Words and Images from Ed Felker

Butterflies

Audubon At Home Wildlife Sanctuaries

audubon copy

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.


2014, My Year in Photos

DSC_1518

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.

bayboat

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.

2

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.

chrome

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

DSC_0088

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.

DSC_0743

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!

DSC_1032

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

DSC_1391

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.

DSC_1842

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

DSC_3384

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.

DSC_3725

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.

DSC_4113

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.

DSC_5615

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.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

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

DSC_6201

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.

DSC_7530

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

gatemonarch

Sunset, Potomac River, Harpers Ferry, WV.

hferry

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

IMG_0038

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

petvalufelker

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.

platformfallfinn

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

sharp

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.

DCIM100GOPRO

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.


From Little Things, Big Things Grow*

I was walking the dogs the other day and noticed some seeds drifting in the air in front of me. I traced their path back to the source, a single tall weed with white, fluffy, dandelion-like clusters at the top. The plant stood in the midst of countless other tall, flowering weeds, and I stopped to watch it for a bit. There was a slight breeze, hardly enough to notice. But as I watched the weed sway, I detected subtle puffs of wind that pushed the plant a little further every now and then. And on those increased swings of this upside down pendulum, one or two of the parachute seeds would break free, and ride effortlessly along the invisible current. Two seeds leaving the same cluster at the same time could land far, far apart. I thought about the process, the airborne dispersal of seeds, and how effective it is. I thought about my Monarchs, and even though this was not a milkweed plant, how the milkweed spreads its seeds the same way. I thought about how reliant the Monarch is on the success of those plants, and my mind drifted along with those little parachutes, to all the little things that add up to the big world of nature we see all around us.

seeds 2

I guess I’ve always been interested in nature and science to some extent, from wildlife to geology to astronomy. But it really wasn’t until we moved to our current property that I’ve made the habit of observing as much as I can. And only just this summer, thanks to my butterfly project, have I really started thinking about the very small natural wonders that lurk almost everywhere we look. So I wanted to compile a few recent examples of Little Things I’ve enjoyed either seeking out and finding, or simply stumbling upon.

I find myself looking on the bottom side of leaves. I didn’t realize I was, but then this fellow caught my eye. A saddleback moth caterpillar with a painful, venomous sting!

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

As many Monarch eggs and caterpillars as I’ve found and raised and released and given away, I can’t find them all. I happened to spot this perfect chrysalis, clinging securely to a native honeysuckle vine, despite its camouflage.

seeds 6

Another wild Monarch attached its chrysalis to the bottom of a fence board. I discovered the butterfly eclosing and photographed it. It wasn’t until I saw the photos on my computer that I noticed the tiny spider, who was probably second guessing her meal choice at this point.

DSC_0743

While picking milkweed to feed caterpillars, I noticed this. Did you know that ladybugs shed, and that right after they shed their color and spots don’t show up for a little while? Well I didn’t, but when my friend told me about that I felt pretty lucky to have captured this little lady right after she shed.

DSC_0826

Every bug looks freaky if you get close enough. This thing is part dragonfly, part horsefly, part alien (hey I said I was interested in science, not that I was good at it).

seeds 4

The tiny yellow pattern of this turtle shell upside down in the grass caught my eye while mowing the yard. The shell was not occupied. I don’t know how long it takes a turtle shell to grow hard, but this one was still soft and pliable. I don’t imagine the little fella lived very long before he became something’s meal. Circle of life.

seeds 1

Monarchs are just one of many species of butterflies and moths I’ve noticed, particularly around my pollinator garden. This Question Mark butterfly, which I originally thought was a moth until a friend identified it for me, was eating nectar when I found him. Wikipedia says they “seek out rotting fruit, tree sap, dung, or carrion as food sources. Only when these are unavailable do Question Marks visit flowers for nectar.” Perhaps he missed the four acres of horse dung in the next paddock. There may be no such thing as a dumb question, but I’m thinking there are such things as dumb Question Marks.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Look at all the pollen this bee has picked up! No wonder these yellow flowered weeds are so successful!

seeds 3

This is a baby Northern Fence Lizard. I’m not sure how I spotted it with the amazing camouflage, but I’m glad I did. I watched him for a while. He was mellow and didn’t mind hanging out and posing for pictures for a time.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

This praying mantis on the side of our house was cool to watch. I’ve seen many this summer, and always enjoy coming across them.

