Wildlife photographer encounters swans, fawns and drought in southern Minnesota

two red-headed birds walking across a field
Two sandhill cranes walk through a field in Southern Minnesota.
Courtesy of Jacob Schlichter

Updated: Feb. 21, 8:11 a.m. | Posted: Feb. 20, 12:13 p.m.

Albert Lea native Jacob Schlichter spent the beginning of his new year bundled up along I-35, photographing swans.

The 27-year-old photographer and business owner was awarded the southeastern Minnesota Arts Council grant in November of last year and used the funds to create a public photography exhibit showcasing southern Minnesota wildlife.

The open house for his photography capstone is on Friday, Feb. 23, at the Albert Lea Art Center, and the exhibit will be displayed through March 22.

Schlichter joined MPR News host Cathy Wurzer today to talk about his creative process and the challenge of photographing wildlife in such a warm and dry winter.

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Correction (Feb. 21, 2024): An earlier version of this post misstated the date of the open house. The post has been updated.

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Audio transcript

CATHY WURZER: Albert Lea, Minnesota Native Jacob Schlichter spent the beginning of the new year bundled up along I-35, photographing swans. The photographer and business owner was awarded the southeastern Minnesota Arts Council grant in November of last year, and used the money to create a public photography exhibit showcasing southern Minnesota wildlife.

Jacob is on the line right now to talk about his creative process and the challenge of photographing wildlife in such a warm and dry and weirdly strange winter this year. Hey, welcome, Jacob. How are you?

JACOB SCHLICHTER: Hey, Cathy. I'm doing all right. How are you?

CATHY WURZER: Good. Thank you. Congratulations. This seems like it was a pretty competitive grant process.

JACOB SCHLICHTER: Yeah, it's definitely not an easy endeavor to go through, I'll tell you that.

CATHY WURZER: So tell me, why did you choose southern Minnesota wildlife for your project?

JACOB SCHLICHTER: I am a huge nature-loving hippie, if I'm being honest. I grew up reading National Geographic, watching Discovery Channel, Animal Planet. RIP Steve Irwin; you know how it is.

So growing up with that, and then with my love for photography being developed during high school, it kind of naturally segued from taking photos of people doing tricks on their skateboard at the skate park over in Austin to photographing birds as they're diving for a fish over at Albert Lea Lake. So, yeah.

CATHY WURZER: Oh, wow. I'm betting, then, that you might be a fan of the great nature photographer Jim Brandenburg, a native of western Minnesota. Jim has told me that photographing nature is a very intimate thing for him to do. And for years, taking photos was like keeping a special journal of the natural world around him.

How do you view your interactions with nature as a photographer?

JACOB SCHLICHTER: Oh, yeah, very much the same. It's a very personal endeavor for me. I'm repeatedly going to the same spots every week and building up a reputation with the wildlife, as something that they could look at and view as non-threatening. And that allows me to really be able to get some of the shots I do and get right in the face of some of the wildlife.

And I mean, it's truly magical. In my generation, we call it being like a Disney princess. You're attracting all the birds and all the wildlife. But to actually live that and be face to face with a green heron as it's hunting for frogs in a pond and be able to actually have that up-close interaction is just breathtaking and, honestly, words don't even describe it to me.

CATHY WURZER: Wow. I love that phrase, "building a relationship." And the animals and the birds are clearly not afraid of you. At least, you're part of the surroundings, right?

I'm curious, then, as you come face to face with some of the animals, who really has struck you? What was the biggest surprise?

JACOB SCHLICHTER: Oh, there's a few instances that come to mind. Once, I had this yellow warbler just kind of chase me around for 15 minutes and just buzz around my head. And I'm just like, bro, can you just chill out? You look so pretty.

And eventually, he sat there on a branch and just stared at me for maybe 30 seconds. And in that time, I had to adjust all my camera settings to get the shot of it sitting there. And that was really remarkable.

Another time, I was photographing this lone baby deer out in a field near Albert Lea. And the deer itself was probably so young it didn't know any better. The deer ended up walking right up to me. And it just kind of stayed by my side for about an hour as I walked around the nature park and was looking for its family to guide it back home.

