Words and Images from Ed Felker

Posts tagged “Nature

The Man Behind Virginia’s Elk

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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2016 Photos of the Year

This year I have put my favorite photos in a SmugMug album. Just click on the image below and it will send you to a slideshow. I think it looks best full screen. You can even purchase prints of any of the photos if you like.

Lots of dogs this year, more people than usual, and no fishing photos made the cut. I think that means I need to fish more in 2017. I hope you enjoy the photos, shares are greatly appreciated and don’t forget to subscribe so you can be notified when something new is posted. Have a happy holiday season and a healthy and prosperous new year!

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A Special Visitor

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Musician Teddy Chipouras

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I don’t photograph people very often, but when local musician and friend Teddy Chipouras asked me, I was excited to photograph this extremely talented and photogenic rising star. These are a few of my favorite shots from a really fun day. Please visit Teddy’s web site here and check out his music. And if you get the chance to see him live, don’t pass it up. He’s just wonderful.

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Finally, A Fishing Trip!
(Alternate Title: Finally, a Blog Post!)

My extended break from blogging here was not intentional. My break from getting outside with a fly rod wasn’t either. Life, work and an amazing new puppy, among other things, just got in the way and before I knew it, a whole summer had gone by and I hadn’t done either. Meanwhile, my buddy Matt has been busy doing the important work of raising twin girls, working hard and recently dealing with an extended mandatory evacuation from their Georgia island home courtesy of Hurricane Matthew. So it was a good time for both of us to get away to eat and drink and laugh, to try to remember how to fly fish, and most importantly to just truly relax for a couple days.

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We began the relaxation right away, with a stop at Black Walnut Brewery, where we enjoyed a couple delicious beers while watching a big Redskins win from the dog-friendly porch. Then, because we’re smart, instead of going through and organizing our fishing gear, we decided to drink more back at the house and talk about how unorganized our fishing gear is.

Matt is holding Winslow, by the way, the aforementioned amazing puppy that I will have much more to talk about soon. A truly special dog.

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The next day, fueled by Anita’s breakfast burritos, we headed down to Rose River Farm on an absolutely beautiful morning. It of course took us far too long to get geared up, but we had all day and were in no hurry. Conditions were fantastic on the Rose River, great water level and flow, and the river was crystal clear. Stepping into moving water with a fly rod felt like reuniting with the second dear old friend in as many days.

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Matt hooked up first and outfished me the whole time. He took advantage of the gin clear water, dead drifting small, sinking flies without a strike indicator and just watching for the take and setting the hook.

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But I caught my fair share too, including this beauty that Matt captured with his iPhone if you can believe it. This is one of the coolest iPhone fish photos I’ve ever seen.

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I had to include this portrait of Buster Brown, a red heeler mix who helps out around the farm. We enjoyed hanging out for a bit with Buster and Earl, the farm manager. I’ve watched this dog grow up from a pup (he’s 3-years-old now), and he has become just the coolest little dog.

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A day of fishing is best followed by more food and drink, preferably with a fire. We stayed at one of Rose River Farm’s luxury yurts, where we grilled burgers, enjoyed various seasonal beers, went through a generous supply of firewood and listened to some great music. The fishing was even better the next day, and Matt closed out his trip with a stellar morning of fishing. He’s back home now and I’ll be back at work in the morning. But time spent with friends always produces indelible memories. Plus, in addition to reheated Anitas breakfast burritos and the technique of tumbling flies indicatorless along the riverbed, Matt introduced me to something else I will now enjoy forever: the music of Mandolin Orange. I can’t stop listening to their new album, Blindfaller. It is an astounding, near flawless collection of lyrics, strings and voices. Just beautiful from start to finish.

It has been a great few days. I hope it’s the beginning of a fall with more time spent outdoors in the company of old friends, cool dogs and Mother Nature.


Art of Nature

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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.

