Prove your humanity

This story comes from our partners at WPSU.

The National Audubon Society has named this year’s winners of its bird photography contest. One of the winners is Sandra Rothenberg, from Warren, Pennsylvania. WPSU reporter Sydney Roach talked with her to learn more about the picture of a yellow Baltimore Oriole that won the prize for best photo of a female bird.

LISTEN to their conversation


Sydney Roach: Help me set the scene here for how you got this picture. Before taking the shot, you say you went out to your bird blind — that’s an outdoor wooden structure with windows — so you could see the birds and take pictures. And you set out some food and nest-building materials for any birds passing through. Then what?

Sandra Rothenberg: Yeah. She came in very briefly. She flew in. And generally when female Orioles come in, if they’re building their nest, they will take one tiny little strand of horsehair and usually then they go and have a bite of orange. Or they’ll have a sip of nectar or a bit of grape jelly and often they forget they have the horsehair and leave it there.

But in this instance, the female Oriole just swooped in and took this large clump of horsehair and with a little bit of twine mixed in and flew off immediately. She didn’t pause or she wasn’t distracted by the food. She was completely directed in her pursuit of this clump of horsehair and off she flew.

I kept my finger on the shutter, hoping to capture images as she flew off, but it just happened so fast that I only got the one image of her. But it looked, as she flew it just looked like this wonderful diaphanous veil, enveloping her. And it was so unique. It was something I had never seen before. So I was very much struck by the image and kind of entranced by it also.

Certificate of Audubon Photography Award. It reads, "2023 Audubon Photography Awards certifies that Sandra M. Rothenberg is the winner of the female bird prize. A quote from Purbita Saha, former Audubon editor and member of Bergen County Audubon Society, reads "we usually see the grace and inventiveness that goes into a Baltimore Oriole's nest manifest in the final product. But in this photograph, we get to witness the female oriole literally wrapped up in the process. It conveys urgency and a healthy dose of whimsy, which is one of my favorite ways to think about birds, female or not." The certificate is signed at the bottom by Sabine Meyer, photography director of the National Audubon Society.

National Audubon Society

Sydney Roach: How did you get the picture? Did you already have the camera set up? Like, were you already watching her?

Sandra Rothenber: During the month of May, I just become obsessed with the magic that happens in May. I spend as much time as I can outdoors and witness the kaleidoscope of colors emerging as the Earth shrugs off her winter sepia and white hues, those dull tones and observe the burgeoning display of their verdure, the explosion of blossoms.

So I spend about five or 10 hours every day in May outside. I’m standing in my blind with my camera and lens. In this case, it was a 200 to 600 millimeter lens. Usually I use the 600, but I’m kind of glad I was able to go a little bit wider for her, and I’m just so pulled in by the beauty as I stand there. It’s kind of an opportunity to release any thoughts that you’ve been caught up with about political or environmental or family or whatever you’re worrying about or thinking about and just be swept up into the beauty of nature.

For me, it’s kind of like my cathedral, I’d say, where I feel more actively awake and aware and just really present to all my physical experiences. My feet standing on the ground, and the solidity of the camera, just waiting for the next bird to come in or whatever comes in. Sometimes it’s not a bird. Sometimes it might be a woodchuck or a tiny eft that marches in on its path.

Sydney Roach: How did you get started with bird photography?

Sandra Rothenberg: I got started with bird photography, or photography in general, from the time I was a child. My first camera was a Brownie camera. I was probably eight or nine. I was just really loving it. I developed my own. It was black and white that I liked, to begin with. And I developed some of my own images and mostly nature, but I did photograph people back then. And then life went on and I became a psychotherapist and a yoga teacher and didn’t really have the time to devote to photography.

But now that I’m retired I have all the time in the world. So there’s a lot to love about photography and just being in nature. For me it’s also that awareness of the passage of time. All creatures, all flora are ephemeral. Each instant becomes precious. And with a photograph you’re capturing one infinitesimal facet of a moment and as you look at that photograph, after I’ve taken the image and I go home to my computer or come into the house to my computer and import it, you see so much more.

First, you see that gestalt, the integrity and wholeness of the image. And then you begin to see more and more. With the image that you’re referring [to] it’s the Baltimore Oriole female. I hadn’t noticed in that second when I took the image, her intense gaze. She just looks so focused and determined. Well, I’m projecting onto her, but that’s how she appears to me. And just the weight of her body on the branch, you can see a little bit of dipping in the branch.

Sydney Roach: I really like just how much of the horsehairs are coming off of her. Like, it’s a pretty big amount. It’s like taking up the whole branch in that picture.

Sandra Rothenberg: Yes, and it appears very solid but in reality, it weighs nothing. I mean, those little horsehairs are just kind of weightless so they just floated around her. I thought they were so beautiful. [I’ve gotten] lots of attention since my image has been in the magazine and online. I’ve received numerous calls and numerous people wanting to purchase images.

Sydney Roach: How do you feel about all that attention?

Sandra Rothenberg: I feel curious about it. I mean, of course, I’m honored to have my image in the magazine, and I’m always hoping with my images of nature to promote other people to get out there and open their eyes.

Sometimes I see so many people hiking with their cell phones. Of course, I have mine, but I do keep it tucked in my back pocket. There’s so much to see and so much to hear and so much to feel. Just the air touching your skin. And how your body, your trapezius muscle maybe, relaxes in the back of your neck and shoulders with the sun on your back. And just feeling your feet on the earth.

I love the sensual aspects of being outside and just again, I know I already mentioned it, but the wonder and awe at the beauty of the sunset, the beauty of a flower. Or even a tiny mosquito if you see it on your arm. My sister often holds up her arm to look at it as we’re walking and watches it closely. Just feeling that connection to other creatures that we share the Earth with and hopefully it will instill a love of nature and people will want to do something to protect our mother Earth.

Sydney Roach: Sandra Rothenberg, thank you for talking with us.

Sandra Rothenberg: Well, thank you so very much.