By DAN WHITTLE
When showing some of my wildlife photography recently at a nursing home, someone asked: "Are you a professional bird watcher?"
"No, I just take pictures, as a therapeutic hobby," I replied.
"But longtime friends Wilma and Ray Goad, they're pros, having studied birds in 47 out of 48 mainland states," I added. "They've actually traveled the globe, slinking, studying and stalking through scratchy bushes and briars, sitting silently for hours at a time, to get a mere glimpse of a special bird."
"How good are they?" another senior in the audience asked.
"Ray and Wilma are so good at what they do, they don't have to actually see the bird to identify it," I described. "Ray admits Wilma is better at identifying a bird by its song than he is."
The Goads received a special "birding present" this past Christmas Day.
"While sharing information with a newspaper columnist friend, a very interesting thing happened. Our phone rang. It was daughter Lisa and husband Jack, celebrating Christmas Day from Sanibel Island, Fla., indulging one of their favorite past-times -- birding -- at Ding Darling National Wildlife Refuge, where they introduced Wilma and me to birding more than 35 years ago."
It's not easy for the Goads to pick a favorite ...
"Wilma has two -- the Ruby-throated hummingbird and Carolina wren," Ray identified. "It's hard for me to name a personal favorite, but I suppose it would be the Summer tanager that winters in Central and South America, but returns each Spring to nest in our yard."
Which brings me to an important point of this column. Birding can be inexpensive, and as near as your backyard.
"A high species' count for any given day would be 20 to 25 different species in our yard," Ray calculated. "From the big picture window overlooking our wooded back yard, we've probably counted a total of 45 to 50 species, not all on the same day, of course."
"Our life-list is somewhere just under 500 within the U.S." Ray accounted. "We have no idea what our world count would be."
The dedicated bird watcher was asked what he loves most about birding: "Just being out there."
Which brings me to two of my favorite times of year, December and January, to do bird photography in Middle Tennessee.
When Johnny Frost blankets Middle Tennessee in the fall, tree leaves are not far behind to fall. By December, you have some of the best times to photograph birds in leafless trees.
Years ago, I made the mistake of purchasing an expensive camouflage tent. Not necessary, for staying in your automobile seems to work just as well, or better. Having leg and back problems, I can't do a lot of hiking for my picture taking.
My casual bird-photography has gleaned information about habits of our colorful feathery friends.
Pat and I learned for example, that sometime during springs and summers, new blue bird offspring, when fully-feathered, will assist Momma and Poppa Blues in feeding and taking care of the next generation of little blues.
And you get to know how fiercely-territorial those feisty little hummingbirds can be. Two springs ago was when we learned that one Momma Hummer, while still nurturing her first flock of newborns, began construction of another nest in anticipation of hatching the next flock.
People sometimes ask my favorite bird. I'll pick the Great Blue Heron as one of the mid-state's most stately-looking birds.
But my most "breath-taking" series of pictures, personally speaking, came when fellow photographer Steve Barnett and I were floating across Percy Priest Lake, in search of herons to photograph.
Off in the distance, we could see some "white specks" resting on a small rock island. As we got closer, we realized we were seeing something unusual for land-locked Tennessee.
And when that large flock of American white pelicans finally came into focus in our telephoto lens, we began firing away excitedly. We learned later, American white pelicans were only recently taken off the "endangered species" list.
Although they can appear clumsy and gangly on land, pelicans are superb fliers, especially the Brown pelican that reaches speeds in excess of 70 MPH, when diving for fish in the Gulf of Mexico.
Unlike their brown cousins, the white pelicans "fish" as a flock, actually "herding" fish into groups while floating on lake waters of north-western states and Canada. Long Hunter State Park Ranger Tyler Blystone has confirmed that white pelicans tend to fly over Tennessee lakes in May.
Pelicans have caught the fancy of some great writers and poets down through the ages: "A wonderful bird is the pelican. His beak can hold more than his belly can."
I want to congratulate friend Donna Reed, who gets excellent wildlife photography with her trusty, but heavy Nikon D-90 camera. I prefer a lighter version of Nikon, the 3200 model, mostly using a 55-300 telephoto lens.