Inside Region 3
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Bobcat walking the tracks. Photo courtesy of Steve Gifford.

Bobcat walking the tracks. Photo courtesy of Steve Gifford.

Behind the Lens with Wildlife Photographer Steve Gifford

Ever since photographer Steve Gifford was a kid, he has enjoyed being outdoors. His parents were college professors, and summers were spent at their family cottage in Michigan or traveling to see relatives in Arizona, Colorado and Texas. Steve thinks that the priority his parents placed on enjoying the natural beauty of our country shaped his appreciation for public spaces and wildlife. His interest in photography developed as a way to share memories of family adventures.

Memorable moments

One spring, Steve’s goal was to find and photograph the elusive American woodcock during the day. After several weeks of scouting locations, Steve set out in full camo, slowly moving into the woodcock's regular territory at Patoka River National Wildlife Refuge in Indiana. Steve was fortunate enough to see the woodcock take a few steps, bobbing up and down. If the bird had not moved, Steve was sure he’d have missed it.

Slowly and quietly, Steve avoided making eye contact, and the bird eventually decided that Steve was not a threat, becoming comfortable with his presence. Over the next hour and a half, Steve was able to watch the bird resting, preening and foraging from no more than 20 feet away. The most interesting thing to watch was the bird's bobbing motion as it walked. Steve learned later that this motion of pressing each foot into the earth multiple times with each step is intended to make earthworms move, making them easier to locate!

American Woodcock by Steve Gifford

American woodcock. Video courtesy of Steve Gifford.

Thinking back on his wildlife experiences, Steve notes, “For me, it’s experiences like this where I am able to just sit and be quiet, to learn and observe how God has uniquely equipped each one of his creations for a specific environment or task. I feel truly thankful and blessed for being able to do what I do.”

On a couple of occasions Steve has had the opportunity to photograph bobcats at close range on the refuge. Bobcats, owls, otters and foxes are among his favorite wildlife to photograph.

Short-eared owl with prey. Photo courtesy of Steve Gifford.

Short-eared owl with prey. Photo courtesy of Steve Gifford.

Getting involved

Steve started exploring Patoka River Refuge on a regular basis in 2009. At the time, he was getting more serious about birding and photography, and would stop in to the refuge office to share photos and ask questions. Being relatively new to birding, he had never seen many of these birds before.

After getting to know the staff at Patoka River, Steve became a volunteer, helping with bird counts, trail maintenance and invasive species control. Most of his efforts focus on sharing his discoveries with others by photographing the beautiful species that call the refuge home.

Steve’s passion for conservation doesn’t stop at the refuge boundary. His home sits on six and a half acres in a small rural community just north of Evansville, Indiana. When his family first bought the property in 2007, it had a large farm and lawn. Right away, he stopped mowing all but a small portion of the yard and at the end of the growing season, planted more than 600 native trees in the area previously being farmed. Eight years later, most of those saplings are more than 20 feet tall and the former mowed areas are now a mix of native grasses and wildflowers. What was once lifeless is now home to a wide variety of wildlife including quail, dove, woodcock, coyote, mink, opossum, butterflies and other insects.

Killdeer chick. Photo courtesy of Steve Gifford.

Killdeer chick. Photo courtesy of Steve Gifford.

Following your passion and overcoming obstacles

Most people probably don’t think of the reclaimed strip mines and flooded river bottoms of southwestern Indiana when they think of the great outdoors, but Steve feels fortunate to live in a place with such great opportunities to spot wildlife. “With as busy as most people are and as stressed out as we seem, I believe people need a place where they can get away from it all. For me, being able to get out on the refuge calms my heart, restores my soul and helps me put things back into perspective. I think it can do the same for others.”

Over the years, Steve has enjoyed meeting and seeing the work of other local photographers. They all have a slightly different style or perspective that makes their works unique. No matter what your favorite subject matter is, Steve recommends doing what you love and sharing your passion with others. Everything else will follow.

When Steve isn’t taking photos and spending time with family, he enjoys boxing at his local YMCA. The “Rock Steady” class is designed for people with Parkinson’s. Participants work on things like balance, coordination and muscle strength to help fight back against the progression of the disease. Besides the physical benefits, it is also a great place to develop friendships with others battling similar circumstances.

If you’d like to see more of Steve’s work, check him out on Flickr.

Prothonotary warbler. Photo courtesy of Steve Gifford.

Prothonotary warbler. Photo courtesy of Steve Gifford.

By Courtney Celley and Tina Shaw
Regional Office - External Affairs

Last updated: June 8, 2020