TAMS student snaps up international photo prize

Thursday, October 20, 2005

At his family's Central Texas ranch near Dripping Springs, Nick Murphy is surrounded by many species of dragonflies. They fly among the cattails on a man-made pond created by a dam on Little Bee Creek.

"Dragonflies fascinate me. They're extremely agile but powerful hunters and make interesting photographic subjects, but photographers have traditionally overlooked them," says Murphy, a second-year student at the Texas Academy of Mathematics and Science.

At least one species of dragonfly, however, may become more famous after Murphy, the son of Michael A. Murphy and Julia de Wette, placed in his age category in the 2005 Wildlife Photographer of the Year competition. His color photograph of a male Blue Dasher, shot with a Canon EOS 10D on his family's ranch, was selected as the second place Runner Up in the 15-17 years old category.

Sponsored by the Natural History Museum of London and BBC Wildlife Magazine, Wildlife Photographer of the Year is considered to be among the most prestigious nature photography contests in the world.

Murphy, the only Texas student to place in this year's competition, went to London the week of Oct. 17 to collect his award. His winning photo will be displayed at the Natural History Museum through April 17 and printed in the November issue of BBC Wildlife Magazine.

Although his father is the photo editor for Texas Highways magazine, Murphy didn't develop his own interest in wildlife photography until his freshman year at Lake Travis High School. A biology project required photos of five plants, seven vertebrates and eight invertebrates. Murphy borrowed a camera from his father and quickly became hooked.

"I've always been an outdoor person. Photography gives me a chance to appreciate nature and bring the general public better awareness of environmental issues," he says.

He notes that the dragonfly in the photo is in an interesting posture called obelisking.

"On hot, sunny days, dragonflies point their abdomens straight at the sun to minimize exposure to the sun's rays," he says.

Shooting a dragonfly, or any other insect or animal, requires great patience, Murphy says.

"They're generally tolerant as long as you move slowly," he says.

Murphy started by photographing birds, but soon became interested in Odonates -- dragonflies and damselflies. This past summer, he and one of his father's colleagues caught several Giant Darners specimens on the ranch. The species had previously not been recorded east of Texas' Pecos River.

Murphy also met dragonfly authority Dennis Paulson, director emeritus of the Slater Museum of Natural History at the University of Puget Sound. Paulson visited Little Bee Creek on the Murphys' land and said it was one of the most diverse places for dragonflies that he'd observed.

"He has given over half of the known Odonate species their common names, so it was an honor to meet him," Murphy says. "Apparently, our creek is the place to photograph dragonflies."

Between shooting photos, Murphy studied the insects in a different way. He collected insects at Camp Bowie near Brownwood for John Abbott, an entomologist at the University of Texas at Austin. He also spent time in Abbott's laboratory at UT, sorting through insect samples collected at Austin's Camp Mabry.

"The project is designed to analyze the impact of military campouts on the environment by analyzing the insect populations," Murphy says.

Now he's back at the Texas Academy of Mathematics and Science (TAMS), a two-year program at the University of North Texas in Denton in which talented high school students complete their freshman and sophomore years of college at the time that they would normally be juniors and seniors in high school. Murphy, like the other academy students, lives in a residence hall on the UNT campus and attends regular UNT classes with UNT students.

At TAMS, Murphy stays busy by working as a grader in the Department of Mathematics and participating in two T AMS student organizations -- not to mention keeping up with classes and studying (he received a perfect grade point average last semester).

But he's still made time for photography. Next spring, he plans to participate in the Valley Land Fund Youth Photo Contest, taking photos of wildlife on private ranches, wildlife refuges and parks in eight south Texas counties.

Murphy, however, doesn't plan to make wildlife photography his career. After graduating from TAMS in May, he wants to major in aerospace engineering at UT.

"Photography is what I do to relax," he says.

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