See Eye-To-Eye With Birds, Thanks to Photographer Gerrit Vyn

A spotted owl
A spotted owl perches on a tree in the Willamette National Forest in Oregon.

When it comes to bringing attention to bird species around the world, there's one photographer whose dedication to his subjects sets the bar. Gerrit Vyn's images play a critical role in protecting birds because they capture the imagination of people from all walks of life.

From the sage-grouse of North America's high desert to critically endangered spoon-billed sandpipers whose migration route through Asia is threatened by human development, Vyn dedicates his time, energy, and talents to unveiling the beauty and plights of birds.

We connected with Vyn to talk about his conservation photography, what makes birds such an important subject for conservation, and how he manages to capture these images that draw us into the lives of birds as if we were sitting mere feet from them.

Bald Eagle
A bald eagle feeds on spawning chum salmon in Alaska.

Treehugger: How did you end up focusing primarily on bird photography?

Gerrit Vyn: My photographic interests, in general, grew out of a love and fascination with nature that started when I was a child. I was into it all — reptiles, mammals, butterflies, you name it. Birds were actually one of the last groups of organisms that really captured my attention. I spent most of my early years looking down — looking for salamanders under logs, trudging through marshes looking for turtles, looking for fossils. But eventually, when I was 12 or so, I really got hooked on birds. But I couldn’t hold a bird in my hand and take it home like I could a snake or a frog so I started carrying a camera around with me and documenting what I saw. So my photographic pursuits started with a bit of a scientific collectors' mentality. I think it was also a way for me to covet in some tangible way these creatures that I was so enamored by.

When I started to become more serious about my photography, I was very much a natural history generalist, I wasn’t focused exclusively on birds. And in my mind, that is what I still am. I am still fascinated by it all and am equally thrilled to shoot a hognose snake or a beautiful landscape, as I am a bird. That said, a large percentage of my work has focused on birds. That is partly because I work for an institution, the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, that is primarily devoted to avian science and conservation and partly just because they present so many interesting and unique opportunities.

Chinese Barbet
Chinese barbet is caught in a poachers mist net in Guangxi, China.

What drew you into using your photography for conservation purposes?

There is a quote by Aldo Leopold that kind of sums it up for me as far as the way in which I see the world:

“One of the penalties of an ecological education is that one lives alone in a world of wounds. Much of the damage inflicted on land is quite invisible to laymen. An ecologist must either harden his shell and make believe that the consequences of science are none of his business, or he must be a doctor who sees the marks of death in a community that believes itself to be well and does not want to be told otherwise.”

The deeper knowledge you have of how the natural world works and what it is supposed to look like from place to place, the more you see what a mess everything is. It is one of the great paradoxes of becoming acquainted more intimately with nature — you realize this thing that brings you great joy and fascination is deeply suffering. I can’t ever go back to joyfully chasing butterflies through a meadow and thinking the world is perfect; I see that the things I love are under massive assault from all directions and it is deeply distressing to me. Sometimes I wish I could stick my head in the sand and just enjoy what there is, but I have chosen the path of doing what I can to speak up for what I love. To open other people's eyes when I can. I am always astounded by how few of us there are.

Sage Grouse
A sage-grouse looks off at a nearby fracking rig in Sublette County, Wyoming.

What are some of the ways in which birds act as messengers for changes in our planet?

Most birds are finely tuned to the specific environmental conditions that they have evolved to live in. So when populations of a species go up or go down, we know something is going well or going poorly in the natural systems they (and we) depend on — even if those underlying factors are completely invisible to us. And because birds are so visible and easy to count, we can monitor these changes by paying attention to bird populations and behavior over time. So in that way birds are some of our best devices for measuring how we are doing as stewards of this planet.

Sometimes the things that birds show us are immediate and catastrophic like the images we all saw of pelicans covered in oil after the Gulf oil spill. But more often the things that birds alert us to are invisible to the human eye like the dangers of different industrial contaminants and pesticides or changes that happen so gradually over time that they go largely unnoticed by us such as when habitats are slowly degraded by human use over time or as the climate changes. So birds do us a great service.

The cool thing is that birds also tell us when we are doing something right. Birds have repeatedly shown us in the past that when we do recognize problems and work to correct them, we can reverse declines and have a positive impact on environmental health. Again, this affects human health as well.

Shorebird Hunter and bird by cage
A shorebird hunter in Myanmar with an Eurasian curlew.

What are some of the greatest threats facing bird populations today?

Twenty years ago I would have answered this question very differently than today. Back then climate change was not an issue that was on people’s radar to the level it is today and the world was seen as a relatively static place with changes in things like climate happening so slowly that organisms on Earth could adapt to them over tens of thousands of years or more. Conservationists were therefore focused on protecting land and habitats, protecting species from direct persecution by people, looking at pollution and contamination of natural systems. But today because of climate change, we are beginning to see upheavals in natural systems beyond anything that we could have ever imagined — upheavals that will have profound effects on both wildlife and humans forever if we fail to act swiftly and boldly.

