Gresham photographer offers window to wildlife
After moving to a home in Gresham with her husband along Johnson Creek, Carol Zyvatkauskas found herself gazing out the window.
She would watch the birds flit through the trees, deer stride across her backyard and fish leap from the water. One morning, Zyvatkauskas saw otters playing and splashing in the stream. But when she excitedly told people what she had seen, the question was always, "Did you get a picture?"
"I thought ,'That's it, I'm getting a better camera,'" Zyvatkauskas said with a laugh.
Her love of animals and nature stemmed from a gift from her sister — a book of animal photography that enthralled Zyvatkauskas as a 9-year old. She dreamed of becoming a wildlife photographer.
Now in retirement, she is living that dream.
Now 59, she scours Gresham's natural spaces looking for wildlife to capture with her camera, sharing the photos with others so they can better appreciate the city's beauty. Snapping away unpaid, she posts her photos to the Johnson Creek Watershed Council Facebook page and hosts regular showcase presentations supported by the city of Gresham.
"I love to share the photos I take," she said. "If I just take them for me, it's barely 2 percent of the enjoyment. I love hearing from people who get so excited to see the animals."
Zyvatkauskas grew up in Scarborough, Ontario, a place she likens to Gresham, with strip malls and residential neighborhoods mashed up against beautiful natural spaces. She would go on to work in the newspaper industry with The Globe and Mail and The Toronto Sun. She later took her newsroom experience to a job at the University of Toronto, where she worked for 25 years in the communications department.
"With the advent of digital photography, we realized we could begin taking photos ourselves," said Zyvatkauskas, who cut her photography teeth covering the wide array of people and events at the university.
Zyvatkauskas eventually made her way to Gresham in 2013, where her husband Kirk Wilson had grown up. The couple moved into a home right along the creek, where her passion for animal photography grew.
She has discovered all sorts of wildlife in Gresham, photographing beavers, otters, minks, deer, rabbits, eagles, hawks, fish, frogs, salamanders, coyotes, owls and much more. The one thing she is missing a good photo of is a bat, because she often sees them when it's too dark out.
However, she is working on a plan to secure that picture.
"The more you look, the more you see," she noted. "So every day I look."
For Zyvatkauskas, the type of camera she uses isn't the important part of capturing animals in their natural habitats. She uses a Nikon D3300 as her main tool, with a variety of lenses. Instead of focusing on the equipment, she finds the best ally to a photographer is the light. Most animals are active during dawn or dusk, the times people should be hunting with their cameras.
"Most of what I do isn't high-end photography, it's animal journalism," she explained. "I want to show people the animal and where it lives."
Among her favorite creatures to photograph are amphibians, which she often finds living in her backyard. In part, it's because they make for great subjects. With their defense mechanism of freezing, once you find an amphibian, they are often happy to pose for a picture.
"One day while I was gardening I lifted a flower pot and found this slender salamander curled up," Zyvatkauskas said. "I didn't know what type it was, so I took a photo and sent it to an expert with the city."
The response was excitement — Zyvatkauskas had photographed an Oregon slender salamander. The species, which is considered vulnerable because of loss of habitat, is most often found on the slopes of the Cascade Range. Yet, when Zyvatkauskas did some more digging, she realized just how many called her backyard home.
"They were all living in a cinderblock wall I have in the yard," she said. "It was like an apartment building for the salamanders. As far as we know, it's the largest population in the greater Portland area."
Another favorite subject is otters, which are always curious about what she is doing while she snaps photos. She tries to capture the eyes of her subjects to convey the emotions and connections she feels to animals.
"Amphibians are so alien looking, but there is that one piece in them that is recognizable," Zyvatkauskas said. "There is a comfort as a person having a connection with other species that are our neighbors."
It's easy for locals to make their homes friendlier to wild neighbors. Zyvatkauskas put in a small pond to support amphibians, and keeps a corner of her yard unkempt to allow for better habitats. As she explains it, animals love lazy gardeners.
There are also many places in the city that provide striking views of wildlife. One of Zyvatkauskas' favorite spots is Gresham's Main City Park downtown at 219 S. Main Ave. If you visit in the spring, she advises to keep an eye out for a beaver dam off the east edge of Tsuru Island.
For Zyvatkauskas, however, the best discoveries still come from looking out the window.
One day she thought she saw a furry white snake dart along a path by the creek. She grabbed her camera and raced out after the mysterious creature to determine what it was. A few photos later, she discovered it was not a snake, but a mink.
"I learned it wasn't an albino because the eyes weren't red," she said. "I had photographed what people call the 'Ghost Weasel.'"
Zyvatkauskas explained the term "weasel" was used rather than mink because it sounded better and the two species are in the same family.
One of her tricks is watching and listening for signs. When she sees strange ripples in the water, that often indicates something is enjoying the creek. One day she noticed a rhythmic pulsating ripple in the creek. Upon exploring, she found a bullfrog struggling to eat a crawdad. Another time she heard a cacophony of birds shrieking. She followed their signals, and found them circling a young barn owl, which was sitting in a tree bemused with all of the attention.
"The greatest concentration of wildlife is where two ecosystems meet," Zyvatkauskas said. "In Gresham, one of those places is where the buttes meet the creek."
"I want to let people know Gresham is cool. It's an amazing place," Zyvatkauskas said. "There are so many wild spaces."
There are plenty of natural spaces across Gresham where photographer Carol Zyvatkauskas recommends going to see animals and other wildlife creatures. They include:
• Hogan Butte Nature Park, 757 S.E. Gabbert Road
• Gabbert Butte Trail, 300 Southwest Gabbert Road
• Butler Creek Greenway Trail, entries at Southwest Willow Parkway, Southwest Binford Lake Parkway and the Springwater Corridor Trail
• Salish Ponds Wetland Park, 20619 N.E. Glisan St.
• Main City Park, 219 S. Main Ave.