February 2, 2009 Stories of Life on a Ragged Old Maple

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We awoke two days ago to dense fog over Fawn Lake. When we looked out the windows at dawn, there was a Bald Eagle perched atop the old and ragged Bigleaf Maple tree that sits along the waterfront. This tree has been just hanging on to life for the 18+ years we have lived on this little Olympic Peninsula lake, 2009_wa_23491and we desperately hope that it continues to live, because it provides so much benefit to the birds of Fawn Lake. Some of the major limbs are dead and the branches drip with mosses and lichens. Windstorms and eagles thrusting off have broken branches, and woodpeckers have excavated here and there, lending the tree a rough appearance that is anything but graceful. Yet the birds love it–and thus so do we.

During the summer of 1993, a pair of Ospreys roosted virtually every night on one of the high horizontal branches of the maple. They flew in at deepest dusk, then perched side-by-side like lovers and spent the night on their high roost. At the break of dawn, they flew off to

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go fishing. They often brought trout back to the tree for a leisurely midday meal. We really missed the Ospreys when they migrated that autumn.

Bald Eagles often land on the maple, because the bare branches at the top lend a panoramic view of the lake. When the eagle visited several days ago, it was apparently waiting for the fog to clear, and stayed several hours. At first, the eagle faced our house, where there was lively songbird activity at the feeders we maintain. The eagle appeared to take a lively interest in the small birds, moving its head when the birds suddenly flew. Later, when the lake started to clear, the eagle turned around on its perch to face the lake, then actively watched the Hooded Mergansers and Ring-necked Ducks as they courted and fed. The eagle reminded me of a cat watching the comings and goings at a bird feeder with intense interest. As the fog nearly cleared, the eagle took off.

A little over a decade ago, I installed a Wood Duck nest box and a Swallow box on the lower reaches of the tree. Actually, the installation taxed my strength and agility on a tall ladder, but I managed to get it done without breaking my neck. I don’t recall if we hosted any nesting ducks that spring, but we did have a Western Screech-owl take up residency in the nest box for a night, and I was able to photograph it at close range as it stuck only its sleepy face out of the entrance.

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That spring or the next, Violet-green Swallows nested in their designated box. I was really excited by the new family, and when I saw a Raccoon sticking its arm into the nest box in the dark and fishing around for the young, I reacted as if I was nature’s arbiter of what was fair and good, and shouted and threw stones at the Raccoon. The Raccoon 155801retreated, but I saw that it had a swallow sideways in its mouth, looking like a feathery mustache. After that, I installed a predator guard, using a piece of slick aluminum to wrap the tree at about my head height. About the same time, I also wrapped the base of a nearby cherry tree to prevent the Beavers from gnawing it down. With the predator guard, the Raccoon problems ceased, though Douglas Squirrels and Northern Flying Squirrels still have the run of the tree.

Black-capped Chickadees, Chestnut-backed Chickadees, and Yellow-rumped Warblers are among the songbirds that feed on insects tucked here and there on the tree. Probing the tree’s depths are Pileated Woodpeckers and Red-breasted152091Sapsuckers. On occasion in recent years, I have taken to yelling at a Pileated Woodpecker that hammers too long on the upper trunk, because I know it wouldn’t take much for the tree to weaken and lose one of its major limbs, which would harm the habitat of all the others birds that use the tree. It’s sacrilegious, I know, to scare away a Pileated, but sometimes it is just so rewarding to play God.

As the years went by, we began watching Hooded Mergansers and Wood Ducks 188581competing for the nest box, so I set up a second nest box on the opposite side of the tree. Then I installed an infrared camera in one nest box so that we could watch the lives of the ducks on live reality television. It was magical! That spring of 2007 we watched the nest box cam for hours at a time, and were finally rewarded by the hatching and fledging of a mixed family of young Hooded Mergansers and Wood Ducks leaping out of the nest box to the lake below. [I will recap this whole story in a blog entry soon to come]. We have now been hosting mostly Hooded Mergansers for years, and each year we see more of these beautiful ducks during the winter. There are also more Wood Ducks coming each spring, and they are simply beautiful in low morning sunshine as they perch on the mossy limbs of the tree. Some of the Wood Ducks even come to our platform feeder on the deck to nibble on sunflower seeds. We never thought we would have a duck coming to the feeder–especially an elegant Wood Duck! 

