Why do Birds Suddenly Appear…

…Every time – I am near?

OK – I stole that from my friend Honie. It was in her comment on my recent post about seeing a Northern Flicker for the first time. She’s clever like that.

Anyway, I don’t think they appear when I am near, I think I have just learned to notice them. I lived at the Stone House for 9 years before I really paid attention. I only took note because I bought a bird identifying app for my iPhone. It plays the birds calls and I wanted to see if I could call birds with my phone. I took an old crate out into the woods and played the cardinal call and was thrilled when they started talking back to me. I tried taking their photos, but I just didn’t have the patience or focus to catch them. A little over a year ago I decided to really work on shooting birds with the thought that it would improve my ability to make quick decisions behind the lens. I thought I would try it for the remainder of the calendar year, but I was hooked. I find shooting birds to be the most relaxing thing and I do it several times a week. I have come to know some of them personally and I think it has made me a better photog in ways I never imagined it would. I have learned to shoot better in weather and low light situations, I do a better job of getting a sharp focus, I’m more patient about getting the best shot.

I notice birds absolutely everywhere now and I use that same app to identify and learn about them all along my way. On my recent trip to the Pacific Northwest I got a chance to see some amazing birds, and some ordinary ones too – as if any bird is really ordinary…

The Raven

Although ravens have an amazing ability to fly and soar with the eagles, they often seemed content to walk around on the roadsides. Watching them I can see where the Looney Tunes got that silly bird walk from.

Although I can soar with eagles, I prefer to stalk park visitors and con them out of Apricots

I loved seeing so many ravens, I had no idea that they were such characters and that they could be so playful. I recently read that they can fly upside down for great distances – why, well because they seem to like to show off.

The American Robin

Don't even think of letting your dog out of the car...

Don’t even think of letting your dog out of the car…

I see robins everywhere – I almost don’t think of them as birds who really live in the wild away from people, but this was shot in the Hoh rainforest.

Barn Swallows

I picked out this stick just for you honey - do you love it? It'll look great right above the mantle...

I picked out this stick just for you honey – do you love it? It’ll look great right above the mantle…

...sigh

…sigh

Do you like this stick better?

Do you like this stick better?

I felt for this guy – he showed her several sticks and even tried to put them into the nest to please her – she never gave him the time of day.

Rufus Hummingbird

Against the wind

Against the wind…and the ocean, and the barn swallows with sticks…

This hummer was perched on a limb overlooking the Pacific Ocean – he was singing his heart out as barn swallows swooped by – the wind was howling, the waves were crashing, still he sang.

Stellar’s Jay

Nothing more natural in a National Park than a plumbing vent.

Nothing more natural in a National Park than a plumbing vent.

These remind me a lot of blue jays here in the Ozarks but they are not nearly so shy and skittish. This park office in the rainforest has a little path that is meant for them to feed on, when they have had enough of the tourists they hop up on the roof.

Cliff Swallows

No Vacancy!

No Vacancy!

There were probably over a thousand cliff swallows swirling around the facade of this building making nests – it looked like birds had to stake their claim or face eviction – their mates continuously added to the complex as they sat and watched.

Brewer’s Blackbird

Pants off - dance off!

Pants off – dance off!

Eek!

Eek!

Mating dance? War dance? Rut? I have no idea – but these birds are posers. I recently spotted some of them near my home, sometimes you gotta travel to appreciate what’s in your own backyard.

Tree Swallows

I've found the perfect apartment!

I’ve found the perfect apartment!

Talking to her is like talking to a rock...

Talking to her is like talking to a rock…

This female made dozens of trips to that barrel with twigs as her man sat by on the rail above her talking to that rock instead of helping. That’s what you get when you fall for a pretty boy.

An aside – I think the swallows were confused. I saw barn swallows gathering mud and sticks off ocean cliffs, cliff swallows nesting on the facade of an old building, and tree swallows nesting in a barrel – no one knows their place these days.

Red Bellied Sapsucker

Time to get to work...

Time to get to work…

...always remember to punch in.

…always remember to punch in.

I saw red and had to shoot. Such an adorable bird, my favorite of the trip. He actually checked each hole to see if there was more sap or insects. A bird watcher told me that they check these holes every day or so instead of drilling new ones constantly.

Killdeer

Doing the deception dance...

Doing the deception dance…

...maybe she'll think these rocks are my eggs.

