A female red cockaded woodpecker flees after her session inside Joel’s photo tent. It was interesting to watch this bird escape by running up the trunk, rather than immediately flying away. Within 10 seconds she was in the tree canopy, and the rest of her family had flown in to join, calling furiously and upsetting what had been until that point a quiet morning.
Every now and then I am reminded that field biology is really the only thing. Last week I was in the Red Hills, north of Tallahassee. Carlton and I were there initially to hunt quail on a friend’s plantation. After our day of wing-shooting, we moved ourselves to a nice lodge at Tall Timbers Research Station and Land Conservancy. Tall Timbers is much like my South Central Florida hangout, Archbold Biological Station; a place where ecologists study the dynamics of a geography found no where else in the world. Archbold is focused on the Lake Wales Ridge and the endemic organisms that populate the islands of old scrub that are still left. Tall Timbers is focused on the longleaf pine forest and bobwhite quail management. As at Archbold, life at Tall Timbers begins and ends with fire and the study of fire.
Ecologist Jim Cox works carefully to untangle the feet of a caught sparrow. Mist netting is one method he uses to catch and band the multiple species he monitors at Tall Timbers Research Station. I recently spent a week at Tall Timbers, working and trying to absorb as much about the longleaf pine ecosystem and the Red Hills region as could be had in five days in the field. Fanning out through the forest early in the morning, we’d rush toward the mist net through a tangle of blackberry and greenbriar, driving a flock of ground-foraging birds, one of which was this Henslow’s sparrow.
Midway through our week, as Carlton was sinking into a nasty bout with a sinus infection, we were joined by photographer Joel Sartore. It was totally fortuitous, and an absurdly good opportunity for a novice photographer like me. Poor Carlton was worsening by the hour and had to curtail his trips to the field so he could heal. Meanwhile I was able to follow along and soak up some of Joel’s mentoring. Joel publishes regularly in National Geographic magazine, shooting for stories on animal migration, the Gulf of Mexico, and many more over the years.
National Geographic photographer Joel Sartore poses in front of his field studio at Tall Timbers Research Station.
It was his personal project, the Photo Ark, that brought him to Tall Timbers last week. The Photo Ark is his mission to photograph every captive species in the world. There are roughly 6000 such species today. Over the past seven years Joel has captured nearly 2000 species in his unique studio setups.
Jim Cox slips a captured rufous-sided towhee into a photo light box. To the right is Joel Sartore, National Geographic photographer. Joel is working on a long-term project called The Photo Ark, documenting every captive species on Earth, which numbers about 6000. He’s almost to 1800, now seven years into the project.
This week he’d come to Tall Timbers to photograph some of the rare and endangered bird species that populate the Red Hills region. The longleaf pine ecosystem has been drastically reduced from it’s former range, which included a vast area of the Southeastern U.S., covering roughly 90 million acres from Virginia, south to Florida and west to Texas. Post settlement, it is roughly 5% of what it was prior to European settlement. The Red Hills of Florida and Georgia maintain some of the largest remaining stands of old growth longleaf.
This frame shows Joel’s studio setup for small subjects, like red cockaded woodpeckers and the numerous other birds he photographed while at Tall Timbers. Those black bags are softboxes for his strobe lights. The strobes are powered by a generator. Jim Cox has just caught and placed inside the white photo tent a rufous-sided towhee. Joel’s photos are really portraits, with the subjects on a simple black or white background.
So for three days we ran from daylight to dusk, moving the mist net from one spot to the next, spreading ourselves out through the brushy undergrowth, and driving forward toward the net. Then on reaching the nets, if nothing was caught we’d do a flanking move and sweep around in the opposite direction. Ecologist Jim Cox was our guide and principal bird handler. Jim’s work goes back several decades now. His 1994 paper called “Closing the Gaps in Florida’s Wildlife Habitat Conservation System” was an early foundation in the building of the Florida Wildlife Corridor concept.
A Henslow’s sparrow on the hand of Tall Timbers Research Station vertebrate ecologist Jim Cox, as he prepares to release it. The Henslow’s is a critter of weedy grasslands. Like many grassland species, its range has contracted as the largest North American grasslands have been developed.
Jim handled each animal we caught with a confidence and skill that made me long for field work of my own as part of the daily routine. There is a grounding that working in the field gives a biologist. These animals may be telling us so much about the world, and seeking out what they say begins, for me at least, with tracking and finding them where they live. The field is where it’s all real.
Joel Sartore’s website and galleries: http://www.joelsartore.com/galleries/
Tall Timbers Research Station and Land Conservancy: http://talltimbers.org/
Jim Cox et al. 1994 paper “Closing the Gaps in Florida’s Wildlife Habitat Conservation System:” http://research.myfwc.com/publications/publication_info.asp?id=48583