It was a disaster.
Lance, the slender-built gentleman from our birding group, was sinking into the wet mud so quickly that when I realized what's happening, the lower half of his body was below the mud. It was like quick sand. Lance looked helpless as he used both hands to hold his Nikon 200-400mm lens and camera above his head. We tried to hand him a stick so we could pull him out. A lady who was trying to help also got stuck, and she was sinking quickly too, with the mud up to her knees, while others were trying to sprint out before they also got sucked in.
Our tour leader frantically tried to grab Lance's hand while standing at the edge of the dry mud.
Lance yelled “Let go of me. Let go of me. I will be okay. Save my lens first!” as he tried to raise his lens even higher.
“What? You don't seem to look okay” I said to myself, as I was wondering what I got myself into, or was it just a bad dream… ah I remember watching a movie on TV when I was a kid, about a monster living below a beach which would suck people in from the sand and eat them…
When I first started bird photography four years ago, I thought the best way to find birds to photograph is by joining bird watching tours. I love the movie “The Big Year”.
Nothing could go wrong, I thought, as I saw the tour info: expect to see numerous bird species, most I never even heard of. Woohoo.
During the annual Morro Bay Bird Festival, I signed up for a full day Condor tour with focus on finding the critically endangered California Condor, and a full day “Big Day” tour, with focus on all sorts of species. The festival provided shuttles that could sit 10 people each, and we would venture into Carrizo Plain and nearby from before dawn all the way to the evening trying to find as many birds as we could.
#1. CONDOR TOUR.
The tour was well equipped. We have professional biologists with radars that tracks the movements of all the wild condors in the area.
However, we were out of luck that day. After 10 hours of driving up and down some mountains, we didn't see any condors… until the very last hour.
We were still in the shuttle bus when we were near a viewing deck up in a mountain. The shuttle bus driver suddenly braked the car and said loudly, “Condor in sight.” We all jumped out from the bus.
Everybody held up their binoculars. I held my camera up and looked at the direction where they were looking at.
Nothing in my viewfinder.
I looked at the other attendees again. They were obviously looking in their binoculars. But I really saw no condor. What was I missing!
So I asked the tour leader in a big hurry.
“Where's the condor please?”
The tour leader was in excitement. He pointed at a direction and said, “There, in between that two mountain tops, you see the black dot moving? It's about five miles from us. Yes, that black dot is the California condor flying. We did it.”
I looked through my viewfinder, and I did finally see a black dot flying.
And amazingly I did click the shutter. When I put my camera down, I saw everybody else took out their notebook and ticked off “California Condor” on their bird list.
So I did have a photograph of a California Condor, I think.
#2. BIG DAY TOUR.
It was raining in the morning when the Big Day tour began. We did have a lot more bird sightings than the Condor tour.
Usually what happened was that we would all get off from a spot in the field after driving for a few hours, and the leader would scan the area through his binocular. He and a few experienced birders would yell out things like:
“Western meadowlark, on the fence, 9am, 100 feet”, which means that a western meadowlark is perched on a fence at 9am direction 100 feet away.
“Red-tailed hawk, telephone pole, 2pm, 4 miles”, which means that a red-tailed hawk is at the 2pm direction from him perched on a telephone pole 4 miles away.
Then he would set up his tripod and spotting scope which had a higher magnification that the binocular, and he would aim it at the bird. Everyone in the group would line up and watch the bird for a few seconds, and then put a “tick” on their list to indicate a sighting. Most of these birds were too far away for any decent photograph unfortunately.
After a few of these spotting events, as slow as I was, I had an epiphany. I realized what's going on:
Birders are from Mars, Bird photographers are from Venus.
It's like two people with different priorities in a relationship, they both could be seriously looking for a partner (a specific species of bird in this case), but it ain't gonna work. For example:
DISTANCE FROM THE BIRDS: Distance doesn't seem to matter much to a birder. Indeed, sometimes I feel that some particular birders find pride in being able to spot a bird sooner and further away than any other birders. They would yell out the species and the distance as soon as possible while others were trying to find them. They are also very good at counting. They would say “17 ravens” with just one glance. While for photographers, we would wish to have a bird within a photographable distance, as too far away the atmospheric distortion could ruin a picture.
BACKGROUND, LIGHT and PERCH: the background behind the bird, the light shining on the bird, and the object that the bird is perched on, all don't seem to matter to a birder. But for photographers, these can make or break a photo. We are trying to find a pleasing background without too many branches or twigs that's too distracting, we wish to have soft morning and evening light on the bird, and hope to see the bird on a non man-made object (hopefully a rock or a natural branch).
BREEDING PLUMAGE: Birders seem to look for rare sighting of a bird in an area they are typically not there before. Breeding plumage doesn't seem to matter too much. While for bird photographers, we hope to capture the bird in their most beautiful colored feather during the mating season.
STATIONARY VS FLYING: To a birder, the end of a bird watching session is usually the moment when the bird takes flight and that's the time they put their binocular down or pack their spotting scope. For photographers, we love both stationary and flying one. And sometimes, when we can freeze a frame of a bird flying, it's the best moment as we can see the beautiful wings and the elegant flying pose of a bird.
