BARKSDALE — A few years ago when the water just opened up and waterfowl started to congregate at Long Bridge in Ashland, Barksdale photographer Wayne Rundell sat down one morning on the ice to take photographs. It was hovering around zero, so when he got up to leave two hours later his pants were frozen to the ice.
Such are the potential hazards of a wildlife photographer waiting for that perfect moment — that glaring red eye of a loon, that ballet descent of a bald eagle. A few pair of ripped pants? A small price to pay for capturing just the right image.
Rundell has captured hundreds of such images. He’ll be displaying some of them May 1–31 at the Washburn Cultural Center in an exhibit called, “Birds: Lens to Canvas,” with a reception 5–7 p.m. on May 9.
Predominantly pictures of birds, the show’s just in time for the Chequamegon Bay Birding & Nature Festival (May 15–17). He planned it that way.
“I wanted to be involved with the festival in some way, but I don’t have time with my job,” said Rundell, who’s been employed at Bretting Manufacturing in Ashland since 1981.
But he does have time for sunrises and sunsets, sitting cat-still on the lake, camouflaged in the woods, or slogging through Fish Creek Slough in his swamp waders. Curious to Rundell is why no one has ever called 911 on days he’s slumped over on the ice.
“You’d think someone would wonder, ‘What the heck? Something’s wrong,’” he said. “It shows that either people don’t see me or just aren’t aware of what’s going on around them driving their cars.”
For that reason Rundell takes pictures of what’s going on around him. His number one motivation is to capture the beauty of the bay, but also he wants to raise awareness to protect the magnificent ecosystems in the region.
Oftentimes Rundell invites his wife, Kristie, on these photo safaris.
“We go out together looking for photo ops,” he said. “She’s a great spotter and many of the great captures I have are because of her sharp eye and ability to see art in nature. We have spent many hours scouring the National Forest on a Saturday morning, sipping coffee and having some good laughs as we track down our next victim.”
One of their favorite spots is Fish Creek Slough at the head of the bay off of Highway 2 coming into Ashland. This 700-acre habitat includes marsh, lagoon, edge areas, second growth hardwood forest, and boreal forest that attract seasonal waterfowl, songbirds and raptors. Rundell has spotted horned grebes, common golden-eye, and pied-billed grebes; also hooded, red-breasted and common mergansers. Great egrets, sandhill cranes and great blue heron touch down in these wetlands too.
“You can see 50-60 species in one outing,” he said.
It’s hard to envision this bird-lover carrying a gun.
“I used to be a little bit of a hunter back in the days. I’m not anti-hunting but things like swan hunting make me shake my head and wonder, are we that desperate to create a sport or is there some true need other than a financial reason why they’re wanting to do such a thing?” he said.
In February, the state of Wisconsin suggested the creation of a tundra swan hunt. However, on April 14 the Wisconsin Conservation Congress, an advisory group to the Department of Natural Resources, advised against it.
“It’s a bit of a puzzle, since we’re already doing enough damage to the environment in our daily lives just going to work, not even trying to,” Rundell said. “To go out of our way to do more damage just seems crazy.”
In protest, he joins the loons, even if he looks a bit loony.
Rundell bought his first camera, a Canon AE-1 SLR, from his older brother decades ago. Because film cameras are cumbersome and developing expensive, he lost heart and packed it away for years; that is, until the digital age arrived.
In 2010 he purchased a Canon 7D with a high-powered zoom lens. Since then his aperture has been wide-open. At first he gravitated to action photos.
“With birds, as soon as you click the shutter, they’re gone. It’s hard to just click away as they fly toward you,” he said.
Eventually the wisdom of lying still and becoming part of the landscape intrigued him more than running after his subjects. The zoom lens allows him to take intimate shots as if he were invited to the heron’s table for dinner. The real fun began when he finally broke free from the “automatic” mode.
“Once you make the break, it’s amazing how you’ll never go back,” he said.
But it takes a lot of “missed shots of a lifetime” before manual settings become second nature.
A self-taught photographer from Michigan, Rundell gleaned much from the Internet and books, but his biggest learning happens in the field.
The photographs for “Birds: Lens to Canvas” were shot between the Porcupine Mountains in Michigan to the Sax-Zim Bog in Minnesota. Sax-Zim is famous not only for its mention in the Steve Martin film, “The Big Year,” but also for its winter bird festivals. It’s a fabulous gathering place for owls, particularly the great gray and northern hawk owls.
Rundell belongs to the Chequamegon Bay Birders, a group dedicated to identifying and counting birds in the region. Of particular concern is the decline of certain species due to climate change.
“This year we didn’t see a lot of northern birds coming down, particularly pine or evening grosbeaks, or red-pole or pine siskins,” he said. “I’m sure there were some in the area, but they weren’t coming to the feeders,” another place he perches with camera in hand.
In November 2011, Rundell had a show at the Cultural Center focused on birds, wildlife and landscapes for which he printed, matted and mounted his photographs. He also built mahogany frames. This year he decided to do away with glaring glass, which can be a problem with the floor-to-ceiling windows at the Cultural Center. Instead he’s printed the images on canvas and mounted them on hardboard which stands out from the wall as if floating in the room — mostly birds and a few landscapes.
Rundell takes photos of other wildlife too. In 2011 he discovered a well-lit fox den near Long Lake.
“I spent three days with them, just sat there taking their pictures,” he said.
The kits eventually circled so close he could reach out and touch them, but didn’t. Building trust enables him to enter into a Wind-in-the-Willows world where animals practically speak to him with their facial expressions. “Who are you? What are you doing here with that weird thing in your hands? Why aren’t you hunting?”
Rundell plans to include fact sheets about the birds in his show.
“There’ll be some cold facts and some information about conservation as far as declining species go and why it’s happening. It’ll be geared toward birders in the area, but I’m hoping some classes will do field trips too,” he said.
For the kids he’ll add curiosities like, “Did you know this bird builds its nest on the water?”
“My biggest message is awareness of our eco-system,” said Rundell, who’s watched waterfowl and songbirds feed on human garbage left on beaches. “You don’t see it driving down the highway, but the pollution is there, and they’re having to deal with it, doing what they’ve evolved to do. They don’t know any different,” he said.
Rundell’s hoping “Birds: Lens to Canvas” will make a difference and inspire people to take action.
Hope McLeod can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
To learn more about Wayne Rundell go to: http://waynerundell.zenfolio.com