Ornithological Observations


The cormorant sat there preening itself, unperturbed by my clumsy approach along the beach at Wolfe Point in the Bay of Fundy. I walked along the beach with no purpose other than to get close enough to take a photo that didn’t make it look like a speck of dirt on my lens. I am aware of my limitations: I’m not a professional photographer, and my equipment is inadequate. I know don’t have a bad camera (a Nikon D3100), although some might think of it as a relic from the past, and I don’t really know how to use it to its full capability. Every book or article I’ve read insists that I need at least a 300mm lens for bird photography; mine is a 55-200. The reality is that despite these alleged drawbacks, I still enjoy taking photos of birds. Both bird-watching and bird photography are ways to slow me down and to focus on the smaller details of my immediate surroundings. If a special photo happens, it happens. If it doesn’t, I still had fun.

When it came to taking a picture of the cormorant, I’d gone about it all wrong. I didn’t have the proper equipment. I didn’t stay hidden or stalk and observe it for days, as the books suggest you do: I walked along the waterline slowly, in full view. As I got closer, I noticed how it bent and twisted its neck to spread oils on every inch of its body. I noticed that every now and then, it would straighten its neck and work the bulge in its crop a bit further down its slender neck. It would give me a careful look, then carry on doing what it was doing. Up close, I could see with the naked eye the black webs on its feet. What had seemed from a distance to be a uniform mass of black feathers was in fact a range of hues ranging from a golden brown to deep black, each feather folded and layered on another to offer an illusion of wholeness. I could see that this bird had already lost the breeding crests that give it its name, the double-crested cormorant. Colours shifted in the light and with the angle from which I viewed it. The orange beak was a cross between a duck’s flat bill and a raptor’s razor-edged hook. Even as the bird sat still while I approached it, everything about it moved and changed.


I think that much of my approach to photography holds true for other art forms as well, like writing. Not everyone is, or should be, a professional writer. However, that does not mean you cannot write for fun, or set yourself writing challenges. There are entire books that prescribe rules for doing it properly—some emphasize correct grammar; others writing in the correct environment or using a formulaic structure; yet others offer rituals that will get the creative juices flowing. By the time you’ve read all the advice, you are aware only of your own inadequacy: you don’t have the right desk, the right pen or paper, the best writing shoes or sweat pants for the job, you use cheap ink, you don’t write stories that fit into neat categories ... It doesn’t matter: write because it gives you pleasure. Write because you want to tell a story. Write because you want to experiment with a form or technique. Just write. The rest will take care of itself. And if it doesn’t, have fun anyway.