taking a closer look, with john dunstan

I OFTEN SAY (to readers, and to myself) to slow down and look closer—past the obvious big blue hydrangea, or ripe tomato, to the outdoor picture’s finer points. Better than merely saying to, John Dunstan shows us how, discovering incredible, intimate moments in “perhaps the last place you would imagine finding interesting nature,” he says: Jersey City, where he has lived since 1990. That’s where John watched a raven try to sidle up to a snowy owl, and where he is taught endless science lessons by a diversity of insects (below).

Birds are a particular passion, and bugs. “Instead of gardening, or lawn mowing,” says John, a native New Zealander and amateur filmmaker, “I find it far more interesting to treat my backyard as a habitat for the remarkable highly specialized but very small animal life that general goes unnoticed by most of us.”

His images quickly bring scientific concepts like predation, mimickry and symbiosis to life—and though admittedly less technical, you get to see the real meaning of a “hairy eyeball,” too, all up close and personal.

But what in the world was going on between those two big birds up top, anyhow? Ever-curious John thought the person to ask would be the raven expert and author Bernd Heinrich—who impressively had a look and wrote right back.

“I think the raven was having fun, and then also starting to have some respect, because this big white thing was NOT going to cooperate and be its toy,” Heinrich said in a portion of his feedback. You can see all of what Heinrich had to say on the video’s Vimeo page, where it resides along with all of John’s films.

It’s actually because of Heirich’s comment that I found John—while doing a Google search for something about the esteemed biologist. (It’s the “other” web of life, you know: the Interwebs. We are all connected there, too, apparently.)

John shares his Jersey City environment with his wife, two children, three dogs (including bulldog Tommy, who has a cameo in the video below) and two cats. He is currently building a pond for dragonflies in his backyard, which thinks of as an “insect habitat.” Not a bad synonym for “garden,” come to think of it.

more from john dunstan

  1. Saiisha says:

    Inspires me to look closer at the world around me.

    Reminds me of the sense of wonder in Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek :)

  2. Michelle says:

    Great stuff. This weekend we participated in a river cleanup along the tributary that runs through our kids’ school campus. Afterwards an environmental science teacher taught the kids to use D-nets to discover what was living in our little urban waterway. Among the critters we found was a dragonfly larvae. The teacher was able to get this itty-bitty critter to show us how wide it can open its mouth. Impressive! The kids loved it and so did the “grown-ups”.

  3. Irena says:

    Because of snowy owl eruption this winter, many of us saw them down here around NYC for the first time, and maybe so did the raven. It looks to me that the raven liked the blond beauty and started courting her (him?) with those wing movements, but she was cold as ice (or snow-y)…

  4. Gayen Thompson says:

    GREAT video!!! thanks!
    Raven’s are from a whole different ‘planet’!
    What a treat to watch this encounter….
    In the video…. The raven was fearless? Or perhaps, merely lacked experience?
    What a huge wingspread the Snowy’s have!! What a ‘folding-up’ wing action toward the end.
    …during my annual New Years’ Day brunch….. this year’s activities included excited drives to/from the southern tip of Conanicut Island/Beavertail Lighthouse – That afternoon, we had one large (18″+), golden/orange-eyed juvenile
    taking in the world, studying his next prey for his next meal. (Even the Juveniles are big!)
    (Something I didn’t get to see on New Years’ Day during our sightings).
    Snowy’s don’t usually migrate! However, here, on Narragansett Bay, RI we were visited – for many weeks – by at least 7 juvenile SNOWYs….Their parents/’elders’….apparently ‘sent them packing'(?)’..due to the drop in a key protein source (lemmings) in northern Canada.

    1. margaret says:

      Thanks, Gayen. I love John’s videos; such a treat, to see his view on the world from Jersey City and thereabouts. Nice to hear from you, too.

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