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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
I had never been to the Great American Outdoor Show in Harrisburg, PA before, but will be going back every year. I posted some highlights on Instagram (@dispatches_potomac), but wanted to share them here as well. The show is still going on through February 14th, so there is still plenty of time to go!
Okay with the possible exception of the cold #yuengling this is the best money I spent today. This is how I hunt, not from a stand but on a ridge, behind a tree. This cheap and easy sling allows you to comfortably sit at a tree and rotate around to hide or take a shot. Simple. Clever. Sold. #greatamericanoutdoorshow #dispatchesfromGAOS #hunting #fishing #outdoors #deer
So the biggest disappointment was Browning. Literally the first thing I sought out was their booth to get a chance to handle their new Sweet Sixteen. None available, and the guy at the booth pointed to a wall of shotguns and said the one I was looking for was “pretty much the same as those.” Wow, really?
My favorite products:
The Sit/Drag. It’s like it’s designed exactly for me. And what I didn’t mention in my caption on Instagram is it also doubles as a drag harness to pull a deer out of the woods.
Vertical gun racks. A beautifully designed, simple product I am already using in my home.
Grandpa’s Country Catering. Rick Fetrow gave a demonstration about how to make venison bologna, and took a lot of the mystery out of the process for me. Looking forward to trying it myself this weekend. Nice man, generous with his time. I bought some products from him to get me started.
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…
During the planning phase of this trip, which started over eight months ago, I knew I wanted to fish with veteran guide Patrick Fulkrod. Patrick was named the 2014 Orvis-Endorsed Guide of the Year and has worked hard to earn the reputation as “The Man” in the area of Tennessee’s South Holston River. All summer long I’ve been admiring the stunning brown trout he was putting his clients on. But having my two dogs with me was the most important aspect of this vacation, so I told Patrick maybe we could just wade fish somewhere. He said nonsense, the fishing is much better from the drift boat, and told me to absolutely bring the dogs. I gave him many opportunities to change his mind on this, but he knew it was important to me, and insisted. On the morning of the float, the flow on the South Holston was less than favorable, so Patrick opted to take us out on the nearby Watauga River.
Finn and Winnie are good dogs who tend to take new experiences in stride, but I had no idea how they would react to a drift boat. They kayak with me regularly, and from those experiences I had a concern. I can not fish with Finn in the kayak. He gets so excited when he sees a fish, he just loses his mind. So I had visions of Finn jumping out of the boat, and Patrick having to row downstream after him, stirring up fish in the process. My dogs wear Ruffwear Float Coat life vests while on the water for safety, and also for ease in lifting them back in the boat if they do end up in the water. So I got their vests on and headed to the boat. Winnie couldn’t wait to get in, and immediately settled into her spot to my right in the front of the boat. Finn is kind of clumsy and awkward and bull/china-shoppy, but we got him situated to my left, and were ready to launch.
Before long, the first test arrived in the form of a little rainbow trout. Patrick showed the fish to Finn and explained the custom of kissing the fish. Finn was excited but gentle, and from that moment on I knew I didn’t have to worry about the dogs. They were having as much fun as we were on this picture perfect fall day.
When I caught the first brown trout of the day I couldn’t take my eyes off it. Browns are my favorite, and these are the most beautiful I’ve ever had the privilege to see and hold.
Underwater photos are hit and miss, and the ratio is extremely heavy on the miss side. So I was thrilled with this, the only underwater shot of the day, of Patrick releasing a beautiful brown trout into the cool waters of the Watauga.
Finn and Patrick spent a lot of time admiring each other, and we weren’t ten minutes into the float before the bond was permanent.
Winnie, being Winnie, spent the float by my side, leaning on the gunwale, soaking in the sun and the sights. Observing. The personalities of these two dogs are so very different, they complement each other in ways I never could have anticipated. They were an absolute joy to have along on this vacation.
One of the many things about Patrick as a guide that I admire and appreciate is that he understands how important photographic memories are to clients, and he works hard at making sure he captures quality images for every angler he guides. When the drive home is behind you, when you’re back home in your routine and the alarm starts going off early for the office instead of the river, when the colors of Tennessee trout have faded in your mind and the azure blue sky and water of autumn shift to the cold grey of winter, all it takes is a photograph like this one to bring it all back.
Brilliant sunshine and brown trout go beautifully together. These are just stunning fish.
