Words and Images from Ed Felker

Conservation

The Man Behind Virginia’s Elk

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Leon Boyd is a busy man: Vice President at Noah Horn Well Drilling, board member of the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries, and the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation’s Virginia district chair and chair of the Southwest Virginia Coalfields Chapter. So when I found myself with a free day while on vacation in southwest Virginia this past spring, I hesitated to call him.

“So, I’m kind of in the area. I know it’s a long shot, but is there any chance I could come out and see the elk?” I asked. “Oh. And I hate to be a pain in the ass, but I also have my two dogs with me, we’re on vacation.” He barely let me get through my self invitation before he interrupted with his insistence that I come see him and let him give me a tour of the elk habitat he has been so instrumental in creating.

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A total of 71 elk from neighboring Kentucky have been introduced to Buchanan County over the course of three annual releases. I met Leon in 2013 at the second of those releases, when ten animals made the trip across the border. Those elk were a special sight, but were only viewable from a distance in a quarantine pen. The area was large, but lined with prominent fencing. So this time I was looking forward to seeing these introduced elk and even some of their offspring in a truly natural setting.

That setting, thousands of acres of habitat rich in plentiful food, clean water, ample cover and endless quiet, is part private property and part county land. There are no fences, these elk are free to wander elsewhere. But they thrive here.

As I drove across the remote southwestern corner of Virginia I wondered if any other state had as much geological diversity as the Old Dominion. From the mountains to the beaches and bay, from coal country to the Great Dismal Swamp, with big cities, small towns, farms and wilderness filling out the inbetween, I can’t think of another.

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Buchanan County is a hard, steep place. It was carved from rock removed to expose coal that fueled the economy and powered the region. Every plateau containing a school, church or a cluster of homes is there only because inhabitable mountaintops were cut off, the coal removed and the slopes below filled in. And the newly reshaped landscape, with proper planning and care, is more resilient than you could possibly imagine. In fact, much of the rich habitat where Virginia’s elk thrive is reclaimed strip mined land.

Cut into a near vertical bank alongside a steep stretch of highway I found the offices of Noah Horn Well Drilling. I let the dogs out and we all stretched our legs. When I walked in I was warmly greeted by Leon. He seemed genuinely excited to show off his beloved elk project.

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He probably wouldn’t want me to call the elk restoration project his project. The amount of effort, expertise, energy, devotion and cooperation from private landowners, county and state leaders, biologists and agencies to make it happen is incalculable. But I doubt you could find a single person involved in the project who imagines it could have been done without Leon Boyd.

The original plan calls for growing the herd to a population of about 400. Beyond that number, a hunting plan would be introduced, managed and closely monitored to sustain those numbers. This may begin to happen in as little as three or four years. In the meantime, tourism is the goal, luring people to visit here to see the magnificent animals, and of course spend the night, dine and shop. A visitors center is planned with wildlife viewing and hiking trails. Hunting would see additional revenue opportunities in the form of guiding fees, taxes and tags.

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Leon’s involvement in the elk restoration earned him an appointment to the board of Virginia’s Department of Game and Inland Fisheries, where he is currently serving his second term. “It has certainly been a learning curve for a country boy from southwest Virginia to say the least, but I’ve gained so much respect for the VDGIF and the staff,” he said. “Through the years I’ve blamed them for a lot of stuff they had no control over.”

Leon was incredibly generous with his time that day. When we rounded a bend to see a big bull elk in velvet antlers stop and pose for photos, or crest a hill and see a small herd loitering around a pristine watering hole, to see these wild elk, some born right here in Virginia, happy and healthy and close up, was an experience I will never forget.

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And I know the next day Leon made those memories happen for someone else, or talked to a bus of curious school kids, or perhaps chatted with donors or landowners or conservation police or someone at RMEF to get something done for this project, for these special animals.

“In the beginning, I was all about the elk,” Boyd said. “But as it’s progressed, really and truly, it’s more about the people.”

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If you would like to help the Virginia elk, there is an easy way to do it, Leon says. Support the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation. “Support them. They support us. They put money back into habitat projects [The RMEF put $23,000 back into this project last year alone].” Membership, auctions, banquets and fundraisers all help.

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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.


2015 Photos of the Year

I enjoyed going through my photographs of 2015 and picking out my top twenty. The annual exercise serves as a reminder of special places, fascinating people and amazing wildlife encountered over the past twelve months. All but two of the photos this year were taken in Virginia. One of the exceptions is the first image, below, showing Patrick Fulkrod of the South Holston River Company releasing a brown trout into the cool waters of the Watauga River in Tennessee.

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While I didn’t hand raise any Monarch butterflies this year, I watched dozens of these beauties go through their magical life cycles on my milkweed plants. I caught this female emerging from her chrysalis, and watched her with my camera as she unfolded wings of flame.

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Dove hunting with friends has become a favorite new tradition each fall. And when the hunting is slow, as it was for me this year, you can always work on your still life photography. A well used Winchester Model 12, a fine Orvis case and the only dove of the day combined for, to me anyway, a calming blend of textures and colors.

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This copperhead ventured a little too far out into the travel lane to soak up some early morning warmth stored in the asphalt. He is deceased. But it’s the first one I’ve gotten to see up close, so I felt compelled to photograph him.

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Ed Clark of the Wildlife Center of Virginia released this red-tailed hawk after many, many months of rehabilitation. The bird, ill with severe lead poisoning, by all accounts should have died. But when Ed and his staff encounter an animal with an extraordinary will to survive, they join in the fight, and are committed to doing everything in their power to help.

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At a birthday party for my friend, these kids jumped around under an amazing evening sky.

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I saw more black bear in 2015 than in all other years combined. This youngster watched traffic go by along Skyline Drive in Shenandoah National Park.

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The Washington, DC area was treated to a unique spectacle this summer as dozens of WWII era war planes gathered in formations and flew over the region in the Arsenal of Democracy Flyover. I have much closer shots of the planes, but I thought this image of a couple watching the distant plane had a vintage feel to it that suited the day.

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Naturalist Brian Balik and I spent some early fall mornings cruising Skyline Drive in search of wildlife. But even when the animals aren’t cooperating, the scenery never disappoints.

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While photographing the Middleburg Hunt before the Christmas parade, I was lucky to capture Devon Zebrovious making this elegant turn, resulting in one of my all time favorite portraits.

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Speaking of models, my friend Joel Thompson of Montana Troutaholics is the most photogenic person I know. I loved this relaxed shot of him taking a break from brook trout fishing along the Rapidan River. That Pelican cooler has traveled all over Virginia this past year, which is particularly cool because I just learned that Pelican is actually a Virginia-based company.

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I spent a lot of time looking for reptiles to photograph this year, but I spotted this beautiful northern water snake while trout fishing. Luckily I had my camera handy and captured this image in early morning dappled sunlight.

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My wirehaired Vizsla, Winnie, reflects on her reflection at Rose River Farm. There are more favorite dog photos of the year in this earlier post.

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This five-lined skink, warm from the sun, moved very quickly. But I lucked out and got this cool shot of the beautiful critter.

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This was a great year for turkey sightings where I live. These two composed themselves perfectly for a nice shot along our driveway. Carrying a camera in the truck almost every day has resulted in far more photographic opportunities this year.

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On assignment covering the dedication of a home built for a combat wounded hometown hero, I quickly walked past this cool scene of waiting escorts and kept thinking about it. I was glad they were still there when I went back to photograph them.

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Frog eggs, probably from a wood frog, sit just below the surface of a vernal pool.

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Low light is the bane of my photography. But every now and then I capture an image I really like, and sometimes it only takes a couple hundred snaps of the shutter to get a keeper. Dominion Power lines create an interesting composition on this lightning shot.

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Owl sightings are rare for me, so any time I see one is a special occasion. I spotted this Great Horned owl at nightfall and was thrilled to have my camera with me at the time. The light was obviously limiting, but every now and then a silhouette is just what a scene calls for.

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I struggled shooting this sunflower field with photographer Martin Radigan, but love the mood of this one keeper from the evening. I look forward to trying this again next year.