…I’ll lead her over this way…

...maybe she'll believe these rocks are my eggs.

…maybe she’ll believe these rocks are my eggs.

Such amazing camouflage – killdeer can blend into a pile of rocks or leaves or roadside gravel like this. The male actually walked away from the nest and stopped to lure me away. When I looked back the female put on this show to try to convince me her nest was a few feet from its actual location. I respected her show and never approached the real nest.

Osprey

I'm so blindingly handsome...

I’m so blindingly handsome…

...I bet she doesn't even notice my nest.

…I bet she doesn’t even notice my nest.

I got to see a bald eagle pull a fish out of the ocean when we were crossing a narrow bridge – it was an amazing moment I will always remember, but was unable to photograph. I hoped I might see another bird of prey and this Osprey almost went unnoticed. The nest is high in the air – they place these platforms for them atop power poles. It wasn’t until I got home and checked this shot on my computer that I noticed the bird’s mate is in the nest. I was shooting this at midday and the glare was awful so I struggled to get something besides a silhouette. I tried to walk past the pole and get the light behind me and he flew – he was stunning and huge. He flew to another pole to divert our attention from the nest. I didn’t understand that at the time, but clearly he was keeping us away from his family.

I read a post a while back about birds and their “like ability factor” and the author made the case that birds of prey are more desirable. Now I disagreed at the time because I love my cardinals and hummingbirds or even my titmice — but having seen and photographed that osprey, I think Lyle is onto something – it was amazing. I was unable to get a great shot of it in flight, but that is something I plan on working on this year.

I’m sure that just like I ignored the birds in my backyard for years, that people visit these places and never notice these birds too. Maybe someday they will wake up and feel like birds are suddenly appearing in their path too.

Love is in the Air

A few years ago a female peacock showed up in the neighborhood. We searched for her owner, but no one came forward. Over time she became the queen of her corner of the highway. She spent most of her time on the porch of the Heating and Air place or in my neighbor Barbara’s back yard. Barbara eventually took her in and named her “Pretty” because she loved to stare at herself in the mirror.

The next spring this fellow showed up unannounced…

I'm just here to pick up chicks.

I’m just here to pick up chicks.

He was young and out on the town. Again we tried desperately to find his owner to no avail. He fell head-over-heels for Pretty and all attempts to relocate him failed. A neighbor right across the road had a problem with snakes and decided that this handsome lad might be just the ticket. Poco took him in and he thrived, but sadly Pretty did not. She was killed crossing the road to see her beloved.

A solitary man

A solitary man

Our young fella spent weeks crossing back and forth after Pretty passed. Eventually he settled into a routine and he can be seen at the Grange Hall on the swing set, at the Heating and Air, and even on Poco’s chimney. He is a wonder in flight. Poco named our mystery man Krishna. In a sea of green and brown, he is hard to miss.

Oooo - that birdie in the window is mighty handsome.

Looking for love in all the wrong places…

A couple of winter’s back we installed new french doors on the old Grange Hall that serves as a community center for the neighborhood. Immediately our lovesick boy found solace in the windows – each afternoon he could be found on the porch admiring the mystery bird inside the Grange Hall windows. I went to get closer after taking this shot and he audibly scolded me. I learned that you can’t come between a man and his own reflection.

Peacocking around - strutting my stuff.

Peacocking around – strutting my stuff.

Krishna has grown from a young buck to a glorious sight. He walks upright along the road and struts, but something has been missing in his life – love. Each spring Krishna will call out with all his heart, he will display his plumage on the swing set and from the chimney top, but to no avail – until this spring…

Hubba hubba!

Hubba hubba!

Just a couple of weeks ago I saw this little beauty on my drive home. She was strutting her stuff about a quarter-mile from the Grange Hall. There are reports around the neighborhood of the two love birds getting cozy at the Heating and Air place.

I'll stick my neck out and take a chance on love...

I’ll stick my neck out and take a chance on love…

I regularly see them on the road – most often one is searching for the other. Krishna will pace along the dirt road and look for his lady-love in the woods, and she does the same. I heard a report of her watching him on the swing set as he displayed his plumage. I’ve yet to get a shot of them together, but after all, lovebirds want their privacy.

Baby got back

Baby got back

Unlike Pretty, the new girl in town appears to be the same type of Peacock as Krishna – even though she is green, she has the same face mask. And when she walks down the street, she really shakes her stuff.

I'd walk a mile for you...

