Photos, Friends and Nature as a Way of Life

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The Wild About Outdoor Learning Society will be highlighting a number of ways that you can #getOUTdoors and #getINvolved in your community.  Vancouver, British Columbia offers access to a wide range of outdoor experiences.  Unfortunately some of these experiences come at a high cost and are inaccessible for some people to participate on a regular basis.  Ruby Best has come up with a way to get out in nature regularly and staying active with a group of like-minded people for the cost of the camera that you select.

Ruby has always been interested in photography. In the past, she photographed mostly people and places.   This changed due to a friendship with an artist who photographed birds as studies for her paintings. The two of them would go out once a week to find birds to photograph.  They started off with backyard birds common the Vancouver Lower Mainland such as chickadees, juncos, robins, sparrows, and hummingbirds. The day Ruby saw a photo of a barred owl, that changed. She was in love.  She was determined to “catch” a barred owl on her camera. This process led her into an owl inquiry and a fascination with “all things raptor”!

When her friend became ill and could no longer go out birding, Ruby felt vulnerable going into desolate areas by herself.   Her desire to continue to develop her nature photography skills and seek out raptors led her to consider her options. Many years working as an Administrative Assistant at the British Columbia Teacher’s Federation left her with well-developed organizational skills and strong people skills.

Ruby set out to find a like-minded person to go birding with her.  The process she followed evolved over time. Now it provides a great model for other people wanting to form interest based groups to pursue their learning, make friends and get out into nature for both physical fitness and mental health.  She has been able to share some great ideas about how she got started and things to consider when organizing a group.

Social media has played a key role for Ruby’s formation of her group.  She joined a Facebook Birding Group Page when she first got interested in birds.  Another person who had been a professional photographer in India, posted that he was interested in a birdwatching partner.  Ruby responded to his inquiry on this page and Mann became Ruby’s new birding buddy.  The common interest in birds and photography was a bonus and fed both of their enthusiasm.  Mann has  won awards in National Geographic for some of his nature shots.  He also developed his photography skills doing professional portraits of pregnant woman and action shots of children in India.   His photography expertise helped Ruby to hone her photography skills.  Ruby’s background knowledge about local birds and the places to find them was helpful for Mann.

Nextdoor, is a social networking APP to support community building in neighbourhoods. Some people sell their couches or share information about local businesses. Ruby formed a special interest group called “Wildlife Photography” and invited people to post their photographs of B.C. wildlife. By this time her and Mann’s interests had expanded to include other local wildlife in their photography expeditions, like the bear and deer in Minnekhada Park. Ruby invited members of this group to join her and Mann on their ventures. Forty people joined the Nextdoor special interest group. Two recently retired, novice photographers signed up to go birding with Ruby and Mann.

At that point, the group started to grow via word of mouth.  Another friend and colleague of Ruby’s from the British Columbia Teacher’s Federation joined the group to be out in nature.  She didn’t bring along a camera, but she did bring along her enthusiasm, then her granddaughter, and then another friend to join the group.

Ruby monitored e-bird, a free resource to select good places to see interesting birds and the times to site them. Many others birders do the same thing. Ruby’s group frequently show up at spots where other photographers have gathered looking for a specific bird. Ruby learned that there are many types of birders. Some are committed to being silent observers in the bird’s habitat and strive to be unobtrusive while taking their photos. Some people like her buddy Don, prefer to go birding alone but are generous about sharing information about sightings. Ruby keeps in touch with him and he shares rare bird and owl sightings frequently. Some birders are reluctant to share information about bird sightings until they know you better. This is partially because large groups of photographers scare the birds away. Also, some birders will be very disruptive in the birds’ habitat to get the best photographs. Ruby reports having seen people shake trees to wake up owls or shine flashlights on them. This is perceived as not only intrusive but unethical in birding circles.

