The Great White Hunter

I believe in hunting.  I really do…. with a camera of course!

Where I grew up in northern NJ, I remember as a kid these huge snow storms.  Maybe because I was only four feet tall at the time, but I just remember huge snow drifts well over my head.  I remember three and four snow-days where school was closed (even though it was down the street and most of us could walk).  I remember my dog, a large standard poodle, loved to play in the snow, as did my next door neighbor’s English sheep dog (imagine a mop playing in the snow).  Our back yard was covered in the white stuff.  The patio, the summer furniture, the grill, and all the trees looked so clean and fresh in their white blanket of snow.

The birds, I was taught, migrated south in Winter.  That is why they were smarter than us humans.  The only wildlife left was the squirrels- invariably looking for the acorns they buried weeks before when it was warm and the ground wasn’t as hard as concrete.  And one other curious animal.  The cardinals.  There was always a cardinal.  His presence was magical.  A bright red bird in the presence of so many gray, brown, and tan animals.  Animals do their best to camouflage themselves and not be seen.  I always respected cardinals for being bright red and not giving a damn about predators.  I always thought they were thinking, “See me?  Yup!  Catch me if you can!  But you can’t- I’m fast.  And I’d rather look good and impress the ladies then worry about getting caught!”

I hadn’t seen too many cardinals in the years following that.  Suburbanization seems to have driven them off.  But then I moved a little south and during the winter, I started to see cardinals again.  We had some wooded areas around our house and I could often see them searching for food in the snow.  I’m not sure how they ever found any.

So, I was very happy when a few moved into my back yard.  I saw them enough to suspect that they had a nest, which, sure enough I spotted one day as the leaves began falling from the trees.  Only about ten feet off the ground, it was far enough away from my neighbor’s yappy little terrier to be safe.  I began to observe their routine of flying back to this one large bush constantly, on the lookout to make sure all was safe before flying off to whatever food source they had found.

So my next goal was to photograph one.  I always wanted my own cardinal photo, but as a kid, I never had the camera hardware to accomplish the task.

Wildlife photography (and let me stress, I am NOT a wildlife photographer!) requires the right equipment, knowing the animal’s behavior, and TONS of patience.   It also requires a fair amount of luck (which increases a bit once you know the typical behavior patterns).  Throw in a bird you’re trying to capture in Winter, and it also requires tolerance of the cold, which, if you know me, sucks.

But I would not be denied my cardinal picture!  So, layer up and put on the warm coat.  I’ve been observing these birds for weeks, so I knew their early morning routine, and the trees they liked to perch in.

The equipment was borderline for this shot.  The Nikon D800 was certainly up to the task.  The extra battery in the grip may come in handy as batteries tend to lose capacity in the cold.  My longest lens is a 70-200mm f/2.8, which is a little short for this type of work.  A 400mm or 600mm would have been preferred since this is a tiny bird.  But lacking big glass like that, I would have to use my cunning to get closer, and the extra megapixels the D800 provided to crop the photo later.

Morning arrived, beautiful morning light arrived, and the birds woke up (aww heck, they been up since 5AM, who am I kidding).  Put the coat on, assemble the camera, and out I went.  I gradually walked up to the tree and got within about 20 feet before the birds took notice of me and flew off.  I’d have to start over.  So I walked back to the house and gradually approached again, this time knowing how far I could go.  I got just short of my previous spot, lined up my shot, and stood there.  My neighbors were probably thinking, “What’s this idiot doing standing motionless in his back yard in 25 degree weather?”  Eh, what do they know.

I waited about thirty minutes, then, BINGO!  My new little friend decided to hop on the perfect branch and pose for me!

Cardinal in Tree

Cardinal in Tree, NJ

This shot was done at 200mm, ISO 100, f/2.8 @ 1/200.  Post processing in Lightroom 5 and Photoshop CC.

I would have liked to get a shot with snow covered branches, but you see, I’m really not the Great White Hunter… the fact that I was outside in the cold was enough for me.  Snow would have made it unbearable.  Next up?  Sea gulls eating French fries on the beach in July- that’s wildlife photography to me!  Better yet- bikini models!

But today, for a few minutes, I was hunting cardinals.  I’ve been trying to take your picture for forty years… thank you my little friend!  I hope you find food… and to all my readers, I hope you find peace during the holidays!

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