My Passion for Wildlife Photography

by Marshall Faintich

I enjoy going on wildlife photography hikes with a small group of people to search for birds and other animals, or camping out with other spotters at the hawk watch to search the skies for migrating raptors, but often find myself alone in the woods or on some trail. These silent journeys offer quiet times for me to reflect on why I have such a passion for this pursuit, only to be interrupted by the sight of a bird or other animal that focuses my thoughts on capturing the shot. Perhaps the telling of my story will trigger your thoughts on how you got interested in wildlife.

Fortunately, I am lucky to have a remarkable memory – not so much as to what I had for lunch a day ago, but to the sights, sounds, and emotions that go back to my very early childhood. So to understand my passion for wildlife, I need to start at the beginning.

I was born in St. Louis County, Missouri on June 6, 1947. My mother told me that I was named after my grandfather’s uncle (Manes Kutin), but they only kept the “M” from his first name and named me Marshall. It was not until many years later after both of my parents had died that I learned that on the evening before I was born, General George C. Marshall had given his famous "Marshall Plan" speech at Harvard University for the post-World War II reconstruction of Europe. Without my parents to ask, I can only speculate that they had seen his name in the newspapers on the day the stork brought me to them. I do not remember the stork that brought me into this world, so I can’t count it as my first bird sighting.

My parents did not live in St. Louis at that time, but in the small town of Olney, Illinois, located about 120 miles to the east. However, my mother and I spent my first six months at the home of my grandparents in St. Louis. Olney, Illinois was a town of about 8,000 people then, and was famous for two things – it was the center of population of the United States in the 1940 census, and it was the home of the only colony of white squirrels in the world. Some years later, Olney would again be in the newspapers as part of one of the longest criminal jury trials on record, going from October 24, 1985 to March 2, 1987. The “Pizza Connection Trial” was centered around a Mafia plot to distribute heroin and launder $1.6 billion of proceeds using a number of independently owned pizza parlors as fronts. One of those pizza parlors was in Olney.

Anyway, I lived in Olney from the age of 6 months to 3-1/2 years. I have many wonderful memories of living there, and a few of them from prior to my second birthday. I was the youngest of three brothers. Dave was 3-1/2 years older than me, and Jerry was 11 years older. My first birding memory was before my second birthday – I remember standing in my crib and hearing the song of a Northern Bobwhite quail. Of course, I did not know what it was, but I really enjoyed the sound. Dave told me that it was a Bobwhite – even then he was my birding guru. There were many nights in Olney when I fell asleep listening to the Bobwhite’s call. On my second birthday, I was given Dave’s “big boy" bed, so I know that my few crib memories were prior to that age.

Jerry (age 11); Marshall (age 6 months); Dave (age 4)

I remember that it was soon after my second birthday when I knocked Dave’s baby chicken on the head with a Lincoln Log – I also remember Dave’s running to my mother telling her that I had killed his baby chicken. I meant no harm – was just experimenting and observing the chick’s behavior. However, I have no recollection whatsoever of flushing Jerry’s small turtle down the toilet when I was 1-1/2. I am sure that I was only seeing if it could swim.

But it was the white squirrels in Olney that really generated fond memories of living in that small town. There were about 800 of these white squirrels in Olney, and they were protected by law. The white squirrels did not interbreed with the usual gray squirrels, and they seemed to know that they had protected status, for they were very tame and unafraid of people. I remember that my mother had a large brown paper bag of hickory nuts under the sink in the kitchen, and with her permission, I would take a handful, sit on the steps of our front porch, and let the white squirrels eat the hickory nuts out of my little hand.

At the age of two, the white squirrels must have seemed to me to be very large animals. I remember Dave’s best friend at the time – Larry Bowers, who lived in a white house diagonally across the street from the end of our block. Both Dave and Larry were about the same height, but Larry was much stockier. I remember how big Larry appeared to me then. Both of them were only five years old. Strange to remember a kid being so big when he was only five.

I was also two years old when I got interested in photography. My brother Jerry had a camera and on a few occasions took my picture in our back yard. I didn’t know what he was doing the first time, but was very excited when he showed me the results. For one of the photos, Jerry put his first baseman’s mitt on one of my hands, and had me hold a baseball in the other hand. His glove was almost one-third my height. So at two years of age I became the neighborhood catcher for backyard baseball. I was too little to bat and field, but I did a pretty good job of catching and throwing the ball back. I was happy to perform this task until I was hit on top of the head one time by a swung bat. After that event, I wasn’t too thrilled about baseball – at least for a couple of years, but I did enjoy the photos.

