Question & Answer: Chris Young

Jan 1, 2001

Chris Young

He is a photographer for The State Journal-Register in Springfield. His portraits of creatures and natural places are now available in Close to Home: The landscapes, wildlife and hidden beauty of central Illinois. Jiffy Johnson of public radio station WUIS/WIPA at the University of Illinois at Springfield interviewed Young about his work for her weekly program "Living in Illinois." This is an edited version of that interview.

Q. Now, you have many pictures that have captured the hidden beauty of central Illinois. These are scenes that many of us never perceive.

I think all it takes is a little bit of extra time and a bit of awareness, and just being willing to slow down a little and see what's around us. You have to work a bit harder, but it's there. It's subtle. Sometimes it's right at the side of the road.

Q. Take me with you on an imaginary trip to go get some pictures. How would you go through the day to capture some of these photographs?

Usually, when I set out to find something in particular, I don't find that, but I find something else, as long as I keep the blinkers off so that I'm aware of everything and willing to take whatever nature gives on that day.

Many of the pictures in the book were taken in between assignments. If I'm out near the lake and I've got 45 minutes until I have to be at the next stop for my newspaper job, then I'll take advantage of it and look around.


Credit Chris Young

Q. You're not tramping through the woods in all cases. I understand sometimes you're using your car.


Q. Now, how do you do that?

Wildlife seems to have adapted to cars driving back and forth on the road. That's part of the natural order of things. They've accepted that, and you'll see a hawk sitting by the Interstate looking for a mouse and it's not paying any attention to the traffic going by.

If I get out of my car on the road, that changes everything because people usually don't get out on the side of the road. If I get out, then they're gone. I've found that sometimes I can pull over, slowly, with the window down and take a few pictures. And then go on my way.

Q. So you use it almost as a blind.


Credit Chris Young

Q. What were some of the biggest surprises you've had in nature photography, photography of central Illinois, gifts that you hadn't expected to receive?

Well, some of the nicer gifts were being able to find pictures of endangered species in Illinois. And it's nice to be able to find ones that are a little bit rare, like the short-eared owl that's in the book. Short-eared owls were plentiful in the time before people arrived. Now they're an endangered species and very few even nest here anymore.

A gentleman came up to talk to me one day and tell me a story about these funny looking little owls that fluttered when they flew. They were on his farm near Farmersville. I knew from the description that he was talking about short-eared owls. I had never seen one in the wild. I do some volunteer work for the Illinois Raptor Center in Decatur and they take in injured animals. I had seen some injured ones come in because they spend their time on the ground, they nest on the ground. Often they get hit by mowers and tractors. I had never seen a healthy one. That was very exciting to see one, living, flying. And there was actually more than one. There were about 15.

Q. One of the photographs I found most encouraging was near the end of your book where you had this rather odd object that you identified as the rear of a deer. Some of us find that our attempts at photography are more like that. It was this little bit of white fluff and two legs extended upward.

Well, there are a lot of glorious failures. You don't see those in the book. We keep those in a box.

Q. I'm glad you shared one with us.

I thought it was important to show that it is a little bit frustrating sometimes. And it's challenging. But when all the elements do come together, then it's pretty exciting.

Credit Chris Young

Q. I know you might not want to give away your best spots. But if you were to give us some guidance on finding wildlife, where would you suggest people in Illinois go?

One thing I think is successful about the book is that there are very, very few pictures that require any sort of special permission to see. Most of these pictures were taken in public places. They were taken along the side of a country road in Cass County. They were taken at state parks. They were taken from public access areas. There was very little special access, except for the prairie chickens in Jasper County, where the site manager took me out to a blind - it was just the two of us one morning. But very often it's just me out exploring the countryside.

Get off the Interstate so you can slow down a little bit. I love to go to Site M, which is Jim Edgar Panther Creek [State Fish & Wildlife Area] now. I like to go to Lake Chautauqua when I can. That's up just north of Havana. But there are so many places to go. I went to Ed[ward R.] Madigan State Park in Lincoln just a couple of weeks ago. It's a beautiful place. Lincoln [Memorial] Garden [and Nature Center in Springfield] is a wonderful place to go for a walk. I went there last week.

Credit Chris Young

  Q. And they have benches built in. You can just sit there.

And sitting on a bench quietly is about as productive as sitting in a blind, as long as you make yourself part of the landscape and you're willing to wait a little bit. Sometimes you'll be walking through the woods and it seems real quiet and then all of a sudden you'll hear some birds. They're all flocking together.

There's a gentleman at the [Illinois] State Museum [Research and Collection Center]. His name is David Bohlen. I've been out with him a couple of times. He counts birds and surveys birds in Sangamon County every day. He told me not to ignore the black-capped chickadees,

Now, black-capped chickadees are very common. I have them in my backyard. They're everywhere. But he says a lot of times the birds that are visiting, the birds that are just passing through, like the warblers and other migrants, will actually flock with the chickadees because they know that these resident birds know where the food is and they know where the dangers are. It's sort of like visiting a strange town. If you're looking for a great restaurant, you can either pick one out of the phone book and take your chances or you can call a local person and find out where is the best place to go.

Credit Chris Young

Q. Or you see the one with the parking lot - nobody in it, or one car - vs. the one two blocks down with a half full lot. You think, hmmm, must be a good place.

It's really turned out to be about the best tip I've ever received because now when I hear a chickadee's call - they're real common and they're real noisy, and it's just chick-a-dee-dee-dee-dee - I hear that and I know there's a good chance there'll be other birds with them. So I'll just sit right down and wait and see. And sure enough, almost every time those chickadees will lead me to other birds to photograph.