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.

  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:

    I am 81, just getting started

  5. Bhimaprasad Maiti says:

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

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