Learning To Love Bird Photography, Thanks To A ‘Competitive Collaboration’

by Gemina Garland-Lewis

Photographer and explorer, Gemina Garland-Lewis has always been drawn to nature and wildlife. Garland-Lewis takes us through her journey of growing to love bird photography alongside her partner on their land, nicknamed “La Isla,” in Baja California Sur, Mexico.

As I sit with my back against a charred, fallen palm tree, I can’t help but hear my mother’s words in my head: “I hope you don’t like birds now just because of a guy.” My eyes alert as I scan for various woodpeckers and sparrows, camera in hand, and I wonder if there may be some truth in what she said.

I’ve been a photographer since I was 12 and have been deeply curious about the natural world and its creatures since about the time I could crawl. I have two degrees in conservation biology-adjacent fields. I’ve happily spent six hours of my day staring at the light changing on a glacier without ever feeling an ounce of boredom or impatience. But, birds? I’ve always appreciated them, but they never made me tick.

It was May of 2020 when my mother spoke those words about me liking birds because of a guy. The bird in question was a Wilson’s warbler, spotted in my front yard in Seattle, and the guy was my partner, Hiroshi.

The following month, amid the turbulences and uncertainties of the global pandemic, I had lost all my work as a photo instructor and a naturalist. I arrived at the Loreto International Airport in Baja California Sur, Mexico, to live with Hiroshi, Hiro for short, in the small town of San Ignacio. His family has been here for generations and he bought land next to them 4 years ago, but it wasn’t until COVID-19 hit that the opportunity to start building the dream for the land really presented itself.

Our land “La Isla” from the south end of the property. Our dog, Kipo, makes for an ever-constant yet also sometimes difficult birding companion.

Sandwiched between two arroyos, our land is to some extent manmade. Known as “La Isla” for its prominence, which although naturally occurring, was given a boost with the help of many men years ago who piled dirt on top of dirt and removed an untold thousands of rocks along the way to make the land more suitable for agriculture — all for the pay of less than 5 pesos a day. La Isla covers close to 4.5 acres that were once filled with hundreds of orange trees, a lush desert orchard fed by water from the traditional irrigation practice of community-managed acequias.

Fast forward to November, my back against the charred palm. Above me, a male vermilion flycatcher keeps landing on a small mesquite branch. I raise my camera and focus, making as little movement or sound as possible. I look to my left and I see Hiro focusing on the same flycatcher from his hideout about 40 feet away. It’s Day One of what I’m calling our collaborative competition. We’d already been keeping track of the birds we were seeing with the help of a checklist from Avibase for Baja California Sur(a mere 462 bird species for this state alone) and The Sibley Field Guide to Birds of Western North America.

The day prior, Hiro had gone out with his camera to help build his confidence to identify warblers that often flit away before we can get a close look with the binoculars. After only about an hour, he returned with 14 bird species photographed. As we scrolled through the images on his LCD screen, for whatever reason — be it a competitive streak, a need for an accountability buddy or my inherent love of making lists and then checking things off — I got the spark of inspiration I needed. Bird photography, here I come.

We woke early on our first day of collaborative competition. It was cloudy, which was strange for our skies, and I almost bailed without the usual soft warm light. But Hiro nudged me on, and as I folded over in half to fit myself through an opening in the barbed wire fence that marks our property line, I spotted a loggerhead shrike atop one of the many old burned desert-loving mesquite trees. Soon after, a Gila woodpecker flitted past and landed on a nearby branch. When I turned to move places slightly, I accidentally scared up a group of common ground doves who kept low to the ground as they scattered in flight. The list went on until an hour later I had photographed 15 species.

By the end of that weekend, we’d photographed 27 species. A week later, that number rose to 42. Light, action and timing all have us vying for a better shot than the last time around. We’ve learned that some of it is just being in the right place at the right time, but you also have to know something about what those might be.

I’ll admit, we’re in a bit of a good place for birding. Sitting almost dead center on the Baja peninsula, San Ignacio is a genuine desert oasis. Bordering the Vizcaino Biosphere Reserve, its freshwater springs mean that you can see aquatic bird species here you would never think to identify with the Sonoran Desert. Conversely, it took me a good few months of being here before seeing a turkey vulture — a species I have always exclusively associated with the desert — flying among palm trees — a species I have always exclusively associated with ocean-adjacent tropics — seemed at all normal. There is certainly something of a cognitive dissonance here in birding because of the local ecology, which makes it a fascinating and unusual place to undertake our little project. Sometimes, even the double-crested cormorants will fly in from the ocean and take a perch on a fallen log in the freshwater.

