Words and Images from Ed Felker

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Engaging in Something Different

IMG_1041I met former Miss Virginia Tara Wheeler through her involvement in Project Healing Waters. Tara, a proud supporter of our servicemen and women, has generously donated her time at the last few 2-Fly Tournaments serving as emcee. So when she got engaged to her fiance Jared, who she met while fishing, she thought the perfect place for an engagement photo shoot would be the beautiful Rose River Farm, Home Waters to Project Healing Waters and site of the annual 2-Fly.

When Tara asked me if I would shoot the photos, I was at once honored and terrified. “We really love your photography,” she said. To which I replied, “Um…have you noticed there are no people in my photographs?” I was well outside my comfort zone with this project, to say the least. But I agreed, and scouted some fun spots around the farm to shoot. On the day of the shoot, they brought with them a lot of love, energy and fun ideas.

I have the utmost respect for all those who do this for a living, and I do not purport to be a professional portrait photographer. But here are my favorite images from the day. Thank you Tara and Jared for trusting me with this important project, and congratulations on your engagement!

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Trophy Day on the New River

When David Coffman was putting together our trip to southwest Virginia, including finding guide recommendations for a day of fishing on the New River, one name topped the list: Shawn Hash from Tangent Outfitters. The trip, a six-day odyssey through a beautiful and rugged portion of my beloved home state I had never set foot in before, brought us on the final day to Pembroke, VA where we met up with Shawn.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAIt was a beautiful day, but windy. I brought my 7-weight fly rod, which is a nice smallmouth rod in the wind, but I was not in the mood to fight it all day. We were there to relax and catch fish, and when the gusts are into the 35-40mph range, you leave the fly rod in the tube and grab a spinning rod. No apologies there, I love fly fishing but it was not the day for it.

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I love a brown trout. My favorite fish ever was a medium sized Yellowstone Cutthroat. Brookies, rainbows, salmon, steelhead, stripers, shad, they’re all special, really. But I have a particular affection for the Smallmouth Bass. I learned to fly fish clumsily throwing wooly buggers to smallies in my home waters of the Potomac and the last couple miles of the Shenandoah before the two rivers meet as one. I’ve fished from banks, waded for them and caught them from a kayak. On one kayak trip not far from where we now live, I caught my personal best smallmouth, about a 17.5 incher that towed me around for a while before I got it in.

Well that personal best was bested by a beefy 18-incher within 40 yards of the ramp where we put in. A good day already. But it gets better. I have never seen so many consistently big, hard-fighting smallmouth. One after the other we were pulling in fish measuring 16 to 18 inches. Then I hooked into a particularly heavy one, and the moment Shawn netted it, he said, “citation!”

I have never caught an official citation, or trophy fish of any species. A smallmouth has to be 20 inches in length to qualify, and this one is about 20.5″. It weighed in at 4.75 lbs. To get a citation of one of my very favorite species of fish is extremely special to me. But amazingly, probably seven of the biggest ten smallmouth I have ever caught, were caught on this day out of the New River.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERABut remarkable things were happening for the guy in the back of the boat, too! David, editor of the VDGIF Outdoor Report and a lifelong outdoorsman, declared this the best day of fishing of his life! He was reeling in a “mediocre” smallmouth, maybe 12-13″, it was up on the surface close to the boat. I was watching it when what I presumed for an instant was a shark of some sort crashed up through the surface of the water after the smallie.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWell of course it wasn’t a shark, it was a muskie! It had knocked the smallmouth free and was now on the line.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWith the exception of the big salmon up in New York, this is the biggest freshwater fish I have ever seen with my own eyes.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAShawn told David just what to do, let him have some line, and carefully David got this monster back toward the boat.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERABut the fish was pretty angry about the whole thing, and had plenty of means and desire to fight back.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAFinally he got into a position where Shawn could net him.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAJust watching this I could feel the weight of this fish in the net!

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAAn absolutely giddy David (left), holds his catch with proud guide Shawn. Congratulations, David, on a beautiful muskie!

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThat night we celebrated with a great dinner at the nearby Palisades Restaurant, cigars and a few drinks. What a special day on the river, and I couldn’t be happier for David. I got my very special citation smallie, and he has a fish of a lifetime he will never forget. Wow.

That night we stayed in one of the riverfront cabins run by Tangent. This is the view from the porch. I didn’t think to get photos of the inside but I can’t recommend the cabins highly enough. Modern, comfortable, meticulously clean. Just a fantastic experience all around. I will absolutely return to the New River to have some fun with Tangent Outfitters!

