News From Terre Haute, Indiana

February 3, 2013

Natural Habitat: Meet 17-year-old Ben Cvengros, who has a knack for capturing wildlife — in particular, birds — on his camera

Jane Santucci
Special to the Tribune-Star

---- — I would like to introduce you to a 17-year-old Parke County teenager who has an incredible level of patience. Ben Cvengros was 12 years old when he found his passion for photography. He was standing lakeside at a family reunion and wanted to capture the beauty of the lake. With no camera to capture the picturesque moment, he opted to use a flip phone camera. From that moment on he was a shutterbug. That Christmas his family bought him his first point-and-shoot camera.

“It was a pretty good camera for what I wanted to start out with. The first picture I took was of a Red Bellied Woodpecker out on the backyard feeder,” Cvengros said.

The image of the sleek, round-headed woodpecker triggered the thought in Cvengros’ mind that he could take pictures of all different kinds of birds and learn about them along the way. He knew he would have to advance the grade of his camera to capture higher quality images. At that point, Cvengros said he consulted the experts at Galloway Camera in Terre Haute for what he would need to purchase to obtain the images he aspired to get.  

“The guy at the desk said, if you are really interested in the bird photography, look up Jim Sullivan (another local wildlife photographer) and look at some of his pictures and try to get inspiration off of him,” Cvengros said.

Cvengros remembers looking up Sullivan’s work on the popular photo sharing website Flickr and spending hours looking at his pictures, meanwhile collecting a kettle of ideas. Eventually, Cvengros messaged Sullivan and told him that he really admired his work. But, it wasn’t until this past August when Cvengros finally got to meet the illustrious Sullivan.

The encounter took place at the restaurant Buffalo Wild Wings. Cvengros was out celebrating with a bunch of his high school buddies after a big tennis win. Sullivan identified Cvengros by his last name on his tennis uniform. At first, Cvengros was reluctant to admit who he was to Sullivan in front of his friends, but then caved in and felt this was the opportune time to tell his friends about his unique hobby.

“They couldn’t believe me at first because they thought I was just joking. I had them look me up on the Internet, and they actually thought it was pretty cool,” Cvengros said.  

Capturing the right image

When Cvengros is not playing tennis or golf, one would most likely find him outside. He uses his hunting camouflage to bird watch. He has been known to sit by the bird feeder for hours in 10 degree weather, waiting to capture the perfect shot. Sometimes patience is not enough. A bird will land, look at him and then take right off. He says this commonly happens with little warblers because they are so jittery. Not to mention, they sit high in the tree tops, a far distance to reach with many lenses.

“I think the main reason I like to stay patient for so long is the idea [that] maybe if I just wait a little bit longer then I will get the best shot I can get, and that keeps me out there to do this stuff,” Cvengros said.

Phone apps help

There are more than 413 bird species in the state of Indiana. To date, Cvengros has photographed 155 of them. Knowing that other Wabash Valley Audubon Society members have seen more, is always on his mind. In past generations, bird watchers would have to call each other to say where they have seen a particular bird species. Now, with smart phone apps, bird watchers like Cvengros are quickly climbing the ranks. His favorite app is eBird. He tells the story of the time on eBird that he saw a sighting of a White-winged Crossbill at St. Mary-of-the-Woods. It is a species that lives in the far north and eats the little cones on hemlock trees. When he arrived on campus, there was another man with binoculars looking for the same bird, which he also heard about on eBird. With no sound or sight of the White-winged Crossbill, the man told Cvengros he saw some Pine Siskins by the front gate of the college. Cvengros had never seen a Pine Siskin so he headed for the front gate. He saw the bird, but also noticed one with more of a red hue and a bit bigger, so he looked through his lens and sure enough, he was able to capture the White-winged Crossbill.

“If you can think of something that comes so naturally to you and then think about how happy that makes you, that is how I feel. I am not so sure the places I go are for the pictures, because sometimes if I don’t get any good pictures, sure it is a little disappointing, but you have to have bad days to have good ones. When I leave, I am glad that I went and that I was out there,” Cvengros said.

Finding birds by sound, not sight

An easier, yet trained way to find birds, is to know their calls. There have long been recordings of bird songs, but what’s different now is that apps allow bird watchers to carry thousands of bird calls in their pocket. When there is a bird sound that Cvengros can’t identify, he will take a picture of the bird and then match it up with the sound. He says just a tiny variance can throw it off from another species.

“It is really cool to be able to hear it and try and think in your head about what kind of bird it could be. … Maybe it is a Yellow-throated Warbler, then you look up and it is right there. It is cool because then you don’t have to see them and then you can maybe look around and get the right shot,” Cvengros said.

Making friends with his subjects

One gets the sense by looking at Cvengros’ photos he is one with nature when outside. He understands the birds, and the birds understand him. He tells the tale of when he and his grandfather were going down the road before crossing the bridge into Clinton, and on the telephone post there frequently sits a Red-tailed Hawk. He and his grandfather named the hawk Zeus because of its scraggly looks. When he would pass by the hawk with his grandfather he would give the hawk a little wave. One time Cvengros recalls the hawk giving him a nod back, acknowledging his presence.

When flipping through Cvengros’ Flickr page, one will come across a photo of Cvengros holding a Red-bellied Woodpecker. No, birds don’t come and sit on his shoulders like in “Snow White.” In this situation, Cvengros was on the computer and his mother alerted him to the bird lying upsidedown on their backyard patio. The bird’s tail was moving back and forth. Cvengros was worried the bird might have been paralyzed, so he put on some gloves, put his hand underneath him and flipped him over.

“I held him for 10 minutes. Maybe within the last minute he was on the table, I could tell he was shaking it off. I could hear some blue jays calling. He was getting excited about that, and was getting ready to fly, and then he did,” Cvengros said.

It is likely the woodpecker hit a second-story window and fell. Cvengros’ mother took the photo seen on his Flikr stream. While the photo may not be one of Cvengros’ wildlife masterpieces, it exemplifies his good-hearted spirit.

“My main sense of accomplishment is getting a good shot and being able to share it where everybody can see it on Flikr,” Cvengros said.

See his photos

Check out Ben Cvengros’s Flikr page at

Birding apps

Other recommended apps are: iBird Explorer Pro, Peterson’s Birds of North America, Sibley eGuide to the Birds of North America, Audubon Guide to North American Birds, National Geographic Handheld Birding, BirdsEye, BirdLog and Bird Codes.