Becoming an Outdoors Person Again

by James Wallace Harris, Wednesday, February 22, 2017

When I was a kid living in New Jersey, Florida, Mississippi, and South Carolina, I loved playing outside. My friends and I could spend whole days in the woods. I even liked camping out. As I got older the comforts of indoors ruined me for the outdoors, especially after I discovered computers in the 1970s. I just got too prissy to shit where my wild friends go. At 65, I do get outside some, going for walks and bike rides, but not as much as I should. A couple years ago I became a member at a botanic gardens near my house. Even though it’s the middle of February, it feels like Spring, and I’ve gone several times this week to take photographs. I thought I might chronicle the changes of seasons this year in my blog, and try to become a bit of an outdoors person again.

My inspiration for this transformation came from listening to One Wild Bird at a Time by Bernd Heinrich. Heinrich is a retired professor from the University of Vermont. He has cabins in Vermont and Maine where he observes birdlife in great detail. We often want to be the kind of people we are not. I’ve always wanted to be a naturist like Heinrich or Rachel Carson, unfortunately that lifestyle doesn’t fit my computer nerd nature. Heinrich has written other books I want to read, One Man’s Owl and Mind of the Raven, and maybe they will inspire me to visit the outside more often. One Wild Bird at a Time was an extremely pleasant book to listen to. Made me even want to take up birding.


I don’t have a cabin in the woods, but the botanic gardens is less than a mile from my house. I’ll make do with it. Real naturalists spend days outside observing, no matter the weather. I can only handle 30-60 minutes, even on the most beautiful days. Heinrich’s book is full of details, including proper names for all the living things that grow, creep, run, crawl, fly, hop, slither, flutter. I took the above picture. I can’t name any living thing in the picture. I think the bird is some kind of crane. I believe these guys are geese, but I’m clueless as to what kind. They honk.


Not only do I not know the proper names of the plants and animals, I’m not a very good photographer. So I’m trying to learn several things by visiting this park. First, to just enjoy being outside. Second, and this might never happen, but I’d like to learn the names of beings I see in nature. Third, I want to teach myself how to be a better photographer. Fourth, I want to become better at seeing.

I should keep a journal like Heinrich. For now, I’m just going to occasionally post something here. I went to the gardens on Saturday with my wife Susan. I wanted to test a cheap close-up lens I got for my Canon Rebel Xsi, attaching it to my zoom lens. Here’s one of my first shots:


I have no idea what kind of flower this is. It looks like a face of a science fiction alien.

Most of my shots came out poorly. I left the close-up lens on, but took a bunch of medium distant shots. The field-of-focus was painfully narrow. I returned the next day, Sunday, with just my 18-55mm zoom lens. I was again disappointed with the field-of-focus. I found this wonderful cheat sheet on field of focus. I went back to the park today, Wednesday, with just my 55mm fixed-focus lens, set to aperture override at f8. I discovered that setting the camera to manual aperture control automatically puts it in RAW mode. That has forced me to start learning new ways to process my photos in Photoshop Elements.


Here’s a tightly cropped photo of the crane from Saturday, when I still had the close-up lens attached to my 18-55 zoom. The crane wouldn’t let me get that close to him, so I have to blow up the picture. He’s not in focused. Now here’s a photo I took today trying hard to get a larger field of focus.


I do believe the crane is much better focused, with details sharper both in front and behind him, but it’s still far from perfect. It’s hard to tell because the photo is so cropped and it’s been converted to jpeg. Here’s a screenshot from within the camera raw editor. It’s still been saved as a jpeg, but it appears sharper, showing more detail – although it might just be more magnification. (Does anyone know what kind of bird this is?)

Crane Screenshot from Camera Raw editor

All of this experimentation takes time. But I am learning. I want to get into photography, but I don’t want to get bogged down with equipment. I like detail, sharpness, and large depth-of-field. That means I can’t get too close to my subject. I believe what I need is a very good wide-angle lens with large image sensor that captures a lot of megapixels. I can then just crop out what I need.

I did a search on “minimalist photography” hoping to find advice on equipment, but it turns out there’s an art form with that label. For now I’m going to use my old Canon and see how far I can push it to get what I want. But ultimately, I’d like to buy a camera that meets my minimalist definition. Something that’s easy to carry and use, and helps me record what I see with the maximum of sharpness and detail. It occurs to me that this pursuit will force me into finding a system for managing my photographs. I’ve already learn to quickly delete what I don’t like, but photos pile up quickly. That’s not being minimalistic. I wonder if there’s software that works a diary for photos?

Another software invention I’d like to see, and it might exist already, is a way to organize my photos so they map out the park. Wouldn’t it be cool if photos saved precise GPS info, and you could drop them into a folder, and a program would automatically create a virtual view?

Of course this gives me yet another hobby to pursue. One which will slice up my time into even smaller segments. On the other hand, it does get me out of the house. It’s a seeing hobby. I’m trying to get away from so many hobbies that involve computer screens and book pages. It’s somewhat artistic, which compensates for my overly analytical nature.


Here’s one last picture (and I took 175 these three days). I’m including it to see what a larger version will look like on my blog page. My layout limits me to showing photos at less than 600 pixels width. I’m hoping double clicking will show this photo in a larger view.


Anne, The Human, Raises Robbie, the Starling

By James Wallace Harris, Monday, June 27, 2016

My friend Anne was given a nestling that was found by a daughter of one of her friends. Anne has pet birds, so they assumed she’d know what to do. She didn’t, but she called around and found out. At first, Anne thought Robbie was a robin, thus the name. As he (she?) got bigger it was obvious the name should have been Stevie. Robbie was fed cat food to begin with, and then mealworms and crickets, which Anne bought from Petco. Anne had Robbie for over two weeks and he grew like crazy, plus he decided she was his Mom. If Anne was around when Robbie was out of the cage, he wanted to sit on her head.

Robbie really liked and trusted Anne. When I visited them he wasn’t too keen on me, but he did let me feed him mealworms, but he didn’t want to get on my hand or head.

Anne assume she had to keep Robbie until he knew how to take care of himself, but wasn’t sure how to know when he could. She wondered if Robbie needed parents to show him where to find food and water. I told her I assumed birds worked more from instinct than education. I said that since Robbie was flying around the porch, that he was probably old enough to be on his own. So we let Robbie go free.

You can’t see it in this video, but after Robbie flies into the tree he immediately starts eating. We couldn’t see what, but we think he was picking bugs off the tree. Later that afternoon Anne called to Robbie and he came back down. She tried to put him in the cage so he could drink water, but he would have none of that. She let him fly back up into the trees. He would fly between the trees, or top of the house, as she worked in the yard.

We’re curious how long Robbie will hang around. I assume he will do the same things he would have if he had just left the nest naturally. Would he have hung out with his parents? I don’t know. I hope he finds some other starlings to join their flock.

This was a wonderful experience for Anne, although it was emotionally rough at times, especially when she had to let Robbie fly away. Anne and Robbie’s time together reminded me of a miniature version of “My Life as a Turkey,” the classic Nature episode on PBS.

Update: Anne reported this morning: “I called to him and sure enough he flew down, getting closer and closer til he was close enough to land on my head. I put him on top of the cage and fed him, but not as much as he wanted to be fed so he’ll have to figure it out himself. I cld recognize his call, like any good mother!!!! So he made it thru the night, and whatever rain we got, fine. He looked very good and strong.”


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