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Neighbor Spotlight – Mary Lee Agnew

by Ellen C. Warren
It is likely you have seen her riding her floridly-decorated bicycle (“I did this so no one would want to steal it!”) around Riverwest, on the bike paths, anywhere she needs to go. She’s on that bike 365 days a year, rain, snow or sun. Mary Lee doesn’t own a car. She prefers to be out in the natural world, close to the wildlife she loves to observe and photograph.

Urban Wildlife. The name she has adopted for her work. The subject of her photos. “Most of us remain unaware of the beautiful urban wildlife within our city,” begins her “Photographer’s Perspective,” printed on the backs of the calendars she’s been creating, composed entirely of her own work, for the last four years. “I hope that my photography encourages people to get out of their cars and get outside; to walk or bike and look and learn about the world around them… We do not have to travel far to enjoy nature and wildlife. It’s right here!”  (Baby Green Herons, too!)

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There’s always wildlife! I don’t care where you are,” Mary Lee emphasizes as we begin the story of her passionate pursuit.

1992 was the year she and her husband, Louis, a chemist with a green thumb and a penchant for jam-making, crossed the bridge from the East Side and moved into their new house in Riverwest. Their proximity to the river proved to be an inspiration. “I always walked the river,” says Mary Lee,” and I started seeing so many birds. That’s what really started it off.

“In fact, in 1996 I saw a bald eagle right in Kern Park, down by the river. It was sitting on a low branch of a tree. I just stared and then it spread its wings and flew across the water. I just said ‘Wow!’ It was so awesome! I told my husband and that’s when he said to me, ‘I’ve got to get you a camera!” She laughs, continues, “He said, ‘I’m so sick of hearing about all this stuff you see. You’ve got to record this because nobody is going to believe you.’” She had been using a little snapshot camera.

“I never did get the picture of the eagle,” she admits.

But the story gets even better. “The funny thing is, I don’t think my husband even believed me. What happened was, he came home later that day and told me he’d almost gotten into a car accident because he saw it (the bald eagle) on Capitol Drive. It was sitting in a tree.

“He almost lost control of his car. The police saw him almost cause an accident, so they went after him. He pointed out the eagle to the police. He went off and did his grocery shopping, came back, and the police were still standing there staring at the eagle!”

This isn’t the only animal Mary Lee has spotted that wasn’t supposed to be there, although in the eagle’s case the Audubon Center was not surprised. The bald eagles are returning to their old migration routes, she was informed. And, she notes, 1996 was the first year they had been spotted in northern Wisconsin since their numbers had been decimated by DDT many decades before.

But the loons on Lake Michigan were another story.

“I’ve seen loons (in the lagoon) since at least 2006,” says Mary Lee, “but nobody would believe me. I even told the Wisconsin Society for Ornithology and they said, ‘You must be mistaken. There are no loons inside the breakwater.’“

That new, good camera provided the proof. “Now I’ve got tons of pictures of loons, because I’ve seen them every year.”

Mary Lee shoots photos year-round. Commuting by bike to her art modelling assignments has been instrumental in introducing her to many of her wildlife subjects. Loons, foxes, snowy owls, cormorants, and even mink have crossed her path – or more precisely, she crossed theirs – and have found their way into enchanting photos in her calendars and notecards.

Her photo, “Red Fox Stretching by Lake” won second place in the wildlife category for the DNR’s Wisconsin’s Great Lakes Calendar 2013-2014. But for her it’s really all about celebrating the animals, not her particular prowess.

Earlier this year she learned some hard lessons about photographers who are out there pursuing prizes. “I was encouraged by other people to post some of my photos on internet sites, so I did,” explains Mary Lee. Previously she’d only posted on her “very private” Facebook page.

“Some people go to these sites because they’re running around with huge cameras trying to win awards.”

Viewers of the sites figured out where she had been shooting. “So they all came down there, every day, chasing the foxes around. I saw them, ten of these photographers, literally park themselves on top of the den. I watched from a distance. And I saw the parent foxes up on this hill, and they could not get to their kids! And I was like, ‘Oh My God!’

“And they kept coming back. These people were relentless.”

Mary Lee saw the fox parents sneak the kits to a new, but very dangerous location. “And then they found them again, these people, because they saw ME! They saw my bike from the freeway! They were watching me!”

Since then, “…if someone asks ‘Where are the foxes?’ I will not answer that question,” says Mary Lee firmly.

You can purchase Mary Lee’s calendars (2014 is coming out now!) and cards at the East Side Green Market on Saturdays. Artist Natasha Agnew, her daughter, often accompanies her there. Her notecards are available at Beans and Barley, Dragonfly, Outpost Natural Foods or by contacting her at