What kind of bird is that? I wondered. I had no idea, but I was excited because it wasn’t flying away from me. I watched the small greyish bird as it stood high on the beach, unconcerned with what the dozens of other birds were chasing in the waves below. His markings were plain and average, but his beauty was subtle and understated. I thought he was cute and his diminutive size made him all the more adorable to me. He stood alone; surveying his world as if it were his job to make sure everything was copacetic on the beach. Glancing at me occasionally, he seemed indifferent that I was inching my way toward him with a big camera and lens in my hands.
I wondered how he could be so calm when I was a nervous wreck. I scared every bird so far this morning and I just knew that he was going to fly off, too. But, I was determined. I drove three hours to get here and worked too hard crawling across the sand to go home empty-handed.
Trying to ignore what felt like a million biting sand fleas while keeping my brand new camera out of the sand was a trick, but I managed to remain calm and edged closer to the bird. I was less than 20 feet away now and feeling confident that my slow approach has earned his trust. This was my first bird photography outing and although I felt a little silly for crawling on my belly in the sand, I also felt encouraged that this time I was doing everything right. The bird was staying still!
To my horror, a sand-flea took a chunk out of my leg and while trying to get the thing off, I lost my balance in mid crawl. I watched my camera fall into the sand with a loud crack! The bird snapped its head toward me and I froze in mid air. Reprimanding myself under my breath for being so careless, I was a statue on the beach, in a position that no lady in her right mind would want to be found. I prayed that the bird would not fly away, and I prayed harder that nobody was watching.
God must have heard me because the bird looked me up and down but stayed put. After calming myself I felt somehow touched that this bird was not afraid of me. As I looked into its eyes, and it looked back into mine, I slowly began to feel a sense of melancholy that I could not explain. It became so strong that I was overwhelmed by tears and the bird became a blur in the viewfinder. What the heck was I crying about? I had no idea.
As I lay there in the sand, face-to-face with the little bird, clearly an intruder in his world, I realized that a part of me was feeling emotional because I was envious of him. I admired him, this small, grey everyday bird. He accepted me and trusted me to do him no harm. Although I share my life with parrots and handle birds every day, this encounter somehow rocked me to my soul. How wonderful it must be to trust so unconditionally, I thought. I wanted to talk to this bird and ask him a million questions. I felt honored, like I alone was privileged enough to have such a connection with a wild creature. I wondered how anybody could walk by these beautiful birds every day and not realize how wonderful they are!
Realizing that I was dangerously close to having an emotional episode right there on the beach, I thought it best to think about that later and get back to the task at hand. As I scrutinized the viewfinder, looking for a good composition, something magical began to happen. The bird’s grey feathers began to glow a rich shade of brown and the cool sand was now a sparkling bed of pink jewels, marbled by the tracks of early morning shell seekers. The sun was spilling its life-giving light all over the beach and my bird. This is the moment.
Feeling somewhat recomposed after the camera incident, I pulled out my crumpled and damp pre-shutter checklist for one last look: composition, light, exposure, depth of field, focus, everything looks good. One last nervous exhale, left eye shut, click!
That was my first experience with bird photography. I remember photographing that bird for nearly 10 minutes. I felt satisfaction, anxiety, wonder, fear, joy, admiration, awe and pure happiness all rolled into one sweet moment. That moment forever changed my life because it is a feeling that I have come to need in my life. Bird photography has taken its permanent place alongside painting as a favorite medium through which I can express my love for birds.
The beach was Lovers Key in Florida and the bird was a winter plumage Black-bellied Plover. When I reflect on that wonderful time with the plover, I think of the name of the beach with a smile. It is, after all, where I fell in love with bird photography.
Photo: Black-bellied Plover in winter plumage, Lover’s Key Beach, Ft. Myers, Florida, November 2003. Nikon N60, Tamron 200-400 f/5.6, SensiaII
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Text and images copyright Gloria Hopkins, All Rights Reserved