Words and Images from Ed Felker

Posts tagged “Birds

A Special Visitor

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Blizzard Time Lapse

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

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

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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!


Audubon At Home Wildlife Sanctuaries

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

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

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


Sometimes Nature Just Punches You In The Gut.

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

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

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My mind tells me, snakes gotta eat too.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But my heart? My heart flat out aches tonight.


Backyard Wildlife: The Eastern Phoebe

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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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Operator Error

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Close Encounter with a Cooper’s Hawk

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

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Rehab, Release, Rejoice

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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2013, My Year in Photos

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


It Was an Extra Pair Anyway…

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

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

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

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


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

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A few weeks ago, my friend Chris and I went to the river to set up game cameras, hoping to capture images of the beautiful wood ducks that have proven so skittish and difficult to photograph. On that same day Chris spotted where the owl had been hiding, so we decided to set up my camera trained at the owl. The camera Chris brought we would set up low on a tree in a little cove where I have spotted wood ducks before. It has a bracket that screws into a tree trunk, then the camera slips over the bracket and you’re ready to go.

Except we forgot one thing: To keep an eye on the river levels. An earlier rain was still having an impact downstream, and in no time the camera was underwater. Being airtight and buoyant, however, it simply lifted up off the bracket as the water got higher, and floated away.

We assumed it was lost forever. But tonight when I went to retrieve the bracket and scout another wood duck location I did some looking around. Low and behold, I spotted the camera in a debris pile less than fifty feet downstream of the tree on which it was mounted. Although it wasn’t above water for long before the water took it away, Chris and I were both anxious to see what was on the memory card! The camera, while it was on its little adventure, took 1,470 photos. Here are the highlights…

This is most likely a Great Blue Heron. I’ve seen them in this cove before, and while this neck is very white like that of an egret or something, some Great Blues have a mostly white neck. Regardless, pretty cool capture. But, cool as it is, I really wanted wood ducks.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

DSC07015It moved again and snapped several shots from this location.

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

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

DSC07927And finally, the last creature to show up (not counting the spider on the cam in the first shot) is the one writing this story. I was as surprised as that rabbit to see this camera down there, and when the flash went off I knew it had continued working the entire time.

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


Exciting and Utterly Unexpected Trail Cam Discovery

On several of my unsuccessful attempts to sneak up on our resident wood ducks with a camera, I reached a certain point in my sneakery when a large bird, presumably a hawk, flew from behind me directly over my head, fifteen feet off the ground. On one such occasion I raised my camera to my eye and snapped a single, blurry photo as my target quickly flew out of range. This is that image. Four times I received this fly-by, never seeing it coming and never able to identify where it came from. I had been walking for hundreds of yards, I never passed a hawk on a low branch and couldn’t figure out why one would come from higher up to dive bomb me.

owl3Then my friend Chris joined me for one of my wood duck photo attempts and sure enough, I get the fly-by. But this time I had a witness. Chris saw where the bird came from: this giant hole in a dead sycamore.

owl1But it still didn’t make sense. Hawks don’t live in tree cavities, or if they do, Google hasn’t learned of it yet. Still, we were positive it was a hawk, and Chris absolutely saw it come from that tree. So we set up a trail cam on the only available tree facing the sycamore and left it for a couple weeks. I checked it tonight and the first image on the card put everything into place. It wasn’t a hawk at all, it was an owl! And the nest in that hole is inhabited by at least one baby owl.

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

IMAG0053Excitedly scanning through over a hundred photos, I almost skipped right past this one. But there is a Mommy or Daddy owl hanging back in the shadow of the hole, keeping a close eye on the fuzzy little tyke.

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I have 22 images showing owl activity, and they are all in the middle of the day for some reason. Between 11:00 a.m. and 2:00 p.m. I don’t know why the sensor isn’t triggered when the adults go out hunting at night, maybe it’s too far away. Regardless, if the owl is making an appearance mid-day, I think it would be worth trying this idea: This shelter faces the river. The tree you see to the left of it is the Owl Tree. I think I will cut a hole in the back of the shelter big enough to watch through a telephoto lens, and see if maybe some patience can pay off with some baby owl photos.

photoIn the meantime, do any of my bird experts out there want to hazard a guess on the type of owl this might be? I can tell you that the adult bird that flew over my head was large, close to red-tail hawk sized.


The Wildlife Center of Virginia

Ed Clark, President and Founder of The Wildlife Center of Virginia, spoke this weekend at the Mason-Dixon Outdoor Writers Association Conference. His passion for wildlife is infectious, so when he invited attendees to stop by and tour the center after the conference, several of us jumped at the chance to see this state-of-the-art facility. Our tour was given by Director of Outreach Amanda Nicholson, who showed us many of the educational animals at the center. These animals were brought to the center for rehabilitation after an injury, and for either behavioral or medical reasons were deemed not releasable into the wild. As part of the education/outreach team, they were trained for participation in educational programs both at the center and beyond, at schools, fairs and other events. This Eastern Screech Owl is named Alex, and if she wasn’t tethered to Amanda, I would have smuggled her out in my coat! Click here or on the photo below for a brief video clip of the adorable Alex.

