OBX Women in the Wild

By on January 17, 2024

Cyndi Goetcheus Sarfan (Photo by Mary Ellen Riddle/OBV)

Duck exhibit features the work of four local wildlife photographers

The pulses of four Outer Banks wildlife photographers quicken with sightings of foxes, barred owls, red wolves and black bears. The women—Cyndi Goetcheus Sarfan, Jacqueline Orsulak, Joyce Edwards and Eve Turek—have spent countless hours traipsing eastern North Carolina refuges and beaches seeking creatures to photograph. They routinely return home with a sense of peace and hundreds of images.

The photographers are exhibiting their work in a show titled OBX Women in the Wild at the Duck Town Hall from Feb. 3 through April 24. On display will be 30 of the women’s favorite photographs.

The photographers frequent the Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge. Located on the Albemarle Peninsula, the refuge protects wetlands and swamp forest and the creatures that live there such as river otters, black bears, red wolves and wintering geese, ducks, and swans. The refuge also hosts more than 250 species of birds.

Jacqueline Orsulak with piebald deer. (Photo by Mary Ellen Riddle/OBV)

“It’s a wonderful, magical place,” says Orsulak, a Duck resident who notes that the refuge has the densest population of black bears in the Eastern United States. Bears are her favorite animals to photograph. “I have just always loved bears since I was little,” she says. It was at the Chicago Zoo in the 1940s that she first saw a panda and polar bears. That early experience led Orsulak to photograph bears worldwide.

Kill Devil Hills resident Sarfan says the goal of the show is two-fold—to educate the public about wonderlands such as the multiple refuges in the area and the diversity of wildlife on the Outer Banks and eastern North Carolina and to inform them of opportunities for getting involved in protecting them.

“The only red wolves that live anywhere in the wild on the entire planet live here at the Alligator River Wildlife Refuge,” says Sarfan. “And their numbers are dwindling fast.”

Vehicular death strikes are a problem, as are shootings. Driving on the main highway toward the refuge, you see caution signs that alert you to red wolf crossings. People can often mistake the red wolves for coyotes. The refuge fits the red wolves with bright reddish-orange collars to help spot and identify them. There also is an initiative to inform farmers and people in the surrounding areas about what to do if a red wolf comes onto their property.

Sarfan cites ways people can help red wolves by getting involved with organizations like the Red Wolf Coalition. There is a red wolf center in Columbia that offers lots of educational opportunities and where people can volunteer.

It takes knowledge of wildlife and discipline to get photographs of creatures in their natural habitat. Each of these photographers follows a code of ethics—to enter the environment not to dominate, but to observe with the least amount of intrusion possible.

The photographers say that keeping a distance between you and the animals is of utmost importance. Having a long lens is essential for that. Knowing to back up slowly if caught facing an approaching bear is necessary. Not baiting the animals with food to draw them close to you is a cardinal rule for safety and dietary reasons. Never follow a bear to its den. Do not stand below a tree where cubs have climbed. A mother bear can charge if her cubs appear threatened. If left to themselves, the bears are said to be timid.

Joyce Edwards with her photo of Snow Bunting. (Mary Ellen Riddle/OBV)

“I try to be thoughtful and not get too close,” says Manteo resident Edwards. She recounted an incident where a bear in a pond she was photographing came onto the road and began to move toward her. “I’m usually not fearful, but one time—and that was my fault, I got in the wrong place,” she says.

Edwards was engrossed in snapping pictures of the bear when she realized it was going to cross the road. It flashed on her that her vehicle was on the other side of the road, and she had no protection. She knew that when confronted face to face, a bear’s behavior can change. “I just kept backing up, and he just crossed the road,” she says. The bear’s unexpected action ended up cutting Edwards access to the safety of her car.  It was a learning experience for her.

Sarfan estimates that 95% of the time, she stays in her car. Her experiences have made her cautious. “There was one bear in particular that I was watching, and he seemed to be going on his merry little way, and I stepped out of the car to snap a picture of him as he walked on down the road,” she says.” And he turned around and came charging back.” Fortunately, the distance between them was great enough for Sarfan to move to safety.

The women all agree that photographing nature takes patience. They spend hours at a time snapping hundreds of photographs per session that then must be uploaded and categorized. Sarfan returned from one trip with 800 pictures of dragonflies.

Light plays a key role in the success of a day. While it is not always easy to get up and into the woods by sunrise, it makes for softer light, as does sunset. Bright light, says Edwards, can diminish detail such as patterns on bird feathers, which show up beautifully in her images. Photographing white and black as with swans and black bears especially calls for soft light. But, even when the light is right, the creatures may not be present, she says. Just being in the wilderness has its own benefits. “It’s really something that if I don’t get to go, I get out of sorts,” says Edwards. “It’s a fix for me.”

Eve Turek. (Photo credit Leslie Watts)

Personal approaches to and goals for photography vary. Colington Island resident Turek believes you must enter the wilderness with love in your heart. “I always try to communicate through my thoughts that I realize that I am a guest in what is their territory, particularly when in a national or state park or refuge—on lands set aside for them,” she says. “I love to photograph behavior and connections. So, a successful photograph for me is catching a bird or an animal reacting to another of its kind or pausing and making eye contact as I watch it through my lens. Most animals, I find, are curious.”

Sarfan often adds background information on her experiences when she posts images on social media. She also likes to convey something emotional with her images. “I like to observe an animal for a while to, you know, really feel like I’m becoming part of its world and trying to figure out what is it doing and what it might be thinking,” she says.

She is particularly fond of a photograph of terns she snapped on the beach near Jennette’s Pier. It was a gray winter day and bitterly cold, but the light was interesting. It was low tide. The terns’ images reflected in the watery sand. “This was one of those days where I paid my dues,” Sarfan says. She was thrilled over the image she brought home; and it was one that earned her an excellence award in the 2021 Molly Fearing Memorial Art Show.

The Town of Duck OBX Women in the Wild reception is February 3 from 3-5 p.m. at Duck Town Hall, 1200 Duck Road, Exhibit on display Feb. 3-April 24, Mon.-Fri., 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. excluding holidays.


See what people are saying:

  • charlie

    I admire the artistry of all 4 photographers.. and can’t wait to see what photographs they have chosen…

    Thursday, Jan 18 @ 9:59 am