Major Allan Brooks DSO - (1869-1945)

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Major Allan Brooks DSO 1869-1945

Canadian Naturalist, Ornithologist, and Wildlife Illustrator

Allan Brooks was born at Etawah, northern India on February 16th, 1869.  Allan’s father, William Brooks, was an engineer and ornithologist.  He collected bid specimens for the British Museum.  Allan was named after Allan Hume, ornithologist and founder of the Indian National Congress and personal friend of William Brooks.

William Brooks hoped one of his sons would become an ornithologist and Allan showed promise in this field early in his childhood.  At the age of only two Allan often handled his father’s bird specimens and was considered then to have a born talent for being a naturalist. Allan was sent to England in 1874 when he was about five years old and spent the next eight years living with his grandmother and maiden aunt while attending school in Northumberland.

A special friend of William Brooks, John Hancock, considered to be the father of modern taxidermy, spent a lot of time with Allan and taught him about butterfly collecting, botany, and basic taxidermy.  It was said that Allan considered such things as board games or sports a waste of time and he preferred taking walks in the moors and observing wildlife.

In 1881, at the age of 54, William Brooks retired from his engineering profession and decided to take his family to Canada.  Mary Brooks was in poor health and doctors recommended that the Canadian climate could be helpful for her.  As well, William always wanted to be a farmer in Canada.  A desire shared by many Englishmen at the time.  The family (three boys and two girls) landed in Quebec and, shortly after their arrival, Mary Brooks passed away at the age of 42.  She was buried in Quebec.

William then took his family to Milton, Ontario where he bought a 200-acre farm.  It was about this time when Allan began sketching birds and the surrounding countryside.  Some 25 species of birds nested in the area and around the farm. Many famous ornithologists of the day visited the farm and were a great influence on Allan.  He learned how to prepare bird skins and accompanied a number of these men on field trips.

1887 - 1896 - The family moved to British Columbia in 1887 and settled on a farm near Chilliwack.  New species of birds and wildlife were available for Allan (who is now 18) to sketch and his knowledge and skills as an ornithologist continue to grow.  Nearby Sumas Lake with its marshes was a paradise for breeding waterfowl in summer and a stopping place for migrating ducks, geese, swans, and cranes in the fall.

Within a year of arriving to B.C., William Brooks decided to return to Ontario.  Cecil and Ted went with him and Allan returned later in the year.  However, by 1894, Allan and his brother Ted returned to British Columbia and took up residence in Chilliwack near the former Brooks home.  Allan and his father corresponded on a regular basis and their letters share observations and opinions on ornithology, farming and fruit growing.

From 1894 to 1896, Brooks was collecting small bird and mammal specimens from the Chilliwack area to be sent to ornithologists and natural history museums in Eastern Canada and the United States.  (William Brewster, Outram Bangs, and Gerrit Miller were three of the more infamous ornithologists Brooks dealt with at the time).  The prices Brooks received for his specimens were low by today’s standards.  Small mammals and birds would fetch 25 or 30 cents each.  Brooks sold a porcupine to Outram Bangs at Harvard University for $3.00 and John Fannin at the Provincial Museum in Victoria paid him $1.00 for a Coyote.

1897 - 1900 - Allan Brooks made his way to the Okanagan Valley in the late spring of 1897.  He actually wrote to his father complaining about the heat.

In 1897, Brooks was contributing sketches and articles to the journal known as “Recreation.”  In a letter to his father in 1898 he writes, “…I have an article or two in it every month for which I get $6.00 a month.”  

In 1899, a short penciled note in one of Brooks’ diaries reads…”Left for Ontario February 10th.  Returned April 8th.”  Although he doesn’t mention it, this date records the time of his father’s death. 
In the summer of 1900 Brooks left the Fraser Valley and traveled north to the Cariboo region.  He reached Barkerville on July 20th and by the fall was collecting specimens around Quesnel and Cottonwood.  He then teamed up with his friend Sidney Williams, a surveyor, and the two of them set up in a cabin six miles north of Cottonwood and trapped during the early fall.  Williams left for Quesnel at the end of October and Brooks stayed behind to continue trapping.

1901 – 1906 - Brooks left for Okanagan Landing in September of 1901 where he met his brother Ted.  Allan purchased a small boat and they made their way to Penticton and wintered there.  In March of 1902, the brothers took their boat back to Okanagan landing.  In May, Brooks began collecting fleas for the British Museum.  One species of flea, which he took from a weasel, was given the scientific name Nearctopsylla Brooksi.  Brooks was paid six pence per specimen and was credited for discovering at least fifteen new species of flea.
Brooks is back in the Fraser Valley in 1903.  In October, he ventures up the coast and arrives in Campbell River and later in Comox observing and sketching birds.  He spent the winter in Comox.  In spring he ventured back down the coast to Nanaimo and through the Gulf Islands.  He also stopped off in Victoria and visited the Provincial Museum and its curator, John Fannin.

By 1905, Brooks is back at Okanagan Landing.  He continues to sketch, hunt big game, and collect specimens.

1906:  A note in Brooks’ diary reads…”Sketches wanted by W.L. Dawson.  Coloured at $5.00 each; black and white at $2.00.”  Fifty-two species are listed and make up his first sizeable commission work as an illustrator.  The two-volume “Birds of Washington” would later be published in 1909.

