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.

 

The Mystery Bird

If I had a blog, today I would write about the importance of The Mystery Bird.

The Mystery Bird

The Mystery Bird

The ultimate objective of birdwatching is, of course, identifying what you have seen, but this year I have come to realize that the best sightings are the ones that defy identification. A few days ago, Mom and I hiked down to the river and as we approached the field we call Big Valley, a flurry of activity in the wild rose bushes caught our attention. Mom was on point with her binoculars and I homed in with my telephoto lens, trying to make sense of the shadowy forms flitting about among the thorns. We identified two cardinals, a brown thrasher, and several sparrows, but then a flash of orange and white caught our attention. The bird was robin-sized, but robin’s have no white. The body was black or dark brown, but the shade of the underbrush made it hard to tell. Was the white on the wing or the breast? Was the breast orange or was it the wing?  I took a couple of  less-than-stellar pictures to look at when we got home, but until then, identification would have to wait.

Mom and I continued along the path Dad created in the swampy river bottom and there were birds at every turn. Goldfinches picked apart the seed-pods of poppy mallow, field sparrows gleaned the tall meadow grasses, and woodpeckers chattered at us from the trees at the edge of the valley. As much fun as it was to see our well-known bird friends, my mind kept turning back to our Mystery Bird and every time I thought of him, I could feel endorphins flooding my brain. There was something magical about seeing something unknown, something that didn’t quite make sense.

On the walk home, I thought about the rapture I felt when confronted with even a small slice of the unknown and it occurred to me that we need mystery in our lives as much as we need air to breathe, food to eat, and water to drink. The desire to explore, to learn, and to understand is part of our DNA, part of what makes us human.

The lack of curiosity I see in the world today troubles me. We work, we shop, we watch television, and we sleep. That is the daily round of most people. Weekends are for sleeping or watching sporting events or trying to catch up on chores. It leaves little time for awakening the part of our brain, of our soul, that craves exploration. We rush to and from work under a canopy of stars, yet we have no interest in the vastness of space. We mow the lawn and fill bird feeders, but we don’t identify the birds who depend on us, and we venture into the natural world with the goal of calories burned or miles traversed. Exploration is a dying art and with its death goes part of that which makes our species unique and beneficial to the world.

In all honesty, my 90-Day Journey to the Solstice is my way of staying awake to the world. I am as guilty as anyone of letting my “To Do List” rather than my “Bucket List” run my day, so I try to combine the two and give myself an opportunity to explore my own little corner of the world. Once I’m out in the woods, I feel dim parts of my brain light up as dormant neurons fire back and forth across their synapses; I feel life infiltrate every part of my body and, for a time, I feel part of something that defies description: A universe so vast and so full of mysteries it staggers the mind and scintillates the soul. For a time, I do not feel alone.

As it happens, our Mystery Bird was a Rufus-Sided Towhee. They are fairly common in our part of the country and both Mom and I have seen them before. On the same excursion we also identified two other newbies: The Lincoln’s sparrow and the clay-colored sparrow, also common migrants this time of year. Despite the fact that we had not discovered a new species or seen a migrant from Timbuktu, we counted our journey a success. You see, it is not the answer to the question that is important. All that truly matters is to have the willingness to ask.

Stepping Out On Faith

If I had a blog, today I would write about my further adventures in pursuit of a stronger faith in The Universe.

White-Tailed Twins

October 8 – White-Tailed Twins

My Uncle Bruce, who is a Christian counselor, had one admonition for those of us seeking to grow spiritually: “Be careful what you wish for. If you pray for long suffering, you might just get it.” Well I managed to dodge that particular bullet, but I did plunge off the deep end when I asked The Universe to help me have greater faith. In so doing, I forgot Uncle Bruce’s advice and the basic tenet of spiritual growth: If you ask The Universe to give you something (faith, courage, patience, etc.) it won’t wave a magic wand and give you that power. Rather, it will put you in circumstances that give you the opportunity to develop the skill you aspire to possess. Today was proof of that, to be sure.

Normally, I work in town on Tuesdays, doing payroll and the book work at Dad’s dental clinic. Yesterday I had to postpone my sojourn to town because my labrador nephew Hank was ill. Dad did the payroll, but I had to go in today and do the rest of the accounting. I knew something was up with The Universe as I drove to town this morning, because everywhere I looked I saw flocks of migrating birds. Catching the one or two days in the fall when the warblers and other small songbirds are coming through is a high-point of my photographic year and I just knew I was missing out; and I was right. Mom took a two-hour walk this morning and saw all kinds of warblers, sparrows, and even golden-crowned kinglets. I didn’t begrudge Mom her sightings, but I have to admit I was a little irritated at my Higher Power for messing up my big day.

As I went about my desk-work, I was struggling not to be in a foul mood. “Missing one day of warblers is a stupid thing to be upset about,” I chastised myself. It is true, but I had to dig deep to find confidence that the order of the day was as it needed to be, however unfair it might seem.

I got home around 2:00 and took a long walk, but all I saw was a couple of blue jays and two very argumentative squirrels. I let it go and spent the rest of the afternoon helping Mom identify the Magnolia and Nashville warblers she had seen during the morning. Every time I started to feel jealous, I repeated my mantra, “Things are the way they are supposed to be.” It helped some, but I was definitely struggling.

White Throated Sparrow (2009)

White Throated Sparrow (2009)

After dinner, I gave birding one more try and went up to the High Field where our native grasses are heavy with seed. Clouds were gathering in the west and I was losing valuable light much faster than usual so I knew I had to make any photo-op count. As I passed by a row of cedar trees I heard a chirp and stopped to investigate. Using my long lens, I peered into the depths of the brush and saw, much to my delight, the first white-throated sparrow of the season. My spirits lifted immediately. White-throats summer in Minnesota then visit us for the winter. I love hosting these visitors from my beloved North Country and catching their arrival is every bit as thrilling as a warbler sighting.

October 8 - Stepping Out on Faith

Stepping Out on Faith

I walked back down the road with a spring in my step, content with my birding experience for the day, when I saw a movement near the woods’ edge. There in the twilight were two lovely young white-tailed deer. Children born this past spring, the twins were still small and very dainty. I snapped a few pictures and was about to wrap things up when one of the deer walked towards me. She was very alert and very confident; stopping every few yards to stamp her foot and let me know she was not to be trifled with. I stood stock still, taking pictures as fast as I could. Before the little deer satisfied her curiosity, her mother appeared in the pasture, snorting and stamping in alarm. Both young ones took their mother’s warning seriously and retreated to her side, vanishing into the woods without a trace.

Driving back to the house, I thanked the deer and I thanked The Universe for my gift of the day. As I thought about my close encounter, it occurred to me that the fawn who approached me was an example of new faith: She walked towards me with head held high, confident in herself and confident in me. She stepped out on faith and in that moment, made both of our lives something beautiful. We don’t need perfect faith in the beginning, only a willingness to take a few steps forward without knowing what happens next.

Tomorrow is another day and will present its own opportunities for growth. It scares me a little to put my trust in a being other than myself, but I will remember my lessons from today and I will pray to be as brave as a little white-tailed deer.