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

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

12During our visit, a badly injured Red-shouldered Hawk found alongside a highway was being examined. The center is a veterinary teaching hospital, with veterinarians from all over the world spending time training in the care of ill or injured wildlife.

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

5Outside we got to see the enclosures where the educational birds reside. The campus also has several different sized flight pens for the bird patients to fly and exercise as part of their rehabilitation.

6The American Kestrel.

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

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

11

The center’s mission is “teaching the world to care about and to care for wildlife and the environment.” And they rely on donations from people like us to do it. I encourage you to go to their web site, learn more about the important work being done here, make a donation if you can, or just spend some time watching animals real-time on one of their two Critter Cams!

cam

Note and Lesson: Just bring your camera everywhere, even if you don’t think you need it. I did not have mine today and very much wished I did. All photos and video are taken on my iPhone 4S.


2012: My Year in Photos

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My favorite photos from this year feature more birds than dogs, surprisingly, and more dogs than people, not surprisingly. The picture above, a wild brook trout being released into the cold, winter waters of Cedar Run in Shenandoah National Park early this year, is my favorite. Holding a slippery trout in one hand while operating a DSLR with the other is a low percentage proposition. But luck is a big part of photography. At least it is in my photography. The best of the rest of 2012 are below, in no particular order.

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This misty photo of the so called Platform was one of the most popular images I shared on facebook this year. In fact, a few friends now have the print hanging in their homes, which is a great honor to me. This grownup tree fort is one of my very favorite places, a sanctuary in the truest sense of the word.

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I chased this impossibly vibrant sunrise around for a half hour before work one morning, looking for an interesting foreground to silhouette against it. When I came across this tree with a group of black vultures perched in it, I hurried to get this shot as the fleeting, red was fading with each passing moment.

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The blog post that featured photos from the falconry event I attended was featured on the WordPress ‘Freshly Pressed’ page, an incredible honor that brought many new viewers to this blog. Welcome and thank you to those who still follow from first seeing it there.

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

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We are lucky enough to see bald eagles regularly where we live, but they are hard to get good pictures of without a zoom lens. I got lucky as I had borrowed a nice lens from a friend and had it when this eagle came around. Taken from our back yard in Virginia, that is the town of Brunswick, Maryland across the river in the background. I’m happy to report that my wife got me a 75-300 lens for Christmas! So look for more eagles and other wildlife pics in the future!

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

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

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

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I wrote a blog post I’m pretty proud of about the space shuttle Discovery and what it meant to be present for this historic event. You can read that post here.

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

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

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

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This is one of those technically flawed, lucky shots that turned out nicely. I was unaware as I was composing the photo in the viewfinder, that the balcony rail was aligned with the line in the background where the snowy foreground meets the woods. The result is an interesting effect, I think. I’m surprised at how many of my favorite shots came on less than pleasant weather days.

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These amazing miniature donkeys are hard to photograph in the same way puppies are: They are affectionate and curious about the camera, so by the time you get down to their level, they’re in your face wondering what you’re doing and if you have any treats.

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The Virginia State Police would surely be alarmed to know how many photos I have tried to take of my dogs in the rear view mirror. This is a challenge while parked, never mind while driving. But I love this one of Finn and remember exactly the day I took it because that’s my 3-weight Scott fly rod in the rack. We were on our way to the Rapidan.

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I love this photo of Winnie, taken on a summer kayak outing. You’ve seen a cropped version of it before, it serves as the masthead image for this blog, but I thought the entire image warranted extra mention here.

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My first, hopefully of many, trip to Yellowstone National Park was a life changing event. It is an extraordinary, magical place I will never forget, and a place I will long to return to more each day until I drive through its gates again.

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

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

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2012 had a few amazing lightning shows. I was lucky enough to capture this strike from our deck. The rain had stopped but the lightning continued for more than an hour, the perfect opportunity to try to capture it.

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

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

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My friend Anna and I stood in the bitter cold trying to capture a meteor from the Geminid shower in December. This was one of the brightest of the night.

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Driving on a Montana highway, when we saw this amazing old car with a tree growing out of the roof, my friend Joel turned the car around so I could get some pictures of it.

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

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

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

Maybe my favorite of the night. It was great to watch (and photograph) these with the reflection on the Potomac. - 2012-07-02 at 22-09-07
Another low light image I’m pretty happy with. This was taken from our yard, my guess is probably some time in early July.

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

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

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Another accidental photo I ended up liking. While fishing for smallmouth, I wasn’t paying attention to my camera settings. I had it set on macro, so it kept trying to zoom in and focus closely. I couldn’t get a shot of the entire fish, but I love the textures of the fish and water here.

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It was hard to choose one photo from Slough Creek in Yellowstone. Simply the most beautiful place I have ever had the honor of being. We hiked in about six miles to get there, and the moment we arrived, I was sad at the thought of having to leave it later.

