Each month a prize-winning photograph from the archives of the Crozet Calendar will be published together with a story from the photographer of how the image was made and commentary by Sam Abell about the merits of the photograph.
On New Year’s Eve, 1999, I was with friends gathered to celebrate the transition of one day, one month, one year, one decade, one century and one millennium to another. The occasion could scarcely have been more momentous, so someone asked each of us to declare what we wanted in the future.
The answers ranged from global—“World peace.”u—to personal—“The courage to seek a fairer price for the work I do.” When it came to me, I said, “I’d like to see an owl up close.” A naturalist in the group said, “That’s very possible. I’ll help you do that.” It’s no fault of his, but twenty years later I still haven’t seen an owl—from any distance.
Maybe that’s part of the reason I envy Liz Palmer’s intimate portrait of a large barred owl. She saw it up close. But there are other reasons to admire the image. They have to do with the astute decisions Liz made “in the moment.” And there’s a significant back story as to why the owl was there in the first place.
But first Liz’s recollection of the episode:
“I was doing dishes at my kitchen window when I saw the bird. I grabbed my camera, quietly went out the front door and took a picture from the doorstep. I then repositioned myself a bit to refine the composition. But I was concerned that too much movement would cause the bird to fly away. I was quite close and was amazed that the owl was not scared off.”
Anyone who has ever tried to photograph wildlife knows Liz did the right thing by being observant, then stealthy. She further improved the image by shifting her stance slightly to clarify the composition. All of that matters, and the results of Liz’s actions are in her fine photograph. But why were Liz and the owl in such close proximity?
Keen to know where she made photographs like the owl, I asked her where in western Albemarle she looked for subjects.
“Actually, I use my own yard. I’ve planted it to attract wildlife and to have an attractive scene from my large kitchen window. I think of my yard as a painting that changes with the seasons.
“I try to keep a good percentage of native plants going despite the deer. I’ve planted paw paw and flowering plants that attract native insects along with berry producers like spice bush. I also like to keep my carport a bit messy which helps support a healthy supply of mice for critters to eat. I also have a compost pile—for vegetable matter only. I do not have bird feeders because they bring other problems.
“The large rhododendron in the picture is Rhododendron Maximum, a native Appalachian form that blooms mid-June. It makes a beautiful backdrop for any subject at all times of the year. And it attracts a large variety of pollinators when it blooms. The Japanese Maple in the upper left corner adds an interesting touch of color when it can be incorporated. I would have liked seeing more of it in this picture but then the owl would have overlapped the tree—which, I might add, branches at a right angle making a great perch for birds.
“We have lots of wildlife around our house. We had a bear with three cubs last summer on our front walkway. Pileated woodpeckers are common along with fox, possums, skinks, snakes and of course the ever-present deer.”
“Insects are a favorite subject of mine to photograph. But there have been significant changes over the last 20 years in the insect population—Luna and IO moths are rare now. The large stick bugs are also rare, as are a host of giant insects such as the Hercules beetles.”
Liz has been a photographer for some time. “I started taking pictures when I was a teenager. When my kids were young, I practiced photography by taking pictures of them every day. We lived in Pittsburgh and spent a lot of time in the Phipps conservatory taking pictures. I managed to get one of my children hired by two different modeling agencies based on portraits made in the conservatory. Today he enjoys saying that he was working before he entered the first grade and was able to put some money away.
“Writing this account of the owl is inspiring me to carry my camera again. Last week I found myself very close to a bald eagle in my back yard but had no camera.”
Liz’s fine photograph—and the transformation of her yard into a “native plants haven” for wildlife—has inspired me as well. I’m reconsidering “the clean look” I’ve given my yard. I like that look. But maybe it’s why I haven’t seen an owl this century.