Did you know that chickadees have retinas lined with receptors that are twice as dense as those in human retinas? I learned that in David George Haskell’s The Forest Unseen, a book so beautifully written that its description of chickadee retinas has stayed with me ever since reading it close to a year ago.
“We can never fully experience the richness of [the chickadee’s] visual world,” Haskell writes, “but peering through a magnifying lens gives us an approximation. Details that are normally invisible snap into view.”
Chickadees also crush us when it comes to color perception. Human eyes, Haskell explains, have three types of color receptors, giving us three primary colors and four main combinations of primary colors. Chickadee eyes have an extra color receptor that detects ultraviolet light, giving them four primary colors and eleven main combinations.
The tiny birds need that bionic eyesight to find food, especially in winter when their miniscule body mass makes them highly susceptible to freezing to death. Whereas we see only a smooth twig, Chickadees see cracks and ridges where insects hide. They spot the ultraviolet glint of beetle wings in leaf litter.
My macro photography lens, a gift from my husband this past Christmas, has helped me get just a little closer to the chickadee’s view of the world, at least with respect to the details. With my garden finally awakening after our unusually long, cold winter, I have countless options for close-up subjects in my 365project.org photo a day challenge, and therefore countless opportunities to try to channel a chickadee (when I’m not writing, which is another form of putting a microscope to life’s details).
Though my images since starting the project on January 1 have spanned a range of topics, this month I’ve set a theme of ‘My Garden in May’. If you’d like to see my 365 album, click here. I also post garden photos on my Whispers From My Garden Facebook page — hop on over and slap down a “like” for the site if you’re so inclined!
I was already envious of the chickadee’s eyesight after reading Haskell’s book. It was when I tried to photograph a happy chickadee couple nesting in the birdhouse four feet from my kitchen window that my admiration really grew.
Unlike the tragic wren parents I photographed and blogged about last summer (here’s the full story), the chickadees have proven to be much more challenging to capture with my camera.
Haskell sums up why: “The [chickadees] dance through the trees like sparks from a fire, careening through twigs. They rest no more than a second on any surface, then shoot away.”
And in that one second of rest, they check to make sure I’m not perched at my open window with my camera.
But now the little chicks (that must be what baby chickadees are called?) have hatched, Mom and Dad can’t stay away for too long. I’ve been preparing for this moment for the last five years. Without my cancer diagnosis and the lifestyle changes I’ve made to reduce my risk of recurrence, it’s unlikely I would have had the physical or mental toughness required to take on the chickadees.
My physical fitness, especially my strong core muscles (thank you Grass Roots Fitness), supports my posture behind the tripod, even if I have to tilt when the camera is hanging sideways for a portrait shot, frozen for many minutes at a time while waiting for a chickadee parent to bring home the groceries.
My mindfulness and meditation practice has taught me to be still, both inside and out. I can focus for long periods of time, immune to distraction. I am quite sure that the chickadees told the female cardinal to alight on the birdfeeder just inches away from my head in the hope that I would turn my lens away from the birdhouse. Like an errant thought that I let float away during a meditation session, I do not allow the flash of another bird’s wings to deter me.
Stillness, as I’ve written about frequently here, is also key. In much the same way that mental stillness brings clarity of thought, physical stillness (my own and the camera’s) brings clarity to my photographs. My tripod has become as important a tool to me as my meditation bench.
And now that I’ve managed to snap a few fairly clear shots of the chickadees (the only type of shooting I’ll ever be comfortable with), I will let go and move on. I am not only up against very smart and capable birds; I’m also working with a weaker camera lens than I used on the wrens, since my beloved 300 mm spilled out of my backpack while I ran to a soccer game last summer, cracking sickeningly on the pavement. Despite the camera store staffer’s assurances, my 18-270 mm falls short with birds. I can compensate with deeper stillness, but it takes two to tango and the chickadee is not a willing partner.
For the rest of the month, I’ll likely stick to floral shots with my macro lens, leaving the chickadees in peace unless I’m chasing a snake or sparrow away from their nest. Though angle, light, wind, and weather can be challenging with plant shots, at least I don’t have to worry about my subject taking flight.
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