Musings on the Delmarva Fox Squirrel

I like to write; that much is obvious.  However as I prepare to marry the most wonderful woman I have ever known my mind has not focused much on nature writing, nor photography and conservation.  Actually the same may be said for eating, sleeping, breathing, and any thing else required to function normally.  After my wedding, I plan to be a excellent husband.  I swear.    

This past week I reunited with my two good friends and fellow photographers, Tom and Muck, at Mile Marker 0 on the Chesapeake & Ohio Bike Trail in Washington DC.  They had just completed the entire trail in a matter of days and it was a blast to spend some time with them.  These two awesome dudes live in the rugged Alleghenies of North Central Pennsylvania so seeing them was a real treat.  As we talked about what we had been up to I mentioned how I spent a few hours with an endangered Delmarva Fox Squirrel a few days prior.

The hamster in my mind finally began to turn that wheel.  Of course I should write about the Delmarva Fox Squirrel.  That large, gorgeous, but still endangered, fox squirrel is the poster child for the conservation of fauna of the Chesapeake Bay Watershed.  Though most people can not discern between the Delmarva Fox Squirrel and its ubiquitous backyard loving cousin.  


"Hendricks, I hate squirrels.  They're everywhere and they destroy my bird feeders!"

Sorry about that.  You should invest in a squirrel resistant bird feeder, and the squirrel you're seeing at a prolific rate is the Eastern Grey Squirrel.  The Delmarva Fox Squirrel is a large, almost three feet in length, silver coated squirrel that may only be found on the Delmarva peninsula.  Labeled as an endangered species in 1967, the squirrel, whose historic range once extended from southeast Pennsylvania and New Jersey into the entire Delmarva region, had been hit hard by habitat destruction, agriculture, and development.  By the time it received its endangered label it only resided in 10% of its former range (all in Maryland).  

An Endangered Delmarva Fox Squirrel

An Endangered Delmarva Fox Squirrel

I remember fondly the first time I encountered a Delmarva Fox Squirrel at Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge in Cambridge, Maryland.  My girlfriend at the time (since upgraded to financee and very soon to be wife) saw a big fluffy silver tail and said "I think I see a Fox Squirrel."  It was raining steadily and I was focused on watching a Great Blue Heron stand stoically in a marsh when I instantly moved my gaze towards her and in the corner of my eye I saw a silver furry thing, that looked the size of a house cat, run along the forest ground.  It turned around and gave us a humorous look of surprise, complete with wide black eyes and open mouth, then took off.  Unlike their counterparts who spend the majority of their time in trees, the Delmarva is mostly a ground dwelling species who only ascends trees to find food and nest.

These shy squirrels, which I find to be more wary of humans than the grey, inhabit the remaining wild mature hardwood-loblolly pine forests of Delmarva.  There have been eleven successful reintroduction attempts, including Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge (the Virginia portion of Assateague Island) and Prime Hook National Wildlife Refuge in Delaware.  Presently the Delmarva fox squirrel resides in 28% of its historic range, which is mostly in Maryland.  While predation is a major concern on its recovery a large portion of mortality comes from automobile collisions.  When driving through wildlife refuges, such as Blackwater, it is normal, and required, to drive at a slow rate of speed.  Additional signs informing visitors they are driving through Delmarva Fox Squirrel habitat have been made because of collisions from within the refuges.  Yet the future looks bright for this beautiful mammal, so bright that federal official are looking into possibly delisting the species from the Endangered Species.  Personally, as much as I want this to happen, I feel more established populations in Delaware are needed before any talk of delisting takes place.  Because the populations are isolated from one another, they are more susceptible to being wiped out from a catastrophic event.  Thankfully scientists are monitoring potential routes for transient squirrels and the movements of tagged specimens.  It is paramount that the squirrels may successfully travel between corridors which are located on both private and public lands.  

It was wonderful to spend time with this male Delmarva Fox Squirrel.  Initially I had encountered two squirrels earlier who quickly ran across the forest floor to avoid my presence.  I watched this squirrel from a distance and observed it climb a tree which allowed me to video it foraging and climbing for about an hour.  It climbed down the tree then went deeper into the forrest which led me to conclude that this encounter was over.  I had just recorded more footage of a Delmarva Fox Squirrel than I ever hoped to have and felt fulfilled.  However a wildlife photographer is ultimately never fulfilled and no more then five minutes down the trail I came across the same squirrel, this time five feet in front of me.  The squirrel had grown acclimated to my presence which allowed for intimate portraits, however I want my work to tell a story of a species and I had to back up so I that I could incorporate its environment into my compositions!  I take that as a compliment. 

The plight of the Delmarva Fox Squirrel is an important chapter in the natural history of the Chesapeake and Coastal Bays, and I hope you are inspired to seek the gorgeous species in the wild.  Or at the very least, appreciate that it still roams this land.  I take solace in knowing that they can still be found running away from us humans on the grounds of a loblolly pine forrest.     

This is perhaps my last blog post until I am married.  Obviously this being a very exciting time, I may not get around to writing a blog post in June.  My finacee is the best and shares my love of the wild and all creatures big and small.  In fact our mutual love of animals is how we met.  We will be camping in wilderness for a few weeks and I plan to share a visible diary over the period of a few posts.  Thank you for reading and I look forward to sharing the adventure with you as I enter this exciting chapter in my life.  Thank you friend.

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.


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