Nothing Is Ever Just Black and White

Although it was “bright” while I was in Santa Rosa, it was never sunny. It was actually the perfect light for portraits, but less than ideal for action shots. As it turned out, though, it was nearly perfect light for at least two of my subjects.

As I’ve complained before, it’s really hard to capture both the subtle whites and blacks of male Bufflehead. 95% of the time either the whites or the blacks get totally washed out, and you end up with a silhouette. This is probably the best shot I’ve ever gotten of a male Bufflehead, with details in both the blacks and the whites,


though I’ll have to admit that I had to tone down the highlights further than seemed realistic to get the details. In real life, the white seems brighter than this and yet, somehow, manages to maintain details.

There was another black and white duck that I have also struggled to capture in photos, a male Common Merganser.


This guy was actually standing in fairly heavy shade, but it’s one of the few “closeups” I’ve ever managed to get of one out of the water so I like it quite a lot. As a result, the blacks were a little to dark to draw details from and the whites also lost details trying to correct the blacks.

Here’s a shot of a male Common Merganser in brighter light.


At this angle it’s clear that the head really isn’t solid black as it appeared in the previous shot, but is really a very dark green that shimmers in the right light. The trade-off, and there invariably seems to be one, is that there is a loss of detail in the white areas.

In an ideal world, a male Common Merganser would have stood upright and flapped its wing like this female did, but I long ago accepted the fact that I don’t live in an ideal world and was grateful that this female Common Merganser provided a little action for the day.


Of course, since it was slightly overcast the shutter speed wasn’t quite fast enough to prevent blur in the wings, but that’s okay to me because they actually appeared blurry when I saw them beating, too.

Of course, these shots would benefit from HDR, the method I use almost automatically on scenic shots nowadays, but there’s no way to combine three shots at different apertures when the subject is in motion. RAW format is the best you can do at capturing what the eye really sees.

Lake Ralphine Swan

There’s no doubt that one of the highlights of visiting Lake Ralphine in Santa Rosa is the chance to photograph the swans closeup. Although I occasionally see migrating swans in Washington, I’ve never had the chance to shoot them up close. Of course, the year-round swans in Lake Ralphine are hardly “wild,” but their beauty more than makes up for any lack of wildness.

I can’t resist the beauty of shots like this.


Eventually, though, beauty, at least “accepted” beauty, is not enough. You begin to search for new ways to see your subject. For instance, it’s probably the expressive curve of the swan’s neck that sets it apart from most birds, but a closeup like this shows better just how long that neck really is.


Seen in isolation, that neck reminds me a lot of an ostrich, not a bird that’s ever struck me as particularly “beautiful.”

Seen from a different angle, the swan’s beak seems quite remarkable,


even more so if you click on the picture to enlarge it and examine the rows of “teeth.” In the end beauty, indeed, seems to follow function.

That long, graceful neck and unique beak make it possible for the swan to find food where smaller birds would find it difficult if not impossible.

A Whirlwind Trip to Santa Rosa

After disappearing into Dragon Age Inquisition and nearly two weeks of solid rain, I gladly agreed to go with Leslie on a whirlwind trip to Santa Rosa to visit her brother Jeff and to handle some legal documents last week even though two long days of driving seems excessive for a five-day trip; our usual trips are 7 to 9 days long, and even those often haven’t seemed long enough.

Still, I managed to get in two walks around Spring Lake, one with Jeff and Leslie, and another Friday afternoon after Jeff and Debbie had taken off for home. It seemed auspicious that the first bird we saw on our walk was an Acorn Woodpecker, a bird only rarely sighted in the Pacific Northwest. Even better, the day was sunny and we were walking downhill, so the woodpecker was only slightly above us.


Although they’re not my favorite “poses,” these shots did manage to capture more detail than most of the ones I’ve taken before.


I still haven’t managed to wade through all the shots I took in California, but apparently we managed to drag some sunshine back with us so I had to walk Theler today. Not sure what’s planned for tomorrow, but if it as sunny as the weather forecast calls for I doubt I will be able to sit in front of a computer working on photos. After all, I’m sure there’s lots of rain left this winter and spring, the best time to sit inside working on a computer.

Could this really be PTSD?

Until I read this article, I was sure I hadn’t suffered from PTSD. Turns out I was wrong. In fact, I’ve long remembered the last night I had a good sleep. I just never associated with Vietnam or PTSD.

