Dudley Edmondson was leading a guest into his backyard in Duluth's Lakeside neighborhood, on their way to a heated shed where they were going to chat on a cold December morning, when he stopped suddenly, halfway through the gate.
"There's that red-bellied woodpecker,'' Edmondson said. “They make that sound that sort of sounds like a chirping Chihuahua.”
Edmondson apologized for the abrupt halt. But that's just who he is: a birder first, everything else second. That includes renowned nature photographer, book author, public speaker, public lands advocate, videographer, city parks commissioner and a pioneering role model for African-Americans outdoors.
"Whenever I’m outside, whatever I’m doing, I'm always birding, too. ... Sometimes I'm double-birding,'' he said, noting a phrase he made up to describe watching one bird with his eyes and listening for other birds with his ears.
Sitting on a sofa in the well-windowed shed, which he built himself as an enclosed nature observatory, Edmondson, 57, pointed to a white board with a list of a dozen or so birds he kept track of on a single day. From his own backyard, he’s seen more than 150 species of birds over the years.
“This is just a great migration spot,’’ he said of Duluth in general and Lakeside in particular, noting many migrating birds fly over as they avoid Lake Superior.
Year-round residents like chickadees, woodpeckers and a crows pecked away chunks of suet hanging from his backyard trees and bird feeders as we chatted from the comfort of his shed.
The outdoors as escape
Edmondson, who moved to Duluth in 1989, developed a love of serious birding when he was a senior in high school in Columbus, Ohio. His art teacher was an avid birder who offered to take Edmondson to Texas to a birding hotspot along the Rio Grande River.
“So I sold Frisbees and suckers to other students to raise money, and that was my first big birding trip,’’ Edmondson said. “I was painting, too, at the time ... and I guess he must have seen something in me he thought was worthwhile.”
But Edmondson's love of nature, his passion for being outdoors, was cemented long before that trip. For years as a child, he had been spending many hours of many days outdoors finding little things in nature that enchanted him.
“As a kid, my parents were struggling with alcoholism, and my escape, my way to get away from that, was to be outdoors, to go into the backyard or on a walk and look at bugs and birds. That’s how I coped with it,’’ Edmondson said.
It wasn’t all bad memories of childhood at home, however.
“We’d go on family picnics and we’d fish and barbecue or just hike around,’’ he said. “I really enjoyed that. I’d see new birds.”
Edmondson tried the traditional route to adulthood, attending Ohio State University. He considered a career as a wildlife biologist or maybe a game warden. But college was too structured for him.
“I knew I wanted a career in nature, outdoors… But I felt like college was a conveyor belt that they put you on and when you got done they stamped you with a diploma and you were sent out into a career,’’ Edmondson said. “It just wasn’t for me.”
He did manage to gain a degree as a pharmacy technician. But he also traveled, birded, became a good photographer “at first just to keep track of the birds I saw” and was pulled more and more into nature. The more time he spent outdoors, the more photos he took. Eventually they were so good he was selling them to magazines, field guides and encyclopedias.
“Photography and birding just go together,’’ he said.
Hawk Ridge drew him north
In 1987 and 1988, Edmondson visited Duluth after hearing about Hawk Ridge, one of the continent’s premier bird migration observation locations. Duluth became part of his plan to turn birding and nature photography into a living. Edmondson liked those trips so much he decided to move to Duluth in 1989.
"I wanted to go pro (in photography) and I felt like I needed a really good place to do it and be able to access wild subject matter easily. Duluth was the place I stuck the pin on the map. Hawk Ridge was really the draw,'' he said. "At the time, I was really into birds of prey and raptors in flight were my focus in the beginning. That is also why I ended up buying a house within view of Hawk Ridge."
There was also a person instrumental in Edmondson's decision.
“The first person I met in Duluth, up at Hawk Ridge, was Sparky Stensaas. He was just so nice that I figured if everybody in Duluth was like Sparky, this would be a great place to live,’’ Edmondson said.
