When you needed a picture of a parrot that eats cars, Tom Ulrich was your photographer.
Polar bears apparently telling jokes? He won the International Wildlife Photographer of the Year award for mammal behavior in 1987.
“I think that was when he was still living in his van,” said David Armer, a fellow photographer who'd known Ulrich since 1982. “He lived in a van for a long time. But he sure knew his biology.”
Ulrich, who died Feb. 10 of a rare form of cancer, was 68. From his log cabin in West Glacier, Ulrich traveled the world in search of natural wonder. He brought back more than 600,000 images, which were published in magazines such as National Geographic and Audubon. He also produced his own guidebooks, including “Mammals of the Northern Rockies” and “Once Upon a Frame.” The North American Nature Photography Association named him a fellow in 2005.
In his early career, Ulrich wore remarkably thick eyeglasses. On visits to the Hungry Horse News with his latest pictures of a winter-white ptarmigan in a snowbank, he looked like someone who’d have trouble seeing the steering wheel, let alone the snowshoe hare hiding under a bush 50 feet from his moving vehicle.
“When he was young, he couldn’t pass the lifeguard test because he couldn’t see the pool well enough without glasses,” said life partner Linda Martin. “He still holds a freshman-sophomore swim record that was never broken at Mount Carmel High School, where they recruited him to swim with a full-ride scholarship.”
Ulrich went on to get a biological sciences degree from the Southern Illinois University-Carbondale and then taught biology at Fairfield Community High school for five years. He started freelance photography in 1975, basing himself on the edge of Glacier National Park.
“I first met him on the Highline Trail in Glacier in 1978,” said fellow photographer Jan Wassink of Kalispell. “I was up early one morning to photograph some mountain goats, and I was probably the only one who ever beat him there.
“He photographed every day,” Wassink added. “He loved doing it and that’s what he spent his life doing. Some guys get into the commercial aspect of it, and they go after things that are going to produce more income. Tom photographed more for passion and things he loved.”
Take the family of red-necked grebes he and Armer got to know so well the mother nearly let them touch her chicks. They took turns counter-balancing their boat so one could lean out for the water-birdseye view.
“We photographed this family for several years,” Armer said. “We didn’t get that close the first year, but we went every time we could. After we did it for four or five years, we had the canoe right within a foot or two of the nest.”
As his reputation for capturing the improbable on film grew, Ulrich started being sought out by higher-profile clients. When New Zealand began an environmental reassessment of its controversial kea parrots in 1986, Ulrich got the assignment to photograph its bizarre car-eating behavior.
At the time, keas not only had the reputation for clownish scavenging, but were also accused of killing sheep by either eating them alive or stampeding them over cliffs. Sheep ranchers had nearly extirpated the bird, and the government was trying to decide whether to declare it an endangered species.
“We went up to the Homer Tunnel and parked our vehicle on the side of the road, and they were just having at it,” Martin said. “We photographed them tearing the rubber off anywhere they could get – windshield wipers, the valves on tires, the rubber around the windshield.”
Last fall, Martin and Ulrich were in the middle of a photo safari that took them from Mono Lake, California, across to Arizona’s Cave Creek and then Big Bend, Texas, by December. After spending his birthday in Mexico, they were back in Illinois seeing friends when Ulrich got a frustrating case of indigestion.
“They thought it might be a gall bladder problem, and did an ultrasound,” Martin said. “We went to have lunch and got called back early. He sat down and they said, 'We think you have leukemia.' He said, ‘I felt like I was hit upside the head with a 2-by-4.’ ”
The doctors put Ulrich on an immediate chemotherapy regime, but the aggressive cancer couldn’t be stopped. He died 39 days after entering the hospital, just before he and Martin were set to visit Cuba for a birds-in-flight photo competition.
“Bird portraits were one of his passions,” Wassink said. “Four or five years ago, I asked him how many species he’d photographed and he said at least 2,800. That gives you an idea of the time he spent photographing.”