Even with camera ready, you win some, lose some

Even with camera ready, you win some, lose some

For most of my adult life, I’ve carried a camera with me nearly every place I’ve gone. One of the points I’ve often emphasized while speaking about photography to different groups has been this: If you want to take great pictures, it helps to have a camera with you at all times.

That point has become relatively moot in the last decade or so as cellular phones have progressed in sophistication to the point that the camera in my smartphone is now actually more advanced and capable than my expensive, heavy and relatively delicate “good” camera. It also helps that the whole unit fits perfectly into my back pocket and weighs only a fraction of the big, digital SLR I used to have to lug along in a backpack if I was riding my bike, hiking or cross-country skiing.

Whatever the device, even if it’s as close at hand as your own back pocket, you’ve still got to hope for the grace of a moment to make the shot; otherwise that incredible “thing” you’re looking at is gone for good. I’ve got hundreds of missed moments to my credit. Fortunately, sometimes when a photo has proved impossible, a story will do nearly as well.

My most recent “missed moment” came as I was mashing my way around a local mountain bike trail the other evening. With racing season just around the corner, I was doing my best to get some off-road miles in after work as daytime melted quickly toward darkness. Deciding upon one last lap before sundown, I was on the trail just as the creatures of the night began to awaken. Deer dodging is a well-honed self-preservation skill for most mountain bikers, and I’m ever on the lookout for the high-speed shadows to come bursting through the brush.

On this particular evening, however, I should have been looking out for something much closer to the ground as I avoided a T-bone crash with a rapidly traveling skunk by no more than 2 feet. Luckily for me, the skunk was coming rather than going, so by the time it squared its squirting end around in my direction, I was already out of range.

My next encounter, just a few seconds later, proved to be even more exciting and instantly became one of those moments I’ve missed with the camera that will be visible forever if only in my mind’s eye. I found myself face to face with my very first whip-poor-will.

A day sleeper, the whip-poor-will forages by night, catching flying insects in its gaping, oversized mouth. Much more frequently heard than seen, the whip-poor-will’s call has inspired poetry, song and legend for centuries. The male cries its own name repeatedly (sometimes seemingly endlessly) throughout the summer night, both to attract a mate and to defend its territory. To call the whip-poor-will a ground nester is a stretch as the adult bird, its eggs and later its young chicks are so thoroughly camouflaged all are nearly impossible to spot. The eggs are simply laid on the ground.

I was only lucky enough to catch my fleeting glimpse because the dark brown bird seemed to be momentarily “dust bathing” in the loose, sandy clay of the trail. One moment of me and the bird was on its way to tell its own story in the growing glow of the rising moon.

If you have comments on this column or questions about the natural world, write The Rail Trail Naturalist, P.O. Box 170, Fredericksburg, OH 44627, or email jlorson@alonovus.com. You also can follow along on Instagram @railtrailnaturalist.

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