The Towhee Conspiracy

Usually I write about dogs, but this post is strictly for the birds.

One of my objectives on my recent Lake Arrowhead vacation was to get a better photograph of a spotted towhee that I saw last year.

On the first day of vacation I heard towhees several times, making their somewhat mechanical sounding very high-speed click click click sound. They sound almost like a cicada.

But I was never able to spot one of them. It seemed like they were always at a distance and buried in the bowels of an oak tree or on the other side of a tree.

This went on for several days. On the fourth day of my vacation, Barbara and I went for a long walk, and we heard the towhees calling, but they were always “over there” somewhere. I was never able to get a closer than about seventy five yards to one of them. I have a powerful telephoto lens for my cameral, but that’s still not exactly a clean shot

Several times when I spotted the towhees, I tried to get a little closer, only to have the birds fly away. They are obviously very skittish and not comfortable around people.

About a week into my vacation I started to get the idea that all of the towhees on the mountain were conspiring to avoid me. It seemed like, no matter what I did to get closer to one, they outsmarted me. Several times I thought I was in good camera range only to have the birds fly away just as I started to focus.

So now I’m starting to perseverate on these little guys. This is getting serious. It seems like they are really ganging up on me and avoiding me at all costs.

One evening, one of the towhees let his guard down a little and gave me a pretty clean shot. It was clean, but the bird was about one hundred yards away, so the image did not enlarge very well. I thought “well this is good enough for now, but I need a better shot.”

Several mornings later, I thought I finally had my perfect shot. I was practicing golf in a net, and all of a sudden I realized that one of the towhees was buzzing away in the top of an Oak tree about thirty yards away.

Obsessed as I had become with getting a picture of this little guy, I had brought my big camera and lens so I only had to walk a few feet, and I had a fairly open shot of the bird. He (the males have the fancy colors) was about forty feet high on a dead branch — with no obstructions. A very nice shot.

Unfortunately, the bird was facing away from me. I did get a couple of marginally acceptable shots, but I remained convinced that the towhee community was conspiring against me and alerting the the others anytime I got within fifty yards of one of them

So now I’ve got about a week left to get a good image of the towhee, and I’m becoming more and more convinced that he and his friends are conspiring against me. I say “he” because one of the birds lives in a wooded transition area adjacent to my property. I hear him every morning and every evening.

A few more days go by and I’m hearing the little guys everywhere. Buzz, buzz, buzz. But I never got a good shot. I walked out onto the street a couple of times because I heard a towhee near the street, but every time I got within about seventy yards the bird would fly to another tree.

On the very last day of my vacation, I had to pack up my golf practice net and carry it up to the house for storage. I had my large camera and lens with me, just in case, and as I approached the house I heard a “click-click” sound. Not the usual “buzz” — just a few clicks. It occurred to me that that the usual buzzing sound is made up of high-speed dozens of these “clicks,” and, sure enough, I looked up, and about forty feet away sat my spotted towhee friend — in wonderful, soft morning sunlight and looking right at me.

You only have a few seconds in these situations, so I quickly grabbed my camera, focused on the bird, and fired off half a dozen shots (using the “automatic shutter” feature). After about six shots, the towhee flew away.

Now the conspiracy thickens. When I looked at the images I realized that I had set my camera for multiple focal points which is great for in-flight photos — like a cooper’s hawk flying overhead. But in this case the camera focused on everything except the towhee, so the image was very fuzzy.

Now, in case there was any doubt, I am totally convinced that the towhee conspiracy is in full motion. But it gets better — or worse.

When I returned to Los Angeles, I went to the golf club for some practice, and I was totally surrounded by the towhee “buzzing” sound. This time, it wasn’t coming from a spotted towhee; it was coming from a biological relative — the black phoebe, which is abundant around my home. In fact, every year, several of them nest under the eaves of my house.

All of a sudden, their sound took on new meaning. So now it’s not just the spotted towhee who is out to get me, it’s also his buddies, the the black phoebes, who are slowly — or maybe not so slowly — driving me crazy. Paranoia to the max.

Finally, I decided the photograph I got last year wasn’t really all that bad.

As a post-log, I was back at lake arrowhead three weeks later, and I realized that I was not hearing the spotted towhees at all. After a little research on their migration patterns, I discovered that they visit the mountain elevations only in the spring and early summer. Then they return to the lower elevations and coastal California.

Maybe next year.

2 Responses to “The Towhee Conspiracy”

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