Self-discipline is everything in wildlife watching, and I don't have it. I can only envy those who in the simple love of nature are able to sit statue-still in the woods all day or spend a whole afternoon stalking one mile of ground, which is the sort of patience one must have to achieve intimate contact with wild creatures.
To make myself be still or stealthy that long I must rely on the more basic motive of the hunter: the prospect of tangible reward, an animal "reduced to possession," as the game laws delicately phrase it. Whether I actually bring back anything is not necessarily the measure of a good day, but the potential must be there or I grow restless.
Birders, with whom I have spent many splendid days, sublimate this acquisitiveness by bagging their prey symbolically, "capturing" them for various lists. But they tend to boom along at a bird-a-minute pace, ticking off a towhee here, a thrasher there, while my inclination is to watch one bird for as long as it will let me.
And anyway, birds are only part of the living skein, and the easiest to see. Fawns at play, a screech owl swooping on a mouse, a squirrel teasing a fox, and raccoons fighting over a frog are the kinds of scenes I seek and have found; the price of admission to each was long hours or days of reading the landscape and trying to fit myself into it so quietly that the animals forgot I was there.
Using a firearm as a prop, however, limits such days afield to the hunting seasons, which altogether amount to only half the year, and the less temperate half at that. The answer, obviously, was to switch from gun to camera, but until recently I resisted because I a) am not rich, and b) hate cameras, or at least all that equipment you have to have for serious photography.
Santa mooted the decision this Christmas by leaving under the tree a 35-mm SLR camera that cost more than all my hunting gear taken together. After a couple of weeks of studying over how to drive the thing I took it into the woods.
By the end of the second day it was clear that a camera imposes all the discipline of a gun and more. Where the track I wanted to follow was upwind, it would usually also be upsun. Deer that were well within rifle range were beyond the reach of the lens or disappeared in the shadows of an overexposed negative. The chipmunk that chattered at me from a hickory stump four feet away wouldn't wait around while I tried to decide whether to tippytoe up and go macro or slink back and go zoom. The beaver I almost stepped on while crossing a creek caught me packing 200 millimeters too many.
The real test of the day was the wild turkey gobbler that is more or less pictured at left, unless our art director came to his senses and threw it out. I first saw him and his buddy outlined against the snow about a hundred yards away, scratching up acorns. Half an hour later it was clear their meandering course would bring them no nearer, so I undertook to creep up on them, which on crusted snow is like trying to slip naked but unnoticed down a church aisle while beating a drum.
Somehow I got within shotgun range before they flushed, but missed the first two shots because I forgot that less lead is required on a flying bird when you're shooting at the speed of light.
The third frame, shot into the sun against the snow, isn't much. But it's mine.