200 Years. 200 Stories. Story 78: “It's not always a good thing to be the early bird! ”

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photo of a snake eating a bird
Doug Wechsler's photo of the parrot snake eating a flycatcher.

It's not always a good thing to be the early bird!

On his very first Academy photography expedition in Ecuador in 1987, Doug Wechsler, director of the Academy’s Visual Resources for Ornithology (VIREO) collection, discovered a parrot snake in one of the mist nets intended to catch wild birds for photographing. “It was only in there because it was eating the bird,” Doug says. “The snake ate my homework!” turned out to be a real excuse for Doug; fortunately enough for the VIREO department, this net was one of 20 odd nets it typically sets up in a day while on a photography expedition.

Comprised of nylon netting approximately 10 meters by two-and-a-half meters in area and suspended between two vertical poles, mist nets are critical to capturing close-up images of rain forest birds. These nets can only be left up during the day. If you accidentally leave them up at night, you will wake up to a net full of really annoyed bats. Expedition members delicately extract the birds from the netting and place them inside a medium-sized tent designed for photographing birds at close range. Doug works to make the birds more comfortable and achieve a natural effect in pictures by building bird perches from twigs and sewing leaves into the tent wall. Sometimes, in the case of special birds like hummingbirds, he finds specific flowers they feed from and hangs them from the tent ceiling––talk about room service! Once the photo session is complete, Doug releases the birds back into the wild.

VIREO has more than 87,400 bird images on vireo.ansp.org/, over 5,500 of which Doug has captured. Come check out our Live Animal Center to see some of the cool birds we have for you to learn about!

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