I continue apace with my effort to expel bad bird photos from my collection. The experience feels cathartic in a way, a precursor to finally catching up as it were, and by doing so also expunging the digital cloud that grows darker and gloomier as I continue taking pictures: when it’s time to download from the camera, I realize I’m adding to an already overwhelming pile.
Not that I don’t have better photos of purple martins (Progne subis), mind you. I do. In fact, I’m working on a post about this species because there are untruths to right and truths to reveal.
As the only bird species on the planet completely reliant on humans for nesting locations, these avian beauties have secrets to tell and interesting stories to relate. They also want to correct falsehoods about their introduced counterparts, the European starling and the house sparrow.
But I’ll save all that—along with the better images—for a future post. For now, let me say I stood beneath one of the local martin houses back in April 2009 and let the shutter fly as adults and subadults arrived from their overwintering below the equator.
And just when I thought I had a good image setup of this male sitting near the entrance to his nest, I flinched as the juvenile male behind him flew into view. Why did I flinch? Because the cold nose of a dog suddenly drenched my leg in ticklish little puppy sniffs.
I could hardly be upset with the bounding bundle of canine antics, cute as it was, and especially because its human companion was so very apologetic for letting the dog interrupt me. Most people don’t notice such things, don’t see or care when dogs run loose and create havoc, interrupting people and wildlife. In this case, though, it was quite different, so I knelt and gave the cute little pup all the lovin’ it could handle—and also chatted comfortably with the tiniest woman being dragged along by the leash.
Less than a week after that event, I enjoyed the waning light as evening settled in on Sunset Bay. Spring migration was in full swing. Black-bellied whistling-ducks sat across the confluence and beckoned for attention, osprey and peregrine falcons swooped through the air, Canada geese tried to remain unseen, and Franklin’s gulls (Larus pipixcan) flocked overhead.
The circling plume of birds danced so high in the sky that I and my fellow observers could only guess at their identities. We suspected we knew who they were, but it wasn’t until I looked at the photos on my computer that I confirmed my suspicions.
And for weeks after that, I saw hordes of these gulls moving through. Each time I stepped outside they were there, floating on gossamer wings held against the sky, all in a perpetual game of chase it seemed, one following another following another.
Then the mass of them would move on to make room for the next.
The very next weekend I lost myself in the burgeoning glory of the Audubon trails near the spillway. The sweet smell of honeysuckle and damp leaves heavy with dew made for a beautiful walk, venomous snakes notwithstanding, and the heavy load of resident and migratory birds meant the air always rang with song.
So you can imagine my efforts to chase this white-eyed vireo (Vireo griseus) based almost entirely on its voice. I had a real hunt on my hands as it flitted amongst the high branches and dense foliage. Mostly I knew it was there by listening for it—then trying to catch up to it for a photo.
I felt mocked a bit with the bird giving me just a quick moment to see it before it vanished again. And I laughed at myself for trying so hard.
Other voices filled the void when I finally gave up, finally let it sneak away under the cover of loud calls and busy activity.
I left the Audubon trails and worked my way toward the heron lagoon near the paddle boat building. Once out of the cover of the dense trees, I found it was terribly windy—windy enough to push me around with ease.
Water sprayed along the shore. I had to keep my distance lest the camera and I get soaked. And of course that’s when I noticed this least sandpiper (Calidris minutilla) running to and fro on one of the boat docks.
Several times the poor little bird found itself redirected by strong wind, and then when it would right its course a healthy splash of water would slam over it like a wet blanket.
But it never stopped hunting whatever it was hunting. The dock was covered with something too small to see but compelling enough to keep the sandpiper’s interest.
Realizing the gusty environment made it too difficult to do photography in the open, I returned to the Audubon forest. The cacophony of birdsong found itself challenged by the groaning and creaking of treetops swaying in rhythm to nature’s drumbeat.
As I stood quietly letting the chorus sweep over me, this male myrtle-form yellow-rumped warbler (a.k.a. myrtle warbler or Audubon’s warbler; Dendroica coronata) suddenly flew by.
He was singing the whole way. I followed.
In one of the old fish ponds he lighted upon a branch. And there he stood while sending his voice on the wind.
I took only one photo of him before falling under the spell of his music and beauty; after that, I stood and watched, listened, enjoyed. And what a show he gave me before disappearing amongst thick woods.
That’s when a new voice caught my attention. Behind where the warbler had stood, this hermit thrush (Catharus guttatus) stayed hidden within a tangle of branches and vines while singing the afternoon away.
A few times it flitted up into the treetops before returning to the understory. A few times I almost had a good photo.
Mostly I watched sans thinking about photography.
While taking pictures of nature can invigorate a weary soul, I’ve learned in four decades of life that being a simple observer has more power than does the lens.
Seeing these images that never quite measured up to my standards has reminded me of something: there are times when the camera is an obstacle, a detriment that inhibits our ability to thrive in nature’s care.
Sometimes it’s just more important to sit back and enjoy the show than it is to snap some pictures so you can prove you were in the theater.