Most of birdwatching is spent simply watching birds. I realize to a non-birder this sounds incredibly dull. (I guess each of us finds our passions in our own places. For me, watching golf on TV is a mystery of tedium. Yet someone must enjoy it or they wouldn’t have bothered to broadcast it.) Perhaps it would make more sense if you considered it a form of meditation.
Nonetheless, I spent a lot of time sitting on my back porch with my camera ready to simply observe the birds, and to study how they spent their day. The weather was in the nineties, but that was OK with me, I simply stripped down to a simple pair of shorts. Then after the rains, came the mosquito larvae, and after the larvae, came the mosquitoes. What was once enjoyable for hours now became annoying after a few seconds. My daily pleasure became sour and I became grumpy.
But we humans are adaptable. The temperatures are now in the seventies, so I wear socks, long pants, an extra long shirt and big hat and facial covering. I feel like a beekeeper, but I am getting back to my birds.
This morning I became very excited at the activity of the Social Flycatchers working on their nest. I put the camera on a tripod, pre-focused it, and used a fast shutter speed to catch them in mid flight. If you had asked me yesterday if a bird could fly upside down, I would have said no. That the down stroke muscles are many times stronger than the up stoke muscles, and that the wing dynamics are not designed that way. I would have been wrong. These birds are flying upside down to work on their nest.
As a bird watcher, this is one of the most impressive things I have seen in a long time and I take over three hundred pictures of the activity. After a bit of a break, I come back in the early afternoon. I looked out to check on the nest this afternoon and it was gone… Vanished… Disappeared. I know that the nest just didn’t fall out of the tree. It had been tossed about quite a bit in last weeks storms, and it held together just fine. Nonetheless I check down below and there is no fallen nest. There are fallen twigs and leaf litter on the ground, but these could have been deposited months ago.
I asked my neighbor about this and he said that the most likely culprit was squirrels taking it apart to get the eggs. Other than the twilight zone, this seems to be the best possible explanation.
It is hard for me to express my feelings on this. It is both like the TV fan whose favorite series was just cancelled in mid-season, and the sports photographer who missed the shot of the grand slam because he left to go to the bathroom. I feel a loss for the birds. I feel a loss for the shot.
I remember many, many rears ago, before internet surfing and even before the invention of the remote control, there was the Ringling Brothers three ring circus, the original I-can’t-see-it-all-at once, channel switching experience. Here there were three separate acts going on at once, plus various clown performing at the edges. My attention was scattered, flitting from one venue to the next. Here the purpose was to leave you with impression that you had not seen it all. It was exhausting, but exhilarating
I feel like this now, birding in my back yard. There are the two finished nests with the parents coming and going. Now there are two more nests being built.
I prefocus my camera on one area waiting for the birds to appear, when there is action at the other nest. I know that if I just wait birds will appear in my pre-focused range. But…but…there is action taking place elsewhere, and I may miss a good shot.
And I can’t forget the Clay Robin’s nest in the front yard. Mom spends most of here time in the nest, but she changes here position now and then.
One of the nests is of the Yellow-faced Grassquit. These are tiny birds about two inches long. Their nest is being built in a bush ten feet from my back porch and is is only three feet off the ground, If my neighbors cats should find them, they are doomed. The grassquits have very high energy and never stay in one place very long. But they do seem to have favorite landing spots, so my tactic is to prefocus the camera and wait.
The concept of birds building nests is absolutely astonishing. Different species build different types, but they all seem to work. I amazes me that they know what materials to gather, when together them and how to put it together in a functional manner. And it is done by instinct. Mom birds don’t teach their daughters where to find the best twigs. Dad birds don’t give their sons construction tips. There are no construction academies, how to books or Youtube videos for birds. The manual comes packaged in their DNA.
Apparently the birds have decided that my yard in a good place to raise kids. There are two nests being built in my back yard. These are both rather large nests. The Great Kiskadee’s nest is made of simple twigs, but the nest for the Rose-throated Becard is more of an art piece. They have found bits of plastic and colored cloth and are taking pains to make their place a showpiece.
You have to realize that I even though I am a birder, I do not use binoculars. I use my camera as my bird viewing mechanism. When doing so, I click the shutter whenever I see a good shot, or whenever I see a lousy shot, but I am unsure of the bird identification. I can always discard the bad ones in post production. Some days I have been taking over two hundred pictures.
Then it becomes time for post-production. The first step is to discard the obvious bad shots where the bird flew away, then if I have a good shot of the bird in focus, discard the out of focus ones. The next step is to enlarge and crop the shots I do have. Again more winnowing. The bad grainy shots are thrown away, unless of course a bad grainy shot is all I have of a particular species. (I do not have a decent picture of a Blue-black Grassquit, but I do have some really bad ones with enough information to let me know that it is a Blue-black Grassquit.)
Everything is then labeled with my personal metadata and keyword information about the shot. The keeper shots are then given more post production tweaking for brightness and contrast. Then there is the rechecking to make sure I have the right species, and the research on the ones I am not sure about. I have been spending a lot of time doing this. A lot of time. So today, I am doing a Photoshop fast and will not be adding or checking or tweaking any images. I need a day to give it a rest.
I have been spending much of my time going over my photos. I seek to identify birds that were unknown. I look for errors I may have made in identifications. Ruddy-ground doves vs. Common Ground Doves. White-winged Doves vs White-tipped Dove, and the various stripes of Flycatchers. As I gain more knowledge, subtle differences seem more obvious.
Today fresh out of my late afternoon shower, I peaked out the back door to see if there was any bird activity. To my surprise I saw four turkey vultures perching in the trees. You have to realize that a bird photography photo op is an opportunity that can be withdrawn at any moment. So, I dropped my towel, grabbed my camera and rushed out to the back yard to get some pictures.
Perhaps it is just as well that I am extremely isolated. A casual visitor would have probably have wondered about seeing a naked man with a camera looking up at the vultures in the trees.
Now that I have started the practice, I am getting hooked on doing daily bird counts. Birdwatching is becoming more and more like meditation. Before it was going simply for the images and the thrill of the identification. Now I am coming to appreciate the nuances of the individual birds. How they sit, how they fly, how they preen, how long do they stay in one place.
Today was the Global Big Day for eBird. I realized that the bird count for Santa Elena on that day would not be great. This weighs on my sense of local pride. I would have loved it if the count had been last month when there constantly birds at the birdbaths. But, I realize this is not about boasting, this is about science. I did not see a lot of species, but the highlight for me was observing a species I had not seen before, the Black-cowled Oriole, a beautiful black and yellow bird. If I had not been so diligent in watching, I am pretty sure I would have missed him. 10 species 20 individual birds.