Words and Images from Ed Felker

Birds

A Special Visitor

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I was running the dogs on our property along the Potomac River when a cluster of feathers on the ground caught my eye. I love feathers and find them all the time here. Hawk and turkey feathers are common and easy to spot because of the contrasting bands usually present. But these – a cluster of two primary flight feathers and a smaller, secondary feather – didn’t look like any I had ever seen before.

I snapped a photo and posted it to Instagram (follow me @dispatches_potomac), and didn’t give them much thought after that. I love to try to identify feathers, skulls, tracks and anything like that I come across, but didn’t think these would prove to be anything remarkable. Then I got a compelling comment on my Instagram photo.

Emily Renaud has been interested in ornithology for some time, sparked by her studies as an undergrad earning a BS in Wildlife and Conservation Biology at the University of Rhode Island. She suspected the feathers came from a peregrine falcon (Falco peregrinus), and followed up with some online resources and a birding pro friend before suggesting the match.

“I can’t say that I’ve ever seen peregrine feathers in person before, but the slender structure and overall dark color tipped me off,” Emily said. “These feathers are so sleek because the species requires a super slim and aerodynamic build to pursue its prey.” Peregrines dive for prey, reaching speeds in the 200 mph range, earning them the title of the fastest animal on earth.

I recently attended a talk about vultures given by Katie Fallon, chair of the board of directors of the Avian Conservation Center of Appalachia. I emailed photos of the feathers to Katie and she agreed about their origin. “Peregrines are on the move this time of year,” she added. “So the feathers are perhaps from someone on migration.”

Katie has kindly allowed me to share this photo of Tundra, an Arctic peregrine falcon that was injured in West Virginia during her first migration and unfortunately cannot be returned to the wild. Tundra now helps in ACCAWV’s educational efforts.

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With this exciting news, I returned to the site along the river and found several more peregrine feathers and a handful of feathers from what I believe to be a red shouldered hawk. I don’t have the ornithological forensic chops to recreate what happened along the soft banks of the Potomac that day, but an encounter between falcon and hawk occurred, and it was violent.

Peregrines are not endangered or even particularly rare, thanks to highly successful reintroduction efforts following their near decimation due to pesticide (DDT) use in the ‘50s, ‘60s and ‘70s. But I have never seen one, and only hear of them in this area once in a great while. This summer, though, part of the rock face of Maryland Heights at Harpers Ferry, popular with climbers, was closed to protect a nesting pair of peregrines.

Just last week I was at Harpers Ferry and photographed some rock climbers on the very face that was closed earlier in the year. This gives you an idea of the type of terrain where peregrines nest, and also that rock climbers are insane.

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There are countless varieties of animals on this vast and diverse planet, each evolved over eons to specialize in the things they need to ensure their survival. To think that our property was visited by the one animal that is, by a considerable margin, the very fastest on earth, stirs the imagination. I feel very lucky to live where I live, and to observe evidence like this of a very special visitor.


Blizzard Time Lapse

With winter storm Jonas threatening to dump two to three feet of snow on Loudoun County, Virginia, I thought it would be fun to set up a time lapse of the entire storm. I set up my Nikon DSLR to take a photo every four minutes, and focused it on a log outside my office window with the Potomac River in the background. A 6-point deer skull on top added to the composition, and 484 frames later, it was all over. Jonas left us with close to 30 inches of snow, with drifts more than twice that. Wind direction, drifting and timing made for vastly uneven snow totals around our property, though, and this stump was spared the full brunt of the storm. Still, it’s a peaceful, mesmerizing look at a storm that, when viewed in real time, was a powerful, sustained, dangerous winter storm. Enjoy!

CLICK HERE OR ON THE IMAGE BELOW TO VIEW THE VIDEO.

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Audubon At Home Wildlife Sanctuaries

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This fawn stopped by my Audubon At Home Wildlife Sanctuary sign and posed for a photo this morning so I thought it would be a good opportunity to share a little bit about that program.

Natural habitat for native flora and fauna is being steadily diminished by development in high population regions all across the country, and Northern Virginia is certainly no exception. Audubon at Home is a National Audubon Society program that promotes citizen participation in conserving and restoring local natural habitat to help offset the impact of development. Audubon’s Northern Virginia chapter certifies properties as Wildlife Sanctuaries, but it’s really the animals who decide. I am very lucky to live in a place that animals seem to love to begin with, and with some help from volunteer Audubon At Home Ambassadors, with just a few simple changes I have been able to transform my property into a certified haven for birds, butterflies and other beneficial wildlife. I added a small garden with native plants to attract and sustain butterflies, bees and other pollinators, constructed a couple brush piles that provide habitat for all kinds of critters, and transformed a spot of previously mowed lawn back into a natural meadow.

To find out how you can make your home, church, school or business an animal friendly, certified wildlife sanctuary, visit the Audubon Society of Northern Virginia.


Sometimes Nature Just Punches You In The Gut.

This is an Eastern phoebe, hovering over her nest that was, until just minutes before, filled with chirping chicks waiting for an insect delivery.

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What came next is a scene that unfolds countless times every second of every minute of every day in every corner of this planet. Even under the protective shell of my back deck. Predators prey. Nature eats. Life is a circle. This is a rat snake, replete with phoebe chicks. My phoebe chicks.

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My mind tells me, snakes gotta eat too.

My mind tells me if I had gotten home a half hour earlier like I usually do, I probably still wouldn’t have been able to stop it.

My mind tells me the Phoebes who raised the chicks are simply confused. That they are chirping, hovering, searching, out of instinct. That they still go search for, capture and deliver insects for their former brood, out of the pure mechanics of nature. Out of something other than grief or despair. That the concept of hope is infinitely beyond their grasp, so it is not theirs to lose.

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My mind tells me that four surviving birds out of ten total eggs in two broods is actually pretty good.

My mind tells me that any ‘bond’ I’ve built with the Phoebes who inhabit and populate the nest outside this office door is a creation of that very mind. That though I am vigorously protective of them, they neither sense nor rely upon this.

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My mind tells me that the chicks will help sustain a strong, beautiful snake, and as she rests and digests in that hole in the cool earth beneath the deck, she may someday make her own eggs with the help of those nutrients. And that I will encounter the healthy offspring of this snake for generations to come.

My mind tells me that nature, while often violent, is not cruel. That snakes do to birds what birds do to insects. And birds do to insects what insects do to whatever insects do that to. Snakes are not the beginning, and birds are not the end.

My mind tells me that by tomorrow my phoebes will lower their gaze from their empty nest and resume hunting insects for themselves. Not out of courage or bravery, but simply out of survival. And that by tomorrow I, too, will be going about my normal routine.

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My mind tells me all these things, and that all these things are true.

But my heart? My heart flat out aches tonight.


Backyard Wildlife: The Eastern Phoebe

When we first moved to our current house I started noticing the Eastern Phoebe (Sayornis phoebe) each spring, with their “phoebe” call and the twitching of their tails both making them easily identifiable around the property.

