Bird Photography for Conservation: An Interview with Gerrit Vyn
Get a glimpse into the life of a professional wildlife conservation photographer… who happens to be one of the world's best bird photographers, too. Meet Gerrit Vyn, whose work with Cornell Lab of Ornithology takes him all over the globe to photograph some of the rarest birds on Earth.
Gerrit Vyn's photography has been inspiring conservation action across the globe for many years.
Starting out his career as a natural history photographer, Vyn's current position as a Producer with Cornell Lab of Ornithology (hello, dream job!) has him traveling across the continent and the globe documenting disappearing bird species.
It's not an easy job, physically or emotionally. But as a conservation photographer, this particular focus on birds serves conservation on several levels.
Vyn says, “My work often focuses on birds because they are such powerful and visible indicators of environmental health and change. Connecting people with birds is often a first step in opening people’s eyes to the natural world around them – and to the unprecedented environmental crises now unfolding.”
His work has been featured in National Geographic, Audubon, Living Bird, BBC Wildlife, GEO, Natural History, National Wildlife and The New York Times.
But best of all, his images have been used by conservation organizations large and small to help bring measurable impact for species.
In this episode, Vyn shares:
- What it means to make conservation images that can be put to meaningful use
- The benefits of photo blinds and how to use them
- The emotional impact of working in this field, and how he keeps moving forward
- Unforgettable experiences in the field, including being the firsts person to film spoonbill sandpiper chicks
- And much, much more
Resources & Links Mentioned
And let's take a closer look at those adorable Spoon-billed Sandpiper chicks Gerrit filmed… 😍🥰😍
Photographers & Filmmakers…
What's Your Hidden Storyteller Personality?
Take the quick quiz to discover your creative super-strengths as a conservation-focused visual storyteller. Get a custom action plan based on your results so that you know exactly what to do next to gain clarity, momentum and impact with your imagery. This is coming straight from a full-time pro conservation photographer/editor with 10 years experience & an obsession with helping you reach your world-changing goals.
This episode is sponsored by:
Conservation Visual Storytellers Academy trains photographers and filmmakers who are passionate about conservation and science.
We are the only online education platform designed specifically for conservation photographers and filmmakers. Our ever-growing selection of robust online courses, in-person workshops, mentorship programs, and membership community are designed specifically to address the unique skills and resources you need as you focus on documenting environment, science communication, and conservation issues. We help you follow your passion to be an effective, successful, and joyful conservation visual storyteller.
EXPLORE THE COURSES
Subscribe & Review
Are you subscribed to the podcast? If not, I’m excited to invite you to subscribe today. Not only do I unroll new episodes weekly, but I also add in a ton of bonus episodes. If you’re not subscribed, you’ll probably miss out on those great bonuses and I don't want you to miss a thing!
If you love listening to the podcast, I’ll be so grateful if you leave me a review on iTunes. The reviews help others find me, and I also just love to hear from you! Just pop onto the show in your mobile device, scroll down to “Ratings & Reviews” and tap “Write a Review” Then, you’re off to the races! Let me know what you like best about the podcast. Thank you so much!
Also available on Spotify // Google Podcasts // Stitcher // iHeartRadio // TuneIn // Amazon Music
Episode 095: Bird Photography for Conservation with Gerrit Vyn
(Digitally transcribed, please forgive any typos)
[00:00:00] Jaymi: All right, Garrett, vyn welcome to the podcast. I'm so excited to have you here and to get to dive into bird photography with you.
[00:00:08] Gerrit: Thanks for having me. It's my pleasure to be here with you.
[00:00:10] Jaymi: Wonderful. Well, so I have loved your work for years and years and years, but for anyone who's unfamiliar with your work or who you are as a conservation photographer, who is Gerrit Vyn in the world?
[00:00:24] Gerrit: Well, First of all, I'm someone who's been pigeonholed as a bird photographer. It's totally all right. I've pretty much, uh, started out as a kid, totally engrossed and obsessed with natural history. really, I was way more into reptiles and amphibians and then small mammals and butterflies and all that.
[00:00:46] Gerrit: Things before I got into birds. but today I work, for a very bird centric organization, the Cornell lab of ornithology. So most of my work centers around bird and conservation. So I do a ton of [00:01:00] a ton of bird work and. So a bird photographer.
[00:01:05] Jaymi: I know it's never very fun. I think, to be kind of pigeonholed into a tight, because then that tends to be like the gigs and assignments that come your way and you're like, wait, but I can do mammals and amphibians and everything else too.
[00:01:16] Jaymi: What about those assignments?
[00:01:18] Gerrit: Yeah, totally. Yeah. I really started off totally as a generalist, natural history photographer. landscapes, lady slipper flowers, or, you know, whatever it was um, kind of, uh, in the mold of war-like John Shaw or some of these older, early pioneer, natural history photographers who kind of, everyone learned from, uh, back in the day before there were computers, I guess computers.
[00:01:44] Gerrit: Yeah. Before we had all these resources we have today.
[00:01:46] Jaymi: So what's that like, cause you are such an exceptional bird photographer and that's primarily your working life, but do you still make room for all the other types of photography and natural history photography that you love?