Everything around me was of interest and worth exploring, and my eye caught anything that was unusual. We moved to St. Louis when I was 3-1/2, and lived above my mother’s parents in a duplex. My first memory of St. Louis was asking my mother what those strange things were on the tops of people’s houses. When she told me that they were television antennas, that didn’t help much to answer my question. It wasn’t until I was five years old that I went downtown with my grandmother to Famous-Barr department store when she bought the first television I had ever seen. St. Louis only had one channel then – KSD Channel 5. I was a very adventurous little kid then, and when I would run away from home every so often, it would be to go downstairs to grandma’s so I could watch the television.

And speaking of adventure, that’s what my life was like there in St. Louis. When I was four years old, I was met with all kinds of new adventures. For my fourth birthday, my father bought a used, and very beat up, orange and white 20 inch bicycle. It was the best present I could have imagined – he took me to our Hamilton elementary school, put me on the bike on the asphalt playground, and told me that if I kept peddling, I would not fall. The overachiever that I was, I proved him to be correct, and peddled as fast as I could and did not fall. However, my father had not told me how to turn the bicycle or brake it, and I rode full steam into the iron fence that enclosed the playground. I soon learned those additional skills required to ride my bike, and a whole new world of exploration opened up for me.

And at the age of four, it was Dave who showed me how to climb down under the viaduct on DeGiverville, and put my ear on the railroad tracks to listen if a train were coming. We lived about two blocks from Debaliviere, “the Strip,” where there were bars and strip clubs, and where the local gangster “Buster” Wortman ruled, and where one of his henchmen, Sonny Liston, learned to fight. For those of you trying to place the name, Sonny Liston was the heavyweight boxing champion who was defeated by Cassius Clay, later known as Mohammed Ali. I met Sonny Liston in Las Vegas when I was 16 and on a trip with my parents. I remember that he wasn’t very friendly when I said hello, and my mother grabbed her purse when he walked into the restaurant where we were eating dinner.

Anyway, back to my adventures at the age of four. I went out with Dave and some of his friends for my first Halloween. Parents in those days didn’t worry too much about their children being outside alone, especially in a group, and Dave and his friends took me to Debaliviere where we went trick or treating in the bars, and drunks gave us money because they didn't have any candy. So, with the training provided to me by my big brother Dave, I acquired the confidence to seek out and explore the world around me.

At the age of four I had full reign to go wherever I wanted on my bike, as long as it was within a few blocks of our house. There was a black cat in the neighborhood who would often come onto our porch, and I really enjoyed playing with it. But there was also a large dog that was walked on a leash by this woman I did not know, and I thought that the dog was a small bear as it had a very bushy coat, so I remember being afraid of it and always gave it a wide berth to pass me on the sidewalk. I was adventurous, but not fearless. My caution and respect for animals was reinforced at the age of five, when Dave and I were near our house and found a baby Blue Jay that had fallen out of its nest. When Dave picked up the chick to comfort it, mama Blue Jay flew out of a tree and dive bombed him, giving him a very hard peck on the top of his head. Perhaps this is the moment when Dave decided to become an avid birder?

We lived within walking distance of Forest Park that included the world-famous St. Louis Zoo. I particularly enjoyed the monkey show, and to a lesser extent, the lion and elephant shows. But I wasn’t impressed by the very large bird cage that housed many species from around the world. Perhaps it was that they weren’t very entertaining for a little kid, but I also thought that the birds were unhappy being confined like that. At least the monkeys, elephants, and lions appeared to me to be having fun performing for us.

When I was six years old, someone (Jerry?) gave me my first camera - a brown, cardboard, KODAK # 2 Model “C” box camera that had a small lens, a viewer, and a crank to advance the film – but I had no film, just the camera. I took lots and lots of photos without film, and became very proficient at taking “pictures.” If I remember correctly, the camera had the words “1933 Chicago World’s Fair Souvenir Camera” stamped on it. It wasn’t until I was almost eight years old when my mother bought me my first roll of film. We would be moving in a couple of months, and my first real picture was of my best friend, Steve Mueller. The roll of film was long enough for me to take eight pictures, and my second photo was of my mother and Dave. Note that in the photo, Dave was wearing his Davy Crockett t-shirt. I was wearing mine as well when I took the picture.