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This spring I noticed a Phoebe scouting out nest locations underneath our deck, which happens to be right outside my office. Here she is looking directly at the spot where she eventually built her nest.

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Late one night I flipped on the porch light and opened the office door to let the dogs out. One of the Phoebes, confused by the light, flew right into the open door. It was comparatively so much darker outside than inside, so she just kept flying around in circles inside the room. She would fly right up to the door but turn back to the lit room at the last second. Luckily my dogs obeyed my repeated “Leave it!” commands every time she circled right above the couch where they were sitting. She eventually found her way out, and although I was sure she had been traumatized enough by the experience to find a more quiet spot, I left myself a reminder to not use that door for a while just in case.

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Despite the scare, nest construction continued. Mud, moss and grass are the most favored building materials, but I also found dog hair I leave out for birds to use, horse hair from the barn and a few feathers all mixed into the beautiful nest. Only the female builds the nest.

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Eggs were laid once a day, early in the morning it seems. Phoebes lay between two and six eggs, and this one laid five. This photo taken after the fourth egg shows a blemish on one of the eggs. Ultimately only four birds hatched, and I wonder if this blemished egg is the one that didn’t make it.

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For a little over two weeks she spent much, but not all, of her time on the nest. By now I think she was used to my presence and allowed me to get rather close with my camera.

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Couch dogs in your flight path are not the only threat to the Phoebe population. I observed this Brown-headed Cowbird (Molothrus ater) watching the Phoebe nest with great interest. Cowbirds don’t build nests, they lay eggs in nests of other birds and let them get raised by foster parents of a different species (often Phoebes), usually at the expense of at least some of the host bird’s chicks. But as often as I saw Cowbirds in the immediate area, the Phoebe nest remained Cowbird free.

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Another threat to the eggs and very common in the area is the Eastern Ratsnake (Pantherophis alleghaniensis). This particular egg-loving neighbor was found on the deck just above the Phoebe nest. With four dogs running around, I imagine the reason for risking the visit had to be that nest. We moved him to the nearby woods, but I was certain he was aware of the nest and each day for the next week I came home expecting the eggs to be gone.

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But four of the five eggs avoided the threats and beat the odds. You can see the unhatched fifth egg still in the nest, but it was removed soon after.

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Helpless doesn’t begin to describe the first days of life for these young Phoebes.

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Everything I’ve read says that most mated pairs of Phoebes do not spend a lot of time together, but that is not what I observed. The male seemed very active in gathering insects for the chicks.

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And as fast as they grow, I can’t even imagine how many insects have to get crammed down the throats of those chicks every day!

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Before long there was no room in the nest for mom. She fed them while standing on the rim of the nest.

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The helpless, ugly babies were transforming into beautiful little birds before my eyes.

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And then one day I watched as one of them began to test his wings. I knew it wouldn’t be long now.

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And it wasn’t. I observed the parents calling to them from a nearby fence, enticing them out of the nest. Two left the nest that evening. The remaining two waited until the following morning. Tails not even long enough to perform the telltale twitch, the fledglings spend a bit more time with the mother, learning how to be a Phoebe.

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I felt honored to have the opportunity to easily observe a process that happens constantly, all around us. All the birds that visit our feeders, that roost in our trees and build nests in our birdhouses are special. But the Eastern Phoebe will always be a favorite sign of spring. And every time I see one I will fondly remember the one that flew laps in my office, and the four that left a few weeks later.


Wildlife Capture, Restraint, Handling, and Transport: An Online Course from the Wildlife Center of Virginia

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The Wildlife Center of Virginia is offering an opportunity to learn about wildlife capture, restraint, handling and transport through an online course. Anyone who spends a lot of time outdoors may some day encounter wildlife in need of assistance. The two-hour course will include photos and video of appropriate capture and restraint techniques of species that are commonly seen in wildlife rehabilitation, and will provide valuable information for those wishing to become permitted wildlife rehabilitators, or those (like me) who simply want to be prepared to help an injured wild animal in need.

“The Wildlife Center always needs rescue and transport volunteers,” says Amanda Nicholson, the Center’s Director of Outreach. “This course will lay the foundation of capture and restraint basics to keep both rescuer and animal safe.”

CLICK HERE TO LEARN MORE OR TO REGISTER. Please share this with your outdoor friends and facebook groups!

Date: Tuesday, March 24, 2015
Location: Online!
Time: 7:00 p.m. to 9:00 p.m. Eastern
Cost: $20

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Photos courtesy of The Wildlife Center of Virginia.


Antlers, Birds and Exercise

It was a fantastic day to get out and enjoy a sunny day romping in the woods with Team Orange. We all needed the exercise, and I figured maybe we’d get lucky and find an antler along the way. Exercise was the main goal, though, as I’ve become increasingly skeptical that I will ever find another antler. So we headed to a friend’s property and hit the trail.

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We weren’t ten minutes into our hike when my “bird dogs” kicked up what I thought at first was a ruffed grouse along the trail. The thing made a huge racket and startled all of us. This happened a few more times, and when they kicked up one in tight cover and the bird had nowhere to go but straight at my face, I realized it was a woodcock. I was sure because I could very clearly see the distinctive beak as it nearly speared me in the forehead. Later we came across a scene where something had enjoyed a meal of a bird. There were a lot of these striped feathers in the debris field. I don’t know if these belong to a woodcock or not, but the only other birds I saw in those woods today were little songbirds and pileated woodpeckers. You can see a couple of the feathers at Winnie’s feet below.

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Here’s a better look, but when the sun hit these the white parts were brilliant white…

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We got through the woods and started following deer trails and bed areas in tall grass. Both my dogs walked over this little antler before it came into view, and I couldn’t even get them excited about it once I found it. But I was plenty excited! This is actually the first fresh shed I’ve ever found. My few previous finds have been at least a year old. So this little guy is special. I love picking up an antler, knowing I’m the first human to ever touch it.

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So let me get you up to speed: My dogs are as worthless at finding antlers as they are at finding birds. It’s a good thing they are extraordinarily fine company. Finn did find this feather, which I think came from a wild turkey.

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While it was a very windy day, the sun was warm and we were covering a lot of ground. So the dogs were psyched to take a swim break in the pond.

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I happened upon another, larger antler, one that my dogs actually stepped on as they passed it. A really cool find.

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You may have noticed from the turkey feather photo that I’ve been working on perfecting the technique of focusing the camera so the background is crystal clear, but the central object in the foreground has a nice, soft, blurred focus applied to it. It’s tricky to get right, but I’ve gotten very good at it.

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So two nice antler finds, lots of exercise and fresh air, and we all had a great time.

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The fitbit showed why I was draggin’ ass up the last few hills back to the truck. Total distance for the day was eight hilly miles.

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And so it was a day filled with life’s simple pleasures. A place to run. An antler here and there. Good company. That burn in the legs, that signal from your body that it appreciates the effort you put in today. And a sunny day warm enough to roll down the windows, turn up the music, and just breathe it all in.

