Mar 04 2010
I’m beginning with the first of my bird photos that appears in the Peterson Field Guide to Birds of Eastern and Central North America, hereafter simply, Eastern. It appears on page i.
Obviously, it’s a male Scarlet Tanager. It was photographed 19 May 2009 near Georgetown, DE. When I accepted the assignment to provide 30 photographs for the new Eastern and Western books–more about how that came to pass later–I knew that I wanted to turn in a selection of images that were appropriately varied: some songbirds, some waterbirds, some common and widespread, some more restricted in range and/or abundance.
I figured, though, that I would lean somewhat toward birds that were pretty or otherwise visually striking. After all, the Peterson bird guides are designed to be attractive, eye-catching, and accessible for beginners, but with enough detail and accuracy to give more advanced birders something to chew on, too. So I was aiming for a lot of favorites, but hoping to slip in a few that were a little offbeat. Clearly, Scarlet Tanager is in the former category–as predictable as Sousa at a 4th of July concert. But then, there are good reasons why some things are classics. Here’s that same shot, cropped from full-frame, but before being put in the final layout.
Moreover, there was the issue of timing. I took on this job in April of ’09, with a deadline of July. I wanted to mostly use new photographs, so I knew I wouldn’t be shooting many Snowy Owls against winter dunes. Clearly, the birds depicted were going to be mostly from spring and summer. And though I knew I would need to–get to–do some travel, the less time and money spent on that, the better. Given all these factors, a photo of this species seemed essential–they’re spectacular, popular, quintessentially “eastern,” and common in the breeding season near where I live. Here’s an alternate shot of the same bird on the same perch, but in mid-song, with that impressive bill wide open. It’s not as sharp, and it’s a somewhat unexpected pose, but still fun, I think.
I spent most of the day May 19th photographing, devoting much of it to Scarlet Tanagers. I had some luck with 2 different males–the bird above, and another, near Laurel, DE. The “winning” male had a couple of advantages: he was bathed in low angle, late afternoon light against a dark green background of pine needles. Beyond that, he seemed like an almost perfect specimen, whereas the other individual had some issues. Here’s a shot of that other male.
Not a bad shot, perhaps, but not as good as the one I went with. For one thing, I used fill flash on this guy and while it’s within my tolerance of looking natural enough, it’s missing the quality of light that flattered the other bird. This guy was photographed more towards late morning, in full but open shade.
But there was another issue with him and it’s one that you might find interesting. Look at the crown, about 11 o’clock from the eye. See a smudge there? That’s a slapdash cloning job. If cloning is something you only know from genetics labs, here it’s a sort of digital airbrushing and it’s a controversial technique, one that I use sparingly if at all. People often will say an image has been, “Photoshopped,” but I wasn’t actually using Adobe Photoshop here, so I’ll stick with the more accurate term. What was I concealing? Whoever heard of a Scarlet Tanager that needs a makeover? Well, take a look at another shot of the same bird.
Yes, ladies and gentlemen, this bird has a tick. No, not an habitual muscle spasm, but an arachnid ectoparasite. A big fat one. Sorry to perhaps mar your image of life in the treetops, but birds, even pretty birds, do get ticks and other nasty things. You can also see that this guy, in addition to having his flank feathers fluffed as Scarlet Tanagers often do, isn’t in quite complete alternate (breeding) plumage. There are some yellowish patches here and there. He’s just not as perfect as the other bird. I’m pretty sure that this guy is a male in his second summer; i.e., he was hatched in summer, 2008, and is back for his first breeding attempt. The other male is older–back for at least his second breeding attempt. If someone with more banding experience than me can confirm or disprove these theories, by all means do so in the comments. I think the wing feathers are sharp enough to allow for accurate aging.
Sometimes, a heavy parasite load can cause a bird to be unable to molt into full breeding plumage. In fact, some ornithologists theorize that attaining full breeding plumage is one way birds signal to potential mates that they have a low parasite load and are in generally good reporductive condition. But again, I think this is just a young buck with a tick.
Interesting, though, that we humans would rate a male Scarlet Tanager’s attractiveness using many of the same visual criteria that a female Scarlet Tanager would. Simply put, the winning male is not only better photographed, he’s just better looking.