Tuesday, August 20, 2019
An iPhone 8 suits all my photographic needs.
It's lousy for photographing birds.
Birds are too small, too far away and move too fast.
Birds do not pose, never mind in silhouette.
Which is why I almost gasped, looking up to see this woodpecker, not five feet away, going at a crabapple tree on First Street.
I dropped Kitty's leash and stepped on it to keep her from bolting after any passing squirrel, whipped out my cellphone and fired off a few photos.
Not good photos. I understand that. But good enough that I could at least ID the bird with a degree of certainty—I believe it is a female Downy Woodpecker, female because it has no red on its head. Though it could be a Hairy Woodpecker; the two are very close. But this seems a little smaller, its beak a little shorter.
The Downy Woodpecker is the smallest of North America's 25 species of woodpeckers. It has a slightly risqué Latin name, picoides pubescent, because Carl Linnaeus thought the downy plumage resembled that of a human in early puberty. Hmmm...not a crisp enough photo to make any kind of judgment there.
Though if the bird seems a little, well, smudged it might not all be the photo's fault: Downy Woodpeckers molt in late August and early September, and that process might be underway.
Notice how this woodpecker's tail is braced against the tree bark—a characteristic behavior, to take the strain off their legs as they peck. They also have very little cerebral fluid in their skulls, so their brains don't slosh back and forth as they peck, sometimes up to 20 times a second.
One drawback of all that pecking is it makes it hard for the woodpecker to watch out for predators—so these woodpeckers tend to hang out among other birds, relying on their warning calls to tip them off to danger. This particular woodpecker, I noticed, was tucked under the canopy of the tree, shielding it from any passing Cooper's Hawk, which our neighborhood has in abundance.
I've always had a particular fondness for woodpeckers. Maybe because they tend to be solitary birds. They also are sedentary: they don't migrate, typically, but stick around their home range. They also have a certain dignity that others have remarked upon.
"With their often black-and-white plumage and stiff, jerky movements, woodpeckers have a formal persona many find appealing," wrote Henry T. Armistead, a Philadelphia librarian and "birder extraordinaire."
I am not an extraordinary birder, and can't flatter myself that any special quality of stealth allowed me to get close to this woodpecker. That's just how Downy Woodpecker's fly, a quality noted nearly two centuries before I and my iPhone happened along.
"The bird is by no means shy or suspicious, and scarcely pays any attention to man, even when standing close to the tree on which it is at work," John James Audubon notes in his 1831 "The Birds of America." Which, now that I think of it, brings our essay to a full circle. Technology is a marvelous thing, but compare the effort above to what a man with a sable-hair paintbrush and a box of watercolors could do: