@Naturallywildgirl deserves perseverance as her middle name. Alexandra Dodds is a wildlife photographer. She is an experienced fieldworker with a history of working in the environmental sector. She has worked for a number of environmental and conservation charities and has a passion for natural history.
Currently based on Bird Island – South Georgia in the Southern Atlantic ocean. I came across Alex’s work on Instagram and her beautiful photography quickly hooked me in. Over the past few months, her work has given me a bird’s eye view into the very private world of the Albatross. Alex manages to capture the grace and beauty of these birds in her own photo diary which you can find on Instagram @naturallywildgirl.
In my work with leaders, the art of perseverance is a skill which needs to be honed. It needs mental strength to continue with your goals in the face of obstacles or setbacks. A character strength that is essential for any leader to develop. Alex is clearly a leader in her field and I am incredibly grateful that she was able to put down her camera and answer some questions about her work.
Alex, please tell me, how long have you worked for the British Antarctic survey?
I have worked for the British Antarctic Survey since September 2019, when I started my pre-deployment training, and several weeks later journeyed south to Bird Island where I have been for over a year now. Bird Island is a remote, sub-Antarctic island off the western end of South Georgia – https://www.bas.ac.uk/polar-operations/sites-and-facilities/facility/bird-island/. I am a zoological field assistant specialising in albatross research. My work focusses on the four different species of albatross which breed here – wandering, light-mantled, black-browed and grey-headed – continuing a long-term dataset which has been going for over 60 years. Alongside the long-term monitoring work, I also undertake innovative research projects including fitting specialised satellite tracking devices on wandering albatross which can detect when a bird flies within range of a ship’s radar; https://www.bas.ac.uk/blogpost/wandering-albatross-tracking-at-bird-island/.
When did the fascination with wildlife photography begin?
My interest in actively pursuing wildlife photography naturally developed alongside my work in the environmental sector, the more time I’ve spent immersed in the natural world the more I’ve wanted to capture what I see and preserve those memories. When I began volunteering and working in conservation I always had my little compact camera with me as there had been times, only a few but enough, when I’d regretted not having a camera and I’d seen something I wanted to capture. Primarily I always shoot photos for myself, during my time here on Bird Island I use it as a sort of visual diary. I try to capture things that I find interesting, or make me smile or think are something I may never see again.
Perseverance is a key attribute of a wildlife photographer. How does this show up in your daily work?
Some of the survey and monitoring work I do and have done requires perseverance and patience, especially in ornithology. For example, I worked as an ecologist consulting on wind turbine projects in 2017 and one format of survey work I carried out was to position myself at a vantage point overlooking a site in the countryside for up to 7 hours recording all of the birds which could be impacted by a wind farm, ranging from birds of prey to gulls. There were definitely times when you have to remind yourself why you’re there when you’re sat on a hillside in the Scottish Highlands in the drizzle, being bitten by midges and you’ve only recorded one significant sighting that morning. However, on the flip side of that, there were days when I never stopped writing and recording buzzards and red kites and eagles flying around the hilltops.
I read that your first attempt to join BAS was in 2016 and you when you were interviewed but not successful. What kept you applying and pursuing this post and most importantly why?
When I first sent off the application in 2016, I barely thought anything would come of it but after receiving the interview offer and researching extensively all about the work on the island, Antarctica and BAS itself I realised it was something I really wanted to do. I was only a couple years out of university and still exploring the sector and what type of work I wanted to focus on. I was amazed and proud of myself for just getting that first interview, selected as one of nine out of over 400 applications. After that, whenever I was applying for a job or considering whether to go for an opportunity, in the back of my mind I was always thinking about how it would help me in future applications for Bird Island. I have met previous Bird Island field assistants in my work and travels since 2016 and all have offered useful advice and support.
There are many quotes along the lines of how life and happiness are in the journey and not the destination, and while there’s no denying that my Bird Island destination has been (and continues to be) absolutely amazing, all of the experiences I’ve had and people I met on my way here have also been well worth their while and important parts of my life.
Angela Duckworth wrote in her book ‘Grit’ that it (grit) was a combination of passion and perseverance for a singularly important goal. What is your singularly important goal?
That’s a big question. I don’t know if I could pinpoint a singularly important goal but feeling that what I’m currently doing with my life, and what I’ve done, is worthwhile to me is certainly very important. It’s very strange thinking about returning home and my time South coming to an end as I’ve spent so long with my goal being to work here and now I’m immersed in the island. The only way I can really explain it is like working towards the Olympics, winning your medal and then trying to figure out your next step. It’s a little daunting to think about but I’m also excited for what comes next in my life.