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The Northern Flicker

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We see Northern Flickers (Colaptes auratus) here fairly often, but I don’t think it’s common to see them come to feeders. This handsome fellow, however, has regularly graced us with his presence since this winter turned excessively unpleasant a few weeks ago. Red Shafted Flickers (Colaptes auratus cafer) are found in the Western United States. Here in the east, our Flickers are Yellow Shafted (Colaptes auratus auratus). I caught this one flying away and you can clearly see the yellow shaft of his feathers. If you want to learn more about these beautiful members of the woodpecker family, check out The Cornell Lab of Ornithology page about them here.

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2014, My Year in Photos

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2014 was a good year, photographically. I took a landscape photography workshop and learned a lot, I had a few things published here and there, I experimented more than usual and I made an effort to really get to know my camera and its capabilities. I take a lot of photos, and my first cut tends to be about forty images, but nobody wants to view forty images. By the time I cut that down by about half, sometimes interesting patterns start to appear. This year, out of the final 24 shots, half of them feature water, including the one above, taken at Virginia’s Chesapeake Bay. A tripod was used in six of the photos, by far the most yet. And this year features my first GoPro shot in my Best Of list. So, I hope you enjoy this glimpse at my year. I had a lot of fun living and photographing it.

The shot below was taken very near the last one, later that same morning.

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I continue to try to experiment and improve with low light photography. I captured a lot of deer at dawn, this photo was taken through the windshield in my driveway.

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I’ve been going to the Preakness for about twenty years, so it was a fun experience to have press credentials for this year’s event. It was hard to choose a favorite shot of Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner California Chrome, but I keep going back to this one. Taken after the race, surrounded by throngs of fans and photographers, this horse just seemed to bask in the attention. My story and photographs about the Preakness just came out in the December/January issue of Virginia Sportsman magazine.

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Monkey doesn’t like stones in the water. They all need to be removed, one at a time.

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Regular readers of this blog know that Monarch butterflies were a very special part of my summer. I watched and photographed as this Monarch emerged from its chrysalis, only noticing later when I was editing the images that I had also captured a tiny spider whose web all of a sudden contained an unexpected guest.

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I took hundreds of shots of seeds floating in the air for a blog post about noticing nature’s little things. Almost all of them were no good, but I only needed one!

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We get a lot of different turtles around our property. I spent some time with this cool fellow.

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Hiking near Calvert Cliffs, MD, my wife walked into an inchworm hanging from a branch above the path. Her delicate returning of the worm to safety on a nearby leaf became one of my favorites of the year.

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Turkeys gather on the path ahead, C&O Canal Towpath, Maryland.

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Photographing sporting events is pretty far outside my comfort zone, but I had a blast shooting this championship game for my friends, whose boys play on the victorious team.

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I include this image because I was astonished by my camera’s low light capability. This is a hand held shot with a lot less light than it looks like here. Potomac River, looking from Virginia across to Maryland.

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My favorite image from the landscape photography workshop in the Canaan Valley, WV area. I had a great time, made some new talented friends like Risha, and learned a lot from Martin, Randall and Todd.

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The next two shots feature a great new Werner paddle I bought this year, and I’m very proud that Werner is using these images on their web site here and here.

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Shortly after the landscape workshop I tried my new knowledge at Shenandoah National Park. This is the Upper Rose River in Madison County, VA.

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I brought my good camera along on quite a few kayak floats this summer. On this day I hoped to get a good sunrise shot. That sunrise didn’t produce anything interesting, but after the sun came up, this scene unfolded in front of me.

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This is the same Monarch pictured earlier eclosing from her chrysalis, drying her wings in the sun.

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Sunset, Potomac River, Harpers Ferry, WV.

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I visited Solomon’s Island, MD twice this year and thoroughly enjoyed this quaint, beautiful and fun town.

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Team Orange at Rose River Farm on a beautiful summer day.

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I was out early one morning hoping to photograph a big buck I had seen the previous morning while jogging on the C&O Towpath. I got stuck waiting for a train and spotted this scene, I had to get out and photograph it.

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Early in the year this Sharp Shinned Hawk paused on our bird feeder while hunting our regular feeder visitors. Hawks gotta eat, too.

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And finally, one of my very favorites of the year, a GoPro shot of Winnie in the front of the kayak as we float down the Potomac River near our house. This photo was published in an article I wrote about kayak fishing for Blue Ridge Outdoors magazine.

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You can view my favorite photos of 2013 here, 2012 here, and of 2011 here. Thanks as always for stopping by from time to time.


Dead Drifting on the Potomac

Meet Josh Williams. Back in 2004, as an infantry automatic rifleman with the Army, Josh was deployed to Iraq and returned home safely after 13 months. Then he was stationed in Ft. Hood, TX, a squad leader in 1-12 CAV, 1st Cavalry Division. One morning in April, 2006, a car pulled out in front of his motorcycle and changed everything. Josh lost his right arm in the accident.

While recovering at Walter Reed Army Medical Center, during what Josh admits was a dark time, he was introduced to fly fishing through a fairly new program called Project Healing Waters. PHW founder Ed Nicholson, a former Navy Captain and Vietnam veteran, was recovering from surgery at Walter Reed a year earlier. He found himself surrounded by young, athletic men and women back from tours cut short by devastating, life-alterning injuries and disabilities, and he knew he could help. Like Josh, Ed is a passionate outdoorsman. He knew from his own experience that time spent outdoors connecting with nature can have the very real power to heal. And on the fishless, manicured lawn at Walter Reed, Project Healing Waters was born. As Josh learned to cast a fly rod on that grass, he knew that the door to the activities he loved so much was not closed. So with the help of a strong and loving family and his girlfriend, Lisa, Josh used his love of the outdoors to find his way — to fight his way — out of the darkness.

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Married since 2008, Josh and Lisa have been blessed with two beautiful children. Josh is studying mechanical engineering, is active in his church, continues his involvement with Project Healing Waters and stays busy with his growing fly tying and outfitter business, Dead Drift Flies. Oh did I mention he juggles all this while working full time as a designer for an engineering firm? So I was honored and excited when he took some free time he does not have, to come up to fish with me for a couple days.

Day One was an evening float on my home stretch of the Potomac. Josh, for whom the concept of not being able to do something is utterly disdainful, took to a pedal style kayak which gives him the freedom to fish bodies of water previously unaccessable on his own. The folks at Appomattox River Company recently set him up with this Hobie Pro Angler 12, and he is already very comfortable on it. And when you see him walking around on it like he’s on a bass boat, it’s important to remember how much your arms aid in your balance, particularly on something unstable.

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I’ve spent some time trout fishing with Josh, he is a very good trout fisherman. On small water, the expert deployment of the roll cast gets his line across the stream and his fly to land gently. But watching him fish from greater distances, while standing in a kayak, using his foot to move the rudder and his teeth to strip in a bass, was a thing of beauty.

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But while Josh was showing off, I was fishing too. As you can see, I had to get a good forty feet of fly line out there to fool this several-week-old smallmouth.