I’d walk a mile for you…

Krishna is old school – I see him making the trip to pick up his girl, across the road, around the corner, through the woods to the dirt road. He’s never looked better. He’s quit chasing after that bird in the Grange Hall windows, there is something real in his life now.

Ready for a hot date.

That long and winding road that leads to her door.

Perhaps Peachicks are in our future?

My Friend Flicker

Actually, he’s not my friend – he probably sees me as more of a stalker.

I was coming home from the grocery store and spotted some sparrows nesting behind the sign at the hardware store next door. I got some cool shots and loaded up my gear and wilting groceries and headed for home. As I started to pull out I spotted him across the parking lot in the median separating it from the highway. At first he caught my eye because he was large, then I saw the flash of red and the large spots. I slowly pulled over to a parking spot nearby because I noticed that he had no concern about passing cars as he fed…

20130528-121413.jpg As he dined curbside, I slowly opened the Jeep door and grabbed a couple of shots with his face buried in the grass, then I made a serious misstep. I moved from behind the door and he flew off. I jumped back in the Jeep and gave him chase across the highway and into a housing development where I lost him. I took out my iPhone birding app and made the identification and headed home to gaze at my photos of a bird with his nose in the grass, all along wishing that I had continued to snap until he had at least raised his head for me.

I get so excited when I spot a new species, and this time I had assumed he would be as calm as the woodpeckers I have cultivated relationships with at the Stone House. Having just come home from a trip where I shot lots of birds in park settings I just jumped the gun. He was gorgeous – Northern Flicker – a variety of woodpecker that often feeds on ants and forages on the ground. The black mustache marks on the sides of his face identify him as a male. His flight was stunning, the underside of his feathers are a gorgeous gold color. At first sight I mistook him for a mourning dove, but his movements were so much more deliberate, that’s what drew me from across the parking lot.

Later that afternoon, it struck me. My woodpeckers are creatures of habit. They fly from tree to tree in a pattern before approaching the feeder. I have found that most birds seem to have habits and like certain spots, so while there was still light I loaded up and headed back to the grocery store for another crack at the Flicker. When I pulled into the parking lot I came in from the side that would give me the best shooting angle and drove past the spot where he had been, but he wasn’t there. I shot a few blackbirds and starlings and headed around the corner for home when I spotted him 10 feet from that spot on the other side of the median. This time I got the car close and just stopped and shot. He tolerated me and flew towards the housing development – but then he stopped, not caring that I was there…

20130528-122530.jpgHe started at the curb again and worked his way up the hillside…

20130528-122631.jpgHe shot me a look back…

20130528-122725.jpgGlanced left…

20130528-122810.jpgLooked right…

20130528-122902.jpgAnd headed up the hill out of camera range.

You can bet I’ll be stalking him again real soon.

An Even Wider View

Recently I posted about the challenges of landscape photography and the thought and planning it takes in A Wider View. Today I thought I would share something a bit more touristy – no thought of the light being right, no aperture settings, no shutter speeds – just me and my iPhone.

I love to play with the panorama feature. I can shoot panos with my good camera, but it requires stitching them together in another program, so there’s no instant gratification. With the iPhone you just get a good footing and rotate. Sometimes the bumps show up and the exposure settings are based on that first frame, but it can give you a sense of the vastness of a place. Go ahead and click on the images so you get a better sense of the panorama.

20130527-125037.jpgThis is the first panorama I took, it’s in the observation car as we traveled along the Columbia River towards the Portland station. There is a bump in the middle – trains experience bumps, but it does give you a sense of what that car is like in the morning.

20130527-125055.jpgThis is Klaloch, in my earlier post I shot the two sides of the beach as separate images – the panorama really compresses the scene when you are up high like this. The scene was much more open than this, but it does give a good sense of the height. A stunning place.

20130527-125114.jpgWe took a ferry from Port Townsend to Coupeville to cut a few hours off our trip to Northern Cascades and Mount Rainier. I shot this on the deck. The process is pretty cool, it’s basically a floating parking lot. The air on the sound was wonderful as it blew across the decks, like the ocean without the waves.

20130527-125131.jpgDeception Pass, this was another spot that was elevated – again, it compresses the space. It does give a sense of all that’s going on at this spot, rocks, cliffs, bridge, island, water – you really can’t get this all in one traditional shot.