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Riverrockstar

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe Dominion Riverrock Festival in Richmond, Virginia seemed like a fun event, and when I learned that there was a “Filthy 5K” mud run, and that you could run with a dog, I decided to enter for precisely two reasons: I needed a ‘deadline’ to motivate me to get off my ass and start exercising, and I have the perfect dog for such an event. Finn loves mud and water more than I love not exercising. Which is quite a bit.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERASo for a couple months I ‘trained’ intermittently, running a few miles here, taking several days off there. But I didn’t really change my bad habits and never lost any weight in the process. So when the event came around, I was ill prepared. Running is hard for fat old guys.

But to be honest, a mile into the race I knew I could finish it, albeit very, very slowly. This, by the way, is much better than not being sure if you will survive. So I spent the considerable time it took to run it encouraging Finn, who of course did not even notice he was running a 5K.

5k2Finn enjoyed every minute of the run, but none more than when he got to wet his belly in the James River.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAHe’s plenty fond of mud, too!

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAHeights? A shaky foot bridge? No problem for Finn!

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAHey here comes Jay! Our friend Jay, who generously hosted us at his home in downtown Richmond for the weekend, went the extra mile (okay 3.2 miles) and ran the race too! Here he is pushing through the last obstacle before the finish line!

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAHere we are, successful finishers of the Riverrock Filthy 5K!

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOf course we all deserved a post-race cold one! Some members of the team had more of these than others.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOkay, a couple things here. First, I love this picture and I loved the moment. The ‘glow’ after we had finished the race we had worked not very hard preparing for. Finn’s weight on my foot just felt, I don’t know, I just liked it. But what I didn’t like is what happened right after I took this photo. This post is about Finn, really, and I hesitate to even bring this up. But I know Jay will insist upon its inclusion here, so…

We’re standing here, like this. Finn leaning on my foot. And this old guy trots up to me from across the parking lot, all excited, and says, “How’d you do in the race???” I said, “I think we won!” He said, “Really?” I said, “No. Not really.” He said, “Oh. I was just wondering if anyone else over 60 finished ahead of me.” I said, “And you fucking asked ME??” He said, “Well, yeah, I don’t know.” I said, well, I don’t recall exactly what I said so I will paraphrase: “Sir, I appreciate your enthusiasm, you are right to be excited about what I am sure is a fine performance among other gentlemen in your age group. I commend your efforts to stay fit into very, very old age. However, you are mistaken. While my hair is grey, and I am walking with the grace and athleticism of a man who had knee replacement surgery this morning, I assure you that I have just celebrated my fiftieth birthday and, with all due respect, take considerable offense at your inclusion of me into your age group. Please be on your way.”

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAAfterwards we were hanging around, drinking beer, and Finn became very interested in the pool where the Ultimate Air Dogs dock diving competition would be held the next day. I decided Finn had to at least try it.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe next day we watched some cool events taking place. This is called slack line, and I had never seen it before. People jump on these wide, thin, flexible straps and do flips and all kinds of other tricks. It’s mesmerizing to watch!

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAAnother event I’ve never seen before is bouldering. Don’t ask me how a person can climb up something that is well on the wrong side of vertical. But these incredibly strong athletes were fun to watch scale these obstacles.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe rains came for a time around noon. Finn, as he had been the whole weekend no matter what we asked of him, was a trooper. He literally endures any activity I ask of him, any conditions presented to him, with bright, smiling eyes and a firm wag of approval. But here he enjoyed a little shelter under the beer table for a few minutes until the worst of the storm passed.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAAlright, here we are at the dock diving pool! We started him on the ramp so he would get used to the idea, and also so once he swam out to get the toy (a borrowed tennis ball) he would know how to get back out of the pool.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAPlatform time. Well, the boy does love a tennis ball. But not so much that he’ll jump in after it. I got down to his level and we discussed it for a while.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAAfter a pep talk, some cheering from the crowd (who truly loved him), and the slight possibility that he got a perfectly timed little “love tap” on the rump, he finally jumped in!

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWhile he’s not exactly dock diving material, I was very proud of him!

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe Riverrock festival was lots of fun, and we enjoyed many cool new adventures and great company. But the highlight of the weekend was, plain and simple, Finn. This amazing dog endured probably sixty dogs on leashes too long, with inattentive handlers, getting right in his face. He simply stood there. He was approached by dozens of people who wanted to know what he was. Or to tell me how pretty he was. Or to tell him how pretty he was. One person after the other was captivated by him. “What amazing eyes.” “That dog rocks.” “That is the coolest dog I’ve ever seen.”