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I actually did catch a decent fish that day. Much to my surprise, a largemouth slammed this “6th Man” fly tied by William Heresniak of Eastern Trophies Fly Fishing (more on William in a minute). I’ve fished that stretch of water countless times and never caught a largemouth there before. I will be happy to catch this fellow again any time, he made a big jump and put up two good fights — one in the water and another at my feet loose in the boat.

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We caught a few more, but the fishing was pretty slow. No matter, though, we enjoyed catching up, floating in absolutely perfect weather with the backdrop of a beautiful setting sun. It is fun to watch Josh catch fish, though. He is genuinely grateful, and treats all his catches with care and respect. Here’s a little smallie that came up for a popper in the fading light.

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Day Two had us in William Heresniak’s driftboat about thirty river miles downstream on the same Potomac River, wielding bigger rods, throwing bigger flies and hopefully catching bigger fish. William has given generously of his time and expertise to Project Healing Waters since the program’s inception, and invited Josh to come up to fish with him. I’m thrilled to have been asked to come along. This post makes me realize how many great friendships have formed from that great organization.

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We were blessed yet again with great weather all day. This stretch of river, which I had never floated before, contained stretches with beautiful outcroppings of rock and vegetation everywhere. When the fishing started, right away I knew the one-armed fishing clinic Josh gave the day before was now an Advanced Placement course. Imagine casting huge, weighted flies, one-handed, from a boat, in a stiff breeze. I’m no expert, of course, but I have to use my left hand on the line to haul the line, pulling it through the eyelets on the backcast and forward cast to generate the speed necessary to try and keep the hooked, weighted barbell from smacking me in the skull on its way by. If my left hand slips off the line, all is lost for that cast. Line puddles in front of me and I start from scratch. Josh has developed almost a spey cast style to generate that speed required, and he gets that fly moving. He was hitting little pockets and pools probably sixty feet from the boat with a 6-weight rod he had never fished before. Meanwhile, I was not unhappy with casts ten feet shorter with my favorite Sage 7-weight. There is no shame in getting outfished by Josh Williams.

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I would say William looks pretty relaxed here, confident that Josh will be able to land the monster smallmouth he has on the line.

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Well, so the bigger fish thing wasn’t happening for us right away, but we stuck with it, switching from Clawdads to poppers trying to get some surface fish.

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Wildlife abounds in this stretch, which, incredibly, is only about five miles away from Tysons Corner, VA, one of the most densely populated and annoying places on the entire eastern seaboard. Hard to imagine. Great Blue Herons were particularly prolific. Any moment you looked up you would see one flying over, we probably saw a hundred herons. We also ducks, a swan, black vultures, an egret and a couple bald eagles.

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Josh hooked into what he described at the time as “the biggest bass I’ve ever caught.” It turns out it was a bass/catfish hybrid, which explains the size. Also the hybrid ratio was about 100% on the catfish side and something less than that on the bass side. But big fish are fun, no matter how ugly they are. And that big smile on Josh’s face came back about ten minutes later with yet another nice catfish. I caught a big one soon after that but, what with it being ugly and all, I decided to voluntarily let it leave my hook before it reached the boat. Three catfish in about a half hour on fly rods is, I would say, pretty unusual.

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Big flies don’t always mean big fish. Bluegill and sunfish are so aggressive they go after flies with hooks that barely fit in their mouths. This beautiful little fish went for one of William’s famous Clawdads.

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And speaking of William’s fly tying, he tied up a couple of these poppers for me the night before our float, using a cork body and deer hair from a deer I shot this past season. The fly is beautiful, and it was a real treat to catch fish with it. While I don’t tie my own flies, I plan on preserving more deer hide this season for my friends that do.

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William worked very hard for us all day long. That man loves to fish, and to have happy people on his boat. Here’s a fun fact about William: He can free a fly no matter where you have snagged it. For a while, Josh and I had fun wedging Clawdads in between boulders, getting them to spin around tree branches 25 feet up and putting Bassmaster caliber hook sets into sunken logs just to see if we could stump him. Nope. He can get that fly back.

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In the end, we made the most of pretty slow conditions, caught a good number of fish, missed a bunch of opportunities on some others, laughed from dawn till dusk and got pretty sunburned. And almost no one lost their wallet. Pretty good day.

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To connect with Josh, visit Dead Drift Flies online here. Be sure to sign up for his blog, you’ll be glad you did.

You’ll also want to bookmark William’s site, Eastern Trophies Fly Fishing, and book a trip or purchase some of the great flies he ties.

To learn more about Project Healing Waters, to make a donation or find out how you can volunteer, visit their site here.

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Sweet Sixteen

My wife Sandy and I don’t go away together very often. We tend to take trips separately so one of us can stay home to tend to the zoo. So she goes to Rolex, and I go fishing. But for our sixteenth anniversary this past weekend, I arranged a short getaway to Solomons Island, MD, a great place I’ve gotten to know from a couple recent trips. Just a bit over two hours from home, it’s a perfect spot for an overnight trip. I’ll get to the rest of the photo tour in a bit, but first I want to say a little bit about this first photograph.

I love this portrait of my wife. Yes it just shows her hand, but it shows so much about her. We hiked along the trail at Calvert Cliffs State Park. The path was riddled with inchworms hanging down from branches high above the trail. From a distance we must have looked comical, dodging invisible obstacles as we walked. Some of the little guys, though, inevitably ended up as passengers. Sandy found this one on her shirt and observed him for a while. Then she felt bad that she had broken his silk line to the tree above, and wanted to replace him somewhere out of harm’s way. I almost missed the moment, but got the camera up just in time to capture this act of tenderness. This is the essence of the woman I love, I thought as she waited for the inchworm to move to that leaf like it was his idea. I hope you enjoy the rest of my favorite photos from our special weekend.

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We didn’t see any beavers, but they certainly live here!

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We both think this is a Northern Water Snake.

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Skink, I think.

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Okay there is a lot going on here. First and foremost, that sewer cap with goo dripping off it is an enormous snapping turtle. Follow that same log to the left and you’ll see another turtle, maybe a painted turtle? And then there’s the one in the foreground, can you see his back legs? He is actually moving so fast his legs are flying out behind him!

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I didn’t have a long enough lens to capture many of the great birds we saw, but this trail is a birdwatcher’s paradise! We must have seen dozens of species, including a few we had never seen before.

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I love these red headed woodpeckers! This isn’t the first time I’ve seen them, but we definitely do not get these at home. Very cool sighting, and I loved capturing two together on this log, despite the technical problems with this photo.

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Calvert Cliffs. We walked this beach looking for sharks teeth. No luck, although we did find some cool little fossils. But even though fossil hunting is the focal point of the park, we were both anxious to hit the trail back up and find more live critters!

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These two fly catching birds were having a pretty serious discussion.

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Trail closed. Shutter open. Oddly I only took one photo of this scene, but I like it.

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An example of the well maintained trails at Calvert Cliffs State Park.

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This is the view from my favorite hotel room in the east. The Holiday Inn Solomons Conference Center and Marina is a great property, conveniently located near anything you want to see at Solomons.

