Speak softly and carry a big camera

Speak softly and carry a big camera
John C. Lorson

The gray catbird is a respectable mimic of a broad range of miscellaneous notes and riffs borrowed from its neighbors. The bird earned its name, however, with its own convincingly catlike “mew” that can be heard from the underbrush at most any stop along the Holmes County Trail.


Welcome to one of the most glorious parts of springtime for me.

Morning temperatures for my bicycle trip to work are finally brushing 60 F, and my evening rides home are frequently bathed in golden sunlight and accented by warm southwesterly tailwinds. My load is considerably smaller, given the fact I can leave an entire layer of clothing at home in the morning and don’t have to worry about hustling that same layer back home in my pack at the end of the day.

An added bonus to this daily reduction in cargo is it gives me room in my backpack to carry along my “big camera” — a years-old, battle-worn Canon Digital SLR with a medium-range telephoto lens. By professional standards it doesn’t even register on the scale — there are plenty of soccer moms shooting Saturday puppy league scrums with much better equipment than this.

But I’ve sworn by a simple motto for years: The best camera to have along is the one with which you are most comfortable. That’s where my old Canon comes in. It’s big, bulky, dinged-up and worn-down in spots, but it’s a trusty beast and it suits me perfectly.

While one might imagine the lighter load and favorable winds make for a quicker trip to and from the office, that’s not necessarily the case. This same span of mid-late spring also holds more outdoor magic than any other time of year. Trees are bursting with blossom and leaf. The woods are filled with babies, both furred and feathered, and birdsong fills every corner of my world.

There are many mornings I seriously consider just continuing on with the ride, wheeling my way from one fantastic photo-op to another with no regard whatsoever to the time of day or day of the week. Then I remember all that stuff about making money and paying bills, and I wind up at work after all. The trip home, however, typically harbors no such constraints. There have been times when my wife has considered sending out a search party.

It was on one such evening a few weeks back that I’d stopped in hopes of grabbing a few shots near a thicket harboring a collection of random “chirps and twitters.” To whom those chirps belonged had become and on-going mystery as I’d passed the spot in a hurry each morning. It turned out the reason I couldn’t quite nail down the elusive bird by its call alone was because it had been “borrowing” the calls of a half-dozen other species! I knew I had my guy when I heard a distinctive catlike “mew.”

The gray catbird is a respectable mimic but only seems to offer bits and pieces of the music it hears about its neighborhood. Furthermore, the catbird seems to sing only for itself — like a fellow who’s too shy to sing in the church choir but has no qualms about belting out his favorite hymns while alone in the shower. Its cousin, the northern mockingbird, seems to fully embrace the roll of diva, singing from the highest branch to the widest audience possible as if it's creating a studio-quality mix tape of every other bird species it’s ever encountered.

I snapped a quick picture of the shy but talented catbird as it hopped from the underbrush for just a moment, then held the camera in one hand and let the strap hang around my neck as I made a short, slow roll down the trail to another bush full of sounds.

One difficulty of bringing along the big camera is that it must be carried on my back if I’m to make any time on the bike. That means when something photo-worthy pops into view, I’ve got to dismount, take off the pack, dig out, turn on and focus. This is obviously not a great set-up for spontaneous shots, and wildlife is often reluctant to “sit for a portrait.” (That’s why I post so many photos of wildflowers — they can’t run away from me.)

There are various harnesses and holsters on the market for walkers and hikers that secure the equipment right to their chests, but that wouldn’t do well for a sweat-drenched cyclist who’s typically hustling as quickly as possible to get to where he’s going.

If I’m to be spontaneous, that camera needs to be in my hand, just as it was at that moment when a low, dark creature emerged from the rough along the pavement several hundred yards ahead. (You’ll need to come back next week to learn all about this “mystery critter” and what he was up to.)

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