At 5 a.m., while most of Southwest Florida is asleep, Mary Lundeberg, wearing a khaki photographer’s vest and carrying a tripod, might be walking out of her home in Englewood, while an insect chorus swells from the mangrove marshes that extend from her back yard to Lemon Bay. She’s headed to Cape Haze, where she’s been following a family of foxes for three years, crouching in bushes near their den until the parents venture out at dawn.
“They’re phenomenal parents,” says Lundeberg. She has watched them hunt for their newborns, warn their romping kits of nearby danger—and suffer the loss of several to predators and cars.
On other days, she may be focusing on a great horned owl she follows in Stump Pass State Park, or helping the rangers there find where least terns and Wilson plovers are nesting this year. Or she could be preparing a lecture about wild Florida for a civic group, writing her nature column for a local newspaper or mapping out her next trip. Over the last few years, she’s photographed wildlife and landscapes in several Northern states, as well as Alaska, Antarctica and Arctic Norway. Scheduled for 2019: India and Africa.
“My husband Bill's golf buddies tease him, ‘Where is Mary this week?’” she says with her ready smile.
Lundeberg, 65, began taking pictures only eight years ago, but during what she calls “my whole new second career,” she has collected dozens of national and international awards, most recently as a semifinalist in the Nature’s Best Photography 2018 Windland Awards. Her shot of a sandhill crane cuddling its chick was selected from more than 26,000 images. “I love to show animals caring and nurturing,” she says.
Lundeberg was head of the department of education at Michigan State University in East Lansing, when Bill surprised her with a professional camera. “Why would I want that?” she thought. “It’s heavy and doesn’t fit into my pocket.”
But within a few weeks she was hooked. Although she had always loved art, Lundeberg says, “I didn’t know I had an eye for photography until I started to do it.” A lifelong nature lover, she was soon traipsing around the woods with her camera.
“Like any academic, I studied books to learn all I could,” she says. Even more important was the advice she got from a mentor. “Photographers tend to want to show everything,” Lundeberg says. “But he’d tell me, ‘Simplify, Mary.”
She says she learned to make her subjects sharp and soften the background and realized that “a bird has more presence and impact if it’s surrounded by space.” She also discovered that photographers must wait, sometimes for hours, for a creature to emerge and reveal its essence. “As a professor, my days were booked, with one meeting after another,” says Lundeberg. “Photography allows you to slow down. You have to pay attention to the moment, and the moment is everything.”
And she learned she had to stay alert. One day in Minnesota she was mesmerized by two tussling black bear cubs when she felt something pull at the back of her vest. Assuming it was another photographer, she turned around—to face a curious yearling bear, as tall as she was. (Unlike grizzlies, she says, black bears are rarely dangerous, and when she backed away, raising her tripod over her head, it ambled into the woods.)
“Wild animals have stories to tell. And they have emotions,” she insists. She points to photographs hanging in her studio as proof. “Look at their eyes!” she says, gesturing towards a great blue heron glaring with fierce majesty, then to a Florida panther, whose molten-gold eyes glow with soulful depth.
Her photography has turned Lundeberg, who moved here in 2012, into a passionate advocate for preservation. She monitors individual birds and nests from Longboat Key to Englewood as a “bird steward” for Audubon and another group, and she donates her images to nonprofits, such as the Gulf Coast Conservation Foundation, to help raise funds and awareness.
“I don’t like to be politically involved,” she says. But experiencing the wild through her camera has made her realize how much is at stake. “Florida has lost more wetlands than any other state,” she says. “We are losing land not only here but all over the planet. I have become very aware of how important regulation is. You can’t let industry police itself.”
She believes Southwest Floridians are receptive to that message. “All my neighbors want clean air and water. They came here because of the beauty,” she says. Her photography captures that beauty and helps people “appreciate and identify with” wildlife, says Lundeberg. “And it’s given me a way to contribute to Florida, a place I love.”