I don’t know anything about rowing a drift boat. But I do know that this is a lot of weight in the front of the boat, and I’m not talking about that fish on the line either. But Patrick was focused entirely on making sure I was happy and the dogs were comfortable. If the rowing was made more difficult as a result (Hint: It most certainly was), Patrick never gave me the slightest indication.
At one point, Patrick pulled the boat to the shore so the dogs could go pee. I don’t have photos of the goat rodeo that ensued so just admire another brown trout as you try to imagine it, but it was comical. As is their way, Finn was clumsy and Winnie was odd. Together at one point Finn was doing that thing you’ve seen in cartoons where his front legs are on shore and his back legs are on the boat, of course pushing it farther and farther away. Meanwhile, Winnie is in the water, swimming an orbit around the boat. We aborted this attempt and opted for a more friendly shoreline downstream, but not before those Ruffwear Float Coat handles were effectively utilized. I was able to easily bring the dogs back under control, securing Finn and lifting Winnie straight out of the water and into the boat. Ruffwear puts a lot of practical thought into the design of their products, and I will not trust my dogs to any other life vest.
Taking dogs out of their normal routine is very tiring for them. So Finn and Winnie slept hard every night, whether in a freezing sleeping bag, a dumpy hotel room or a truly wonderful cabin in the woods. In between they napped in the truck, on the floor of several brew pubs, in front of campfires, on sunny leaves and shady porches, and even here in the boat. It meant the world to me to be able to have these dogs with me on this float, and I can’t thank Patrick enough for his hospitality in that regard. It was easily one of my all time favorite float trips.
To book a truly enjoyable, memorable float on the South Holston or Watauga River with Patrick, contact Mountain Sports Ltd. in Bristol, TN by clicking here.
To learn about and order the Ruffwear Float Coat, click here.
This fawn stopped by my Audubon At Home Wildlife Sanctuary sign and posed for a photo this morning so I thought it would be a good opportunity to share a little bit about that program.
Natural habitat for native flora and fauna is being steadily diminished by development in high population regions all across the country, and Northern Virginia is certainly no exception. Audubon at Home is a National Audubon Society program that promotes citizen participation in conserving and restoring local natural habitat to help offset the impact of development. Audubon’s Northern Virginia chapter certifies properties as Wildlife Sanctuaries, but it’s really the animals who decide. I am very lucky to live in a place that animals seem to love to begin with, and with some help from volunteer Audubon At Home Ambassadors, with just a few simple changes I have been able to transform my property into a certified haven for birds, butterflies and other beneficial wildlife. I added a small garden with native plants to attract and sustain butterflies, bees and other pollinators, constructed a couple brush piles that provide habitat for all kinds of critters, and transformed a spot of previously mowed lawn back into a natural meadow.
To find out how you can make your home, church, school or business an animal friendly, certified wildlife sanctuary, visit the Audubon Society of Northern Virginia.
I 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.
I don’t camp. I love being in nature, but I also very much dig the comfort thing. Growing up, I used to camp with my Dad. We never camped in tents, but always in some vehicle based setup — either a trailer of some sort or in a cap on the back of the truck. So when I decided to look into comfortable, portable camping options, I settled on the Napier Outdoors Sportz Truck Tent.
When the tent arrived I was anxious to set it up right away and see how it worked. I found this video a lot easier to follow than the written instructions that came with the tent. I unpacked the contents of the surprisingly small duffle bag the tent was packed in, and using my phone, followed the instructions in the video, pausing the video after each step so I could follow along. All the poles are color coded to match the sleeves you slide them through, and setup went quite smoothly, far easier than the frustrating mess I had mentally prepared myself for. Here it is set up in my yard. I forgot to time it, but I think it only took twenty minutes or so. Not bad for someone who has never set up a tent before.
I’m six feet tall and was really surprised when I got inside that I could actually stand up straight in this. I don’t see how this would really come up in a camping situation, but you need to get inside for a brief part of the assembly, and it’s just great to generally not feel cramped in it. There is a large window in the front (Okay a note here: The front of the tent is the back of the truck, according to the instructions. This makes sense of course, but for me it was confusing. Once you install a tent in a truck bed, I feel like the orientation of the truck now rules, so when I say the front of the tent, I mean in relation to where the truck is pointed), large semicircular windows on each side, and the door is very large. All windows and the door have either a screen option or you can zip closed a privacy window.
