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Chris Jackson unlocks mysteries of urban wildlife

Photo: Author and wildlife photographer Chris Jackson leads a discussion on urban wildlife at the Biodiversity Education Center. /Photo by Joe Snell

Chris Jackson always had a hard time answering why he enjoyed urban wildlife. It was one of those things, he said, where you just know when you know. Speaking to a room full of wildlife enthusiasts at the Biodiversity Education Center on Jan. 21, the author and expert on all things animals credited adventure and mystery as two reasons he fell in love with the craft.

In one example, Jackson recalled being baffled when he stumbled upon a pair of two box turtle skeletons next to each other near Lewisville. Sightings of the skeletons have become increasingly rare in recent years and the mystery of the scene intrigued him.

“When I was a boy, any time I went outdoors I would find one of those things,” Jackson said. “But in the intervening decades, something has happened and their numbers have dropped off. To find two skeletons side by side really had me scratching my head. It made me wonder what the story could be. I still, even to this day, don’t have a good answer for that.”

The discussion, titled “Wildlife in your backyard,” was part of a larger monthly lecture series sponsored by the Friends of Coppell Nature Park. Jackson specifically likes observing animals in urban environments because it is readily accessible and the animals are conditioned to being closer to humans.

“I talk to a lot of people who go out in the country and won’t see wildlife,” Jackson said. “In the city, the wildlife is accessible and tolerant. It’s used to people being around, so it gives you a little bit extra tolerance from the animal. You can get a little bit closer and they’ll ignore you for a little bit longer.”

Taking a picture of wildlife is inherently challenging, he said, and any advantage a photographer can gain is helpful. A former software engineer, 12 years ago Jackson decided he wanted to add website development to his resume. He spent a few weeks putting together an early version of the DFW Urban Wildlife website, a site dedicated to documenting urban animal life in the Dallas/Fort Worth area. Soon after creating the website, Jackson dusted off his old Pentax-K-1000 35mm camera he used in college and more aggressively pursued nature photography. His early results, he admits, were not stellar; but he became immediately hooked.

“For years I harbored an unexpressed interest in photography and writing,” Jackson said. “I needed a venue. Now my primary objective is just to observe and hopefully see something new. If I get to see something interesting, some new behavior or maybe an animal that I haven’t seen frequently or an animal in a new place, I get real excited. Now if I can document it in a photograph, that’s even better.”

The Biodiversity Education Center is a green constructed, net zero building, receiving power from 96 solar panels and includes a cistern that captures over 9,000 gallons of rain water. The center sits on 66 acres at the Coppell Nature Park and is consistently used by Friends of Coppell Nature Park (FCNP), a group that acts as a bridge between outdoor enthusiasts and the larger nature park. FCNP, a 501c3 organization, hosts a number of different activities in the area.

“We put on different lecture series, do trail maintenance, and have events throughout the year [including] the lecture series,” FCNP board member Pamela Graham said. “We have hundreds and hundreds of volunteers that help us maintain. We also work closely with the school districts.”

The nature park, Jackson said, is a perfect location for anyone looking to begin wildlife photography and stressed four elements all newcomers should keep in mind when first starting: a subject to shoot, a place to go, a camera, and a reason to engage. The biggest mistake Jackson noticed in new animal photographers is not having enough patience.

“Just like with so many other pursuits, wildlife photography requires a certain level of dedication to master,” he said. “Developing a proficiency with wildlife photography is a journey, and I think sometimes beginners are not patient enough with themselves. You have to give yourself a chance to grow and learn over what — for some of us — can be a long period of time.”

Jackson documents a lot of his findings on iNaturalist, a website that encourages users to share wildlife pictures and engage in discussion about each of their findings. The discussion, he said, is the most important part to helping us realize the impact these animals have on our lives.

“Everything that makes us enjoy stories and books and movies can be found by observing wildlife,” Jackson said. “It’s the real thing. Try to put yourself in the place of some of these animals and the struggles they have to go through and how everything is on the line for them all the time. They don’t have doctors. They don’t have 911 they can call. There’s really a lot to admire about what they can do.”