March 26, 2015

My 10 First Encounters (Part 1)

“Be content with what you have;

rejoice in the way things are.

When you realize there is nothing lacking,

the whole world belongs to you.”

This quote was supposed to be written by Lao Tzu in “Tao Te Ching.” I browsed through “Tao Te Ching” (in Chinese) but couldn't find the corresponding Chinese words.

Anyways, I would still give thumbs-up to the original “translator” because it's well written.

Wildlife photography has brought me a lot of joy.

Just like anything, however, I still always want something I don't have, something that's just out of my reach.

After I saw the red fox, I want the arctic fox and the silver fox. After the grizzly bear, I want the polar bear and the spirit bear. After the bobcat, I want the mountain lion and the lynx. Hey, at least I didn't say wolverine, yet. Sometimes I hate myself.

But still, few encounters rival the VERY FIRST encounters with these animals, even if the shots weren't the best.

Just imagine, these wild animals you have dreamed of meeting for the longest time, are roaming freely in their natural habitat while we are living in civilization. We are from different worlds. Yet we have this special chance to cross paths with each other.

Sometimes I have to really sit down and count my blessing.

Here are my 10 First Encounters:

My first trip to San Joaquin Wildlife Refuge in Irvine, CA.

Ducks, egrets and herons frequented several ponds there.

I had just purchased the Canon 400mm F5.6 lens and was excited to try it out.

It was a slow afternoon. I stood next to the second pond from the entrance. From time to time the mallard ducks would take off or land on the water which provided good opportunity for me to practice the Number One secret to wildlife photography.

I was clumsy. It took me a lot of effort to locate the flying duck in my viewfinder through the 400mm telephoto lens. Just imagine looking through a straw.

After an hour or so, as I was still looking through my viewfinder to find the ducks, I saw something blurry moving towards me in high speed. I didn't know what that was, but all my senses were suddenly alert and I felt some tremendous pressure. I had goose bumps.

I kept tapping on the autofocus button trying to lock my focus.

And then I saw some eyes looking right at me. Some ferocious eyes. I had never seen something like that filling up my whole viewfinder.


Osprey with fish

Osprey with fish


I could hear the wing flap.

And I would never forget that adrenaline rush. And my dance afterwards.

And this was my #10.

The gigantic osprey flew towards me, circled above my head at a distance I wasn't too comfortable with, then made a big turn-around and flew to the top of a telephone pole 200 feet away.

I thought about this later. I wonder if the osprey was showing off his catch to me before he ate that.

My friend Hadi said there was a recent sighting of gray fox somewhere by his bird-watcher friends.

I didn't even know what a gray fox was.

I looked that up. Gray fox was supposed to be nocturnal. How was it even possible to have day time sighting?

Anyways I didn't sleep until 1am that night doing some last minute packing. Then I woke up at 3am, picked my friend Pete up and drove to the Angeles National Forest in darkness. We arrived at 5am, met up with Hadi there and started to look for the elusive gray fox.

THIRTEEN hours later, yes, 13, at 6pm, we saw a pair of ears moving behind some sagebrush a hundred feet away. We all looked at each other in extreme excitement. We wanted to scream in joy but we had to keep our mouth shut to not make a noise. After a few confusing hand gestures to communicate, we stayed motionless and waited.

I didn't even dare to breathe. Or even click the shutter in the first few minutes after the fox saw us.

The gray fox seemed to be oblivious to our presence. And that's when we began to press on the camera.

Gray Fox

Gray Fox, wild, not baited.

And that's my #9.

Behind where I work, there is a wilderness area. A small trail called Sycamore Canyon Road, about 8 miles long, connects Rancho Sierra Vista all the way to Malibu with an altitude drop of 1250 feet. For a whole year I hiked down that trail every evening after work for 2 hours to exercise and also practice photography. I would see white-tailed kites, northern harriers, Cooper's hawk and coyotes from time to time.

Going downhill with the 500mm lens and camera was not too bad but climbing back up was another story. I was so fit back then…

Not anymore.

One time I came upon a group of parakeets with black head after I hiked 3 miles down the road. They were loud. I found a tree where there were about ten of them. They were at ease with my presence. Jumping around branches, playing with each other, and eating some fruits on the tree non-stop.

