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. 🙂

I Went to Hell and Back for This — Twice

You see what you expect to see

This is a story about expectations. In the beginning of the story you may think I’m quite thick-headed. But I think I redeemed myself in the end, so I’m willing to suffer some embarrassment in the interest of making a point.

In one of my odonata groups about a week ago, someone shared a photo of a dragonfly that was so stunning that I instantly wanted to see it for myself. Luckily for me, the location was in northeast Ohio, only a couple hours away from me. And I’d been wanting to see some species that aren’t found here in the northwest corner of the state, so I decided to make a quick two-day road trip.

Riffle Snaketail - LIFER head crop w sigMy target was the Riffle Snaketail, an ode with brilliant emerald eyes and thoracic markings, as you see here. I thought it would be unmistakeable if I found it.  And with the added knowledge of a very specific likely location, I was sure I could find one.

This dragon had been seen at Hell Hollow, one of the Lake County metroparks that includes a 100-foot deep ravine with a creek at the bottom of a 262-step staircase. It got that name because you may feel like you’re in Hell when you climb those stairs.

Here’s what it looks like when you step off the stairs at the bottom of the ravine.

Hell hollow creek view

The way you find a snaketail is to examine the surface of every rock in the water or on the edge of the water. Sometimes you can see them when they fly, but often they’ll sit motionless for a while, making it harder to see them. So I began slowly walking along the creek edge, expecting it to be a long search. But I instantly saw a dragonfly with huge green eyes, and my camera swung into action, taking a hundred shots as I saw not one but three individuals of my target species! A person couldn’t get much luckier than that.

Or so I thought.

After spending a couple hours down there looking around and taking photos, I texted two of my friends to tell them of my amazing success at finding the Riffle Snaketails. Except that when I uploaded the photos that night in my hotel room, I instantly saw that I’d made an embarrassing mistake. These weren’t Riffle Snaketails at all!! Sure, they had those huge green eyes, but that’s practically the only thing they have in common, as you can see in the photo below. I realized I’d taken a hundred photos of some Eastern Least Clubtails, one of the most common dragonflies in this area.

Eastern Least Clubtail - Hell Hollow w sig
Eastern Least Clubtail (Stylogomphus albistylus)

Ugh, I wanted to crawl under a rock as I admitted my rookie error to my two friends. Rick is an expert at finding and identifying dragonflies, and he kindly told me, “That’s an easy mistake to make.” I appreciated the generosity of his comment, but I didn’t agree. I realized that I’d been SO convinced that I would find the snaketail here that as soon as I saw the big green eyes my brain said, “Ah, there’s a snaketail! Don’t think, just take pictures!” So that’s what I did. I didn’t see anything other than the eyes. There’s science behind this idea that if we have strong expectations or preconceptions about something or someone, our brains will trick us into seeing or believing exactly what we expect to see or believe. (Check out a link at the end of this article for more info on that.)

Eastern Least Clubtail - Hell Hollow w sig (2)
Eastern Least Clubtail, fooling me with those eyes!!

Unlike with birds, the citizen-science projects for dragon- and damselflies require a photo of the subject in order to include it in the records. That’s why I was so concerned with getting good photos.

I’d only seen one of the Eastern Least Clubtails last year (in Maine), so I’m glad I had the opportunity to see so many of them. But as pretty as they were, I still wanted (needed) to see the Riffle Snaketail. There were other places I wanted to go on this trip, and other species I wanted to find, but I could not go home without trying to find this bug again. My self-respect was at stake here.

Stairs into Hell HollowSo the next morning, despite aching leg muscles and a poor night’s sleep, I went back to Hell Hollow. As I walked the wooded trail at the top of the ravine, I saw two Dark-eyed Juncos, a bird species that we only have in winter where I live. I thought they all went north to breed, so it was strange to find that they’re breeding in another part of Ohio. That little discovery helped lift my spirits as I prepared to descend into the ravine for a possibly very disappointing morning.

Of course the first dragons I found were the clubtails again. But this time I explored farther than the short shoreline area I’d searched the day before. I waded in the creek to get around fallen trees and other obstacles, and after about 90 minutes I stopped in my tracks, holding my breath. Is that….could it be….? Yes! A REAL Riffle Snaketail sitting on a rock about 15 feet ahead of me.

Riffle Snaketail - LIFER reduced w sig
Yes, this is the REAL Riffle Snaketail (Ophiogomphus carolus)

You can be sure I studied every detail of the bug this time, and once I was sure I had the right one, I stood alone in that creek with a mile-wide smile on my face. I took a little video of the water gurgling around my legs, narrating the story for myself as a memory of how I felt right then. I could have easily skipped the second trip down into that gorge, but then I would have come home feeling humiliated and dejected. But instead I did what I had to do to make my best effort to find — and properly identify — this beautiful insect. Such a personal victory!

Riffle snaketail and Eastern Least Clubtail for size comparison
Riffle Snaketail behind the smaller Eastern Least Clubtail – the differences are so obvious when you see them together like this!

As I stood in the water with my face upturned to the sun, drinking in the feeling of success, I began to think about the climb back up those stairs. I wasn’t dreading it nearly as much as I thought I would, probably because I was high on endorphins. So I started to wade slowly toward the shore, savoring the last few moments in this lovely place. And suddenly…boom! The snaketail landed three feet in front of me, giving me an opportunity to take photos from almost directly above him. Oh man, I was giddy with glee now!

Louisiana Waterthrush at Hell Hollow for blogAnd then, again, I started to turn toward the stairs when some movement caught my eye on the far shore. A bird. I lifted my binoculars but already knew what it was just by the way it was walking…a Louisiana Waterthrush! I’d only had a couple brief views of this bird at home, and this time I got to watch it for about five minutes, right out in the open. The Louisiana Waterthrush is a warbler that bobs the back half of its body up and down as it walks, which is cute enough by itself. But this one was hopping from rock to rock in the creek…hopping and bobbing along. What a rare treat for me, and I felt it was a nice bonus for my willingness to go to hell and back…twice.

Louisiana Waterthrush at Hell Hollow for blog v3
Louisiana Waterthrush hopping and bopping along

As I write this I’m at home with calves that are so sore I can barely walk. In case you missed it, that was 1048 grueling stairs in and out of Hell Hollow. But I’d do it again in a heartbeat to recapture the feelings I had in that valley.

I’m remembering what I wrote a couple years ago about a similar feeling I had while watching Brown Creepers — that one was called “Lunatic in the Woods” because of me standing alone with a giant smile on my face.  It’s times like these when I feel the most connected to the earth and most appreciative of the amazing gifts of this planet.

There are so few places in the world these days where a person can be alone to enjoy a natural setting without the noise of other people, so whenever I find one of those places I make sure to absorb every moment so I can relive it whenever I want. And I never forget that some of my best memories are of special encounters with animals and unspoiled places in nature. I can’t help repeating this because of how important it is: Nature has such healing and restorative powers. #GetOutside

Resource note: If you’re interested in this idea of seeing what we expect to see, check out this article, particularly the last two paragraphs:  https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/kidding-ourselves/201404/we-see-what-we-want-see