Q&A with Wildlife Photographer Peter Shen
By Ryan Nakano and Peter Shen
About this Q&A
After receiving the announcement for the National Audubon Society Photography Competition Winners, I reached out to Golden Gate Bird Alliance member and most recent winner of the NAS Photography Amateur Award, Peter Shen. Peter was recognized for his photo of a Western Grebe and her chicks fighting over a fish down at the Calero Reservoir in San Jose, CA. After reading his initial conversation about the photo in the Audubon Magazine article (I recommend checking this out) on the award winners, I was struck by his self-reflection on his own family dynamics and sibling relationship growing up. I realized I wanted to know more about Peter’s thoughts on being a wildlife photographer, birder and of course, I had to know about his “siblings and mom in the middle” story. My conversation with Peter was a pleasure and I hope readers are able to get a glimpse of the person behind the camera, and his journey leading up to the beautiful shot below.
Check out Peter’s Youtube Channel here.
Q&A with Peter Shen
RN: When and why did you first get into birding and bird photography?
PS: For the longest time my hobby and passion outside of work was golf. Golf was a great tool to do business with work clients and I was all about business and my career at the time.. But about eight years ago I injured my right knee and was unable to put weight on my right side on the backswing.
A lot of people said I should get into jogging, hiking, walking but I’m a very task oriented person which is why I loved golf. With golf you have tasks and a goal on the golf course. After playing a round when I would get home, I could visualize and replay some of my bad shots in my mind and work on my golf swing and putting techniques. When a friend suggested birding and bird photography I initially thought it was a silly idea but we ended up going out to Coyote Hills where I saw American Kestrel and Red-tailed Hawk for the first time. At that moment, I knew I was in love with wildlife photography and birding. I suddenly realized that birds were all around me and that I missed this deep sense of connection to nature in my life.
Eventually I joined Facebook’s Fremont Birding Circle monthly bird walk before joining Ohlone Audubon, Mt. Diablo Audubon and Golden Gate Bird Alliance. Even though I don’t participate much, I like to contribute.
RN: What do you enjoy most about birding?
PS: I had a hectic career in Advertising and Marketing and worked long hours. I never paid much attention to the nature surrounding me, and I didn’t even notice any birds in our backyard. The only bird I knew was the Turkey Vulture. But once I started birding, it opened a new horizon for me, seeing things I was unaware of before.
I started out as a wildlife photographer, but as each year goes by, I want to learn more about bird behavior and habitats. I also took a class from Golden Gate Bird Alliance on birding by ear. I love Denise’s workshop class, she is a fantastic birder and teacher.
About six years ago, I wanted to create a “sanctuary” for the birds in our backyard. We started the process of re-doing our front and backyard to make it a bird-friendly place for them. We replanted many new plants and flowers that birds would enjoy. I set up the water feature and built a homemade water fountain for hummingbirds and all other birds to take a bath on a hot summer day. We cut down trees and replanted trees that bear berries that birds can eat in different seasons. It’s my private Ardenwood water fountain oasis. I love to just pull up a chair, with my favorite drink (water) and my camera and watch birds come in and out of the water fountain. It is my way of meditating to relax my mind.
RN: What do you enjoy the most about bird photography?
PS: Birds move very fast, and sometimes we can not observe their subtle movements with our naked eyes. The camera’s fast shutter speed can “freeze” them in motion where I can enjoy watching them again in the comfort of my home to study their mid-air flight.
Besides taking photos, I also enjoy taking short video clips (see Youtube Page) because nature doesn’t exist in a still frame. Nature and wildlife are constantly in motion, change, and dynamic interaction. I started my YouTube Channel with many slow-motion videos too, and when the movement is slowed, I can genuinely appreciate the beauty and magnificence of the birds.
Let’s put it this way, going out birding is half the fun, coming home to look at the same bird you just saw is the second part of the fun. It’s interesting, at the beginning I didn’t understand the birds so my pictures weren’t very good, but once I understood the birds my photos got better and by studying the photos I knew the birds better.
RN: While many serious birders choose their outings based on specific species they are hoping to see, I was wondering as a photographer if you go out hoping to capture specific moments/birds in a similar fashion. If so, is there a bird/bird behavior that you are keen on documenting that you haven’t been able to capture yet?
PS: I know many birders and wildlife photographers like to travel to different regions to get their lifer birds. But I don’t have a life bird list. To me, it’s not important. What’s important to me is learning about bird behavior and habitat. If I see the same White-crowned Sparrow everyday I’m happy.
That’s why I set up a space in our backyard. This way I can observe bird patterns, notice that specific birds will come and leave at a certain time each year, and understand their individual behaviors and habitat.
For the past eight years, I’ve done most of my birding in the greater Bay Area and the farthest place I’ve been birding is Sacramento. I just want to enjoy what we have here and now.
My birding buddy Arnold is a talented birder. I learned a lot from him and enjoy his company when we go out to do our daily morning walk to explore different parks in the area. In my birding journey, I am fortunate to have a group of good friends who are also passionate about birding; they respect and care for the welfare of the wildlife. They are my Golden mates and Birding Friends groups.
RN: The Western Grebe photo is amazing, what feelings does it elicit when you look at it? What about the moment made you stop and think, oh this is special, I need to capture this?
PS: I was a little late this year and have not returned to this location for two years. I missed the mating and rushing and did not see any grebes at the usual places from the past. I walked about half a mile and saw only this pair with babies. Three babies were on mom’s back, and the male was busy hunting for fish. Within 30 minutes, the male came back multiple times with fish, but each time it was not facing me. Then, once mom turned around and faced me directly, I knew I got something special.
RN: You mentioned in the Audubon article that the babies fighting over the fish reminded you of your own family and siblings. What kind of rivalry moments can you recall from your childhood and what role did your parental figures have during these moments?
PS: One Christmas many moons ago, our parents gave my younger brother a toy gun, and when I opened my gift, I was so disappointed to see a toy camera inside. I wanted my brother’s gun. I chased him, running around and crying “Mom, this is not fair! I don’t want this camera!”. Our mom pulled me over and said something I later applied throughout my life, school, and career. “Son, life may not be fair but you have a long life ahead and you don’t know what the future will hold for you.” How funny, now, everywhere I go, I always have a camera with me. Thank you, mom!
RN: What challenges if any did you face leading up to this shot?
The ground was very rocky and dirty with bird droppings, but I didn’t care. I dropped to the ground as low as I could get, I wanted to get to near eye level to the grebes. When mom turned and faced me and made eye contact while the babies were fighting over the fish. My heart was pumping fast!
RN: Could you describe the moment you found out that you were one of the winners of the prestigious 2022 Audubon photography awards?
PS: Believe it or not, I have never submitted my photos to any competition until this year’s Audubon Photography contest. In March, the National Audubon Society sent out an email reminding members that it was the final day to submit photos for the competition. I thought, ‘okay, I will pick one of my favorite photos and donate the money to a good cause’. About a month later, I received a second notice email from NAS that I’d made the semi-final. I cannot believe I thought the first notice was spam, so I deleted it. I am just glad Cerea at NAS followed up with me. About a month later, I got some calls from NY. Little did I know, it was NAS Photography Director Sabine calling to tell me I had won an award! I was on cloud nine when she gave me the good news! I was required not to say anything till NAS made the announcement. So, it was tough to go out birding with friends without telling them the great news.