Lessons from the lake: Part I – Going beyond f/stops & shutter speeds (c) Jim Clark

Northern Parula Warbler 04172014 Berwind Lake WMA WV (c) Jim Clark_11

“There is no place like springtime in the marsh. I like to just sit back and let it tell me all its stories.”—Karen Hollingsworth

I have learned that an outstanding image takes more than technical skills. The more you are into the moment, the more your images stand out.

This past summer I visited my childhood home in the remote coalfield region of southern West Virginia. Much has changed since I grew up there, but one constant remains: a small mountain lake that has served as my secret location to explore and photograph nature. There is nothing fancy about this lake, but it has provided me with countless hours of enjoyment.

During my latest trip, I thought about how all landscapes hold important lessons that not only help us become better nature photographers, but also help us appreciate moments in nature. Here are a few of those lessons from my little lake:

Wherever you go, there you are

Original, eh? Well, not exactly, but this drives home the importance of making the best of your situation. While this lake is not a crown jewel of the National Park Service, I have yet to be bored or disappointed with what I find there each time I visit. When I started out on this trip, I had no idea I would be treated to two extraordinary days of photographing birds from northern parula warblers to ovenbirds to American redstarts.

American Redstart - Berwind Lake Wildlife Management Area near War, West Virginia (c) Jim Clark

American Redstart – Berwind Lake Wildlife Management Area near War, West Virginia (c) Jim Clark

Most nature photographers would prefer to be in exotic locations, but let’s face it, it’s not always going to happen. Enjoy nature wherever you are at the moment.

Don’t just photograph nature; photograph to be in nature

I am always impressed by how most of my workshop students become immersed in their surroundings. From the beginner to the most advanced, each student appreciates what is happening around them.

It helps when the instructor is more than a technical guru and shows his or her enthusiasm to be in nature. Just as important is for the instructor to be an interpreter of nature and to share that knowledge with the students.

At a recent workshop, my students had just as much fun watching a great egret patiently wait for the right moment to strike the water to catch a fish as they did actually photographing the egret. We had the added enjoyment as friends and colleagues to share the scene unfolding right before us.

Next time you are in a location you think is not worthy of your time to photograph, think again.

Great Egret - Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge, VA (c) Jim Clark

Great Egret – Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge, VA (c) Jim Clark

Lingering Leaves: The American Beech Tree and the Process of Marcescence

Nature always surprises and delights. As soon as I think I have it figured out, a new discovery shows just how much more I need to learn.

Take the beautiful American beech (Fagus grandifolia), a tree gracing the hardwood forests blanketing the mountains around my childhood home in southern West Virginia. During my frequent solitary hikes, I couldn’t resist walking up to a beech to admire its smooth gray bark, which contrasted with the furrowed barks of the various oaks and hickories dominating the southern Appalachian forests.

Most dendrologists – tree scientists – describe the tree as long-lived, hardy, healthy, and strong; traits we attribute to the label “American.” For me, it’s as American in character and personality as anything can be.

The American beech is not the tallest tree in the forest, but it is certainly a most graceful one with its distinctive smooth bark and in autumn, an eloquent coat of bronze leaves. And what about those branches? From its thick, muscular boughs to the hundreds of branches that further divide into thousands of branchlets, I doubt any other eastern hardwood forest tree can compare.

In the Piedmont ecosystem of northern Virginia where I now reside, the American beech tree is common, primarily on drier sites of mesic (moist) soils. The beech dominates as a sub-canopy tree, but as a major canopy tree it yields to the more aggressive species of maples, oaks, and hickories.

The lower leaves are shown in the understory of American beech at Banshee Reeks Nature Preserve in late winter

The lower leaves are shown in the understory of American beech at Banshee Reeks Nature Preserve in late winter

At Banshee Reeks Nature Preserve in Loudoun County, Virginia – the place where I do most of my local photography – the American beech is a common forest tree. Over the years, I began to notice how the lower leaves of the beech tree stayed on the limbs long after the other forest trees had shed theirs. The beech tree retains its leaves long past the winter months, often lingering into the early spring season. But why? What advantage does it have by doing this?

The American beech tree along with a few other species such as scarlet and pin oaks have leaves classified as marcescent, which means the leaves wither but do not detach from the branches. For the American beech, these marcescent leaves occur on younger trees and on the lower branches of older trees.