20130527-125718.jpgMount Rainier above the Nisqualy River. This spot was amazing for more than the mountain and the river – the sound was wonderful too. So I took the opportunity to record a bit of it, using my iPhone again, so that I could experience it any time I like.

20130527-125301.jpgAhhhhh, Crater Lake. I shot this right next to the lodge. I had to climb up on a short rock fence to get a view over the snow bank. No photos capture the full beauty of this spot, but I’ve looked at this one over and over reliving the details.

20130527-125504.jpgOne last look at Crater Lake, I shot this at the vantage point above Wizard Island – it was as far as the rim drive had been plowed. This has the distortion created by the pivot, bit it does shot the lake surface like glass, the clouds in both the sky and the lake, the snow, the pines – pretty much everything but the cold air.

Sometimes it’s good to put the kit down and just be a tourist.

A Wider View

Photography has many facets, and like most photographers I have my strengths and my weaknesses. I love shooting still life, I could spend all day behind a macro lens, shooting just about any animal challenges and excites me. There’s one type of photography that totally intimidates me. Landscapes.

I know a good landscape when I see one. I admire it when a photographer can capture the whole horizon and direct my eye to just that right spot. I can stand in the woods and be in awe of the sheer volume of trees, but when I try to capture that it’s just a mass of vertical lines. I will hike for miles to see a waterfall, but my photos have never quite capture the serenity my eyes see.

I just got back from a cross-country adventure with my sister. We call it “Planes, Trains, and Automobiles”. This year we even added a boat to the mix. We each flew to Chicago, took a train to Portland, and rented a car and managed to get to five National Parks in the Pacific Northwest – all in 10 days. Somewhere along the way we even took a ferry. The places we saw were amazing.

Last year we took a similar trip into the central plains and saw so much wildlife, that I almost forgot about taking photos of the places. This year we saw very little large wildlife, I had upgraded my long zoom in preparation for this trip – and I used it to capture some birds here and there, but mostly this trip was about the places, beautiful places – I was going to be forced to shoot landscapes.

What follows are some of my better attempts. This is my photographic journey across the Pacific Northwest.

20130523-212053.jpgThe surf at Cape Disappointment. This is the spot where Lewis and Clark finally reached the Pacific Ocean. They had such depressing names for places – Dismal Nitch, Point Disappointment, and the Cape. They missed a supply ship by a couple of days, a ship had waited for months for them. After an upstream journey of a couple of years, the name seems to fit.

20130523-202058.jpgLongmire Ranger Station, Mount Rainier National Park. Several of the shots at Longmire were taken after sunset, this one was taken about an hour after sunset with a long exposure. I braced the camera on a fence post. Shoulda packed a tripod.

20130523-201145.jpgA huge Douglas Fir at the Fort Klatsop National Monument in Lewis and Clark National Park. This was one of the first mossy trees I saw and it was stunning. I decided that rather than shoot a mass of woods, that I would focus on one tree. For me this seemed more familiar, getting close is my thing.

20130523-201750.jpgFort Klamath, Oregon – the last outpost in the high desert. I lived about 30 miles south of here for about 10 years and I miss these wide open spaces and rugged mountains. In truth, I found it challenging to shoot and capture the feel of the place, it’s flat there was no way to get close without losing the feeling of space.

20130523-201204.jpgAn unnamed waterfall just below Paradise in Mount Rainier National Park. In May the snow melt races downhill to fill the Nasqualy River. I had been wanting to try a long exposure on moving water and this trip gave me lots of opportunities. I have never used a neutral density filter, but I have been reading on their use in shooting moving water, I think this is something I want to work on. A side note, I participated in an art sale last weekend and this was one of my most popular prints. I almost didn’t show it because I see a hundred things wrong with it.

20130523-201643.jpgA small creek at Longmire, Mount Rainier National Park. I shot this right after sunset in the woods, and without a tripod I had to brace the camera on my knee for a long exposure. It took several tries to get the grass in focus – I found that in leu of a tripod, holding your breath helps.

20130523-201236.jpgHiking trail at the Hoh Ranger Station, Olympic National Park. We got to this station hoping it would be open, but it was still shuttered for the winter season. The green here was just so stunning. I shot lots of close things, but this was the one place that gave me the sense of entering the rainforest.

20130523-201312.jpgThe birth of a river – this is where the Nasqualy River begins. Snow and glaciers melt at high altitudes – this small trickle will become a raging torrent as it descends. Mount Rainier National Park.