Stensaas, also an outdoors enthusiast and at the time one of the official hawk counters at Hawk Ridge, vividly recalled that first meeting.
“Dudley pulled up in this red, four-wheel-drive pickup truck and gets out, and here is this black guy with binoculars around his neck, wearing a red and black flannel shirt,’’ Stensaas said. “You don't see that every day in Duluth.”
The two birders hit it off from the start.
“We talked so much that day I’m sure my (hawk) count was way off,’’ Stensaas said with a laugh. “At some point after that, maybe it was a couple years, Dudley called me and asked me if I wanted to move with him to Banff, Canada… I told him no, and that he probably just couldn't move to Canada that easily, either … but I invited him to come move in with me in Duluth. And he said `yes.'”
Thirty years later, Edmondson says can’t imagine living anywhere else. He still travels nationwide, more than 50 days each year, guiding birding tours in Texas, producing nature videos in America's national parks and wild areas, and speaking to corporate or nonprofit group meetings where he advocates for public lands, for unspoiled wild places and for getting more African-Americans outside to enjoy nature.
But he has set deep routes in the Northland. He now serves on the Duluth City Parks and Recreation Commission. He also likes to trail run, fly fish, fat bike and mountain bike in and around Duluth. Edmondson’s wife, Nancy Latour, a Duluth native and an accountant here, also is an outdoor enthusiast.
“This is really a great place to be if you like nature, if you want to be in the woods. You don’t have to go very far at all to be in a good place,’’ Edmondson said.
Edmondson worked for what was the Duluth Clinic (now Essentia) as a pharmacy technician from 1990 to 2007, his day job to help support his outdoors work.
“When I got my first apartment, up on Fourth Street, my landlord told me that the other residents thought I was a drug dealer. They hadn’t seen a black man with a new truck before,’’ Edmondson said, now laughing about what was clearly systemic racism. “I guess, as a pharmacy tech, I was sort of in the drug business.”
From photography to videography, and much in between
Since 2007 Edmondson has been a full-time photographer, author and videographer, producing video pieces for the Nature Conservancy, Northland College, the Duluth Library Foundation and many other groups and nonprofits.
His first book, “Black & Brown Faces in America’s Wild Places” (AdventureKeen Publications, 2006), featured people of color who had succeeded in outdoor endeavors. He’s been a leader in the effort to make the nation’s wild places more inclusive as he strives to highlight outdoor role models for young African-Americans. Edmondson says his goal is to get African-Americans vocally concerned about the environment and conservation efforts.
“There was a lack of tradition among African-Americans for 200 years or more... because of slavery and then the migration north into big urban centers... There was a long break in that history, that connection to the outdoors. Part of it was that there was no opportunity, there was no access allowed’’ for black people, Edmondson said. “Even some of our national parks were segregated… with Negro picnic areas and Negro bathrooms. And in a lot of places, black people simply wouldn’t have dared to go outdoors for recreation without feeling in danger.”
Edmondson's still photography has been featured in galleries and nearly 100 publications around the world. His latest book, “What’s That Flower: A beginners guide to Wildflowers” was published by DK Publishing in 2013.
Much of his professional attention now, between speaking engagements and guiding birding trips, has been on producing video. It’s part of a pattern Edmondson has noticed about himself: Every few years he likes to try something new. That’s why he built his own shed, just to see if he could do it. (It turned out great, by the way.)
“I like to keep learning new things. I love it when I can figure out something new,’’ he said. “I love creating. It makes me happy... That’s what fires off my endorphins.”
Stensaas says Edmondson is a quintessential move-here Duluthian, the group of people who have migrated to the city because of Lake Superior, outdoor recreational opportunities and unspoiled woods, water and wildlife.
“This is a perfect place for Dudley. He’s such a Duluth kind of guy,’’ Stensaas said. “He’s so attached to the natural world and the natural world is so accessible here.”
