Saturday, February 18, 2012

Feathered tales

Where I saw random scattered feathers, my colleague saw a story: "This looks like an owl's feather caught on this thorn, but down here I see dark bars, and look at these rusty-brown spots. Could be a Cooper's Hawk, but it looks like the predator became prey."

She followed the trail of feathers to a tree and then looked up and pointed. "See the feathers caught on that branch? The owl sat up there and tore the hawk to pieces."

This is the advantage of going out bird-watching with an expert: she sees what the birds are doing even when they're not actually present.

In just a few hours at two local wetlands today we saw a host of cormorants, great blue herons, mallard ducks, hooded mergansers, kingfishers, assorted gulls and little brown birds, and one fat muskrat.

And did I mention the pair of bald eagles?

At first I had to take the eagles on faith. To the naked eye they looked like black lumps on a distant tree, and my telephoto lens just made them look like slightly larger black lumps. My colleague's high-powered binoculars rendered the lumps more birdlike, but she was certain their size and color marked them as eagles.

I was less certain until I got home and enhanced the photo. They're eagles all right--a little blurry but eagles nevertheless.

If I'd been bumbling about on my own, those black lumps in the trees would have remained black lumps--I wouldn't have looked twice or known what I was seeing. And later I wouldn't have understood the evidence of the battle of the owl and the Cooper's Hawk, nor would I have diagnosed the cause of the wedge missing from the trunk of a big dead tree. (Beavers!)

Through careful attention I'm learning to see what's happening in the woods and wetlands around me, but spending the afternoon with a real expert opened my eyes to how much I still have to learn. Binoculars are helpful only if you know where to point them and how to interpret what they reveal, how to translate scattered feathers and lumpy black blotches into a story, an image, and a truth.

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