If you saw The Big Year starring Steve Martin and Jack Black, then you saw Tim Barksdale’s work. Tim Barksdale has been shooting wildlife for over two decades. He has shot for NatGeo TV, Animal Planet, PBS and more. He has shot from Tierra del Fuego to Resolute Bay in the high Canadian Arctic.
I came across his work while I was looking at Cornell’s extensive library of bird photography, video and audio. I learned a lot from his work in the ECornell’s class and reached out to him for a Q & A session.
EK: First question, hardest one, what kind of tea do you drink?
TB: constant comet or tazo-zen
EK:What projects are you working on now?
TB: Two major projects are in the business planning stage. One is in the process of script-revising for a film on Greater Prairie chickens.
EK: How did you become a birder?
TB: This one time on a field trip, Eddie Chalif, who co-wrote the Mexican Bird Field Guide with Peterson, took an interest in teaching me about birds. The whole class was in a field. He said ”Timmy would you like walk around in a big circular area and I’ll tell you when to walk back”. I did what he said and a Short-eared Owl jumped up and that was the end of my life as a non-birder.
EK: How did you get your start?
TB: Iv’e been involved with photography since high school, like the year book. I liked photography. I was photographing birds at a young age. It was an interest not a passion. I went back to school in ecology & wildlife conservation in Columbia, Missouri. After frustrating years at restaurants where I was a chef, I went to the bank. I asked the banker what I could do. I wanted to get out of the restaurant business. While at the bank, I ended up working for a non-profit. Developed relationships with clients who invested with us. In 1990, I worked for non-profit who asked for bird work. Started a survey of her property and she said one day ”Have u ever thought about doing TV shows for children about birds”? I was floored. I was dizzy. It was a Cosmic moment. She offered to buy the camera and she gave me a grant. Dept. of conservation saw my stuff. Year later I formed a company. In 1992 no one thought of filming just birds at this point. First camera was high 8. Ended up with a beta after that one. I was always strongly in favor of video over film. Took some risks with new expensive video equipment at that time. Began learning professional systems. I had a small amount of sales. Got approached by a DVD developer and co-developed a video for bird identification. Then I had also been talking to NatGeo. I immediately went to the low arctic.
EK: Did you train yourself or did someone teach you?
TB: Sony saw my bird footage and encouraged me. They sent me to classes occasionally. First developers of HD cameras taught me basic camera functions too. I taught myslef though as well.
EK:How has the wildlife film industry changed?
TB: When I first got into it, there was a Jackson Hole film festival in 1993. At that festival there were some delegates that were almost in a knock out fist fight. They were furious about video verse film. So there’s that aspect of the change in technology from when I first started but the worst thing is the change in ethics in how we sensationalize wildlife for TV. I’ve been approached by a senior producer with the emphasis of getting a shot and sequence of killing and blood and get it tight (close-up). National Geographic used to be all about discovery and adventure and the magazine still is, but the television channel took a turn to the dark side. Some people are still so starry-eyed that they don’t get it. I took a big risk in 1994. I flew to Venezuela to explore specific regions with cliffs. I suspected a very rare falcon would be found there. In Venezuela, I found a nest of Orange-breasted falcons. They had never been recorded in Venezuela and I got back so excited and NatGeo was not interested in the First Documentation of one of the RAREST Birds in the WORLD…. because I did not get the Killing shot close enough. I got plenty of other great stuff, nice and tight too, but the kill would take much longer than what they were willing to pay for. That was about the time when story prostitution began. Then I got a gig with Animal Planet for a series called “All Bird TV”, ended with a good job and owning my own footage. I went to four countries and the producers would hand me a list of birds in the morning and then I would give them good shots back. That was 97-98′.
EK: How do you see nature films helping the environment or conservation efforts?