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I am thankful for everyone who takes the time to read this blog, and I hope you enjoy this collection of my favorite shots of the year. Let me know your favorite in the comments!


One Dog Short on a Three Dog Night
and Other Adventures

Not since the first day I met each of my dogs when I drove them home to Virginia from Illinois — Winnie as a pup during Hurricane Ike, and Finn as a 3-year-old a few years later — have I asked them to join me on a longer journey. And they have never been away from home for an entire week. But months of planning, preparation and waiting were behind us, the truck was packed, and we were ready to go. The plan was two nights of roughing it, camping in a couple of Virginia’s state parks, then a few nights in a fantastic cabin in Bristol, Tennessee. Fall foliage, crisp air, fishing, exploring, relaxing, recharging. But it’s funny, you put two dogs in the back seat of the truck and they don’t know if they’re going to 7-11 or Montana. All road trips start exactly the same to them. So I felt the weight of the responsibility. Obviously they need me to take care of them, to provide for them, to not put them in danger and to not do anything stupid.

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Our first stop was a lakefront campsite in Virginia’s Douthat State Park. The forecast was for a very cold night, and I’m not a very experienced camper. I got plenty of firewood, warm clothes for me, Winnie’s winter coat and two warm sleeping bags zipped together. We set up camp, fished a little in the stocked lake there, went for a hike, took pictures, lit a fire, cooked, ate, opened a beer and relaxed. But as soon as the sun set, the cold pushed down from the cloudless sky, and I wanted to get settled while we were all still warm from the fire. We all got in the sleeping bag and I just waited for the temperature to drop. I did not have to wait long, and only slept in fits and starts. I kept checking Winnie, who is more sensitive to cold than Finn. She wore her coat in the sleeping bag at my feet and seemed plenty warm. During the night, however, Finn hooked a leg outside the sleeping bag and as he moved, the bag unzipped. His restlessness woke me up and when I figured out what happened, I could feel cold air just pouring in on him. I got him zipped back up and we slept a little bit, but by 5 a.m., we had all had enough. The inside of the tent was covered in ice, and all the warmth saved in the sleeping bag was gone the instant I unzipped it. After a quick and cold bathroom break (it was 20 degrees), I turned on the truck, put the dogs in the back seat and turned on the heat. After a while we ate some breakfast to warm us up. I sat there between them as they ate and their tails wagged as I talked to them. We had made it through a pretty uncomfortable night, but we were all fine. I felt the temperature dip a bit, as it always seems to before dawn, and I looked up to see more stars than I can ever remember seeing in my entire life.

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The plan for the next night was to camp at an even higher elevation with a similar forecast, setting up a tent that is now lined with ice, over a wet sleeping bag and air mattress. We held a team meeting and decided we would not do that. Instead, we would push farther southwest, go for an afternoon hike, and find a warm place to stay that night. We hiked to the Great Channels of Virginia, a vigorous, 6 mile out-and-back with a big elevation gain, beautiful and well maintained trails through steep and rugged terrain, and a hand written sign on a kiosk at the entrance announcing bears had been seen in the area. Every blind curve in the trail had the potential of surprising a bear, so I talked to the dogs the whole time to make some extra noise in the wind. They must have been thinking, “has he lost his mind? Yeah, we get it, we’re good dogs. We heard you the first four hundred times.” It’s also archery season there, so my deer colored dogs tried out the Ruffwear Track Jackets I ordered especially for this trip. I am really impressed with them. Walking, climbing, running, shaking, leash, no leash…these vests never budged from their intended position.

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After that first frigid night, somewhere between two and four hours of sleep and a strenuous hike, all three of us were pretty happy to cancel our camping reservation near Mt. Rogers and camp at the Days Inn Bristol, VA instead.

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The next day we stopped and talked to the fine folks at Mountain Sports Ltd. I wanted to see some beautiful scenery but none of us were in the mood for a big hike that day. The staff there recommended a pretty stretch of the Virginia Creeper Trail near Damascus, VA. What a gem this trail is, 35 miles of former railroad bed transformed into a trail for hiking, biking and horseback riding.

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There are definitely trout in the beautiful Whitetop Laurel River that parallels the Creeper Trail, but I had my hands full with the dogs, camera and tripod so I didn’t bother trying to fish.

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With the exception of the first night being twenty degrees colder than I was really prepared for, the weather the entire week was simply spectacular. Fall foliage was stunning everywhere I went.

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Speaking of the Days Inn Bristol and Mountain Sports, Ltd., where the dogs were welcomed, I want to acknowledge the other establishments along the way and in Bristol, Virginia and Tennessee that welcomed the three of us. Starting on the top left, Shenandoah Valley Brewing Co., Staunton, VA; Queen City Brewing, Staunton, VA; Redbeard Brewing Co., Staunton, VA; Burger Bar, Bristol, VA; Holston River Brewing Co., Bristol, TN; Bristol Brewery, Bristol, VA; State Line Bar & Grill, Bristol, TN; and the brand new Cabelas, Bristol, VA. I am always very appreciative of businesses that allow and welcome dogs.

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Walking around Bristol was fun. It’s a cool town best known as the birthplace of country music. I stopped to admire one of the many murals on the sides of buildings there and the dogs sidled up close to me as they do on city sidewalks. Then Winnie stood on my foot. I include this photo here because I love moments like this, even though I can’t really explain why.

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It was time to check in to the cabin where we would be staying for the rest of the week. And oh my, what a cabin it is. I unloaded the truck, spread the tent and sleeping bag out to dry and then we just relaxed. More perfect weather, a few tasty local beers, a great local pizza and an early night made for a perfect evening.

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The next day we met Orvis fishing guide Patrick Fulkrod who took us out on the beautiful Watauga River. This was an amazing day that I chronicled in more detail in my previous blog post, Brown Trout, Orange Dogs.

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I love my dogs, obviously, but one of the main reasons I genuinely enjoy their company in all sorts of situations is that they are well behaved and under control. We don’t do any formal training anymore, but every day is filled with “teachable moments,” and spending the time required to have dogs that listen and respond to commands is absolutely one of the most rewarding things I have ever done. Reflecting on the trip so far, it has been neat to watch how differently they each respond to new situations. Sometimes predictably, sometimes not, but always differently. Finn typically wants to know what is on my mind, what I expect of him, what we are going to do together next, while Winnie is usually off dancing to the beat of a drum only she can hear.

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The cabin at dusk. Shortly before this photo, I was leaning on the tailgate messing with the timer on my camera when the dogs barked. I had been seeing deer all day so I didn’t give it much thought, and just told them to stay. When I looked up, just off to the right of the chairs in this photo was a Momma black bear and two cubs. The dogs had never seen bears before, and even I was impressed that they stayed. But, safety first, if you haven’t gathered yet by now, so I put them in the back seat of the truck, quickly went back to the camera and tried to get a photo. But it was too late. Literally every setting on the camera was wrong — manual focus, timer, long exposure, low ISO — so I just watched as the mother turned back toward the woods and left, cubs scampering quickly behind. It was exhilerating to see them so close, and another proud moment of dog ownership.

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I didn’t get to fish the South Holston on this trip, but before we hit the road home I walked down to take a photo in the morning mist. Next time, SoHo.

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We had all day to get home, so when I saw a sign for Hungry Mother State Park, a park I’ve heard a lot about, I decided to swing through and check it out. It. Is. Stunning. What a beautiful, serene lake. I really want to come back here with the kayak and camp for a few nights.

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Still feeling like we were approaching the end of the vacation too quickly, I detoured off the mundane, terrible Rt. 81 and enjoyed a stretch of the Blue Ridge Parkway from about Roanoke to Lexington. My God, the foliage was astounding. The best I have ever seen in Virginia, in fact.

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But it’s a good life, I think, when home calls as strongly as the beautiful new places we discover, and we were all anxious to get there. Back on the highway, I put the windows up and the hammer down. I turned music on for the first time in over 300 miles, never having noticed its absence. And from the back seat, dogs smelling of wood smoke snored, and dreamt their very different dreams together.