1908 – 1913 During 1908/09, Brooks was again traveling to observe, sketch, and collect birds.  He ventured to the coast and visited Vancouver Island and Victoria.  He also went to the Seattle area and then on to Alberta to visit the regions around Edmonton and Calgary.

He returned to the Okanagan on November 20th, 1909 and wrote, “Home today.  Beautiful day; no snow south of Vernon except on the mountains.”  Brooks did a bird census every December.  His 1909 count included 24 species and 473 individual counts.

During the winter of 1910/11, Brooks took a six-week trip to California to work on the illustrations for Dawson’s new book “The Birds of California.”  He returned in March of 1911 after having met with nearly every birdman and biologist in the state.

In July of 1911, Brooks went to Vancouver for ten days to compete in the British Columbia Rifle Association matches.  In August he went to Kamloops to compete in rifle matches there and to Armstrong in September for further matches.

During 1912/13, Brooks devoted a lot of his time to the local rifle ranges.  He also traveled to Vancouver to compete in an International Rifle Match then on to Toronto to compete in rifle matches there. 

1914 – 1918 - An entry in Brooks’ diary for June 1914 simply reads “Left for England via Montreal, leaving the latter place on the 21st with the Canadian Rifle Team.”  Brooks was off to Bisley and the rifle matches taking place there.

War broke out while Brooks was at Bisley.  After the matches he attempted to enlist in a Scottish regiment where it was discovered that he already held an officer’s commission in the Canadian Militia (Lieutenant in the Rocky Mountain Rangers out of Armstrong).  He was sent back to the training camp of the 1st Canadian contingent at Valcartier, Quebec.

In the fall of 1914, at the age of 45, Lieutenant Brooks was off to England and the war in Europe.  Upon his arrival in France he was promoted to Captain and a month later reached the level of Major in the Canadian Expeditionary Force.

Brooks’ primary role in World War 1 was that of a sniper.  His skills were such that he was mentioned in three dispatches and received the Distinguished Service Order.

Brooks suffered some hearing loss while fighting and was eventually pulled from the trenches and put to the job of giving instructional courses on the rifle and sniping.

During his time overseas, Brooks continued to observe and sketch wildlife even from the trenches right.  He sent many renderings to his friend Percy Taverner whom he corresponded with regularly.

1919 – 1923 - Brooks arrived back at Okanagan Landing on April 15th, 1919.  He quickly picked up where he left off five years previous and began observing and sketching birds.  The war changed him some and Brooks no longer desired to attend rifle matches or hunt big game.  Instead, he devoted himself entirely to ornithology.

Brooks spent the winter of 1919/20 in Comox with Cyril Piercy, Postmaster at Comox, and set up a temporary studio above the post office.  Brooks conducted a Christmas bird count at Comox and recorded 56 species and 7,156 individual sightings.  Later, in the spring, Brooks traveled up the coast to Prince Rupert and the Queen Charlotte Islands.

Brooks was off to eastern Canada in the fall of 1920 to visit his friend, Percy Taverner, at the National Museum in Ottawa.  From Ottawa he went on to New York to meet with American artist and naturalist, Louis A. Fuertes.  Fuertes was a world leader in his field and one of the America’s best bird and mammal illustrators.

Brooks notes in his journal a series of 42 full pictures for Dr. John Phillips and his book “A Natural History of Ducks.”  Other notes include illustrations for the Museum of Vertebrate Zoology in Berkeley, the Audubon Society, 30 small pictures for the Geological Survey of Canada for Taverner’s “Birds of Western Canada” as well as work for several other patrons.

Brooks December bird count for 1923 was 28 species and 1,109 sightings.

1924 – 1928 - In the spring of 1924 Brooks and Harry Swarth (Curator of Birds at the Museum of Vertebrate Zoology at Berkeley) traveled up the B.C. coast on the C.P.R. boat “Princess Royal” stopping off in Prince Rupert, Ketchikan, Wrangel, Juneau, and eventually Skagway.  From Skagway they took the White Pass and Yukon Railway to Carcross then on to Atlin by boat.  The trip lasted several months and led to the naming of a new subspecies called the “Timberline Sparrow.”

In 1925, at the age of 57, Allan Brooks married 38-year old Marjorie Holmes of Arundel, England. 

An outdoors person and avid gardener, Marjorie created a splendid garden of colours at their home in Okanagan Landing.  She maintained that the flowers attracted hummingbirds.  One morning she caught Allan crouched in the middle of her flowers with his shotgun across his knees.  Allan was attempting to collect a hummingbird specimen.  Marjorie lambasted him for using her flowerbed as a hummingbird blind.  Allan surrendered his gun to his wife with the promise that no more collecting would take place on the premises.
Allan and Marjorie announced the birth of a son, Allan Cecil Brooks, on January 2nd, 1926.   

In July of 1928, Allan and Marjorie traveled to Comox and spent the summer with long time friend and naturalist, Hamilton Lang.  It was a notable period in time because the Brooks’ began building their summer home in Comox close to where Allan had spent his first winter in 1919/20. 

1928 – 1934 - Brooks completed a series of illustrations for Florence Bailey’s “Birds of New Mexico” (1928)

In 1931, Brooks traveled to Washington to meet with Gilbert Grosvenor, editor of the National Geographic Magazine to discuss illustrations for an upcoming issue.  This visit actually marked the beginning of a series of illustrations that would be included in 20 issues.

