An eye for nature

PHOTOGRAPHER:
Larry Master took numerous photos of brown bears feeding on salmon in Katmai National Park in Alaska while in 2011. (Photo courtesy of Larry Master Ñ Masterimages.org)

LAKE PLACID — Larry Master chuckled softly as he talked about his boyhood and how his mom and brothers noticed early on how much he liked to look out the window at the birds and squirrels.

“My brothers were quite a bit older than me, and they had to babysit,” Master said over lunch this week. “When they wanted some alone time with their girlfriends, they’d say, ‘Larry go look at the squirrels’ and then they would have some privacy to neck.”

That lifelong love of the outdoors has taken Master around the world, spawned his schooling and career, and led to a fulfilling retirement of photographing birds and wildlife. It’s a pursuit that he hopes will inspire others to appreciate the natural world around us.

Life and career

Hailing from the suburbs of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, Master took an early interest in the natural world.

“I’ve been enamored of the natural world my entire life,” he said. “There’s a story, I don’t know if it’s true or not, but my mother said when I was in my crib I spent a lot of time looking out the window watching a robin building a nest and feeding its young.

“I knew in fourth grade I wanted to be a biologist or geologist. I was very lucky I knew what I wanted to do, and even luckier that I got to do it for my career.

“I just always loved the natural world. I was once sitting around a table with a bunch of other biologists, and we all said, ‘How’d you get started?,’ and it seemed like everybody had a pond or a stream in their backyard where they monkeyed around as a kid, you know, with salamanders and tadpoles and everything, and that’s true for me, too.”

Master didn’t really get into birds until he was in high school, when a teacher sparked his interest. But despite his lasting passion and world-class bird photography, Master said he’s always loved mammals as well. In fact, he did his Ph.D. thesis on mammalian behavior.

Master took that early interest in the natural world through college and into graduate school. He eventually went to work for The Nature Conservancy and then a nonprofit group called NatureServe, which was the science division of TNC and is now its own 501(c)3 organization. His studies and career led him to Michigan for school and then to Boston, where he worked on creating nature preserves and other conservation measures around the Northeast.

“I had the best job in the world, I thought,” he said.

After he retired about 10 years ago, Master moved full-time to the Adirondacks, settling in Lake Placid. It was a natural fit for someone whose family had a camp on Lake Placid dating back to the early 1900s.

“My great-grandparents built my grandparents a camp on Lake Placid in 1903 as a wedding present,” he said. “It stayed in the family until 1968. My grandmother, whose camp it was, my father, my uncle and I all share the same birthday in July, so we have sort a big family birthday party.”

Despite a break in his Adirondack visits due to a divorce in the family, Master was soon attending school at St. Lawrence University and making regular trips to the Tri-Lakes, where he met his future wife.

“We’d been coming here seasonally ever since: many times a year from Ann Arbor (Michigan), where we lived for 12 years, then from Boston, where we lived for 25 years,” he said. “It just seemed like a natural place to be.”

Photography

Once Master retired, he took on several advisory roles, serving on the boards of nonprofits and continuing his passion for learning about and sharing his joy of the outdoors. One of the most recognizable ways he does that is through his nature photography.

“You can see birds (and) look at them year-round. They’re just fun to watch. They’re colorful,” he said. “I used to keep a life list (of birds he’s seen), but now I’d rather take a good picture of a common bird than see a new bird.

“I love trying to turn people on to nature through photography. It seems to me that a visual medium like photography has a really good potential for inspiring people.”

In the world of nature photographers, some people may have hidden gems or secret spots they keep close to their vest. But Master is more than happy to get the word out about rare birds or his favorite spots.

This desire for others to share in his joy has been on example twice very publicly this winter. At the end of January, Tupper Lake resident Jack Delahanty spotted a bird on the ice in front of his house. Delahanty, who is no slouch himself when it comes to winged creatures, took a photo and sent it to Master.

Within hours, birders were driving to Tupper Lake from around the country to get a glimpse of the bird that is rarely seen south of the Arctic Circle.

Master explained that he had the bird’s identity confirmed by experts in Connecticut, and soon the word was out that a Ross’s gull in its first-year plummage was hanging around the Adirondack town.

Locals flocked (pun intended) to the area, as did people from every state that shares a border with New York. There were license plates from Ohio and Michigan spotted near Simon Pond as well.

“It’s the rarest bird I’ve ever seen in New York state,” Master said, noting that it was likely a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for many people.

Just this week, a great gray owl was spotted in Keene, and Master’s breathtaking photos of the bird that stands about 3 feet tall have inspired dozens of bird watchers and photographers to make the pilgrimage to the town known more for its hiking.

