Audubon Acres for 3 hours before I had to leave.  It was pretty tough to ensure the Eastern Towhee we heard on one part of the property wasn’t the same Eastern Towhee following us to another part of the property.

The guidelines are clear for counting at a feeder.  You only count the maximum number of a particular type of bird you see at one time.  That way, you know you’re not counting the same bird over and over as it returns to feed.

Because we were roaming over 4 miles of trails, we had to try to segregate areas in the hope that the birds were staying on one part of the property.  For birds that we saw few of, that was a little clearer than birds that were everywhere.

I can’t remember ever seeing so many Flickers in one day.  There are either hundreds of Flickers at Audubon Acres or we were being stalked by a group of 5-10 of them.

I discovered several things during the Christmas Bird Count.  First, I really need to get back in the habit of hiking every weekend.  I felt like it was a desperately needed breath of fresh air to get back outside after many weeks of neglecting that part of my life.

Second, there is something wrong with my brain that makes me see only similarities and not differences.  The problem is worsened when the light is bad.  I was mistaking bluebirds for robins.  That’s not good.  They’re not even close to the same size–even in silhouette they can be distinguished.  But, I would see red on the breast and automatically go to Robin even though there are as many Eastern Bluebirds at Audubon Acres as there are Northern Flickers.

Finally, 400mm is not enough for shooting song birds.  Although, I was very pleased with the shot of the two Yellow-bellied sapsuckers (it’s cropped).  Now I just need to win the lottery to get a 600mm lens.

 

Visitors at the Visitor’s Center

Last Saturday, I watched the visitor’s center at Audubon Acres from 9AM-1PM.  It’s one of those volunteer jobs I don’t mind doing, but the visitor’s center isn’t often a busy place.

I guess it’s helpful for a volunteer to be there to deal with visitors who stop by so the various other folks who might be there can work on projects uninterrupted.  The property manager was off running an activity, which was a tour of a wetland at the local VW factory.  I was covered the front desk until he got back.

After taking advantage of the quiet to finish up some work of my own, I got out my camera.  I took the cordless phone with me, staying close enough that I could get back inside before a visitor could pull in, park, and walk in.

Someone had spent quite a bit of time decorating the front of the center for halloween.  They had found or grown giant pumpkins and strategically placed them in front of the center to make it look like a pumpkin patch.  I’ve never seen such large pumpkins.  I thought they were fake until I knocked on them.

A Brown Thrasher perched in the open across the parking lot from the center.  I, of course, couldn’t resist crossing to the other side to see if I could get a shot of him.  Brown Thrashers are amazing teases.  I believe they instinctively recognize a camera even if they’ve never seen one before.  They perch where they can be seen clearly with no obstructions just until the moment when the camera achieves sharp focus.  Then, they hop behind a bunch of leaves, disappearing completely out of the frame and forcing the photographer to take her eye away from the camera to locate said bird again.

Now, this kind of hide-and-seek is expected when you’re shooting a hummingbird or a warbler.  Tiny little birds that move quickly can disappear completely behind a single leaf.  But a Brown Thrasher is a big bird.  It’s bigger than a Robin and has a much longer tail.  It should NOT be able to evade my lens so effectively.  Yet, there it is and there it isn’t.  I rarely get a shot of a thrasher even though I see them almost daily here.  I hear their loud clicking and know they are making fun of me from their favorite hiding spots.

Fortunately for me, although I had no luck getting a shot of a thrasher, I did get to spend a few minutes walking around the property before I left for home.  Within minutes I’d spotted some warblers flitting around in the trees.  The first one I got several shots of was a Magnolia Warbler in fall colors.  The second was a Wilson’s Warbler–one I’ve never seen before.  I love it when I get to add a bird to my life list!  Unfortunately, 400mm is not enough for warblers, so the photos are heavily cropped.