20130523-201336.jpgBirds on the beach below Cape Disappointment, Lewis and Clark National Park. I once gave my mom grief about shooting white caps on an overcast day on a white sandy beach in Oregon – I was similarly drawn to the scene, despite its lack of contrast.

20130523-201419.jpgDeception Pass, although the name sounds like it, this place was not named by Lewis and Clark. I have read the plaque on the bridge, a Wikipedia article, and a brochure, and I still don’t understand why it’s named that. Oh well, I loved the green water and the eddy at the shoreline.

20130523-201506.jpgMount Hood, in Oregon. This peak is snow covered all year round. Over the course of our trip we passed it three times and its not easy to find a good angle to shoot it from. This was one of very few pull outs on the southern side of the mountain. I took some shots on the train and from other vantage points, but found then uninteresting, the sense of scale just wasn’t there.

20130523-201947.jpgSkunk cabbage in the creek, Longmire, Mount Rainier National Park. I shot this after sunset, but opened the aperture and didn’t increase the shutter speed very much. This was my first attempt at shooting in the dark and that open aperture meant less bracing, but also less focus.

20130523-201616.jpgThe Pacific Ocean at Kalaloch, Olympic National Park. This shot is all about scale – those driftwood logs are just huge. I shot this spot and walked away. When I noticed the hikers below I shot it again. It had no sense of scale without the hikers.

20130523-201715.jpgThe Nisqualy River, below Mount Rainier. The sound of this place was amazing, the view was pretty special too. A park ranger gave us directions to this spot when he saw our camera bags. I have recorded video of the spot, mostly to relive the sound of the river.

20130523-201736.jpgWizard Island – just off the west shore of Crater Lake. Full disclosure, Crater Lake is my absolute favorite place on the surface of this big blue marble. I hadn’t been there in 20 years and the first sight of it made me tear up. The beauty is overwhelming, and I know I am ill-equipped to capture it in a way that adequately conveys it. This shot has not been edited at all, the water is that blue, the sky is that stunning. I could have sat in that spot for weeks.

20130523-201804.jpgMount Rainier Guide Service. The snow was still 14 feet deep on the slopes here. There were people in shorts snowshoeing with the rangers. Paradise, Mount Rainier.

20130523-201540.jpgChristine Falls, Mount Rainier National Park. These falls are glacier fed and this is just the top two tiers. It’s named for a disabled 8-year-old girl who managed to climb to the 10,000 foot point on the mountain in 1889 – I love that. She may not have conquered the mountain, but she conquered something bigger by tackling the beast. I wish the sun had not been so direct, I would loved to have shot this earlier or later in the day. I braced myself against the bridge wall and took a long exposure on this one, the lights are too bright, but I like the effect of the long exposure on the water.

20130523-202010.jpgKalaloch, Olympic National Park on the Pacific coast.

20130523-201256.jpgThe Hoh River in Olympic National Park. A river filled by snow melt – we actually got into this river and it was unbelievably cold. The river channels here were so much wider than those in the Ozarks – and there were lots of huge logs along the banks. It looked like massive earth moving machines had been down there, but this was all created by moving water.

20130523-201830.jpgThe eastern edge of Crater Lake – its surface like glass. Bliss.

20130523-223218.jpgQuinault National Forest in Washington. We turned down this road because we saw a National Fishery sign. The top of the photo is not sky, it’s actually clouds that are lower than the treetops.

My natural inclination is to square up – but on this trip I looked for diagonal lines, hoping these would draw the eye into the image. Sometimes I think it works, and sometimes I’m not so sure. I know that a tripod could have improved many shots, but I haven’t invested in a good travel-weight one yet. The sky in the west is so much bluer more consistently than it is here, so there weren’t a lot of white washed out skies. The wide open spaces allowed me to focus a bit more on parts of the scene than I could have here in the hills and hollows.

All in all, I think this trip pushed me to try new things, to make myself solve some problems. I don’t think landscapes are my thing, but I did my best and think I did OK. I will always prefer getting close to my subject, it’s more intuitive – very right-brained. Landscapes take more thought.

I can’t imagine having seen all this beauty and not having tried my best it capture it.

