The number of wildlife photographers attempting to sell images has mushroomed more than 20-fold in the 35-plus years that Gary Kramer has zoomed in on ducks, wolves, bears, raptors, North American big game, African safari animals and ocean fish.
He laments the ubiquity of digital cameras and the oodles of images they crank out. In the good old days, his profession had a legitimate economic barrier to entry: about 20 cents for every flick of the shutter to pay for film and developing. With unbridled competition, “it’s much more difficult to make a living these days,’’ he said.
Kramer’s latest work, a coffee table book titled “Game Birds, A Celebration of North American Upland Birds,” is how he sets himself apart. He made it a mission to photograph all 34 “gallinaceous” game birds found in the United States and Canada, including greater prairie chickens he observed in mating displays in northwestern Minnesota. It’s believed to be the first volume by a single photographer to cover all 34 species.
“I can’t prove it’s never been done by someone else, but no one has come out of the woodwork to suggest I am making a false claim,” said Kramer, a wildlife biologist, writer and photographer who retired 18 years ago from his day job at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
“Game Birds” took Kramer into Nevada’s Ruby Mountains by horseback and helicopter. After failing twice to get his shot, he tried a third time, and while camping on a snow-covered rocky ridge, his telephoto lens captured the Himalayan snowcock. The birds are hunted, but are so elusive that the total average annual bag for the whole species is eight birds.
“Some of these shots were nearly impossible to get,” he said.
Consider the Attwater’s prairie chicken, an endangered subspecies of the greater prairie chicken. Estimated a century ago with a U.S. population of 1 million birds, scientists now believe there’s only 125 living in the wild.
Kramer gained rare access to an Attwater’s booming ground in Goliad County, Texas. He was guided to a clearing on private land by a biologist from the Nature Conservancy. On the third day, Kramer got so close that he was belly crawling on the same grass where male birds fought, flared their neck feathers, inflated their yellow-orange air sacs and strutted for females.
The 246-page book is bereft of hunting discussions. Kramer is an avid hunter with a special fervor for ducks. But his sixth book project, self-published through Montana-based Sweetgrass Books, is a celebration of game bird appearance, behavior, natural history, geographic range, diet and conservation status.
Crammed with 384 color photos, the volume basks in the wonders of upland game birds, including ring-necked pheasants, ruffed grouse, spruce grouse, sharp-tailed grouse, Hungarian partridge and northern bobwhite quail — all found in Minnesota. Excluded by the “gallinaceous” definition are Minnesota game birds like the American woodcock, mourning dove, snipe, rail and sandhill crane.
Howard Vincent, president of Minnesota-based Pheasants Forever, wrote in an introduction to the book that Kramer’s approach creates the kind of awareness that can move people to engage in programs to increase and enhance upland game birds and their habitats.
Living on the West Coast, Kramer said he’s painfully aware of declining participation in hunts of all kinds. Counteracting the trend boils down to education, simplifying regulations and immersing more kids in the experience, he said.
“You have to get away from the anti-hunting thing,” he said. “We’ve got to allow more youth hunts and encourage more programs for kids.”
He said the outreach is needed, in part, to counter negative impressions caused by gun violence. “It’s a tough situation and it’s going in the wrong direction,” he said.
Hunting of any kind has become so foreign to kids today that the University of California-Davis — with its excellent natural resources management program — now offers a field course that introduces its students to hunting, Kramer said.
“In my era, everyone in the business grew up with a passion for fishing and hunting,” he said
Kramer, 69, grew up in suburban Los Angeles reading outdoors magazines instead of comic books. He initially treated wildlife photography as a method to offset fishing and hunting expenses. Then it became a passion, his work landing on the glossy covers of such magazines as Sports Afield, California Waterfowl, Gray’s Sporting Journal, Gun Dog, Delta Waterfowl, American Angler, Pheasants Forever, Ducks Unlimited and Sierra.
For 26 years, he moonlighted as a writer and photographer while working as a federal wildlife biologist. He closed out that chapter in his life in 1999 when he was refuge manger at the Sacramento National Wildlife Complex.
Since then, Kramer has traveled all over the world with cameras and notebooks, including 40 trips to Africa. He recently returned from Labrador, where he caught giant brook trout. Last week, for a vacation, he boarded a 110-foot boat in San Diego with other anglers to fish in Mexican waters for wahoo and tuna.
His next project? A book covering 168 species of worldwide waterfowl.