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Brown Trout, Orange Dogs

During the planning phase of this trip, which started over eight months ago, I knew I wanted to fish with veteran guide Patrick Fulkrod. Patrick was named the 2014 Orvis-Endorsed Guide of the Year and has worked hard to earn the reputation as “The Man” in the area of Tennessee’s South Holston River. All summer long I’ve been admiring the stunning brown trout he was putting his clients on. But having my two dogs with me was the most important aspect of this vacation, so I told Patrick maybe we could just wade fish somewhere. He said nonsense, the fishing is much better from the drift boat, and told me to absolutely bring the dogs. I gave him many opportunities to change his mind on this, but he knew it was important to me, and insisted. On the morning of the float, the flow on the South Holston was less than favorable, so Patrick opted to take us out on the nearby Watauga River.

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Finn and Winnie are good dogs who tend to take new experiences in stride, but I had no idea how they would react to a drift boat. They kayak with me regularly, and from those experiences I had a concern. I can not fish with Finn in the kayak. He gets so excited when he sees a fish, he just loses his mind. So I had visions of Finn jumping out of the boat, and Patrick having to row downstream after him, stirring up fish in the process. My dogs wear Ruffwear Float Coat life vests while on the water for safety, and also for ease in lifting them back in the boat if they do end up in the water. So I got their vests on and headed to the boat. Winnie couldn’t wait to get in, and immediately settled into her spot to my right in the front of the boat. Finn is kind of clumsy and awkward and bull/china-shoppy, but we got him situated to my left, and were ready to launch.

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Before long, the first test arrived in the form of a little rainbow trout. Patrick showed the fish to Finn and explained the custom of kissing the fish. Finn was excited but gentle, and from that moment on I knew I didn’t have to worry about the dogs. They were having as much fun as we were on this picture perfect fall day.

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When I caught the first brown trout of the day I couldn’t take my eyes off it. Browns are my favorite, and these are the most beautiful I’ve ever had the privilege to see and hold.

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Underwater photos are hit and miss, and the ratio is extremely heavy on the miss side. So I was thrilled with this, the only underwater shot of the day, of Patrick releasing a beautiful brown trout into the cool waters of the Watauga.

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Finn and Patrick spent a lot of time admiring each other, and we weren’t ten minutes into the float before the bond was permanent.

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Winnie, being Winnie, spent the float by my side, leaning on the gunwale, soaking in the sun and the sights. Observing. The personalities of these two dogs are so very different, they complement each other in ways I never could have anticipated. They were an absolute joy to have along on this vacation.

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One of the many things about Patrick as a guide that I admire and appreciate is that he understands how important photographic memories are to clients, and he works hard at making sure he captures quality images for every angler he guides. When the drive home is behind you, when you’re back home in your routine and the alarm starts going off early for the office instead of the river, when the colors of Tennessee trout have faded in your mind and the azure blue sky and water of autumn shift to the cold grey of winter, all it takes is a photograph like this one to bring it all back.

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Brilliant sunshine and brown trout go beautifully together. These are just stunning fish.

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I don’t know anything about rowing a drift boat. But I do know that this is a lot of weight in the front of the boat, and I’m not talking about that fish on the line either. But Patrick was focused entirely on making sure I was happy and the dogs were comfortable. If the rowing was made more difficult as a result (Hint: It most certainly was), Patrick never gave me the slightest indication.

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At one point, Patrick pulled the boat to the shore so the dogs could go pee. I don’t have photos of the goat rodeo that ensued so just admire another brown trout as you try to imagine it, but it was comical. As is their way, Finn was clumsy and Winnie was odd. Together at one point Finn was doing that thing you’ve seen in cartoons where his front legs are on shore and his back legs are on the boat, of course pushing it farther and farther away. Meanwhile, Winnie is in the water, swimming an orbit around the boat. We aborted this attempt and opted for a more friendly shoreline downstream, but not before those Ruffwear Float Coat handles were effectively utilized. I was able to easily bring the dogs back under control, securing Finn and lifting Winnie straight out of the water and into the boat. Ruffwear puts a lot of practical thought into the design of their products, and I will not trust my dogs to any other life vest.

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Taking dogs out of their normal routine is very tiring for them. So Finn and Winnie slept hard every night, whether in a freezing sleeping bag, a dumpy hotel room or a truly wonderful cabin in the woods. In between they napped in the truck, on the floor of several brew pubs, in front of campfires, on sunny leaves and shady porches, and even here in the boat. It meant the world to me to be able to have these dogs with me on this float, and I can’t thank Patrick enough for his hospitality in that regard. It was easily one of my all time favorite float trips.

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To book a truly enjoyable, memorable float on the South Holston or Watauga River with Patrick, contact Mountain Sports Ltd. in Bristol, TN by clicking here.

To learn about and order the Ruffwear Float Coat, click here.


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.


Virginia’s Threatened Wood Turtle

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I had never seen a wood turtle (Glyptemys insculpta) before. Which is not all that surprising, even given my time spent in the woods. In Virginia, the wood turtle is a threatened species. It has been assigned the Virginia Wildlife Action Plan rating of Tier 1 — Critical Conservation Need, which means it faces “an extremely high risk of extinction or extirpation. Populations of these species are at critically low levels, facing immediate threat(s), or occur within an extremely limited range. Intense and immediate management action is needed.

My friend, naturalist Brian Balik has seen a few over the years, and knew of their decline in Virginia. So when he recently happened across two wood turtles in the same location in Northern Virginia, at first he couldn’t believe what he was seeing. “Spotting a threatened wood turtle ranks as a top experience in my life as a naturalist,” Brian said. “It’s something I am definitely not taking for granted, especially living in an area where there are very few of them.”

He took some photos of that first wood turtle and kept hiking, only to find another less than 100 yards away. So knowing there were at least two in the area, we set out a couple weeks later to hopefully re-find them so I could get some photographs. I was less confident than Balik, as I have a history of not being able to find things, but lo and behold, after hiking a few miles adjacent to a creek bed, Brian called out. “Turtle!” I couldn’t believe he had found one again! It was an extremely special sighting.

Just how rare is the wood turtle in Virginia? I contacted J.D. Kleopfer, a Herpetologist for the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries, who was excited about the find. “Not too many woodies left in that part of the world,” he said. “So any observations are critical.”

The turtle measured around eight inches long, was gentle and even a little curious. We spent a little time observing and photographing this affable little creature who cooperated for quite a while before deciding to wander off in search of lunch, privacy or both. But we were happy with the encounter and the photos we captured, so we left her and continued exploring, spotting some toads, a beautiful skink and even a yellow jacket nest along the way. (Balik is also better at finding yellow jackets than I am.)

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I shared my photos with Ellery Ruther, Lead Field Technician of Virginia Working Landscapes for the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute, who graciously provided some information about the turtle we encountered. “At first glance, I thought this animal was a small female,” she said. “But after counting the annuli (rings on the shell) to estimate age, it looks like the turtle is a juvenile around 8 years old. Wood turtles don’t reach maturity until around 10-15 years of age.” They can live up to 60 years.

We did not closely examine our sample turtle (nor would I have known what to look for), but Ruther explains that the best way to tell sex would be to look at the bottom of the shell. “Males have concavity, and females are flat,” Ruther said. “Otherwise, females generally have smaller heads, smaller front claws, and smaller tails than males do.”

As with many threatened species, urban and agricultural development have been among the biggest contributors to wood turtle decline. “Wood turtles are semi-aquatic, so they rely on both terrestrial and aquatic environments, can occupy relatively large home ranges, and often move between watersheds,” Ruther said. “All of which makes them very sensitive to development.” In addition, these factors lead to increased predator encounters, mortality crossing roads and, perhaps most disturbingly, accessibility for poachers.

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Kory Steele, President of the Virginia Herpetological Society, warns the public about removing animals from the wild. Once he was brought a wood turtle that was picked up on the road by someone vacationing in their range and brought home. He discovered it was a gravid female. “One of the important individuals in that population had been removed,” Steele said. “It emphasizes that turtles should NOT be picked out of the wild for pets.”