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And being a marina, you can have a boat pick you up right at your hotel and take you fishing! This is Captain Robbie, who showed us a great time on the water.

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Early on we spotted this very unusual nesting spot for a Canada Goose. Robbie said in 50 years on that water he had never seen a goose nest up high like that.

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Lots of beautiful Osprey around. This one seems to only have one foot.

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Salt Life.

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I absolutely love being on a boat. The fishing was slow but we didn’t care. I find it extremely relaxing to just watch the water go by.

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Speaking of relaxing, Sandy got comfortable while she was waiting for a fish to hit one of the trolling lines Robbie put out.

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It was pretty exciting to hear that reel screaming after a few hours of settling into the hypnotic drone of the motor. And if you’re only going to catch one fish on your sixteenth anniversary, let it be this one. This striper (they all call ’em rockfish down there) weighed in at sixteen pounds. Pretty cool.

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After a day on the water we were in the mood for a big seafood dinner and a few cold adult beverages. Kingfishers delivered exactly what we came for. I love this restaurant. Really great food, fun and friendly staff. I will eat here every time I visit.

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All our friends who love Solomons told us, “You have to go to the Tiki Bar!” And they were all right. This place is amazing. It’s more of a compound than a bar, just a great place to hang out on a beautiful night.

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We fit a lot into the 36 hours or so we were away. And while we found a great getaway destination, we are always glad to get back home. Special thanks to our friends Chris and Anna, who allowed us not only to get away but to do so without worrying about our animals. And a huge thanks to Joyce Baki, Tourism Specialist for Calvert County, who helped with all our arrangements. Captain Robbie, Lilly the funny waitress at Kingfishers, the guy who bought us anniversary shots at the Tiki Bar, the friendly hotel staff, everyone was great. I do also want to mention if you visit the Calvert Cliffs State Park, say hello to Charlie or Pat of the Friends of Calvert Cliffs. They might be the two nicest people you’ll ever meet.

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From a Block of Wood: Carving Trophies

As a fly fisherman, I have seen countless trout replicas. They are on display in the homes of my fly fishing friends, in fly shops, and in every bar in every fishing town I’ve ever been in. Almost all of them are fiberglass casts, molded by manufacturers in an array of different species, sizes and positions. Then they are painted — sometimes exquisitely — to look just like that special fish an angler wants to immortalize. To make those replicas appear lifelike requires great skill. But imagine crafting such a thing from scratch, coaxing life out of an inert, featurless block of wood.

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Meet Virginia-based artist Russell Pander, who does exactly that.

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I first learned of Russell when my friend Douglas Dear, owner of Rose River Farm, commissioned him to recreate a special brown trout he caught from the Smith River in Montana a few years back. When Douglas took delivery of the carving, pictured at the head of this post, he couldn’t call me fast enough. “You have got to see this thing in person!” he said, and he was right. It is astounding.

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I asked Russell to share how he got into carving and to tell me a bit about his process. While I tell some of his story, I’ll mix in some progress photos from this Smith River beauty.

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Russell’s interest in carving goes back to an uncle who carved decoys. But he didn’t start carving until he received a gift certificate to a class at the local Audubon Society. The class, given by carver Dave Farrington, was filled with mostly retired women and a 29-year-old Pander. Students carved a Chickadee using a knife and wood burner, and hand painted them with acrylic paints. “I liked it,” Russell recalls, “and found I had the ability to see symmetry and in three dimensions — two of the most important aspects of carving.”

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He took more classes from Farrington, carving a couple decoys, a skimmer in flight, a Greater Yellow Legs and a Sanderling in flight. “This is where I learned to power-carve, using mostly burrs and stones on a rotary tool to remove wood and create detail,” Russell said. But around the same time, life got in the way a bit. His family was growing, his schedule shrinking, and he put aside carving for two decades.

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But Russell never lost interest. An avid fly fisher and fly tier, he always wanted to carve a cold water fish. The opportunity presented itself when fellow member of the International Fly Fishing Association Bill McMannis caught a record Brook Trout. Word went out throughout the organization that McMannis was looking for someone who did reproductions. “I felt this was my calling and reluctantly offered to do it,” Russell said. “I had never carved a fish, I didn’t own nor had ever used an airbrush, but considered this my opportunity.” And with that Brookie under his belt, he was off and running.

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To me Russell’s carvings show an uncanny understanding of the natural movement and posture of the animals he creates, and Douglas’s Brown Trout is a great example. “The pose and posture of the fish come from how I think the fish would move,” he said. “I do a great deal of studying. I look for underwater shots of fish, to help me understand how they move, and things like natural eye and mouth positions.”

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He has carved with Sugar Pine and Bass Wood, but his favorite wood to work with is Tupelo. “It’s the best wood for power carving,” he says. “It’s light, and doesn’t ‘fuzz’ when ground.” This brown trout is carved from Tupelo.

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When it comes to subjects, however, Russell doesn’t play favorites. “I learn more techniques from not carving the same subject all the time,” he says. “I like to switch between birds and fish.”

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Among the animals on his wish list are raptors, including a Kestrel, a Pueo Owl native to Hawaii and a Red Tailed Hawk. But don’t put anything past Russell Pander. Who knows where his drive to learn new techniques will lead? “Some day I may carve a life sized Elk,” he says. “I have always admired the chainsaw artist, as the scale they work on is so great!”

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I look forward to following Russell as he explores new horizons with his art. Just as long as when that trout of a lifetime comes to hand for me, he’s willing to go back and create another masterpiece like this one.

For more info, check out Russell Pander Wildlife Art on Facebook.


Operator Error

For the last couple days, ever since my new Nikon D7100 arrived at my door, I’ve been bringing it with me to work. We have occasional turkey sightings and other wildlife in our driveway, and I thought it’d be a shame to have a brand new camera sitting at home if a cool photo opportunity presented itself. This morning an opportunity did just that. As I backed out of the garage I caught a view of the river, shrouded in a low, beautiful mist. I took a few photos, though I haven’t figured out my settings yet at all. When I got to my office I checked to see if I had any keepers on the memory card. Not really.

But it did make me look at that memory card, which was not a great one, and decide to upgrade. So at lunchtime I went to Best Buy and picked up two SanDisk Extreme Plus high speed cards for the new Nikon (which has two memory card slots).

So I drove home, not thinking about my nice new camera or anything else in particular, when just as I reached the front edge of our property I damn near hit a huge gobbler, in full fan and strutting around the edge of the driveway. Gravel crunched as I hit the brakes, watching him. I wouldn’t call him oblivious to my presence, but let’s just say I was not foremost on his mind. He continued to strut.

