Leila Jeffreys: The Birds and the Trees

Calling all twitchers – the annual Aussie Backyard Bird Count is happening again this month! With the scent of Spring in the air, there’s never been a better excuse to dust off those binoculars and get outside to ogle the amazing assortment of life circling our skies. To celebrate this great event and the glory of birds in general, we caught up with the amazing Leila Jeffreys – ridiculously talented photographer and bird whisperer – to find out all about her love of these flying feathered creatures.

Australia is a twitchers, (or bird watchers) paradise, with a diverse abundance of avian life to be found all over the country. Aside from their physical magnificence, these creatures play a huge role in the health of our planet and its native plant life, through pollination, seed dispersal and the regeneration of ecosystems.

The Aussie Backyard Bird Count is a great opportunity for YOU to find out what’s happening in your backyard, regardless of whether you live by the beach, in the countryside or on the busiest street in the middle of the city. To take part, all you need to do is register as a counter and list whatever species you see over a twenty minute period everyday for a week. It’s easy, lots of fun and the data collected goes towards helping BirdLife Australia understand more about the beauties that live amongst us – how great is that?

For Leila Jeffreys, birds have been a huge part of her life since she was a kid growing up adventuring the world with her family. She’s been a garden birder, ornithologist’s assistant and is now an accomplished photographic artist capturing portraits of some of the most spectacular birds alive, including rare and endangered species and avian superstars like Penguin Bloom and Sirocco, the Kākāpō so famous he has his own phone number!

Leila Jeffreys with Ivy. © Bo Wong
Skye, the red tailed black cockatoo. Image © Leila Jeffreys

Can you please tell us a little bit about yourself, and your life with birds? I am a photographic artist with a love for birdlife. I work on major projects that take many years and involve a lot of travelling and searching. I try to capture unique portraits of birds that I hope allows people to see the wonder in them as I do. I am represented by the Olsen Gallery in Sydney, Purdy Hicks Gallery in London and Olsen Gruin Gallery in New York.

You have an incredible art practice that captures portraits of some of the world’s most unique and anthropomorphic birds. How did you arrive at this subject in your work? I began as a garden birdwatcher. This soon morphed into birdwatching with friends, then helping ornithologists to tag birds. Taking photos of them came after that. I took a trip to Christmas Island for their annual Bird ’n’ Nature week programme and the experience reawakened a connection to nature that I felt I had lost living in the city.

Rather than this awareness of the incredible beauty of bird life being a secret only shared by bird-watchers, I wanted everyone to feel this sense of amazement. That trip changed the way that I see and photograph birds.”

What are you hoping viewers take away with them after seeing your photographs? I hope that I can shift people’s perception of birds and allow them to see their magnificence. I’d love to be a link that reconnects people with nature and the joy it holds. This, I hope, will help protect bird species, because once they grab you by the heartstrings it’s impossible to turn a blind eye.

Do you have a favourite bird portrait that you’ve taken? I’ve had so many varied experiences with such incredible creatures that it’s hard to have a favourite… perhaps it’s clichéd to say, but it’s true, that it’s like asking a parent which is their favourite child.

I have had some wonderful experiences taking portraits at Kaarakin in Perth, Western Australia with the black cockatoos that they rescue, rehabilitate and release. Cockatoos dancing and showing off for me, perching on my shoulder while I work – birds having little cat naps in-between takes, picking off the buttons on my shirt, making a mess shredding gum nuts on set.

Your childhood spent exploring the world with your nature loving family is an amazing story. How much of an influence has this had on where you are today? My brother and I spent much of our childhood outdoors. My dad was born on the Isle of Man in the British Isles and wasn’t a fan of cities. He had an adventurous spirit and because of that he took our family to some wonderful places. I was born in Papua New Guinea and we spent time in India where my Mum was from. That upbringing is why I am so enamoured with wildlife, those childhood days have given me a direction and purpose in life that I would never have had if I didn’t have those experiences. It reinforces for me why it is so important for children to have a connection to the natural environment.

Can you please explain how important birds are to the health of our planet, particularly in their relationship with other animals, plants and people?

Birds, bats, bees – they’re all so important to the health of our plant life! Native plants are dependent on birds for successful seed dispersal, pollination and regeneration.”

Birds enables plants to colonise a new area and long-distance pollinators, like many birds, will help our environment cope with climate change as they transfer pollen and seed from the successful plants of other regions that are adapting to the changing climate. This role is essential for all life on earth – animals, plants and people.

