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Learning To Love Bird Photography, Thanks To A 'Competitive Collaboration'

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A male vermillion flycatcher perches atop an open branch on one of the many charred mesquites on our land, La Isla.
Gemina Garland-Lewis

A male vermillion flycatcher perches atop an open branch on one of the many charred mesquites on our land, La Isla.

Photographer and explorer, Gemina Garland-Lewis has always been drawn to nature and wildlife. Garland-Lewis takes us through her journey of growing to love bird photography alongside her partner on their land, nicknamed "La Isla," in Baja California Sur, Mexico.

As I sit with my back against a charred, fallen palm tree, I can't help but hear my mother's words in my head: "I hope you don't like birds now just because of a guy." My eyes alert as I scan for various woodpeckers and sparrows, camera in hand, and I wonder if there may be some truth in what she said.

I've been a photographer since I was 12 and have been deeply curious about the natural world and its creatures since about the time I could crawl. I have two degrees in conservation biology-adjacent fields. I've happily spent six hours of my day staring at the light changing on a glacier without ever feeling an ounce of boredom or impatience. But, birds? I've always appreciated them, but they never made me tick.

It was May of 2020 when my mother spoke those words about me liking birds because of a guy. The bird in question was a Wilson's warbler, spotted in my front yard in Seattle, and the guy was my partner, Hiroshi.

The following month, amid the turbulences and uncertainties of the global pandemic, I had lost all my work as a photo instructor and a naturalist. I arrived at the Loreto International Airport in Baja California Sur, Mexico, to live with Hiroshi, Hiro for short, in the small town of San Ignacio. His family has been here for generations and he bought land next to them 4 years ago, but it wasn't until COVID-19 hit that the opportunity to start building the dream for the land really presented itself.

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Sandwiched between two arroyos, our land is to some extent manmade. Known as "La Isla" for its prominence, which although naturally occurring, was given a boost with the help of many men years ago who piled dirt on top of dirt and removed an untold thousands of rocks along the way to make the land more suitable for agriculture — all for the pay of less than 5 pesos a day. La Isla covers close to 4.5 acres that were once filled with hundreds of orange trees, a lush desert orchard fed by water from the traditional irrigation practice of community-managed acequias.

Fast forward to November, my back against the charred palm. Above me, a male vermilion flycatcher keeps landing on a small mesquite branch. I raise my camera and focus, making as little movement or sound as possible. I look to my left and I see Hiro focusing on the same flycatcher from his hideout about 40 feet away. It's Day One of what I'm calling our collaborative competition. We'd already been keeping track of the birds we were seeing with the help of a checklist from Avibase for Baja California Sur (a mere 462 bird species for this state alone) and The Sibley Field Guide to Birds of Western North America.

The day prior, Hiro had gone out with his camera to help build his confidence to identify warblers that often flit away before we can get a close look with the binoculars. After only about an hour, he returned with 14 bird species photographed. As we scrolled through the images on his LCD screen, for whatever reason — be it a competitive streak, a need for an accountability buddy or my inherent love of making lists and then checking things off — I got the spark of inspiration I needed. Bird photography, here I come.

We woke early on our first day of collaborative competition. It was cloudy, which was strange for our skies, and I almost bailed without the usual soft warm light. But Hiro nudged me on, and as I folded over in half to fit myself through an opening in the barbed wire fence that marks our property line, I spotted a loggerhead shrike atop one of the many old burned desert-loving mesquite trees. Soon after, a Gila woodpecker flitted past and landed on a nearby branch. When I turned to move places slightly, I accidentally scared up a group of common ground doves who kept low to the ground as they scattered in flight. The list went on until an hour later I had photographed 15 species.

By the end of that weekend, we'd photographed 27 species. A week later, that number rose to 42. Light, action and timing all have us vying for a better shot than the last time around. We've learned that some of it is just being in the right place at the right time, but you also have to know something about what those might be.

I'll admit, we're in a bit of a good place for birding. Sitting almost dead center on the Baja peninsula, San Ignacio is a genuine desert oasis. Bordering the Vizcaino Biosphere Reserve, its freshwater springs mean that you can see aquatic bird species here you would never think to identify with the Sonoran Desert. Conversely, it took me a good few months of being here before seeing a turkey vulture — a species I have always exclusively associated with the desert — flying among palm trees — a species I have always exclusively associated with ocean-adjacent tropics — seemed at all normal. There is certainly something of a cognitive dissonance here in birding because of the local ecology, which makes it a fascinating and unusual place to undertake our little project. Sometimes, even the double-crested cormorants will fly in from the ocean and take a perch on a fallen log in the freshwater.

At first, our goal was simple enough: identify as many species as possible. We're working towards operating our own natural history and photography trips in the area, so it seemed like a good catalog to have to entice future potential guests. But as I sat there that first morning, watching and waiting for my window with the birds, I let the calm and quiet wash over me.

I looked at Hiro, appreciating the feeling of doing something together yet at the same time alone. Slowly but surely, I found that I was starting to recognize birds just by how they fly, something I knew in theory but hadn't internalized. It's incredible how much you can learn from observation alone. When we see turkey vultures gathering above, we now know to look for a lone zone-tailed hawk among them mimicking the scavenger birds' flight, camouflaged despite its smaller size and brightly banded tail. The more we observe and photograph, the more we know what to look for the next time.

Hiro and I are inspiring each other without particularly meaning to, and learning something new about the nature around us every day in the process. And so, perhaps there is some truth in my mother's words after all. I do like birds because of a guy. But that's only part of it. I'm out there with my camera by myself just as much as I am out there with him. I'm finding that I like the stillness and the need to be in the present moment that I've found our project requires of me. And I suppose it's never too late to be a late bloomer.

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