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Flying has allowed birds to thrive through many cycles of environmental and climatic change since they evolved from theropod dinosaurs about 140 million years ago. Birds use flight to escape predators, to migrate to more favorable climates, and to extend their food choices beyond what is available in the neighborhood. They fly in all types of weather, perform feats of aerobatic excellence, have wings that are self-repairing, and they can take off and land on a fragile twig or a seething ocean.


Not surprisingly, humans with aspirations of flight have looked to birds for inspiration and instruction. Leonardo da Vinci wrote a treatise on the flight of birds with illustrations of Black Kites (Milvus migrans) that informed his design of flying machines; Otto Lilienthal died trying to glide like the migrating White Storks (Ciconia ciconia) of his native Pomerania; the Wright brothers filed a patent for warping wingswhich emulated the flight of Turkey Vultures (Cathartes aura). More recently, the upturned wingtips of jet aircraft mimic the “fingers” of the terminal primary feathers and the slotted leading edges of wings are directly copied from the alula (“thumb wing”) in birds. Many scholarly articles are devoted to biomimetic aircraft.


Photographing birds in flight has been a consuming passion for me since I moved to the Pacific Northwest over 10 years ago. This quest was awakened by my studies of aerodynamics in pursuit of a private pilot instrument rating and by a life-long interest in photography and the outdoors. It has taken me from the cliffs of Iceland to the icepack of the Antarctic Peninsula - a substantial part of the route that the Arctic Tern (Sterna paradisaea) takes on its astonishing round-trip migration of 44,000 miles (~71,000 km).


In my mind, there is no contest between a photograph of a stationary bird and a flight shot - the flight shot is almost always the hands-down winner! The fragile span of outstretched wings and the arc of a graceful flight path are irresistibly beautiful. Flight is the essence of bird life and capturing it in a few megapixels is a privilege and a joy. But flight photography generally makes greater demands on equipment, technique, and on the photographer’s patience and anatomy. It is astonishing that early photographers, who did not have the benefit of auto-focus lenses and power-driven shutters, were able to achieve such fine results.


I have gathered one hundred of my favorite flight images into ten broad groups - some functional and others taxonomic. Each image has its own back story which I often share with the reader. Bird people will enjoy the bird facts, travelers will enjoy the tales of distant parts, and photographers will like the technical details provided for the images since they offer insight into the lessons I have learned on my photographic journey. Readers might be surprised to see, for example, that a very slow shutter speed can freeze the motion of hummingbird wings - because it is the external strobes and the small apertures that control the exposure.


The dimensional details of the birds are taken from the on-line edition of the authoritative Handbook of Birds of the World. The status of each species is as listed at the time of access to the IUCN Red List. Often, I include footnotes expanding on a particular topic or giving links to primary sources so that interested readers can pursue their own research. Mountains of interesting papers are available on avian flight topics and these leads will help you find them.


Photographs augment - and sometimes replace - memory. As I browse the more than 450,000 photographs of birds that I have taken, they trigger clear recall of the locations and circumstances in which each almost every one was taken. It is my great pleasure to share these birds, these places, and these stories with you.


Peter R. Cavanagh, Lopez Island WA. 2020

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