Back in the days of yore, when I was just an idealistic young student taking my first conservation biology course, I remember my professor bemoaning the state of modern conservation. People, she said, were only interested in “charismatic megafauna” — all those big, popular, well-known animals that you expect to see in every zoo ever, like elephants, giraffes, lions, wolves, bears, tigers, and so on. I guess having a problem with this is a lot like being a biology hipster, but I could see her point; while donors pour millions into conservation and research for a handful of these “popular” species, hundreds or even thousands more are much more desperately in need of aid… or even just in need of understanding. It’s tough to raise money for the conservation of a spider because people hate spiders. It’s tough to raise money for the conservation of a jellyfish because, as we all know, jellyfish are the enemy. Try telling people that you want to save the monkfish and they’ll run away screaming. I mean, once you show them a picture. Nobody knows what a monkfish is right off the bat except maybe monkfish enthusiasts, if such people exist in the first place.
Still, I think there are perfectly valid reasons for scientists and animal lovers to choose their favorite species the way they do. Take E.O. Wilson, for instance. When he was a boy he suffered an unfortunate accident involving a needlefish and its close proximity to his eyeball which left him blind in one eye. Naturally this would put anyone off the study of fish, and Wilson’s passion for ornithology was rather nixed when partial deafness set in during his adolescence. (It’s kind of hard to find birds when you can’t see them because your depth perception is screwed up and you also can’t hear them laughing at you from their treetop perches.) He turned instead to entomology and became the world’s foremost expert on ants and a pioneer in the study of insect sociobiology, among other things. And all because birds weren’t an option.
This slightly laborious story is all in aid of explaining why I myself tended toward the study of rather large animals: because it’s difficult to study something you can’t see. In school I took an interest in ungulates — wild horses specifically, but also elk and moose and bighorn sheep and generally just anything with hooves because I find them kind of marvelous — mostly because they’re awesome but also, in part, because it’s easier to study something when you can actually see it. Despite an early interest in birds — no doubt springing from my early obsession with dinosaurs — I always knew that I was never going to be an ornithologist, or even a hobbyist birder, because while other, normal people would point to the sky or a tree or whatever and delightedly exclaim over some bird they saw there, I could only squint, perplexed, seeing nothing and wondering whether they were just messing with me. My own childhood brush with blindness was not — thank you nature — courtesy of a needlefish; rather, I was mysteriously struck blind and, after a period of time spent calmly baffling medical professionals, I just as mysteriously regained my sight. This episode was, apparently, as damaging to my eyes as you might expect, and it’s the reason that today I’m not the sort of person you’d want to join your badminton team. Without my glasses, I can see things fairly clearly at a distance of about six inches from my face; beyond that, it’s all impressionist painters. With my glasses, I’m at least legal to drive, but if you expect me to help you read street signs from a distance, you’re gonna have a bad time.
Of course, I’m not a big believer in limiting myself based on things like reality, which is why after I got a membership to Red Butte Garden here in Salt Lake and discovered that this meant I could do things like free birding walks, I was all over it. A nice walk in the garden with my trusty camera and a bunch of other people who have nothing better to do on a Saturday morning? SIGN ME UP. Oh, and please capture the birds so you can hold them very close to my face.
Now that I have been birding, of course, I am extremely knowledgeable. This is a… uh… Blue-Headed… Something.
Apparently hummingbirds like to hang around right at the very tops of pine trees. Who knew?
The nice thing about birding when you are not even remotely a birder is that you get to be delighted by things you probably shouldn’t be delighted by, like this robin who apparently is also a tradesman of some kind, judging by the way he’s building things. Around the fifth time everyone stops to see what you’re photographing, only to find it’s a bee or a robin or a flower, they finally realize you’re an idiot and stop paying you any mind at all. It’s only a shame it takes them so long.
This next animal proved to be a testament to my fellow birders’ kindness and patience toward their fellow man. The conversation with one kind soul in particular went something like this:
Me: I don’t see it. Where is it?
Her: Okay, do you see that sort of bare area in the middle of the tree, where you can see through to the trunk and there aren’t any leaves?
Her: Focus on that, then go directly to your right. He’s on that main branch, right out in the open. Really easy to spot.
Her: He’s bright yellow.
Her: Okay. Do you see the bare area on the tree?
We went on like that for a good five minutes until the bird himself, clearly exasperated, relocated himself essentially to the front and center of the tree, offering us a fantastic view of his yellowness, at which point it took me probably another five minutes to finally see him. I told my long-suffering new friend that obviously I hadn’t been able to see him, there are leaves on that tree bigger than that bird. And he’s more creamy than bright yellow. I mean, seriously. He looks like a delicious well-toasted marshmallow, is what he looks like.
I was going to declare a moratorium on trying to spot any bird smaller than a pelican, but then this guy flew right in front of me, like he was trying to help a girl out. Thanks, angry-looking eyebrows bird.
FINALLY, some birds I can actually see. And as an added bonus, they’re cute and fluffy. You’re a pal, momma duck.
We saw several more birds at a distance, which for me personally was not very helpful, but whatever. This one looked like maybe a finch to me, which I only guessed because I’d seen Darwin’s sketches of course, but I was assured that it was not, in fact, a finch. I have no idea what it is. I hope you weren’t expecting this anecdote to end with some sort of useful information.
My favorites were the most obvious birds, like this quail, because at least on those occasions I could name the bird and indulge for one brief moment in a magical fantasy-land where I wasn’t completely clueless.
Of course, just because I had no idea what I was talking about and indeed no real idea of what I was even doing there among those very enthusiastic and keen-eyed birders, didn’t mean I was outside the reach of good fortune. While the rest of our company were gazing through their binoculars at some distant thing that as far as I could tell was a pinecone on top of a shrub, I wandered off a short distance down a side path to take some more pictures of flowers, as you do, and then I heard that tell-tale hum and turned around to see this kind gentleman stopping for a snack about two feet away from me.
Hummingbird, you are an officer and a gentleman. Or at least you would be, if it were possible to be those things while also being a bird.
Sure, he might’ve been super-tiny, but at least he recognized my handicap and got right up close… I actually had to step back to put him in focus with my zoom lens on. I might be a frustratingly awful birder — in fact, I think I might take up an interest in elephants, mostly because in order to study something bigger like blue whales I’d have to go into the sea and there are jellyfish in there — but every now and again, at least, fortune chooses to smile on me.
Stay tuned for tomorrow’s post, with more photos from Red Butte Garden, this time with flowers and bees and… well, that’s pretty much it actually. Flowers and bees. But both of those are pretty much rad.