Untamed Lowcountry

3 cruddy bird photos that brought me great joy, anyway

Bird photos are to my adulthood what baseball cards were to my childhood. I am a collector -- and when I say "collector," I mean dangerously close to "hoarder" -- by my nature and compulsively in search of the complete set.

I was excited in 1981 when Donruss and Fleer began issuing full sets to challenge Topps' long-held dominance of the industry because I could complete three sets, no sweat, and knew some of my friends would not. I started getting a little nervous a few years later when Sportfilcks and  Upper Deck joined the fray and gave up when the companies already in the market started issuing "Opening Day Starters Whose Names Begin With The Letter J Printed On Paper Milled In Madagascar Hologram Special Edition" sets. It was too much. I had neither the finances, nor the time to assemble complete sets, and if my sets weren't complete, they were not worth having.

Anyway, that's how my mind works. I seek the comprehensive, the full, the all-encompassing. Never mind that the 1981 Donruss set was printed on Kleenex-quality stock and was perhaps the cruddiest set of baseball cards ever printed. I MUST have it.

I take a similar tack with birding. The most enjoyable part of lugging a camera around the Lowcountry is the chance to see something I haven't seen before because it brings me that much closer to completeness.

Thus, I present to you three of the crappiest photos of birds you'll ever see published on a professional website. I should be embarrassed, really, to show these to you, but they made a recent trip to the Savannah National Wildlife Refuge worth the fire ant bites I suffered taking them.

This guy is a common nighthawk ... but not so common that I had photographed him before. (I've been at this about a year and a half, so ...)

I couldn't ID him in the field, although I was confident I would be able to when I got home because the white stripes on the underside of his wings were so prominent. The image is improperly exposed and grainy, but is mine. ALL MINE!

Earlier, while taking photos of common gallinules -- the 3-cent common cards of the Savannah Wildlife Refuge; you can't swing a dead cat without hitting one there -- I caught a glimpse of this fellow.

Obviously, I ha d a difficult time reacting quickly enough to get a well-focused shot of this least bittern. I had a notion what I had captured, but I didn't get my hopes up. I've shot dozens of green herons from a distance, thinking I might have a bittern. But lo and behold, when I got it home and looked at the distinctive pattern across his back and wings, I added another to my collection. I consider this a bit of a coup, since these are notoriously difficult birds to spot and photograph.

A half hour later, driving down the causeway, my wife, Debi, spotting this bird in a tree. From a distance, I thought it was green heron, but as I drew closer, the coloring, shape -- everything -- was way off.

I followed this guy into the brush and still wasn't sure what I had. At home, I photoshopped this image to within an inch of its life and still wasn't sure. I turned every page of my National Geographic bird guide until I came upon the yellow-billed cuckoo, though I still wasn't positive about the ID. After all, I couldn't see the distinct yellow eye ring, and I wasn't sure the bill shape was quite right.

I emailed the photo to Chris Marsh of the LowCountry Institute, a former professor of ornithology, who confirmed the ID, adding that this is another difficult bird to photograph.

It felt a little like opening a wax pack of 1980 Topps and finding Junior Kennedy, the last of the Cincinnati Reds I had not yet collected. It didn't matter to me that Kennedy was a lifetime .248 hitter -- I didn't have him before I opened that pack, and he looked like a Honus Wagner T206 to me.