Words and Images from Ed Felker

Posts tagged “Wildlife

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.


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


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.


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.


Wildlife Capture, Restraint, Handling, and Transport: An Online Course from the Wildlife Center of Virginia

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The Wildlife Center of Virginia is offering an opportunity to learn about wildlife capture, restraint, handling and transport through an online course. Anyone who spends a lot of time outdoors may some day encounter wildlife in need of assistance. The two-hour course will include photos and video of appropriate capture and restraint techniques of species that are commonly seen in wildlife rehabilitation, and will provide valuable information for those wishing to become permitted wildlife rehabilitators, or those (like me) who simply want to be prepared to help an injured wild animal in need.

“The Wildlife Center always needs rescue and transport volunteers,” says Amanda Nicholson, the Center’s Director of Outreach. “This course will lay the foundation of capture and restraint basics to keep both rescuer and animal safe.”

CLICK HERE TO LEARN MORE OR TO REGISTER. Please share this with your outdoor friends and facebook groups!

Date: Tuesday, March 24, 2015
Location: Online!
Time: 7:00 p.m. to 9:00 p.m. Eastern
Cost: $20

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Photos courtesy of The Wildlife Center of Virginia.


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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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.


Nose to Nose

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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.


Close Encounter with a Cooper’s Hawk

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

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Rehab, Release, Rejoice

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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2013, My Year in Photos

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


The Wildlife Center of Virginia

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

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

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

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

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

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

6The American Kestrel.

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

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

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

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


“You do art as your JOB??”

Today I read this wonderful interview of Pamela Wilson, a truly gifted and fascinating artist I admire greatly. In the article, she is asked to recount her favorite art memory from childhood. Click on the link to read her answer. As for me, a memory jumped to mind when I read the question, and has been in my thoughts all day. So I thought I would share it here.

I was artistic as a kid, always drawing. And my parents supported and nurtured that the best they knew how. They paid for and drove me to classes, where I underachieved, much as I did in school. I enjoyed it, but at some level I didn’t ‘get’ it. I didn’t see the point. I worked on specific things, how to draw with pen and ink, with charcoal and chalk, graphite. I worked on how to draw from photographs, from objects or places in front of me or from imagery in my head. But, big picture-wise, I don’t ever remember thinking about being creative, or what that meant.

One day, a Saturday, my Dad headed into his office at the Department of Interior in Washington, DC. He asked me to come along, and I jumped at the chance. Never mind that he never asked me to go to his office before, and never mind that he never went into work on a Saturday. Any moment with my Dad was relished back then, no questions asked, and though he died long ago — far closer to that day than to this one — all those moments are cherished still.

The Department of Interior in, say, 1974, was grey. Inside and out. Floor to ceiling. We walked down long corridors under bands of yellow, flickering fluorescent light. The first office building I was ever in. I wondered why my Dad spoke to some people, ignored others. We passed door after door and saw empty offices with grey filing cabinets and grey metal desks. Then we stopped at an open door and my Father spoke. “Bob? I want you to meet Eddie.”

I caught up and peered in the door as a man turned around to greet us. Not from a metal desk, but from an easel. The fluorescent bulbs in his office had been removed, and he had warm, bright floor lamps in their place. Covering the cold linoleum was an ornate area rug. He listened to music.

As I shook hands with wildlife artist Bob Hines, my Dad said he’d be back in a bit and continued down the hall. I was shy, not to mention confused. But it didn’t take long for my attention to turn from the empty doorway back to Bob and the easel.

I will never forget the painting he was working on. I didn’t know at the time what a bighorn sheep was, but he had several photos of them clipped to the side of the easel. His painting showed a mature bighorn not in any of the positions depicted in the photos. I was confused for the severalth time since breakfast. His words broke my dumbfounded trance. “Your Dad tells me you’re an artist too.” I remember being embarrassed, for some reason.

We talked, and I got more comfortable, and started looking around and soaking it all in. “You don’t have a desk.” He laughed, and threw a nod toward the easel. “It’s just different than everyone else’s.” As slowly as those flickering tubes of gas in the cold hallway first thing in the morning, I started to figure it out. “You do art as your JOB?” Another laugh.

