Sunday, August 28, 2011

Our Favorite National Park

Platte River Point - where the river meets the lake and the sun greets the day.
Sleeping Bear Dunes.

I just returned from a week long business trip to the "northern Lower" (translation for non-Michiganders: the norther part of the Lower Peninsula). I was interviewing people for an orientation video for North Country Community Mental Health. I interviewed around 25 patients from East Tawas, Alpena, and Petoskey. What a moving and inspiring experience to hear how people with a mental illness cope and function and thrive and help others. There was a humility and gentleness of spirit that suddenly illuminated Jesus' statement, "the meek shall inherit the Earth". Indeed.
At the tail end of my trip I managed to squeeze in a morning at Sleeping Bear Dunes to photograph the sun rising at Platte River Point. This is of course in the wake of Good Morning America's vote for Sleeping Bear Dunes as our most beautiful National Park. Although it's dear to my heart as a Michigander and has always had my vote, I kept pondering why it was voted America's favorite out of all the spectacular National Parks.
It occurred to me that as a vote, it's possible our economically challenged state flooded the polls with the hopes of attracting tourists. Stranger things have happened. But assuming it was a genuine vote of appeal, I think I know why it stands out as our favorite.
Other parks could easily outrank Sleeping Bear on the grounds of grandeur: Yosemite, Yellowstone, Grand Canyon, Denali all offer a dramatic landscape that gives rise to an awe and humility in the face of the Earth's power and scale. But that same immensity can overwhelm and distance a person from the land, whereas Sleeping Bear, with it's gentle dunes and the warm, clean water of Lake Michigan invite you in. It welcomes you to enter into it's sandy folds. There is a subtle grandeur to the park that brings about a peace of mind or even slumber for a summer vacation. The name itself sums it up with it's sleeping bear. With the spate of recent bear attacks abroad, this is a pleasant thought.
Now with the park in the national spotlight, we can only hope she doesn't become overwhelmed with too many tourists. What a shame it would be if we smothered the very beauty that drew us to her in the first place.

Sunday, August 14, 2011


Nothing triggers my imagination for flight more than a fledging bird. Their first "steps" are mine. Watching the juvey osprey test out their wings, actually flapping against the air, or fanning their wings out against a firm breeze, and feeling a brief lift, is a visceral experience. You can feel it. I can vicariously imagine what it would be like myself to be airborne, way more so than observing an experienced flyer like the adults. Their aerial magic is more akin to an olympic gymnast. They're so good they make it look easy, and frankly impossible for a layman like myself. It's simply beyond me. But watching, and feeling, these young osprey pushing against the air and contemplating their power, realizing what their wings are actually capable of, puts me right their in their shoes.

I can also relate to their anxiety of leaping out into the air. Every moment of their life up to their first flight has been earth bound through their nest. Their first leap is my first leap, and suddenly the terror, the rush of that first flight is as palpable as it would be for me jumping out of an airplane for the first time, or maybe hang-gliding off a cliff.
The other flight aid for me and my mind was a photo I snapped of a fledgling with it's wings spread out fully in the nest. I could see more clearly than ever the wing bones extending out from the chest. Suddenly the feathers looked like drapes or a cape, hanging off the birds "arms" (not unlike what you see in photos of bats). Prior to this little aha moment, I always viewed the wings as one big feathery appendage, extending out from the body. This little anatomy lesson was also a keen reminder that we're anatomically pretty similar. One might even say we're related.

In the end though, while the young osprey are twisting, turning and soaring through the air over the river and beyond, I'm still earthbound in my chair, typing this rumination. Fact is: I can't fly. This is where my imagination turns to envy. Oh well.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011


As of today, Wednesday, August 10th, all three juvy Osprey have officially fledged! After months of living entirely within the confines of a 3 foot wide nest, 40 feet in the air.
Bright and early this windy morning, a friend and I were lucky enough to witness the very first flight of the last fledgling. And the tape was rolling! I was able to tape the pondering, the anxiety, and finally a bold and decisive leap out into mid air. It was spectacular.
And what made it even more breathtaking--in addition to the gusting winds that were blowing her around--was the fact that she just kept flying and flying and flying, circling the nest, the poles, and the vast, vacant lot she's only been able to survey from the nest for the past couple months. Although we didn't see the others fledge, I presume they flew rather quickly and frantically to the safety of the neighboring telephone pole. Not this one. She flew for almost five minutes before flying out of our sight and into the realm of worry in our minds, especially after not seeing her return to either of the poles after nearly fifteen minutes. We thought perhaps the challenge of landing was keeping her indefinitely aloft.
We eventually glassed the entire lot and found her perched on a telephone pole way over on the other side of the property, near Michigan Ave. Maybe an hour later she eventually flew back to her family on the poles.
The whole morning was grand. Check out the birds if you can. The young are flying laps around the lot, testing their wings - and from what I can tell, completely loving their new found freedom in flight.

Thursday, August 4, 2011


A young osprey tests it's wings against a firm breeze down at the Old Georgia Pacific lot on the Kalamazoo River.

He also tests the patience of a sibling when he comes down on their head with razor sharp talons.


These guys are precisely why I haven't been blogging as of late. I've been busy documenting the osprey for the past couple weeks, in preparation for a short documentary that will eventually broadcast locally, and eventually makes it's way online. I'll definitely keep you posted.

It's been quite a while since I've captured wildlife with "moving pictures"--not to mention sound--and it's a thrill to be back at it. It's also a magnified challenge compared to photography and the pursuit of a single image. Where as a picture's "worth a thousand words", moving pictures are like novels by comparison. Not that I'm creating a feature length documentary (I suspect this video will be a half hour long) but the complexity in weaving a story, over time, with footage, interviews, sounds, narration, and eventually music, requires way more focus and commitment than capturing single images. Ah, but what a treat.

These birds are in such a unique environment, down there at the intersection of industry, wilderness, traffic, the river, the PCB's, the politics, and of course, the multitudes of people drawn to the front gate to watch the Osprey and their young. And I believe the video will capture this unique milieu - with of course, a great deal of my own perception and flare thrown into the mix.

Perhaps my favorite dimension to this story are the people and their love of the birds. It's amazing how wildlife can bring people together, from so many different backgrounds, and generate so much good will.

There is of course a great measure of hope surrounding their nest, perched atop a telephone pole in the old Georgia Pacific lot. What exactly their presence represents, from an ecological/environmental standpoint, is yet to be determined. That's what I hope to uncover in the documentary.

Time to turn to the scientists and the experts. Sometimes they can tell us what wildlife simply can't.