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.

Adventures with the Majestic Snowy

Old Man Winter sure is showing off his biceps this year!  Between the Polar Vortex bringing the coldest temperatures felt in decades to some parts of the country and the constant onslaught of snow and ice, some of the local wildlife is doing whatever it can to stay warm.  Some visitors, however, are thriving in this cold.

Snowy Owls (Bubo scandiacus) have taken up residence throughout the Mid-Atlantic much to the ecstasy of wildlife enthusiasts, birders, photographers, and fans of the actor Daniel Radcliffe.

I mean Harry Potter.  I digress; let’s get back to Hedwig……   

Snowy Owl Merrill Creek Reservoir December 2011

Snowy Owl Merrill Creek Reservoir December 2011

This may be the biggest irruption of the majestic species to ever hit the lower 48, with one owl seen as far south as Jacksonville, Florida.  This is not the first time a Snowy Owl has been seen in North Florida, nor is it the first irruption to ever hit the United States, but the magnitude of the size of this irruption is amazing.  It has been particularly exceptional in the eastern and Mid-Atlantic region where a new Snowy Owl is being reported almost everyday in terrain ranging from farmland to downtown city rooftops.  Never before has the Mid-Atlantic hosted this many of the regal species.

“Hold on there, Hendricks.  Didn’t I read something about Snowy Owls wintering here a few years ago?”

Yes, dear reader, that is correct.  The winter of 2011-2012 also brought an irruption of Snowy Owls which spread across most of the United States.  However while at that time it reached as far south as Oklahoma, it was not as apparent in the Mid-Atlantic.  Nevertheless I thought that irruption was one for the record books, until November of 2013 when the owls were spotted all over Maryland, Delaware, Virginia, and New England.  They were even seen along the shores of the North Carolina, Georgia, and, wait for it, Bermuda!   

My first wild Snowy Owl experience came in early December, 2011 as I left my home at 12:30 AM to make the trek to the Merrill Creek Reservoir located in Harmony Township, New Jersey.  I received a report of a Snowy Owl who took up residence at the creek and naïvely thought I should make the journey and attempt to see the bird.  I had never visited this area before and I remember asking a hunter at five in the morning if he had seen the bird and some joggers an hour and a half later.  None of them knew there was a Snowy Owl at their doorstep!  As I circled around the reservoir I eventually came across a father and son, cameras and tripod setup, viewing the owl.  “These are my people,” I thought to myself and they were kind enough to allow me to spend the rest of the morning with them.  We had a pretty fun time and were able to watch the owl for quite awhile.  What was more important about that day is that the father, Tom, became a very good friend of mine.  He wrote about that day on his excellent blog here.   

So what makes a top predator of the Arctic seek wintering grounds far out of its normal range?  Snowy Owls, while opportunistic predators, primarily feed on Lemmings, a species they are cyclically linked to.  When Lemming populations are abundant, Snowy Owls will lay more eggs and have greater levels of chick survival.  This high level of fecundity will eventually drive the younger owls to feeding grounds much farther away when the Lemming population becomes scarce.  More owls and less food correlates with an irruption.

A few days ago I walked for miles amongst sand dunes on a cold, windy day in hopes of locating a Snowy Owl.  I am purposely avoiding “Hot Spot” locations posted on the internet because of so many instances involving photographers and amateur wildlife enthusiasts flushing birds due to venturing too close.  Everyone wants to see these owls!  I think it is fantastic because it hopefully will be the catalyst for more people to enjoy and appreciate wildlife.  With that though, comes proper viewing etiquette.  Too often people will think of wild animals with a theme park/zoological facility mindset, which is very detrimental to a wild animal.  Snowy Owls are very sensitive and come from areas where few humans reside.  Always respect the wild of the animal and of the land.

As I hiked amongst the dunes and continuously scanned the area my heart rate quadrupled as I came across a Snowy Owl sitting on top of a dune about six feet in front of me!  How I did not see it prior to this is a testament to the elusive nature of the species.  I slowly backed away and lowered to my side on the sand and slid backwards.  I was far too close and did not want to scare this bird.  I then laid in the sand for about 15 minutes to allow the bird to become acclimated to my presence and see I was not a threat.  The strong wind muted any sound I made from setting up my gear and as I came to one knee to compose the first shot the bird flew over to the fence around the dune to check me out.  What an inquisitive Snowy Owl!  She continued to watch me for a few moments until she flew back further from where she was before and I saw she had a meal.  Unfortunately her back was turned to me and I couldn’t see too well of what she was consuming.  I watched for a few minutes until she flew back to the fence to watch me again!  She allowed me to fire off image after image.  It began to get darker and I decided it was time to leave.  I still had a long way to go back as I was not camping and she flew forward to another part of the fence to watch me off.  I fired off another image under the setting sun and she flew back to her meal.  


Having the cold wind and sand engulf me was not the most enjoyable experience in the world but sitting patiently for that time, I believe, allowed the owl to become comfortable with my presence.  Every grain of sand that smacked me in the face was worth the experience of photographing this amazing creature.    

Are you hoping to come across a Snowy Owl?  If so make sure to scan open fields as these areas are most similar to the tundra where they nest.  Farmland, sand dunes, and airports seem to be particularly popular with this irruption.  Also scan fences and light poles that surround these areas as they are likely to perch on them.  Most importantly be patient and keep your distance.  If you do not stress the owl you may be rewarded by witnessing it exhibit a wide array of behavior.  


It is very rare to have an irruption of this level and to have two separated by one year is unheard of.  The historic implications of this arctic mass exodus may shed some information about the overall health of this precarious ecosystem which is rapidly changing as the climate warms.  Maybe the presence of this incredible, resilient, animal will inspire people to think more proactively of how they use their natural resources and how they too can help protect the land.  Maybe I am just being an eternal optimist.  Regardless, I hope.

As always feel free to contact me here.

Snowy Owl January 2014. Under a Blood Orange Sky.

Snowy Owl January 2014. Under a Blood Orange Sky.