Have you ever played tag with a Yellow Warbler? On an otherwise lazy afternoon the small bird tagged me by flitting into the young cottonwood next to our camper, jumping from branch to branch as if the smooth bark was coated in Tabasco. I say “he” because of his striking, bright yellow color. Colorful and bright colors in birds seems more common to the male of a given species than of a female. So I reached for my camera. Game on!

He had the advantage of the thick layers of leaves to flit and hop through, to hide with but a momentary peek over or through the foliage. Just when I thought I had him spotted and raised the camera lens to focus, he’d be off toward another hideaway. Then, just as quickly came a flash of yellow and he’d be off to another tree or to snuggle down to hide in the grasses blanketing the prairie of the Upper Sioux Agency State Park. Our little game would last off and on for parts of three days. For there comes a time when you realize there are fish to be caught or hillsides to explore.

Our simple goal was to practice trailer camper camping before a forthcoming two-week trip to Oregon and Washington, and to conveniently meet a branch of my Missouri family who had briefly interrupted their summer “Auntie Tour” to check out the Laura Engels Wilder haunts for their curious nine year old daughter, Lucy, who is an avid reader like most of our family tribe. Her great grandmother, and my aunt, created a bit of a reputation in her elderly years by purchasing book collections from decommissioned small town libraries. Her spacious garage contained rows of tables holding the books that she offered to any family member with an interest.

A pair of Chipping Sparrows did the honors of grabbing my attention away from the flashes of yellow!

Fortunately there were other distractions beyond the shy warbler. A pair of Chipping Sparrows captured my interest off and on, as did a frequent visit of a noisy Dickcissel that loved to grasp onto the highest naked perch of a barren shrub to rare back and sing as loudly as possible. It wasn’t beyond the imagination to suspect of some karma-influenced inheritance from some famous operatic soprano. There was simply no holding back of the Dickcissel. There never is.

Then, out of nowhere, came a warbler-sized mostly black bird with reddish stripes. I can now add an American Redstart to my birder’s list. Redstarts seem to have some kinship to the Yellow Warbler for it too loved to flit from branch to branch, and was just as adept at finding hideaways. Over the course of our second afternoon of tag I was able to make several brief sightings, and my quickest focusing was simply not quick enough. Neither of my two images were in focus.

Just as I was beginning to relax Mary alerted me to a new flash of yellow. Ah, yes. Goldfinches were also in the neighborhood! How could one forget? Within the blink of an eye and the leafy tree foliage it was difficult to distinguish which was which, then the male and female finches burst from the canopy and did one of those rolling tangled flights that only small birds seem able to maneuver; flights that make you wish for a nice movie camera so you could hopefully do a slo-mo later on to catch the actual acrobatics! 

A Dickcissel provided nearly a constant musical accompaniment throughout our game of tag!

Then came another flash. Whatever it was … Goldfinch or Yellow Warbler … was difficult to see. Perhaps a couple of leaves would wiggle out of the thousands that rose from a low hanging branch upwards to the top of the tree some forty feet above us. All with thick, leafy curtains that would give comfort to the shyest introvert. 

Yes, it was the warbler. And, no. Not a chance of being open long enough for a focus. A former colleague who eventually became a professor of photojournalism at a Denver-area university even sent a text message: “Auto focus!” When I offered a smite of protest he quickly answered, “Yeah, well I, too, only do manual focus.” Just for a kick, though, I tried it, with the focus bouncing around so much due to a prairie breeze tossing around the leaves that dizziness set in. 

So it was back to manual and the fate of aged reflexes. Years ago on a bluff overlooking a lake ravine near Annandale I played tag with a Blackburnian Warbler, my first ever sighting. That time I had a bit of an advantage, for I was younger with quicker reflexes, it was the middle of May and the leaves were in the budding stage. Though he was another nervous warbler I was able to capture numerous images before he tired of the game and disappeared into the distance. 

Finally, on the third morning, the Yellow Warbler was caught in our game of tag, and he seemed to sing, “It was the dew, Dingbat!”

Fortunately I’ve a somewhat recent habit of awakening quite early in the morning. Usually around 5:30 at the latest, and since we’re past the Summer Solstice this is just before sunrise. By the time I settled in with a cup of morning tea I’d had some fun working to capture a dawn fog hugging the prairie around a tipi next to our camper, so I had my camera handy when the minuscule yellow flash of bird suddenly appeared on a branch above my chair. Perhaps I can thank the fate of time for I was able to get in focus and grab a couple of photographs before he slipped through the leaves to head into the adjacent prairie grasses and shrubs.

The sort of evened the score. I was only behind something like 40 to 2 over the two days and heading into the third, yet it was just enough to up my game. Within moments he hopped up onto a prairie shrub, first turning this way, then that before hopping around to face the opposite direction, then flash … he disappeared into the grass. Suddenly he was back up on a nearby plant stem. My focus was just on when he decided to go airborne. And, I got my image! All the while he was chattering warbler language, which I actually translated to say, “It was the dew, Dingbat!” 

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About John G. White

Somewhat retired after a long award-winning career in newspapers (Wisconsin State Journal, Dubuque Telegraph-Herald, Denver Post and a country weekly, the Clara City Herald). Free lance photographer and writer with credits in more than 70 magazines. Editor with various Webb Publishing magazines in St. Paul, and a five year stint as editorial director at Miller Meester Advertising.

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