Master has also traveled the world in search of wildlife to photograph. About 10 years ago, he took a cruise to the South Atlantic, in search of penguins and other southern hemisphere birds.

“It was a three-week trip, going out of the Falkland Islands,” he said. “In South Georgia (Island), there’s no predators, nothing that eats birds or penguins or anything else. So as a result, all the birds there are tame as can be.

“They were hunted a little bit by whalers way, way, way back when, but nothing recent. And so I sat down on the beach and put my little sort of nature hat next to me. And within five minutes, I had four or five different species of birds coming up and pecking at the hat right beside me.

“The penguins just walked right past you. They don’t see humans as a threat.”

Although he has had close-up encounters like this, he said that advances in camera technology have made it a little easier to get shots of more reclusive animals.

“The nice thing about telephoto lenses is you don’t have to intrude,” he said. “You could be a long ways away in a blind or something.”

Bird count

Although Master doesn’t keep a life list anymore, he did admit he’s seen about 715 species of birds just in North America.

While he’s not counting all of his birds per se, he does engage in an annual bird count here in the North Country.

Master has been organizing the local Audubon Christmas Bird Count since the 1970s, and glows at the thought of the rare and unusual sightings catalogued over the years, as well as the number of volunteers, which has climbed since he took over the count.

The Christmas count takes place all over the world, with tens of thousands of volunteers going hiking, paddling, driving and walking road sides trying to count each individual bird they see. This information has proven to be one of the most successful citizen-science projects in history.

“I started doing the bird counts in high school with my biology teacher,” he said. “When I started coming here to visit my in-laws in the early 1970s, there was a Saranac Lake Christmas Bird Count that had been abandoned in the 1960s when the compiler died.

“So I started it up again in 1974 or ‘75 and have been doing it ever since. It’s been fun. We started out with 10 people in the ‘70s, and now we’re up to 45 to 50 people.

“Bird watchers are a tremendous citizen-science resource.”

He said most bird watchers now submit their results and sightings to a website called eBird, a joint effort of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and the Audubon Society. The site allows anyone to submit bird sightings, and provides essentially a real-time feed of where various species are located at any given time.

Feeders

Master’s love of watching birds at the feeder may or may not have started while he was in the crib, but he now ensures that his yard is filled with squirrel and bird feeders. However, he said that several of the volunteers for the Christmas Bird Count noticed empty feeders along their routes and has some advice for those who want to attract a variety of birds to their yard.

“I’ve been feeding birds since 1950-something,” he said. “Mixed bird seed, it’s cheap, but it’s a waste of money. A lot of it the birds don’t like.”

“Mostly, I feed the sunflower hearts because small finches can’t really eat black oil (sunflower seeds). They just can’t take it apart very well.

“I think sunflower hearts is the best. Chickadees, nuthatches, woodpeckers, all the finches, blue jays, red squirrels — they all love sunflower hearts. I also feed suet for woodpeckers and chickadees.”

He said that niger seed attracts some birds as well, but it can be expensive and doesn’t last as long as the sunflower seeds. He also feeds hummingbirds in the summer with non-colored water.

Master said it’s also important to keep an eye on the birds coming to your feeder for any sign of disease. Bird feeders should be washed regularly, and even more frequently if it looks like any of the birds visiting it may be sick.

He chuckled while admitting that he currently has more than 20 feeders set up in his yard.

Getting started

Seeing Master and other bird watchers in the field, you might notice one or more long camera lenses, covered in camouflage. These aren’t cheap, but Master said expensive gear isn’t a requirement to get into birding.

He said an inexpensive pair of binoculars is all that’s really needed, and even those can be borrowed if you’re on a guided bird walk or with more experienced birders.

“I would take them out and show them owls or something big, and take them out with other people who are enthusiastic, and maybe that enthusiasm will be catching,” he said. “That’s how I started in high school.

“You don’t have to have a camera. My binoculars are mostly cheap ones. It shouldn’t be a big expense,” he said. “Lots of people come without binoculars on a bird walk, and people share.”

He also said that guided walks, like those sometimes offered at the Paul Smith’s Visitor Interpretive Center, are a great way to get started.

Master hopes that with every bird walk and bird count that goes by, he inspires someone to share in the joy of the natural world that he himself has found over the course of his life. For those who can’t get out in the field, his stunning photographs should impart some appreciation of the wonders that surround us.

To view thousands of Master’s bird and wildlife photographs, visit masterimages.org.

By Patricia Older

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