When I was seven, our family went on a car trip out west, and I remember the excitement of seeing a herd of buffaloes running across the plain, and the bears in Yellowstone looking into and climbing on top of our car. I now wish that I would have had a camera with me, but camera duties on that trip were assigned to my father and to Jerry. Leaving Yellowstone was a real treat for me. There were lots of cars and a bit of a traffic jam, so we were driving very slowly to the exit of the park. I was sitting in the back seat of our 1953 Packard sedan, and my mother had given me a whole bag of one of my favorite treats – candy circus peanuts – large, orange, hard marshmallow-like candy in the shape of a peanut. There were a few bears near our car, and I decided to see if a bear would like candy circus peanuts as much as I did, so I lowered the window and threw one out to it. No one had told me not to feed the bears in the park. Well, we ended up with several bears lined up along our car as we slowly drove to the park exit, and I guess that they got about 20 candy circus peanuts from me that morning. I wonder what the park ranger would have said to me if he knew what I had done.

In July, 1955 we moved to the suburbs – University City, and a whole new world of wildlife opened up to me. We lived in a new, modern-style, single level house that was painted in the popular 1950’s shade of pink. There were six of these homes on the street, with an old two-story house on one corner and large two-story house near our house. The neighborhood kids were quick to tell me that the nearby two-story house had been owned by a couple of old ladies who owned all the land on the block except for the one on the corner, and had kept the land in a wild state as a bird sanctuary. The nephew of these two old ladies had them committed as insane, and sold their house and the land to the developer who built our house. I was also told that the neighborhood kids had buried a dead cat in the excavated land under our house before the basement concrete had been poured.

Well, there still were enough trees left to attract lots of birds, and with my mother’s green thumb, lots of flowers and a plants grew around our house. I remember Ruby-throated Hummingbirds as common visitors to her lilac bushes, and Cardinals nesting in the rose bushes that grew up beside our car port. Listening to the Cardinals and watching their babies in the nest soon made the Cardinal my favorite bird, not to mention our home town baseball team of the same name. But it was the squirrels that were my favorite wild animal. I would sit for long periods of time watching their acrobatics on the power and telephone lines, jumping from tree limb to tree limb, and from tall trees to the roof of the nearby two-story house. Perhaps it was my fond memories of the Olney white squirrels that captivated me, but to this day I still enjoy watching the antics of squirrels, and have never thought of them as merely rats with bushy tails.

And it was in Miss Halgren’s 5th grade class at Hawthorne elementary school where I really learned to enjoy wildlife as more than just an observer. Not only did we have a pair of Praying Mantises that we watched for several weeks, only to find the head of the male after they had mated, but we were visited once a month by Mr. Rex(?) Conners, the school district’s traveling naturalist who gave us talks on nature and did “field trips” in the school playground and adjacent Millar Park.

I received my second camera when I was nine, a Kodak Brownie Hawkeye box camera, but the cost of film was still a major issue for me. My first two wildlife photos were taken in March 1957 at the St. Louis Zoo – not very wild birds, but a pigeon and a couple of black swans were easy subjects. In the spring of 1958, our 6th grade class spent a week at the school district’s Camp White Cloud located at Quiver River State Park. I was one of the few students to sign up to go on a early morning bird walk – only because it was being conducted by Mr. Connors. Next to watching Mr. Wizard (Don Herbert) on television, Mr. Connors was my favorite teacher. On my first bird walk, we saw a Rose-breasted Grosbeak, an Indigo Bunting, a Scarlet Tanager, and a Red-eyed Vireo. That would be my last bird walk until 2006. The day after the bird walk, our class was getting some sort of outdoor demonstration, and a Summer Tanager landed on the bright red hat of our 6th grade teacher, Ms. Nell Quarles – we laughed, but she stood very still and let it sit there for a minute or so. I knew immediately what it was, as Mr. Conners had told us the difference between Scarlet and Summer Tanagers the day before. At that point, my list of life birds was at least 12, the five new birds at Camp White Cloud, Cardinals, Ruby-throated Hummingbirds, Robins, Flickers, and Red-headed Woodpeckers in my backyard, the Blue Jay that had pecked Dave on the head, and House Sparrows.

