As a child, Sam Hobson didn’t let his urban neighborhood of Bristol, UK prevent him from exploring nature. He’d spend his days prowling through his backyard and neighborhood parks on the lookout for wildlife, and he had a particular fondness for birds. “I’d come back with stories telling my mom or my family: I saw this cool bird here,” Hobson says. But sometimes, his family didn’t believe his stories. So he picked up a camera to produce photographs as evidence—a practice he continues today as a professional wildlife photographer.
“It was always about wildlife,” says Hobson, whose photographs of Northern Gannets are featured in our Winter 2016 issue. “It was about looking at birds and getting to know their behavior and daily habits and routines.”
Decades later, Hobson follows the same philosophy from his youth, as he champions the commonplace wildlife that many city dwellers overlook. "In the UK, common birds—gulls or parakeets or robins or anything like that—they’re taken for granted, and they tend to be quite ignored by people," he says. "Some people even think they’re a bit of a pest." He's made it his mission to bestow some intrigue on birds and other animals by showing how they survive in and around cities and towns, even if we fail to notice.
Audubon spoke with the Bristol photographer to learn more about his craft and hear the stories behind some of his favorite shots.
This image of a Bananaquit drinking fruit juice is one of Hobson’s earliest shots in his defining style of animal portraiture in human landscapes. On vacation in Tobago, he was transfixed by the nectarivores as they stole sips of fruit juice from restaurant patrons. He thought it would make a nice shot, so he placed a glass brimming with juice on a ledge and waited for the Bananaquits to pay him a visit.
Hobson watched them for a bit, observing their behavior—how frequently they swooped down, for how long they lingered, and where they took their respite between sips. “By doing that, by focusing on setting up composition and background, when the bird comes into the right place you’re ready,” he says. He focused his camera on the glass and, when the bird landed, he took his shot—an approach to photography that exemplifies his style. "By watching its behavior and watching what it's doing, you can learn to predict what it's going to do next," he says. "It's important to develop your birding skills or wildlife watching skills way before you pick up a camera."
Grey Heron, Amsterdam
In Amsterdam, Grey Herons walk the streets as if they were normal people going about their days. Hobson had heard about the birds, and that people in Amsterdam don’t pay them any mind. “In the UK, these birds are pretty shy, keep to themselves, and are not that approachable," he says. “I realized that if I could photograph them and show them to people not in Amsterdam, they’d be surprised."
After doing some research, he took a short flight to the Netherlands and made his way to the fish market, where the birds scavenge for scraps. “Herons would start congregating on the buildings an hour before the market closed,” he says. As he stalked the birds with his camera in hand, people on the street approached him to question why he was photographing such common birds. That reaction proved to him that even the most stunning birds can fade into the background when they grow familiar.
Mistle Thrush, Leeds
To capture this family of Mistle Thrushes nesting in a stoplight, Hobson got a tip from a Leeds resident. “When you’ve been photographing birds in the city for a long time, people get to know that that’s what you do,” he says. “So if they see something cool—like a bird nesting in a traffic light—they’ll send you an email.” It doesn’t happen often, but when it does, it can pay off. The birds were nesting over a busy intersection; he didn’t want to disturb them, so he didn’t stay long or try to capture a close-up shot.
Hobson’s not sure why the thrushes chose to nest in a stoplight, which is quite exposed. Never mind the constantly changing colors. Possible benefits include the overhang, which shields the nest from rain, and the hustle and bustle of the intersection, which could deter Sparrowhawks that hunt in the area.
Herring Gulls, Blackpool
Blackpool is a typical seaside town, where people visit to eat fish and chips and watch the water. And at any number of these coastal towns, local gulls rely heavily on abandoned food. When he finished picking through his own chips, Hobson thought he'd use his leftovers to set up a shot in front of this tower, which is “not quite the Eiffel Tower, but it’s an iconic landmark,” he says.
He hid his camera in a chips bag, set up his remote release, and waited for the gulls to descend. They were reluctant to come down at first, he says, “but when they did, they came down in a big group.” Within 30 seconds, all the chips were gone—and Hobson had nailed his shot, with the tower looming in the background. “I think by using a familiar looking environment, people have a better connection with the image," he says.
Peregrine Falcon, Bristol
Hobson didn’t have to look far to find this Peregrine Falcon; it lives in his hometown of Bristol. “If you live in a city, you get to know what’s going on locally, and you get much better pictures than visiting a place on the other side of the world for the first time,” he says. He knew that the raptors like to nest at Avon Gorge, where there’s a river and ample food. But it’s also near a busy road, where photographers gather to shoot adults flying past at eye level.