TB: They do inspire people. Good nature films inspire people to do better. That’s my mission for my company. I’ve gone to 2-3 places several times over 22 years and seen the changes to the environment because of people. Suburbia needs programming that’s compassionate and gets a significant message to these people. They don’t get that they are inter connected. Our globe is a single economy. They get that, but what they lack is the understanding that we also live in a huge Global Ecology. Every strand of life interconnected.That’s what inspires me to work hard and do jobs.
EK:Who do you look up to?
TB: Sir David Attenborough. I’ve met him a few times. He is a saint. He is amazing and would be so lucky to emulate any part of him.
To see Tim’s great work, check out his Vimeo channel here; https://vimeo.com/birdmanhd
So, it’s been an exciting yet stressful time as I have started my photo analysis research on N. Saw-whet owls. I found out about Scott Weidensaul’s research on their migration last October when I was working on an article for Pennsylvania magazine. I was pretty fascinated by all the tests they did on each owl they caught. Christy Wails is a Penn State students who thought of rating the amount of white on the face. Perhaps it indicated sex or age or was just individualistic. I decided to help. I saw that they took an adoption photo of every owl to raise money for the study. If I am able to get photos of every owl, select the number of pixels on the face in photoshop, then select only the white pixels on the face and divide it by the total and multiply by 100, I could get a number of how much white was on the face.
I got a camera and adjusted the settings to prevent clipping. A digital camera has a sensor which is an array of photosites (compare to a tiny water well). Each photosite responds to light falling on it by acquiring a charge.The charge is in proportion to the number of photons striking the diode, from zero (none/black) to full (white). This charge is then moved from the sensor through data transfer channels for processing. The important feature of this process from the point of view of exposure is that the photosite (the well) fills up one step at a time, in a linear fashion. When it’s full, there is no useful information (just white). With an over exposed digital image, a number of the photo-sites return pure white pixels-at the right edge of the scale the tones are clipped.) Some of the adoption photos had clipping. Therefore, I adjusted the other camera accordingly.
I attached a string to the camera to the band number as seen below to try to keep it as standard as possible. Not exactly easy. A Cornell Ornithology Professor I reached out to suggested I create a device that hold the owls in the same way. Volunteers are taking multiple images of each owl and I will be doing the same analysis on each image and averaging the results for each owl to minimize the variance. Currently I am trying to figure out how many pixels to select initially. Hmmmmm……
I am lucky to have helpful and kind people that respond to my annoying emails with their input. I’d like to thank Scott Ladenhien, Dr. Todd Underwood, Christy Wails, Scott Weidensaul, and Kevin McGowan. Without their input I’d be fumbling this whole project.
I’d also like to thank the volunteers at King Gap research facility for taking the time to take the photos for me. Thank you Gary Shimmel for help and handing out the guidelines.
I’ll have to make them all gifts somehow.
“The South Island Laughing Owl (Sceloglaux albifacies) was a native of New Zealand (hence its name) that lived in low, rocky areas, as well as forests (on the North Island). No doubt because of its facial markings, it was also known as the White-faced Owl. As for the ‘laughing’ part of its moniker, it came down to this owl’s “mischievous-sounding calls,” also described as “a loud cry made up of a series of dismal shrieks frequently repeated” and “precisely the same as two men ‘cooeying’ to each other from a distance.” It sure sounds like the bird made a distinctive din; what a shame its fate means it’s a sound our ears will never again hear…
Sadly, the South Island Laughing Owl population was already well on the decline by the 1880s, and the last reports of sightings – and these are unconfirmed – date to 1925 and 1927. Persecution by man and the introduction of more powerful, direct predators like cats and stoats (short-tailed weasels) are the factors now thought to have brought about the extinction of this gentle and unwary bird.”-Shia News Association
Well, you can see from its dark eyes that it’s a night hunter. Now the first image appears to coincide with the type of photos older cameras took in the 1880′s. The second one, above I am confused by. Wikipedia dates the first photo around 19010 (not that wikipedia hasn’t been known for historical inaccuracies). From what I have gathered about photography during that time period, that sounds about right.
