Wildlife In Focus Photography Contest at Lamar Burton Wildlife Refuge
Aransas First board member and president-elect, Janae Evans, had been pondering the idea of entering the Wildlife in Focus photo contest for quite some time. But the commitment would be huge and the level of excellence required in order to compete at that level was daunting. Then Aransas First acquired the Lamar Burton Wildlife Sanctuary, and the stage was set. Evans felt the time was right to test her own photography skills while at the same time showcasing the importance of such a significant acquisition with its critical habitat. President of Aransas First, Earl Matthew, agreed. At the time no one knew the full scope of flora and fauna occupying the property (permanent or seasonal), so it was an excellent opportunity for Evans to roll up her sleeves and take a hard look at the inhabitants through various lenses, literally.
The mission of the Wildlife in Focus photo contest is very much in alignment with that of Aransas First, “to preserve and protect the native wildlife and their habitats in South Texas. As a 501c3 non-profit organization, we strive to create an atmosphere of cooperation among businesses, private landowners, and wildlife photographers where all participants benefit while promoting the conservation and protection of wildlife and habitat.” The contest was formed in 2000 amid the realization that landowners are under increasing pressure to convert wildlife habitat to other uses. With the increasing threat of urbanization, the founders observed children growing up with fewer opportunities to experience wildlife and native habitat in Texas. Their goal is to inspire children of all ages through awareness; to compel them to go outside and see Texas’ beauty. Landowners and Photographers compete as teams promoting wildlife conservation while participating in what has been referred to as one of the most challenging wildlife photo contests in the world. Landowners play a crucial role in the conservation of wildlife by providing well-managed habitat as the “canvas” for the photographer’s work. The contest runs about 4.5 months long and all photos must be shot during the designated window of time established by the contest; and each photographer must capture his/her photos only on the partnering landowner’s property.
Evans went to work on the property in November 2022, walking and viewing species and habitat, and establishing the best viewing areas for setting up temporary photo blinds, etc. Evans’ friend and past Wildlife in Focus contest winner, Cissy Beasley, encouraged her to push the envelope, to go early and stay late, and do the grueling work necessary to produce photos that evoke a sense of wonder and awe. Beasley told her, “the contest will change you.” Evans let that resonate for the ensuing months, and the contest began January 14, 2023. Evenings, weekends, holidays and beyond, Evans traipsed through heat, cold, rain, chiggers, ticks and mosquitos in order to “get the shot.” Categories of the contest included birds of prey, wading birds, waterfowl, orioles, flycatchers, hummingbirds, dove/quail, warblers, deer, rodents, rabbits, wild cats, coyotes/foxes, caterpillars/butterflies, insects, turtles, frogs, snakes, alligators, and special categories such as landscapes, weather, native wildflowers, night photography, land operations, 35-55mm lens category and many more. Photographers could submit up to 2 photos in each category.
One day in February after about a month of shooting photos, Evans made her way down a path toward the solar well of the back pasture (made possible by Coastal Bend Bays and Estuaries Program and Phillips 66) and much to her delight she heard the primal bugling of a pair of adult whooping cranes, strutting through the pasture. Her hopes had become reality. No one was certain if the revered endangered cranes would find the property suitable for their foraging, but indeed there were several families that frequented the pasture over the winter. This was an exciting new dimension for Evans and it really hit home, “this is a real-life example for why we’re passionate about land conservation in Aransas County,” she said.
Another aspect of the contest that was important for Evans, was to maintain a small “footprint” on the property and capture shots in an ethical way, without disturbing the subjects in any way. As the days marched on, Evans kept thinking about how important it was to promote the Aransas First message and mission, while also doing justice to highlighting the unique abundance of the property, while also making its main benefactor, Jill Burton, proud of her legacy in the land. The photography portion of the contest ended June 4, and photographers had until the end of June to finish editing and then submit photos in strict conformance with contest rules by the end of June. Then the wait began. The judges started their long journey of critiquing photos and narrowing the field. Photographers would not know if photos would place in any of the categories until the banquet night on October 14. The wait was full of hope and anticipation but the experience for each photographer was real and not to be diminished.
On the night of the banquet Evans and Earl Matthew learned there were three photos that placed in the 2023 contest, an accomplishment to celebrate in a field of highly respected landowners and photographers. Pictured are the photos that placed, four whooping cranes as the third place winner in the Wading Birds category; a creative splash scene as the first place winner in the 35-55mm category, and a lonely American coot taking third place in the Gallinules, Rails, Grebes category. Evans was elated to learn that her work was recognized by the judges and Matthew was very pleased to partner in the journey on behalf of the land trust. When asked how she felt after the contest, Evans grinned and said affirmingly, “changed.”
The Lamar Burton property will soon be open for public access. Stay tuned for more updates.