Photo by Jodi Sweeney

Photo by Jodi Sweeney


Great Essays from Two Young Outdoor Writers

Since its inception, the Virginia Outdoor Writers Association (VOWA) has encouraged young writers from across the state through its collegiate and high school outdoor writing contests. At this year’s annual conference, I loved two of the entries so much I wanted to share them here.

Lynn Wormeli from Virginia Tech’s essay was the Runner-up for the VOWA Dominion Resources Overall Best Essay. She is a wonderful writer, and I look forward to following her path.

Countering Insanity

Hypothesis: lead girls on a hike for two summers and become bored by familiarity.
Independent variable: the way, the mountains, and the time.
Dependent variable: the hiker.

A strange thing happens when you walk the same path many times. Presumably it becomes familiar; with enough frequency, the leaves earn names. My trail held the Pine Tree Forest, the Hill of Doom, and the Lightning Tree, each a rite of passage on the 10-mile hike through Pennsylvania’s Laurel Mountains. But if you repeat the same trail of the same mountain at the same time over different days, you realize that nothing stays the same. In May, there are flowers. In June, there is green. In July, you fear the Lightning Tree will multiply. And in August, you notice that what was hot is now warm and what was green now glows with yellowed fringes.

The first time we forged our own way. The trail had gone unused from September to May and each passing season had left it less distinguishable from the untouched around it. That first time was a thick, forested march, rather than a confident, concrete hike. Machetes hacked, frustrations garnered sweat, and we often found ourselves rerouting. Curiosity propelled us, and the pauses reminded us of our purpose. “What have you noticed today?” one young man with us, Ryan, asked us all to share. The responses resembled the diversity of a swimmer speaking to a marathoner. So personally colored were each of our experiences that if you were not paying attention you may entirely miss the common ground. The ground was, of course, what we had in common.

Lynn (right) hiking with friends.

Lynn (right) hiking with friends.

We were workers of the enthusiastic and exhausted kind: camp counselors, preparing adventures for the joyful bundles awaiting their summer session to begin. A few weeks after that first time came another first for me. I led the hike, surrounded by backpack-slugging girls 12 years of age who appeared to be hiking not towards the campsite but in fact away from their own pinpointed Comfort Zones. I learned from them that even the Lightning Tree, scarred from its underdog victory against a lightning strike some years ago, could be seen without my same fascination. I tried to explain myself, and some joined my captivation. But this captivation was not for those girls whose heads travelled separately from their feet. Some girls were already in the middle of other monstrous mental climbs, and this hilly detour was an additional woe to complete. For those girls, it was the destination campfire that smoked them out of their heads and into community. I learned in the clouds of roasting branches that it is not only our eyes that provide us sight.

That summer I hiked the trail each month and took note of the mountain’s arboretum calendar. Any paper calendar would bow to the timekeeping of its natural source. The next summer I led other counselors on their novel hike. They wowed. That time the trail took me by surprise when the iconic field of flowers greeted me instead as plowed mounds for us to wade. Feeling embarrassed, as if I had forgotten the profession of a longtime friend while making their introduction, I clung to the path I remembered and mourned the petals and stems. My ears perked up after the discovery, and I questioned the year that had passed. Had a year really passed? I could not deny it. Finding myself in the same place at the same summertime beginning could not mask the differences evident in the forest and in me. Common ground builds and erodes. Familiar is not forever. And the newbies would not have known the difference.

Later that summer I took a man on the hike. He had big plans to convert my rites of passage into a paved bike trail. His company specialized in such demolition and creation. A bike path would be accessible to more, enjoyed by more, and appreciated by more. Perhaps the path could even evolve into an attraction, a desperately needed draw for a rural economy that runs on the fumes of summertime ice cream shops. Bike paths are safer for emergency rescues too, like a paved runway pointing to the injured instead of a maze of evergreens delaying aid. The path would pave through the wilderness, changing the category of the land. Camp was excited; now the girls 12 years of age could bike instead of walk! They would enjoy that. I knew I would enjoy that too.

