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Friday, May 4, 2012

The Public Lives of Private Birds

Some birds are just harder to see than others. Ask anyone who’s tromped through a marsh to find Yellow Rails, or stared intently at a thick bush to see if a Connecticut Warbler will pop out. Most of the time the views you do get are fleeting, but when you finally get that close-up, out-in-the open look, the effort it took to finally see the bird is totally worth it.

For the past couple weeks or so now, I’ve had the pleasure of watching a pair of Gray Catbirds building a nest in the bush outside my apartment’s window. Every catbird I’ve ever seen has been skittish, and refused to venture far from its leafy bastion. But because they can’t see me watching through the window, they’ve become totally comfortable running back and forth along the porch rail as they gather nesting material, hunt for insects, and occasionally, mate. The other day, I sat on the couch just outside the window with my camera poised so that when one of the birds would sit still for a second, I would be ready. After a couple failed attempts, I finally got my shot – and an amazing look at a Gray Catbird!

I wake up every morning to the sound of the male singing outside my window. There are worse ways to start the day.

Now that James is back in town, we’ve been out birding a couple times. Unfortunately, we haven’t been graced with many migrant warblers, but our breeders are out there belting out their songs. American Redstarts usually do this from a thick canopy, and they’re hard to find out in the open. I found this male flitting through the willows next to the canal, and he just wouldn’t sit still!

It's been a long time, but my arch-nemesis has once again reared his ugly head. Damn you, Stick-Through-the-Face!

Even without willow leaves through his face, I could never get my camera up in time to catch him. I was just about to give up when he shot down to eyelevel just a few yards away and started singing. This was my chance – time to take the shot! Of course, the autofocus messed up, and instead decided that focusing on the multitude of nearby foliage was definitely the right move.

No camera, you're right, you know what to focus on better than I do. Keep doing a wonderful job! /sarcasm

I was beginning to get frustrated and thought about just leaving him to do his thing, but every time I turned to leave he kept wandering closer. Out of sheer happenstance, I’d been following him in the viewfinder when he alighted on a branch out in the open, and I took my shot. This time, the variables aligned and I finally got him in focus!

But of course he chose this moment to look the wrong direction. Always room for improvement!

Continuing down the fields, I found my spotted my first Blue Grosbeaks of the year, including a beautiful male that decided to fly off when I got close. Nearby, I saw a Prairie Warbler trilling away from the tops of short trees that punctuated the short grass. In the background, I could hear the cacophonous din that always seems to permeate this type of open habitat – the constant song of the ultimate hidden bird, a Yellow-breasted Chat.

One of these days I'll get that perfect Blue Grosbreak shot... but it is not this day!

As cool as they are, I kind of hate Yellow-breasted Chats. They’re a really weird, beautiful warbler, but for whatever reason I’ve never been able to get one out in the open less than a hundred feet away, and if one does manage to venture closer, it’s doubtless behind several yards of dense vegetation. I decided to try and play a chat call, to see what it would do. I’ve done this countless times before, and each time the bird seems to move farther off, but that day the unexpected happened. As soon as it heard the call, the Yellow-breasted Chat bounded out of the tree it was in with that odd, undulating display flight they do, and I watched as it circled around the two of us and landed out in the open, just twenty feet away.

Never again will I instinctively use playback every time I hear a chat sing!

I’ve never seen a chat that close up before, and I doubt I ever will again. Seeing a bird as secretive as this and being able to drink in these point-blank views, it’s almost as good as getting my lifer Yellow-breasted Chat all over again, except that this time, my lifer memory won’t be of some bird dashing between stands of trees off in the distance. No, instead I’ll always remember that one bold chat who couldn’t wait to show off for my brother and me that one day at Mason Farm.

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