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Conversation with a Kestrel

Sunday, September 11, 2016

You will doubtless remember the red-winged blackbird, singing out his song in backlit water vapor, that so electrified me in this post.

Bryan Holliday made that image.  Here, he's pictured with a storm-tossed wedge-rumped storm petrel in Mesa, Arizona. I do love a good animal selfie!

photo by Muriel Neddermeyer

I've had the pleasure of corresponding with and finally meeting Bryan when my friend Shila and I traveled to Sedona, Arizona, this past July. As I'd figured, he's a gem, and so is his wonderful girlfriend Kim. Though I'd hoped to do a little birding/hiking/hanging out with Bryan, he was all wrapped up in first-day-of-school preparations for his job as an elementary school science teacher, and I was all wrapped up in Sedona Hummingbird Festival stuff. So Shila, Kim, Bryan and I shared a meal in Phoenix and got to know each other a bit, which of course only made us wish we didn't live so very far away. I asked him if he'd send me another photo story for the blog, and here it is!

I love this image of an American kestrel, hanging out on a weathered fencepost. Several things about this image grab me. First, I never knew that the kestrel's little rufous beanie stood up above the heavenly slate-blue brow amd crown feathers. Too dang much. Second, the hearts running in perfect staggery lines down his flank.  They couldn't be polka dots. They had to be perfect, fat little hearts. Third, the kestrel's look of peace and relaxation. No stress, no fear-sleeked feathers here. He's not about to flee; he's just looking back at Bryan, answering the clicks of the shutter with calm composure. This is a bird who's been approached slowly, with respect, who's been politely asked to stay for a little while and has been given the space to grant that request.

Please, click on the photo so you can see the detail I'm referring to. It's a beaut!!

Here's Bryan's story behind this remarkable photo.

After the red-winged blackbird photo titled “Morning Breath” was awarded First Prize in the Birds category of the National Wildlife Federation annual photo contest, I decided to submit it to a few others.  In the spring of 2009, the image caught the attention of Scott Bourne and the Aperture Nature Photography Workshops.  I was chosen as a finalist for the Emerging Photographer of the Year award and invited to Yellowstone National Park for a four day photo adventure, sponsored by Apple and their Aperture Nature Photography Workshops.  Our group consisted of four professionals and us four chosen amateurs.  We spent mornings and evenings shooting, with lunch and workshops during the afternoon to learn Aperture, which was Apple’s software to rival Adobe Photoshop and Lightroom.  

We all had the greatest time traveling, photographing, and getting to know one another.  We all had different photographic styles and interests, challenging each other to look at everything through fresh eyes.  I was the only bird photographer of the amateurs, sharing this passion with Scott Bourne.  Since I was in a new place with a big lens, I had birds on the mind more than anything.  It was early April, so most of the birds were the residents.  We mostly saw black-billed magpies, common ravens, and Canada geese.  Then I began seeing American kestrels.  They were doing their hovering along the roadsides, looking for prey, and perching on the fence posts bordering the ranch lands.  I kept asking our drivers to stop so I could attempt to photograph one, but every time we did the bird flew away.  If you’ve ever tried to photograph a kestrel, you know what I mean.  They would look so beautiful sitting or hovering there, only to fly away as soon as we slowed down.  After two and half days of this, I was frustrated.  As was everyone else since they were sick of stopping!  It became a running joke.  I kept saying that I just needed to find the one bird that was willing to have his photo taken.  