At first, our goal was simple enough: identify as many species as possible. We’re working towards operating our own natural history and photography trips in the area, so it seemed like a good catalog to have to entice future potential guests. But as I sat there that first morning, watching and waiting for my window with the birds, I let the calm and quiet wash over me.

Our “campersito” wedged between the two trees that best exemplify this ecosystem – the mesquite and the palm tree.

I looked at Hiro, appreciating the feeling of doing something together yet at the same time alone. Slowly but surely, I found that I was starting to recognize birds just by how they fly, something I knew in theory but hadn’t internalized. It’s incredible how much you can learn from observation alone. When we see turkey vultures gathering above, we now know to look for a lone zone-tailed hawk among them mimicking the scavenger birds’ flight, camouflaged despite its smaller size and brightly banded tail. The more we observe and photograph, the more we know what to look for the next time.

Hiro and I are inspiring each other without particularly meaning to, and learning something new about the nature around us every day in the process. And so, perhaps there is some truth in my mother’s words after all. I do like birds because of a guy. But that’s only part of it. I’m out there with my camera by myself just as much as I am out there with him. I’m finding that I like the stillness and the need to be in the present moment that I’ve found our project requires of me. And I suppose it’s never too late to be a late bloomer.

Hiro looking out over the downtown plaza and mission of San Ignacio. HIstorical, place setting.

PHOTOS: Living Tree Bridges In A Land Of Clouds

by Prasenjeet Yadav

A single Ficus elastica tree forms the backbone of this unique double-decker bridge near the village of Nongriat, Meghalaya.

It was a cloudy monsoon afternoon, and I had been trailing my guide Bah Drong for over an hour. Despite the slight but persistent drizzle, Bah Drong marched along unfazed, his seasoned calf muscles carrying him swiftly along the rough, mountainous trail. I had to hurry to avoid falling behind. Every now and then, he turned to offer encouragement with a few words of broken English and a mouth full of betel nut seeds: “Little more!”

It would take us another full hour to find what I had come to see: a being that was both intrinsically natural and intrinsically engineered, a jing kieng jri, a living bridge made out of tree roots. The word comes from the local (phonetic) language called Khasi.

I was in the northeast Indian state of Meghalaya, which translates to “abode of the clouds.” Here, at the foot of the Himalayas lie the Garo and Khasi ranges, which endow the landscape with undulating hills, deep valleys and fast-flowing rivers. Every monsoon season, rain-laden winds sweep up from the Bay of Bengal, breaking open upon this mountainous terrain and creating what’s widely considered to be the wettest region in the world. On average, this area receives between 32 and 45 feet of rainfall a year.

These hills are home to the Khasi people, a mountain tribe that, for centuries, have made this harsh landscape its own. The residents’ primary occupation is farming, often supplemented by fishing, growing betel palm, fermenting rice beer, and distilling spirits from rice or millet. Some villages have concrete houses, but most locals prefer traditional bamboo dwellings, slightly elevated from the ground so water can flow under them.

During the dry season, the community’s focus is split between farming and preparation for the rainy season.

When the rains begin, usually in June, they continue for four to five months, and life slows down to a standstill. This is a time for staying indoors and socializing. With the advent of electricity, board games have been replaced by mobile phones and television, but drinking beer and telling stories haven’t lost their charm.

Far removed from the populous cities, the villages that dot these hills are remote and sparsely inhabited. Over the centuries, the Khasis have learned to adapt to the specific challenges this landscape creates. They have learned to delicately mold the landscape into a form they can inhabit.

There is perhaps nothing else that exemplifies this more than the jing kieng jri.

When I think back to my own arduous trek across this hillscape, I begin to comprehend how much the geography of this place is characterized by isolation and disconnectedness. Even today, most of these villages do not have road access. A trip to the closest town might require climbing down into valleys and crossing flooding rivers to reach another village. 

But crossing these rivers isn’t possible without a bridge. 

It’s hardly surprising, then, that it was the need for connectedness that provided the first guiding impulse for these ancient experiments in bioengineering. Tree bridges are structures that are literally rooted in the terrain and that thrive under the relentless pressures of the wettest land in the world.

The raw materials for building these bridges are rubber fig trees (Ficus elastica). That’s because they are very elastic, and they put out aerial roots. First, an ideal location on the river is identified for the bridge, and then people go into the forest and find healthy F. elastica saplings to replant on either side of the river.

After a wait of 10 to 15 years, the trees are old enough to put out aerial roots, which the bridge builders then coax across the river with the help of bamboo scaffolding. This scaffolding doubles as a temporary way for pedestrians to cross the river while the bridge is under construction. Over the years, the aerial roots are pulled and woven to meet the tree on the other side of the river. The roots are tied with one another and eventually they merge by a process of fusion known as anastomosis.