In November of 1931, Allan, Marjorie, and Allan Jr. boarded the “S.S. Niagara” at Vancouver and sailed to New Zealand to spend the winter near Allan’s sister, Edith Swan, in Aukland.  They stopped off in Hawaii and Australia and Brooks made several comments in his diary about the bird-life he had sighted.  Naturally, upon arrival in New Zealand, their first stop was the natural history museum in Aukland.

In 1933, Brooks was prowling around New Mexico and California and in 1934 was making his way up the B.C. coast to Prince Rupert, Terrace, and through to Jasper.  According to Hamilton Lang, Brooks found it hard not to conduct at least one field trip a year. 

Consequently, Brooks was constantly on the move collecting, sketching, and observing.  It was in 1934 that Brooks contributed 35 illustrations to Percy Taverner’s book, “Birds of Canada.”

In November of 1934, the Brooks family boarded the “M.S. Aorangi” to begin an around the world bird watching and sketching tour.  Brooks’ field notes during this tour are extensive and his paintings depicting the sea are exquisite.  

1935 – 1939 - The Brooks family returned to Canada from their world tour in May of 1935.  Their first stop was Washington to consult with the National Geographic Magazine on an upcoming issue.  From there they went on to Toronto to visit the Royal Ontario Museum.  Brooks gives the museum’s zoology department high praise for their work.
Brooks contributed a number of illustrations for John May’s “Hawks of North America” in 1935.

Early in 1936, after being home for only a brief period, Marjorie and Allan were off again to California while Allan Jr. attended the Vernon Prepatory School.  By summer, Brooks was in the Queen Charlotte Islands.

From 1937 to November of 1938 Brooks stayed closer to home and hiked around the South Okanagan, Similkameen and Nicola regions.  However, by December of 1938, the family was once again bound for California.  As usual, they stayed with friends in Berkeley then traveled out to the various collecting grounds to observe and sketch.
Father and son ran a bit of a trap-line at Morro Bay while they were in California.  One morning, Allan senior noted, “Went to the south end of the bay to look at the traps set yesterday.  Only one Kangaroo Rat…A Burrowing Owl had robbed all the others.  A clear case of the early bird and the worm.”           

By 1939 Allan Jr. was becoming a mammalogist in his own right.  He had his own collections and, according to Hamilton Lang, “It seemed his father was steering him into this branch of biology rather than pure ornithology.” 

1940 – 1945 - Allan Brooks was 70 when war broke out in Europe in 1939.  Naturally, the conflict put an end to some of his traveling plans abroad. 

In May of 1943, Brooks went to Keremeos by bus to study the Golden Mantled Ground Squirrel.  He collected some notes on the squirrel and he had a peculiar encounter with a badger.  Hamilton Lang recorded the incident and says, “A big badger was crossing the road with a groundhog crosswise in its mouth.  The bus stopped while the badger crossed the road and proceeded to climb a bank.  Partway up the bank the badger dropped the groundhog and it rolled back down the bank.  At this point, Brooks leaped from the bus and grabbed the badger’s intended lunch.  Brooks and badger, only ten feet apart, had a bit of a staring off match.”

In 1945, Brooks visited Oliver Wells at Edenbank near Sumas in the Fraser Valley.  Wells was a naturalist, and collector of Brooks paintings.  When Brooks stepped off the bus Oliver Wells recorded the following account…“At noon, February 14th, 1945, I met Allan Brooks as he stepped from the Pacific Stage at the Cottonwoods Corner.  It was one of the happiest moments in my life to have the honor of meeting one of the country’s most famous naturalists and bringing him to Edenbank as our guest.  Major Brooks stepped from the stage in a manner to belie the fact he was in his 76th year.  His strong erect carriage and his firm handshake made one forget that it was over fifty years since, as a young man, he had tramped the forests of the valley, haunted the Sumas Prairie, and climbed the mountains in search of new specimens for the collections of leading museums around the world.”

1946 - Allan and Marjorie came down to Comox from Okanagan Landing for the winter of 1945/46.  Allan immediately began scouring the beaches for bird-life but he knew his health was failing.  His notes in his journal are still detailed and accurate as ever during this time and he continues to paint and sketch.  His last painting portrayed Blue Grouse in the Okanagan.  He passed away on January 3rd, 1946.

Allan Brooks: The Man

At least four major museums offered jobs to Brooks in his early years including the Provincial Museum in Victoria.  He turned them all down.  He was a free-lancer and a steady job would have driven him mad.

His bird skins and collections were on a scale of any major museum and they served as his library for reference to his illustrative work.  Brooks paid attention to every detail and was very fastidious.  He insisted labels should carry all pertinent information on the specimen and went so far as to publish a paper on the importance of these details.

In the field, Brooks usually wore knickerbockers along with game pockets strapped around his middle with wide straps slung over his shoulders.  He also packed binoculars around his neck and sometimes a telescope.  Canadian writer and naturalist, Hamilton Lang, said Brooks brought an air of dignity while collecting his bird specimens and “He tramped about the Commonage with the stiff backed plodding gait of an old country gentleman.”

Lang writes that Brooks was generous with his time and often instructed young naturalists when they came to visit him in his studio.  He was in the habit of giving away his paintings as gifts to friends at Christmas, or as a token of appreciation. 

