In an attempt to improve my skills, I’ve signed up for a Wildlife Photography class at our neighboring community college. I have starry-eyed visions of rutting elk, growing grizzlies and other impressively large mammals adorning the paneled walls of our family room, not to mention the pages of Outdoor Photographer or National Geographic.
Our first assignment is to take four photographs of wildlife (defined as including insects, but excluding naked party-goers). I spent all week on this. What have I got to show so far?
One squirrel sitting in a tree. A mostly-sharp Double-crested Cormorant in flight. And an assortment of dragonflies, bees, and a yet-to-be-identified elongated grasshopper-thing.
This is not at all what I had in mind.
Being rather big on birds, I immediately set out to capture the beautiful colors and forms of our local species. But after hauling all my gear to the other end of town, hoisting tripod, camera and heavy lens onto my shoulder, and hiking a couple of miles, I was reminded that September birds are, for the most part, pretty dull.
Fall warblers are notorious for their lack of color. Ducks are all in eclipse. Instead of glistening green-headed Mallards, they’re boring brown on brown. Even the Rufous Hummingbirds disappointed. The males are the first to migrate, and are well on their way to Central America. The hummers at my feeders are either females or juveniles. Pretty enough, but not nearly as flamboyant.
The House Finches have lost that intense red and look faded, and this year’s youngsters still look like females—depressing gray stripes. Goldfinches are no longer gold. It’s too early for our pretty pink-sided Juncos, but the Black-headed Grosbeaks are already gone.
I can appreciate that brown and gray birds have an easier time evading predators. Why stand out if you’re not looking for a mate? Still, it amazes me that so many species invest in a complete change of feathers just to be a bit safer for a few months… and that there is enough competition to make brightly-colored breeding plumage worth the risk.
It’s even more interesting that not all birds adopt this strategy. Some birds, such as jays, woodpeckers and towhees, look great all year long. That’s a good thing for us photographers. I’m putting out millet, peanuts and suet in hopes of attracting a cooperative subject.
In the mean time, I’m heading out to our near-by prairie dog colony. They may not be moose or mountain lions, but at least I know where to find them. And if that fails… well, there’s always the local zoo.