May 8, 2013

Rick Lewis evokes the phrase, “beauty is in the eye of the beholder.”  Where other people see industry and ugliness, he finds the bright and the beautiful. Where other people see steel yards, he spots great blue herons.  A self-taught photographer whose work has appeared in at least half of the 50 issues of Bay Nature  (including twice on the cover), Lewis’ passion for photographing birds and wildlife took root at the edges of the farmland where he grew up, listening to the songs of mockingbirds and chancing upon coyotes . I spoke with Lewis last week about his life and his work.

BN:  What is your connection with the Bay Area?

Lewis:  I’m originally from Modesto, but my Bay Area connection was established when I attended UC Berkeley to major in English literature; I graduated in 1981.  I’m now the plant manager of several steel facilities, one in Oakland, one in Fontana near Los Angeles, and one in Stockton.  I have a home in Alameda as well as one in Southern California, so I’m back and forth regularly.

I decided to stay here because of my early work experiences.  It’s hard not to notice natural features that you’re on the periphery of.  I was working at a steel yard by the Oakland estuary and saw black -crowned night herons, Forster’s terns, great blue herons and great egrets. We had a loading dock and the birds would just land there.

While working in the steel business, I grew to love Oakland and the Bay Area, particularly Alameda.  When I’m here, I feel like I’m on vacation.  I live fairly close to the water here on an island, so I am always aware of the ocean.

BN: How did you become a nature photographer?

Lewis: I’ve always been fascinated by the unplanned experience of nature.  I can’t help stopping and observing it.  I call these experiences “intermissions”; it’s hard not be mesmerized.

As a child, I could ride my bicycle to the four corners of Modesto.  I was surrounded by agriculture.  That kind of land provides a lot more habitat for wildlife than malls and parking lots do.  I remember waking up on the edge of this “cultivated wilderness” and hearing jays and mockingbirds. I could see coyotes, foxes and raccoons.  I learned to swim in canals and rivers around Modesto, where I saw fish.  But this was long before I knew of “binomial nomenclature” (the scientific standard for naming species) or ornithology.

My dad would take us out fishing and  backpacking early on.  I just loved it.  It seemed the best possible thing I could do with my time.  Those trips led me to more and more birdwatching.  I bought my first bird book at age 17, and started keeping notes.   My first camera was a Canon AE1, a programmable film camera.  I was so excited by what I was seeing I started taking lots of pictures, though most of them were horrible.  I wanted to capture the moment, catalog everything and become involved in the whole process of nature.  I’m also excited about the idea of being “locally enthusiastic”.  And I’m self-taught.

brown pelican in flight by Rick Lewis
brown pelican by Rick Lewis

BN:  Please tell us about your interest in Arrowhead Marsh.

Lewis: It’s mostly because I live right near there. And, I remember 20 years ago when there was talk of establishing a casino there.  I thought that would be disastrous because it would increase traffic and devastate this really rich wildlife habitat.

On first glance, it appears to be pretty worn and subdued.  But like all wild places, if you have the patience to sit and watch, the species you’ll see there are fascinating.  I’ve seen a great blue heron catching rodents.  I’ve seen falcons, hawks and vultures.  There are also oceanic birds, owls, squirrels, lizards & snakes.

Some people get bored just sitting and watching.  But I don’t; you don’t have a little clicker to change channels.  You just watch what is there.  It’s very meditative.

BN: What gives you the most satisfaction with your photographic work?

Lewis:  Just the time I’ve spent outside itself.  It’s taught me so much about what’s going on in my own back yard.  And I’ve met a lot of really interesting people. The people that I meet in the field always amaze me.  They are just as fascinated as I am, and that kind of sharing brings about an exuberant kind of relationship.  I can’t imagine doing anything better.  The photography is a sideline.  If I didn’t have a camera, I’d still be out there.

BN: Do you have a favorite bird?

Lewis:  The barn owl.

BN: Of all the photos you’ve taken, do you have a favorite?

Lewis:  Yes, this one:

barn owl perched on a field post
barn owl by Rick Lewis

BN: What makes it special to you?

Lewis:  The photo was taken at the end of a long, productive day of birding & photography at the Merced National Wildlife Refuge.  I had left the refuge proper and was approaching the corner of Dan McNamara & Bert Crane Roads in the Central Valley, a spectacular plot of dirt!  The owl was cooperative while it actively hunted and flew from post-to-post.  It was one of those moments where the bird obviously knew I was watching and went about its business as if it were a training session for us, less adept, humans.  I’ll never forget that day or this particular owl.

BN: What is the most challenging aspect of bird photography?

Lewis:  To paraphrase a quote from Roger Tory Peterson, “Birds have wings & they fly.”  I interpret that statement as meaning that often we only get a glimpse of the bird in question.  This fleeting aspect of birding, and photography in particular, can be both frustrating & rewarding.  I have tremendous patience while in the field; the problem is finding enough time to spend in the field on a regular basis.

BN: Is there a bird that you’ve found particular hard to shoot?

Lewis:  Swallows and swifts on the wing are tough ones to capture.

BN: What is your favorite outdoor destination in the Bay Area?

Lewis:  Point Reyes.  My favorite trip is going from the Laguna Trailhead to Coast Camp.  It’s just fantastic.  You can see the ocean, you can hear the ocean, but you’re not on sand.   I’ve done that trip probably 20 times.

>> You can enjoy more of Rick Lewis’ bird photography here.

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