The latest birds to use the tree are Double-Crested Cormorants. There are some tall firs and cedars on a nearby lot that have been used each winter for resting and night roosting by a loose colony of cormorants that spend the day fishing the lake.
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Those trees seem to have an overpopulation problem, so several weeks ago a juvenile cormorant came and perched on the maple, and ended up staying all night. It became possessive, and after a sword fight with sharp bills, chased away a Great Blue Heron that took a liking to the cormorant’s favored branch. Soon more cormorants joined it, and we had four or five spending the night. I decided I had enough cormorants, and began harassing them so that we would not

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end up with a tree filled with cormorants–and breaking all the remaining delicate branches. My harassment campaign is not going so well; for the most part, the cormorants ignore me unless I walk directly under the tree and start waving my arms and yelling. Shouldering the task of balancing nature is such a heavy burden!

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Recently a juvenile Sharp-shinned Hawk flew up to the highest limb after an unsuccessful raid on our feeders. It perched for about two hours, actively watching the comings and goings at the feeders without making an attack.2009_wa_21651Perhaps it was planning a future raid, or maybe it just wasn’t hungry. We watched it grooming and stretching and reaching up with a yellow leg and needle-sharp talons to scratch its head. Then it flew off across the lake with a fresh mission on its mind.

And the beat of life goes on …

 

To see my web site, which includes photographic prints for sale, please go to LeeRentz.com

NEW: To see thousands of my photographs in large file sizes for use in magazines or other printed materials or electronic media, go to my PhotoShelter Website

Click on the photographs in the gallery below for versions with captions.

January 13, 2009 A Rainy Night in Washington

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For most of Earth’s several billion years, the night was a time for stealthy, quiet movements by night predators and prey. Other animals, creatures of the day, hunkered down until the return of the light. During the short history of people, our ancestors were the hunkering down kind of creatures, until the invention of fire began to 2009_wa_7029wppush back the blackness to the cave entrance. Now, fast forward a million or so years, and we drive fearlessly for long distances through the inky depths, thanks to headlights, taillights, neon signs, stoplights, billboards, streetlights, and lights in businesses welcoming us inside. We think of this as normal, but it was not a widespread part of human life until we entered the prior century.

For this series of pictures, created during an early evening drive from Shelton to Bremerton in the Puget Sound region of Washington, I wanted to capture an impressionistic view of the lights along the way.  This was a night of torrential rain, which caused flooding throughout western Washington. But with all the puddled and pooled rain on the roadways, it was a beautiful night of lights reflected off pavement.

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I set my digital camera to a high ISO setting, enabling me to fire the camera without agonizingly long exposures. I set the lens on autofocus, then steered the vehicle with my left hand while taking pictures with my right hand through the wet windshield. 2009_wa_7080wpWhen I later described this to my wife, her first reaction was: “Do you want to die?!” Well, no. And I can’t recommend this as a safe procedure. But I wasn’t looking through the viewfinder during any of the moving exposures, so my eyes were still on the road. Autofocus and autoexposure took the place of my normal fussiness about photography and, without looking through the viewfinder, careful composition took a backseat to instinct. The exposures ranged from perhaps half a second to maybe eight seconds (I couldn’t check while driving), and I bracketed to some degree. When stopped at a stoplight, I was able to get some photographs while quickly composing through the viewfinder.

When I got to my destination, I quickly downloaded the 100+ photographs and was pleased with the results. My favorite pictures, shown here, have a hint of impressionism and vividly portray the gaudy colors that greet us when we venture out at night. 

And, no, I don’t intend to do this again (at least in the near future), so you can feel safe on the roads, as long as you realize that the oncoming high-beams may hide a cell phone user, drunk driver, text messager, GPS follower, makeup applier, video watcher, face shaver, or some other modern multitasker behind the wheel!

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To see my web site, which includes photographic prints for sale, please go to LeeRentz.com

NEW: To see thousands of my photographs in large file sizes for use in magazines or other printed materials or electronic media, go to my PhotoShelter Website

Click on the photographs below for larger versions with captions.

December 4, 2008 Childhood’s End

When I was a child, playground equipment was simple:  swings, slide, teeter-totter, and merry-go-round.  Like most little boys, I played hard on this basic equipment, swinging higher and pushing the merry-go-round so fast that I nearly got sick.

Fast forward half-a-century.  I now travel with my cameras, seeking emotional connections with the landscapes, small towns, and natural details of America.  When I saw this playground in the forest, I was camping at Pike State Forest in Indiana and using a bit of electricity in the picnic shelter to power my computer.  Then the idea struck me that this old and well-used playground equipment behind the shelter would make a fine subject for infrared photography.  So I got out my old Pentax 6×7, loaded the black-and-white infrared film in a dark corner of the shelter, and set out with my hand-held light meter and B+W 092 filter to get some evocative images.