I remember I was sweating all over in that summer evening. I said to myself, “Ok, finally I got something nice to photograph,” as I crouched down and took my camera and lens out from my backpack to attach the lens to the body. (I couldn't carry the camera on my shoulder to hike down the steep road.)

Right after I finished attaching the camera and before I even raised my head, the parakeets flew away all at once.

“You've gotta be kidding me!” I said to myself.

Just when I was laughing at myself at my bad luck, I heard some tree branches cracking behind me. I turned around quickly and saw a dark shadow landed 50 feet from me in some deep trees. It was too dark I couldn't see what's in there. My heart skipped a beat. I wasn't the bravest person especially in the wilderness and I didn't dare to walk into that dark forest to check it out.

I took a shot by over-exposing and here's what I saw.

Great horned owl, wild, not baited, not called.

Great horned owl, wild, not baited, not called.

And that's my #8.

There was a huge fire in that area two years ago. All the plants were burnt and turned black. I wish the animals were able to escape in time.

Muskox survived the last Ice Age. They used to live among megafauna like the wooly mammoth. Their coat is 5 times warmer than wool.

To be face to face with this pre-historic animal in their natural habitat is the closest thing to traveling in a time machine.

I had wished to see them for a long time. We finally saw a herd of them a mile away from our car in Brooks Range, Alaska, north of the Arctic Circle.

To get to them, we had to cross some creek with frigid water as deep as 2 feet. We didn't bring our waders.

But who cares.

Without any hesitation, we were all on our way, with tripods and cameras on our shoulders.

Muskoxens are a lot more skittish than American Bisons. And they do charge at people when threatened. Hugh, our guide, told me that he once was charged by a herd of muskox to within 15 feet and they stopped at the last moment. All the people around him fell down because they were so scared.

So we trekked through the tundra and the creek. Our feet were wet and cold. The blistering wind was so strong I could barely stand straight. It was a vast landscape. Mountains, tundras, a herd of muskox, and us. And the spirits of the woolly mammoth.

Suddenly the muskox stood up and shook off the leaves on his body.



Muskox is my #7.

Our boat captain made sure we all took Dramamine. That's not a good sign, I thought.

“It's going to be windy today. We may not be able to land if the waves are too big. But we'll see.”

15 minutes after our small boat left the port, the whole place turned dark, windy and foggy. We couldn't see anything 50 feet away.



I had a bad feeling. Maybe we should just turn around.

The lady sitting next to me was completely motionless which wasn't normal. And I was right. A few minutes later, she jumped up and rushed to the side of the boat and bent down, face towards the ocean. From the color she probably had fruit parfait as breakfast. I was well prepared so I ducked in time when the wind was blowing from her towards me.

It was one of the roughest boat rides.

The condition didn't improve in the next 90 minutes. We were all quiet on the boat even though the captain kept trying to crack jokes at us.

Then, something strange happened.

The sky suddenly cleared up. Right in front of us was a small green island. Like a prehistoric island you would have seen in the movie Jurassic Park. The thin and low cloud above the island slowly disappeared together with the fog, and rays of light penetrated through.

Some strange looking birds with a human face flew like a bullet towards the boat, checking us out, as if they were the guardian angels of the island.



It reminded me of a paragraph by the great Chinese writer Tao Yuanming (to me he's like the Henry David Thoreau of China), the Peach Blossom Spring, where a fisherman stumbled through a dark and narrow tunnel in the wilderness, and as he walked through it, he saw Utopia on the other side.

And that's the magical Machias Seal Island.

Atlantic Puffin

Atlantic Puffin

The Atlantic Puffin was my #6.

Few months ago, my mom sent me a scan of a few pages of my favorite childhood book when she was clearing some old boxes in the closet. I hardly remember the content of that book. Mom said I used to carry this book everywhere when I was a kid.

And then I saw this page she sent me…

A page of my favorite childhood book

A page of my favorite childhood book circa 1986


(To be continued)




Tin Man Lee

Tin Man Lee has a deep love for wildlife and photography. Most recently, he won the Grand Prize of Nature's Best Photography Windland Smith Rice International with the winning photo currently displaying at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History, Washington DC, while having a full time job in medical imaging. He is the judge for Nature's Best Photography Asia and Viewbug. Through this blog he hopes to share what worked for him and what didn't while learning the craft of wildlife photography.