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A Fondness for Birds

Our fondness for wild things calls us to action for their sake and ours.

April 22, 2018 Earth Day* Birds

How can anyone not love wild birds? And what would life be without them? Those were my first questions about the struggles between the human world and the natural world. Until then, my youthful eyes only saw THE world.

They were simple questions, almost charming in their innocence. But the answers I sought were deadly real. It was April, 22 1970 -- the first Earth Day* -- and I had just read several chapters of Rachel Carson's Silent Spring. The book, published in 1962, was immediately praised and cursed for Carson's claims about the damage we were doing to the natural world with chemical pesticides. But it wasn't until my teacher for 9th Grade Biology encouraged me to read the book that Carson's work and the controversy around it came into my consciousness. And it never left.

Carson deciphered the science that showed how the widespread use of the insecticide DDT was effecting the "balance of nature." She traced its course through the food chain to the nests of our favorite birds where they laid eggs with abnormally-thin shells that would break prematurely. This led some wild bird populations on a decline to the brink of extinction, most notably those of the bald eagle and the peregrine falcon.

Her analysis shed a scientific light on the analogy that life on our planet is a tapestry. A tug on one thread sends vibrations to all the threads. Removing a thread makes the fabric weaker. And lost threads can't be replaced.

That's the train of thought that chugs through my mind as I'm photographing the song birds that have spent the winter in this woodland park. There's a lull between birds as they come and go around me and the spring-fed pool they drink from.

In the idle moment, my thoughts about "the fate of birds everywhere" and "when will the next bird come into view right here?" pull into the station at the same time. In the form of a bluebird.

Eastern bluebird on tree limb.
A returning Eastern bluebird rests on a branch in the early-spring woods.

The Eastern bluebird (Sialia sialis) is a small thrush between the size of a sparrow and its larger cousin the robin. The male is recognized by its bright blue head, wings and tail and its rusty-red throat and breast. The female's plumage is subtler with muted tones compared to the male.

They migrate south for the winter and return early in the spring. The male that surprised me is joined by a half dozen males and females. They are searching for insects and small seeds in the deciduous forest. When nesting time comes, they'll find hollows in trees along open meadows or they'll choose nesting boxes that kind bird lovers erect and maintain. That practice probably accounts for the increasing population of bluebirds after decades of decline.

When I get home tonight, I'll mark this bird sighting on the calendar. Like I do for most birds that migrate through our region, I'll keep a record of its passage. I've done this for years. It dawns on me that my wife, Mary, and I can trace our lives with the memories of birds we've seen on wild adventures, on trips to visit family and friends coast to coast, and at the bird feeders we've hung everywhere we've lived.

Birds become the mileposts for our journey through the years. When we see a familiar bird, one of us will recount a memorable time or place we saw it before. More than the passing of the seasons, our bird sightings connect us to our chronology.

As for this moment, I stand in a woodland preserve with the calls of cardinals, jays, woodpeckers, chickadees and titmice all around me. The bird songs bolster my heart. They prove it's not a Silent Spring. Not yet, and with our care and concern, not ever.

Each song I identify gives me encouragement about the future. But each one is a call to action, too. If we say we hold the natural world close to our hearts, we must join our voices with the chorus of like-minded people who speak for the creatures who can't. It's not enough to believe a thing -- the belief must come alive in what we do because of it.

As we welcome the return of spring and our favorite birds, what can we do to help preserve the places and the wild things we cherish? Support a national conservation group. Write a letter to your congressmen and congresswomen. Join a local nature organization. Help with a regional bird count. Teach a child about the nature around us. Plant a tree. Vote.

Fifty-six years ago, Rachel Carson's research focused on the indiscriminate use of the pesticide DDT and its ripple effects on the environment. Her work led to a federal ban on DDT in 1972. Today, the threats to the balance of nature range from new neonicotinoid insecticides to habitat loss, invasive species, climate change and the removal of protections for national parks and public lands.

You and I are not likely to reveal truths about our planet through scientific research like Rachel Carson did. But every day, we must ask ourselves what we will do to prevent the silence.