On the night of the Annual Banquet of the American Ornithologist’s Union in Ottawa in 1926 Brooks was at the head of the table about to receive a gold medal award for his bird paintings.  He had just listened to a long oration of himself by friend and poet Wallace Havelock Robb.  Brooks was never one for speeches and, upon introduction by Robb, rose from his chair, took the medal from Robb’s hand, stuffed it in his pocket and said, “Not Guilty!” and promptly sat down. 

Bio Courtesy of Ron Candy, Director/Curator, Greater Vernon Museum and Archives (Vernon, British Columbia, Canada)

The Museum has the largest permanently displayed collection of Allan Brooks paintings in the world.


Black-crowned Night Heron


Northern Hawk Owl


Cedar and Bohemian Waxwings


Pine Grosbeak


Hairy Woodpecker


Blackburnian Warbler


Painted in Flanders (Belgium) 1917


Wood Duck


Black-headed Grosbeak


Cliff Swallow


Kestrel


Lark Bunting


Peregrine Falcon


Passenger Pigeon

A more fabulous bird portrait is hard to imagine, than this of the Tufted Puffin by famed Canadian bird painter Allan Brooks.

He was born in India, but lived most of his life in Canada, painting North American birds during the first half of the 20th century.

He took time out to fight in World War I, becoming a sniper on the Western Front, and winning the DSO.

After witnessing the carnage of man's inhumanity to man, he returned to find solace in painting birds from nature.

He travelled all over the world pursuing his hobby and vocation. He never held a regular job as he felt he could never cope in the strait jacket existence that entailed. He was a free spirit to the end...

Painting birds gave him the inner peace that made him one of the world's top wildlife artists.

Great Canadian Heritage Treasure

Tufted Puffin - Major Allan Brooks DSO, c 1926
Orig. wc - Image Size - 61 x 71 cm
Found - Toronto, ON


The painting shows Allan's masterful presentation of a bird, not only in its natural habitat - cliffs and ocean - but from all angles and in all flight patterns, as well as its perched state. He shows how it carries fish dangling from the sides of its beak, while at the same time gives us a view of the plumage on the back of the bird and the form of its tail. The plate offers an ideal smorgasbord of puffin views to help birders identify it from a field guide.

Ron Candy, Director/Curator of the Greater Vernon Museum and Archives which has a large collection of Allan Brooks originals, believes this painting was made in 1926 for The Birds of California.

The Tufted Puffin is a pelagic bird which can be found along the entire Pacific coast of Canada and the United States, close to shore during the breeding season (brown), when it nests among steep coastal cliffs, and further offshore in the winter months (blue).

This stunning looking bird is only pigeon sized but can fly like a dive bomber, and dive and dart expertly many feet under water as well, as it hunts for small fish.

Black-bellied Plover


Allan Brooks


John Goldi - King William Island
Like Allan Brooks, fifty years before, I was to spend many months, alone, in the intimate company of many of Canada's most interesting bird species, to try to capture the best images possible. (Nikon F2 (80-200mm) 1974)

Hans and Allan - A Boy and his Hero


I like to think that the first words in English I learned - as "Hans," a 9 year old Swiss immigrant to Canada in 1950 left - were "Allan Brooks."

I still remember the exact moment in 1951, and the library corner of the room in the rural public school in Southern Ontario, when I opened up a nature book and his name - beneath a stunning bird picture - leaped out at me, and burned itself forever, into my subconscious, to join a list of other Great Canadian heroes, Champlain, Cartier, and Frontenac.

By then Allan had already been dead for six years. But his legacy through his work, inspired others, like me, to carry on educating the public about the wonderful natural world around us.

His glorious bird pictures profoundly effected me. Actually I don't remember the bird painting I first saw, but my mind's eye can see his signature clearly almost 60 years later. He was the guy who made the magic...

When the Toronto Star Weekly started to print full page portraits of his paintings I cut them out and pasted them into scrap books which i treasured greatly for years after. I eagerly awaited the weekly trips to town to pick up the next issue of the magazine.

I started to seek out the birds he painted and to collect bird nests and eggs OUCH...

Allan Brooks started me on a lifelong passion for exploring nature, and for birding and bird photography, and for communicating it to others, like he did to me.

In the 1960s I frequently went on photography expeditions, with Isidor Jeklin, one of the world's top bird photographers.

Isidor was also probably the world's top bird photography exhibitor in international salons, winning hundreds of Gold Medals for his amazing photographs of birds.

Together, toting our Nikons and Hasselblads, we hiked through many southern Ontario beaches, fields and woodlands, seeking out new birds that we had not already photographed.

Then, two years, spent as a CUSO teacher in remote Uganda, East African schools, gave me wonderful opportunities for photographing all kinds of exotic birds and animals.

Later, 14 years spent in the Canadian north, in the remote arctic and sub-arctic regions, opened up new avenues to explore the rich variety of Canadian birds, on nesting grounds which few Canadians ever get to see.

Sabine's Gull

To get the best photographs you learn to "work with birds," in a partnership. If you get good at it, you can sometimes do your photography without the encumbrance of a blind. I find that talking to the bird, in a friendly manner, often helps break down cultural barriers...

