This past spring/summer was an eventful one on a larger scale, but locally, I was pretty bored. To alleviate this, I decided to take up a new hobby: bird photography.
I started going out walking every so often back in March. I quickly got more invested, feeling my way around the camera and researching good birding spots in Washington (then later realizing I was either too late in the season, or I set my ISO to a bajillion).
Of course, I’m certainly no expert on the topic, but I knew of a faculty member who is. Here’s a Q&A with the one and only Mr. de Grys!
Q: What’s the difference between birding, birdwatching, and bird photography?
A: That is a good question! I think most people who are really into the hobby call it birding because… It’s just the lingo that we use. Not everyone understands what that is, in some parts of the country that sounds like “hunting”, like you’re going to go out and shoot some ducks. I often use the term “birdwatching” with other people who are not in the community because I think it makes it more transparent.
Some people think birdwatching is more casual and birding is more serious.
Q: When and how did you start birdwatching? Is there a concrete time you started?
A: When my wife and I got married, in the late 1990s, we were looking for a hobby to do together. We had a lot of common interests, but there weren’t a lot of hobbies we did together, and she suggested that we try out birdwatching, and I thought that sounded stupid. I said “I’m not sure”, but I was newly married and I was trying to do things that please my wife, and I said “sure, let’s try it out”. And the very first day we went out, we went out to Juanita Bay Park, after about half an hour of wandering around we found this huge owl, this long-eared owl, that was just sitting by the base of this tree. I was just transfixed, I was like “wow”, it was just amazing, and we watched it through binoculars, so I said “Hey, actually this sounds pretty cool.”
Q: Out of all animals, why did you choose birds?
A: Mammals are cool too, and if you wanted to go out around Seattle and find all the mammals you wanted to, or all of the amphibians you wanted to, your list would probably be pretty small. For mammals you might get some squirrels and a coyote, maybe 8 or 10 things. In May you can go around Seattle in a day and see a hundred species of birds. So part of it is that there’s just a ton of them, and they’re everywhere. Everywhere you go there are birds.
Q: Are you affectionate for or have any favorite birds, and if so why?
A: People used to ask me what my favorite bird was, and I used to say I didn’t have one, until I went to Australia a few years ago. My buddy and I were looking at a variegated fairy wren, and it was just spectacular. I was looking at it through my telescope, and the bird is only a couple inches in real life, but through the telescope it looked enormous, and it’s iridescent purple and red and blue, and I thought “this is my favorite bird.” Not just that species, but this particular individual, because he was kind of hanging out. So that’s my favorite one.
Q: What are your thoughts on the anthropomorphization of birds?
A: I don’t mind it in poetry and literature, and I think it’s interesting to look for metaphors. I think scientifically speaking there is no basis in fact. If you’re talking scientifically, birds are actually pretty alien and the things we do are oftentimes are trying to figure out what’s really going on there. A lot of times, the stories we tell ourselves about what they’re doing are just not true. For poetic license I don’t mind, but if you’re talking scientifically a lot of that stuff, like that owls are wise or that hummingbirds migrate on the backs of geese, is just stuff that people made up.
Q: What were your “humble beginnings” for bird photography?
A: I’m pretty much self-taught when it comes to bird identification and photography. Early on I had a tough time figuring out what things were, and for pictures I started out just holding a little camera up to the lens of a telescope and using that to take a picture. Surprisingly you can get some decent pictures. When I don’t have my camera in the field sometimes I just use my phone. If you hold your phone up to binoculars or a telescope you sometimes can get an okay picture. I haven’t gotten super into photography myself, just because it takes a lot of effort just to get a nice picture of a bird, and so I would rather just go around and see whatever else is out there.
Q: What do you think is the most important attitude while birding or birdwatching?
A: I think being patient and observant. A lot of people think that they’re aware of the world around them. A lot of the time you just focus on those things that you’re familiar with and [otherwise] oblivious. With observing birds, you really have to listen closely and carefully, and watch closely, but if you do there’s this whole other world that opens up to you. Two people can go walking through the woods and one of them knows something about birds and the other one doesn’t and the one that does might pick up 30 or 40 different species just singing in the background. If you don’t know that it’s just like a hidden world you’re missing out on.
