Morro Bay photographer wins Audubon contest

slinn@thetribunenews.comJanuary 16, 2013 

  • Morro Bay Winter Bird Festival

    The Morro Bay Winter Bird Festival offers avian enthusiasts ample opportunities to spot their feathered friends while walking, boating, cycling, hiking and kayaking.

    Now in its 17th year, the festival runs Friday through Monday at locations throughout San Luis Obispo and northern Santa Barbara counties.

    Special events include a keynote address on Saturday by Half Moon Bay-based birding expert Alvaro Jaramillo on “Birding Outside the Box: How Our Brain Identifies Birds,” and a Sunday talk by local bird photographer Dave Keeling, “Birds of San Luis Obispo County: A Photographic Love Story.”

    Full festival registration is $75, while one-day registration costs $25 to $40. Individual events cost $10 to $90, although many are free.

    For more information about the Morro Bay Winter Bird Festival, call (866) 464-5105, or visit

While working as a docent at Montaña de Oro State Park this summer, Alice Cahill noticed a flurry of activity around a tree near Spooner’s Ranch House.

The Morro Bay woman watched for hours as a red-shafted Northern flicker flitted in and out of a nest hole, bringing food to his young and removing waste in his beak. The scene was so fascinating that Cahill simply had to photograph it.

“When I looked at it in the camera, I was happy,” Cahill said.

Her photo of the male flicker in mid-flight won grand prize in the 2012 Audubon Magazine Photography Awards, beating out more than 6,600 other shots submitted by more than 900 photographers. The picture appears on the cover of the magazine’s January/February issue.

Cahill has been photographing the natural world since 1992, when her husband, retired college counselor Don Henderson, bought Cahill her first single-lens reflex camera, a Canon Rebel.

She had her first photo exhibit in 1999 and currently displays her photos at the Cayucos Art Association gallery and the Gallery at Marina Square in Morro Bay, as well as online on her blog.

The Los Angeles native credits her parents with instilling her with a sense of wonder.

“My dad gave me a wide-angle view of nature, and my mother gave an intimate view,” explained Cahill, who participated in long-distance road trips with one parent and picnics with the other. “It helped me see both ends of the natural spectrum.”

Cahill’s parents bought a weekend home on the Central Coast in 1966 and retired here in 1971. Their daughter, who worked in a federal passport office, came north following her retirement in 2008.

“This is an absolutely fabulous area. It truly is paradise,” said Cahill, a member of the Morro Coast Audubon Society and a frequent Morro Bay Winter Bird Festival participant.

Although she often finds inspiration in landscapes, Cahill chose to focus on bird photography at the beginning of 2012.

“I just decided that I’d try my hand, and I’m glad I did,” she said, noting that winged subjects bring their own set of challenges. “With birds, you have to be there and get lucky. … It’s a lot of waiting and being alert.”

In the case of her flicker photo, her patience paid off.

Cahill’s Audubon winnings include a Celestron Sky-Watcher AllView Mount tripod valued at $400, a $1,000 gift certificate to photo and video equipment retailer B&H, and a five-night trip to Peru courtesy of travel company Inkaterra.

Cahill hopes her success will encourage other people to seek out the natural beauty of the Central Coast.

“There’s a richness here that people will find if they just go and explore on their own,” she said.

Tips for taking pictures of birds

Award-winning bird photographer Alice Cahill offers these tips for fledgling aficionados and experienced birders alike when it comes to taking pictures of subjects on the wing:

Be respectful: When entering birds’ natural habitats, keep noise and movement to a minimum, watch where you walk and retreat if your subject acts distressed. Once the birds realize you’re not a threat, they’ll be much easier to photograph.

Be observant: Pay attention to your surroundings. Nothing ruins a birding trip like accidentally discovering poison oak or stepping in a rattlesnake hole.

Be patient: It can take hours, even days, for the perfect photo opportunity to present itself. Cahill often stakes out a spot where she’s seen birds before, then returns to it multiple times in search of subjects.

Be prepared: In addition to camera gear, Cahill recommends bringing comfortable shoes, sunscreen, bottled water and a hat. She typically wears neutral colors such as khaki, tan, brown and green to better blend into the background, and sometimes uses her car as blind.

Be persistent: With bird photography, practice makes perfect. The more pictures you snap, the more chances you have of capturing the perfect shot.

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