Are you wondering WHOOO took first place and is thereby named the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology’s photographer at large for 2019 - 2020? Look no further than graduate student John David Curlis, who was on the prowl for owls with camera in tow when this parliament serendipitously peeked from their arboreal nest. His winning image is titled “A family of camouflage,” Island Park, Ann Arbor, Michigan. How many owlets can you spot?

“When I took this photo, I couldn’t believe how lucky I was,” he said. “Although my friends and I were visiting Island Park explicitly because we had heard that someone else had observed these great horned owls nesting in the area (which, perhaps unsurprisingly, dramatically increases the chances of finding them), I cannot emphasize enough how much luck went into actually photographing them.

“While great horned owls are common throughout much of the U.S., it can be difficult to predict where they will nest in a given year.” They build their nests in a variety of places and line them with varied materials, or they simply use nests built by other species, and rarely return to the same nests.

“Somehow, we managed to get the perfect storm of conditions – not only did we find the nest, but we did so at a time when all the owls were home and awake. Even more surprising, the chicks decided to poke their heads up above the edge of their tree cavity, and together with their parent, all three looked in my direction just long enough for me to snap a photo. You really can’t ask for better luck when photographing animals in their natural habitat.”

Curlis’ Instagram and Color in Nature research website

“Spring aurora borealis on Douglas Lake," University of Michigan Biological Station, Pellston, Michigan by John Den Uyl.

Second place: John Den Uyl, research lab specialist in the lab of Professor and U-M Biological Station Director Knute Nadelhoffer, captured second place with “Spring aurora borealis on Douglas Lake.” Fortunately, Den Uyl was a night owl to capture this image around 2:30 a.m. at UMBS on a cold, still night in northern Michigan. He rang the dining hall bell, a station tradition to notify camp residents that the northern lights are shining. They were obscured occasionally by passing clouds and only lasted for about an hour and so he, too, felt lucky.  

“Spring semester had not yet started and there were only a handful of people in camp, but I hoped at least a few people would know what the bell signified.” He rang the bell for several minutes but only managed to get one person to join him on the shores of Douglas Lake. “I kept wondering who was going to be more upset with me – those who I woke up in the middle of the night, cursing the delinquent who was ringing the dinner bell, or those who would be mad that I didn't try harder to get them up out of bed.”

Den Uyl said that UMBS is ideally located to see the northern lights, with its great northern exposure and even darker skies than the nearby Dark Sky Park. “There isn't a much better location in the Lower Peninsula to see the aurora.”

Den Uyl’s Instagram

“Winter snack,” Sierra Baguales, Patagonia by Rumaan Malhotra.

Third place: EEB graduate student Rumaan Malhotra placed third with his reality nature photo aptly dubbed “Winter snack,” Sierra Baguales, Patagonia.

“I was just thinking about how cool it was to see that many southern crested caracaras in one place. You can only see one in the picture, but there were another four there. There is another caracara out there called the chimango that regularly forms groups (sometimes huge!) but I had only seen the southerns in pairs or solitary.”

They had just hiked out of a remote area south of Malhotra’s field site when they encountered the stark scene, about 100 meters off the road. “Funny how for the amount of time I spent hiking around out there, some of the best wildlife sighting was right off the road! It was starting to snow a decent bit, and we were keen to get to free of the weather. No tow trucks will come out that far to get you.”

Just a couple days before the final push at the end of the field season, Malhotra spotted his two largest study species, the puma and the culpeo (a South American fox) within a couple of days – but not once in three months of fieldwork in Los Lagos. “The suite of carnivores in this region is the same as at my field site, but the lack of dense forests make them a lot easier to spot.”

An interesting sidenote he shared (because it’s a sheep that’s being eaten by the caracara): “sheep farming was (and to some degree still is) pretty widespread in the area, and has led to a lot of antagonistic interactions between farmers and pumas. Over the years however, a lot of the farms adjacent to the national park have turned to puma watching safaris instead. It's apparently quite expensive, but better for the pumas!”

Malhotra’s Instagram and Flickr

“Bold and brash,” San Luis de Monteverde, Costa Rica by John David Curlis.

Three honorable mentions were recognized:

Curlis photographed “Bold and brash” in San Luis de Monteverde, Costa Rica.

“As someone who studies the evolution of color, I have forever been drawn to animals that possess vibrant and striking color patterns. The tanagers found in Central and South America are therefore some of my absolute favorite birds to see. While working as a nature guide in the mountains of Costa Rica, I spent virtually all of my free time (and a good portion of my work time) looking for these colorful birds. One morning I had this electric blue red-legged honeycreeper zoom past me, but I was far too slow to get a photo. Nevertheless, I was hooked – males not only have a bright blue-violet and black plumage with a turquoise crest, but the feathers on the underside of the wings (seen in flight) are a dazzling lemon yellow. Determined to get a halfway-decent photo, I spent almost every morning over the next few months in the same spot where I had seen the bird previously, and I had very little luck. Just as I was about to give up and declare it my ‘nemesis bird,’ this beautiful individual perched itself on the tip of a leaf just a few meters away from me, allowing me to photograph to my heart’s content.”

“No! I have acrophobia,” Sabah, Malaysia by Siliang Song.

EEB graduate student Siliang Song photographed “No! I have acrophobia” in Sabah, Malaysia. “It was an insect-theme journey in Borneo tropical jungle. I was walking along the road and suddenly saw a jumping spider on the top of a fiddlehead.” Realizing it was not a common sight, he quickly took out his camera. With the wind making the fern swing, Song took lots of time and shot many photos to get the focus right. The jumping spider was cooperative, changing its pose but staying atop the fiddlehead for the impromptu photoshoot.

“Frozen fish on a cold morning," Cache la Poudre River, Colorado by William Weaver.

EEB graduate student William Weaver shot “Frozen fish on a cold morning” while collecting water samples at Seaman Reservoir along the North Fork of the Cache la Poudre River in Colorado.

“We jumped out of the boat and I had to break through the ice to reach the shore, which is when I stumbled upon the little fish frozen to the top of the ice. Pretty out of the ordinary!” It had snowed a few days prior and the lake was beginning to thaw.

Weaver’s Instagram

The 12th annual EEB Photographer at Large Contest was held in fond memory of David Bay, the self-described “photographer at large” for EEB and its predecessor departments for 34 years. It’s been nearly 10 years since Bay’s too early passing at the age of 60 in February 2009.

View all entries in a Google Photos album >>