Late Summer in the Watershed

Supermoon- Shenandoah National Park- Hawksbill Mountain

Supermoon- Shenandoah National Park- Hawksbill Mountain

Summertime on the Chesapeake Bay equates to steamed crabs, rock fishing, and swimming along a host of other water based recreation.  The ubiquitous sights and sounds from these activities are a welcome addition for locals and hordes of travelers making their way to the region.  Along with the permeating aroma of Old Bay seasoning, which will indeed send your olfactory sense into a state of nirvana, summer is also the season of economic boom. 

The water of the Bay is so important to the culture and economy of the region. Yet have you ever considered where it comes from?

The diverse habitats of the watershed allow water to travel through marsh, piedmont, and the mountains of Appalachia.   Yes, when your feet are waddling though the sands of the Bay much of that water originated in the Appalachian Mountains, whose vast wilderness of cove forest is a far cry from the marsh that surrounds the Chesapeake.  The rolling green hills are a relic to a primeval past when these mountains were larger than the Rockies, originally carved by ancient glaciers that have since eroded into the forested wonderland we know today. 

Upper Chesapeake Bay

Upper Chesapeake Bay

The mountains are an important component to the watershed.  The rivers and streams that originate in them make up the majority of fresh water that eventually finds itself flowing into the bay.  It is wild to contemplate that the water that drops from the venerable waterfalls will make its way to the Susquehanna, Potomac, Rappahannock, and other rivers originating in the mountains and eventually meander to brackish marsh.  Additionallyfor your favorite intrepid watershed photographer, exploring the higher mountains in this region, especially in Virginia and West Virginia, provides a welcome break from the heat (usually a much cooler by 10-12 degrees Fahrenheit).

The forests of these mountains also provide shelter for a large number of watershed wildlife, both aquatic and terrestrial.  Riparian forest bordering along rivers and streams provide shade and cooler waters that are important for spawning fish.  These woodlands absorb nitrogen and pollutants which in turn improve air quality.    

And there is the mountain fauna.  White tail Deer, bobcats, eastern coyotes, and elk are all found in portions of the mountains within the watershed.  Seeing a newborn deer fawn being licked by its mother in a mountain meadow is wonderful to behold.  As is the abundant bird life.  Yet the animal everyone wants to see when venturing into the Appalachian Mountains is the Black Bear.

There is something about being in the presence of a bear, especially on foot, as it is electrifying and always memorable.  This was an exceptional summer for me with observing black bear mothers and cubs.   Unfortunately, there were some bear attacks this summer from both black and grizzly bears, leading many to unjustly believe it were dangerous to venture into the woods.  However tawdry media hype had completely blown these events out of proportion.  

I hike in bear country frequently.  I find it satisfying that we have black bears in the watershed.  However I am not naive, because tragedies obviously occur, thus I always carry bear pepper spray with me.  Many amateur hikers whom venture into bear country do not understand the inherent dangers of wilderness areas or have a keen sense of animal behavior.  They definitely do not have the slightest inclination on what to do in the rare case of bear attack.  National Parks and wilderness areas are not a theme park.  There are plenty of trails in these areas for novice hikers however you must educate yourself to have at least a basic understanding of what to do if a bear wanders onto the trail. 

Black Bear in the Appalachian Mountains at dusk

Black Bear in the Appalachian Mountains at dusk

Simple precautions one takes when swimming in the Chesapeake Bay should be the same when wandering through bear country.

Currently, in late summer, the bears are gorging on cherry trees and the occasional ant hill.  Soon it will be acorns.  Sorry - I will not rush the remaining weeks of summer. 

Besides, I have my camera in its underwater housing. 

Happy Summer.

Thank You Winter, Welcome Back Spring

I spotted my first Osprey(Pandion haliaetus) today.  I did not observe the majestic fish hawk  in a marsh bordering the Chesapeake Bay nor amongst the miles of beaches on Assateague Island.  It flew overhead in downtown Annapolis, MD amongst the greenery of St. Patrick's Day celebrators (or an Irish themed Halloween for the college students lining the streets) clothed in shamrocks and hands filled with pints of Guinness.  

But I digress.  The point of this observation is that Spring has arrived.  I am excited for the season of regrowth and birth to return to the watershed, the opportunities it brings, and the joy it brings to the residents that make their home here.  Even though this winter has been particularly wonderful and I am thankful to have experienced it.

