Stan Tekiela is ready to hit the road to Albert Lea. It’s a 100-plus-mile drive from his Victoria home, but he doesn’t mind. After all, his destination is a coveted hummingbird nest he wants to photograph. He asks people on his website, naturesmart.com, to email him about any interesting wildlife living in their backyards, and this certainly interests Tekiela.
“I love hummingbirds,” he says. “I like to document what they do—the whole process is spectacular, but I get the most kick out of just sharing the wonder of nature with everybody.”
After years of trekking into the woods, Tekiela’s own sense of wonder in nature remains in full bloom. There is always something off the beaten path for the author, naturalist and wildlife photographer to study or film. For nearly three decades, the Twin Cities-based Tekiela has sowed his expertise through a steady crop of photos, words and tutelage. As he puts it, he “lives, eats and sleeps” all things nature. “Nature’s always teaching me new things,” says Tekiela, who is married and has one daughter. “It’s the proverbial ‘the more you learn, the more you realize that we as people don’t know anything.’”
Tekiela has written and photographed about 175 wildlife books, his NatureSmart column appears in more than 20 newspapers, and he is a contributor to the Saturday morning radio show Fan Outdoors, hosted by Billy Hildebrand on KFAN FM 100.3. (“It’s a hunting and fishing show, and I don’t hunt or fish, so we talk about nature,” he says.) He is also the longtime supervisor of the Eden Prairie Outdoor Center on Staring Lake. It provides workshops, trips and activities focused on outdoor recreation and environmental education.
“All I do is work,” says Tekiela, who also offers wildlife photography tours and workshops on his website. “My entire life is this, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.” The mission behind all that work is simple: Make people care for nature and wildlife by educating them. “If you don’t understand something, how can you love it?” he says.
Tekiela can’t recall a time when he wasn’t interested in nature. “I was that kid who wanted to save the environment,” he says. “It was during the environmental movement time in the 1960s and 1970s. It was everything I wanted to do.” Growing up in Des Plaines, Ill., a suburb of Chicago, Tekiela remembers his family stuffing an envelope on the refrigerator with spare change. It took two years, but all that change paid for a canoe. “My buddies and I put the canoe over our heads and walked down these alleys, about 10 blocks, to get to the Des Plaines River,” he says. “We would launch it and spend the day canoeing on the river.”
Though Tekiela enjoyed being outside, he yearned to know more about the plants, animals and birds surrounding him. He came north in 1977 during high school and later studied biology and natural resources at the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities. “Now, when I walk through the woods, it’s like walking with all my friends,” he says. “I know all the plants. I know which birds are singing. I know the animals. It’s like walking into Cheers, where everybody knows your name.”
Tekiela liked Minnesota so much he never left after graduation. “It had everything a naturalist would want,” he says. “I did not enjoy Chicago—too many people, too much stuff.” Tekiela’s first naturalist experience was at the Carver Park Reserve in Victoria, under Kathy Heidel. He credits Heidel, a longtime naturalist there who died in 2014, with teaching him such skills as how to identify wildflowers, find morel mushrooms and understand which caterpillars went to what butterfly or moth. “Honestly, you would just go out with her and information would just pour out of her,” he says.
As his career progressed, Tekiela dreamed of writing nature books. He got his chance, writing a book on wild, edible plants for Adventure Publications in Cambridge, Minn. “I joke that I wrote that first book and nobody told me to stop, so I just keep going,” he says. Tekiela has penned books on bears, hummingbirds, bird nests, loons and wolves, as well as many state-focused field guides. He has written children’s books, too, including Whose Butt?—where kids guess which animal’s rear-end is pictured. “That’s my most popular kids’ book by far,” says Tekiela, who just finished a book on baby animal butts. “What kid doesn’t like to say butt?”
Tekiela is usually juggling a handful of book projects. It takes him anywhere from six to 18 months to complete each one. He spends about one week a month traveling throughout the U. S., taking photographs for his work. He has traveled as far north as the Arctic and as far south as Costa Rica.
A self-taught photographer, Tekiela says a good wildlife photo is not only pleasing to the eye but tells a story. He admits it’s not easy trying to capture those “milliseconds” of time where something interesting happens. “I don’t have any perfect photos,” he says. “You’re always trying to do that. For example, I probably have 15,000 images of loons. These are highly edited images, but I’m still taking pictures of loons, still getting good things I never have before.”
Tekiela considers himself a biologist first, which helps photographing predators like bears and wolves. “All the time, there are dangerous situations, but the idea is to understand that,” he explains. “That’s the difference between a photographer and myself; I understand the biology of the animal, and it keeps me safe.” Good equipment also helps. “Using a big, long lens is important, so you can capture those natural behaviors,” he says. “And then understand why they’re doing that behavior, so I can either write about it in a newspaper article or a book.”
He likes everything about nature—except mosquitos and ticks. “I always say I’ve never met an animal or a bird I didn’t love,” says Tekiela, who also records wildlife videos and sounds. “I find something unique about every single one of them.” He has a “particular fondness” for flying squirrels. He notes two species reside in Minnesota. “They glide; they don’t ascend,” he says. “I’ll have them in my front yard climb to the top of the tree and fly over my house to the backyard.” He thinks coyotes—a species vilified for more than 100 years—are “awesome.”
“Despite the fact that people are trying to annihilate them, coyotes are out there working, getting the job done,” he says, adding bats and wolves get a bad rap, too. “They have an important role to play. All animals do. And when we get rid of those pieces, nature stops to function the way it’s supposed to.”
Through his work at the outdoor center and on his website, Tekiela says he’s happiest when he can debunk myths with facts. “People are afraid of a lot of things in nature,” he says. “I don’t understand it when people run screaming away from a snake. I’ve seen people run away from a picture of a snake. At that point, I feel like a complete failure.” He says he has worked with 15 types of rattlesnake species over the years. “Do I want to mess with them? No. Do I want to kill them? Heck no. I respect that they’re there, and they do what they need to do,” he says.
Tekiela says the outdoor center has been home since late last year to a male barred owl named Whisper. It has a permanent wrist injury that doesn’t allow it to be released back into the wild, so Whisper serves as an educator of sorts at the center, as do the other smaller animals that also live there. “They are a gateway for people understanding wildlife,” he says. “People have this innate response to want to see things, touch things and get up close to them. What a great way to do that and learn about it.” He recently took a group from the United Kingdom into the Minnesota wild on one of his photography tours. “When somebody sees something for the first time, and I’m with them, it’s like me seeing it for the first time again,” he says. “I get a kick out of that.”