And it’s not just rare and threatened turtles that are put at risk by poaching. “Box turtles in particular are taking a big hit because of removal for pets,” Steele said. “Most box turtles at rescues are unwanted pets that were originally wild.”

If you happen to come across a rare or threatened specimen like Virginia’s wood turtle, Balik recommends taking a few photos and reporting the sighting to VDGIF. “Or if you are in a park land, report the sighting to park staff,” he said. “Keep in mind exactly where you are, nearby water bodies, road intersections, date, time and a photo.”

So please just enjoy Virginia’s precious wildlife where you find it. As the old maxim goes, “take nothing but pictures, leave nothing but footprints.”

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For a list of Virginia’s special legal status species click here.
To learn about all the turtles native to Virginia, visit the Virginia Herpetological Society web site here.
To check out Brian Balik’s blog, A Case of Wildlife Fever, click here.
For the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute, click here.


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.


Healing Those Who Serve: The 9th Annual
Project Healing Waters 2-Fly Tournament

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The 9th Annual 2-Fly Tournament, held April 25-26, 2015 at Rose River Farm in Syria, VA, raised over $205,000 for Project Healing Waters Fly Fishing. Many of those in attendance declared it the best event yet, despite some meteorological challenges. When the forecast looks like this 24 hours before the weekend-long event, countless details are impacted. But as always, volunteers and PHW staff stepped up and made sure everything still ran smoothly no matter the weather.

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Early Saturday the rain kindly held off for the Bluegill and Bass Tournament at the pond. But as the evening festivities were just getting started, the skies opened up. This did not deter the Virginia Patriot Guard, however, who each year — rain or shine — escort the participants to the Saturday dinner program. This has become a beloved tradition in the 2-Fly.

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Inside the main tent, guests were treated to great food from Gentry’s Catering Service. Wine was provided by Luna Vineyards, and dozens of amazing items were available to bid on in the silent auction.

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Karen Jonas and her band warmed up the tent on a cold evening with an outstanding performance.

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More entertainment came in the form of Master of Ceremonies Eivind Forseth, pictured here from Sunday’s tournament. Eivind, one of the very first participants when Project Healing Waters began over ten years ago, is extraordinarily funny and just happens to have the best voice you’re likely to ever hear.

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The keynote speakers were Lee and Bob Woodruff of the Bob Woodruff Foundation. In 2006, Bob Woodruff was in Iraq reporting for ABC’s “World News Tonight” when he was gravely injured by a roadside bomb that struck his vehicle. His traumatic brain injury nearly killed him. Miraculously he recovered, and 13 months later he was back at ABC News, but forever changed. Bob and his wife, Lee, were driven by a mission to ensure our injured Veterans had access to the very best support and resources available, and the Bob Woodruff Foundation was born. There are tens of thousands of nonprofits serving veterans, and their foundation works extremely hard to find the best, most innovative programs to help fund. Organizations supported by the foundation must meet the very highest standards, and four important criteria must be met: The organization must produce results, they must be responsible stewards of money, the model they use must be replicable (for instance PHW now has 180 programs in all 50 states), and the organization must work where Veterans live. Project Healing Waters meets all those criteria, and is honored to be supported by the Bob Woodruff Foundation.

The Woodruffs were both wonderful, powerful speakers. Veterans in attendance surely could relate to Bob’s story. But Lee’s testimony of the difficult journey of the Woodruff family resonated with the loved ones, the caregivers of injured and disabled servicemen and women. That perspective was most appreciated.

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The rain continued throughout the night but the Rose River handled all the water Mother Nature poured down her throat, and awoke Sunday morning running clear and strong. Then, in defiance of every forecast from the previous day, the rains pushed out, grey skies turned to blue, and by late morning the sun was shining on this great event.

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The Woodruffs were kind enough to come back on Sunday and try their hand at fly fishing. Here Dusty Wissmath gives Bob some instruction on the water…

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…while Lee gets some guidance from Elizabeth Noyes.

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Josh Williams of Dead Drift Outfitters has been fishing in this tournament for many years, and he almost always goes home with a plaque. He ties amazing flies and is a great fisherman, friend and family man.

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The man who started it all, Project Healing Waters founder and president Ed Nicholson.

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The river wasn’t exactly throwing trout into the nets, but the right fly and a good drift were often rewarded. Here a rainbow is released into the strong current of the Rose River.

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If you’ve seen the long running ESPN show Walkers Cay Chronicles you’ll recognize Flip Pallot. The consummate outdoorsman was on hand to teach casting and share stories the way only he can.

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Year after year, over a dozen distinguished professional guides enthusiastically volunteer their time and expertise to guide the Veteran participants. Here Jimmy Aliff (right) shows off one of Frank Ortega’s catches.

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Kimberly Smith fished in last year’s event and is now a volunteer with Project Healing Waters, helping bring in new participants. This beautiful trout, below a tattoo honoring her father, is a new addition and even covers up some scars.

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Gerry McKay releases a catch from the afternoon session while guide Joel Thompson, who flew from Missoula, MT to guide in the event, looks on.

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Enjoying a break in the action are, from left to right, Elizabeth Noyes, Michael Brittin, Dusty Wismith, Thomas Hogan and the owner of Rose River Farm and PHW Chairman of the Board Douglas Dear. Douglas co-chairs the 2-Fly committee with Jerry Nonnemacher, and they put in countless hours all year long to make this event the great success that it is.

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Nicky Dayton, left, gets a helping hand from guide Kiki Galvin. Nicky was one of the three participant speakers during Saturday’s program. Her humble, powerful message of pain and healing brought a standing ovation.

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In the end, after months of planning, countless volunteer hours, dozens of sponsors, thousands of miles flown to bring participants from all over the country, a whole lot of trout with sore lips and a little bit of divine intervention on the weather, it was over. On Sunday evening the handshakes are firmer, the laughs are easier, and the goodbyes take a little longer. And promises are made through open truck windows to not let a whole year go by without wetting a line together. I made a few such promises myself, and I intend to keep them.

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The 10th Annual 2-Fly Tournament will be held April 30-May 1, 2016. This was a tough act to follow, but there are people already working on making it the biggest and best yet!

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Shenandoah Brookies: Cracking the Code

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Fly fishing for brook trout in the Shenandoah National Park is unlike any other type of fishing I have ever attempted. Throwing small flies at small fish in small water with a small rod can be frustrating. Casting is a challenge when the pool you’re fishing is so small you don’t have enough fly line out to adequately load the rod. And whipping a leader with a dry fly at the end of it back and forth trying to propel it forward is like pushing a rope. I’ve had a good day fishing SNP before, although really just the one. But I love the park, and wanted to figure out how to fish this water. I needed professional help.

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As luck would have it, I am friends with a lot of great professional fly fishing guides, among them Kiki Galvin of Ms. Guided Flyfishing. Kiki enjoys great success fishing the waters of SNP, so I asked her for help. I also ran into my friend Tom Sadler who guides with Mossy Creek Fly Fishing. Tom is extremely familiar with the streams I like to fish inside the park, and he echoed a lot of the things Kiki had shared. My good friend Harold Harsh of Spring Creek Outfitters advised me on fly selection too. But fly fishing instruction is a lot like any other type of learning — at some point you have to actually do it, and do it with some success, before it registers.

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For instance, Tom and I sat together at an outdoor writers event, at a round table that seats eight. He told me he throws flies in pools the size of that table. Now, people can tell you this till they’re blue in the face, but trust me: Until you start pulling fish out of table-sized pools, you simply can’t believe those pools are worth fishing. And once things start clicking, all of a sudden you look at a mile long stretch of the Rapidan, or the Upper Rose, or Cedar Run, and you realize there are literally hundreds of pools and pockets that can and do hold fish.

