Bill Uhrich: Berks County bird photos to be displayed at Nolde Forest in Cumru Township

May 6—A dozen bird watchers led by Berks County naturalist Rudy Keller of District Township were gathered around scopes on the shore of Lake Ontelaunee looking at a raft of waterfowl during a recent field trip sponsored by the Baird Ornithological Club.

In the distance a flock of ring-billed gulls took to the air and caught the eye of Russ Hoffman, who then called everyone's attention to a smaller gull flying among them.

"There's a little gull!" he exclaimed, pointing out to the group the European species that is occasionally seen on the East Coast and rarely inland.

He raised his camera and photographed the gull as it flew closer.

Russ's sighting was the fifth little gull ever to be recorded in Berks County.

He turned to the newer birders in the group and in his quiet and unassuming way said, "That's a good bird."

And Russ has known a few good birds.

He will be sharing his photographs of Berks County birds in an exhibition in the mansion at Nolde Forest Environmental Education Center in Cumru Township from Tuesday through next Friday.

Next Friday night, he will present a program on his Berks bird photographs open to the public at a Baird Ornithological Club meeting at 7:30 p.m. in McConnell Hall at Nolde.

Russ has approached his bird watching differently than most birders. When he sees a bird, he reaches for his camera first rather than his binoculars.

"When you first start, you're not very good, and I wasn't very good," he explained. "I used to see what I thought were great birds, and I didn't know what they were. And if I did see something, I would think that was beautiful and would like to see it again. So right away in the late 1970s I started taking photos."

He has a life list of 596 birds in the continental United States and has photographs of 550 of them, all neatly arranged in over a dozen photo albums.

There isn't a bad photograph in the group. Each one of his bird photos is more akin to a portrait with striking lighting and interesting poses.

"Russ is very choosy about which photos he keeps," Rudy said. "He will use photos to confirm an identification or provide a record in an eBird checklist, but those aren't the ones he usually thinks are good enough to keep. He likes to get shots of birds living their lives in their natural habitat. He does not like photographing birds at feeders or in what he considers artificial situations. He thinks staking out a nest to get photos is tantamount to harassment."

Russ has seen 251 species of birds in Berks County and has photographs of 241 of them, from which he has selected his exhibition.

His best Berks bird sighting was the first Berks record for the Pacific slope flycatcher, a Western bird that occasionally wanders east.

"I was birding with Barry Pounder at the Berks Heritage Center on the Reading Christmas Bird Count in 2015," he said. "He went upstream and I went downstream. I looked over and saw a lot of activity by the woods. Now this was a beautiful day. First of all, when I got there, I could see all these birds in the sunlight, but this one bird — I could actually see insects, and this bird was flying up and getting them. So I started taking pictures like I always do."

The flycatchers in the Empidonax genus are notoriously difficult to identify by sight.

"When I got home, I looked at it and thought that it was an Empidonax," he said. "I was pretty sure of that."

He put the sighting on eBird, and it caught the attention of Holly Merker, the regional bird sightings coordinator, who contacted Tom Johnson of the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology. He came the next day and verified the species.

Although Russ has photographed many of the rarities in Berks, his favorite county bird is the relatively more common cedar waxwing, a handsome and strikingly colored bird.

Russ's bird photography hobby has taken him far afield. He's been to Florida and to Arizona at least 12 times. He has photographed 14 hummingbird species in the U.S.

But his favorite birds aren't on the land, but on the sea.

"I have this thing for albatrosses," he said with a laugh. "I've seen six species. If Covid wouldn't have hit, I would have been by now in New Zealand, because that's where I have to go to see albatrosses. I don't have much time left, and I want to go where I can see albatrosses. I'd love to see half the albatrosses. There are 22 species, so I only need five more."

There's one particular albatross species that the 80-year-old Flying Hills resident wants to see and photograph.

"I want to see a wandering albatross," he said. "They fledge and go out to the ocean and not come back to land for 15 years. They just fly around the world. That is the most fascinating story that there is."

For now, he wants to share his bird photography with as many people as possible. What's unique about the exhibit is that more than 50% of the photographs he will display were taken the last two years during COVID.

"I think if people would see birds, everybody would be a birder because they're beautiful," he said. "And if they knew how to see them, and if they could actually see them up close, they'd be interested. I did this to generate interest in the public.

"My emphasis has always been pictures. If I saw something I really liked, I wanted to see it again, and I could look at these for the rest of my life."

If you go

What: Berks County bird photos program by Russ Hoffman, part of a meeting of the Baird Ornithological Club

When: Next Friday, 7:30 p.m.

Where: McConnell Hall at Nolde Forest, 3025 New Holland Road, Cumru Township

FYI: An exhibit of Hoffman's bird photos will be on display at the Nolde Forest Environmental Center from Tuesday through next Friday, 8 a.m. to 4 p.m.