Wing Men: From Travel Photographers to Local Birders

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In March 2020, during the early days of the Covid‑19 global pandemic, two photographers who didn't know each other and lived an ocean apart turned to an unlikely and mutual hobby – birding. Alexi Hobbs from Eastman, Québec, and Barcelona‑based Gunnar Knechtel both started watching birds actively, because while everything else in their life was suddenly put on hold, the birds were still there. We were curious to know how they captured their new elusive subjects and how birds inspired them during this time, so enRoute put them in touch to have a photographic conversation on the fly.

January 22, 2021

From: Alexi Hobbs
To: Gunnar Knechtel

Hi Gunnar,

I hope you’re well. I’m writing to you from the Eastern Townships, Québec. I wanted to start this exchange by telling you about the pre‑pandemic event that reignited my very first passion in life: birding. As a kid, I was obsessed with finding and keeping a record of every species of bird I could spot.

It all came back to me while walking in the forest, on a frozen February morning, after a big snowstorm. Some days, the cold, crisp air has this extreme clarity to it, and everything feels more palpable. As I looked down from the low blinding sun, I saw these markings in the snow and immediately, the 10‑year‑old in me knew what had happened.

No mystery here, just plain murder. That might sound overdramatic, but this large depression in the snow, surrounded by visible traces of wingtips, are created by a predatory bird swooping down to catch its prey before taking off again. The impressive wing prints and the depth of the depression in the snow told me it might have been an owl catching some sort of vole or mouse. Did you know that owls always eat their prey whole, and that they start by popping off the head?

I look forward to seeing your photos.

Alexi

Snow prints of a scuffle between bird and prey
   Photo: Alexi Hobbs

From: Gunnar Knechtel
To: Alexi Hobbs

Hey Alexi,

What an interesting start to your current birding experience. It must feel quite eerie to see those murderous bird prints in the snow.

My family and I live right in the centre of Barcelona in a busy neighbourhood called Eixample. When we became fully locked down in March, suddenly the usual sights and sounds of traffic and people were replaced by something new, something I’d never noticed before. The twittering of songbirds! From the communal rooftop I share with my neighbours, my eyes followed my ears and I saw a greenfinch for the first time. When it took off, I watched the swift swings of its feathers, the beautiful patterns and colours, in sheer contrast to the grey wires and towers. Yet all this taking place before my eyes happened in a fraction of a second. It was too fast to give me the chance to create a lasting impression in my mind. My photographer’s ambition was triggered.

I went back to my flat and picked up an old 100‑400 Canon telephoto lens that I hardly ever use because of its weight. But through the viewfinder of my Canon 5DSR and the heavyweight zoom, I was able to snap a photo of a greenfinch in striking detail.

Best,
Gunnar

A rooftop scene in Barcelona, Spain
   Photo: Gunnar Knechtel

From: Alexi Hobbs
To: Gunnar Knechtel

Hi Gunnar,

Wow, we are really in opposite habitats! What’s incredible though, is that birds are able to live in both.

A month after my snowy, deadly discovery, the world shut down and Canadians were sent into confinement.

With so much time on my hands and a forest right at my door, I decided to venture out and attempt to track the owl whose traces I’d discovered a month before to try to identify it. This was the moment when I realized I could combine my childhood passion, ornithology, with my grown‑up passion, photography.

As spring was about to spread its wings, the migration season was calling me outside. Of the birds that breed in Canada, 90 percent migrate. This means that every spring, hundreds of new species fly back up to their northern habitats to breed. Red‑winged blackbirds are among the first to arrive, and they make themselves heard with an easily recognizable scolding chak chak chak as they stake their territory.

I can’t wait to see what shows up in my backyard!

Alexi

A red-winged blackbird coming in for a landing on a snow covered field
   Photo: Alexi Hobbs

From: Gunnar Knechtel
To: Alexi Hobbs

Hi Alexi,

What a great picture! It’s fantastic that we share the same passion for our feathered friends with our own distinctive approaches.

How did you take the picture of the red‑winged blackbird? Do you wait at a fixed spot and hope a bird appears? For me it’s always a waiting game since I am limited to the roof terrace. I wait for the songbirds to appear and the exact moment they land or take off again. I prefer taking the picture of the bird in midair, approaching an antenna for example. I like the contrast between the grey, urban background and the colourful, organic shapes of the birds, in this case, a greenfinch.

Best,
Gunnar

A greenfinch flying by an antenna in Barcelona, Spain
   Photo: Gunnar Knechtel

From: Alexi Hobbs
To: Gunnar Knechtel

Hi Gunnar,

My approach is quite the opposite since I actively set out to find birds. Being in a rural setting means that I’m surrounded by them, but to observe as many species as possible, I have to leave the house.

It’s beyond therapeutic to find myself alone in the woods, reconnecting with a passion that had been dormant for years, trying to identify dozens of songs raining down on me from the branches above.

One day, during a walk along the river, I came across an impressive gathering of cedar waxwings and I witness some courtship behaviour where one mate would pick a gift and give it to the other bird, alternating back and forth and sometimes touching their bills together. Fluid exchanges and big gatherings: quite a contrast to the mental and physical isolation we are in at the moment!

Best,
Alexi

Two cedar waxwings engaging in courtship rituals with their beaks touching
   Photo: Alexi Hobbs

From: Gunnar Knechtel
To: Alexi Hobbs

Hi Alexi,

I have to admit that spending hours on the roof and only being able to observe birds in a limited space of antennas and cables makes me appreciate the moment. No plans, no rushing around during the daily routines, only the now, looking at the sky and waiting for a bird to break the geometrical shapes of the urban landscape.

With time I have learned to distinguish their different kinds of twittering and rituals (but not all of them since I’m not sure what these two playful waxbills are doing!). It makes me feel connected with nature even in the harsh urban environment.

Best,
Gunnar

Two waxbills enjoying their perch on a cable in Barcelona
   Photo: Gunnar Knechtel

From: Alexi Hobbs
To: Gunnar Knechtel

Hey Gunnar,

I love how your rooftop situation allowed for these really clean compositions with straight lines and minimal backgrounds. Quite a contrast to the mess that is nature, with its twisted branches and organic layers. I suppose it also shows us the hand that we, as humans, have played in shaping the environment around us.

As the months passed, I followed the birds, first as they sang in spring to attract a mate and establish their territory, then later I’d see them carrying materials to build their nests. A couple of Eastern phoebes built one right under our roof. By summer’s end, I observed the little ones being fed by their parents.

And here I realized how that initial murder scene I captured wasn’t murder at all, it was just a part of this same cycle of life. On this tiny branch, two birds, living on the wind, were completing a ritual that goes back literally millions of years, completely unaffected by the events that have so deeply changed our own lives.

Best,
Alexi

An sequence of photos showing two birds interacting on a summer's day
   Photos: Alexi Hobbs

To purchase Gunnar Knechtel’s bird photos, visit his shop here.