Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Vancouver Lake This Morning

It feels like summer in southern Washington folks--sunny, 70 degrees--we're enjoying it. I took the opportunity this morning to drive out early to Vancouver Lake to see the sunrise and scout for waterfowl photography (and hunting!) areas.

At the first beep from my obnoxious alarm I involuntarily flew out of bed and silenced it...but it was too late. I remembered why I was getting up early and I was already too awake to go back to sleep. My alarm never does any good unless it's out of arm's reach :)

The interstate was really slow as I approached Clark College, but I was able to skip that and get right on Fourth Plain Blvd. which took me out to the Vancouver Lake lowlands. It seemed that the intense fog would prevent a productive morning, but actually it produced some amazing lighting effects as the sun mounted above the trees.

This little Barn Swallow was so cold he didn't want to move, which suited me just fine. I love the light and colors in this photo.

Though I only saw a few ducks (no water yet), geese were flying everywhere and would often come close enough for some decent shots (with a camera you understand...at least until goose season opens :)

The main reason I like to get out super early is that (it's good for me!...) wildlife is always more active at dawn and dusk, and the light is much prettier (instead of harsh midday light, you get a more diffused orange glow).

I enjoyed every moment of being out there in the marsh, and when I got to class by 10:00 I couldn't help but wonder if most of my classmates even know what it's like to witness something so beautiful.

Monday, October 15, 2007

Latest Artwork

I recently entered the following paintings and drawings in the American Birding Association's Young Birder of the Year contest (find more about it here). Last year I entered three of the four modules and got second place overall, but this year in a determined effort to achieve first prize, I ambitiously set out to compete in all four categories: illustration, which involves painting and drawing birds that interest you, field notebook, where you observe and sketch live wild birds (this is hard, believe me--it forces you to look very closely and remember the tiniest of details, thank goodness I won an excellent binocular in last year's contest!), photography, and writing essays about your bird-related experiences and observations. The whole project nearly swallowed me alive, but I persevered and pulled it off. Even though I have a procrastination problem, the intensity of those final moments before the deadline really gets me motivated again. I hope you enjoy my work.

"A Matter of Life and Death"--Western Kingbird
graphite on watercolor paper, 9x12"

"Pier Pressure"--American White Pelicans
acrylic on illustration board, 11x14"

"Brer Big-eyes"--Western Screech Owl
pen&ink on illustration board, 9x12"

"Lewis and Clark"--Lewis' Woodpecker and Clark's Nutcracker
pen &ink and watercolor on watercolor paper, 9x12"

"Poised for the Kill"--Peregrine Falcon
pen&ink on foamboard, 9x12"

Friday, October 12, 2007

Jose Can You See?

Jose Can You See?
New lyrics by Tony Polito and Steve Bryant
(The last National Anthem you’ll ever need.)

Jose can you see, there is no fence in sight?
Once we get there, I hear, they will never send us back.
We won’t pay any tax; they won’t put up a fight.
Send all our kids to school, even though it’s just not right.

We can go on welfare; we’ll have money to spare.
Cause Congress is blind and George Bush doesn’t care.
We walked across the border, we didn’t need any boats.
Now the Liberals love us, politicians want our votes.

Hear it sung here

You're Only Young Once

The following is another essay that I entered in the Young Birder of the Year competition a few weeks ago. Hope you enjoy it.


