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Graphic designer Glenn Jones turns his lens on the birds

Glenn Jones and daughter Ruby on their local bird-watching boardwalk. Photo/Rebekah Robinson.

Known for his “pop-art” prints, designer Glenn Jones has turned his lens on nature. Michelle Langstone joins him on a bird-watching walkabout.

It’s raining softly on the Weona-Westmere path, and the plastic grip that covers the wooden boardwalk is slippery. The spring tide is full and the estuary swollen. With the mangroves mostly submerged and pōhutukawa trees along the banks hanging low, there is a distinctly primordial air to this part of Auckland, where a series of walks installed by the council create a feeling of wilderness close to the city.

Graphic designer and illustrator Glenn Jones walks quietly ahead of me, his head turning often to scan the water and the sky, while I shuffle behind making a racket in my nylon raincoat. A trio of black swans sail alongside us like a slightly disapproving flotilla, but there is nobody else around, and for a moment it feels as if we are the last two people on earth. It’s the roar of a truck passing nearby on the northwestern motorway that shakes us back into reality, as a juvenile kōtare settles ahead of us on the railing.

“I came down here last night, after all that rain, and there would have been 15 kingfishers,” says Jones, turning to me with an expression lit with delight. “I was standing out on the rail all by myself with kingfishers either side of me.”

While his face will not be familiar, the 44-year-old’s work is firmly grounded in New Zealand culture. His Kiwiana prints form the basis of the company he runs from home in Westmere with his wife Julia. They are instantly identifiable, as is his 3D version of the Tip Top swirl, which he was commissioned to update about a decade ago, and which remains one of our most recognisable logos.

Tired of the long hours and perpetual grind of advertising land, Jones went freelance in 2008, launching his quirky T-shirt label Glennz Tees and designing a range of art prints. The business has grown and prospered alongside his three children, and the flexibility of working from home has allowed his eye to wander in another direction.

Native birds have inspired many of his print designs (including the charming New Zealand Short Tailed Jelly Tip, left); now he’s found a new personal passion in capturing them on camera. Jones has been pecked by the bird bug, and it shows. Our conversation among the mangroves is frequently interrupted by his exclamations – “Oh, that might even be a hawk over there!” – and Attenborough-like narrations of behaviour. “See that tern there? He’ll just go up and down, and when he sees a fish he’ll dive straight in,” he tells me. “This is his tide, this kind of tide.”

Gliding in and out of the mangroves across from us, the swans seem determined to get our attention, as do a raft of ducks dabbling around the boardwalk. But Jones is strictly for the natives.

Starting out, Jones sought advice from one of the best. Renowned nature photographer Jonathan Harrod’s images of birds have appeared frequently in publications including National Geographic. Harrod made a positive comment about one of the shots Jones had posted on Instagram. When Jones replied and asked for advice, he found Harrod to be generous, providing guidance on the best lens to buy and shutter speeds in low light.

“I loved his work so I just reached out to him with some questions, and this guy is the most affable person. He was happy to give me as much information as I liked. Incredible, you know? From a guy like him who really knows his stuff, just getting the odd tip really helps.”

I ask what has drawn him to birds, and he looks up at the sky as he considers the question. “It’s probably the colour. There are so many incredible colours in these birds, and a lot of my [design] work is very colour-based. On a sunny day, when you get the sun on the wings of some of these birds, it’s mind-boggling the colours that come out of them.”

His favourite bird is the kererū, the somewhat ditzy and cumbersome reigning champion of Forest and Bird’s Bird of the Year campaign. “On a dull day, in a certain light they can just look a bit grey-purple,” he says. “But stick them in the sun and they’re this glowing green colour. It’s amazing.”

Jones is modest about his own abilities, admitting the changing conditions and unreliable subject matter means a lot of time spent reviewing images slightly out of focus, or missing a head or wing from the frame: “When I first started I was really frustrated by it, because you just think, ‘I’ll turn up, and there’s the shot.’ Now, it’s part of the challenge. I don’t think I’ll ever get the exact shot, and that’s what keeps you coming back as well.”

He admits he’s too impatient to ever become a devoted “twitcher”, but will happily come out in all weathers, looking for the magic conditions that yield the best images.

Ahead of us, the sky over the mangroves is clearing. Jones, sensing his chance, crouches to retrieve the camera from his backpack. It’s a simple kit and he is ready in moments, but as he straightens everything goes quiet. There is no movement, no birdsong, and for a second it seems as if the estuary is holding its breath. Jones squints down the barrel with a wry smile and shrugs. “Oh, look at that – you get ready and all the birds are gone.”

This article was first published in the July 2019 issue of North & South.

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