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Rural Missouri Magazine

Wing shooter
With his camera, Mundy Hackett provides
an intimate glimpse of Missouri's avian aerialists

by Jason Jenkins
photos by Mundy Hackett (unless noted)
This photograph of a great blue heron taking flight is one of dozens of Mundy Hackett bird photographs featured in “Missouri in Flight,” published this spring by University of Missouri Press. The great blue heron is the largest and most widely distributed heron in North America.

As the sun crawls over the limestone bluff and ascends into a cloudless sky, its warming rays cascade down on the stand of sycamores where Mundy Hackett has staged his ambush.

Holding tight to the shadows, he scans the treetops, watching and listening for his quarry. A flash of color catches his eye. Swiveling his camouflage-covered, tripod-mounted, 500mm telephoto lens, Mundy focuses on a branch he scouted out earlier. He waits silently.

Without warning, the warbler lights upon the branch. Mundy aims and fires a dozen shots. The bird flies off, but it’s too late. Another Mundy Hackett photograph has been created.

Photography has always gone hand in hand with fieldwork for the wildlife biologist, but mixing pastime with profession also has earned Mundy a few dirty looks over the years.

“I’ve always had a tendency to work pretty pictures into my scientific talks, but it’s really frowned upon,” he says. “It’s got to be strictly meat and potatoes in those things. You don’t want a lot of fluff.”

To capture his frame-filling images, Mundy uses serious camera equipment. (Photo by Jason Jenkins.)

Fortunately, the pretty pictures in his first photo book, “Missouri in Flight,” published this spring by University of Missouri Press, have received a much warmer welcome.

As Mundy has traveled around the state discussing the new book, which features more than 100 full-color images of native birds, it seems birding enthusiasts just can’t get enough of his wildlife art.

For all his success working with critters and cameras, neither was part of the 37-year-old’s original career plan. Although he grew up hunting and fishing in rural Virginia, he initially earned a philosophy degree.

“I got away from being outdoors when I first went to college,” he says. “After I got out, I started hiking and camping and getting outdoors again. Around the same time, my dad gave me a 35mm camera, and I started making pictures, too.”

With his love of the outdoors rekindled, Mundy went back to school in his mid-20s, this time to study wildlife at Colorado State University. For three summers, he worked in the mountains and took pictures.

The prothonotary warbler breeds in Missouri but winters in Central and South America.

“I’ve had the camera in the field with me ever since,” he says.

Mundy is a mostly self-taught photographer, relying on trial and error to hone his skills.

“I took one of those one-day seminars when I was starting out, but to be honest, I don’t remember much about what was talked about that day,” he admits.After earning a master’s degree in Virginia, Mundy moved to Missouri in 2003 to complete a doctorate in wildlife sciences at the University of Missouri-Columbia. He has studied carnivores such as coyotes, bobcats and foxes in the Ozarks and the Bootheel. Once again, his fieldwork has provided a venue for his photography.

Though he doesn’t plan to make a living as a professional wildlife photographer, Mundy says he wants to continue developing his own style, one that gets noticed.

"Missouri in flight: The bird photography of Mundy Hackett" is available from University of Missouri Press.

“I think that’s probably what we all want anyway, to end up with something that someone can look at and say, ‘Well, that’s so and so,’ or look at a bird picture and say, ‘Oh, that’s a Mundy Hackett,’” he says. “Even if it isn’t, then you’ve gotten to the point that you have a style that’s associated with your name.”

Other artists, including Dan Brueggeman, a full-time wildlife woodcarver who lives near Brazito, have recognized Mundy’s talent.

“I think it’s remarkable that he’s as good as he is considering it’s not a full-time thing for him,” says Dan, who met Mundy at the Missouri Wildlife Art Festival, which is held in St. Charles each November. “We should all dabble so well.”

Successful wildlife photography is the result of planning, patience and persistence, Dan says. One picture might be the culmination of a week or two weeks worth of effort.

