Through the Lens of Axel Hildebrandt

Top: Ivory gull, Provincetown, Mass. Above: American oystercatcher feeding its chick, Long Island, N.Y.
Photos by Axel Hildebrandt.

At midnight on Saturday January 16, two days before the start of the spring semester, German language professor Axel Hildebrandt received a call that sent him on mad dash for Cape Cod.

"I drove straight through the night to be there by sunrise," he said. An ivory gull had been spotted in the area, and although he had captured many unusual birds with his Canon EOS, he had never seen an ivory gull. Very few people have, in fact. The rarely seen bird generally inhabits the Arctic and almost never travels south of Newfoundland.

"It's a very beautiful bird—completely white with a red eye ring," said Professor Hildebrandt, an assistant professor of German. "My friend in Massachusetts had seen one before, but that was in 1976."

Considered "near threatened" by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, the ivory gull feeds on scraps left by polar bears. But "high levels of DDT and environmental toxins in fish and seals" are taking their toll on the gull.

Professor Hildebrandt began viewing nature through the lens of a camera as a child in East Germany, soon after his parents gave him a Pentacon. Landscapes and zoo animals were favorite subjects, but "most of the birds in Berlin are pigeons and sparrows, so I didn't do birds until later," he said. In 1998, he came to the U.S., studying at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst and then teaching at Mount Holyoke. Living near a wetland in the woods, he saw and heard many unfamiliar birds, and soon became hooked on identifying them. For the last five years, he's been capturing their images with a digital Canon.

Grasshopper sparrow singing on a thistle; Pen Argyl, Pa. Photo by Axel Hildebrandt

Occasionally, Professor Hildebrandt is able to apply his field work to the classroom, when opportunities arise to have conversations in German about conservation. Since coming to Moravian College in the fall of 2008, he's added new species, such as crossbills, to his photographic gallery.

"Its the perfect way to relax between teaching and research," he said. "Birds are very beautiful creatures, and spending time at the Jersey shore or Cape Cod at sunrise is very peaceful."

Professor Hildebrandt shares his photos for educational purposes, and many have been used by the Audubon Society and Cornell Lab.

View Axel Hildebrandt's gallery of recent images, including several different views of the Ivory Gull, at http://www.pbase.com/axelhi/new.