Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Devil Birds

I had been hiking for a while now.  The ambient temperature was 14° F (-10° C), which was comfortable.  A few years ago my outdoor wardrobe experienced some natural base layer enhancement courtesy of merino wool, which is a miracle fiber.  Like your garden variety wool it insulates even when wet, but against the skin it does not itch and feels like fleece.  Inexplicably it can also stave off odors for a remarkable amount of time, and it breathes extraordinarily well.  I was glad to have my Icebreakers on this occasion.  Incidentally, if you are one of my fly fishing readers, merino socks by this company are the dog's bollocks (meaning badass in the UK) for cold weather wading.

Chukar partridge were my goal for the day.  Early in the Fall it's often possible to locate a covey by listening for calls, but typical of this time of year it was dead quiet.  Wild birds soon realize their chatter is giving them away, and they start dishing out the silent treatment.

Hiking in the steep, rocky talus that chukars love with a 14-pound camera rig offers a pucker factor of about 9.0.  Opportunities can be so unexpected and fleeting, I've never been able to successfully make use of a tripod, monopod, harness, or pack.  It's all free-hand.  At double the weight of a typical shotgun, and with the awkward size/shape of a big telephoto, the visual is like watching someone Riverdance on a cliff face while cradling a huge baby.

Presently due to insubordination on the part of my pulmonary system I stopped to catch a breather in a large boulder field.  About 3 weeks ago I acquired the felicity of walking pneumonia and am still feeling the effects.  After a minute or two, what I can only describe as a chukar whisper seemed to emanate from the rocks to my immediate left.  The sound was barely audible, and far more subdued than I had ever heard before.  My thought was that the call must have been more distant and I'd experienced a sound effect in the strewn boulders.

Following a few seconds of questioning the wisdom of combining thin air with cough syrup, I heard it again - "chuk-chuk."  There were partridge about, and they were close.  Really close - within feet.  Over the last 25 or so years, I've hiked, hunted, scouted, and photographed in chukar habitat hundreds of times, and I can't say that I've ever managed to get nearer than 15 yards.  Until now.

 Wild Chukar Partridge - Spitting Distance

18 feet in front of me a mature, well-marked bird hopped up on a rock and was positioned ideally to catch the morning sun.  Had I not been forewarned by the muted calls, which enabled me to raise my lens just in time, I have no doubt a flush would have been instantaneous.  As it was, I captured a short series of images from spitting distance.  At this range I believe my Sitka Gear Open Country camouflage probably made a huge difference, allowing me blend in under point blank scrutiny.

See No Evil

This was a great way to finish out 2011 - with a humbling opportunity that I was privileged to see through the viewfinder. 

Wild Chukar Partridge - 6 Yards

Nikon D300
Nikon 400mm f/2.8 VR - f/8, 1/320, ISO 400
Distance to Subject - 6 Yards/18 Feet

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