March on Film Roll #4 – 1974 Olympus OM-1n

If you are following my series on film photography you might wonder what happened to roll #3. Well, when I started this project I bought several rolls of film, all Kodak T-Max. The first two rolls were 100 speed, the last 2 were 400. I made the mistake of making adjustments to my shutter speed and aperture based on the results from Roll 2 and all of my outdoor shots were completely washed out. Seriously, I should have known better – it’s like ramping up the ISO on my digital and shooting towards the sun. The thing about film photography is that you need to slow down. I shoot almost intuitively when I see something that intrigues me. As I get reacquainted with film I have to plan more and shoot less. I knew I needed to make some changes.

Something I have learned is that when you have your negatives scanned, they are quite grainy – this is evident in Roll 2. For this and all future rolls I am having prints made and am scanning them myself – it gives a better sense of what a print looks like, the grain is smoother but still evident. Another change is that I acquired a new camera. I was able to get a whole Olympus OM-1 kit with several lenses and filters at a great price. The OM-1 is a professional grade camera. It has a locking mirror, interchangeable focus screens. It also has a lever on the lens that lets you see the effect of an aperture change – it shows you how the DOF will appear in print – while it’s certainly not Live View, it does give you a better sense of what you are shooting.

Small, efficient, and packed with features - the OM-1 was the coolest piece of camera tech you could buy in 1973.

Small, efficient, and packed with features – the OM-1 was the coolest piece of camera tech you could buy in 1973.

The OM-1 and the whole OM system were revolutionary in the 1970s. Full functioning SLRs in what seemed like impossibly small packages at the time. The OM is a fraction of the size of a modern Nikon or Canon DSLR – it is almost exactly the same size as my OM-D that I carry everyday. When you combine this with a dizzying array of high quality lens options – you get a system that stands up better than most over time. Most of the lenses us the same filter size, so you can carry one set in your bag and only need one lens hood – very smart. The lenses are surprisingly compact too – they were designed to sit a bit closer to the mirror than other systems so they needed less length to achieve the same focal distance. I started shooting Olympus Pen digital cameras when they were introduced a few years back because my OM system lenses were so adaptable – some of these lenses give amazing results still today. My post about luna moths features a few macro shots taken with my OM Macro Bellows set-up.

Having seen the disaster of Roll #3, I am glad that I chose to shoot the new camera in mostly indoor and low light situations. I paid closer attention to the light meter and made use of the DOF preview button – I had no idea what that button was until I acquired this camera kit complete with a users manual.

Sushi Roll

Sushi Roll – my first shot with the OM-1

It’s funny that I don’t think about focusing at the mid-point of an image very often on my digital camera – shooting film and seeing those focus screens has made me more aware of this option. This is one of the many things I have taken away from my film project.

Petals, Veins, Water, and Bokeh

Daffodil Opening – Petals, Veins, Water, and Bokeh

I took to a shady spot and watched the light meter closely, hoping that I could capture some water drops after the rain. Shooting in black and white is making me think a lot more about contrast. Color is what motivates me to shoot many things and stepping back has made me look more for tonality even in color images.

Grass, Furr, and Sunshine

A Timeless Kirby – Grass, Fur, and Sunshine

Understanding how the pieces – aperture, shutter speed, film speed – all work together made me look for lower light opportunities to shoot. This shot of Kirby was made with the aperture closed down in a shady spot. He rarely lets me get this close with a camera, especially one that takes time to get right. I like the tonality of his white fur in the sun against the darker greys of the tree bark.

Wooden Croquet Balls

Wooden Croquet Balls

The OM-1 kit I bought came with a “fast fifty” – a 50mm 1.4 lens. Sometimes I forget how shallow DOF can be when shooting a 35mm camera. My area of focus here is about 2 inches deep. I love the ability to focus on just the front of the croquet ball. In my digital world DOF is more isolating – there is less ability to make something just trail off into the bokeh. I also thought that a shot of something with such distinctive colors was fun to explore in black and white.

Mason Jars Full of Bird Nests

Mason Jars Full of Bird Nests

This last shot is my favorite – I shot it 5 times, each time placing my focus in a slightly different spot – risky when you have so few shots to work with. On this roll I did that with most of these subjects – working on getting one good shot rather than a wide variety of subjects. I think this will help me dial in my technique. This shot is taken on my kitchen counter – I have a skylight above that creates the light reflections on the upper right side of the jar. This is a row of different sized mason jars containing bird nests. In the foreground there are stone artifacts and arrowheads that I have picked up in my lawn over the years. The rubber ducky soap dish is the only element that pulls me back into this century when I look at it. I am pleased at how the reflections in the jars behind the first one become spheres of light. I like the detail in the nest and all the tones of grey in the whole thing. It’s not perfect, but it was the shot closest to what I imagined when I shot it.

