The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

This daughter and dad are driven to photograph birds

Karsyn Sterns has been taking nature photos with her father, Stephon, since she was 6. This summer, the two left Northern Virginia on a 7,000-mile journey in search of new birds to photograph. (Stephon Sterns) (Stephon M Sterns)

Summer vacation began for Karsyn Sterns when school let out at 1 p.m. on May 25. By 2:15, the 11-year-old was on the road headed west, her father, Stephon, behind the wheel of his Toyota RAV 4 hybrid.

“Her goal was to get to Arizona,” said Stephon.

Treasure awaited: the Grace’s warbler, the Harris’s hawk and dozens of other birds. The rising seventh-grader and avid nature photographer from Dumfries, Va., was embarking on an epic road trip across the American West.

“We set out to photograph as many birds as we could,” said Stephon, 56.

This has become a regular thing for the pair, ever since Karsyn was 6 and Stephon handed her his old camera after buying a new one for himself.

“I don't think she said anything, but she took 123 pictures that day: around the house, out the front window, birds at the feeder,” Stephon said. “I knew there was an interest. It blossomed from that point. I bought her her own camera.”

In 2017, they drove to Yellowstone, in 2018 to the Grand Canyon, in 2019 up to Maine. The pandemic put things on hold until this year, when Karsyn vowed to photograph at least 60 new species.

Stephon retired from the Army in 2007, then worked for a few years as a contractor in Afghanistan. Since Karsyn’s birth, he has structured his jobs around spending time with her, recently as a substitute teacher in Stafford County. He and Karsyn’s mother are divorced, and Karsyn lives with him over the summers. They pack in a lot.

“I’m just going to do the best I can with the time that I’m given,” he said. “The very best I can do is squeeze as much good into the summer as we can.”

Stephon has taught Karsyn the basics of photography, helping her set up her camera.

“It’s not always about the birds,” he said. “One of the first lessons I gave her was don’t take a picture because you see me take a picture. Take a picture because you see something beautiful. She has always done that. I’ll turn around and she’s flat on her back looking straight up into leaves in the trees. She’ll say, ‘I see something abstract and I haven’t taken anything abstract today.’ ”

Karsyn was 7 when she won her first photo contest, in the junior category at Huntley Meadows. Some of her photos are part of the hummingbird exhibit at Green Spring Gardens in Alexandria.

Stephon’s house in Dumfries — he lives in his childhood home — is filled with photos he and Karsyn have taken on their adventures. They print up photo books and make gifts of prints. Karsyn’s history teacher at Stafford Middle School has a classroom decorated in shades of purple and green.

“I have a picture of a hummingbird that’s green,” Karsyn said. “I gave that to her and she put it in her room.”

These annual road trips — the latest one put 7,000 miles on the odometer — are a far cry from what Stephon did at Karsyn’s age, when summers meant going to West Virginia to stay with some cousins.

“We really didn’t do much,” he said. “When you grow up and go into the military and see there’s a great big world out there, I think it changes you. You come back and you know there’s more than what you were exposed to. You should do better by your kid.”

As a proud survivor of life with preteen girls, I asked Stephon if there isn’t the occasional friction when cooped up together for hours.

“Her enjoyment is picking at me, making fun of me, finding the things that slightly annoy and irritate me,” he said. “I mock pretend like I’m upset.”

Karsyn is in friendly competition with some of the other birders she and her father bump into around here. She has other interests, too: soccer, basketball, video games.

“I’m trying to make my daughter into the most well-rounded person in the world that I can,” Stephon said. “People ask me, ‘Is she going to be a photographer?’ I don’t ask her that question. That’s not a decision for me. That’s not even a question to pose to her. My job is to expose her to as many things as possible. Whatever she chooses is totally up to her.”

I asked Karsyn if there’s anything other kids interested in bird photography should know.

“A lot of times they’re going to have to get up early in the morning, especially when it’s like 80 degrees at 5 in the morning,” she said. “He has to wake me up.”

That’s what fathers are for.