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.
We 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:
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:
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.
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!
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.
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.
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. 🙂