Here on King William Island, near Gjoa Haven, a Sabine's Gull sits on eggs near a tundra pond, while her mate sits on my head, using this vantage point to keep a sharp lookout for intruders that might be a threat... (Nikon F2 (80-200mm) 1975)

Semi-palmated Plover

After years of experience, carefully working with birds - you actually train the birds to accept you - blinds are sometimes not necessary in the arctic. This Semi-palmated Plover was shot with a flash setup, and no blind, from about seven feet away. I was able to get up - slowly of course - walk away, and come back, without the bird leaving the nest. (Nikon F2 (80-200mm) 1975 - King William Island)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


Below, no not Photoshop, just comfortably settled in the hand of a friend...

Kindly note, in neither photo is the bird's beak open, shrieking sounds of protest, terror, or alarm... The bird is completely at ease with the photographer.

So much nature footage, of birds and animals, even that shot by National Geographic, shows them running in terror from the photographer, or snapping at the very expensive National Geo helicopter. Or polar bears floundering madly on ice floes, trying to protect their young, or caribou, or moose, running in panic, at break-leg speed across broken ground and tripping over logs and stones.

Those budget driven photographers have more the relationship of the trophy hunter with wildlife, than that of a naturalist, who sensitively accommodates him or herself, to the welfare of the bird or animal they are seeking to photograph. Dead or maimed birds and animals are just some of the collateral damage that commercial nature photographers (including National Geo, Walt Disney, Wild Kingdom, etc.) routinely exact to "get that thousand dollar picture" for their editor, or footage for their film or television program...

The Canadian North - I ultimately spent 14 years in the Canadian north - the arctic and subarctic - where I pursued my birding hobby.

Living in the remote North West Territories, where people are few and the landscapes vast, allowed me to accomplish a number of birding landmarks.

While living in Yellowknife, NT, I reported the sighting of a Brambling - an accidental from Europe below - which at that time (1981), was only the third sighting of the bird ever reported in North America.

I received phone calls from excited birders from all over the US, asking me to describe it and how I found it - it came to our feeder with a flock of buntings. Its unusual colouring made me run for my European field guide.

Oddly enough, though I was a professional cinematographer by then, and it stayed three days at our feeder, as scores of people streamed into our house to see and photograph it, through the living room window, I never took a picture, not even a proverbial record shot. To me it was just normal birding - seeing, appreciating, learning, and sharing...

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Astounding but true...

With patience, knowledge, skill, and understanding, you can build up trust with wildlife.

To illustrate the point, I directed my wife to shelter a Taligvak (Ruddy Turnstone) baby - which I found, running lose on the tundra - in her gloved hand.

The mother soon showed up, quite upset, naturally, that her baby had met with a possible predator.

But by holding still and quietly talking to her, I calmed her down and she came closer and closer.

In a very few minutes she climbed on Joan's hand, which was flush to the ground, and sat there - not standing, and not shrieking - as if the gloves were her own warm nest.

Joan slowly raised the family three feet above the ground to take this photo.

After a few minutes mother and baby were slowly returned to the ground.

As we did so, and said our goodbyes, the mother made some soft burbling sounds, and covered her baby exactly where we put her down.

 

Northern Flicker

Ultra Rare - I believe this is the only photo in existence of a Northern Flicker with its eggs on the ground. They always nest in holes which they excavate in trees.

After years of experience interacting with birds, and going out into the wilderness a lot, you discover rarities. I shot this ornithological first in the sub-arctic wilderness, some ten miles from a tiny village on the shore of Great Slave Lake, in the middle of nowhere (blue dot below). (Hasselblad (250mm) remote release, 1978)


While seeking out wilderness locations for doing bird photography I made a number of "first sightings" of birds in Canada's Northwest Territories.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I reported the furthest north Canadian sighting of a Yellow-headed Blackbird above which at that time had not been reported in the Northwest Territories before, establishing proof that it was extending its range yellow dot below.

 




 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


 




I also recorded the first sighting, and filmed the first nesting, of a Black-billed Magpie left in the Northwest Territories, another furthest north sighting in Canada.

Modern range maps do not reflect either of these discoveries even today, and show how inaccurate these range maps really are in the border areas.

In 1979, when I became a professional film and television documentary cameraman, editor, and producer, I included my hobby in my work.




Red-throated Loon

I worked with this bird for three days, from a distance, across a pond using a blind. To get this picture I slowly came out of the blind, and entered the pond wearing my chest waders. With water up to my waist I walked, very slowly, some forty feet across the pond, getting closer and closer till I got a roll of pictures like this, hand-held. When my roll of film was shot off, rather than reload and possibly spook the bird, I backed up, slowly, and retreated to the blind. The bird trusted me so much it never left the nest during the entire encounter. (Nikon F2 (80-200mm) 1975)

Marcel Marceau - The great French mime artist is always at my elbow when I'm alone, close to birds and their nests. ALL MY MOVEMENTS, of eyes, hands, head, feet, body, are all mimed, very slowly, with practiced fluidity. Anyone watching would think I was doing Tai Chi exercises. But it has paid off countless times, as birds and animals accept people and movements, which they are given time to process visually and mentally, through time and space. So instead of fleeing they stay to give me great photos. And I do not have to wait hours for the return of a spooked subject.

From the article "Wild Things" in the Canadian Society of Cinematographers Journal

“I saw his outstretched talons and
big yellow eyes coming at me.”

