Ask Liron Gertsman which came first, his passion for birds or his devotion to photography, and he insists he can’t choose one. “For me they’re almost one and the same,” says Gertsman, who swept the youth category of the 2018 Audubon Photography Awards and snagged the coveted cover image of the Summer issue.
Audubon caught up with Gertsman, 17, in July on one of the few days he’s at home in Vancouver, British Columbia, this summer. He’d just returned from a successful overnight trip—braving unrelenting fog, wind, and rain—to shoot ptarmigan that had long eluded him. The next day he was heading to Alaska with his dad for a weeklong trip where he planned to photograph Tufted and Horned Puffins and other seabirds on St. Paul Island. After that he was off on a three-week road trip with a friend to document the wildlife and landscapes of his home province. “I’ve wanted to take this road trip for a long time,” he says. “Now that I can drive it’s easier.”
Gertsman might be young, but his dedication to birding and avian photography started a dozen years ago. “I think probably really started to dive in around the age of five or six,” he says. “It became a thing where I would look forward to going out on weekends with my parents once or twice a month, to go look for birds at a local sanctuary and take pictures of them. And it just grew and grew and grew into what’s become a lifelong passion.”
When a rare-bird alert goes out among the Vancouver birding community, Gertsman says he’s often one of the first to go see it. He’s even documented the first records of a couple of species in British Columbia. When birders flipped about a Purple Sandpiper, which lives along the Atlantic Coast, that had landed on Vancouver Island a couple of years ago, Gertsman hopped the ferry to go photograph it. On the way back to the terminal, he stopped to gander at a flock of Cackling and Canada Geese in a field. A pair of what he thought were White-fronted Geese caught his eye; when he took a closer look, he realized he was looking at Pink-footed Geese, birds that overwinter in Britain and northwestern Europe. He also documented the first Slaty-backed Gull, a resident along the coasts of northeastern Asia, which he picked out among a flock of gulls near the local landfill.
While he enjoys the thrill of the chase, for Gertsman photography is about much more than taking a stunning shot. “We’re living in a world that is quickly changing, and wildlife and the environment as a whole are feeling the impact,” he says. “What drives me is that we need more people to speak up for what can’t speak, which is the environment, and to showcase how incredible nature and wildlife are so people can really learn to appreciate them.”
Gertsman is no slouch when it comes to doing his homework to get a spectacular shot. One of the keys to great bird photography, he says, is understanding the behavior of his subjects. He spends hours on end in the field, watching birds. Those efforts have helped him learn how to read birds’ reactions to tell if he’s disturbing them, by getting too close or moving too quickly. The close observation also helps him know how to time his shots. “When you see a duck or goose bathing, it’s always going to flap its wings,” he says. “Or if I see shorebirds feeding along the coastline in one direction, instead of going up to them, I’ll walk 100 meters down, lie down by the tideline, and eventually they’ll come walking right past me.”
The focus on conservation is what drew him to Ecuador last year with the Kids Conservation Photo Workshop. “It wasn’t just about photographing birds and other animals, but about photographing the entire setting, the environment, the people who interact with nature on conservation issues, to bring together photos that tell a story,” Gertsman says. “That’s what I think nature photography should be about.”
It was on that trip that Gertsman captured his award-winning photo of a flock of Cobalt-winged Parakeets at a clay lick on a riverbank in Yasuní. It’s thought that the clay acts as a natural antacid, neutralizing the parakeets’ acidic diet of berries and fruits. Gertsman knew the spot was popular, but that doesn’t mean that the birds made it easy for him. “Getting the shot we waited hours, for days in a row,” he recalls of the time spent hunkered in a blind in the humid forest.
Along with sweeping the Youth category, Gertsman also had several images of birds photographed in Mexico, Ecuador, and British Columbia featured in the Audubon Photography Awards Top 100. He doesn’t take the drool-worthy destinations he’s visited on family vacations and workshops for granted. “I feel like because I have these opportunities, it’s kind of my duty to demonstrate how incredible the nature is while I’m there,” he says.
In the fall, Gertsman will begin studying sciences at the University of British Columbia. While a career in photography calls to him, ornithology is also appealing; he’s done bird-banding workshops for youth, and at last year’s Cornell Lab Young Birders Event he got an up-close look at field biology. “My options are either go down the path of bird research, or go down the path of professional nature photography,” he says. “Right now I’m leaving it open.”
Whichever path he follows, birds are certain to have a lifelong advocate in Liron Gerstman.
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