*Learn more about Earth Day and find out what you can do for the health of our home when you visit the Earth Day Network at:

MAKING THE PHOTOGRAPH (Techniques for Photographing Birds)

SUBJECT: Male Eastern bluebird (Sialia sialis) on tree branch

CONDITIONS: Cold, calm, party cloudy; 28 degrees F

EQUIPMENT and SETTINGS: Nikon D810, Nikon 80-400mm at 400mm, tripod, ball head; Auto exposure, Matrix metering, DX format, Auto focus with back button, Continuous High shutter mode, Vibration Reduction off

EXPOSURE: 1/200 sec. at f/8, ISO 640

Warm memories flew in on the back of a bluebird on a cold afternoon. The bright little bird broke my concentration on the overwintering song birds I came to the woodland park to photograph. And it reminded me of my boyhood sightings of bluebirds in Wisconsin.

Eastern bluebird populations were struggling from habitat loss even in the 1960s. So seeing or hearing them then was a happy surprise. And I was reminded of bluebirds every time I picked up my first bird-identification book. On the cover of the Golden Field Guide to the Birds of North America, an Eastern bluebird was perched on a branch next to a Painted Bunting and an Indigo Bunting. That field guide was a companion on many youthful adventures.

Into my knapsack it went along with my binoculars, a notebook, a canteen and a sack lunch. Then I'd set off for a hike in the countryside, through meadows and farm fields and woodlots, looking for meadowlarks, red-winged blackbirds and bluebirds. Or I'd pedal my bicycle to the deciduous forest and restored prairie of the university arboretum in search of woodpeckers, flickers, owls, goldfinches and more bluebirds.

The migrating bird's soft warble brought me back to the moment. The light was ideal for photographing the bluebird. The high clouds softened the shadows on the bird and the branch. But it was bright enough to play off of the iridescent feathers on its head and wings.

I moved from a low spot close to a small pond to a sandy mound near the tree where the bird was perched. My slow, quiet approach didn't disturb it. With the 80-400mm lens zoomed out to 400mm and at the higher, closer vantage, I still couldn't make the bluebird big enough in the frame. So I switched from the FX format to the DX 1.5x format. Now the perspective was equivalent to a 600mm lens through what's referred to as a "DX crop factor."

Essentially, with a flip of the setting, the resulting image appeared to be made with a longer telephoto lens. Even if in a technical debate an argument could be made against the quality of the image's lesser size, it didn't matter. In the field, the settings yielded a photograph with a pleasing perspective and the subject size that I saw in my mind's eye. If my choices were no bluebird images or photographs with fewer megapixels of data, I'd take the photos every time.

As for the other camera and lens settings, I selected ISO 640 -- the fastest I use with the D810 body. Then in Aperture Priority mode, I chose an aperture of f/8 for enough depth of field to get sharpness on the bird's body, shallow enough to soften the background. That yielded a shutter speed of 1/200 sec., though I'd have preferred it was faster. It was slow enough to require a stable tripod and a gentle hand on the camera for sharp images.

Using Matrix metering and these settings produced a good histogram, so I composed the bird in a pleasing position, moved the auto-focus point to the bird's breast, auto focused with the AF back button and clicked away in short bursts of two or three frames.

Each time the bluebird turned its head left or right, I checked the focus and clicked more frames. I rotated from horizontal to vertical and back again for as many pleasing compositions as I could get while the relaxed bird remained there.

For the vertical composition above, I cropped a bit off the bottom and the right side of the frame in Lightroom. That helped me remove the ragged edge of the branch that trails out of the bottom of the frame. On the right, I cropped just enough to allow the top portion of the branch to lead into the frame from the top corner and out at the bottom corner. You can get a better idea of this cropping choice when you view the wider horizontal composition in the Recent Work gallery.

After a dozen pleasing compositions, I looked up from the viewfinder and the bluebird looked back at me. Cardinals, jays, chickadees and titmice were singing all around us. I realized I'd shut out the bird songs while I had my moment with the bluebird. It chose not to join the chorus. Instead, it and I let the music ring around us as the spring woodland was anything but silent.

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