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Local Attorney Photographs Birds on the Crystal Bridges Trails

White-eyed Vireo

Allison Raley moved to Northwest Arkansas in March 2020—on the same day the United States declared a national emergency and instilled closure mandates in response to COVID-19. In a new city with a new job and two young daughters, practicing attorney and bird photographer Raley wondered how the next year of her life would pan out.

“It was really intimidating. When I moved to the community, I didn’t really have a way to go out and meet people,” she said. “But the trails were amazing. They were really important for me, and they provided access to something I loved,” … birding.

As a young girl, Raley observed nature with a watchful eye, guided by her father’s passion and expertise. He taught her to recognize bird calls, patterns of behavior, and characteristics that distinguish one bird species from another—essential knowledge and skills for “birders” everywhere. Raley took up photography later in life with her love of nature in mind, leading to a productive, fulfilling hobby photographing birds over lunch breaks and on the weekends with her family.

Kentucky Warbler. Photo by Allison Raley.
Kentucky Warbler. Photo by Allison Raley.

Raley now considers herself part of the birding community—an expansive cohort of hobbyists and professionals who exchange information with one another through sites like ebird.org, an online space where birders can record when and where they’ve sighted something, listen to bird calls, observe migrant patterns, and search for specific varieties. Using information from other birders, Raley can observe patterns spanning both time and geography. For example, the plump Kentucky warbler pictured above (and photographed on the Crystal Bridges trails) was the first of its kind spotted in Benton County this year.

Nashville Warbler. Photo by Allison Raley.
Nashville Warbler. Photo by Allison Raley.
Pileated Woodpecker. Photo by Allison Raley.
Pileated Woodpecker. Photo by Allison Raley.

Raley said she especially enjoys birding at Crystal Bridges because the wide variety of native plants increases bird diversity throughout the trails and grounds.

“Part of what birders really look for in their environment…is native plants,” she said. “It’s clear that Crystal Bridges has worked really hard to be true to the area and use Arkansas’s native plants to build their grounds, which increases bird varieties and migrant stopovers. That’s one reason I love birding at Crystal Bridges. All of these great birds are in one area.” In 2020, Raley counted 82 species on Crystal Bridges’ property, including both migrations and resident species.

Robert Indiana, LOVE
Robert Indiana, LOVE, 1966–1999, Cor-Ten steel, 72 x 72 x 36 in. Photo by Stephen Ironside / Ironside Photography.
A Louisiana Waterthrush perches on a blooming redbud tree at Crystal Bridges. Photo by Allison Raley.
A Louisiana Waterthrush perches on a blooming redbud tree at Crystal Bridges. Photo by Allison Raley.

One bird in particular has stood out to Raley since she began birding at Crystal Bridges about a year ago. According to Raley, the Louisiana waterthrush is well-known for being one of the prettiest singing birds, and it typically has a shy disposition and demonstrates particular patterns of behavior. The waterthrush she photographed among a blooming redbud tree doesn’t quite fit this description, though.

“There’s a waterthrush that lives in the pond next to the LOVE sculpture, and he’s extremely friendly,” Raley said. “He starts singing every time I go there, and he follows me around the trails for a while, singing in the trees with me. He’s a bird I look forward to seeing every time.”

Juvenile Indigo Bunting, photographed by Allison Raley.
Juvenile Indigo Bunting, photographed by Allison Raley.
Martin Johnson Heade, Fork-tailed Woodnymph
Martin Johnson Heade, Fork-tailed Woodnymph from The Gems of Brazil, ca. 1863-1864, oil on canvas. 12 1/4 × 10 in. (31.1 × 25.4 cm).

Although the Crystal Bridges trails and grounds provide plentiful subject matter to support Raley’s craft, she also looks to some of the masterworks in the permanent collection for guidance and inspiration.

“For the [photo of the] juvenile indigo bunting, I was trying to emulate Martin Johnson Heade, my favorite artist in the Crystal Bridges collection,” Raley said. “Heade used flora and fauna to highlight both the subject and the setting as a whole. I tried to capture that with a low angle in a densely vegetated area to create a full composition featuring flora and fauna while still focusing on the subject—the bird.”

Juvenile Blue Jay. Photo by Allison Raley.
Juvenile Blue Jay. Photo by Allison Raley.

Whether indoors or out, the museum is a place for trail-goers, art-lovers, photographers, birders, and everyone in between to connect with nature and feel inspired. Better yet, no matter how many times you’ve visited, there’s always something new to discover.

“I feel like I know your grounds very well, but every time I go out, there’s something new,” Raley said. “You see a new flower, or a new animal, or a new bird, or you see an animal or bird behaving in a way you didn’t expect.”

Ultimately, Raley aspires to connect and collaborate with locals who may be interested in birding, and she encourages trail-goers and social media users to approach her with questions. 

So, what are you waiting for? Hit the #CBtrails for an art- and nature-infused opportunity to learn and grow.

 

Written by Meredith Wagner, social media manager. 

Cover photo: White-eyed Vireo. Photo by Allison Raley.