Episode 7: Legends of Kingfishers, Otters, and Red-tailed Hawks

Photographer Charlie Hamilton James shares his obsession for covering kingfishers and otters for the BBC, which eventually led him to National Geographic.

An adult female kingfisher erupts out of the water with a minnow.
Photograph by Charlie Hamilton James

Photographer Charlie Hamilton James chronicles his days ditching high school to hide out by the river near his home in Bristol, England, to snap photos of brilliantly plumed kingfishers dive-bombing for fish—“delinquent behavior” that somehow led to a job making films for the BBC and eventually to National Geographic.

TRANSCRIPT

CHARLIE HAMILTON JAMES (PHOTOGRAPHER): I became completely obsessed with them when I was seven. I have no idea why—I'm a fairly obsessive person. And so all of my spare time as a teenager was spent sitting in my blind, taking mostly—in fact, almost all—useless photographs of kingfishers.

PETER GWIN (HOST): What if your superpower was that you could watch an animal for hours on end? You never get bored. In fact, the longer you watched, the greater your concentration became. That’s what happened to National Geographic photographer Charlie Hamilton James. 

HAMILTON JAMES: They dive into the water and catch fish. But you know, Britain is a fairly drab place most of the time. It has a drab selection of birds. I mean, there are some wonderful birds—I’m not—I don’t want to belittle them. But the kingfisher is like a tropical bird because it's so bright and stunning.

An adult female kingfisher erupts out of the water with a minnow.

Overheard image s5e7

An adult female kingfisher erupts out of the water with a minnow.
Photograph by Charlie Hamilton James

GWIN: Kingfishers. These bright, blue birds change color in the light from an iridescent blue to a glistening green. 

HAMILTON JAMES: It's actually not blue in the sense that there is no blue pigment in birds. It's the way their feathers are structured and the oils in them, which reflect blue light and absorbs other wavelengths of light. 

GWIN: Oh really?

HAMILTON JAMES: Yeah. So kingfishers aren’t—you know, they're not pigmented blue. So they're an almost electric blue. So they go from, you know, from black to green to turquoise to navy, depending on how the light's hitting them. 

GWIN: And Charlie could watch them from a riverbank in Bristol, England, until the rest of the world seemed to evaporate. He could watch them until… he started to see the world through their eyes.
As a teenager, Charlie got so good at capturing images of these kingfishers that people started noticing. 

HAMILTON JAMES: By the time I was 14, 15, the BBC, you know, down the road, knew about this kid who could work with kingfishers. And because they're so bright and colorful, in the U.K. we love them. We want them on TV all the time. 

GWIN: Right.

HAMILTON JAMES: And I very quickly became the go-to guy for kingfishers. 

GWIN: Wait a minute, you’re the BBC’s go-to guy and you're 14 years old. Like, I mean, that's pretty...

HAMILTON JAMES: Yeah. Between the time I was 14 and 16, it grew. 

But little did the BBC know that they had a teenage delinquent on their hands. In fact, instead of going to school, Charlie was playing hooky just to film these kingfishers. 

HAMILTON JAMES: I can't concentrate on anything I'm not interested in. School to me was a horrific experience, and I hated every minute of it. And my mum wasn't that bothered. So she kind of enabled me in that sense. And I knew what I wanted to do: I wanted to film animals and take photos of animals. I didn't need to go to school to do that. I knew that, and, you know, I was doing it.

GWIN: And years later, Charlie is still doing it. But how did a teenage photographer go from playing hooky to taking photographs all over the world? 

I’m Peter Gwin, and this is Overheard at National Geographic: a show where we eavesdrop on the wild conversations we have here at Nat Geo and follow them to the edges of our big, weird, beautiful world.

This week, I sit down to talk with photographer Charlie Hamilton James. He talks about his unlikely journey—and the kingfishers, otters, and vultures he’s encountered along the way.  

More after this. 

HAMILTON JAMES: When I was in my teens, I wanted to be a wildlife photographer. And I remember going to the—they have this annual competition, this global competition, called the Wildlife Photographer of the Year and meeting the other British wildlife photographers there and realizing that none of them had any money. So I decided actually that I don't want to do that, I wanted to do something where I can actually earn a decent living. So I transitioned my photography to wanting to work as a wildlife cameraman at the BBC. 

So, you know, by my mid-teens, I'd sort of had Geographic magazine as this dream, but in the immediate and short term I wanted to get into TV just because it was a more consistent way of making a living. 

GWIN: Right.

HAMILTON JAMES: So when I was 14, I was working—the guy that created Planet Earth, Alastair Fothergill, was a researcher back then. And Alastair gave me, you know, my first jobs. And then when I was 16, I got my first job working on the David Attenborough series. It was called The Trials of Life. David Attenborough, as you call him. And so that was my first sort of real assisting a cameraman, to get these shots of kingfishers—these slow-motion shots of a kingfisher diving into the water, which everyone seemed to love on TV.  

