Living the Scientific Life (Scientist, Interrupted)

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You do not have to be a photography expert to notice that the only thing in focus in this image is the green mesh in the foreground and even then you might have to enlarge it to see that it is so. To appreciate why I relish this photo a detailed explanation is necessary. Of course that might be said about many of my other images too but none more so than this one: at least so far.

Image: Bob Levy, author of Club George [larger].

The photographer, Bob Levy, writes;

You will, I hope, recognize that there are two Northern Cardinals in the photo. They are Mama and Papa Bank Rock who a mated pair I frequently meet on my birding walks. The center of their territory is a small cove at the northwestern end of Central Park Lake that has been undergoing a major renovation for several months. A large section of it was reopened to the public recently. The results of the work done so far are extremely encouraging. The former jumble of rotting tree stumps, knotweed and other invasive plants has been replaced with a wide variety of flowering and fruiting native ones. I found the two cardinals foraging in this newly planted but already lush garden. When Mama Bank Rock darted away I followed her hoping she might lead me to a nest. Her trajectory ended on a branch of a small tree touching a chain link fence that encircles an area where an unsightly collection of construction materials like cobble stones, pipes, lumber, street lamps, and the silt dredged from the bottom of the Lake have been stored. In an attempt to hide the mess from view part of the fence was covered with a green plastic mesh. I could see Mama Bank Rock thru the mesh where she perched motionless with her flank pressed against the fence. I had the distinct impression that she was staring at me. A few moments later her mate joined her. The two birds then sat side by side, looked at each then turned toward me. Both seemed to be looking me over intently.

When a pedestrian who was oblivious to the cardinals passed within inches of them the birds did not react as I expected they would. I assumed the close proximity of a human would have prompted both birds to flee but it had not. After another person past them without eliciting a reaction I hypothesized that the cardinals “believed ” that while they could see thru the mesh they not could not be seen from the opposite side. I tested this by gradually moving closer. I came within a foot of them and still they did not budge. This distance was well within what I have come to recognize as their “personal space.” I was almost certain that they thought they were invisible. That notion was intriguing but so was the fact that the two birds perched so closely together.

The only times I have seen male and female cardinals spend more than a few seconds within an inch of one another is when the male feeds the female during the breeding season. Alas, the cardinal mating ritual has eluded me for years so I cannot say how long the two might remain close together in that circumstance. In this situation the two sat nearly touching and looking out on the world for several minutes. Their apparent interest in the passing parade, so to speak, struck me as amusing and endearing. I thought of them as if they were a cozy couple sharing a quiet moment of observation and reflection and with one another.

As I left I made a mental note to look for them again in the same spot. I wanted a little more evidence to support my hypothesis that the birds thought they could observe the world from behind the green mesh while they themselves were unseen.

On two subsequent visits I did not find the pair there but I did locate them in other parts of their territory. However on my next attempt I found Mama Bank Rock in the same spot behind the green mesh. This time her body English said something different but at first glance I was not sure what it was. She was leaning forward with her torso parallel to the ground. Once again I had the impression that she was observing me closely while believing she was unobservable. I paused as I moved toward her to consider the airy structure that surrounded her lower extremities. It was not there on my last visit. The wiry construction looked like the beginnings of a nest. Was Mama Bank Rock so certain that the green mesh camouflaged her that she would have the confidence to build a nest behind it? On closer inspection I concluded it was a nest. This was sufficient proof for me to believe these cardinals thought that the green mesh was shielding them from view or they would not have selected this spot.

I slowly approached to get a better view but I came too close. When I stood within a foot of Mama Bank Rock she fled. She zoomed up and over the fence then deep down into the cove and out of sight in about five seconds. “Sorry”, I called out to her as she disappeared for real. I felt ashamed that I had frightened her. Sigh. On the other hand I suspect that it is only a matter of time before someone or something else notices her behind the green mesh. Some other bird-watcher is likely to spot her there especially if she reaches the point of feeding a brood of yammering nestlings. Presumably less benign observers are potential discoverers too. Blue Jays and Gray Squirrels could locate the nest. A raccoon might as well.

I will be going back as soon as possible to see if Mama Bank Rock has continued to build there or if she has chosen a more conventional spot like one behind leaves, for example.