A “Birder on the Ground” Captures Lovely Behind-the-Scenes Photos of Cornell HawksGuest post by Amy E. Layton
August 13, 2014
When I sidled up to Christine Bogdanowicz on the Cornell University campus in the spring of 2013, I felt like a stalker. I had been admiring her camera gear from afar, watching as she feverishly snapped pictures of Big Red and Ezra—the two adult Red-tailed Hawks of the Cornell Lab’s Bird Cams project—like paparazzi hot on the trail of a celebrity. Ignorant of the world of photography I shyly asked what kind of camera she had. She smiled and tipped her equipment toward me. “My husband just bought me this,” she said proudly and quickly demonstrated how her Canon EOS 7D worked. Then she was off and running after a hawk—camera gear jostling behind her—her long, wavy, ponytail blowing in the wind like a tail feather.
I met her again in 2014, just as the hawks’ nesting season got underway, to talk about her hobby and how two hawks have unknowingly changed her life.
Students at Cornell’s Shoals Marine Laboratory know Bogdanowicz as the Assistant Director for Academic Programs, but in the world of Bird Cams watchers, she has a strong following as unofficial photographer of the hawk family and one of the main BOGs, or “Birders on the Ground.” The BOGs are a dedicated group of local, volunteer hawk enthusiasts, most of whom work on the Cornell campus. They follow the birds in their spare time and report back to the wider Bird Cams community. Viewers wait in anticipation for the next round of Bogdanowicz’s breathtaking snapshots of Big Red, Ezra and their brood taken outside the eye of the nest cam. She captures intimate moments off the nest with incredible detail—like Ezra flying back to the chicks, a snake twisted in his talons, and a small pink flower intertwined with the prey.
For BOGs, the real action begins after the young hawks fledge and the Bird Cams chat closes. Without a daily dose of live hawk viewing, the audience longs to see how the fledglings grow and learn to hunt. What’s it like to be in such demand? “Fun,” she laughs. “I enjoy it immensely…. It’s a way to educate people in so many different walks of life in so many different stages of life… and give back what I have learned in my experiences.
Following the real-life adventures of a wild bird family isn’t always easy. In 2013, two young hawks, apparently from Big Red’s and Ezra’s nest, died shortly after fledging in separate mishaps. The news devastated the Bird Cams community. Viewers had faithfully watched the nestlings’ lives from the beginning, sparking a debate about whether the hawk family was being anthropomorphized too much. Bogdanowicz thinks not. “Whether you are connecting with the hawks or a stray dog I don’t think humanizing is a bad thing. I think that any way people can connect with the natural world is a good thing.” She admits the fledglings’ demise affected her, too. “I was a mess. It really hit me hard because we develop such an attachment. We see them every day, we hear them every day. But I think that it is all part of life and it is an experience I will keep in my heart and take with me and remember and learn from.”
In 2014 those feelings resurfaced when “E3,” the youngest of the year’s fledglings, injured its wing just one day after leaving the nest. The young hawk had perched on a motorized greenhouse vent which caught the bird’s wing as it closed—one of the many unnatural hazards urban hawks encounter. Fortunately, BOGs were nearby to sound the alarm and take E3 to Cornell’s Janet L. Swanson Wildlife Health Center, where he received surgery and is still recovering. (You can find updates on E3 at our Bird Cams Facebook page.)
A massive outpouring of support and donations from viewers for E3’s rehabilitation demonstrated the community’s dedication to the hawk family. “I was broken-hearted along with the entire hawk community the day E3 was injured,” says Bogdanowicz. “None of us know how this story will end—will he be set free—will he become an educational bird? Either way, my heart is now very, very happy that he’s alive and being cared for by the best of the best here at Cornell.”
She credits two mentors, Anne Gilbert and Art Borror, for her love of photography and birds. Gilbert, a teacher and friend, bought Bogdanowicz her first “real” camera in high school and fostered her love of the outdoors and photography. Borror, a favorite professor Bogdanowicz studied under at University of New Hampshire and Shoals, helped her develop as a naturalist, which she credits with helping her photos. “Studying your subject without the camera is really key,” she says. “I think having knowledge of bird behavior is actually critical in being able to take any kind of picture of birds.”
Free-spirited and compassionate, Bogdanowicz has always felt a strong connection to the natural world. Supported by family and her husband, Steve (a research biologist at Cornell) on her journey, she often gains life lessons from the creatures that cross her path. “It helps put a lot of perspective on life in general—getting out and enjoying every day, trying not to worry about stuff people worry about,” she says.
So what kind of bird does she liken herself to? “An albatross,” she declares (besides watching the hawks, she spent some time this year watching the Cornell Lab’s Laysan Albatross cam). “They are eternally devoted to their mate and family, long-lived and world travelers. Goofy on land, but that’s sort of the way I am too.” To see her dash across campus, camera and tripod in hand, toward that next great shot, you never would have guessed.
- Amy Layton is a New Jersey native who has lived in Cayuga County, New York, for the past 6 years. She works for Weill Hall Facilities at Cornell University. An amateur photographer, she is a BOG herself. She spends her free time snapping pictures of the Cornell hawk family and is known as “Trtldove” to the Cornell Lab’s hawk cam community.