March 2, 2017
What's going on here?
What's going on here?
Our responses to visual stimuli are colored by past experiences, often by those in the recent past.  A few days after returning from a Christmas trip to Florida where I spent a lot of time with the camera along a boardwalk through a cypress swamp, I was perusing another photographer’s website and came across images of penguins he had captured on a trip to Antarctica.  The next day I was walking a trail around some local ponds, came around a bend into an opening out over the water, and stopped dead in my tracks experiencing another WTF birding moment.

Without the recent visual imprints of both cypress swamps and penguins in my head, it’s doubtful I would have stopped or even paused to take the photo accompanying this column.  As it was, I spent half an hour shooting over a hundred frames of a species that is common enough in the Valley in winter, trying various lenses, angles, and camera settings, even lying on my belly at water’s edge, trying to capture a photo that would reconcile what the sensor was seeing with the images still lurking in my brain.

While you’re trying to figure out the species in the photograph, and there’s one small clue here which should clinch your identification, ask yourself three questions which will put you inside my head.  What is the most prominent and unusual feature of a cypress swamp?  Wow, at a quick, first glance don’t these look like miniature penguins with the black and white and the upward tilt of their little heads?  What are these birds doing, and what are the odds they would all be doing the same thing simultaneously?

Cypress swamps are most noteworthy for the so-called “knees” which grow up at ninety degrees from the water surrounding individual cypress trees.  Their height may be anywhere from a few inches to several feet, and the puzzle over whether their primary purpose is to help the trees breathe or to stabilize them as water levels change has not been solved.  Whatever the answer, cypress knees are visually unique and as much a part of the mystique of our southeastern swamps as mosquitoes, alligators, and Barred Owls.  The objects protruding straight up out of the water in the photo were exactly the height and thickness of many of the cypress knees I had recently been seeing daily.

Think penguins and what image does your mind produce?  Black faces over white bodies, bills pointing skyward as the birds stand around together in a group basically doing nothing.  This flock of water birds I photographed held the pose you see for only seconds, but they did it over and over again, and with many more of these birds than birders are used to seeing together at one time, mini moments like this were going on continually somewhere in the pond before me.  Though this shot was my favorite, I could have chosen from among many in which the water was bright to almost glary white resembling the icy world of most penguin species.

Sure, these are neither cypress knees nor penguins, but feeding teal, and the touch of green in the speculum of the female, farthest left, tells us they are Green-wingeds.  I’ve never seen so many together in one spot, perhaps up to fifty, and I’ve never before seen them tipping up perpendicularly like this, exposing only their butts.  Green-winged Teal are considered dabbling ducks, a name derived from the typical feeding behavior of “dabbling along surface of water, capturing insects or seeds with the bill above water, seldom tipping up” (Birds of North America).

It took me a while to capture this many teal so close together tipping up simultaneously.  Apparently this atypical foraging technique tells us, though the water here was deeper than Green-wingeds like, there was something down there they found nutritional.  We can take two things from this photo quiz.  Birds of all feathers are exquisitely evolved opportunists.  Birders and bird photographers should beware letting preconceived mental images cloud their identification skills and their eye for unique images.