Friday, September 24, 2010

After Dark The World Slows Down

After Dark The World Slows Down
Barefoot Beach, Florida

"The poetry of the earth is never dead."
--John Keats

The week has been a flurry of creative activity. A new gallery is opening, and my photographs now cover a wall in it. A private opening is on Sunday, so I've been up to my eyelashes in framing new stuff, working out gallery prices, figuring out how they'll hang on the wall, getting my own process in order (and we haven't even answered the real dilemma: what will I wear???). While it may seem like an artist's creative process ends when the shutter closes, that couldn't be further from the truth.

The gallery owner came by my little office/studio one day recently. I had been working with another client - an interior designer - who wanted some of my photographs for a client of hers. We were sifting through unprinted stuff in my inventory and she saw some of my abstracts. In no time at all, I was totally outside my normal comfort and digital purity box, tweaking colors and angles and textures and lighting. I have to say, it made my pulse quicken a bit for me to tweak to that degree. Never let it be said that money (and client happiness) is not a motivator.

In the end, I liked the result much more than I thought I would. My client was happy. I tried something new. I got paid. Cool beans.

I showed the gallery owner that piece and some of my other abstract stuff and she fell in love. So, this week - this opening, will be far from my usual style. It is photography less perfectly and realistically composed. It is still me, just me with a new paint job and tricked-out hubcaps.

One sweet reward of pushing outside your comfort zone: you can fall in love with your art all over again. And that is a poetry worth living for.

Nikon D2x, Nikkor 12-24 VR, a very sturdy tripod, cable release, sweet night sky and a smidge of patience

Monday, August 30, 2010

The Ant In The Bloom

The Ant In The Bloom
(Common Purslane)
July 2010

"If ants are such busy workers, how come they find time to go to all the picnics?"
--Marie Dressler

Weed, super fuel vegetable, medicinal plant, soil enhancer or pretty bloom? Purslane (also called pigweed or little hogweed) is a succulent in the Portulaca family that wears many hats.

It's history dates back to the 7th Century BC. Pliny the Elder, a Roman author, naturalist, and natural philosopher, as well as naval and army commander of the early Roman Empire, and personal friend of the emperor Vespasian, considered it to have such healing powers that he advised wearing it to ward off all evils.

Though often considered an invasive weed in North America, purslane is an edible plant and has more omega-3 fatty acids than any other vegetable. It's also rich in antioxidants. As a spreading ground cover, it provides moisture and nutrition for soil. Factor in that it's very easy to grow and its blooms are lushly beautiful, and I can't imagine why I don't see it grown more in my area.

In my yard, my purslane is in large pots that line the patio. Dripping magentas, oranges, and yellows, it cascades down over the sides of the pots in waterfalls of saturated and succulent color. On this morning, I couldn't resist visiting the microcosm of life tucked in the petals of its blooms.

Macro photography is often filled with unexpected treasures. It really requires only a few elements, so if you are inclined, grab your camera and try - even with a little compact camera will do it (all of which have macro settings!). Just be sure you mount your camera on a tripod. Getting in close means you have to hold very still and that means a tripod is essential.

Before you start snapping, take some time to explore your landscape. Look for little creatures climbing the valleys and ridges of blooms, watch how the light reflects off the lips of petals and lose yourself in the anatomy of a plant.

And don't forget to let the creative side of your brain lead the way. Imagine. Play. Think less about the camera and more about what you "see". Just "be".

After all, and as they say, it's probably why we're called human-beings rather than human-doings.

Nikon D2x, Nikkor 60mm micro lens, a lazy morning

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

In A Lightning Instant

Storms Over The Everglades
Big Cypress, Florida

"The creative act lasts but a brief moment, a lightning instant of give-and-take, just long enough for you to level the camera and to trap the fleeting prey in your little box. "

--Henri Cartier-Bresson

Summer has arrived, and with it comes the birthing season of storms. The Everglades, that vast ocean of amazing vistas, becomes the maternity ward for our afternoon storms.

I love to drive out into its deceptive emptiness late in the day when the evaporative tension builds into oppressive heat and air so full of water it rolls down your face in rivers. Swamp lilies push up through the wet muck in wild flotillas, dotting everything in view with bold splashes of white. Then the wind kicks up in step with the bloom - the boom! - of black clouds. And there it is - that first cacophony of thunder rolling over the sawgrass, echoing off distant hammocks.

You can feel the fury, that huge rush of fury from across the swamp, standing miles away trying to capture your first exposure of lightning. It's exhilarating beyond description; so many senses triggering at once, there's barely time to squeeze the shutter.

