Adventures with the Majestic Snowy

Old Man Winter sure is showing off his biceps this year!  Between the Polar Vortex bringing the coldest temperatures felt in decades to some parts of the country and the constant onslaught of snow and ice, some of the local wildlife is doing whatever it can to stay warm.  Some visitors, however, are thriving in this cold.

Snowy Owls (Bubo scandiacus) have taken up residence throughout the Mid-Atlantic much to the ecstasy of wildlife enthusiasts, birders, photographers, and fans of the actor Daniel Radcliffe.

I mean Harry Potter.  I digress; let’s get back to Hedwig……   

 Snowy Owl Merrill Creek Reservoir December 2011

Snowy Owl Merrill Creek Reservoir December 2011

This may be the biggest irruption of the majestic species to ever hit the lower 48, with one owl seen as far south as Jacksonville, Florida.  This is not the first time a Snowy Owl has been seen in North Florida, nor is it the first irruption to ever hit the United States, but the magnitude of the size of this irruption is amazing.  It has been particularly exceptional in the eastern and Mid-Atlantic region where a new Snowy Owl is being reported almost everyday in terrain ranging from farmland to downtown city rooftops.  Never before has the Mid-Atlantic hosted this many of the regal species.

“Hold on there, Hendricks.  Didn’t I read something about Snowy Owls wintering here a few years ago?”

Yes, dear reader, that is correct.  The winter of 2011-2012 also brought an irruption of Snowy Owls which spread across most of the United States.  However while at that time it reached as far south as Oklahoma, it was not as apparent in the Mid-Atlantic.  Nevertheless I thought that irruption was one for the record books, until November of 2013 when the owls were spotted all over Maryland, Delaware, Virginia, and New England.  They were even seen along the shores of the North Carolina, Georgia, and, wait for it, Bermuda!   

My first wild Snowy Owl experience came in early December, 2011 as I left my home at 12:30 AM to make the trek to the Merrill Creek Reservoir located in Harmony Township, New Jersey.  I received a report of a Snowy Owl who took up residence at the creek and naïvely thought I should make the journey and attempt to see the bird.  I had never visited this area before and I remember asking a hunter at five in the morning if he had seen the bird and some joggers an hour and a half later.  None of them knew there was a Snowy Owl at their doorstep!  As I circled around the reservoir I eventually came across a father and son, cameras and tripod setup, viewing the owl.  “These are my people,” I thought to myself and they were kind enough to allow me to spend the rest of the morning with them.  We had a pretty fun time and were able to watch the owl for quite awhile.  What was more important about that day is that the father, Tom, became a very good friend of mine.  He wrote about that day on his excellent blog here.   

So what makes a top predator of the Arctic seek wintering grounds far out of its normal range?  Snowy Owls, while opportunistic predators, primarily feed on Lemmings, a species they are cyclically linked to.  When Lemming populations are abundant, Snowy Owls will lay more eggs and have greater levels of chick survival.  This high level of fecundity will eventually drive the younger owls to feeding grounds much farther away when the Lemming population becomes scarce.  More owls and less food correlates with an irruption.

A few days ago I walked for miles amongst sand dunes on a cold, windy day in hopes of locating a Snowy Owl.  I am purposely avoiding “Hot Spot” locations posted on the internet because of so many instances involving photographers and amateur wildlife enthusiasts flushing birds due to venturing too close.  Everyone wants to see these owls!  I think it is fantastic because it hopefully will be the catalyst for more people to enjoy and appreciate wildlife.  With that though, comes proper viewing etiquette.  Too often people will think of wild animals with a theme park/zoological facility mindset, which is very detrimental to a wild animal.  Snowy Owls are very sensitive and come from areas where few humans reside.  Always respect the wild of the animal and of the land.

As I hiked amongst the dunes and continuously scanned the area my heart rate quadrupled as I came across a Snowy Owl sitting on top of a dune about six feet in front of me!  How I did not see it prior to this is a testament to the elusive nature of the species.  I slowly backed away and lowered to my side on the sand and slid backwards.  I was far too close and did not want to scare this bird.  I then laid in the sand for about 15 minutes to allow the bird to become acclimated to my presence and see I was not a threat.  The strong wind muted any sound I made from setting up my gear and as I came to one knee to compose the first shot the bird flew over to the fence around the dune to check me out.  What an inquisitive Snowy Owl!  She continued to watch me for a few moments until she flew back further from where she was before and I saw she had a meal.  Unfortunately her back was turned to me and I couldn’t see too well of what she was consuming.  I watched for a few minutes until she flew back to the fence to watch me again!  She allowed me to fire off image after image.  It began to get darker and I decided it was time to leave.  I still had a long way to go back as I was not camping and she flew forward to another part of the fence to watch me off.  I fired off another image under the setting sun and she flew back to her meal.  


