Why do I photograph birds?

A yellow wagtail on a branch

by Karoline Holmboe Høibo, Faculty of Arts and Education, University of Stavanger

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When the alarm clock rings at three in the morning, because I am planning to enjoy a beautiful dawn, I often ask myself: why do I photograph birds? It’s the same when I crawl out of a tiny tent after 17 hours in the hide, cold, stiff and desperate for the toilet, with nothing to show for it but a couple of starlings on my memory card. At those times, I wonder if I should have spent the time with my children instead. But, once I have managed to get myself up and out, I rarely regret the lack of sleep. There is little that makes me as happy as seeing a buzzard come sailing in over the fields of Jæren to land on a fence in front of my camera lens. It’s like a little rush that I simply must have more of. So, I pack my bag and go out again. Preferably several times a week.

Jays fighting
(c) Karoline Holmboe Høibo, used with permission

I have always walked lots and been out in nature a lot. It was largely the opportunity to, and hope of, seeing something exciting that drew me outside. But I think we seldom saw that many wild creatures, when I was growing up. Perhaps we made too much noise, but lack of knowledge and lack of practice in using our senses to spot them were probably equally important factors. I had turned 38 before I saw my first owl. By then, I was part of a group of photographers and ornithologists who shared their expertise. Photographing birds represents an insight into a secret world for me; access to the mystical and inaccessible which could only be reached via nature programmes on TV in my childhood. With increased knowledge of bird species, their habitats and behaviour, and practice at paying greater attention to things around us, I have many more and far stronger experiences of nature as an adult.

In the winter of 2020, there was a Hawk-Owl at Sandnes. I went out several times to take photographs, and every single time I got into the car to drive there, I got butterflies in my stomach. The simple joy of seeing animals and birds remains at least as great today as it was when I was nine. The trips to Sandnes also resulted in some photos that I am particularly happy with. Birds have always had a central place in art, because of their beautiful plumage, the formations they fly in, and the fact that they represent something magical. These creative and aesthetic elements of photography are absolutely central to why I do it.

An owl in flight against a backdrop of woods
(c) Karoline Holmboe Høibo, used with permission

The art of bird photography goes hand in hand with presence. I have heard many say that they have never heard the birds sing so loud nor experienced spring as strongly as during the corona lockdown. It was the same for me. The peaceful days, when all social life and leisure activities had been cancelled, offered a lot of time for solitary walks in the area. That was when I got to follow the Great Crested Grebes’ courting over several weeks, and see new Tawny Owl chicks as they emerged from the nesting box. I got to experience light that changed according to the weather and time of day, the changing of the seasons and not least the patterns of birds’ lives. For many, experiences of nature are strongly linked to a form of self-realisation through mountain hikes and exercising on skis. I have been there too. But, bird photography can, to a far greater extent, represent outdoor life on nature’s own terms. Sometimes, the Dotterel stands by the road and the best option is to take a picture from the car window. Other times, I have to walk a mile into the wilderness to find what I’m looking for. When a bird then appears, it is useless to chase it. I get good pictures when I take the time to wait for the bird to come to me. The hours go by quickly when I just sit and listen and wait for something to come over the marsh. The strange thing is that I very rarely get bored. The wait provides a space for me to be at peace with myself and tranquil. And suddenly something happens that requires my full attention, because when a bird is to be photographed in flight, using the right technique and with good composition, I become completely focused and in the moment. At one with nature, one often also becomes more at one with oneself.

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