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Speaking of Nature

Quest to capture elusive harrier on camera is driving me nuts

Sunday, January 5, 2014
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Speaking of Nature


This photo perfectly captures my relationship with the northern harrier.  It’s close, but it's not quite there . . . like a vapor.
This photo perfectly captures my relationship with the northern harrier. It’s close, but it's not quite there . . . like a vapor.

It was 1998 and I was a young photographer with a new camera and no idea of what I was getting myself into. I was on a dirt road in farm country when a ghostly shape rose off the surface of a snowy field and drifted through the air like a phantom — no — like a vapor. Almost like a figment of my imagination it hung there for a moment and I snapped a photo. Then it was gone.

I instantly identified the bird as a female northern harrier, but back in those days you actually had to wait an hour to get film developed. When I finally opened the envelope I found that my photo was perfect save for one small detail — the bird’s face was hidden by her wing. “Oh well,” I thought, “I’ll have another chance.”

Terrible truth

What I didn’t know was the terrible truth of that thought. I would indeed have another chance, and another and another, but there would always be something wrong. The birds would taunt me without end, and the past two years illustrate my point perfectly.

In February of 2012, I was sitting in my kitchen when the vapor appeared once again. The bird came from the west and started making lazy circles over the meadow. I grabbed my camera and started taking photos. The bird made a close pass, seemed to look right at me, and then disappeared. When I examined the camera settings I was horrified to find that they were wrong.

The shutter speed was a pathetic 1/200 of a second. The photos were gorgeous blurs. There was so much promise, so much potential, and I was all lost in the blink of an eye. Birds and photography can be an exasperating combination, but this was beyond exasperating. This was torture.

Fast-forward to January 2013. My parents were visiting and we were talking quietly when my mother exclaimed, “Ooh! Look there! It’s so big!” I didn’t have to look to know what had excited her. It was a female northern harrier (always a female) and she had just made a wheeling turn about 25 feet from my window. “Hah!” I thought, “I’ve got you now!”

Unable to keep up

I ran to the table where my camera was waiting, but then I remembered it was in my office. I took the stairs three at a time and was back down in a flash, but the cursed bird had somehow managed to get to the other side of the meadow. How on earth do they move that fast?

I was one with the camera. My mind assessed the light, my thumb turned the dials. Shutter speed set to 1/1000, no more kidding around. I could freeze a fighter plane at 1/1000! But then I realized I had the wrong lens on the camera. At the speed the vapor was moving, she would be gone before I could fetch the right one. I took a few photos, but I knew it was hopeless.

The color was rich, the details were crisp, but the image was simply too small. Had the bird been closer I would have had pure gold in my hands, but this was pyrite. The damage had been done. I had taken one more step toward insanity.

So I have a resolution for 2014 — the harrier will be mine. I shall name my porch the Pequod and shall stand ever vigilant for the vapor to reappear. All cameras will have clean lenses, proper settings, and empty memory cards. When the beast appears again I shall know . . . and I shall strike.

Bill Danielson is a professional nature photographer and author living in Altamont. Contact him at www.speakingofnature.com.

 
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