Father’s Day Reflections of a Nature Photographer

photo of young girl scanning the tree canopy for birds.
Scanning the tree canopy for birds.

Story and photos by Mark Hendricks

“Teakettle, teakettle, teakettle.”

Ah, the joyous song of a Carolina wren serenades me on my back deck. One of my favorite harbingers of spring, I find its song eloquent and welcoming.

On cue, the rhythmic tapping of footsteps pair to the song. “Tap-a-tap-a-tap.” “Teakettle, teakettle, teakettle.” “Tap-a-tap-a-tap.”

“Papa, pajarito (translation “little bird)!” exclaims my two-year-old daughter Liliana, who just absolutely adores birdsong, and continued to tap along to the avian symphony. Later a brilliant male cardinal arrived singing on a low-hanging branch of tulip poplar. Each time the cardinal sings Liliana hops to the sounds.

Photo of a blue jay on a branch.
Blue jay

One month before the COVID-19 pandemic became the new normal, my family and I moved to a home with a patch of protected forest directly facing the back deck. It opened up a whole new world to Liliana, the one of backyard nature. Our neighbors include a small herd of white-tailed deer and it is not unusual for us to see raccoons, the occasional snake, frogs, cottontails, and a rather large groundhog. What has been especially wonderful is that every morning Liliana and I bond over backyard birding and bird photography.

So far we have directly observed over 40 species without leaving the house. Tufted titmouse, red-shouldered hawk, indigo buntings, and black-capped chickadees have become regular sightings. Liliana is quick to point and show her excitement each time a species is in observable reach. We even thought we saw a cerulean warbler for a split second. Liliana finds the song of this spectacular warbler absolutely hilarious. Each time I play her the buzzy “zeet” song she erupts in laughter. My favorite songbird, I cannot wait for the day when she can see her first for sure. I checked eBird after the potential sighting and a male was confirmed the same day a little more than a mile from our home at the nearby park. The quest continues…………

Author's daughter identifying a bird with a book.
Identifying a bird.

Most times I have a camera (or three) with us. When I’m able to photograph one of our backyard birds I immediately show her on the LCD, pairing it with our North American bird guide. It’s been a wonderful learning experience, as I have been able to teach her everything from bird anatomy (“Papa, feathers,” as she points) to various colors. I’m thoroughly convinced the scarlet tanager is the best way to show a child how red the color red can be.

Scarlet tanager
Scarlet tanager

Her love of birds originates from a place where no bird resides, the NICU. In the most stressful time of my life, Liliana was born two months early while my wife and I were 1,200 miles away from home. To make the situation more grave she was a breach and my wife had to have an emergency C-section. Much of the memories of that day are hazy. For the first time in my life, all things wildlife and nature, especially photography, ceased to exist.

She wasn’t supposed to have fully developed lungs but she arrived crying and breathing normally. Her sounds were so sweet, reminding me of the most beautiful bird song, only better.

One day while holding her in the NICU I had Mozart playing in the background. Imagining what it would be like hiking with her in an Appalachian forest I decided to instead play her soundscapes from the mountains. When the birdsong began she immediately responded with head movement and cooing.

Once we brought her home, she was immediately drawn to the robins that sang outside the bedroom window. From there she was quick to follow the sights and sounds of birds on every stroller ride. I also began to incorporate nature photography in her daily regimen. Between readings of Goodnight Moon and LMNO Peas I would make story time about my wildlife photographs.

Carolina chickadee

She’s quite the good luck charm too. When she was a little more than 13 months old we took her on her first Appalachian Trail hike. Within 10 minutes we had our first bear sighting and her very first bear photos. Returning in October we encountered another bear in almost the exact same spot as before.

Now she has commandeered my binoculars and Fuji X100 camera. Well, let’s face it; they’re not mine anymore. No day is complete without scanning the canopy for birds. “Papa, photo, camera, get it, por favor” she commands me in her best Spanglish if I do not grab a camera right away.

“Papa, photo, camera, get it, por favor.”
“Papa, photo, camera, get it, por favor.”

What’s even more incredible is that her baby brother Adrian born this past April (yeah, I know, my wife and I have children during crazy times … ) is now joining in the fun as every day we backyard bird. I figure since my daughter was such a good luck charm for bears maybe my son will help me capture Canada lynx in Maine. Hey, a boy can dream!

It is amazing just how much becoming a parent changes you. I had 35 years of being childless and now I barely remember what that was like, and I’m better for it.

Red-bellied woodpecker

Becoming a father has made me a better photographer, a better naturalist, and a better man. When I embarked on a career in photography and journalism it was mostly for myself. Sure I wanted to share stories of endangered species and wild places so that people would care about them as I did but ultimately it was my path.

Now I do it for my children. I want to instill in them the wonders of the natural world, to cherish life and value the environment. I want the public and non-public lands I document to still be there for them.

Patience is the ultimate virtue for the nature photographer. I have always been a patient photographer; I have no qualm waiting for hours and days in uncomfortable situations. I drive over four hours, round trip, to check on my DSLR camera traps. However, that patience rarely translated to other areas of my life. Because of my children I am more cognizant of the present moment and appreciate slowing down. As everyone always told me (and everyone was correct), they sure do grow fast and I want to embrace every minute of it.

The frustrations that come from navigating the tricky business of nature photography do not bother me as before. Instead, I have more purpose, a deeper drive to keep going and avoid stagnation in my work. After all, I have to lead by example now more than ever.

I am very excited for the future and having more opportunities to combine my family with my nature photography. It simply doubles the adventure. Until then we will continue to scan the canopy for that cerulean warbler.

Happy Father’s Day.

The author, with Liliana and Adrian.
The author, with Liliana and Adrian.

Mark Hendricks is an award-`winning wildlife and conservation photographer, writer, and author working on environmental issues. A former marine mammal biologist and animal rescuer, he turned to using his camera as a storytelling tool for conservation purposes. Current work focuses on the diverse habitats of the Chesapeake Bay watershed. His images and articles have been featured in the Washington Post, Nature Photographer and many other publications and grace the walls of both public and private collections. Mark is an adjunct faculty member at Towson University where he teaches courses in Ethology and Research Methods. Additionally he is a fellow in the International League of Conservation Writers and a member of the ethics committee for the North American Nature Photography Association (NANPA). He is currently at work on his second book about the Central Appalachians in the Chesapeake Bay Watershed.