Having the cold wind and sand engulf me was not the most enjoyable experience in the world but sitting patiently for that time, I believe, allowed the owl to become comfortable with my presence.  Every grain of sand that smacked me in the face was worth the experience of photographing this amazing creature.    

Are you hoping to come across a Snowy Owl?  If so make sure to scan open fields as these areas are most similar to the tundra where they nest.  Farmland, sand dunes, and airports seem to be particularly popular with this irruption.  Also scan fences and light poles that surround these areas as they are likely to perch on them.  Most importantly be patient and keep your distance.  If you do not stress the owl you may be rewarded by witnessing it exhibit a wide array of behavior.  


It is very rare to have an irruption of this level and to have two separated by one year is unheard of.  The historic implications of this arctic mass exodus may shed some information about the overall health of this precarious ecosystem which is rapidly changing as the climate warms.  Maybe the presence of this incredible, resilient, animal will inspire people to think more proactively of how they use their natural resources and how they too can help protect the land.  Maybe I am just being an eternal optimist.  Regardless, I hope.

As always feel free to contact me here.

 Snowy Owl January 2014. Under a Blood Orange Sky.

Snowy Owl January 2014. Under a Blood Orange Sky.

Every Action is a Choice

What began as witnessing a macabre scene in the natural world ended as a more poignant reminder of the destruction humans can have on another species.

I recently went to a local park in Howard County, Maryland to jog with my gear.  I regularly exercise with my photography/outdoor backpack as it prepares me for future, rigid hikes and climbs.  This particular park, Centennial Park, features a paved road that is centered around a man made lake that is particularly popular for its bird life.  Located in the midst of suburbia the park is an excellent location for photographing waterfowl and wading birds.  Naturally its an excellent environment for bird watching and exercising (which is fun when you can do both simultaneously!).  

After about a half mile into my late afternoon jog I noticed a large bird silhouetted by the sun perched not too far above the lake.  "That's pretty awesome," I thought as I took off my backpack, set up my tripod, and prepared to make some photographs.  When an opportunity presents itself you take it. 

 Red Shouldered Hawk

Red Shouldered Hawk

As clouds passed by the sun diffusing the light I could identify the bird as an adult Red Shouldered Hawk.  This particular raptor is very common in this area and there is something primal about witnessing a bird of prey.  I think it is a combination of their power and stoic stature as they patiently await the hunt.

I stood with my tripod for a half an hour to acclimate the bird to my presence.  The bird glanced at me once during the entire time allowing me to walk inch by inch closer when all the sudden it dropped from its perch in a vertical free fall.  At first I thought it was a little odd that whatever it caught happened not to notice this large bird directly above them by no more then 20 feet but then I noticed it began feasting at once.  There was no struggle, which means it was feeding on something that was already killed.  I belly crawled closer and closer, with the bird taking no notice of me, allowing me to witness a rather gruesome scene.

As you can see this is not for the faint of heart but it is nature. 


As I continued to shoot off images I noticed its prey source was pretty large, maybe a little larger than the hawk.  Red Shouldered hawks hunt small mammals as their most commonly taken prey source.  They also will capture amphibians, small birds, snakes, other reptiles, and during winter, I have occasionally seen one with a pigeon.  As I looked closer at the prey source I recognized the head of a Double Crested Cormorant.  Wow!  That's pretty interesting.  I have never seen a red shouldered hawk harassing a wading bird before so this was definitely not expected.  

