Monday, August 14, 2017

Wildlife Photographer Finds Treasure at Wildlife Refuge

Steve Creek

A North American otter pup

A yellow-crowned night heron has a crawdad for lunch.

The Sequoyah National Wildlife Refuge south of Vian may be the county’s hidden treasure, but it is being found more often.

Steve Creek, 60, of Lavaca, Ark., retired police officer turned wildlife photographer, spends a lot of time at the refuge.

“I really enjoy the wildlife refuge,” he said recently. “I do good out there.”

Creek said, “I love wildlife.”

He thinks watching and learning about wildlife will improve anyone’s life.

He started watching and photographing while still with the Sebastian County Sheriff’s Department. A law enforcement officer of 25 years, Creek said he began photography as part of his job. Before crime scene investigators (CSIs) were popular, officers had to take their own photographs at crime scenes.

Creek retired as a detective with the rank of major eight years ago, but he didn’t stop taking photos.

“Now all I do is travel and take photographs,” Creek said.

“I am always outdoors,” Creek said. “In 2006 or 2007 I started going to the wildlife refuge. I wanted to let people see what I see outside.”

What Creek saw was Sequoyah County’s amazing and diverse wildlife and their day-to-day antics. What Creek found was treasure at the wildlife refuge.

“I love the wildlife refuge,” Creek said. “I love the refuge system. Almost all of them have drive-throughs and your vehicle makes a good blind because the animals are used to seeing the vehicles.

“The Sequoyah National Wildlife Refuge is one of the best places around to photograph wildlife. A lot of people don’t know about the wildlife refuge. But now it’s getting more popular. I see a lot of photographers out there.

“I think it’s because the new cameras make it easier to take photos. People can take good wildlife photos even with point and shoot cameras.”

Creek carries a small point and shoot camera himself but his main camera is a digital Canon body, with a 100-400 lens and, when he really gets serious, a C500 f/4 lens.

And, one of the hints Creek has for budding photographers is “don’t get wrapped up in the equipment.

“So many people,” he said, “get excited about the expensive equipment. Just get what you can afford and a zoom lens. Then get out there and enjoy the wildlife.”

His favorite time to take wildlife photos is in the early morning, in the early spring.

He said, “I like to get to the refuge at about 5:30 a.m., when it starts getting daylight at 6 a.m. That’s when the animals are moving around.

“In Oklahoma’s hot summer, they are not going to move around during the heat of the day.”

Creek joked, “And when I leave almost everybody else is just arriving.”

He likes visiting in the spring through mid-summer, he explained, because the new animals, like white-tailed deer fawns and river otter pups, may be out and about. At the same time, the flora, including the crops area farmers are allowed to grow in the refuge, are still short enough not to hide the animals. 

One of the secrets of wildlife photography, Creek said, is knowing the animals and their habits. He spends much time just observing, and has found that wildlife usually have schedules.

“I locate where they are,” he said. “I learn their routine. If I get a photo, that’s a bonus.”

He found a family of North American river otters visited one area in the wildlife refuge every morning, and was often there to greet them and get their photos. On Creek’s visits to the refuge he also found where a group of yellow-crowned night herons liked to fish for crawdads.

“I get out there at about 5:30 a.m.,” Creek said, “and I go to that spot and wait. The birds don’t pay me any attention. I just wait and they put on quite a show.”

Creek suggests driving slowly through the refuge, watching for wildlife, and patiently learning their natural habits.

Creek posts his photos on his website and Facebook, where they have drawn quite a bit of attention. Creek said he has 10,000 followers on Twitter and another 1,000 on Facebook.

He said photos have also drawn national attention, and his photo of a red-winged blackbird nesting family made it into a National Geographic book on birds.

“I will not disrupt the nesting process,” Creek pointed out. “I lucked into this nest. I saw the nest in a tree while driving and I took the photos from my truck.”

The Smithsonian found a Creek photo of a possum they liked on Flicker, and used it in an episode of their “Stories from the Vaults” television show.

“It was pretty cool,” Creek said about dealing with the Smithsonian. “Maybe my photos are pretty good. But it was a process getting it published.”

Creek said signing all the contracts and arranging all the legalities of the publishing process took a lot of time.

The Cornell Lab of Ornithology used Creek’s photo of a blue heron at the refuge in a coloring book, he said.

But the photographer isn’t interested so much in merchandising his photos as he is about people learning about wildlife. For that reason, if one of his photos is to be used in an educational context, he doesn’t charge for it. For that reason his photo of harvester ants was given free of charge to a Utah nature center.

“I just enjoy photography,” Creek said. “I don’t enjoy spending time at my computer.”

Creek said he would entertain teaching wildlife photography and taking future photographers on tours of the wildlife refuge.

“I’d do it for free just to get people interested,” he said. “I wouldn’t ask for payment. I just want to let people know about wildlife.”

Creek concluded, “The way I look at it, the more people we have out at the wildlife refuge the better for all of us. It’s a valuable resource. We need to let people know that. I do my best to learn and educate people. I want to let people see what I see, especially at the wildlife refuge.


Sally Maxwell, Senior News Director

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