[00:01:58] Gerrit: Um, I [00:02:00] do not as much as I, as I used to. Cause I, you know, I used to just pack up my bag. And I'd have my macro lens in there and I'd have flashes and I'd have whatever, and I'd go out for a day in a beautiful place. And I would just be looking for anything to shoot. I think these days, my time is much more limited and most of my shooting is very targeted.
[00:02:19] Gerrit: If I. Uh, Saturday morning, I can get out close to home. You know, I'm thinking about one . Specific thing usually to go shoot or try to shoot them most often it's birds these days. So, but I do love when I, when I can, on assignment work, you know, covering the whole, the whole thing around the bird, the habitat, the conservation angles, uh, people working on them, all that kind of stuff.
[00:02:40] Gerrit: As often as I can. I really love to put together more of that complete more photo journalistic package around a species. Um,
[00:02:48] Jaymi: can you tell us more about how you think about that journalistic package? Because you're kind of getting right into what my favorite topic is, which is photo stories. So all of the elements of telling an entire story.[00:03:00]
[00:03:00] Jaymi: and so when it comes to photographing the story of a bird species or a habitat or a conservation issue, how does that love of photographing everything kind of come into play for creating that package?
[00:03:13] Gerrit: Well, I think with any photography, you know, comes mostly down to really thinking the story and knowing the story beforehand and then visualizing and think, thinking through what types of images, are available or, or situations are available to, communicate some of those aspects.
[00:03:32] Gerrit: So. Looking at, you know, even biologists photos that they've taken in an area about a bird or their work, or the context in which different rare species live, looking at things on Google, looking at maps, reading papers, you start to get kind of a picture of, okay, then, you know, they're doing a rehab program on birds that fallen out of the nests for this bird.
[00:03:52] Gerrit: So I need that shot whatever it might be, you know, or they live in a very specific habitat type and you know, you really want to get beautiful [00:04:00] images of that habitat or, the unique, vegetation or whatever it may be. And then there's, you know, particular for birds. It's much more difficult than like large mammals to create a variety of looks of species within its habitat that given the context.
[00:04:16] Gerrit: Of where it lives because they're so small. So, thinking about remote cameras and how you might work with the bird's life cycle or yearly cycle at moments, when you might have opportunities to predict where they're going to be put up, uh, remote cameras and get more expansive view of birds living their life in the, in the environment.
[00:04:35] Gerrit: So, those are just a few kind of, uh, examples, but it's really learning as much as you can. And then coming up with ideas before, not just going out.
[00:04:44] Jaymi: Right, right. You recently put out this lovely short film called har Gila about the greater adjutant stork. And I'm curious, how did, did that story evolve in this way where you're really thinking about it beforehand, or was that more of a surprising discovery?[00:05:00]
[00:05:00] Gerrit: No, that was largely thought through. So I have kind of a long standing project where I work at Cornell lab of ornithology of working on critically endangered birds around the world. So I've kind of triaged and gone through, the hundred rarest birds in the world that say, and.
[00:05:19] Gerrit: Started looking into them for a number of factors that would make them good candidates to create media media on that could be meaningfully used. And in doing that, I came across, you know, just these few shots of the greater adjutant and these garbage dumps. And it was like, I'd never seen that before.
[00:05:38] Gerrit: And I immediately was like, okay, this could be This can be a really incredible thing to go out and shoot. It was just so striking the first time I saw it. But then, you know, some of the steps we take are to really vet, is there a partner or an individual organization who can really put media, we create to the meaningful use for [00:06:00] conservation.
[00:06:00] Gerrit: We're trying not to find, Rare birder, critically endangered species that has nothing in the works or no one fighting for it that can put media to use. It's more to find these opportunities where it could have a real, real strong value. And this, uh, greater adjutant kind of checked all those, those boxes.
[00:06:17] Gerrit: There's a remarkable. Conservation leader working on this species tirelessly in India. So we've pretty, pretty quickly struck up a partnership then, uh, started working together on trying to cover all the aspects of this bird's life.
[00:06:32] Jaymi: And what does it mean for you? You've mentioned this phrase a little bit, like having images that have meaningful value or that can be used in a meaningful way.
[00:06:40] Jaymi: What does that mean to you as a conservation photographer?
[00:06:44] Gerrit: Mostly it's about there being a individual or organization in place that can use imagery with an audience to create change. So it's not so much about the images. Well, that's not necessarily true. we want them to have the [00:07:00] best possible media to make their case for species. So we're often picking, organizations that don't have the capacity to produce high end media. So really it comes down to having the people that can use the media in meaningful ways rather than the photos themselves being, you know, so meaningful, I guess, if that makes sense.
[00:07:18] Jaymi: Yeah. So what are some of the ways that you've seen organizations that you've partnered with use those images?
[00:07:25] Gerrit: Yeah. So, I mean, some really inspiring things have been, this work we did with the greater adjutant stork quickly, soon after there. So we did this international film, but the real impetus of the project was to do a, an in-country film that was much more tailored to our partners use in India, um, to reach decision-makers very early on in the process, she got the opportunity to show this film to the governor of the Assam and his cabinet in person. She brought some of her community members with her and the governor was just blown [00:08:00] away and pledged to make a, the greater adjutant, uh, heritage bird of the sob, and to devote all these extra resources to conservation in that area.