But Hobson didn’t want a "natural" shot of a falcon backed by a wilderness vista; he wanted to show how close they live to people. “People do exist alongside animals, and I don’t know why we try so hard to pretend that we don’t,” he says. So he took a different approach to the falcons.
From his years in Bristol, he knew that fledging falcons can be quite clumsy, and often land on a path that leads up the side of the gorge. He spotted this bird from the road below and, by the time he made it to the top of the gorge, it was still there. “I slowly got the shot framed up and then waited for the cars to come past at the right time,” he says. “For me, It’s more real: If you’re not showing the context, you’re almost editing the story out of the picture.”
Rock Pigeons, London
When Hobson snagged this shot of four inquisitive pigeons, he was waiting for Peregrine Falcons. But he got bored, so decided to practice on a more common species. He recalls thinking about how common pigeons are in London, so shooting them in front of the Houses of Parliament would make for a nice picture, he figured.
He placed his camera low on the ground, and got the birds' attention by tossing a bit of grass in the air. As they rushed over to investigate, he captured this shot. “It was better than the thing I’d been waiting for months for,” he says. “Some of my most successful pictures were taken while waiting for something else to happen.”
Spotted Flycatchers, UK
When Hobson heard that Spotted Flycatchers were nesting in the side of an old oast house, he knew he had to photograph the scene before the chicks grew up. But he also knew that he had to be more careful with nestlings than his typical subjects. “It’s such a vulnerable time for them,” he says.
To avoid disturbing them, he set up his equipment as slowly as possible. First, he set up his tripod, and then got out of the way to see how the birds would react. “If they’re okay with that, maybe you put the camera on top of it—and then get out of the way,” he says. Once he set up the camera, with no strange behavior from the birds, he stood far off, with a remote release in one hand and binoculars in the other to spy on his subjects. He even took some test shots to be sure the camera noises didn’t disturb the nest. “The sound of the shutter can be quite confusing,” he says. Eventually, he captured this shot of a flycatcher parent with a meadow brown butterfly, soon to be devoured by the hungry chicks.
Rose-ringed Parakeets, Lewisham
The ethereal quality of this image of parakeets flying over the Lewisham Cemetary, as if they themselves are lost souls, is thanks to London’s dreary weather—and a bit of luck. “In London, it can be so gray and dull and boring, and then you’ve got these really bright green exotic birds in the middle of that,” Hobson says. When he arrived at the cemetery, he knew he wanted to use a long lens to create a blur, but he wasn’t quite sure how he wanted to set up his shot.
Hobson watched the birds for some time and noticed that they always followed the same flight path when they came in to roost. He set up his camera so that the flash went off at the end of the exposure rather than the beginning. “As the birds move through the image, it creates the ghostly trail that goes out behind them rather than in front of them,” he says. “I was quite surprised when I went back to my camera. I was hoping I’d get something good, but didn’t expect it to come together so well.”
Black-legged Kittiwakes, Newcastle
Newcastle’s Kittiwakes nest farther inland than any kittiwakes in the world, and their urban existence has made them controversial. Buildings and other structures, like the bridge over the River Tyne, provide a nesting substrate that's similar to the cliffs the species typically frequents. “Most of the public sees them as seagulls,” Hobson says. And, as a result, think of them as mainly nuisances.
Some businesses in the area want to get rid of the kittiwakes. But locals who know Black-legged Kittiwakes to be “rare and a privilege to see up-close,” are petitioning to save the birds, Hobson says. Similar debates are occurring throughout the world, as communities reckon with urban wildlife and try to decide whether animals are pests or potential tourist attractions. The Kittiwakes attracted Hobson, at least. In the background, you can see Sage Gateshead, a well-known music venue.
Northern Goshawk, Berlin
There are more than 100 pairs of Northern Goshawks nesting in Berlin, and Hobson has made multiple trips to photograph them. Despite the urban environment, he struggled to capture a shot that shows they’re in the city. “Because these birds are quite arboreal, even in the city they tend to stay in the big parks and cemeteries,” he says. “It’s hard to get them in front of the building.”
He managed to snap this photograph of a juvenile goshawk clutching a rat by paying close attention and being very patient. A local expert tipped him off to the bird, which had just fledged and was still growing accustomed to flight. “I knew that this goshawk liked to be in a tree on one side of these church spires because that’s where it fledged from,” he says. He imagined his ideal shot of the bird diving in front of this spire, so he waited for hours, pacing on the sidewalk while hoping the goshawk would fly out. Eventually, when the bird took off, Hobson was ready to capture the shot.