And people wanted to pet him. Which I’m used to. I ask to pet dogs all the time, and people want to get their hands on Team Orange often too. But this weekend I noticed something different, something more. And Jay witnessed it too. But a lot of people just felt compelled to gently put a hand on him. They would rest a hand on his head while standing in a beer line, or run a finger down his back as we passed walking in a different direction, or place a hand on his rump as they squeezed through in a crowd. They did this without a word or eye contact, they just seemed drawn to have contact with him.

rrock2I’ve had dogs for a long time, and I love bringing them with me when I’m out in public. But I have never been so thrilled, so proud, so happy to have a dog in a crowded public place as I was to have my sweet boy Finn at the Festival. He behaved perfectly, and I just couldn’t be more proud of my Riverrockstar.

Game Cam Lost, Then Found, Then Tells Us Where It’s Been

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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.

DSC06946Oh my! A wood duck! And a beautiful photo of her, too. As I scrolled through the photos I anxiously wondered, surely the male can’t be too far away.

DSC06960Atta boy! How exciting, the plan worked. The camera was in a great spot and functioned perfectly, and we got lucky with our subjects showing up before the camera flooded.

DSC06956What a stunning creature. Would he grace us with a closeup?

DSC06959There it is! This photo and some of the others are cropped a bit, and there are a few others showing the ducks, but this is just amazing.

DSC06949Here comes the river. Compare this shot to the earlier ones showing the island across the way, and you can see the island is almost submerged here.

DSC06992Next we got dozens of photos like this as the camera floated on its back for a few days.

DSC07004I have about 800 images like this and have no idea what’s going on.

DSC07015It moved again and snapped several shots from this location.

DSC07496Things must have dried out by then, as this is obviously not a water bird. Funny to think about the surprise this rabbit got when that flash went off in his face.

DSC07810I almost skipped right over this one, but those are feathers, probably of a Great Blue again. Although it almost looks like a swan.

DSC07927And 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.

DSC08401Game cameras can sure be a lot of fun in between hunting seasons! I encourage you to secure yours somewhere out of the way of human traffic. You might get some pleasant surprises!

7th Annual Project Healing Waters 2-Fly Tournament Raises $220,000

2F3Project Healing Waters Fly Fishing utilizes fly fishing and fly tying in the rehabilitation of disabled servicemen and women in Military Hospitals, VA Medical Centers and Warrior Transition Units all across the country. Their premier fundraising event is the 2-Fly Tournament held each year at Rose River Farm in Madison County, Virginia. The farm, dedicated as PHW’s Home Waters, is owned by PHW Chairman of the Board Douglas Dear. Douglas, who also serves as the chair of the 2-Fly committee, graciously offers the use of this special property to numerous charitable organizations throughout the year.

douglasThis year was the seventh annual event and it was a huge success by any measure. Everyone had a fantastic time, many fish were caught, and over $220,000 was raised to keep programs running across the nation. The 2-Fly has grown from humble beginnings seven years ago to a full weekend of activities. Things kick off Saturday with a casual pond bass and bluegill tournament in the afternoon, followed by a riverside cocktail party and dinner with a full program of special guests and inspiring speakers. Then the 2-Fly Tournament follows on Sunday, followed by an awards ceremony. Below are some of my favorite photos from the weekend that I hope convey a bit of the heart of this wonderful event…

A great addition to our Saturday evening festivities the last couple years has been the Virginia Patriot Guard Riders. Each year more and more patriotic motorcyclists ride in behind the colors, and it is a sight – and sound! – to behold. As for the parking violation? Well I’m certainly not going to tell them!

IMG_1106Another tradition has been great music from the Gold Top County Ramblers.

IMG_1122It was an absolutely perfect evening for an outdoor cocktail hour along the Rose River, with dinner supplied by Gentry’s Catering.

IMG_1131The founder of Project Healing Waters and a man I am proud to call a dear friend, Ed Nicholson.

IMG_1140Co-chair of the tournament (and bamboo rod maker extraordinaire) Jerry Nonnemacher worked tirelessly to pull together staff, volunteers, sponsors and other contributors to make this the smoothest running event yet.

IMG_1166Former Miss Virginia Tara Wheeler is Co-anchor of the Fox 21 27 in Morning News in Roanoke, VA. Tara has been the MC for our evening program for three years now and is a cherished friend of Project Healing Waters.

