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.

Of Snowys, Seals, and Good People

Last summer I wrote a piece entitled “Sharing the Adventure” in which I described a mountain trek with a friend.  I received quite a bit of positive feedback from readers who were kind enough to send me their thoughts.  The common theme harmonized from the responses was that these readers enjoyed the story of two friends enjoying the wilderness together.  One person wrote to me that they found my shared experience “positive and uplifting.” Thank you, dear reader, I really appreciate that.

My last blog post “Adventures with the Majestic Snowy,” also received more responses than I originally anticipated.  This only further corroborates that these owls enchant many people, from the wildlife enthusiast to the casual observer.  I found the responses to both articles similar in nature.  In one instance, people expressed their passion for sharing the poignant moments that nature bestows, and in the other, people expressed that passion for an animal that is commonly shared by a diverse set of observers.  While I am always inspired by nature, it is just as important to share that experience with your fellow man. 

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With the continuing presence of Snowy Owls (Bubo scandiacus) all over the region it is becoming common to read reports of people acting unethically.  Whether overzealous and/or ignorant, wildlife communities are constantly showing people flushing birds by venturing too close or photographers doing the same thing to get a flight shot.  The outrage at these unfortunate instances is warranted but I want to focus on the majority of people; good people who act ethically and share the adventure. 

This past weekend as I continued my journey of documenting the lands of the Chesapeake Bay Watershed, and its neighboring coastal watershed, I gave myself the goal of locating more Snowy Owls for images and video and, hopefully, a seal.  As I began my morning hike I soon noticed four people facing a dune that appeared to have a white bubble on top.  A quick look through the binoculars confirmed my suspicion of a Snowy Owl.  This irruption is so wild; I had only been on the dunes for about 10 minutes and already located one owl.  Sometimes the wildlife makes it easy for you.

I spent the early morning photographing and chatting with two nice guys, Clay and Vince, and a nice woman, Sue, and another friend she had brought along.  Everyone was gregarious and congenial and having a great time.  Not long afterwards another woman joined us along with a father, Nate, and his young son.  Nate informed us that this was the first Snowy Owl for himself and his son, which made the morning all the more enjoyable. 

Eventually everyone went their separate ways and I continued to work on shooting video of the Owl and swap stories with Nate.  Eventually an overzealous individual appeared, and began to belly crawl upon the dune, flushing the owl.  After I had such a great morning with so many wonderful people it took one person to stop the enjoyment for everyone.  Following this Nate, his son, and I said good-bye and I attempted to relocate the owl.  Before I was able to take out the binoculars I saw the nice woman (whose name I regrettably can not remember, but will update this if I ever meet her again) from earlier and her boyfriend and updated them on what happened with the owl.  I saw that after she had photographed the owl, she and her boyfriend spent the rest of the morning picking up trash along the beach.  Good people.   

In the midst of our conversation a truck pulled up beside us and I heard a “Mark we found a seal a few miles down the beach.”

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It was Clay and Vince and they had driven along the off shore vehicle zone looking for more wildlife.  Earlier, when I had first met them, I told them I was also hoping to see a seal this weekend.  When I used to work in marine mammal training and marine rescue I loved working with rescued seals.  Since I have left those fields I have not seen a wild seal, let alone one that was healthy.  Clay and Vince came back to find me and let me know this information.  They then gave me a ride to where they found the seal, which was a healthy juvenile harp seal (Pagophilus groenlandicus). Photographing the many species that can be found along the coastal watershed allows me to paint a broader picture of biodiversity. Thanks to the altruism of Clay and Vince, I was able to document a pinniped.  They went out of their way to locate me and share the seal.  They did not have to do that but they did and I am forever grateful.  Really great dudes.

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Everyone I met that morning was a good, nice person, and we all came together because we all happened to be searching for Snowy Owls. 

Mom viewing a Snowy Owl on Assateague Island   

Mom viewing a Snowy Owl on Assateague Island

 

The next day I wanted to continue looking for Owls, specifically for video work, and my mother joined me on the adventure.  The pressure was on though, as this would be the third time I would convince my mother to go searching for Snowy Owls as the previous two times we came up short.  I also feel a tad guilty when you ask someone, who is not accustomed to waking up at unconventional times, to be on location before sunrise.  The pressure for success is augmented when you add the unfavorable winter wind on a beach.  I wanted to film the owls, of course, but I really wanted Mom to see one.

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Fate was in our favor and we located a male Snowy within 10 minutes into our winter beach hike.  Success!  The excitement that came over my mom was the same I experienced when I located my first Snowy.  The intoxicating allure of these owls definitely caught my mom within a few seconds.  We were able to get great still images and video until a Red Tailed Hawk (Buteo jamaicensi) flew overhead and the owl took off.  Using our trusty binoculars we were able to relocate the owl and were ecstatic to find that there was another on the neighboring dune!  We spent the rest of the morning photographing and videoing the two males and met a very nice couple afterwards and shared stories about Snowy Owls and other wildlife. 

Video of a Snowy Owl on Assateague Island

In closing I would encourage you to think about all the good people out there sharing this big blue marble.  It is easy to become dreary when we are constantly bombarded by negative news and depressing current events.  However the reality is that most people are generally decent.  As we learn more of the implications of this irruption it is going to be good people coming together to create meaningful change that can benefit Snowy Owls and all the other creatures that inhabit the Arctic, our planet’s air conditioning system.

As always feel free to contact me here.

By the way I recently was humbled to have received an honorable mention in the Art Wolfe and Shutterlove sponsored contest “The Compelling Image.”  To receive that type of recognition from a major influence of mine is incredible.  You can view the gallery of winners here.  My image can be seen in Chapter 2 entitled “The Art of Photographing Nature.”

Be well everyone.