Wednesday, September 21, 2011

It's not just a game

Steller's Jay. Very bright. Very wily. Fast learner.
Sitting on my friend’s deck the other afternoon it was hard to say who was exploiting whom.

Craig was tossing peanuts to the Steller’s Jays and I was taking pictures. The bolder birds were picking up nuts and weighing them before putting them down to check the next one.  Half-a-dozen nut thieves were lurking on low-hanging branches, poised to swoop down if Bird #1 took its eye off the prize.  The challenge for Bird #1 was not to lose the nut it had just checked, in case it was better than the one it was about to pick up.

Everyone was having a high time – Craig, the Jays, the nut-thieves and me, taking pictures.

Getting great close-ups is easy with the new digital SLRs and zoom lenses.  Thousands of people are taking up bird photography, amassing big photo collections. For some it is strictly a game with no purpose but to keep score and pile up images.

Bird #1 weighing the options.
That’s sad because even a hobby as “harmless” as photography can do more damage than good if we don’t know or care much about birds. If my only objective is to get a better photo than the next guy, then what’s to stop me from tromping across sensitive wetlands and wildflowers, plowing off the trail, approaching too close to nests, interfering with the young, using an audio device to lure birds from shelter, spreading disease with a dirty feeding station, and stressing and flushing birds into the air? That’s exploitation, and for no better reason than sheer ego.

Craig offers many ideas to make bird photography more enjoyable and meaningful. Rule 1 is a no-brainer: Love the bird.  Here are some more of his thoughtful ideas:

  • Learn what birds eat and how they hunt. Learn how they raise their young, where they migrate and what habitat they need.
  • Take photos that shed light on their behavior and diet.
  • Share your knowledge and photos with others so they may also learn.
  • Put your best photos into a presentation and give a talk about birds.
  • Join your local Audubon chapter.
  • Let Audubon or other educational groups use your best images.
  • Take an ornithology class online.
  • Create bird-friendly wildlife habitat in your yard, with natural foods they like, free of pesticides.
  • Maintain some brush and wildlife snags.
  • Support organizations that protect and restore habitat.
  • Keep bird feeders and bird baths clean.
  • Keep a respectful distance – don’t stress the birds or any wildlife. 
The more we know, the more we care, and the more fun everything gets.

    Wednesday, September 7, 2011

    Getting along with the neighbors

    Deer compete for everything in our yard -- apples, plums, blueberries, raspberries, peas, green beans and pretty much all flowers and vegetation. We've built Fort Knox around the precious blueberries and a token fence around the vegetable garden, but are conceding most of the rest.

    That said, these two young Blacktail bucks are growing on me. They show up every evening around dark and are increasingly at ease with us. They were grazing by the garage the other evening when I hit the remote opener. The door opened with a wrenching screech, but all these guys did was raise their necks calmly and look around.

    One thing I've learned from my friend, Craig Johnson, is that all animals have individual personalities and are quite capable of learning and building trust. In any group of animals, a few individuals will stand out as risk-takers and be the first to approach for a reward. Others are especially wary.  Given how we humans treat many wild creatures, wariness serves them well and is an obvious survival strategy.

    These two young bucks seem particularly curious and not as wary as most.  When I walk toward them with the camera, sometimes they take a step or two toward me.  I get the feeling they're studying me as much, or more, than I'm studying them.  Craig's phenomenal success at building trust with individual birds, squirrels, raccoons and other wildlife in his yard is a reminder that we share the same space with the animal kingdom. If we like having them around on Whidbey Island, we might try a little tenderness, maintain some habitat for them and do what we can to reduce the stresses.

    Last night Sue and I had just returned from a walk with Duncan when the deer moved in. They romped playfully and groomed each other, helped themselves to a patch of green grass, and stared when I approached with my big camera.

    The two stay close together, their faces sometimes touching or inches apart. I'd been assuming they were siblings but now realize that's unlikely.  Black-tailed deer apparently are sociable only within their own sex. Upon reaching maturity at 16 - 18 months, a young buck leaves its family group and sets out to find a male bachelor group. At some point, of course, competitiveness gets a bit serious, but with our two young visitors it's all tenderness and socialization.

    I like that. We're enjoying the neighbors.