Monday, October 24, 2011

Book Review: On Feathered Wing

Note:  The images contained in this Book Review were photographed by me, however I was in the company of Richard Ettlinger who has showed me the ropes with respect to photographing birds in flight.  

Richard Ettlinger is one of the most talented bird photographers on the planet, as evidenced by his book "On Feathered Wing".  Richard's work, along with that of six other incredible photographers (David Hemmings, H.K. Hui, Miguel Lasa, Ofer Levy, Jim Neiger and Rob Palmer) amazes the mind and the eyes at what Nature is capable of and what can be captured on camera.  To be able to freeze the action of birds who can casually cruise at speeds upwards of 90 mph (in the case of the Peregrine Falcon) is a task so difficult that many don't try - and for those who do, they quickly wave the white flag.

The book beings with an extremely close encounter the author had with a falcon at a local park near his home.   While the bird whizzed past his head at incredible speeds, that fleeting moment of flight stuck with him for years to come.  He was determined to have a repeat encounter, to stop that bird in its tracks (digitally, that is).  It was this experience that inspired him to always pursue the impossible, to utilize patience and to understand that the bird is the one in control - we are merely witnesses to their extraordinary abilities and evolution.  Ettlinger writes, "You can't find the inner bird unless you find the inner you.  Doing so will allow you to respect your subjects.  Stalking the wild bird definitely won't get you there, so don't think that way.  You won't be stalking anything." 

Ettlinger begins the book with the written word as a preface for the birds who live up to the cliche about a photograph's worth.  He gives a brief breakdown of the birds featured in the book (Killers on the Wing, Wings Along the Shore, Wings of the Wetlands and Songbirds on the Wing) and he discusses the migratory feats of these animals, how they hunt and the different adaptations that fit niches for a diverse group of birds.  His knowledge of his subjects is only matched by his photographic skill and determining where the right time and right place will be.  A birder with more than 20 years experience, Ettlinger is as good at finding birds in their element as a professional fisherman is at locating the biggest bass beneath the lake or where the motherlode of crabs will be along the ocean floor.  That skill is reflected in his images as well as the images of the others who share his love and passion.  I'm willing to bet if you took the avian photographers featured in this book to the coldest continent, they would come back with shots of penguins flapping freely through the freezing air.

The bulk of the book, with almost 175 incredible flight images, is accompanied by a brief description of the specific species, where it was photographed and an interesting fact or two about the bird.  These narratives are kept short purposely as it takes the eye a long time to move down from the stunning image above.  The author points out the influence of birds - and their respective ability to fly - on writers, poets and inventors (where do you think the Wright Brothers got the idea?) through history.  He notes how even before the camera, the poet William Blake appreciated the breathtaking beauty of a bird in the sky, effortlessly floating among the clouds and wispy winds.  Writes Ettlinger, "This book was conceived and created in celebration of birds' mystical genius - a quality that can only be observed while they are off the ground.  Their wings may be made of pretty feathers, but those appendages serve no other purpose than to get them into and through the air."  The act of flight, which we equate with magic and which mesmerizes both the smallest child and the most seasoned senior is simply a way of life, or rather, survival.  It is evolutionarily the same as a humans ability to walk and talk and yet it's so much more.  Man has gone to incredible lengths in pursuit of flight but no matter how hard we try, what contraptions we conceive, what ideas we implement, we still marvel at a bird taking to the sky.  If you have ever had the chance to spend an hour watching birds in the air, you will be amazed.  If you are short on time - take a flip through this book, because it's the next best thing.

Some of the images in this book were featured in an exhibit (under the same name as the book) at the American Museum of Natural History in Manhattan from June 2008 - May of 2011 (it was extended many times due to it's immense popularity).  If you would like to purchase the book (which I highly recommend) click the link below:

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