Birds, Photography, Key West, Whatnot

Start With The Chuck

Chuck-will's-widow The first post on a blog is supposed to be an act of throat clearing — statement of purpose, who you are, etc. But, feh, boring. It's best not to write what you don't want to read.

My name is Mark. I like birds.

The photo above is of a Chuck-will's-widow. It is a member of the goatsucker family. (Non birders: commence tittering. Birders: commence acting like the name isn't funny.)

Goatsuckers are night workers. They got the name because it was believed they stole milk from the udders of unsuspecting goats. Which they do not. What they do do is fly around in the dark with their mouths open, catching bugs.

Like many night workers, they sleep all day. To avoid getting noticed or eaten they have what is called cryptic plumage, meaning they use sleight-of-feather to trick people and other critters into not seeing them. It is camouflage beyond camouflage. (It is the shallow depth of field that makes the bird in the above photo obvious. The wide-view photo of the yard below makes it a little harder.)

Usually you don't see Chuck-will's-widows until you almost step on them and they sort of huff in resignation, leap into the air like a feathered, benign Bouncing Betty, and fly off.

I was talking with someone last year, trying to answer the question of what I like about birding, and I decided that the things that make me happiest are the surprises. I like it when something I hadn't quite grasped before, or expected, suddenly makes itself apparent or known. It could be an aspect of a bird I hadn't noticed before — say the baffle in the middle of a Peregrine Falcon's nostril, or the gator-like scaliness of a Great Egret's foot. Or it could be a bird I hadn't seen before — like the possible (possible possible) Caribbean Martin Carl Goodrich found at Fort Zachary Taylor in Key West spring.

Chuck-will's-widows are almost always surprises. You never see them until they are leaving. Sometimes you can re-find them, but more often, you just lose track of them in the shadows.

This was one of the few Chuck's that didn't surprise me. Because it was found by my friend Kimberly. She sent me an email after she saw it in her backyard, thought it might be an owl, and thought it might be injured – which is a pretty normal response to seeing your first Chuck.

Chuck-will's-widow are so convinced you can't see them that their flight response can seem nonexistent. And it's a strategy that has worked well for them for thousands and thousands of years. But it often perplexes humans, who are used to birds being much more skittish, and therefore think something must be wrong.

Find the Chuck-will's-widow.

When I stopped by Kimberly's with my camera, the bird hadn't moved all morning.

I sat down on the ground in the backyard and the bird did not care. I belly-crawled to within five yards of the thing, and the bird still did not care.

It is tempting to say that the bird did not even bother to open its eyes, but if you look at the photo, its eye is actually open. Chucks have huge eyes, the better to see at night. They are not inclined to open them fully during the excessive light of day, and as a result they tend to view things with a slitted reserve.

I took about as many photos as I could need, then just watched for a while. The wind gusted slightly. A Turkey Vulture flew overhead. The Chuck did nothing.

I thought for a while — tried to take in — the way it's bill was so high and came off the forehead like the prow on a ship. The way the bill was proportionally tiny but was really like the tip of an iceberg, hiding a mouth five times bigger, hiding a mouth with a gape wide enough to swallow a small bird or bat whole.

And there is was — the buzz, the heady frisson of seeing something new in something you've seen dozens of times before.