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I spent the weekend at Rose River Farm. The luxury rental cabins there are just minutes away from all three of the rivers I mentioned above. It is the perfect ‘home base’ to hit several streams in a weekend or even a single day. So, armed with new knowledge of reading water, fly selection and fishing techniques, I hit the park with high hopes. Kiki told me to throw a dry fly even if I don’t see them rising. It was early morning, the water was still cold, I saw no rises. I tied on a dry fly — a size 16 parachute adams — but still didn’t fully trust any of this, so I tied a pheasant tail nymph dropper below the adams. I assumed if there were any takers that morning, they would hit the nymph. But on my third cast, in a pool I swore I could see every inch of and seemed to hold no fish, out of nowhere a brilliant flash of gold and orange swirled on that adams. A gentle tug on my Scott 3-weight and the hook was set in the corner of his mouth. After briefly exchanging pleasantries he returned my fly and I slipped the fish back into the cool, clear water, where he promptly disappeared. How such a flamboyantly colored fish can be so well camouflaged, I do not know.

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And that’s how it went. Brook trout kept coming after my fly. Standing alongside a pool, high sticking and reaching to the far side of the current, keeping the fly line and even the leader out of the water to reduce drag, they ate that adams. Standing at the bottom of the pool and fishing up to tiny pockets alongside the water rushing in at the head of the pool, with a “drift” lasting only a second or two before the fly gets sucked under, they ate that adams. Fishing nymph droppers in bigger, deeper pools where I still didn’t trust that the little tykes would come all the way up from the bottom, they came all the way up to eat that adams.

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I mentioned I’ve had a good day before fishing the park. But this was different. I will have bad days again, that is certain. But as I hiked along these waters, tossing flies in pockets of water I would have walked right by a week ago, my trust in what I was doing grew with each catch. The formula for success with fly fishing is a moving target. The flies will change with the seasons, maybe terrestrials in the summer, stone flies in the winter. They may change day to day, or hour to hour. Maybe smaller flies, maybe larger, maybe 6X tippet instead of 5, maybe evening instead of morning. As I continued to catch fish, tending to find them in similar environments within the pool, I could readily recognize those conditions in the next pool, and the next. Every pool is unique, with different dynamics in the current, depth, shape and size. But I began fishing with something I had never fished with before on these mountain streams: Confidence. And that’s what made this weekend’s success more meaningful than a single, right place right time banner day at a single pool.

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That’s not to say I have it all figured out and that these fish are easy. They are equal parts finicky and aggressive. They are lightning fast and don’t like to sit still when they’re caught. They are slippery as hell and can spin around in a net so fast they’ll make a bird’s nest out of your leader in the time it takes you to wet your hands to handle them. And once the hook is free, they don’t much care for sticking around to have their picture taken. They will make you drive on roads so bad your fitbit will register a thousand steps just from having your hand on the steering wheel. They will make you hike for miles through thorns in waders and boots. They will make you buy a new fly rod just for them. But then one day you will find yourself in the woods. You will push through the curtain of trees and the muffled, distant sound of rushing water that has accompanied you on your hike will become suddenly crisp and loud. You will step into the water and know that you are sharing that space with one of the most beautiful creatures on earth. As your fly dances in the current, you will stare at it with all your might. And when that thing of beauty darts up from the bottom, breaks the surface and takes that fly — that fly you brought so far to place exactly there exactly then — thoughts of effort and past frustrations and the ones that got away will all be washed downstream.

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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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Winter Fishing at Rose River Farm

When I packed the truck and headed for Rose River Farm it was nine degrees out and the main roads were still covered with packed snow from the previous day’s storm. I wasn’t fully convinced this was a good use of a vacation day until I was almost there. Driving south in brilliant morning sunshine, the roads eventually cleared, traffic thinned, and finally the Rose River came into view. A clean, dark, glistening ribbon meandering through the snow covered landscape, frigid water tumbling over rocks and logs, leaving behind brilliant ice sculptures along her banks. I had forgotten how much I love winter fishing. Hell, I had forgotten how much I love winter. But I remember now.

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I love having a truck. This was my first foul weather outdoor adventure with my Chevy Colorado, and it’s great fun. I love the workspace of a tailgate as I’m getting ready. While the temperature was quite cold, there was virtually no wind, and the bright sun reflecting off the snow made it fairly comfortable. I decided my ultra warm neoprene waders would be overkill, so I put on my Redingtons and a warm hat and met up with a friend who had been fishing all morning. Bob is a great guy, a fantastic fly angler, and he travels with more flies than I have seen in almost every fly shop I’ve ever been in. “Hare’s ear,” he told me. “They’re killing it.”

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A hare’s ear nymph? This is not a fly I use very often. I think maybe because it’s kind of nondescript. Unremarkable in color and vague in shape, a single example sat in the corner of my fly box, long ignored like that drab sportcoat in the closet with patches on the elbows. You can’t remember the last time you wore it, but won’t throw it out because there has to be some occasion it’s perfect for. Well I can’t show you a picture of the hare’s ear I used, because it was in fact the perfect sportcoat for the occasion, and the trout hammered it until it unraveled. Then I trimmed the material that had come undone and they hammered it some more. Finally, the hook literally broke off of it. This is an example of a healthy hare’s ear nymph, courtesy of my buddy Joel of Montana Troutaholics Outfitters. Joel describes it as a “great and often overlooked nymph.” He also said in New Zealand they call it a ‘hare and copper,’ and it’s an extremely productive fly down there too.

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The first fish of the day came quickly, as did my realization that wetting your hand to handle a trout on a 20 degree day is uncomfortable.

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Catching fish is fun no matter the temperature. But when toes get cold, wading becomes clumsy. And when hands get cold, everything else gets clumsy. Removing a fly, releasing a fish, tying a knot, untangling line. Everything takes longer. I tried a few times to add a trailing fly behind the hare’s ear, but cold fingers and bad eyes (I was wearing a warm hat without a brim so I was without my usual clip-on magnifiers) made tandem rigs just too cumbersome to tie. In addition, trout spinning around in the net tangling in the trailer added a new dimension of frustration. So I abandoned that and stuck with the single nymph.

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Anyone who fishes in cold weather has experienced their guides icing up. At first it happens gradually, ice building up from the water on the fly line gliding by. But once they ice to the point the line doesn’t move, you have to dip the guides into the river (which is warmer than the air) to thaw them. This of course means now your rod is totally wet, and in a couple minutes you’ll have far more ice than before. It’s just a part of winter fishing.

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Once my hands froze, I tried my best to remove hooks with hemostats while the fish was still in the net. But some fish are worth the pain of wetting your hands for a photo. This fatty was my biggest of the day.

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You can just make out this fish in the upper right as I released him. I was a bit late with the photo — did I mention my hands weren’t working very well? — but I thought the swirl of water he left in his wake was pretty cool.

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By late afternoon, the temperature had risen to the high twenties and things began to thaw out. I love this curl of snow slowly sliding off the warm, tin roof of the gazebo.

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The hare’s ear worked all day, until it didn’t. They just shut down for that fly for both Bob and I. Luckily, he had another winning pattern in his fly box and gave me an extra. It was tiny and pink, hard to really see and damn near impossible to tie on at that point in the day. I told myself I would fish it for another thirty minutes or until I broke it off and then I would be done for the day. But this fly too was extremely effective, producing another half dozen fish in that last half hour. This beauty wanted to pose with my beautiful bamboo rod by Jerry Nonnemacher.

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I spent the drive from Madison to Loudoun County smiling about a simply wonderful day of winter fishing. And right around the time I reached Gilbert’s Corner, the feeling eased back to the last of my toes. With warmth and sunshine in the forecast for more than a week taking us into mid March, I think it’s safe to say the worst of winter is behind us. Unfortunately, so is the best of it.


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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Bear Tracks

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My friend, naturalist and outdoorsman Brian Balik, called me today to come along as he had a lead on some bear activity. It was fun to track this bear, to see how he meandered through the woods which were, at times, dense with brush. We were a day behind him, so I don’t think there was a real chance we’d encounter him, but it was fun. I’m no expert, but this seemed like not a small bear. Hind print measured almost nine inches from heel to the tip of the claws. The snow was perfect for capturing detailed impressions. The last several weeks of this godforsaken winter have ranged from irritating to downright dangerous. But today’s outing made me think I should make the effort to get out into the woods after a snow. There are so many tracks, each just waiting to tell a little part of a big story.

