Under the Open Sky — Focus: Too Much or Not Enough

By Kimberly Mason / For The Chronicle

Water flies as a female black-headed grosbeak comes in for a landing. The male grosbeak is a darker, more intensely colored version of the female. (Kimberly Mason / For The Chronicle

I may write about it and talk about it, but I’m as guilty of it as the next guy when it comes to lack of focus … or maybe it’s having too much focus that’s the problem. I don’t know.

I have been trying to get just the right photograph of a black-headed grosbeak and for the last couple of days. So whenever a little light breaks through the clouds I have been dashing outside to try and capture the perfect image to share with you.

I’ve been searching for an image that not only shows the beauty of the colors of the grosbeak, but the odd set to its prehistoric-looking head and the over-sized beak on this awkward-looking cardinal finch. But I haven’t been very successful.

This year’s crop of grosbeaks seems a little more camera shy than they have in years past.

And today, a sparrow of some sort kept getting in the way of the shot. It was singing some kind of crazy song that I had never heard before, making it tough for me to pick out the tune of the incoming grosbeaks. And every time the sparrow flew in, the grosbeaks would fly out again.


I came inside to download my latest batch of grosbeak photos and — for the third or fourth time that day — cursed the odd-looking bird for getting in my way of a good shot.

Yes, folks, that’s how long it took me to figure it out — three or four trips.

I was so focused on seeing what I wanted to see that I wasn’t open to seeing anything else interesting that might cross my path. I have a new bird in my yard, but I couldn’t see it. And now all I have are a few out-of-focus photographs and the memory of its relative size and the noticeable lighter color under its chin that looked like it was outlined with a marker.

Sometimes we get so focused on what isn’t there that we miss the blessings that are sitting right in front of us.

Or we expect something to be the way it has always been and so we miss the opportunity to watch as life and our environment is changing right before our eyes.

As a reporter, if I focus on what I want to get out of a story, rather than what is actually there, or if I head into a story with an agenda, I’m sure to be disappointed.

Holly Pederson, the photographer I work with on the weekends, can usually set me straight when I get off course. She is there to focus her camera on the action and doesn’t have the handicap of preconceived notions to slow her down. She’s great at nudging me in the right direction when I get off course.

Maybe one day I won’t need that nudge to open my eyes to what’s around me. I keep working at it.

Black-Headed Grosbeak
The grosbeaks have been back in town for a couple of weeks now. The older males show up first, the females about a week later. It is said that it only takes the girls a day or two to pick out their mate and get started competing for nesting sites.

The black-headed grosbeaks are highly territorial and aggressive.

The males with the brightest plumage tend to get the best territories and the best mates. It is common for the males to battle it out using song. If the battle escalates, aerial grappling fights break out.

Even the women have been known to fight to the death. This is one tough bird.

The male grosbeak sings while he sits on the nest, which he does about 40 percent of the time.

The females merely chatter while they sit — unless they are feeling neglected, and then they have been known to break out a song of predator intrusion to lure their mate back home.
Kimberly Mason is a freelance writer who enjoys watching and photographing the wildlife in her own backyard in Cinebar. Contact her via email at kz@tds.net.