 Cormorant.  Unusual prey species for the Red Shouldered Hawk

Cormorant.  Unusual prey species for the Red Shouldered Hawk

Later the call of a Red Tailed Hawk filled the area and the Red Shouldered Hawk looked above.  A second call from this incoming threat caused the Red Shouldered to either flee or attempt to displace its competitor.  I took a closer look at the dead Cormorant and thought how peculiar it was to have been killed by the hawk.  With the sun at an angle a reflection emitted from the mouth of the bird.  I took a closer look and saw a fish stuck in its throat, a pink fish.  I then took an even closer look and saw that was no fish at all but a fishing lure.  It all made sense.  I don't know if the bird starved to death, choked, or was killed by the hawk or another predator in its weaken state but a feeling of disappointment came over me.  As mentioned earlier the epicenter of Centennial Park is the man made lake.  This lake is stocked with fish and people are allowed to fish either from a boat or on foot around the lake.

I know sometimes fishing lines have to be cut and I know its possible to lose them, but this seemed regrettably disturbing.  Fishing lines and lures pose a dangerous threat to birds.  They can become entangled in them, strangled by them, and like the cormorant they can become stuck in their throats leading to a painful death of suffocation and/or starvation.

 Fishing lure stuck in the throat of a dead Cormorant

Fishing lure stuck in the throat of a dead Cormorant

Here's a well written piece on the problem courtesy of the New York Times.

In Centennial I have seen fishing line tangled in trees and discarded on the hiking paths.  When I can, I remove it myself and promptly throw it in the nearest trash can.

So what do we do?  Well first I would recommend placing signs alerting fisherman to be aware of their lines and lures and to discard of them properly.  The other step is enforcement.  But how do we enforce something in our parks when they are constantly having their budgets slashed and staff cut?  There is no easy answer especially when fishing has an economic benefit to the local government. 


I support fishing.  I have fished and I like to fish.  What this is about is personal responsibility.  If someone is going to fish in a local city or county park they should be held to the strictest criteria of maintaining a safe environment for all life.

We have to continue to make people aware of their actions.  As difficult as these photographs are to share, I am determined to see that they uphold a greater purpose of conservation and responsibility.  I for one am going to send this blog piece to the Howard County Government and local officials.  I encourage you to do the same.

Let's choose to act in the best interest of all the Earth's creatures.

As always I can be contacted at

A Season of Rut (and Thanksgiving!)

The Holidays are upon us again!  This festive time of harvest into winter has been particularly exciting as the bears fatten, the waterfowl migrate, and the rut of the ungulates moves forward.  Before I dwell deeper on the rut I must share with you a recent publication.  My article, and accompanying photographs, “Fall & Winter on Maryland’s Eastern Shore.,” was just published in the Fall/Winter 2013 issue of Nature Photographer! 

The magazine can be found in all fine bookstores nationwide and will be released in pdf format in the very near future on  One of my images was given the back cover too! 

Nature Photographer is a wonderful magazine that is run by some amazing individuals, which is quite rare in the editorial market.  Kudos to Nature Photographer and all its readers!

Now back to our fieldwork:

 Whitetail Bucks eying each other during the rut

Whitetail Bucks eying each other during the rut

In the midst of our Thanksgiving celebrations another fall ritual is currently underway as I write this: the rut.  The Whitetail Deer rut is peaking around the Chesapeake region and the central Appalachians.  It is a most exciting time as the bucks search for females for the right to pass on their genes.  With that comes the battle between rivals that are as analogous to a Mixed Martial Arts match.  Males will fight brutally, sometimes to the death, during these months and the action is intoxicatingly addictive to witness.

 Bull Elk bugling

Bull Elk bugling

Prior to the Whitetail rut I was documenting the rut of the Elk, which saw its peak of action in late September into early October.  As the cool mountain air begins to move through the valley, fostering the first color change of fall foliage, a primitive awakening takes over the bull elk.  Throughout the forest you can hear their hauntingly beautiful bugle, a multipurpose vocalization that communicates to cows that they are a prime bull to breed with while telling other bulls they are dominate.  The bugle is also a call to fight.  Bulls will challenge each other by bugling and announcing their presence.   This is also when they are the most dangerous.

A recent viral video depicting a young male, called a “spike,” challenging a photographer in Great Smoky Mountains National Park caught the attention of many.  For nearly seven minutes the testosterone-fueled spike began sparring with the defenseless human, which led to this elk’s demise by the park service.  Young bulls and spikes frequently spar with each other but any, yes any, male during the rut can become unpredictable.  Even if you are at a safe distance, if a male begins to turn his attention to you, slowly back off and get yourself out of the area.  Bison, Elk, Moose, and Deer are responsible for more detrimental human interactions than any predator. 

