A few weeks ago, my friend Chris and I went to the river to set up game cameras, hoping to capture images of the beautiful wood ducks that have proven so skittish and difficult to photograph. On that same day Chris spotted where the owl had been hiding, so we decided to set up my camera trained at the owl. The camera Chris brought we would set up low on a tree in a little cove where I have spotted wood ducks before. It has a bracket that screws into a tree trunk, then the camera slips over the bracket and you’re ready to go.
Except we forgot one thing: To keep an eye on the river levels. An earlier rain was still having an impact downstream, and in no time the camera was underwater. Being airtight and buoyant, however, it simply lifted up off the bracket as the water got higher, and floated away.
We assumed it was lost forever. But tonight when I went to retrieve the bracket and scout another wood duck location I did some looking around. Low and behold, I spotted the camera in a debris pile less than fifty feet downstream of the tree on which it was mounted. Although it wasn’t above water for long before the water took it away, Chris and I were both anxious to see what was on the memory card! The camera, while it was on its little adventure, took 1,470 photos. Here are the highlights…
This is most likely a Great Blue Heron. I’ve seen them in this cove before, and while this neck is very white like that of an egret or something, some Great Blues have a mostly white neck. Regardless, pretty cool capture. But, cool as it is, I really wanted wood ducks.
And finally, the last creature to show up (not counting the spider on the cam in the first shot) is the one writing this story. I was as surprised as that rabbit to see this camera down there, and when the flash went off I knew it had continued working the entire time.
On several of my unsuccessful attempts to sneak up on our resident wood ducks with a camera, I reached a certain point in my sneakery when a large bird, presumably a hawk, flew from behind me directly over my head, fifteen feet off the ground. On one such occasion I raised my camera to my eye and snapped a single, blurry photo as my target quickly flew out of range. This is that image. Four times I received this fly-by, never seeing it coming and never able to identify where it came from. I had been walking for hundreds of yards, I never passed a hawk on a low branch and couldn’t figure out why one would come from higher up to dive bomb me.
Then my friend Chris joined me for one of my wood duck photo attempts and sure enough, I get the fly-by. But this time I had a witness. Chris saw where the bird came from: this giant hole in a dead sycamore.
But it still didn’t make sense. Hawks don’t live in tree cavities, or if they do, Google hasn’t learned of it yet. Still, we were positive it was a hawk, and Chris absolutely saw it come from that tree. So we set up a trail cam on the only available tree facing the sycamore and left it for a couple weeks. I checked it tonight and the first image on the card put everything into place. It wasn’t a hawk at all, it was an owl! And the nest in that hole is inhabited by at least one baby owl.
Excitedly scanning through over a hundred photos, I almost skipped right past this one. But there is a Mommy or Daddy owl hanging back in the shadow of the hole, keeping a close eye on the fuzzy little tyke.
I have 22 images showing owl activity, and they are all in the middle of the day for some reason. Between 11:00 a.m. and 2:00 p.m. I don’t know why the sensor isn’t triggered when the adults go out hunting at night, maybe it’s too far away. Regardless, if the owl is making an appearance mid-day, I think it would be worth trying this idea: This shelter faces the river. The tree you see to the left of it is the Owl Tree. I think I will cut a hole in the back of the shelter big enough to watch through a telephoto lens, and see if maybe some patience can pay off with some baby owl photos.
In the meantime, do any of my bird experts out there want to hazard a guess on the type of owl this might be? I can tell you that the adult bird that flew over my head was large, close to red-tail hawk sized.
After clumsily flushing two pairs of wood ducks from the bank of the Potomac last night, I decided to return tonight and stealthily approach with my long lens and see if I could photograph them. I love wood ducks, but have never been able to get a decent shot, and have never even had a chance at a bad shot of a male. It was harder than I thought, and I thought it would be nearly impossible. The woods along the river at our place are pretty dense, even with no leaves on the trees, so I almost had to be standing on the bank out in the open before I had a clear shot. Focusing through all those little branches is not easy.
