On the morning of September 9, 2020, Sebastian Velasquez woke to a moody amber sky above his Northern California home. It was the middle of a wildfire season that, by its end, would scorch more than 4 million acres and claim dozens of lives. People locked themselves indoors to evade the smoke. But the now 19-year-old college student, and youth winner of the 2019 Audubon Photography Awards, felt driven to capture the “scarily orange” scene. He drove to nearby Pescadero State Beach, donned a respirator, and headed for the waterline with his camera.
Velasquez wasn’t sure he would be able to see any birds through the haze—until he spotted a group of godwits and curlews foraging along the shore, seemingly unfazed by the smoke. It was a challenging environment. The ash-clouded sky dimmed his view. Shooting at the long end of a 200-600mm lens in such low light meant limiting his shutter speed to 1/200 second and raising the ISO to 6400. Any movement risked blurring the image.
To stabilize the equipment, Velasquez buried his lens’s tripod mount foot in the sand. “I was rolling around in the sand, covered in it,” he recalls. “I knew my camera would take a long time to clean. But I figured if I just keep going, something will come out.” When three Marbled Godwits ran toward him out of the surf, he rapidly clicked the shutter. He managed to capture a few frames of the birds in focus, set against the monochromatic hue of the sky and sand. The images convey what he calls a “toxic feeling.”
As Velasquez lay in the sand, breathing air filtered through an industrial mask, he considered the smoke’s impact on birds. He hopes his work sparks a conversation about climate change. “Even if people are not there in person, they can get a feeling for how powerful an event like that is,” he says.