 Bull elks battling during the rut as a cow watches

Bull elks battling during the rut as a cow watches

Finally on Maryland’s Eastern Shore, the heart of the Delmarva Peninsula, another ungulate experiences their rut:  the Sika Deer.  The Sika is an exotic elk from east Asia that has been a fixture on the Eastern Shore for over a hundred years.  In Maryland I have not had much luck in capturing the male Sika (called a “Stag”) during the rut because of the nocturnal nature of their rut.  I see quite a bit of females (called “Hinds”) and fawns but during the fall the males seem to vanish.  This is mostly due to hunting season. 

 Sika Deer on Maryland's Eastern Shore

Sika Deer on Maryland's Eastern Shore

So you can imagine my surprise when I recently caught this young male absconding through the marsh in the midst of bow and muzzle loader season.  For a few fortuitous seconds I was able to capture his eye and watched as he began to move towards the edge of a forest.  I decided to circumvent the marsh and head directly to the forest, in hope of capturing his behavior.  My mind began to romanticize the situation.  Maybe there was another male?  Could I capture the Sika rut?  I saw the magazine cover in my head as I set up my tripod but then I heard a very load sound.  It was a shot from a muzzleloader.  My heart began to sink.  I initially thought that the Sika was killed.  Was it my fault?  Did I slow it down when it stared at me for those few seconds?  If that is the case I indirectly led to its death.  I felt sick as I searched in hopes of spotting him.  After a few minutes I searched the area behind me and I saw him wander into a camp area that is safe from hunting zones.  What a clever animal!  Ultimately I do not know if that shot was even intended for the Sika, but for those few moments I questioned whether I should continue taking photographs.  I do not want to negatively impact the life of any wildlife I photograph.  Thankfully, he is still out there. 

Hopefully I will see him again and get that cover image……

In closing I wish you a very Happy Thanksgiving.  I am thankful for my friends and family who supported me in my wilderness photography.  I am thankful to my fellow outdoor photographers who share information and the adventure.  I am also thankful for the people who came before me who had the foresight to preserve wild lands.  I’m thankful for you for allowing me to share my images and words with you.

Thank you friends.


Grizzly Man

October 5th marks the 10 year anniversary of the death of “Grizzly Man” Timothy Treadwell, and his girlfriend Amie Huguenard, from the claws of a Grizzly Bear.  What is tragically ironic is the grizzly is the animal he swore to protect.  This unfortunate story has inspired numerous books, two documentaries, and a host of articles and other tawdry media hype. 

So why am I expanding on a story that has already been dissected immensely?

My goal as a nature and wilderness photographer is to communicate what I saw and felt in the great outdoors.  I want my viewers to appreciate the natural world; to get outside and get dirty and instill a sense of stewardship to the land.  Appreciation paired with education inspire conservation.  A smoker is far less likely to flick their cigarette butte on the street if they learn that it takes 15 years to breakdown and the chemicals can poison an animal’s food source (

In fact the impetus for this essay was not inspired by bears but by newly born deer fawns.

This past June as I was photographing the calving season of whitetail deer I came across more photographers and nature enthusiasts than ever before.  To get up close images of the fawns I noticed a group of photographers scaring a mother away, to which the fawn reacts by bedding down in concealment.  In nature whitetail does will leave their fawns in hiding as they feed.  If a predator approaches, they will run around wildly in order to distract it.  This is how the whitetail has evolved to behave in the natural world.  My problem with this group of overzealous photographers is that they are actively interfering in the doe and fawn’s life to get that “picture.” 

Timothy Treadwell actively interfered in the lives of Alaskan Grizzlies for 13 years.  Singing to wild bears, touching wild bears, swimming with wild bears and he seemingly broke every rule about surviving in bear country.  Yet there was a dichotomy in his approach as well.  The man truly believed in his mission to save the bear.  He actively preached conservation of the bear’s environment and gregariously shared that message with thousands of children in schools for no fee.  He went to Alaska to heal himself from depression and addiction, and if you talk to anyone who shares a kinship with the wilderness they too will speak of the mental healing you can experience in nature, myself included.

We live in a world where it is easier to get to wild places than ever before, and every year there is a headline of a death from a wild animal that could have been prevented.  Since the Treadwell tragedy there have been other “whisperers” of wild animals who are warmed under the glowing spotlight of the media.  The uninformed among us go into national parks and look at the wildlife as analogous to an amusement park.  I once witnessed park rangers in Yellowstone chastise a visitor because he thought it would be “cute” to try to put his child on top of a bison for a photograph.  The bison almost charged.