Once the tree has reached a certain level of maturity, it adds more roots to the network, which the local people weave into the bridge. After the entire network of roots has sufficiently matured, the bridge reaches a critical strength capable of supporting pedestrians.

This is the standard method used in root-bridge building. But after exploring and photographing over 25 such structures and speaking with those who use them most, I came to realize that there is no one way to construct or grow these bridges and that no two bridges look exactly alike. I found bridges in their very early stages of development and some that were centuries old. 

In the early stages of growth, there is more maintenance as villagers guide and tie new roots into the existing bridge. Sometimes they’ll build bamboo handrails to prevent people from falling off. In addition, the villagers will stuff fallen leaves inside the gaps of the root network so they may decompose into humus and provide nutrition for the bridge.

The more I learned, the more I realized how conventional vocabulary related to building and construction simply did not seem adequate to describe this process. As I walked across my first jing kieng jri, my mind darted this way and that, trying to find a comparable experience. No, it did not feel like crossing a concrete bridge. No, it did not feel like climbing a tree. Instead, it felt like a fairy tale come to life. And perhaps, in a way, that’s what it is.

In a place where concrete bridges are unlikely to survive even a few decades because of earthquakes, landslides and floods, these bridges grow stronger, more robust and resilient with age. They do not require revenue to build, only time.

What’s more, the root bridges don’t just support humans who cross over them. Studies suggest that a single F. elastica tree can potentially support up to a few hundred living species — birds, insects, sometimes mammals and vegetation like moss. The trees themselves are ecosystems, constantly interacting with their living and nonliving surroundings.

Exploring and photographing these bridges wasn’t easy. The mountains were never-ending, and the villages remote. Except for a few areas frequented by tourists, gaining access to faraway villages took time and planning. Even once I reached a village, getting to a root bridge was always a difficult task. As most bridges lie in valleys, reaching them usually required treacherous treks up and down hills for hours on end, often along damaged and slippery trails, with torrential rainfall for company. All this while carrying heavy camera gear that had to be kept dry. It was a lesson in endurance.

While documenting different aspects of these bridges, I was keen to photograph them in a unique light. The idea was to isolate these monumental bridges from the rainforest background that engulfs them. I was certain of only one thing: illuminating my subject with multiple fixed-light sources was not an option, as it would require ferrying much equipment to such a remote location and might also disturb the bridge ecosystem with constant bright light.

After extensive research and advice from a photographer friend Anand Varma, I settled on a age-old technique known as light painting.

Essentially, with an exposure time of approximately few minutes, I would hold the portable light source as I walked the length and breadth of the bridge, aiming light at some areas and letting others go dark for the photograph. In addition, I put fixed lighting in specific places, sometimes behind the bridge, to add layers of highlights, bringing certain branches and elements of the bridge into focus.

After many nights, I began to get a sense of what to illuminate and what to leave in shadow, which bridges would benefit from the ambient light of the moon and which would retain their mystery without it. When I showed my results to my friends from the villages, they often couldn’t believe they were looking at their very own bridges.

Prize-Winning Phone Pix Dial Up Moments Of Freedom And Serenity

by Malaka Gharib

Jumping through the air, floating in the wind, a firework shooting off — these scenes evoke a sense of freedom that so many of us staying home due to the pandemic haven’t felt in a long time.

But we can feel them vicariously in some of the winning entries of this year’s iPhone Photography Awards (IPPAWARDS). The 13th annual competition invites photographers worldwide to submit unaltered iPhone or iPad photos to one of 18 categories.

The award committee announced the winning images this week. The Grand Prize and Photographer of the Year award goes to Dimpy Bhalotia, a street photographer based in the United Kingdom. Her image “Flying Boys” — one of thousands submitted to the contest — captures three kids suspended in midair as they leap into the Ganges River in India.

We hope the images in our selection — of joy, solitude and serenity — provide a welcome respite to the stresses of the pandemic.

4 Decades Of Seascapes From A Color Photography Innovator

by Catie Dull

In the foreword to Harry Gruyaert’s photography book Edges, sculptor Richard Nonas sums up the work of his good friend.

“Harry Gruyaert ignores the grammar of center and edge, finds the blurred boundaries of overlapping life, the places where one thing has begun to be another thing,” Nonas writes. “He photographs processes, not results. He photographs moments caught in transition.”

Gruyaert was born in Antwerp, Belgium in 1941 to a Catholic family. Though his father was a photographer himself, he disapproved of his son pursuing the career. Nevertheless, Gruyaert felt he hardly had a choice in the matter.

“I never thought about anything else,” Gruyaert said. “I always knew that I wanted to do photography. There was never anything else.”

Gruyaert currently lives in Paris, where he is working on a book about India and another called Irish Summers set in the 1980s. 

