The people behind the lens of Global Bird Photos…
DONALD E. WAITE
This is a big chunk of my life. It’s rather lengthy and often not that pretty and I’m not asking anyone to read everything that has happened to me as a photographer of birds at nests using high-speed strobes. If anyone had ever told me when I began photographing birds in 1974 that years later, 2007 to be exact, that I’d be charged with 9 criminal charges under the Migratory Birds Conventions Act, and the Species at Risk Act with a potential for $2,250,000 in fines I’d have though it absurd. Yet that’s exactly what happened because of an encounter with biologists and lawmen with the Canadian Wildlife Service at Oliver in the Okanagan Valley. Although I was not aware of it at the time, I was set up and photographing a Yellow-breasted Chat – a bird that was a Species at Risk in a small pocket of the province. It was all very traumatic and I suffered a mental breakdown but more of that later.
I grew up on a dairy farm in Renfrew, Ontario, and spent much of my early years hunting with a slingshot, BB gun or .22 rifle. As a pre-teenager, I shot just about anything that moved and that included song birds during the nesting season. My actions were unconscionable. Most of my friends had egg collections. We had no one to teach us right from wrong.
At age 19, I joined the Royal Canadian Mounted Police. I spent 7 years in the force being stationed at recruit training in Ottawa, then city policing in Burnaby and New Westminster and finally rural policing in Maple Ridge. I had just completed a year long course in the Identification Section (forensics) back in Ottawa when I opted to purchase my discharge and open a camera store and studio in Maple Ridge. The force taught me the rudiments of photography and I used it as a stepping stone into my new career.
I first became interested in bird photography when customer Glenn R. Ryder, a field naturalist, walked into my camera store to purchase a telephoto lens. He had been hired by the provincial government to find bird nests in the Okanagan Valley for photographer Ervio Sian. I eventually learned that Ervio had been a member of the New Westminster Camera Club and had become a member of the Photographic Society of America. Glenn and Ervio were helping several BC ornithologists produce a 4-volume series of books ‘Birds of British Columbia’. After looking at some of Ervio’s slides, I thought I could do better. I was wrong but by then the die had been cast and I was hooked on the challenge of bird photography at nests. To see a very interesting 1994 movie clip about Ervio go to the link below and go to Browse Collections > Westlands:
It was during this time that a store employee loaned me a copy of renowned bird photographer Eliot Porter’s book ‘Birds of North America A Personal Selection’. I spent many evenings studying Eliot’s incredible images. I learned that Eliot had provided his 4″ x 5″ transparencies to National Georgraphic for the publication of the 2 volume set of books ‘Birds of North America’. To read about Porter go here:
Due to my inexperience during those formative years, I sometimes tried to photograph 3 bird species at their nests in a single day. The birds, having not been given an opportunity to adjust to my presence, suffered and I was the cause of many nests being lost to predation. I also caused many nestlings to fledge prematurely. It was during this learning period that I met Stan Pavlov. He told me that he managed a 160-acre estate in north Maple Ridge and that he could find more nests in a day than I could photograph in a week. I quickly discovered that although I was using 2-strobes the 1/700 of a second flash duration was not nearly fast enough to stop the birds’ flight movements.
About this time I met retired school teacher Arthur Peake from Maple Ridge. A keen ornithologist, Art had assisted Major Allan C. Brooks collect birds so he could paint them. Art and the Major travelled about and Art shot specimens that Allan then painted. Brooks, a sniper in World War 1, often resided in the Okanagan Valley and many of his original works are now on display in the Vernon Museum. I was surprised to learn the Brooks’ paintings were featured in NG books ‘Birds of North America’. Brooks did the paintings while Porter did the photography. Art had an extensive library on birds that he placed at my disposal with the result that after a few years I began to find some of the more elusive birds. To read about Major Brooks go here:
About 1980 I heard about Thomas J. Webb, a bird photographer living in Edmonton, Alberta. I flew there to meet him. His prints were so superior to mine that upon returning home I threw just about all my bird negatives into the trash can. I learned from Tom that he was also a member of the PSA. Tom let me in on a secret. He had purchased a very powerful high-speed strobe unit from Kenneth A. Olson from St. Paul, Minnesota. Upon returning home, I contacted Ken and ordered his lighting system. The 3-strobes had 10″ in diameter bulbs and were powered from a 12-volt motorcycle battery. They fired at an incredible 1/20,000 second. They were so powerful that I could place the lights 3 and 4-feet away from any nest and shoot at f-16 or f-22 with ISO 100 film. My photography improved immediately.
In 1981 I had the rare opportunity to accompany Dr. Richard J. Cannings, Assistant Curator of the Vetebrate Museum at the British Columbia Provincial Museum, by helicopter to Triangle Island to photograph seabirds. The island was located in the Pacific Ocean, 40 miles north of the northern tip of Vancouver Island. We were greeted upon arrival by Anne Vallée who was collecting data for her PhD thesis ‘The breeding success of the Tufted Puffin’ and her assistant Robin Cohen. For me, the trip was pretty much a bust as I was totally unprepared for the harsh and hostile environment. I left determined to return someday with the proper camera equipment to record its birdlife.
