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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
I am encouraged by the young men and women I have met recently who defy the trend of their peers and immerse themselves in the outdoors, and particularly those who communicate their passion for nature through art.
Isabelle Sweeney, 17, has been crafting, painting, drawing and sculpting since she was little. “It started as something I would do with my mum and siblings, and over time it became something I would do to escape and unwind,” she said. “Painting has always been one of my favorite ways to do this.”
But she has always loved being outdoors. “I feel at peace in nature,” she said. So when her friend, naturalisit Brian Balik, suggested painting a deer skull, it seemed like a great way to combine those interests. Balik gave her a doe skull he had found, they cleaned it up and she set out to turning it into art.
Deciding on black paint because she liked the contrast on the white skull, she sat down one evening, turned on some music and started painting. “I never have a plan when I start,” Isabelle said. “I love the natural symmetry of the bones, so I let them guide me. I let the shapes I see in the skull come out in the black paint.” She finished that first skull in one sitting. “I didn’t stop until it was done late that night.”
I loved that first doe skull when I saw it, and asked Isabelle if she would paint the 6-point buck skull I used for my blizzard time lapse video earlier this year. She was excited to work with the additional interesting features of the antler bases, and came up with an absolutely beautiful design.
“I relish being able to take something from nature, something that had died, something that would have been wasted, and giving it new life as art,” Isabelle said. “To make it beautiful in a new way.”
I am so proud to have this work of art hanging in my office as a reminder of the beauty of nature, and of those who embrace it and find creative ways to express themselves through it.
With winter storm Jonas threatening to dump two to three feet of snow on Loudoun County, Virginia, I thought it would be fun to set up a time lapse of the entire storm. I set up my Nikon DSLR to take a photo every four minutes, and focused it on a log outside my office window with the Potomac River in the background. A 6-point deer skull on top added to the composition, and 484 frames later, it was all over. Jonas left us with close to 30 inches of snow, with drifts more than twice that. Wind direction, drifting and timing made for vastly uneven snow totals around our property, though, and this stump was spared the full brunt of the storm. Still, it’s a peaceful, mesmerizing look at a storm that, when viewed in real time, was a powerful, sustained, dangerous winter storm. Enjoy!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
At a birthday party for my friend, these kids jumped around under an amazing evening sky.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
This five-lined skink, warm from the sun, moved very quickly. But I lucked out and got this cool shot of the beautiful critter.
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.
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.
Frog eggs, probably from a wood frog, sit just below the surface of a vernal pool.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Brilliant sunshine and brown trout go beautifully together. These are just stunning fish.
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.
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.
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.
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.
I won’t pretend that my 24 hours off the grid this weekend even remotely resembled a backcountry excursion into peril. No, this was camping in comfort with my two best friends, Wirehaired Vizslas Winnie and Finn. It was fly fishing for pond bass, a roaring campfire and ice cold beer. It was a wood fire grilled New York Strip steak at dusk cooked to perfection and big enough to share with the dogs. It was perfect weather, a star filled night and a steady breeze. This was glamping, plain and simple. But even setting up my truck tent on the familiar grounds of my friend’s Rose River Farm puts me far enough away from civilization that I was able to (okay, forced to) disconnect from my phone for a day. And as I get more and more dependent on that connectivity — from constant texts, emails and calls to Googling questions the moment they pop into my head instead of taking the time to sit and ponder a thing — the more value there is in unplugging for a bit.
Speaking of pondering, Winnie immediately took to the pond not to swim and hunt toads and do whatever it is normal dogs do, but to simply stand there. It’s her thing, her zen. She stood here the entire time it took me to set up camp and then for a good hour beyond that. She’ll turn her head toward a rising fish, but has no interest in further investigation. I do not know what’s on her mind, but I figure it can’t be all that different than what’s on mine when I step into a cool stream with a fly rod.
Fly fishing for bass with poppers is a blast when the topwater action is on. And in the evening, it was on. Nothing too big, but lots of splashy fun all around the pond edges. Finn and Winnie watched with great interest. I actually have to keep Finn in a ‘Stay’ a fair distance away from me as he can not be trusted with a fish on the line. If he’s too close, the splashing fish sends him into a crazybananafrenzy and he can not help but dive in after it. (Pro Tip: Make sure you do not have a dog like this before you try kayak fishing with him.)
But the pond will be there all night. It was time to lighten the beer cooler a bit and get the fire started. I don’t think I would have any interest in camping if I couldn’t have a fire. It was through the first wafts of wood smoke that the initial oddness and that dull, background anxiety of not having a cell signal started to feel more like a benefit than an inconvenience. And from that point on I was no longer interested in who was trying to contact me, what was trending on facebook or even what time it was. It was simply time to start a fire and open a beer.
