Nov. 13, 2015 – It was the 1940s: Paris fell to the Germans, nylons were invented, big bands swung on the Zenith, and a young Bob Abraham (’53 B.S. forestry and wildlife) discovered birds. “I attended summer camp in Massachusetts and saw cedar waxwings for the first time,” he recalled. “That did it. Their beauty was quite unbelievable. There is so much color on those birds!”
The cedar waxwing is a plush, fawn-olive bird with a rakish black mask, citron tail tip, and brilliant red, bead-like drops on its wingtips. Even as a boy, Abraham, now a nationally known wildlife photographer, knew beauty when he saw it.
Audubon nature camps in Maine and Connecticut helped guide him to Virginia Tech. After earning his forestry degree, he worked in the Pacific Northwest, returning to Christiansburg with his young family where he established a printing business.
Always an early-adopter with a flair for technology and adventure, it was an interest in scuba diving in the 1960s that led him to undersea wildlife photography. He entered a Ritz photo contest, placing fourth out of 40,000, and won a camera.
Underwater macrophotography in the Atlantic and Caribbean was his forte. “Of course, it’s better now than it was then,” he said. “We’d go at night, down about 15 or 20 feet. You had a Nikonis camera, you’d shoot your 36 exposures, and then you’d have to go back to the surface. The cameras had rubber rings around them to make them waterproof. You’d pull everything apart to take out your roll of film, get another one, and go back down.”
Moving from film to digital in the early 2000s, Abraham bought a Hewlett Packard camera and was “delighted,” he recalled. “I was one of the first real users of digital photography, and it’s made what I do wonderful! I can take 1,000 pictures and throw away 900.” He recently returned from Nags Head, North Carolina, where he took more than 600 pictures of seabirds. He kept 28.
“I’ve thought of people who are retired — who have any love at all of anything photographic — and it’s so easy now. Technology is a wonderful thing.”
Abraham now typically uses a Canon 7D Mark II camera and 100-400 telephoto lens. Having mastered those few, fine tools, his photography is stunning with detail: the red at the throat of a ruby-throated hummingbird (the only hummingbird east of the Mississippi, he points out), a dazzling great egret skimming the New River, its plumage so white he has to adjust the camera to a darker setting.
His photos are exhibited throughout the New River Valley, including a permanent display at the Christiansburg Aquatic Center, and his framed pieces are available for sale at exhibits and receptions. His work is regularly featured in the Roanoke Times and in national birding and wildlife publications.
Since the day he discovered cedar waxwings, Bob Abraham has spent over half a century witnessing and documenting the natural world. Technology offers many wonderful things, he muses, but the future of the global environment is of frank concern.
“The coast of Virginia is pristine. It’s lined with islands off-limits to people, the result of conservation measures by The Nature Conservancy. Consequently, many bird species have rookeries there. We need more people to understand how to protect the things that really matter.”
“I believe we have become quite reckless in our quest for oil and natural gas. I would like to see more research into alternative energy sources, including solar, wind, and perhaps water.”