An inquisitive Bufflehead, doing pre-dawn surveillance of my blind.
Peace of mind. Something that’s hard to find at times. For me, it’s been something that’s been elusive over the last few months as I try to deal with the effects of Sjogren’s syndrome. Dry eyes and mouth are something you kind of get used to, but it certainly makes me sure to always have gum and eye drops handy. Achy joints…fine, I can handle that most of the time. Fatigue is the toughest one to deal with, as there are days where it suddenly feels like you’ve just been “unplugged”. One by one, they’re nuisances, but put it all together, and have it occur day-after-day-after-day, and it’s a downer.
It’s been enough of a downer that I haven’t really had much interest in the photography thing lately. Probably a mistake on my part, to let that go. If there’s one thing that can provide peace of mind for me, it’s one of those ‘magical’ days out in the field, taking photos. My photography time is my chance to escape for a few hours. It’s my release, it’s my chance to try to forget the Sjogren’s, forget any bullshit at work (of which there’s always some), etc. It’s my chance to recharge.
Yesterday I dragged out the “chair blind” with the intention of using it to try to get close to all the waterfowl that are moving through as the ice melts. It’s a hunter’s device, what basically amounts to a very low folding chair, with legs a mere 4-5 inches long, and a camouflage shell that pulls over the top. I’ve had it for a few years, but really haven’t used it much. I’m not sure why, given that 1) it’s actually pretty comfy sitting inside it, and 2) I have one hell of a lot of patience, and can sit there for a while, waiting for birds to happen by. I got up before dawn and headed to the wetlands and lakes west of Sioux Falls. I found a nice spot that was full of ducks when I arrived, and set up the blind about half an hour before sunrise.
There was already a little bit too much light at that time for me to get away with it, without the birds noticing. The ducks all flushed as I set up, but that was fine…I knew they’d eventually wander back, forgetting there’s a weirdo in the camouflaged clamshell by the shoreline. I was right, but ducks definitely wandered back, but much sooner than I anticipated. The sun still hadn’t risen when a very inquisitive little Bufflehead approached. It’s almost as if he suspected something was “wrong”, given the beeline he made right towards the blind itself. He stopped for a moment, perhaps 15 feet from the blind, before moving closer. TOO close, given that the minimum focusing distance on my long lens is 12 feet.
One of the 30 or so American Coots milling around my blind. Common...drab plumage...but beautiful in their own right, especially when you get a chance to see them behaving naturally at close distance.
If I were obsessed with just “getting the photo”, as many photographers are, I probably would have wished he were a bit further away. I’ll never understand that mentality. It’s the same with birders who are obsessed with their “lifelists”, state checklists, county checklists, etc. For many, it’s the list itself, it’s the photo itself, that’s the most important aspect of the respective hobby. You’ll often see birders drive miles to see a rarity, some species they don’t have on their list. For many, the quest seems to end the moment the bird is spotted. Having mentally (or physically in many cases) checked the bird off their list, off they go, in search of the next checkmark.
For me? The best moments, the moments where I do find that elusive peace of mind, is when the moment takes over, and I put the camera down. The now too-close Bufflehead continued to poke around the area in front of my blind, seemingly half bloodhound, trying to sniff out the “trouble” inside. I put down the camera, leaned forward, and watched this wonderful little creature parading around mere feet in front of my blind. It’s not easy getting photos of truly wild ducks in South Dakota. They literally are “gun-shy”, equating human beings with trouble, and flushing as soon as someone comes within 50 yards of them. The tiny little Bufflehead is one I’ve particularly had a hard time getting close to. I certainly wasn’t going to miss the moment, and sometimes the camera just gets in the way. It was only a minute or two that the gorgeous male Bufflehead paraded around the blind. But it was a nice “put the camera down” moment, and one of those restorative moments that helps me find peace of mind.
After sunrise, most of the ducks seemed to leave the little wetland. I packed up and decided to try another spot. I ended up at Grass Lake, a large lake in western Minnehaha county that still was about half ice-covered. As the ice melts, you often get gulls and other birds feasting on any dead fish that had become locked up in the ice over the winter, and Grass Lake was certainly full of birds yesterday morning, from massive American White Pelicans, to gulls, to ducks of many species. I again found a little bay full of ducks, set up my blind, and waited for the now departed birds to return.
Again it didn’t take long. One inquisitive American Coot came swimming back into the bay, and began poking along the shoreline. It’s not often you see just one American Coot, as they’re a gregarious bunch, and sure enough, it wasn’t long before his buddies showed up as well. About 20 minutes after setting the blind up, there were perhaps 30 Coots poking around the bay, and it wasn’t long before they returned to the same location they were before I arrived, which was right where I had placed my blind.
American Coots aren’t exactly a birder’s dream bird. They’re not exactly a photographer’s dream bird. They’re common, they’re rather drab at first glance, and they have a reputation as being, well…not the brightest bird on the block. They’re not particularly difficult to get close to, at least close enough for a photograph if you have a long lens. However, it’s one thing to “get the photo”. It’s quite another to have an active flock of wild birds, behaving and feeding normally within feet of you, oblivious to your presence. For half an hour, the Coots milled about the vicinity of my blind, often coming so close as to be practically touching it at times. It when you get close to birds that you can see their real beauty. Yes, they’re a rather drab dark grey overall, but American Coots have a brilliant red eye, a strange and contrasting light-colored beak and “shield” on their forehead, and some of the weirdest, massive floppy fleet of any creature on the planet.
Peace of mind. Camera down. Sitting in MY church on a Sunday morning, enjoying the moment. It wasn’t a good morning from a photography perspective, as most other species stayed away and I got very few “good” photos. However, it was just what the doctor ordered…