(This 807th Buffalo Sunday News column was first published on September 17, 2006.)
If you had an opportunity to be reincarnated as a bird of your choice, goldfinch would not be a bad selection. Winsor Tylor describes them as "high spirited birds, always happy and full of gaiety." Bradford Torrey adds, "To see the devoted pair hovering together, billing and singing -- is enough to do even a cynic good." And Roger Peterson sums up, "The responsibilities of life seem to rest lightly on the goldfinch's sunny shoulders."
A Male Goldfinch
Photo by Edward Cordes
Indeed, these lovely little yellow and black birds lead what appears to be a good life. In their drab winter garb they are regulars at thistle feeders. Then spring comes and the males change into bright colors. They can now begin to feed on small insects and weed seeds. But while other birds rush to build nests, the goldfinches remain in small flocks through May, June and even July. Not until August do they begin to take things seriously. Only then do they pair up, build nests and raise families.
And so it was, just a week or two before we returned to high school classes, that my friend Tom Killip and I had our experience with a goldfinch family. Tom, now an outstanding heart specialist and administrator for a New York City hospital, was then already a fine nature photographer. My service was simply as his assistant and general gofer.
We discovered a goldfinch nest in my backyard and set out to photograph the parents and nestlings. Tom had rigged his camera with an electric connection that allowed him to mount it at a nest, retreat some distance, and then set off the camera flash by touching the wires to complete the circuit. There was a problem in this case, however. The nest was about eighteen feet high in a bush-like willow tree. We could use my family's ladders, but there was no tree trunk to lean a ladder against.
We had a stepladder about ten feet high and a twenty foot regular ladder. Applying our usual kid logic, we devised a creative solution to our problem. We leaned the long ladder against the stepladder and Tom climbed up to mount the camera. I stood on the bottom rung of the ladder to anchor it.
That seemed to be a good solution. Tom got to the top of the ladder and mounted the camera only about two feet from the nest. But then he discovered that he had forgotten to carry the wire up with him. "Go get it," he ordered me and I stepped off the ladder to pick it up.
At that point the unanchored ladder on which I had been standing swung up like a teeter totter and Tom's top end swung down, dropping him and the camera -- and, as it turned out -- the goldfinch nest as well.
Fortunately the only injury was to Tom's camera. The bellows was torn and had to be patched with electrician's tape. Neither of us was hurt, just chagrined.
We immediately noticed the nest, still attached to the limb on which it was mounted, but now empty of birds. We quickly mounted it on our fence and set out to collect the young birds. There were four of them, all within a day or two of fledging. We didn't have too much trouble finding them, but keeping them all in the nest was a bit harder.
We finally got them all in and stepped back in hope that the parents would return. Thankfully they did within just a few minutes.
I like to hope that those young goldfinches made it okay. Left out in the open like that surely reduced their chances, but there were young birds in the yard days later after the nest was empty.
Penfield photographer Gail Price has initiated an excellent repository for photographs of the birds of our region at WNY Bird Photography.. With so many birders taking fine pictures today, many of them through telescopes, this should continue to develop as a rich resource. It is on that site that I found Edward Cordes' lovely goldfinch photograph that accompanies this column. Cordes maintains his own website at Nature's Vision Photography. Both of these websites are well worth visiting.