What’s It Like To Photograph Sage Grouse?

Wildlife photographer, Noppadol Paothong, photographs Lesser Prairie Chicken on the lek located at Selman Ranch near Buffalo, OK.

October 23, 2017

Photo: Wildlife photographer, Noppadol Paothong, photographs prairie chickens and sage grouse in remote locations around the country.

Ask An Expert: Noppadol Paothong, Conservation Photographer

Noppadol’s new book Sage Grouse: Icon of the West came out this month. We chatted with him about how and why he created this beautiful book featuring our favorite upland bird and the spectacular sagebrush country it calls home. Read the interview below, and check out this multimedia story about the life cycle of sage grouse featuring Noppadol’s photos.

What prompted your interest in nature photography?

I’ve actually been taking photos since I was 8 years old. Growing up in Thailand, I spent tons of time outdoors, mostly fishing. I was always fascinated by my mom’s film camera and liked to play around with it.

Later, the camera became a tool to express my passion for wildlife and my appreciation for nature. I learned more about photography by getting a university degree in photojournalism.

When did you become interested in grouse?

Several years ago I was working at a daily paper in southwest Missouri when my editor gave me an assignment to photograph prairie chickens. That first morning, hunkered in the blind, I was hooked! I wanted to learn everything about prairie grouse.

I decided to work on a book that focused on the dances of different grouse species. That was my first book, Save The Last Dance, which came out in 2012 and took me 11 years to complete.

How did you come up with the idea for your newest book?

Honestly, I never planned to do another book. But I kept thinking more about sage grouse.

When I visited a friend’s house, I saw a book by Robert Patterson that came out 65 years ago with amazing black and white photos of the bird. It was so captivating.

The following spring I started shooting sage grouse because I wanted to know more about them. I still didn’t think I’d make a book. But then I realized that I wanted to show people a different perspective of the bird — not just show a big male strutting, but also what they eat, how they live, and that they depend on sagebrush for food, shelter, nesting.

My goal for this second book is to bring attention beyond the beauty of their dance to showcase the whole life cycle of sage grouse, as well as what’s happened to the bird over time.

Photo by Noppadol Paothong

Do people also appear in Icon of the West?

Very much so. It shows that sage grouse are not just a bird…they are the heritage of the West, and the connection between the past and the present.

By protecting this one species you protect so much more–hundreds of species and the livelihoods of people who live in sagebrush habitat. It’s incredible to think that one bird can do all of that!

My book also looks at historical connections, such as Lewis and Clark’s impressions of sage grouse two centuries ago as well as the Native Americans’ relationship to the birds.

When you walk out on a lek and find an arrowhead, you realize that sage grouse have been using this same spot for thousands of years, and that native people were also using this place to hunt. It’s a powerful connection.

Photo by Noppadol Paothong

How did you go about creating the book?

I wanted to focus on just the one species and capture their entire life history. But I knew it would be a tall order to capture sage grouse during each season, particularly since I live in Missouri.

I learned from my first book that I could find sponsors to offset some costs, which was helpful in paying for flights. Plus, I camped a lot and stayed at friends’ houses to keep the costs down.

It took me about 5 years all told–the book was just released this month (October 2017).  It took so long partly because I have a full-time job and a family, and partly because the locations where you find sage grouse are so remote. They thrive where you can’t see any human-made structures, which means traveling far, far away.

What was it like photographing sage grouse for so many years?

It was a lot of flat tires, time stuck in the mud, and cold mornings in blind where cellphones don’t work! Each season presented it’s own unique challenge: spring is a mess, winter is freezing, summer is hot and dusty.

I also spent a lot of time alone. One time I was on a mountain by myself for four days, and didn’t see a single other person. It’s so rare to experience that in this day and age. I want my book to help others appreciate the kind of landscape where people can still have that kind of experience.

Photo by Noppadol Paothong

Did you have a favorite photo shoot?

My favorite experience was in Wyoming when a friend took me to the top of a hill to see a “surprise.” I could hear the birds lekking…but it sounded different than other sites. When you hear many, many birds strutting it sounds like water boiling: non-stop popping.

When the sun came up, we saw close to 300 birds! It gave me goosebumps. I wish everyone could see it.

My friend told me that this was probably what it looked like when Lewis and Clark came upon sage grouse leks two hundred years ago, or what the people who walked the Oregon Trail saw as they traveled west.

What was your favorite season on the range?

Maybe winter time, actually. It’s so interesting to see wildlife living in such an incredibly harsh environment. I remember sitting in 50 mph winds and looking out at the snow. The pronghorn and deer were hunkered down and looked miserable.

But the sage grouse were thriving! They’re built for winter, since they can survive on sagebrush leaves. Most wildlife come out of winter starving, but the birds actually gain weight.

Most people don’t know what it feels like in the high desert. Maybe they think it’s empty and desolate. But the people who live there understand that it’s precious and diverse.

I love the feeling I get while sitting and looking toward the endless horizon. I hope my photographs help others outside of sagebrush country feel why it’s important to protect these places, too.

Photo by Noppadol Paothong

Who helped you with this book project?

So many people helped me and made the project possible. Field researchers volunteered to take me out, while landowners, scientists, conservationists and other partners volunteered to review portions or to be interviewed. I wanted to know how each person I met felt about the land, about sage grouse, and what they think about sagebrush country.

I also worked with a writer, Kathy Love, for two years. She copy edited my last book, and used to write for the same magazine I now work for. After I talked to people in the field, I would make a list of specific questions for Kathy to ask them. She came up with a beautiful story that is interesting to read.

One mission for this book was that it not be political. I want Icon of the West to be a bridge that connects us all. And it does — everyone I interviewed wants the same thing: to protect the land for the next generations. I hope we can all continue to work together to protect sagebrush habitat and the bird.

Photo by Noppadol Paothong

Meet The Expert

Noppadol Paothong photographer

Where do you live and work?

I’ve lived in Missouri for 18 years, and in the United States for 25 years. I’ve been the staff wildlife photographer for the Missouri Department of Conservation for the past 12 years. My images appear in many of their publications, including Missouri Conservationist, the largest monthly conservation magazine in the country.

Where else have your photos appeared?

I travel quite a bit to take wildlife photos, which have appeared in many publications or are used by non-profit conservation groups like Audubon, The Nature Conservancy, and National Wildlife Federation.

How do you spend your free time?

I love to cook, and to go fishing. I also spend plenty of time with my family, including my 7 year-old daughter.


Read more Ask An Expert posts >>

“Life Cycle of Sage Grouse” multimedia story featuring Noppadol’s photos >>

The Sage Grouse Initiative is a partnership-based, science-driven effort that uses voluntary incentives to proactively conserve America’s western rangelands, wildlife, and rural way of life. This initiative is part of Working Lands For Wildlife, which is led by USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service.