“It’s not like shooting portraiture where people will sit where you want them to and hold still when you want them to,” he explains. “I think most people don’t realize the effort that goes into obtaining those wonderful photographs. A lot of great serendipity for the wildlife photographer is the result of a lot of great preparation.”

For Mundy, the opportunity to publish a book of his photography was certainly a serendipitous moment.

The barred owl is common in Missouri forests and can be recognized by its call, which sounds like someone asking, “Who cooks for you? Who cooks for you all?”

In the spring of 2005, his wife, Susan King, came home from work with an invitation. Her supervisor, University of Missouri Press Director Beverly Jarrett, said a coyote family was rearing a litter of pups on her property, and she wanted to know if Mundy would like to photograph them. It was an opportunity he jumped at.

“There were seven pups altogether, and I took almost 800 pictures of them and their parents,” Mundy recalls. “I gave Bev a photo as a thank-you afterward, and she asked if I’d ever thought about doing a book. We had a meeting and decided to start with a book on birds first.”

“Missouri in Flight” includes a variety of native birds, including birds of prey, waterfowl and backyard birds. Mundy provides interesting facts about each bird and its behavior. He also offers tips for successful wildlife photography.

“Birds are probably my favorite subject because of the variety of species and their accessibility,” he says. “In Missouri, there are only 30 or so mammals larger than a mouse, but there are hundreds of birds.”

Even with such diversity, Mundy still finds excitement in photographing common birds such as robins or cardinals, especially when they do something out of character. By capturing subtleties like feathers ruffled by a slight breeze, he can make a picture just different enough that it will catch someone’s eye.

Lloyd Grotjan, a professional photographer and owner of Full Spectrum Photo and Audio in Jefferson City, has known Mundy for about four years. He says one thing that sets Mundy apart is his ability to find a pleasing balance between his subject and the environment.

Easily distinguished by its bright blue bill and stiff tail feathers, a male ruddy duck will hold its tail straight up.

“There’s a certain fluidity and implied motion in Mundy’s photographs,” Lloyd says. “It’s fitting that the title of the book is ‘Missouri in Flight.’ It’s representative of Mundy’s overall style.”

Lloyd says that Mundy’s advice in the book will help anyone aspiring to be a wildlife photographer. “The personal observations and natural history that he’s included with his pictures makes it more interesting than just a photo book alone or just a field guide alone.”

While he offers a number of tips in the book, Mundy says there are three that are absolutely critical, beginning with learning as much as you can about your subject.

“If you want to photograph animals, learn about their behavior, natural history and their habitat,” he says. “I don’t think it’s any mystery that all of the well-known wildlife and nature photographers are either excellent naturalists or they have a background in wildlife biology, forestry, ecology or something to do with the natural world.”

He suggests learning everything you can about light, its limitations when translated in photographs and how you can use those limitations to your advantage.

The black-capped chickadee is one of the most familiar backyard song birds in Missouri.

“The more you understand about light, the better your photographs will be,” he says. “Even if it looks good to the human eye, the middle of the day is not the time to get a photo. Early and late when the light is low is best.”

Mundy’s final bit of advice for would-be shutterbugs is equipment-related. “Don’t skimp on the tripod,” he says. “These long, telephoto lenses require something sturdy. Even the lightest breeze can cause vibrations that will tank all your pictures.”

After he finishes his doctoral dissertation later this year, Mundy will begin work on a second photo book that will be released in late 2008.

“We don’t have a title for it yet, but this one will have all of Missouri’s other critters — mammals, reptiles, amphibians, insects,” he says. “There’ll definitely be at least one or two of those coyote pups.”

“Missouri in Flight” is available from University of Missouri Press. Order a copy by calling 1-800-828-1894. Mundy will give a presentation and sign copies of his book at 7 p.m., July 20, at the Powder Valley Conservation Nature Center in Kirkwood. Reservations, which are required, can be made after July 5 by calling (314) 301-1500.

Rural Missouri magazine - November 2014
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