— John Goldi csc

____________________________________

For John Goldi csc, “wildlife photography starts with the heart, not with the camera. In a real sense the camera, and even the cameraman, has to disappear because the photographer’s presence interferes with getting a natural performance from wildlife.”

Goldi, also Toronto-based, spent two years in East Africa, two years in the Canadian Arctic and 12 in the sub-arctic learning his subjects’ habits. His goal was to be able to film wildlife without inducing “terror behaviour.”

He said television’s insatiable appetite for wildlife footage, while creating an opportunity for cinematographers, can also encourage practices that in the name of expediency can put nature subjects and sometimes even the photographer in danger.

Being knowledgeable about nature and a keen observer are every bit as important as being a good photographer. Goldi noted that while in Yellowknife, NWT, he achieved a number or ornithological firsts for the region. He was the first to sight and film yellow-headed blackbirds there, and the first to sight magpies, as well as to discover and film their first nesting site.

He also sighted a brambling, one of only three recorded sightings of this bird in North America. It was a lost European migrant about which he received calls from all over North America. He also believes he has the only photograph in existence of a flicker standing among its eggs, nesting on the ground. Flickers are woodpeckers that always nest in holes in trees.

Goldi, like his colleagues, has been subject to “natural hostility,” including being attacked by a great horned owl below while he was teetering over the side of a cliff.

“I sensed his attack out of the corner of my eye, and was just about the raise my elbow, when I saw his outstretched talons and big yellow eyes coming at me. I absorbed the shock on my arm, but the blow rolled me over and I almost fell over the cliff.

“Wildlife photography starts with the heart, not the camera.”
— John Goldi csc

“I remembered Eric Hosking, the British nature photographer who lost an eye to a tawny owl. I was shaking so hard I decided to quit, packed up my gear and backed away from the site, always with one eye on the owl, and he with both on me. I turned away when safely out of reach and . . . Wham! The owl struck me on the neck behind, raising a bloody gash.

“I thought this would make a great setup to film an owl attack. So I tried to get my wife to put on my hat and parka and be my model for filming. Joan didn’t share my enthusiasm for the project. I learned that not everyone is as dedicated as the photographer.”


Goldi has won 85 international television awards in the last two years, including 29 gold and silver medals, most for a documentary series of 26 programs he shot called Outdoor Adventure Canada, which features a good deal of his nature and wildlife cinematography.

After more than 30 years in the field, Goldi’s passion and enthusiasm remain undiminished.

“What’s my dream project? We keep doing it all the time!”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 








Tawny Owl (Europe), Peter van Zoest

A Close Encounter...

I was living for several years, in a remote Indian village, on Great Slave Lake. On weekends I'd go off into the wilderness to find birds to photograph. I would carry a big blind that would stretch out to seven feet, made out of burlap sacking. It helps you get closer to birds for good pictures.

One day I left the village and drove across the bay, to a spot behind the far point below.

I was soon sitting near a killdeer nest, with the brown bag over me, waiting and shooting as the birds came and went.

Suddenly, I heard a motorboat approach on the other side of a small spit of land beside where I was shooting. I could hear two men scrape the boat ashore on the rocks, and then get out, jawing away in Chipewyan.

Through the burlap mesh and screen of trees I could tell from their body language and voices that it was Fred and Louis, two young men in their twenties, from the village.

Hopefully they won't see me, and come over and socialize, and scare off my bird. Better keep still... But then again...

Probably they're going hunting. I'd better stand up to show them it's the school principal doing photography, or I might get taken for a bear, and take a .30-.30 shell or a shotgun slug.

And if I stand up slowly, hopefully it won't spook the bird...

As I did so, my long brown bag falling around me, I could tell they had spotted me.

Then all hell broke loose...

I could hear shouting and the loud clanging of boots on aluminum as the men leaped into the boat, madly scraped the boat off the stones, cranked up the engine, and roared away at a terrific rate.

Wonder what's going on with them...?

Good I thought, at least they're gone, and the commotion didn't even scare the bird.

Five minutes later I decided to pack up and head back to the Indian village across the lake.

The whole town was down on the waterfront... dozens milling about. (the spot I came ashore below)

I wondered what the heck was going on. Obviously something quite serious had happened. Stern looks everywhere...

My best friend Georgie, came up and eagerly pulled my boat ashore. He quickly sized up the situation and started grinning from ear to ear.

"That was you over there, cross the bay?" noting my burlap blind, all rolled up in the boat, and smiled.

"Yeah I was photographing birds," as I unrolled the blind for all to see.

Georgie grinned. "You lucky; you just about got shot." He laughed loudly... but nervously...

I looked at all the faces as the smiles and laughter started to spread.

"You real lucky John... Fred and Louis had no guns or they would have shot you. They came back to get them. They thought you were the Moo. Ho, ho, ho..."

Then the laughter became general, as people began to realize it was only the school teacher under a brown bag. Fred and Louis, came over, smiling nervously...

"You're lucky John. I almost shot you! You shouldn't wear that big bag..." Fred said shyly, realizing now that if he had he would have shot the school principal and not the notorious Moo.

Among the Dene of the Northwest Territories the legend of the Moo - or the Bushman - a wild man that inhabits the wilderness and can kill you, if you're not careful, is a potent reality for many people to this day.

In a hunting culture, where people travel in the wilderness by boat or snowmobile, everybody always carries a rifle. There is only one way to deal with the wild Moo, when one suddenly encounters him in the bush...

