Photo exhibition features ‘Winged Beauty: Birds in Their Habitat’
March 30 reception celebrates retiree Duncan’s path to avian photo shoots and WCSU degree
DANBURY, CONN. — Retirement has given Walter Duncan more time to visit family in faraway places, but that’s not all — he also is pursuing another college degree and has taken up a newfound avocation in photographing several hundred species of birds in their natural habitats.
Western Connecticut State University will present a selection of avian images drawn from Duncan’s formidable library of digital photographs in an exhibition titled “Winged Beauty: A View of Birds in Their Natural Habitat.” The public is invited to meet Duncan and view his photos at an opening reception with light refreshments at 6 p.m. on Wednesday, March 30, in the Science Building Atrium on the university’s Midtown campus, 181 White St. in Danbury. The exhibition will be open for viewing weekdays in the Science Building Atrium from March 25 through 30 and April 4 through 7. Admission will be free for the show and reception.
Since he retired five-and-a-half years ago from his job as vice president of product development at the Watertown manufacturing firm Bristol Babcock, Duncan and his wife Helen have traveled to visit the families of their three daughters, spread across the world in Germany, Oman and California. But the devoted father and grandfather found that he needed new challenges suited to his wide-ranging interests and restless intellectual curiosity as well. He has discovered these by returning to the classroom at Western Connecticut State University and embarking on a quest in Connecticut and across the nation for uncommon birds to photograph.
Duncan’s current studies at WCSU to earn a bachelor’s degree in biochemistry mark the latest chapter in an academic journey that began in the 1960s when he earned a bachelor’s degree in mathematics and a master’s degree in statistics at Stanford University. During his professional career, he also attained a Master of Business Administration from the University of Connecticut.
Another side of Duncan’s talents surfaced during an informal chat with one of his instructors at Western, Professor of Biological and Environmental Sciences Dr. Thomas Philbrick.
“We got to talking one day about his photographs of birds,” Philbrick recalled. “Then he gave me a CD of some of his pictures, and they’re fantastic, phenomenal! So I asked Walter, ‘Would you be interested in working on a show?’”
Duncan’s previous management position at Bristol Babcock — a leading manufacturer of gas-flow controllers used for continuous remote monitoring of well production in natural gas fields worldwide — left little opportunity for hobbies such as photography. But rising early one morning during a visit shortly after retirement to his daughter’s family in Heidelberg, Germany, he recalled, “I saw a very large bird in a tree so I took out my camera and took a picture. It turned out to be a juvenile bald eagle.”
He returned home with a new interest in avian photography, but without the preparation to pursue his quest. “At the time, I didn’t know one bird from another,” he said. “I had done some photography before, but what I learned is that it requires some pretty serious equipment to take good pictures of birds. It also requires commitment — and support from your wife.”
Fortunately for Duncan, his wife recognized her husband’s gift for photography and made allowances for his need to purchase professional cameras and lenses and travel widely in pursuit of photographing varied and visually striking bird species around the United States. In addition to his extensive forays within Connecticut, Duncan has photographed diverse species of birds in their natural habitats in California, Arizona, Texas and Florida.
“I had no idea how great a variety of birds pass through Connecticut, let alone the tropical species you also find in a place like Brownsville, Texas,” he said. While at home in Danbury, he routinely logs in to an online message board where professional and amateur birdwatchers share sightings of uncommon species with site information to help other birders locate them. When he comes across a bird that intrigues him, he will often pack his Canon 5D camera, 400 millimeter F5.6 and 600 millimeter F4 lenses, tripod and mount in his car and join the search.
“There was a Le Conte’s sparrow that popped in to Milford Point,” Duncan recalled. “I’m hunting for a bird the size of my fist, so what are my chances of finding it? But because the sighting of a really rare bird tends to draw the best ‘birders’ out for the hunt, the odds are actually much better of finding this type of bird once it’s been identified.” Still, it took him four trips to Milford before he found the necessary conditions — favorable weather, strong natural light and an incoming tide on the Sound — that at last brought the Le Conte’s sparrow within his photographic range.
At other times, luck has favored his pursuit, as when he took off in pursuit of a snowy owl sighted near the shoreline in Norwalk. “I’m thinking on the way down, ‘This is a fool’s quest.’ So I drive into the park — and right there, I find a snowy owl sitting on a sign! Then he started hunting, and I ended up getting some of my best pictures.”
While his travels to southern and western states have afforded opportunities to capture digital images of many bird species that never reach New England, Duncan expressed surprise at the diversity that can be photographed locally. “I have photographed some 80 species within a half-mile of my house, and about 200 species around the state,” he said. “For serious birders, these may not be big numbers, but for five-and-a-half years of photography, that’s pretty good.”
Overall, Duncan’s photographic library holds an impressive total of 11,031 images of birds. He photographs exclusively in digital format, with his cameras providing the capability to lock in on a bird at rest or in flight and snap a rapid series of images at a rate of five frames per second.
His avian photography shoots aim to capture visually attractive and richly colorful bird species, with images taken at sufficiently close range for easy identification with high resolution. He described his work as that of “a technical guy, not an artist,” offering praise for professional avian photographers whose digital and film images reach “a level of art that is tremendous.”
Duncan will achieve another milestone in his remarkable post-retirement journey when he completes course requirements during the spring semester to receive a WCSU bachelor’s degree in biochemistry. He noted that, after “doing projects around the house the first year after I retired,” he decided to inquire at Western about possibilities for enrolling to audit a few science and mathematics courses. He discovered that he would be required to take classes for credit, so he enrolled in a calculus class to refresh his mathematics skills along with courses in German and general chemistry. That start set him on course to continue building credits toward achievement of a biochemistry degree.
In contrast to his limited contact with faculty during his undergraduate studies at Stanford, Duncan observed that he has enjoyed the extensive attention that faculty at Western give to their students as teachers and academic advisers. “Here it’s hands-on — the faculty at Western is very committed to teaching, and it’s a great experience,” he said.
For more information, contact Philbrick at email@example.com or (203) 837-8773, or the Office of University Relations at (203) 837-8486.
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