A “Birder on the Ground” Captures Lovely Behind-the-Scenes Photos of Cornell Hawks

Guest 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.

New Call-to-action
Christine Bogdanowicz“Birder on the Ground” Christine Bogdanowicz’s lovely photos chronicle the lives of the Cornell hawks when they’re off the nest.

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.

Ezra carries prey and flowers, 2014. Photo courtesy of Christine Bogdanowicz.

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.”

A recently fledged and still scruffy E2 perched in one of Cornell’s campus gardens in June 2014. Photo courtesy of Christine Bogdanowicz.

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.”

D2 shortly after leaving the nest, 2013. Photo courtesy of Christine Bogdanowicz.

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.

  • AmyLaytonAmy 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.

Find out more about Christine Bogdanowicz and the Cornell Lab’s Bird Cams program:

Comments

  • Rita Parks (GCR)

    A wonderful well written tribute.. ty Amy (trtldove)

  • Annette Hunt

    Many thanks to Amy and Christine for keeping us connected to our beloved hawks. I check for tweets and photos every day! Wonderful article, Amy. Thank you.

  • Marilyn Zeppetelli

    Thank you Amy for a glimpse into the life of a BOG, and thank you Christine for all your wonderful photos and updates on our beloved hawks!

  • Amy, thank you so much for this article. Because of Christine, who I’ll always think of as BOGette, I’ve become an avid virtual bird watcher this past year. I’m homebound for the most part, but find something new every day–and birds, Red Tailed Hawks in particular, are my primary passion in this lifetime:)

  • Monique Marihugh

    I am Christine’s biggest fan. Thanks Christine for giving me so many hours of joy looking at all your beautiful photos. I wish I had your gift but since I don’t I will continue to be a spectator if not a participant. I look forward to more.

  • Naomi

    Trtldove, your writing is as great as your photos! Thanks for this article about Christine. And, of course, thanks to Christine … and Karel … and …. and … —nleokc

  • Michelle C

    Wonderfully written article Amy! Thank you for sharing with all of us about not only the Hawks, but Christine as well. Look forward to more of your articles!!

  • Dena

    I could never have imagined how immersed I would become this spring. So grateful to the BOGS and moderators. Hope for good lives for all the Es and counting the days until nest watch 2015

  • Nicole Christina

    Yeah for another talented UNH grad! Your photos give me goosebumps.

  • Susan

    Amy – terrific piece on BOGette! Thank you so much for all you both do, write and photograph, to say nothing of Karels and the rest of the Cornell-based community – it is a gift to all of us near and far. Susan (aka PikeCottage)

  • So, so humbling and wonderful to read everyone’s comments, thank you. Amy aka: TRTL is a special lady, that is for sure. I feel very fortunate to be part of our campus BOG team (TRTL, Karel and BOGette, et al) and the entire virtual Bird cam community ;-)

  • Diana Hill

    What an awesome piece!!!!!!!!!!! great tribute to all the Boggers and especially Kareland BOGette!!!

  • Gretchen aka fladogfan

    I keep saying these photographs would make wonderful calendars. Would need to buy several just for gifts.

  • Marco Polo

    Nyock! ;-)

  • Claire Wright

    Just a great big thank you to all who contribute to this wonderful array of articles and pictures which I so enjoy.

  • Amy Layton

    My pleasure – this has all been a life-changing experience for me, and I feel blessed to know all those involved with the hawks, especially Christine, Karel and Bogette. They have taught me so much about this wonderful family of hawks, and the hawks give me a sense of joy that only hawk lovers know!