About this time I heard of Isidor Jeklin of Don Mills near Toronto. Isidor, like Ervio and Tom, was often published in the PSA journal. In 1982, my family and I drove back to Renfrew to attend my younger brother’s wedding. I contacted Isidor. We hit it off immediately and due to our mutual interest agreed to work together to publish a book. I learned that he used an antiquated high-speed strobe.
Upon my return home, I learned that Anne had fallen from a cliff on Triangle Island only a few weeks before and drowned.
In 1984 Isidor and I co-authored ‘The Art of Photographing North American Birds’. The title was published by Whitecap Books of North Vancouver. They printed 14,000 copies but things (without going into detail) went sideways and in the end I did a buyback of 8,000 books for .10 on the $. Without access to a market, I sold these books to W.H. Smith (now Chapters). Almost immediately afterwards I negotiated a deal to sell 10,000 books to Galahad Books, New York City, NY. Over a 7-year period, Galahad printed 30,000 books. Galahad had been Porter’s publisher. I dedicated the book to Anne.
In the summer of 1984 I joined Isidor and his birding associate Lawrence F. Parsons for a 3-week learning experience photographing birds in a small farming community called Pilot Mound in Manitoba. I learned that much of what Isidor had learned had been from reading dated books by early bird photographers such as Arthur Allen, Helen and Allen Cruickshank, William L. Finley, and Roger Tory Peterson – the most highly respected ornithologist in North America.
I’d developed some bad habits on my own but I learned even more from the older Isidor. He taught me to ‘groom’ nests that were pretty much completely concealed by vegetation in order to get images that better showed the adults and the babies. He called the secrets that he passed onto me ‘tricks’ of the trade. In hindsight, I don’t think he was doing anything that other bird photographers in the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s were doing.
As a side note, I sent a copy of our book to Peterson and he agreed to write a testimonial for the dust jacket. He also agreed to write a Foreword to a second book that Isidor and I had in the works. I also sent copies to Eliot Porter and to Eric Hoskin, Britain’s top bird photographer. Porter was very gracious and we later talked about the challenges of bird photography. He told me that if I persisted I’d begin to know something after 20 years. Hoskin’s condemned the book! That fall Anne’s father visited me with the news that his wife and he had started a fund in honour of Anne and that grant money would be available to me if I returned to Triangle Island.
I contacted the university and learned that research on Triangle Island was suspended but that Dr. Anthony J. Gaston, the Co-ordinator of Seabird Research with the Migratory Bird Branch of the Canadian Wildlife Branch, would be conducting a study on the Ancient Murrelet on Reef island in Haida Gwaii (Queen Charlotte Islands). I spoke to Tony and he invited me to join the research group. I learned that most of their work took place at night. The scientists waited in the pitch darkness and listened for the crash landings of the birds. Then with the aid of headlamps and fish nets, they chased after the birds. Once captured, the birds were placed in socks for weighing and measuring. In all my years of photographing birds, my most unethical antics took place on Reef Island. I would place captured birds down a blocked burrow and the bird, upon exiting, would take its own portrait by stepping on a triggering device. The bright strobes blinded the birds that flew into a fish net only to be recaptured and placed down the hole for a repeat performance. The birds, in shock, only ever flew out the one time. Tony writes about many of the mistakes of the researchers in his book ‘The Ancient Murrelet: A Natural History of the Queen Charlotte Islands’.
My preoccupation with writing (having closed my family portrait and wedding studio) and bird photography impacted greatly on my marriage and in 1986 my wife and I separated. We had 3 children. We divorced. Financially broke, I had no choice but to put my nose to the grindstone and work hard at getting out of debt.
In 1987 I began dating my apartment landlady and in 1989 we married. Slowly, I began to turn my life around with respect to finances and became involved in oblique (slanting) aerial photography. Perhaps I wanted to be just like the birds and fly. I did air photos for the body; I did bird photos for the soul.
At age 60 (2004) I sold my air photo business to my younger son with the idea of photographing birds for the rest of my life. Years earlier, Damon Calderwood visited me wanting to learn the ropes about doing bird photography with high-speed strobes. I loaned him my Olson strobes but was way too busy with my air photo business to accompany him into the bush to photograph birds.
In 2006 I accompanied David J. James and Damon to Burns, Oregon, for almost two months of bird photography. I’d been away from any serious bird photography for several years and Learned the hard way that the rules had changed. A state trooper gave me a $229 American maximum ticket for harassing wildlife: to wit Mountain Bluebird. Go here to read my blog about our time in Burns:
My associate Damon Calderwood and I managed to get into trouble a second time but this time it in Oliver, British Columbia, under the Migratory Bird Conventions Act and the Species At Risk. I was shocked to learn that the maximum monetary fines under these federal statutes were a staggering $250,000. We ended up being charged with 3 different offenses over three consecutive days all stemming from the one incident – resulting in 9 charges against each of us in total. Combined it was 18 charges for a maximum total against two individuals of $4,500,000. No birds died. Go here to read my blog about Damon, my wife Tina, and my time in the Okanagan in 2007:
Below is a link to the Justice Departments 450 page prosecution package and below that the link to the 9 criminal charges all stemming from the photography of the chats:
I wrote my memoirs ‘The Boy from Renfrew Ramblings of a Bird Photographer’ and in it wrote at length about the Yellow-breasted Chat incident in Oliver. This paperback title, 8.5″ x 11″ and a whopping 402 pages, is available for $50 in black and white and $100 in colour.