You’re Only Young Once: A Collection of Birding Memories

By Benjamin Berkompas, June 19, 2007

The metronomic beeping of my watch alarm slowly brought me to consciousness, and I drowsily fumbled around on the shelves above me to find the culprit and silence it. By the time I retrieved my watch and groaned at the early hour it displayed, I finally recalled the reason why I had it set for 6:00. Slipping quietly out of bed, I put on some warm clothes, shouldered my camera bag and with binoculars in hand set out through the pre-dawn gloom of the forest toward my destination. The brisk morning air restored me to complete wakefulness. After wading through the dew-laden ferns and grass I was soaked, but on a morning like that you hardly notice. Birds were singing and foraging energetically in the canopy, and after exiting the forest I wound my way through a maze of clear-cut state land dotted with young pine trees and finally reached my familiar little gravel road. The sun had just crested the surrounding hills and bathed the road in golden light. I enjoyed a few hours photographing Golden-crowned, White-crowned and Song Sparrows at my feeding station, nothing really special. Nonetheless, mornings like that remain some of my fondest birding memories. For birders, there’s nothing quite like rising with the sun.

Even though I’ve only been seriously birding for about a year and a half (at the time I’m writing this), I have a certain nostalgia for the “early days,” when I assumed Varied Thrushes must be some kind of Oriole (“they’ve got orange on them, what else could they be!”), and almost every bird I identified was a lifer (“what’s a lifer?” ☺). Everything was new and exciting, and I was blissfully ignorant. It’s kind of embarrassing to share this but in my very first attempt at “birding” I sauntered into the woods, threw some birdseed in a clearing and sat down to wait for the birds to throng to it! Here’s a brief excerpt from my journal, a real-time account of my first glimpse of a Red-breasted Sapsucker:

May 15, 2006
“Leaving the house at about 6:40 a.m., I arrived at my destination on state land at about 7:00 a.m. The weather is slightly overcast and cool—though later it’s supposed to escalate to about 90o… I’m hearing songbirds all around me but have yet to actually see one…wait, I just did. It flew very fast but looked a little smaller than a robin—with a bright red head, and white breast speckle-fading into it’s black body. It didn’t fly like a finch, but very fast and smooth. I didn’t notice it’s call. It may have been some kind of tanager or woodpecker, but it will be hard to identify on so few clues…”

In some ways I think I learned more back then, not only because I was wandering through a vast forest of new information and there was so much to discover, but because I walked with my eyes wide open. Once I stopped trusting my intuition to identify unfamiliar species, I had to observe and remember every possible detail to use later as I pored over Sibley’s. Since I’m the first dedicated birder in the family, I had to start from scratch, but as some of my younger siblings have gotten interested (no, fanatical!) it’s been funny to watch them grow. I’ll be sitting at my desk studying when all of the sudden I hear kids scampering to the window and Zachary shouts, “Hey, Benj! There’s a new bird at your feeder!” Oh yeah, it’s a Black-throated Gray Warbler. “Wow, cooool!”

I said I was learning with open eyes, but the truth is, in birding, your eyes are only as good as your binoculars. Back then my vision wasn’t exactly 20/20! But using an inexpensive Simmons 8x20 binocular was helpful in a few ways; I was able to fully appreciate the leap to a nice antique Nikon 7x35 binocular that my late grandfather used in the military, and then of course the view through my new Leica Trinovid 8x32’s made my jaw drop all the further. If there ever comes a day when I’m not satisfied with my Leicas (like that will ever happen!), maybe a peek through the old 8x20’s will cure me.

Another experience that cracks me up to think about it happened about a year ago in our yard. I decided I wanted to sketch and photograph the birds that frequent our lawn in the early morning, and since they always seemed to be so skittish a blind seemed to be the solution. Well, how does one go about making a blind? Maybe you could construct a simple square frame with sticks bound together and then duct-tape black plastic garbage bags around the outside?... It wasn’t a bad feat of engineering, aside from the fact that it was about 9 square feet and really ugly! The next morning I was up bright and early sitting on a stool in my blind with some birdseed, a sketchbook, digital camera and my laptop to assess my photos. Though it seems pretty silly now, that morning was a lot of fun. I saw and photographed a pair of Mourning Doves foraging in the grass, which isn’t a common sight for us. The blind soon succumbed to the weather, but even though I’ve since replaced it with a Grizzly G-20 pop-up blind, that remains my best birding-from-a-blind memory.

