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 Bobcats and Ethics

On Saturday May, 18, 2013 I had one of the most profound moments of my life in wilderness adventure by photographing the reclusive Bobcat in Shenandoah National Park.

Before I share the details of this incredible occasion allow me to share my history with this incredible place and the joy it has brought to my life.  I have been hiking extensively and photographing in Shenandoah National Park for over a decade now.  I've camped, backpacked, and climbed this section of Appalachia and enjoyed it's mountain vistas, excellent wildlife viewing, and the seasonal changes that bring innumerable amounts of photographic study.  The park is simply awesome.  It is so close to Washington D.C. yet it offers true wilderness recreation that feels light years away from the political and traffic gridlock that plagues the city.

Seeing a Black Bear is always wonderful; as is hiking to a waterfall on a misty morning.  Shenandoah has plenty of both.  Of the over 50 species of mammals that inhabit the park,  the one that had always eluded me is the Bobcat.  I've seen their tracks in Virginia, West Virginia, Maryland, Utah, and Florida.  I've heard them in the mountains of Virginia.  In fact those who study them report of rarely seeing them.  I knew my chances of seeing one of these majestic cats in the wild were slim but it has always been a goal to, at the least,  catch a glimpse.  That was until I saw one staring at my car at 5 in the morning six weeks ago.  It was amazing!  It was wonderful!  I could have turned around right then and felt fulfilled!  Sure, it lasted a total of 4 seconds before it disappeared into the dark forest, but I saw my first wild Bobcat!  "What a morning," I said to myself, and all before sunrise!

To see any of the wild cats in North America is a rare treat as they are all reclusive and avoid humans.  The Mountain Lion, Canada Lynx, and Ocelot are rarely seen beauties who are suffering from a multitude of conservation woes which adds to the mystique of seeing them in their natural habitat.  In terms of species' concern, the Bobcat's numbers are fairly stable but they are still no less evasive to the human eye.

Rewinding back to this past Saturday I had arrived in Shenandoah National Park around 5:30 in the morning.  There was a heavy fog throughout the interior of the park, keeping visibility to about 10 feet in front of me.  I figured wildlife opportunities would be few and and that I should take advantage of the eerie fog to create scenic photographs.  It was a cool morning in the higher elevations, especially with no sunlight to burn off the fog, and I packed accordingly.  Whenever I begin a hike I always take a deep breathe in reverence to be within such an amazing environment, and make sure I have my gear and safety equipment easily accessible just in case something unexpected happens.  Within 5 minutes of my descent I witnessed a bobcat, a wild, beautiful, living bobcat, crossing the trail about 2 yards from where I stood!  I believe my, and the Bobcat's, heart stopped for a split second when we made eye contact.  The Bobcat went into the forest and I quickly switched to my long lens and attached it to my tripod.  To not appear too large and threatening to the bobcat, I crawled upon the forest floor leaving plenty of space between this beautiful predator and myself.  The bobcat was fixated on something ahead of it and began to move in a stalking position. I realized it was on morning hunt.  For about 15 minutes I was able to keep an extremely low profile and photograph this species that had eluded me for so long.  The bobcat stopped at a fallen tree for about 5 minutes with its back turned to me, eyes fixed on something in the field.  This incredible moment ended abruptly when the bobcat leapt over the fallen tree and caught what was either a field mouse or chipmunk and ran off into the adjacent woods.  Mother nature humbled me again with her power and beauty.


Bobcat in Shenandoah National Park May, 2013

Bobcat in Shenandoah National Park May, 2013

Wow!  This is easily one of my favorite moments that I have captured.  Ansel Adams spoke of chance favoring the prepared mind and that philosophy is clearly illustrated here.  Years of hiking and photographing wildlife prepared me for this rare moment and I was fortunate enough to take advantage of it by knowing my equipment, being physically fit, and understanding my subjects behavior. 

If you notice in the photograph there is heavy fog behind the bobcat, which creates a scene with soft and subdued lighting.  While this is not my favorite type of light I think it adds to the photograph by emphasizing the mysterious nature of this reclusive species.  Would I have preferred more dramatic lighting?  Yes, of course.  But this was a once in a lifetime opportunity and one has to take what Mother Nature presents.  What you are viewing is a wild bobcat in its natural habitat.  Beautiful, primal, and most importantly, natural. 

Anyone can go to a game farm and take photographs of a bobcat placed in great light and perfect scenery.  Unfortunately, most photographs of North American cats are of game farms specimens. An ignorant public and ignorant publishers are partially to blame for this.  Since I began photographing wildlife I made a promise to only photograph wild animals in their natural habitat.  Photographing rare and elusive species in a game farm environment presents an unrealistic view of nature to the public.  One can spend years in the deserts of Utah and never catch a trace of a Mountain Lion.  Yet there are plenty of stock photographs that show a Mountain Lion leaping over red rock formations, in dramatic lighting no less.  One could argue of the aesthetic beauty of some of these image, which I will not debate.  My concern is that it is a not true, wild moment and if one is going to practice this type of photography it should be labeled accordingly and not as "wildlife."  If one is going to photograph in these fabricated scenarios it is the photographers responsibility to inform the viewer that this is a captive specimen.  

Another issue with game farm photography is that the animals often live in sub par conditions.  Famed wildlife photographer Tom Mangelsen wrote a fantastic essay on this subject, which can be found here:  

I've provided additional views of the bobcat below in order to express the differences in wild versus captive specimens.  You can see that this bobcat is lean, and not heavy as their captive counterparts typically are.  It is lean because it has to hunt to survive with no certainty of when it will capture its next meal.  I've also included a close-up of its back and what appears to be a rather large tick feeding away at its host.  Nature presents us with the hard realities of the world; predator and prey, parasite and host.  The adventure of wildlife photography is lost in the world of game farm photography.  You will not see a bobcat every time you head to the mountain (trust me, I know) but when you do, you will appreciate that beautiful, rare moment that you hope inspires your viewer to seek the same experience.


Wildlife photographers owe it to all those who care about wildlife to adhere to a strict code of ethics where we will disclose when our subjects are captive specimens.  This is a wild bobcat: imperfect and beautiful, primitive and graceful.  It is a moment that I will take with me forever and I’m glad I get to share it with you.

To the good hike,