GWIN: So you go from being the sort of, you know, precocious, gifted teenager. You were just doing kingfishers, and then you—and then what was your next thing? 

HAMILTON JAMES: Otters.

GWIN: You keep doing these American—don't do your American version.

HAMILTON JAMES: I love when Americans try to say otters, because they say otters. So when I was 16, I became equally obsessed with otters. And I saved up my money, and I applied for a grant from my school—a bursary from my school that I'd left in such disgrace—because I think the headmaster had kind of a soft spot for this kid. I just couldn't play by the right—hated authority—couldn’t play by the rules. But I think he had a kind of soft spot for me. So they gave me—I think gave me 500 pounds of a travel bursary. And so I combine that with a load of money I’d earned and a couple hundred pounds my mum gave me, and I went off to the Shetland Islands, which had far—the furthest-most point of the U.K., basically way up there in the North Sea, this little archipelago. And I spent six weeks walking the beaches, photographing otters. Because I had become obsessed with otters. 

GWIN: Wow, so like the kid who doesn't want to go to school gets money from the school to go shoot. That's pretty, that's a pretty ingenious plan you've worked out there. 

HAMILTON JAMES: I was very lucky. I understand my privilege as a result. But I was very lucky because I chose otters and kingfishers and they were the two, probably for all the animals filmed in the U.K.—those were the two animals probably in the highest demand. They were very difficult, both of them. Otters are really difficult to film. You know, and I remember my mid-30s, I spent an entire year just working on kingfishers and otters. 

GWIN:  Still in your 30s, like half your life later?

HAMILTON JAMES: Yes, still doing it. There were other years when I didn't, but I remember, you know, just doing kingfishers and otters. It was just relentless, kingfishers and otters. So I was really lucky that I chose those two subjects to get obsessed with. 

GWIN: We’ll be back with more Charlie Hamilton James after this. 

So what was your first assignment at Geographic?

HAMILTON JAMES: This is actually a major turning point in my career because I got this film commissioned by the BBC. I went off to start making it and they said, oh, we want this kind of cute, funny film about vultures. And I go out to Kenya and Tanzania, and realize that, you know, vultures are in catastrophic decline across certainly Africa and Asia. And, you know, I really struggled to make a quirky, funny film about, you know, the fastest declining family of species in history. 

GWIN: Sounds hilarious, man.

HAMILTON JAMES: Yeah, so we made this film and I sat there editing it, and the executive producer and I ended up just banging our heads against each other because I wanted to make a conservation film. He wanted a wildlife film. And in the end, he said you can have five minutes of conservation in it. And I thought that was wrong, like fundamentally wrong. And in the end, I got 15 minutes of conservation in it. So it was a compromise. And, you know, I look back and say, OK, well, fair enough. He was probably right to an extent because who wants to be depressed and watch Sunday night TV and be depressed for an hour. No one does. 

Anyway, so Geographic came to me at the time, and I remember having a conversation with my editor for the story, who was Ken Geiger, and he phoned me up and he said, Hey man, we’re going to do a kind of quirky, funny story on vultures. So I gave him my pitch, which is a very passionate pitch about what amazing struggle these birds—this catastrophe that was going on. And he turns around and he says, Oh my God, this is what we should do, you know, a big geopolitical story on this. And I thought, I want to work for these people. I want to work for people who are going to take on—and I don't want to diminish the BBC, they're amazing—but I just at that point thought, you know, I want to work for people who are going to tell stories like this, because these stories need telling. 

GWIN: So what was it about vultures? You know, because you have stated you have this notorious, you know, short attention span for things you're not interested in. So what did you find about vultures that kept you focused? 

HAMILTON JAMES: I love antiheroes. I made a film on hyenas many years ago for the BBC. And then I pitched vultures because people overlook hyenas, people overlook vultures. So if you want to get something commissioned, they’re perfect. They’re very charismatic, even though they're disgusting and ugly, but they are charismatic, and as a result, inherently interesting.

GWIN: What do you mean charismatic? How are they charismatic? They’re scary. 

HAMILTON JAMES: Have you ever heard of a thicknee?

GWIN: No.

HAMILTON JAMES: It's just a little plover that wanders around on the plains of Africa.

GWIN: OK.

HAMILTON JAMES: But you've heard of a vulture, yeah?

GWIN: Yeah.

HAMILTON JAMES: Yeah, because the thicknee has no charisma and a vulture’s got charisma. Awesome. Look at that bird, it's amazing. Goddamn, it’s ugly. Yeah. So they have this kind of anti-charisma, let's say. 

