Preserving rare birds for the entire world on Wikimedia Commons

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The colorful bird depicted above is an Orange-bellied Parrot, photographed in the wild by Wikimedia Commons contributor JJ Harrison. This is one of only 21 known adult birds of its species left in the wild, making it critically endangered. “The species is likely to be extinct soon,” said Harrison. However, since Harrison shares his work under Creative Commons licenses, his photographs have been able to make a huge impact outside of the Wikimedia projects, having been used extensively in conservation and education efforts.
Harrison, who lives in Tasmania, is one of the most prolific contributors to the Commons gallery of featured avian pictures. He was profiled in the 22 August 2011 issue of the Wikipedia Signpost by User:Tony1, as part of a series of interviews with featured content creators. In the interview, he discussed his long-standing passion for wildlife, even before he became a photographer. “I’ll always remember some of those early encounters,” he said. “Like seeing a wild Spotted-tail Quoll bound around the New Pelion Hut in the alpine central highlands of Tasmania—but frustratingly, the right photographic equipment was days’ walk away. Or watching a Black-faced Cormorant fish a few metres underneath me as I was snorkelling—but no underwater camera!”
He first started pursuing photography as a serious hobby midway through 2008 when he bought his first DSLR, a Canon

JJ Harrison with his 500mm lens.

EOS 400D. In the winter of that year, he had one of his first experiences with avian photography. “I noticed a bird would come to feed on the nectar from a yellow Kniphofia every afternoon at around the same time. After a few days, I decided to lie on the ground waiting in ambush with my recently acquired camera!” said Harrison. “The wait was successful. The bird arrived, and I snapped a few frames before it flew away again. I found the whole experience to be a bit of a thrill. I kept trying to repeat this experience for some time, but didn’t have the equipment to do so reliably, or at all, with more interesting, and less common species. I still get that feeling when I photograph today when I photograph something new.” Harrison uploaded the photo to Wikipedia, where the community helped him identify the bird as a Crescent Honeyeater. Since the article did not yet have an image, Harrison placed his photo in the article.
To date, Harrison has contributed 270 featured pictures to Commons. In the past two years, he has become increasingly focused on avian photography, having developed the skills and acquired the necessary equipment to do so. He enjoys photographing birds because they are a challenging subject to capture on camera. “The biggest hurdle is that most of them are small, and afraid of you,” he said. Harrison particularly enjoys photographing migratory shorebirds. “They are usually very shy, often only allowing approach within 50 meters or so, and many of the birds have travelled from places like Alaska and Siberia. The birds are often plainly coloured in the Southern Hemisphere, but on close examination the plumage is quite subtle, intricate and beautiful in its own way.”
Harrison has gone on photographic expeditions to Thailand and Queensland, which he describes in detail in his Signpost interview, and recently he has also started going out to sea on pelagic boat trips in order to photograph seabirds. “I find the whole experience pretty fantastic.” he said. “We get birds visiting from all over the world. Shooting at sea really is a different order of magnitude difficulty wise to shooting on land or on a boat in a river–my shooting abilities are pushed to the limit. The lighting is often dim, and the weather can be very windy and wet. Sometimes I only get one chance to photograph a passing rarity, so I have to be on my toes.” In addition, it is a challenge to hold the camera steady, especially given Harrison’s choice of lens. He often shoots with his Canon EF 500mm F/4 IS USM lens, which is pictured to the right. His entire photography rig, including camera, lens and tripod, weighs in at 10 kilograms, or roughly 22 pounds! “I usually laugh whenever someone complains about camera weight!” said Harrison, who sometimes ends up with a bruise on his shoulder from carrying the rig for extended periods of time.
Harrison feels that since he has acquired his 500 mm lens, he has been more productive as an avian photographer. “Previously, I couldn’t shoot in low light, and getting close enough for a really high quality photo was very difficult – I would just occasionally get lucky for a lot of effort. The lens has allowed me to take high quality photographs of many more timid and uncommon species,” he said. “I feel very lucky about being able to own it.”

For Harrison, encyclopedic value is always a central concern when he takes photographs. “I feel that I can generate greater social utility taking encyclopedic photos,” he said, as opposed to artistic ones. “I think that my work is genuinely helpful in educational and conservational contexts,” he said, citing this as one of his primary motivations for contributing to Commons. “I believe that there is much greater social benefit when compared to selling my images privately.”
Harrison has even been active in trying to attract new contributors to Commons. “Nearly everyone has photographs that would be of value to the Creative Commons,” he said. He has successfully recruited a few friends who plan to upload photo collections, including fellow avian photographer Christopher Watson, who has released all the images on his blog under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike license. “I’ve always felt strongly about the freedom of information and culture,” said Harrison. “I seek to lead by example by contributing my work.”
(Read more about JJ Harrison’s photography, or view more of Harrison’s feature pictures)
Elaine Mao, Communications Intern

Archive notice: This is an archived post from, which operated under different editorial and content guidelines than Diff.

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