2019 WGNSS Nature Photo Contest

Last night the Webster Groves Nature Study Society (WGNSS) held their 2019 Nature Photo Contest, and I was fortunate to have a 1st place winner in the ‘Plants and Fungi’ category! This photograph of grassleaved lady’s tresses orchid (Spiranthes vernalis) flowers was taken at Taberville Prairie Natural Area in St. Clair Co., Missouri. Like other species of lady’s tresses orchids, their tubular flowers are arranged in a spiral along the inflorescence and cross-pollinated primarily by long-tongued bees (e.g. bumblebees, Bombus spp., and megachilid bees) (van der Cingel 2001).

Spiranthes vernalis (spring lady's tresses)

Grassleaved lady’s tresses orchid (Spiranthes vernalis), Taberville Prairie Natural Area, St. Clair Co., Missouri.

Spiranthes is one of the more complex genera of North American orchids, with seven species known to occur in Missouri (Summers 1985), and like almost all orchids, their pollination biology is fascinating! The flowers are “protandrous”, i.e., they are functionally male when they first open and become functionally female as they age. Since they open sequentially from the base of the inflorescence as it grows, this results in female flowers on the lower portion of the inflorescence and male flowers on the upper portion.  Thus, bee pollinators tend to act as pollen donors when visiting lower flowers and pollen recipients when visiting upper flowers.  Male pollinia are attached to the bee’s proboscis as it tries to access the nectar secreted into the base of the floral tube and then come in contact with the female stigma in the next flower that the bee visits.  Bees generally start at the bottom of an inflorescence when visiting a plant and then spiral up to the top before flying to the next plant.  Such “acropetal movement” is likely a result of the tendency for nectar rewards to be greater in the lower flowers, and it ultimately promotes cross-fertilization between neighboring plants.

This was the 4th edition of the contest, which has been held every other year since the inaugural edition in 2013. I’ve earned 2nd and 3rd place honors in the plants category each time before; however, this was my first win in that category. In addition to plants, I also had entries in the ‘Invertebrates’ (restricted to photos taken in Missouri or one of its contiguous states) and ‘Travel’ (open to photos taken anywhere in the world) categories, with one photo each making it to the final round of judging. You’ve seen them both before—Neotibicen superbus (below left—photographed at Mincy Conservation Area, Taney Co., Missouri) and Agrilus walsinghami (below right—photographed at Davis Creek Park, Washoe Co., Nevada). In the end, however, they both got beat out by the competition, so I only had the one winning photograph this time. Nevertheless, it was a 1st place winner, so I am very satisfied.

The WGNSS Nature Photo Contest has quickly become one of the organization’s marquee events, with the number of entries, caliber of competition, and attendance all exceeding the previous three editions. My thanks to the judges who volunteered their time, the attendees who supported the event, and especially to Bill Duncan, Chair of WGNSS’s Nature Photography Group (and an expert nature photographer in his own right), who worked hard to make this event the success that it was (and took home some well-deserved wins of his own). I look forward to the next competition in 2021!


Summers, B.  1981.  Missouri Orchids.  Missouri Department of Conservation, Natural History Series No. 1, 92 pp.

van der Cingel, N. A.  2001.  An Atlas of Orchid Pollination: America, Africa, Asia and Australia. A. A. Balkema, Rotterdam, Netherlands, 296 pp.

© Ted C. MacRae 2019

A little extra cash

Earlier this month the Webster Groves Nature Study Society (WGNSS) sponsored their second Nature Photo Contest. I’ve been a member of this group since I first moved to St. Louis after college in the early 1980s—primarily as a participant in the Entomology Natural History Group but for the past six years also as board member and editor of the Society’s newsletter, Nature Notes. The photo contest was run much like the first one in 2013, again with nice cash prizes for the winners, except two things: 1) the categories were a little different (see below), and 2) I was tapped to be one of the three judges in the two categories that I did not submit photos. The categories were:

  • Invertebrates
  • Vertebrates
  • Plants & Fungi
  • Natural Communities
  • Seasons

I submitted two photos each to the first three categories—the maximum allowed in both cases. One limitation for me was that the photographs had to be taken in Missouri or an adjacent state. Remarkably, during the past few years I’ve taken most of my photos in places further afield—primarily in the western U.S. in states such as California, Colorado, New Mexico, and Nevada. I have many photographs from earlier years, but frankly I don’t consider much of that body of work to be photo contest worthy. Still, I was able to come up with a few more recent photographs that I thought would be competitive.