The tent also comes with a rain fly, which I installed backwards initially (see my note above). I haven’t tried it in the rain, and am not anxious to. But it’s nice to have, and to know it could be installed very quickly, especially with a second person. Here is what the tent looks like with the rain fly installed.
Having a dry roof over your head is only part of the comfort equation, however. I had heard about Airbedz air mattresses from Pittman Outdoors made for pickup truck beds that have cutouts for the wheel wells so you can utilize the entire truck bed area. My Chevy Colorado has a six foot bed but is not as wide as a full size truck, so knowing I would most often have my two dogs with me (55 and 70 pounds), I was going to need all that area. (Note: You can purchase the optional wheel well inserts so this mattress can be used inside your home.) I purchased mine from AutoAnything, and chatted with someone there for a while before deciding on the heavier duty mattress to hold up against dog claws.
The Airbedz has a built in, rechargeable pump. I’ll be honest, I was a little skeptical about this. It just seemed like the sort of thing that simply wouldn’t work the way it was advertised. But it absolutely does. If I had one complaint it would be that there is no indicator light on the charger, and the plug doesn’t give you any feedback that it is plugged in all the way. So the battery (which comes out of the pump for charging) sat there in my kitchen for several hours and I had no idea if it was actually charging. I installed the (hopefully) charged battery and clicked the pump on just for a second to see if it powered up. Then I put it all back in the bag until my first camping outing.
My first test run was at my friend’s farm in beautiful Madison County, VA. I set the tent up with the help of the video once more, but at this point I will not need the instructions again. The color coding does it all. Here it is all set up on my first time out. I was really only using it as a place to crash, rather than a camp site to hang out in. So I opted not to bother with the awning this time. Here it is all set up, backed up to the soothing sound of the Rose River.
Then I unrolled the Airbedz mattress and flipped the switch. In about a minute the mattress was fully inflated, firm and comfortable!
It was very warm that day and evening, so I opened all the windows, zipped the screens closed, and left it for much of the day. I half expected the mattress to be deflated and the tent to be filled with bugs when I returned. I expect these things because I feel like nothing performs as advertised these days. But I slept in 100% bugless comfort all night and the mattress held all its air for sixteen hours. The battery on the pump had all the juice it needed to deflate it the next morning. And it did a great job at deflating it, too — the mattress rolled up to the same size it was out of the box.
So if you have a pickup truck and want to get out in nature but also want to haul some of the comforts of home with you like a comfy mattress, a cooler with beer and ice, maybe a camp stove, dog food, etc., you might want to give truck tent camping a try. If you do, these two products will get you on your way. They come in sizes to fit any truck bed, and in my experience, they both perform exactly as they should.
This is an Eastern phoebe, hovering over her nest that was, until just minutes before, filled with chirping chicks waiting for an insect delivery.
What came next is a scene that unfolds countless times every second of every minute of every day in every corner of this planet. Even under the protective shell of my back deck. Predators prey. Nature eats. Life is a circle. This is a rat snake, replete with phoebe chicks. My phoebe chicks.
My mind tells me, snakes gotta eat too.
My mind tells me if I had gotten home a half hour earlier like I usually do, I probably still wouldn’t have been able to stop it.
My mind tells me the Phoebes who raised the chicks are simply confused. That they are chirping, hovering, searching, out of instinct. That they still go search for, capture and deliver insects for their former brood, out of the pure mechanics of nature. Out of something other than grief or despair. That the concept of hope is infinitely beyond their grasp, so it is not theirs to lose.
My mind tells me that four surviving birds out of ten total eggs in two broods is actually pretty good.
My mind tells me that any ‘bond’ I’ve built with the Phoebes who inhabit and populate the nest outside this office door is a creation of that very mind. That though I am vigorously protective of them, they neither sense nor rely upon this.
My mind tells me that the chicks will help sustain a strong, beautiful snake, and as she rests and digests in that hole in the cool earth beneath the deck, she may someday make her own eggs with the help of those nutrients. And that I will encounter the healthy offspring of this snake for generations to come.
My mind tells me that nature, while often violent, is not cruel. That snakes do to birds what birds do to insects. And birds do to insects what insects do to whatever insects do that to. Snakes are not the beginning, and birds are not the end.
