May
4th 2008
Interview with Bob Lewis, noted local birder

Posted under interview & local birds

Burrowing Owl Photo by Bob Lewis[Burrowing Owl at Berkeley’s Cesar Chavez Park; photo by Bob Lewis]

We have a special treat today: a brief interview with a top local nature person. I’m going to try to make this a regular thing, perhaps every month, if interview subjects are willing. In this case, the top local nature person is Bob Lewis. Bob is a board member of the Golden Gate Audubon Society; an excellent bird photographer; and a very knowledgeable local birder. He runs the very useful local birding website wingbeats.org, and he a lot of great bird photos on flikr. Read on for the interview, including some tips on great local birding spots, and on bird photography.

1. Our guest today is Bob Lewis. Bob is a board member of the Golden Gate Audubon Society, and an excellent bird photographer. Bob, how long have you been birding, and how did you get started?

Since about 1972, when an Ecuadorian friend studying hummingbirds at Cal (?!, when Ecuador has more hummers than any other country) convinced me to come look at a special bird on a TV antenna in Alameda. It was a Snowy Owl.

2. Is birding your main hobby? Do you build ships in bottles, or train to be the world champion tiddly-winks player?

Yup, and bird photography, and bird-related travel, and teaching birding classes, and some bird-related computer stuff. Cooking, and a little woodworking.

3. Your photo gallery, http://www.flickr.com/photos/boblewis/ has lots of great bird photos. It looks like every time you go out, you get photos that would be among the best bird photos I’ve ever taken.

Any advice for those of us who never seem to get close enough, or end up with motion blur, or who always seem to underexpose birds backlit by the bright sky? For example, on the technical side, do you use a tripod or monopod? A polarizer? Spot metering or program metering or what? As far as composition and timing, how do you get so many photos off birds doing interesting things — I’m looking at a page right now that has a photo of two snow geese landing right next to each other, and one of a northern harrier carrying something while another one follows, and so on. Is this a matter of patience, or anticipating where interesting things will be happening, or what?

Thanks for the nice comments. Digital photography has made the impossible much more possible. But it’s still hard to get a great photo. I try to learn from folks who take pictures I admire. One of my photo friends has taught me to always use a tripod. She’s taught me that about 10 times. But it makes a difference. So does good equipment. I’m hauling around a 500mm Canon lens that weighs a ton, but it’s a lovely lens. Image stabilization available with modern equipment helps a bunch! Taking lots of pictures and then throwing out lots of pictures is a good approach to improving your portfolio! And being in the right place at the right time. Having been a birder for over 30 years helps anticipate what a bird will do – and sometimes helps to pick out the interesting bird from the flock. I usually set the camera wide open on aperture priority, and try to get the shutter speed up quite a bit (1/1000th) by increasing the ISO to maybe 800 if necessary. And overexpose a stop or so if the sky is bright. I’ve played with spot metering, but have kind of settled on programmed metering now. For flight shots, I often use Canon’s 100 – 400 zoom. It’s possible to get sharp images hand held.

4. I know you sometimes bird at the Lake Merritt channel in Oakland, and at the Berkeley Meadow (now part of Eastshore state parks). What are some other good areas? Do you have any favorites? Could you share, say, your top three local spots for water birds, and your top three for upland birds?

I love Hayward Shoreline and MLK Regional Shoreline for water birds. The are at Hayward called Frank’s Dump is great for shorebird photography in the afternoon if the tide is right. And the end of Grant Avenue in San Leandro is good. And how could you not like Bodega Bay? For land birds, I live close to Tilden, and it’s nice take a walk to Jewel Lake in the morning. Sunol Regional Park is super, but a bit far from Berkeley; Briones (entering from Bear Valley Road) is also good. But I think my favorite place for upland birds is EBMUD’s Upper San Leandro Reservoir, from the Valle Vista staging area. You can get a permit to enter the area at the Tilden Nature Center.

Thanks for the tips on birding sites and on bird photography, Bob! And thanks for being the first of my interviewees. Let’s give Bob a big hand! Bob Lewis, everyone! [crowd goes wild].

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