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The Recorder - Personal space

Published: 3/23/2020 8:44:01 AM

If I found a lamp and freed a genie, I think one of my three wishes would be to have the power to become invisible. As a nature photographer, this would be a particularly outstanding ability because it would allow me to observe nature without disturbing it. I can’t even begin to imagine the photos I could take if I could move freely among a group of animals that was unaware of my presence.

Back in the real world, I must be content with putting in enough time to become an almost invisible part of the background. If I sit in one place long enough I eventually “disappear,” as the animals around me get bored of wondering what I’m doing. With the current state of affairs in the world, I find that I have an abundance of time to sit and disappear. Whenever the weather is warm enough to sit outside, I bring all of my work onto my deck and set up my remote office. As a result of all of this, I am starting to fade into the background for some of the birds that come to my feeders for lunch and dinner. Some species will play this game, while others won’t and it has been very interesting to see the differences between them.

The most “friendly” species (my scientific training might require that I use a word like “tolerant” instead of friendly, but I won’t tell anyone if you won’t) are the black-capped chickadees. Their comfort zone around me is anywhere from 4 feet to mere inches, depending on the individual. Chickadees seem to be born with a special combination of curiosity and fearlessness that will allow some of them to eat out of your hand. Other chickadees are quite willing to come within arm’s length to see what you might be up to. On more than one occasion I have been potting plants on my deck only to look up and discover that I have an audience of chickadees that seem utterly fascinated with what I am doing.

Other species are a little more cautious. I discovered this last week when I was sitting outside and writing in my journal. I had moved my table into a patch of sun that had me about 10 feet away from the railing on my deck. This was no problem for the chickadees, but it was apparently just a little too close for comfort for the American goldfinches that were extremely interested in the seeds that I had put out. They just couldn’t quite bring themselves to come to the food, no matter how motionless I remained.

So I got up and dragged my table back about three feet. This put me in the shade, which was a little chilly, but it provided a little more personal space for the goldfinches. I settled down, became a statue again, and watched. This time, a larger number of goldfinches assembled in the lilac bush that was on the other side of the railing. They were still a little hesitant, but then the chickadees seemed to serve the role of social ice-breakers.

Whenever a chickadee landed on the railing with confidence, a goldfinch would move to a branch that was closer to the food. If two chickadees landed on the railing at the same time, then all of the goldfinches would move forward. Eventually, like a group of penguins sitting on an ice floe waiting for someone to go first, a brave little female goldfinch took that last brave step. Once she did that, an entire crowd assembled and I became invisible. They were so comfortable in their numbers that they even started squabbling and fighting among themselves while I watched and used every ounce of strength that I had to suppress the laughter that was gaining strength with every altercation.

I was even able to introduce a camera into this situation, though the sound of the shutter did seem to cause a little concern among the birds. However, two hours into my project, I was able to take photos of male and female goldfinches that were less than 15 feet away from me. They were so close that I could count their eyelashes and I was able to pick up on the fact that the male goldfinches are starting to replace their drab gray winter plumage with the brilliant yellow and black of their breeding plumage.

So, think of me as I endeavor to break down the boundaries of social distancing between myself and the birds that come to my feeders. When my neighbor and I meet out at the mailbox, we chat happily — but at quite a distance. My bird neighbors, on the other hand, are encouraged to get closer and closer. One day soon I may have a chickadee taking seed from my hand while an entire flock of goldfinches feasts and fights just a few feet away from where I sit. Wish me luck.

Bill Danielson has been a professional writer and nature photographer for 22 years. He has worked for the National Park Service, the US Forest Service and the Massachusetts State Parks and currently teaches high school biology and physics. Visit www.speakingofnature.com for more information, or go to Speaking of Nature on Facebook.

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