(This is part of The Hidden Life of the Hideous Tree, a nine-part series about discovering nature in my front yard. View previous installments here. The entire project is also available with additional images as an e-book.)
It’s now June. The flowering currant stopped flowering a month and a half ago, but I still see the hummingbird occasionally feeding on the flowers of some overgrown blackberries that I need to clear. As the lockdown orders drag on, photography work is giving way to yard work.
First up: mowing the lawn. As I yanked the cord to fire up the lawnmower, a bird flew by, missing my head by just a few feet. It was the red-breasted sapsucker! I saw the bird and the irony. I had spent weeks sneaking around the tree, but my first encounter with it came as I was making so much noise I needed hearing protection.
It pecked away at a patch of bark about 9 feet up. It was still in the same spot after I ducked into the house and returned with my camera. I got a few photos — nothing spectacular — thanked it for its time and walked away. Some people may find this crazy, but when I’m photographing an animal that’s clearly aware of my presence, I usually talk to it. It’s the opposite of what most wildlife photographers do.
When I work in national parks or other wildlife hotspots, I frequently run into photographers in head-to-toe camouflage. Most of the time their equipment is wrapped in camo, too. Maybe that fools some animals, but I’m happiest when the creature knows I’m there and doesn’t care. I think talking to them helps.
To any animal, the gear required to take a photo must be a scary sight. The sound of the camera’s shutter is an aggressive rat-a-tat-tat. My biggest lens weighs more than 13 pounds and has an outer glass element that’s nearly the diameter of a dinner plate. It says “Canon,” but it looks and sounds more like a cannon.
Chatting with the wildlife is an approach I adopted nearly 20 years ago when I accidentally surprised a small group of deer in old growth forest on the Washington coast. I had just stepped off the trail to photograph the texture of the Douglas fir trunks when I felt dozens of eyes on me. I looked up and saw deer on high alert, their tails pointed like exclamation marks. In soothing tones, I apologized. The doe closest to me looked me in the eyes then lowered her head and resumed grazing. The others followed her lead.
I wanted the sapsucker to feel just as safe here. I hoped it would come back.
(The Hidden Life of the Hideous Tree is available as an ebook. Follow Kevin Ebi's photography on Facebook or Instagram. Prints of his images are available through LivingWilderness.com.)