Lowman focuses on bird habitat

November 27, 2003, vol. 28, no. 7
By Julie Ovenell-Carter

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John Lowman knows how to get a reaction. A few years ago, the SFU criminologist, known for his research into prostitution, stirred a contentious pot with his outspoken views on issues of research confidentiality.

Now he is turning his sights - or rather, his camera lens - on a new controversy: the threat to migratory bird habitat in B.C.'s Lower Mainland.

Lowman, whose striking bird photographs are displayed in the current faculty, staff and student photography exhibit at the SFU gallery, has been a passionate observer of avian life ever since he was a child. At 10, he was a member of the U.K.'s Royal Society for the Protection of Birds. Several decades later, he is an enthusiastic supporter of the Wild Bird Trust of B.C. (WBTBC), whose flagship project is the 95-acre Maplewood Flats conservation area in North Vancouver.

“I was driving by Maplewood Flats one day in 1995 and saw a sign advertising the Osprey Festival, celebrating the return of ospreys to Burrard Inlet,” recalls Lowman. “Back then, it was really terra incognita to me, so I went in. It's a mosaic of very different bird habitats built on a former industrial site, and it is a critically important nesting and migration stopover site for many kinds of birds.”

After that visit, he returned every week, first with binoculars, then with a spotting scope, and finally, on his 50th birthday, with a present to himself: a Canon EOS3 35 mm camera with a 500 mm telephoto lens.

“I'd taken pictures of birds as a child and I wanted to document the return of wildlife at Maplewood to help them protect the site,” he says.

“Maplewood has one of the last three salt marshes remaining on Burrard Inlet, and North Vancouver wants to put a foot path along that marsh, which is a very delicate habitat for migratory birds such as waders and waterfowl. It's a quiet sanctuary for the birds: it would be destructive to have people and dogs walking through it.”

During the spring and fall migrations, Lowman spends four hours a day - two hours every morning and evening - photographing birds such as warblers, blue herons, and Cooper's hawks. He says his hobby has relaxed him: “It lowers my blood pressure. My doctor thinks this is very good for me.” So does his partner of 22 years, Laura Fraser. “She's definitely supportive. When I was talking about buying a $2,000 digital camera, she said I should go for the $12,000 one.”

Lowman says he is “trying to create art” with his pictures, and that “the conservation aspect just ups the stakes for me. I get a real reward from creating an indisputable record of the importance of this site. But what I find most pleasing is that my pictures produce an emotional response in people that makes them want to protect these creatures. It's like we're saying, here, this is what conservation looks like.”

Four of Lowman's photos are on view at the SFU gallery until Dec. 12. His Maplewood portfolio is available at http://members.shaw.ca/jlowman/.

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