Seals, Sex and Serendipity

Least Terns

In 1785, Robert Burns in his poem “To a Mouse, on Turning Her Up in Her Nest with the Plough” penned the memorable line “In proving foresight may be vain: The best-laid schemes o’ mice an’ men Gang aft agley”. Although most only quote the last eleven words, the preceding five may be the most valuable and contrary to many photographers chest thumping proclamations that research and preparing are the foundation of meaningful imaging, sometimes the failure of foresight yields unexpected treasures (aka keepers). I resist stating some of these imaging idiosyncrasies for fear of being tarred and feathered by the cognoscenti however just today I found a well-known professional with the courage to visit the same subject here.

So I went to Head of the Meadow Beach in Truro with the idea of photographing seals. A doctor who literally saved my life had a house right in Provincetown, MA and he’d given me the tip quite a while back that at low tide large numbers of seals would “haul out” and rest on the sand bars there, soaking up heat from the sun and sharing seal social life; maybe the equivalent of Facebook for Seals.

Arriving around 2:00pm the light was hazy overcast which was great for me as the sky would be like a big soft box without hard contrast to worry about. A quick scan to the left from the parking lot confirmed that there was a line of seals numbering in the hundreds, stretched out on a long sandbar about a mile down to my left. Tripod in my left hand and camera bag and camera with 500mm lens attached on my right shoulder the trek began.

One needs determination to reach a goal in spite of uncertainty of a reward for effort expended. A stiff breeze was blowing sand and making for a mild headwind. Soft sand can be challenging for a distance walk anyway and toting an additional 20 lbs. of gear along didn’t make life any easier. I’ve had four foot surgeries and a hip replacement. This does not qualify me as a sturdy hiker but rather a “hard headed” trudger. Nonetheless, about 15 minutes dogged determination got me to a cold sand flat, parallel to the plump pinnipeds.

In reality, thoughts of a high drama and aesthetically pleasing seal shot are pipe dreams for the most part. Seal tour guides refer to the males as “horse heads” and will readily say to the tourists, “If it looks cute, it’s a female. Sad to say, the males dominated the sand bar to my observation, flopping around clumsily like a bunch of guys at a tailgate party, while many of the females stayed calmly floating in the water maybe twenty five fifty to one hundered feet closer to shore and away from the seemingly macho mayhem.

I worked the scene to the best of my ability, taking 139 shots, tripod and camera four inches above the sand, every crevice of my trusty Domke camera bag being filled by blowing grit and Arni beginning to worry about the effects of scratchy silicone particles getting into camera bodies and scarring front lens elements.

Knowing when to stop is another photographic skill. I decided that whatever I had was good enough for a first review, not going to improve greatly and that I was anxious to start the schlep back to the Jeep.

Coming in however, I’d noticed roped off areas and signage indicating that there was a large protected area twenty five feet from the shoreline all the way to the top of the low dunes, where visitors were asked to avoid for the sake of nesting endangered bird species, namely Piping Plovers and Terns. And so on the way back I tried to spot bird activity to my right. There were occasional Tern flights in the air but suddenly I noticed two small Tern like birds on the sand. (I hadn’t seen Least Terns before so my ID was vague to say the least. Pun sorta intended.) I thought there might be a possible nice shot to redeem the effort so up went Mr. Gitzo (tripod) and Mama Big Glass (long lens) for a closer look.

It became immediately evident that this was mating business. Put another way, there was a male and a female and the former was intent on a procreative act with the latter. As I squinted through the viewfinder, trigger finger at the ready, a cute melodrama unfolded before me.

For fifteen minutes this male Tern tenderly, patiently and very gently rubbed the back and head of the female with a small fish: back and forth, back and forth. While she didn’t fly away, on the main she didn’t seem overly impressed. He even flew away a short distance in frustration only to return with increased determination. Frankly it didn’t look like he was going to succeed.

Then suddenly she turned her head up and accepted the fish. Put another way, “she took the bait” and the party began. Actually he mounted her once and during the process she dropped the fish. When she picked the fish back up our hero swooped in again, taking the second action as another invitation to enjoy another go. It looked as though he felt that he earned it after all that feathered foreplay. And then like a little grey Superman, he was up in the air and gone while she devoured her sushi snack.

Now before you castigate him as a “wham-bam-thank-you-mam”, the iBird app says that Least Terns are monogamous and so his departure was more likely a jump for joy rather than a see ya later. And so while I went looking for blubber, I came back with a lover and I’m very happy for the experience of seeing the Least Tern courtship ritual for the first time.

1 Response to “Seals, Sex and Serendipity”

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June 2013

Copyright Notice

All Photographic Images ©Arni Cheatham, Segami Images and Eyes and Ears, 2009. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of photographs without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited.

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