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Anderson: Shooting (with a camera) every duck in the world

Ducks can transfix people, waterfowlers in particular, prompting them to travel extraordinary distances, awaken far too early and stand in water so cold it rattles the bones.

One attraction of these birds is their angle of flight, the tilt and cupping of their wings, also the mystery of their migrations and the wildly chromatic splashes of their feathering.

Passionate, yes, to the point of addiction, duck lovers watch for these, and wonder.

Gary Kramer is among those whose lives have been consumed by waterfowl, a broadly encompassing term that includes geese and swans.

Unusual, perhaps, for a kid who grew up in Los Angeles.

“My dad was an LA city fireman,” Kramer said the other day from his home in Willows, Calif. “Like a lot of city kids, I found my ‘outdoors’ in open spaces here and there.”

A wildlife biologist who worked for the US Fish and Wildlife Service for 26 years before retiring in 1999 as manager of six northern California national wildlife refuges, Kramer is best known as a waterfowl photographer and writer — a career highlighted by the publication of at least one (and often times more) of his photos in every issue of Ducks Unlimited magazine dating back 25 years.

Though still active photographing, writing and traveling at age 74 — he’s in South America as you read this — Kramer’s recent publication of his 540-page hardcover opus, “Waterfowl of the World,” might be his career capstone.

Ambitious in all respects, the book features 1,299 images and follows a three-year odyssey that took Kramer to more than 40 countries, logging more than 300,000 air miles in the process.

“No one had ever attempted, let along accomplished, photographing every duck, goose and swan in the world,” Kramer said.

Exactly 167 species of ducks, geese and swans exist on the planet, with Minnesota home to some of these in spring and fall, notably mallard, blue-winged teal and ring-necked ducks, and Canada geese, among others.

In autumn, the state’s waterfowl species list expands considerably, as flocks of scaup, redheads and canvasbacks, among other ducks and geese, migrate through Minnesota.

Tricky as these fowl can be for hunters to get close enough to shoot, they pose even more challenges to photograph. This is especially true when their numbers are extremely limited, as in the case of the Madagascar pochard.

“The Madagascar pochard was thought to be extinct until a few years ago,” Kramer said. “Then a few scientists who were working on a remote lake in Madagascar saw an unusual duck that they subsequently identified as the pochard. They found 23 of them on that lake.”

To photograph this winged rarity, Kramer flew to Europe, then to Ethiopia. Then he caught a flight to Madagascar, where, after two 10-hour days of driving on dirt roads, and a half-hour hike, he climbed into a yellow canoe and paddled.

“The scientists had used that canoe quite a bit and the ducks were acclimated to it,” Kramer said. “I photographed them with impunity for two days.”

Waterfowl in exotic locations have long been a specialty of Kramer’s. For his master’s degree in wildlife management, he studied Pacific brant on their wintering grounds in Mexico. Serendipitously, the location, and assignment, helped launch his career as a photographer and writer.

“Because I did my graduate work in Mexico, I had quite a few opportunities to hunt and fish in Baja,” Kramer said. “I would take some photos, nothing great, and one time I sent them and a story about hunting down there to Western Outdoors magazine and got them published.”

Over time, his interest in writing and photography — the latter especially — grew, and with it, his reputation for producing stellar images of anything bearing wings.

Making the point, “Waterfowl of the World” follows publication in 2015 of “Game Birds, A Celebration of North American Upland Birds,” in which Kramer photographed the 34 gallinaceous birds found in the US and Canada.

A handful of those upland birds were challenging to photograph, including the Himalayan snowcock and the Attwater’s prairie chicken. But the logistics of photographing the world’s 167 waterfowl species were still more complicated.

The Salvadori’s teal, found only in Papua New Guinea, is one example.

“I searched everywhere, including throughout the internet, and could find no professional quality photo anywhere of the Salvadori’s teal,” Kramer said. “There were blurry images but nothing good.”

Flying to Australia and on to Port Moresby, the capital of Papua New Guinea, Kramer ultimately traveled to that nation’s riverine jungles. Though he had hired a local guide, he hadn’t been told that because every wild critter in Papua New Guinea is shot, or shot at, any specimens of Salvadori’s teal he might find would be skittish.

“We saw two on a river on our first day, but as soon as we opened our vehicle doors they flew away,” Kramer said.

Kramer sat in a blind along that river for six days, 10 hours a day, before he finally spotted a pair of his target birds.

“Sixty hours in a blind for a few minutes of photography,” he said.

Included with each image published in “Waterfowl of the World” is habitat and conservation information, as well as biological data.

“The world over, the main factor negatively affecting waterfowl populations, ducks particularly, is habitat loss,” Kramer said. “Hunting has very little to do with populations of most of these birds.”

Signed standard editions of the 540-page hardcover book with 1,299 photos are available for $99 postpaid, and numbered/signed limited editions are $250. Portions of the proceeds are being donated to support wetland and waterfowl conservation organizations. To order, visit garykramer.net.

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