My mind tells me that by tomorrow my phoebes will lower their gaze from their empty nest and resume hunting insects for themselves. Not out of courage or bravery, but simply out of survival. And that by tomorrow I, too, will be going about my normal routine.
My mind tells me all these things, and that all these things are true.
But my heart? My heart flat out aches tonight.
When we first moved to our current house I started noticing the Eastern Phoebe (Sayornis phoebe) each spring, with their “phoebe” call and the twitching of their tails both making them easily identifiable around the property.
This spring I noticed a Phoebe scouting out nest locations underneath our deck, which happens to be right outside my office. Here she is looking directly at the spot where she eventually built her nest.
Late one night I flipped on the porch light and opened the office door to let the dogs out. One of the Phoebes, confused by the light, flew right into the open door. It was comparatively so much darker outside than inside, so she just kept flying around in circles inside the room. She would fly right up to the door but turn back to the lit room at the last second. Luckily my dogs obeyed my repeated “Leave it!” commands every time she circled right above the couch where they were sitting. She eventually found her way out, and although I was sure she had been traumatized enough by the experience to find a more quiet spot, I left myself a reminder to not use that door for a while just in case.
Despite the scare, nest construction continued. Mud, moss and grass are the most favored building materials, but I also found dog hair I leave out for birds to use, horse hair from the barn and a few feathers all mixed into the beautiful nest. Only the female builds the nest.
Eggs were laid once a day, early in the morning it seems. Phoebes lay between two and six eggs, and this one laid five. This photo taken after the fourth egg shows a blemish on one of the eggs. Ultimately only four birds hatched, and I wonder if this blemished egg is the one that didn’t make it.
For a little over two weeks she spent much, but not all, of her time on the nest. By now I think she was used to my presence and allowed me to get rather close with my camera.
Couch dogs in your flight path are not the only threat to the Phoebe population. I observed this Brown-headed Cowbird (Molothrus ater) watching the Phoebe nest with great interest. Cowbirds don’t build nests, they lay eggs in nests of other birds and let them get raised by foster parents of a different species (often Phoebes), usually at the expense of at least some of the host bird’s chicks. But as often as I saw Cowbirds in the immediate area, the Phoebe nest remained Cowbird free.
Another threat to the eggs and very common in the area is the Eastern Ratsnake (Pantherophis alleghaniensis). This particular egg-loving neighbor was found on the deck just above the Phoebe nest. With four dogs running around, I imagine the reason for risking the visit had to be that nest. We moved him to the nearby woods, but I was certain he was aware of the nest and each day for the next week I came home expecting the eggs to be gone.
But four of the five eggs avoided the threats and beat the odds. You can see the unhatched fifth egg still in the nest, but it was removed soon after.
Helpless doesn’t begin to describe the first days of life for these young Phoebes.
Everything I’ve read says that most mated pairs of Phoebes do not spend a lot of time together, but that is not what I observed. The male seemed very active in gathering insects for the chicks.
And as fast as they grow, I can’t even imagine how many insects have to get crammed down the throats of those chicks every day!
Before long there was no room in the nest for mom. She fed them while standing on the rim of the nest.
The helpless, ugly babies were transforming into beautiful little birds before my eyes.
And then one day I watched as one of them began to test his wings. I knew it wouldn’t be long now.
And it wasn’t. I observed the parents calling to them from a nearby fence, enticing them out of the nest. Two left the nest that evening. The remaining two waited until the following morning. Tails not even long enough to perform the telltale twitch, the fledglings spend a bit more time with the mother, learning how to be a Phoebe.
I felt honored to have the opportunity to easily observe a process that happens constantly, all around us. All the birds that visit our feeders, that roost in our trees and build nests in our birdhouses are special. But the Eastern Phoebe will always be a favorite sign of spring. And every time I see one I will fondly remember the one that flew laps in my office, and the four that left a few weeks later.
We see Northern Flickers (Colaptes auratus) here fairly often, but I don’t think it’s common to see them come to feeders. This handsome fellow, however, has regularly graced us with his presence since this winter turned excessively unpleasant a few weeks ago. Red Shafted Flickers (Colaptes auratus cafer) are found in the Western United States. Here in the east, our Flickers are Yellow Shafted (Colaptes auratus auratus). I caught this one flying away and you can clearly see the yellow shaft of his feathers. If you want to learn more about these beautiful members of the woodpecker family, check out The Cornell Lab of Ornithology page about them here.