I would like to counter the oft spoken idiom of physicist Albert Einstein who once said, “The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.” Perhaps this applies well to the scientific method. The outdoors, however, host a battle of entropy and equilibrium. I walked my path over and over again. The map never changed, and many of the same trees remained. But it was in fact my sanity that became defined, and I became a different result.

Natasha King attends the College of William & Mary, her essay won the VOWA Dominion Resources Overall Best Essay. I really connected with Natasha’s thoughts on the solitary pursuit of the wonders of nature.

Encountering Orcas

I am on a small boat bouncing on a choppy grey ocean, in the waters of the Puget Sound in Washington, searching for whales. The captain, who has obtained the location of a small orca pod from an earlier tour boat via radio, points out the tiny fins of the pod in the distance¬–two females, one male, and a calf. From this distance we can see only the small black points of their fins, like tiny blunt teeth appearing amid the waves.

The pod hugs the rocky shoreline of the nearest island, skirting the jagged shallows where water crashes and heaves against the stone and sand. As they recede towards the west, the captain turns the boat and we speed in a wide intercepting arc, easily overtaking the orcas. Wind rushes up the sleeves of my jacket, tears like cold fire through my thin pants. Too late, I realize that I am woefully underdressed for the occasion.

After a few minutes we stop and wait, the boat rocking on the waves. Regulation calls for us to maintain a minimum distance of two hundred yards, so we will have to let the orcas approach us. Currently, however, that seems unlikely to happen; they are continuing to make their way along the shore, ignoring us.

Natasha at Puget Sound.

Natasha at Puget Sound.

I am on this boat, shivering and alone, looking for killer whales, because of my deep-rooted and inexplicable need to experience nature face-to-face, in solitude.

Growing up, I loved hiking and exploring with my family. Together we walked the winding trails of the Blue Ridge Mountains and combed the shores of too many beaches to count. It was my father who taught me to search for secure footholds in the craggy surface of a steep rock face, my mother who caught dragonflies nimbly between her fingers and showed them to me and my siblings.

As I grew older, however, I found myself more frequently craving the peace and introspection of being alone with nature. I sought out the exhilaration and thrill of a one-on-one encounter, whether it be with a heron, a beetle, a vole by the side of the road, or a pod of orcas.

This particular endeavor, then, is one more in a long line of attempts. Here in Washington, far from my home, I am again seeking out contact, seeking out the sudden sense of wonder I achieve when the natural world confronts me. The tiny dark blips of those fins near the horizon are more thrilling than any high-resolution, close-up photograph. They are real, concrete, present; it is only a distance of a few hundred feet, only a metal rail and a short expanse of choppy water, which separate us.

I remember, as a small child at the zoo, trying to climb up the side of the chain link fence surrounding the snow leopard exhibit, in an attempt to get closer to the majestic silvery cats. I slipped and scraped my hand, but kept the injury to myself–it seemed private, a secret thing, a part and parcel of this quiet, personal encounter, this questing.

Suddenly the male orca breaks away from the pod. We see him heading in our direction, and in a flash everyone is at the rail, straining their eyes, searching. Someone calls out–they have caught a hint of his fin, cutting through the sea. We all rush to that side of the boat, scanning the water hungrily. So I am at the rail of the ship when the orca surfaces.

Only for an instant is he visible, moving in a slow, smooth slide through the boundary between sea and air, between the iron-grey water and the pale pewter sky. I am at the rail, sniffling, my hands chilled to the bone, my skin frigid. I am at the rail, standing, praying to see him, and yet when the orca surfaces, without warning or fanfare, pretext or reason, I am wholly unprepared.

I watch the water roll away from his body in opaque ripples. The black and white pattern, well-known from images I saw as a child, is as familiar as a bedtime story, but triggers some ancient reflex of fear and awe that causes me to grip the rail more tightly, lest I become unhinged at every joint, fall trembling in a heap of bones and sinew.

