Lately, the Savannah River Ecology Lab research scientist has been shooting lots of turtles, in addition to cottonmouths, tree frogs and other reptiles and amphibians.
"It started as a hobby mostly based on my interest in the animals," he said. "Capturing them on film is another way to enjoy them and learn more about them."
His talent for photographing the animals he studies has earned the University of Georgia doctoral graduate a broadening reputation with publishers of books and journals.
His photography has been featured on the cover of four scientific journals and three books, and has been included throughout the pages of numerous other publications.
His featured covers include an open-mouth cottonmouth on the cover of the Journal of Zoology ; a tree frog clinging to a plant on the cover of Southeastern Naturalist ; the bright orange head of an eastern box turtle for the book Turtles: The Animal Answer Guide ; and a young boa constrictor gracing the front of Snakes: Ecology and Conservation .
His photography has also been featured in the journal BioScience and magazines such as Reptiles , National Wildlife and Charleston magazines. Other books that have included Willson's photography are The Frogs and Toads of North Carolina, Snakes of the Southeast and Lizards in an Evolutionary Tree: Ecology and Adaptive Radiation of Anoles .
As subjects, reptiles and amphibians are pleasant to work with, but still have their challenges.
"Salamanders can be tough to work with because they are so slippery," Willson said. "Snakes are tricky, too. It's hard to catch them in natural situations. They like to hide and not be seen."
SPEAKING OF SNAKES: Wildlife authorities in Florida announced last week a special hunting season for Burmese pythons that have established an unwanted breeding population in the lower portions of the state.
The inaugural hunt, which requires a $26 permit and a regular hunting license, will be held March 8 through April 17 on public lands, including the Everglades.
The snakes, a staple of the pet trade for decades, can grow to 20 feet long and weigh 200 pounds. They have spread rapidly through south Florida, with population estimates in the tens of thousands.
Fears that they could someday spread beyond Florida spawned a research project now under way at Savannah River Ecology Lab in which captured Florida pythons are being monitored in a special enclosure to determine whether they can survive in the colder climates of Georgia and South Carolina.
A 2008 study by the U.S. Geologic Survey concluded most of the Southeast includes habitat that closely matches the python's native range in Asia. However, another scientific paper, published in the Bulletin of the Chicago Herpetological Society, argued against those conclusions.
The study under way at SRS will help determine how far north the snakes can go. You will read more about the results later this year.
PANTHER SHOOTING: Georgia authorities have decided not to file criminal charges against a hunter who shot and killed a panther in 2008 in Troup County, but a U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service investigation is under way.
The hunter, Dave Adams of Newnan, killed the big cat Nov. 16, 2008, with a muzzleloader while hunting from a tree stand on public Corps of Engineers land near West Point Lake.
It was first thought to be an escaped pet. Eight months later, however, tests performed by the National Cancer Institute's Laboratory of Genomic Diversity in Maryland conformed the 140-pound cat was a Florida panther -- and a federally protected endangered species.
Melissa Cummings, spokeswoman for Georgia's Wildlife Resources Division, told me last week there will be no state charges and referred further questions to federal authorities.
Tom MacKenzie, a spokesman for the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, said his agency's inquiry remains open and incomplete. "We do still have an open case on the panther shooting in Troup County," he said, adding that he cannot provide additional details until there is a disposition.
WILD CUISINE: Augusta West Rotary Club and local outdoorsmen/chefs have teamed again to raise money for Alzheimer's research by organizing the region's largest wild game tasting event.
Club volunteers will host the ninth annual "A Taste of Something Wild" soiree at the Julian Smith Barbecue Pit on Milledge Road from 5 p.m. to 8 p.m. Saturday.
Attendees will be able to sample dozens of wild game dishes prepared from venison, duck, wild pig, dove, quail, pheasant and fish. Musical entertainment will be provided by Eryn Eubanks & the Family Fold. Proceeds will be donated to the Augusta Alzheimer's Association. For tickets, contact Russ Stullken, (706) 631- 8781, or e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.