Jackson Trappett captures local birds in perpetuity
Until Jackson Trappett showed up with his camera, birding in western Colorado mostly lacked the show of “show-and-tell.”
A few local birders — Coen Dexter and Brenda Wright of Nucla, Dennis Garrison of Paonia and Steve Bouricius on Orchard Mesa come to mind — occasionally enliven their written reports with photos of unexpected birds spotted on their jaunts, but what is a mostly visual adventure consisted largely of words and not many pictures.
This, of course, makes identifying and learning new birds difficult for a beginner and baffles experienced birders curious whether you actually saw an American Three-toed woodpecker or simply the similar-but-four-toed Hairy woodpecker.
While there probably are many reasons for the lack of photos accompanying bird reports, the major hang-up is something with which all birders will agree: The degree of difficulty in juggling binoculars, guide books and camera and still obtaining a decent (meaning you actually can tell it’s a bird) photograph.
Visual confirmation means a lot to birders adding to their personal lists, and it helps immensely that Trappett’s photos also add artistic enjoyment to the task of identifying birds large and small.
Successful bird photographers possess a combination of patience, skill and determination. Plus a knowledge of birds and their behavior — not to mention a certain amount of luck.
“Luck always plays a role,” said Jackson with a laugh. “I almost always carry a camera with me. It’s those times when I don’t that I see the rare bird.”
During a recent conversation, the 31-year-old said he may leave the camera in the car if it’s raining, “but that can hurt because you’re sure to see a bird not on your list.”
Like the time when he and landscape photographer pal Randy Langstraat (they both do IT work for the City of Grand Junction) were out looking at rock art and a pair of short-eared owls appeared.
“That was a pretty strenuous hike and it was raining when we started and I didn’t feel like carrying that big camera with me,” he said. “And then, when it stopped raining, there were two short-eared owls right there on our path.
“I needed them for my life list, and I had no camera.”
Like most birders, Jackson has several personal bird lists. There is his year list, his life list, his Mesa County list, a Colorado list, and his photo list, among others.
“The photo list is my main one but it’s shorter than my life list,” Jackson said.
He estimates he has around 290 birds on his life list (those birds seen anytime, anywhere) and around 270 in his photo list.
“There still are a number of birds I still haven’t got a photo of,” he said. “Yeah, like short-eared owls.”
He tracks his various lists on E-bird, an Internet-based project of Cornell University’s Lab of Ornithology that collates and organizes individual observations and viewing results and shares that information with birders and scientists worldwide.
You can check here to read his latest e-bird entry: http://ebird.org/ebird/view/checklist?subID=S12992963.
Jackson said he got his start birding when he was 15, long before he became interested in photographing them.
“When I was growing up we didn’t do any serious birding although my parents always had a feeder out,” he recalled. “When I was 15 we had a Scarlet Tanager come to my parents’ yard and I looked it up in a bird book to identify it.”
Local birders Ron Lambeth and Coen Dexter rushed over to verify the ID and other birders soon followed.
“That got me interested,” he said.
His parents, Dave and Diane Trappett of Grand Junction, are active birders and often volunteer their time with the Grand Valley Audubon Society.
Jackson said one of the family’s earliest birding trips was a driving trip around the perimeter of Mexico when he still was young.
“We saw a lot of birds, and I’m sure my life list more than doubled,” he said. “But at the time I wasn’t really into keeping lists and I didn’t take any photographs, so now I can’t remember many of the birds.”
Dave Trappett pointed to that trip as the family’s catalyst into serious birding.
“Ron Lambeth loaned us a book on the birds of Mexico and we had one pair of binoculars among us,” Dave Trappett remembered. “We saw some pretty interesting birds and as part of Jackson’s school work he made drawings of the different birds on the trip.”
Jackson’s first camera was in the days before digital made everything easy.
“His wife Sara wanted to get him a camera so we went together and bought it,” recalled Dave Trappett. “He started going out with us with the idea he wanted to photograph every bird but he quickly found out that camera wouldn’t do the job.”
Jackson said he learned a great deal about photography by taking classes with Grand Junction photographer Steve Traudt.
“That was in the days of film cameras and I would take so long to expose an entire roll that by the time I got it developed, I would have forgotten where I was or what the bird was,” he said, laughing.
“I had the camera but no money to buy the film.”
He said his wife Sara mostly is a backyard birder and able to identify the common birds around town, while their 4-year-old son Ken might be a birder someday but currently seems more interested in earthquakes.
While at then-Mesa State College, Jackson finished a degree in computer sciences, which helped land him his current position with the city’s GIS department.
“When digital cameras finally came out and I could afford one, I got completely hooked because I realized I could take all these photographs of birds and not worry about buying film,” he said.
He also learned to carry his binoculars with him.
“Before I started birding I didn’t really realize how many ducks we have along the river,” he said. “I’d go out with my parents and they’d say, ‘Look at all the buffleheads and goldeneyes,” and I’d say, ‘What buffleheads and goldeneyes?’”
Without binoculars, he tried spotting birds through the camera lens, but quickly realized why other birders were carrying binoculars.
“Friends would say, ‘Look at that bird,’ and I’d be looking through the lens and say, ‘What bird?’
“I keep my binoculars with me all the time now.”
Four years ago, he bought himself his current camera, a Canon 7D with a 300-mm lens, to which he attaches a 1.4-extender, giving him the equivalent of a 420-mm lens for exquisite long-range close-ups.
“But I have to be careful,” he said. “The camera shoots at seven frames per second, and sometimes I’ll get carried away. Some days I’ll take 500 to 600 exposures and then I have to go through all of them when I get home.”
He and his parents often chase down reports of interesting or unusual birds, taking photos to examine later.
“He’s done that quite a bit with us,” said Dave Trappett. “We like him to come with us and document things, it sure makes it easier.”
Many other birders also are pleased to see his photos.
Recently a local discussion about what tentatively had been identified as a Yellow-bellied Sapsucker, unusual for western Colorado, was solved after Ron Lambeth sent Trappett’s photographs of the bird to sapsucker expert and photographer Steve Mlodinow of Everett, Wash.
“Steve declared the immature Grand Valley bird a classic Yellow-bellied Sapsucker,” Lambeth said. “Jackson’s photographs showed the bird better than our powerful spotting scopes had done.”
Larry Arnold, another Grand Valley birder, added, “Jackson’s photos have convinced the pros on the Front Range that it’s a YBSA,” using the American Ornithologists’ Union shorthand for the sapsucker.
“But without Jackson’s photos, the conversations would not have happened,” Arnold wrote in an email. “This is an important record for western Colorado.”
Plus, Arnold exuberantly added, “Jackson is definitely adding value, fun and excitement to our local birding experience!”
Jackson shrugs off most of the compliments, not because he isn’t appreciative but because he feels he always can do better.
“I want to make an artistically good photo and then come back and put it on the list-serve so people can go out and find the bird I just saw,” he said. “People want to know what to look for and have confidence that they see the same bird you saw.”
Plus, he’s found people respond better to a photo.
“You get a bigger response to a photo than a written description,” he said. “Sometimes it’s difficult to get correct ID, so a good photograph is necessary.”