Annaliese Franz in class

Photo: Gregory Urquiaga/UC Davis

The Bird Photographer

by | Oct 19, 2023 | Fall/Winter 2023-24, Office Hours

Jonathan Eisen, a professor in the Department of Evolution and Ecology at UC Davis, went out almost daily during the pandemic lockdown to photograph birds at wildlife spots around Davis. The son of biologists, he has always been acutely aware of the natural world, and as a professor teaching biology today, he said he found a new passion for taking pictures of birds. 

Eisen works in the Genome Center, and his main area of study is microbes, important living organisms that are in close proximity but paid little attention. Through his photography, Eisen aims to shed light on biodiversity and the “hidden world of wonders” thriving right in front of us. He said he wants to reveal the organisms in Yolo County, and how accessible this diversity can be. “I like showing that there is spectacular beauty right there for anyone to witness,” Eisen said.

For his 50th birthday four years ago, Eisen gifted himself a $2,000 camera specializing in capturing action — for birds in flight — but didn’t know how to use it. “My pictures sucked,” he said. After some online tutorials, he quickly improved.

Eisen regularly walks in the Putah Creek Riparian Reserve and the Yolo Bypass. Unlike avid bird watchers, Eisen said he prefers to “keep walking” rather than wait around for a specific bird to show up. He shares his photos on Twitter and has posted more pictures than anyone in California for the past four years on INaturalist, a platform where people can upload observations and locations of different organisms.

This new hobby, Eisen said, has revitalized his professional life, too. He used to dread the long talks at conferences, but now is excited to explore new areas. “Now, I’m reimagining going to a lot of places because I have something that I can look forward to, which isn’t sitting in an office and talking about work,” Eisen said.