Some nights don't need photographs to imprint the magic.

Nikon D2x, Nikkor 18-200 VR, wild skies and two willing compadres/storm chasers

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Treasures Found

Snowy Egret
Wiggins Pass, Florida

You only get one sunrise and one sunset a day, and you only get so many days on the planet. A good photographer does the math and doesn't waste either.
- Galen Rowell

In the early hours of this day, while the air is warm and damp and quiet, I gently ease the yellow and white kayak into the water off the end of the dock, then slide it up to the step-off where I slip in, fasten the spray skirt around me, adjust the waterproof camera box one last time, and release the paddle from it's bungie.

The first forward stroke always feels like dipping my paddle into clouds, and this morning is no different. It is the confluence of grace and smooth water and floating and happiness. It is my time - this early hour - and I'm headed off to find treasures.

And I do. The 5 mile paddle to Wiggins Pass is quiet and solitary, save for the birds - egrets, herons, ibises - that line the channels through the mangroves like a gauntlet. The bait fish of summer are in, and they swarm like locusts just under the surface of this warm, green-blue water. The sun climbs above the trees and everything becomes sweeter as light paints this new day in dazzlingly saturated color. I get to the Pass and even ordinarily cantankerous snowy egrets pose happily against a canvas of breathtaking cyan.

Today is irresistibly beautiful. The Gulf of Mexico stretches out before me in pristine turquoise calm as far as I can see. I make my photos. I bless the birds, and I bless the winds and currents that keep the oil away.

Today is a gift, and that, my friends, is the treasure found.

Nikon D2x, Nikkor 80-400mm VR, one twitchy snowy egret, infinity beyond.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Morning in the Garden

Gulf Fritillary on Jatropha Integerrima
June 2010

"How does one become a butterfly?” she asked. ”You must want to fly so much that you are willing to give up being a caterpillar.”
--Trina Paulus

I spent the holiday weekend doing two of my favorite things: paddling and gardening. The jatropha and firebush are flush with the color of fire in my yard. This morning, before I'd even finished my coffee, I wandered among my shoulder-high blooming shrubs chasing butterflies. What a way to start the day!

Zebra Longwings, Sulphurs and these two Gulf Fritillaries fluttered between the bushes, lighting long enough for a shot or two, then taking off to the next blossom. It was dizzying to watch them, much less let alone photograph them. I kept moving from spot to spot, intent on the pursuit. Bees joined the swarm as the sunlight warmed the air, their legs laden with pollen. Around and around we went, butterflies, bees, human and an ancient old cat, doing circles around the garden.

The Longwings and Sulphurs proved most elusive. Such is the way of it, I suppose. I've many shots of Gulf Fritillaries in my collection; the others, not so much. And I wanted them! Oh, how I wanted them, but it was not to be. My cat and I eventually gave up the chase and headed indoors to cooler air.

After all...tomorrow is another day.

Nikon D2x, 80-400mm VR, pretty early morning light

Sunday, May 30, 2010

Fly High, Free Bird

Florida Bald Eagle
Wiggins Pass, Florida

Great Blue Heron
Estero Bay, Florida

Great White Egret
Big Cypress National Preserve, Florida

Royal Tern
Wiggins Pass, Florida

Black Skimmer
Wiggins Pass, Florida

"And this bird you'll never change...Won't you fly high, free bird."
-- Lynyrd Skynyrd - Freebird

“You cannot prevent the birds of sorrow from flying over your head, but you can prevent them from building nests in your hair.”
Chinese Proverb

Nikon D2x, Nikkor 80-400VR, three cups of practice panning, one tablespoon of good light, two pinches of patience, ten cups of luck.

Sunday, May 2, 2010

A Season For All Things

Black Swallowtail Butterfly & Wild Iris
Audubon Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary
April 2010

"Nature gives to every time and season some beauties of its own; and from morning to night, as from the cradle to the grave, it is but a succession of changes so gentle and easy that we can scarcely mark their progress."
--Charles Dickens

I love the way seasons and weather have a private dance they do; forever changing, always interesting, unpredictable and new. Much like our own lives, change is often the only constant.

It was an unusually wet and cold winter and spring where I live. I marveled at the high water levels at Corkscrew Swamp recently. This is usually fire season in Florida, and the swamp is often dry and brittle. Not this year. I watched a fawn, new spots glowing like soft dots on its amber back, splash through knee-deep water and pass under the boardwalk, nibbling new leaves just an arm's length away.

