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My Alaskan Micro-safari


AKChui
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While we patiently wait for more African Trip Reports, I thought I might offer my own TR of a recent micro-safari in Alaska for your entertainment.

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In the early morning darkness I groggily checked my alarm clock, only to find it's just 6AM. Realizing that the askari hasn't woken me with my wake-up coffee yet, I decided to get up and do it myself. "Strange, no mourning of doves or chatter of birds, no chilling calls of the hyena, no clanking of dishes in the camp kitchen?" Wait! Africa is still three months away, and this is my own bed in Alaska. And the only wildlife around is Linus, my gray tabby cat, currently annoyed that I have woken him so early. "Oh well, another day not on safari..."

 

On my second cup of Kenyan coffee, after running through my browser bookmarks to make sure the world hasn't ended and I haven't lost all my meager investments overnight, I decided it's time for more processing of backlogged African images. I use to think sorting and labeling slides (remember those?) after an Africa photo safari was onerous, but now think the digital workflow is even worse. Maybe shoot less pics?

 

"Hark, what do I hear? My faithful game spotter chattering away in a downstairs window? An excuse to stop staring at my monitor?" Yup, Linus has spotted a new visitor to my bird feeder, a petite Boreal Owl. Not that bird seed holds any interest to him/her, but the Red-backed Vole clean-up crew that frequents the snow under the feeder sure does. Or now during the winter when voles spend their time under the snow, maybe the Common Redpolls or Boreal Chickadees, for whom the feeder is intended? Fortunately for the voles, the resident red squirrel and magpies are messy eaters, so a good portion of the seeds end up on the snow below. The snow is punctured by many vole holes, positioned such that a foraging vole is never more than a foot from a bolt hole, should it be needed if a predator or photographer threatens.

 

One nice thing about having a natural yard in rural Alaska--besides no lawn to mow!--is the abundance of wildlife, both big and small. One morning last week Linus came running upstairs, scared by the three caribou foraging for lichens only 30 feet from the house. Seen in the wan light, I'm sure they looked frightening to a (not exactly brave) cat. But I digress; the voles are a constant presence, busily darting about, and crossing the paths that interrupt their tunnels in the vegetation. For those wondering, I make sure I have a vole-proof house, so I view them as entertainment and photo subjects, rather than a nuisance.

 

Anyway, time to spring into photography mode! Even if relatively tame, Boreal Owls are fairly rare to see and even rarer to photograph. I grabbed my trusty Canon 5D Mark II, 100-400 zoom and 580EX flash--and quickly realized that my flash techniques were quite rusty. "OK, just to be safe, I'll use Program mode and ETTL II mode on the flash--foolproof!" Don't want to scare the owl away, so I'll first shoot through the window. "Oops, is that cat drool on the glass? Oh, well". I took some shots, then looked at them on the rear camera LCD; "funny, some don't look sharp". Searched for the 580EX booklet. "Oops, P mode uses a 1/60 second shutter speed, too slow for handholding at 400mm. OK, I'll use Tv (shutter priority) mode--max sync speed of 1/200--but why is my f-stop number blinking?" Read more. "Blinking means underexposure. Darn!" Read even more, then realize it won't make any difference with the flash, which will fill in whatever light is needed.

 

Next I ventured outdoors, carefully approaching the owl in knee deep snow, afraid that every crunchy step would scare it away. Didn't phase him. Ever notice how difficult finding a suitable background can be when shooting in your yard? Just like a mini-bus full of day-trippers, my red Toyota pickup loomed in the background. "#&$@%!!" But I'm able to photograph the owl in different locations, with different lenses and bodies, all without any concern on his part. Apparently I'm just as interesting to the owl as he is to me, so I don't have to bang my hand on the vehicle door to get his attention. (j/k!!)

 

Growl! No, not from the bird, but my stomach. Always the contentious decision of the safari day--do I stay and photograph, or travel back to the lodge for a delicious hot lunch? "Should have had the cook pack a white-box lunch". OK, I chose the latter--and trekked back the 15 feet to my kitchen door--one of the pleasant benefits of a micro-safari in your own yard.

 

Turns out this has to be the most patient Boreal Owl ever--I returned several times during the day to try different angles, backgrounds, lenses, bodies, flash settings, etc.--and he never flinched. Several times I couldn't get the AF to lock, until I realized I was too close for the lens to focus!

 

Finally, tiring of such a great photo op and having exhausted different shot variations, I decided to do some real work in my shop. Unfortunately, the owl was now perched 3 feet off the ground on the edge of my snow-cleared path to the shop--watching a vole hole in the snowbank, waiting for some unsuspecting vole to exit. My fear of scaring it away was unfounded--I passed within arms length of him probably a dozen times, and several times he didn't even bother to open his eyes. Wonder if they are somehow related to lions?

 

The owl reappeared the next day, and after some different shots, I went back to my usual daily routine. He/she must have accomplished its rodent control mission, since it hasn't returned and there are no fresh vole tracks on the snow under the feeder. I wonder if I can lure it back with hamburger? ;)

 

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I hope you enjoyed my micro-safari tale (and cracked a smile or two)--the whole experience was a pleasant break in what has been a tediously long Alaskan winter, this happening just after a near record setting cold spell of 39 days of well-below zero temperatures. Can't wait for Green Season on the Mara!

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Very good. Look forward to the next garden safari.

 

Maybe I'll bring you one from Bangkok at a less mad time at work. You might start a trend! :D

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Great fun, enjoyed your mini safari very much. Love the owl.

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A very entertaining piece!!!

It made me crack a smile on this dour grey Scottish morning!

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Thanks everyone! Just practicing for the real thing...

 

"No owls were harmed during the making this TR, but I can't say the same thing about the voles" :)

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FINALLY see what a vole actually looks like! Lots of vole holes in the garden but nary a sighting in the 20 years we've lived here...

 

That was a nice bit of whimsy, AKChui. A very enjoyable read.

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