Dogs, like people I suppose, are very routine animals. The whens and wheres of eating and sleeping are a big part of their lives, so I wondered how they would react to a complete changeup on this, their first camping adventure. Turns out they literally could not care less. They ate their dinner around the fire while I grilled my steak, then they shared some of mine. They were comfortable and utterly relaxed the entire evening. After dinner, Winnie fit in some more pond standing time, I did a little night fishing and the beer cooler got lighter still. We watched the stars for a bit, all silently agreed this was a fine way to spend a weekend, and we called it a night.
I mentioned this Napier Outdoors truck tent and Airbedz air mattress in an earlier review and I stand by what I said. Both these products perform extremely well, and it’s just an extraordinarily comfortable setup. The dogs loved stretching out but still being next to me, and we all slept like logs. Until, in the middle of the night, we were awakened by what I would describe as a Blood Curdling Cacophony Of Odd And Terrible Animal Noises. Before I even realized I was awake, the dogs and I were kneeling in front of the side window of the tent, staring into darkness. In the hazy, jittery half sleep that comes with abrupt awakenings, my brain could not make sense of the sounds. Later, in the light of day my brain told me they were coyotes, but the cackling, crying and screaming was definitely not what I thought a pack of coyotes would sound like. The dogs never barked, and I was glad for the low tech brand of radio silence not to give away our location. We went back to sleep easily and awoke at dawn, happy, rested and not surrounded by coyotes.
The agenda for the next morning was to explore Skyline Drive and find a new spot to hike. As we entered Skyline Drive I purchased an annual pass. Shenandoah National Park is one of my favorite places and I happily support it.
Hawksbill Mountain is the highest peak in the entire park. The hike to it, even when taking the longer loop, is only about three miles, with a moderate elevation gain enough to get your heart pumping. With a long drive back home still ahead of us, this looked like a great way to get a little exercise and not keep us out all day.
The overlooks (there are four) along the way are spectacular. And photos are a must at the highest point in Shenandoah National Park.
Coming home from camping trips with my Dad as a kid, we always stopped at Whitey’s, a North Arlington, VA mainstay with a big sign out front that read: EAT. It was just a few miles from home, but my Dad always stopped there no matter the time of day or night. He would have a Budweiser in one of those thick, heavy, frosted mugs, and I’d have an identical mug of A&W root beer. We would order burgers. Back in the day, Whitey himself was sometimes there in the last booth along the wall, under the deer mount with Christmas lights on the antlers. My Dad would pretend to calculate how much grief my Mom would give him for keeping me out late on a school night, then order us another round. We would, each in our own way, embrace those little extensions of our weekend. Done with fishing and camping and canoeing and sunburn and mosquito bites, done with cleaning and loading and securing and double checking it all, but not quite ready to be home. It’s there, it’s close. But not yet. On this camping trip, the role of Whitey’s was played by Shawn’s Smokehouse BBQ in Culpeper. This time my mug was filled with Devil’s Backbone Vienna Lager, and while I ate every bite of my pulled pork sandwich, the mac and cheese was split three ways.
But delaying the trip home doesn’t mean you don’t like home. It just means you found something special while you were away, even for just a day. And if you take the time to reflect on it a little more, maybe you’ll remember it better. Or bring a bit of what you found home with you. So we ate slowly, savoring the last morsels of our first camping trip together. And when the time was right we headed north, with full bellies, full hearts, and all the windows down.
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.
I don’t camp. I love being in nature, but I also very much dig the comfort thing. Growing up, I used to camp with my Dad. We never camped in tents, but always in some vehicle based setup — either a trailer of some sort or in a cap on the back of the truck. So when I decided to look into comfortable, portable camping options, I settled on the Napier Outdoors Sportz Truck Tent.
When the tent arrived I was anxious to set it up right away and see how it worked. I found this video a lot easier to follow than the written instructions that came with the tent. I unpacked the contents of the surprisingly small duffle bag the tent was packed in, and using my phone, followed the instructions in the video, pausing the video after each step so I could follow along. All the poles are color coded to match the sleeves you slide them through, and setup went quite smoothly, far easier than the frustrating mess I had mentally prepared myself for. Here it is set up in my yard. I forgot to time it, but I think it only took twenty minutes or so. Not bad for someone who has never set up a tent before.
I’m six feet tall and was really surprised when I got inside that I could actually stand up straight in this. I don’t see how this would really come up in a camping situation, but you need to get inside for a brief part of the assembly, and it’s just great to generally not feel cramped in it. There is a large window in the front (Okay a note here: The front of the tent is the back of the truck, according to the instructions. This makes sense of course, but for me it was confusing. Once you install a tent in a truck bed, I feel like the orientation of the truck now rules, so when I say the front of the tent, I mean in relation to where the truck is pointed), large semicircular windows on each side, and the door is very large. All windows and the door have either a screen option or you can zip closed a privacy window.
