Leila Jeffreys first visited Christmas Island some time ago, and it changed her life forever.
“Flying in on a small plane, I looked down on imposing cliffs, dark, lush rainforests and thousands of pterodactyl-like birds circling on the currents above the jungle. It looked like Jurassic Park and it was exhilarating.”
At this stage, Leila was already “consumed by a love of bird photography” and was drawn to the island for Christmas Island Bird ‘n’ Nature Week, where she met biologist and author Tim Low, who’s books had a “profound effect” on her.
Leila is also the author of Birdland, an absolutely beautiful book which showcases her bird portraiture. The book was shortlisted in the Fully Illustrated Book category of the 2016 Australian Book Designers Association Awards
According to Tim Low, author of Where Song Began; “Fossil and genetic evidence tell us that birds and humans have not shared a common ancestor for more than 300 million years. In Birdland, Leila Jeffreys’ intimate bird portraits close that gap by showing us that birds have minds not entirely unlike ours. We need artists who can remind us that nature is powerful and important and that it deserves our attention and affection.”
In Birdland, Leila Jeffreys presents us with a bird-watching experience like no other, drawing birds out from their leafy shadows and airy territories and presenting them to us with the skill and intricate detail of a portrait painter. The result is a stunning encounter with some of the world’s most beautiful birds. Captured in a moment of stillness, Jeffreys’ feathered sitters reveal qualities and features that invite human projection.
Leila visited the island again recently to produce some seabird portraiture, which she is currently working on for an exhibition next year. We thought we’d ask Leila a few questions about her first impressions of the island and about the challenges of bird photography.
What was it that drew you to Christmas Island initially?
I had been living in London for a year and was preparing to return to Australia. Before I flew back home to Sydney I wanted to plan a holiday that would reconnect me to wildlife and that natural environment because I missed it like crazy. I heard about CI’s Bird ’n’ Nature week and something about the remoteness of the island, the birdlife and ecology struck a chord with me so I booked myself a place.
How did that first experience compare with your preconceptions?
I didn’t really realise just how incredible the birdlife actually was until I got there. It was beautiful watching all these birds living their daily life. I also didn’t expect I’d become so enamoured by the crabs. The ecology is so quirky that really fascinated me. I also didn’t expect to meet so many lovely people from such diverse backgrounds.
What is it about the island that continues to draw you back?
The ecology - rainforests, birds, crabs - and the scientists that are running important studies on the Island. There is a Jurassic Park-feel to Christmas Island that is exhilarating.
Of the island's unique birds - which are your favourites to photograph?
I love the boobies. There is something about their giant beak and slightly cross-eyed stare that makes your heart melt.
Which creatures are the most difficult to capture?
Fast moving birds are very difficult for me to work with. Also, birds that aren’t interested can be tricky because I like to connect with birds in order to produce a strong portrait.
How would you describe the island to potential visitors - what should they expect?
The Island isn’t simply a postcard experience of a white sandy beach with a palm tree, although you can certainly find that there. There’s a town centre, there’s mining. It’s a real working island.
The ecology of the Island is what makes it so special so expect to see all sorts of natural wonders - my favourite is watching the seabirds heading out to sea at sunrise. Thousands of them, silently gliding out to feed for the day. It’s just beautiful.