My job is to convince an audience to actually look past the ugliness. These are incredible, you know, machines—these amazing animals. Look at them. And that's a really lovely thing to be able to do, is to turn the tables on someone's received narrative on something. 

GWIN: Right. So did you have to come up with any sort of like duct-tape inventions to get vultures? 

HAMILTON JAMES: Yeah, absolutely. I mean, the key shot was this kind of inside-the-carcass shot. If you can keep the frenzy going, ‘cause when vultures eat, it's a very slow process until they frenzy. And the moment they frenzy they’re...

GWIN: What does that mean, frenzy?

(Vultures feeding) 

HAMILTON JAMES: They are going absolutely crazy. You know, you got 50 vultures having a crazed fight over a carcass. If you can drive in, drop your camera, and get out fast enough, they come back in and carry on. And then they don't notice the camera. But if you leave it two seconds too long, one vulture has to stop and then the whole lot stop. And that’s it, it's all over. No one's going in. 

GWIN: So there's this whole timing kind of element.

HAMILTON JAMES: Yeah, it's crazy. But the eventual shot was—it was a really cool shot. And again, it tells, you know, as I was talking about, layers...

GWIN: What does it look like?

HAMILTON JAMES: It's this big—so it’s in a zebra rib cage and it's a big foot of a vulture and a head coming in, and then all the way back it's got these different layers of vultures in the background and you can see the sort of black-and-white—the zebra skin—and, you know, you can see the plains in the background. So, you know, you got a story in one shot. And you've got an immersive experience for the reader to open the magazine. And wow, you've got this kind of—what it's like to be inside that carcass with them. 

GWIN: So let me ask you about—you have a son, Fred. How old is he now? He's like...

HAMILTON JAMES: 19. 

GWIN: He's 19. Wow. When I think we first met, it was right around the time that Fred had been diagnosed with a medical condition. Can you talk about that a little bit? 

HAMILTON JAMES: Yeah, I might cry, but I’ll talk about it. 

GWIN: The whole purpose of this interview is to make you cry. I'm kidding. But I'm not kidding in the sense that it's an important event in your life. 

HAMILTON JAMES: Yeah, it's the important event in my life. But it's also an incredible story. And I'll tell you this story, because it still blows me away. So Fred's one day—he's looking at his phone. He keeps moaning about headaches. He keeps moaning he’s tired. He’s always asleep. 

And I was like, oh, he’s just a teenager, he’s 16, of course he’s lazy and tired. I was at that age. And he's looking at his phone very closely all the time, and I think, I wonder if he's—he needs his eyes tested. So I take him into town for an eye test, and the optician comes and gets me. And I go, mm, this is odd.

He pulls me aside and says, has he got Lyme's disease? No... And he pulls up the pictures of his optic nerves and he's got impacted optic nerves. You know, they’re swelling on both sides. And we're looking at it, and I grew up in a medical family so I’m like, that can't be a brain tumor because it's bilateral. Normally if you have a brain tumor, you just get one optic nerve swollen. But this was two and I’m like—anyways, look, get him checked out. 

So the next day, my wife takes him off to the specialist and this guy says this kid needs an MRI now. They airlift them to Salt Lake. He goes off with his mom. I drive down. They take the thing out the next day. 

GWIN: So it is a tumor then?

HAMILTON JAMES: Oh, sorry, yes, it's a massive tumor. Well, it's not massive. It's the size of a peach. Brain tumor in his right frontal cortex. 

GWIN: Wow.

HAMILTON JAMES: And, you know, on the scan, it’s just this massive great blob in his head. So for about four years, Fred's been asking me if he can become a falconer—falconer. And I'm saying no, because I'm a miserable old get, as we say in the U.K. I know we move everywhere. Life's too complicated. No, I want a falcon. And he's just relentless. And after a couple years, you think, all right, this isn't just a fad. The kid is genuinely—he had read every single book. He was obsessed with falconry. And I recognized that obsession, but I couldn't facilitate it because I was, I guess, probably being selfish. Anyway, he goes in, he has his brain tumor taken out. 

They take the whole side of his head off. He's got this beautiful blond hair. And then, you know, they shave this thing, they take the side of his head off, pull this thing out, put his head back together. He wakes up at like two in the morning, off his head on morphine or whatever, you know, just off his head. There's a nurse at the end of the bed and he wakes. And he’s, Oh, hi, my name's Fred, and I’m a falconer. And then he turns to me and Philippa, and he says, Dad, can I get a falcon? And I said, Fred, you can have whatever you want. 

GWIN: Wow. 

