Field Notes: Taking a closer look at nature

Two damselflies, perched on a blade of grass at a pond outside the Columbia River Gorge Discovery Center, during the summer of 2017. "There's a lot of bug action in the spring and summer," Ron Kikel, an information assistant for the Mt. Hood National Forest and amateur nature photographer, said. Courtesy photo by Ron Kikel, used with permission.

Ron Kikel is a bird man. And an ant man. And a wasp guy. Those aren’t his superhero aliases – they’re descriptions of just some of his work as a conservation education specialist for the Mt. Hood National Forest.

But, Kikel is probably best known as the “owl guy.”

Meet Jack.

Jack, a 12-year old Great Horned Owl, is blind in one eye. He was rescued and rehabilitated by staff at the Rowena Wildlife Clinic, which trains disabled raptors for use providing wildlife education. Courtesy photo provided by Ron Kikel (used with permission).
Jack, a 12-year old Great Horned Owl, is blind in one eye. He was rescued and rehabilitated by staff at the Rowena Wildlife Clinic, which trains disabled raptors for use providing wildlife education. Courtesy photo provided by Ron Kikel (used with permission).

Jack is a 12-year old Great Horned Owl. He’s also blind in one eye. Jack was rescued after tangling with some barbed wire, and rehabilitated several years ago by the Rowena Wildlife Clinic, which partners with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to care for disabled raptors and trains them for use in educational settings.

Kikel met Jack in 2010, at a Wild for Wildlife event. Jack was working with his caretaker, Dr. Jean Cypher, at the time to provide conservation education to students. Kikel was doing similar work for the Forest Service, using a taxidermied owl as a prop.

Their encounter inspired Kikel to pursue training to become a raptor handler, himself.

 
Jack, a disabled Great Horned Owl, assists Ron Kikel, an Information Assistant on the Mt. Hood National Forest and trained raptor handler, with providing conservation education talks around the region. Courtesy photo provided by Ron Kikel (used with permission).

Jack, a disabled Great Horned Owl, assists Ron Kikel, an Information Assistant on the Mt. Hood National Forest and trained raptor handler, with providing conservation education talks around the region. Courtesy photo provided by Ron Kikel (used with permission).

“With taxidermy, you are mostly talking about anatomy. Kids ask a lot of questions about where the bird came from, sometimes it gets a little off-track,” he said. “Show them the live owl, and you have their attention for at 30 minutes, at least.”

These days, Jack and Kikel work as a team to provide conservation education at schools and public events located near Kikel’s “home base” at the Hood River Ranger District in Parkdale, Oregon.

 
Jack the Great Horned Owl poses with Ron Kikel, an Information Assistant on the Mt. Hood National Forest and trained raptor handler. For the past few years, the pair have worked as a team to provide conservation education for classrooms and community groups around their area.  Courtesy photo provided by Ron Kikel (used with permission).

Jack the Great Horned Owl poses with Ron Kikel, an Information Assistant on the Mt. Hood National Forest and trained raptor handler. For the past few years, the pair have worked as a team to provide conservation education for classrooms and community groups around their area. Courtesy photo provided by Ron Kikel (used with permission).

Sometimes, Jack even joins him at the ranger station’s front desk, where Kikel provides visitor information and the owl has his own perch.

“He’s a star. Everyone likes him a lot,” Kikel said. “He’s probably the best coworker I’ve ever had.”

"This is a hoverfly, I found him on a sunflower last summer," Ron Kikel, an information assistant for Hood River Ranger District on the Mt. Hood National Forest, said. He explained the insect is a fly species that looks much like a bee. "If you look at their eyes, they're more fly-like.. and there's no stinger. (But) when you're camouflaged like that, you're less likely to become someone's dinner." Courtesy photo by Ron Kikel (used with permission).
“This is a hoverfly, I found him on a sunflower last summer,” Ron Kikel, an information assistant for Hood River Ranger District on the Mt. Hood National Forest, said. He explained the insect is a fly species that looks much like a bee. “If you look at their eyes, they’re more fly-like.. and there’s no stinger. (But) when you’re camouflaged like that, you’re less likely to become someone’s dinner.” Courtesy photo by Ron Kikel (used with permission).

Kikel isn’t just a bird man, he’s also a bug guy. He’s known in the Forest Service’s regional conservation education community for his nature photos, many of which feature dramatic close-ups of the nature he finds around him.

In his prior career, photography was Kikel’s job. He served 20 years in the Air Force, 12 of them as a photographer working in medical research and forensics.

“I worked at Wilford Hall, a big research hospital. So we had an infectious disease lab, dermatology, poison control. They’d want (close-up) photos for teaching, so I took some courses in it,” he said.

"This is a hoverfly, I found him on a sunflower last summer," Ron Kikel, an information assistant for Hood River Ranger District on the Mt. Hood National Forest, said. He explained the insect is a fly species that looks much like a bee. "If you look at their eyes, they're more fly-like.. and there's no stinger. (But) when you're camouflaged like that, you're less likely to become someone's dinner." Courtesy photo by Ron Kikel (used with permission).
“(This dragonfly) was at a pond near the (Columbia River Gorge) Discovery Center in The Dalles. I think that was last summer,” Ron Kikel, an information assistant for Hood River Ranger District on the Mt. Hood National Forest, said. The photo was taken from about 12″ away, using a Nikon D50 camera and 105mm macro lens. Courtesy photo by Ron Kikel (used with permission).

