Just a few miles along the Newfoundland coast from the kelp of last week is the Cape St. Mary’s Ecological Reserve, a haven for sea birds of nearly a dozen main species. Most were gone by mid-September, but there were still many thousands of northern gannets, graceful birds with gold-dusted heads and necks, and a nearly six-foot wingspan.
The gannets cover Bird Rock quite thickly, amounting to several thousands on this single sea stack. Viewers can see them from across a narrow gap, and the birds seem to pay no mind at all. Greater numbers nest on neighboring cliffs that are less isolated, though still protected by the reserve. Despite the density, the gannets manage to find their nests even when returning after a year. By the way, if you look closely, you’ll discover some dark-feathered birds in these images, sub-adults (less than four years old) that have not yet attained mature coloring. Not being a birder and this not a birding blog, I’ll spare you most of what I learned from our knowledgeable official guide, Chris, who also happened to be our B&B host. I’ll just mention that perhaps the most amusing behavior was a sort of sparring with the beak, called a courtship ritual in this short video, but actually used more widely as a family greeting.
Now I’m not much of a wildlife photographer, though I have been stalking (or stalked by) deer lately. But birds are fascinating for their movement, so I thought I’d try extending the approach of letting motion register by using longer exposures, as I’ve done with water and, more recently, the seaweed. It’s hardly a novel concept, and I’m sure it’s been applied to birds by many others, despite my impression that the vast majority of bird photography is more about stopping motion to get a sharper, more detailed image of the bird itself. No doubt there are other photographs out there similar to mine. Nevertheless, I haven’t seen any yet, so please send links to any you know of.
None of the photographs, I can safely say, are particularly noteworthy, but what I found interesting was the power of a symbol to hijack the project. Can you guess what it was? Warning: spoiler in the next paragraph.
As soon as I examined on the camera display the first image of a gannet in flight, gliding past the cliff, white wings spread and softened by the motion blur, I thought of angels. I began seeing the flying birds as a protective presence, watching over the ones huddled against the (dark) rock. Like the jingle you can’t get out of your head, that was the idea I had in mind as I continued to capture images, aiming deliberately (to the estent possible) for the similarly suggestive. What do you think: does the idea come through In the selection here? Does anything else come to mind?
There’s no good reason not to think of something else. To the extent the angel impression is evoked, reality has likely been distorted. There’s no evidence of any guardian role in gannets. In fact, as naturalist Chris put it, the birds swooping about the rock seem to fly for the love of flying. They embody and represent the freedom to go where they will. That’s equally strong cultural symbology (and more universal), which seems to be at odds with the notion that the colony is in need of protection. If we’re doing symbols, I don’t mind drawing on either version; both seem powerful and, in some sense, appealing. But it may be their conflict is responsible for the images not working well. Or perhaps I’m exaggerating out of all proportion the role of symbolism, and these come across as just plain images of gannets at home. How do they strike you? And has a symbol ever done you in?