Nature Photographer Ty Smedes

Mar 30, 2012  | Ep 202

Readers of the magazine Iowa Outdoors are familiar with the photography of Ty Smedes.  Ty is a regular contributor to the Department of Natural Resources publication and his pictures along with articles he has written have introduced many Iowans to the fragile natural wonders found within the state.  

Ty Smedes, Nature photographer:  I am really worried about our natural environment, our natural world and certain plants and animals are endangered.  And so if I can write and express my concern about those endangered species then I feel like I am doing doubly good.   I am not only bringing the pictures to people that they enjoy but I am also portraying a message.  A message of concern.  A message that we need to conserve.  That we need to take steps.  That we need to make choices in our own lives that hopefully can positively impact some of these species that are threatened.

Besides writing and shooting photographs for a number of magazines, Smedes has published two books.  His first book Capturing Iowa’s Seasons is a collection of photographs that documented the beauty and harshness that is part of the circle of life.   

Ty Smedes:  I am not prejudice in any way for any particular nature subject.  If you look at my first book Capturing Iowa’s Seasons you will see macro photos of some of the tiniest things like butterflies, frogs, tiny frogs, things like that, to macro subjects like a red fox or a bald eagle catching fish.  They all have their place and they are all great and they all add to the beauty of nature.

While Ty enjoys taking pictures of all aspects of Iowa natural world and sharing what he’s learned with others, his second book focused on a single subject.  The Return of Iowa’s Bald Eagles, his newest book, is a compilation of photographs, observations and scientific facts.

Ty Smedes:  I had a lot of Bald Eagle photos.  I had been photographing them since 1994.  But I didn't have nest photos.  So in 2010 I discovered a nest that looked like it would be photogenic and I spent 21 mornings and 84 hours photographing a pair of Bald Eagles raising their two youngsters.   I photographed them bringing leopard frogs, bullfrogs to the nest, turtles of two to three different species, and they were bringing in pan fish like bluegills.   So they are very resourceful and I continue to learn more and more about how hearty they are.  One of the photos in my book is a photo that is a close up of a bald eagle that actually has icicles on his toes.

Being able to take pictures outdoors when temperatures are so low ice forms on eagle talons is part of what it takes to be a nature photographer.  According to Ty his toughest shoot, however, came at the end of one June when the heat index was over 100 degrees and he had to wade through flood waters to reach a warbler’s nest.

Ty Smedes:  I knew when they would hatch and then I checked my reference books and I knew just about when they would fledge or leave the nest.  Well nature doesn't wait.  I walked in from calf deep water to waist deep water, put a blind up on a little high spot of ground right across from the nest.  And so I photographed those parents bringing in the insects, perched on branches around the nest, just before they flew in.  But the real dynamite image was when the youngster hopped up to the hole and the male came in and would hover like a humming bird and hand off an insect and that was really an oh wow shoot.  It was just magic.  It was especially rewarding because of what I had to go through to get the images.

Capturing those “Oh Wow” moments requires a lot of research of the subject, prior to shooting even a single frame.  Before Ty steps out into Iowa’s wild side, he has already developed a plan because he knows the behavior of his subject.  And when the subject is wildlife, the plan usually involves shooting from a blind.

Ty Smedes:  The blind does get you close to the action particularly with nesting birds like the hawks and the eagles.  They are defensive.  They are worried about their young and if you slip into a blind they may circle and chirp at you a couple of times but once you disappear into that blind everything goes back to normal and they go back to feeding and rearing their young, and you get to see all of the natural behavior just as if you weren't there.  

Even with a well laid out plan, nature photographers need to be prepared for unexpected opportunities. Just off a busy roadway one cold winter day, Smedes spotted 80 eagles picking small fish out of the ice on a frozen marsh and all he needed was his camera.

Ty Smedes:  The traffic isn't really bothering them.  Most animals have a - what they call a fight or flight zone.  And they know that we are going to stay on this highway.  They are out there about 200 yards out.  No one ventures out there.  They have come to learn that.  They know that and they feel safe.  Eagles are always judging the distance between them and any threat.

Once an endangered species, because of the wide spread use of the insecticide DDT, the American Bald Eagle in Iowa has made a dramatic comeback.  Proof of how nature responds, if people are willing to make a change.

Ty Smedes:  Back in the 1970s we had our first nest in Allamakee County and now we not only have nests in 88 counties but we have several hundred eagles that nest in the state each year. An amazing conservation story both here in Iowa and in America.