IMG_1185The only way to truly know how this program changes lives is to listen to the words of those whose lives have been directly impacted. Each year a handful of participants take the podium to share their deeply personal and sometimes painful experiences. CPT Eivind Forseth, US Army (Retired) is one of the first participants of the program. Eivind is a good friend and a powerful speaker. I know his story well, but hearing it again after not seeing him for a few years was quite emotional for me as well as the rest of the audience.

IMG_1194I met MSG John Paramore, US Army (Retired) at last year’s 2-Fly and got to spend a bit more time with him this year. His story of challenge, courage and triumph is truly inspirational.

IMG_1201After a special evening program and a silent auction that raised over $34,000 thanks to the generosity of those in attendance, and perhaps a little sleep, it was time for the Sunday tournament to begin! Ed Nicholson and Douglas Dear go over the rules.

IMG_1259I love this shot for one reason: Hats. Despite the fact that everyone has a hat in their possession, you won’t find a single hat being worn during Lisa Mei Norton’s beautiful rendition of the National Anthem. A wonderful display of shared respect and patriotism.

IMG_1270Alright, let’s get to some fishing! Thanks for hanging in this long if you have. Kiki Galvin was named PHW’s National Capital Region Volunteer of the Year this year. Here Kiki nets a nice rainbow caught by SFC Aaron Morse, US Army.

IMG_1275Long time supporter Harold Harsh oversees a drift from fellow Marine LCpl Ryan Wightman, USMC. Douglas Dear’s son Kyle built two of these ramps as an Eagle Scout project, and they help many wounded servicemen and women access water they would have difficulty reaching otherwise.

IMG_1296Guide Eric Stroup lends a helping hand to SSG (ret.) Rhonda Burleson, US Army as they try to find some nice fish.

IMG_1304Looks like they found the fish! Great job, Rhonda!

IMG_1352Look at the colors on that Rose River rainbow…

IMG_1427…as bright as the smile on the face of the man who caught it. Josh Williams, along with his wife Lisa, have become great friends of mine over the years, and I always look forward to seeing them. Josh gets a hand here from guide Phil Gay.

IMG_1429Harold Harsh lends a hand to Jessie Oliff, who came all the way from California to fish in the 2-Fly. Jessie and Josh teamed up for a third place finish in the tournament. Congratulations, Jessie!

IMG_1439SPC (ret.) Andrew Pike, US Army, who claims to have never fly fished before this week, fights one of many, many fish during the tournament under the guidance of pro guide Brian Wilson. Andrew is a great guy, I enjoyed spending some time with him and hope to see him back next year.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERADuring lunch on Sunday, PHW President Ed Nicholson asked everyone in attendance who has ever served in uniform to gather around for a special presentation. Lefty Kreh served this country with honor from 1942 to 1947 and is a combat veteran from the Battle of the Bulge. He continues his service today as a generous supporter of Project Healing Waters, selflessly giving his time and sharing his talents and knowledge with our disabled active military and veterans. Thank you Lefty, what a great American.

IMG_1478Having experts like Lefty and Ed Jaworowski on hand all day to instruct participants is an invaluable service. I watched Ed teaching casting to this group and others in a steady rain for hours, never once suggesting they take a break or wait till things cleared up.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWashington Redskins safety Reed Doughty (#37) was on hand all weekend spending time with the participants, signing autographs and even catching a few trout. Reed, originally from Colorado, is a passionate fly fisherman. He’s also as friendly and down to earth as you can imagine. I’m a huge Skins fan anyway, but meeting someone you admire as a fan and finding out they’re a great person too, makes it even easier to root for them on the field.

reedYou remember Andy Pike from a few photos ago, the one who had never fly fished before? Well not only did he and his teammate SGT (ret.) Michael Davis, US Army win the Pro/Vet category of the tournament, Andy picked up this trophy for the biggest fish of the day, a 19″ rainbow. Congratulations Andy on a great tournament!

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAAs successful as this event was, Project Healing Waters needs the support of donors and volunteers throughout the year to continue healing those who serve. Visit the PHW web site here to find out more about how you can help.

Exciting and Utterly Unexpected Trail Cam Discovery

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.

owl3Then 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.

owl1But 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.

IMAG0047What a special discovery! I wish I could get the camera closer, these images are enlarged and cropped.

IMAG0053Excitedly 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.

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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.

photoIn 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.