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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.


Medicine for the Soul

Originally published in The American Fly Fisher, Journal of the American Museum of Fly Fishing.
Fall, 2014, Volume 40, Number 4

Every spring for the past eight years, central Virginia’s ordinarily tranquil Rose River Farm bustles with energy and purpose as dozens of volunteers and supporters come together for Project Healing Waters (PHW)’s biggest event, the 2-Fly Tournament. The national program aids the physical and emotional rehabilitation of thousands of disabled active military service personnel and veterans through fly fishing and associated activities, including education and outings. The annual 2-Fly, so named for the limitation of anglers to select and fish with just two flies for the entire tournament, is the organization’s flagship fundraiser.

DSC_1147A tournament participant and his guide get in some practice on the still waters of one of Rose River Farm’s ponds.

With 167 chapters in forty-nine states, the limited tournament openings are highly coveted. Nominations come from local chapters all over the country. There are only twelve spots in the Pro/Vet category, in which injured active-duty service members or disabled veterans are paired with professional guides. In 2014, one of those spots went to former Staff Sergeant Brian Christensen, Army National Guard, from Woodland Park, Colorado. When he found out he had been selected, he went through what he calls a normal progression of emotions: “Absolutely thrilled!” he said. “Then nervous. Then panicky.”

Christensen suffers from posttraumatic stress (PTS), and in his excitement it had started to take over. “I was honored to be nominated by my local chapter,” he said. “But I then got very nervous about traveling, being in unfamiliar areas, being ‘trapped.’” His wife, who would be seven months pregnant at the time he was to fly to Virginia, worked with him for days after he received the call. “She knows how strong of a medicine this program is for my soul,” he said, “and unselfishly convinced me to go.”

He began taking that “medicine for the soul” back in January 2013, when he first got involved with PHW. He started with a fly-tying class and quickly became obsessed, actually starting the intermediate class before he had even finished the beginner’s. His wife immediately started seeing a change. “She hadn’t seen me this focused, excited, or passionate since I came home from Iraq,” he said. “And I hadn’t even caught my first trout.”

When summer rolled around, he took part in a few outings, each time fishing alongside one of the mentors who guide participants for the day. Those mentors are often professional guides, and under that guidance, Christensen’s fly-fishing skills progressed quickly. “My learning curve has been a near vertical line because of PHW,” he said. He was ready for the 2-Fly.

Almost a thousand miles away in Missoula, Montana, Joel Thompson was also readying for his first appearance in the tournament. But Thompson, a professional guide and owner of Montana Troutaholics Outfitters, was flying in to volunteer as one of the twelve Pro/Vet guides. He was paired with Christensen for the tournament. Thompson had been aware of PHW for years and was excited about his first hands-on opportunity to help. “Being selected to guide in the 2-Fly was truly one of the greatest honors of my life,” he said.

DSC_0876Before the tournament begins, guide Joel Thompson (left) scouts for trout in the Rose River with Brian Christensen.

Meanwhile, back at Rose River Farm, preparations were well under way. PHW board chair and owner of Rose River Farm Douglas Dear credits the volunteers who make the event possible. “Every year the 2-Fly just seems to get bigger and better,” Dear said. “It is really a tribute to the many volunteers who make this such a great weekend for the vets.” In the final week leading up to the event, volunteers are busy preparing the grounds, organizing an impressive array of silent auction items, and putting shirts and other merchandise out for display. Food, drinks, signs, tents, chairs, lights, electronics, transportation, lodging, and countless other details all require the attention of dedicated volunteers.

The weekend kicks off with a Saturday afternoon bass and bluegill tournament at a large pond on the grounds of Rose River Farm. This gives participants a chance to meet each other and warm up with some casual fishing the day before the 2-Fly. When Christensen arrived, he didn’t know a single person. “I always feel extreme anxiety when meeting new people,” he said. “But the one thing I have found is that when I am around veterans, it couldn’t feel any more different. There is something unexplainable, unspoken that happens when I am around them. I relax. I feel more calm. I let my guard down.” For Christensen and many others, interacting with those who “get it” is one of the best things about PHW.

Saturday evening features a riverside banquet with live music and an inspirational program that gets everyone excited about the day ahead. Special guests this year included Master of Ceremonies Major Nick Warren, United States Marine Corps (USMC), pilot of the presidential helicopter Marine One; keynote speaker Admiral John C. Harvey, United States Navy (retired); fly-fishing legend and World War II combat veteran Lefty Kreh; and casting guru Ed Jaworowski. But the stars of the night were and always will be the veterans, three of whom took the podium to tell their stories.

The moving testimonies of the men reminded everyone in attendance why the success of the event and this program is so critically important. “Project Healing Waters has saved me, my life,” said Corporal Mike Escarcida, USMC (retired), in front of a rapt audience of more than 200 attendees. “I no longer have to go it alone,” he said. “I no longer have those thoughts of committing suicide.”

Stories like Corporal Escarcida’s are being told from PHW programs across the country. Christensen, who has gained so much from his experience that he now feels the urge to give back, volunteers for the Colorado Springs program. As chair of the Veterans Committee, he sets up local events and recruits vets to get them out on the water. He tells the story of a new participant, a former Marine he recently put on a fishing trip. “He called me and said he had caught eight fish on his first trip, and when his children saw a picture of him holding a trout, they said, ‘What’s wrong with your face, Daddy?’” The feature on their father’s face they did not recognize was a smile. That, Christensen says, is the gift that PHW offers. And seeing that in others has been a healing force in his own life.

Christensen and his guide met for the first time during the banquet. The two immediately hit it off. “Joel told me he had been out by the water ‘reconning’ the areas we were to fish the following morning,” Christensen recalled. “I couldn’t believe he was out there doing that while everyone else was enjoying food and drink in the tent.” Christensen found himself grinning from ear to ear and looking forward to the morning.

DSC_0859Staff Sergeant Brian Christensen (left) discusses strategy with Joel Thompson.

Thompson was already confident they would have a great time together, but it was important to him that they did as well as possible. “I get nervous before every guide trip,” he said. “There are so many factors that we can’t control, and you really want your clients to have success. That is exactly how I felt at the start of the 2-Fly.”

The nervousness that comes from even a fun competition, however, can manifest itself in different ways for someone suffering from PTS. “I normally don’t handle those feelings well anymore,” Christensen said. “My [PTS] treats both positive and negative stress the same.” When positive excitement turns into negative stress, it’s impossible to enjoy the experience. “I start out feeling a thrill for a second, but then it turns into anxiety, then panic.”

DSC_0839A vibrant sunrise blankets Rose River Farm in Madison County, Virginia, on the morning of the 8th Annual 2-Fly Tournament (27 April 2014).

But early Sunday morning, with the fading remnants of a spectacular sunrise still reflecting on the Rose River, the two men entered the water and shook off any nervousness with the best remedy of all: hooking up with the first fish of the day. Then Christensen noticed something odd: the anxiety, the panic never materialized. “I had an absolute blast during the tournament,” he said. “I can’t explain why my body didn’t react the way it normally does to that stress. But it didn’t.” For the three hours of combined fishing that day, Christensen said he felt “like a normal person.”

Thompson and Christensen were paired as a team with Kansas City, Missouri’s Staff Sergeant Kevin Gabert, Army National Guard, and his guide William Heresniak. The two anglers and their guides put together an impressive morning of fishing, and when the scores were tallied, they led the Pro/Vet category at the halfway mark. Heresniak, who runs Virginia-based Eastern Trophies Fly Fishing, has guided in all eight 2-Fly tournaments and couldn’t imagine missing the event. “When a soldier says that Project Healing Waters has saved their life,” he said, “it hits home.”

DSC_1042Staff Sergeant Kevin Gabert keeps the pressure on a rainbow trout as his guide, William Heresniak, gets ready with the net.

In afternoon fishing, things slowed down a bit for Team Christensen/Gabert. But with all but one scorecard to be tallied, they still held a narrow lead. That last team, however, put up just enough points to grab first place. Winning is fun, of course. But the order of finish here is about as important as you might expect—which is to say, not very. “I could not have been more proud of our team,” Thompson boasted. He is eager to guide again next year.

