Gerrit Vyn unfolds his 6-foot-8-inch frame from his Jeep and heads for the rocky shoreline along Duwamish Head, camera and tripod on his shoulder.
He settles into position, oblivious to the cold of the wet, slippery rocks. “There, it’s right there,” he says, pointing out the surfbird no one else sees. Of course. Right there.
Seeing what nobody else does is the magic in Vyn’s photographs illuminating “The Living Bird,” published last fall by Mountaineers Books with the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. The book features 250 of Vyn’s images from his work documenting birds on the wing, in the nest, and in the wild all over North America and beyond. Combined with essays by local and national authors on the value, wonder and conservation of birds, the book was Vyn’s idea to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the Cornell Lab, where he is a staff multimedia producer.
A runaway hit, the book parked on The New York Times’ best-seller list during the holiday season, and Mountaineers Books already is mulling a fourth printing. People who know Vyn’s work not only as a photographer but a videographer and sound recordist are not surprised.
“He is that triple threat of creativity and capability, that is what makes him so rare,” said John Bowman, director of the multimedia productions department at the Cornell Lab. “I have not come across that many people who have the quality of his skills in so many directions.” But it is Vyn’s passion for the natural world that is the clincher.
“We have to show people what the true state of nature and wildlife is, what problems wildlife are facing and what the solutions are, and Gerrit’s work is the central piece, the hardest one,” Bowman said.
“He is capturing what so many organizations can’t, and this is how wildlife is really living on this planet.”
It isn’t easy.
Marc Dantzker, now an independent filmmaker in Arlington, Virginia, did lots of field time with Vyn when the two were colleagues at the Cornell Lab. “He is absolutely absurd,” Dantzker said. “He is this giant man and he just disappears into the landscape, it defies any reason. He gets incredibly low and he moves almost like a snake on his belly, a little closer, and a little closer.
“I have joked with him that if there is one mud puddle in the entire area he will find it, and that is where he will decide the best image is taken from. He gets completely filthy.”
In addition to his grit and patience, though, Vyn’s secret weapon is his knowledge.
Brian McCaffery, a biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, worked with Vyn to get his images for “Living Bird” at the Yukon Delta in Alaska – a tough place for a tall person to find cover, where the vegetation is measured in inches. “He did a lot of crawling,” McCaffery said. “When he is really serious about stuff he will get down and put a poncho on the ground and he will be at the eye level of the bird he is trying to get an image of, he can do that for hours. Barely move.
“In that posture a radical move is going from completely prone to propping himself up on his elbows. He is very committed and can anticipate what the shot is going to be minutes, or hours down the road by the wind, the sun, what the bird will do, he is very strategic.”
Susan Willsrud of Fairbanks, Alaska, has known Vyn since the two were counselors more than 20 years ago at a wildlife camp in West Virginia. He carries into the field the same gift for observation she saw even back then. “The kids would just follow him anywhere because he could find cool things,” she remembered. “He has an amazing ear and a really good eye.” But Vyn deploys that talent today with a deep knowledge he has acquired ever since, self-taught, as a naturalist.
“The reason he is so good is he understands the ecology of all the things he is photographing really well,” Willsrud said. “It is that depth of knowing their behavior, where to look, how they act.”
His interest in nature was there from the start, said Vyn’s mother, Beverley, remembering his preteen zest for owl pellets, seeking to discover what the birds had been eating, reassembling the skeletons bone by bone.
He lured moths with black lights to see them up close, and finally persuaded her to let him keep snakes in the house. Along with the 30-gallon fish tank with a snapping turtle in his room, and a 20-gallon tank of toads and frogs. And of course gerbils, and the rabbit he brought home in a box, the blue jay, and the mother mallard and 12 ducklings they rescued in a courtyard.
“We became known as the bird family,” she said. “Every bird that was lost and found, stuck on the roof at school, they would bring it here, to make it better.”
Yet in college, Vyn was a business major, taking his father’s advice to keep his hobbies as hobbies. After graduation he went to work at his father’s steel company near Detroit, for five years sourcing material for auto manufacturers. All the while, he saved money for camera gear. Five years in, he bailed on the job.
“It didn’t reflect who I was, or my values, or the kind of people I wanted to spend my time with,” said Vyn, now 46 and living in Wallingford, Washington.
He applied to the Peace Corps and wound up in Lesotho, Africa, where he worked for two years to help create a local conservation organization. “I felt a little like I was going off into the unknown in my life, I was turning my back, and going in another direction.” In some ways, it was a relief.
“I felt like prior to that I was trying to fit myself into a life that didn’t fit me.”
Eight years ago, when Cornell Lab brought him on – at first as a sound recordist in the library – the discovery that he could work at what he loved was revolutionary for him.
“When I was younger I didn’t know people who could make a living making art, or even doing science. No one ever told me how, I just didn’t know. Now I know if you are passionate about something, and it keeps you up at night, you can figure out a way with just about anything.”
Today Vyn travels the world in his job for Cornell Lab. He also nurtured a creative partnership with Mountaineers Books over years of conversations and sharing his developing portfolio with Publisher Helen Cherullo.
She saw in his emerging work a way to stoke passion for conservation not through gloom and doom, but the charisma and beauty of the living world, captured in Vyn’s photos.
“Showing the beauty of life and the wonderful stories of resilience of nature, people are inspired by that, that they can make a difference,” Cherullo said.
They both saw birds as natural ambassadors for a conservation message.
It was birds that told us of the dangers of DDT, and birds today evince the effects of climate change and habitat loss. But they also are wonder on the wing. Vyn says he believes that wonder can open hearts and minds to nature.
Sure enough, as he pulled focus on a delicate surfbird flown all the way to Duwamish Head from the high mountains of Alaska, to be here now on these rocks, people walking by stopped to ask questions, and to take a closer look.
“Birds are such great mediators,” Vyn said. “They have so much to teach us.”
Local journalism is essential.
Give directly to The Spokesman-Review's Northwest Passages community forums series -- which helps to offset the costs of several reporter and editor positions at the newspaper -- by using the easy options below. Gifts processed in this system are not tax deductible, but are predominately used to help meet the local financial requirements needed to receive national matching-grant funds.
Subscribe to the sports newsletter
Get the day’s top sports headlines and breaking news delivered to your inbox by subscribing here.