I don’t know why I keep trying. There’s just something about wildlife photography that lures me in. Sitting in a small blind, concealed from wild animals you’d never otherwise get close to, and coming home with fantastic photos and a good story to boot? Sign me up!
Except it never works that way for me. I build a blind, lie uncomfortably in it for hours, and nothing comes near. I nap, I work on my laptop, I listen to podcasts – all of which I could do more effectively and enjoyably in a more comfortable setting. And for what? Nothing.
This week, I sat in two different uncomfortable blinds, waiting for sandhill cranes that never materialized. The first was along the edge of the Platte River. I army crawled to the blind in the darkness last Saturday morning. It is in a spot that frequently has thousands of roosting sandhill cranes. The river levels looked great for crane roosting too – exposed sand all over the place, including near the bank where my blind was hidden. As I entered the blind, though, and took my first look at the river, it was clear this wasn’t going to work out. First of all, I could see the river – all of it – an nice view, unobstructed by any birds. Upstream, I could see the vague white of a horde of snow geese, but just as I was trying to decide if I was going to stay or go, the horde lifted noisily into the sky and left. I left too.
My second blind is along the edge of a small creek where we’ve been seeing sandhill cranes hang out during the day. We’ve known for years that they use the creek, but don’t really know much about what they’re doing there or why they choose to do it in a wooded area that is so different from the open treeless sites where they normally hang out. My brain told me the way to figure it out would be to hide in a small uncomfortable blind and watch them. My brain is stupid.
I’ve made two attempts to use that blind in the last week. The first time, I had to retreat during my approach because there were cranes in front of the blind. The second time, I got in and sat there for three and half hours while nothing happened. Will I try again? Probably. Did I mention my stupid brain?
Here’s the thing, though. When I stick to my lane as a naturalist and photographer and just look for interesting stories among invertebrates and flowers, I have great luck. This week alone, while getting skunked by sandhill cranes, I found and photographed two great insects without working hard at all.
The first was in my yard. After getting home from not photographing cranes from my blind, I wandered back to our prairie garden to see what might be moving around in the warm sunshine. There were several different insect species around, but the most abundant was a bunch of false milkweed bugs (Lygaeus turcicus). In fact, they were so abundant, I spent a minute trying to count how many were in a square foot and got over 20. Many of them were mating with each other, while others were just crawling in and out of the stems and leaf litter. A few seemed to be feeding on something. I wondered what they were eating.
Lying on my belly in the warm sun (comfortably) and hoping, as always, my neighbors weren’t watching me, I inched close enough to a few bugs to get photos. Many of them spotted me and ran away, but that was fine – there were plenty more around. I even managed to get a few good photos of one holding and feeding (through its long proboscis) on a seed.
Using a combination of experience and context clues, I figured out that the bug was feeding on the seed of a false sunflower seed. That made sense since this was happening in the part of our garden where we have a lot of false sunflowers and the plants drop a lot of seeds. I glanced around and saw a few other bugs with the same kind of seeds. Later, I looked online and learned that false sunflower seeds are a favorite food of false milkweed bugs. An irony, of sorts, since it is one unfairly named species eating another. (It’s not the fault of either the bug or the plant that an uncreative person named them after another similar-looking species that happened to have been named first.)
My second success came while on a hike with Kate and Sarah, our Hubbard Fellows. We were exploring the sandy hills along one of our Platte River Prairie hiking trails and stopped at a small area of bare ground. I was going to point out some interesting aspects of the exposed soil. Instead, we all got to enjoy a great look at one of the most colorful insects in the state – the festive tiger beetle.
The beetle was very accommodating and sat nicely for photos. I figured that was because it was eating something, but even after it finished its meal, it hung around for a few more minutes. Maybe it was feeling satiated and happy? Or just warming itself in the sun? Either way, the presence of three people staring at it didn’t seem to bother it at all.
At the time, I couldn’t quite tell what the beetle’s sand-covered prey item was, but when I got home and looked closely at the images, I saw it was a caterpillar. I’ve never seen a tiger beetle eat a caterpillar before – I’ve always thought of them as catching faster prey. It makes sense, though. Why chase after fast prey when there’s a big ol’ slow-moving enchilada right there?
The lesson here, of course, is that I can get good photos and see interesting things when I do what I do best – wander around in prairies with my eyes looking down. It’s only when my brain talks me into trying to be a wildlife photographer that things go badly. You’d think I’d learn. Instead, I’ll probably try to find some time next week to squeeze myself into my uncomfortable blinds again. Stupid brain…