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For wildlife photographer/businessman Don Browning, his profession is more than about just taking pretty pictures. It’s about celebrating the community of nature, about man’s role as both citizen and steward of that community.
On the subject of conservation and the politics of Green Environmentalism, Don believes that much of real appreciation of the wildlife and our planet Earth has been hijacked by political and business interest that attempt to make the world population feel guilty for living in this world. Words like "Green" and "Climate Change", and Weather Crisis theory are becoming a new "Dogma of World Environmental Religion". Science demands that any theory be testable and if it is impossible to actually test future weather predictions then those theories do not qualify as valid scientific theories.
Don's efforts are directed toward shedding light on real testable science including weather predictions and planet temperature. A tip of the iceberg example Don sites is the "hotel expense reduction movement, that invites hotel guest in as customers then tries to reduce operating costs with a "green" guilt trip, by asking for all sorts of items be reused or not used such as towels, cups, and bedding in order to save the planet as a don't destroy the planet or our bottom line stratagem". Living is not a guilt trip because we leave footprints, rather we all usually do our best to use common sense in our daily lives. Man used to use dung or wood for campfire light, then whale oil, then oil deposits and in the future we will use fusion to power the world. No technology last for ever. Change is part of life. Quantum physics is helping us understand energy fundamentals, and a time will come where sustainability of oil deposits and carbon release will be compared to sustaining life activities at the level allowed by whale oil light and horse, mule, oxen power. Weather will still be uncontrolled as well as earth temperatures, despite what the "ice age deniers" predict. "Long live Fusion" says Don Browning.
Don is producer, director, writer and photographer of Central Florida Growth Promotion, and CEO of dot/coms Discover Marion County, Springs Protection Villages News, The Villages Marion County and Best Florida Visit neighborhood promotion productions. Silver Springs Journal and the Lake Weir Journal are classic historic documentaries of the Lakes Region of Central Florida.
Browning’s art and convictions have converged into what has become his signature work – the photographing and preservation of Florida’s wading birds. Since 1998, Browning has focused his camera lens primarily on the heron and egret population of Lake Weir’s Treasure Island. The result of that dedication has yielded both protective legislation for the birds and a stunning collection of photos.
The latter – Florida’s Wading Birds … A Legacy for the Future – is currently a one-man photo exhibit on display at the Heritage Gallery in Tallahassee. The exhibit, located on the first floor of the R.A. Gray Building, opened January 19 and runs through April 16. It includes 50 of Browning’s close up and personal photos of the fascinating world of a wading bird rookery.
There is a reason that the exhibit is making its debut in Tallahassee. If not for Browning, a community of concerned citizens and legislators, there would likely no longer be a wading bird colony on Treasure Island. With Browning’s photographic record of the birds’ endangered population spearheading the conservation effort, protective legislation was passed in 2001.
Signed into law by Governor Jeb Bush, the Sunset Harbor Wading Bird Rookery Rescue Bill provided for a 500-foot buffer around the island from the intrusion of jet skis and power boats.
“The conservation effort began on the grassroots level with nature lovers, the Marion County commissioners, Sheriff’s Office and legislative delegation,” recalls Browning, who lives on Lake Weir within a half-mile of Treasure Island. “We moved forward with the help of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, the Department of Environmental Protection, senators and representatives of both parties, and right on to the Governor. It took a community to save a community.”
The photo exhibit is a celebration of the now thriving wading bird colony. There’s a Great Blue Heron family, among the first to be photographed by Browning. With the parents dubbed Romeo and Juliet, and their chicks named Mutt and Jeff, they became the poster birds of the conservation mission. It’s a role befitting the largest of the herons, which appear to be all knees and elbows like gawky teenagers. But they are skilled fishermen and aerodynamic wonders. Once airborne, their bluish gray bodies resemble streamlined missiles and their wingspan can easily exceed six feet while in flight. The Great Blue Heron shares the stage with equally eye-catching photos of Little Blue Herons, Tricolored Herons and Green Herons.
Also depicted in the expansive exhibit are the Great Egret and Snowy Egret, showy, snow-white birds that seemingly love the camera. Picture after picture, these dramatic birds appear to be putting on a performance just for Browning’s sake. Perched on a tree branch, a green-masked, golden-beaked Great Egret with his startling-white breeding plumage in full splendor appears to be ready to attend a masquerade ball. Nearby, another Great Egret is performing a delightfully impossible walk-on-the-water ballet.
Perhaps the most telling picture of the rookery’s healthy environment is one of a Snowy Egret and a Little Blue Heron perched side by side on a branch. In this world, birds of a feather flock together is more than just a catchy phrase. While egrets and herons do co-exist in a rookery, it is highly unusual for these two birds to tolerate each other in such proximity.
Browning is particularly fond of that picture. “It gives me hope and joy,” he says. “And I think it shows that all creatures, man included, all are part of the fabric of nature. We are all connected in some way bigger than our individual selves.”
That thread of connection to nature and photography began for Browning in his childhood. Born in St. Louis, Missouri, Browning was 11 when his uncle built a darkroom in the basement of the family home. He’s been taking pictures ever since.
Early Bio; Don Browning
“My earliest mentor was Ansel Adams,” says Browning, now 72. “I studied all his pictures, all his books. There were a lot of good photographers, but he was the only one who brought together the art and the technical aspects. And his large format black and white shots of nature intrigued me. I adopted the format as well.”
Browning even took pictures for many years using the box cameras of Adams’ era. He would sit the big box camera on a tripod, line up his shot, pull the cloth over his head and click away.