Then I remembered: I have my camera! Right there on the passenger seat. I took it out of the bag, turned it on and looked up. There he was, through a perfectly clean section of windshield, strutting and fanning and walking slowly away. I zoomed, focused, and snap snap snap snap snap. The shutter on this Nikon is so much faster and quieter and more professional sounding than my old Canon. It sounds really cool! He was probably about 20 feet away now so I took a chance and opened my car door. No reaction, so I walked a little closer. Just then I saw a hen slip under the fence on my left and cross in front of the gobbler. Snap snap snap snap snap snap snap snap. I can’t believe my luck! Just a couple weeks ago my friend Monica and I saw a turkey display from a distance, but we weren’t close enough to get a decent photo. Wait till she sees these, I thought.

I watched him strut into the woods after his hen, fumbled with my new focus point controls and got a few more shots with both of them in the frame, snap snap snap. Then it hit me.

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I didn’t even need to look. The memory card is still in my computer at the office.

A very special opportunity missed. But there will be others, my new Nikon and I will get together for plenty of captured moments. Besides, I’ve drawn a few turkeys in my day. Even as a kid. So I can still capture the moment to share here. Some day I will replace this with an awesome photo of a strutting turkey, but for now, this artist’s rendering will have to suffice.

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Close Encounter with a Cooper’s Hawk

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Every now and then our bird feeders go suddenly quiet. We don’t always see the hawk that has arrived in the area that all the birds are hiding from, but there is such regular traffic to our feeders in the winter that interruptions are conspicuous. Today this bold and beautiful adult male Cooper’s Hawk decided to hunt from the feeder. I took photos with my iPhone, then realized he was going to be there for a while. So I rushed and got my camera and took more. Then I realized he was still going to be there for a while, so I changed lenses and came back with my zoom lens. This patient, handsome fellow was still there and permitted me to get some lovely close shots. I thoroughly enjoyed watching him for a time. What a beautiful creature, and an efficient hunting machine. Just look at those talons! The last two photos below show him poised to strike a hapless titmouse who must have been texting or something as he didn’t see the bird eater perched right where he was headed. It didn’t end well for the titmouse, and I’m sorry about that. But hawks gotta eat too!

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Rehab, Release, Rejoice

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Almost three thousand wild animals have been treated at the Wildlife Center of Virginia this year, including 31 Bald Eagles. The skilled staff and devoted volunteers working at the state-of-the-art facility give animals the very best possible chance for recovery, but collisions with motor vehicles, lead poisoning and other ailments take their toll. Roughly half the patients that come to the Center are unable to leave.

On September 20th, patient #13-2422 was admitted. The adult Bald Eagle, most likely a female, was rescued from Northumberland County. She was unable to fly with a wing injury, and it had taken several days for her to be captured. Veterinary intern Dr. Kristin Britton, diagnostic intern Kelli Waller and veterinary student Sara first examined the bird. (Photo below courtesy of the Wildlife Center of Virginia.)

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The eagle was found to be dehydrated, and had an injury to the right coracoid, which is akin (roughly) to the collarbone in a person. Such an injury, however, cannot be repaired surgically. The fracture must be manipulated externally, then the wing and body are wrapped to immobilize the shoulder. “Sometimes they heal,” Ed Clark, Wildlife Center President and Co-Founder said, “sometimes they don’t.”

Bandages were applied and changed every three days. Fluids, pain medication and anti-inflammatory medication were administered, along with Selenium, which assists in the recovery of muscle tissue. As the weeks went on, rest and immobilization gradually gave way to physical therapy and increased exercise, and she was moved to larger and larger enclosures. After nearly three months of treatment and recovery, it was decided she was healthy and fit enough to be released.

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Belle Isle State Park, on the banks of the Northern Neck’s Rappahannock River not far from where the bird was rescued, was chosen as the release site. Ed Clark would be releasing the bird, assisted by Wildlife Center Outreach staffer Chapin Hardy. The event, which was open to the public, was attended by dozens of spectators, including many Wildlife Center volunteers. Ed took a few moments to talk about the important work being done at the Center, and to explain the logistics of how the release would be done. At one point during his talk, to the delight of the crowd, a resident Bald Eagle interrupted the proceedings when it flew directly overhead.

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Excitement grew as Ed brought the massive bird from her transport crate. After having been enclosed for three hours, the first thing he needed to do was to simply hold her securely for a while. This gives her time to get used to her surroundings and lets her eyes adjust to the bright, December sun. I am lucky to be able to see eagles from a distance fairly regularly, but viewing one this close absolutely quickens the pulse. It’s just a guess on my part, but the wingspan of this bird had to be nearly seven feet.

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As for “holding her securely,” there was a bit of disagreement between Ed and the bird as to how, exactly, this should be done. Several times during the discussion she clamped her powerful beak on his gloved hand.

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Talons and beak were finally gathered, and the bird calmed as Ed wrapped his arms securely around her. He then slowly brought the bird around so everyone in attendance could see her up close and take photos.

To me, the majesty of these birds is unequaled in nature. It is a powerful sight to behold, even more so when one considers this is not a captive bird. Yes, for a short time her life’s path made a detour through the Wildlife Center of Virginia. But she was wild before that, and she’ll be wild again in a matter of minutes.

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When Ed and the bird reached me, for a moment the bird looked directly at me. Actually, through me is more apt. It wasn’t exactly like eye contact, it was more of a one way transaction. And in that brief staring contest, I am not ashamed to say I blinked.

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After all the photos were taken and questions were answered, there was only one thing left to do. Ed stepped away from the crowd, facing the bird away from us and toward a large field rimmed with tall evergreens. He made sure we were all ready, counted to three, and hoisted the ten-pound bird into the air. She flew, straight and true and low, at first rising and dipping with each wing beat, then leveling out to a smooth glide. Camera shutters that began in a frenzied burst now slowed to a trickle, and then for a moment all was silent. Former patient #13-2422, now carrying a little extra callous formation in her shoulder and a silver band on her foot, reached the end of the field and rose quickly and easily. She perched high in an evergreen, where she remained until after the crowd dispersed. Nervous silence turned to applause. And everyone there felt like we had not just witnessed something special, but that we were really a part of it.

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This bird was rescued, secured, transported, diagnosed, treated, rehabilitated and released by a team of staff and volunteers who devote countless hours to the Wildlife Center every year. Bald Eagles hold a deserved, special place in the hearts of Americans, especially those who are passionate about wildlife. But it’s important to remember that for every high profile release like this, there are many other animals being safely returned to their habitat after mishaps, injuries or illness with little or no fanfare. The Wildlife Center of Virginia operates entirely from private donations, so please consider helping a great cause with a donation, or contact them and find out how you can volunteer your time.

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2013, My Year in Photos

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From Maryland’s Chesapeake Bay to the hills of southwest Virginia, I logged a lot of miles in 2013, saw places I’ve never seen before and met many great people. I had my camera with me most of the time, and when I didn’t, my iPhone stepped in to capture the moment. Above is a shot of the sunrise over the Chesapeake aboard the Renegade. Below are the rest of my favorite shots of the year, starting with elk prints in Buchanan County, Virginia. Meeting the people involved in the elk reintroduction program in this part of the state was one of my highlights of the year.

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An eerie fog blocked the normally outstanding vistas on Sugarloaf Mountain, but the resulting mood was equally beautiful. Team Orange helped by posing cooperatively, as they usually do.

