From meadowlarks to prairie chickens, box turtles and butterflies, Bob Gress typically offers a close-up view of Kansas gone wild.
For more than three decades, Gress has introduced thousands of Kansans to every bird, mammal, reptile and amphibian the Sunflower State has to offer.
Now, he is retiring. His last day as director of the Great Plains Nature Center is Friday.
When the nature center opened in 1996, Gress helped shape its concept and mission, plan the building and design the exhibits. Each year, more than 150,000 people visit the center near 29th and Woodlawn.
“In the late 1980s and early 1990s, I began thinking I had done all I could do in Wichita,” Gress said. “But the nature center kept lingering out there like a carrot in front of the nose of a mule. My wife and I discussed the idea of moving on, but the opportunity to do a nature center doesn’t come along in too many careers. I visited dozens of nature centers across the country. I brought back what I thought would work. No doubt that was the highlight of my career.”
His love for nature began in childhood. He was an avid hunter in Marshall County, near Axtell, where he grew up, north of Manhattan. Everything changed with a camera.
“With a camera, I could shoot anything I wanted as many times as I wanted,” Gress said. “I’ve always been interested in the underdog species – the sparrows and mice and other little guys.
“It was an effort in education as much as anything. By taking pictures, I could put together programs to help educate others.”
Those who know Gress say he will be sorely missed.
“I can’t even begin to tell you of the positive impact Bob has had on my life,” said Kansas Department of Wildlife and Parks district biologist Charlie Cope, whose office is located at the Great Plains Nature Center. “He is such a great educator, communicator, consensus builder, naturalist, photographer and friend.”
A graduate of Emporia State University, Gress has worked for the city of Wichita since 1979 as a naturalist, often giving between 200 and 300 talks a year to schools, churches and other groups. He started the Wichita Wild urban nature education program and has produced a series of books on prairie natural history. His first book, “Natural Kansas,” was published in 1985. One of his most recent books is “Faces of the Great Plains: Prairie Wildlife.”
He also developed the annual event, Walk with Wildlife, to help people see wildlife that are often overlooked on the trails in Wichita.
More than 4,000 of his wildlife photographs have been published in variety of books, magazines, posters, brochures, calendars and postcards.
And, Gress has received countless awards – Conservation Educator of the Year, Urban Conservation Award, Excellence in Public Service, Distinguished Professional Interpreter, National Wildlife Federation 1st Place Photo Award, Daughters of the American Revolution “Conservation Medal”, and more.
He is a man who travels the back roads of Kansas, waits hours in the dark for the sun to rise, tramps through wetlands and crawls over the prairie for the perfect photo.
The most elusive species he’s ever shot? The black rail, a tiny shy bird so quick that for years Gress was only able to capture shots of the bird from behind. In 2007, he wrote “The Saga of Photographing a Black Rail.”
He tried different combinations of cameras, lenses and flashes at various settings. He added special lights to see the bird in the darkness and tried to think like a black rail. Gress would write:
“For several years I experimented with different set-ups and I amused the rails as they laughed kee-kee-der. I tried mornings, I tried evenings, I tried nights, they laughed kee-kee-der.”
He successfully photographed the bird in 2008.
“He is one of the most personable, patient and friendliest men I’ve ever known in my life,” said Wichitan Pete Janzen, who is co-author of the book, “The Guide to Kansas Birds and Birding Hot Spots” with Gress. “It is hard to quantify the impact he has had on educating kids about nature, but it is extremely significant. He has been so active in so many organizations and done so many things.”
For now, Gress said he plans on doing some freelance work and occasional traveling with his wife, Mary.