Will County Forest Preserve’s Stay-at-Home Backyard Nature Photo Contest winners announced

The Forest Preserve District of Will County’s recently held a Stay-at-Home Backyard Nature Photo Contest.

Backyard photographers submitted more than 750 photos during the contest, which began March 21 and concluded May 1.

After submissions were reduced to 10 finalists by Forest Preserve judges, members of the public voted for their favorites via the district's Facebook page. The winners and their prizes were:

First place: Jack Woodard of Elwood for his photo of a simple mayapple plant and its sister sprout; $100 gift card.

Second place: Matthew Valiga of Naperville for two great horned owls stoically surveying their surroundings from a tall tree; $50 gift card.

Third place: Maura Carlisle of Plainfield for a robin perched on a snow-covered branch; $25 gift card.

Woodard said he has been taking photos for more than 20 years and is passionate about nature, landscapes, barns and almost anything he encounters outdoors.

"I have a small woods for a backyard and decided to capture the spring flowers one day," he wrote in an email after being notified of his win. "Getting down on the ground for the angle I want has become a challenge for this old man but worth it sometimes. For the mayapple I used a 300 mm lens set for 1/1000 of a second. ISO was 200.

"The acorn cap was a bonus because I didn't see it at the time," he added. "I have a hard time looking in the viewfinder when laying on my belly. LOL. I usually have a camera with me all the time as I am always looking for something of interest to me. I have traveled through all 50 states taking photos as I go. My faith in God and my camera have given me much comfort in these trying times."

Second-place winner Valiga said the great horned owl pair that he photographed is nesting in his neighborhood. A zoology/environmental science major at Miami University in Ohio, Valiga said the contest helped him cope with the school year ending prematurely because of COVID-19.

"Being pulled from school has been nerve-wracking to say the least, but nature and backyard birding has provided me just a bit of a release from all that stress,” he wrote in an email. “Just because the human world may have stopped doesn’t mean the whole world has – migration has provided enough evidence of that already.”

Carlisle was thrilled with her third place finish for her snowy robin photo that she snapped on April 15.

"The birds love our crabapple tree and on this morning the combination of the new snowfall and the emerging red leaves cast such beautiful light on the robin," she said.

Carlisle said more and more she feels the pull of nature and photography.

"The Stay-At-Home Backyard Nature photo contest was the perfect opportunity to combine my love of photography and the outdoors,” she wrote in an email. “Under current times with the stay-at-home order, I have found that getting outside daily is very helpful in keeping my spirits up. I’m learning more and more about the animals and birds in our area.”

The Forest Preserve offered the contest to help people see the beauty around them during the state’s initial stay-at-home order, which required people to stay home or close to home other than for essential services.

Now that the stay-at-home order has been modified, Forest Preserve access area parking lots have reopened, boat launches are open and the district's annual Preserve the Moment Photo Contest has begun and it will run through Dec. 31.

For more information, visit ReconnectWithNature.org.