How did it go for me? Pretty good, with two of my photos taking cash-winning prizes (see below). This may not be as good as I did last time, when I won one 1st place, one 2nd place, and one 3rd place—the last of these also voted by the audience as the Grand Prize winner. Nevertheless, the cash award is much welcomed and will be put to good use. Remarkably, it turns out that two winning photographs have never been posted at this site, so here they are:

3rd Place—Vertebrates

Eastern garter snake (Thamnophis sirtalis)

Eastern garter snake, Thamnophis sirtalis | Ozark Trail, Wappapello Section, Wayne Co., Missouri

The judges regarded that it represents the true “essence” of a snake. Technically they liked the position of and focus on the tongue, the contrasting red color working well in the composition, with the blurred, winding body of the snake adding depth in a cleaner fashion than a cluttered jumble of leaves. I can’t tell you how many shots I took hoping to get one with the tongue in the perfect position—knowing all along that at any moment the snake could stop flicking it or decide to make a run for it

2nd Place—Plants & Fungi

Dicentra cucullaria

Dutchman’s breeches, Dicentra cucullaria | Battle of Athens State Park, Clark Co., Missouri

Unfortunately, I didn’t get a chance to hear the judges’ feedback regarded this photo, as I was busy judging the photos in the ‘Natural Communities’ and ‘Seasons’ categories. This photo also took many shots, even though I didn’t have to worry about the subject not cooperating. Flash on white is tricky—not enough and you don’t get the stark contrast with the black background; too much and you end up blowing the highlights and losing the delicate detail. Add to that trying to get the subject perfectly symmetrical within the frame (I wanted to achieve this ‘for real’ and not through subsequent cropping), and I probably took close to two dozen shots before I felt like I had it right.

Perhaps you noticed that neither of the photos were in the ‘Invertebrates’ category. This just goes to show that the amount of interest in and effort one puts into a certain type of photography does not guarantee success—or prevent success in photographing other, less-familiar subjects. For my part I am pleased that any of my photographs were deemed good enough to receive a cash prize and thank WGNSS for giving local nature photographers the opportunity to have their work recognized and rewarded.

© Ted C. MacRae 2015

And the results are in…

I recently entered my first photo contest, a local competition sponsored by the Webster Groves Nature Study Society (of which I have been a member for ~30 years), and although the competition was limited to its few hundred members there were some serious cash prizes on offer. Being a noob at photo contests and a still relative newcomer to photography in general, I wasn’t sure what to expect. I thought my photos might be good enough to compete, but I also knew I would be going up against some long-time and very skilled nature photographers. The basic rules were a maximum of two submissions in no more than three of the following categories:

  • Botany
  • Entomology
  • Ornithology
  • Landscapes/habitats

Since I’ve only photographed two birds ever, I decided to submit entries to each of the other three categories. It was an interesting competition—the judges (each category had a panel of three consisting of a WNGSS board member, a natural history expert, and a photography expert) had a chance to see all of the photographs prior to the event (held last night) and select the top ten from each category, but the rest of the judging was done live at the event. Eventually, from each category a 1st place, 2nd place, and 3rd place photo was selected. The 12 winning photographs were then displayed in a continuous loop, and everybody attending the event was allowed to vote for one grand prize winner. The grand prize winner had to receive more than 50% of the vote, so a few runoff rounds were required to decide the final winner.

How did it go for me? I had a pretty good night, with three winning photographs:

Entomology—3rd place

Cicindela repanda (Bronze Tiger Beetle) | St. Louis Co., Missouri

Cicindela repanda (Bronze Tiger Beetle) | St. Louis Co., Missouri

Botany—2nd place

Hamammelis vernalis (Ozark witch hazel) | Iron Co., Missouri

Hamammelis vernalis (Ozark witch hazel) | Iron Co., Missouri

Entomology—1st place

Arctosa littoralis (beach wolf spider) | Lewis Co., Missouri

It was a thrill for me to learn that, out of the six photographs I submitted (and I really didn’t think my two landscape submissions were competitive to begin with), three were among the 12 final prize winners. That also made them eligible for the grand prize, but in this case I didn’t really expect the larger membership (which has a lot of birders) would really take to my closeup insect photographs. To my surprise, the first round of voting produced four finalists—two of which were my insect photos! The first runoff vote eliminated one photo—but not either of mine, and the second runoff eliminated one more photo—but again neither of mine. I had won the grand prize without yet knowing which photo would be the winner! In the end, the tiger beetle took the top prize. Personally, I was happy about that, because even though the photo took only 3rd place in the entomology competition, I thought it was the stronger of the two photos based on composition, the time and effort it took to work the beetle to finally “get the shot” (not that the wolf spider photo didn’t also take a lot of effort to get that close), and the natural history behavior that it captured (stilting and sun-facing for thermoregulation). I know blog commenting is becoming passé, but if you have any particular thoughts about these photos, good or bad, I would love to hear from you.

Overall I would have to say that, winner or not, participating in a photo competition was an extraordinary learning opportunity for me as I try to hone my craft. Listening to the comments of the judges in all of the categories, both on the natural history and the technical aspects of the photographs, gave me a lot of insight into how I might further improve my technique and take photographs that can be appreciated on both technical and artistic grounds. More importantly, the cash was nice, but the motivation to keep trying that I got out of the experience was priceless!

Copyright © Ted C. MacRae 2013