When chill winds whip up Columbia River riffles on short winter days, the tree-lined ponds at the McNary Wildlife Nature Area near Umatilla provide a welcome sanctuary for migrating water birds.
So meeting nature and wildlife photographers Chuck and Grace Bartlett plying their craft there on a sunny mid-November day made sense.
I spotted Chuck's professional gear from across a pond. His head and tripod (with camera) were visible above the tall weeds.
To avoid appearing too curious (or just plain nosey) about his gear and his techniques, I followed Nora the Schnauzer the long way around the pond.
Many mallards, widgeons and hooded mergansers paddled away from the shore as we passed.
We paused at a shelter with an observation window and watched (I lifted Nora) birds for a few minutes.
Nora repeatedly smelled or heard birds, rodents or rabbits in the sage bushes along the trail. Excited, she stretched her leash taught and tried to pull me in after them.
Finally, we reached the professional photographer and his setup. His tripod and cameras, along with a lawn chair, stood ready between two ponds.
He waited for fowl to fly over.
And they did.
"Hi," I said. "Looks like you may be serious about taking photos."
"Well, it's what I do," he said in a friendly voice.
And we went from there.
Chuck, whose photographer wife Grace worked at another pond, used a Canon EOS 40D camera with a 400-milemeter, f/2 lens (long and fast) mounted on a sturdy tripod with a gimbal head (for smooth circular and vertical movement).
The camera's APS-C-sized format (a 1.6 focal-length multiplier) extends the lens to about a 640mm. Plus, Chuck used something like a 1.5 extender that added more to the focal length.
So, that means it reaches very close to distant subjects and captures sharp images of them, even of birds in flight.
He mentioned working with about 80,000 images over the years.
After Chuck retired from a career in fishery research with the federal government in the early '80s, he and Grace took up serious nature and wildlife photography.
You may see some of his images at C & G Photography on the Internet at www.chuckandgracebartlett.com.
So, they have a working library of many thousands of photos that they sell to and publish for magazines, calendars, books, greeting cards and so on.
Their clients include several popular outdoor magazines and sportsmen's associations (National Rifle Association, Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, etc.) along with federal and state wildlife agencies. They also sell photos to private individuals.
As we spoke, several ducks flushed from the pond to our right and passed overhead.
With a quick reflex, Chuck swiveled and pointed the camera skyward in one motion while firing off a burst of frames.
At his gesture, I stepped forward. He swung the camera and leaned it so I could see the LCD window.
"Nice," I said.
The sharp, vivid image of a three-duck formation on the wing filled the window.
"I should be able to find a market for it," he said modestly.
Eventually, Chuck called his wife's cell phone, and she agreed to meet me at their vehicle and give me their business card.
After we met Grace and their happy Yorki, whose name I forgot, Nora and I continued touring the nature area.
We met a family fishing at one pond, saw a dozen young night herons in a tree and a painted turtle sunning (in November?) on a limb in another pond.
We had parked near the dam, so we crossed a couple of bridges and toured along a boardwalk.
In another surprise, I spotted a motionless vole (or mouse?) in the middle of a path. Nora walked past it, so I took several photos before it dashed into the sage.
By the time we reached the wagon again, the sunlight had nearly faded away. We closed the doors against the chill afternoon winds and headed home.
Contact Don Davis at email@example.com.
If You Go
To reach McNary Dam and the wildlife nature area, take Highway 12 for 30 miles west of Walla Walla to Wallulah Junction. Continue left on Highway 730 for 24 miles to Umatilla Heights. Turn right at the exit to the dam. The nature area is below the dam, with several access points.
For information about the wildlife nature area search for "McNary Wildlife Nature Area" with the Internet's Google search engine.