A Photographer's Eye View: Sarah E. Devlin Sees Eye-to-eye With Her Subjects

By: Debra Lawless

Sarah E. Devlin's photos of shorebirds will be on exhibit at the Monomoy National Wildlife Refuge headquarters on Morris Island from Oct. 4 to 14. COURTESY PHOTO

Is it surprising that to photograph ducks and shorebirds, you may well have to creep along ice-covered rocks or lie down on your belly in the sand or mud?

These are commonplace activities of award-winning wildlife and nature photographer Sarah E. Devlin of Chatham, who will show her exquisite bird photographs at the Monomoy National Wildlife Refuge from Oct. 4 to 14.

“I lie in a prone position,” Devlin said during a telephone interview last week. “I like to get really low—it creates a shallow depth of field and isolates the subject really well.” The bird is shown against a blurred background of colors suggesting, perhaps, sky, water or grass.

Devlin, who grew up in Ridgefield, Conn., says she always had an interest in photography. “A few years ago I started to hone my skills. I spend a lot of time in nature—it’s my therapy.” If Devlin began her photographic journey with a simple desire to record the beauty of what she sees in nature, from there she mastered sophisticated photographic techniques and also learned a lot about birds.

This year Devlin won an Audubon Photography Awards Top 100 prize for her photograph of a red-tailed hawk. The hawk seems suspended against a pale blue sky. Tasseling reeds blow in a breeze just below the hawk. She also won Best in Show at the Chatham Creative Arts Center’s annual photography exhibition for her shot of a great egret at sunrise. And she won a North American Nature Photography Association Showcase award for her feeding barn swallows. In all of her photographs, the details are stunning, arresting.

Pretty much every day—spring, summer and fall—Devlin ventures out in nature “to see what I find.” (In the winter she travels to places that are full of birds.) Working without a plan, she might head to a local beach “and just find something.” She works early at “the golden hour” just after the sun comes up. This means that in the summer, she might be out at 5 a.m., long before the beachgoers hit the sands. Her goal is to photograph birds in their natural habitats or in flight. Although she keeps a respectful distance from the birds, they often notice her when she first arrives, and she has been dive-bombed many times by terns. But after a few moments with Devlin lying on the ground, everything calms down.

“Sometimes they will come right up to my lens,” she says.

On two occasions Devlin stayed at the Monomoy Light keeper's house. The first time she was with a refuge worker, and the second time she was with the people who band birds.

“It was an amazing experience,” she says. “There’s so much history there.” The lighthouse is now equipped with a propane cooktop and a refrigerator. And overall it’s “pretty nice inside. It feels like you’re at a camp—there’s a pleasant feeling to it,” she adds. And for a bird photographer Monomoy, a stop for migrating birds along the Atlantic Flyway, is paradise. She photographed shorebirds at the Powder Hole and at Big Station Pond.

This year Devlin also won a competitive Artist in Residence designation in Provincetown, staying at the dune shack “Forest.” “I do like to do that kind of thing, completely immersed in nature,” she says.

In an artist’s statement on her website, Devlin writes, “I was initially drawn to the beaches and the large variety of beautiful shorebirds. This led me to explore and photograph other species of birds, such as songbirds and raptors.” She says that right now her favorite subject is, in fact, shorebirds. While she doesn’t consider herself a bird watcher per se, “it really helps the photography if you understand the behavior of any species of wild life.” She adds, “I did my homework.”

So what is it that Devlin loves about shorebirds? “They’re so fragile and resilient at the same time,” she says. “You can’t help but respect what the parents have to do to keep their young alive.” It’s tough to raise young on the open beach—there are predators such as hawks and foxes and also humans. “I have a lot of respect for that. It’s an amazing nature story.” Her photographs of piping plover chicks and least tern chicks express the vulnerability of the newborn.

Devlin uses a digital single lens reflex (DSLR) camera, and a 600mm lens is a favorite. She works without a tripod, and when lying on the ground props the camera on a bean bag to steady it.

In her artist’s statement she notes that color inspires her. She has “developed a delicate style of soft muted tones and pleasing palettes that complement the ethereal quality of birds.”

Her photographs have been added to private collections and commercial spaces alike. Devlin’s work can be viewed and purchased through her website sarahedevlin.com.

Devlin’s bird exhibit will open on Friday, Oct. 4 with a reception from 1 to 3 p.m. Refreshments will be provided by the Friends of Monomoy. The show will remain open during refuge hours Monday through Friday, 10 a.m. to 2 p.m., at the Morris Island headquarters.