Yelling at Birds

wanaka-tree-sunset-long-exposure

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.

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The Benefits of Hydration

lake-matheson-sunrise-new-zealand

Behind the scenes of this photo

Taken at Lake Matheson on the South Island of New Zealand on March 24th, 2015

Normally I’m not one for hot beverages. Sure, I love a good cup of hot cocoa while camping but as a general rule hot drinks just don’t do it for me. I straight up don’t like coffee, and tea, well, it’s never quite been my cup of tea. Except, oddly, for when I’m in New Zealand. I don’t know if it’s the fact that I’m usually in New Zealand when it’s cold, whether it’s some subconscious nostalgic thing, or whether the tea is just plain better there. But for whatever reason, when I’m New Zealand I drink tea like an addict. Wake up? Make a cup of tea. Go for a hike in the rain? Come back in and warm up with a cup of tea. Have a cup of really good tea? Well heck let’s celebrate that cup of tea with a nice cup of tea!

The other thing I like about tea is that it helps me relax. I find it a pleasant way to wind down the day, and downshift my brain from active mode to sleepy mode. And if you are anything like me, a person whose brain never shuts up for a single second, having that help in falling asleep can be a lifesaver. So I’ll drink a cup of tea to start the process, and another 43 cups after that just to make sure. I mean, I’ll take all the help I can get, otherwise I know I’ll just lay in bed for hours with my mind blazing away with to-do lists, ideas for new projects, and images of dancing cats.

And as much as I enjoy dancing cats I often curse my overactive brain because I really like to sleep. Like, a lot. And here’s the thing: I’m not at my best when I’m tired. Far from it, in fact. When my energy levels are low I get cranky, stubborn, and downright curmudgeonly. “Photography?!” I’ll say, “Bah! Give me a warm blanket and a soft mattress instead.” And it was with this mindset that I consumed my 25 gallons of tea and then headed for bed in the small township of Fox Glacier on the night of March 23rd, 2015. You see: I was beat, exhausted from jet leg, car lag, and leg lag. I needed rest, otherwise I knew I’d start saying and doing things I’d regret later, like feeding keas and yelling at German backpackers. So when I closed my eyes for the night I had already decided to sleep in in the morning.

But as midnight came and went and the wee hours of day crept closer I felt an unmistakable tickle down in my guts. I tried to ignore it, tried to fool myself into thinking I could go back to sleep. But as I lay in bed, fruitlessly shifting position and willing myself to drift back off to dreamland, the tickle grew into an undeniable physical presence. Self-inflicted physiological Chinese water torture. All that tea had come back to bite me in the ever-expanding outward swell of my bladder. Grrrrr, I had to pee.

Stumbling out of bed and into the bathroom I checked my watch and saw that it was 7:00am, just about 45 minutes before sunrise. “Ah, what the heck,” I concluded, “I’m already awake now, might’s’well see what the conditions are looking like outside.” So having satisfied nature’s call I grabbed my jacket and camera and stepped out into the pre-dawn glow, looking up to see a sky full of patchy cloud and rich with possibility.

At that moment all the clinging vestiges of sleep were wrung from my body like a wet rag, and I found myself in the car flying out of town, and a few minutes later skidding to a stop in the Lake Matheson parking lot. With sunrise ticking toward me like a luminous bomb I half power-walked, half jogged (at least, as well as I could jog with 20 pounds of camera equipment bouncing on my back like some personal version of the Beverly Hillbillies’ truck) the mile and a half to Reflection Island, Matheson’s most famous viewpoint.

I had just enough time to slap my camera on my tripod before the sun broke free of some entangling clouds to the east and cast its early morning light on the iconic scene in front of me. Lake Matheson was as calm as liquid glass, and Mt Cook and Mt Tasman played peekaboo through the clouds. As the sun rose higher in the sky its rays shone through the Fox Glacier canyon and I snapped four vertical photos to combine into this high-res panorama of the moment, all the while thanking my bladder and its timely wake up call.

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Southern Splendor

Sealy Tarns, Mt. Sefton, and Mt. Cook, Aoraki National Park, South Island, New Zealand

Taken from the Sealy Tarns in Mt. Cook / Aoraki National Park, New Zealand on April 26th, 2012

The trail description didn’t make it sound bad at all: “Track starts out gently then ascends steeply to the Sealy Tarns.” A pretty unassuming description. Glib, even. But I learned my lesson the hard way: in New Zealand, when a trail guide says steep, it means steep. In truth it was a staircase from hell. To take my mind off my aching lungs and shaking legs I tried to count the number of individual stairs in the climb but I lost track somewhere in the two thousands. When I finally reached the top and saw this magnificent view at sunset, that endless trudge seemed like a small price to pay to witness the splendor of the Southern Alps.

After Hours

Hooker Lake, Mt. Cook National Park

Taken in Mt. Cook / Aoraki National Park on April 25th, 2012

Even though my legs were as stiff as iron from standing in this glacial lake for the previous 40 minutes and I needed to warm up, I couldn’t resist this amazing view. As dusk grew deeper the pinkish tones of sunset faded to shades of blue and the lake calmed to provide wondrous reflections. This was my parting shot before I began the 3-mile hike back to my car.