DSC_0175

Most of those seeds will not find purchase in soil and germinate. Baby turtles are vulnerable to countless predators. Even some of my hand-reared Monarchs have not made it. But enough — sometimes just enough — of all of them endure. Success is not guaranteed, however.

What has grown the most from all these little things, has been my curiosity about them and how all these organisms and systems live and work together. I believe I am forever changed. Sure, a walk in the woods takes a lot longer now, stopping to see what, exactly, is eating those leaves, or who is darting under that log, or basking on that rock. But what’s the hurry anyway? It’s always been about the journey. Sometimes it takes a kid from the suburbs half a century to wonder why there are holes in some leaves. But wonder is an amazing thing. And if you can find it in the little things, then everything’s a miracle.

There are people out there doing big, important work, restoring streams to protect native trout populations, spreading the word about the plight of the Monarchs, working to return the Bobwhite Quail to Virginia. I’m not one of those people. But I’ve started to do a little, and it’s been a most rewarding experience. So maybe look around your property, find something cool or fascinating going on and just follow it. Google some stuff. Leave dog hair out for birds to build nests with, don’t mow down that corner of your yard where butterflies gather, help a turtle to the side of the road, leave a snake be when your first instinct is to grab a shovel. These are not big things, but they are fun and easy things. And everything has to start somewhere.

DSC_9519

*One of the songs I’ve been enjoying a lot lately is a live version of From Little Things Big Things Grow, performed by Australian folk band the Waifs along with John Butler. Written by Paul Kelly and Kev Carmody and first released in 1993, the song has nothing to do with this post, other than I’m stealing the title. It’s a protest song, an anthem of sorts, and a thing of beauty. Have a listen here, if you are so inclined.


Metamorphosis

DSC_7741

Monarch Butterfly populations have declined each year for the past decade, with the last few being particularly bad years. Here in the eastern United States Monarchs migrate thousands of miles to Mexico where they spend the winter, and then a northward migration of the next generation of butterflies occurs in the spring. Loss of habitat all along the migration route and in their wintering location has been the leading cause of the population decline. When my friend Marie of Majarov Photography gave a presentation at an outdoor writers association conference earlier this year detailing the plight of these beautiful insects and explaining how small investments of time, space and money can have a positive impact on the future of the Monarch, I knew I wanted to do what I could.

The Monarch lays its eggs on the one type of plant that the larva, the caterpillar, eats: Milkweed. Less milkweed across the country means fewer Monarchs. So with the guidance of the Loudoun Wildlife Conservancy, I selected this small area on our property and set out to create a pollinator garden. The garden would include multiple varieties of milkweed to attract Monarchs laying eggs, other flowering plants like native honeysuckle to attract and nourish adult Monarchs, and a bird bath as a water source. I cultivated, planted and waited.

early april garden

Milkweed, as the second syllable might suggest, grows quickly. Before long I had flowering Butterfly Milkweed, or Asclepias tuberosa, to the delight of this Zebra Swallowtail. The larger leaves to the left are Swamp Milkweed, Asclepias incarnata. The Swamp variety grows faster and taller, but flowers later. The milkweed was doing the trick, attracting butterflies, but I was still patiently awaiting my Monarch. Until the beautiful male shown in the top photo of this post arrived on our property one morning. It was the first Monarch I had noticed here, and while he wasn’t particularly close to the garden I had planted, I wanted to believe the milkweed I planted had drawn him to the area. Regardless, I was thrilled to see him.

DSC_7609

Then one day I spotted this female Monarch on our zinnias, planted just across the fence from my milkweed garden. I watched her for a while and sure enough, she found the milkweed and spent time there. A single egg is laid by the female on the back side of the milkweed leaves, and this can be repeated hundreds of times. I didn’t know at the time what to look for, but I believe this is the butterfly that laid eggs on my plants.

DSC_8211

A week or so later while watering the garden I spotted this Monarch caterpillar in one of the milkweed flower clusters. I felt like the work I had done on the garden had paid off, and it was rewarding to have provided a patch of habitat for these Monarchs who need it so. But there was more I could do. In the wild, a Monarch has about a 2% chance of surviving to adulthood. If I were to rear the caterpillar myself in a protected environment safe from predators, those odds increase to 85%.

