Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Bogey Birds Go Digital

Unknown Subject

xxx Lookout, South-east Queensland, Australia.
August 1994




It’s already a year ago, when for some reason, I was waiting at a train station with a colleague and trying to make chit chat. I don’t know why, but I revealed that I was a bird watcher. My colleague seemed somewhat entertained by the idea and asked me if there was any particular bird that caused me heartache or trouble. At first, I thought this was an interesting enough question and tried to give a polite answer, suddenly however, small tremors shook within me. I dribbled, just a little, and my bottom lip twitched. Again I tried to open my mouth but air gushed in and outwards. The sky opened up bluer and brighter and the northern winter sun smacked deeply into my eye sockets, the shadows of my own eyelashes blinding me. The tops of knee-high grass swayed back and forth as Torresian Crows sighed their disappointments in the valleys below. The ghost of my youth cried out silently to the almost unknown faces and voices of family and friends fading gently into unused pigments of the dreamtime. A small, soft, red feather somersaulted backwards towards my feet. I looked back up to whence it had come but was only confronted by blue emptiness. My eyes flickered back down towards the feather, but it too, had gone. I was left with no proof that there was anything trying to torment me.


Unknown Subject

xxx Lookout, South-east Queensland, Australia
August, 1994


For me, a “Bogey Bird” is not just an elusive subject of sighting. I have been trying to capture birds on film since I was a child (be it half-heartedly at the start). I am not just happy with seeing something. I need a photograph, proof, a record. It’s not that every rare bird I’ve sighted and not photographed is a bogey bird either. I have had unexpected rare encounters and I was happy and grateful just for the sighting. Things go wrong however when I’ve intentionally gone out seeking and failed, but again, It’s also not just failing that’s a bogey; It’s knowing that I was close but missed it; or, there are even cases when I’ve just packed my camera away, turned around and bumped face into my quarry and came out of it empty handed. I’ve tried reporting such encounters of rarities to appropriate authorities but was met with scepticism or just basic disbelief and asked if I had some photographic record. It’s so frustrating not to get any photograph when I carry a big, heavy camera so often.





In some cases I’ve reported some not so rare birds and met disbelief. I reported a very juvenile Black-shouldered Kite that I thought needed rescuing along St Kilda Road, St Kilda, Victoria, (a very urban area) to a wildlife carer and was told it was more likely a Silver Gull. After the famous Peregrine pair was reported to have disappeared from Melbourne’s CBD in the 1990s I encountered an adult female at Westgate Park (about 3 kilometres from the CBD) and even though I photographed it, I was told it was unlikely to be a peregrine. I got a print made of my photograph at my own expense and sent it in and had silence in reply. I also encountered a young Black Falcon at Westgate Park and reported it and was told it was impossible as it was outside its range. (I had been photographing them in Queensland a week earlier and was very familiar with the species) Such frustrations are frustrating, yet, I do not regard these as bogeys. (Actually there was not one case in the 1980s and 1990s in Australia that I reported something and was believed). I guess maybe, there is a grey line around my bogey encounters! (I should redefine the meaning to myself) Maybe there are different kinds of “bogeys”.

In July 1989, a friend and I had spent the day picnicking around the Thomson River near Longreach, central Queensland. I had spent the whole day following footprints, whistling wings, and gentle calls. All in all, I’d had a good day and got some good photos. After we packed up we got into the car as the sun went down. The sky was incredibly orange. I’d packed my camera in its bag and dropped it on the back seat of the car and we drove slowly along the narrow gravel track. Suddenly, not so far away, was a solid falcon shape sitting atop of a small telegraph pole. It looked like a robust kestrel from where we were sitting. We stopped, got out of the car and walked slowly several metres towards the bird. As our angle changed and we got closer, the colours of the bird became more obvious. From the side we could see its all-grey wings, body and head; big, black eyes and yellow cere and feet. It was Australia’s rarest falcon. A Grey Falcon. We stood eye to eye for timeless moments. I knew I had to somehow get my camera. My left leg stepped backwards and made the hunter’s proverbial snapping twig effect and the falcon launched like a missile away from us. I failed to get a picture but I was not disappointed. I have not seen one ever since but it remains an important birding memory. Certainly, not a bogey.

There is another bird however. I recall first seeing a poor, blurred flight photo of it in my favourite bird book. From my childhood, I thought it was impossible to find. That was until I went to a workshop entitled “Rapt in Raptors,” by raptor enthusiasts in Brisbane in 1994. I learned a lot. I learned that there were things unexpected in my own back yard. I was also encouraged to try and get a photo if I could. Of course, I obliged the idea. The search had begun. I read as much about the bird as I could find. I went and even camped in some of the locations it had been recorded in south-east Queensland, and….I even saw it! Things just happen when I’m not ready, or when I fumble backwards and forward looking for excuses. I always fail to get a photograph. Time and time again I blunder.

