An Oystercatcher Family Catches My Eye

One of the joys of living where I do is being so close to the water. After a long day at work or on the weekend I can paddle in my kayak and escape the distractions of cell phones, computers, televisions, radios and anything else that competes for my attention on shore.  It restores me–if the water’s not too rough–and I emerge ready to take on the world again.  Sitting on top of the water puts me at eye-level with the nature that surrounds me. Often, those surroundings bring pleasant surprises too.

A month ago, for instance, I took an evening paddle with my sister-in-law, who was visiting, to a favorite place where I take visitors who aren’t experienced kayakers. It’s a sheltered bay where the water tends to be warmer and shallower, especially at low tide and it’s just a short paddle out to an island designated as a wildlife and bird preserve.

We had just reached the rock separated from the island at high tide but adjoined by a sandbar during low tide, when I spotted them.  Actually, I didn’t see them at first.  First I saw two sea gulls perched on the rock’s highest point, proudly sitting on a nest. Then, coming round to the rock’s southern face, I came upon the other birds. “You’re in for a treat,” I told my sister-in-law coming up behind me. “There are a couple of oystercatchers here.”

An oystercatcher looks almost comical with its orange beak and bright orange ringed eye.
An oystercatcher looks almost comical with its orange beak and bright orange ringed eye.

Indeed, sitting on a scraggly rocky shelf above the water’s edge, were a pair of the jet black and long, narrow orange-billed birds known commonly as oystercatchers. They are almost comical in appearance with that orange ring around their eyes. These shorebirds, about the size of a crow, are exciting because only an estimated 400 of them exist in Washington state.  In fact, the Northern Pacific Coast Regional Shorebird Management Plan has identified the Black Oystercatcher as a regional species “of high concern.”  This pair, I suspected, were probably the same couple I have seen in recent summers when paddling that bay because not only do these birds tend to mate for the long-term but they also return to the same territory year after year.

Then I discovered the surprise, three surprises to be exact.  Huddled up against the rock wall were three small fluffy grayish offspring. They barely resembled their parents except for their spindly legs and long beak . In the  many years that I had been paddling around this island, I never had seen oystercatcher chicks and here, now, was a complete family!

The oystercatcher parent keeps a close eye on the chick exploring on the water's edge.
The oystercatcher parent keeps a close eye on the chick exploring on the water’s edge.

My boat drifted quietly towards the rock but floated at a respectable distance so as not to frighten the birds or intrude on their nesting territory. The parents eyed me suspiciously. Satisfied that I had no aggressive intentions, they relaxed a bit. The chicks darted in and out between them, undaunted by my presence. Their beaks were not yet as brightly colored as their parents, nor were their legs. I bobbed up and down in the water watching quietly. After a long while, I backed off slipping my paddle into the water as silently as I could so as not to alarm them with my departure. The family seemed to content to let me leave.

Two weeks later, I paddled back out to the same spot to check on the young birds. They had relocated from their home on the rock over to the main island. I guessed that they had walked across at low tide as the chicks couldn’t yet fly. The family found a comfy new spot on the south side, where there was plenty of space for the five of them to move freely about. The chicks were now quite a bit larger from when I first met them.

Two of the family's chicks stroll down towards the water. They don't yet have the bright beaks nor the ability to fly.
Two of the family’s chicks stroll down towards the water. They don’t yet have the bright beaks nor the ability to fly.

Two were scrambling and playing down towards the water while mother keep a watchful eye on them (and me) from her place on the shelf above. A third chick was clinging precariously to the side of the rock, scaling it as if rock climbing. But unlike rock climbers, the young bird had no belay and when suddenly lost its footing, tumbled down several feet to the hard ground below. “Ouch!” I thought seeing it hit with a thud. Was it hurt? The concerned mother bird got up to  check on her youngster, ‘tsk-tsking’ her baby as she moved in. But in typical youngster fashion, the bird bounced back on its feet after being momentarily stunned.

The antics of these young chicks entertained me as I attempted to capture a few images of the chicks with my telephoto lens. Finally, as the sun started to set, I reluctantly turned my kayak around and started towards shore.

