Those all-knowing eyes! I was completely captivated by this lovely youngster - she's as bright as a button and so curious about the world. She became "Professor Polly", and she reminds me so much of a super-smart friend who became one of youngest female professors in NZ's history (who coincidentally has a daughter named Polly!).
I have long been fascinated with bird intelligence and cognition. Study after study are now showing that birds are incredibly intelligent - just this week there was news about tool-use seen in kea (the kākā's cousin) in the wild. Long gone are the days when scientists thought that tiny brains relative to body size meant tiny abilities. Birds have vastly more dense innervation allowing smarts to be packed in much more tightly than human brains. And parrots and corvids are some of the brightest.
Researchers are quite taken by the kākā as a study subject. They're cousins of the kea, who are thought to be the most intelligent bird species in the world, but kākā are rating similarly on the IQ scales. It is fascinating watching them solve the tasks the researchers set them. The thought was that as social birds they would learn by watching their friends solve problems. From what I've seen, it appears more competitive than that with each wanting to show that they can solve puzzles their own way. It was quite incredible to see how many different techniques there are to solve the simple task of acquiring a cashew nut tied to the end of a string.
Not only are kākā super intelligent but they have complex emotional and social lives. We do of course have to be careful at over-anthropomorphizing, but I fear under-anthropomorphizing has had a negative effect not just on our understanding of animal cognition but also animal welfare. They might not think or feel identically to humans, but they think and feel and we shouldn't assume less.
I'm going to take you behind the scenes of what has been one of my most popular posts on social media recently and let you in on how it came about... I know it has been puzzling some folks...
It was a typical Sunday morning, mid-winter at Zealandia, on our regular photowalk and we had just reached the pontoon to spend some time with the kāruhiruhi families as they went through their morning rituals. The low sun was just starting to break around the corner, back-lighting the birds and sparkling the dew still hanging on the leaves. Then the rays hit the chilly lake and ethereal mist began rising. For once I was delighted to have lost the battle as to who had the 24-70mm and who had the 100-400mm lens!
The magical misty light hung around for only a few minutes; just enough time to take a bunch of photos with the wrong settings and then to figure out something that might work better and to hopefully get a nice shot. And the photos were indeed "nice," but not much more and I put them aside. On returning to them some months later, I realized that there was no one shot that had everything, but with some judicious compositing I could create a scene with a story.
I know some people have assumed that this image is a single photograph and have puzzled over how I got the shot, so I'd like to set the record straight, so to speak. And in one sense it is "just a photograph," far less messed about with than some of my images. But I believe that adding artistic licence and liberating oneself from pure photography, it's possible to more accurately capture a moment experienced and to share that emotion.
So what did I do? Four very similar photos went into this image - each was selected for what the birds were doing over the course of just 5 minutes. One was swimming making a spiral of ripples, two youngsters were looking excitedly into the water, another was "hanging out the washing to dry", and others were looking with anticipation into the new day. No one photo showed all that happening and there was no time to wait until they simultaneously did something - the mist was fading too fast. Choosing one photo as the main image, I did a first pass through camera raw to make basic adjustments to the exposure and lighting. I then carefully masked, adjusted with camera raw, and composited in the alternative birds to create a more interesting version of the scene. Then came a little bit of secret sauce; using Topaz Impression to add in a silky, painterly feel at a lowered opacity over the image, and then layering painted textures using soft-light blend modes to subtly change the lighting. When viewed at full size, the more painterly feel is much more apparent. A couple of passes through adjusting highlights and shadows and spot-healing distractions completed the image.
Do you like this image more or less now that you know how it came to be? Do you feel cheated and that it somehow isn't real? Does it take away the magic knowing what was added and how it was made? Or do you feel like you've seen through my eyes and into my soul? Have we shared a moment?
As soon as I started creating bird art I was asked "when are you going to do a tūī?" As a photo-artist, this isn't so easy because first I need to get the photos and you can't just ask a bird to sit right there and strike a pose. But eventually the stars aligned and "Unfurling" unfolded and quickly became my most popular print. And still the requests for more tūī came... So I turned my attention from my beloved kākā and spent more time searching for magic moments with the best-dressed boys of the NZ forest.
And after many hours of spending time with tūī, I came to see so many subtle differences among them. Each lacy nape is like a fingerprint, each poi is a fashion statement - some neat and tidy, some worn more jauntily. And their colours! Not just black and white, but glorious shimmering shades of blue and green, with touches of purple and even gold.
I asked them for their stories. And they answered with dark, gothic tales of loss, defiance, colonisation, foreboding, and reclamation. The tales are still coming, but now is the time to let you in on some of their inner secrets. Stay tuned on Facebook or Instagram this week as I unveil these new works, or if you'd just like to see everything all in one place, jump ahead here.
There is something about the tūī that resonates with people, more so than other more iconic birds it seems. Whether it's their colours, their personalities, their vocal gymnastics, their ubiqituousness in many regions (thanks to predator control), tūī capture people's hearts and minds like no other. Have they enchanted you? What stories have they told you?
Judi Lapsley Miller
Fine art inspired by the stories of birds and the natural world. Starting with photographs, I let my imagination take me on flights of fancy. What is real and what is imagined is blurred. What is physical and what is virtual is disrupted. Bursting with colour and life.
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