As a traditional Naturalist, I have always advocated bringing along a pair of binoculars on every field trip as a basic tool of the trade. In fact, I’ve even stressed the importance of always keeping a cheap pair with you – you know one that you can throw around a bit and don’t have to “protect” – just to be ready for those surprise situations when some critter or vista pops up unexpectedly. A few degrees of magnification can spell the difference between turning a Robin into a Sharp-shinned Hawk, or panther into a house cat. Lately, however, I’ve been re-thinking the idea a bit.
I still own binoculars, and use them on occasion, but find that I increasingly depend on my digital camera as my “go-to” nature study tool. I can use a camera as a binocular because they now are amazingly smart and optically breathtaking. I can use the images for identification and employ them to help others as well.
I was, shall we say, “introduced” to this concept several years ago on one of my public nature walks. One of the participants used his digital zoom camera to reveal that the Robin which I had confidently identified in yonder tree was actually a Sharp-shinned Hawk. His picture of the bird, even though it wasn’t all that great as a photo, clearly showed the red eye and buffy chest. I ate crow and used the incident as a teachable moment. We clustered around the tiny screen and I was able to point out the key features. I also decided to carry my own camera on all my future walks – both public and personal – from that time forward.
Rather than drone on about this idea, let’s put up a few recent examples for display. This past weekend, I led a nature study group on a field trip at a local park. Several unidentified dickey birds were twittering back and forth in a yonder cluster of Cottonwood trees. They weren’t Robins or Sharp-shinned Hawks, but some larger dark bird among a host of smaller ones.
A few zooms and clicks of the camera and the birds magically transformed into a female Red-winged Blackbird and some winter phase Goldfinches. I gathered our gang to point out the field marks on the small screen so they could naked-eye these same field marks on the real birds before us. The female Red-wing was preening, so her head was plunged into her feathers, but her breast streaking and head markings were clear enough. “Red wings are true migrants,” I announced in my naturalist-as-leader voice. “Nearly every individual migrates out of the region for the winter and when they return they are the first sign of Spring.” The Goldfinches were in greenish cast but their black wings sported a diagnostic set of white wing bars. I never had to reveal that I initially thought that the birds were Butterbutts (Yellow-rumped Warblers). How smart I appeared.
Neither of the photos (shown above) were of calendar quality, but good enough for field work.
At least three migrant Monarch Butterflies coursed by. One landed nearby and a quick camera shot allowed me to display an extreme close-up of the wing venation. Lack of a gland spot on the hind wing was proof enough that it was a she and not a he. I did suggest that she was terribly late and probably would never make it to the mountains of Central Mexico, but at least she would look pretty while dying.
The Monarch incident was actually a case of bringing a close object even closer and this is the type of digital magic that a camera can also do. Further down the trail, I used my nature study tool to enlarge a tiny Eastern Tailed Blue Butterfly to the point where all could see his black and white antennae segmenting and the hairy fringe on the wing.
Not to be outdone by any finch, fowl or ‘fly, a sizable female Praying Mantis patiently stepped onto my palm and accepted the ride up to the collected gaze of the nature study group. In this case, our nature study endeavor involved direct eye to eye contact – the best of all natural experiences. Yet, even here I opted to take a few intimate portrait shots while she presented her noble profile against the autumn sky.
These shots showed the fine detailing of the “forearm” serrations, foot structure, and wing venation with nearly microscopic detail. Perhaps the most important thing to mention, in this circumstance, is that I chose to wait until after the beast had flown away before displaying these images. Ms. Mantid hung around for quite a while before propelling off into the Goldenrods. No matter what, it is always best to pay close attention to the real thing when it is there. Nature study is all about the moment.
It has long been known that the camera captures moments but in its digital form it can also be an extra eye to enhance the moment as it occurs. I declare it an essential nature study tool. If use of this device also happens to enhance the illusion that I am smart, who am I to argue with technology?