“I can't see myself living in a larger town, a big city. Maybe visit some places that are warmer... My wife has talked about the south of France,’’ Edmondson said with a grin. “But we have bikes and kayaks... no kids... And we love how easy it is to get outdoors here. That’s what we're all about.”
More with Duluth photographer Dudley Edmondson
On his great great gray owl photo:
The photo was taken in the Sax-Zim Bog northwest of Duluth. Owls are frequent winter visitors to the bog and just about every wildlife photographer in the region has a good owl shot to share. But Edmondon’s shot is extra special, in part because it’s snowing and in part because of something that dominates the photo yet you can’t quite see: A backdrop of red osier dogwood. The bright red bushes, the only real color in an otherwise black and white landscape, form the dramatic photo's dominant backdrop . “They make it pop, don’t they?’’ Edmondson conceded of his shot.
On his bull moose battling photo and “a bazillion hours of waiting:”
Edmondson captured two big bull moose sparring while in Wyoming's Teton Range of the Rocky Mountains. There were lots of moose in the area that wasn’t especially remote, Edmondson noted. But to get a photograph that really was unique, Edmondson had to wait, walk and watch. You might get lucky once in a while, he noted, and capture a great photo quickly and close to the truck. But most outdoor nature photography requires long hours in the elements after often traveling long distances. He once flew to Nome, Alaska to photograph a Siberian blue throat, a small bird that hand wandered over from Russia. He ended up with only a couple frames of the bird. “But it was worth it,’’ he said. “I never sold that photo, but it was still worth it.”
"Nature photography is a bazillion hours of waiting. ... I’ve always been good at waiting. I can spend hours and days waiting for just the right thing to happen,’’ Edmondson said. “But I can be very patient because I've done the research before I go. I know I’m in the right place at the right time (of day) at the right time of year. The only thing missing is the subject. But I can be reasonably sure it’s going to happen at some point.”
On his cranes at sunset photo and thinking ahead:
Edmondson said he knew where in the Crex Meadows Wildlife Area he could shoot over a waterfowl-filled hotspot with the sunset in the background. So that’s where he set up for the photo and, eventually, the birds cooperated. Cranes and ducks rose to the sky just as the most perfect light of day reached Edmond’s camera’s lens. It wasn’t luck: Edmondson knew all of this would happen, and when. “This was fall, and I knew there were birds there, and I know how the (sloughs) at Crex are in position with the sun,’’ he said. “So it can all come together.”
On racism in Duluth:
Edmondson told two stories of overt racism he’s faced in Duluth. He insists the vast majority of Northlanders have welcomed him, or at least been neutral to his presence in his adopted hometown. But not everyone.
“I was over at the school, what’s now Duluth East, photographing fireweed... l love fireweed because it really is announcing that summer is pretty well over... And this older gray haired woman, a white woman, comes out of her house and demands that I stop taking photos and give her my film... she was sure I was casing the neighborhood and taking photos of things to steal,’’ Edmondson said. “I told her I was her neighbor and that I was a nature photographer... and she said that I didn’t look like any nature photographer she’d ever seen.”
Unsure what to do, Edmondson walked away. “I was taking the (fireweed) photos for the book “Wildflowers of Minnesota” and I thought for a minute that I should go back there and give her a copy of the book with my name in it... Then I realized I don’t owe her anything. I shouldn’t feel guilty for being a black man living in east Duluth.”
The second story was about Edmondson, on his hands and knees planting flowers in his own Lakeside yard, overhearing a couple talking as they walked past his house on the sidewalk.
“They were talking loud enough for me to hear them, as they were walking, and they were wondering aloud if I was drunk and what I was doing on the ground there,’’ Edmondson said. “I had flowers out to plant. I had a trowel in my hand. It was pretty clear what I was doing. But apparently they didn’t see that. They just saw a black man in their white neighborhood crawling around on his hands and knees.”