DSC_1177Joel Thompson stretches out to net a nice rainbow hooked by Brian Christensen during the afternoon session.

Christensen, like his guide, feels a lot of pride in that second-place finish. He has a spot for the plaque picked out already, right above his tying bench. “Every time I see it, I will think of my teammate, Kevin, and our guides, Joel and William. And all my fellow veterans. And all the volunteers and all the donors who make it possible,” he said. “And how small I feel in all of it. But mostly,” he adds, “I will just smile and remember the sun on my back, the trout on my line, and how it just couldn’t ever be any better.”

DSC_1032Brian Christensen hooks up with the first of many rainbow trout during the tournament; guide Joel Thompson awaits with the net.

Christensen plans on continuing his volunteer work on the Veterans Committee, giving back to the program by getting others involved. “Nothing brings me more joy than sharing these experiences with my fellow veterans,” he said.

That passion and willingness to give time and energy to this program, and the bonds that are formed and lifelong friends made, are at the heart of the organization’s success. PHW founder and President Ed Nicholson reflects back on the growth of the program since he first started giving casting lessons to a few wounded soldiers on the lawn of Walter Reed Army Medical Center. “I am overcome with a sense of wonder that through the passion of so many of our dedicated volunteers, an ever-increasing number of our disabled veterans are experiencing the very special healing that Project Healing Waters brings.”

DSC_1044Brian Christensen and Joel Thompson congratulate each other on a morning of fishing that put their team in the lead at the halfway mark.

Since its inception in 2004, PHW has built programs at VA facilities and military installations in all but one state. But there is more that can be done. “To have been witness to so many lives transformed has been incredibly gratifying,” Nicholson said. “The next decade holds great promise for our project to continue expanding, to serve the thousands of deserving veterans who have yet to experience our very special kind of rehabilitative therapy: a therapy based on the fly rod, the vise, and the incredible power of strong, caring volunteers, fostering a bond of friendship and deep personal relationships. That’s what we are all about.”

DSC_1329The participants and guides of the 8th Annual Project Healing Waters 2-Fly Tournament.

For more about Project Healing Waters, or to find out how you can help heal those who serve, please visit www.projecthealingwaters.org.


Yellow Leaves, Brown Trout

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This past weekend I spent a day wandering around central Virginia, not far from a town called Undisclosed Location. I was taking pictures, fly fishing and just enjoying the beautiful early autumn weather. I did not have much success fishing, but took a few photos I liked and did very well in the enjoying the beautiful day department.

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It’s hard not to feel good on the water when you’re carrying a wonderfully crafted bamboo rod made by Jerry Nonnemacher, and a beautiful new net from Brodin Nets. Early on when the fish weren’t biting, I set up a little product shoot.

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I don’t mind when the fish aren’t biting, I really don’t. So I decided to leave the area and find another activity. As I was leaving, however, I stopped at one more spot and had a look in. Brown trout, just what I was after. I hiked down the embankment and set up to fish for a bit. Remember when I said I don’t mind when the fish aren’t biting? I may have meant that I don’t mind as long as I don’t see a monster trout just sitting there! The smaller trout here are probably 8-10 inchers. The one bruiser had to be pushing 20 inches. I wanted him. Bad. So I fished to him. Over the next couple hours I tried countless variations of flies and tactics. I justified hammering him with everything but the kitchen sink because it takes me so damn long to tie a new fly on, I figured I had given him ample time to rest. But here’s the thing. You can’t fish one pool for two hours. You can’t throw your fly box at one fish who has no interest in feeding. I was just about to give up, when I tried dead drifting a San Juan worm right in front of him. I’ll be damned if he didn’t take that San Juan and shoot downstream with it. He broke me off after less than three fun-filled seconds. I was proud to have gotten him to bite, though … until I saw him a minute later with my fly stuck in his pectoral fin. I had foul hooked the beast. So with his fin and my pride stinging a bit, I called it a day. I had hooked two or three small ones earlier but lost them all before I could get them in my still virgin net.

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I wish I knew my trees better. I look forward to the orange and red maples of Virginia’s fall palette. But the early yellows, poplar I think, made for stunning reflections. And, fish or not, this time of year just makes me feel more alive. October in Virginia simply can not be beat.

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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.

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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!

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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).

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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.

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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.

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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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*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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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%.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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


Upstream

I drove over the bridge that spans the Potomac River near our house this afternoon and thought the skies might just be perfect for a sunset. I had been wanting to paddle upstream and find a spot to photograph a great sunset from the middle of the river, and tonight was looking promising.

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I picked up a sub for dinner and a couple beers and packed my camera gear in a dry bag. I opted to keep things simple, leaving dogs and fly rods at home. I thought I’d have my hands full trying to set up a camera tripod while anchoring a kayak and trying not to slip and lose everything. So I set out upstream, first heading up the C&O Canal from the ramp. It felt great to be out on such a beautiful evening after about a week of humid, generally unpleasant weather. That shape ahead of me to the right is a raft containing being propelled by my friend William Heresniak of Eastern Trophies Fly Fishing.

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William and his clients had a long, fun day on the river and got into some fish too. It was cool running into William here on my home water.

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Then in the span of about forty minutes, every cloud in the sky vanished. I was not going to get that awesome sunset after all. So I decided to get some exercise, paddling upstream much farther than I ever had before. My new Werner paddle had a lot to do with that! It felt good to make so much upstream progress, and I found a great place to anchor in the middle of the river and chill out for a while. This is a beautiful place, but there just wasn’t anything happening in the sky. In fact, all the action was in the water. Remember the brilliant “I’m not gonna bring a fly rod because I’ll be busy taking pictures” thing? Well not only was I not busy taking pictures, fish were jumping all around me. There was a Great Blue Heron on the next rock outcropping over from me and at one point he looked over to me and said, “Can you believe this shit?”

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Here’s a nice view of my Native Watercraft Slayer 14.5, she was a joy to paddle tonight. I packed light, just the cooler, camera stuff, anchor and that’s it.

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I love the iPhone pano! Click on this image to get a better view, I think it really gives a sense of what it feels like to have this river all to myself. I will definitely be back for evening paddles again, and next time you can bet I will have a rod with me!

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I’m not often the last one at the boat ramp, but it’s kind of cool.

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Well, over the last month or so I’ve had times when I really wish I had my camera. Or when I had my camera with a wide angle lens and wished I had a zoom. Or when I had a zoom and wished I had a polarizing filter. I’ve had times when I brought a fly rod and wished I had brought a camera, and tonight when I could have done without the camera but damn did I wish I had a fly rod. I’ve had days when I got somewhere and really wish I had brought my dogs. Shit happens. But if it keeps happening, I may have to travel with a full camera bag, both dogs and a 5-weight at all times!


4th of July Weekend Fun

The entire Dispatches from the Potomac staff took the three-day weekend off to celebrate this cherished American holiday by enjoying time surrounded by friends, nature and, of course, dogs. Here’s a quick photo tour of the weekend…

I’ll admit it, I’ve been pretty slack about getting these dogs out on hikes. They forgive me, but could not hide their excitement early Friday morning when they realized we were going somewhere fun. Seeing these mugs in my rear view mirror makes my heart smile.

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We did an easy five or six miles on the C&O Canal Towpath, from Knoxville, MD to Harpers Ferry, WV and back. This is about a mile downstream of Harpers Ferry on the Potomac River.

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(Scene Missing: Insert a blurry montage of grilling meat, lighting fireworks, viewing fireworks and perhaps enjoying a beer or two from Friday night to Sunday morning.)

The alarm was set early on Sunday, as my friend Chris and I were ready to catch some Smallmouth from kayaks before dawn. I brought my Nikon, but light conditions were challenging. Some neat fog was rising off the water for quite a while when we started, but I struggled capturing enough light to really show it. Anyway, a few turned out well, this is Chris with the great state of Virginia behind him.

