Birds that bring out the wow

Flamingoes, the rare Grenada dove, 13 kinds of hummingbird… Guyanne Wilson is bowled over by Theodore Ferguson’s photographs

A male purple honeycreeper, right, with his female partner. Photograph courtesy Theodore FergusonThe mature yellow oriole normally displays a striking yellow and black plumage, with yellow being dominant. Photograph courtesy Theodore FergusonTheodore Ferguson at work. Photograph courtesy Theodore Ferguson

Going into Theodore Ferguson’s office in Tunapuna, Trinidad, gives me what he later tells me is a “wow moment”. It’s true. The walls of the reception area and conference room are decorated with large-scale prints of photos of birds he’s taken. My usual garrulousness is replaced by a single, inaudible: “Wow!”

Yet Ferguson’s interest in photography started as a pastime. “I was a look-and-shoot photographer,” he says: he toook pictures mostly of his three children over the years. It’s only in the last four years that photography has become his major preoccupation. Since then, he has photographed the birds of Florida, Barbados and Grenada, notably the nearly extinct Grenada dove, the island’s national bird. But it is Trinidad’s diverse avifauna that captivates him most.

Born in Grenada, Ferguson has made Trinidad his home. He has worked as a scientist and agriculturalist, lecturing in agriculture at the University of the West Indies’ St Augustine campus for many years. Today, he’s on the board of Kairi Consultants Ltd, which offers services in a range of fields from agriculture and environmental management to education and training. Ferguson is also involved in teaching those in government and business his approach to leadership.

Ferguson often visits bird-watching hotspots, such as the Asa Wright Nature Centre and the Caroni Bird Sanctuary. Other times, his rambles through the bush result in productive photo shoots. His jaunts bring him into contact with many of Trinidad & Tobago’s more than 400 bird species. “People always ask me if there are flamingoes in Trinidad,” he chuckles, pointing to a photograph of a stand of flamingoes in the far corner of the room. “That was taken in Nariva, early in the morning.”

However, Ferguson is most interested in photographing the hummingbird. He points out that the tiny bird is an important symbol in Trinidad & Tobago: it appears on the coat of arms, on the shield of the protective services, and on the logo of the national air carrier, Caribbean Airlines.

“Many people don’t know that there are 17 different species of hummingbirds,” he says. Of these, he has photographed 13. As with all the birds he photographs, Ferguson tries to know everything there is to know about the hummingbird. He’s become an expert, and gives regular talks on the birds to birders at the Asa Wright Nature Centre. “If people ask me a question about the birds, I want to be able to answer them.”
Birds are fascinating but difficult subjects. Ferguson has found shooting them calming, interesting, energising and fun. “Birds don’t pose. What I capture is something that happens for a split second, but, a second later, would have been an entirely different picture.” To capture these moments, he says he sometimes does “crazy things” with his camera, to the dismay of other photographers. “What shutter speed was that?” they might ask him, and oftentimes, Ferguson can’t answer off the bat. It’s not that he doesn’t know; the self-taught photo-artist, as he calls himself, is interested less in the technical aspects of photography than making it into a form of artistic expression.

Moreover, his aim is not simply to photograph the birds. Instead, he tries to capture what he calls “chi moments” – moments of elation that bring out the wow – and to share them with others. For this reason, he prefers to produce large-scale prints of his photos. “Small pictures just don’t have the same effect. To really appreciate the birds, you have to see them on a large scale.”

Some of Ferguson’s pieces have been sold to private collections. Others can be viewed at long-term exhibitions of his work at the Asa Wright Nature Centre and the Hilton Trinidad.

Later, as I thumb through his book, The Experience, the wow sensation returns. The Experience is a limited-edition publication commissioned by the government of Trinidad & Tobago to be presented to visiting heads of state at the Summit of the Americas and the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting, both held in Trinidad last year.

As modernisation threatens the forests that the birds call home, Ferguson laments the lack of green spaces in Port of Spain like those that have been created in developed countries. For him, such spaces provide people with the opportunity to appreciate nature, experience its calm, and have wow moments of their own.