Bob Durling’s Photography Captures The Everyday Extraordinary
“Fantastic,” “Amazing,” “Gorgeous,” “Stunning.” When photographer Bob Durling posts on the town Facebook page, “I’m HOLLISTON HAPPY,” people usually sing praises. His wildlife photography often garners hundreds of likes and dozens of supportive commenters.
Whether his subject is a common Tufted Titmouse snacking on a seed or an Osprey diving at top speed into Lake Winthrop, Durling’s camera captures moments of raw expression. Suddenly, the suburban ecosystem seems worthy of a National Geographic feature.
Durling was very clear, though, he’s no Nat Geo. He doesn’t use blinds or extra equipment. He just goes out in the middle of the week and spends a few hours in nature. That’s all it takes. Often, when he first arrives at a location, his presence will scare creatures off. But a patient hour of waiting can reap jaw-dropping rewards.
“[At] Lake Winthrop, or just any marshy, swampy spot, if you go at dusk or dawn there’s a lot going on,” Durling said. “There’s a million different kinds of insects doing their thing. There’s a lot to listen to and a lot to notice. If you just kind of let your mind empty, you start to notice all the things going on around you.”
That’s how he got his popular photos of the Osprey hunting. He noticed it circling overhead, saw it dive once and miss (something the birds rarely do) and was able to get his camera out in time to catch its second attempt.
Durling takes a lot of his photos at Lake Winthrop or Factory Pond, but his favorite spot in town remains a closely-guarded secret — no matter how many times “I’m HOLLISTON HAPPY” commenters ask him about it. Other than Durling and the occasional straggler, it’s one of the last spots in town that remains mostly untouched and truly wild.
The location is a small, secluded swampland. The water there is packed with fish and otters. Chickadees and Tree Swallows flutter through the bushes and herons stalk through the reeds while birds of prey watch shrewdly from nearby tree limbs.
On Thanksgiving this year, he was able to capture some photos of an otter playing on a drowned tree branch in the water there — another photoset that took off on the Facebook group.
“I’m speechless. Gorgeous pics. And who knew Holliston had otters?!,” one commenter wrote.
Even though his swamp remains a secret, sometimes Durling’s subjects come to him. He lives on Franklin St. now with his wife, Delila, and their three kids.
It was back at his previous residence in the Queens, though, where he took some of his favorite photos of all time. He had been out for a walk when he came back to find several flocks of birds feasting on a crabapple in his yard.
“All of a sudden I hear this horrible squawking and all the birds take off,” Durling said. “[A Cooper’s Hawk] had nailed a starling on our front lawn while I was standing there, but the starling was still alive and was trying to peck back at the hawk.”
The resulting images are stunning and disturbing. With amber eyes, the hawk glares down, its talons gripping into its prey’s throat. The starling writhes below, panic written in its gaping beak and twisting wings as it flails helplessly up from its back, screeching. All the fear and triumph, the sound and movement of the moment are captured in relief against the stark backdrop of January snow.
They are spectacular and they were literally in our front lawn,” Durling said.
“You are a wildlife wizard!” somebody responded on Facebook.
Durling, a professional photographer specializing in weddings, engagements, and family portraits, didn’t begin seriously pursuing wildlife photography until about three or four years ago, when he spotted a Bald Eagle at the Ashland Reservoir.
Although he was already a photographer, Durling didn’t have a camera with a lens powerful enough to capture the bird at such heights. So, on a gut instinct, he borrowed a camera from Canon and went back for a few days to try and get a good shot.
“Literally, I was driving to Ashland Reservoir in our Civic at the time, and this lens I borrowed from Canon, I was like, ‘Wow, this is actually worth more than my car.’”
While he never got a perfect shot of that eagle, the exercise revealed a whole new world to him, just out of sight to someone who hadn’t been looking for it.
There are definitely things that make Durling uniquely qualified to take such distinct, emotive pictures. For one, he has more than a decade of experience behind the camera. And he’s invested in a relatively high-quality zoom lens since his first outing (though not quite in the price range of that Canon he borrowed). Right now, Durling uses a Sigma 150-600mm C. He’s also had some good luck and tries to be ready for the moment a great opportunity strikes — he’s learned the hard way to always keep his camera on hand.
That said, you don’t have to be a professional to witness the Shakespearian drama of nature. Durling said a pair of binoculars will get you a front row seat.
You just have to be curious enough to wonder what kinds of spectacular feats even the most familiar animals get up to. To wander deep into the forest in pursuit of an interesting bird call.
Durling has this curiosity in spades. In fact, it was a squawking clamor that drew him to the site of a territorial dispute between a flock of crows and a Great Horned Owl in a patch of woods off the Rail Trail. There, he got a picture of another owl, trying very hard not to be drawn into the fray as it sat unmoving in an adjacent tree.
Durling is forever surprised by what he encounters on a simple walk in the woods.
“There are many times where I take a picture of something and I zoom in and I’m like, ‘That isn’t what I expected,’ and then I get home and look it up and it’s way different from my initial impression of what it was,” Durling said. “It’s like a positive feedback loop because once you start realizing that there’s all these different things around you, then you just want to learn more and more and take more and more photos.”
There are plenty of subjects Durling hasn’t been able to photograph yet — the Kingfisher, for example, continues to elude him. And although the camera has changed his perspective on the world, the wonders of the wilderness continue to amaze as new and fascinating phenomena unfurl before him.
When he talks about Osprey nesting habits or Red-bellied Hummingbird migration or red ant colony wars, Durling often laughs in wonder. He recounts with great detail and delight the story of each of his photographs, and the unique mixture of luck, preparedness, and patience that produced them.
In turn, the people of “I’m HOLLISTON HAPPY” have responded with amazement and delight in kind.
Durling is pleased with the response and he’s glad to see people interested in the wildlife in town. More than that, he hopes his photography will help inspire people to be more environmentally conscious in their own lives. Even just in their own gardens.
“On your own property, just think about what you can do to help the environment,” Durling said.
For example, Durling has a passion for native plants, especially wildflowers. Incorporating native species into a yard can support hundreds or even thousands of native insects which in turn support native birds and mammals. These local flora and fauna add to the dynamism of the environment in a town like Holliston, and can be just as colorful and stunning as exotic species.
“The native bees around here are incredible,” Durling said. “There’s this particular kind of bee called sweat bees where they’re metallic: metallic blue, metallic green. Most people don’t notice until you look really closely.
“If you plant goldenrod and bee balm and stuff like that, you’d just be amazed at the variety of stuff that comes to it. An astounding variety,” he continued.
Holliston may not always seem like a lush haven for diverse animal species, but a glance through Durling’s Facebook profile tells a different story.
For now, Massachusetts remains one of the most forested states in the country — more than half of the land here remains undeveloped. Coyotes, fisher cats, whitetail deer, raccoons, skunks, foxes, and even the occasional black bear call Holliston home. Even more impressively, nearly 500 species of birds live in the state as well as almost a thousand species of insects.
It’s in this wealth of life that Durling finds his subjects. If you could boil his philosophy down to a statement, it is that terrible, wondrous, beguiling things are all around us if only we’re willing to sit quietly for a while and look.
“The more you start paying attention to what’s going on, the more you’re amazed that there’s crazy stuff going on all around us,” Durling said.