The Appalachian Trail in Virginia: Miles 1 through 2

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe Appalachian Trail reaches from Maine to Georgia and takes 2,200 miles to do it. Like most things that go from Maine to Georgia, the historic trail passes through Virginia. Anyone who thinks Virginia isn’t a large state has never had to walk it, as 550 miles — a full 25% of the trail — falls within the Commonwealth.

At the northernmost point of that 550 mile stretch, the trail leaves the rich history of Harpers Ferry, West Virginia and crosses the beautiful Shenandoah River (shown above), then slips unassuming into the Virginia mountains. I have hiked bits and pieces of the Appalachian Trail here in Virginia, but I think it would be a worthy goal to accumulate all that mileage at some point. Or at least the not insignificant portion that passes through the Shenandoah National Park (101 miles). But that’s a bit ambitious with winter and all the extra weight gained therein so close behind us, so let’s table that discussion for the time being.

This first two miles of the AT in Virginia is the beginning of one of my favorite local hikes. I like and always photograph the iconic white blaze that tells you that you’re traveling the way of countless hikers before you. Mostly day hikers like myself but plenty of through hikers too, who have done the entire 2,200 miles. I’ve run into several in my travels and they tell stories of terrifying thunderstorms in thin, summer tents, encounters with snakes and bears, and losing forty pounds along the way.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERASo two miles up a hill and we let the AT go on to Georgia while we take the blue trail along the ridge to the east. This is a very well maintained but lightly traveled trail, with plenty of scenery changes along the way. Even a few spots for dog posing.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThere are two overlooks along the ridge that are worth checking out if you do this hike for the first time, but I find that I pass them by in favor of spending more time at this spot at the end of the ridge overlooking the Potomac River. This is looking downstream, toward our house (six miles maybe?). See the black object in the middle of the frame? That’s a black vulture, who shared the spot with Team Orange and I until I got too close with the camera. I snapped this just as he took off.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThis is the same spot from the other direction. You can see the Shenandoah River coming in from the left to the confluence with the Potomac, and beyond it is the town of Harpers Ferry, WV. That’s Maryland across the river from us, so three states all come together right here. For those who aren’t already familiar, that’s Team Orange, my Wirehaired Vizslas. Winnie in front, Finn in back.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAComing back on the blue trail, there is a different route you can take, the orange trail. I mentioned earlier how well maintained it is, but this intersection of trails is much better marked than last time I did this hike! I’ve missed it before, but I like what they did here.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe orange spur seems to be the least used of the trails I’m talking about here. Which may explain why this old, chewed up antler shed went unnoticed alongside the trail for so long! It’s actually the first antler shed I’ve ever found that wasn’t still attached to a skull, so it’s pretty special to me even if it is all chewed up.

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If you’d like to try this hike, which ends up around 6.5 miles from the parking lot just across the river from the trailhead, this map will help. And if you see Team Orange out on the trail, please say hello!

Frisky Eagles, Wary Ducks, and the First Day of Spring

IMG_0058After 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.

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IMG_0078The best of my blurry wood duck photos, and the first male I’ve ever been able to photograph. They seem to like it here, so perhaps I’ll get a chance to do better next time.

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The Wildlife Center of Virginia

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.

2Here is sweet Alex, getting a smile out of Amanda and everyone else in the room.

3Since 1982, the Center has treated more than 60,000 wild animals, representing more than 200 species of native birds, mammals, reptiles, and amphibians!

12During 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.

4I liked this pegboard containing all the raptor hoods. Look at the difference in size between the eagle and kestrel hoods!

5Outside 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.

6The American Kestrel.

8This is a Great Horned Owl. It didn’t even look real!

10Next month Buddy the Eagle will celebrate his fifth “birthday” at the Center!

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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!

cam

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.

Antler Shed Hunting Adventures

Sandy and I and all the dogs met up with our friends Anna (of AKG Inspiration) and Chris and their two dogs to run around the woods, get some exercise and hunt for antler sheds. This is not the type of activity that Sandy and her dogs would normally join us for, and while it was nice to have them along, I did get the distinct feeling that things would get interesting. So come along on a photo tour of our day…

The recent snow and quick melt made for muddy conditions, but Finn and all the other dogs had a blast running around in the muck.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWyatt came up big early, finding this T-Rex thigh bone. He was very proud, as well he should be.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAFinn: “Is this an antler?? I think I found an antler!” (He found several deer parts portable enough to bring back to me in varying stages of decay. I praised him for this, as I felt it was a short leap from finding and fetching leg bones to finding and fetching antler sheds.)