So I slowly and quietly edged closer, still too far away for a photo when the first two exploded out of the water with a shrill, sustained warning for the other pair about thirty yards upstream. Swing and a miss. Never even raised the camera to my eye. But the other pair did not heed the warning, so I had another chance. I painstakingly moved their way, picking muddy patches to step in when I could find them, rather than the flood debris of dried and brittle sticks. But I could only get so close before they, too, had enough of my games.
I found a good vantage point out of sight in case they returned and waited. Instead of the shrill call of the wood ducks, however, I heard overhead the distinct cackle of eagles. The pair flew directly over me but I couldn’t get the camera up in time. As they landed in a high branch nearby, I tried to focus on them through the infinite maze of twigs between us. I snapped a few photos I knew would be no good and was about to hike up the hill to the house, defeated, when the cackling picked up and I took another look through the lens. What happened next, well, let’s just say there will be the pitter patter of little eagle talons around the nest in about forty days.
While I wished I was closer, or at least had a clearer path through which to shoot, I didn’t dare take a step for fear of giving away my position. So I watched, and shot, with the utmost respect and awe, at a truly remarkable natural wonder. So here are fourteen crappy pictures of bald eagles making little bald eagles, and one crappy picture of a wood duck. Maybe the best day of poor photography I’ve ever had, and a first day of spring I’ll remember for a long time. I will be watching out for the juvenile eagles this summer, soaring above, learning to fish, finding their way. They’re always wonderful to see, but this year’s babies will be most special.
Ed Clark, President and Founder of The Wildlife Center of Virginia, spoke this weekend at the Mason-Dixon Outdoor Writers Association Conference. His passion for wildlife is infectious, so when he invited attendees to stop by and tour the center after the conference, several of us jumped at the chance to see this state-of-the-art facility. Our tour was given by Director of Outreach Amanda Nicholson, who showed us many of the educational animals at the center. These animals were brought to the center for rehabilitation after an injury, and for either behavioral or medical reasons were deemed not releasable into the wild. As part of the education/outreach team, they were trained for participation in educational programs both at the center and beyond, at schools, fairs and other events. This Eastern Screech Owl is named Alex, and if she wasn’t tethered to Amanda, I would have smuggled her out in my coat! Click here or on the photo below for a brief video clip of the adorable Alex.
During our visit, a badly injured Red-shouldered Hawk found alongside a highway was being examined. The center is a veterinary teaching hospital, with veterinarians from all over the world spending time training in the care of ill or injured wildlife.
Outside we got to see the enclosures where the educational birds reside. The campus also has several different sized flight pens for the bird patients to fly and exercise as part of their rehabilitation.
The center’s mission is “teaching the world to care about and to care for wildlife and the environment.” And they rely on donations from people like us to do it. I encourage you to go to their web site, learn more about the important work being done here, make a donation if you can, or just spend some time watching animals real-time on one of their two Critter Cams!
Note and Lesson: Just bring your camera everywhere, even if you don’t think you need it. I did not have mine today and very much wished I did. All photos and video are taken on my iPhone 4S.
My favorite photos from this year feature more birds than dogs, surprisingly, and more dogs than people, not surprisingly. The picture above, a wild brook trout being released into the cold, winter waters of Cedar Run in Shenandoah National Park early this year, is my favorite. Holding a slippery trout in one hand while operating a DSLR with the other is a low percentage proposition. But luck is a big part of photography. At least it is in my photography. The best of the rest of 2012 are below, in no particular order.
This misty photo of the so called Platform was one of the most popular images I shared on facebook this year. In fact, a few friends now have the print hanging in their homes, which is a great honor to me. This grownup tree fort is one of my very favorite places, a sanctuary in the truest sense of the word.
I chased this impossibly vibrant sunrise around for a half hour before work one morning, looking for an interesting foreground to silhouette against it. When I came across this tree with a group of black vultures perched in it, I hurried to get this shot as the fleeting, red was fading with each passing moment.
The blog post that featured photos from the falconry event I attended was featured on the WordPress ‘Freshly Pressed’ page, an incredible honor that brought many new viewers to this blog. Welcome and thank you to those who still follow from first seeing it there.
We are lucky enough to see bald eagles regularly where we live, but they are hard to get good pictures of without a zoom lens. I got lucky as I had borrowed a nice lens from a friend and had it when this eagle came around. Taken from our back yard in Virginia, that is the town of Brunswick, Maryland across the river in the background. I’m happy to report that my wife got me a 75-300 lens for Christmas! So look for more eagles and other wildlife pics in the future!