The first possible sighting was in August 1994 at XXX Lookout, near a famous national park south of Brisbane. Far down in the valley below I saw something leave a tree for another. It’d almost made it to the second tree when an Australian Magpie confronted it. The bird swerved to avoid the magpie and made aerial tracks directly up towards us. Deep, butterfly-like strokes brought it closer. My camera, a Pentax Z-20 had a Sigma autofocus lens. Both automated devices were new luxury for me. Frustratingly however, the lens and camera droned back and fro together and refused to focus on my moving subject in the quiet, noon glare. The camera refused to fire too, so long as it believed itself unfocussed. The bird landed in a large, lone tree directly in front of me. Behind a fence and surrounded by several large, grazing bulls. The bird was obscured by branches but I could make out its shape. My 70-300mm lens was way too short and I had to balance the ideas of staying put or going back to the car for my manual 400mm lens on the back seat. I stayed put. A tourist bus arrived and stopped, nobody got out and the bird didn’t move. We didn’t move either. After a while, just as it arrived the bus’ engine started and it left. We watched and waited for almost another half an hour before the bird suddenly plunged out the opposite side of the tree, and like that, dropped and vanished.


Actually, I’ve had a number of other encounters that have left me so frustrated. Sometimes it could have been anything, other times I was certain. But usually I’m left with the feeling of failure.

One time it was about 5:30 am along a creek running through a camping ground at the Conondale Range, Queensland. The light was not so good but I was surrounded by seemingly hundreds of birds screaming in distress. Something was near. I looked everywhere but couldn’t see anything. The distress calls didn’t subsist. I remember feeling something was behind me. Near. I looked at a spindly tree just behind me. I studied it but concluded it was empty. I hesitated, turned slightly and something large plunged out of the opposite side of the tree and disappeared directly away from me. The alarm calls like nothing I’d heard before. It could have been anything but I was left with an unknowing, but conclusive idea, that it was something.

Other times I knew what I was looking at. Scanning around an escarpment area with binoculars, I was thrilled to see a large Grey Goshawk zigzagging frantically around bushes and trees just 30 metres below me. I suddenly realised it was being chased by something bigger and a very different colour. I dropped the binoculars and grabbed my camera. Before I got the viewfinder to my eye, both birds just dropped simultaneously out of view. If only I had been watching through my camera from the start, it could have been a photo of dreams.

Other times I wasn’t even thinking about bird watching and didn’t have my camera. On one occasion, one of these tormenting birds flew right over our car on a busy weekday afternoon. I tried to put it out of my mind. On the worst occasion late in the morning on a quiet Sunday, I went to get bread, a newspaper and to lay down a bet. I found myself standing in a car park in a suburban area with a juvenile male circling me for minutes. A perfect height for a 400mm lens maybe even 300. I watched helplessly. No camera, only a TAB (betting) ticket in hand. What were the odds? I watched and watched in disbelief and the bird circled watching me too. It seemed to notice me watching it and came closer for a better look at me (as juveniles sometimes do). I could only imagine it looking into the barrel of my lens. Eventually it lost interest in me and slowly drifted away, higher and higher and out of view. I reported the encounter but was told it was not possible as there were no records of this species in an urban area. I was asked if I had a photo. If only I’d taken my camera to the TAB.

Just last year, I was riding in a shuttle bus on my way to Brisbane airport and saw one standing defiantly on a dead tree. My camera in my bag and my seatbelt on, I felt little. I knew my destiny.

Actually, I’d had enough of wasting my life on such unobtainable trivia a long time ago. I was tired of lost sleep and wasted films, forgetting the rest of my life. I just wanted to get far away. Far away from high biodiversity, mosaics of vegetation, bodies of water, escarpments and quarries. I went to the northern hemisphere. In 2004, I found myself in a small apartment near a river in a village nestled among mountains in Japan. My tormentor wouldn’t find me there! That same year the area had dealt with floods and earthquakes. More spawning fish in the rivers could escape the traps, nets and lines of fishermen. But I guess that has little relevance to bird watching and absolutely nothing to do with my bogey bird.  

Moving on with my life, I was interested in the progress of digital cameras. I was tired of carrying a big, heavy film camera even when I didn’t need to use it and I was tired of not having it when I needed a camera. I discovered that digital cameras could be much more portable. I studied many makers and was delighted with the specs of Panasonic Lumix FZ-20. I bought my first digital camera at Yamada Denki, Sanjo, Niigata in early December 2004.

