When I first started birding, I used to page through the field guides trying to fix birds’ various field marks in my mind so I would be able to identify any new bird I saw. I remember noticing how many birds have a yellow color scheme: warblers, goldfinches, tanagers, orioles, flycatchers – many of them are bright, bright yellow.
“How dumb can you get?” I thought. “A bright yellow bird would stand out from green leaves and brown branches like the caution part of a stoplight. You just couldn’t miss it.” I figured adding all these yellow species to my life list would be pie.
But I was wrong. Somehow, yellow blends in perfectly with green and brown, creating the ideal camouflage.
I got a good example of this the other day when I was over at Surber Grove (aka Yesler Swamp), trying to find Western Tanagers. Western Tanagers are towhee-sized songbirds that come through the Fill during spring migration. They breed in coniferous or mixed-coniferous forests, so they usually don’t stay here for long – we don’t have enough big trees for them. Surber can be a good place to find tanagers, though, because it does have dense scrub and a few tall cottonwoods and alders.
Sure enough, no sooner did I plunk down my camp stool than I heard a male singing deep in the trees. I craned my neck, searching every tree for him but I couldn’t find a trace. Then a little motion in a lacy-leafed tree drew my eye, and pop! out he hopped for exactly 1.5 seconds, just long enough for me to see he really was a tanager. Then he dove back into the tree, never to be seen again.
Mind you, this tree is a very open-branched specimen. From my sidewalk perch, I can see all the way from the front of the tree to the back. Every branch is visible. I would say, every leaf. But that bird vanished as thoroughly as the Statue of Liberty magicked away by David Copperfield in his most famous trick. Just gone. And people scoff at UFO disappearances.
(Note: for a YouTube demo of Copperfield’s trick, check out this link (if the link takes too long to download, click on the YouTube black box):