I had first noticed House Sparrows during the summer between 4th and 5th grade. University City had a summer playground day camp program, and on Wednesdays we could go swimming for free at Heman Park. Most of the kids took the bus from Millar Park, but I had about a five-mile bike restriction then, so Dave and I rode our bikes to the pool. That also meant we could hang around longer after the bus left and buy refreshments at the pool concession stand. Dave’s allowance then was ten cents a week, and he would spend his entire allowance of a bag of buttered popcorn. My allowance was only a nickel a week, so I couldn’t afford the buttered popcorn and had to settle for a bag of plain popcorn. There was always a small flock of House Sparrows there, and I enjoyed feeding them some of my dry popcorn. But the popcorn was really dry, so one of the times I added some free mustard to the popcorn from the concession stand counter where people would add fixings to their hot dogs – that helped with the popcorn dryness problem, and the House Sparrows seemed to like the added flavor. When I showed Dave what I was doing, he quickly realized that he could do the same, and use his remaining five cents for a soda. He also told his friends about my idea, and it quickly spread – bad idea. Within a month there was a new sign on the counter – mustard on popcorn now cost five cents extra – all the kids were using mustard on their popcorn and there wasn’t any left for people buying hot dogs. But mustard on popcorn became a University City tradition. I should have gotten a patent on it.

I didn’t know that those birds were House Sparrows then. We had a large sized bird book at home that Dave and I looked at a lot – Audubon’s birds, and then Dave got really interested in birding and bought a copy of the new Peterson’s field guide. I looked up the Heman Park sparrows in the Peterson guide, and thought for sure that they were Harris’s Sparrows because of the black mask and throat on the males, and didn’t know enough about birds to realize that House Sparrows were in the Old World section of the guide, and were not shown in the sparrow’s section. I now know that they had to be House Sparrows. My only recollection of noticing birds for more than the next decade were an American Crow that had been raised by one of the students at Hanley Jr. High and would follow him to school every day and sit in the open classroom windows during warm weather, and a beautiful red-tailed Hawk that I watched soaring overhead all day long while working on a wildlife conservation project at Boy Scout Camp Beaumont near Valley Park. And I often heard Whip-poor-wills when camping there at night, but never saw one. But for Dave, birds became a passion for him as a teenager – he spent hours and hours reading his Peterson field guide.

However, photography bit me and never let go. When I was 14, one of the guys in my scout Explorer Post had access to his father’s basement darkroom, and it was there that I learned how to develop film and use an enlarger for making prints. I really wanted to have my own darkroom, but could not afford the equipment. I occasionally stopped in the neighborhood Goodwill store, because one time I found an old stamp album there that still had some stamps in it that were worth a lot more than what I paid for the album. On one of those days there was an old photographic enlarger in the store priced at $30 – much more than I could afford. But I knew that after 30 days of not being sold, the Goodwill store cut the price in half to get rid of old items. I didn’t know when the 30 days would be up on the enlarger, so I went there every day after school, hoping that no one had bought it for $30, and that I would be there on the first day it was reduced to $15 – SUCCESS! My first dark room, although not very dark because I was constrained to putting cardboard between the floor joists above our basement bathroom, gave me many hours of enjoyment. It was also in high school when hearing about the hunting adventures of one of my friends and his father, that I decided that I wanted to go hunting as well, but with a camera instead of a rifle.

For about the next 40 years, my photographic skills improved, but my wildlife photography was limited to a few shots of a chipmunk that lived under my house in Chesterfield, MO, a Robin that showed up every day with a white leucistic tail feather, two pheasants that were on my front yard after the 1993 mid-west floods, and a distant bear near Mendenhall Glacier in Juneau, Alaska. In graduate school, I learned techniques for astrophotography, the most challenging of which was cutting red light sensitive, emulsion coated, 8 x10 glass plates into 2 x 3 plates in total darkness, having to put the corner of the freshly cut glass plate on my tongue to taste the sweetness of the emulsion so that I could load the astrocamera with the emulsion side up. Beginning in 1973, my work research projects required that I develop new sets of techniques and write software code for processing digital images on mainframe computers. While my photographic acquisition skills and processing techniques matured, the desire to hunt wildlife with a camera remained dormant.

In December 2006, my oldest son Michael gave me a bird feeder, and I set it up in the back yard of our home in Nellysford, VA, and birds soon found it. I saw species that I had never seen, or perhaps never noticed before, and I thought that I should try to take pictures of a few of them. On December 28, 2006, I took a few wildlife photos for the first time in many years. It is now July 2010, and a few months ago the number of my wildlife photos taken crossed the 100,000 mark. I would say that my passion for wildlife photography has been re-kindled. If I had to venture a guess as to when this passion started within me, it was with the white squirrels and Bobwhite in Olney, Illinois.

December 28, 2006

E-mail comments on this essay

Return to blog page home