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One of several neat iPhone panoramas I took this year. This was at Rose River Farm, awash in golden morning sun. Team Orange, far left, enjoying a romp before a hike nearby.

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Speaking of iPhones, this may be my favorite iPhone photo I’ve ever taken. Hiking with a friend on the Loudoun Heights trail near Harpers Ferry, WV, the light gave us scenes like this all morning.

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We have a lot of deer around our property. But, common as they are, when they come close enough I can never resist getting the camera out and snapping a few photos. I liked the background in deep shadow here.

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A fun action shot of Finn chasing a chukar during a training session with my friend Anna.

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Petey is unlike any dog I’ve ever known, and is full of surprises. Here, when any of our other dogs would have run and barked and chased this young deer away, Petey decided to simply make friends.

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Friend and fishing guide Gary Burwell at Rose River Farm with the mist hanging heavy in the air.

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They do indeed. Old guys — and tractors — ruled at the antique tractor pull and show at Gladhill Tractor near Frederick, Maryland.

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The Wildlife Center of Virginia‘s Ed Clark released this stunning eagle along the banks of the Rappahannock River in front of a crowd of volunteers and spectators. It was a day I will not soon forget. I am holding back a special photo from this day for which I hope to find a print venue for publication. But I love this and many other shots from the event.

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A visit to our friends Mike and Carole Pivarnik of Tulip Hill Farm resulted in this heartwarming shot of two unlikely friends.

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Another shot from my trip to southwest Virginia, here Josie watches intently as her human partner, Conservation Police Officer Wes Billings, drives.

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Volunteer guide Kiki Galvin nets a nice trout caught by Aaron Greene Morse at the 7th Annual Project Healing Waters 2-Fly Tournament at Rose River Farm.

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It’s hard to grow tired of catching these hard fighting, colorful sunfish, even when you are targeting bigger and stronger smallmouth. You will never hear me complain about a day with no smallies, but with dozens of these enthusiastic little fish.

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I spent a lot of time on the Potomac this year. On this occasion we were towing an extra kayak to a takeout ramp downstream. We made it just in time as a big storm was closing in. This is another iPhone photo.

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This photo warms my hear because of how I felt when I took it. I love spending time with my dogs, but to hike in a beautiful park and fly fish for native brook trout in their company was a wonderful experience. I had to capture it with a rare if unconventional selfie.

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Team Orange loves the snow, and we had a couple good ones in late 2013. Here Finn sports a snout full, a result of chasing snowballs as they disappear under the surface.

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This is not our friend August’s first appearance in my Photos of the Year. Two years ago this pic made the cut. It’s fun to watch him grow up so fast, here he entertains a lady friend.

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My special girl Winnie absolutely loves riding in the kayak. Here we are taking a break because she does not do much paddling. Propped against a rock in the middle of the Potomac River, I shot this iPhone panorama upstream (left) and down. The Native Watercraft Slayer pictured was a new addition this year, of course in Team Orange orange.

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I’ll be honest, I wish this photo was more in focus. But I’m including it because, while technically flawed, it is likely to hold up as the best photo I will ever take of a baby wild turkey running full speed away from a pursuing moth.

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Another technically flawed, blurry and grainy image, there’s still a lot to like about this hawk image. I took this through my windshield after chasing this bird off a deer carcass nearby.

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The native brook trout is so beautiful, it’s just about as fun to see one as to catch one. On this day in the Shenandoah National Park, I saw plenty. But none would be fooled by my fly.

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I hope you have enjoyed Dispatches from the Potomac this year, and had fun looking through my favorite images of 2013. You can view my favorite photos of 2012 here, and of 2011 here. And if you haven’t already signed up to receive a notification of new posts, I’d love it if you added your email in the ‘Follow this blog’ link on the top right of this page. Thanks again for stopping by from time to time. I hope your 2014 is filled with fun encounters with nature and lots of opportunities to take your own favorite photos of the year!


Dove Hunting, A Beginner’s Guide

I was about thirteen years old when I tagged along with my Dad for a few days of fishing down in North Carolina. We ended up at some sort of camp with a bunch of his friends, and it was here he told me we were dove hunting that afternoon. When the time came, he brought me to the perimeter of a huge rectangular field and handed me my Remington 870 20 gauge and a box of shells. He turned a bucket upside down and told me to sit there and if a dove comes my way, shoot it. Some other kids and I were at one end of the field, and my Dad and his friends would be at the other. That was the extent of my dove hunting tutorial. Really? People do this? Is this a thing? Or is this a snipe hunting type trick to keep all the kids sitting quietly on buckets for a few hours while the men pile into a pickup and head out to a bar?

Well, it turns out it really is a thing. And that afternoon there was very little bird activity down at the far end, and even fewer birds at the kid end of the field. But in one spirited volley at the far end, dozens of shots were fired at a cluster of birds. Some went down, some retreated over the treeline behind the hunters, and one lone dove flew straight toward me. The shots silenced as he flew out of range of the adults, and I watched him for a while as he approached. I loved the idea of hitting this dove that my Dad and his buddies all missed. This is called, “counting your chickens before they’re hatched.” But I had an easy, low, straight flying bird coming directly toward me. I put the bead on him, waited until I had a nice short shot, and pulled the trigger.

Let me interrupt this story to begin my list of Helpful Hints for the Beginner Dove Hunter:

1. Be aware of the status of your gun’s safety.

In the time it took me to realize the safety of my gun was on, the bird slipped safely and quietly over the tree line behind me. It was the only bird that came my way that afternoon. I unloaded my Remington, put the three pristine yellow 20 gauge shells back in the now full box and closed it and my dove hunting chapter, not to be opened again until almost four decades later. Yesterday.

My friends Chris and Anna invited me to come out dove hunting with their dogs Wyatt and Luna on a stunningly beautiful, blue sky day in rural Virginia. Considering how my first experience went, I was excited to give it another try. We got to the field early and then Billy, the host who set up the shoot, gave us some ideas on good spots. We chose an area where some power lines intersected with a tree line at the far end of the fields. The terrain was brutally difficult to walk in. Deep, irregular mounds and ridges of firm ground – an artifact of a chisel plow early in the season – made it feel like you were walking on bowling balls. But we navigated the obstacle course the several hundred yards with all our gear and set up for the day. Anna was working the dogs and taking photos, Chris and I would be shooting. Here is the spot I chose, some cover of overhanging limbs and plenty of shade, but with a good view of the fields and open sky. (Photo by Anna Gibson)

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The gun I brought, a 1952 16 gauge Winchester Model 12, is one of my very favorites. Light and comfortable, the 16 gauge is built on the 20 gauge frame. I’ve often said of this gun that I could shoot it all day long, but on this day I did exactly that. And the simple, brilliant Model 12 design just makes this gun aim where you’re looking the second you throw it up to your shoulder. However, aiming and hitting are two different matters when it comes to dove.

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Chris chose a spot more out in the open, sitting against the base of a phone pole about 75 yards away from me to my right. He immediately started shooting single flyers racing by him from behind. Here is Chris and Wyatt with the first bird of the day.

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Wyatt making sure I got a good close up before he gave the bird up.

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Watching their flight pattern, it doesn’t take long to identify and recognize these birds. We didn’t get any photos of them in flight, but here is a file photo of a common migratory mourning dove. Note the distinctive shape:

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Early on I had opportunities but just couldn’t get a handle on shooting these things. Chris’s success, I determined after observing for about ten minutes, was due to better instincts on where to sit and where to watch, faster reaction time, and better shooting than I exhibited.

2. Have better instincts, react faster, and shoot better.

I brought over 100 shells and within the first hour I had burned through maybe 20 and I’m not sure I even scared a bird. Chris graciously let me sit in his spot for a bit, probably to let his gun cool off and give his shoulder a rest, and before long I had another chance. Three doves whipped around the phone pole I was leaning against, I picked one and quickly took two shots at it. Miss, miss. I took my time on the third and connected, downing my first dove ever. Chris is a truly good friend, and he exhibited this with a genuine, spontaneous celebratory outburst when those feathers flew. I know he would have traded all his birds to that point just to see me hit one. Anna brought Wyatt over to find the downed bird in the thick millet and he made quick work of the task. Here we are sharing the glory.

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Breaking the ice with this one helped a lot. I felt like I started to shoot better and react better. But I was still leaving a lot of opportunities in the field. Some lessons learned:

3. If you stare too long at one distant part of the field, birds will appear very near you in the other direction.

4. When #3 happens, and people try to bring it to your attention by yelling, “LOOK UP!!”, you would be surprised how vast an area “up” is and how easy it is to not see something there.

5. If you put your gun down to pee, you will miss birds.

6. If you hit a bird on your second or third shell, reload before you go to find it. Doves are watching you, and if they count three shots and don’t see you reload, they will come and land on your shoulder or roost on your dove stool till you get back.

7. When you watch a huge field for doves, your brain will send you some false alarms. Dragonflies look like doves. Butterflies look like doves. Trust me, it happens. I had the safety off and the bead drawn on a big, beautiful orange butterfly half a dozen times.

8. If you switch places with someone because you haven’t seen action in a while and they’ve almost limited out, birds will stream toward your original location like your cooler is the very place they are migrating to.

Luckily there were enough birds around that despite my missed opportunities and missed shots, I was having some success. And having the dogs there to find downed birds was just key. We spoke to some guys on our way out who were shooting a lot of birds but not finding many. We didn’t lose a bird all day. Here is Luna with our first joint effort together.

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Anna tucked into the shade and sent dogs as needed.

9. Bring a dog.

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Chris, as predicted, got his limit of fifteen birds, and took just under fifty shells to do it. That, from what I know of dove hunting, is pretty fine shooting. (Photo by Anna Gibson)

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These dogs worked their butt off in very difficult terrain for a long, warm day. (Photo by Anna Gibson)

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As for me, I ended up with seven, and took about 70 shells to do it. Not too bad, considering I burned an entire box before I even hit one.

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But more importantly, I had an absolutely fantastic time. Shotgun shooting is my favorite kind of shooting, and dove hunting is as exciting as shotgun shooting gets. It’s really a blast!

10. Don’t get frustrated, everybody misses these birds. A lot. Just remember how much damn fun it is, hit or miss!

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I’m exploring recipes, and will do a follow up post on eating these dove breasts. It’s always rewarding to me when a hunt becomes a meal.

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I’ve come a long way from that upside down bucket in a North Carolina field a couple hundred yards across from my Dad, watching that solitary bird over the barrel of my Remington as he slipped above the trees. And I think if you told me that afternoon as I placed those three unused shells back in the box that one day I would be writing that in dove hunting I’ve found perhaps my favorite type of hunting, I would have disagreed strongly.

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But it’s true. It’s fun, casual, social, challenging, rewarding and exciting. And I can’t wait to do it again.

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It Was an Extra Pair Anyway…

3 (1)I’ve been keeping these wading boots down at the river, hanging up to dry in the shelter that sits on the bank. That way I can make the trek down there in hiking or work boots and have dry feet for the trip back up.

This morning I went down to get some fishing in and was startled (um, okay, it scared the crap out of me) when I reached for my boots and a wren flew out of one of them right into my face. Once my heart rate slowed to double digits, I knew what the situation was without even looking.

2 (1)Yep. She had taken up residence in my Korker wading boot.

1 (1)So it looks like I won’t be using these boots for a while. Quite alright. I love wrens, and am delighted to know this clutch is getting its start in something I provided, intended or not.


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!


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.


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!

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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.


2012: My Year in Photos

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Something about grey, snowy days make me want to capture them with the camera, but it’s challenging. I’m really going to put an effort into photographing some winter scenes this year.

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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!

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A brown thrasher sits on her nest protected by the thorns of a lemon tree at Rose River Farm in Madison County, Virginia.

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None of my photos are technically perfect. But sometimes they are so flawed that they become interesting in a more abstract way than was originally intended.

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Low light photography is equal parts fascinating and frustrating to me, and extremely rewarding when it works out. This is an evening shot from our place looking out over the Potomac River.

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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.

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Oddly, my favorite photo from the Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum shows neither water, nor a boat.

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I have better pictures of ducks, and better pictures of snow. But I love the mood of this picture of ducks in snow, taken at my next door neighbor’s pond.

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Same pond, different time of year. Here a green heron is chased by a female wood duck as they both try to escape a clod without a zoom lens trying to get close enough to take their picture.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Another gloomy, blue-grey day, in the woods near our house.

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Ever tried to take one picture of four dogs? It’s not easy, but I’m really happy with this one. Clockwise from top left: Finn, Petey, Monkey and Winnie.

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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.

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I love this little bird, walking on his tiptoes on a sun bleached dock at St. Michael’s, Maryland.

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A bull elk bugles in Yellowstone. I had never seen elk before this day, nor heard their bugle. I was very lucky to capture this on the first day I experienced both.

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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.

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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.

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We had the privilege of attending a local Mexican Rodeo, an incredibly fun day immersed in culture, food, drink and awesome people.

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In Washington, DC for Memorial Day and the mind blowing Rolling Thunder rally, I took hundreds of photos. But I like this one best.

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Fun with dogs, fly rods and waterproof cameras. I’m fascinated by the turbulence in the water and how the camera captured it.

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Another low light image I’m pretty happy with. This was taken from our yard, my guess is probably some time in early July.

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Nature is full of surprises. Who knew butterflies looked like this close up? Not me!

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Finn and I are similar swimmers. We dog paddle, poorly, and never open our eyes under water.

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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.

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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.

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Hiking with ‘Team Orange,’ my two Wirehaired Vizslas, has been a recurring joy this year. But I seldom come back from a hike with a photo of them I’m crazy about. This is an exception.

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On the same night as the meteor shower, I captured this peaceful image of a vintage tractor, quietly rusting beneath the winter sky.


Wood Ducks and Green Herons


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.


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