Duckworth also noted that perseverance (an element of grit) is the hallmark of high achievers in every domain and that it can grow. How has your perseverance and persistence developed over the time you have been on Bird Island?
I think my perseverance and persistence both developed through my journey to getting here, I think people often don’t realise how much personal strength they have in these two qualities – it certainly took me a while to realise it and I’m sure I still underestimate myself.
While being on the island these two qualities have been employed and developed in coping with being away from home and family for so long, keeping on with my fieldwork despite sometimes pretty bleak weather conditions and repetitiveness. I make a conscious effort to regularly stop and reflect on where I am and what I’m so lucky to be doing so I don’t lose perspective.
What everyday habits or routines help keep you focussed on your work?
I think, like with everyone working from home during the pandemic, keeping a daily routine is important to maintaining focus and motivation for work. During our winter we didn’t have daylight until almost 11 am but throughout these months I made a point of getting up at the same time every day and starting something work-wise at 9 am. Even just small things like making your bed each morning can help get you into a more productive mindset ready for the rest of the day.
During my time here I’ve had an old injury flare up which requires me to do some physiotherapy exercises before heading out to do fieldwork and getting myself into the gym straight after breakfast so I’m ready to head out for the day has definitely been a useful routine. I benefit from getting up and getting to work at the start of the day and routine helps with that.
Out of all of the birds and wildlife that you photography do you have a favourite species and what draws you to that animal?
Seabirds, especially the albatross, are absolutely amazing to me and there’s just something about the aura of the wandering albatross in particular which attracts me. I always find it hard to pick my favourite animal but my main draw for photographing any animal is trying to capture characters and little hidden individualities, a glimpse into their world.
You are in the southern hemisphere and the season is late spring moving into summer. What’s the weather like and how does is it different to the UK spring/summer?
A large part of living on an exposed island is the changeability of the weather, we can, and have had, all possible weather in the same day – or even morning – snow, sun, wind, rain and fog. The upside of the changeability is that if you’re heading out to do some fieldwork in the rain there’s a good chance the second half of the day will be dry. Our summer temperatures range from 0°C to 10°C, averaging around 4°C. We tend to have passing rain showers during the summer as opposed to prolonged several hour periods of rain and being the first landmass the weather systems hit we tend to get quite a few days with low cloud hanging over the island. Although because of the more grey weather types, it makes us appreciate a sunny day much more!
This will be your second Christmas in the southern hemisphere, what do you miss (if anything) from the UK winter season?
What I miss most about spending Christmas in the southern hemisphere is being with my family. I’m part of a very large and close-knit family and when I think of Christmas, I think of everyone coming back home to our area of England and spending time together. We have very good phone communication systems here on base though and on Christmas day everyone on base is given a time slot to call friends and family back home.
Other things I miss about UK winter is little things like being able to get cosy in front of a fireplace or going for a walk on a bright, crisp frosty morning. We don’t get as much frost here on Bird Island, perhaps because the air is drier here and the maritime climate, during our austral winter we would have more of a coating of slick ice as opposed to intricate, crystallised frost. We certainly had more snow here during winter than I’d experience back home though!
Creativity is a key part of your work, in what other ways do you create in your life?
As well as photographing wildlife I sometimes do sketches of what I see. During the past few months, we’ve seen quite a few icebergs offshore and I’ve been experimenting and learning how to capture these natural sculptures in watercolour. Painting and sketching are definitely things I will be doing on the long sail back to the UK in 2021. I suppose another creative outlet of mine is baking, which always goes down well on the base.
As an Ex Headteacher, I have connections with schools in the UK. What advice would you give budding wildlife photographers who have ambitions in following in your footsteps?
Always take the photo. If you see something and you want to capture it, take the photo then and there, don’t say you’ll come back to the scene later as whatever it is, the animal or the weather in the landscape may have changed. Always have a spare battery and memory card. Never underestimate the value in observing and getting to know a specific animal or group of species that you want to photograph. The more you understand the subject the better you’ll be able to capture their personality and behaviour and the more chance you’ll have of getting the shot you want.
Perseverance is a great element of success.
If you only knock long enough and loud enough at the gate, you are sure to wake up somebody.
Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
Image – copyright Alex Dodds
Header image – copyright Ana Carneiro