You can find Gruyaert on Instagram @harrygruyaert.

A Flying Photographer Looks Down On Earth In Awe And Sorrow

By Pranav Baskar

He describes it as a “leaf blower with a parachute overhead.”

Strap in, and “your body becomes the fuselage” — and you are the pilot. Your knees dangle into open air.

For 15 years, the contraption, called a motorized paraglider, has taken photographer George Steinmetz across 25 different countries. From airport to airport, Steinmetz carried his personal aircraft, which could be disassembled and stashed in three bags, each weighing about 50 pounds, that he would proceed to check in.

The rice terraces of Yuanyang County, China, are among the largest in the world.George Steinmetz

Launching himself over remote swaths of desert, stark Arctic terrains and cheek-by-jowl shorelines, Steinmetz has documented, from the sky, the way human activity has shaped Earth. The result is The Human Planet: Earth at the Dawn of the Anthropocene, a photographic record of our planet in the anthropocene age — a word that refers to the mark humans have made on the global landscape (“anthropos” is Greek for human). The accompanying text is by science writer Andrew Revkin.

NPR spoke to Steinmetz about what it was like to glide over some of the most isolated regions in the world — and about the overwhelming signs he saw of humanity’s footprint.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

What inspired you to begin working on The Human Planet?

The book came out of a project I did for the New York Times Magazine. They asked me to go and photograph climate change on all seven continents from the air. And it made me think more globally than I tend to do, and it filled in a lot of gaps I had in my coverage of the planet. After that was done, I decided it would be interesting to go back through my archive and kind of reinterpret what I’ve been seeing for the past 30 years, looking at our fragile planet in a different way.

This mountain in Timika, Indonesia, was hollowed out for its gold and copper. The Grasberg mine is the world’s largest mine — and a source of tension between the Indonesian state and citizens who blame it for flooding their lands.George Steinmetz

You’d been taking aerial photos for National Geographic as well.

I’ve been working for National Geographic for over 30 years, and [aerial photos] were always the most fun and exciting part of the story. I started doing that more and more, until finally, I wanted to do a story in the Sahara and realized I had to bring my own aircraft because there were no helicopters or planes to hire in these [areas of] Niger and Chad where I wanted to go. I had to learn how to fly my own thing.

The amber and fuchsia lights of the Koppert Cress greenhouses in the Netherlands were designed to maximize plant growth efficiency and minimize light pollution.George Steinmetz

Could you tell us a bit about what it was like taking pictures aerially?

It’s kind of personal because your body is the aircraft. It is some physical risk to go and see the world. You have to have to be fairly committed to taking the picture. And that made it a much richer experience. Now, I used drones a lot and drones are wonderful, but you don’t have the same physical commitment.

The cover of The Human Planet shows the impact of harvesting thick layers of peat, to burn as fuel, in sparsely forested parts of the Netherlands. Because peat takes thousands of years to form, the harvesting leaves behind sunken, water-filled areas crossed by strips of land.

George Steinmetz /Abrams Press

A lot of the work was done with a motorized paraglider, which is the world’s lightest and slowest motorized aircraft. You run to take off and land. It’s a very personal kind of aerial photography, [because] there’s no barrier between you and the outside.

You have to watch out for your knees getting in the picture.

I had a lot of unusual experiences flying in very rare places — like getting caught in sandstorms, some bad crashes. You have a lot of really epic moments where you see things that no one’s ever seen before.

In Papua, Indonesia, many members of the Korowai people live in tree houses, which they say keep away mosquitoes and offered protection from historical enemies. This is the tallest treehouse Steinmetz observed — towering at 160 feet in height.George Steinmetz

What were some of those epic moments?

In the empty quarter of Saudi Arabia, [I flew over] the world’s largest sand sea. It’s about the size of France, Belgium and Holland combined without a single permanent point of water or habitation, and it’s [practically] just an endless field of orange sand dunes. You feel like you’re hallucinating out there. I also had a really amazing experience flying in the High Andes in the Altiplano of Bolivia. There’s a salt lake there called the Salar de Uyuni, the world’s largest salt flat. It’s very surreal, especially in the spring when the fringes of it are covered in water. You feel like it’s like something out of a dream. It’s really beautiful.

A barefoot porter totes a load for an expedition visiting one of the remaining glaciers near the equator, 16,000 feet high on the highest peak in Papua, Indonesia.George Steinmetz

You took these images before the coronavirus crisis, but I wonder if the pandemic has added any new layers of meaning to these photos?

We are in a time when humans have become the dominant force in the land. I think it’s time to reflect on what we’re all doing with our lives and maybe our place in the world. And I think a book like this brings up a lot of questions. What kind of world are we going to leave behind?