My friend, naturalist and outdoorsman Brian Balik, called me today to come along as he had a lead on some bear activity. It was fun to track this bear, to see how he meandered through the woods which were, at times, dense with brush. We were a day behind him, so I don’t think there was a real chance we’d encounter him, but it was fun. I’m no expert, but this seemed like not a small bear. Hind print measured almost nine inches from heel to the tip of the claws. The snow was perfect for capturing detailed impressions. The last several weeks of this godforsaken winter have ranged from irritating to downright dangerous. But today’s outing made me think I should make the effort to get out into the woods after a snow. There are so many tracks, each just waiting to tell a little part of a big story.
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…
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
Look at all the pollen this bee has picked up! No wonder these yellow flowered weeds are so successful!
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.
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.
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.
*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.
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.
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.
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.
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?”
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.
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!
I’m not often the last one at the boat ramp, but it’s kind of cool.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Joel really enjoyed watching Harold’s guiding style, and how he organized his boat and his gear.
We pushed off in a light, steady rain, and rededicated ourselves to the task at hand: Catching fish.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
Hiking on a cold, blustery day, I kept my eyes to the ground, half to look for antler sheds, half to shield my eyes from a sustained, 30mph wind. I listened more than looked for my two dogs, who were running off leash ahead and behind me in about a twenty-yard radius. Not that I could hear much over the howling winds whipping the tall grass all around me.
But I did hear this. All day I’ve tried to replay it in my mind, but it’s hard to describe. A snort, maybe. Kind of a huff. An unquestionably animal, nasal sound. I stopped.
When I looked up, about fifteen yards up the slope from where I was standing, I saw Finn. He was absolutely motionless, broadside to me, and he was nose to nose with a large coyote.
They faced each other, statues. No more than a baseball’s diameter apart. In my mind I ran through my options. I’ll call him, and hope he comes and the yote doesn’t. Beyond that, I’m kind of out of ideas.
“Finn,” I called. They both turned their heads and looked straight at me. I somehow took a moment to compare them. The coyote seemed a bit taller than Finn, but he was on the uphill side, so truthfully they were probably the same height. Finn is a tall, lean 75 pounds. The coyote had thick fur around his head and neck, giving him at least the impression of being larger than Finn. I could read Finn’s body language, even though much of both their bodies, including the ever-important tails, were concealed by the tall grass. But Finn’s neck was erect, and his ears were up and slightly back. He seemed fine, maybe even playful, but just a bit apprehensive.
The coyote I couldn’t read at all. Ears fixed atop his head, body concealed, blank slate. Like reading a painting of a coyote. Not to mention my lack of experience with the animal – my previous closest coyote encounter was from about 200 yards away, at Yellowstone. This was new territory.
I just wanted to get some space between the two canines.
“Here,” I called, not overly forcefully. Without hesitation, and a bit to my surprise, Finn turned away from his new friend and trotted the fifteen yards back to me, ears up, tail wagging. The coyote watched him.
Eyes still on Wile E., I called for Winnie. Luckily, she was unaware of this entire transaction, and came when called from another direction. I watched the coyote.
He took a single step toward me and I felt utterly unprepared. I don’t know enough about these animals and their behavior. I don’t know the right thing to do if they show aggression, nor do I really know what their aggression necessarily looks like. My dogs were milling around my immediate area but I wanted them still and close. “Finn! Winnie! Heel! Now!
The firm commands, I presume, stopped the coyote in his tracks. He thought better of advancing, and turned around. A step into the grass and he was gone. Far too late I fumbled for my phone, held it up high and snapped a few photos, knowing there would be no sign of him in them. I praised my dogs, thankful this encounter was diffused without incident, and that it was Finn who encountered him, rather than Winnie. I’m not sure things would have gone as well if the roles were reversed.
Hiking back to the car (reducing that 20 yard dog radius to something closer to 10), I thought about the encounter. The noise of the wind likely resulted in Finn and the coyote surprising each other in the grass. I don’t think he knew we were there until he was snoot to snoot with what to him was probably the ugliest coyote he had ever seen. Finn likely viewed him as just a funny smelling dog who doesn’t wear a collar, but I really don’t know. He was absolutely disinterested in the coyote once he recalled to me. He never even glanced back over his shoulder as we left.