DSC_8363

I later found Monarch eggs on the leaves of wild milkweed plants growing along our driveway, and discovered more caterpillars as well. The egg is unbelievably small. And what is astounding to me is not that something larger grows from something extremely small, that concept is not particularly challenging to grasp. But once I began to see the different phases of the life cycle that begins here, I found myself pondering how on earth all the information this miraculous creature needs to complete its life mission could be contained in a tiny, translucent white dot on the underside of a leaf.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Now, I’ve seen the egg, so I know the caterpillar that comes from it is going to be small. But somehow I wasn’t ready for the smallness of this. The new caterpillars begin by eating their shell which contains nutrients to get them started. Then it’s all milkweed all the time.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

The caterpillars go through five stages, called instars, each lasting two or three days. And at times they can really surprise you how much they can eat and grow and poop (the waste product of a caterpillar is called frass) as they get bigger.

monarch2

When they get to the last instar, they will eat you out of house and home for a couple days, then climb to the top of the enclosure where they make a web and adhere to the top surface.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
DSC_8382

I won’t pretend to understand what happens in this next phase, and I have not yet witnessed it. So for now, let’s just go with Insert Magic Here. The caterpillar sheds its skin and forms a chrysalis (or pupa) on the top of the enclosure. Here is the discarded skin, a lightly used caterpillar suit.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Okay this was a big step for both of us. Not only has the caterpillar transformed into something completely unlike a caterpillar or a butterfly, but this was the point in the process where it began to sink in what I was privileged to witness. Providing habitat for animals in need, simple enough. Watching things hatch from eggs, no big deal. Observing small caterpillars eating and pooping until they become large caterpillars, no rocket science involved there. But the chrysalis. My God. The first time I laid eyes on this, I realized I had an emotional investment in my Monarch Project. I planted the plants and cared for them until they grew flowers that attracted the butterfly. She laid eggs which I carefully collected and nurtured until they hatched and became caterpillars, which I then cared for and cleaned up after and fed until they became this. It hangs there, motionless and seemingly static for nearly two weeks. But inside, this marvel of genetic engineering, this changing, churning cell factory is transforming essentially a container of caterpillar goo into legs, antennae, eyes, into perfect, beautiful wings.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

And when the miracle is ready, the chrysalis turns transparent, allowing light to touch for the first time the masterpiece created within. And I felt so honored to witness it I can’t even tell you.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

It gets clearer still, and then turns black. It won’t be long now. It’s almost time. But I didn’t get to see it happen. I went to work thinking about what will await me when I come home.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

And when I arrived and checked the enclosure, there he was, a perfect, beautiful male. There are more caterpillars munching away in the enclosure now and five more already in chrysalis. But this boy, the first, from the caterpillar I first discovered on the plants I provided just for him, is so very special. I very much wanted to photograph him, but he had been flying around the enclosure for hours. His wings had been dried, stretched out and tested against the warm, humid summer air. It was time to release him. So I brought the enclosure near the wildflowers the butterflies all enjoy so much, and removed the lid. He soaked up sunlight for the first time, and paused. I photographed him at the edge of the enclosure, the margin between the protective space I provided and the entire rest of the world. Soon he will embark on his epic, pre-programmed journey south, but right now he’s exploring the space immediately in front of his head. I put my finger next to him. One by one his legs traded the familiar mesh fabric of the enclosure for my outstretched hand, and then I was holding him. And I will never look at the natural world, big or small, the same again. Part of being connected to nature and the outdoors, is knowing how much you don’t see.

DSC_9200

I held him in my left hand and photographed him with my right. When I was confident I had captured some usable images, I put the camera down and just enjoyed the moment. It felt like a gift. Then he fluttered his wings a bit, and I knew what was next. He let go, lifting off like he had been flying his whole life. He was above the trees in the time it took my heart to reach my throat.

DSC_9218

An old friend once told me about a wildlife encounter. He described each such encounter as a ‘kiss from God.’ I’ve always loved the way he put that. Today, staring up into the late afternoon sun, following the erratic path of a Monarch breaking in his new wings, climbing and climbing until I could see him no more, I felt that kiss.

DSC_9220

To learn about how you can help the Monarchs, visit Monarch Watch.


%d bloggers like this: