While an air of uncertainty hangs over society due to the COVID-19 pandemic, an elegant photo of a mayapple plant touched a chord with voters who picked the photo as a winner in the Forest Preserve District's Stay-at-Home Backyard Nature Photo Contest.
Backyard photographers submitted more than 750 photos during the contest, which began March 21 and concluded May 1. After submissions were reduced to 10 finalists by Forest Preserve judges, members of the public voted for their favorites via the District's Facebook page. The winners and their prizes were:
First Place: Jack Woodard of Elwood for his photo of a simple mayapple plant and its sister sprout; $100 gift card.
Second Place: Matthew Valiga of Naperville for two great horned owls stoically surveying their surroundings from a tall tree; $50 gift card.
Third Place: Maura Carlisle of Plainfield for a fluffy robin perched on a snow-covered branch; $25 gift card.
Those who voted for Woodard's picture appreciated the newly sprouted mayapple and how it signified that a much-needed burst of spring had arrived. Some of the online comments were:
- "Captures nature in a unique way."
- "You see beauty in every aspect of life which is beautiful. Awesome photo."
- "Stunning capture of new life emerging!"
- "This really conveys the spirit of Spring."
- "Nature at work."
- "An umbrella for the mushroom and lady bugs"
- "New growth giving promise of a new beginning."
- "This is a stunning composition! Elegant, a story ready to be told."
Woodard said he has been taking photos for more than 20 years and is passionate about nature, landscapes, barns and almost anything he encounters outdoors.
"I have a small woods for a backyard and decided to capture the spring flowers one day," he wrote in an email after being notified of his win. "Getting down on the ground for the angle I want has become a challenge for this old man but worth it sometimes. For the mayapple I used a 300 mm lens set for 1/1000 of a second. ISO was 200.
"The acorn cap was a bonus because I didn't see it at the time," he added. "I have a hard time looking in the viewfinder when laying on my belly. LOL. I usually have a camera with me all the time as I am always looking for something of interest to me. I have traveled through all 50 states taking photos as I go. My faith in God and my camera have given me much comfort in these trying times."
Second-place winner Valiga said the great horned owl pair that he photographed is nesting in his neighborhood.
"One day I saw one of them fly into our yard and then take off into the neighbor’s," he wrote in an email. "I took a picture of it hanging out in the tree and then realized I’d cut off the bottom half of the second one, so of COURSE I had to try and get both (luckily as you can see it all worked out)."
Valiga said the social distancing and stay-at-home time period has helped him see the diversity in his own backyard.
"I’m a zoology/environmental science major at Miami University in Ohio, and I do a lot of work with research on migratory birds (that’s my ultimate passion)," he said. "One thing I’ve been concerned about is migratory hot spots and stopover points for specifically our neotropical migrants, and I’ve been pleasantly surprised to notice a lot of species benefiting from our little suburban feeder station – from grosbeaks and orioles to even an ovenbird (that one was a really nice surprise). It’s been nice to be able to share the diversity of our area with my family, and show them the world that I live in every day.
"Being pulled from school has been nerve-wracking to say the least, but nature and backyard birding has provided me just a bit of a release from all that stress. Just because the human world may have stopped doesn’t mean the whole world has – migration has provided enough evidence of that already."
Making the cut
Carlisle was thrilled with her third place finish for her snowy robin and she was surprised when she saw the photo on social media during voting.
"I was scrolling through my Facebook feed and literally jumped up saying 'Oh my gosh, Oh my gosh' to my husband and daughter," she wrote in an email. "Making the cut was totally unexpected."
She said she took the photo on April 15.
"The birds love our crabapple tree and on this morning the combination of the new snowfall and the emerging red leaves cast such beautiful light on the robin," she said. "I have always loved photography, but hadn’t really taken to learning to shoot 'off auto' on my DSLR camera. To remedy this, I began taking photography classes at Joliet Junior College last spring. I also began following the Will County Wildlife Facebook page and visiting the preserves more regularly."
Carlisle said more and more she feels the pull of nature and photography.
"The Stay-At-Home Backyard Nature photo contest was the perfect opportunity to combine my love of photography and the outdoors. Under current times with the stay-at-home order, I have found that getting outside daily is very helpful in keeping my spirits up. I’m learning more and more about the animals and birds in our area. Lately, I think I’ve been giving my family and friends an earful of bird information. I’ve been working on taking clearer focused bird shots. Those birds sure can be a challenging subject to photograph.
"I enjoy following the Will County Forest Preserve’s social media pages and seeing all the wonderful photos that are submitted. I’m honored to have my photo do well in your contest."
Preserve the Moment contest
The Forest Preserve offered the contest to help people see the beauty around them during the state’s initial stay-at-home order, which required people to stay home or close to home other than for essential services.
Now that the stay-at-home order has been modified, Forest Preserve access area parking lots have reopened, boat launches are open and the District's annual Preserve the Moment Photo Contest has begun and it will run through December 31.
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