February 5, 2015
White-tailed Tropicbird eye level
White-tailed Tropicbird eye level

I know bird photographers will find more humor in this column than those who only use binoculars, but I’m hoping the latter will also have fun with it and perhaps think about how they approach fellow birders who like to have an image to show for their efforts.

Shortly after Christmas I’m standing along the path out to the Kilauea Lighthouse on Kauaʻi, famous for the opportunity it presents birders to see Laysan Albatross, Red-footed Booby, Magnificent Frigatebird, and two species of tropicbirds up close and personal without heaving over the side of a boat.  My most desired target is White-tailed Tropicbird, an elegant black and white seabird I’ve seen a few times under the conditions noted in the previous sentence, but one I’ve always wanted to photograph better than is possible under those conditions.

The lighthouse is a National Wildlife Refuge.  It is mid-morning and holiday visitors are streaming in, a few of them birders, but most of them tourists curious about the lighthouse itself and/or hoping to see migrating whales at this northernmost post on the Hawaiʻian islands.  This is my fourth morning here.  I’ve seen tropicbirds every time, some flying in the misty distance, some white specs high overhead, some flying away from me directly into the sun.  I’ve barely touched the camera.  My grand vision is a tropicbird, rising up on the thermals created by the spectacular cliffs, at eye level or below me, sun behind me.

Suddenly I see motion over the cove below me—obviously not a frigate, too small for an albatross, wrong flight pattern for a booby.  Tropicbirds are powerful on the wing, with ternlike flight--steady, rapid, incessant wingbeats, interspersed with glides only rarely, even when rising or falling on mid-day thermals.  I see the black shoulder epaulets and the long white tail streamers, bright against the blue water.  Knowing this could be my best or only chance, knowing they will typically investigate a cove thoroughly, I take the lens off the tripod for smoother maneuverability in following the sometimes erratic flight.

The bird rises up the thermal, perhaps 200 feet from water level, and passes eye level on the far side, outlined so well against the backdrop of black cliffs and green forest that my auto focus briefly catches the contrast and locks in.  Then the bird plunges down, crosses the channel, and disappears under the overhang beneath my feet.  How long will it stay?  Will it pass eye level on my side of the cove?  How lucky will I get?

Very, as it turns out!  Unbelievably this goes on for minutes on end.  I’m machine gunning the shutter now, the focus going in and out, sometimes crisp.  The bird rises, banks, plunges.  When it passes from sight I momentarily take the lens from my eye so I can pick up the rising bird more quickly with an unobstructed field of view.  The lens is what, seven serious pounds?  I am sweating profusely even in the cool ocean breeze.

Many times in my mind, and even a couple times on the printed page, I have alluded to photographic moments like this as making love to a bird with the camera.  Like actual sex, these moments typically and hopefully occur in private.  Now, though people are streaming by me, I am totally oblivious to anything around me, eyes and focus only for the bird, working the camera hard.  You would think any passerby with any social skills would perhaps stop at a respectable distance, look with their own eyes to where my camera is pointing, and enjoy observing one of the planet’s best birds, all without interrupting an obviously engaged stranger.

You would be wrong!  Four different people come into my personal work space (close enough, though it doesn’t happen, to get clocked with the telephoto lens as I swivel back and forth to follow the wheeling bird), and accost me with questions.  Below, in sequence, is what they asked me, what I said, and what I should have said:

Stranger, man with binoculars:  Whacha looking at?
What I said:  Tropicbird!
What I wished I’d said:  Are you freaking blind?  You’ve got binoculars.  Use them!

Stranger, man with camera:  What size is that lens?
What I said:  Tropicbird!
What I wished I’d said:  You bleeping idiot, can’t you see I’m busy using that lens!

Stranger, airhead woman:  That’s a huge camera!  Are you gonna shoot the moon?
What I said:  Tropicbird!
What I wished I’d said:  No ma’am, I never drop my trousers in a public place.

Stranger, man with binoculars:  Are there any whales out there?
What I said:  Tropicbird!  I’ve been waiting a week for this.  Please leave me alone!
What I wished I’d said:  Buzz off, you jackwagon!  Why don’t you swim out there and see!

I never left the bird with my eyes, never looked at anyone, never raised my voice.  And I will never understand my own species as well as I understand birds (since I don’t claim to understand birds real well, that’s saying a lot).  Oh yeah, and I got some decent shots.  It’s all good.
White-tailed Tropicbird dorsal view
White-tailed Tropicbird dorsal view