Leica Birding Team: Rafael Galvez

by Jennie Duberstein

Rafael Galvez has always been interested in birds, even before he started birding. When he was young he saw a picture in a book of a wading bird that really stuck in his mind, and his favorite thing as a child was drawing flamingos and herons. But it wasn’t until he got his hands on a 1947 copy of Roger Tory Peterson’s Field Guide to the Birds (purchased at a garage sale) when he was 13 years old that he was truly hooked. A retired doctor lived down the block and had not only a back yard that bordered a lake, but a pair of binoculars and a canoe that he lent to Rafael to explore the lake. Rafael spent hours walking and canoeing around the lake, learning about the birds of the area. For his middle school science fair project Rafael created a field guide to the water birds of Miami-Dade County, Florida. He wrote partly about the birds that his field guide told him were supposed to be in the area, but mostly about the birds that he observed himself, which he also illustrated. (He got an ‘A’ on the project, incidentally).

From the artist's perspective. Rafael painting a Great-blue Heron

From the artist’s perspective: Rafael painting a Great Blue Heron.

Rafael’s family emigrated to the U.S. from Lima, Peru when he was 12 years old, and they moved around a lot before settling in south Florida. In Lima his family lived in a “concrete jungle,” with one tiny tree and a small backyard. Although they had parakeets as pets, coming to south Florida with the neighborhood lake and birds everywhere changed Rafael’s perspective about birds, nature, and all that there was to discover.

Rafael at work painting great egrets in Florida. Here Rafael is making quick "impressions" that he will later work up into more detailed sketches.

Rafael at work painting Great Egrets in Florida. Here he is making quick “impressions” that he will later work up into more detailed paintings.

Rafael spent nearly ten years working with a BirdLife International affiliate in the Caucasus. He edited several books, including a Birdwatching Guide to Georgia (the country, not the state) and the Vultures of Georgia and the Caucasus.

Today Rafael works as Director of the Florida Keys Hawkwatch, the southernmost hawkwatch in the continental United States, where he overseas research on migrating raptors and songbirds. He has been working in the last few years to expand the project’s mission from a research-focus to incorporating recreation and education opportunities. This mission expansion is partly how Leica came to co-sponsor the hawkwatch in 2011, providing equipment not only for research activities, but also for use with education and outreach efforts.

Rafael counting hawks at the Florida Keys Hawkwatch

Rafael counting hawks at the Florida Keys Hawkwatch.

Rafael is also an extremely accomplished artist, and he tries to spend as much time as possible sketching birds in the field. He has illustrated several field guides (he was the sole illustrator for the Raptors and Owls of Georgia and one of the illustrators for Birds of the Kolkheti Wetlands and Vultures of Georgia and the Caucasus) and is working on proposals for several other book projects.

Rafael is a member of the board of directors and the chair of citizen science/education for Tropical Audubon in south Florida, an area with large immigrant communities. Because of his personal experiences, Rafael is especially interested in reaching underserved communities. Through his work with Tropical Audubon he has been involved in important projects reaching out to south Florida’s Spanish speaking Haitian and Brazilian communities.

When Rafael isn’t working, you’ll find him painting or writing. For him, it all comes down to education and sharing his passion and appreciation for birds. He teaches workshops for both children and adults, with a special focus on the birding community, and believes that you can learn a great deal about birds by drawing them. You are less likely to forget what a birds looks like or what it is doing if you draw it, he tells his students. “The moment you put it down on paper it goes into a part of your brain where it sticks.”

Long-billed Curlew digiscoped with Leica X-Vario + Leica Televid APO 65 spotting scope.

Long-billed Curlew digiscoped with Leica X-Vario + Leica Televid APO 65 spotting scope.

Rafael sketching a Long-billed Curlew

Rafael sketching a Long-billed Curlew

Rafael thinks that optics can be important educational tools that have the capacity to change people’s perspectives about birds and conservation. When he got his first scope, it changed everything for Rafael; he could really look at birds in detail and have his hands free to paint. Using his scope gives him a sense of freedom; he has no restrictions other than his own initiative and motivation. Rafael’s mission is to share this sense of wonder and excitement about the natural world to those around him.

Rafael holding female and male (pair) Red-shouldered Hawks

Rafael holding female and male (pair) Red-shouldered Hawks

You can learn more about Rafael by visiting his website.