INTERVIEW WITH DOC ELLEN TINSLEY
– ADVOCATE FOR THE BALD EAGLE
Doc Ellen Tinsley is a retired veterinarian of equine medicine. She lives in Fuquay-Varina, but as an eagle advocate, spends six mornings a week at Jordan Lake where she monitors eagle nests, taking field notes and pictures to document her work and for others to enjoy. She has published several e-Books, and many of her pictures are on exhibit at the Jordan Lake Visitor Center. She graduated from the NC State University Veterinary College in 1993 and started her own veterinary practice. But a devastating auto accident in 2007 ended her career in veterinary medicine. She took up wildlife photography in 2009 as part of her physical therapy regime, and began her devotion to the wildlife of Jordan Lake in 2011 where it continues today.
Interviewing Doc Ellen today is Blake Johnson, the Interpretive & Outreach Ranger for the US Army Corps of Engineers at B. Everett Jordan Lake Dam where he specializes in in community outreach and engagement. He began working with the US Army Corps of Engineers at Falls Lake in 2015 and graduated from NCSU with a major in Environmental Technology & Management and minors in Environmental Chemistry & Toxicology and Soil Science. He is now the Interpretive & Outreach Ranger for the US Army Corps of Engineers at B. Everett Jordan Lake
Ellen, those of us who are familiar with your work know that you became a licensed veterinarian in 1993. I assume you’ve always had a love for animals, and as a veterinarian, you focused primarily on horses. But in addition to your love of horses, were you an avid birdwatcher back then as you are now?
Yes Blake. Back then, it was not unusual at all for me to point out a bird that was singing or soaring nearby to my clients as I worked on their horses.
How about your parents? How did they help shape your love and later devotion to the path you are on today?
I grew up wanting to care for the animals that gave sustenance to our family and oft times gave companionship to my parents as well. The photos are of the farmhouse that my parents bought and restored upon dad’s retirement - it was built in 1756, and of my mom hanging clothes at the farm … she always said there was nothing fresher than clothes off the line.
My dad was born in the mountains of NC and worked the fields behind a mule and plow. My mom grew up on a dairy farm and milked cows by hand. Their love of and respect for the animals that helped feed their families was passed along to me and my brothers early on.
Were there others in your early years that helped influence your decision to devote much of your life to helping birds and animals?
Yes, my great grandfather taught me that animals were my responsibility: I, as the human in the interactions, was the one with the thoughts and the hands that could bring food, care for wounds, provide clean water, and sometimes simply be a companion. His Jersey dairy cows provided him with income, and provided local people with milk, and always gave him a chance to quietly scratch a cow’s flank as he milked her. He showed me that it is your body posture and your voice that initiated each interaction with an animal or a bird, or for that matter, with a human as well. If you are abrupt or noisy, the critter will notice this even if you are unaware of it, because your stiff shoulders or set jaw is hidden from yourself.
The difference between our generations in this regard is funny to note here. As a kid, you learned something like this through hands-on experiences – whereas when I was a kid, I learned that “animals” had that acute sensitivity by watching Pokémon every Saturday morning. Do you have any other experiences learned from your great grandfather you’d like to share?
My great grandfather also taught me how to catch horses who were very frightened, and how to be still, and even without any food in my hand, be able to have a terrified dog come and sit beside me.
I couldn’t imagine trying to catch a frightened horse – horses frighten me! Doc, what would you say was one of your most rewarding and challenging experiences during the 15 years that you were a practicing veterinarian?
Blake, I will never ever forget the trust that a 10 year-old-child placed in me when I had to explain to her that I could not help her pony. I explained to her that the final gift you could give to your companion was to let them go home. She tucked in beside me on the ground beside her pony and patted the pony and said everything was going to be okay because Doc Ellen was going to make the hurts of her friend go away. We sat a long time in silence holding each other as the pony sighed and passed away. Trust is such a beautiful fragile entity.
What a compelling story. Was this under your own practice?
Yes, and I always worked as a solo practitioner. I have owned Hoofbeats Veterinary Practice since I set the practice up in 1993.
Were there any areas of care that you specialized in, that perhaps you liked more than others?
I am drawn to behavior work and lameness …
sometimes owners could not see that an animal’s
seemingly bad behavior just might be caused by
a pain so subtle that it didn’t seem possible it was
causing problems for the animal and therefore for the owner.
Yes, just like humans, a change of behavior in animals can be rooted in pain. In a similar manner, you were steered in a different direction due to a painful event in your own life – a car accident in 2007. Did you have any inspirational thoughts that helped you get through this time, and continue to move forward? Any words you’d like to share that may help a reader going through their own struggle?