Finally, I want to share a story about another difference, the TIME WE SPEND WITH THE BIRD.
Around 3pm that day, the light started to get better, our driver parked the car at a remote place in Carrizo Plane near a lake. Our birding group, following the tour leader one by one, walked among some tall grass for half a mile to look for a plover species I didn't remember the name.
I had already given up on any chance of taking a decent bird photo from the tour by then, and had decided to just relax and see some more bird species through the leader's spotting scope, which still wasn't too bad an experience. (By the way, the Bird Festival finally established photo tour since last year which was geared more towards photographers. My good friend Donald Quintana was one of the leaders of the photo tours.)
Just when I was thinking and comforting myself, I heard some movement just a few feet in front of us, and all of a sudden, tens of huge objects just propel themselves from the tall grass and took off to the sky all at once. I looked up and saw a sky full of them in erratic flight path, and the most bizarre thing was that I saw these big eyes in human-like faces staring down right at me as if they were flying humans checking us out 50 feet above the ground.
I was frozen. Stunned in the moment. Never saw something like that.
Then I heard the yelling from one of the group members.
“39, no, 40, Short-eared owls.”
Was I hearing it right? 40 short-eared owls, flying right above our head!
So what happened was that when we were trekking through the tall grass to look for that plover, we by accident spooked these short-eared owls in the area!
I had a big grin and thought to myself “this is going to worth the whole trip” as I was getting ready to point my camera up and snap a pic.
“We are LEAVING NOW.” the leader yelled.
I thought I must have not quite understood his English.
It's a sin to leave 40 short-eared owls in beautiful evening light.
I looked around. The shocking reality hit me. Every tour members took their notebook out and ticked “Short-eared owl” and were walking back to the car! Nobody gave another look at the short-eared owls.
This totally threw me off balance. I asked the tour leader, “Could I just walk a little closer to get one shot? They just landed back right there.” As after these few seconds, the owls had already flew to a further distance and landed.
“No you can't. We must leave immediately to look for the “xxxx” plover. Time is running out”
That moment of disappointment still haunted me after many years. I didn't want to leave. But since we all came in the same shuttle bus, and there was no phone reception and the place was in the middle of nowhere, I must follow the group.
I thought I had tears when being forced to walk away from the owls.
My mind was in a chaos when I followed the group to walk back to the car. I remember I saw a mound about 20 feet by 10 feet which was a short cut to the car away from the tall grass. I wasn't paying much attention and just followed the leader as nothing really mattered now.
The tour leader led us to stay on the tall grass and avoided the mound.
One of the tour members decided to take the short cut and walked on the mound… His name was Lance.
Lance insisted again and again to ask us to take his Nikon 200-400mm lens instead of saving him first. The lens is about $6,000 so I kind of understand his totally weird viewpoint. After we took his lens, in which the hood was already filled with mud, we tried to pull him out.
I could remember the nasty sound of the wet mud sucking on his body as we pull him out. He did survive, with his lower body and shoes all covered by deep mud.
Abnormal looking mound in the wilderness needs to be respected is all I want to say.
As I was comforting Lance and joking about his dedication to save his lens, it took my pain of not being able to photography the short eared owl away at least temporarily.
The next morning, I drove my own car from the hotel in Morro Bay to Carrizo Plain but couldn't find the location. All I could see was a grassland with broken glasses with some scary red liquid in it and some used needles. And some broken chains. It was mess up. It felt more like Blair Witch Project yet again. I must have gone to the wrong place.
After tracking down my tour leader and checking with him in email on the exact GPS location, I drove 5 hours from Thousand Oaks the next Saturday after work to look for the owls.
Nope. Nothing. I walked around the whole lake and didn't see any birds.
They must have just gone out for hunting.
So I drove back to Carrizo Plane the next weekend.
Later I asked some experts and we concluded that the 40 short eared owls must be just migrating and happened to rest in that area during that particular day.
And they were gone…
After the 3 weekends of driving relentlessly in the unpaved road of Carrizo Plain in the pursuit of the “shorties”, I had to painfully pay $3,000 to replace the sport summer tires of my car as I didn't realize the tires couldn't handle those roads.
I never got to see these 40 short eared owls again. They remained as like phantom in my memory. But the scene of the 40 of them flying erratically over my head looking down at me was an experience I would never forget, just like how I lost that $3,000.
Two years later, I did finally see one in the Alaska Arctic. They have the most beautiful eyes. Just like natural mascara and eye shadows.
This was ONE short-eared owl.
Now, imagine 40 of them, taking off all at once and hovering above your head, looking down right at you, with this face.
That's what I had missed.
I should have stayed. Who cares about being stranded in the wilderness. It's 40 short-eared owls!
A quick update: Little did I know that it would take me 5 years from that disastrous first encounter to finally get some photos of short-eared owl that I love. Here you go:
If you'd like to learn how I took birds-in-flight and wildlife photos these days with a much simpler system, check out my free webinar “How I took super sharp BIF and wildlife action photos”