Mountain Light

Mountain Light

The Story Behind This Photograph:

Taken at Hooker Lake in Mt. Cook / Aoraki National Park, New Zealand on April 25th, 2012

It turns out that glacial lakes are cold, really cold. Not that I noticed right away. I was wearing hip waders so I could stand thigh-deep in the just-above-freezing Hooker Lake while shooting icebergs and Mt. Cook at sunset. Because I wasn’t wet, I didn’t feel the cold right away. No, it was only after I’d been standing in the water for 40 minutes then tried to move that I felt it. My legs had turned to cold iron, and I could practically hear the creaks as I willed them to move back up to dry land. All in a day’s work, and well worth it for a sight like this one.

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A Godley View

Aerial photo of the Godley River and Lake Tekapo, South Island New Zealand

Behind the scenes of this photo

Taken 6,000 feet above the Godley River delta at Lake Tekapo, South Island, New Zealand on April 24th, 2012

This photo was taken during a scenic flight around Mt. Cook and the surrounding mountains. I was sitting up in the very front of the plane and as the pilot performed a steep banked turn over the head of Lake Tekapo I had an awesome view straight down onto the Godley River delta. Even though the flight led to many breathtaking views of the majestic Southern Alps, this intimate view of the river and the lake turned out to be my best shot from the flight.

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Tranquililty

Sunset at Lake Rotoiti, Nelson Lakes National Park, South Island, New Zealand

Taken at Lake Rotoiti, Nelson Lakes National Park, New Zealand on April 21st, 2012

I first visited Nelson Lakes National Park in New Zealand in 2007 under a thunderous downpour. Outside the tropics I don’t think I’ve ever seen such power in a rainstorm. Overnight the level of Lake Rotoiti rose at least 3 feet. During my more recent visit in 2012 the conditions couldn’t have been more different: mostly clear skies, no wind, and -aside from the ducks quacking- almost no noise. The contrast was remarkable and served to underscore the tranquility of this scene I shot from the dock.

 

The Light Within

Ice cave in the Fox Glacier, South Island, New Zealand

Taken inside the Fox Glacier, South Island, New Zealand on April 16th, 2012

Glacierology 101: A moulin is a hole carved through a glacier by meltwater. Sometimes a moulin will grow until it becomes a cave in the ice, much like a blue slot canyon. And then, abruptly, the feeder stream will change course, allowing the cave to dry out and stabilize. Then it can be safe to venture into the cave and explore, which is exactly what I did on the Fox Glacier in New Zealand. Walking into the depths of the cave I watched as every color except blue was leached out of the light until eventually everything glowed with an internal cyan aura.

 

Wanaka Dreaming

Wanaka Dreaming

The Story Behind This Photograph:

Taken at Lake Wanaka, South Island, New Zealand on April 8th, 2012

How far would you go for a tree? I flew halfway around the world for one. If this seems crazy to you please realize that this is no ordinary tree. Nay, it’s the famous Wanaka Willow, quite possibly the coolest tree I’ve seen. It’s like a bonzai on steroids, with gracefully sculpted limbs and the most amazing location ever. Growing directly out of one of the most scenic lakes on the planet, this tree is worth traveling for. Especially in April when the willow’s golden Fall foliage shines brightly against Lake Wanaka’s deep blues.

This photo is in my top three shots I’ve ever taken. In fact, no other photo I’ve taken has ever come as close to the vision I had for it as this shot. I’d spent years dreaming about visiting this tree and thinking about how I wanted to shoot it, how I could take a shot that put my own unique stamp on the spot. In my mind’s eye I pictured the tree in all its autumn splendor, the golden leaves contrasting beautifully against the blues of Lake Wanaka’s waters, with long exposure clouds streaking overhead. When I arrived at the tree on this morning to find completely cloudless skies I was disappointed, but managed a few shots anyway. Then, just as I was packing up to leave I noticed some billowy clouds beginning to traverse the lake. A few minutes later I pulled out my 10-stop ND filter and was able to capture this 62-second exposure, and the vision I’d held for the previous two years was staring at me from the back of my camera. Safe to say it was a pretty great moment.

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Lambing Season

Sheep in the Rees / Dart Valley near Glenorchy, New Zealand

Taken in the Rees river valley outside of Glenorchy, New Zealand, on October 22nd, 2007

Driving through New Zealand during their spring, my girlfriend and I saw no shortage of newborn baby lambs frolicking in the sunshine. When we stopped alongside the road so my girlfriend could snap photos of a couple of sheep, I just felt like stretching my legs and didn’t bother to take my camera with me. As I was walking, I saw this ewe and her lamb poised perfectly on the ridge of a small grassy hill. I sprinted back to the car to get my camera, wishing all the while that the young sheep was very hungry. Camera retrieved, I sprinted back down the road and was able to compose and fire off this shot seconds before the lamb finished feeding and both sheep trotted down behind the hill.