Blake , I tried to remember to always say thank you. Thank you that you brought me supper. Thank you that you drove me to the doctor. Thank you that I could call you and you would find a shared memory that would make me smile. Thank you to my stubbornness when it takes me 30 extra minutes to get dressed in the winter, my arm doesn’t want to tolerate a sleeve and yet, I grit my teeth and at last I am bundled up and out the door, breathing a thank you and I am on my way to see what the lake might show me.
I also understand that you were in physical therapy following your accident and that this contributed to your decision to help wildlife in the years to follow. This may seem like an odd connection for some readers – getting the ambition to help wildlife through physical therapy. Can you share this story with us?
Two and a half years after my accident, I was still indoors most of the time. I remember that I no longer wanted to go to physical therapy, it hurt, it hurt a lot. I had a very wise physical therapist, who really understood my depression and pain. We both knew I would never again be pain-free. When I told him I was not coming back, he looked at me in a deep thoughtful way and asked me if I would just please come back one more time.
Now, I was brought up that if somebody asked with a “please,” the proper courteous thing to do was to agree. So I returned two days later. I walked in the door to find he had a small point-and-shoot camera in his hand. He asked me if I’ve ever done any photography. Yes, indeed in my younger years, I had done a lot of still photography. He asked me if I had any cameras at home. I said I had one, kind of like what he was holding. He’s said good, turn around and go back out my office door right now. Go home and pick up that camera and don’t stop in your house. Go out the door and photograph what you were seeing.
So what did you do next?
He understood I needed to use my arm, or I would lose what control of it I had. He understood that the regime of physical therapy within the same four walls was maddening to me. He understood I had essentially lived a life outdoors before the accident.
So I went home, found my little camera, (I think it was a G3) and went back out the front door before I lost my courage. It did not take me many months to work from that small point-and-shoot camera to something with a longer lens and a faster action for the birds I was seeing. My world was opening wide to horizons I thought were no longer available to me. That’s how I eventually found my way to Jordan Lake and all of the diverse bird life there.
You ended up devoting much of your new efforts to the wild and wonderful world of Jordan Lake. What makes Jordan Lake such a special place for you?
Blake, just think about it for a moment: At Jordan Lake I could watch the largest eagle in the United States go soaring by and then I could gently turn around and then photograph a hummingbird.
The lake is where I can use biofeedback and meditation to hold at bay, at least for a few hours, the pain of my arm. As anyone with nerve damage that causes a “live-wire” effect (and there are regretfully many of us) can attest: painkillers may dull the pain but can also lead you into addiction. I am blessed that with the help of several specialists I can live without systemic pain killers and rely instead on my meditation, local anesthetic patches, and a whole lot of ice packs.
I would love to spend all day at the lake, but I think of the morning hours as my freedom time and later savor those moments when I am home editing my photos with ice packs on my arm and a warm cat in my lap.
Ellen, what about your continued interests in wildlife photography? Do you have any photography ambitions outside of birds?
I will photograph anything of interest that my lens happens to focus upon. Most people know my birds because that is what most people have expressed an interest in seeing. Flowers, landscapes, insects, rocks, clouds and oh the chance to photograph a myth that I see in ice or driftwood or draping vines.
Sometimes I am able to sell a photo and have a bit of extra income and I am grateful. I give webinars to help people learn about Jordan Lake and its bird neighborhood and the income generated helps pay for my trips to the lake.
The first is right here in Wake County. Yates Mill Pond Historic Park explodes with ducks, geese, mergansers, deer, raccoons, and foxes each fall and winter. There is no better place to photograph hummingbirds in the summer.
Where did you spend most of your time in the last 10 years or so? I am interested in both the types of birds and animals as well as the areas that you study them in. I know that you spend a deal of time at Jordan Lake, but what other areas are your favorites and are important to you?
Lake Mattamuskeet is about 5 miles from the shores of Pamlico Sound. It has tundra swans and black bears, spiders the size of my hand, dragonflies the length of hummingbirds, herons, egrets, and ibises. Here is where I go to find northern harriers quartering above the grassy swamps. Falcons: peregrines, merlins and kestrels make their appearances. The fall and spring migration that passes through Lake Mattamuskeet regularly adds birds to my life list.
Thank you for sharing these with us. Those in medical professions keep precise notes, so do you think that your background here helps you in your new pursuits?
Yes, Veterinarians, like human medical doctors, are taught to keep very careful and precise records of our patients. So it was no surprise to me when I realized that I was making field notes on many of the birds that my camera was bringing into focus for me. I really cannot see any difference between a medical record and a field note.
