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Camera in Tow, Feeling as Free as a Bird

Picture this: it’s early morning, the campus still sleepy but Head of School Sheila Culbert very much awake and in pursuit of that next great wildlife photo. It’s a common occurrence because, as they say, the early bird gets the worm or, in this case, the photo of the bird.  

A great horned owl. An eagle. She has seen and photographed both and many more on the Island.  

“Very lucky,” she told the audience gathered on Saturday, June 8, during for her Reunion Weekend presentation on birding on the Island. “I was walking down to the Meadows one morning. I have three dogs, one of them just a puppy. He’s a terrier and he requires a lot of walking, so I tend to get up early and get out there. I had just passed the Physical Plant, and I looked off to the side and there was this great horned owl, just sitting there, and he posed for me.” 

Eagles have made a comeback in Connecticut to the delight of many.  

“Back in ’60s, ’70s, ’80s it was rare to see eagles,” Sheila said. “Because of [the use of the chemical compound] DDT, the number of eagles had dropped. Same with the osprey. This has been a complete turnaround. In Connecticut there are more than 80 pairs of nesting eagles, and we have at least three pairs in the vicinity of where we are. In the spring you can see eagles on campus most every single day. That is fantastic. The kids will say to me, ‘There’s an eagle.’” 

“This one,” she continued as she showed a photograph, “was in the Meadows. There were two of them circling all day long. The eagle is one of the success stories.” 

As she said, it is incumbent on Loomis Chaffee to be a good steward of its land, home to more than 200 species of birds and other wildlife, including white-tailed deer, opossums, beavers, muskrats, coyotes, foxes and, in abundance, squirrels. 

Sheila also told those gathered that it is important to be out in nature because of its many benefits — “the ways in which nature helps to de-stress you, improves your mental health, improves your connection to other people and the world around you.” 

In her column in the Spring 2022 issue of Loomis Chaffee Magazine, Sheila wrote that she got serious about birding after her son Will died unexpectedly. “The grief was all-encompassing and the pain intense,” she wrote. A few months later Gracie, a rescue dog, became part of the family. Sheila said she took long walks with Gracie in tow in the Meadows and other nearby spots, and those walks gave her “peace and solitude and the space I needed to think.” 

She began paying close attention to her surroundings, from movements in the woods to the various sounds above. She began asking herself many questions relating to the behavior of birds, which led her to read more and more about them.  

“Accompanying my new obsession with identifying the different species of birds was photographing them,” she wrote.  

And like most things she does, she dove in headfirst, not unlike some of the birds she has photographed doing the same in ponds and rivers on and near the campus. Her equipment became more sophisticated, she took online courses, and she frequently posted on Instagram. (Sheila uses a Nikon Z9 camera and her work can be found on Instagram @sculbert.) 

Wood ducks. photo by Sheila Culbert.

Head of School Sheila Culbert's photo, exhibited in the Scanlan Campus Center, captures the beauty of wood ducks that are in our campus backyard.  

This spring some of her photography was exhibited in the Scanlan Campus Center. Her photo of a male wood duck was as brilliant as the colors of the duck itself. An American robin with a berry was captured by the camera lens right outside a window of the Head’s House. A great blue heron, feeding on a fish from the Hockey Pond, reminds viewers of the laws of nature. The Hockey Pond, next to the causeway, is familiar to all who live or work or go to school on the Island, as is a particular heron that fishes in the pond. The students, said Sheila, have taken to calling the heron Henry, in honor of Thoreau, she surmises.   

Great blue heron on campus. photo by Shelia Culbert.

The great blue heron, in flight with snack in its bill, is captured by the lens of Head of School Sheila Culbert.  

During her presentation, Sheila shared some apps she recommended, including Birdcast and Merlin Bird ID. Birdcast, for instance, showed that 2,300 birds crossed through Hartford County from 8:30 p.m. on June 6 through 8:10 a.m. on June 7. As sophisticated as photography equipment has become, so too have various other technologies, from Lightroom to Photoshop and the various bird apps. 

Sheila has traveled extensively on behalf of the school, camera always a companion. Some of the places: Florida, California, Maine, New York, Texas, Arizona, South Korea, Thailand, and Costa Rica. 

In Florida her camera captured a pelican with waves crashing around it. Sheila got soaked by the water — but she got the shot. She had showed that photo at a “state of the school” presentation earlier in the day, which was her farewell address to alumni, as she will retire June 30. “Proud to be a Pelican,” she said. 




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