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Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Dr. Browning’s Birds


A passion for saving lives

"There was an island in the middle of the river near our hospital, and it had fantastic birdlife," Browning recalls. "I took a reed canoe out to investigate one afternoon when it was slow and was happily shooting away, when I noticed a group of hippos had completely surrounded the island, and they weren't happy that I was there." He got out of there just in time and decided, all things considered, that it might be better to concentrate on photographing the rich birdlife.

These days, Browning contents himself with early-morning birding walks around his house in Tanzania (often in the company of his son). "I first started taking him around with me basically to give my wife a break, but by the time he was two, he could recognize the calls of several birds, and lately, with my new smaller camera, he has taken a few decent shots himself," Browning says.

Although he had been using a DSLR with an 80-400mm lens for most of his bird work, he has recently switched to a superzoom hybrid camera for its smaller size and greater optical reach. Browning likes to have his camera with him in his backpack everywhere, and with all the shuttling back and forth in bush planes to various clinics and hospitals, every ounce counts.

Plus, it's hard to replace gear, both because of the cost and the isolation. "In Ethiopia, you couldn't buy any gear at all, and it was too risky to ship anything, and since I could only afford to get home to Australia about every three years, I had to be careful not to lose a battery or drop my camera."

Browning finds that early morning and late evening are the best times to photograph because of the light and the relative activity of the birds. Areas with diverse landscapes present the most opportunities, and he loves to get back to several hot spots whenever he can. One of his favorite spots in Ethiopia, where over 415 types of species have been spotted, features grasslands, swampy marshes, lakes and tropical forest, all within a few acres of each other.

"You can just lie in a hammock and wait for the birds to come to you," he says. "Other times, slow stalking is needed, although if you move, often the bird moves, too. Standing still for a while is a good technique and lets the bird get used to your presence, and, of course, all this is much easier without having a two-year-old boy sitting on your shoulders!"

Observing and photographing birds is a tonic for Browning's hectic and overwhelming schedule, but it also serves a different, and some may say, higher purpose. "Photography is very much a release from the intensities of surgery and trying to run hospitals in resource-poor areas," he notes. "But it's also a great tool, telling the story of the work we're doing, trying to raise money for hospitals and clinics and specialized training for surgeons, and for illustrating and discussing surgical techniques long distance on the Internet with other surgeons because there are millions of women waiting for treatment and simply not enough doctors to treat them."

Learn more about Dr. Andrew Browning and the work of the Barbara May Foundation, which provides health services to women in Africa, at www.barbaramayfoundation.com/how-can-i-help.

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