Avianautics

My fas­ci­na­tion with the grace and beau­ty of avian flight that I was observ­ing and doc­u­ment­ing in pho­tographs even­tu­al­ly col­lid­ed with what I had learned many years ago as a pilot, aero­nau­tics instruc­tor and one-time air­craft design­er. What I saw as I watched birds fly sim­ply did not agree with the mea­ger expla­na­tions of bird flight as pre­sent­ed in most ornitho­log­i­cal lit­er­a­ture. The more I stud­ied bird flight the more I found that it did not fol­low aero­nau­tics, as I knew it, either.
Clear­ly, this was new ter­ri­to­ry and I soon leaned that I could not nav­i­gate it with pre­con­ceived notions.

heron on a piling in the harbor

Pro­fes­sor G. Blue Heron

My first pro­fes­sor, a state­ly old Great Blue Heron, set me on the path of re-think­ing how birds fly. As a fine art pho­tog­ra­ph­er, my spe­cial­ty is birds in flight and Prof. Heron returned repeat­ed­ly to his favorite fish­ing spot allow­ing me, if I crept up slow­ly, to pho­to­graph him when he stopped fish­ing for the day and flew off.

Focused as I was on cap­tur­ing the ‘per­fect pho­to­graph­ic moment,’ I was an inat­ten­tive stu­dent; for­tu­nate­ly, he was a patient teacher. Day after day, he would cease fish­ing, glance at me, raise his great wings, let out a brief squawk, tilt for­ward and fly.

Final­ly, one day as he flew off, I grasped just what he was try­ing to teach me. With a side­ways glance to see if I was look­ing, Pro­fes­sor Heron squawked, “Watch me.”

With a sin­gle down­ward beat of his great wings, he hurled him­self two body lengths (body + extend­ed legs) for­ward. This was astound­ing – his wings moved down but his body moved for­ward!  How could I have missed see­ing this?

heron taking offThe Pro­fes­sor, demon­strat­ing how his wings pro­pel him for­ward

How did he con­vert ver­ti­cal move­ment of his wings into hor­i­zon­tal move­ment of his body? With that I began my pho­to­graph­ic explo­ration into bird flight.

7 Responses to Avianautics

  1. Donald V. Cook says:

    Hel­lo Richard-
    Great Blog. Thank you for your efforts.
    I am a retired Mechan­i­cal Engi­neer and have had a long time inter­est in bird flight. Most recent­ly I have been study­ing the aero­nau­tics of low speed fliers: large birds, pterosaurs, foot-launched glid­ers, and ornithopters.
    Your thoughts on bird flight are intrigu­ing, and your pho­tographs are illus­tra­tive of the process­es.
    Please add me to your list. Thanks.
    -Don

  2. Sheila Carnegie says:

    I’ll bet that the down­ward and slight­ly back motion of the wings cre­ates the bird’s own slip­stream draw­ing the bird for­ward, rather than pro­pelling the body for­ward against the wind. When I stud­ied to become a res­pi­ra­to­ry ther­a­pist, we had to learn about the bernouli and ven­turi prin­ci­ples in physics to explain how neb­u­liz­ers work, and I think some com­bi­na­tion of those prin­ci­ples are involved here in bird flight. Ele­gant.

    Richard, I love your sense of humor (Pro­fes­sor Heron real­ly does look pro­fes­so­r­i­al on his perch podi­um!). I’m a new recip­i­ent of your week­ly pic­tures, and couldn’t be more delight­ed. I love the sharp­ness, com­po­si­tion and nar­ra­tive of your pho­tos. I for­ward them to fam­i­ly too. Thank you so much for bring­ing a respite of joy into people’s every­day lives. Keep on keep­ing on!

  3. Gisela says:

    Just read your lit­tle sto­ry about Pro­fes­sor G. Blue Heron. For some rea­son it brought tears to my eyes. You have many tal­ents and are a gift­ed pho­tog­ra­ph­er and writer. I think you are the Bird Whis­per­er.
    Thank you so much!

  4. admin says:

    Thanks.
    I am 81, just get­ting start­ed
    Richard

  5. Bhimaprasad Maiti says:

    Sim­ply great.What is your age.I am approac­ing 70.

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