For certain subjects, if you want to get the best pictures of “X” you want to go to place “Y”. If you mention these places to a non-nature photographer they will give you a blank stare. Mention them to someone who is in this special community and you will likely get knowing glances and, more often, stories of their visits there. That these places often have odd names makes it all that much better.
Homer. Antelope Canyon. Bosque del Apache. Havasu.
Among nature photographers there are a number of these special locations where you can create photographs that are simply not possible or very limited anywhere else on the planet. Some of reasons for their specialness are geological in nature (Antelope Canyon kinda falls in this category, the blue-green waters of Havasu Canyon is another). Some, like the Serengeti migration, are less about a specific place but being in a particular area at the right time of year. Some are human-created (or certainly human-influenced): the congregation of American Bald Eagles in Homer Alaska was due to the action of the late Jean Keene; the large number of Sandhill Cranes and Snow Geese at Bosque del Apache is certainly intertwined with the managed farming that takes place on the refuge.
In the dark ages before the Internet, the names of these locations wasn’t really secret – but they weren’t exactly widely known. The “in crowd” was fairly small. Today entire photographic workshops and trips are built around these places / events.
For Osprey photography, the magic word is “Damariscotta”. Damariscotta Mills (to be more accurate) is a small town located at the mouth of the Damariscotta River. The river isn’t all that large, just 16 miles long, and just before it gets to its destination, the Great Salt Bay and the Atlantic Ocean, there is a hydroelectric power plant and the Bristol Dam.
Damariscotta roughly translates from the native Abenaki as “river of many fishes” and so to make sure that the river’s name still has some meaning there is a fish ladder next to the powerplant. Each year, around mid-May, a breed of anadromous fish with an equally odd name of “Alewife” returns to the river to spawn. (Anadromous fish are those that live in salt water but breed in fresh water.) While this migration has been going on for tens of thousands of years, only recently did the hand of man “focus” these migrating fish into a relatively tiny 50 foot wide corridor.
Birds aren’t stupid. They know a good thing when they see it. And so the local Osprey population congregates at the base of this fish ladder and gorge themselves on herring. They are not alone: gulls practically take over the fish ladder looking for easy pickings; seals will sometimes herd the fish into corners; and eagles will patrol the airspace around the area looking for an Ospry to bully (they will dive on the Osprey hoping it will drop the fish it has worked so hard to catch.) With the exception of perhaps a location in Finland, the ability to have Osprey hunting right in front of you, over and over again, is unique to this little Maine town and so photographers gather here as well.
For all its wonder of bringing the spectacle of hunting Osprey 30 feet away, it ain’t Disneyland. Weather, water temperature, fluctations in fish population, and numerous other factors can make a trip to Damariscotta a once in a lifetime experience or a complete dud. And, as I have proven time and time again, the situation there can change overnight. But if you have the time, and the fates are with you, it is a wonderful location to visit in May. Even if you aren’t a photographer, it is worth a visit and many school groups come through during the weekdays to see both the migrating fish and the Ospreys.
I’ve had, um, “limited” luck at Damariscotta. Through a odd confluence of fate those herring tend to migrate during some the busiest weeks of the year for us. And when I’ve been able to extricate myself for a day, I’m pretty likely to pick the day where not much is going on. One of these years we may just punt and stay for a few days, increasing our odds of success.
We had heard through Twitter that the alewife were running and when a day opened up in our work schedules Betsy and I jumped at the opportunity. We got up at 3am, left at 3:30, drove 3 hours to arrive at the dam with nice morning light. We met John Briggs (@MaineBirder on Twitter) there. John is fortunate to live just a few miles away and he was kind enough to let folks know when the fish were running. John has some excellent shots from Damariscotta and wrote an article on it in his blog. We also met and had a nice chat with Scott Linstead of Scotty Photography. Scott drove twice as far as we did (from Montreal) to photograph the Osprey.
I’ve had plenty of occasions to visit when the weather was bad and even one time where apparently my traveling there was a signal to the fish to stop migrating (I’m told it was a water temperature issue, but I know the REAL reason….. #$&^* fish.) We had clear skies, warm temperatures, the fish were coming up the river in herds, there were sometimes six Osprey circling above… and, for whatever reason, that’s where they stayed. Maybe they gorged themselves the day before and weren’t hungry. Maybe riding on the thermals was just waaay too much fun. Whatever it was we only had a handful of dives — and half of those were well after the light had shifted towards “rather harsh”. (Scott was staying for another day and we hope he had better shooting on Friday.)
I had big plans for the day – but knew that I’d have to be rather lucky to get any of them accomplished. I wanted to use the opportunity of numerous dives to video the event with the Canon 5D Mark II and to see what equipment variations (lenses and tripod heads) would do to the final product. Getting photographs of a dive is hard — getting good video is exceptionally hard and I knew it would take many repetitions to develop the “muscle memory” needed to properly document this extremely dynamic event. I had hoped that I’d have 30 events to practice with, but I was only able to film 3 dives. Here are two of them (with all of the rough edges fully intact):
[flv w=800 h=450]/video/20095-osprey-damariscotta.flv[/flv]
I think that despite the bad luck I had this day with the birds, there is definitely promise for producing some great footage of Osprey dives using the Canon 5D Mark II.
In the end, as the title says, a bad day at Damariscotta beats a good day at the office anytime. It is a great privilege to witness one of the wonders of the natural world take place just a few feet in front of me: an Osprey hunting. Even if I didn’t come away with a single photograph for the day, just seeing these birds do what they do would be more than enough — and will keep me returning here for years to come.