Ice Sheets along a frozen Chesapeake Bay

Ice Sheets along a frozen Chesapeake Bay

*Gasp*  Goes the reader tired of the cold weather.

Most would be shocked, or rather aghast, to learn that I actually enjoy winter, especially considering the many weeks of single digit temperatures the watershed experienced these past few months.   Sure, you have to be extra precautious, especially in wilderness, and while I have become adept to outdoor survival skills, I also find myself having more situational awareness with my photography.  This stems from the omnipotent silence of winter, which also happens to be my favorite superlative of the season.  I can hear the deer that struggles to find food, I can hear the wind howl through the bare forest, and I can hear how clearly my mind thinks as I lay upon the cold snow.  Besides, storytelling does not pause because it is cold outside and, with that idea ever present in my mind, I have learned to embrace the season.   

But this winter has been especially cold.  The Chesapeake Bay has not been this frozen since the winter of 1979.  All six of the coastal bays froze over as well, a rarity to eyewitness.  Observing how the regions wildlife reacted to the weather was incredible.  I watched a Great Blue Heron carefully walk on a frozen river, searching for breaks in the ice to hunt from.  I observed a flock of tundra swans land on a frozen Magothy river in midst of a winter storm that continued to increase in strength that gave them no choice but to land.  I saw the wild horses of Assateague Island walk through snow covered loblolly pine forest; a scene that looked more like their counterparts in the Rocky Mountains would experience as opposed to life on a barrier island. 

The most memorable moment I had though was being able to view the frozen Chesapeake from the air.  My wonderful wife and I knew this was not something we could experience every winter and thought how cool (no pun intended) it would be to document.

The Watershed on the edge of urbanization

The Watershed on the edge of urbanization

Our pilot, the appropriately named Captian Kool, gave us an incredible flight over the bay and the thousands of ice sheets that had recently blanketed it.  Now I have swam in the beloved Chesapeake throughout my life and I have driven across its 4.3 mile length bridge more times than I can count but I have never been able to fully appreciate how vast the Chesapeake Bay is until this moment.  Flying over the rural and flat eastern shore of Maryland, across the bay to the city of Baltimore and through the hilly Piedmont border was simply awe inspiring.  Seeing the rivers that flow from these areas into their common linkage, the Chesapeake Bay, allowed me to view this treasure in a whole new way.  However as the sun set and the pink of twilight was cast amongst the ice my mind whisked me into the images of coffee table books about the arctic.  It was that beautiful. 

Captain Kool being an excellent pilot and paying attention while I make awful jokes from behind the cockpit

Captain Kool being an excellent pilot and paying attention while I make awful jokes from behind the cockpit

While some images are meant to inspire I also want the viewer to think as well.  These images provide the viewer an important and uncommon perspective of the watershed.  I hope this perspective makes you think about how we fit within the landscape and our use of the watershed. City congestion, smoke stacks, and even light pollution can be seen in some of these aerial photographs.  While not a call to arms, I hope the aerial perspective makes you realize your impact on the watershed and what you can do to lessen it.  I hope it also makes you want to responsibly enjoy it as well.  Even if you decide to wait until Spring to do it.

One of the most populated areas in the Chesapeake Bay Watershed, Baltimore, MD, at night

One of the most populated areas in the Chesapeake Bay Watershed, Baltimore, MD, at night

So what are you waiting for?

In closing, I must thank Captain Kool for these images.  He truly lives up to his name and is a great pilot and a great man.

Until next time, be well.

Snow Geese and the Zach Attack

Blue Heron silhouette

For me winter on the Chesapeake and Coastal Bays is a study on solitude.  Whether on mountain or marsh, the reticent air offers ample opportunity for wildlife study and photography.  Most of these photographic pursuits are analogous to a soliloquy; all the stories I wish to convey happen by my lonesome.  In winter, however, the feeling of a solo act is much more immense.  The solitude is intertwined with silence, like fresh snow clinging onto spruce boughs.  Winter silence is an excellent time for reflection on why I photograph and write.      

Unless you are in the midst of a flock of 50,000 Snow Geese (Chen caerulescens) on the Delmarva Peninsula……...  

