As far back as I can remember, I’ve been enthralled with animals. Wherever I went, it wouldn’t take long for me to orient to the nearest one. By age eight, I could identify upward of 100 dog breeds. Yet when it came to birds, my list wouldn’t have gone far beyond Northern Cardinals and Blue Jays. I often heard my grandfather warmly refer to “chickadees,” but this species only existed vaguely in my mind’s eye as a small, probably cute bird. Until recently, I never actually saw a Black-capped Chickadee in a way that I could appreciate. When my grandparents marveled over a bird at their feeder, I only experienced their joy vicariously.
I was born with a congenital condition called Septo-Optic Dysplasia, and as a result, I’m almost totally blind in my left eye and legally blind in my right. Blindness is not a binary condition, but rather affects individuals across a broad spectrum. On one end is a total lack of light perception, while the other is where the criteria for legal blindness begins: 20/200 uncorrectable vision in the better eye or a severely restricted visual field. I’m among the majority of blind individuals who have some usable vision, and I happen to fall on the end of the spectrum with the greatest degree of functional eyesight.
I’ve been known to describe myself as having “pretty good vision for being legally blind.” It’s my light-hearted spin on living in an awkward space where I don’t need a lot of adaptive tools or assistance from others, until I do. That also makes it easy for people to forget I can’t see well— including myself. Day to day, I’m not often cognizant of the degree to which my vision impairment affects me. Still, one of the most poignant reminders occurs when I can’t perceive my environment in the same manner as those around me. In my yard, I’m consistently awestruck when a friend immediately points out birds I don’t know are there.
For nearly as long as I’ve been fascinated by animals, I’ve used art to express that fondness; first, through drawing and then, photography. I purchased my first DSLR camera in 2009, so I could create images that would do justice to the relationships I had with my dogs and other animals in my life.
I spent the better part of the last decade honing my skills as a dog portrait photographer, but a 2016 visit to Audubon’s Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary in Naples, Florida, reignited a passion for connecting with the natural world. That trip to Corkscrew gifted me with up-close encounters with wild birds, unlike anything I had experienced. Equipped with an entry-level zoom lens, my camera gave me just enough visual reach to see the Red-shouldered Hawk that landed on a low branch right above my head, and to engage in a game of peek-a-boo with an active Pileated Woodpecker. This novel opportunity to not only observe, but also to photograph wild birds ignited a fire within me that has only grown.
Back home, in Connecticut, my husband and I continue to adapt our small suburban property to create a more hospitable environment for native birds. This year, while spending most of my time in my own yard, I appreciate their presence more than ever. I’ve found myself fully engrossed in the art of bird photography, driven by desire to understand the wildlife around me. My photo of a Gray Catbird even made it into the final gallery of reader submissions for Audubon's Bird From Home project.
The same physiological factor that makes bird photography challenging for me is also what gives the experience such profound value in my life. Because there’s a delay between the moment in which I notice a visual stimulus and the moment my brain is able to make sense of the imagery, opportunities to observe birds often pass before I’m aware they’ve occurred. Photography removes a fundamental barrier between my curiosity and my physiological ability to satiate it. It offers me the ability to freeze time for myself, so I have the opportunity to fully appreciate the experiences I’m present for. That may not happen until I view my photos on my computer monitor, but that’s a lag time I’m entirely at peace with. Each photograph is part of a self-sustaining cycle of curiosity, discovery, knowledge, and passion; each an inevitable revelation of what I don’t know.
Photography removes a fundamental barrier between my curiosity and my physiological ability to satiate
I employ three different strategies for photographing birds in my yard. The first two are intentional: I either actively seek out birds that I hear in nearby trees, or I plant myself in a position from which I know I’ll be able to observe birds. The third strategy usually looks something like me being surprised by an unexpected bird encounter, frantically running into my house to get my camera, and returning in hopes I didn’t miss everything.
Bird feeders, nest boxes, and a birdbath are often just as integral to my process as the camera itself. They take the guesswork out of finding birds to photograph. I admit that photographing birds in these contexts lacks the thrill of successfully locating a bird on a branch, but that doesn’t mean it’s a passive process. For my purposes, any amount of predictability is a vote in favor of creativity
And when I do hear the sound of uncharacteristic rustling in the trees or a bird call close nearby, I hope for the best. I rely on the goodwill of birds who are generous enough to remain in the same location for minutes at a time, as I visually scan the area with my camera. Through the viewfinder, I trace the outline of branches in order of my best guess that the sound came from that specific area. I repeat this with other branches until I have to refocus and scan the same area at a different distance from me. In the course of this process, I’m likely pointing my camera directly at the bird I’m seeking several times without realizing it. I estimate that at least 90 percent of my attempts at photographing birds under these circumstances are fruitless, but the occasional success makes the time investment worthwhile.
At the core of my identity is an unrelenting drive to connect with animals. My inner child wants to be friends with every animal, while the adult in me wants to have a positive impact on the natural world. Each day I strive to balance the two by welcoming birds to my yard, learning about them, and sharing that joy. It’s difficult to appreciate birds you can't see, which was the case for the first 30 years of my life. Now, the sky's the limit.