Whether the chicks will still be there the next time I paddle out I don’t know.  But it’s precisely these kinds of little surprises that turn an ordinary end of the day into an extraordinary adventure.

As the sun sets, the lone oystercatcher keeps guard over its island home.
As the sun sets, the lone oystercatcher keeps guard over its island home.

Summer Means Seriously Good Music at Bellingham Festival

Summer means a lot of things to a lot of people. A time to vacation, a time to spend long days lounging in the sun, a time to kick back and enjoy the outdoors, and a time to take in some top-notch music in some surprising places.  That’s right, music festivals seem to be synonymous with summer.  No matter your tastes in music, you can pretty much find a festival for it.  I live in one of those places.  In fact, the Bellingham Festival of Music was one of the reasons my husband and I chose to move to this Northwest Washington city. At the time that we were considering relocation, we were astonished to discover this community, located just a few miles from the Canadian border, where, for two weeks in July, you could pick a performance with world-class classical playing in concert halls that seated no more than 500 people.  It reminded me of so many small European cities where music is part of not only the culture, but fabric of daily life.

We have long since become huge fans of the Bellingham Festival of Music,, and set aside those two weeks every year to attend at least some, if not all, the concerts.  The festival has evolved through the years, as good ones do.  It struggled a few years ago to survive financially, but thanks to a dedicated board of directors and loyal followers, the festival emerged stronger than ever.

Conductor Michael Palmer leads the Bellingham Festival of Music orcehstra in its 21st season now underway.
Conductor Michael Palmer leads the Bellingham Festival of Music orchestra in its 21st season now underway.

The festival orchestra, under the baton of conductor Michael Palmer, is like a finely tuned instrument. Many of the members have now played together for years here so that instincts nearly take over when it comes to anticipating what both the conductor and the music demand. It is no wonder. Among their number are principal players from major orchestras across the country, who, for two weeks, alight in Bellingham to enjoy the incredible summer weather in a spectacular natural setting while performing classical music for an appreciative, yet discerning, audiences from Bellingham and the neighboring cities of Seattle and Vancouver B.C.

Oboist Joe Robinson
Oboist Joe Robinson plays at a private home event as part of the 2013 Bellingham Festival of Music. The event was a fund-raiser and farewell party for Robinson who was principal oboist for the festival’s orchestra until the end of the 2013 season.

Thanks to the festival, I’ve heard some memorable music in what I’d describe as ‘intimate’ settings for the musicians onstage.  Performances such as the with international opera star Josie Perez singing the title role in a staged version of Carmen in the 1,500-seat Mount Baker Theatre which sold out that concert.  Or the recital in nearby Mount Vernon’s 300-seat McIntyre Hall–acoustically designed by those who also did Seattle’s renown Benaroya Hall–by then principal oboist of the New York Philharmonic, Joe Robinson. Or the chamber music concert at Mount Baker’s ski lodge staged against he snow-capped mountains.

Last night, the Music Festival kicked off its 21st season with another first-class  program including  Prokofiev’s Violin Concerto No. 2 in G minor with soloist Stefan Jackiw.  This was Jackiw’s third time at the festival.   This 29-year-old violinist quickly became a festival favorite after making his initial appearance in 2010.  His international acclaim has soared as well with the Washington Post music writer describing him as possessing “talent that’s off the scale.” That talent clearly apparent at last evening’s performance as the handsome young man, of Korean and German parents, gave concert-goers yet another stunning musical memory.

Violinist Stefan Jakiw first appeared with the Bellingham Festival of Music Orchestra in 2010.
Violinist Stefan Jackiw’ first appeared with the Bellingham Festival of Music Orchestra in 2010.

This year, I’m especially excited about the upcoming performances this week by an up and coming young string quartet that is winning both recognition and awards all over the world. And, the violist is a locally grown young man named Jeremy Berry.  Known as the Calidore String Quartet,, this musical foursome got its start at Los Angeles’ Colburn Conservatory of Music where Jeremy had gone to continue his musical studies after graduating from the Julliard School of  Music.  Together the quartet, that also includes violinists Jeffrey Myers and Ryan Meehan and cellist Estelle Choi, are charming and impressing audiences and collecting grand prizes at prestigious chamber music competitions such as the Fishoff, Coleman, Chesapeake, and Yellow Springs. They are well on their way to becoming one of the next outstanding chamber music groups and it’s a treat to have them on the schedule at the Bellingham Festival of Music.

