Seeing What You Want to See

A few weeks ago I went up to Michigan with my friend Tracy to see the Sandhill Cranes during their annual migration. We spent two days in the Jackson area, roaming the rural roads around Haehnle Sanctuary. Many of the cranes roost in the sanctuary’s marsh each night, but during the day they can be found feeding in agricultural fields nearby.

Sandhill cranes in corn field - blogWe were armed with a map showing where the cranes had been spotted in recent days, and so it wasn’t hard to find them. The first group we found had about 125 birds in it, and we spent some time watching them interact with each other as smaller groups flew in and out. On the second morning we found a large flock of more than 500 cranes, and watched them dancing, feeding, and flying overhead, all with the background noise of their prehistoric, spine-tingling bugle calls. It was fantastic.

It was a cold, blustery weekend with a gray sky, and the scenery was classic farm country:

Red barns in crane country - Jackson Michigan w sig

Crane monkey collage v2
I refer to this as the flying monkey posture, because when they drop out of the sky in groups like this, they remind me of the simian army in the Wizard of Oz.

I’m not posting too many crane photos today because I’ve shared so many of them already in past posts, and I’ve got another story to tell here.

We were hoping to find the single Whooping Crane that had been reported in the area, but that didn’t happen. I was reminding myself that it would be all too easy to trick myself into seeing a Whooping Crane because that’s what I was looking for. In fact, that happens very often among birders; I can’t count the number of times I’ve heard people mistake one warbler for another one that they’re desperately hoping to see. Apparently your brain tries really hard to give you what you want.

And that’s an important preface to this next part of the story. As Tracy drove along one of the rural roads, I noticed two ducks as we approached a farm pond. I quickly pointed them out and as she pulled the car off onto the side of the road I could tell they were beautiful male Wood Ducks.  I rarely get a good view of this shy species, so I was very excited. The pond was on the driver’s side of the car, so I began shooting photos through the car from my position in the passenger seat. At first my view of the ducks was blocked by the angle of the bank, but I kept shooting photos while Tracy took shots from the driver’s seat.

Here are the first two shots I took:

Wood ducks - obstructed first view
It was raining and my view was obstructed…
Wood ducks - slightly better view 2
Starting to get a clearer view here…

Then she drove down the road a bit and turned around so I could be on the side closest to the pond. As I started shooting photos from my better vantage point, I was starting to get the feeling that something wasn’t right about this scene.

Wood duck decoy
Hmm, he looks much too perfect…

First of all, why were these two male ducks in full breeding plumage in October? And why were they sitting there calmly, out in the open, as we watched them from maybe fifty feet away? Usually when I come upon Wood Ducks, they hightail it in the opposite direction — either swimming or flying — before I can even lift the camera. But these two just floated lazily around…slowly spinning in a circle…wait, that’s weird…. Then I realized my mistake: these were decoys!

Wood duck decoy closer crop
How embarrassing — it’s fake!!

I almost died laughing as I understood that my brain had wanted to believe they were real, and that’s why it took me a while to figure out the truth. I mean, they might have been wooden ducks, but they were not Wood Ducks! I still smile when I think about that day. I feel foolish admitting that this happened, but I also remember how excited we both were when we thought we had the perfect view of these gorgeous ducks.  It wasn’t long, but it was fantastic while it lasted. I may not have gotten the shots I’d hoped for, but this story will entertain me for a long time to come.

And as I’m writing this, I’ve just remembered that this is the second time recently that this has happened to me. You may recall a post from June, when I mistook an Eastern Least Clubtail for a Riffle Snaketail in Hell Hollow (those are dragonflies).  In that post I linked to an article in Psychology Today about this phenomenon. I’ll quote a bit of it here, just to back up my assertion that I’m not a total fool:

The tendency to let expectation be our guide can cause even those of us who are intelligent, experienced, and well-trained to overlook some startlingly obvious things. One recent study asked a group of radiologists to examine a series of chest x-rays, just as they would if looking for lung cancer. Unknown to the radiologists, though, the researchers had inserted into the x-rays a picture of something no professional would ever expect to see: a gorilla. The picture of the gorilla wasn’t tiny; it was about 45 times the size of the average cancerous lung nodule – or about the size of a matchbook in your lung.

How many of the radiologists spotted the gorilla?

Very few. Some 83 percent of the radiologists missed the gorilla – even though eye-tracking showed that most of them had looked right at it. Just like Hitchcock, they had overlooked what was in front of their eyes. And just like the master, they had deceived themselves.

Source: https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/kidding-ourselves/201404/we-see-what-we-want-see

Humbled by that encounter, I was a bit hesitant a few minutes later when I saw what I thought were two Eastern Meadowlarks fly into a field as we watched another group of cranes. Could I be fooled again so soon? But no, there’s no mistaking that bright yellow breast, and luckily I was able to get some photos as the meadowlarks foraged in the grasses. I discovered as I added these birds to my eBird report that they could have been either Western or Eastern Meadowlarks at that location at that time of year, but either way, they were gorgeous.

Eastern meadowlark in late October - Jackson County Michigan (6)

This whole idea that ‘we see what we expect to see’ can be used in a more positive, intentional way in our lives. I’ve found that I have the power to change my life experience, both positively or negatively, by the way I allow my expectations to develop before a particular event.  If I let myself believe that I’m going to have a bad time — the weather will suck, the food won’t be good, people won’t talk to me, whatever — then there’s an increased likelihood that I will have a bad time. On the other hand, if I intentionally expect to have a good experience — my friends will be there, I’ll see cool bugs, the fresh air will be good for me –– then it’s much more likely to be so.

