Backyard Photography—When Your Backyard Is Also a Nature Preserve

Tara Tanaka and her husband fell in love with the swamp in their backyard. So they bought it, and now she documents its wildlife.

Each summer, Tara Tanaka takes note of where Wood Ducks and Black-bellied Whistling-Ducks lay their eggs. She watches for nesting activity, then about 30 days later begins her wait for the dramatic climax. One by one, each fluffy duckling perches at the entrance to the nesting cavity. The bold ones leap right away, while others seem to ponder their odds before taking the plunge into the water or leaf-laden ground below. 

It’s one of Tanaka’s favorite scenes to film, and she doesn’t have to go far to capture it. Her yard is a 45-acre cypress swamp in Florida’s panhandle. The property inspired her both to pick up a camera and to find a way to ensure the habitat would be protected even after her lifetime. She and her husband had lived on the edge of the swamp for 14 years when they decided to purchase and manage it as a wildlife refuge.

Tanaka hopes others follow their lead. “More and more, I think that if private owners don’t protect their land, there might not be habitat for wildlife, especially wetlands,” she says. Today, the property is protected by a conservation easement, so it can never be developed without a court order. That’s not possible in every situation; an easement requires the land have real conservation value. Tanaka’s swamp does: It hosts a rookery of about 275 Wood Stork nests—along those of Anhingas, Great Egrets, and the occasional Roseate Spoonbill and Great Blue Heron. Tanaka and her husband are also uniquely poised to care for the habitat: He’s a retired state park naturalist.

Black-bellied Whistling-Duck. Photo: Tara Tanaka

At about the same time they purchased the land, Tanaka retired from three decades in information technology. As she spent more time at home, she saw more and more of the swamp’s beauty. First, she tried to talk photographers into stopping by—then, after discovering digiscoping, she decided to become one herself. Now, the swamp is the backdrop for most of her photography and videography.

All that time spent closely observing nature also helps the pair manage the swamp. “As we see the kind of things that the birds and the wildlife like, we try to make more of that, whatever that is,” Tanaka says. For example, when they clear out the vegetation that crowds out the swamp, they’re careful to leave a small island of plant matter where they've seen an alligator basking. The three alligators in the swamp are a crucial part of its ecology, Tanaka says; they hunt the raccoons and snakes that would otherwise snatch the rookery’s eggs.

Adult male Hooded Merganser. Photo: Tara Tanaka

The couple also caters to the ducks Tanaka loves to watch fledge, as well as other cavity-nesters like Red-bellied Woodpeckers, Pileated Woodpeckers, and White-breasted Nuthatches. Her husband is careful to leave snags standing for woodpeckers to carve their own cavities, and they put up duck nest boxes, protected by predator guards and sprayed to deter fire ants.

The result of their work is a rich collection of life—avian and otherwise—for Tanaka to film. “There’s always, always something to photograph or video here,” she says. 

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