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Chris just got this Wilderness Systems Ride 115X, this float was the maiden voyage! This kayak seems just perfectly suited for river fishing, and Chris said it’s super comfortable too. He added a nice new Werner paddle to complete the package!

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As a photographic outing, not much was going well. I had recorded a dozen or so blurry Great Blue Heron images on the memory card, and the bright sun was ruining all the river shots. But when I came across this scene I took a lot of photos, hoping I was able to capture even a fraction of the subtle shades and colors I was enjoying. This is my favorite of those shots, and a clear candidate for my Photos of the Year post at the end of 2014.

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The fishing was slow. I hooked a nice smallie early, we both saw it jump and it looked like it was gonna be fun, but he spit the hook out in mid-air, and that was the last big fish I saw. This was the only fish I got in the boat, and he damn near escaped before I could take a picture.

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I’ve been meaning to take this detour up Catoctin Creek off the Potomac, so we explored it a bit. The water is much colder back here, but we saw very little evidence of active fish.

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After a little break, and some sad looks from Team Orange, I decided to head back out Sunday afternoon to go for a spin. My new Dead Drift Flies sticker looks great on my Native Watercraft Slayer 14.5!

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Finn watching our six, and looking great in his Ruffwear Float Coat.

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I had a wonderful weekend and got lots of exercise in perfect weather. I hope you all had a great and safe holiday! It’s back to reality. For now.


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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Big Bears, Small Snakes, Dumb Luck

The rain slowed to a stop as I waited in the car at the entrance to Shenandoah National Park. With dense humidity hanging in the air, I put my camera and tripod on my shoulder and started walking. Just minutes later, it appeared on the trail about thirty yards ahead of me. A black bear, massive, silent as a shadow on the freshly drenched path, crossed the trail quickly and without looking toward me. My heart quickened as he slipped through the brush and down a bank. I had seen one in the wild only once before, in western Montana, from the cab of a pickup truck. That was exciting, but being alone, sharing the trail, the woods with this animal was absolutely exhilarating. I had to get a closer look. I heard branches snap well away from the trail so I hurried to the spot where he entered the woods.

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I could barely make out his shadowy black form below, blocked by the rich, green canopy. With a wide angle lens set up on my Nikon in anticipation of some waterfalls I was hoping to photograph, I reached for my iPhone 5S instead. As he walked along, I stepped sideways along the ridge, hoping for an opening in the foliage. I snapped a few photos of nothing, afraid to go home empty handed from the encounter, then I saw him. And I saw that he had been watching me. I held the phone out in the general direction of the bear, but the moment already felt fleeting, I didn’t want to take my eyes off him so I just sort of blindly recorded. We watched each other for a second, then he turned and ambled across the stream. I apologize for the poor video, but click on the photo below to see the last few seconds of a moment I’ll never forget. The photo is a capture of the first frame of video. You might be able to make out the shape of the bear’s head as he looks at me.

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It was several minutes before I moved from that spot. I just wanted to soak it all in, make sure I remembered everything I could about the encounter. But the falls were calling me, so I continued down the path toward the sound of the rushing water. The woods were beautiful after the rain, and the mossy rocks glowed a rich green.

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Not too far off the trail, a hundred yards or so at the point I went in, is the Upper Rose River. My recent photography workshop with Martin Radigan, Randall Sanger and Todd Williams had me thinking of ways and places to practice some of the techniques I learned. I spent a lot of time here trying different angles and vantage points, but I think this is my favorite.

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Having captured what I wanted from that spot, I moved upstream in search of interesting scenes to photograph.

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While looking for a view on which to train my camera lens, I kind of forgot that climbing over slick rocks with an expensive camera is not the only danger in the woods. I foolishly let my guard down, which is easy to do in any beautiful location. By the time I saw this Timber Rattler, my ankle was already tauntingly close to his head. I backed away and sat down on a rock (after inspecting it first!) and watched him for a while until my heart rate returned to normal. Can you spot him in this wide angle shot? Look left center. For a couple seconds, we shared that rock he’s resting on. I am most appreciative that he allowed me to change my mind without penalty.

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Have you ever almost been in a bad car accident? You might have experienced that post-event adrenaline rush when you’re thinking, “Man, I almost did something really stupid and costly right there.” That’s how I felt about almost kicking a rattlesnake, not watching my feet because I’m obsessing about photographing something. I was really quite lucky. Here is a closer look at the beautiful Crotalus horridus. I enjoyed observing him for a while, though he didn’t do much. If he rattled I never heard it, but we were right next to that rushing water.

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So in two really exciting experiences in one short visit to the park, I learned a few things. First, while I was there to shoot landscapes, I don’t think I’ll ever enter the woods with my camera again without a longer lens attached just in case I have the opportunity to photograph something interesting. Or venomous. Second, look down. Not just for safety, but it never occurred to me to look down after the bear sighting and take photos of his tracks in the fresh mud. Opportunity missed. And third, I realized that I don’t really know what to do when I encounter a bear or a venomous snake. So, let’s talk to some experts!

Ed Clark, President and Founder of the Wildlife Center of Virginia, knows more about bears than I know about anything. He recommends not freaking out. “When encountering a bear in the wild, the first thing to do is to remain calm,” he says. “In the overwhelming majority of such encounters, as soon as the bear sees you, it will flee. Some may move a bit closer to get a sniff of your scent, or simply out of curiosity, but unless you are presenting an overt threat to the bear or to its young, there is little to fear.”

In my vast experience with bears in the wild, consisting of about four minutes, it always did seem that my bear was moving away, that it was going to be harder to keep him close enough for a photo than to keep him away. But if they don’t retreat immediately, “Clapping your hands, making noise, shouting, banging a pot, or even throwing sticks or rocks in the direction of the bear will typically cause it to flee,” Ed continues. “In the event that you have food or some other item of great interest to the bear, the bear may not leave the area entirely. Reduce such attraction by storing food properly, cleaning up campsites, and disposing of food waste in appropriate ways.”

I extend my thanks to Ed Clark, a very busy man, for contributing to this post. For more information on Virginia’s black bears, check out the VDGIF web page, Living with Black Bears in Virginia, and the video of the same name on Youtube here.

Kory Steele, President of the Virginia Herpetological Society, generously answered my questions about venomous snakes in the wild. First, know your snakes. “We routinely see animals that don’t even resemble copperheads being labeled as such. Also, a lot of our native snakes will shake their tail when in fear for their life, and people tend to solely use this trait for saying they found a rattlesnake. People also claim they see cottonmouths in the Northern Va area when it is actually a Northern Watersnake. Cottonmouths are not found any further north than Hopewell.” I have personally seen non venomous snakes shake their tail, and I have seem them mistaken for venomous snakes. There is lots of good information on the VHS web site, please go there to learn more if you spend a lot of time in the Virginia outdoors.

As for avoiding dangerous snakes, common sense goes a long way. “If one were in the range of rattlesnakes the only practical advice for avoiding them is to not put your hands or feet where you can see what is there first. Stepping over a log? Look on the backside first. Rolling some riprap to weed-eat around it? Don’t even think about it unless you look,” Kory said. “Having sufficient illumination is a requirement,” he added. “Most people bitten by copperheads seem to be bitten when they are walking around at night.”

If as in my case, common sense is not available, and you aren’t as lucky as I was and are bitten, the best course of action is to get to a hospital. “Do not not cut, suck, or shock the bite,” Kory said. “Stay calm and try to immobilize the limb if possible.” He adds that dogs seem to have a degree of natural resistance to snakes, but I might add that a great way to avoid your dog getting bitten is to keep them on a leash while hiking, and keep your eyes open for hazards of all kinds.

“Regardless,” Kory concludes, “A fear of snakes is generally irrational. Eight to fifteen people die every year in the US from snakebites, and most of those are in the southwest US. I am not aware of any unprovoked snakebite fatalities in Va in the last hundred years. Provoked would be like the man in Chesapeake that was envenomated while actually trying to kill the snake. You don’t get bitten by leaving the snake alone.”

Thanks to Kory Steele for illuminating a topic that will be on my mind a little bit more as I continue to explore and enjoy the woods and parks that the great state of Virginia has to offer.

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