[00:08:10] Gerrit: So that was a really quick and tangible. Impact that you had directly by showing this media to someone who, who mattered and could and could change
[00:08:18] Jaymi: things. Yeah. I mean, that's a pretty incredible thing because this bird, as you mentioned earlier, it's known to be around garbage dumps, and a lot of times we just think, oh, it's just a scavenger bird.
[00:08:30] Jaymi: We don't even really care about this. And then to actually make high quality visuals and to show it to a decision-maker and suddenly it's a celebrated species. That feels very powerful to me.
[00:08:43] Gerrit: Yeah. Getting people to see a lot of it, I think comes down to showing these, these intimate moments in these birds lives.
[00:08:50] Gerrit: And I always think of when I'm doing bird photography, I want that to have these photos where you've seen these birds, not like a field guide [00:09:00] photo of bird, but there's something about it where it feels like a condition. Or it's a moment in their life where it feels like an individual or they're with their chicks.
[00:09:07] Gerrit: And it has that, that more intimate uh, feeling to it. And I think those kinds of images really, really captured people's, attention a little more than some of the more standard photos you might see of different species.
[00:09:20] Jaymi: I love that concept of not making a field guide photo, but a photo about an individual of a single kind of spirit or soul that you can relate to on an, on a one-on-one basis, instead of just a picture of a thing.
[00:09:34] Jaymi: Yeah, well, and speaking of capturing really intimate moments of birds or all wildlife, any wildlife that may strike your fancy, but like especially birds you are an expert at using blinds to your advantage. What kind of role does photography blinds or do photography blinds play in being able to capture those really intimate.
[00:09:56] Gerrit: they're really critical in a lot of [00:10:00] instances. You know, when you're working with, critically endangered birds or around birds nests or around bird roosts, or these, these places that can be easily disturbed, but you need that imagery. Most of the time that, you know, that's the only way to really do it is to really be concealed and not causing impact or disturbance to see.
[00:10:19] Gerrit: Completely natural behavior. So in a lot of cases, that's just the only way to do it. In the old world, particularly in Asia, in Europe, I found that in many places, birds are just so much less approachable or wildlife in general, especially in Asia, I've just found birds to be tremendously skiddish, even.
[00:10:39] Gerrit: Goals and things on the beach are, you know, flying away when you're a quarter of a mile away from them in some places. So they, it's just a necessity to use blinds for, for coverage of a lot of things. And there has been, you know, kind of. In Europe, especially, you know, it's part of the photography culture to use blinds.
[00:10:56] Gerrit: And I don't know if that's partly because animals are more wary [00:11:00] or there's fewer places to do photography. So people are trying to do it, you know, close to home in their little local Woodland or what, but in
[00:11:07] Gerrit: north America, there hasn't been that strong culture of using photography blinds. And I don't think people know the benefits of it. It's such a great way to, to exploit opportunities much closer to home where animals might not be as approachable. And in this kind of day and age where there are so many people doing photography, and it allows us to spread out that work in more places instead of going to these, you know, certain places that everybody goes to, to photograph where animals are habituated the people and everybody kind of goes there and takes the same images.
[00:11:41] Gerrit: So it opens up new opportunities and new places. And definitely, you know, there's a lot of behaviors you can never shoot unless you're on a blind. and you know, I just love it because there are so many photographers out there now. You know, it eliminates this, this pursuit of animals on foot and flushing and causing animals to flee [00:12:00] or change the behavior.
[00:12:01] Gerrit: And you just kind of set up in a really good spot and they never know you're there. Everything's behaving naturally. You're not disturbing anything. And if you've really planned and done your work, you know, you can come away with some really unique imagery that you wouldn't get. Just walking around with your camera.
[00:12:19] Jaymi: Well, how does one go about setting up a blind?
[00:12:22] Gerrit: I think it's, it's like a lot of photography again, it's, you know, you imagine the images you want where you'd want to shoot them from and then go scout it out and see if there's a place where you could set up . Where it can predictably get wildlife where you want it.
[00:12:40] Gerrit: And then you just, you know, go out there and set it up. So I'll usually set up, you know, a blind, you know, several days in advance even. So I can go in there at night if I need to, or animals could get used to it in the, in the landscape, depending on the situation. So yeah, it's just a, it's a lot of just kind of imagining again and predicting that if you've really kind of predicted and [00:13:00] schemed and planned, right.
[00:13:01] Gerrit: It can get you're blind to just the right place to get some of that stuff that you can never get walking around.
[00:13:07] Jaymi: Yeah, I have to say so I have one of your pop-up blinds, the chaga pan pop-up lines, and I thought, oh, I'm going to set this up in a yard. My partner. Family has some pretty good acreage with a ton of beautiful birds that love to come in and, and feed in the yard and everything.
[00:13:24] Jaymi: And so I thought, okay, I'm going to set up this blind a couple of days in advance, let birds get used to it. Come in every morning, really early. And so I set up the blind and we had this huge wind storm and I didn't. Really about it. And I went out the next day and the blind was just gone. I had no idea where it went.
