If it weren’t for passionate people, this would be a dull world indeed.
Peter Cavanagh, of Lopez Island, certainly qualifies in the passionate category, having taken 600,000 photos in the past 13 years of birds all over the world, from Botswana to the Galápagos Islands.
You could trim that 600,000 figure because to catch the birds just right he uses a high-speed mode on his cameras. That still means he’s nearly filled up a 20 terabyte hard drive (“tera” stands for trillion), with three more such drives he keeps for backup at different locations.
Cavanagh, 73, is a retired professor in the University of Washington orthopaedics and sports medicine department. He minored in math and is an instrument-rated pilot. His photos mostly capture birds in flight, not on a perch.
That’s the fascination: grace layered over complexity.
“I have a sense of wonder at flight because it is the most highly complex form of locomotion in the entire animal kingdom,” says Cavanagh. “Humans have spent more than six centuries trying to emulate bird flight but have still not produced flying machines with all of the complexity, flexibility and performance that is commonplace for birds.”
He remembers how it all started.
Newly arrived to the Pacific Northwest, on a January morning in 2009 he visited the Skagit Valley, renowned for its tulips and birds.
“The multisensory blast of thousands of snow geese, swans and raptors shaped my direction for the next decade,” he remembers.
He has gotten recognition from the National Audubon Society, which selected him three times for the Top 100 Bird Photographs of the Year.
And he’s got a book coming out with 100 of his best bird photos; he has made presentations at such venues as The Museum of Flight and the National Museum of Mathematics in New York.
For birds, the math of it all just happens. A small bird such as the American kestrel, the smallest falcon in our region at about 4 ounces, sits and waits for prey. The kestrel is not picky — insects, mice, snakes.
Explains The Peregrine Fund on its website, “Kestrels, like a few other birds of prey, are very good at hovering. With the help of a good headwind, kestrels can flap their wings vigorously and maneuver their tail to stay in one spot, like a helicopter in mid-air, while searching the ground for prey … When you see kestrels in flight, notice how their wings, tail feathers, heads, bodies and even feet all change shape and direction to help this amazing bird achieve such aerial feats.”
Meanwhile, to achieve flight, a 90-ton commercial jet is jammed with electronics and computer systems.
“Birds have flying abilities we have not come close to matching in airplanes,” says Cavanagh.
That’s why his book is titled, “100 Birds in Flight: Photographing the Mechanics of Flight.”
He is so taken by the math of bird flight that he gets pinged every time a research paper on the subject is published. It turns out aviation engineers are plenty interested in the subject.
The Royal Aeronautical Society in London, in a January 2021 posting, told how researchers at the University of Denmark did computer design of a Boeing 777 wing based on a bird’s wings. It was 5% lighter, which matters in fuel costs.
In 2019, Airbus produced a “Bird of Prey“ design that mimicked the eagle’s wing and tail structure for flight control.
Cavanagh enjoys every minute of waiting, and waiting, and waiting, starting at sunrise to snap those images.
Two years ago he was in Kruger National Park in South Africa. He spotted a Goliath heron, named that because it can be 5 feet tall, with a wing span of more than 7 feet.
“I was stunned by it. By hook or crook I was going to get a flight shot. It was 10 in the morning, and I was in an open safari vehicle. I waited for five hours for this bird to fly,” says Cavanagh. It was the middle of the day and sweltering hot. The heron didn’t move.
The next day, Cavanagh returned. “After waiting 30 seconds I got the photo, a fantastic shot,” he says.
Cavanagh’s images show birds frozen in midflight, birds coming for a pinpoint landing, birds of astounding rainbow colors spreading their wings majestically.
He has a philosophy about all that anticipation.
“I pass the time thinking of it as a contest of wills between the bird and me,” he says. “The bird doesn’t want to fly unless there is a potential food reward and I really want the bird to fly.”
Happiest in wild places
Cavanagh knows very well how to apply himself. Before the UW, he taught at Penn State University and the Cleveland Clinic. His research work includes 30 years with NASA reducing bone loss during long-term space travel. Cavanagh says astronauts landing on Mars might get bone fractures just from everyday tasks. In his research, he showed exercises being done in space conditions didn’t help; he believes “pharmaceutical solutions” will be needed.
He’s also published more than 200 papers and holds nine patents, including one of the early exercise computer tracking devices. That was for Puma sneakers in 1986, in which a device in the shoe would tell a computer speed, distance and stride.
But now, says Cavanagh, “I am happiest in truly wild places where the human is a tolerated guest that is the domain of wild animals.”
A sequence of a bald eagle landing on a tree near Cavanagh’s home, showing the wings stretched to slow down the speed of approach, and the gradual deployment of the feet into a grasping position.
Getting the images does take a physical toll.
Cavanagh has had two shoulder surgeries, and says in at least one case, it was likely because of the stress of holding a combined 13 pounds of gear (a $4,500 Canon 1D X camera and a $12,000 15-inch-long monster Canon 500 mm lens) for hours at eye level. He now shoots lighter Sony gear mostly from a tripod.
“I know it’s an obsession. Some people gamble, I buy cameras and travel,” he says.
His wife, artist Ann Vandervelde, understands why he needs to lug his photo equipment to Australia, Japan, Peru, Scotland and other faraway places.
“It works for us. We have tended to have separate lives. I tend to be quite a hermit,” she says. At home, they have separate studios for their work.
Not long ago, Cavanagh gave a virtual talk at the math museum.
He showed one of his 600,000 images.
It was of an astounding bird called the wandering albatross. He took the picture while on a former research ship now used for tours to the remote sub-Antarctic South Georgia island. The birds follow the ship to feed on organisms thrown to the surface by the upwelling from the ship’s wake.
According to BirdLife International, this region in the South Atlantic Ocean “holds one of the world’s most abundant and diverse seabird communities, whose total breeding population probably exceeds 30 million pairs.” Cavanaugh had to go there, of course. Twice, in fact.
NASA has studied how the wandering albatross flies could be incorporated into unmanned planes that could fly to study oceans for months at a time. The concept is called “dynamic soaring,” which uses the wind to maintain speed and altitude.
The plane and its long wing borrow from the wandering albatross and its 11-foot wingspan that allow it to fly 600 miles without flapping wings.
For each image in his upcoming book, Cavanagh has written a miniessay.
About birds he photographed in Godthul, a bay in South Georgia island, he writes:
“A wet landing on a rugged, isolated beach is always a supremely exciting moment … As our boots slid down the wall … I decided to concentrate on a pair of Antarctic Terns (a medium-sized seabird) that were patrolling the beach …”
Some might wonder what the big deal is about photographing this rather common-looking bird with the white feathers, black cap and red beak. All the way to the sub-Antarctic?
Well, some people are lucky enough to have a passion.