I can go through my notes and tell you when I first saw, say, a bald eagle building a nest or incubating eggs, or an osprey hovering over its nest on his return in the spring from South America. My memory is not always as perfect as I would like it to be. However, I can do a search on my field notes and find answers to when was the first fledging of eaglets at First Nest here at Jordan lake.
My sharing of my photography and field notes is a way for me to add to the body of work being done by both academic scientists and the oh so important citizen scientists.
You have said that finding answers to how to have a balanced environment is the key to a good life for both humans and birds. Do you think your studies and sharing of what you have learned will take us a step forward in our understanding and appreciation of all of nature here in NC?
Blake, sharing of the wonders I see and the bird routines I can document, is perhaps the greatest joy of my life. In some ways I am privileged to study the bald eagles at their Jordan Lake neighborhood on an almost daily basis. A lot of people have other obligations that necessarily and rightly occupy their time. So, for me to be able to post one of my natural minute videos and bring the outdoors to the indoors to someone in an office or who is perhaps limited in their ability to get to the lake, that is a gift and I want to share it again and again.
And Blake, I warmly smile when someone sends me back a comment and says oh I did not know that and thank you for sharing with me. Those are cherished smiles. Within those moments of sharing I hope to allow everyone the chance to appreciate a balanced environment: an environment that is healthy for all its inhabitants.
Doc, what do you hope to accomplish in the next 5 years?
I will be 75-years-old this spring. If I can continue to share to 80 years and beyond, especially with the children, the ability to see not just a big bird but see a bald eagle, and its flight feathers, its grasping beak, its tremendous wings stretched in a dive and its golden eyes pinned on a fish and for the child to turn to me and say oh, that is what you mean when you say the eagle is pursuing its life … ah, well then … that will be an accomplishment.
Very touching – a life well lived in pursuit of our passion is about the best we can ask for. What do you see as the key issues facing the birds that you are studying and the critical environment in which they live?
To me the single key issue is this: we must educate. We must bring to each person the awareness and consequences of our daily actions: do we carry the trash back to our vehicle or leave it on the lake shore, do we drive the half mile to see our neighbor or do we walk. Once a person begins to see their daily lives as not being separate from others and having little or no impact on the environment, we are all becoming better stewards of our world.
Do you feel that your photography is shedding light on the some of the most important issues you face?
I think my photography touches the people in NC because I am studying “their” birds. As I track the nest life of specific bald eagle and osprey nests, people become involved in the avian neighborhood of Jordan Lake and they become invested in how these raptor families interact with the environment. It really is true “a picture is worth a thousand words.” The questions I receive, whether on my social media or in my lectures or out in the field, give me a chance to convey the importance of the act of asking a question and my responsibility to answer the question as best I can. Teaching is a part of my sharing.
Perhaps something that influences your focus on birds is your passion for flight. I know you’re actually a licensed pilot and have spent some time flying. Can you tell the readers about this time in your life and what brought you to flying?
My late father was a Marine Corps pilot for 30 years. This photo is of him and his F4U Corsair that he flew in the Korean Conflict. As a child, I wanted to experience for myself the glow I would see in him when he talked about feeling the plane being alive through his hands on the stick, the hum through his feet on the pedals and the ability to see the truly far horizon. My dad would talk about his own father catching him, standing, hands idle on the handles of the plow, mule half asleep while a hawk had his total attention. I grew up watching those same hawks with the same desire to leave the earth and fly
My first flight was with me in the seat beside my flight instructor. Sometimes I still find myself awed that humans achieved flight as I watch an osprey hover over the water and then fold up and tear downward after a fish … and I think to myself, we humans still have not perfected flight.
Folks who follow you on social media will occasionally be graced with a picture of a handsome cat. Can you tell the readers about your cat companions and what makes them so special in your life?
Cats have always been my companions. My current companion is a small Bengal patterned male that I rescued from the parking lot at the Poe Ridge fishing piers. “Grayced” was an abandoned, injured and almost starved kitten of about 5 months of age. He was so starved that he weighed only 0.90 of a pound … he should have weighed about 5 pounds. He has been with me now for 11 years and weighs in at 8 pounds. My cats are for home and indoors. They keep me busy trying to understand their interactions with me and other humans and how they entertain themselves.
Birds are outdoors, free, fascinating, and studying them blocks the pain of my arm and gives me moments of being a child. I am 74-years-old going on 12-years of curiosity-driven age and birds, cats, horses, and all other critters help me fully alive each day.
Ellen, I really appreciate your taking the time out of your busy schedule to talk to us today and I hope we all can better appreciate the good works you are doing and how you are helping our feathered friends and creating an awareness of them. And I also want to take this opportunity to invite all that might visit Lake Jordan and the other lands that you roam to stop and say hello if your paths just happen to cross