A brown thrasher sits on her nest protected by the thorns of a lemon tree at Rose River Farm in Madison County, Virginia.
I wrote a blog post I’m pretty proud of about the space shuttle Discovery and what it meant to be present for this historic event. You can read that post here.
Oddly, my favorite photo from the Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum shows neither water, nor a boat.
This is one of those technically flawed, lucky shots that turned out nicely. I was unaware as I was composing the photo in the viewfinder, that the balcony rail was aligned with the line in the background where the snowy foreground meets the woods. The result is an interesting effect, I think. I’m surprised at how many of my favorite shots came on less than pleasant weather days.
These amazing miniature donkeys are hard to photograph in the same way puppies are: They are affectionate and curious about the camera, so by the time you get down to their level, they’re in your face wondering what you’re doing and if you have any treats.
The Virginia State Police would surely be alarmed to know how many photos I have tried to take of my dogs in the rear view mirror. This is a challenge while parked, never mind while driving. But I love this one of Finn and remember exactly the day I took it because that’s my 3-weight Scott fly rod in the rack. We were on our way to the Rapidan.
I love this photo of Winnie, taken on a summer kayak outing. You’ve seen a cropped version of it before, it serves as the masthead image for this blog, but I thought the entire image warranted extra mention here.
My first, hopefully of many, trip to Yellowstone National Park was a life changing event. It is an extraordinary, magical place I will never forget, and a place I will long to return to more each day until I drive through its gates again.
2012 had a few amazing lightning shows. I was lucky enough to capture this strike from our deck. The rain had stopped but the lightning continued for more than an hour, the perfect opportunity to try to capture it.
My friend Anna and I stood in the bitter cold trying to capture a meteor from the Geminid shower in December. This was one of the brightest of the night.
Driving on a Montana highway, when we saw this amazing old car with a tree growing out of the roof, my friend Joel turned the car around so I could get some pictures of it.
Another accidental photo I ended up liking. While fishing for smallmouth, I wasn’t paying attention to my camera settings. I had it set on macro, so it kept trying to zoom in and focus closely. I couldn’t get a shot of the entire fish, but I love the textures of the fish and water here.
It was hard to choose one photo from Slough Creek in Yellowstone. Simply the most beautiful place I have ever had the honor of being. We hiked in about six miles to get there, and the moment we arrived, I was sad at the thought of having to leave it later.
My neighbor sent me a text today saying there was a wood duck with ducklings in his pond. There are a few birds I see here from time to time that I have had no luck whatsoever getting close enough for a photo. Wood ducks are one, and the beautiful green heron is another.
Well one of the reasons I never get good shots of these is I don’t have a long lens. My 15-85mm all purpose lens is literally that, because it’s the only lens I own. So I end up spooking most birds long before I get close enough. When I reached the pond, I saw the female wood duck and two ducklings, staying close to the weeds along the edge of the pond. And standing right nearby were two juvenile green herons.
The birds must have felt safe tucked in the weeds because they allowed me to get fairly close. But enough was enough, evidently, and in a burst of water and feathers and motion the duck and two herons bolted from the grass and flew to the far side of the pond. I snapped a few photos and really like the one above, two elusive subjects captured in one frame. Never mind how dorky that heron is (let’s hope he grows out of that awkward phase!).
After a pause, the ducklings made a break for it and paddled their hearts out to meet up with Mom across the pond. Luckily I still had the camera ready, because this was cute to watch them cut those little trails across the top.
This is my favorite photograph of my Mother. In it, she is not looking at the camera. She is not even aware of the camera. Her face is almost entirely hidden, in fact. But those who knew her well would be able to see the smile in her cheek. I’ve given this some thought, the photographing of people not as they look toward me, toward the interruption of a moment that is my camera, my attention. But how much more meaningful it can be to capture a person as they look out into their world. In this image, we are lucky enough to see the source of the smile: my father.