[00:13:42] Jaymi: And so I started hunting around and it was like a quarter of a mile away in a goalie. I to go get it back. So there, you can definitely set up blinds in advance. Do you have advice for how to properly set up a blind? So it's actually, when you go back.
[00:13:58] Gerrit: Yeah, I have [00:14:00] lost many blinds that way. I once lost one in Russia that went like three miles and, you know, the way the wind's blowing and you go that way, you know, you can fight it this summer.
[00:14:12] Gerrit: Actually I had one pillow, uh, it was probably about a mile and it was out in. I could see it. And I had waited out with this money, like in my, under where and Brian back, there were some very embarrassing pictures of the guy I was with, took of me out there and my underpants covered in mud. But yeah, it's mostly just, you know, that it's going to be mega windy.
[00:14:37] Gerrit: Maybe you don't put it up, but generally, you know, if you stick a blind down really well and put like guidelines on it, You know, these lines that go out farther to the ground. They'll, they'll withstand pretty strong winds. I was out in, uh, South Dakota this past year shooting, sharp tail grouse, and it was the wind was blasting and we had those blinds tied down well, and they, they were [00:15:00] fine, but yeah, you can't think that you're just going to put it out and it's not, the wind is not going to come up in the night and blow it away.
[00:15:05] Gerrit: You should usually probably. Attach it to the ground. Yeah.
[00:15:10] Jaymi: Has your extensive experience in needing photo blinds for so much of your photography, did that inform designs for track Japan?
[00:15:18] Jaymi: And let's go ahead and plug this amazing company, this line of blinds that you have to.
[00:15:24] Gerrit: Sure. Yeah. I mean, originally I was working. Uh, project in China. And like most people, you know, I had some blinds with me, but there were like crappy, cheap hunting blinds. And I had hired, uh, a fellow who who's my business partner in this now who was helping me find spoon mill sandpipers in south China.
[00:15:46] Gerrit: And he was living in south China, which is one of the places I was describing where like, if you're a half a mile away from a goal or a Heron it's flying off in terror you can't get near anything. So he had [00:16:00] actually started designing and making blinds where he lived there and that those were kind of the early iteration of the track, Pam blinds.
[00:16:08] Gerrit: And I was already someone that was using blinds extensively for a lot of projects and frustrated. You know, pretty much I consider them like disposable objects, I buy one, I've cut the holes into it that I needed for that project. It would get wrecked and go in the trash, and the early blinds he was making were already really awesome. You know, they had these kind of photographer specific. Windows and lens, sleeves and options for shooting at ground level and way to kind of stick the tripod like outside of the blinds and the blind was more spacious inside. And then I'm like, I want these north America, you know, it kinda just was more of a, out of a selfish, like I want these binds available to me to kind of start doing this with them.
[00:16:54] Gerrit: But over time, you know, And they're working together to, to make them better, basically, you [00:17:00] know, we've approved them so much. There's so much easier now to set up the materials are better. I've been working with the same factory forever, so quality of work has gotten so much better. So kind of.
[00:17:13] Gerrit: Was a more organic thing that happened. I hadn't planned to go out with, you know, start a blind company.
[00:17:20] Gerrit: So, but it's been super fun. Just. Experimenting with different things. And and and really like, I get so many emails from people that are just so excited about them. Like, we get so much good feedback. People really love them and getting all these images from folks who are out using them and like getting the stuff they never thought they could get.
[00:17:41] Gerrit: And, you know, they can't believe how close to the animals are coming to them. And so it's rewarding. In that way. And I also feel really good about it being, like I said earlier, a tool for spreading people out, reducing impact on popular places. Yeah. Creating more of that [00:18:00] culture of sitting and waiting rather than pursuing and flushing and causing animals to flee.
[00:18:05] Gerrit: Cause there's just too many photographers out there now to, to go to the popular places and chase animals around. So, you know, in a lot of ways I feel like this is just in some ways, just a, a good contribution to wildlife, the nature of photography rather than. You know, it's not how I like to make a living or anything.
[00:18:25] Gerrit: It's just kind of a hobby almost, and it feels like a, a positive thing
[00:18:30] Jaymi: yeah, well, I adore my blind. It's so easy to set up so light to carry. I love it. So I'm going to make sure to anyone listening, who wants to find out more about these blinds, there's going to be a link in the show notes to make sure and go check them out.
[00:18:44] Jaymi: But I want to dive in more to what you were mentioning. Really ethical bird photography, because this happens with a lot of species, but we often hear about it with specifically bird species, especially rare, or kind of Vagrant species that pop up in a [00:19:00] location. And so many photographers and birders rushed to go take photos.
[00:19:03] Jaymi: And I've even heard stories about like owls who have kind of been flushed into the road and hit by cars because photographers were pursuing. And so I'd love to talk with you about some of the. Ethical photography standards to hold as photographers, especially as conservation photographers. What are some of the things that you feel are most critical to know and to practice when it comes to wildlife photography?
