A picture may be worth 1,000 words, but Winter Garden resident Robin Ulery shot a photo that stood out among 8,770 entries to take the 2021 National Audubon Society Amateur Photography Award.
“I remember when the editor of the Audubon magazine up in New York called me,” said Robin Ulery. “She said, ‘I had never seen a picture of a sandhill crane like that.’ I was over the moon with that comment.”
Ulery’s online portfolio features majestic images of bald eagles, owls, otters and other wildlife along with portraits and inspiring landscapes. The collection only spans about 10 years, but the relationships and memories she has made on her journey will last a lifetime.
Growing up in Cape Cod inspired Ulery to pick up a camera, but she never saw it as more than a passing interest.
“I used to have a point-and-shoot, so I took photos of ducks and geese and wildlife,” Ulery said of her childhood hobby. “I wish I had pursued it more back then, because it has definitely become a passion of mine.”
Photography remained more of a pastime than a serious pursuit for many years. She moved to Central Florida in 1985, worked for Hard Rock Cafe at Universal Orlando Resort, married her husband Tom in 2003 and settled in West Orange County, where her passion eventually was empowered with a gift.
“It was my 50th
birthday, and my husband gave me my first DSLR camera. It changed my world.”
— Robin Ulery
“It was my 50th birthday, and my husband gave me my first DSLR camera,” Ulery said. “It changed my world.”
Going from ultra user-friendly cameras to manual control functions and high-powered lenses took some time. YouTube tutorials and local camera clubs taught her the fundamentals, and she credits the many photographers she has met both in person and through social media with focusing her skills.
“I learned a ton, and there are a ton of really, really talented people out there who have been so wonderful,” Ulery said.
The view from her backyard on the shore of Johns Lake provided a constant source of inspiration and practice. She built nest boxes in her backyard to keep some of her feathered subjects close by. And her kayak went from exercise accessory to photography tool, allowing her to approach wildlife from the water.
When her neighbors rescued a great horned owlet in February, Ulery went into photojournalist mode and documented the act of kindness.
“We were out walking, and my neighbor pointed out where the baby had fallen,” Ulery said. “We all brought it back to the house and called the (Audubon Center for Birds of Prey) in Maitland to come pick it up.”
Within 24 hours, a crew returned the owlet and built a temporary nest. The baby eventually reunited with its family and became the subject of a photo story on Ulery’s website.
“It was an amazing thing to watch, but it brought me a lot closer to my neighbors,” she said. “That made it really special.”
The award-winning photo op happened March 7. Ulery had been making daily kayak trips to keep an eye on a nest of sandhill cranes. She had spent the previous three years observing the family and knew they were expecting a new addition.
“I watched them for approximately 30 days, and I’d go out every day,” Ulery said. “It was really windy, the kayak was bouncing, but I managed two shots while the baby was up there.”
The decision to enter the Audubon contest came after encouragement from family and a flood of social media feedback.
“I have a lot of photography friends, and they’re like, ‘We’ve never seen a shot like that,’” she said.
Her photo is featured in Audubon magazine, she has received several requests to purchase prints and there are plans to showcase her work in a three-month exhibit at the Winter Garden Library beginning in October. Yet, in spite of the acclaim, Ulery has no plans to turn professional.
“The market is very saturated, and there are so many great photographers out there,” she said. “That’s why I never considered entering any contests.”
Her next ambition is to photograph a Kingfisher that occasionally visits her dock. Only time will tell if her efforts reach the heights of the sandhill crane photo, but for now, Ulery is just happy to share her creativity on her own terms.
“I’m a hobbyist … and I love nature,” she said.