And then, a few curves of the boardwalk later, wild irises blooming with great abandon! This black swallowtail flitted along their deep blue/purple blooms in the dappled sunlight, finally lighting long enough for a few shots. What a pose! What a gift.

Black swallowtail butterflies seem a perfect match for irises. Those blue tail spots are a sweet complement to the sky hues of the wild irises. And yet, this butterfly much perfers dill and fennel and tops of carrots. As a caterpillar, it has a defense gland right behind its head, called an "osmeterium". The caterpillar ingests oils from carrots, dill, parsley and fennel, and then emits a strong odor through the osmeterium which repels predators.

Male adult butterflies have a broader swath of yellow than females, so I suspect this is a male. Gorgeous and graceful, it seems Oklahoma loves them as much as I do, having made them the state butterfly in 1996.

Back in Florida, Corkscrew Swamp is a critical nesting habitat to wood storks, the only stork in North America. Because of this year's high water, not a single mated pair have nested there this season. Wading birds were largely absent this spring and on my walk, finding food in other areas with less water. I'd hoped to show them off to a friend visiting from Alaska, but all we saw was one little blue heron, wading through thick aquatic plants in Lettuce Lake.

And yet, high water brings other gifts: fawns and butterflies and irises - and even ghost orchids blooming in March, a very rare event, indeed! Even when what you wish for is not what you get, there is often something lovely and amazing in its place, if we just turn around and look.

Turn, turn, turn. For everything, there is a season.

Nikon D2x, Nikkor 80-400VR

Thursday, April 8, 2010

Spring Crush

Least Terns
Wiggins Pass, Florida
April 2010

"It's spring fever. That is what the name of it is. And when you've got it, you want - oh, you don't quite know what it is you do want, but it just fairly makes your heart ache, you want it so!"
~Mark Twain

I cannot tell a lie: I am infatuated with least terns.

Each spring, these completely comical and beautiful little aviators congregate along beaches here to mate, nest and raise their young. I've been eagerly awaiting their arrival this year. Nothing like the heady rush of a spring crush to break the winter blahs. One set of (snow)birds departs and another arrives.

So just how do I love them? I'll count the ways.

I love their aerodynamic skill. They sail effortlessly through the air at break-neck speeds, then plunge head-first into the water to spear fish. It's amazing to watch. And as I've mentioned in previous blogs, they're mighty bombardiers. Mated pairs swoop down with pinpoint precision and let fly payloads of acidic excrement into the eyes of any creature who threatens their nests.

And it probably goes without saying, but their hip bandito plumage is tres cool.

But for me, it's their quirky personalities coupled with their tiny squeaks I love the most. Most small shorebirds "peep" (which is why they're called the all-encompassing descriptive, "Peeps"). But not these guys. They have cheerfully chirpy squeaks that make you smile wide and happy.

Ah, spring. The sun is warm. The air is sweet. The water is clear and turquoise. And the cutest tiny terns in the world are mating out my back door.

Life is grand and love is in the air.

Nikon D2x, Nikkor 80-400mm VR, a rising tide and quiet morning in the kayak

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Succulent Flapjacks

Backlit Flapjack Plant
Kalanchoe luciae)
March 14, 2010
"I cannot pretend to feel impartial about colours. I rejoice with the brilliant ones and am genuinely sorry for the poor browns."
~Sir Winston Churchill

A few summers ago, I went up to Sarasota to Towles Court, a local artist enclave. A bunch of artists restored a few square block section of town to be devoted to the arts. Charming little homes are now galleries and small cafes, with courtyard parks. If you haven't ever been to their monthly art walks, do think about it. Wonderful art and really lovely place.

In my ramblings there, I found a photographer who had a wonderful collection of potted flapjack plants in her back courtyard. I was able to buy one, and after a short, somewhat unhappy tenure indoors here, it was moved out to the edge of my water garden. Since then, it's been thriving and reproducing remarkably fast. Babies now live in three more pots, and the original "momma" plant grows taller each season.

I like to meander out into the garden now and then and watch the plants and light play with each other. This photograph is the fruit of such a trip. Backlighting my plant subjects is a technique I often use, letting the sun illuminate the leaves and blooms. Magic often happens with backlighting, which is why I'm so fond of it. The sun made the soft flesh of this succulent explode in color. Magic, I tell you. Pure magic. Kind of like seeing mountain ridges ablaze in the sunset.

Flapjack plants have large paddle-shaped ears, which is why they are often called paddle plants, paddle wheel plants, dog tongue plants, and even desert cabbage.

And here's an interesting bit of info for you: these succulents are monocarpic, meaning that once they bloom, they die. Doesn't seem quite fair, but what a way to go.