The tent also comes with a rain fly, which I installed backwards initially (see my note above). I haven’t tried it in the rain, and am not anxious to. But it’s nice to have, and to know it could be installed very quickly, especially with a second person. Here is what the tent looks like with the rain fly installed.
Having a dry roof over your head is only part of the comfort equation, however. I had heard about Airbedz air mattresses from Pittman Outdoors made for pickup truck beds that have cutouts for the wheel wells so you can utilize the entire truck bed area. My Chevy Colorado has a six foot bed but is not as wide as a full size truck, so knowing I would most often have my two dogs with me (55 and 70 pounds), I was going to need all that area. (Note: You can purchase the optional wheel well inserts so this mattress can be used inside your home.) I purchased mine from AutoAnything, and chatted with someone there for a while before deciding on the heavier duty mattress to hold up against dog claws.
The Airbedz has a built in, rechargeable pump. I’ll be honest, I was a little skeptical about this. It just seemed like the sort of thing that simply wouldn’t work the way it was advertised. But it absolutely does. If I had one complaint it would be that there is no indicator light on the charger, and the plug doesn’t give you any feedback that it is plugged in all the way. So the battery (which comes out of the pump for charging) sat there in my kitchen for several hours and I had no idea if it was actually charging. I installed the (hopefully) charged battery and clicked the pump on just for a second to see if it powered up. Then I put it all back in the bag until my first camping outing.
My first test run was at my friend’s farm in beautiful Madison County, VA. I set the tent up with the help of the video once more, but at this point I will not need the instructions again. The color coding does it all. Here it is all set up on my first time out. I was really only using it as a place to crash, rather than a camp site to hang out in. So I opted not to bother with the awning this time. Here it is all set up, backed up to the soothing sound of the Rose River.
Then I unrolled the Airbedz mattress and flipped the switch. In about a minute the mattress was fully inflated, firm and comfortable!
It was very warm that day and evening, so I opened all the windows, zipped the screens closed, and left it for much of the day. I half expected the mattress to be deflated and the tent to be filled with bugs when I returned. I expect these things because I feel like nothing performs as advertised these days. But I slept in 100% bugless comfort all night and the mattress held all its air for sixteen hours. The battery on the pump had all the juice it needed to deflate it the next morning. And it did a great job at deflating it, too — the mattress rolled up to the same size it was out of the box.
So if you have a pickup truck and want to get out in nature but also want to haul some of the comforts of home with you like a comfy mattress, a cooler with beer and ice, maybe a camp stove, dog food, etc., you might want to give truck tent camping a try. If you do, these two products will get you on your way. They come in sizes to fit any truck bed, and in my experience, they both perform exactly as they should.
This is an Eastern phoebe, hovering over her nest that was, until just minutes before, filled with chirping chicks waiting for an insect delivery.
What came next is a scene that unfolds countless times every second of every minute of every day in every corner of this planet. Even under the protective shell of my back deck. Predators prey. Nature eats. Life is a circle. This is a rat snake, replete with phoebe chicks. My phoebe chicks.
My mind tells me, snakes gotta eat too.
My mind tells me if I had gotten home a half hour earlier like I usually do, I probably still wouldn’t have been able to stop it.
My mind tells me the Phoebes who raised the chicks are simply confused. That they are chirping, hovering, searching, out of instinct. That they still go search for, capture and deliver insects for their former brood, out of the pure mechanics of nature. Out of something other than grief or despair. That the concept of hope is infinitely beyond their grasp, so it is not theirs to lose.
My mind tells me that four surviving birds out of ten total eggs in two broods is actually pretty good.
My mind tells me that any ‘bond’ I’ve built with the Phoebes who inhabit and populate the nest outside this office door is a creation of that very mind. That though I am vigorously protective of them, they neither sense nor rely upon this.
My mind tells me that the chicks will help sustain a strong, beautiful snake, and as she rests and digests in that hole in the cool earth beneath the deck, she may someday make her own eggs with the help of those nutrients. And that I will encounter the healthy offspring of this snake for generations to come.
My mind tells me that nature, while often violent, is not cruel. That snakes do to birds what birds do to insects. And birds do to insects what insects do to whatever insects do that to. Snakes are not the beginning, and birds are not the end.
My mind tells me that by tomorrow my phoebes will lower their gaze from their empty nest and resume hunting insects for themselves. Not out of courage or bravery, but simply out of survival. And that by tomorrow I, too, will be going about my normal routine.
My mind tells me all these things, and that all these things are true.
