I thought I had; but then I watched a sunrise burn deep in the eyes of a falcon. It was then I had realized just how intimate a moment in time could be. As that very first hint of the day's color consumed the coast, the whole world seemed to pause. For a second there was no conflict, nor crowds. No drama nor animosity. No news headlines, no danger; just a bird and a lens.
It was emotional; more so now that I sit here and reflect on the moment itself, but it was unquestionably emotional. An example of perfect conditions, a stunning subject and something you are so passionate about all coming together at once, creating a scene you've only dreamt of. I believe the bird chose the open beach for a reason greater than the obvious, as the expression in its eyes says it all. Surely I wasn't the only one enjoying the view that morning. This emotional aspect of wildlife photography is what keeps me so deeply connected. No matter which creature you lock eyes with, on a beach or mountain or river valley, emotion runs through you, the subject you photograph and the moment mutually shared. Every step into the field presents a new opportunity to rediscover this connection and allow the natural world to take hold once again. It may last seconds, minutes or even longer if you're lucky. What never ends is the memory. Looking at that photograph takes me back to the exact moment in time I took it. I can hear the shutter clicking, the waves crashing, gulls calling relentlessly from behind me. I even remember the few seconds I took to admire the sunrise for myself, and putting the camera down briefly; just letting go. But perhaps the greatest memory from that morning was leaving that bird on its perch, in its environment, unharmed and unbothered, and moving on to discover something else along the beach.
What can't necessarily be seen in a photograph are the ethics that went into creating it. Of course, there is always that one photo on social media picturing the backside of an owl as it takes off in the opposite direction, or the concerned, agitated look in the eyes of something that was approached too closely, but for the most part it is difficult to tell. This is why it can be particularly shocking and even heartbreaking to witness unethical behavior in the field, first hand. Just recently, I found myself in one of these positions. Lacking the guts to approach twenty or so photographers regarding the issue, I sat back and watched it unfold. I have gone over these scenarios in my head time and time again, thinking about what exactly I would say in the moment that I came across something like this, but I guess it's much more difficult to get up there and actually say it. My loss there. Hopefully by now you have an idea about where this is headed...
Unfortunately these birds seem to be the poster child for "lack of empathy" in wildlife photography. Large, white birds sitting out on open beaches and fields means they aren't too difficult to spot. Naturally, once the word gets out about an owl, the crowds aren't far behind. I've now witnessed these birds being chased all over the beach, from sunrise to sunset. The stories are real. They aren't exaggerations by the "bird police" as we've all heard. There is a clear-cut difference between finding that respectful relationship with an animal, and focusing on the feedback you'll receive from friends on Facebook. For that reason, I fear the direction this is all headed. It's no longer an interest driven by learning species and behaviors, it's an interest being driven by creating images to show off. There are so many people with cameras now, all out for the same photographs as the person next to them. It's becoming tougher and tougher to be different. Perhaps going about photography ethically even puts you at a disadvantage. The person playing owl calls will always get the shot of the owl. The person repeatedly flushing and flushing the same bird will always get that flight shot. The person throwing pet-store mice out onto the snow pack will always get a different angle. But the person doing it ethically, well they're going to strike out more often.
Take the strike outs and learn from them, as patience is the best quality you can possess. These things don't happen overnight. But when the stars align and you finally get that chance you've worked so incredibly hard for, well it's just that much more rewarding.