Today, skills he once used to photograph scorpions and fire ants for environmental health brochures given to deploying service members are the same ones he now uses to capture breathtaking images of Pacific Northwest beetles, birds and butterflies.

To avoid disturbing his subjects, Kikel often works with minimal gear, often taking photos with just an old Nikon D-50 camera, a manual macro lens, and sometimes a flash.

A ladybug makes a meal of an aphid.  "She's so busy munching down, she didn't even notice me," Ron Kikel, an information assistant for Hood River Ranger District on the Mt. Hood National Forest, said. Kikel makes a hobby of his love for nature through photography, with a special focus on landscapes and macro (close-up) photography. Courtesy photo by Ron Kikel (used with permission).
A ladybug makes a meal of an aphid. “She’s so busy munching down, she didn’t even notice me,” Ron Kikel, an information assistant for Hood River Ranger District on the Mt. Hood National Forest, said. Kikel makes a hobby of his love for nature through photography, with a special focus on landscapes and macro (close-up) photography. Courtesy photo by Ron Kikel (used with permission).

Despite the seeming spontaneity of this approach, he said macro photography is actually a very slow-going endeavor.

“It takes a lot of patience, because your subjects aren’t going to sit still,” he said.

This Marsh Hawk was in the rehabilitation enclosure at the Rowna Wildlife Clinic, Ron Kikel, an Information Assistant for the Mt. Hood National Forest, said. He said he spends a lot of time studying his subject's features, and it's hard not to imagine his subjects' have an inner emotional life, much like humans. “You go into an enclosure with big birds, and they can be pretty foreboding-looking when they are not happy,” he said.  
Courtesy photo by Ron Kikel (used with permission).
This Marsh Hawk was in the rehabilitation enclosure at the Rowna Wildlife Clinic, Ron Kikel, an Information Assistant for the Mt. Hood National Forest, said. He said he spends a lot of time studying his subject’s features, and it’s hard not to imagine his subjects’ have an inner emotional life, much like humans. “You go into an enclosure with big birds, and they can be pretty foreboding-looking when they are not happy,” he said.
Courtesy photo by Ron Kikel (used with permission).

These days, Kikel said, he considers his photography to be not his job, but his passion.

But he still finds lots of inspiration at the office.

“Mt. Hood is right outside my window… I can watch it change with the seasons,” he said.

An autumn photo of Opal Creek, Ore. Courtesy photo by Ron Kikel (used with permission).
An autumn photo of Opal Creek, Ore. Courtesy photo by Ron Kikel (used with permission).

While Kikel credits patience for his most successful shots, he said sometimes a little luck is also required.

He was experimenting with a new camera when he caught a striking image of a Cooper Hawk perched just outside his bedroom.

This Cooper Hawk made a late-February, 2019 appearance at the bird feeder outside Ron Kikel's home. "He takes the word 'bird feeder' to a whole new level," Kikel said, saying the hawk left hungry that day, but has since killed at least one bird who came to feed there. Courtesy photo by Ron Kikel (used with permission).
This Cooper Hawk made a late-February, 2019 appearance at the bird feeder outside Ron Kikel’s home. “He takes the word ‘bird feeder’ to a whole new level,” Kikel said, saying the hawk left hungry that day, but has since killed at least one bird who came to feed there. Courtesy photo by Ron Kikel (used with permission).

“I was shooting (pictures of) the birds at my feeder, through the window, and suddenly they all bolted,” he said. “Then I looked up, and said ‘well, that’s why… I’d better get this dude’s picture before he takes off!’”

Whether he’s providing customer service at the ranger station, giving wildlife education talks, or providing tours of Cloud Cap Inn, it’s the interpretive element that drew him to his job.

Ron Kikel took this photo of a heron while visiting Seaside, Ore. in early March, 2019. Courtesy photo by Ron Kikel (used with permission).
Ron Kikel took this photo of a heron while visiting Seaside, Ore. in early March, 2019. Courtesy photo by Ron Kikel (used with permission).

Seeing the world through a different lens, and being able to share it, is what draws him to photography, as well.

“It’s really an incredible world, when you see it close up,” he said.

"Rufus," a Rufous Hummingbird (Selasphorus rufus), photographed by  
Ron Kikel, an information assistant for the Mt. Hood National Forest. "I tend to anthropomorphize my subjects," he said. Courtesy photo by Ron Kikel (used with permission).
“Rufus,” a Rufous Hummingbird (Selasphorus rufus), photographed by
Ron Kikel, an information assistant for the Mt. Hood National Forest. “I tend to anthropomorphize my subjects,” he said. Courtesy photo by Ron Kikel (used with permission).

Source information: Catherine “Cat” Caruso is the strategic communication lead for the USDA Forest Service – Pacific Northwest Region’s Office of Communications and Community Engagement, and edits the “Your Northwest Forests” blog. You can reach her at ccaruso@fs.fed.us.

A field filled with wildlflowers at Dalles Mountain State Ranch in Washington, spring 2017. Courtesy photo by Ron Kikel (used with permission).
A field filled with wildlflowers at Dalles Mountain State Ranch in Washington, spring 2017. Courtesy photo by Ron Kikel (used with permission).

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