I, however, did.
I am drawn to the aesthetics of deer antlers. To me they are beautiful, organic shapes that please the eye. But the bizarre biological mechanics behind them are fascinating, growing anew each year covered in blood-rich velvet that feeds them nutrients. Then the bone dies, the velvet is shed and the antlers remain. Status, attraction, competition are all a part of the purpose and function of those extensions of the skull of a whitetail buck. And then, in late winter, testosterone levels drop and the antlers are cast off.
And when they fall, there they sit. In corn fields, hedgerows, creek beds and lawns, in dense woods, briar patches and snow drifts. There they sit until critters, attracted to the minerals within, gnaw them away. Or until they rot. Or until a person, wandering through the woods with their eyes to the ground, finds it and picks it up.
Searching for shed antlers is a fun way to get exercise. I have tried to train my dogs to seek them out, and they love running off leash for miles and miles, even if they aren’t quite sure what they’re looking for. But shed hunting can also be frustrating. The three of us have spent a lot of hours and miles and, until yesterday, had yet to find a single shed. But I’ll get back to that.
Wandering around the woods looking for food sources, buck rubs, trails, beds and other signs is a good way to learn about deer behavior. But logging a lot of miles with your eyes trained to the ground, you’d be surprised how many other little things you notice. First of all, anything bone colored gets your attention, no matter how small. During yesterday’s outing on a friend’s farm I spotted this jawbone from about ten yards away. My guess is raccoon, but I’m not positive.
Some friends identified these feathers as coming from a Yellow-shafted Flicker. This beautiful bird became dinner for a fox or other predator.
Winnie decided if she couldn’t find any antlers, she was going to commit to being the very best collector of burrs she could be. Here Finn admires her handiwork. He tried to help by pulling a few off her, but then he abandoned his efforts, mumbling something about rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic.
After a few hours with no luck, this little four point skull caught my eye, half buried under some thorny briars. So I asked one of the more nimble members of Team Orange to fetch it for me. Winnie volunteered. Nothing special, the skull looks to be at least a year old and one side is discolored from being in the ground. But since it was starting to look like I might be walking out of the woods empty handed yet again, I brushed it off and took it with me.
A while later, we were following a deer trail parallel to a tree line. I looked down and saw two antler points sticking up through some grass. I studied it from where I was, about five feet away, careful not to let myself get too excited about what might end up being another of the million curved corn stalks or antler-shaped sticks that had already faked me out. But there it was, finally. I brought the dogs over in hopes that they would see or smell it and catch on that this is what we were looking for. They did not.
I picked it up, the first human hands to ever touch it. I examined it. Not fresh, probably from last year. Three points, one of the three chipped at the end, and a fourth brow tine that had broken off as well. It was neither large nor perfect, but it was beautiful. This year alone I had hiked probably twenty miles to get to this one antler shed. It was a huge relief. I wish I could say it was enough to just be outside even if I don’t find any, but it was starting to get to me that I couldn’t find at least one shed.
I tried to get the dogs excited about it, hoping that knowing what they’re looking for would help them find more. Winnie posed with this long enough for a quick photo, but then went on her way, adding to her burr collection.
So the final tally on the day: 1 skull, 1 shed, 5 miles, 5 hours, 90 burrs and 2 tired dogs.
Those burrs, by the way? Winnie’s coat is an absolute magnet for them. If I didn’t have some of this Showsheen, I would have had to resort to clippers to get them out. It’s an equine product and I always keep a little bit in a spray bottle with my grooming supplies. Spray it on and the burrs comb right out. Stubborn clumps need a bit more attention, but it really works great.
As for shed hunting, maybe I broke the ice with this one. Maybe I will get better with practice, learn where to look and how to see. Maybe Team Orange will catch on. But even if none of those things happen, the pursuit of antlers has gotten me out hiking, observing nature and exercising the dogs, in the midst of a brutal winter that is slow to relinquish its icy grip. And that is a very good thing.
Addendum: After I wrote this post, my friend Monica, whose great blog Shedding Suburbia should be added to your browser bookmarks, published this great post about a very special antler find and the lengths she had to go to just to get it home. I wanted to link it here for my readers. Enjoy!
When the snow blankets the fields and woods and lawns, shadows have a blank canvas on which to paint. I am drawn to the shadows…shadows make me love the light.
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!