[00:19:27] Gerrit: Yeah, that, that's a tricky question. To tell other people, you know, for, for me personally, I avoid places where there's other photographers completely as much as I can, like if there's a rare bird or even if there was a meadow, a mile away where there was 20 shorted hours hunting every day, if there's 20 people out there, I'd be like, I don't want any part of it.
[00:19:50] Gerrit: Like it, for me, it's not as a social activity or a sporting activity, you know? And I think there there's a of. Gamut [00:20:00] of personalities and motivations for different people who do photography. And I think a lot of people are, you know, trophy chasing or hunting with a camera or, you know, I don't know, I don't want to label people, but I think there's this a wide range of mentalities.
[00:20:17] Gerrit: For me, I think it's important for people to spread out and go find their own unique opportunities. and not put all this pressure on an individual bird, you know, and in one place in time where there's, there's all these people all over it.
[00:20:31] Gerrit: God, this is a little bit of a tough question.
[00:20:33] Jaymi: It is a tough question because I think it's a tough question because like you said, there's, there's different reasons for photographing and there's different circumstances. And so a lot of times I think that, you know, there are. Ethical standards that should be held all the time issues of baiting or using calling and you not sort of thing, but also a lot of situations.
[00:20:53] Jaymi: I think it does depend on what's going on. Who's around what's happening with the Ana. Like there is a [00:21:00] lot of gray area inside of it, too.
[00:21:02] Gerrit: Yeah, for sure. I, you know, I think the one overriding principle for me. Would be to learn as much as you possibly can about natural history and the things that you're photographing.
[00:21:15] Gerrit: Because I do think we have a, you know, really large influx of people who are just starting to get into photography, starting to get into nature. And it's kind of all happening at once. And there, they may not be very experienced with, with wildlife. What is really appropriate and what they might be harming doing certain things.
[00:21:33] Gerrit: So I do think a lot of it is, comes down to experience and education, and that most people will always, you know, make the right decisions if they know enough. So I think it's, encouraging people to really as much about nature and wildlife as they do about using their camera.
[00:21:50] Jaymi: Well, and you work for an organization that's pretty exceptional about educating people.
[00:21:54] Jaymi: Are there resources that you recommend, whether it's bird specific or nature specific that is just [00:22:00] like, man, if you're going to get into this, here's some resources and in fact, you've written some resources for us.
[00:22:05] Gerrit: Yeah. I mean, I think the most for people that are really delving into birds that, you know, this is a subscription-based thing, but the birds, birds of the world online is like the most comprehensive collection of natural history.
[00:22:19] Gerrit: Information about all the birds in the world that exists, and it has sound recordings and has a video clips and has lots of photography, but it goes into all aspects of biology, behavior breeding, you name it all these species. So it's a awesome resource to, to go and learn about the things that you're shooting.
[00:22:40] Gerrit: Many many libraries and stuff across the country have subscriptions. So people don't want to get a subscription to something like that. You can always go to a library, print out three, your birds, that you're working on and learn everything about them. But also, you know, I still go back to books.
[00:22:56] Gerrit: Like there's so much bad information online. If you don't know where to [00:23:00] look that, you know, volumes and volumes and volumes of books have been written in minutiae detail on. Aspect, you can imagine about birds and bird life in every corner of the world. Like there's so much written and published about birds.
[00:23:17] Gerrit: That for me, like books are, some of the best resources for, for learning about that kind of stuff.
[00:23:22] Jaymi: What does it mean for you as a conservation photographer to focus on these species that are disappearing? I know that I just took a really sharp turn in the conversation, but I'm curious because you do, you mentioned earlier that you have like this kind of a triage of a hundred species that you're really looking at.
[00:23:41] Jaymi: And as someone who tries so hard to bring high quality imagery for meaningful conservation efforts, What does that feel like to work on something that can be so tenuous in what success looks like? Or if success can happen?
[00:23:55] Gerrit: It's, you know, it's a mix of things. Um, Partly I feel [00:24:00] extremely fortunate for the opportunities that I got and the access I got to some species around the world and the, and the support I get to go do the work.
[00:24:08] Gerrit: So I always feel this amazing amount of work. In the moment when I'm out there with these things and experienced some kind of things that other people don't get to get to do. But you know, as you might imagine, it also can be very depressing. Many of these species live in really poor suited circumstances , and it's hard to see any help for them.
[00:24:31] Gerrit: And some ways, you know, you're out there in the middle of nowhere, not eating well, getting pelted by the sun or the hail or the, whatever it is. And you're like, you know, you're feeling like you're out doing a hopeless, hopeless chore, you know, by yourself and you're there with it by yourself. And so it's, uh, it's a real mix of feelings.
[00:24:52] Gerrit: You know, I, I know I have to close my eyes sometimes and just, you know, imagine that I'm the only person in the world and this. [00:25:00] Going to be here for another 200,000 years or whatever it is. And and just try to enjoy it for, for brief moments, but it's hard to separate these animals now, from what surrounds them.
[00:25:12] Gerrit: You know, a lot of these, these birds that are heavily impacted by human encroachment or other negative impacts you know, you see them they're there. Most of these birds are often some pristine rainforest somewhere where, you know, you don't see another human for a hundred miles around there.
