Going to Plum Island (Newburyport) is an investment that sometimes pays off and sometimes doesn’t, although to be perfectly fair, most photographic journeys do not guarantee a reward at the end of the trek.
Then again careful attention needs to be paid to the parameters placed around the success criteria. For instance, witnessing miracles should be an adequate substitution for a killer 16 x 20 anytime.
I got a chance to drive out to Plum Island last week. The traffic on RT 95 was terrifying. There was no shortage of State Police in their hopped up Interceptor Specials. Several could be seen on either side of the road, blue lights flashing in the shoulder, parked behind assorted disgruntled drivers waiting to receive their punishment. Still their numbers were not sufficient to stem the flow of “freeway flyers”, “roadway ragesters”, “lead foot lunatics” and “death wish deadbeats” hurtling down the lanes at sub sonic speeds. One has to be significantly spiritually advanced to contemplate the serenity of nature while negotiating that roadway. Mostly I just hunker down in the second lane from the left, assume traffic speed with about five car lengths between me and the vehicle in front and pray. From there on, it’s all about fate and grace.
On arrival this day, I presented my lifetime seniors pass to the gatekeeper and drove onto the reservation. As I drove along the beginning path I noticed a lot of overhead activity in the form of small swift birds. Speed demons, only a little larger than your fist, they turn in the air with the speed of a fighter jet and are always extremely busy, or maybe purpose driven would be a better description.
When I got to the salt pannes I saw an egret and pulled over to try to work it a bit but I soon discovered that I’d forgotten one piece of gear that is really necessary for shooting from this area; my trusty 1.4x extender. Older readers will remember the expression “You can never be too skinny or too rich.” The photographer’s version is “You can never have too much focal length.” My naked 500mm just wasn’t filling the frame with the bird and cropping would need to be considered for any of the shots to work. Still, I mounted the camera on a tripod and gave it a try.
After about 30 minutes I headed a little further down the road to an overlook that gives view to a fresh water pond. As soon as I pulled in I reached immediately for the tripod and camera because what I saw happening over the pond was amazing. Hundreds, no thousands of tree swallows were coming over the treetops behind me, flying overhead to then dip down to the water surface and splash or take a drink or otherwise play, suddenly swooping back up and queuing up to take another run at the water. Wave after wave continued to fly over the treetops and toward the pond. The numbers were so thick that Alfred Hitchcock would certainly crack a smile and yet we were quickly told that within a week or two the numbers would treble or better. A kind gentleman next to me whose birding experience was readily apparent, told us that these birds were the advance front for the fall migration and that in the next two weeks there could be as many as 100,000 birds on Plum Island as this is a place where they stop, rest and fatten up before the long winter migration begins. Mosquito’s are like popcorn to these guys and gals.
I tried framing the birds so as to get some sense of the artistic into the frame but the task is tough where there is so little pleasing background, limited positions to stand (can’t go off the trail or in this case the viewing area) and such overwhelming numbers of subject. Still, I’m going to attempt to get back there (weather and time permitting) with my 1.4x and see what it looks like with a little more magnification and a lot more birds. Our friendly birder told me there might be a great view from the Hellcat area further up the trail. If you want to go also, as Charlie Parker once said “Now’s the time”. If I see you there, perhaps we can try to count how many birds there are. Should be amazing. You bring the calculator.