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  • Captain Zach

Minnesota: Land O’ Lakes, Skies O’ Birds

Updated: Jul 25, 2022

If you remember from my first blog post, I spoke about attending a trade show for my job in Missouri. Besides walking around the labyrinth vendors booths & stocked shelves of bird feeding products, I honest to God thought; “What the hell am I doing here?” Like I said before, I wanted to be working in the wilderness “saving” wildlife on camera & inspire little kids to give their parents heart attacks the same way I did to mine. While I sauntered and fended off some of the never-ending pitches of salesman yammering to me why I should sell their product, I came across a booth for backyard bird guides & children’s books. I start looking at these books admiringat the photography as my eyes began to alter their color from blue to a very dark green. Then I hear the voice of a man whose speaking with the confidence that rivals that of stockbrokers closing on multi-million dollar deals. Only this time, that voice was speaking about Nature.

I’m pretty sure the first question I asked Stan Tekiela was, “How did you become a Pro Wildlife Photographer?” His answer wasn’t exactly what I anticipated. Most of the time you hear about wildlife photographers, you think of National Geographic & guys who spend months at a time camping out in the wilderness to get possibly 1 usable photograph. Stan grew up with the dream of writing Nature Books. A lover of the outdoors & a master of photography, his books consist of Bird Guides, stories about backyard birds, wolves, bears, owls, migrations, you name it; he’s probably written a book about it. Over the course of the 3 days of this craft show I really just hung out with him and talked photography. He was throwing terms out, I’d never heard before, and I still respond cluelessly when those conversations get technical, but I soaked up every bit of that stuff. At the end of the show he gave me one of his books & signed it for me. I still have that book to this day.

A couple of years have passed since then, and Stan & I both attended the Gold Crest Distributing Wild Bird Expo. Last fall at the Expo, Stan and I were talking photos again, showing off what all we’d been shooting since last year. Then I told him that I’m working on a documentary about Purple Martins & their dependence on people for birdhouses. We got to chatting, then he mentions “Ya know, I’ve got 16 gourds at my lake house and a spare room if you ever want to come out & film them.” Here I am, a stumbling, starving, & aspiring wildlife photographer with no credentials to my name and I have a pro inviting me out to film and photograph his colony; yes please.

Photo by Stan Tekiela

A little over a month ago, I took Stan up on that offer as his Martins had just arrived for the summer. I headed out to Minneapolis escaping the steam room of the Southeast that is Columbia SC for a few days. As soon as I stepped out of the Minneapolis Airport the air had this heavenly crispness to it like when you take your first sip of a chilled Coca-Cola and you can see your breath on the exhale. Stan picked me up, grabbed a bite, and then drove out to a Purple Martin Landlord friend, Tony. We got to Tony’s colony and one would think you arrived at the Yellowstone of backyard wildlife habitats. This man had an artificial pond the size of a swimming pool that catered not only to his amphibians, but Wood Duck families (plural). If that doesn’t make your mouth water, at each corner of his property (there’s four of them), there were Chimney Swift Towers (plural again) acting like pillars against the sky trying to hold up the clouds formations from completely collapsing on his home. Lastly, Tony of course had five Purple Martin racks stationed along the pond’s edge. This pond basically was a swimming pool, but for the wildlife. We’d watch Tony’s Martins dive from their houses down to the water & grab a quick gulp of water & then ascend to feeding level heights scrounging for any insects that were emerging into the cool Minnesota air. While we there, I began filming his Martins. I noticed that many of his birds were banded. I begin to inquire about the bands, and he tells me he’s been banding his birds for years. He found out a couple of years ago, a bird he banded at his colony ended up being sighted at another colony in Illinois the following year. If you’re looking for a prime example of how to attract wildlife to your suburban home, let Tony be your guide.

