KEENE - Nature photographer Howard Arndt can tell you all about the daily business of great blue herons and bald eagles in the Adirondacks as if they were neighbors he likes to spy on. And that is pretty much the case.
Caught on camera: A male great blue heron in showy breeding plumage proffers a stick to a female. This part of their mating ritual. If she accepts the stick, she will carefully incorporate it into the nest they are building. The herons do not mate for life, Arndt said, but they stay together to care for their young.
Observing a heron fishing, he counted the times the bird plunged its bill into the water. "They (herons) move so fast! It caught a fish on 8 out of 11 tries," he said.
(Photo – Martha Allen)
Eagles also fish. The expression "eagle eye" is accurate. Eagles have three times as many color receptors in their eyes as humans do, he explained, in order to see fish from on high.
Arndt will sit in his boat for hours watching wildlife, and the cabin in Union Falls he shares with his wife, Marcia, is perfectly situated for this activity.
The Union Falls Flow, a 1670-acre pond, was created in 1907 when entrepreneur Paul Smith had the Saranac River dammed in order to generate hydroelectric power. The falls are still part of the power grid to this day, Arndt said. While motorboats are allowed on the pond, there are no big power boats; motors are limited to 10 horsepower. Arndt prefers to paddle.
At Union Falls, Arndt has watched river otters who made a home in a floating styrofoam dock on the pond, as well as birds and other wildlife.
"When you're out shooting wildlife, you never know what you're going to see," he said. "I always have my camera at the ready."
Nature photography, according to Arndt, "always gives you a reason to go out and enjoy the Adirondacks, spring through fall--and sometimes winter." The Arndts on occasion have snowshoed the 2 miles from the paved road to the cabin.
Arndt is from Missouri. He "spent 38 years in an office" in Utica and Syracuse, New York, working in the aerospace industry as an engineer and in management. He and Marcia now live in New Hampshire. Since the 1970s, he has been coming to Union Falls and "methodically exploring ponds and rivers around the Adirondacks."
"When you're out in a canoe," he said, "beavers are curious, not alarmed."
Eagles are a different story. Leery of humans and protective of their young, eagles pose a challenge to photographers.
"I set that as a goal: Get good eagle photographs," he said. "I got into telephoto lenses."
Taking good photographs of eagles is difficult, but rewarding. You won't see many images of geese in his collection.
"Geese are too easy," he said.
He uses a Canon camera with a telephoto lens capable of focusing on wildlife at a distance of 100 yards or more. One day a little boy in Union Falls brought over a long stick in order to measure Arndt's large telephoto lens. He declined the tape measure Arndt offered.
"I want to mark it on the stick so I can take it to show my friends," the boy explained.
Arndt's first eagle photograph was taken at Union Falls Pond.
From 1976 to 1989, the state Department of Environmental Conservation adopted a program to increase the bald eagle population. Now their status in New York has improved, going from "endangered" to "threatened."
Arndt also credits the banning of the insecticide DDT for the population increase. Eagles mate for life and may live to 30 years in the wild.
His portraits of great blue herons and eagles show family life in intimate detail. Baby birds watch eagerly as their father returns to the nest with food, and mother looks on. Herons feed the oldest chick - the one that hatched earliest - first, before the other young. In Arndt's images, the birds' body language is surprisingly expressive, in a way that humans seldom can get close enough to observe.
Arndt has studied at the Adirondack Photography Institute, which is associated with "Adirondack Life" magazine.
Any hints on successful wildlife photography?
"Capturing the eye - get a little bit of glint" is key, according to Arndt.
Arndt calls early morning and late afternoon sun "magic light." Also, he said, animals are more active at those times.
Prints of Arndt's work, in rustic wood frames built by Steve McCracken, are now on display at Dartbrook Rustic Goods in Keene.