Interview with Lutsen wildlife photographer David Brislance

David Brislance
David Brislance

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David Brislance is a retired art teacher and wildlife photographer. He lives in Lutsen at Cedar Ridge, which is just a few feet from the Superior National Forest and where he spends a good deal of his time, camera in hand. Welcome, David.

Brislance: Thank you, Jay. It’s good to be here.

Now, I read on your blog that you’re definitely not one to head south as winter blows in, and, the fact is, winter provides you with a lot of wildlife photo opportunities. How do you do that and how do you stay warm?

Brislance: Well, I tell you, the gear is the most important thing. There’s no such thing as bad weather in Minnesota, just bad clothing. So, I have gone out and tried to purchase clothing that is arctic-type that I can wear in at least -52°F wind chill, which I’ve done at numerous times, I guess, throughout the winters. The clothing is camouflaged; it’s a winter camo. Therefore, I can stand very quietly and look at different areas of the forest and see what comes through.

Looking for and taking photographs of wildlife, and particularly, in your case, birds, that doesn’t just happen. It’s not a shoot-from-the-hip kind of thing. So, that means you’ve got to be pretty quiet. These are elusive little creatures. But, you know the area you’re in. As I understand it, you have trails near your home and that you take them all the time.

Brislance: I spend a lot of time in the general area of my home, basically because the Superior National Forest is 50 feet out of my backdoor. And I guess the radius would be not longer than a mile, if I drew a dot up in the middle of my ridge and walked in that area. But, to answer your question about being in the depth of winter, the quietness is very important to me simply for the fact that if you don’t spend time standing, watching rather than walking, you’re not going to see very much. In the wintertime, I photograph wolves, deer, and a lot of woodpeckers.

Quiet observation?

Brislance: Quiet observation.

How is the idea that you stay in one particular area, you talked about that radius, do you know when something’s right or not right?

Brislance: Well, I’ll give you an example. The black-backed woodpecker, which is fairly rare in our area, I’ve learned that they eat the spruce budworm, and I find these trees and I know exactly where they would go and what they like, so I scout out some of these areas with the holes that they drill. So, I will go out and then search for these different trees, and I’ve learned the sound of the woodpecker, more so than spotting one with my eyes. So, I can hear them pecking and they have a different rhythm and a different torque than the downy or the hairy woodpecker. So, the sound actually leads me to them. And, they are quite social, so you can get fairly close to them.

Well, you’re talking about sound. Most people who are interested in warblers, pretty much have to rely on sound, because they flit around and they’re really hard to see. But, looking at your website, you’ve got a lot of warbler pictures.

Brislance: In my specific area, that radius that I’ve talked to you about, I’ve spotted, generally, every year, 23 different species of warblers. This is what I have in that little area.

Well, by going to pretty much the same area on a very regular basis daily, do you have any camp followers that go with you?

Brislance: I have all kinds of little followers. I have to credit my picture-taking, I guess, at least the number of warblers taken to my chickadees and my red-breasted nuthatches, because I have anywhere from a half a dozen to a dozen that follow me everyday. They land on my shoulders, they eat whole sunflower seeds. I take pictures with one hand sometimes when I can or balance the lens on one hand and they sneak under the lens and eat the seeds. What I want to tell you with this is in the spring when the warblers come in, they are really attracted to the chickadees. They will come in and see what the chickadees are doing although warblers are not seed-eaters, but they see the chickadees buzzing around me, and they’ll fly right in and sit on a branch and watch and I’m able to get some pretty good shots of them, simply because my chickadees are with me constantly.

You were an art teacher for many years. Was photography part of what you were interested in then or not?

Brislance: No, not at that particular time. I did a lot of drawing and painting and I did knife-making. I ended up actually getting into the photography simply to identify birds. It was just to make my hobby a little bit easier for identification.

So, you could go walking and, instead of taking notes, you could take pictures.

Brislance: Yeah, it looked kind of silly for me walking through the National Forest with my notebook.

I understand it’s not so much the equipment but the use of the equipment as a tool of expression.

Brislance: Exactly. You know, equipment, whatever, I think it has a lot to do with knowledge of light and knowledge of where everything is at.

Tell me about the nesting warbler. You said you had an area where you found nesting warblers in—what was it?—old man’s beard?

Brislance: Yes, that is the northern parula warbler, and it’s a beautiful little warbler and they make their nest out of usnea moss, a moss called “old man’s beard,” but they nest basically in this type of moss. So, our area up here is a tremendous area for the northern parula warbler. I try to chronicle their return and exit by photos and also to get the chicks and so forth coming out of the nest, which I did this year for the first time in seven years that I ever got to see the bailout of the chicks coming out of that nest.

David Brislance is a retired art teacher and wildlife photographer. He lives in Lutsen at the edge of the Superior National Forest. It’s been good talking to you, David.

Brislance: Thank you, Jay.


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