Bob Hines, artist for the Bureau of Sports Fisheries and Wildlife at the time of our meeting, produced a huge volume of work. From conservation stamps to illustrations for dozens of books and pamphlets. It took me a while to figure out that the meeting was of course set up in advance. Why my Dad chose to play it off as a chance encounter I never asked, it’s just kind of how he did things. I continued to draw, and to some extent to underachieve, and I certainly never became a renowned wildlife artist. But until today I’ve never thought back to that day in enough detail to write about it, which is noteworthy in a couple ways. First, it points to the value of writing, I had no idea I remembered it in as much detail as I do. And second, maybe I didn’t follow down Bob’s path. Maybe instead of an easel in my office I have a desk. Maybe I never could study photos of animals and construct and illustrate a pose from that knowledge. But you know what? I’m a graphic designer. I do art as my job. And how many people get to say that?


Sandy


She finds joy in the smallest of natural wonders.

She will stop her chores to watch with fascination the comings and goings of a cicada wasp in the barn. Or a frog in the yard. Or a family of deer. And her excitement over these miracles, these brushes with nature that most people never take the time to notice, is infectious. I look forward to sharing things with her. An eagle sighting. A hummingbird nest found in the woods. A beautiful moth. An odd insect. A storm cloud.

She loves dogs. And those who are lucky enough to win the lottery that is being her dogs are blessed with a profound, unending outpouring of affection that begins the moment they meet, and does not end. Ever. The spirits of dogs past are still and forever bathed in the warmth of her love for them.

She has a way with horses. Once, in the middle of the night, we awoke to the sound of our horses in distress. We went out to find that five horses from the property a few lots over had gotten loose, and were rummaging through the woods adjacent to our paddocks. The sound of five confused horses snapping limbs, snorting and crying out was of course quite disturbing to our horses, who responded by freaking the hell out. What happened next was truly remarkable. In the dark, surrounded by nine very agitated beasts and one very nervous husband, she orchestrated a horse/space/time management plan. Our horses were carefully but quickly calmed and gathered and put in the barn in a sequence that would cause the least anxiety to those who remained out. Then, in the woods, the mare who she presumed the others would follow was corralled and led through dense woods around to a gate. The others frightfully followed. All the while she gave me things to do and told me where to stand to be safe. Everyone got in and separated safely, and it was one of the most impressive displays of natural horsemanship I’ve ever seen.

Long ago I read somewhere that you know you’re with the right person when you each want the others’ dreams for them more than you want yours for yourself. When I see her riding, or grooming or preparing for a show, or when I hear her enthusiastically talking to a friend about some riding problem she had worked out, or when I see the horses come in from the front field to meet her at the barn in the morning, I know it’s true.

As for me, these days I think a lot about my life and who I am. Maybe it’s the recent reconnecting with people from my past, maybe it’s just age, but I look back. I don’t dwell, or try not to anyway, but I look back. And when I do, the most amazing thing comes into focus: the only time I have ever really been comfortable, confident, truly happy with who I am, is the time I’ve been with her.

She didn’t change who I am. But she loves the best of me, and I like to think she brings it out. My parents made me who I am, but she is the one who made it possible to find myself. I’m lucky to have found her. I love you.


Vultures at Dawn

The most noteworthy meteorological feature of this winter so far has been spectacular sunrises and sunsets. This week alone I have seen several of the most outrageously colored sunrises I have ever seen in my life. So this morning when I left the house I brought my camera, just in case.

I was treated to a spectacular color show, and stopped at a few spots to try my luck at capturing it. A graveyard, a church, cows in a pasture, all under the bright red blanket of morning. Truth is, though, when I got the images back home and put them on the computer, they all started looking the same. Except this one, taken as the color was waning, after I had given up and just decided to proceed to the office.

Some black vultures, the less common of the two common varieties in this area, gathered in a tree. Maybe roosting, maybe just waiting for me to pass to feast on yet another venison breakfast, I don’t know. But their silhouettes caught my eye and I backed up to take the picture with the nuclear sunrise still visible on the horizon. It was a throwaway shot, I never even got out of the car to shoot it, but it’s my favorite of the morning.


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