ST. CLOUD, Minn. — Grizzlies. Rocky Mountain elk silhouetted against the horizon. Humpback whales off the coast of California. A South Dakota sky full of snow geese in migratory flight.
Minnesota naturalist and photographer Mark “Sparky” Stensaas has captured some of the most sought-after species of North American wildlife. But he won’t pass up a good shot of a squirrel. Or a chipmunk. Or the birds that land at his backyard feeder.
He’s used a trail camera in his woods, capturing images of fox, coyotes, black bears and a bobcat. On his blog, he’s shared photographs of his vegetable garden, posting ideas for others who want to do the same.
“You don’t need to be going to exotic locations. You can shoot birds, insects, butterflies — right in your backyard, right in your own woods or maybe a neighborhood park or your neighborhood refuge. You don’t have to travel very far to find amazing stuff,” Stensaas told the St. Cloud Times.
“You don’t always need a $10,000 lens. I teach folks how to get close so they don’t need to have a $10,000 lens,” Stensaas said. “The absolute No. 1 thing a person can do is to become a good naturalist and know your wild subjects.”
At Sherburne National Wildlife Refuge, visitor services manager Betsy Beneke said birds — specifically sandhill cranes, eagles, waterfowl, herons and trumpeter swans — along with prairie wildflowers and butterflies are the primary draws for wildlife and nature photographers.
“It doesn’t do much good to shoot sandhill cranes in Sherburne in mid-January. You know they kind of congregate in the fall and spring, and they might fly in at dusk. Those things will increase your odds dramatically,” Stensaas said.
No matter the location — and he’s shot in places as far-ranging as New Mexico’s Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge and Costa Rica — the secret, he stressed, is knowing your subject.
Stensaas, 50, became acquainted with his specialty — shooting Minnesota’s North Woods — first as a biology and American Indian studies student at the University of Minnesota-Duluth, and then working in Jay Cooke and Gooseberry Falls state parks and at Grand Portage National Monument. He’s also the half-time executive director of the nonprofit Friends of Sax-Zim Bog, runs two publishing companies, produces instructional DVDs and writes books.
“I can’t leave Minnesota. I’ve always chosen location over jobs. I just think Minnesota is such an amazing place for photo opportunities,” Stensaas said.
“I just like the simple landscape or the aesthetic of winter. Nice clean, white backgrounds. It’s almost like a Japanese aesthetic. Everything is simplified. I really like that. These birds that come down from the North, they’re not very afraid of people.”
In addition to birds and bears, buffalo and moose, his online galleries feature beavers, porcupines and deer.
His wife sometimes asks how he can keep photographing the same subjects — “How many shots of bison do you need?”
With every outing, he sets a new goal.
“Sometimes I say, ‘OK, I’m just going to shoot animals-in-the-landscape shots, or this trip I’m going to do time-lapse. Or I’m going to do more night photography,’ “ Stensaas said.
His most frightening experience in the field occurred last winter. He’d tucked himself in to a riverbank to photograph a coyote crossing the water in Yellowstone National Park. It appeared as if the animal were stalking something.
“Then he kept getting closer and closer and I realized he was stalking me,” Stensaas said. The animal got within 6 feet.
“He was going for me. Then when I looked up from my camera I just kind of freaked. But he didn’t run off that fast,” Stensaas said. “His head was above my head because I was sitting down.”
His most memorable in-state experiences involved photographing a great gray owl nest this summer in Aitkin County, calling a moose in the Superior National Forest — “You have escape routes semi-planned out, but then you’re, ‘Oh my God, he thinks I’m a female moose” — and coming across a wolf eating a deer carcass while taking his kids to day care. ‘I said, ‘Daddy’s going to go and photograph a wolf,’” Stensaas said. He had to go home to retrieve the camera. The wolf was still eating when he returned. “With one flick of the neck and jaws, he flicked the leg off and ran off with it.”
Stensaas said he believed there is more to gain by sharing images — even the iPhone images he puts on Instagram — and techniques. He then charges for things that take more effort, such as DVDs and books.
“You don’t need to protect your secrets anymore because everybody’s going to figure it out anyway, where you took that shot or how you did it,” Stensaas said. “I think it’s more fun this way.”
His parting advice: Be a naturalist. Put the animal’s welfare before your photo. Get creative. Share what you do.