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Monday, January 11, 2010

Bird-Lore & Bird Photography

The other day I was researching something online and stumble across a copy of volume one of "Bird-Lore" magazine. Published in February of 1899 and edited by Frank Chapman, it was the beginning of the bi-monthly magazine of the newly created National Audubon Society.

At over 200 pages the publication contained articles that ranged from suggestions for teaching curricula to identification tips and field notes. I was also surprised to see articles about the use of photography in the study of birds. Scanning through the magazine, one short article caught my attention. It was by a gentleman named E.G. Taber about his experience in the field photographing a Least Bittern on the nest:


From "Bird-Lore", Volume I - 1899

A Least Bittern Portrait
By E. G. Tabor

On the morning of May 37, 1897, equipped with an extra supply of patience and a 5 x 7 'Premo B' camera fitted with rapid rectilinear lens, my plateholders filled with unexposed plates, and accompanied by my wife, who has been a partner in all of my successful trips, I started for Otter Lake, Cayuga County, N. Y.

It was a beautiful morning, with not a breath at air stirring (by the way, this is the hardest of all things to control, and is an absolute necessity if you are to make fine, clear-cut negatives of birds and their natural surroundings), and the lake looked like a mirror. It took but a minute to get the large, flat-bottomed row-boat ready for the start, and we were soon gliding along, an oar's-length from shore, scanning every tree, bush, and bunch of rushes, in search of nests, those of the Red-winged Blackbird being very plenty and placed both in bushes or rushes in about equal numbers. A pair of Kingbirds had selected as the place for their summer home, a large, low willow limb which projected over the water a peep into the nest revealed three eggs, common, yet so beautiful in their bed of wool and feathers.

Our next finds were several nests of a pair of Long-billed Marsh Wrens, which looked more like mouse-nests, than anything else I have in mind. As we could return to these later, if unable to find anything better, we had not yet exposed a single plate, reserving them for a rare or unusual find.

We were in search of nests of the Least Bittern, and as we were passing that part of the shore where they always nested, we soon located a nest, but as it only contained one egg, another nest must be found. A male Least Bittern flew up a short distance ahead of us and 'dropped in' back of the bushes. We rowed down to the place from which he flushed, and standing up in the boat looked around, and not more than a boat's-length ahead, we espied a female sitting on a nest. I pushed the boat very carefully to within a couple of feet of the nest, and prepared to make an exposure. The camera was set to focus on an object 34 inches from cap of lens, and I moved it back and forth until the focus was perfect, the diaphragm was closed to ƒ 16, and an instantaneous exposure with speed at 1/25" was made.

As most of my operations, preparatory to making the exposure, were of necessity carried on within three feet of the bird on the nest, she at several times started to leave it but when the bird moved I kept still, and when she kept still I worked; in this way I finally completed my preparations. The peep I got of the eggs as she partly raised off from them, just as I finished, made me squeeze the bulb before I intended to; but the result I obtained fully satisfied me, for in no other way could I describe the results of this trip, and what I saw and learned of the habits and home-life of the Least Bittern.


I was curious about the camera that he used and, after a short search, discovered that the "Premo B" was manufactured by the Pony company (Pony ran into some financial trouble and was eventually bought by George Eastman). The Premo B was a model camera one step down from the Premo A. According to the company's catalog, the only difference was that the "B" didn't use mahogony, but a less expensive wood. With the more expensive
"rapid rectilinear lens" this camera would cost about $30. With the extra glass plate negatives, one would be carrying around about 7 pounds of camera...this doesn't included a tripod. I picture this poor man's wife paddling the row boat, then trying to keep it steady as her husband balanced and focused his huge, wooden camera, all the while attempting not to scare away the Least Bittern. I'm impressed he got the shot. I'll also never complain about my digital camera.


Beth in NYC said...

As a bird photographer, I love this article. It's fascinating! Catching a least bittern under normal circumstances is tough but with one of those cameras, wow (even if the female was sitting on eggs)! Thanks for posting this!

Meridian13113 said...

I was so excited to find your post. I'm writing a history of Mr. Taber's home town, Meridian, New York, and there will be a chapter on Ernie, a small-town polymath.

There is a tale that Frank Chapman of the American Museum of Natural History, after having read many of Ernie's articles, visited Ernie at Meridian.

Ernie took Chapman out on Otter Lake with the goal of finding a bittern nest. Both had their cameras. Chapman apparently took many, many photos, and Ernie just one. Ernie's was perfect. Chapman's were unusable.

His glass plate negatives still exist in the possession of a retired biology professor and birder (also from the environs of Meridian). There are plans to donate them to the New York State Museum.

Ernie died in 1954, after a long career as a birder, collector of Iroquois artifacts (many in the collection of the Museum of the American Indian in D.C.), philatelist, numismatist and taxidermist. He served as Cayuga County Clerk for something close to thirty years, and also served in several other capacities in local government.

His large collection of mounted birds and small mammals is on display at the Cato-Meridian Middle School, in Cato, NY, just a mile from where Ernie lived.

He was a fascinating man.

Thanks for posting this.

Christine Wands
Cincinnati, Ohio

Exploring urban nature, birds, birdwatching, birding, hummingbirds, butterflies, dragonflies, bees, hawks, raptors, wildflowers, trees, mushrooms, environment, binoculars, spotting scope