Sunday, February 06, 2005

Family Trochilidae makes an offer I can't refuse.

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Bird-brained tales

You know, we all have our eccentricities, correct? Some of us live for NASCAR, others worship the ghost of St. Vincent of Lambeau to an almost religious fanaticism. Me? It would be birds.

Birds? I prefer birding, or what the uninitiated would call "birdwatching," to the excitement of NASCAR or a Packer game? You bet. Those events have nothing on the thrill of a new sighting, or capturing on film that perfect image. I mean, nothing.

My fascination with birds started at a young age. I liked watching them, and can recall clearly being in kindergarten or first grade, part of the school audience for a visiting naturalist. He asked "How does a kildeer protect her young from predators?" First, I was in a state of shock that probably the majority of those kids didn't even know what a kildeer was. Didn't their parents tell them anything? Second, when no one seemed to have the right answer, I raised my hand, and the naturalist pointed me out for a response.

"She pretends her leg is broken and runs the other way."

Even then, I could see some of the teachers didn't know this information, the sort of thing that in my short life, I'd assumed was common knowledge. One of the teachers, I can't remember which one, encouraged my interest when we'd have Library Day. She'd help me find books about birds, and I'd devour them. In the summertime, when I was about 10, I set myself the task to read every book in our public library about birds. I met my goal. My mom told me that maybe when I grew up, I'd like to be an ornithologist. For a period of time, when asked what do you want to be when you grow up? my answer would be "An ornithologist." Such a response would often leave the questioner shrugging their shoulders and saying "Oh, that's nice."

I did not grow up to be an ornithologist. My love for all things avian did not wane, however. I set up feeders in our yard and enjoyed seeing which birds came to visit. Lots of finches of various ilk, always a pair of cardinals. Blue jays harrassing all the rest. Once, a pair of evening grosbeaks spent a day in my yard, enjoying the ground level birdbath. In the early spring, a catbird is usually making a ruckus in the hedgerow.

The true obsession began, I believe, when I decided to start capturing birds on film. This is far more challenging than any other kind of hunting. To begin with, it requires all kinds of expensive camera equipment. I already had most of that, one of my other eccentricities being amateur photography, though at the time of this writing, I must confess to watching a Sigma 150-500mm zoom on ebay closely! Beyond the big glass, however, keen knowledge of your quarry's behavior is essential to catching them at the right moment in your lens. This is the point at which I found myself crossing from "bird lover" to "serious birder."

I've managed in the years since that shift to capture some darn nice bird photos. A few were even pure dumb luck, but most have required hours, sometimes even days, of patient stalking and waiting. I'm not one to sit in a blind. I prefer to be out in the habitat, enjoying the other sights and sounds while awaiting that opportune moment. So I'll often be hiking the woods trails, or biking through the wetland bike trails. One bird has managed to vex me year after year.
We'll call him "Mr. Ruby." I see the ruby throated hummingbirds throughout the summer around here, but getting one of those guys framed has been my ultimate challenge. I would sit for literally hours in the brush near a patch of jewelweed, day after day, only to hear him behind me, waiting to dive bomb me before zooming away. I'd sit on my deck, camera at ready, overlooking the blooming trumpet vine. I swear the word was out among the hummingbird community that if I was around, be sure to go on the other side of the fence to dine.

It truly became an obsession, to the point where I was having bizarre dreams, in which I'd be carrying the feeder to its perch, only to be mobbed by hundreds and hundreds of the little beasts, pecking at me a la Tippi Hedren in Hitchcock's The Birds.

Another thing seemed to happen on a regular basis that summer, adding evidence to my belief in a hummingbird conspiracy theory. If for some reason I was outside without my camera, they would appear right in front of me. Even sit on a branch and look at me. One morning, I was sitting on my front porch, enjoying a cup of coffee. The table was situated to overlook my cottage garden, where a sugar water feeder was placed on a shepherd's hook. As I sat there--no camera anywhere near me, of course--a tiny male sat on the top of the hook. We stared at each other, neither one blinking, when he stuck out his tongue at me! To this day, I'm convinced that bird was laughing as he flew off somewhere!

It took me some time, and I'm still not completely satisfied, but I had my chance to avenge the torment of that summer heaped upon me by the Trochilidae Family. I emphasize Family, because in three years of trying to capture one of these birds on film, I'd decided they were not flying jewels, but an evil network, bent on protecting the family identity.

I noticed early one spring day a flash of movement near the weigelia bush out front. Camera in hand, I parked myself at close range and waited. I knew when they fed, they tended to return every 15 minutes or so. That's because I was a birder, and read my field guides. So, armed with my birder knowledge, I waited. I didn't wait long---I felt that I needed to strike quickly, before the Family grapevine got activated---and as he approached, shot off rapid fire, as long as he fed.

He was caught! I got him! The sharpness is not what I'd have liked, but after three years of trying to catch up with this Family network, I'd come to grudgingly respect their ability at eluding the long arm of the lens. I had my one shot. I never saw one in the yard again that entire summer.

I'm sure the Family had moved on, finding a new victim somewhere.

But I have the proof. That's because I'm a birder. Not a birdwatcher. A birder.

Update, 4/30/05 I'm honored to have had this story included in the 5th Annual Edition of the book, "Living With Nature," published as a fundraiser for the LaCrosse River Marsh Coalition.
The book was released this past Monday.