All in a Day's Work: Backyard Photography at its Best
In their NWF certified habitat, a husband-wife team teaches how to attract, nurture and photograph a diversity of native animals
Photographs by Richard and Susan Day/ Text by Laura Tangley
FOR A CLASSIC EXAMPLE of “doing well by doing good,” consider the careers of Richard and Susan Day. Illinois-based nature photographers, the Days make a good living selling images of birds, butterflies and other wildlife to magazines, book publishers and the creators of calendars, greeting cards and other products. But unlike most nature photographers who’ve achieved success, the Days do not trek great distances to shoot pictures of, say, lions in Africa or birds in Borneo. Instead, most of their subjects come to them—specifically to their 63-acre Certified Wildlife Habitat® site, agricultural land they painstakingly are restoring to a landscape of wetlands and native prairie.
The Days met at a photo workshop in 1987 and began building their first shallow-water wetland in a former cornfield a few years later. They’ve been at it ever since. “It’s a lifetime project,” Richard says. Still, what they’ve completed so far—21 acres of wetlands, 5 acres of native grass and wildflower prairie and a 3-acre garden of native plants (above, with photo blind)—already is something special. “Our property is an oasis in the midst of an agricultural desert,” he explains.
Native wildlife has taken notice. When the Days launched the restoration project, their property hosted 40 bird species; now there are more than 200. The number of butterfly species also has increased, from five two decades ago to 70 today, or half of all butterfly species in Illinois. Thirty-five of the state’s 98 dragonfly species flutter above the couple’s wetlands.
Fellow photographers are discovering the sanctuary as well. Each summer the Days host a series of photography workshops, focusing on breeding birds in June and butterflies and dragonflies later in the season. Participants, who benefit from movable camera blinds scattered around the property, also get a lesson on how to attract wildlife with restored habitat and native plants. And Susan, a certified Master Gardener, travels around the country to meetings, festivals and other venues to give presentations on gardening for wildlife.
“When we started, our goal was to restore the habitat, not make a living off our land,” she says. “Lighting a spark under new wildlife gardeners is another way that we’re giving back.”
The wood duck and red-eared slider (left) are two of scores of bird, insect, reptile and amphibian species thriving in an Illinois wetland constructed by photographers Richard and Susan Day. Since the late 1980s, the Days have developed 21 acres of wetlands and restored 5 acres of native grass and wildflower prairie on land once used for growing corn and soybeans.
A pair of ruby-throated hummingbirds (below) visits bee balm in one of the Days’ native flower gardens. During summer, hundreds of hummers a day may be spotted zipping around 40 sugar-water feeders the couple puts up on the porch and in their yard—a treat both for the birds and bird photographers who flock to the Illinois property for summer photography workshops.
Cedar waxwings (above) take a dip in a 12-foot-by-6-foot, in-ground birdbath, which the photographers keep ice free and filled with an inch of water year-round. These striking birds nest on the property during summer and can be spotted any season, often feasting on abundant native berries. Richard Day got close to these waxwings by concealing himself inside a camera blind he placed close to the water feature.
Surrounded by flowers, a tube feeder packed with nyjer seed (right) is a magnet for summer birds (in this case, five American goldfinches, a house finch and an indigo bunting). Depending on the time of year, the Days maintain a dozen or more seed feeders of various types. Native plants and insects also nurture the property's abundant birdlife. The photographers have tallied more than 200 bird species on their land, up from 40 two decades ago.
A spicebush swallowtail (above) sips nectar from swamp milkweed. The insect is one of 70 butterfly species documented on the Days’ property—about half the number of species found in the state of Illinois. Richard Day used a macro lens to make this close-up image of the swallowtail, which was lured in by the milkweed and other native plants.
A common green darner dragonfly (above) perches in one of the wetlands the Days built on agricultural land. An expert on the insects, Richard Day conducts dragonfly (as well as butterfly) surveys for the Illinois Department of Natural Resources. The couple’s property alone is home to 35 of the state’s 98 dragonfly species.
Learn more about the Days’ photography and other work at www.daybreakimagery.com.
Find out how you can create an NWF Certified Wildlife Habitat® in your own backyard.
Laura Tangley is a senior editor of National Wildlife.