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

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


Wood Ducks and Green Herons


My neighbor sent me a text today saying there was a wood duck with ducklings in his pond. There are a few birds I see here from time to time that I have had no luck whatsoever getting close enough for a photo. Wood ducks are one, and the beautiful green heron is another.

Well one of the reasons I never get good shots of these is I don’t have a long lens. My 15-85mm all purpose lens is literally that, because it’s the only lens I own. So I end up spooking most birds long before I get close enough. When I reached the pond, I saw the female wood duck and two ducklings, staying close to the weeds along the edge of the pond. And standing right nearby were two juvenile green herons.

The birds must have felt safe tucked in the weeds because they allowed me to get fairly close. But enough was enough, evidently, and in a burst of water and feathers and motion the duck and two herons bolted from the grass and flew to the far side of the pond. I snapped a few photos and really like the one above, two elusive subjects captured in one frame. Never mind how dorky that heron is (let’s hope he grows out of that awkward phase!).

After a pause, the ducklings made a break for it and paddled their hearts out to meet up with Mom across the pond. Luckily I still had the camera ready, because this was cute to watch them cut those little trails across the top.


Four New Neighbors


Our local blue birds have comfortably set up camp in the house we installed for them on our paddock fence. It’ll be fun to watch their progress!


Repurposed

I followed about a mile of deer trails with the dogs this evening, searching for antler sheds. No antlers spotted, but I did find this special little nest that must have blown out of a tree with the recent high winds we’ve been getting. I don’t know what kind of bird made it, something about wren sized I would guess. But I love the threads of frayed, plastic tarp this industrious bird weaved among the twigs.


Falcons, Hawks and Lucky Rabbits


“I swear I’ve seen a lot of stuff in my life, but that…was…awesome.”

I know what you’re thinking. You’re thinking, “Really, Ed? Starting a blog post about the ancient art of falconry with a quote from Tommy Boy?” Well sometimes inspiration comes from unexpected places. And besides, I want to be able to capture all the web traffic from people who might Google the terms “Chris Farley” and “Rabbit Hawking” together.

When I learned the Virginia Falconers Association was having a meet not far from where I live (which was right after I learned that falconry was practiced at all in this part of the U.S.), I couldn’t wait to see what it was all about. I will be writing more about the sport and my day, but for now I wanted to share my favorite photos from this amazing experience. I hope you enjoy them.

(The beautiful bird pictured above is a first year, or “passage” Red-tailed Hawk named Kingsley. Thank you C.B.)

Gyrfalcon

A Gyrfalcon soars above rural Virginia.

Eva and Kira.

Eva with her Red-tailed Hawk Kira.

Harris Hawk

A close look at the beautiful Harris Hawk.

Eva King and Kira (Red-tailed Hawk)

Eva releases Kira in pursuit of rabbits.

Eva King and Kira (Red-tailed Hawk)

We spotted three rabbits, or possibly one rabbit three times. But came back empty handed. The closest encounter involved a rabbit almost running into Eva's feet, but Kira was tied up at the time.

Red-tailed Hawk.

Kira scanning the woods.

Red-tailed Hawk.

As the hunting party moved, Kira flew from tree to tree above us.

Gyrfalcon

Andrew's stunning Gyrfalcon, Arc.

Gyrfalcon

Arc sitting patiently for photos while Andrew answers questions.

Red-tailed Hawk.

Kira.

Hawks

The birds seemed to be used to each other as everyone met before the hunt. but the only birds that can hunt together are Harris Hawks like the one in the foreground here.

Red-tailed Hawk.

Even without the hunting, which was an incredible experience, just being close to birds of prey is unforgettable.

Red-tailed Hawk

Hawks (this is Kira the Red-tail) use their feet and talons to kill their prey. They are strong and wicked.


Bald is Beautiful


Being lucky enough to see American Bald Eagles fairly regularly where you live but never being able to get a good photograph of them is, as the expression goes, one of those good problems to have.

My closer brushes (there was one yesterday when I didn’t know an eagle was perched in a tree I was directly beneath) usually catch me off guard without a camera. But this morning I saw a pair hanging out in our sycamore tree by the river. I got the camera and came back out, and tried to be stealthy and get a little closer. I shot a few through the trees (photo below) where they probably couldn’t see me, but as soon as I tried to step closer they casually flew away, not particularly threatened but I’m sure I made them uncomfortable, even from a hundred yards away. Later, while I was at my desk writing this blog post, a single eagle landed in plain view of my studio window! I went back out with the camera and caught him leaving, headed downstream.

I put the pictures on the computer and, yet again, realized I’m just not close enough to get a decent shot. Certainly not with my 15-85mm lens. But the subject matter warranted some more effort, so I decided to just mess around with some effects. I’m pretty new at these effects, they’re fun to play with but the program I’m using (a demo) is cumbersome and very slow. Still, I like my results here, and hope you enjoy them too.


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