An interview with Giff
Read more about Dragonflies and Damselflies of Georgia and the Southeast
Q: You’re a pilot with Delta Airlines. Most people with a career like that barely have time for a hobby. You’ve written two birding books, compiled two annotated checklists for birds in Georgia, and have been active giving birding talks for years. How did you become so involved in bird watching?
A: I was a really hardcore fisherman as a kid, so much so that I couldn’t find any other kids willing to fish all day like I wanted. As a result, I fished with several equally keen adults, and one of them happened to be a great naturalist. He showed me some of the different kinds of birds and animal life out there and got me interested in seeing and identifying different groups. From there it just snowballed, along with my interest in photography. This interest in learning about new creatures, and identifying them, has become one of my life’s great passions. Getting interested in this type of work could be viewed as either a blessing or a curse, because you can never get past the tip of the “nature” iceberg, but I prefer to see it as a blessing. The books have happened for various reasons, but I have always tried to share what I have learned with others, if they are interested.
Q: What was it about birds that originally intrigued you?
A: Mostly their diversity and great natural beauty, along with the challenge of trying to find and identify different kinds.
Q: Can you tell us how and when you became interested in seriously watching and identifying dragonflies and damselflies? Is odonate watching becoming more and more common with birders?
A: As I became more and more interested in photography and watching birds, I started noticing other animals, like insects. As happened with birds, I started realizing how many different kinds there were. Then it became a great adventure to try to learn more about them and to try to find and photograph the different species. When I started getting interested in odonates, there were very few books to help with field identification, and of course no internet yet, so I had to dig up what few books there were. I was also fortunate to meet several very experienced dragonfly biologists and specialists, and they were crucial to learning more about this wonderful group of insects. My first photos of odonates were back in 1991, and I started trying to learn more about them around 1993, actively seeking out different habitats at different times of the year. I do think odonate watching is becoming more and more popular among birdwatchers and backyard nature enthusiasts.
Q: Are there other insects or animals that are commonly viewed by birders?
A: I think many birders are becoming more interested in many other “watchable” groups, like butterflies or moths and their caterpillars, odonates, and other showy or obvious groups of insects. Of course, wildflowers are another very popular part of nature for birders.
Q: What are some of the most common misconceptions about odonates that you’ve encountered?
A: Probably the biggest one is that they can sting you, which they cannot since they have no stinger. Most people know that the old wives tale of dragonflies sewing animals eyes shut is just that—an old wives tale.
Q: Can you mention a few of the more interesting facts about odonates that people will find in this book?
A: Well, there are tons of interesting facts about these amazing insects! They are capable of very fast flight speed, can carry huge amounts of weight relative to their own size, and have amazing vision. During the lectures that I give on this group, their unique and fascinating mating habits are always one of the things that people want to discuss the most.
Q: The photos in this book are amazing. How did you get these wonderful shots? What kind of equipment and techniques do you use?
A: Thank you! A lot of effort went into getting the shots used in this book. In fact, for the last several years I have made a list each winter of the species I needed to target that season. For odonate shots in general, the trick is to get a decent camera with a macro capability, either with macro lenses on a full size 35mm SLR camera, or a point-and-shoot with that ability. Once you find a worthy subject, the technique is to slowly sneak up on the insect, and just keep shooting until you get the shot or it flies off and you get to start over. Some species are very rare or local or both, and these species were the most difficult—you have to find a good section of their habitat, and then make sure you are there during the exact right time of year. This is not always easy as some have pretty short flight seasons.