[00:25:29] Gerrit: They're mostly more urbanized areas or areas that are heavily degraded or, you know, that kind of stuff. So
[00:25:37] Jaymi: speaking of. Living in these heavily degraded areas or in areas that are kind of being taken over by urbanization. It does kind of make me flip to the fact that you live in the Pacific Northwest in a city that has this pretty amazing park in it.
[00:25:51] Jaymi: And I know that you've been able to take advantage of this beautiful park to photograph bird life. Does that kind of like the idea [00:26:00] of kind of turning to what you have near you and photographing that, how does that play into it for you? And you're like, okay, well, I'm going to go into my own backyard, even in an urban area and see what's there.
[00:26:11] Gerrit: I would say right now that like going out into my backyard and locally is not that of lifting. I've talked about this before with people, the more you learn about what's around you and the way psychology works and the way a forest is supposed to look in the Pacific Northwest the more you walk around and just see.
[00:26:32] Gerrit: Things that are off or wrong or suffering or downright, depressing. Like I live in an area that's called Cedar Hills outside of Portland, and there's a bunch of big old two, 300 year old Western red Cedar trees, , down in a little wetland down here. And they're all dead from heat stress.
[00:26:52] Gerrit: Western Cedars, big leaf Maples, bunch of species, all the hemlocks and, uh, Western hemlocks and forest park that you just mentioned. [00:27:00] They're all dead. So we're seeing such an impact in changes of the forest here from. Related things that it's hard to go out and not feel like, oh my God, that the forest is dying.
[00:27:13] Gerrit: This is going to be an uplifting show for folks to listen. But I mean, that's what I see when I look up about there. Now, you know, you just, when you're really tuned to this stuff, like all the cherry trees in my, yard that I can see on my windows right now, they're all just dead, dead tops of trees.
[00:27:29] Gerrit: Cause they they're more prone to heat stress. You know, we found all these forest fires and yada yada yada. So, but you get what I mean? It's, it's hard to, it's hard to go and find anywhere where you, you feel for me where I can, tune that stuff out.
[00:27:47] Jaymi: Yeah. I mean, that's really true too, when you're living in an area because I live three hours south of you and our area is really getting hammered.
[00:27:56] Jaymi: Like climate change is very noticeable [00:28:00] here, especially in the last about five years or so last two years, um, drought, he just changes in weather patterns. And so when you're aware of what's going on, and then you see that it's, it's tough
[00:28:15] Gerrit: for sure.
[00:28:16] Jaymi: You
[00:28:17] Gerrit: can take us down into a dark hole here.
[00:28:22] Jaymi: Yeah, it is kind of a bummer, but at the same time, this is a conservation photography podcast and it's our job to explore these dark areas because , it's our job to photograph what's there to make images that do ultimately provide hope, provide a potential path forward.
[00:28:40] Jaymi: Guidance or leadership or something. And so I talk a lot with guests about, well, how does that make you feel? So, and it's hard. Like there's a lot of fields in this
[00:28:51] Gerrit: work. Totally. Totally.
[00:28:56] Jaymi: Well it's one thing I think, to look at your own home and to see what's going [00:29:00] on. Do you often go into other locations because you are a globe traveler, you go all over the world in your work.
[00:29:05] Jaymi: Do you often go into other locations and see that immediate climate impact? Are there any locations where you go in and you're like, oh, this is actually how it's supposed to look?
[00:29:14] Gerrit: I think, I think there's places that I go that where I think it's sort of what it's supposed to look, but then I hear.
[00:29:21] Gerrit: What the local people were saying, you know, I'll be up on up on the Yukon Delta or some somewhere in Alaska and, for all intents and purposes, it still looks like a vast Tundra. There's still shorebirds breeding everywhere. But then I hear from, elder in the village that they've never seen grasshoppers before.
[00:29:37] Gerrit: And last summer they were, swarms of grasshoppers on the Tundra, or, you know, just these things, these little anecdotal things that you, you pick up, you're like, you know, it may look okay to me. If you've lived here all your life, you're seeing change just about everywhere. So yeah, I think it has to do with experience and the knowledge of a place, you know, intimate knowledge [00:30:00] of a place to start seeing that stuff.
[00:30:02] Gerrit: And a lot of cases of other places, obviously it's obvious to anybody,
[00:30:06] Jaymi: how do you as a. As a person, I was going to say as a conservationist, as someone who cares about this, but just as a human being, I mean, we kind of do look out and we're seeing in the fact that everything is changing, it kind of doubles down on the interconnectedness of everything.
[00:30:24] Jaymi: And that it's so important to basically be working together as a global species to, to change what's going on. As a person watching. What needs to happen in order to maintain a planet that is livable? Like how well, how does that make you feel?
[00:30:46] Gerrit: My therapy session?
[00:30:50] Jaymi: I like to ask other people questions like this because little things like coping mechanisms or perspectives or ways of thinking things sometimes pop out.
[00:30:59] Jaymi: That can be [00:31:00] so interesting.