It was so good to have something so light and easy to carry. I walked along the river in the village and by rice fields and found common things to photograph in a new way. It was an adventure. The Christmas and New Year holidays came and with it light dustings of snow. It was exciting and I photographed it too. I had no idea how the weather would change though. I thought the cold had already come. I was a naïve Queensland boy and the climate was going to change things dramatically. By the morning of January 8, 2005, the sky had matted into a dull grey and the winds became colder than I had ever imagined. It was painful to go outside. I stayed indoors. Although, I was alone and without a car in the village, I had a friend in another town on the other side of the mountains. Both of us were on holidays and we planned an afternoon of karaoke (as you do under such circumstances). I prepared to go out and waited for my friend to come. My new camera in a small shoulder bag my friend arrived and we rushed out to the car in an effort to beat the wind. I was just about to open the car door and couldn’t remember if I’d locked the door of my apartment. I went back, checked it, it was ok and rushed back to the car and got in. I closed the door and had time for one breath as the profile of big, brown bird, something about the size and shape of a dark brown Mazda hatchback, blew over the bus stop right in front of us. My friend saw it too and asked if it was, ‘Tobi?’; the Japanese word for ‘Black Kite’. Adrenaline surged throughout me and the hair rose on the back of my neck. I said, “No. That wasn’t Tobi”. Moments fleeted in quietness. My friend asked, “Where should we go first?” I responded with, “Could we follow that bird?”

We pulled out of the car park but were immediately halted by traffic. I opened the door and jumped out of the car and ran alongside unmoving cars on to the narrow street leading to the bridge over the river. As I ran I removed the camera from its bag and the eagle reappeared just over the bridge. I fired my first shot at the subject sweeping down from the bridge. I couldn’t believe it when I realised the eagle had landed just by the river and not too far away. Joy! I stood on the freezing, narrow bridge with cars rubbing by me and took more photos. I took several j-pegs and thought it was an important event so I went into the camera’s menu and set the image file to TIFF. I released the trigger. It took ages for the camera to save the TIFF and the eagle took off. I watched the hour glass spinning on the back of the camera as the eagle grabbed a fish in front of me and headed up the river.


Steller's Sea-eagle, young male.
Shitada-mura, Niigata, Japan
January 8, 2005
Panasonic FZ-20




as above



My results weren’t perfect but my failed encounters with unexpected rarities were over. I had digital records of this meeting to share with the world.

It was great having such a record. I quickly set one image as the background on my mobile phone so I could show everyone I met. The next day I met town folk whom I’d met when I first arrived in the village. They were interested in birds too and had told me of the resident Golden Eagles and Mountain Hawk Eagles. Both species eagerly sought in the district. I told them of my finding of the young Steller’s Sea-eagle and was prepared for their disbelief. Smug, I was ready with my proof and revealed the image on my phone. They looked at it quietly and then looked at me crookedly. They weren’t excited or surprised at all. I asked whether or not they thought it was a Steller’s Sea-eagle and they agreed it was, they just didn’t believe me that I photographed it where I said I did.

There was no such record of the species in this district before.

Steller's Sea-eagle
Shitada-mura, Niigata
January22, 2005
Panasonic FZ-20


Three weeks later and a local bird expert published his photos in the local rag. It was the first record of Steller’s Sea-eagle at Shitada-mura, Niigata. They said it was a three year-old male. The experts worked out that because of the summer floods and autumn earthquake, fishermen had been unable to set their traps and the numbers of free fish had lured eagles further inland than before. I also saw White-tailed Eagles along the river in the following months. I saw and photographed the young Steller’s several more times that winter. Steller’s Sea-eagle was a famous species that I’d read about when I was a kid but I never imagined the possibility of ever seeing one, especially with the experience of my Australian bogey bird behind me. I decided to read about the species more seriously after having such an encounter and came to believe that if it was possible to find such a rarity here, then it was worth a look at Shiretoko.

Steller's Sea-eagle
Rausu, Shiretoko, Hokkaido, Japan
February 25, 2006
Pentax *ist DS with Pentax smc ED 400mm f5.6


I took over 300 photos of eagles at Shiretoko in 2006 and valued those photos close to my heart ever since. Now, however, they‘re looking old. Taken with my first DSLR, a Pentax *ist DS and my Pentax smc 400mm f5.6 lens. Only 6 megapixels and hand-held with no image stabilization. Better photos are being taken as very year passes.
as above





I see Nikon now has a D800. A new 36 megapixel camera with improved autofocus, low light performance and a GPS system available.



What was the question?