I encourage you to experiment with this idea too. It has made a huge difference in my life in recent years. And if you ever see a duck that just doesn’t look quite right…take a closer look. 🙂

Sky-High Anticipation

Sandhill Crane family vocalizing - grainy dusk pic
Family of Sandhill Cranes vocalizing as they meet in the marsh at dusk

I’ve had a love affair with Sandhill Cranes since the moment I heard their prehistoric-sounding bugling calls.  It’s hard to believe I only saw my first of this species in July of 2011, just two individuals walking around on the lawn at a metropark. Those first birds were silent though, and I had no idea what a thrill was still in store for me. But I found out later that summer, when I had a dramatic encounter with a pair of these statuesque birds on a remote lake in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula.

It was near dusk and I was in a kayak on a small private lake, trying to sneak up on a beaver so I could take some photos of it. I was floating quietly near the tall vegetation at the water’s edge…waiting…when suddenly there was a commotion just a few yards away. Before I knew what was happening, a crane burst out of the phragmites and flew right over my head, only 15 feet above me, belting out some of the most spine-tingling sounds I had ever heard.  Click below to hear a sample audio of Sandhill Cranes from the National Park Service.

Sandhill Crane flyover BEST
This photo isn’t from the day I’m describing here, but it illustrates what I saw from my kayak.

My reaction was swift and automatic: I swung my camera up and snapped a couple blurry shots of it before it dropped down on the other side of the small lake. As it did so, I realized its mate had been hidden over there, probably also warily watching my movements around the water. They both continued calling for a couple minutes before eventually settling down for the night. It took a long while before my heart rate settled down that evening, and I can feel it again now as I recall this story.

Why am I talking about Sandhill Cranes now? Because in less than two weeks I’m going to see more of them than I’ve ever seen before, and I just cannot wait! I have to stop letting myself listen to audio and video of them because it’s just making me too excited.

In 2012 I attended Michigan Audubon’s Crane Fest and got a taste of what a mass migration spectacle is like. The number of cranes in the marsh at Baker Sanctuary that year was several thousand. I loved the experience, and got some distant photos of the birds in the water as well as some flyover shots. I went back to Baker Sanctuary with my friend Tracy a couple weeks ago, but the cranes were very distant and not present in large numbers. Although we found a few hundred of them during the day, foraging in farm fields in the surrounding area.

Sandhill Cranes in flightBut now I’m preparing for my first experience at Jasper-Pulaski Fish & Wildlife Area in northern Indiana. I’m told it’ll be possible to see maybe 8,000 cranes this time, and in much closer viewing conditions. I’ve watched some videos from Jasper-Pulaski on YouTube, and I can tell it’s going to be one of the highlights of my year.

And, to make it even more exciting, I’ll have a brand new camera in tow!  My trusty Canon 60D has become a bit outdated and I think my newer Canon will give me more options.  I’m very close to springing for a new telephoto lens too, but can’t get myself to put that money out just yet. But anyway, I hope the camera arrives as expected so I can have several days to familiarize myself with it before the trip. Since many of these crane photos were taken in low light conditions, I’ve pushed the ISO setting on my camera too high, resulting in a lot of graininess. I’m hoping to get better results with my new camera and my slowly-improving photography skills. 🙂

Crane silhouette v1
Silhouette of a crane dropping from the sky with landing gear down

Along with their statuesque beauty and that fantastic trumpeting call, Sandhill Cranes are known for the “dancing” they perform as part of their mating and bonding rituals. I’ve seen this many times, and it never gets old. Imagine, if you will, hundreds or thousands of 4-foot-tall birds dropping from the sky into a marsh. Don’t forget to imagine those raucous calls too. And now picture many small family groups gathering within the large group, jumping up and down with enormous wings raised in greeting. It’s hard not to get choked up with emotion when you see and hear this joyous and life-affirming spectacle. (Here’s a video I found on YouTube.)

Chains of origami cranes
Me with origami cranes at a shrine in Tokyo, 1985

Cranes have been important symbols in many cultures around the world, including in Japan, where I spent five years of my life (a looong time ago). One quality they are believed to embody is longevity. They were said to live for 1,000 years; in reality they can live for more than 30 years, so perhaps they deserve this one. Because they mate for life, they are also used to represent fidelity. It’s also believed that if you make an origami chain of 1,000 cranes and leave it at a shrine, your prayer will be answered.  As you can see from the photo above, people really do make huge numbers of those tiny folded paper cranes.

Two cranes in formation

It’s surprising how often my photos show cranes in synchronized poses like this one. They’re mesmerizing no matter what they’re doing, but I particularly enjoy the transition from the sky to the ground, when they drop those long dangly legs below them.

Cranes landing with legs hanging down

I think they look like giant marionettes, with someone above working their strings, frantically trying to get those lanky legs positioned properly below them before they hit the ground. I really hope I’ll be back here in a couple weeks showing you even better pictures of these incredible birds.

 

Sandhill Cranes in marsh at Baker Sanctuary 2012
Cranes in the marsh at Baker Sanctuary in Michigan

Resources for further reading about Sandhill Cranes:

Birds of North America, by Cornell Lab of Ornithology

Michigan Audubon’s Crane Fest, held each October as birds are heading south for the winter.

Audubon Nebraska’s Crane Festival, held in March as the birds are heading north for the summer breeding season.