For 26 years, as photographer for the Kansas Department of Wildlife and Parks, Mike Blair shared the Kansas outdoors with thousands of fans.
His shots of dazzling ducks, panoramic sunsets and bug-eyed big bucks in the throes of rut were so good, and numerous, an entire issue of Kansas Wildlife and Parks magazine was annually devoted to his work.
Blair, 58, recently retired from the state agency.
He’s quick to share the traits and tricks that led to his unparalleled success. What he doesn’t know is more surprising than what he does.
“I’ve never considered myself much of a photographer. There are lot of people running around with cameras that know a lot more about actual photography than I do,” Blair said. “I always thought I was just a hunter with a camera in my hand. It was more important for me to know how to get really close to wildlife than anything else.”
Like most serious hunters, Blair always relied on persistence.
“Day after day, you have to be out there,” he said. “I always told editors I have to budget time for failure. There are days when you go daylight to dark and can’t call in a coyote. Then one morning you call in seven on your first try, and get amazing photography. You just have to keep going.”
That often includes enduring adverse conditions.
He’s waited by waterholes through sweltering, triple-digit afternoons to photograph wildlife ranging from deer to songbirds coming for a drink. His best pheasant photography came on a day when the wind chill was about 70-below.
“The birds were so desperate for food they paid no attention to me in a car just a few feet away,” he said. “It was miserable, but I got some tremendous pictures of pheasants in the snow.”
Another time, Blair endured a colony of biting ants as he waited for coyote pups to make an appearance.
Outdoors from dawn to dark, week after week, brought Blair a few special animals that seemed especially cooperative with his photography.
After a few days of his taking photos from within a blind, Blair found a western Kansas female swift fox trusted him enough to tag along as she hunted and fed her pups.
An avid bowhunter, one of Blair’s favorite photos is of a world-class buck, complete with a long droptine, that froze long enough to come out perfectly sharp in light so low that the photo required a four-second shutter speed.
Blair had his favored times and places when carrying a camera.
“Oct. 15 to Nov. 15 would be the finest time to be in the field each year, no doubt,” he said. “You have the glory of the most colorful season and that’s also when the (waterfowl) migrations and (deer) rutting cycles all come together.”
Usually about now is when he’d make an annual autumn trek to the forested areas of Linn, Bourbon and Miami counties.
“It’s like a scaled-down version of the Ozarks, with wild lands by the hundreds of acres, with hills and fall foliage,” he said. “It can be about as good as New England, but on a smaller scale.”
For many years he considered the Quivira National Wildlife Refuge a world-class wildlife photography destination. Now, he’s not sure. He thinks management practices that have removed hundreds of acres of trees may at least be partially to blame.
“It used to be around every corner you got something special,” he said. “The last year or two I can go up there and not come back with anything.”
Rather than a full retirement, Blair is opening his own communications company, hopefully specializing in outdoors videography. He probably won’t be traveling very far for that job, either.
“People ask me where I’d like to go, and I tell them I’ll stay right here in Kansas,” he said. “Each part of Kansas has its own beauty, and we have pronghorn, we have deer and the great migrations. Its where east meets west. We have it all right here. Most people don’t understand the beauty and mystery of Kansas.”