Every winter the Robins hand over their lawn care duties to the Orioles—oops I mean Varied Thrushes!—which are everywhere but extremely wary. After many frustrating attempts to photograph them, I struck upon an idea. A flock of about 12—sometimes as many as 20—liked to congregate on one side of the house to forage in the grass, and happily we have a collapsible canopy right next to the lawn. With my Minolta 5D and 100-400mm lens mounted on a monopod, I crept into the tent, positioned myself in one corner and carefully undid the fastenings so I could peek out. Some of the more alert thrushes cocked their heads but showed no signs of alarm. Then followed a fun hour of shooting. A few days later a lone VATH perched sleepily in the Japanese Maple by our front porch, and I was able to easily capture full-frame images of one of our prettiest thrushes. They sure bring a bit of color to our dreary Northwest winters.

The good memories always last the longest. It doesn’t bring me a lot of pleasure to recall the times I’ve loaded myself up with gear like a pack mule , hiking many weary miles only to come home empty-handed and thirsty. But I’ve been learning every step of the way, and that always involves some ridiculous errors. Remembering the first time I saw a Black-headed Grosbeak, and my first experience photographing hummingbirds with my Dad always makes me glad for those early days. Some things only happens once, and good thing too, or I would still be out in the woods sitting on a stump with a handful of birdseed just waiting.
I've posted a few thoughts on art on my other blog (bberkomart.blogspot.com). Have any comments? Post 'em here, the other blog won't accept them.

Monday, October 08, 2007


I don't know how you feel about confronting people on their beliefs, but please realize that if you don't tell them what they need to hear the chances are, nobody will. Last week, I submitted a binder full of essays and a poem into the ABA's Young Birder of the Year contest (birds are a serious hobby of mine), and I tried to tailor each piece to clearly reflect my faith. At first I questioned this approach. "What if I offend someone, and decrease my chances?" But then I remembered that Christians are not called to blend in and simply tell the world what it wants to hear. I wrote a poem that directly and unashamedly questions the prevalant evolutionary worldview of our day, addressed specifically to bird-lovers. Forgive my freestyle approach to poetry, all I wanted to do was communicate a message.

This Must Be God’s Hand
Benjamin Berkompas, September 23, 2007

No one can truly understand what they see every day,
Although they think they grasp the meaning, the purpose, the end,
They merely grasp the wind, and are themselves
Swayed by every gust that comes from mans’ mouth
Until they humbly bow and recognize
That only One could have done this.

Some point their finger to the sky and stare
At swirling swallows gliding overhead,
Feathers glistening emerald and violet in the light,
But never once do they entertain the thought
That perhaps they have been lied to,
Perhaps they have been wrong.

Could that sparrow on the housetop,
Or that heron in the marsh, or the tiny brown
Wrens that fill the woodland with their song,
Or the dove that sits supinely in the sun,
Could all this be chance, the mere random work of time
An accident?

How can you believe that when you look across a lake
And through the mist discern a mother loon with her young,
Cooing and tenderly caring for their needs,
Or watch a hawk poised alert above a silent field,
Eyeing the grass intently, sensing all movement.
How can you believe that this just happened?

Such intricate beauty, such perfect design
Can it truly be mistaken for random chance and time?
If you still can’t understand, are yet blind to the truth
Find a single feather and hold it to the light;
Each hair dyed a subtle hue, barbs interlocking along a single vein,
Can you ask a clearer sign, or can you not yet see?

What have they told you, why will you not question
All the things you have assumed for years?
You may yet live in a world of man’s imagining,
Blind to the truth that the air that you breath
And the birds that you love are truly nothing less
Than God’s gift from above.

Though truth shines throughout all Creation some refuse to see
That only through design could come such complexity.
You will not know the truth, you will not understand
Until you humbly say, “This must be God’s hand.”
I can leave you with but this one thought,
You and all God’s creatures are part of His eternal plan.