Behind the scenes of this photo
Taken at Lake Wanaka on the South Island of New Zealand on March 21st, 2015
I like birds. I really do. I could watch a New Zealand fantail play all day. And some of them, like the cheeky Kea, are great fun to interact with. And others, like the albatross, soar with the most graceful movements I’ve ever seen in the animal kingdom. But the birds that hang out in Wanaka’s famous willow tree are just straight up jerks.
They are the teenage punks of the bird world: causing a ruckus just to cause a ruckus. I’m positive they’ve figured out what cameras and tripods are (after all, there are enough of them hanging around that tree) and discovered they can elicit squawks (sometimes of joy; in my case dismay) from us weird humans by mucking about in the tree while we’re trying to shoot pictures. When you want the birds around, say to add a little extra interest to your shot, they’re nowhere to be found. But when you’ve just pressed the shutter button to kick off a four-minute shot on a perfectly still evening, well then they decide to have a little fun.
Conditions were perfect for shooting a long exposure of the Wanaka tree: the evening was dead calm, the lenticular clouds above were drifting lazily over the mountains, and there was just a kiss of rosy color in the post-sunset sky. The dim blue hour light meant I could shoot for a full four minutes without overexposing the image, and thanks to the tranquility of the evening I knew that even the small leaves of the tree would remain motionless and sharp in the final image.
But then, about 1-minute into the exposure I heard a dreaded sound: the whish-whish-whish of wing flaps. Headed right for the tree. “Oh no!” I exclaimed, “my shot!” The bird didn’t land, but instead circled a bit overhead. Relieved at the non-disruption of the serenity of the tree, I thought I had dodged a bullet. But now I realize that bird was just the advance scout: the low kid on the totem pole egged on by his bird friends: “Psst, hey, go see what that guy is doing by the tree. Oh, he’s taking pictures? Let’s go mess with him.”
At which point a small army of the punk birds descended upon the tree like a mischievous tornado: squawking, jumping from branch to branch, and flapping their wings at every leaf they could find. I tried to ignore them at first, tried to be the bigger two-legged creature. But their antics grew to such a tremendous cacophony that I don’t think the Dalai Lama would’ve been unfazed. “Bird jerks!” I yelled. “Your mothers were robins, and your fathers swamp hens! Make like a tern and migrate! Make like a chicken and cluck off!” Of course my shouting was to no avail, as the birds continued to frolic right up until the very end of my four-minute exposure, at which point they heard the shutter close and they immediately flew away, leaving me and the tree in utter silence to count away four minutes of noise reduction and watch in bemusement as all the color evaporated from the sky.
But maybe in the end I got the last laugh, as I loved the photo that resulted. In many places the details of the tree are sharp. And in many others they’re soft and fuzzy, a photographic tip of the hat to those mischievous birds.
View more beautiful New Zealand photos.