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWinnie: “Dude. You are an idiot. Antlers don’t have joints, and they don’t reek like buzzard breath. Which you now have.”

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThere were a few creek crossings that got pretty interesting. Here Sandy crosses with Monkey, but Petey is no fan of water, so he wouldn’t cross here.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERASpeaking of Petey, I didn’t get a lot of still photos of him today as he was on a leash with Sandy. But here is a video dramatization of Petey when he timidly tried to venture out a bit off leash.

Okay this happened. Luna and Winnie are watching a scene unfold.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAHere is that scene: We were walking along the margin of a wooded area and a dead cornfield, and we stopped to watch many, many deer in an adjacent field. They were running back and forth and one of them darted into the field we were in. She was maybe 150 yards away when some of the dogs saw her and took off. Finn was in the lead with Wyatt and Monkey not far behind. I had the e-collar on Finn but a firm “Here!” caused him to break off his chase and circle back. Wyatt also broke off his chase and came back. While I was congratulating myself for what a good boy Finn was, we realized – if a little slowly – that Monkey was not coming back without a deer. He had visions of himself, like a lion dragging a gazelle into a tree, just hauling that deer back to us as everyone would cheer and hold him up in the air and celebrate his bravery and prowess.

Perhaps he was imagining the cheering as he ran through the dried corn and dimly heard people shouting his name. These “cheers” only propelled him faster. Two hundred yards. The deer spots him. Three hundred. The deer is hauling ass now. Four hundred. Yelling is fruitless at this point (even more fruitless than it was when he was within ear shot). At one point, the white dot moving in the distance changed course, and Sandy said, “he’s coming back.” But I knew better. He had taken a bad line on the deer, not realizing that when things are a thousand yards away moving at forty miles an hour, you can’t run to where they are, you have to run to where they’re going to be. A quick thirty degree course correction and he was off again. Easily half a mile away now, a small dot in an enormous plot of land, it was hard to get a perception of the speed involved. I once watched the International Space Station make an arc across the night sky. A dim, white spot lazily crossing from horizon to horizon in a couple of minutes. This was like that. It doesn’t look like it’s going 17,000 miles an hour, but you know in your heart there’s no way you can catch it.

Still, Mommies do what Mommies do, so Mommie dropped some extra baggage and took off in a jog after the International Monkey Station. As he neared the treeline maybe three quarters of a mile away, several other deer spooked at the frenzy of activity and took off after the lead deer. To us in the distance, it just played out in surreal slow motion. The other deer, five or six, were trampling through the corn in a panic, basically right where Monkey was. I thought, well if he doesn’t get killed right here, he’ll have to be scared enough to turn back. Nope. He now had a half dozen new targets ahead of him, and he slipped into the treeline and vanished.

By this time Sandy had reached the general area and, I presume, was calling him. I can only imagine what I would have been yelling at that point, but we couldn’t tell what she was yelling, what with the vast distance involved. When she stopped running, I knew she had spotted him and he was on his way to her, and we all could relax enough to really laugh quite hard at the entire incident. So we waited, oh I don’t know, a half hour or so for Sandy and Monkey to return. Perhaps this photo gives an idea of how far that distant treeline is. Actually the treeline here is the short way across the field. To the left, where Monkey ran, the edge of the field is probably four times as distant.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWhen he returned from running the scale-adjusted equivalent of me sprinting from our house in Virginia to Dayton, Ohio, the other dogs were quite interested in what happened. “Did you catch it? How close did you get?? Were you just FREAKING when those other deer almost ran you over??? You’re so BRAVE!!”

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWhile Monkey had his sights set on live deer, we still hadn’t found an antler shed. Despite covering, depending on which of our party you were talking about, between six and forty-five miles. Sandy finally kept us from getting skunked when she found this nice little one! Being a great steward of the environment, she returned it to the earth to let nature take its natural course. And by “being a great steward of the environment,” I mean, “Having shallow pockets and not really paying attention to stuff falling out of them.” But at least we got this photo of today’s find.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAHere is our team of shed hunters: Luna, Wyatt, Winnie, Finn and Petey. On the end there, doing things his own way as he always does, is Monkey, the dog with the biggest heart of all. He’ll sleep for two days, and deserve every minute. And as I watch his feet twitching in his sleep, and his mouth quivering just a bit, I’d like to think that in his dream, he gets that gazelle all the way up the tree.

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