I hear the rasp of the orca’s exhale, a thick rush of sound which is accompanied by a burst of mist out of its blowhole. The rasp echoes and re-echoes in the chilled caverns of my skull, and I stand transfixed at the rail, blood pounding in my ears. The orca and the ocean are suspended in perception for one reverberating instant: the chiaroscuro patchwork of its lustrous skin, the blended water and wind, the elements all breached and fading together at their fraying seams. That rasp. That rush of breath. I might never need to breathe again. My lungs, I think, will pump forever on the infinite remembrance of that single exhale.

The orca is gone as quickly as he appeared. And I am still shivering and shaking at the rail, though not, any longer, with cold. I slip into the boat’s heated cabin, out of the wind, and huff warm bursts of air upon my chilled hands.

This, then, is the culmination of my efforts. The search, the quest, the morning spent freezing at the prow of the boat as it cut through wind and water–all for this, for one instant when I stared into the orca’s dark eye, heard the ancient whisper of its breath. Hours traded for one second, one encounter–it is worth it.

My nose is running; my skin stings with the cold. I am still breathless. I close my eyes and see again the black and white curves of the orca’s sinuous shape, hear the crash of the waves rolling off its back, taste the cold salt spray of the surrounding sea on my chapped lips.

I want to thank Lynn and Natasha for allowing me to publish their wonderful essays here. For any Virginia high school or college students interested in next year’s contests, please visit VOWA’s web site for more information.


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!


The Snickersville Hounds

I spent a beautiful morning in the Virginia countryside with the fox hunters of Snickersville Hounds in Middleburg, Virginia. Here are some of my favorite images from the day…

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Brown Trout, Orange Dogs

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Backyard Wildlife: Snowberry Clearwing Moth

I spotted this bright green caterpillar on my native honeysuckle (Lonicera sempervirens) and did some Googling to figure out what it was. I was very excited to learn that it was a Snowberry clearwing moth (Hemaris diffinis), and some further searching uncovered three more caterpillars. I have seen the adult moths before, but they are extremely fast flyers and very elusive. They, along with wood ducks and a few others, have long been on my list of Things I Wish I Could Photograph.

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Unlike the Monarch butterflies I have been hosting and observing, these caterpillars pupate in cocoons on the ground. So I got a container, put some soil in the bottom and added fresh honeysuckle from the host plants for the caterpillars to eat. In a few days they all disappeared underground to make their cocoons.

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One by one, the beautiful moths emerged. And while I could observe them inside the container, they were still difficult to photograph. This is the second one and I caught him immediately after he emerged, his wings still pumping full of fluid and unfolding. So I put some milkweed flowers in the container and sure enough he climbed aboard long enough to pose for some photos. This moth has not yet used his wings, those crystal looking scales shed with the first wingbeats and appear clear. But once they learn to fly, they’re gone so fast I can’t even raise the camera to my eye.

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This photo of the first of the four shows the clear wings that give this fascinating little creature its name. They are commonly called hummingbird moths, but more closely mimic bumblebees in size and behavior.

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The simple little pollinator garden I planted last year to attract and sustain Monarchs has been a constant source of natural wonder in many forms. If you are looking for a beautiful, robust, native plant (in the eastern half of the U.S.) that pollinators love, consider coral honeysuckle. You’ll find that hummingbirds and butterflies love it. And if you happen to notice a large bumblebee drinking nectar, take a closer look. You might have a very interesting visitor.

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Audubon At Home Wildlife Sanctuaries

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

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

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


Seven.

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I asked her what she wanted to do this evening for her birthday.
She thought for a second and asked, “Anything? Whatever I want?”
“Of course,” I said. “You only turn seven once.”
Then she told me quietly, what she wanted to do more than anything else, was to wade up to her chest in the river, and stand there until the sun went down.
Who am I to judge? On my seventh birthday I asked for meatloaf.
“Let’s go,” I said. And we did.
I brought a toy to throw in case she got bored, but she didn’t.
After a while she turned to me and said, “In rivers, the water that you touch is the last of what has passed and the first of that which comes; so with present time.”
“Wow,” I said. “Did you just come up with that?”
“I’m a dog, you idiot,” She said. “da Vinci. Read a book.”
We laughed and laughed.
Then we both turned back to the river, and watched until the sky and the water were the same color. And then we went home.