The cacophony of geese cackling as they fly overhead is incredibly exciting to witness.  Flocks of the wintering visitors from the Arctic can be found all over the Delmarva Peninsula.  Blackwater National Wildlife refuge, Assateague Island, and any farmland in-between are all excellent locations for viewing.  But when you see them begin to take off, one by one, until suddenly thousands of the white feathered birds take to the air all at once and appear to be a fast moving cloud.  It is one the greatest wildlife spectacles to witness in both watersheds.  Take that winter solitude.

“Awesome, dude, freakin’ awesome,” are the words of a hominid companion.  What?  There are more than Snow Geese keeping me company?  That is correct, and I am sharing this winter moment with my buddy Zach (who will now be referred to as “Zach Attack” for the remainder of this post).  A few days prior I had invited Zach Attack to accompany me on a photographic excursion to Delmarva. Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge was to be our destination, with its abundant waterfowl, Bald Eagles, and Delmarva Fox Squirrels.  Zach Attack is an avid sailor and grew up on the Chesapeake but when he informed me that he had never been to Blackwater and this section of the peninsula my first thought was “Let’s party.”  Now normally when I take someone on a trip with me who is unfamiliar either with wildlife photography and/or hiking I feel pressure in hoping that they enjoy themselves.  Especially when it comes to wildlife, as there is no guarantee that an animal will make an appearance. 

On this trip though I had no reservations- I knew Blackwater would deliver.  Describing the refuge to Zach Attack I mentioned that it contained the second largest breeding population of Bald Eagles on the East and that only the Florida Everglades contain more. 

“I’ve never seen a Bald Eagle in the wild,” replied Zach Attack. 

Because I frequently participate in wild land recreation, what may be a normal occurrence to me is a brand new experience for someone else.  Sharing someone’s first wild Bald Eagle is exciting.  Seeing the majestic bird in its natural environment is wonderful to behold and Blackwater is one of the best places to see them. One can easily eyewitness courting behavior, nesting, fledging chicks, and admire the eagles as they soar along the wind.

As Zach Attack and I made our way around the refuges famed Wildlife Drive, he saw his first wild Bald Eagle with relative ease.  A single bird was feeding on a fish on a man-made nesting platform. Following this we located a large flock of Snow Geese in the vast fields bordering the marsh.  Almost instantaneously another flock from the west flew over the loblolly pine forest which caused the flock in the field to take off in unison and soon we were surrounded by thousands upon thousands of snow geese.

Flock of Snow Geese wintering on the Delmarva Peninsula

Flock of Snow Geese wintering on the Delmarva Peninsula

Frozen in time amongst the winter landscape, Zach Attack and I were engulfed in the beauty that is an exceptionally large flock of Snow Geese until they landed in that same field.  But within a few seconds two adult Bald Eagles flew overhead causing the geese to return to their pandemonium.  Again, take that winter solitude.

Zach Attack working behind the lens

Zach Attack working behind the lens

Later we hiked around a still snow covered forest floor with hope that Zach Attack could see the endangered Delmarva Fox Squirrel but, alas, that was not to be on this excursion.  That is alright though, as Zach Attack wants to return and I gave him my word that we would.  The day ended appropriately with seeing two more Bald Eagles, in twilight, hunting in the shallows of the marsh. 

Sharing these watersheds that I adore with friends is an important component to my work.  When people can actively participate in their environment they have more reason to care about that environment.  Blogging, writing articles for publication, video, all serve the same purpose as my photography- to share this region that I love with you.  Being able to do that with a friend by my side makes it even more enjoyable, even when your friend’s voice is muted by 50,000 Snow Geese.  This is rarely the case though.  Zach Attack is pretty loud. 

Until next time, be well everyone.

On Inspiration and Motivation

The Potomac River is the second largest source of freshwater that flows into the Chesapeake Bay.

The Potomac River is the second largest source of freshwater that flows into the Chesapeake Bay.

I recently was invited, and privileged, to join a not-so-secret society of published writers and/or photographers to discuss projects, technique, and, among other things, the ominous ruin of art.

Ruin of art?  This coming after the announcement that the world’s largest stock image provider, Getty Images, is making a majority of its collection free to be embedded on a variety of internet and social media platforms. 

"It is impossible for you to make a living these days, my young friend," a nice, however, pessimistic writer opined. "Too many are taking it up."

