It’s truly remarkable how much a developing passion for Bird Photography will serve to illuminate how shabby our observational skills really are. I’ve frequented dozens of New England area Nature Preserves, Reservations, Sanctuaries, Sea Shores and the like. I will admit that early on, I was more focused on seascape, landscape type images rather than specific avian focused images. Still, one would think that some measure of dedicated observation would lead one to identify and recall a number of species specific details if even just on a casual “I’ve seen one of those before” kind of recollections. Yet this spring has brought a number of real revelations. Let me explain…
I have recently graduated to the exalted world of “Big Glass” owners. “Big Glass” is defined loosely as lenses of 500mm focal length or greater and the defining characteristics are a physical lens length greater than your extended forearm and hand, weight of 8 to 13 lbs, front lens element the size of a tea saucer or greater and finally, cost equivalent to the purchase price of a reasonable used car. Now please understand that I bought mine used, however the purchase price still had four digits and the first digit was not a one.
Naturally having made such an investment, the next agenda item is to find a host of subjects that will be rendered stunningly by this premium optic. And so I went on a guided excursion at Broadmoor Wildlife Sanctuary two weeks ago. The star of the show for me was the Hooded Merganser. A distinctive bird, the males of which have a beautiful white patch on the side of their black head. With the help of our guide we were able to spot a few “Hoodies” as they are lovingly referred to by birders. Alas however the specimens we spotted were very distant, a mere spec even when viewed with relatively powerful binoculars. I thought that with a little perseverance and separate from the somewhat noisy group, I could get a closer view and so the next day I returned. I took a walk around a soggy path with my lens and tripod, determined to get a better look. With a little effort I got to a location somewhat closer to where we had spotted the activity the day before and which gave me a closer look at a group of duck family birds. In this group I saw several beautiful birds but they were absent the white side patch that identifies the Hoodies. Still, my philosophy is shoot now and get the ID later so I captured a fair number of frames of these also gorgeous birds whose bills were outlined in white as if someone had taken a white magic marker and drawn along the bills edge. Three bird reference books later I had identification – these were Ring-necked Ducks.
Two days later at Great Meadows, what should I see? Off in the distance, 143 Ring-necked Ducks. (The count courtesy of a professional bird monitor for the wildlife reservation.) And since then, I’ve seen Ring-necked Ducks all over the place.. Now as long as I’ve been shooting nature, is it possible that I’ve never seen a Ring-necked Duck until this year? Or is it more likely that since I wasn’t paying attention to the various details, that I’ve just been lumping them in with Mallard Drakes and Hens that I was already familiar with? You know, “General Waterfowl”.
As for the past, I guess I’ll never really know if I’ve seen one of these before but I now really know a Ring-necked Duck when I see one and the Hooded Meganser as well. You see, a few days later I found a particularly compliant “Hoodie” who allowed me an opportunity to take his portrait. I think the truth is that birding IS the study of ever increasing levels of detail and in so doing; we learn the joy of seeing.