Nikon D2x, Nikkor 60mm Micro, a tripod and perfect alignment with the sun.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

ME and Flat Stanley

Flat Stanley Goes Kayaking
Wiggins Bay, FL

March 01, 2010

Tricolored Heron Fishing
Wiggins Pass, FL
March 01, 2010

“When you are describing,
A shape, or sound, or tint;

Don’t state the matter plainly,

But put it in a hint;

And learn to look at all things,

With a sort of mental squint.”

–Lewis Carroll

Flat Stanley Lambchop and I had an adventure yesterday; a very good, very excellent adventure.

If you haven't met or heard of Flat Stanley, he's a small boy from a 1960's children's book who was flattened by a large bulletin board. In his new, wafer-thin physique, he finds he can go all sorts of places he couldn't go before, thus having adventures galore.

Flat Stanley's getting a lot of new attention in this new millenium, and if you have a small child or grandchild, you likely are very aware of his newest adventures. See, Flat Stanley travels easily in envelopes (ah, to never have to go through security!), and gets mailed and carried to the most amazing places. For instance, a network cable news channel reported that Flat Stanley was aboard Sully Sullivan's flight that landed in the Hudson, and he was carried to safety in a briefcase.

Anyway, today, the Flat Stanley Project helps teach kids about places and things. Flat Stan gets mailed to friends and family, who photograph him having various adventures, then he goes back to the child/grandchild with a journal of his adventures, the photos and a map. Cool, right?

So that's how Flat Stanley came to be the navigator/good luck charm/fun company on my kayak trip to Wiggins Pass and back for last light/bird/sunset photo scouting last night. Like any good tour guide, I made sure Flat Stan was wearing a PFD , which is a personal floatation device - or life vest to us oldies (my elementary school scissor skills are still intact, thank goodness). And off we went.

It was a great trip. I'd forgotten my iPod at home charging on the desk, but no matter. Flat Stanley had a lot of stories to tell about his adventures. And I had a lot of sights to show him. The tide was really rushing out, thanks to a waning full moon. Birds dotted the exposed oyster and sand bars, feeding in their usual frenzies in the cold (ok, it's all relative, but 58 degrees in Florida is cold).

We paddled around here and there, hopped out at the beach for one shot of FS with some shells, then pushed off again, looking for more good light and birds. I identified egrets, spoonbills, terns, herons, and shorebirds, just to name a few. Flat Stan is really smart, and in time at all, he was finding cool birds faster than I could. In a tiny bay just east of the Pass, he found this lovely tricolored heron, lit by a shaft of sunlight just before the ball sank.

He's not so sure about the photography end of things, and he says my camera/lens weighs far too much for him. But he's very photogenic and not one bit shy in front of the camera, which is more than we can say for me.

A wonderful trip, we both remarked, paddling home in the fading twilight. And we agreed that it was good fortune, indeed, he didn't become Float Stan on an adventure with me.

Nikon D2x, Nikkor 18-200 VR, Nikkor 80-400 VR, sublime light, a great partner for a grand adventure

Saturday, February 27, 2010

Making Hope Work

Into The Storm
Lover's Key State Park
February 27, 2010

"Creativity comes from trust. Trust your instincts. And never hope more than you work."
~Rita Mae Brown

I woke to grey-ish skies this morning signaling yet another Saturday round of storms. This winter has hit a litany of repetitious, monotonously frigid and blustery storm notes most weekends. The poor kayak barely knows the feel of water under her.

And so there I was, rolled in a soft throw on the couch, coffee in my hand, cat in my lap, trying to decide what to do with the day while watching a PBS documentary about SW Florida at the same time. It caught my eye because I've been reading Washington Post reporter, Michael Grunwald's book, The Swamp: The Everglades, Florida and the Politics of Paradise. It's an amazing book, exhaustive in detail, and a riveting story, even if you don't live here. I was introduced to it by a friend visiting from Northern California, who read it during his stay here, feeding me juicy tidbits during our dinner conversations. Over roasted shrimp in lemon pasta with arugula salad, I was hooked.

But I digress. In the PBS documentary this morning, one man likened living in this area to "a blind man in a smoke house." "Everywhere you turn," he said, "there's something meaty and juicy to dig into." Call me quirky, but that just made me smile. It's just so true! It reminded me that even in the cold, gray of today, I could sit on the couch and hope for some creative inspiration to find me, or I could get up and work on finding it myself.