HAMILTON JAMES: So, couple of weeks goes by. We don't know what this thing is. What is this brain tumor? Is it bad? Is it good? We don't know what it is. And the pathologist said, Oh, we'll know next week. It’s taken two weeks, three weeks. It's, you know, it's August. And it's the most horrifying experience as a parent to not know whether your kid's gonna die or not. 

I'm walking into the grocery store one day and my phone rings, it’s Salt Lake. They go, look, we're gonna tell you. And I’m like, ah! Because I knew the moment they said they were gonna tell me what it was, and they said it's a low-grade glioma. It's not going to kill him. It's, you know, if it grows back, we'll take it out again. 

GWIN: Whoa. 

HAMILTON JAMES: And, you know, anyway, Fred’s got to get a bird. I promised him. So here's the thing: America, there’s a lot of laws. I say to my American buddies, you got a lot of laws protecting your freedom. 

GWIN: And our falcons. 

HAMILTON JAMES: Yeah. And you know what? Great. So you should have a lot of laws protecting your falcons. 

So Fred is allowed like a couple of different birds. There's lots of falcons and hawks and eagles and everything in the states. But he's really only allowed a couple of them because he's a novice. You have to go through stages, you have to do exams, you have to—you know what I mean? So Fred is basically allowed a red-tailed hawk where we live. 

GWIN: OK. 

HAMILTON JAMES: So we build him this muse, this aviary. His friend Roger, who's a master falconer, mentors Fred. Fred has to go and catch a red-tailed hawk once he's built the aviary.

GWIN: You just don't buy one. You don't go down to the pet store and buy a red-tailed hawk.

HAMILTON JAMES: This is where the story gets really cool. He can catch a wild red-tail, but it has to have been born that year. 

GWIN: Right.

HAMILTON JAMES: It's called a passage bird. It's migrating south. You catch it in the fall. It's its first year. It’s not an adult, it's never bred before. 

GWIN: These are the rules. 

HAMILTON JAMES: These are the rules. OK, if you catch an adult, you have to let it go. So to catch one, you get some mice from the mouse store and you put them in a thing called a Bal-chatri, which is this trap, and you put them in a tank so the bird can't get them, but the bird flies down trying to get it. So basically you drive around until you see a bird. You put this trap thing down. It's got these mice. The bird flies and gets its leg caught in a leg snare thing. It doesn’t injure it or damage it. And then you run out and you pick the bird up and then that's your bird you then train from wild.

So Fred says to me, Oh, Dad, I want a female, dark-morph red-tail, right? I’m like, really? You want a female dark-morph passage red-tail. It’s gotta be born that year. It's gotta be a dark one—there are light normal red-tails and dark red-tails, like three different color morphs. And he wants a female. Yeah, of course you do. So they go buy some mice, him and his mom. The next day we’re going to trap this bird for him and it's going to be his bird for life—blah, blah, blah. Next day the neighbor phones up. 

She says, oh, you got an eagle stuck in your fence. And Fred goes running up the garden. I… I always lose it here. And on the ground is a dark-morph female passage red-tail, and he picks it up and that’s his bird. 

GWIN: Wow.

HAMILTON JAMES: He doesn't even catch it.

GWIN: In one day.

HAMILTON JAMES: He just goes up the garden, there's a bird on the ground that's flown into our garden fence. And it's exactly what—and he just picks it up and that's his bird. How cool is that? 

GWIN: Well, Charlie Hamilton James, thank you very much.

HAMILTON JAMES: Thank you.

To see some of Charlie’s photographs, including his National Geographic stories on kingfishers, otters, and vultures, check out the links in our show notes, they’re right there in your podcast app. You can also find his photographs on our Instagram feed @natgeo.

CREDITS

Overheard at National Geographic is produced by Laura Sim, Brian Gutierrez, Jacob Pinter, Carla Wills, and Ilana Strauss. 

Our senior editor is Eli Chen. This episode was edited by Robert Malesky.

Our executive producer of audio is Davar Ardalan. 

Our fact-checkers are Michelle Harris, Robin Palmer, and Julie Beer. 

Our copy editor is Amy Kolczak.

And Hansdale Hsu sound designed this episode and composed our theme music. 

This podcast is a production of National Geographic Partners. 

Whitney Johnson is the director of visuals and immersive experiences.  

Susan Goldberg is National Geographic’s editorial director.  

And I’m your host, Peter Gwin. Thanks for listening, and see y’all next time.


SHOW NOTES

Want more?

You can see some of Charlie’s stunning photos of vultures in this story about vulture poisoning in Kenya.

Check out Charlie’s photographs of kingfisher’s in this article from the magazine“Blaze of Blue.”

Also explore:

Look through Charlie’s lens to get a glimpse into the lives of indigenous peoples of the Amazon.

Charlie’s also photographed the urban animals that live alongside us: rats.