Courtesy of Noppadol Paothong
Noppadol Paothong spent ten years documenting the habits and mating rituals of prairie grouse. Today, he is a staff photographer for the Missouri Department of Conservation.
By Rachel Kiser
The world can change a lot in a decade. Ten years ago, the Space Shuttle Columbia was still in commission, New Orleans’s levy system was still intact, and the dictionary didn’t recognize “google” as a verb.
For photographer Noppadol Paothong, ten years means more; it was ten years ago that he started his decade-long research project on the declining species of Native-American grassland grouse.
His newly published book, Save the Last Dance, is a culmination of this research and presents readers the grouses’ story through Noppadol’s photographs and writer Joel Vance’s words.
At the beginning of the project, Noppadol was working at a newspaper in Joplin and already had a strong background in wildlife photography. He likes animals, he says, and had been photographing them since he was a child—he was a natural fit for the undertaking.
“When I photograph something, I really get into a learning mode,” he says. “I did a lot of research and reading to understand these birds. That’s a mistake wildlife photographers make. They just want to get the pretty picture. I talked to a lot of biologists to find out when the best time to photograph them was, where to photograph them, and that’s the most important part of the project. I had a lot of biologists who were helping me locate this area where the birds are.”
Joel had been around prairie chickens, the grouse species the book was originally going to center around, for more than fifty years and is a member of the Outdoor Writers Association of America. Joel and Noppadol met through a mutual contact who told Joel that Noppadol was looking for a writer.
“I learned a lot more about these grassland grouse,” Joel says. “I thought I knew just about everything about prairie chickens, but I even learned things about them.”
Although Noppadol was initially going to photograph only prairie chickens, he says the more he thought about it, the more he felt obligated to cover all species of grassland grouse.
The book comprises information about seven species, including the prairie chicken, a once common bird that lived in North-American prairies; sage grouse, the largest grouse in North America; and sharp-tailed grouse, one of the larger species of grouse.
In order to witness all these species, especially their mating dance, Noppadol traveled to fourteen states, mostly in the Midwest, and covered some eighty thousand miles. When he started his trips a decade ago, gas was ninety-nine cents per gallon.
Because grouse species are declining, it took coordination in order for Noppadol to be able to find these birds to get the best photographs. The grouse perform a spring courtship from March to May, the ideal time to capture their presence, Noppadol says.
For most of the year, they hide in the grass and are nearly impossible to find. However, grouse use the same area as their courtship location each year, which made it easy for the biologists tracking these birds and their mating rituals via GPS to tell Noppadol where to go and when.
By the end of his travels, he had taken more than a million photos. He narrowed the collection down to the two hundred to three hundred for the book.
“It was a very tough call because you have all these great images, and you couldn't use them all,” he says. “The bottom line was the photographs had to tell a story about the birds and their behavior. The photograph from one page had to lead to the next page; it has to work together. It doesn't matter how pretty the photo is. ”
Noppadol says he wants his photographs to raise awareness about these declining species.
“Grouse get very little attention from the public because people don’t know a lot about them,” Noppadol says. “I want this book to be a message for people to learn about the birds, and if nothing else, this book will be a record of the bird that used to be.”
This story originally ran in the February 2013 issue of Missouri Life. For more stories like this, subscribe to Missouri Life.