I think I will continue with the OM-1 for my next couple of rolls. I like this camera and I want to hone my skills rather than switch around. I’m a couple of months behind – I need to start ordering film online – it’s just not available locally, but I am going to get some 100 speed and really get the hang of shooting in brighter light with it this summer.

The Empire Builder

The Empire Builder is Amtrak’s most popular cross-country route. It crosses 8 states and takes two full days. I have been wanting to ride it ever since my first train trip last year. We met a group from Texas who raved about the scenery and the wildlife. I immediately put it on my bucket list.

My sister Karen and I boarded in Chicago – you can see more of our tour of Union Station in Chicago here. Traveling by train is a totally different experience. Boarding is low stress. In Chicago they have a lounge for sleeping car passengers, so you can drop your bags and do a bit of sightseeing before you board. You show up 30 minutes early and the conductor scans your ticket in the lounge. You walk out onto the platform and a car attendant helps you settle in. No long lines, no TSA, no stress.

20130518-170941.jpgThis is not our train, the diagonal stripes indicate it’s a regional or commuter train. With two large suitcases in tow I just couldn’t get a shot of ours. The boarding process is quick – maybe 15 minutes total – and your adventure begins.

20130518-172502.jpgThis is Charles – the consummate host. he was our Car Attendant, but before the journey was over he would become a friend. Our first trip featured a Car Attendant, Pete – who was thorough but detached. He carefully managed all the rules for us and always had a thick notepad in hand. He was helpful, but not personal. Charles was nothing like Pete. He had filled an empty sleeper birth with snacks, magazines, blankets, and even chilled champagne. A frequent traveler on this line saw Charles and begged him to get his berth changed to ride in his car – he assured us we had lucked out.

Charles was a single dad from Jamaica. he was raised in Detroit and had recently moved home to help care for his mother. He had been with Amtrak for over 40 years – he knew everything about the kitchens, the car births, the stops – he clearly loved train travel and his enthusiasm made our trip even more special.

20130518-171105.jpgAs we settled into out Roomette we watched the grit of Chicago fade into the distance.

20130518-171141.jpgEvery 2-4 hours during the daylight the train stops for 10 minutes for a “smoke break”. The Empire Builder only makes a single service stop, and that is late at night when passengers are sleeping. There is no time along the route to get off and go into a station, there is also no warning that the train is leaving. You stay close so that you can see your Car Attendant shepherding his charges back aboard. Karen and I collect railroad nails that are scattered along the tracks. We tried to get some in each state. This was Milwaukee – Charles noticed this and made sure that we had nails from every stop, even if we were asleep. Eventually we had so many that we secretly dumped the extras somewhere in western Montana when Charles was otherwise occupied.

20130518-171156.jpgEven in the Milwaukee switchyard opportunities for macro shots arise.

20130518-171226.jpgOur first evening started with steaks in the dining car and ended with this sunset as we crossed the mighty Mississippi. We followed the river for the next 450 miles.

20130518-171248.jpgCharles popped in to tell us that he had made up a larger room for us, since the larger cars were empty on this trip, he set us up in a large sleeping car with a larger bed and our own bathroom. Actually, he allowed us to leave out things in the Roomette – essentially we had two rooms at this point, one on each side of the train. This shot was the last light as we crossed into Minnesota.

20130518-171419.jpgKaren took the top bunk. I slept on the couch that converted into a bed. Since the window was on my level I spotted the first light somewhere west of Fargo, North Dakota. I took several shots as the sun reappeared, but even though this one has no focus I loved the color and light.

20130518-171504.jpgKaren refers to the windows as movies. We awoke to watch a movie called North Dakota. Not exactly an action film, but the melting snow and ponds will stick in my memory as a picture of the state for me.

20130518-171513.jpgAfter breakfast we took up residence in the Observation Car – the “movie” screens are larger in here. Karen and I started the day trying to figure out how to shoot throughout the windows and get as few reflections as possible.

20130518-171532.jpgThese doors were a constant sight for us. We were in the last car on the train. The Empire Builder terminates in two cities – Seattle and Portland. The train is set up so that the front half contains the Seattle coach and sleeper passengers as well as the dining car. The back half contains the observation car and the coach and sleeper cars bound for Portland. In Spokane the train is split and a new engine added to the back half. Having the observation car and a cold breakfast was definitely the better option since we railed in along the amazing Columbia Gorge.

