Incredible Seabird Photos Show Fusion of Past and Present

By projecting vintage images onto the modern-day Guano Islands, Thomas Peschak created striking long-exposure photographs.

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In the 19th century, ships full of workers sailed to Peru’s Guano Islands to harvest bird feces from the islands’ once-thriving seabird populations, from cormorants to pelicans to boobies.

The guano was then shipped back and sold to farmers around the world as fertilizer. But as the trade increased and more people agitated the seabirds’ habitat, bird populations took a nosedive. It’s a pattern echoed around the globe: Ocean pollution, human encroachment, climate change, and other threats have led to the loss of 230 million seabirds in the past six decades—slashing 70 percent of the total population, according to the University of British Columbia.

Such rapid declines inspired National Geographic photographer Thomas Peschak to spend six weeks on the Guano Islands in 2017, photographing seabirds for an upcoming magazine feature. From sunrise to sunset—and the hours in between—Peschak captured the seabird crisis with a unique perspective.

“On those full- and half-moon nights, me and my assistants became nocturnal and we basically resurrected the ghosts of seabirds past into the modern-day landscape,” Peschak says.

Video by Otto Whitehead

Using an inexpensive, lightweight projector tricked out with a solar-powered battery, Peschak visited five islands and projected vintage, monochrome images onto the modern landscape after the sun went down.

The archived projections capture scenes from the heydays of guano mining, which is highly regulated today. Now, mining takes place about once every 10 years and only starts after nesting has ended. Miners rotate around the islands, and the Peruvian government sends conservationists there to ensure human activities don’t stress or otherwise harm the birds. (Related: “Africa’s Penguins Still Reeling From ‘Guano Craze’”)

By juxtaposing vintage photographs with the modern environment sans-seabirds, Peschak hopes to capture the attention of people not easily moved by natural history photography.

“We might actually be able to catch them with a slightly different, more creative, more innovative approach to telling this story,” Peschak says. “But at the end of the day, it’s the same story packaged in a completely different way.”

Projecting Past Onto Present

While researching for a nature documentary in 2003, Peschak traveled to Malgas, an island off South Africa, and photographed one of its seabird-crammed beaches. Curious to see how the habitat had changed, he returned in 2012 to photograph the same location. When placed side-by-side, the two contrasting images—one a bird-covered paradise and the other an avian desert—highlighted how much the seabird population had declined in less than a decade.

The stark comparison between Cape Gannet populations on South Africa's Malgas Island between Peschak's first visit in 2003 and his return in 2012 planted the seed for his use of vintage photography to show similar decline in the Guano Islands.

Peschak wondered how much other populations might have plummeted over a longer period of time.

“Of course, what I wanted was a time machine, which my budget didn’t allow for,” Peschak says. “So, then I kind of went for the next best thing. I began looking at archives all over the world, looking for photographs of seabird colonies before these declines actually began [and used them] as a reference.”

Making each photo took maybe 20 seconds of long exposure. But Peschak and his assistants spent anywhere from one to five hours at each location in awkward, tense positions—sometimes crouched over a nest of ticks—trying to catch the perfect image. Ideally, he had two assistants, but sometimes only one.

Each exposure was a carefully timed choreography. Behind the lens, Peschak would open the shutter and start counting seconds. (Get National Geographic tips on taking beautiful photographs.)

Meanwhile, one of the assistants waited several seconds before covering part or all of the projector’s beam with a black T-shirt or pair of pants to stifle the light source. This allowed moonlight to fill in the shadows of the scene and expose the rest of the photo. If Peschak had another assistant, that person would sweep a flashlight beam over shaded crevices of the landscape to lighten them up.

Peschak hopes his experimental photos will get more people to care about seabirds, which serve a crucial role in marine ecosystems. As predators, they keep krill, fish, and squid populations in check, and their guano adds much-needed nutrients to soil and water. (Read: “Why Birds Matter, and Are Worth Protecting”)

“I want to show that seabirds can be as fascinating as sharks, as iconic as panda bears, and as endangered as elephants and rhinos,” Peschak says. “They are not the pigeons of the ocean. They are 360 very different, very iconic, very unique [species] that are ecologically critical.”

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