Speaking of Nature: Northern harrier nightmares
Every week for the past 16 years, I have tried to share a story, experience, or bit of knowledge with you in a positive and constructive way. This year, however, I find myself caught in a repeating loop of the most diabolical mental torment imaginable, a cycle so sadistic in its design that I find myself groping for the tattered remnants of sanity. I am in the middle of a northern harrier nightmare.
This story starts all the way back in 1998, when I was just a young, wide-eyed photographer with a brand new camera and absolutely no idea of what I was getting myself into. I was out on a back road going through farm country when I saw a ghostly shape lift off from the surface of a snowy field and drift across the landscape like a phantom. No, that’s not quite right — like a vapor. Almost like a figment of my imagination it hung there for a moment and I snapped a photo. Then, it was gone.
I had learned much in my study of birds and I was instantly able to identify the bird as a female northern harrier. Back in those days, one actually had to wait an hour to get film developed and when I opened up the envelope of new prints, I leafed through them and found that my photo was perfect save for one small detail — the bird’s face was completely hidden by its wings. Oh well. I’ll certainly have another chance soon.
What I didn’t know then was the horrible, terrible truth of that thought. I would have another chance — and another and another and another — but there would always be something wrong. Somehow, there would be something and it was always something different. But the birds would keep taunting, teasing and torturing me without end. The past two years illustrate my point perfectly.
As you know, I live on the side of a gently sloping hill overlooking a meadow. The windows in my house look to the south and I can regularly see birds a great distance away as they cross the open sky. This often gives me a chance to run and grab my camera with plenty of time to photograph a passing bird.
In February of 2011, I was sitting in my house when I noticed a female northern harrier emerge from the western side of my yard. I had time to grab my camera and walk out onto the porch and watch the bird make lazy circles over the long grass. I was so transfixed by the grace of the large bird that I simply lifted the camera to my eye and started taking photos. The bird circled back from the east to make one particularly close pass, looked me in the eye, and then disappeared. “Jackpot!” I thought. Then I looked at the photos.
I had been taking photos of stationary birds and had left the camera on aperture mode. The depth of field was there, but the bird was moving so quickly that the shutter speed was not adequate to freeze the image with crisp detail. It was either the best worst picture I’ve ever taken, or the worst best. I still can’t decide.
In February of 2012, I was again sitting in my kitchen when the vapor appeared. Once again the bird came from the west and once again it started making lazy circles over the meadow. Once again I grabbed for my camera, and once again I started taking photos. Once again the bird made a close pass, seemed to look right at me and then disappeared. And once again I got the same type of photo. When I examined the camera settings I was stunned to find that they were all identical to the 2011 photo. Somehow, the aperture was set at f/8, the ISO was set to 400 and the shutter speed (the blasted shutter speed) was a pathetic 1/200 of a second.
How this happened I cannot explain. I have a clear memory of actually fidgeting with the dials in 2012, but the results were the same. There was so much promise, so much potential and it was all lost in the blink of an eye. Birds and photography are an exasperating combination sometimes, but this was beyond simple annoyance. This was torture.
Fast-forward to this past Sunday: Jan. 6, 2013. My parents were over for a visit and we were all sitting by the warmth of the wood stove and enjoying some innocent conversation about redpolls. There are currently over 100 of these little birds eating me out of house and home and we were all wondering if Merry Cushing might actually die of jealously if she could see them. Then my mother appeared to have a fit.
“Ooh! Ooo! Look there! It’s so big!” That was about all she could manage, but when I turned my head I knew exactly what had her so excited. It was a female northern harrier (always a female) and she had just made a wheeling turn about 25 feet from my window. “Hah!’ I thought, “I’ve got you now!”
I ran to the table where my camera was waiting, but then I remembered that I had left it in my office after downloading some pictures. I took the stairs three at a time and was back down in a flash, but by that time the cursed bird had somehow managed to get to the other side of the meadow. How on earth do they move that fast?
I was one with the camera. My mind looked at the light, my thumb turned the dials. ISO set to 800 this time; no more kidding around. Shutter speed set to 1000; I could stop a jet plane in its tracks at 1000. But there was one problem. I had the wrong lens on the camera. At the speed the vapor was moving, she would be gone before I could find the right one. I knew it was hopeless, but I took a few photos.
The color was rich, the details were there, but the image was simply too small. Had the bird been closer, as had been the case the two previous years, I would have had pure gold in my hands, but this was pyrite. I was so close — so damned close — but it was not to be. The bird drifted off to the west this time, but that made no difference. The damage had been done. I had taken one more step toward insanity.
But now I have a resolution for 2013 — the harrier will be mine. I shall name my deck the Pequod and I shall stand ever vigilant for the vapor to reappear. All cameras will have fully charged batteries, clean lenses and chips with plenty of room for photos. When the beast appears again, I shall know and I shall strike.
When I am victorious, I shall tell you my tale and regale you with life history details of this creature the likes of which you have never heard. And then the following week, I’ll have to come up with something completely different to write about.
Bill Danielson has worked as a naturalist for 16 years. In that time, he has been a national park ranger, a wildlife biologist and a field researcher. He currently works as a high school chemistry and biology teacher. To contact Bill, or to learn more about his writing, visit