Anyone with an understanding of science knows that you can’t blame an individual event on something like climate change (just like it would be ignorant to refute climate change based on a freak snowstorm in the Northeast!) but the trends we are seeing in bird populations, the frequency of previously unprecedented mortality events in groups of birds like seabirds, cannot be attributed to random variation and it is clear to anyone who pays responsible close attention to these things that human-driven climate change is to blame. The signs are accumulating everywhere you look.

Habitat loss, overuse of pesticides, trapping, and killing, are all still major issues affecting bird populations around the world and are still important, but with a climate forecasted to change to the degree that it will over such a short period of time, many of our other efforts may become moot. That said, it has never been more important to protect larger and larger contiguous ecosystems. Our only hope is that species that have the capability to be resilient over time will have enough space to do so.

Birds by wind turbine
Wind turbines are an obstacle to migratory shorebirds in China's Yellow Sea.

How do you balance creating beautiful images and also telling what are often sad, unnerving, or even frightening stories about the life and future of bird species?

Birds are tricky in that most of them are very small, which makes them difficult to put into context with the threats they face in a single image. So I often focus on making the kind of intimate images that show people what is at risk. What we stand to lose — hopefully in a way that someone looking at one of my photos sees the bird as an individual. It is also important to do the journalistic type of work that illustrates the threats they may be facing. But at first, you have to get people to notice and care about the species you are talking about before you hit them over the head with the tough stuff. I believe you have to have those beautiful photos of the living creature or people will just tune it out or not get it.

What are some of the techniques for getting such up-close intimate portraits of what can often be very skittish subjects?

Though not techniques per se, I think the two most important things are knowledge and patience. An individual’s knowledge of natural history is most of what gets you in the right place at the right time, tells you what to look for, and tells you what an animal is going to do before it does it. This allows you to predict behavior. It also enables you to identify opportunities that others would miss. And it helps to dictate your approach with each species.

One may require a blind to be moved into position over the course of several days; another might require you to photograph in a location where a species is more habituated to humans. Another might mean waiting at a particular perch that a bird habitually uses. Knowledge keeps you from wasting time on a "fool's errand"! You know where and when your best opportunities for success are and can maximize your time. Part of being a professional is knowing when to shoot and when not to shoot. This type of knowledge has to be acquired through both research and experience; time spent observing animals in natural conditions is invaluable.

Sandhill Cranes
Sandhill cranes roost on the Platte River in Nebraska at dusk.

What’s been your most memorable experience as a photographer?

It is very hard to choose one experience — but the type of experiences I cherish the most are usually those when I am just alone with an animal, I have been accepted into their world and it just goes about its business undisturbed by my presence. You could insert a lot of animals and places into this scenario that I’ve been privileged enough to experience in my life — a family of indris [a type of lemur] in Madagascar, a spotted owl hunting in an old-growth forest in Oregon, a spoon-billed sandpiper and his chicks on windswept Russian tundra. I once had a Savannah sparrow land on the brim of my cap and sing four or five songs before flying off to its next perch while I was photographing in a willow patch in Alaska. Now that’s being accepted!

Last October was the release of 'The Living Bird.' What was it like creating this book of your images?

It was definitely a milestone for me. It is every aspiring photographer's dream to have a book of their images published at least once in their career. It was the same for me, and I was especially happy to have it produced in the context that it was, for the 100-year anniversary of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology — an institution not only committed to scientific excellence but also to engaging and opening the public's eyes to the mysteries and miracles of birds, since its inception. It was exciting and a challenge to try to represent all the ways in which birds inspire us, fascinate us, and inform us about our world in one book both visually and in words.

There were a lot of fun moments during the whole process — debating image choices with the wonderful staff at Mountaineers books in their Seattle office, reading Barbara Kingsolver’s poignant introduction for the first time in my email, speaking with Terry Gross on "Fresh Air," winning the national outdoor book award, and meeting great people appreciative of my work on the book tour. It was also a good time to reflect on where I was as a photographer and where I want to go. The images were pulled from many years of work, and there are definitely some that I look at now and cringe. There is so much more I want to do as a photographer. So I am looking forward to building on this and making sure my next book meets some new standards that I have set for myself.

Ferruginous Hawk family
Ferruginous hawk chicks feast on a meal of squirrel.

Your images have been used in most of the top publications in the world, including two State of the Birds reports. Is there one particular place, or way, that one of your images has been used that is particularly special or validating to you?

Honestly, I feel grateful and energized anytime an organization or publication puts my images to meaningful use. There is nothing worse than going through what you have to go through — sacrificing health, relationships, comfort — to create a compelling body of work on an important subject and then having it sit on a hard drive somewhere for years. This type of work can take a toll on you both physically and emotionally so seeing my work put to good use is the biggest part of what keeps me going.