The second image I think is fake. I say this because the feathers look “ragged” (sign of poor health and stress). Birds preen so their feather are at their optimal to fly. Feathers contain barbs and hooks that keep the feather together, perfect, at their optimal to fly (no drag). Birds use their beak to fix their feather or remove it.
Also I can tell this photo is taken in the day time. The light in its eyes above is probably the sky. Note the even lighting typical of shade in day light in the woods. Also, notice the sunlight dappling the back round. That’s as daylight as it gets!
Now, Owls with dark eyes don’t typically hang out in the day time nor is someone likely to sneak up on them in the woods. Have you ever tried to walk quietly in the woods?! Also, owls like tree limbs. I don’t understand this fern close to the ground business. How convenient for the photographer? The rarest owl in the world is sitting in daylight, eye level, and OK with the closeness of the photographer. Let me tell you there were not the fancy telephotos lenses back then that we have now! It’s more likely a taxidermy of the owl placed outside in the 40′s-50′s (perhaps much earlier).
“By 1880, the species was becoming rare, and the last recorded specimen was found dead at Bluecliffs Station in Canterbury, New Zealand on July 5, 1914 (Worthy, 1997). There have been unconfirmed reports since then; the last (unconfirmed) North Island records were in 1925 and 1927, at the Wairaumoana branch of Lake Waikaremoana (St. Paul & McKenzie, 1977; Blackburn, 1982). In his book The Wandering Naturalist, Brian Parkinson describes reports of a Laughing Owl in the Pakahi near Opotiki in the 1940s. An unidentified bird was heard flying overhead and giving “a most unusual weird cry which might almost be described as maniacal” at Saddle Hill, Fiordland, in February 1956 (Hall-Jones, 1960), and Laughing Owl egg fragments were apparently found in Canterbury in 1960 (Williams & Harrison, 1972).
Extinction was caused by persecution (mainly for specimens), land use changes, and the introduction of predators such as cats and stoats. It was generally accepted until the late 20th century that the species’ disappearance was due to competition by introduced predators for the kiore, a favorite prey of the Laughing Owl (an idea originally advanced by Walter Buller). However, since the kiore is itself an introduced animal, the Laughing Owl originally preyed on small birds, reptiles and bats, and later probably utilized introduced mice as well. Direct predation on this unwary and gentle-natured bird seems much more likely to have caused the species’ extinction. A comprehensive review of the species’ decline and disappearance is presented by Williams & Harrison (1972).
There was, however a textbook description of an encounter with the thought to be extinct laughing owl in 1985, by a group of American tourists camping out near the small village of Cave, New Zealand. The two travelers were sleeping in a forest, far from any other people. They were awoken in their tent by, “the sound of a madman laughing.” According to the campers, the sound terrified them, and they feared for their lives (being as they were so far away from civilization). When they checked to see who was making the noise they reportedly didn’t see anyone or hear any other sign that there was a person in their camp. The travelers hadn’t even heard of the Whēkau Laughing Owl, and their story was never explained until many years later.
Around the year 2000, back in the United States, an Ornithologist from New Zealand came as a visitor to the former tourists duck hunting club in Suisun, near Fairfield California. The man happened to tell the story of the mysterious laughing man, in which the Ornithologist grew very excited; He had given a textbook description of the Laughing Owl. This had been the first evidence in many years that the Laughing Owl might not be extinct after all. Though this story has never been verified, it still provides hope to the species of the Whēkau Laughing Owl.”-Extinction Website (that’s really the name)
If there are a few Laughing Owls left, it’s safe to say its functional extinct at best.
I took this photo in Virginia just outside of Norfolk when I was taking a trip to see my grandmother. These birds have an interesting crow-ish call. Also very interesting that they are hunters of the night hours. Actually, the operate sort of like owls in that they fit into the ecosystem of an area by taking advantage of the night time food while other herons exploit the day time food. A successful species that spans all but two of the seven continents. This black-crowned night heron is the most popular of the heron species according to Cornell’s lab of Ornithology.