Q: I enjoy bird photography more than just observation. Do you have a preference, and if so why?
A: Both are fun and it just depends on what you’re looking for. When I like to photograph birds, and if the birds are cooperative, I might spend an hour or more with a flock of ducks or an oystercatcher or hawk, and that’s a fun experience just trying to get that perfect capture or photo. Other times I just want to go on and see what’s there, and I find if I try to combine the both of them I typically get pretty frustrated as the first picture I take is often not a pretty good one. I either want to spend more time trying to get a good picture, or I say “alright, I don’t want to spend an hour here tracking this woodpecker”, so it depends on what mood I’m in.
Q: Do you have any top/favorite experiences?
A: So many. During migration there’s lots and lots of birds that travel north to the United States and Canada in the springtime, and most of them fly up pretty high. You might be familiar with this phenomenon where if they hit bad weather a lot of times they’ll land. My wife and I were in Florida one spring, in Key West, and there was a huge thunderstorm. About halfway through, as the storm was about to let up, we went to this little park down at the base of Key West, and there were thousands and thousands and thousands of birds everywhere, all sorts of warblers and flycatchers and tanagers. They’re just exhausted from battling the storm and were hopping all around, over your feet, and in the bushes. The whole island was totally covered. That was pretty amazing.
Going to Kruger Park in South Africa was pretty amazing, just because not only were these exotic birds, but there were elephants and rhinos and giraffes and all those charismatic megafauna. That was pretty cool.
Birding Alaska was pretty great too, just because it’s so far removed from the civilized world, you’re really out in nature and the wilderness, and just seeing things up in the Arctic Circle was pretty awesome.
Q: Related to that, how far have you been to see birds, and if you could go anywhere on Earth, where would you want to go?
A: I use Ebird to track my sightings, and I think I’ve recorded observations in something like 40 of the 50 states. I’ve been around most of the United States. I’ve been to South Africa and Australia, which were both fantastic, and to Costa Rica, and Ecuador, and those have all been amazing. There are two places I’d love to go back to or spend more time in. One is South America, maybe Colombia or Brazil, and Central Asia. Nepal is supposed to have fantastic birding, parts of China too. I don’t know, maybe that is a bit more far-fetched. We’ll see!
Q: I read in your blog that one of your goals from 2013-2014 was to “see almost all of the regularly-occurring birds in North America.” Considering that’s very ambitious, did you ever complete that goal and how did you end up with it in the first place?
A: For my big year, during my sabbatical, I figured there were about 675 regularly occurring species in the United States and Canada. That would be species that show up every year, even if they were only in one little tiny spot. The colima warbler is a regularly occurring species but it only shows up in Big Bend National Park in Texas. I didn’t quite see all of the regularly occurring species, but I did see about 650 out of the 675. A couple of them I was not quite in the right place and the right time. I think I’ve seen all of the regularly occurring species in the United States except one, a sheerwater that only occurs out over the Atlantic Ocean, so I would have to take a deep water pelagic trip, so at some point I will take a deep water pelagic trip for that last species of sheerwater. Other than that I have seen all regularly occurring species that live in the US.
Q: Do you have any pet birds or other pets, and if not do you have any recurring guests?
A: No. When I was a kid we had a pet parakeet, a budgie named Burt. Burt the Bird. Now I have three indoor cats.
Q: In Korea and many other places, stray cats lead to a lot of bird deaths, which is a big problem there. What are your thoughts on cats and this problem?
A: Yeah, it’s a huge problem. Cats kill millions and millions and millions of wild birds every year. I have no problem with native critters like hawks catching and eating birds. They gotta eat and are part of the natural ecosystem. I love domestic cats, but I think they should be kept indoors. I think people can do their part to keep the cats safe and birds safe.
Q: Are you a part of any wildlife rescue or organization?
A: I wouldn’t say rescue organizations, but I’m a member of the Nature Conservancy and an organization on Maui, the Maui Forest Bird Recovery Project Mostly I don’t donate my expertise, I mostly donate my money, but I think conservation is very important.