On the third evening, we all set out to photograph the sunset at some gorgeous spot in the mountains.  But the heavy clouds made me think it would probably be a bust.  Luckily, we drove in multiple cars, because there were more kestrels along the way!  The others were done with this kestrel stuff and went on to the sunset spot.  I was determined to find my bird.  The clouds got even heavier gray.  We kept trolling along, a bird here and a bird there.  Then I spied a beautiful male kestrel on a cool wooden post, his colors rich in the overcast light.  We slowed down and crept toward him along the gravel road.  He stayed put.  I rolled down the window and put my big lens on the door frame, ready for a chance.  We crept even closer.  The bird still stayed.  I took a couple shots and he just sat there!  After confirming my exposure, I said “We’re going for gold”.  For the next few minutes the driver followed my explicit directions to move the car, an inch this way, a couple feet that way, turn left 15 degrees, forward a few more inches, until we were practically sideways in the ditch.  I kept shooting, enjoying the chance to fine-tune the perspective of the bird and the background, which are both equally important for the success of the shot.  Everyone in the car was so into it, they got out the recording equipment and began filming me photographing the bird.  It then turned into an interview for Apple, asking me questions about what I was doing and how I was feeling about the situation, all while I was trying to shoot!  And the bird stayed put!!  

It was a crazy hectic few minutes, which came to an end when the other cars from our group came driving back and flushed the kestrel.  They said the sunset shoot was no good and wondered how we did and why we never made it up there.  We just smiled and laughed and showed them the back of my camera.  Cheers and high fives all around!  

ZICK HERE:    This image delights me for many reasons. First, it was hard-won, the result of several days of trying. Second, although they were in Yellowstone National Park, stuffed with charismatic megafauna like grizzlies and elk, Bryan was holding to his modest bird-seeking goal, to the point of being the butt of everyone else's jokes. But as we saw with Morning Breath, holding to his goal is how he gets the best shots. And in holding to his goal, I believe, he's keeping a vision in his mind of what he's after. And here I'd submit that perhaps that vision in Bryan's mind was powerful enough to have been transmitted and received by the kestrel.

What if the kestrel got a picture from Bryan of himself sitting perfectly still and decided to do just that? Crazy, maybe, but who's to say that didn't happen here? Animals and birds don't think in words; they think in pictures. And I've had enough experiences of my own, with Chet Baker and other wild things, to tell me that they can send pictures to us, and receive them as well.  I've found that mind-pictures send particularly well when my mind is clear of all other clutter; when I'm focused completely on my vision. I'm pretty sure, looking at his work, that Bryan focuses down to a laser point. At that point, if my experience is any judge, he's likely to be transmitting messages to his subjects, whether he means to or not. It's fashionable to call someone who sends and receives messages from animals a "whisperer." However it's done, it's clear to me that something metaphysical passes between those who understand animals, and the creatures they work with.

A little hint in his own words: "I kept saying that I just needed to find the one bird that was willing to have his photo taken." One he could get close enough to connect with, perhaps.  

If you're intrigued by this notion, read Thinking in Pictures: My Life with Autism by Temple Grandin. And her pivotal book, Animals in Translation: Using the Mysteries of Autism to Decode Animal Behavior. Temple Grandin is well-known for giving us a picture of autism from the inside, from one whose mind works differently, and, where interpreting animal behavior is concerned, better than most people's. This is a book I should re-read every few years, to stay in better touch with the creatures I'm privileged to live with, and to better understand my fellow humans who have been grazed, touched, or subsumed by autism.

If you’re interested in purchasing this image, please contact Bryan Holliday for the details to make it happen.  He can be reached at bryanhollidayatgmaildotcom. (I've scrambled it to foil the spambots; just substitute a period for the dot, and an @ for the and, and off you go!)

More of Bryan’s work can be seen on his website at


BREATHTAKING. (And I love Temple Grandin's books!)

I believe that you are right about how we can communicate with other creatures through pictures. I think that some of us are better at it than others because some of us can picture things in our minds, whereas I have heard that some of us can't. I think that belief also plays a part. He undoubtedly held his desire for the bird photo in his mind, but he probably also believed that it would eventually happen. Some people have the desire, but then they put the kibosh on the process by thinking, "Oh, it will never happen!" I'm glad that it worked for him. Beautiful photo of a beautiful bird!

Having banded these spectacular little gems years ago at the top of the Goshute Mountains in Nevada, I've had the rare privilege of seeing them up close and personal. They remain because of that one of my very favorite birds. Thanks for sharing this extraordinary experience. LOVE the picture!

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