Gear Review: Sportz Truck Tent and Airbedz Mattress

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.


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.


Virginia’s Threatened Wood Turtle

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Backyard Wildlife: The Eastern Phoebe

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


The Northern Flicker

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

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Bear Tracks

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

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Shooting Deer

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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…

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From Little Things, Big Things Grow*

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Metamorphosis

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Upstream

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Rain Bow

Professional fly fishing guides Harold Harsh of Spring Creek Outfitters and Joel Thompson of Montana Troutaholics both volunteered their services at the Project Healing Waters 2-Fly Tournament at Rose River Farm. Harold, a generous supporter of PHW since its inception, and Joel, who flew east from Missoula, MT to participate in his first PHW event, are both good friends of mine. So with an extra day after the tournament before Joel had to fly back, Harold invited us to come out and fish his home water, the stunningly beautiful North Branch of the Potomac River.

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The forecast the night before our float was abysmal. By the next morning it was even worse. Rain, 15-20mph winds, gusts to 30. No good for fly fishing, or rowing. But we only had one day to fit it in, so I messaged Harold with a Go/No Go option. Harold, in his signature style, replied, and I quote, “Get your ass up here!” So we headed to western Maryland to meet Harold.

The weather started out quite beautifully, actually. But the fishing was slow. There had been a whitewater release into this tailwater for two days before our float, which can certainly impact fish behavior, and after the first couple miles it became apparent that it had. But if anyone can find fish in that river, it’s Harold. And if anyone can coax a fish who doesn’t feel like feeding to take a fly, it’s Joel. Sure enough, guiding and fishing skills combined for the first fish of the day. Joel netted this wild rainbow and got the skunk out of the boat.

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It was such a relaxing, comfortable float. Beautiful scenery, easy conversation and frequent, hearty laughter made it hard to even notice the rain that started at about the half way mark.

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It picked up steadily as we readied for lunch. Thankfully Harold has a special lunch spot with a covered picnic table. We waited out the heaviest rain of the day in comfort, fueling up for the next few miles, and toasting our day with Kettle House Double Haul IPA that Joel was kind enough to smuggle out of Missoula.

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But we weren’t ready to give up on the fish just yet! Harold strategized what to try next. We had seen a couple rises — the first of the season for that stretch of water — so on my rod he rigged up a big dry fly with a big, flashy nymph trailing about 40″ behind it.

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Joel really enjoyed watching Harold’s guiding style, and how he organized his boat and his gear.

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We pushed off in a light, steady rain, and rededicated ourselves to the task at hand: Catching fish.

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I was standing in the front of the boat, casting to my left. I had been watching my fly not get eaten for so long that even though I was focusing intently on the dry as I drifted it slightly ahead of the boat, I wasn’t expecting any action when it finally happened. First I saw a big trout swimming around underneath my dry fly. Well that’s interesting, I thought. While I was waiting for him to come up to slurp the dry, the fly started to move. Curious, I thought. Then Harold pointed out that the reason my dry fly is moving is because the fish is just chewing on the nymph like a piece of deer jerky while I watched him like an idiot. He said this in many fewer words than I used, but I know him well enough to know that’s what he meant. So I set the hook, finally. Fish on!

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That beautiful 18″ wild rainbow is, by a wide margin, my biggest fish ever from the North Branch of the Potomac. And it ranks among my favorite trout ever for a few reasons. It’s a big fish for me, certainly. It’s a big fish for that river. It’s a fish I worked hard for, despite nearly botching it at the most critical moment. But more important than all that it’s a fish caught on a memorable day, a day full of stories and laughter, a day spent in the company of great friends.

There was only one thing left to do: Harold needed to get a fish. So Joel took over the sticks and rowed while Harold fished, and it wasn’t long before he put a few more fish in the boat.

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In the end, we were soaked, smiling and laughing like fools at the takeout ramp as we toasted once more. As for that initial forecast, it could not have been more wrong. This day started out good, and ended up perfect.

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