Coal City man sees nature as picture-perfect
BY DENISE M. BARAN-UNLAND Correspondent October 14, 2013 1:56PM
Don Blecha of Coal City camouflages his appearance while photographing wildlife. | Supplied photo
Updated: November 16, 2013 6:06AM
Don Blecha has shot an albino raccoon not far from his Coal City home — with his camera — and a leucistic red-tailed hawk on Blackberry Lane in Channahon, perfect specimens for his Rattlinantler’s Wildlife and Nature Photography website, which boasts more than 6,000 of Blecha’s photographs.
Now he’s on the hunt for a badger, a nocturnal and uncommon animal in Illinois, Blecha said.
“I like finding things people can’t find,” Blecha said. “That’s the challenge for me.”
Seven years ago, Blecha took two of his favorite pastimes — wildlife and photography — bought a $7,000 lens — perfect for capturing detail in low light — and turned his two interests into a solitary hobby that consumes about 15 hours of his week.
“I grew up around nature,” said Blecha, who also photographs sporting events for Coal City Middle School. “My father hunted and trapped and we were always camping, so I started taking pictures of those things. When I’d see a magazine article with a great bird picture, I’d think, ‘I could do that. I’m close to birds all the time.’ ”
Blecha soon learned that photographing wildlife requires more effort than simply snapping random pictures. He spends plenty of time hiking in the woods or at state parks, often in the early morning or at night when wildlife tend to be more active, relaxed and approachable.
What Blecha seeks to shoot determines the location. For instance, if Blecha wishes to photograph ducks and geese, he heads toward a river. He’s learned how to carefully observe a feeding deer so as not to startle it.
“Everyone thinks that if you get a great big lens, you can get a shot of a deer half a mile away that could be the cover on Field and Stream,” Blecha said. “But if you want quality, you still have to get close.”
“Quality” for Blecha means capturing the eyelashes on a bird that’s feasting on a worm. It means catching a particular angle of sunlight on a deer’s antlers or watching the deer rub them against a tree.
“I once shot a picture of a big buck swimming across a lake. Now that’s something people don’t see every day,” Blecha said. “People might look outside their window, see a cardinal and think, ‘Oh, that’s cute.’ But when you see a big buck, the reaction is, ‘Oh, my gosh! That’s a huge deer!’ ”
To mingle with wildlife requires camouflage, time, patience and a willingness to adjust to rustic surroundings.
“I deal with the weather, ticks, spiders and snakes: things people don’t like to get on them,” Blecha said. “This past February I went up to Sax-Zim Bog, north of Duluth (Minn.). It was 33 degrees below zero.”
Achieving that perfect likeness means snapping 40 or more pictures of a particular subject and then analyzing the results. Is the angle correct? Is the eye facing the right way? Is the neck turned in the desired direction? What is the wing position? Is the view free of twigs? Is the final result clear and crisp?
“I find out why I took a bad picture,” Blecha said, “and then I go out and take a better picture. I probably take 100,000 a year. With digital, I can put them in my hard drive and delete what I don’t want.”
Occasionally, Blecha gets lucky.
“I saw a red fox run across my yard, so I got a picture of it,” Blecha said. “When I was in Wisconsin, a timber wolf ran out in front of my truck, so I stopped to get a picture. I always wanted one.”
Blecha’s website, www.rattlinantler.com, is replete with images of mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians, insects and assorted nature topics including weather, wildflowers and oddities.
Still, Blecha’s favorite photography subject is the white-tailed deer.
“A big buck with big antlers is still a trophy,” Blecha said, “whether you take him with a gun, a bow and arrow or a camera.”