Beyond the Farm: "Why Birds?," Becky Richardson on Birding and Photography
It is hard paying attention these days, not least because we have so little of that precious currency to spare. The pandemic, by shifting and intensifying everyday life's demands, has thrown our intersecting economies of attention into disorder. Maybe some of us feel mired in a deficit that seems impossible even to reduce. At such times, any investment of one’s attention in something truly worthwhile—a new skill or hobby, and especially one that brings joy to others—deserves to be celebrated. Such is the case with Becky Richardson’s recently discovered love of birding and photography, the joy-inducing power of which is apparent from samples of her work featured below. I recently had the pleasure of corresponding with Becky about her newfound hobbies and what they signify for her outlook in the time of COVID-19.
Can you tell us a bit about how you got into photography?
Becky: In spring 2020, like a lot of people, I kept taking the same walks over and over. I’d bike from my studio in Palo Alto to the Baylands and then walk around the long looping trails. The one thing that would change, from one walk to another, was the birds. And it suddenly seemed crucial to learn the names of them all. I started with the Merlin app on my phone, but it was difficult to identify birds from long distances. So then I bought a pair of binoculars. Which was incredible – a whole other scale of world to see – but the image would start to slip from me as soon as I went from the binoculars to the Merlin app. It’s tough to hold onto the details – were there stripes on the wings? Was the head sort of blocky? And that’s when my sister sent me a camera with a zoom lens. She had just upgraded her camera, and she’d been trying to figure out what to get me for my birthday. I don’t tend to love learning new devices, so I was skeptical at first. But my sister assured me that I could just keep it on auto mode, basically pointing and shooting. And I did, and I loved it – this was what I’d wanted: to be able to return to images later, look at them more closely, and bother my sister for help making identifications! I’m still a complete beginner when it comes to all things technical, but I’m slowly learning how to expand from fully auto to (at least!) adjusting for how fast something is moving, or how sunny the day is.
What do you most enjoy about taking pictures?
Becky: I love taking the camera with me while hiking. Even though I’m now using a heavier set-up, I’ll typically hike with it at the ready. I get a little superstitious about where to go on each trip, and then which trail to take – like, is this where the nature is today? There’s something about being alone in the woods or on a ridge top and encountering wildlife – bird, bunny, or bobcat – and trying to just be in the vicinity without interrupting or scaring anyone off. Some peak experiences have been with a screech owl who was napping in a tree hollow, a bobcat who seemed to feel we were at a comfortable distance and just sat and rested for a while, and hummingbirds so enthralled in their own drama of chasing off marauding hummers from their flowering bushes – that they didn’t even seem to register that I was there. That’s the dream!
Does photography give you anything that you carry into other facets of your life? If so, could you describe what that is?
Becky: I remember watching a birding documentary on PBS years ago that tried to answer “why birds?” They noted that no matter where you live, in the city or country, you’re likely to hear and see birds every day – the birds living around your block, or along your commute, or around where you work. Even when I don’t have my camera with me, I’m more likely to engage with my surroundings now. I used to prioritize finding new hiking trails to take – vs. revisiting familiar preserves – but now I’m better able to appreciate the value of deeply knowing a place. I like knowing where a great egret sometimes hangs out, where the hummingbirds perch, and where the harriers are likely to glide over the hills. I think birding and photography have helped me appreciate that there’s always a reason to take that same trail again – and to get a glimpse into the more-than-human life going on all around us.
How might you describe photography or birding to some interested listener who has never tried it?
Becky: Photography – maybe especially with a zoom lens – seems to open up another scale of experience. It’s the chance to see what was too small or too far away, or what was moving too quickly. I love that it opens up the time scale of looking. Whenever I return from a session, I do an initial scan of the photographs I took, and it’s that extra chance to catch what I missed. One of the first photographs I took with a zoom lens was of – I thought – a flock of mallards. But upon going through the images, I realized there was actually a juvenile black-crowned night heron in the bunch that I’d missed. It’s like getting to take the walk all over again!
Matthew: Becky’s photographs, and her generosity of spirit in curating them, have been a source of uplift for me during this Winter Quarter. Besides bringing the delight that comes with discovering another facet of our esteemed colleague, this interview has inspired me to think differently about my own relationship to the quotidian. Whether peering through binoculars or a zoom lens, or trusting to my own eyesight, I find myself wanting to notice things more, differently, better. I look forward to exploring other scales of experience.