BENTON -- Years ago, Joanna Gray and Teresa Fouke met during a college photography class. They bonded over their love for birds. For the past few years, this Franklin County duo has spent most Sundays at Rend Lake capturing some great images of the region's ecosystem.
Located in the heart of Southern Illinois, Rend Lake offers 19,000 acres of water, 162 miles of shorelines and 20,000 acres of forests, meadows and wetlands to explore.
It is especially known for its diversity of shorebird and waterfowl species during their annual migration, which makes it the perfect backdrop to capture some great images of native wildlife.
Both Gray and Fouke are University of Illinois master naturalists. Gray was the first to attend the program and she then introduced Fouke to the opportunity. The University of Illinois Extension Master Naturalist Program provides science-based education that connects people with nature and helps them become engaged environmental stewards. The program is designed to educate and train a corps of volunteers to provide support in the conservation, management and interpretation of the area's natural resources.
"The master naturalist program covered not only birds and wildlife but wetlands, weather, geology and other types of animals. Everything that comprises the ecosystem -- it all comes together in this training," said Gray.
Having a solid understanding of birds and bird behavior, habitats and migration patterns helped them to become better photographers. With the most recent master naturalist class being held at the Rend Lake Visitor's Center, Fouke and Gray discussed the opportunity to display some of their images to showcase the beauty and variety of nature that Rend Lake has to offer.
Fouke stated that Gray has mentored her along the way. They have taken their love for nature on the road as they have made several trips to capture additional photos throughout the Midwest. Locally, they have spent time at Alton and Horseshoe Lake. They also visited Ohio this spring to capture images of migrating warblers and they hope to make it down to Texas soon.
When asked what images stood out to the pair, Fouke said, "A pair of American bald eagles. The adult was teaching the juvenile to fish." Gray's favorite experience was spotting ospreys just off the Ina boat ramp.
"Last year, they had three chicks and it was just a joy to watch them build their nest and care for their young," said Gray.
The goals of their photography project is to educate visitors on the wildlife and other aspects of the natural world that they can expect to see while at Rend Lake. They hope this knowledge will help visitors enhance their experience of nature and will encourage them to take a greater interest in wildlife and environmental conservation.
Fouke and Gray currently have over a dozen photos lining the walls of the Rend Lake Visitor Center. The friends stated that they hope to treat this as a revolving exhibit, replacing the photos with new images as they become available. You can view their collection Monday through Friday from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. now through Oct. 31 and on weekends from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. The Rend Lake Visitor Center is free and is located at 11981 Rend City Road in Benton.