Photographic Proof

A Little Compton fisherman captures rare birds on film

The Bay Magazine ·

Never underestimate the allure of the adult male Indigo Bunting at your feeder. This was the rare bird that brought commercial shell fisherman Geoff Dennis into the world of birding and bird photography some 17 years ago. No longer were winged things just circling, cawing annoyances over his hauled catch.

Dennis, 53, has been a shell fisherman on Narragansett Bay for 30 years. Beyond ravenous gulls and other scavengers, he didn’t really notice birds until he moved from Tiverton to bird paradise, Little Compton.

“We set up a feeder in the yard and I started seeing birds I’d never seen before," says Dennis. “It was seeing an adult male Indigo Bunting at my feeder for the first time one spring that helped hook me on birds. I had no idea what it was and (it) made me want to learn about them – learn to identify them by sight and later on, by sound.”

It was also that year, 1995, that he inherited his first high-quality camera, a manual-focus 35mm – the old type of ‘slide’ camera, almost extinct now in the digital age. He began photographing birds and has never really shot anything else through his lens.

His rarest find has been an Ivory Gull. Only three have ever been recorded in Rhode Island and, Dennis adds, “Remarkably, two are here in Little Compton and recent.” He first saw the rare bird in January 2010 on an iced-over Quicksand Pond. Speaking in the style of his written notations, he says, “A bird of the high Arctic. Circumpolar. Numbers are declining. Rarely migrates south of the Canadian Maritimes in the winter. I came across it one evening just before sunset on the far east side of the pond and took a risk of walking on the thin ice after a recent thaw. I knew the pond was shallow where the gull was and I also knew (that) my chances of photographing another Ivory Gull in my life were unlikely.”

His first attempts at photography were not artistic. People didn’t believe what he said he saw. “The reason I began photographing birds was to have photographic proof when an unusual bird appeared in my yard. There were times I knew when birding friends had doubt on yard sightings,” he says.

Dennis has ceased keeping track, but he has seen more than 180 different species in his own yard. One of the most motivating was also the smallest. “In October 1995, a western hummingbird, a Rufous Hummingbird, showed up in my yard. It was the first time a Rufous Hummingbird was recorded in Rhode Island. That was, no doubt, a catalyst to push me deeper into birds,” he adds.

Dennis believes that a perfect bird photo is achieved by good light, knowing the subject and great patience. “I generally use a blind,” he says. “I have three blinds and have been known to stay in a blind for up to eight hours for one shot...or one chance at a shot, and many times it doesn’t even happen. But when it happens, it’s a great feeling,”

Timing and luck can also come into play. “All sorts of things can go into a perfect bird photo. The bird’s eye in focus is a must,” Dennis says. “Catching the bird in action, doing what that particular bird does: a hummingbird nectaring, an Osprey catching a fish, even a bird sleeping or preening feathers can be nice.”

His photographs have led Dennis to shoot for three bird feeder companies including Aspects, Inc. in Warren. He displays at Audubon’s Learning Center in Bristol, at Kettle Pond Visitor Center in Charlestown and even at Cornell University.

His primary photo targets fly above him, land near him, hover and assess the landscapes that other photographers might choose to capture, but not Geoff. “I did photograph a wedding once, more a favor (to someone), and knew it was my last and I’d stick to birds. I don’t have to worry what the bird thinks about its portrait,” he says. To see Geoff Dennis’ bird photos go to (all images are his).


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