3Q: Todd Forsgren
Many ornithologists use mist nets to capture birds briefly to collect key data or ring them before release. Photographer and birdwatcher Todd Forsgren has spent years working with researchers to freeze-frame those moments, now collected in Ornithological Photographs (Daylight Books). He talks about the ethics of mist netting, the challenge of photographing hummingbirds, and upcoming projects such as photographing the lengths we go to to rescue critically endangered species.
Do you think mist netting is ethical?
I do. The moment birds spend in the net seems strange and perilous, but is an important contribution to the gathering of data that is incredibly valuable for conservation. Some people don’t like it as a practice, as there is a low incidence of mortality. In my view it is justified, especially since recent research suggests that incidents of injury are quite low due to rigorous oversight and training of ringers. Exponentially more damage is done per year by outdoor cats or office buildings with their lights left on overnight during migration, and climate change too. (For example, data from the North American Monitoring Avian Productivity and Survivorship (MAPS) programme suggests that bird populations overall are declining, on average, by 1.77% per year.) I’m very proud to say that every bird I photographed was released by the ornithologists with status code 300 – meaning it flew off without any apparent harm. By contrast, John James Audubon and other early ornithological painters would shoot birds out of the sky to make their paintings.
How do you take these avian ‘portraits’, and which is your favourite?
Basically, I very quickly create a photo studio around the bird. I have a white cloth as a background, which an assistant holds behind the bird, and a flash with a soft box on it, to create the right sort of lighting effect and to ‘freeze’ the bird’s motion. All the birds I’ve photographed have been caught in the course of scientific research, and I always defer to the scientist’s judgement: if a species is too sensitive or has been in the net for a while we don’t photograph it. As for a favourite, I think the keel-billed toucan is the most ostentatious of the images — it’s just so colourful and charismatic. I took the photo on a second trip to Costa Rica, on my second-to-last day there; we never managed to catch one on the first trip. The first worm-eating warbler I saw as a young birder was so vivid, that’s always been a special species for me. The hummingbirds are very frustrating to photograph because my depth of field is only an inch or so and they’re often fluttering around quite a bit. You’ve got to work really fast. So the three hummingbirds I photographed are also very special.
What else are you working on?
I’m hoping to ramp up another project centring on wildlife, photographing the great lengths that humanity has gone to in order to alter or restore landscapes to keep critically endangered species alive. I’ve also been photographing US Geological Survey experimental forests in the American West, looking at the infrastructure and traces of scientists working in the landscape. I find that the alterations and evidence of scientific research can be very interesting in and of itself. For example, at H.J. Andrews and Cascade Head Experimental Forests, both in Oregon, researchers have set up long-term log decomposition studies that I’m following. But I also just had my first child, so I imagine I won’t be working on much other than that over the next few months.
Interview by Daniel Cressey, a reporter for Nature in London. He tweets at @DPCressey.
For Nature’s full coverage of science in culture, visit www.nature.com/news/booksandarts.