Posts Tagged ‘wildlife’

Cruising Alaska, Part 1 (Wildlife)

Monday, November 1st, 2010

A trip to Alaska this summer has provided me with plenty of wildlife to paint in the coming months. Salmon were running … and crawling and jumping and squirming … over, around, and onto the rocks that made up the shallow stream beds we saw all along the coast. In Ketchikan, they were so tightly pressed together as they entered Ketchikan Creek that in places their backs formed what appeared to be a cobbled carpet across the surface of the water. In the harbor, they waited enmasse, apparently patiently, until those ahead of them had moved out of the way enough to make room for a few more. There, fishermen cast their lines to draw out their daily quota, since fishing upstream is forbidden in spawning season.

101003 Fishing for Complements

Mendenhall Lake, in Juneau, was where we found a black bear (exempt from the fishing ban) checking out another stream’s potential. Although not shown in “Fishing for Complements” (#101003) above, his ear was tagged to indicate that he had been more proficient in raiding garbage cans than in finding fresh catch. But he paid little heed to those of us who watched as he pounced, in vain, again and again on the salmon that insisted on slipping past his grasp.

A Kodiak bear, on the island for which he was named and illustrated below in “‘Til the Cohos Come Home” (#100901), had more success, nabbing four salmon in the hour we watched him. He carried them to shore, sometimes into deep grass, to dine undistracted and uninterrupted before returning to the river for more.

100901 'Til the Cohos Come Home

Other wildlife were as interesting but more difficult to capture through my camera lens. On occasion, pods of humpback whales blew spray on all sides of the ship, and then, in a graceful dance, easy to anticipate but difficult to follow, arched their backs and disappeared. Another spray and arch of back would follow, and perhaps yet another. Then the tail broke the surface, curving gracefully in a flash of reflected, watery light, and the creature would sound to depths we could scarcely imagine. We would have a long wait before the same animal resurfaced, sometimes to breach, shooting straight up out of the water and falling sidewise with an enormous splash, or sometimes merely to breathe, shoot another spray, and reveal its dorsal arch and tail before sounding deeply once again. A few hailed our passing with lateral rolls, waving their flukes as though in friendly greeting and farewell before submerging from our view.

Harbor seals swam past us as we lay in port, on their never-ending quest for food. Sea lions basked on the rocks of islands that we passed. And sea otters rolled and cavorted in the wake of our ship, seeming to body surf on their backs in the undulating water. Eagles soared against the mountainsides. And puffins floated in loose groups in the water near the glaciers’ face while gulls cried at us from above.

Photographing wildlife as subjects

Saturday, April 24th, 2010

One evening recently, I watched a great egret preening his feathers, drawing the long filaments of his plumage through his bill and allowing them to drift slowly back down, one by one, to ripple individually in the breeze.  The setting sun glowed through his wafting tail and glazed one shoulder and his neck to emphasize his sinuous lines.  I longed to depict it in watercolor.  Unfortunately, I was too far away to see much detail in the bird, and my memory banks do not retain information as well as they once did, so I decided to use my camera to record the moment for later painting.

Great Egret Preening

Grabbing my digital camera, and opening the back door as quietly as possible, I glided across the lanai and hid behind a palm.

But the bird had become aware of my presence.  The moment was lost.  The egret turned and watched warily, standing as still as I, and even more patiently, to be sure that I represented no threat.  He posed gracefully as I zoomed the camera in on him; he contorted his neck, turned this way and that, and continued to watch me out of the corner of his eye while I recorded shot after shot.  But he did not resume his preening, and I was unable to capture the pose that had initially caught my eye.

Such are the vagaries of wildlife photography.  Ideally, you can catch a prize shot, with light from the right direction, the animal turned at a perfect angle, and everything falling into place.  More often, however, the sun slips behind a cloud, the animal is startled or turns away at the critical moment, your camera’s response is too slow, your battery dies, or your memory card reads “full.”  It happens.  Sometimes things simply don’t work out.  You work with the shots you get and do the best you can.

It’s at those times I realize how dependent I’ve become on photography as an artistic tool.  I take it as a warning that I’m getting lazy and allowing my drawing skills to atrophy.  As an artist, I feel I shouldn’t have to rely on photography as more than a dispensable tool I have at my disposal.  But the fact is that I do find it indispensable.

I don’t intend to take up hunting or start collecting taxidermy to provide myself with easy-to-study subject matter.  I’d rather risk the missed photos and keep my eyes open and camera at hand. I may never get that elusive “perfect shot.” But in the meantime, I’ll enjoy the vitality of the wildlife around me.  Even if I don’t capture it in my camera or successfully reproduce it in watercolor, the experience will have touched me in some way.