Patience — and a cooperating otter — win photography award

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Feb. 1—SANDY LAKE — For Fran Bires, the great outdoors have been a lifelong interest — something he can now express through photography, a hobby that took off for him about five or six years ago.

And since the Sandy Lake resident and his wife Nancy live near the Maurice K. Goddard State Park, the couple often spend plenty of time hiking, biking or taking photos there — including a photo Fran took last year of an otter.

The otter, perched on a rock and looking back at Fran, is a rare example of an animal “cooperating” during a photo shoot, and one that recently won Fran the People’s Choice Runner Up Award from the Pennsylvania Parks and Forests Foundation’s Annual Photo Contest.

“It was cool, but it was also very unexpected,” Fran said of the award.

Fran’s photo was one of about 600 submissions to the contest in 2022, according to a press release.

The quality and volume of the photos is evidence of the passion people have for their state parks and forests, Pennsylvania Parks and Forests Foundation President Marci Mowery said in the release.

“Photography is one of many ways that people enjoy these special places,” Mowery said.

Despite the recognition, Fran said he didn’t set out to be an award-winning photographer; his true passion has always been the outdoors and wildlife.

To that end, Fran’s career included a 33-year stint at the former McKeever Environmental Learning Center, along with some time working at state parks including Raccoon Creek State Park and McConnells Mill State Park.

Fran also continues to serve on the board of the Friends of Maurice K. Goddard State Park.

When he retired in 2016, Fran continued spending time outdoors. But now, Fran could invest more time studying photography, which had previously been an “on-and-off again” hobby prior to retirement.

“It was kind of a natural fit,” Fran said. “I know a lot of photographers that do weddings and things like that, but being a nature and outdoors buff, that’s what I wanted to shoot.”

However, Fran said photography still took a lot of trial and error, as he learned different aspects such as equipment, composition and lighting.

He also learned how much patience goes into photography, especially wildlife photography, since the shots are dictated by the whims of nature and the animals.

“Something I’ve learned from professional photographers is that, when people go out in the field, a lot of people up too quick,” Fran said. “I’ve done that where you give up, and as soon as you do, that’s usually when something cool happens.”

During one of many trips to Goddard three or four years ago, Fran said he saw his first river otter. Although he snapped a few photos at the time, Fran later went back to the same location and once again saw otters there.

By the time he took his award-winning photo, Fran said the otters seemed to get used to his presence instead of scattering, although Fran continued to keep his distance.

Despite the unique opportunity presented when one of the otters looked at him long enough to snap a photo, Fran said it was important to be respectful of animals when shooting them.

That’s why Fran said photographers should not only be mindful of their own safety, but also the safety of the animals by not getting too loud or too close.

Some bird species will abandon a nest if someone gets too close or disturbs a nest, while foxes may take their young from the den and try to find a new den if they feel the pups are threatened.

“Ethics is a big part of this. You’ve got to be respectful of wildlife,” Fran said.

Aside from receiving his first photography award, Fran also had a photo of an eastern bluebird published in Pennsylvania Magazine, and a landscape photograph of Goddard’s Falling Run Waterfall in Inside Pennsylvania Magazine, both in 2022.

Fran stressed though that while it was “cool” having his work recognized last year, and he may submit toward the contest in the future, he doesn’t take photos for the awards.

Since there’s no way to plan ahead the circumstances that can make for a great photo, it helps to enjoy the outdoors regardless of the photo opportunities.

“You can spend hours a day outside and not see something. That’s what makes these kinds of photos unique,” he said.

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