Sunday, December 6, 2009

The Secret Life of a Chachalaca


As one of Digital Camera Adventures objects is to share experiences and adventures in nature and photography, I felt that, as a naturalist turned into nature photographer, learning the natural history of wildlife and photographing
it could be one of the great challenges of this blog.

That is why I recommend, getting intimately close to your subject, so you can
get the pictures that one can miss, without getting the trust of the animal you want to photograph.

I do my wildlife photography on a limited budget, as my equipment is made up by a Canon 40D, a macro 100 mm f/2.8, a 70 to 300 mm zoom f/3.5-4.5 and a
24-105 mm f/4 L mid range zoom. So this places me with a vast number of people, who love to do what I do, and do not have a budget to buy a 600 mm lens and a full frame camera to do nature photography. However, becoming an image hunter, been in tune with your surroundings, studying your subjects behavior, knowing its daily runs can get you good results. And this is what this note is about…breaking the rules!

Rufous Vented Chachalacas belong to the Crassidae family, which includes Guans and Curassows. One could say they are birds that occupy pheasant and turkey niches in Europe and North America in the New World tropics. These birds are well camouflaged, secretive and shy towards humans. However, those that have become urban, as cities encroach their habitat, live in hallways of dry forest close to housing projects and suburban condos. These can be a great subject to learn wildlife and bird photography. My story takes place at my building’s parking lot, as it borders a small island of tropical deciduous forest. My blind was my apartment’s window and the subject, a group of chachalacas, that are so noisy, our neighbors hate them, specially, when they make their dawn and evening territorial calls on weekends or holidays.

I am a softy when it comes to underdogs, and here is where I broke the nature photographers code of “NO INTERVENTION”. The flock has its dominant birds and I befriended the lowest ranking female who we call Droopy. Her name comes from a damaged wing that hangs down on her right side. These birds can be aggressive towards one another in their pursue of dominance, thus, in one of the many squabbles of the flock Droopy’s right wing was damaged. Well, as it turns out, Droopy has overcome her disability by avoiding conflict, switching feeding times, and becoming a regular visitor to our apartment as her flock watches from a distance with justified fear. She has used her intelligence to overcome a handicap in one of her flocks feeding grounds…the woods behind our building.

As any other wild animal, chachalacas make a daily patrol of their territory, as this enables them to find when the fruits are ripe, where can they get water, where is safe to rest or sleep at night and so on. These birds are in cue with the surroundings so well, that once the photographer learns their favorite trees, foods and watering holes, all you have to do is sit there and make them accustomed to you. Once they’ve got your trust, you can start taking pictures and soon enough the strobe lights would not face them a bit.

As they arrived to their resting tree, I would whistle their meeting call and this helped them to trust me. I learned their body language, their vocalizations, and their mood changes, so I knew when to take the pictures and when to stop, so I would not spook them away. When Droopy was chased out of a fruiting tree next to my apartment, I started to call her with a specific whistle and began feeding her bread (breaking the rules) conditioning her behavior with food! Soon the others chased her out of where the bread fell and other birds species learned to associate my whistle with food, so now, I have birds flocking over when Droopy makes her call for me to show up. This proves that urban wildlife learns very quickly our behavior and makes it beneficial for them as soon as they loose fear for us. This is not good with other critters that are becoming regular visitors like red squirrels and possums which have become part of the gang but can become a nuisance to humans.

Two months ago, Droopy broke Chachalaca laws, and she flew over to our window, while the flock was astonished as I was. I fed her bread and she ate till she could not eat anymore! No Alfa chachalaca would dare to do what she did. To reinforce this conduct, I did not feed the others and now Droopy knows she is “THE BIRD”. Intelligence over power worked for her. What I do not understand, is how she overcame the fear of me, as humans are their ultimate predator. Furthermore, she was still fearful of her peers!

Now she has a brood of her own, and they do what mama does. They are tolerated a bit more by the flock but they still remain at the lower tier of the dominance – subordinate hierarchy of their group. It is tough to be born an underdog. However, Droopy has taught her chicks conflict avoidance, timing their visits to the fruiting trees when the main flock is not there, alternative feeding spots and an outright boldness when it comes to visit my apartment’s window and call me two times a day for handouts (breakfast and dinner). They recognize each member of my family and only eat out on my hand when I am home. Other wise, they will take the bread and eat it in their tree away from the rest of the family. So yes, animals can tell one human from the other.

Most of the shots were done with the 70 to 300 zoom, an on camera flash and the camera placed on a Manfrotto tripod. As focusing can be critical, I use LIVE VIEW to augment my field of view for details such as eyelashes, iris of the eye and feather detail. This enables me to keep more picts. Since this started, I have learned much about these birds’ natural history, I got pictures to document their lives and they have told me that trust between the photographer and their subject is the key to great photography.

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