Dan Wundrock has climbed mountains and trekked to the ends of the earth to study and photograph the most beautiful winged creatures on the planet
When Dan Wundrock of the Town of Cedarburg wants to photograph birds, he will go to extreme measures to get the shot he wants. It’s not just
seeing and photographing birds that fascinates him, but also the science behind the birds’ behavior, especially if they’re out of their normal habitat.
“I don’t consider myself a great bird-watcher. I think of myself more as an ornithologist. I want to know how they work, how they fly,” Wundrock
said. “I pride myself on going beyond just identifying birds.”
In the 1970s, Wundrock climbed craggy cliffs on a remote island off Norway to study the nesting habits of common muirs, puffins and red-headed
grebes, contributing new data on Arctic birds.
That venture earned him his most prized honor — induction in 1987 into the exclusive Explorers Club in New York, founded in 1904 to honor people
who have contributed significant scientific information through exploration.
It all started in the 1970s when Wundrock was majoring in biology and learning disabilities at the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh. He spotted a
nesting red-necked grebe, which normally nests in the Arctic.
Unable to find much information on the bird that spends its life at sea coming on land for only one month from late May to June to have its young,
Wundrock decided to launch his own expedition to the bird’s nesting grounds for his graduate work.
He flew to Norway, drove as far as he could, then took a ferry to a remote island. There, he paid native Laplanders to take him to the cliffs where
they said the birds nested.
Without any mountain-climbing experience, Wundrock figured out how to climb and repel the steep cliffs.
“By necessity, I had to develop climbing skills,” he said. “Mountaineering is learning survival techniques, learning how to care for yourself. Every
decision can be life or death. So much of it is common sense or guts.”
He was rewarded by witnessing the amazing nesting habits of common muirs, the first birds he studied. The birds lay triangular eggs so they don’t
roll off the cliff ledges.
Parent incubate the eggs between their feet, facing toward the wall, cradling the egg between them and the cliff.
“Their backs are black, so it was a wall of black,” Wundrock said.
When the eggs were ready to hatch, the parents turned around.
The most amazing thing, Wundrock said, was when the babies were ready to fledge.
“There was all this chattering and excitement, and all of a sudden they all jumped off the cliff at the same time — 400 to 500 feet down,” Wundrock
said. “Some didn’t make it. But most sailed down into the water and swam off to sea.”
That experience led to Wundrock’s second love — mountain climbing. He climbed Mount Everest, made a solo ascent of Mount McKinley and climbed
the three tallest peaks in Iceland. His last climb was 10 years ago in Iceland.
He also taught a summer survival school for high school students in Colorado for many years.
Wundrock, who formerly lived in Grafton, left his job as a science and learning disabilities teacher at Nicolet High School in 1978 to start Golden West
Distributors in Jackson, specializing in camping, backpacking and mountaineering equipment.
He sold the company a few years ago and now is a part-time environmental educator at Riveredge Nature Center in the Town of Saukville. He
conducts programs for children and adults, often incorporating his bird photos into his programs.
While he was mountain climbing and running his business, Wundrock said, he did more bird watching than photography, but he’s rediscovered the joy
of photography with his Canon 7D digital camera and its 500 mm telephoto lens.
In 2012, Wundrock spent 24 hours in a blind he rented in the Rowe Sanctuary in central Nebraska, where 750,000 sandhill cranes congregate
annually to nest. Only one person per day is allowed to be in the preserve along the Platte River from mid-February to March.
“You have to arrive during the day, stay overnight in the blind and leave the next day,” he said. “You know how noisy sandhills are. They were
honking all night. It was cloudy the next day, so the pictures aren’t what I wanted. I’ll have to return some day.”
Next month, Wundrock and his wife Mary are going to Costa Rica to study tropical birds.
Some of Wundrock’s favorite places to study and photograph birds in the United States are Nebraska, Colorado, the coasts of North and South
Carolina and remote bayou areas.
His favorite spots in Wisconsin are the Horicon Marsh, Kaukauna 1000 Island Nature Center, Riveredge, the Lake Michigan shoreline and his back
When the spring migration begins in mid-March, Wundrock expects to spend many hours in a blind photographing the colorful transient birds that
stop at his backyard bird feeders.
Wundrock loves his job at Riveredge.
“This is likely the best job of my life,” he said. “It’s very low key, a lot less stressful than running a business, and I get to talk about birds.”
Image Information: EXPLORER AND PHOTOGRAPHER Dan Wundrock held a photo of a colorful puffin he took in the Arctic in the 1970s. Wundrock was inducted into the exclusive Explorer’s Club in New York for his ground-breaking research on Arctic birds’ nesting habits. He now uses a Canon 7D digital camera with a 500 mm lens to capture and study birds. Photo by Sam Arendt