Ashland wildlife photographer Dan Elster has a few tricks up his sleeve when it comes to getting close to wild animals.
"I'll never make eye contact with a subject, whether it's a sparrow or a coyote," he said. "I don't act like a predator. I move slowly, but I don't creep."
Elster knows which animals are likely to be wary, and which have a ho-hum attitude about the presence of humans.
He stays in his car to avoid spooking coyotes in the Klamath Basin, where they are often hunted, but can easily approach brown pelicans and gulls in Crescent City, Calif.
A Chicago native, Elster traveled the country photographing wildlife while his wife worked as a travel nurse before the couple settled in Phoenix, later moving to Ashland. They now have two small children.
Eight years of wildlife photography have honed Elster's ability to spot birds and animals.
"I've gotten to the point where I can't turn it off. My wife says I have radar," he said.
After finding the Rogue Valley and being accepted into the juried outdoor Lithia Artisans Market in Ashland, Elster began achieving more and more success with his art.
He sells his work at art festivals across the West and displays photographs in multiple settings, from the Liquid Assets Wine Bar in downtown Ashland this month through December, to the Audubon Society of Portland Wild Arts Festival this coming weekend.
On Thanksgiving weekend, Elster will exhibit his photographs at the Lithia Artisans Christmas Faire in the Historic Ashland Armory on the corner of Oak and B streets in Ashland. Admission is free and the hours are from 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. Friday, Nov. 23, 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. on Saturday, Nov. 24, and 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. on Sunday, Nov. 25.
For Elster, patience and a bit of luck have netted surprising and stunning photos.
A screech owl perched on a "Think" sign he had in his Phoenix backyard.
"If there ever was a gift from the bird gods, that was it," he said, noting that photos of that owl and sign have been big sellers.
Once Elster spent 45 minutes slowly approaching a barn owl and captured a photograph when it outstretched its beautifully colored wing. That photograph led to a magazine spread.
At other times, his wild subjects turn the tables. Spotting flying snow, Elster stopped his car to shoot photos of a busily digging skunk. But the annoyed skunk advanced on him, threatening to spray him, his dog, his vehicle and his camera equipment.
"I've never been so frozen," Elster said, adding that the skunk eventually went on its way.
Through it all, Elster has captured the intimate lives and struggles of animals trying to survive.
He keeps tabs on a family of great horned owls a few miles outside Ashland and has watched the adults raise a new batch of babies each year.
"It's beautiful to see the nurturing and to see how hard it is to raise three or four owls. It's no less beautiful than seeing a mom and dad raising kids," he said.
What might cause others to wrinkle their noses in disgust fascinates Elster. He watched a seagull choke down a writhing starfish, and took photo after photo of a raven picking at a dead sea lion.
"Each low tide, he was back on top of that carcass," Elster said. "To a lot of people, that's gross and weird. But that's how ravens live. That's when ravens stop being trendy subjects for art and get interesting."
More information about Elster's photography is available at www.elsterphotography.com/.
Reach reporter Vickie Aldous at 541-479-8199 or firstname.lastname@example.org.