The Calidore String Quartet visits the Pacific Northwest to perform with the Bellingham Festival of Music orchestra in a concert at Western Washington University. The quartet will also play in recital during the music festival's 2014 summer season.
The Calidore String Quartet visits the Pacific Northwest to perform with the Bellingham Festival of Music orchestra in a concert at Western Washington University. The quartet will also play in recital during the music festival’s 2014 summer season.

On Tuesday, July 8, they will join the Festival Orchestra onstage to perform Elgar’s Introduction and Allegro for Strings, Op. 47. This is a technically difficult piece, particularly for the quartet’s violinist (the composer was himself a violinist). It will give the Calidore a chance to show just how well they can handle what has become a solid part of the chamber orchestra repertoire. That performance will be followed on Thursday, July 10 with a recital by the Calidore.  The evening’s line-up includes Beethoven’s string quartet, Op. 18, No. 1; Tenebrae by contemporary Argentine-born composer Osvaldo Golijov, and Schubert’s String Quartet No. 14 in D minor, known as “Death and the Maiden,” after the composer’s earlier song on which the second movement is based. Both concerts will take place in Western Washington University’s Performing Arts Center. Tickets are still available.

While this is the Quartet’s first solo artist appearance with the Festival, they have played in Bellingham previously as part of  ‘Play it Forward’, a collaborative program by the Bellingham Music Festival and the Whatcom Symphony during which musicians perform and play in area schools. The Calidore String Quartet  blew away audiences with their performances so much so that the Festival engaged them for this year’s summer schedule.

The  Festival also sponsors a Welcome Home series  in the spring that features young musicians who are currently studying music performance at a major university or conservatory of music. It gives young musicians an opportunity to perform, enriches the Bellingham community and helps start a career.

In addition, the Festival sponsors ‘master classes’ with guest artists and principal players from the festival orchestra with university-level music students.  The classes are free and open to the public and provide yet one more opportunity to experience classical music in a special, intimate way. A few years ago, I sat in on a master class with piano virtuoso Leon Fleischer. He was so generous, enlightening and understanding in his interaction with the students who played for him that day.

With last night’s concert, the Bellingham Music Festival is off to another great start of creating yet more memorable musical performances. For those of us who live here, it is an extraordinary opportunity to hear world-class music right in our neighborhood.  For those of you who don’t, it’s worth planning a visit to our little part of the world.



Having a Blast in the Big Apple

My memories of the Fourth of July are mostly of awakening to the sounds of firecrackers popping off somewhere in the small town in Kansas where I grew up.  As soon as I could get myself dressed, I’d be out there too with my little brothers lighting a string of Black Cats, setting off sticks of sparklers, or watching a jet black pellet, sold as a ‘snake’  grow into a delicate twisting cylinder of carbon ash when a match was held to it.   But three years ago, I was treated to a different kind of Fourth of July, an aerial spectacular staged in the largest city in the U.S.–Fourth of July New York City style.

I arrived in the city with my husband early that morning on a flight from London where we had been visiting friends.  My cousins, Terry and John, who live in Manhattan, asked us to join them for their holiday celebration that evening if we weren’t too jet-lagged.  One of the things I love about travel is the opportunity to experience how other parts of the country or the world celebrate holidays.  So when my cousins extended their invitation,  I was going to be there. By flying in the early, we could go my son’s apartment, shower and clean up and then grab a nap in order to be awake for the festivities that night. Falling asleep wasn’t hard, as neither of us had dozed much on the seven-hour flight across the Atlantic.  Waking up in time to go to Terry and John’s was harder.

Old Glory hung from the balcony faded by the sunset and offering a glimpse of the high rises behind.
Old Glory hung from the balcony faded by the sunset and offering a glimpse of the high rises behind.

But by early evening, I was ready to party. We hopped a cab across town to my cousins’ apartment building in Chelsea. They had recently moved from the first floor to the tenth floor. One side of their three bedroom apartment faced towards the Hudson River, where the fireworks show was to be that year. Macy’s, the department store that sponsors the big event, rotates the show every other year between the East River and the Hudson River, so as to give New Yorkers living on both sides of the island a fair chance to see it.  Terry and John’s place couldn’t have been a more perfect place from which to watch that year’s extravaganza.