[00:31:02] Gerrit: Yeah, I dunno. I think I have some, There's some quote from Edward Abbey. I can't remember exact quote, but the nature of it is like the 80% of you are a Crusader and the other 20% like go enjoy life and soaking all in, so, I try to have that mindset at times where, you know, I'm not, I'm going to tune this stuff out.
[00:31:23] Gerrit: I'm going to say. For what it still is. There is still so much amazing beauty and things to add and wonder in the world that if you can just give yourself those moments to immerse herself in something and breathe and relax, that you can find those, those moments, you know, um, a more cynical, uh, mindset I sometimes take is, Just past 50 years old now, and I'm going to be dead in 30 years.
[00:31:58] Gerrit: And you know, this, [00:32:00] the Florida grasshopper, Sparrow that I agonize over, it's going to go to extinct. It may still be there after I'm gone. I'm not going to see all of that. And I don't know, you know what I mean? It's just, you have to enjoy what's here. That as best you can in some portions of your life , to get by.
[00:32:18] Gerrit: and we're not all going to be here forever and there is an amazing world out there still, to see and to look at and to Marvel at. And, um, but yeah, it's hard to go in there, like.
[00:32:31] Jaymi: Yeah, I I'm a big Bernay brown fan. I just think that her, the work that she's done, is amazing. And one of the things that she said is, you know, she kind of studies like, what does it mean to live wholeheartedly?
[00:32:43] Jaymi: And what do people who are living wholeheartedly? Like what are the attributes that help them live that way? And she said that, ] , one of the main things. Actively practicing gratitude, is something that helps you really live wholeheartedly. And so I remember hearing that a couple years ago. And so now, [00:33:00] I live, , in this really lovely location right now, we rent a house in this gorgeous area and we do my partner and I do these walks in the mornings at sunrise.
[00:33:09] Jaymi: And, I've noticed myself looking at this beautiful scenery, the ferns, the sword friends under these big, beautiful conifer trees and this beautiful forest area that we can walk in. And I CA and I watch myself. I'm just going to enjoy that. We have this right now. It may not be here. You know, 20 years, I might not be here in 20 years, but right now, look at this beautiful place that is just so lash and gorgeous.
[00:33:36] Jaymi: And I'm not going to look at what's wrong with it, or the fact that it's this tiny patch in, in what otherwise is a developed area, but, but to really practice that. And I think as conservationists, that idea that you have of, you know, I'm just going to look at this for what it is right now, and the fact that I can enjoy it right now.
[00:33:54] Jaymi: Yeah. Is really important to do. It really is. It's I think it's kind of one of those [00:34:00] things that allows you to, as someone, especially as someone who is working toward conservation all the time, it allows you to just take a breath and have a moment of, of escape and release and what a beautiful thing to just be like, you know, I might not be here in 30 years, this bird might, I'm just going to enjoy it.
[00:34:17] Gerrit: Yeah. You know, it's, it's hard to do in practice a lot of the time, but making a conscious. To do that is super important. I think for me that the farther farthest away I can get it from, from people as the key, usually like harder and harder, you know?
[00:34:37] Jaymi: Yeah. Well, speaking of getting away from. I would love to ask you about some of the favorite assignments that you have ever had either with Cornell lab of ornithology or your personal projects or anything that you worked on where you're just like, that is an experience.
[00:34:53] Jaymi: I'm so glad that I had,
[00:34:54] Gerrit: yeah. I mean, I, I, the one that really comes to mind that was unique [00:35:00] and, , and a credible opportunity was the work work I did in. Coca in Russia kind of filming, covering the spoon belt Sandpiper for the various first time, really? In any, any detail. That was like a close to three months, I think, , living in a remote part of Russia and kind of just following the daily life of these, these last of the spool Milt sandpipers for your listeners who don't know, it's a critically endangered bird.
[00:35:26] Gerrit: Probably in between 100, 200 of them remaining on the planet. , and then that, that project evolved into me kind of following them through the rest of their life cycle and working on limited South Korea and China and a BMR covering on the breeding grounds and on their wintering grounds. And really just kind of getting to really know this species, like through its whole yearly.
[00:35:49] Gerrit: Cycle and its whole life cycle. So that was probably one of the most fulfilling, overall and difficult kind of pieces of work that I've, that I've done, [00:36:00] I guess.
[00:36:00] Jaymi: Well, and with only 100 and 200 birds, what was it like trying to even find them.
[00:36:05] Gerrit: Well, we went to an area where a kind of a little pocket of breeding birds had been discovered a number of years earlier.
[00:36:12] Gerrit: So there was probably 20 pairs nesting within, three, four miles of the little fishing village we lived in. So we'd go out and we'd just search, you know, just walk into Tundra for, large portions of every day. Keying in on the, you know, the kind of like the micro habitats that they like.
[00:36:30] Gerrit: And then, eventually finding them finding where they're going to nest seem, who is paired up with who but, you know, I relied on, partnerships with Russian biologists who were there. So worked as a team. Kind of pin down where everybody was going to be and finally settled on one nest for me to fill them.