We laughed about it for years afterwards... Wondering how it would have ended if Fred and Louis had their rifles with them - as they usually did - on that day?

We laughed that Fred and Louis had mistaken me for the Moo... We didn't laugh about the Moo as a myth. Everyone knew that the real Moo was still out there... lying in wait...

Below two television programs on Birding and Bird Migration
- now available as DVD programs - have won numerous
international Gold, Silver, and Bronze medals at
American film and television festivals

"I would like to thank you for producing the outstanding video about the Presqu'ile Waterfowl Festival. I have spoken to a number of field naturalist clubs across Ontario who said they watched this video and were most impressed. I was personally impressed by the cinematography and sharp, crisp photography. Also, I felt that the film captured the essence and excitement of the event. Films such as yours are vital in reminding us just how important our public lands and parks are for wildlife and for people." 
           - Donald A. Davis, Life Member, Fed. of Ont. Naturalists

"I was particularly pleased with how thoroughly you captured the flavour of waterfowl migration at Presqu'ile.  We have had many film crews here but none invested the time and energy that you did. I had high expectations for the film. However, my expectations were exceeded! Thank you again for the excellent work."
- Don Tyerman, Biodiversity Specialist, Presqu'ile, ON

Go to Birds, Birds, More...
Go to Spring Fever


John Goldi csc (cameraman, director, editor, co-writer) along with Joan Goldi (producer, writer), his life and work partner of 44 years, have won 136 international awards for their television documentary work including 41 Gold and Silver Medals, and 22 Finalists.

At three different US television festivals three of their Silver Medals - all for different documentaries - were beaten by three of their Golds, competing against each other, as well as a host of other programs from the best producers from other countries around the globe.

Go to The Creative Team
The 'csc' designation is the top honour bestowed by the Canadian Society of Cinematography, "for outstanding achievement as a cinematographer". The Society is the professional association of Canadian film and television cinematographers.

Green Heron, John Goldi 1995 - Sony DXC - D30

Brown Thrasher, John Goldi 1969 - Nikon F

Arctic Loon & chick, John Goldi 1985 - Arriflex SR-2

 

Attack of the Killer Owl

In the 1970s I was the school principal, living in a small village on the shore of Great Slave Lake. Some kms outside town I had found the nest of a Great Horned Owl, half way up the side of a cliff.

In order to film it I built a platform some 50 feet up in a tree that grew beside the cliff. I used a climbing ladder to get up to it. Over a period of a several of weeks I filmed the magnificent bird as it swooped in to incubate the eggs, and later, to feed the chicks.

As the days passed I thought we had become used to each other. I said hello when I arrived and goodbye when I quit for the day, like good friends do.

One day as I came, along the top of the cliff, to do filming, I decided to look over the lip and see if I could take a short cut to the platform, by just lowering myself down some 40 feet, instead of clattering down the rock face and then climbing the ladder back up as I usually did.

The owl had already seen me approach and was sitting in a tree top, at eye level to me, some 70 feet away. It was not in a good mood. It's beak was snapping loudly (below the very owl that almost did me in) and it was prancing for a footing on the thin branches on the tree top.

Not a good sign. I would have to be careful.

Of course I had heard of Great Horned Owl attacks on people who it feels threaten its nest. I knew that Eric Hosking (1909 - 1991), a celebrated British bird photographer, had lost an eye from a Tawny Owl attack in Wales in 1937.

When he lost his eye, he became famous overnight and remained one of the few photographers able to make a living from bird photography alone.

Since then all bird photographers who go to photograph the owls like he did, wear face masks like fencers wear. (Right Eric's most famous photograph, the Barn Owl and Prey, shot in 1936.)

I grabbed a spruce branch and waved it in circles around my head to make me look more threatening and to protect my head against a surprise attack.

As I squatted down near the cliff edge I kept a constant look at the owl, flitting my eyes between the bird and the dangerous steep drop off I was approaching. I waved my branch furiously.

When I got to the edge, and leaned over, I could see the platform some 40 feet below, and the ground 50 feet below that. Didn't look like a safe way to approach at all.

As I leaned over for another look, a quick movement at the corner of my eye instinctively made me snap my head back towards the owl.

In a fraction of a second I had left, I saw his outstretched talons and big yellow eyes coming at me, like a torpedo, not seven feet away. Like a flash I lifted my elbow, and leaned away to protect my face.

The blow hit my raised elbow and rolled me over. I dropped the branch, which skittered over the cliff.

I scrambled in a panic as my feet lost their footing, sending a shower of rocks and dirt over the cliff edge. I ended up on my back, with the owl triumphantly nattering in the nearby tree top again.

I was in shock, my heart racing madly.

Had I been a fraction of a second slower in responding I would have taken the blow of the extended talons full in my face. Quite overcome, I contemplated life without eyes...

I had also just narrowly escaped being rolled over a 100 foot cliff.

Completely shaken I decided to pack up for the day. I was frankly too scared to do photography.

As I slowly backed away from the site, my eyes were constantly fixed on the owl as it watched me. I waved a new branch over my head to cover me when I had to look momentarily away to see where I was going.

When I was some 50 yards from the owl I finally decided I was safe. I turned away and started off down the trail to my snowmobile thinking about my near encounter with multi levels of disaster.

