In September 2015, Sharon Radtke was diagnosed with a rare autoimmune disease. She describes it as “grueling” and said the medication for treatment affected her muscles, requiring her to walk with a cane.
“I was feeling depressed,” she said. “But we live on a pond, so I started taking pictures.”
The first winter after being diagnosed, she set a goal of documenting every bird she saw on Round Pond in Milton where she lives. She called the pond a “hidden gem,” full of birds and wildlife.
“Whenever things got bad, I went out and took pictures of birds, and it always helped,” she said. “Otherwise you can sit around feeling sorry for yourself, and that’s just not what I usually do.”
Radtke began posting her photos on Facebook and received a lot of positive feedback and encouragement to “do something more” with them.
She ended up photographing 50 different birds that winter and included many of them in a calendar she sold and gave away to friends.
This past January, she joined the Milton Artists’ Guild. At the urging of her husband and peers, she began framing and showcasing her photographs around town, including at the public libraries in Milton, Georgia and St. Albans.
This upcoming January, she and another artist will be featured at the Fletcher Free Library in Burlington, and in March, her work will be displayed at Northwestern Medical Center in St. Albans.
Now, Radtke said her photography follows her wherever she goes.
“I have this terrible habit now that if I’m driving down the road and I see a bird, I pull over and put on my flashers,” she said. “It drives my husband crazy.”
Some birds, she said, are harder to capture than others, like orioles and scarlet tanagers that like to hide in the treetops.
One pileated woodpecker took her two years to photograph, she said. And when she did finally capture it, the bird alighted in her camera frame while she was photographing another bird.
“You have to be in the right place at the right time,” she said.
Facebook pages like Vermont Birding are great resources to share photos, get help identifying species and receive tips on birds rumored to be in the area, like a snowy owl she was on the lookout for but has not seen.
More recently, Radtke started writing down her experience photographing each bird so she can remember it later.
She said every picture tells a story, like an osprey that posed, statue-like, on Round Pond in October, uncharacteristically late for the bird; or when she crossed paths with a barred owl driving home in a snowstorm and had to stop her car and get out.
Radtke moved to Vermont 10 years ago and is originally from Buffalo, N.Y. She is an events planner by trade and mostly works from home where she can keep an ear and eye out for visitors.
Though still not in remission, she’s said she’s feeling much better now. She has begun going to art shows around Vermont, sharing stories and photographs with bird enthusiasts.
“I’m kind of the crazy bird lady,” she said.
Radtke said if she hadn’t been sick, she would have never noticed the birds. Now she tries to capture their personalities in each photo and is always pursuing a new bird she’s yet to encounter.
“I kind of get them,” Radtke said of her winged brethren. “I take better pictures of them than I do of people.”