Many faces have become familiar. Photographers gravitate to Ruby’s group. They are attracted by the friendly demeanor of the group members who are often willing to share finds and engage in conversations about birds and photography.  Some of these people have expressed interest in joining the group.

Participating in this group has also opened other possibilities for the photographers. A few of the group members joined a photography group at a Community Centre in East Vancouver. Ruby and Colin are now submitting their own photos to competitions through the Lion’s Gate Photo Club. Mann continues to submit and win competitions internationally. Anabelle submitted several photos to the Wildife-in-Focus Contest and BCSPCA selected her seagull photo to featured on a T-shirt for sale on the BCSPCA website.

Photo by Annabelle Wee

At this point the group has grown to ten people and the group has decided this is the maximum size. When new members were accepted into the group, they were added to a What’s App Group. Meeting spots and times are posted. Photos and sightings are shared. People choose to show up at a designated spot at a particular time, or not. Some people are interested in participating once a week, others attend several times per week, and others daily. Some days the groups are bigger and sometimes two people venture off to make a new discovery.

In Ruby’s words:

“Birding is addictive. Just when you think you’ve seen them all, another rare bird or raptor shows up. Birding keeps us moving which is better than being sedentary, and it keeps our minds alert. Being out in the fresh air amongst the trees, rivers, oceans, lakes, and seeing different types of wildlife has a very therapeutic effect. I always thought I would have a difficult time making new friends when I retired but since birding, I’ve made so many new like-minded friends.

Together we have seen great-horned owls, barred owls, saw-whet owls, barn owls, long-eared owls, and snowy owls. I never knew that there were so many different owls here and there are still some that I have not seen. We have gone all the way to Chilliwack in search of the elusive pygmy owl.  We’ve seen rare birds to this area such as the scarlet tanagers, indigo buntings, snow buntings, Tropical King birds, acorn woodpeckers, and leucistic/albino barred owl.   We’ve gotten out of bed up at 5:30 am in the middle of winter to search for snowy owls in Iona and nearly froze our butts off. We’ve waited at dusk on the Boundary Bay dykes to see the barn owls and short-eared owls hunt for voles in the marsh. We are no longer just photographing birds and raptors but also other wildlife such as marmots, bears, and bobcats.

I’m learning to be a better wildlife photographer too, through seeing photos taken by the more experienced photographers.  My first camera was a Nikon point and shoot but once I got into taking photos of birds, but I needed a bigger zoom lens so I could watch birds from a distance and not scare them away.  I have now graduated to a Nikon P1000 with a 3000 mm zoom lens that is perfect for taking snap shots of birds a great distance away.  My full-frame Nikon D850 with a Nikkor 200-500 mm lens has allowed me to further develop my camera skills and win some prizes.   Of course, the skilled photographers in the group have taught me that amazing photos are a result of the talent and skill of the person behind the camera.

Through birding I have also learned to observe and appreciate BC’s diverse wildlife from a distance without causing harm or disturbing them. I also have more interest now in preserving the habitat of endangered species such as the spotted owl.”

Ruby has some recommendations for you to consider when starting a group like this.

  1. Think about the purpose and size of group you would like to form.
  2. Consider the kind of ethical behaviour you want to see on the birding trail and invite like-minded people to attend.
  3. Include a list of reminders for people.

For example:

  • Don’t forget a water bottle and packed lunch.
  • Don’t wear red or other bright colours because it scares away the birds.
  • Be very clear if there are specific requirements for being part of the group.  For example:  Well behaved dogs are welcome to attend the group with the owner if our destination allows dogs onsite.  For example, Reifel Bird Sanctuary does not allow dogs onsite, whereas North 49 doubles as a dog walking park.

This group has some obvious benefits.  The people in the group are retired and available during the day.  They are regularly outdoors walking, stopping to notice nature around them, developing their interests, honing their skills, and developing a friendship group.   All of these are positives in terms of physical health, mental health, and investment in preservation of nature.  They #getOUTdoors and #getINvolved

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