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A Watcher in the Woods

Be patient. Be aware. Be calm -- and maybe something will surprise you.

April 18, 2017 Wildlife

I'm ready to make my last composition of the day in a favorite forest. The calm winds and soft light create ideal conditions for photographing the abundant spring wildflowers here. After making more pleasing photographs than I expected, I can feel the long day in my knees and back. Once they call attention to themselves, my patience and creativity suffer.

I've hiked the narrow paths among old-growth beech, maple and tulip trees, up the gentle ridges and down the wide ravines. Acres of wildflowers spread out on all sides like drifts of January snow. And like snow in a January thaw, these ephemeral blooms will soon fade away. "Just one more photograph" was the mantra I whispered all day as I looked for the next fleeting subject.

The composition I work on now is a tightly-framed cluster of large trilliums in their prime. The carefully-cropped image finally makes me happy after fussing with elements at the frame's corners and edges. It's still calm, so I click, click, click the shutter.

When I stand upright again, I unknot the familiar kink between my shoulders. A shrug and a slow nod loosen the fist. That's when I realize I'm being watched.

A chipmunk watches me from a fallen log.

An Eastern chipmunk watches from a log among white trilliums in a deciduous forest.

From an old fallen log among more trilliums, a chipmunk looks at me. I look back and smile. The wildlife in this woodland preserve doesn't fear humans. A red fox will cautiously share the trail, if I'm quiet. White-tailed deer snort, but don't run. Chickadees dart past me unconcerned. And chipmunks usually scold me as they hold their ground. This chipmunk just watches me.

The Eastern chipmunk (Tamias striatus) is a common resident of the Eastern deciduous forest and woodland edges. But it's an adaptable creature and several are comfortable in our urban yard where they clean up fallen sunflower seeds under our bird feeders. Their genus name Tamias is Greek for "storer" or "hoarder" which is appropriate when we watch them pack seeds in their cheeks, then bury them in our garden beds or flower pots.

This chipmunk relies on its senses and its knowledge of the woods to find food to store. For now, it's content to watch me as I slowly switch to another camera and lens and compose its portrait. I couldn't ask it to be calmer or more cooperative. It grooms its fur and brushes off some bark crumbs on its muzzle and spider's webs snagged on its ears. Now it's ready for its close up.

As I compose and focus on it, I admire the chipmunk's coat -- especially the lengthwise stripes for which it gets its species name striatus, Latin for "furrowed" or "grooved." That reminds me of a Native American story about how the chipmunk got its stripes.

It's told that Bear claimed it was the strongest animal in the woods -- so strong it could stop the sun from rising. All the other creatures feared Bear and agreed with him, so he wouldn't get angry with them. All except Chipmunk who said no animal is that strong. Bear said he'd prove it to her in the morning, but when the sun came up the next day, he was furious. When he saw Chipmunk, he chased her and scratched Chipmunk's back with his long claws leaving the furrows that became her stripes -- the same stripes I'm admiring through the lens. Who is the watcher now?

MAKING THE PHOTOGRAPH (Techniques for Photographing Wildlife)

SUBJECT: Eastern chipmunk (Tamias striatus) among white trilliums (Trillium grandiflorum).

CONDITIONS: Light overcast, calm, mid 70s degrees F

EQUIPMENT and SETTINGS: Nikon D4S, Nikon 80-400mm f/4.5-5.6 @ 400mm, ballhead, tripod; Aperture Priority exposure, Matrix metering, Auto focus, Continuous Low shutter release mode.

EXPOSURE: 1/2,000 sec @ f/7.1, ISO 1600

There's nothing extraordinary or mysterious about the method I used to photograph the chipmunk in the woods as you'll see from the equipment and settings above. Most notably I chose f/7 as the aperture, so twigs between the camera and the chipmunk would appear out of focus. More depth of field than that made the sticks a sharper distraction. Less depth of field didn't create enough sharpness on the chipmunk.

My bigger lesson was the one that plays out over and over: Be Patient, Be Aware, Be Calm. That should be my next mantra.

I'm not mystical about this sort of thing. I don't feel some great force binding me to the cosmos or the chipmunk. I don't know the intentions of either. But I think if I stay calm, move casually and keep my senses about me, I might get surprised by some of the creatures around me. Surprised, not startled.

The chipmunk was the kind of surprise I hope for. If I'm patient, aware and calm when I'm surprised this way, I might make a good photograph. And if I'm comfortable with how to operate my camera, lens, ball head and tripod, the chances are even greater. There's nothing mysterious about that.

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