Amanda the orange chat. Image © Leila Jeffreys
Emerald dove. Image © Leila Jeffreys

You know the Aussie Backyard Bird Count is coming up. Where will you be birding from this Spring? Eastlakes golf course. It is birdwatching heaven and is an easy 15-minute drive from where I live. The number of species you can see there in a morning is outstanding. Depending on the time of year there are birds turning up from all over the world. Recently red-capped robins have been spotted there, which is very unusual as they normally live over 300kms away. The theory is that the drought has brought new species to the area searching for water and there is enough bush on the golf course to provide a refuge for them.

Apparently, the rainbow lorikeet, noisy miner and Australian magpie topped the Bird Count list last year for the third year running. What are some of the more uncommon birds you’re hoping to see in the count this year? I love seeing smaller birds such as pardalotes, silver eyes, finches and fairy wrens in backyards as they’re declining in suburban areas. If we all planted dense native shrubs we could see more of these beautiful creatures.

Most twitchers (avid bird watchers) have a life list of birds they want to see. You’ve been up close and personal with so many amazing beauties. What birds are on your life list? There are 43 species of known Birds of Paradise of which 38 are found in Papua New Guinea.  I dream of travelling there and watching the males’ extraordinary courtship moves. Thats definitely on my life list.

Australia is home to such unique and beautiful bird and plant life. What are some of your favourite native birds and trees? I really do love our native environment. My favourite tree is Angophora costata – when I first moved to NSW from WA it was the tree that floored me. It’s so big, has such a grand and gnarled appearance with deep rusty coloured bark.

For birdlife, I think the black cockatoos are still one of my favourites. This is partly because as a child we spent a lot of time on our family bush block and the calls of the black cockatoos there formed the soundtrack to my youth.”

Many people don’t realise how many of our native bird species are endangered. Can you tell us about some of them? There are only a few dozen orange-bellied parrots left in the wild. I was fortunate to photograph one of about 350 captive bred birds for a programme to help boost the wild population. The bird lives and breeds in the Southwest wilderness moorlands of Tasmania and migrates hundreds of miles across Bass Straight and along the coasts of Victoria and New South Wales or South Australia to seek out its preferred winter habitat which is salt marshes. Think about it – this is a bird that is 20 centimetres long, weighs only 43 grams and yet flies a course as treacherous as the Sydney to Hobart yacht race!

Further afield, I did some volunteer work with the Kākāpō during their last breeding season on an island in New Zealand. It was an extraordinary experience. I worked alongside scientists, rangers and volunteers on an intensively managed conservation program to help boost the wild population of birds – There’s just over 100 left. These birds used to be widespread across both islands in New Zealand but with the introduction of pests these flightless birds were quickly wiped out.

I photographed Sirocco, the most famous Kākāpō in the world. He even has his own mobile phone number!

The Kākāpō is the strangest parrot to walk this planet. It’s nocturnal, flightless, super smart, huge and heavy. It can inflate itself like a football and the male lets out a booming call so loud that it can attract a female five kilometres away.”

Preparing to photograph Sirocco was like photographing the Prime Minister – it was so strictly controlled. The shoot had to be at night, the room had to have the door open so he could walk in and out as he pleased, equipment and clothes sterilised, hair washed and special boots and overalls worn. What I love about the bird is that he smelt like a dusty clarinet case, such an incredible smell.

What kind of trees or shrubs should we be planting to attract birdlife? If you live in an urban area I would be thinking about how you can help the small birds as they are the species that are disappearing from our suburbs. They love dense, insect attracting shrubs and lots of plants at different heights to provide shelter. Search out plants that naturally occur in your area as they have adapted best to your climate, referred to as indigenous plants, but if it is native from a different area that is also great. Small birds love an environment of thick shrubs and grasses so some suggestions are lomandra, tea tree and acacia.

What are your three favourite characteristics of birds? Their courtship behaviour, their song and their intelligence… can I have a fourth? Their power of migration blows me away.

If you were a bird, what would you be? Hmmm what would I be? Perhaps a galah? They’re playful, social and sometimes a little over enthusiastic.

The Aussie Backyard Bird Count is happening from the 23-29th of October, 2017. Register as a counter here to help BirdLife Australia in understanding more about the birds that live in our backyards! To find out more visit their WEBSITE, INSTAGRAM, FACEBOOK or TWITTER.

Leila’s latest exhibition, Orniuthraecurrently showing at the Olsen Gruin Gallery in New York City. To see more of Leila’a amazing images, visit her WEBSITE and INSTAGRAM.

All images supplied by Leila Jeffreys.

Leila photographing Sirroco, the NZ Kākāpō so famous he has his own phone number!
New Guinea ground dove. Image © Leila Jeffreys.
Ben the orange chat. Image © Leila Jeffreys