Picture the majesty of a bald eagle, soaring above the bay, searching for a fish. Or imagine a crow, black as night, silhouetted against a bright orange sky. These are just some of the images David Chartier has managed to capture with only his digital camera, a passion for wildlife and patience.
“I like birds in flight, mostly,” said Chartier, a retied postal worker who now spends several days a week taking wildlife photos.
Chartier’s passion for birds began at an early age, when he owned homing pigeons. As an adult, Chartier trained and raced the birds, driving them as far as 100 air miles away to test their homing skills.
Chartier said the pigeons’ training began around the house, where they learned to use their wings and get their strength. Once they were old enough, Chartier said he would drive them a short distance away to see if they could find their way home.
“I would take them the first time 20 air miles away,” he said.
Unfortunately, some pigeons didn’t always make their way home, but most of the time, they found their way.
“Don’t fall in love with them,” advised Chartier, who said his pigeons were more for sport than companionship.
At one time, Chartier had 100 specially-bred racing pigeons in a large coop behind his Warwick home. After 14 years in the sport, Chartier eventually gave it up and let the pigeons go - but not literally.
“You can’t do that, because they just keep coming back,” he said with a smile.
Though he doesn’t still own birds, Chartier will always have a love for them. His zeal for nature and wildlife is what spurred him to turn his lens to the sky.
Chartier took up photography in the 1970s, though he’s never been formally trained.
“It was just a hobby,” he said. “It’s still a hobby.”
In January of 2006, Chartier was diagnosed with lung cancer. For his birthday that year, Chartier’s daughter got the rest of the family to pool together money to buy him a used digital camera, a Cannon 10D.
“I started taking photos of the grandkids,” he said. “And then I started taking pictures of wildlife. I’ve always been into wildlife since I was a kid.”
His knowledge of various species helps him to get the perfect shot. Knowing what certain birds feed upon, and finding that prey, almost always guarantees he’ll be able to capture a shot of a specific bird.
“Practice and know the wildlife,” he said. “If you know wildlife, it makes it a lot easier.”
During a visit to the Beacon earlier this week, Chartier flipped through several of his favorite photos. He carefully identified each species, pointing out the difference between a heron (“They have black feet,” he said) and a snowy eagle, which have black bills. He pointed to a Pacific brown pelican, noting it displayed its breeding plumage. He explained that young bald eagles don’t get a white head or tail until they’re 5 years old; young ospreys have orange eyes, he said, which turn yellow as they age.
So how does Chartier know so much about these various aviary species?
“I read,” he said plainly.
It’s his deep understanding of the birds that allows him to capture such incredible images, but it’s also a general understanding of flight mechanics. Chartier sets up his camera facing away from the wind because birds need wind resistance to land; by using this technique, Chartier guarantees he’ll get a picture of the bird’s face.
“They can’t land with wind on their tail because they’ll get pushed on their face,” he said. “Just like an airplane.”
Chartier said he typically sits and shoots for about an hour.
“Sometimes you get lucky and sometimes you don’t,” he said. “There’s a lot of luck involved, and there’s some skill.”
He remembers sitting outside on a particularly cold winter’s day in Middletown.
“It was so cold our faces hurt,” he said.
But the pain was worth it - Chartier captured a photo of a snowy owl that day, which Chartier believes might have been the only snowy owl in the state at that time.
Chartier doesn’t know how many hundreds of photos he’s taken over the years - he’s lost count. Though his photos are routinely used in the Beacon and also in the city of Warwick calendar, he doesn’t have any plans to start selling his pictures.
“People say, you’re crazy, why don’t you make some [money]?” he said. “If I started doing it for money, it wouldn’t be fun for me. I do it because it’s what I like to do.”
Chartier prints his photos himself, using a high-quality printer and glossy paper. He keeps most, but also gives many away.
Despite the sheer volume of photos he’s taken, Chartier can quickly identify his favorite: a photo of a swooping eagle, a menhaden in its talons, taken on Nov. 9, 2011 at Arnold’s Neck.
“That’s a once in a lifetime photo,” he said.