In Focus: Bill Vanko's passion for wildlife photography

For The Baltimore Sun
Bill Vanko's day job is behind the microphone, but his passion is behind the lens.

Bill Vanko’s only phobia is the dentist. 

“Needles make my blood pressure go up,” he confesses softly. “I was blessed with really horrible teeth.” 

But don’t jump to hasty conclusions about his level of cowardice. While Vanko may be weak-kneed when it comes to the care and maintenance of his pearly whites, he’s right at home communing with animals that fly, prance, hop, slither, stomp or swim.

The 56-year-old Ellicott City resident is a wildlife photographer, training the lens of his Canon 7D on varied landscapes to capture and illuminate strikingly intricate images. His inquisitiveness, he notes, dovetails perfectly with his full-time job as a news anchor and reporter for WBAL radio. 

“You have to freeze that moment to tell the story,” he enthuses, hands and mind in motion. “I’m doing the same thing in a newscast. I’m insanely curious.”

His love affair with animals dates to his childhood. Growing up in Glen Arm, he recalls, “if you saw a rabbit, you’d run home and tell Mom.” His family would assemble weekly to watch a National Geographic or Jacques Cousteau special.“Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom,” hosted by Marlin Perkins, held a special fascination. 

“I wanted to be him,” Vanko says.

Vanko’s first job: artificially inseminating whooping cranes at the Patuxent Wildlife Research Center in Laurel. 

“There’s nothing like getting a bird excited!” he jokes.

Wilderness explorer

Vanko, who stands tall and bearded, uses every vacation to photograph. He swoons about seeing the storied midnight sun on a recent cruise to Alaska. 

“You hear about it,” he says, “but until you experience it, it’s a completely different thing.” 

At another point on the trip, a moose sighting was interrupted when nature called in another way. 

“Forty-four in the group saw the moose. The guy with the camera didn’t see the moose,” he says in a voice tinged with regret. “I had to go to the bathroom.” 

Quickly he regains his zest as he recounts, in a professorial yet relaxed manner, that “what most people don’t realize is much of southeast Alaska is temperate rainforest,” he says. “It’s not hot and sticky like the tropical rainforest, but it’s equally wet and lush and full of wildlife, if you know where to look.”

 He also loves the Florida Everglades. On one trip deep in the southern swamp, he spotted what another group of visitors didn’t. “I took a picture of an 8-foot alligator crossing the road. They didn’t see it,” he says.

On a family vacation to the Outer Banks, Vanko recalls sitting on the beach and wondering what was out there in the Atlantic waters. Naturally it wasn’t long before he found a sand shark “moving ever so slightly. I pulled its tail. I picked it up.”

He shared his find with kids along the shore. “The kids could feel what sharkskin feels like,” he remembers. “Parents asked, ‘Is it alive?’ ‘I said, ‘No, it’s not alive. I’m not stupid.’ ”

Accidental radio anchor

So how did it happen that a zoology major at the University of Maryland found his way into radio? 

“I got into radio on something less than a whim,” Vanko says. “I read in the campus newspaper, The Diamondback, that they were auditioning for the campus radio station. I’ve always been fascinated [by] pushing buttons.” 

During a career that has spanned 30 years, Vanko has used his honey-rich baritone on the air at stations in Washington and Frederick. He’s been with WBAL, one of Maryland’s most-listened-to radio stations, for 15 years.

One day in College Park, Vanko spied a black rat snake in the parking lot. Since snakes are his all-time favorite animals, he immediately scooped it up and dashed back to an aquarium in his dormitory. From there, it wound up in a zoology lab on campus. 

“I kept ‘Blork, the Wonder Snake’ for 27 years,” he says proudly. “He just died eight or nine years ago. Who knew he would last that long?”

“If the grass rustles a certain way, he knows where to look,” confirms Joan Doniger, Vanko’s wife of 25 years, even as she acknowledges she’s not the nature fanatic he is. 

“Birds are birds, and flowers are flowers,” says Doniger, a radio newscaster for MarketWatch.com. “But I’ve grown to appreciate it.” 

As for Blork, she adds diplomatically, “He was very nice, very easygoing.”

Nature evangelist

Along with his engaging website, vankovision.com, Vanko likes sharing the gift of nature with youngsters at Howard County elementary schools like Northfield and Deep Run. During one speaking engagement, he pulled a snake from his pocket. 

“All the kids moved closer,” he recalls. “They have a natural curiosity. But the parents went to the back of the room.” 

Most adults, he says, are conditioned to react this way.“But if you get them as kids, they’ll get it.”

When he’s not out capturing rare images in the wild, he’s tackling closer-to-home assignments for Win Kelly Chevrolet Buick and GMC in Clarksville.

“Bill tells a story with his photography,” says Kevin Bell, co-owner and president of the dealership. “And he does it with joy.”

The two met nearly a decade ago when Vanko bought a Chevy Malibu from Bell. “He had a lot of images from his trip to the Everglades. He was literally on his hands and knees,” shooting the alligators, says Bell. “He finds these iconic images of bald eagles at Conowingo Dam. He sees things that we just drive by.”

Bell was so taken by his artistry he hired him to shoot photos for several marketing campaigns the dealership was mounting, including a Corvette Club show on the Ocean City boardwalk. 

“His classic photos of a red Corvette on the white-sand beach [are] just stunning,” Bell says. “He said the light came together.”

Second-generation photographer

Larry Roberts, a former WBAL radio reporter (now at WBFF) contends Vanko is following his heart — and his genes. 

“I think nature’s in Bill’s DNA,” says Roberts, who works in the public relations department at the University of Maryland School of Medicine in Baltimore. “His father had a lot to do with fueling and fanning that passion. His father was a high school science teacher and was also a nature photographer. Bill has always been intensely curious about the world around him. Of the five W’s in reporting (who, what, when, where and why) Bill always wants to pursue the ‘why’ a step further.”

As a journalist, Vanko has had the pleasure of flying with the Blue Angels and journeying to Russia and Jamaica to cover stories. He’s an expert on Maryland politics and knows Baltimore’s neighborhoods as well as he knows the fossils at Calvert Cliffs in Southern Maryland. 

“All the while,” he says, “knowing that my real passion has always been trying to educate people about nature and wildlife. For that reason, my camera has never been far away wherever I go. I’ve managed to build up a modest portfolio of nature photographs that I can help people understand the complexity, the beauty and the need to preserve the world around them.”

On that note, Vanko winds down, poised to unleash another blast of pent-up energy for the next day. That’s when he will scamper off to Maryland’s mountainous west, in search of rattlesnakes that reside under rocks. 

Vanko leaves behind a solitary nugget of wisdom. Call it a synthesis statement gleaned from his rich harvest of images that speak to the soul: “In most cases,” he declares, “the eye behind the camera is more important than the lens in front of it!”  

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