Nature Photographer’s Life Full of Birds, Butterflies

Even as a junior at Chico State, nature photographer John Hendrickson knew he wanted to build his life around the outdoors.

Nature photographer John Hendrickson of Clipper Mills poses for a portrait with a California sister butterfly in September 2008

He applied for a $1,000 grant to help create a nature education and wildlife rehabilitation center, and during his last year and a half as an undergraduate student, was able to establish what is now the Bidwell Wildlife Rehabilitation Center.

“A thousand dollars went a little farther back in 1970,” says Hendrickson, who went on later to run Woodleaf Outdoor School for 30 years.

“We started taking care of injured birds (raptors), and got help from the local Audobon Society group,” he recalls.

Leftover seed money went on to help create the early version of Chico Creek Nature Center.

A new exhibit features Hendrickson’s camera work. “Butterflies: The Photography of John Hendrickson” shows through February.

His images of the photogenic but elusive, short-lived insects now grace everything from calendars to coasters — a result of turning over the marketing of his work to a nature photography agent.

Hendrickson, 61, a longtime resident of Clipper Mills, is also an accomplished landscape photographer and expert with birds of prey.

All three of his favorite subjects have been displayed in museums across the country, including in Boston, Miami, and Seattle.

Images for Conservation Fund — a Texas nonprofit organization — named him several years ago one of the world’s top 20 nature photographers.

But the retired teacher says he misses working with children.

His own have grown up and established careers of their own, and thousands of his former Woodleaf students — including hundreds who maintain contact with him — also are adults now.

“I love children pretty much just as much as I do nature,” he says.

He takes on speaking engagements on behalf of outdoor science education and lots of short-term, mostly unofficial volunteer gigs that involve kids, he says.

Hendrickson has developed an extra level of passion for his interests, he says, since being diagnosed with oral cancer a year ago.

“I started treatment on the winter solstice,” he says of the radiation therapy that continued through January. “The first day I was well enough to go out was the spring equinox.”

Abiding by the natural calendar seemed fitting, Hendrickson says.

Checkups since then have shown the disease’s progress to be abating. But the introduction to mortality was a powerful one.

“You don’t go through that and not have it make a meaningful impact on your life,” he says.

The new additional title of “cancer survivor” has led to some rewarding encounters and relationships with young cancer survivors, Hendrickson says.

And his love for nature photography, which never really waned, has come alive with new inspiration.

“I don’t care much now about anything practical,” Hendrickson says, “I just want to create images that are intensely beautiful.”

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