We departed Tony’s suburban jungle for Stan’s lake house. We got there at night and Stan mentions to me “Hey, you ever see a flying squirrel?” I have historically, but definitely not in the way he showed me. Stan had accustomed the flying squirrels in his backyard to come to a feeder he had set up just for them. We sat there for probably thirty minutes just watching as these rodents of the canopy glided down, nab a peanut, and scurry back up to gorge itself for the evening only to do it all over again in a matter of minutes. Then he discloses to me that Flying Squirrels shine pink in UV light. I called BS immediately. He runs to his car and so conveniently pulls out a UV flashlight. I sit and wait. A flyer suddenly comes to the feeder and Stan shines him. I shit you not, I was looking at a glowing neon pink flying squirrel. The same kind of neon pink you would experience at a rave or music festival. That could be the next gimmick for those things: train flying squirrels to fly around in the UV light to ramp up the crowd. Which biological adaptation favors flying squirrels to glow pink in UV light is absolutely beyond the realm of science. My guess is that they have that trait because they can.

The next morning comes & I’m still relishing in the fact that the weather is below sixty degrees, like rolling around the ice inside of a snowcone machine (I think I dreamt that too). What’s great about Stan’s martin colony is that his porch puts you at eye-level with the gourds and perches, quite a nice breather for my neck and chiropractor. What was great to capture were the martins as they bring in nesting material, particularly pieces of green leaves. Scientists hypothesize that they do this because the fresh green leaves act like a natural insecticide. Not only did I catch them bringing those leaf shreds into their gourds, but also catching them in the trees gathering it. Like Tony’s jungle, Stan’s lake house was full of our beloved feathered friends, not just the martins. To avoid seeing species like Baltimore Orioles, Yellow Warblers, White Pelicans, Common Loons, Blackpoll Warblers, and Rose-breasted Grosbeaks meant you’d have to close your eyes the entire time you’re there. I was grabbing film & photos left and right. The kids today would say it was LIT.

Of course there were times my batteries would die & I’d have to throw them on chargers. During that time, I’d pick Stan’s brain about life, photography, having a career photographing wildlife, and the current state of Professional Photography. He gave me the blunt truth: the age of professional wildlife photography is dying, if not dead already. That kind of sucked to hear. I completely understood though. Everyone has a camera these days and millions of photographs of wildlife are being produced everyday like K-Cups for the lazy coffee enthusiast. He did point me in directions that could still allow me to pursue wildlife photography & create a revenue stream for myself: photographic tours. He’s been running a tour business on a neighboring lake for years positioning photography enthusiasts in perfect placement to capture images of Common Loons. He was shocked at the revelation I wasn’t running my Martin tours this season to pursue this film. I do wish to be out there, because again I’m a starving photographer, but also to enjoy these animals and bring home some new stories from Bomb Island to tell my Martin-loving friends.

We’d take breaks from filming Martins even when my batteries were charged & we’d go adventure. Being a well-known Nature Photographer & Naturalist in your area has its perks when people call and tell you they have X species of animal taking up residence near their home. Stan took me to some of those sites. One included a Bald Eagle nest. We also visited a couple different nests that belonged to Trumpeter Swans. I had never seen a Trumpeter Swan before this trip. There’s something majestic about them you can really explain. What was a very welcome site came when were at a nest in the middle of a neighborhood on a pond about 10 yards off of the walking trail. There was a mother and her kids walking and we got to chatting with them for a bit. They were asking if we had seen any babies or cygnets, but then this woman began to talk about how these Swans have been in this pond for the past couple years and different memories watching “Mama Goose” raising her chicks. The way she spoke about those stories let me realize that this Swan pair were embraced, celebrated, & respected by the community they live in. That’s something ALL wildlife need today: people that embrace & accept their presence rather than deter or destroy it.

All in all, this trip was a success. I was able to film martins, pick up a few tricks to wildlife photography, photograph some new species, and learn more about the career field I am pursuing. A college degree can’t provide you with relationships. You never know where life will take you, but the best thing you can do is make friends along the way. Looking back, I’m thankful I was able to muster the courage to talk to someone far beyond my skillset and share our passion. I know if I chickened out talking to Stan 3 years ago, I would still be sitting at home trying to figure out what to do with my life.

Pura vida,

Captain Zach

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