At 17, Browning joined the U.S. Navy and it would provide him with his next great influence. While stationed in Yokouska, Japan, for nearly three years, Browning gained uncommon access to that culture. “Because I could speak Japanese, I was allowed in places most foreigners were not,” he explains. “The Asian culture has a tremendous respect for nature, especially birds like herons and cranes. Their paintings incorporate mountains, waterfalls, clouds and birds. Each element represents qualities like honor, trust, integrity. I began to do the same with my photography while I was there.”
When he left the Navy and returned to the United States, Browning carried his worldly experiences with him to Central Missouri University. While majoring in business administration, he continued to formally study photography as well. It was also while attending college that he met future wife Leslie; the couple has been married for 40 years now. Leslie and daughter Jennifer are both pottery artists. Son-in-law Chris, eight-year-old granddaughter Katherine, and Sailor, a 5-year-old Golden retriever round out the present family.
Business opportunities and the love of the water drew Browning to the Baltimore and Chesapeake Bay area in 1971. “I always felt comfortable on the water,” says the sportsman, who was at different times an avid golfer and tennis player. “One of the first things I did was buy a sail boat and soon I was into competitive racing.” Later racing would involve Don's Mazda Race Car currently campainged under the Old Dogs Racing banner.
But as a self-described “high-adventure guy,” Browning was soon looking for new opportunities and a new place to live. The choices were narrowed down to Florida and Alaska, two places that offered vastly different adventure choices.
“I made one visit to Florida and immediately connected,” recalls Browning, who would later visit runner-up Alaska. “We moved to the Orlando area in 1972, founded my medical business forms and systems company, and stayed there until 1998. That’s when I discovered Lake Weir.”
In addition to the water, Browning also had a long-time affinity for the sky. Of course, he had to learn to fly. And just plain ol’ flying wouldn’t do for him. Once armed with a pilot’s license, he bought and began flying open cockpit bi-planes. Not just flying either, but taking part in precision aerobatics competition as he barnstormed around the country. And to his ever-growing skills as a photographer, add sports aviation photography to the list.
It is only fitting that Browning discovered Lake Weir via air and water. “I owned property in Leeward Air Ranch and had flying buddies who lived there,” he recounts. “So I’d do a lot of flying back and forth between Orlando and Ocala. I always liked Ocala with its lakes, forests and horses farms. One day, I flew over Lake Weir and it just grabbed my attention. First chance I got, I rented a boat and went around the lake, writing down numbers on the real estate signs in front of property for sale.”
As he made his way around the lake, Browning used his cell phone to call the realtors listed on the signs. By the time he docked the boat, he had property lined up to see. Shortly thereafter, the family was moving into a lakefront home within yards of Treasure Island.
“I didn’t even know about the rookery when we bought the house,” says Browning. “But soon I began observing the comings and goings of the birds. Then I was appalled to see the havoc being caused by the jet skies and the power boaters. They would go right up over the island, scattering the birds every which way. I don’t think they realized what damage they were doing to the birds’ environment.”
The disruption was destroying the birds’ habitat and life cycle. Startled birds would take flight again and again, damaging their eggs and becoming dangerously exhausted. Unable to sit and watch the destruction passively, Browning picked up his camera and thus began the successful grassroots conservation mission. It also led to Browning being invited by President George Bush to the White House for the 2004 Earth Day. The Marion County Chamber of Commerce presented Browning with the 2005 Walt Driggers Environmentalist of the Year Award. All that aside, Browning is still mesmerized by the birds.
His current Lake Weir home is a little farther away from Treasure Island than his first, but still only a 10-minute pontoon boat ride away. On his boat deck Browning mounts an eight-inch Celestron spotting telescope, rests his camera atop that and clicks away. He uses a tripod if he wants to shoot the birds looking up and a ladder if he wants to shoot down.
“Because of the large format size I shoot, long lenses are the key,” says Browning, whose first major photo exhibit in 1999 was entitled Lakes and Rivers of Florida. “I use Nikon digital cameras and lens. Although I do still have my old box cameras and a new Wisner box camera, which I will sometimes use.”
It was the birds that made Browning switch from mainly shooting in black and white to color. And it was environmental concerns that had him abandon processing his own film and embrace the digital camera. “I couldn’t resist all the beautiful colors of nature. I had to shoot in color,” he says. “And I didn’t want to pollute the water system with processing chemicals. When I do shoot in film, I use a commercial processing lab.”
When Browning heads over to the island, he says he feels like he should “have a passport because it’s like going to another country.” The birds and the season dictate the shooting schedule. Once he picks out his spot, Browning will just relax and “let the birds tell their story.” He uses notes to complement his photos showing every aspect of the birds’ life from mating to nest building to hatching to raising the young.
“One of the best things to watch is the young birds learning to fly,” says Browning, then adding with a laugh, “or I should say learning to land. They pick up the flying part pretty easy, but there are a lot of crash landings before they get the hang of that part of it.”
Browning also incorporates many other elements of the birds’ environment into his photos. Not far from a heron fishing from the bank is a lurking alligator. Or perfectly camouflaged in the underbrush behind an egret are several different varieties of snakes. And a turtle can be seen peeking out from the very same hollow log that two birds have landed on. His photo collection also includes many other birds that are residents of the Lake Weir habitat: osprey, hawks, eagles, wood ducks.
Reveling in all of it, Browning never fails to find new joy in nature. And feel a tremendous sense of responsibility. “We are on watch and we must do our part to preserve and protect the nature we have been blessed with here in Florida,” he says. “This is our time to preserve these treasures and pass them on to future generations. All life survives one generation at a time.”
Discover Marion County and Marion CountyCC are linked to The Villages Marion County and Villages Lake, as well as Villages Sumter. Drilling down into neighborhood communication via print, web, and political/environmental meetings is critical in modern social media credibility ranking. Lecturing on the subject of Florida's Birds is an important connection for Don in The Villages world class multi-neighborhood venue.