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.

A Coda to the Summer of 2014

The Baltimore Orioles have just clinched the American League East. 

A Wild Horse- Assateague Island

A Wild Horse- Assateague Island

Damn, it felt good to write that.  One more time…….

The Baltimore Orioles have just clinched the AL East.   

Not since 1997 have my beloved Orioles won their division.  Baseball in October is going to be something of a joyful bedlam throughout the streets of Baltimore, a national pastime catharsis for the Camden Yards brethren.  Especially now that the air has gone crisp, the humidity has retreated, and appropriate hints of orange are beginning to outline the deciduous hardwoods of the Chesapeake and Coastal Bays. 

The autumnal equinox is upon us.  Fall is coming. 

I must have time for pause and contemplation.  Where did the past three months go?

As summer ends its earthly rotation for another year and this essay, being my first since May, serving as both preface and epilogue to a season that began with a pivotal life event and featured adventures in wilderness on the American West and among the wilds of the Chesapeake.  I married my wonderful wife in June amongst the lodgepole pines and sublime peaks of Grand Teton National Park.  My wife and I adore the Greater Yellowstone ecosystem and what better way to celebrate our union with our families than in the presence of the great bear and the wolf.  From there we spent a few weeks within the Crown of the Continent region, the Canadian Rockies, and the deserts of the American Southwest (another favorite of ours).  I plan to write on these topics within the next few months but for now I must share:  these places are amazing.

Prior to my wedding and upon my return I have been spending the majority of my time on the Coastal Bays Watershed and in the Blue Ridge mountains of the Chesapeake Bay Watershed.  The effects of coyote predation on whitetail fawns, the impact of off road vehicles on preservation areas, and the difference in behavior between wild horses acclimated to human presence versus those that are not are all topics I have been working on documenting.    

More often than not I could be found wandering and wading on the Coastal Bays.  The horses of Assateague have held a special place in my heart since childhood and observing their behavior is always a gift.  It has been a summer filled with rival stallions fighting, a new foal born, and all the other behaviors that come with wild, sea-faring, horses.

A Wild Horse herd galloping along the sand dunes of Assateague Island.

A Wild Horse herd galloping along the sand dunes of Assateague Island.

Additionally I documented and studied one of the most ancient biological rituals that annually occur in this region:  the spawning of the Atlantic horseshoe crab (Limulus Polyphemus).  Thousands upon thousands of horseshoe crabs come together along the mostly wave resistant shores of Coastal Bays.  Males usually appear first, sometimes already attached to a larger female, and will attempt to fertilize as many eggs as possible upon release from their gender counterparts.  The coalescing of the crabs upon the shore offers us an almost identical view of their behavior dating back to the Triassic period, as they have remained unchanged through many epochs.  The eggs then create a smorgasbord of delight for a host of migrating shorebirds and gulls.  The excess eggs transform the beach from sandy yellow to a sickly green.  Sexy, huh? 

A Horseshoe Crab arrives on a beach along Assateague Island National Seashore

A Horseshoe Crab arrives on a beach along Assateague Island National Seashore

“Ewww, there’s guts coming out of that thing,” a young girl with an astute eye exclaims to her mother. 

“Those are just eggs, sweetie,” she replies as she attaches a tag to the shell of a crab as part of an ongoing monitoring project.  Atlantic Horseshoe crabs are considered a near threatened species, and numbers have declined due to development and over-harvesting (they serve as bait for eel fisherman and certain species of fish).  The study of the species has led to advancements in vision science, and enzymes and proteins from their blood have resulted in numerous medical studies.  Monitoring the species along the Atlantic is imperative to not just the species, but for its contributions to medicine as well.  This ancient resident of the watersheds may not be pretty, but they are extremely invaluable. 

It’s been such a wonderful, fast paced few months.  I still have much to write about.  For now though, thank you summer of 2014.  Onward to Fall on the Chesapeake. 

Let’s hope I can begin my next blog about the Orioles and the World Series.

Go O’s!!!!

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.