It’s easy for me to imagine the moment captured here. A couple of friends in the back, open road ahead, his car freshly tuned and purring (of this I am certain), driving to a picnic and toward a bright but unknown future. Sure, I know how the story ends, and I know it ends far sooner than they could have imagined. But it seems a worthwhile exercise to look through their eyes and just enjoy this moment with them. Young people in love on a warm day with the top down. This was a good moment. Who knows, maybe in difficult times ahead this instant came to mind and brought a smile.
But it’s this smile in the picture that intrigues me. It’s not for the camera, or at a family gathering, or amid small talk at the office water cooler. It’s a smile, pure as can be, at the man she’s about to marry, at the man with whom she will soon have children, at the man who is now watching the road. The smile isn’t even for him. It just is. And I almost feel guilty for spying on it.
My mother, who outlived my father by nearly thirty years, died five years ago today. A few years earlier, I had written something for her as a Mother’s Day gift. She called me, crying, and said it was the best gift I had ever given her. By the next time I visited, she had gotten it framed and it was hanging in her bedroom. So it meant a lot to both of us, and with Mother’s Day nearly upon us, I want to share it with you. What started as a gift, is now a tribute. I call it, “Flying.”
I recently held a hummingbird in my hand. He had accidentally flown into a window and fallen, unconscious, on the ground in front of a busy doorway. He looked like nothing, upside down, his white belly close to the color of the concrete beneath. But something made me look closer, and when I picked him up he moved a bit.
I moved him away from the human traffic, and sat on a nearby bench. Alive. Stunned, but with no visible injuries. His eyes opened, and I gave him the opportunity to fly from my open hand. He politely declined, and with an invisible gesture asked for a little more time to gather his wits. I assured him – by holding my hands in a way that he was protected and secure, but could leave if he chose to – that this was now the most important thing in my day, and if he needed all day he could have it.
So we sat there. Him clearing cobwebs and me just thinking, how lucky for me to have the opportunity to hold a hummingbird in my hands. How lucky for him that I came along.
My thoughts drifted back many, many years. Back to the house I grew up in, back to an injured bird in the gutter in front of that house, and back to my Mother. A shoebox, some paper towels, a lamp. It was exciting, I thought, to have part of the natural world sitting here in a box on the dining room table. I asked her how long before the bird would be better. She was a nurse, after all. Clearly she knew how to fix a bird.
I wanted to name it.
When she told me that she wasn’t confident the bird would get better (it wouldn’t), I remember instantly distancing myself emotionally. I felt like I had dodged a bullet by being moments away from deciding on a name.
My Mother, of course, saw instantly what I was doing and we had what stands now as my Earliest Remembered Meaningful Conversation. She asked, as a nurse, what would happen if she stopped caring about patients who were not getting better? Patients who were going to die? They needed her more than ever during those times.
I was young, I don’t recall how young. And I don’t recall the words she used to express and make me understand compassion. And Lord only knows how she made it be a part of me. But that’s how it is with these things. You can’t identify how your Mother makes you who you are, exactly. But you know that she did.
And so now, on Mother’s Day, I think about how at many other moments in my life my Mother taught me. Showed me. Shaped me. Held me, protected me, and gave me room to fly away. And I hope she knows that I noticed. That I remember. That the only thing I really forget is to thank her, and for that I am sorry.
I followed about a mile of deer trails with the dogs this evening, searching for antler sheds. No antlers spotted, but I did find this special little nest that must have blown out of a tree with the recent high winds we’ve been getting. I don’t know what kind of bird made it, something about wren sized I would guess. But I love the threads of frayed, plastic tarp this industrious bird weaved among the twigs.
I know what you’re thinking. You’re thinking, “Really, Ed? Starting a blog post about the ancient art of falconry with a quote from Tommy Boy?” Well sometimes inspiration comes from unexpected places. And besides, I want to be able to capture all the web traffic from people who might Google the terms “Chris Farley” and “Rabbit Hawking” together.
When I learned the Virginia Falconers Association was having a meet not far from where I live (which was right after I learned that falconry was practiced at all in this part of the U.S.), I couldn’t wait to see what it was all about. I will be writing more about the sport and my day, but for now I wanted to share my favorite photos from this amazing experience. I hope you enjoy them.
(The beautiful bird pictured above is a first year, or “passage” Red-tailed Hawk named Kingsley. Thank you C.B.)