By Julie Pendray
IDYLLWILD, Calif. — Bruce Edward Watts can be as elusive to pin down for an interview as one of the rare butterflies he snatches in thrilling moments with his camera, out in the meadows of the San Jacinto Mountain Range. But this weekend, you might have a few fleeting moments of conversation with this fascinating, rather shy man at a showing of his work called “Mother Nature’s Sun.”
Nature so enthralls Watts that over his lifetime he has raised seven species of sea horses, bred orchids under lights, lived in two idyllic locales — Idyllwild and Hawaii — written a column for Aquatic Gardener magazine, another column for Idyllwild Town Crier on hiking and the great outdoors, been a professional gardener for a major hotel chain and has bred tropical fish for 58 years.
“I’m down to five aquariums of fish now,” he told me recently.
I first encountered Watts last summer, when his stunning images were on display at Lily Rock Native Gardens plant nursery in Idyllwild. He was regaling owners Bronwyn Jones and Jackie Lasater with stories of his latest finds and Jones urged me — a relative newcomer to “the Hill” — to connect with him on social media to witness his daily digital feed of beauty from our local environs. He photographs almost seven days a week, nearly 300 days a year, leaving his home by 4 a.m. for the adventure.
“I have a love of nature and I like to show it,” he told me.
He uses a Canon EOS camera, with a 18-55 mm lens. He hopes to upgrade to the EOS M 3 and add a 55-200 lens, he said.
Watts is working on two books: Bruce’s Guide to Idyllwild Wildflowers and Bruce’s Guide to Idyllwild Butterflies, which will be available together next year. He has photographed and documented about 500 species of flora. Some will be in his first edition of the wildflower book, then he’ll follow up with a second edition. He has captured 57 species of butterflies. All his photographs are taken in the San Jacinto and Santa Rosa mountain ranges in Southern California, all the way down to the flatlands. He is most proud of his Garner Valley sighting of the Western Pygmy Blue, the world’s smallest butterfly, with a wing span of about 1/2 inch.
Watts confirms his identifications through Tom Chester, who describes himself as “a retired astrophysicist who accidentally became a full-time botanist in 2001 while hiking at the Santa Rosa Plateau,” north of Temecula. Chester worked for California Institute of Technology (Cal-Tech) before retiring. He was a docent at the plateau from 2001 to 2005.
“Now, I concentrate on the flora of the Borrego desert in the winter and spring and of San Jacinto Mountain in spring and fall,” he told me.
“We are lucky that Bruce is working on the flora of the Idyllwild area,” he said. “He keeps good records of the plant species he has seen in bloom, improving our understanding of the distribution of plant species here. He goes out almost daily to photograph plant and butterfly species, looking for the “perfect shot” with his artist’s eye, resulting in gorgeous photographs.”
Watts has done a volunteer survey of Johnston’s rock cress (Boechera johnstonii), a rare and endangered species found in Garner Valley.
Chester told me, “Bruce’s census of the Boechera johnstonii population is a significant advance in our understanding of how abundant it is and where it lives.”
Our local photographer likes to get intimate with his subjects.
“I go all the way in,” he told me. “I have to know about the relationship.”
For example, he showed me a photo of a pair of pink and grey moths mating on a flower of the same shades. The camouflage was remarkable.
“When they are mating, they’re at their most vulnerable, so they must blend in to be safe,” he explained.
Watts partially credits his early curiosity about the great outdoors to his father’s Navy career. The family lived on Oahu and Maui and traveled a lot when he was young. He returned to Hawaii briefly as an adult, but he’s now emphatic about where he wants to spend the rest of his life.
“Maui is beautiful but growing fast and becoming crowded. It’s very expensive,” he said. ” I was working two full-time jobs to make ends meet. I love Idyllwild. I never want to leave. I like the way people here help each other and you can talk to people and they make eye contact.”
Art photographer and part-time Idyllwild resident Gina Genis made the templates for Watts’ wildflower book and Avianna Jones, a local, did the layout for his butterfly book, he said.
In addition to photos that will go in his books, Watts does botanical, black-and-white, landscape and what he calls digital paintings. An example is a series that shows all four seasons of an Idyllwild meadow. The pieces are called Willow Spring, Willow Fall, Willow Winter and Willow Summer. Watts works on canvas or Polar Pearl metallic paper. He frames some photos and selects others for greeting cards. Some are simply on cardboard. Watts uses acid-free, archival paper, cardboard and ink, and high quality Canon ink, he told me.
He’ll have nearly 270 images for sale this weekend.
“Some of these pictures will be around longer than the people who buy them,” he said.
Watts’ show will be from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. May 28-29 at Jean Stein’s Howland House, 55517 Howland Road, Idyllwild.
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