The photo on the left shows one of my favourite urban nature photographers at work in North America. Without giving his name away, I’ll add that I’m a long-time admirer of his photo blog. He works for a news agency; in his spare time, he hangs out with the wild critters in New York’s Central Park.
At one time, he took spectacular shots of Pale Male, the park’s resident Red-Tailed Hawk, with what appeared to be a 14-inch astronomical telescope (dubbed the Hubble by some of the locals). His grasp of composition and use of light allow him to make art of a technically demanding kind. Have a look at http://www.palemale.com/
So I couldn’t believe my luck when on Boxing Day, I spotted the photographer at work in Central Park near Fifth Avenue and 74th Street, across from the high-end condo that houses Pale Male’s nest. He was setting up his elaborate rig to photograph PM’s mate Octavia, preening high up in a tree. Now I’m an aspiring photographer, so I thought I’d say hello, express my appreciation for his work and maybe ask him a few questions.
“Excuse me, sir?” I said.
I tried it again. Either it was his utter concentration or the thick ear-flaps on his winter hat, but he appeared to ignore me — or not to have heard me. Before I could get too disappointed or embarrassed, I made myself look up at Octavia the Hawk as I tried to figure out how to take a photo of her contortions as she set about picking nits from her feathered hind parts. (My pathetic effort — absent huge telephoto — is on view to the right).
And then it took hold, that unwritten law of public life in New York City: where two or more people are gathered together pointing at something, the two will morph into twenty. This phenomenon is one of urbanity’s delightful little mysteries, like a spring pond erupting with tadpoles.
No one’s shy in New York City (including this ex-New Yorker who resides in the quiet precincts of Toronto). A gentleman — a Manhattan resident — asked me what I was looking at, and I did my Tour Guide imitation with my store of Hawks 101 factoids: “Now that’s a Red-Tailed Hawk, she lives in the park with her mate. If you’ll step over to the right, you can see her red tail-feathers; that’s how you know she’s an adult,” etc.
I got right into it, repeating variations on the same spiel to everyone who asked a question, adding that the man a few feet up ahead was a famous blogger who didn’t want to be disturbed. It was as if my imagination had free reign, inventing characters for a story, and in the process turning strangers into friends and a preoccupied soul into a Midtown Michaelangelo.
It’s well known that New York’s the home of the extrovert, a cradle of spontaneous events. For just a moment, people connect, and when the moment passes, the joy of connection holds the imagination and lingers like a fragrance in the air.
Toronto’s not like that. Instead it has its own peculiar gift of shyness and secrets.
When we returned home, we went birding at a park in the city’s west end (I’m not naming it for a reason, as you’ll see below). On that day, there were few birds to be seen.
As we got in the car and were about to leave, someone tapped on the window, a park regular who my husband had run into on another occasion. He’d found a Saw-whet Owl, he explained, and he asked if we’d like to see it. Saw-whets are tiny brown-and-white flecked creatures, only about 20 cm in height, difficult to see in their shadowy evergreen perches.
We followed him into the woods. It felt mysterious to me — a tap on the window, a stranger beckoning, a walk down a hidden path. Who was this guy, anyway, and why had he picked us?
It turns out that he was looking for folks who’d know better than to attract a mob to the spot, who’d not frighten the owl. He left us to observe it, leaving as quickly as he came.
Whenever we’d hear a crowd trampling down the main path, we’d clear out until they passed, then return to the hidden spot.There the owl sat on its branch, aware of us, a small and compact package of life, watching, lowering its eyes.
My first view of a tiny Saw-whet was a gift from a stranger, given in silence and thoughtfulness. In its reticence, it was pure Toronto.
The photo is mine. We watched the owl in solitude and awe, and then we left.