Before I went to Vietnam I was a notoriously deep sleeper, often managing to sleep right through alarms when I’d stayed up unusually late. In fact that tendency to sleep right through alarms got me into trouble more than a few times in the army. The only real mark on my military record came while taking Officer Training at Fort Knox. Somehow I managed to sleep right through the alarms and noise of everyone else heading out the door and missed a morning formation. I got to meet a colonel over that. Not something I ever wanted to repeat, but even that didn’t cure my tendency to sleep in.

After a week-long training exercise in the Mojave Desert I managed to sleep right through my turn to lead PT the next morning, even though I went to bed right after getting back from the field around 4:00 PM. I slept right through two different alarms I’d set the next morning. Worst of all, we had a rule that if you missed your turn to lead PT, you had to lead the next TWO days. I was so tired, that I eventually ended up personally leading PT for nearly two weeks before I managed to get caught up on my sleep and get up on time.

All that ended one of my first nights in Vietnam. I was awakened around 1:00 AM when the cot I was sleeping on fell over, and I awoke to the ground trembling to the sounds of guns going off all around me. Disoriented, I tried to figure out what was going on. Everyone else had long since crawled up next to the sandbags lining the walls of our tent. Luckily, as it turned out, there really weren’t any incoming rounds. The artillery unit next to us was firing at the enemy, and it was the recoil of their weapons that had shaken us awake. Still, I was shocked that I could sleep through that artillery barrage. Apparently the deepest part of my brain felt the same way, because since that night I’ve always woken up quite easily.

That’s the last time I slept soundly in Vietnam. In fact, I was so tired near the end of my tour of duty that I can distinctly remember dozing off as we headed out in my jeep to run down a sniper shooting at the engineers we were guarding. That terrified me so much that I began to take naps in the middle of the day so I could manage to stay awake at night when we were much more apt to be shot at. Still, it took me nearly three months after I returned stateside before I caught up on my sleep and managed to establish any kind of normal sleeping pattern. If the truth be known nearly 50 years later I have never managed to sleep that soundly again, and I didn’t understand why until I read:

After a traumatic experience, the body gets locked into a state of permanent alert, hypersensitive to any stimuli that might constitute a threat. In this state of chronic arousal, which is one of the principal symptoms of post-traumatic stress, the victim startles easily, is constantly irritable, and sleeps poorly. In fact, during World War I, some of the first psychiatrists who looked into the origins of war trauma believed the entire basis for postwar mental health disorders lay in this chronic mobilization of the autonomic nervous system, a system triggered by our watchdog, the amygdala (which you could almost imagine here as an aggressive pit bull barking wildly at every passerby). A number of recent studies examining the sleep patterns of combat veterans confirm this early impression. Simply put, people who have been exposed to traumatic events sleep differently than those who have not. As psychiatrist Judith Herman explains in “Trauma and Recovery,” â€œPeople with post-traumatic stress disorder take longer to fall asleep, are more sensitive to noise, and awaken more often during the night than ordinary people. Thus traumatic events appear to recondition the human nervous system.”

I didn’t realize something like this could happen to your brain, though I knew when I returned I had been conditioned to react to unusual sounds. In Vietnam it was preferable to overreact than to end up dead. Despite all the jokes and stereotypes, it never bothered me that I jumped at unexpected sounds when I first returned. It wasn’t fear; it was fine tuning as far as I was concerned.

I never tied those reactions to my sensitivity to sound and light while sleeping to my war experiences, perhaps because all the “conscious” reactions long ago disappeared. If they hadn’t, I would never have survived as a teacher for 30 years. Being a “light sleeper” has been going on so long that I accepted it as “normal.” In fact, I wonder why Leslie doesn’t wake up in the middle of the night when a Coast Guard helicopter flies over, when distant fireworks resonate through our bedroom, or when a sudden light shines through the window.

Luckily, I’ve somehow learned to adapt, to fall back to sleep quickly after I’ve figured out what woke me up or figured out that whatever it was isn’t there anymore and poses no further threat. Considering the importance doctors now place on getting a “good night’s sleep,” though, you have to wonder if these sleep patterns haven’t exacted a price over the years.

Just imagine what this blog might have been if my brain hadn’t been compromised by 50 years of sleep deprivation!?!