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Infrared film is tricky to expose, because the film sees a different part of the spectrum than our eyes.  With the filter on the camera, exposures are measured in seconds, rather than a fraction of a second, so a tripod is essential.  Infrared light focuses at a different point than visible light, so one hard-for-me-to-remember step in taking each photograph is to change the focus.  Basically, I compose the image in focus, then screw on the extremely dark red filter, then turn the focus on the lens to a little red mark that indicates the point for infrared focus.  Then I set the shutter to B, cock the camera, then trip it with a cable release, counting one, one-thousand, two, one-thousand, etc. until I want to end the exposure.  The three pictures shown here were exposed about 10 to 20 seconds each in morning light, and I made several longer and shorter exposures for each image so that I could be sure to get what I was hoping for.  Film infrared photography is a slow and deliberate procedure that harkens back to the era when everything about photography was slow and deliberate.  It takes patience and is among the few things in life I have patience for.

Once the negatives were processed and the contact sheets made, I scanned the best negative of each piece of playground equipment and printed it.

Black-and-white infrared pictures render foliage in ethereal shades of light gray and white, which gives the photographs a mystical quality.  And what could be better for looking back through the mists of time to our childhood experiences?

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To see a variety of my photographic work, including photos for sale, please go to LeeRentz.com

August 15, 2008 Reading a Photograph

Most of my photographs are straightforward views of landscapes, wildlife, small towns, or whatever else catches my eye.  I love taking these pictures; they are part of a long tradition of photographers seeking out the best light and working with finely tuned technical skills.  Sometimes, however, my work takes a step beyond, to where the subject and intent can be “read” by the eye in several ways.  Here are a few examples, using the names I gave each picture.

 

AMERICAN ICON 1: Log Cabin

While photographing an old cemetery in central Pennsylvania, I was first interested in the 200-year-old shale gravestones and took several pictures portraying the fascinating hand-carved shapes of these memorials.  Then I photographed several gravestones with the log cabin as a background. Then the cabin’s windows caught my eye and I took a few detail photographs showing the combination of logs, chinking, and windows.  Then it struck me like a thunderclap:  the flag icon was right there in front of me.  At that point the adrenalin started pumping and I took one of the best pictures of my life.  Your eyes can read it either as a log cabin or as an American flag:  either way, it is a strong and iconic symbol of American life.

 

We Are As Spirits

While visiting the Monterey Bay Aquarium, I carried only a pocket film camera, hoping perhaps to get a few snapshots.  I didn’t use it much, but when I entered the chamber where these people were standing, mesmerized, in front of a giant tank with tuna and sharks and other huge creatures, it cried out for a photograph.  I loved the blue light and the human forms, so I stood back and took a dozen or so pictures, with exposures ranging from about 1/4 second to 1/2 second, hand-held.  For the first picture, I had left the flash on by accident, and it turned out that this picture was the best because of the ambiguous shapes the flash reflection added to the dark human forms.*  Most people realize that this is an aquarium picture, but when I view it–even knowing exactly what it is–I see spirits living among us.  Others see it as humans lined up during a UFO appearance.  Whatever the interpretation, it is ambiguous enough that it invites repeated viewings.

*So often, mistakes in photography are useful, because they can lead to a whole new interpretation of an image.  Perhaps it says something about my photographic skills, but I make plenty of mistakes–and end up liking some of them.  

 

LAYERS 3: A Parallel World

While photographing the interior of a ghost town building in Bannack State Park, Montana, I found some of the small details fascinating–such as these crackled paint layers on a wall.  It wasn’t until I looked at the slide on the light table that I realized that this photograph looked like a map, but not a map of any world that we know.  It could well be a parallel world, and it reminds me for all the world of the colored maps on the classroom walls of my youth.

 

When Rocks Dream

While visiting Joshua Tree National Park, I took lots of beautiful pictures of the Biblical-looking Joshua Trees, lizards, desert tortoises, and granite cliffs dangling climbers.  But when I came upon this formation, I actually laughed out loud at the Mojave Desert’s dry humor.  The rock was about life-sized and the lighting was “just right” for my formal portrait.

At a recent art show I found myself seriously explaining to a nine-year-old boy about how some pictures could be understood in several different ways at the same time.  I pointed out the log cabin and aquarium pictures and how they could simultaneously mean different things.  I’m not a teacher, and I wasn’t sure if I was getting through to him.  But then he smiled and pointed at my rock photograph and said “like that picture.”  Yes, he indeed got it!

 

For more examples of my work, visit my web site at LeeRentz.com