Forgive my coarseness, but please, spare me the melodrama. Sure we have cameras that have taken on the appearance of cigarette lighters and oil paintings that are created with filters in software packages from Adobe and Corel, but I fail to see the ruin of art. The constant theme in life and art is change. Technology, methods, the amount of people involved; you get the idea.  All this fear does is to block the freedom of expression that creative pursuits allow. Call me crazy, but I’d rather pursue what gives meaning to my life than worry about the devaluation of the photographic process because iPhone users give away their images so they can exclaim, "Mom, I was published!" 

Besides, maybe I am a hopeless optimist, but I think it is great that more people are taking up photography. If more people pursue creative outlets I think it really does make the world, to quote every single elementary school teacher I had, "a better place." Does the young punk rocker who picks up a guitar diminish Jimi Hendrix? When a student writes a story does it lessen the impact of Ernest Hemingway? Of course it doesn't, and it may lead to the next great novel.  I am fine with that (especially as a Hemingway super-fan). 

I am inspired by the writings of John Muir and George Schaller, who eloquently shared their wild experiences and zeal for conservation in numerous publications.  Their words touched the conscience of many and led to, among other accolades, the establishment of Yosemite National Park and the Sierra Club (Muir), and over twenty parks and nature preserves around the world for wildlife conservation (Schaller).  Am I the only writer to be inspired by their life’s work?  If not, should I quit writing on similar topics because “too many are taking it up?” 

Spoiler alert:  not a chance. 

Both Muir and Schaller had to work hard to protect wild lands and have their message heard.  Anything worthy of pursuit requires effort on our part.  To be intimidated by the mere suggestion of mass human pursuit in personal endeavors is disadvantageous.  There are over 7 billion of us on this big blue marble and it would serve us well to accept that others share similar avocations.  Let my inspiration beget your inspiration.  

I express myself through wilderness exploration and photography. I want to share my passion for the wild with my friends, family, and readers. The wild lands I wish to see preserved or better preserved and the wildlife protected is conveyed through my words and images. I am inspired by heroes who made positive changes in their respective fields, not by those who buy $12,000 lenses and $7,000 camera bodies and claim, dubiously, to be "professionals" on social media. If that were the only requirement for professional photography then Visa and American Express are the world’s largest photography associations.  I am, however, inspired by anyone who wants to get out and experience wild lands, protect wild lands, photograph or paint wild lands, and doing all that with a positive attitude.  There is room for everyone; it just depends on the angle you fix your vision on. 

Assateague Island Foal born December 2013.  The Chesapeake Bay and Coastal Bay Watersheds link the Chesapeake Bay and Atlantic Ocean.

Assateague Island Foal born December 2013.  The Chesapeake Bay and Coastal Bay Watersheds link the Chesapeake Bay and Atlantic Ocean.

Ultimately none of this matters. Currently, I am working on an extensive project documenting the Chesapeake Bay Watershed and the neighboring Coastal Watershed because it is important and personal.  This is an area I love, am emotionally attached to, and have actively participated in for most of my life.  It is a land many depend on, from economic benefit to spiritual renewal.  Over 17 million people live in the Chesapeake Bay Watershed and most do not understand its complex biodiversity or the conservation threats it continues to experience.  Whether from agriculture runoff, salinity changes, or unregulated fracking, the watershed, even with current restoration efforts underway, hangs from a precarious thread.  It is a daunting task but it is something I have, and want, to accomplish. 

While I understand the market is less conducive to professional photography and nature writing than in years past I am no less excited to share the thumbprints of my experiences with you.  Without others we can not foster a love of land and sea.  But is the market less conducive to this?  Or do we have to be more creative in our approach to sharing experiences and information.  The answer is an undoubting “yes” and is applicable to a number of different fields.  Regardless of what you choose to accomplish in life it probably will require persistence, creativity, and a touch of confidence.  Getty Images accepted that they had to fundamentally change their business model in order to remain relevant in the digital age.  The majority of photographers I know only make a portion of their income from the sale of stock images and they too had to change their business model to remain relevant.  Much like the species a wildlife photographer studies, we must be willing to adapt; which is no reason to think it is impossible to succeed.  

And, in case you were concerned, I do not think art is ruined.  Thank you.