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The Man Behind the Lens: Chuck Carney & His Favorite Bird Photos

We sat down with Chuck Carney, a frequent sight on any Spark Birding field trip. Behind Chuck’s gigantic lens is a modest, affable nature enthusiast. His interest in birdwatching came later into his adult life, an outgrowth of his international travel for business.

Q: When did your interest in photography start? Was there a moment when you got hooked on this?

Chuck: When our kids were young, I decided to invest in a good camera to record their sports activities. Then I started doing more nature photography and took an interest in sunsets. I tried to play with the light and see how it came into play with different types of cloud cover. I bought bigger and bigger equipment, then started trying birds and landscapes. So it kind of evolved after the kids were born.

Q: You did a lot of travel in your career. How is it that you were able to make photography part of your agenda?

Chuck: I was in corporate America for a long time and that took me to over 50 countries. I took my camera with me and took whatever pictures I could get. I started carving out a half a day, a full day, or a couple of days to explore the places and surrounding nature and started focusing on the birds. I especially sought out unusual birds or endemics. That's when I became obsessed with seeing and photographing birds.

Q: Travel took you to the country with the most bird species in the world. And you are proud of this photo. Why?

Chuck: This is a Timanou. It’s an extremely shy bird. It that doesn't like to come out of the woods. I was in a bird blind and waited probably for over an hour. The Timanou lives in dense forests and their nests are found at the base of big trees. I was in a birding hotspot near Manizales.

Q: What's the story behind this one?

Chuck: I was down in Virginia looking for to get a Virginia Rail. But I saw this Carolina Wren. I saw it hopping up a tree and getting ready to fly. I have high frames per second and just tracked him across. I didn't realize I had the shots until I got back to the computer and was so pleased with the results.

Q: The colors in birds are amazing, but hard to capture. This one really stands out for You've got bird photos that show their color. Talk about this species and why it's hard to photograph.

Chuck: This is a Yellow Warbler. I’m from Arlington and this was actually taken right down the street. I was in a bird blind, kind of trying to disguise myself and just waited and focused on this branch. This one landed on the branch and I got him just in time.

Q: And you've gone to other places around the country to see birds. How did this one come about?

Chuck: I so much wanted to see a Sandhill Crane. I was driving back from California and decided to got o New Mexico to Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge near San Antonia. I tried and tried and didn't see any. That happens more than you realize. Then back in Massachusetts, I heard that there were some down near Plymouth. I went down there. I must have walked six miles in the freezing cold. The first day nothing. Second day went back and there they were. That’s how I was able to get this shot which I really like.

Q: What's this bird and what happened here?

Chuck: This is a Great White Egret. I saw this one poised to catch something. I started locking in on him In not even two minutes he took action. He grabbed the fish and I got the whole cycle of him grabbing the fish thrown up in the air and then that swallowing it. This is the kind of in the middle of that sequence. I kind of like it because you can see the poor fish's eye. It's kind of like a Mr. Bill effect going on there.

Q: This one is stunning. It’s of a bird that is really special up here by the Ocean in winter. Tell us about the moment.

Chuck: So this is near the Parker River. I was in a blind waiting with the hope to see a Snowy Owl. I put on a huge teleconverter so is that 1200 millimeter range. It was able to get him in fairly sharp detail. But what I like is that the depth of field is fairly narrow so you have a soft background. Even though that's Ipswich it's completely blurred and you just have this great colorful striation between the blue and the purple that I think stands out. So yeah, this one this one was one of the favorites

Q: This is an exotic bird. What is it and how did you get this photo?

Chuck: This was taken in Brazil, a few hours south of Sao Paulo. I was at this small little birding lodge with staff that didn't speak any English or Portuguese. I'm inside one early afternoon having lunch and the owner comes rushing into the room. He's making all kinds of noise and we rushed out and we saw this Blond-crested Woodpecker. You know it must have been it must have been rare because this owner has seen everything, For him to get excited about something that means it must have been must have been special. It has this bushy, pointed crest that gives the bird a “big-headed” look.

Q: It’s easy to look at these photos and forget just how hard these moments come by. Can you talk about the patience required to get good bird photography?

Chuck: Yeah, it's true. You have to be patient. You've got to enjoy the solitude and be interested in the nature that surrounds you -- even if there are no birds. I think a big part of being patient is you've got to you've got to enjoy the solitude. You have to be fine just observing what's around you and finding interest in the beauty of the moment. 

Q: What's the longest you've waited to get? An image that you really are happy about?

Chuck: Ah, well, I've gone I've gone a good three hours and not getting an image you know, I wanted to get a way to get this eagle down in Virginia. I was in a blind for three hours and he never showed up. But I would say you know, typically, you know, our two hours in I'll end up you know, getting you know, getting what I came for most of the time especially about winning a blind.

Q: Can you share some of your techniques to get great photos of birds?

Chuck: First, you've got to practice. You got to get very comfortable with failure. There are plenty days that you don't get anything out of thousands of images. If I take 2000 shots in the day and I get three that are good, I'm happy. And it also understanding the equipment and how to use light. I always check the ISO because I've gotten burned by have that too high.

Q: How is it that you came to be involved with Spark birding?

Chuck: On a trip back from California, I went to Bear Creek National Wildlife Refuge in Utah. I was waiting for the park to open and another car pulled up with Massachusetts plates on. The guy asked me from where I was from in Massachusetts. It turned out to be Rich McGeogh, a friend of Peter Alden. After that trip, he was out on a birding trip with Peter and invited me and that's when I first met Peter at Salisbury Beach. Now, every time I go on a Spark trip I learn so much about birds, nature, and even about flora. Then there's the entertainment factor -- the stories that Peter tells and the way that he tells them. To put it into such an entertaining context makes it makes it more appealing to me.

Q: So Chuck, is there a particular bird that was your “spark”, that really got you excited to keep at it?

Chuck: I think it was it was Harlequin. I was at Halibut Point to get a sunset photo. And these other photographers gave me a tip where they saw some harlequins. So I changed lenses, got the zoom lens out, and went over on the granite rocks. And I got the shot of the three tumbling harlequins. I had never seen a bird that was so colorful and different. So yeah, I got this one. I liked how colorful they were, clownish looking, and the multi colors. Then I knew there's a whole world of these types of things out there that I want to go explore.


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