Technology doesn't have to be something that divides us from nature. It can be a tool through which we can explore the natural world...

Sunday, 30 October 2011

Border Country

For most Canadians, Thanksgiving is a time we draw closer to the home fires. It's a time to reunite with friends and family over a nice turkey dinner. For me, it's one last chance to get out to the vast land near the Alberta/Saskatchewan border. I always joke that my favorite Thanksgiving dinner consists of wieners and beans. This year was no different. Friday after work, I packed up the trailer and dragged it out to Sandy Point, a rustic campground (near Empress, Alberta) on the banks of the South Saskatchewan River.

The country near the border has a number of attractions. One of them is "The Forks", where the Red Deer River flows into the South Saskatchewan River. In the fall, the poplars that line the riverbanks are bright yellow and the fescue of the surrounding hills is a light golden color. The scene at The Forks is one of the greatest panoramas one is likely to see on the Canadian prairies and it always fills me with excitement. I have a personal connection to this place. I stare across the South Saskatchewan River from my perch atop the "Bulls Forehead" and recall how it felt on July 2, 2004 after completing a solo journey down the entire length of the Red Deer River. This locale also has much historic significance. John Palliser admired the view from the tongue of high land between the two rivers in 1860 during his explorations of western Canada. Peter Fidler built his short lived and ill-fated Chesterfield House in the valley in the 1700's. This Hudson Bay Company trading post was abandoned after attacks by Blackfoot and Gros Ventre warriors resulted in the fatalities of a number of men. The raiding party paraded around their outpost and the competing Northwest Company fort with the scalps of the dead, mounted on a long pole. The surviving traders managed to escape by stealing away in the dark of night.

The other major attraction in the area is the Great Sand Hills. Most people think of this region as being only sand dunes. There are dunes, but they are just a part of this unique ecosystem. There is a cover of fescue, cactus, sage and junipers overlying most of the sand. Herds of pronghorn and deer and even the odd moose roam the area. In the autumn one is likely to see large flocks of sandhill cranes. Thousands of white fronted, Canada and snow geese can be seen right along the border in the evening as I head back toward camp. In the golden light of the setting sun, it is a spectacle that has made an indelible mark on my psyche.
There is so much to see and do in this huge area, but one must be ready to travel many miles to take it all in. Most of the local services are intermittent at best, so be prepared to be self sufficient if you plan on visiting there, especially in the autumn. Good weather and blue skies are the rule in this semi arid area at the heart of the "Palliser Triangle". I find it worth cooking my Thanksgiving dinner on a stick, just so I can get in one more camping trip before the winter months.

Wednesday, 5 October 2011

The Last Hummingbirds

“…if I had continued consuming quantities of beer, slowly becoming louder and less coherent as the afternoon progressed the hummingbirds would have recognized my actions as normal…”

composite from video

On September 1st, I saw hummingbirds for one final time this year. My neighbor told me that they are usually gone by the Labour Day weekend. Just the weekend before I had spent an afternoon shooting some video of them coming and going from our feeder.

It was a spur-of -the-moment thing. That Sunday was a lovely summer day and I was sitting in the yard enjoying a cold beer. Suddenly one of the Ruby-throated birds hovered in front of my face for a few seconds then disappeared. It was one of those things that (at one time) would have caused me to question if it really happened. Now I was becoming accustomed to that sort of thing. Soon three hummingbirds were chasing each other around the yard and taking turns at our feeder. Being the compulsive videographer that I am, I headed into the house to grab whatever gear I could find. After rummaging through my computer room amidst some cursing, I emerged from the house with my video camera and tripod as well as other assorted accessories.

I set up the camcorder on its tripod and aimed it at what seemed like the most popular “flower” on the feeder and zoomed in as tight as the lens would go. Then I sat a little way from my camcorder with the remote button in one hand and waited. It was that simple… Well not quite. It seldom is. I had thought “just this once…”, but no.

Male Ruby-Throated Hummingbird (still from video)

 Hummingbirds live in another dimension, separate from our slow-motion lives. Everything they do is at a pace several times faster than us. I’m sure they regard our lumbering motions as we do a snail or a tortoise. Thus I reasoned that unlike many other creatures that I have attempted to video, they were oblivious to our habits and wouldn’t even notice anything different.

The “flower” that I had observed  them go to 9 times out of 10 suddenly fell out of favor and they began to use the other three randomly, if at all. They certainly seemed to know something was up and began to act cautiously when approaching the feeder. Animals are certainly more intelligent and observant than humans give them credit for. They had noticed that I was doing something out of the ordinary. I am sure if I had continued consuming quantities of beer, slowly becoming louder and less coherent as the afternoon progressed the hummingbirds would have recognized my actions as normal (for this locale anyway) and continued unworried about their business. They had noticed that now my motions were deliberate and I had suddenly got all quiet and still and they sensed that this was certainly not ordinary behaviour (for a Sunday afternoon anyways). I soon realized that if I was going to get any video at all, I would have to get more serious and abandon my remote-in-one-hand-beer-in-the-other strategy.

I gathered my resources once again for an all out assault. This time I mounted a shotgun microphone under the feeder on a boom stand and pointed it skyward. For enhanced audio I mounted a wireless lapel microphone on a willow branch next to the feeder. I realized the gaudy red t-shirt I was wearing was just the color that would draw the attention of said hummers, so I figured I might as well don my customary camouflage jacket, pants and cap that I had used many times for getting closer to my quarry. I also installed a 2X extender on my camcorder and pulled up a chair near to a bush so I could manually and discretely operate the camera. I focused, put on my headphones and waited patiently for the hummingbirds to return, which they soon did.

As it often does whenever I am shooting video, the afternoon passed quickly.  I tried some different apertures and number of neutral density filters. I even tried varying my frame rate from my usual 24P to 60P (for slow motion shots).  I activated my “cache” feature on my camcorder, which actually allows me to start recording a set number of seconds before I hit the record button. Perhaps this seems impossible to some of you, but it is a dream feature for any nature videographer. The hummingbird suddenly appears at the feeder, I hit “record” and the 2-5 seconds previous to my pressing the button are added to the front of the clip (allowing me to capture the hummer arriving).

Female Ruby-Throated Hummingbird (Still from video)

Shadows covered the feeder by late afternoon and the hummingbirds abandoned their feeding - which was just as well, because the lighting was decidedly poor. I retired to my computer room to review the clips I had captured that day. Some were better than others. A couple of them were exceptional. This is typical for me. Every time I step behind the camera, I learn something new. I am happy if I get 10 seconds of “good stuff” for every day of shooting.

The ruby-throated hummingbirds have migrated now. The days are cooler and soon winter will be upon us. Perhaps I will use some of the video I took that afternoon or maybe it will just be added to my collection of “stock” footage. Maybe one day this winter when the wind is howling and the world is gray, I will review my clips with just a small hint of a smile upon my lips.