Q: I’ve heard 2 of your lectures for the Seattle Audubon Society, so can you provide any context for their inner workings (lectures or the organization itself)?
A: Something I do for the Audubon is give lectures, and just try to teach people what I know on birds.
It’s just fun, I’m a teacher by training and by nature. I love teaching and I love birds, so teaching people a little bit about that for a nonprofit like Seattle Audubon is great!
Q: What do you think is getting better about birding and what is getting better on both a local and national scale?
A: I think there are some things that are getting better. Birding and birdwatching used to be a niche thing where only a few people were interested in it, mostly white upper class/middle class folks. What’s inspiring is to see people from all walks of life really get into it. People who have different racial and ethnic backgrounds. Men were really into it, and now more and more women are getting into it, so I think that’s pretty inspiring. Going along with that when you start to love something, like the natural world, and watching birds, then you start caring about it more, then you start doing what you can to support nonprofits, and focus on conservation. Maybe it changes the way you vote, maybe it changes what you take an interest in and how you devote yourself, maybe you start volunteering in something. So I think all of that is super hopeful.
The backdrop is, there are some worrying things. Climate change is continuing, and that’s going to be a real challenge, and a lot of birds and habitats are really having a hard time with it. There’s a lot of habitat degradation, and the extreme weather events that are tied to climate change. All of that is worrying. I’m an optimist by nature, so I’m worried about those concerning things, but I have hope that people will find a way to make a difference.
Q: A lot of people have morals about birding and bird photography. For example, most people oppose gluing, propping, or scaring birds for the purpose of photographing them. There are other topics such as baiting, raptors in particular, that are more controversial. What are your opinions on these topics?
A: I’m opposed to things like baiting owls or baiting raptors. I think that people who love wildlife should have an ethical concern for the animals they are photographing or watching. If I were super-duper concerned maybe I would never go out into the world, I would stay away from the national wildlife refuges because I don’t want to bother the birds. I don’t mind sort of walking around through the woods and following the trails, but I think in general you should think about minimizing your impact on the natural world.
Q: Is there anything people do regularly that concerns you about birds and wildlife?
A: I think the biggest thing is if you care about or appreciate something, you should do what you can to protect or preserve it. Maybe that’s about volunteering at your local conservation organization or donating your time and money or how you vote. It’s great if you think those birds are cute that show up at your bird feeder, but if you really care about them… having that feeling is how you start something, but ultimately, what are you doing to follow up on that? I think it is people who claim to love birds but don’t do anything to protect birds or the natural world.
Q: Do you have any advice for novice birders?
A: Just get out and enjoy the natural world and stay curious. If you see a cool bird, check it out! If you can get a hold on some binoculars use your binoculars! If you know some people who are interested in birds, see if they wouldn’t mind if you tagged along on a walk! Check out the Seattle Audubon Society, when the pandemic is over I’m sure they’ll open up their nature shop. I think right now it’s only open for pickup, but they have probably 10,000 books on birds. You can get a bird feeder, either seed feeder or a hummingbird feeder, and see what birds come up to your yard. All sorts of things! Maybe you’ll get interested in native plants, what you can do to help restore habitats, maybe pull out some English ivy at your local park. There’s a lot of stuff online, you can read people’s blogs and they have podcasts. See what you can learn!
Q: What can we do to help birds on any scale?
A: I would say, share your love of them. A lot of people are sort of oblivious to them. I used to not advertise the fact that I was into birds. I don’t know if I thought people would make fun of me per se, but it seemed like a weird or unusual hobby, and I just got over that and I have started sharing my love of birds with my colleagues and my students, and it’s been great seeing them start to develop their interest in nature. If you love birds, or you love nature, show that to other people!
Q: Are you an early bird?
A: I am an early bird! I like to get up early. I love it, especially in spring and summer when the birds are singing, because you can get up super early and get out to a park or a wildlife refuge, and there’s no people, you’re just surrounded by the sounds of nature. The birds and animals are more active, and it’s just great. I’m an early bird in my professional life too, I wake up early and try to do some work before breakfast. When the school is open I usually go to the office early and try to get some stuff done.