Scott Ellington's Blog

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The Acme of Creation

There goes another weekend spent photographing Caspian Terns.  I’ve learned that auspicious weather predictions of mid-70° temperatures don’t really account for 20-30mph winds sweeping off the bay, so I dressed for the middle of winter, and things turned out okay.  Unfortunately, I hit the beach at 0900 yesterday and about 1000 today, finding that identical conditions caused the 60-70 roosting terns to face into the NW wind, with the sun semi-bright on their backs, and incoming tide preventing me from setting up at any angle to optimize catchlighted eyes, minimize shadows, and watch for incoming birds in flight.  And both days, the kite&windsurfers arrived shortly after I did. 

On a day like today, there were about as many surfers as terns.  Although the birds are resilient in terms of turf, and they’ll condone a goodly amount of encroachment, fifty yards is about as close as anything human or canine gets before every roosting bird goes airborne.  At about 1030, a couple of guys hauled their kite-launching-operation into the breach between me and the terns (which left abruptly), while the guys spent about 30 minutes there, largely motionless, failing to launch.

I’m not one to walk up to imperfect strangers demanding to know what the fuck they think they’re doing by coming between a photographer and a mess of sitting birds at which his 18″ lens was obviously pointed.   And since I’m not quite that arrogant an asshole, I contented myself for 30 minutes of watching where the terns had gone and calculating how the change in their location might lead to better images; resourceful and inventive, projective reconfiguration of my shooting situation.  Live and let…(there’s plenty of polarizing invective here that I’ll leave to your imagination).

Ultimately, when the guys left, and the birds refused to return, I picked up my stuff and walked about 300 yards for an auspicious line-of-sight on their new location, which changed the moment an unleashed dog came at them…and again when a 6inch, half-deflated Pier 39 balloon blew out of the water toward them.  Pier 39 is about 20 miles away, northwest.

As more and more surfers arrived to take advantage of the increasingly strong and steady wind, I settled for 750 new photographs (today) and left the beach thinking about the sublime intelligence of humankind, which is (to the best of my knowledge) endlessly celebrated in song and ode and whitepaper and journal article and (human) common sense by absolutely no other species. 

We are the pinnacle of creation (according to us) and the crowning achievement of a God who smiled upon us, giving us dominion over all the earth and the lesser creatures He made before finally accomplishing the unparalleled wonder of us? 

When human kind is smart enough, or evolved enough, or divine enough to ask another species how mankind ranks on the pinnacle-meter…I don’t think we’ll like the answer.  No worries, we’re going to remain blissfully ignorant until we’ve silenced every other potentially-intelligible voice on this planet and moved on to proclaim our divine dominion over everyplace else, too.

In all, I set myself up, then moved my set-up eleven times while attempting to photograph Caspian Terns in flight in the past 48 hours.  Every weekend I spend doing this stuff, the birds teach me something new about the difficulty involved in doing it well and properly.  Thusfar, they appear to be comfortable with me planted about 65 yards from their bivouac, from which one or two birds depart to go fishing approximatedly every quarter-hour, unless there’s a school of feast in the water — then it’s almost a mass-evacuation…but the one reliable fact seems to hold that every returning bird comes back to the bivouac which moves with the random incursions of surfers, dogs and balloons…I think I’m learning to read their cues, at least a little; and keeping their displeasure with my presence managable.  So at the end of our time together, I always tender my gratitude for their patience.  I assume they understand and appreciate the gesture, because they’re always there (pretty much in the same place) the next time I see them. 

At the core of the regret I feel in walking away is leaving them to the tender mercies of the oblivious folks who remain when I’ve dragged my butt from their space.  The barnacle of creation seems a more apt description for humans, although it does a disservice to barnacles.  So the subject line of this entry went straight for the Wile E. Coyote connection, with a little Douglas Adams inflection; so long, and thanks for the sympathetic attention

In Tern, that statement simply sounds like an ecstatic croak, which is pretty much all I hear ever from them, which makes it seem as though they lead an eminently enviable existence, which doesn’t suck.

11 May 09 - Posted by | Uncategorized


  1. Dumb animals don’t fly.

    Comment by Scott Ellington | 20 Jul 13 | Reply

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