BIRD ON A WIRE

It was 1978. I was in Kruger National Park in South Africa with my AFS (foreign exchange) host family. We had risen before sunrise to get a bite to eat and pack into the car just as the sunlight broke at the horizon. Our destination was – well, whatever Kruger was going to offer us in those early morning hours when the wildlife were just starting their day. Mid-day was a time for animals to laze in the cool shadows and humans to take a nap and have a spot of tea. To take full advantage of the day, an early morning and a late afternoon trip into the park was recommended.

I quickly learned that I had a pretty good eye for spotting wild animals. You’d actually be very surprised how difficult it is to see an elephant – especially one that was standing fairly still in the brush. But, I had detected one – a single bull, and so we stopped to observe it. While we were watching the massive beast, my host mother turned back from her seat up front and shared a story that, I’m sure, was one of those stories which was relayed during ever trip the family took to Kruger. It was about how Stephan, the youngest, yelled out to his father, “Ry my pappatjie, ry!” which translates from Afrikaans to “Drive, Daddy, Drive!” when he saw his first elephant during a trip, many years back. As we all laughed, another vehicle slowly pulled up. Windows were rolled down and the folks inside turned to face that grand pachyderm that had captured our attention.

After a few minutes, another car arrived. I could see the passengers’ heads turn toward the bull as he moved slowly through the Mopani thicket. At times, his massive ears fanned out and his head moved slowly side-to-side. It seemed he might anger and move our way. That would signal a time for us to back up. My host father kept an eye in his rear view mirror to make certain a quick and clear escape was always open. I wondered what he might do if another car parked too close behind us. It seemed an interesting phenomenon that once one vehicle had stopped on the side of the dirt road, others took advantage of the fact someone had spotted an animal worth observing. As it was my first trip to Kruger National Park and my first early morning excursion into the bosveld, I began to wonder how many other cars might show up. When I saw my host father’s eyes glance into the mirror again, I turned and looked over my shoulder. It was just an impulse.

What I saw made my jaw drop. While a dozen or more people were fixated on the elephant, another animal was lying directly behind us. It was a majestic, male lion. He appeared to be watching all of us who were watching the elephant. Donning perfect camouflage, his color was nearly the same as the little hill upon which he lay. At first, I wondered if it was a real animal. Then, the big cat’s tail twitched – you know, the same move that little house cats make? “A lion! A lion! A big, fat lion!” I exclaimed. It was a phrase that my South African family would not let me live down. Years later I was informed that my “big, fat lion” story was recounted nearly every trip the family took to Kruger Park.

Although I have forgotten many things over the past four decades, the moral of that story has remained vivid in my conscious. The lesson I learned was that it’s important to refrain from focusing too intently in one direction (or on one project) for too long before stepping back to evaluate the larger picture or an alternative perspective. This is true in the literal sense – like when you are late for a meeting and have all your faculties honed in on getting to a location and you miss seeing a wayward vehicle bearing down into your line of travel. The lesson is also true in the figurative sense – for example when evaluating a relationship with another person.

Yesterday, I was filming at the platform feeder in the Pond Meadow. I do tend to scan back and forth, and even behind my shoulder on occasion. Why? Because, many decades ago I saw an African Lion when I did that! A couple of weeks ago I spotted a massive, Red-shouldered hawk perched in a tree that was far over my left shoulder.

Not to mention, the Mockingbird doesn’t vocalize before it arrives to the feeder. I like to be prepared to move my focus upon it if it shows up, because it doesn’t stick around for too long.

Back to yesterday – I was focused on a chickadee that was perched on the barbed wire fence. Call me weird, but I love the rustic look of a bird perched on a barbed wire. It immediately tells the observer where this bird was filmed. Rusty barbed wire shouts “old farm” and that’s exactly where I live. I took this photo of a Goldfinch, yesterday. Even with its muted tones, I am drawn to it because it feels like home to me.

I digress. I was aiming my camera on the Chickadee – marveling that it was actually staying put for longer than the normal one-point-three seconds. It was on the wire – my favorite backdrop! It was in a small patch of sun and I was relishing the fact that, if I were lucky, the photo would be of a handsome bird with the perfect glint in its eye. Finally, the white rectangle in the center of my view finder turned green and the camera chirped its tone which signifies; I’m ready and focused!

I was about to depress the shutter button when my attention was drawn away from the process at hand. At first I didn’t know what I was experiencing. It was as if a locomotive was rumbling through Jaye’s Pasture. What? About 150 feet beyond the little barbed wire fence upon which the Chickadee was perched something was moving. Fast. When I finally focused in on the action, I saw six or seven White Tailed Deer running across the field on the other side of the hedgerow. The beautiful khaki colored athletes came to an abrupt stop when they reached the north fence. For a brief moment they milled about as if considering their options. Then one deer took the initiative to jump over the fence. His movement pulled his herd-mates along. In a dash, they took off across the neighbor’s barren, snow covered field and were out of sight.

Here’s a zoomed-in image of the Chickadee that I was attempting to film as it flew off before I caught it perched on the lower wire.

Here’s the original image – full sized. Look in the background for the erect, white tails. Those belong to the deer that ran across the field in broad daylight.

Once I saw the deer hop the fence, I turned to my hard left in an attempt to avoid the hedgerow trees that were obscuring my view. I was able to take one photo before the deer took off to the west.

This isn’t a post about seeing deer. Let’s face it, there are about 850,000 deer in Illinois. It’s not hard to miss them (albeit, it can be difficult to film them.) I’m sharing this little experience because it illuminates two, sometime contrasting missions: focus and balance. When we are deeply zeroed in on a subject we can loose perspective and completely miss a bigger issue or become aware of it far too late to address it. In this case, had I been more outwardly focused, I would have seen that little herd of White-tailed deer before they passed directly in front of me. What a great photo that would have been, I thought. Yet, if I hadn’t been focusing on the fine details of the little chickadee, I would have failed to capture a good photo of it. That’s where balance comes in. Moving between the tiny details and the big picture is a balancing act.

If we don’t turn our heads away from our object of affection now and again, we can completely miss seeing the Lion! Yet, if we don’t pay attention to the details, an elephant might stampede directly at us.

The most curious aspect of this all is that watching a few deer interrupt my filming of a tiny bird brought forth a 42 year old memory. It is a memory that provided an incredibly valuable lesson which I have used throughout my life in many ways. I suppose that is why I am sharing it here, today.

One Comment on “BIRD ON A WIRE

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