"It's like a disease, I suppose," says bird photographer Theodore Cross in an interview with NPR's Melissa Block. "Except for my family and friends, there are few things I care more about." He is talking about his love for waterbirds — a love that has taken him to four continents, from the Canadian Arctic to the Russian Far East tundra to Texas lagoons, over the course of nearly 40 years.
"They are one of my favorite birds," photographer Theodore Cross says of the reddish egret. There are two different morphs: brownish red and white.
Photographs by Theodore Cross, from his book Waterbirds
Reddish egrets are found mostly on Green Island at the southern tip of Texas' Laguna Madre.
Reddish egrets engage in a courtship ritual. They "throw back their heads, point their bills to the sky, and parade around the nest showing off their remarkably shaggy neck feathers," Cross writes.
Cross has traveled to Green Island for 30 consecutive years to capture the reddish egret. He writes that a friend once said his tombstone will read, "He passed on to a better world still waiting for a perfect picture of a reddish egret."
The red knot, a robin-sized shorebird, makes an unbelievable 8,000-mile migration from Patagonia to the Canadian Arctic each year. "It's the courage of these guys that appeals to me tremendously," Cross says.
The white tern can be found on remote islands in the tropical Pacific.
Cross writes that these gentle white terns, formerly called fairy terns, would often lay eggs near Marines' barracks, or even on gun emplacements, during World War II.
Researchers have determined that fledgling sooty terns "take off from their birthplace and do not return to ground until they are of breeding age, five years later," writes Cross. These are the most abundant of all equatorial seabirds.
Cross traveled to Siberia to photograph the Ross' gull: "There may be no other bird species in the world that evokes such romantic dreams for the ornithologist or serious bird-watcher."
Cross says the black skimmer is the bird with "the most unusual design." It is the only bird with a lower jaw that is both spring-loaded and longer than its upper beak.
"Toward the end of the day in the summer breeding season," Cross writes, "pairs of black skimmers engage in fantastic aerial maneuvers."
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Cross is now 85 years old, but his love for birds came mid-life. He has had a long career in law and publishing — and is an expert on economic development. But birds are his passion.
"This is the book John James Audubon would have made if he had used a camera," reads the jacket to Cross' new book, Waterbirds. And it's true. This collection of 179 color photographs is an ornithologist's dream. But Cross' interests are more specific: He's drawn to birds that exist in and around water — especially the birds known for incredible migrations. "It's the courage of these guys that appeals to me tremendously," he says in the interview.
Cross was born during the Coolidge administration and fought during World War II. At the time, he says, "There were millions of birds around me all the time, and I didn't notice them ... At wartime, you have other things to notice — like being seasick or having some terrible disease in your armpit." But he does recall certain things — like the Marines' beloved white tern, famous for laying its eggs on barracks and gun emplacements. Perhaps because of subconscious memories like these, Cross eventually developed an affinity for waterbirds. "Whammo! Twenty years later ... they became a very important part of my life."
It makes sense that a former naval officer would be drawn to these aquatic creatures — water-loving but also possessing incredible stamina and strength. Cross has, for example, traveled to Texas' Laguna Madre for 30 consecutive years to capture the beautiful reddish egret.
He writes in the book's preface: "In my mind, I visit these islands almost every day. The memories of them help me accept the brevity of the time that lies ahead."