The colors of the sunset itself against New York's skyline rivaled that of the fireworks that were to come on this Fourth of July.
The colors of the sunset itself against New York’s skyline rivaled that of the fireworks that were to come on this Fourth of July.

Folding deck chair filled their little balcony so everyone could sit for the show. At one end of the balcony, John was manning the grill where hot dogs and hamburgers were sizzling hot.  This was a backyard barbecue, Manhattan style. Terry, who’s a great cook, had all the trimmings ready as well as some tasty side dishes and a dessert just in case you got hungry later. When you stepped in off the balcony to ‘dress’ your dog or burger, you could still catch the pyrotechnic spectacle being broadcast live on the living room’s big screen television. That option also included live performances by various entertainers that took place on Liberty Island before and during the big show.

From the balcony, we could see a steady stream of people heading down towards the river hoping to stake out a good observation point.  Their arms were loaded with picnic baskets, bags of food, folding chairs and ice chests as if they were camping there for a week.  Thousands of excited kids and their parents scurried down the streets, looking like, from our vantage point high above them, little ants in one of those clear plastic ant houses.


Sky rockets burst around a New York high rise like a halo of light.
Sky rockets burst around a New York high rise like a halo of light.

Excitement mounted as darkness descended over the city’s skyline. The first of the big fireworks went trailing high into the sky and at its pinnacle burst into sparkles of color.  Our little party all ‘oohed’  together as people always seem to do when watching fireworks en masse.  Five or six barges had been anchored in the middle of the river and loaded with nearly 30-minutes worth of sky rockets, giant cones and Roman candles that sped high over the skyline when ignited before exploding into bright, chrysanthemum-like bouquets against the black sky.  Each subsequent explosion seemed bigger and better than the last and elicited even grander expressions of delight from our balcony full of celebrants.  I couldn’t imagine anyone not being thrilled by this cosmopolitan Independence Day display.

For me, it was a very different venue from anywhere I had been.  I had watched fireworks erupt over the empty ball field in my home town, seen the shows spread out all over Los Angeles’ San Fernando Valley from a friend’s hillside backyard and watched the late night pyrotechnics over Bellingham’s bay. Now I experienced the Fourth set against a backdrop of skyscrapers silhouetted by the bursting embers of light that drifted slowly down into the Hudson.

The exploding sprays of revolutionary red fireworks silhouetted the water tower atop one of the nearby buildings during the Fourth of July spectacular.
The exploding sprays of revolutionary red fireworks silhouetted the water tower atop one of the nearby buildings during the Fourth of July spectacular.

I photographed what I could, steadying my camera on the balcony railing and shooting through the fine mesh protective screen that enclosed my cousin’s balcony. It wasn’t the best of shooting conditions but it was definitely the best of evenings.  When it was over, we cheered and watched as exuberant spectators below headed home or joined friends to continue the festivities elsewhere. The mood was definitely as bombastic as the show we had just witnessed.  This was a Fourth of July that I have cataloged as one of  my most memorable.  For what could be better than celebrating our national holiday with family, friends and fireworks in such a great city and setting?

Shooting Fireworks

I’m reblogging (is there such a word?) this post of mine from a couple years ago in case some of you want to give a go at shooting frieworks tomorrow night. Good luck!

Photo Prose

It’s inevitable.  Every Fourth of July I see someone watching the big fireworks display pull out their point and shoot camera from their pocket or purse, aim it skyward and fire, hoping to capture the pyrotechnic  pageant.  More often than not, they are disappointed with the results.   I’m here to tell you how not to let that happen that to you should you decide that you simply must record the spectacle visually.

First off, turn off that flash!  Can’t tell you how many people don’t and what they end up with is a lovely view of the person’s head sitting in front of them.

Secondly, dial-up the ISO setting on your camera if it has that ability.  The higher the ISO the better chance you have at capturing the explosions as they appear rather than as big blurs that aren’t quite identifiable in the night sky.  A higher ISO…

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