But my heart? My heart flat out aches tonight.
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.)
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Helpless doesn’t begin to describe the first days of life for these young Phoebes.
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.
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!
Before long there was no room in the nest for mom. She fed them while standing on the rim of the nest.
The helpless, ugly babies were transforming into beautiful little birds before my eyes.
And then one day I watched as one of them began to test his wings. I knew it wouldn’t be long now.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Wildlife Capture, Restraint, Handling, and Transport: An Online Course from the Wildlife Center of Virginia
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
Time: 7:00 p.m. to 9:00 p.m. Eastern
Photos courtesy of The Wildlife Center of Virginia.
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.
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.
Here’s a better look, but when the sun hit these the white parts were brilliant white…
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.
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.
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.
I happened upon another, larger antler, one that my dogs actually stepped on as they passed it. A really cool find.
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.
So two nice antler finds, lots of exercise and fresh air, and we all had a great time.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Monkey doesn’t like stones in the water. They all need to be removed, one at a time.
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.
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!
We get a lot of different turtles around our property. I spent some time with this cool fellow.
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.
Turkeys gather on the path ahead, C&O Canal Towpath, Maryland.
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.
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.
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.
Shortly after the landscape workshop I tried my new knowledge at Shenandoah National Park. This is the Upper Rose River in Madison County, VA.
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.
This is the same Monarch pictured earlier eclosing from her chrysalis, drying her wings in the sun.
Sunset, Potomac River, Harpers Ferry, WV.
I visited Solomon’s Island, MD twice this year and thoroughly enjoyed this quaint, beautiful and fun town.
Team Orange at Rose River Farm on a beautiful summer day.
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.
Early in the year this Sharp Shinned Hawk paused on our bird feeder while hunting our regular feeder visitors. Hawks gotta eat, too.
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.
“There’s nothing like a nice piece of Hickory.”
Last year some friends gathered for an evening of food, drink and fun, with everyone bringing a dish made from wild game acquired over the course of the year. That night was such a success we’ve decided to make it an annual tradition! This year we gathered at my friend Jason’s house, and his smoker added a great new dimension to many of the dishes. Here’s a little tour of the feast!
This marinated venison backstrap was on the smoker for about three hours, cooked to perfection and so incredibly tender it was hard to believe. Fantastic. Don’t ask Jason for the marinade recipe, he won’t give it to you.
My friend Carolyn told me about this dish and I had to try it. Baked beans mixed with browned ground venison, peppers and onion, baked, then topped with crumbled bacon, drizzled with honey and put in the smoker for 45 minutes.
Full smoker! Marinated dove breasts, jalapeno poppers filled with shrimp and seasoned cream cheese, then wrapped in bacon, mushrooms stuffed with ground elk meat and cream cheese, and the tenderloin.
Cheese stuffed beer bread? YES PLEASE! Thank you Anna!
These are the finished smoked bacon wrapped cheesy shrimp jalapeno poppers. The cream cheese, I’m told, counters the heat in the peppers. Um, no.
Anna made this incredible mac and cheese. It was delicious and popular, and good to have a dish on the table that wasn’t meat colored.
I don’t really get tired of marinated bacon wrapped venison tenderloin morsels of awesomeness.
The finished mushrooms stuffed with elk meat, cream cheese, mushroom and seasonings.
I actually forgot to try this! Wild turkey breast stuffed with goat cheese and peppers.
Another view of the perfectly cooked venison tenderloin, marinated and then smoked with hickory. Like butter.
I took the smoked, marinated dove breasts, wrapped them in puff pastry and baked them for ten minutes or so.
Anna made this wonderful lemon meringue pie from scratch, in addition to the pie and the amazing beer bread.
It was a real treat to sample amazing donuts from Front Royal’s Naughty Girls Donut Shop. The story of the shop and the amazing young woman who started it is a great one, and I encourage you to read about it here.
And in addition to all of the above, we of course had a variety of excellent seasonal beers to enjoy.
It’s never too early to start planning for next year’s Game Night, either — I’m thinking venison meatball and cheese sliders will be on the menu!
Rifle season for deer in Virginia started last weekend. I saw a few, but didn’t take any shots with my new Browning .308 lever gun. That will come soon enough, but in the meantime, I wanted to share all the deer I have managed to shoot this year. Most from my driveway, some with a game cam, the rest with my Nikon that I’ve started keeping with me in the car this time of year. Due to the nature of the photos, I won’t bother captioning them because I don’t want to be redundant, to repeat myself, to say things over and over again. Enjoy and stay tuned…
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.”
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.
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.”
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.”
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.”
For more about Project Healing Waters, or to find out how you can help heal those who serve, please visit www.projecthealingwaters.org.
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.
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.
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.
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.