 Grizzly Bear Sow.  Yellowstone National Park.

Grizzly Bear Sow.  Yellowstone National Park.

Seeing the mighty grizzly bear in the wild is one of the most amazing experiences I have ever had.  It is a privilege to see them in Yellowstone and Glacier, the Yukon and Alaska.  I highly encourage you to get out there too, and appreciate the great bear and its environment.  But with appreciation also comes respect.  Do your research, err on the side of caution, and never harass a wild animal.  We all share this world so let us all be safe as well. 

I believe that is what Treadwell would have wanted.


Sharing the Adventure


A friend of mine, whom for blogging purposes we will call “D”, has no interest in wilderness or photography.  He is not moved at the sight of a wild animal on a large museum exhibition print, nor stimulated at the prospects of seeing one in the landscape.  Camping, hiking, and getting off the grid are foreign concepts in his universe of video games, social networking, and communication by text.  Not that these activities serve no purpose, but turning off the Wi-Fi now and then is a good thing.  So you can imagine my surprise when “D” told me he wanted to begin training for an obstacle race.  Not just any obstacle race, but one featuring a motley crew of zombies, Spartan warriors, and perhaps a chance encounter with a future “Mrs. D.”  Whatever inspires you……

I suggested he join me on a mountain hike to begin his training regimen.  He agreed to this proposition as long as he did not have to wake up early.

Now late May into June is a most exciting time in the natural world as the sounds of the songbird fill the forest with their music and the gentle trickles of spring rain flow through waterfalls and streams. This harmonious symphony would not be complete without the sounds of all the newborns! Coyote pups howling, the chirping of newborn Robins, and the steps of a whitetail deer fawn following its mother through the forest; each sound epitomizes the seasons of rebirth and growth.


The mountains of Virginia and West Virginia provided the backdrop for many of my recent adventures, and I had scoped out different locations for my landscape work, with some requiring a few hours of hiking before I could even set up my tripod.  So you can imagine “D’s” distress when I made him wake up at 1 AM so that I could be at a location before sunrise.  Our only light source came from headlamps, along with commentary from “D” complaining about the trauma I was putting him through, making this hike seem like a regrettable enterprise.  When we finally made it to the location I was pleased to find that Mother Nature decided to cooperate with me.   



“These clouds are fantastic, with this light and……”

As I stopped midsentence I realized I had been talking to myself as I had not heard a response from “D” for a few minutes.  I looked over and D was just fixated on the clouds.  

“It’s beautiful,” he said, “I’ve never seen clouds like that before.” 

Gorgeous sunrise:  check.



 I had hoped that we would come across a bear on our hike because seeing mega fauna would hopefully inspire “D” to appreciate wildlife.  I discovered a few den sites this season which provided ample opportunities to view and photograph bears.  When we heard the cracking of dead leaves on the ground I immediately thought a bear was near but it was a whitetail deer and a newborn fawn.   I instructed “D” to stay low and watched their behavior closely to avoiding causing any distress to the mother.  Instead of exiting they strayed closer and “D” was able to see first hand the attentiveness and care the mother showed to its offspring.

                                                                                                                Cute Baby Animal: check    


Later on we came across a rather macabre looking scene of a bloody squirrel tail.  This unfortunate incident for the squirrel resulted in nourishment for another life; nature can appear cruel, but it is the cycle of life.  I surveyed the area to see if the hunter was still around but what we saw instead was much more profound.  Two fledging Barred Owl chicks were staring at us from their nesting cavity.  The answer was clear; the squirrel provided what these chicks need to survive in their first critical months of being on this Earth.  What initially began as disgust on “D’s” part transformed into childhood enthusiasm.  He had never seen a wild owl before, and now he had seen two chicks!  

Nature presenting life lessons: check.


What started out as a pain for “D” turned out to be a great day.  Was it life changing?  I certainly hope so, but until then at least I have the satisfaction of sharing the outdoors with him.  I do know he appreciates nature photography more because he visits this website.  

I did receive a text message from him though, to which I gladly re-post:

“Are you free to go hiking this week?”

So he is using the technology to schedule a wilderness outing?  I am cool with that.

Until next time, be good to each other