20130518-171637.jpgBeing in the very last car also allowed us to look out the back window from time to time. This was taken during a smoke break in Eastern Montana.

20130518-171709.jpgIn remote stops the stations are simple small buildings and the grounds are filled with parts that could be needed for repairs on this long journey. So many of the passengers on the Empire Builder are traveling from city to city along the route – it’s economical and easy to get from Fargo to Haver, Montana. The Builder is a lifeline between these small cities, and we met many passengers who use it frequently.

20130518-171758.jpgOf course, it’s hard to photograph a train you are on, especially knowing that you could be left behind if you didn’t make it back on in time, so I would occasionally shoot trains in the station – this is a Burlington Northern engine. I’m partial to Union Pacific trains, but that orange on the open plains was pretty eye-catching.

20130518-171825.jpgDay 2 in the Observation Car was amazing. Karen gets her gear in order. Today we will cross the Rockies, Glacier National Park, and the Continental Divide. The “movie” for today – Montana!

20130518-172126.jpg There was a good sized group of Amish travelers on the Builder. I spoke with one of the younger men at the snack bar below deck – he was so excited to see the Rockies for the first time. They brought their own food and spent lots of time with us in the Observation Car. At one point a young man from their group connected with a hipster who had been sitting across from them staring. He urged the hipster to come sit down and they had a nice long talk. At first the hipster spoke down to the young Amish man – assuming he had little knowledge of the world – their conversation ended with one of the most eloquent and thoughtful presentations of the Gospel I have ever heard. Both men left respecting each other. On a train there is time to connect like that.

20130518-172358.jpgA park Ranger boarded right before we entered Glacier National Park – he even brought a Parks Passport Stamp with him – score! The sun was very bright and created glare on the windows, so good shots were not easy to come by. I have read the weather has to be a perfect match of sun and clouds with no fog to get really great images. This one was my best. Sometimes the image just needs to live in your mind, and on this trip so many did. We saw more elk and deer than we could count towards sunset. Waterfalls, mountains, lakes, stunning beauty lay at every turn.

At the stop before the park 4 passengers assumed the train would wait while they went inside the station to buy souvenirs, they were wrong. They would get to experience Glacier tomorrow with strangers as they headed towards a reunion with their families. There was a grumpy man in our sleeping car whose wife was one of the four. He blamed Amtrak, Charles, and everyone except himself or his wife. By the time we left the park she had been located and put up for the night. They were traveling without a cell phone (crazy) and Amtrak managed to get messages back and forth to them at each station. Honestly, I believe that woman probably had a more peaceful trip the next day.

20130518-172423.jpgAs the crowds thinned after we left the park this young girl remained looking for someone to play cards with. She travels on the Builder a couple of times a month with her grandmother who cannot make her way between cars. She has the run of the train. When this gentleman tried to teach her a card game she paid no attention to the rules and floated off after a few minutes to lite in another booth, a butterfly that catches your attention for just a moment and moves on. She is growing up on the Builder.

20130518-172441.jpgOur last smoke stop on day two was unusually long. Amtrak officials were getting word to loved ones about the missing 4 and we got to spend sometime looking for Montana nails as the sun began to set.

20130518-172608.jpgSunset over our sleeper car.

20130518-172630.jpgSometimes you can get exceptional color by shooting the sky in the opposite direction of the sunset. All in all this last stop was perfectly timed.

In the morning we would awaken on a shorter train moving along the Columbia Gorge. The Builder follows the route that Lewis and Clark took towards the sea – what this land must have looked like to them – majestic, wild, diverse – seeing it a couple hundred years later it still has the power to inspire.

I had mentioned to Charles that the next day would be Karen’s birthday. He had been talking to her about birds, Karen has a business caring for exotic birds,  and he came to call her the “bird whisperer”. I had imagined candles on a muffin or something to start off her birthday. Charles outdid himself – in the morning he delivered a sweet card, a blown glass bird (does he pack this stuff in his luggage just in case?), and a bottle of Washington wine – above and beyond!

20130519-111342.jpgPortland Union Station – another jewel, but with bags in tow I chose to leave all but one of those images in my heart instead of my camera. Go by Train, it really is the best way to see and experience America.