Wednesday, May 4, 2011
Anyone who has spent considerable time in a blind no doubt has a spectacular wildlife story to tell. Maybe it was the October teal hunt in the Nebraska Sandhills when a small flock of “white pelicans” circling high above turned into a family of whooping cranes that landed on a sandbar 50 yards away. Perhaps it was hearing a distinctive “rubble rubble rubble” while laying out a goose set in the half light of a foggy dawn on the North Platte River before a family of otters materialized out of the mist and swam through the decoys just feet away from the hunters placing them.
These true stories, retold by people I have met, are just two of thousands of intimate wildlife encounters that we who cherish the outdoors have experienced. They underscore why wildlife and being in the outdoors matter – not because they are nice stories, but because they represent an indelible part of who we are and our natural heritage here on the wide prairies we call the Great Plains. For me, such an experience happened on the banks of a prairie slough connected to the Platte River.
It was late-February on the cusp of spring, the time when huge numbers of waterfowl begin pushing through Nebraska on their way north up the Central Flyway. I had fashioned a small blind out of prairie grass and garden fence that sat on a high bank just feet away from the slough that led to the main river channel. Fed by powerful springs and protected from the north winds by surrounding prairie, this patch of water had been a magnet for wintering mallards most of the winter. Whenever I had a chance, I would slip off to the blind late in the afternoon while the ducks were feeding elsewhere, lay down a small sleeping bag and pad, get organized with my camera gear, food and water, and wait.
When the ducks would come back, as they always did right before dusk, I would have about a half hour to photograph (if I was lucky) before I could no longer see. Then I would quietly settle in for the evening, slide into the sleeping bag and under a red headlamp, eat a sandwich, read a book and sleep to the night murmurings of greenheads and the cracks and groans of ice giving way on the main channel. In the morning the ducks would wake me well before dawn. I would quietly sit up and look out of the coffee-can lid-sized opening in the blind, set my camera in place and wait till it was light enough to photograph the huge rafts of ducks that had settled in overnight, huddled together for safety and warmth just feet away.
Usually the ducks would mingle and preen without incident, then leave in waves about an hour after sunrise to feed. Sometimes, however, an eagle would fly high overhead and the whole roost would blow out quickly, or a harrier in its low, loping flight would trace the winding slough and scatter small groups of ducks at right angles.
This particular morning there was a ruckus on the water just around the bend from my blind. Blocked by prairie grass, all I could see were ducks rising up in flight. They weren’t blasting off the water in terror, though, like when an eagle flies through. They were leaving almost agitated, their voices scolding like they were being shooed away. Then the scattering of ducks stopped. A moment later I heard movement in the grass and footsteps coming that halted just outside the blind. There stood a white-tailed deer, steam rolling off its coat. It looked up and down the slough, then went down to the water to drink. Another deer followed. Then two more arrived, then another and another. Six total, each in succession, came to drink.
The mallards that had roosted right in front of my blind had swam away but were still in clear view. The deer, now all standing ankle deep in the water, turned their attention to the ducks and slowly began to walk towards them. As they got closer their speed picked up,then they began chasing the ducks out of the slough like my dogs chases squirrels out of our yard and up the trees. Once all the ducks had been chased out near the point, the deer kept going and disappeared around the bend. For the next few minutes all I heard was splashing and quacking, with ducks continuously taking off from the slough until the deer either ran out of birds to chase or stopped where the slough met the deeper river. I couldn’t believe what I just saw.
Just when I thought it was over, I heard splashing again coming towards me. The deer had turned around and started chasing each other. Racing back around the bend, they retraced their steps until they were right in front of me again. They hopped and jabbed and kicked their feet and chased each other in circles, playing in he water. They would take off in a full sprint and race down the slough, out of sight, and back again. Finally, layed out and tired, they stopped, took a final drink, walked up on shore and disappeared into the prairie from whence they came.
There are times as a still photographer where you really wish you had a video camera. This was definitely one of those times, because the pictures really don’t do justice to what I witnessed.
But I do have a bundle of photos to show that the story is true. And more importantly I have the experience, which I will never forget and in my minds eye, like all of us who revel in the outdoors, will only get better with age.
A Photographer's Journal - Mike Forsberg from Michael FORSBERG on Vimeo.