[00:36:47] Gerrit: And it was pretty much the last fillable nest and got to, , lay 20 feet from spool, Sandpiper chicks coming out of their nest for the first time. And, you know, just being out there and [00:37:00] loading the middle of the Russia wilderness, like laying in my blind, um, watching this. And, you know, it's one of those things where like, it's an incredible thing to get to do and experience with the new Yorker.
[00:37:10] Gerrit: Also like, come here by myself.
[00:37:13] Jaymi: It's like heaven for you. Yeah, well,
[00:37:15] Gerrit: it's having, but it's also like, I want someone else to see this, like misses where the filming comes in, you know, at least share that, this day and age with anyone in the world who wants to go on YouTube and look at it, it's there.
[00:37:27] Gerrit: But the feeling of being there and doing it was, was I got to know this one pair really well. And the male of that pair was the one that I filmed. He was on the mess from the chicks hatched. And they had put leg flags on a bunch of these birds to, to kind of figure out some stuff about their migration and how big the population was.
[00:37:45] Gerrit: And two years later I got a photograph of this. Same individual on the mudflats in China. Great. And one of the very same places I had worked at I'm like, God, I could have been laying in China in the mud and seen that exact same [00:38:00] individual bird. , it's just so cool. This little bird that weighs as much as two nickels doing these incredible things and year after year, and that bird returned the nest, like four or five more years after that.
[00:38:12] Gerrit: And then finally probably died somewhere. Yeah.
[00:38:16] Jaymi: Bird's really remind us how wimpy humans are.
[00:38:20] Gerrit: Yeah. I mean, a lot of, you know, obviously there's birds that, you know, never leave a single woodlot or a single square mile. But then there's birds that basically treat entire hemispheres of the planet, like their yard, , or their home turf, you know, like, uh, a Bartell godwit and a bird that fill them up in Alaska.
[00:38:39] Gerrit: You know, they spend the winter in New Zealand and they fly there in 11 days and they never land. During those 11 days to eat or drink. That's just their, their yard, their neighborhood. They do their nest and Alaska. They go to New Zealand.
[00:38:54] Jaymi: Yeah. We'll see you in 11 days.
[00:38:58] Gerrit: And even all these songbirds that are [00:39:00] just starting to arrive again, migrating up from south America.
[00:39:03] Gerrit: You know, these are tiny little birds and they just had been flow across, , half a continent every year. And we'll winter in the same little patch of forest that Yucatan or Paraguay or wherever it is. And then nest and the same little patch of forest and main or Alberta or wherever it might be in since the remarkable,
[00:39:24] Jaymi: well, I have one last question for you about your projects.
[00:39:29] Jaymi: Is there anything that is on your bucket list or like your dream thing that you want to photograph?
[00:39:35] Gerrit: It's funny because, so I, sometimes I make a list of things that I want to go do on my own. And most of them are, you know, some of these very iconic things that a lot of people do go and do. And I would just not go do a professionally because everybody's already done it or yada, yada. So like, I want to go sit with a gorilla, Uganda or Congo or [00:40:00] whatever that would be, a life experience that for me, as someone interested in international history, but like, you have to have that, you have to do that, at some point in your life.
[00:40:09] Gerrit: That's one I've never been to Antarctica. , I'd love to go down there. I love the polar regions. And mostly I've just spent time up here and the American Canadian and Russian Arctic. So that would be another one for sure.
[00:40:24] Jaymi: I really hope that that happens for you in the near, near future.
[00:40:28] Gerrit: Yeah. Well, I'm going to go to this, the island south of New Zealand. It sounds like next. Christmas time. So that would be my first Southern oceans, uh, albatrosses and penguins and whatnot. So that'll be I've been like pouring through my books this week. Cause I just found out about this, but so that'll be awesome.
[00:40:45] Jaymi: Cool. Okay. I lied. I have one last question for you. What is your favorite bird species?
[00:40:51] Gerrit: So I think usually I would. Uh, great grail, like a lot of great grills. And then I also have this [00:41:00] really I love yellow balloons. So without thinking about it, those are always the two birds that pop into my head first. And, I'd have to call something my favorite. I think it has to be something that I'm more, that's closer to home.
[00:41:14] Gerrit: You know, I don't think I, it would be something that would be across the country. It's something that I relate to a place and a feeling. And so like the north woods and the Tundra to me are places that I really connect with. And so great. Great. Alison yellow, bill Lewis. Awesome.
[00:41:29] Jaymi: Cool. Well, thank you so much for spending time with us and just talking about all things for going into the dark spaces too, because those are important spaces to, to visit and to like acknowledge as well.
[00:41:42] Jaymi: But thank you to just for your truly exceptional work as a conservation photographer and bringing so much beauty and information to people around the world. I greatly appreciate you so much.
[00:41:56] Gerrit: Thank you. I really, really appreciate it. And thanks for all [00:42:00] you're doing to, to get more people involved in doing this kind of work and doing stuff closer to home and, you know, just bringing all these different conservation issues to light in different people's communities, no matter how small or big, so really awesome that you're doing
[00:42:15] Jaymi: this.
[00:42:15] Jaymi: Thank you so much.
Get all the good things delivered!
How-to action plans, expert interviews, behind-the-scenes insights & more delivered weekly.