Friday, January 16, 2015

Felix Not Felicis: a tale of attempted photography

PERSERVANCE is the hard work that you do after you get tired of doing the hard work that you already did. (Quote on a tarp used to cover a moldering shelter found deep in the Trinidadian bush.)

Some days everything goes just perfectly. The stars and planets align. All the stoplights are green. All your shots go through the hoop. All of a sudden, you are lucky in everything. Perhaps someone slipped some Felix Felicis into your morning pumpkin juice. Of course, most other days are a mix of lucky and unlucky, good and bad. And, every once in a while everything goes spectacularly wrong – all at once.

Many of the best stories of wildlife photography first describe days and weeks where everything goes wrong – or just one critical thing goes wrong day after day after day. The bird of paradise you are watching never displays – or never displays in your direction. A branch is always between you and your subject no matter how you position yourself. The bird flies away just as you raise your camera to take the picture – again and again and again. But then one day, after weeks of perseverance, everything comes together and you finally get that shot. Those are the good stories – hardship, perseverance, and finally – success. By contrast, stories of easy success are boring and stories of hardship without reward are just depressing.

Now it is a strange thing, but things that are good to have and days that are good to spend are soon told about, and not much to listen to; while things that are uncomfortable, palpitating, and even gruesome, may make a good tale, and take a deal of telling anyway. (From the Hobbit).

I am motivated to reflect on these points based on my experiences in Panama this week. I was visiting in my role as Director of the Neotropical Environment (NEO) Graduate Option, a partnership between the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute (STRI) and McGill University. While not teaching in the class or participating in meetings about the program or hanging out with NEO folks, my favorite activity is exploring for things to photograph –near and far, big and small, feathered and furred and scaled and chitined. After about ten visits over ten years, I have collected a modest but personally rewarding collection of natural history images

This year on the day I arrived, I immediately set out for the last few hours of light to photograph the capybaras I knew hung out in a small pond below the nearby Gamboa Rainforest Resort. They were indeed there, but they were also a bit flighty and I didn’t get any useful photos, except for some of two tiny babies that were reluctant to enter the water. After they finally ran into the bushes, I noticed that a line of leaf cutter ants (my favorite tropical insect) was snaking ACROSS THE SURFACE OF THE POND, weaving its way adroitly on top of the dense aquatic vegetation while the capybaras swam hidden below. I really wanted to get a good photo but the light was fading fast and a huge bush made approach to the line difficult. Tomorrow, I thought – and I will bring my GoPro on a long pole to get a video of them crossing the pond while avoiding the brush.

Awwwww. Baby Capybaras
The next day, after a trip to see the amazing underwater logging operation of CoastEcoTimber, I was back with enough time and light to try again. So, quickly packing up all my camera/video gear, I set off. Halfway there, I looked up at the canopy tower on the hill. Hmmm, I thought, maybe I should head up there first. I might get some good canopy bird photos in the late afternoon light and there will probably be good leaf cutter ants on the way there, as had been the case in the past. And maybe I can see more coatis, as I also had in the past.

By the time I neared to the top of the hill, which took some time, I found a decent track of ants. I took out the GoPro, assembled everything for optimal ant footage, and pushed the “on” button. Nothing. The battery was dead. No problem, I packed two extras – at least I intended to. Yet intent had not translated into action in my packing haste. No batteries. So I packed everything up again and set off for the tower – at least I could still get some good bird photos. Another five minutes of uphill hiking and I was there – but the tower was locked. Darn, it had never been locked before. After assessing the feasibility of climbing around the barrier, which would have been possible but rather difficult and certainly incriminating if someone arrived, I decided to set off for the capybaras and leaf cutters that I had seen the first day.

This time I took a different route back – a road that looked like it was going in the right direction but that I had never gone on before. As befit my luck, the road eventually ended without leading where I needed to go – but then I found a path. Everything went well on the path until I reach the bottom and realized I would have to slog through a field of thick grass that just screamed “hellish chiggers live here.” Sure enough, I am currently experiencing one of the itchiest chigger moments of my life. Moreover, by the time I got back it was too late to get the GoPro battery and slog back to the ants. Sigh. No good photos the entire evening when I had been so optimistic to start with. (I did snap a modestly interesting photo – just to have taken a photo of something – of a massive Nephila spider with its parasitic Argyrodes web-mate.)

This time at least Nephila (the big one) got its meal before Argyrodes (the little one) could steal it.
So there is my tale of just plain old bad luck (combined with poor planning) at multiple junctures contributing to an utter failure in my objective. Work without success. Hardship without reward. Perseverance without redemption. OK, so I am being a melodramatic here, and maybe “redemption” is just silly histrionics, and maybe I didn’t really persevere that much, and maybe I did get some nice photos of other critters on the days that followed. But I never went back to the capybaras and the leaf cutters that walk on water. Perhaps the next trip. Then I really will have a tale of perseverance and redemption to tell.

It's like in the great stories, Mr. Frodo. The ones that really mattered. Full of darkness and danger, they were. And sometimes you didn't want to know the end. Because how could the end be happy? How could the world go back to the way it was when so much bad had happened? But in the end, it's only a passing thing, this shadow. Even darkness must pass. A new day will come. And when the sun shines it will shine out the clearer. Those were the stories that stayed with you. That meant something, even if you were too small to understand why. (Sam in Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings.)

Goeffroy's Tamarin - Gamboa, Panama.
Geoffroy's Tamarin - Gamboa, Panama.
Ant defensive cordon - Pipeline Road, Panama.
Blue-crowned motmot - Gamboa Panama.
White-nosed coati - Pipeline Road, Panama.
White-nosed coati - Pipeline Road, Panama.

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