The best thing about nature photography is the animals. That's according to Dan Elster, who left a business in Chicago and now makes pictures of the birds and other creatures of Oregon. This day he's focused on hummingbirds.
A group of hummingbirds may be called a bouquet, a tune, a hover. It takes a dozen rufous hummingbirds to weigh an ounce. The birds make up for their size with aggression. The males will not tolerate other males at feeding sites.
The botanical area at North Mountain Park in Ashland is abuzz with hummingbirds as Elster sets up his tripod and camera with a 400-millimeter lens on a crushed granite path meandering through butterfly bush, California buckeye and showy milkweed.
The tiny creatures helicopter about, sip nectar from favorite blooms and chase each other away from prized spots like feathered shepherds running off hungry wolves.
Elster awaits the return of an immature rufous hummingbird male.
"It has a preferred perch," he says. "It keeps coming back."
The little bird lands on a twig, and Elster snaps off shots. Other hummers swarm the bush, and the scene dissolves into a melee of green and ruddy blurs buzzing after each other and clicking furiously: Chip chip chipp!
Rufous hummers begin arriving in the Rogue Valley in force in March. As nesting begins, the males abandon the females — which in effect become single moms — for mountain wildflowers. By October nearly all these birds will be gone. Some rufous hummers summer as far north as Alaska, and most will winter in Mexico and beyond.
Dan Elster got his first camera, a 35-millimeter Canon Rebel SLR, about the time he left Chicago eight years ago. He'd been in the food distribution business, which meant a life of driving around scary neighborhoods in the middle of the night.
"I started sneaking around the woods trying to photograph hawks and deer and stuff," he says. "It wasn't wilderness, but there was forest around. It was a real eye-opener."
So Elster and his wife, Patty, a nurse, sold the house and the car, and Patty started taking short-term employment contracts, and they saw the country. Connecticut. Montana. Florida. Oregon.
Elster won a couple of photography contests and started thinking about trying to make wildlife photography a career. Patty worked, and he worked on his portfolio. When the couple settled in Oregon early in 2006 after a stint in Florida, he discovered that harbor seals lived in places not called SeaWorld.
When he's not stalking birds and other critters, Elster works at the Northwest Nature Shop in Ashland and takes care of Savannah, the couple's 4-month-old daughter.
Elster's wildlife photos, which sell for $40 to $300 or more, can be seen at Studio Five in Ashland, at the Lithia Artisan's Market from May through October weekends in Ashland, and from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Sunday at Jacksonville Celebrates the Arts. You can see his work online at elsterphotography.com.
"For a couple years it was an expensive hobby," he says. "I'm getting closer and closer (to making a living). I know I need to publish more."
Art gallery owner Marilyn Souza, who runs The Vagabond Rose in Chico, Calif., started carrying Elster's work last year.
"He's so exceptional, people just about didn't want to let me move on to another show," she says. "He has patience, perseverance and an innate sense of composition.
"And he captures a bit of personality. That's the difference from a photo that's just good."
The black-headed grossbeak gets its name from its huge bill, which evolved for eating seeds. Males are brilliant orange with black heads and black wings with white spots. Immatures look like the females, nondescript buffy birds with striped, big-nosed, almost dinosaurian faces.
The coolest thing about photographing animals is seeing what they're doing. Elster swings his tripod around and wanders down a path past sunflowers to a spot where black-headed grossbeaks and cedar waxwings have been feasting on the blue elderberries high on a prolific bush. The birds that worked the bush earlier do not return (for a shot of an immature grossbeak on elderberries, visit Elster's Web site).
Elster sets off down a bark path past wildlife brush piles and comes to a spot where he got what he considers one of his all-time best photos, a shot of two northern flickers, both males, doing their best posing and preening near a seemingly interested female.
"They really put on a show," he remembers. "They were doing all sorts of elaborate dancing."
Elster has a special interest in ravens. He loves to watch them outmaneuver gulls for food at Crescent City, Calif.
"I feel like there's more communication between them than any other species I know," he says. "They have this constant battle with the gulls. Two big, smart birds. A raven will pick something up, and there'll be 10 gulls in pursuit. Those gulls, no matter how many, just never seem to catch up.
"So many people rush around trying to find rare species. I love when you just see common species doing uncommon things."
Once, at Sparks Lake, near Bend, Elster was creeping around the shore to sneak up on a bald eagle when a river otter exploded from the water maybe 15 feet in front of him. The otter had a large trout in its mouth. It did not seem to see the man with the camera.
"I think it was preoccupied," Elster says.
He ducked behind a bush and clicked off frames.
"I could hear every bone in that fish's head crunching," he says. "I could smell the fish."
It is, he reflects, the kind of thing that makes you glad you live in Oregon.