One cool thing about a pre-rainstorm, glacial Saturday morning: save for a few rangers and miscellaneous park employees (including a tram driver motoring an empty tram on an endless loop from the parking lot to the beach), I was alone. I have often visited this little fishing pier that stretches into the back bay just off the beach, but never have I been there alone. Seems even the fishermen were still home in a warm bed.

The rain began a few minutes into the hike back to the parking lot, and was coming down pretty good by the time I touched the car. Thankful for the white plastic trash bag I always carry for my gear, I myself looked more than a bit drenched. No matter. As I've been saying since January, it may be precipitation, but at least I don't have to shovel it.

It was a great morning adventure. Everything I'd hoped for, did indeed, work out.

Nikon D2x, Nikkor 12-24mm VR at 12 mm, 3sh GND, tripod, a nice hike and a free shower.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Fine Feathers

Juvenile Night Heron
Estero Bay
January, 2010

"Is is not only fine feathers that make fine birds."

--Aesop, The Jay & The Peacock

Two of our area's night herons - the yellow-crowned night heron and the black-crowned night heron - are the easiest birds to identify in their adult plumage and the hardest birds to differentiate in their juvenile plumage. One prefers salt-water environments (the yellow-crowned night heron) and the other is partial to fresh-water areas (the black-crowned night heron).

If you've ever spotted a yellow-crowned night heron, you may have observed the absolute patience it exhibits when stalking food, which tend to be shrimp and small crustaceans. Oh that I could have such focus and perseverance! It's an amazing thing to see; almost like watching paint dry, but better. They walk a step, hold their stance perfectly still for an eon or two, then take another step forward. Photographing them can either drive you crazy or fill up your camera card with astounding speed because they hold such great poses.

And such was the way of this juvenile. Feeding alone along the oyster bar skirt of a mangrove key in the middle of Estero Bay, I drifted about 30 feet away from it for the better part of an hour. Step, stop, wait forever, step again; a bird mime in slow motion. If you can't catch one shot with these guys, you better think about photographing inanimate objects instead.

A little bit of trivia: these guys (as adults) sometimes feast on small turtles - whole! They have a special acid in their intestinal tract that dissolves shells - even big, thick, hard turtle shells!

And of course, the lingo: a group of night herons has many collective nouns, including a "battery", "hedge", "pose", "rookery", and "scattering" of herons"

I'll have many more bird photographs on sale this Saturday, February 13, 2010, at the Side Street Artists Art Show (click here for more info). Come by and say hi! Art is the perfect Valentine's Day gift!

Nikon D2x, Nikkor 80-400 VR, a yellow kayak and a smidge of patience.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Pinocchio's Nose

Long-billed Curlew
Numenius Americanus
Estero Bay, Florida
January 19, 2010
"Miracles are made in the heart, Papa."

Long-billed curlews - also once known as the "candlestick" bird - aren't exactly plentiful in my part of the world. Any day that you can find one - especially one so willing to pose - is a good day that makes the heart of any birder skip a few beats. I launched the kayak at an amazing low tide where dozens of roseate spoonbills, willets, oystercatchers, and all the usual reddish, white and blue heron and egret clans fed in frenzies in mudflats that stretched nearly everywhere but the main channels. Sucking noises echoed off the mangroves and little shorebirds flocked so thickly they looked like one large, living organism moving across the water. I came across a nice bunch of marbled godwits - not exactly plentiful here, either, and always fun to photograph with their Pepto-Bismal-pinkish upcurved beaks.

I was feeling especially fortunate with the sheer numbers and diversity of birds when this one little bird stopped me in my tracks. With its comical Pinocchio profile, the curlew's beak is an easy one third of its total length. The largest of all sandpipers - and the largest shorebird in the North America, they're also one of the fastest. Recently, using satellite tracking, one female curlew made it from the prairies of Montana to Mexico in just 27 hours.

Bird nomenclature is always peculiar. A flock of these big-beaked birds can be called a "curfew", "game", "head", "salon", or "skein". A "salon of curlews". Wonder if they give good haircuts.

One last interesting bit of trivia about these guys is that they were so plentiful in the San Francisco area in the late 1800's that Candlestick Point (and later, Candlestick Park Stadium) was named after them. By the time Candlestick Park was completed, their population was nearly extinct in the area, after being overhunted for ladies hats. One might easily deduce - correctly so - that millinery has brought more than one bird species right down to the brink of extinction, including the snowy egret right here in SW Florida.

That's the miracle of photography, really. I can bring home a catch bag to rival that of 19th century hunters, carrying birds of every description, and not a single one loses a life or ends up on my head.

Nikon D2x, Nikkor 80-400 VR, a stable kayak and my lucky star