WHAMMM...! The blow hit me on the nape of the neck. I was literally seeing stars. It still took several seconds before I realized what had happened. I turned in time to see the owl flying off.

My heart was racing. I reached up to the nape of my neck. My hand came away bloody. I thanked my lucky stars that I was wearing a big winter parka with a hood covering much of my neck. It had cushioned much of the blow.

I was truly amazed by the power of the blow that a ball of fluff and feathers could deliver, to drive its sharp and spiky talons into prey. It was as if a sledge hammer had hit me. I wondered too how a fragile bird like that could withstand such a powerful collision with an immoveable object.

I got out of there in a hurry.

But it gave me a great idea.

I decided that an owl attack like this would make a great film sequence. When I got home I explained it all to my wife. My idea was for her to wear my parka and hat, and walk by the owl hoping to trigger an attack while I would film it. It would make great footage and be very educational too.

Unfortunately my wife did not share my enthusiasm for the project. I learned that, unfortunately, not everyone is as dedicated as the bird photographer.

I did return to photograph the owl but wearing a climbing helmet to which I had bolted a wraparound, flip down face protector. I wore it religiously, but was also more careful, and was never attacked again. (Below approaching her eggs.)

Postscript - The owl footage I shot in 1977 did become part of a series of northern wildlife heritage preservation public service announcements, which I edited for broadcast on northern CBC Television in 1980.

But the owl family never got to grow up.

Indian teenagers who followed my tracks to the cliff site, on a day I wasn't there, blasted parents and chicks with shotguns. I was devastated. All I found were a few feathers...

I still keep them in an envelope, a strong reminder of the powerful emotional ups and downs in my life as a nature photographer. No doubt something else I shared with Allan Brooks.


Osprey, John Goldi 1990 - Sony DXC - D30


Great Gray Owl, John Goldi 1997- Sony DXC - D30


Barn Owl and Prey, Eric Hosking 1936


Great Horned Owl, Allan Brooks


Great Horned Owl, Allan Brooks


My Compton mountaineering helmet with visor adaptation


Remains of the Great Horned Owl Family

Great Canadian Heritage Treasure

A fabulous image of the Wandering Tattler, one of the many shorebirds that can be found in Canada, which has more shoreline - along oceans and lakes - than any other country in the world.

It can be found widely distributed along Canada's west coast, breeding in the far north, then moving south for the winter.

 

 


Wandering Tattler - Major Allan Brooks DSO, 1904
Orig. wc - Image Size - 18 x 27 cm
Found - Toronto, ON

Passing on the Heritage

Probably my most successful achievement, during my many years as a teacher in cross-cultural societies in Africa, and among the Inuit, and Dene was my bird house building project in an Indian village on Great Slave Lake.

I found a book with plans for building bird houses. I soon had the entire class hammering and sawing away on a shop project. The kids were very enthusiastic, as each was determined to put a swallow box on top of their house.

I learned long ago that teacher and student interaction, and knowledge transfer, is best when they do things together. There was lots of noise, laughter, and good fellowship all around as the class pounded away. It gave the kids great pleasure in producing something with their own hands that they - and I - took pride in.

I was especially pleased. No one skipped class while we were on the building project.

Better yet I had managed to teach an appreciation for birds, and bird conservation, in a culture which saw birds entirely - ducks, geese, swans - as something to shoot and eat.

I grinned with pride the day we went out to put up the boxes. Everywhere around town I saw students on rooftops hammering swallow boxes on boards nailed to the top of the gable sides.

Parents came out laughing, immensely pleased their children were engaged in something productive instead of looking for the usual mischief to get into.

We all waited to see if our boxes would be successful in attracting swallows.

Within days the swallows started to take over some boxes. Students eagerly came to the house to announce that another pair had taken over the box on their house.

A couple of days later two boys came by the house.

One gripped a swallow in his hand. I asked if it was wounded, thinking they had come to get help...

"No, no, John. Look, see..."

He threw the swallow into the air.

And then, as it flew up, he yanked it back with a long string he had tied its feet.

"Good, eh John? Bird boxes make really good trap."

When I loudly protested he answered.

"Not just me John. All the kids do that."

And after I was to see kids on the roof clapping hands over the entry holes. And tossing swallows on strings, into the air...

So my conservation project was a big bust. Through my good intentions I had installed deadly bird traps on virtually every house in town.

I had probably decimated the swallow population in town and the birds that didn't die were no doubt crippled for life...

Conservation can lose something in the translation between cultures...




 

 




 

 

 

 

 

 



Tree Swallow, Allan Brooks


Red-necked Grebe Family, John Goldi, 1982 - Arriflex SR-2


White Crowned Sparrow, John Goldi, 1985, Nikon F

 


Eastern Bluebird, Allan Brooks

Great Canadian Heritage Treasure

A fabulous moment in time, captured by a master in the tradition of picturing birds in action first pioneered by John James Audubon.

And what birder has never come upon this very scene. The male has stopped up short, fully puffed up and alert to an intruder who has just interupted a family outing.

The female is taking no chances. Her body is in full darting away posture, leaving her mate behind to cover her escape.

The habitat is fabulous. The liquidity of the water, beyond compare.

The range of the Ruddy Duck is vast.


Ruddy Duck - Major Allan Brooks DSO
Orig. wc - Image Size - 18 x 27 cm
Found - Toronto, ON