“The oldest-known wild bird in the world is a new mother again, proving once and for all that age is just a number.
The aptly-named Wisdom, a Laysan albatross, has given birth to a chick at the age of 62. On February 3, on the Midway Islands between North America and Asia, in the middle of nowhere in the Pacific Ocean, Wisdom birthed a healthy chick in spite of her age.
It’s not just the age at which she’s given birth that’s confounding scientists. Laysan albatross usually don’t even live half as long as Wisdom.
Scientists estimate that she’s hatched up to approximately 35 birds during her life — and one a year for the past six years, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service – during an age when most humans would be cashing in their senior citizen discounts.
The common assumption amongst scientists is that the albatross often becomes infertile late in life, though it’s not clear when exactly that happens. Due to the difficulty of studying the species, Wisdom is helping to impart new fowl insight to scientists — but mostly, she’s simply continuing to stun them. Bruce Peterjohn, the chief of the Bird Banding Laboratory at the USGS Patuxent Wildlife Research Center in Laurel, Md. explained his team’s stunned reactions in a news release:
“If she were human, she would be eligible for Medicare in a couple years yet she is still regularly raising young and annually circumnavigating the Pacific Ocean. Simply incredible.”
Indeed, Wisdom shows no signs of slowing. The Midway Atoll is located far from the mainland, roughly equidistant between Tokyo and San Francisco. This means Wisdom logs some serious skymiles each year in order to lay her egg. Scientists estimate she flies up to 50,000 miles a year. Not bad for being at a ripe old age.
Exciting to think about how much we don’t know about this particular bird. The albatross is one of the oldest birds in the world actually, dating back over 53 million years ago according to my oritnhology manual.
A PBS special on the albatross showed a unique feature of this bird’s flight routine. Most grounded birds throw their body back and the first beat with their wings propels them forward into the air. The albatross has a 7ft wingspan and needs to take off much like a jet (a running start). It lands awkwardly as well.
National Geographic has a 40 min vidoe on youtube about the albatross; http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=toJwBgjCZMI
From Cornell’s class on “Noticing Bird Behavior”; An observation is a purely structural description of what you saw in terms of numbers, movements, sequences, and orientations.
An inference assumes something about identity, function, purpose, intent, motivation, or emotion. It is a hypothesis about some part of a behavior, which you may find data to support or test.
Our first class is on recording waterfowl observations. I typically study raptors so this was a change of pace. I never knew waterfowl were so complicated with their communication. They always seemed to swim around aimlessly, preening and resting. Who knew they were having sexually charged conversations this whole time?!
It is hard for some students to seperate an inference from an observation. It’s part of this weeks class to seperate inference and observation more distinctly. “Inferences are hypotheses that could be tested. Observations are things like drawings and structural descriptions of what you saw.”
If a female has a mate and flicks her beak to one side into the water sevral times it communicates to her male ”tell ther other males to step off me!” This behavior is called “inciting”. Often times, there are more males than females in a group so a male is required to “stake claim” but he is sometimes drastically out numbered and can do nothing.
There are mutual displays among mallards such as “head pumping” which help a pair coordinate their behavior before copulation. Sometimes a female will wiggle her tail for attention.
In My birding class, we watched a video of King Eider (artic species of Sea Duck) displays. There is so much communicatin going on that it’s easy to miss some of it. Cornell reccomends sketching what you see, even if you can’t draw. I am excited to go birding this weekend and sketch! Apparently, November through April are ideal months for courtship behavior.
Durrell, Gerald. A Practical Guide for the Amatuer Naturalist. Alfred A Knopf, New York.
Forshaw, Joseph, Steve Howell, Terence Lindsey & Rich Stallcup. 1994. Birding. The Nature Company, Berkeley CA.
Gooders, John & Scott Weidensaul (ed.). 1990. The Practical Ornithologist. Fireside Books, New York.
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