Big Day Through My Lens
For the YBN/Global Big Day on May 8, I was going to bike along the beaches of Oregon’s Coast in search of some of my favorite birds which happen to be shorebirds. On top of trying to see how many species I could see, I was also determined to get some good photos for my photo library so I spent quite a bit of time photographing the shorebirds I came across.
As a photographer, I always try to capture birds in their natural habitat, but on this day, I found it hard to photograph birds in their stunning pristine habitat because it was quite developed where I was. In the past, I would have tried all I could to cut out the industrialism and human impacts on this habitat, but instead, I decided to embrace the birds where they were and capture the world from their eyes the best I could. It wasn’t untiI I started looking through my photos that I realized what I had captured. Instead of the usual beautiful bird photos I usually get, this set of photos gave me a completely new perspective on the world.
As a human, I go around life seeing the world in one way. The places I birded on this day are “good birding spots,” “tourist towns,” “busy beaches,” “busy fishing ports,” and “fun places to visit,” but taking these photos gave me a perspective of what the birds see when they see these places and our impact on them. The endangered Snowy Plover nesting only feet away from a busy beach trail, the Marbled Godwit foraging across from the busy fishing harbor, which once was also feeding mudflats, and the Pacific Golden-Plover being flushed every few minutes by beachgoers. Each of these birds is affected by us but barely noticed. These photos really captured for me the impact we have on birds, not from the human perspective, but from the perspective of each of these birds. What do they see? What do they experience?
A study published last year (Kenneth V. Rosenberg, et. al. Decline of the North American Avifauna. Science 04 Oct 2019 : 120-124) found that America has lost 2.9 billion birds in the last 50 years, with shorebirds experiencing a 37% decline. People around the world were shocked, outraged, and saddened by this finding. Yet, when you take a moment to actually see the situation from a bird's perspective, it’s no wonder that they have declined so much. We, humans, affect these birds for their whole lives but never see our impact on them from their eyes. In fact, most people don’t even see them even though they walk right past them (and flush them)!
I ended my big day after 13 hours 40 minutes after having biked over 40 miles and finding 122 species, 18 of which were shorebirds. I hope these photos give you a glimpse into the world of these birds that we will impact for their whole lives. When you change your perspective, the world transforms. This is why I watch birds - they give me perspective on the world that I wouldn’t otherwise see. Changing our perspective, and thus the context, of how we are impacting these birds will give us access to actually making a positive impact on these feathered travelers.
Take a look at these photos again and try, just for a minute, to see the world from each of these birds' eyes. What new perspective do you see?
The Spectacle of Evolution
Amazonas field expedition, day 2:
As I enter the small lodge within the jungle, I feel my pulse pumping at high speed. A huge man wearing large shorts and an old t-shirt comes to receive us. His long and grizzled hair forming a mishmash in his scalp contrasts with the serenity sparkling from his eyes. He moves his crude lips into a naive smile, and I immediately sense the peaceful energy he emits.
I observe our guide talking to him. She has that unique accent from Amazonas: a mixture of idioms and weird words. Always with a fetching grin, she was for me the representation of determination. Raised in a humble community in Amazonia, she managed to graduate in Biology, and was one of the first women in Brazil to become a birdwatcher guide, overcoming sexism and prejudice.
She gazes at the man with her dark eyes. The man nods, and murmurs something in return. I don’t understand; it sounds like a dialect of people from the forest. The man takes off his slippers, leaves them in the lodge, and conducts us into the jungle.
Feeling puzzled, I follow him. His giant feet are certainly three times mine, but he manages to move smoothly above the substrate of forest leaves. Beige and dark-green hues mix on the floor, and the soil under these chaotic leaves is of a thin sand. Several roots and branches spread out of trees, forming an offshoot mosaic above and under me. I feel embraced by the forest, as if I were a small fraction of the Amazonia.
As the taller trees are gradually replaced by smaller ones, I focus my eyes on the shrubs looking for them. Then, I see it. I stagger at the impressive vibrant color of those creatures. One of them is perched close to me, dressed all in orange. Only his flight-feathers are dark, but the tips are tangerine again, which resemble the pattern of stripes in some bees. Rebellious plumes shoot off from his wings, and a perfect semicircle-shaped crest embellishes the top of his head. For a moment, I imagine seven mighty reddish flowers blooming within the jungle, though I know they are birds. I am immobilized by the charm of those Guianan Cocks-of-the-rock.
This moment of contemplation, however, is broken when I hear someone laughing at my ear. Enkindled by that guffaw, I start smiling childishly. Our guide is making fun at my lethargic reaction, telling me to do something. I promptly draw my camera to capture that stunner with my lenses and ask myself: “How did something so marvelous come into existence?”
With the memory of my readings, a voice starts echoing in my head as if I am watching a nature documentary. “Through evolution, females determined the color and behavior of males, because if males don’t play their game, there is no … sex for them!” — ok, this is not a phrase you would listen to in a documentary, but it continues: “Males don’t stand a chance to pass on their genes if they don’t gather in leks to exhibit for females.” I see a brownish female approaching. “Now the female is judging her wooers. For her, it doesn’t matter how costly it is to produce the orange carotenoid-based plumage in males. If a male succeeds to match her high demands, hormones and neurotransmitters will trigger pleasure in her, and there will be a winner!”
I believe that the Young Birders Network (YBN) is a great initiative that connects young birders, of all levels, from all over the world. Despite COVID-19, social unrest, the climate crisis, and many other current divisive issues, we remain connected through the internet. Whether it’s through our Facebook, our Instagram, or our extremely amazing, fun, and cool website, the YBN is accessible to anyone, anywhere, anytime.
Through the YBN, you can meet new people with similar interests who live all over the world. Birding is a rare sport among young people, so it’s great to have a network of people who like birds and who are your age. Being a part of the YBN encourages creativity, allows you to challenge your leadership skills, expand your knowledge of ornithology, and make new friends.
Whether you’ve been birding for three weeks or seven years, your life list is 5 or 500, your favorite bird is a Swainson’s Hawk or Swainson’s Thrush, or you just think things with feathers that fly are cool, the YBN is for you. To be honest, we’re all just a bunch of bird nerds who want to share our love of nature and these creatures with the world. Besides, who’d want to watch Charli D’Amelio’s TikToks in bed all day when you could be chasing a Swallow-tailed Kite at 5:00 am?
- Helena Souffrant