The Loafing Log

The Loafing Log, Manistee County, MI US National Forest

About 6 yeas ago I was working on a documentary on Trumpeter Swans called Seasons of the Swans. One spring morning it was raining lightly and I couldn't film so I decided to explore.

The swans that I was filming were nesting in the back waters of rivers where they could raise baby cygnets without worrying about the current. Looking at satellite images I found a similar looking spot in a place I'd never visited before. I found a dirt road that got me reasonably close to the water and then started hiking. The water was at the bottom of a steep bowl shaped hill.

I was amazed when the Aurora Borealis started showing up! I'm heading up to the Hudson Bay this week and I thought that I might have a chance to see the Northern Lights there, but I had no thought of seeing it in Michigan before leaving.

As I walked along a deer trail on the top of the hill I was thrilled to hear the unmistakable trumpet call of a Trumpeter Swan somewhere down below me! When I finally got to the bottom I found a pair of swans nesting in the cattails. I was excited that not only had I found a new nest to work with, but I had a new confidence that I was getting to know the birds well enough that I could look at satellite images and figure out where I could find them.

If you've ever seen the Rites of Spring episode of the Seasons of the Swans the adult swans with the three new cygnets at the very last scene are the ones that I found that day. Now, six years later, I'm still photographing this same pair and their babies.

This year the same pair of swans have five cygnets. This weekend I spend the best part of a day photographing this family of Trumpeter Swans from my kayak. Adding day seven to my version of the 12 days of Christmas.

Usually I will stop working when the light becomes over head and harsh, but this time I used the difference between the light and shadows to make images with a dramatic contrast. I photographed the swans on a floating "Loafing Log" where the hill in the background was in deep shadow and I purposely underexposed the scene to keep the details of the white feathers and to highlight the birds.

The birds with their wings partially open are youngsters. I have not seen them fly, so Ęthey may not have fledged yet. To get airborne they have to run across the water to pick up enough speed to lift off. Their wings are up to 8 feet wide and when they are trying to take off the wings are also beating the water. Its quite a commotion to see.

On the loafing log the swans were busy preening, working on each feather. Once they are all done they spread their wings and with a few snaps every last feather is shaken into place.

As I watched the youngsters hold their wings out I felt like there was an urgency in their motions, a deep seated desire to beat their wings, feel the air ruffle their feathers and finally be floating through the air above the land, floating in the sky instead of the water, fulfilling their destiny to fly.

Eventually I realized I'd last eaten 19 hours before and the rumbling I was hearing was not thunder but my stomach. I slowly paddled away, leaving the swan family to enjoy the rest of the day.

On the journey back my mind was filled with thoughts of their, and my, manifest destinies in the days to come.

(A word about the photo technique. Current cameras can not capture the same range of light and color that the human eye can see, we see a much higher dynamic range of color. If the background is much darker than the highlights and you expose for the highlights then the background will go to black, which is what I did here. I leaned far back in the kayak to isolate the swans against shadows, and then I underexposed the image to retain the highlights in the white birds. In post processing I cropped out some light reflections in the foreground that were distracting and increased the contrast. This look is called low key. High key is the opposite effect, where the background has gone to white, you can see examples of high key at and