Eventually, rest assured, the family did come up and find the deer again. But the mother just looked at me like, what the heck? What are you doing? And in that moment, the baby deer just ran right to its mom. And you could tell the mother was probably scolding it.

But just stuff like that, it's really just quite the experience. And I really hope to bring that experience to everyone else through my photos. So hopefully, I'm doing a good job at that.

CATHY WURZER: Well, you were working during a really weird winter, with the warm weather. I'm sure it was fine working in it. You didn't have to slog through a bunch of snow, and it was not very cold. But did that affect your process at all and what you saw?

JACOB SCHLICHTER: Well, Cathy, I got to say, I bought a long-track snowmobile last year, with the intent of being able to strap my camera gear to the back of it. And to all the listeners, look out a window. I don't even know if we could call what we had this year a winter. So, yeah.

So to bring it full circle to those swans you mentioned at the beginning, those very swans, their pond dried up actually. And I had to chase them down over the span of a month and find out where they relocated. And it rewarded me with this amazing family photo of the swans with their new babies, framed by a bunch of brush and trees. It was really cool.

But I felt really bad because a lot of the wildlife is truly suffering from this drought. Places that would normally be a hotbed for feeding and just nesting are completely dry and without any sort of life. And you can see hundreds of birds sitting there, kind of just like, well, this is our reality now. We got to deal with it. And it's created a huge mess, if I am being blunt about it.

I literally went into this project with the intent of getting a bunch of snowy, beautiful shots of the wildlife, interacting with the snow and hunting throughout the winter. I had all these locations scouted out months ahead of time, and I was getting permission from various landowners to be on their property. So yeah, none of that really planned out the way I wanted it to, unfortunately.

CATHY WURZER: Wow. But you still got some really great shots, though?

JACOB SCHLICHTER: Oh, yes, I have a lot of really cool shots. And the lack of snow does aid in some other endeavors, like being able to see more clearly and having different experiences with some of the wildlife that might not be hibernating in a normal way. So it's been kind of cool seeing some of the groundhogs, for instance, out and about still, and being able to interact with them. Because of how shy they are, you need a lot of interactions before you really get that one good shot with them.

CATHY WURZER: So I know you've been sharing your photos on social media. What's the response been like?

JACOB SCHLICHTER: Pretty positive. Everyone is really loving what they see and has been extremely encouraging. And then, some of my other friends that are wildlife photographers have been trading tips with me. And it's been a really productive time overall.

CATHY WURZER: And your photos are on display at the Albert Lea Arts Center, right?

JACOB SCHLICHTER: Yes, the Albert Lea Arts Center and the Austin Artwork Center.

CATHY WURZER: OK. Now, is this a first for you? Have you had your work displayed in this manner before?

JACOB SCHLICHTER: A few years back, I did a smaller gallery on the George Floyd protest over at the Austin Artwork Center. So it's not the first time, but it's the first time I'm doing a wildlife exhibit.

CATHY WURZER: OK. So it must be really fun to see these photos up in a wider space for folks to interact with. Before you go, we've got a bunch of listeners who are interested in what you're doing. What's your advice for folks to get started and taking some cool shots with wildlife photography?

JACOB SCHLICHTER: To get started, honestly, the number one advice I can give to a photographer-- and I guess this would go for any creator in general-- is to try to create something every day.

Everyone has got a phone nowadays that has a pretty good camera in it. If you can use the zoom on that, you could probably get some decent photos. Otherwise, save up a little bit of money and buy an affordable DSLR and a decent lens. And that'll take you pretty far as long as you're actually out there shooting every day.

CATHY WURZER: All right. Good advice. Jacob, it's been a real treat talking to you. Thank you. And congratulations.

JACOB SCHLICHTER: Thank you so much for having me.

CATHY WURZER: Jacob Schlichter is a photographer and business owner, based in Albert Lea. And the exhibit will be displayed through March 22. You also should find him online. His last name is spelled S-C-H-L-I-C-H-T-E-R, Jacob, first name. He's terrific.

Thanks for joining us today on Minnesota Now.

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