Let The Games Begin

If I had a blog, today I would write about the perils of bird photography.

When I began taking photos of birds, some thirty years ago, I was embarrassed to share my work with others. Birds, I thought, were too easy a subject for a wildlife photographer in-the-making. Compared to the exquisite work of wolf-photographer Jim Brandenburg or those who stalk the grizzly bear, the cougar, and the wild game in Africa, my shots of juncos and titmice seemed rather insignificant. Songbirds were everywhere: In cities, on farms, and in the woods, my quarry was ubiquitous and unlikely to threaten life and limb, so I assumed they would be a stepping-stone; and easy way to practice my skills before moving on to “real” wildlife and real adventure. But that was before; before I knew what I was up against, before I knew I was facing the wiliest wild creature on Earth.

Birds are not stupid. They watch bird photographers as avidly as we watch them and not only do they observe, they plan and they plot, turning the tables to make us the key player in avian entertainment. Over the years, I have identified a number of games my feathered friends enjoy, keeping me on my toes whenever I enter their world (and by the way, its all their world).

The Tease (Savannah Sparrow)

The Tease (Savannah Sparrow)

First, there is The Tease: Rather than hiding the moment a photographer appears, birds coyly flutter into sight, landing on perfect, bare branches, singing their lovely songs, practically begging to be photographed. This gives the birdwatcher a false sense of hope, feeding her fragile ego and setting it up for a fall. A few good shots may be permitted, just to sweeten the deal, but then, with the skill of a confidence man, the real mind-games begin.

The Foil (Yellow Rumped Warbler)

The Foil  or Can You See The Bird in This Picture? (Yellow Rumped Warbler)

After The Tease comes The Foil: Somewhere out there exists a book on photography written by the birds, for the birds. This Rosetta stone teaches all birds the basic needs of the photographer enabling them to foil us at every turn. For example: Birds know exactly how strong a telephoto lens is so they can alight just outside this boundary, appearing as small, indistinct shapes regardless of the power or quality of one’s equipment. Birds also know how long it takes to set exposure and focus and they use this skill so they can flit merrily away or ruffle their feathers into an incomprehensible blur just as the shutter closes. This move is usually followed by the “tail-flip,” which is, in the truest sense, giving me “The Bird.”

The Icarus Immitation (Lincoln's Sparrow)

The Icarus Imitation (Lincoln’s Sparrow)

If The Foil gets boring, birds opt for The Icarus Imitation: Birds clearly understand the importance of good lighting in a photograph and do their best to position themselves so as to manipulate the sun to their advantage, not mine Woodpeckers, for example, always light on the shady side of a tree trunk and colorful birds, like robins and bluebirds, will leave a bare branch, in full sun, to glower in the crook of a limb the moment I appear on the scene. At times I suspect the sun is in cahoots with the birds, as it often disappears behind the only cloud in the sky just as my shutter closes.

The Reward (Red-Headed Woodpecker)

The Reward (Red-Headed Woodpecker)

Some individuals may see these behaviors as merely survival skills. Birds are vulnerable and humans with guns have done nothing to improve our standing with the avian world, but the regularity with which these particular actions occur makes me think there’s more going on here than meets the eye. Short of finding the Bird’s Book of Photography, I don’t suppose I’ll ever know the truth of the matter, but I enjoy my fantasy nonetheless. I know birds are smarter than we give them credit for and, to be honest, I think its only fair for them to toy with humanity when they have the chance. After centuries of predation and environmental destruction, we deserve far worse from the natural world than we get. And so, when I venture out on my bird walk tomorrow, I will take the frustrations in stride, knowing even if I fail to get the photo of my dreams, at least I have given the bird-world a few hours of well deserved mirth. Its really the least I can do.


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