American Beech trees and their marcescence leaves in late winter

American Beech trees and their marcescence leaves in late winter

Scientists believe beech trees it may discourage deer and other herbivores from feeding on the tree’s twigs and buds, which are a nutritious high-energy food source. The dried, faded leaves are much lower in nutrients and not as tasty, so one bite might be enough for deer to look elsewhere for food.American beech tree leaves in late winter

As spring emerges and more succulent forbs and herbs become available, deer focus their attention away from the beech tree. The tree then completes the final process of shedding its leaves, which by this time are nearly transparent due to the bleaching from constant exposure to the sun’s ultraviolet rays.

Nature is a never-ending teacher – an instructor for life, and for us to be its students only require us to be curious enough to want to learn more.

I have more to share with you about this most beautiful tree. So stay tuned for part two of my discovery of the American beech tree.

Understanding Nature

Olney Three-square Bulrush – Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge, Maryland

Anyone attending my photography workshops is quick to learn that I’m a naturalist first and photographer second. This stems from my childhood days exploring the mountains surrounding my home in southern West Virginia. It was my prime source of entertainment and passion, and to this day I just can’t get enough nature.

Lamar Valley at sunrise – Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming

For years the camera was just a tool document what I was doing as a wildlife ecologist. But the more I used this tool the more I discovered how it released my creativity and artistic vision – something I now use to help me excite thousands of others about the natural world.

I savor every moment when I’m immersed in all thing nature. When in the field, it’s the immediacy of the moment I cherish the most, to enjoy what I’m seeing or hearing at that very instant and not so much the anticipation of what’s to come next.

Nature is such a wonderful gift, waiting for us to unwrap it each time we explore its nooks and crannies. The joy is not so much the image I capture, but the memory I get from being in the moment. Understanding something about the animal or landscape I’m photographing adds to the enjoyment.

Big Horn Shee Ram – Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming

I try to instill this appreciation into my workshop students as well. I’m always letting them know what it is I’m hearing or seeing, and before we even start photographing, I do a tail-gate natural history session about the area we are photographing. I like to set the stage for what they will see and to help them become aware as what to look for when they embark on their photographic journey.

Black-tailed Prairie Dog near Big Timber, Montana

The more I learn about nature, the better I become at capturing it with my camera. It becomes a skill to know when to chase a moment and when to anticipate one, and this comes about by understanding what it is I’m photographing. Having that understanding helps me make that critical snap of the shutter to get a moment that really stands out.

I have never lost that child-like curiosity or fascination with the natural world; in fact, I embrace it even more as I get older. For true nature photographers, the knowledge and understanding of nature is as important as possessing the most recent lens or camera body.  It defines you as a true nature photographer.

 

Be a naturalist first, photographer second. I guarantee your images will be much more appreciated and welcomed by your audience.

Male Eastern Box Turtle near Catonsville, Maryland

Dutchman’s Breeches – Banshee Reeks Nature Preserve, Virginia

 

Focus on Pollinators

Before nature photography entered my life, I was a wildlife biologist. For nearly thirty years I lived my childhood dream working with wildlife, managing wildlands, and as my career was winding down, helping the next generation prepare for their careers in wildlife conservation. My passion for all things nature also started long before my professional career.  By the ripe age of ten I was already a seasoned birder and passionate naturalist. My love for nature photography was just icing on the top of a wonderful life and career focusing on all things natural.

Bumble Bees on Thistle

 

What’s this have to do with the title of this blog, “Focus on Pollinators?”  Well, a lot or should I say, the lack of focus on pollinators during my career as a wildlife professional.

Until recently – and I mean in the last decade — there was not much attention given to pollinators.  During my early days in wildlife conservation, the emphasis was on charismatic mega fauna such as turkey, deer, and waterfowl. The mantra was to manage the species that are hunted and then everything else will take care of itself.

Even as a young naturalist, I knew there was more than just single species management, that all things were connected to each other.  I was proud to be part of the generation that questioned the single species approach and moved toward a more ecological approach to wildlife conservation.

Hummingbird Moth on Thistle

Eventually the focus started shifting and the profession was finally acknowledging and working on a systems approach to conserving and managing our wildlife and wildlands. These days, conservation professionals apply the concepts of conservation biology and landscape ecology.

Today we are recognizing pollinators’ role in the ecosystem. We have finally acknowledged the crisis we have placed ourselves in by not addressing the importance of pollinators.

Pollinators are indeed at a crossroads in survival:  habitat loss and fragmentation, pesticides, diseases, and the invasion of non-native species that compete with native pollinators are just a few reasons for the decline.

Eastern Tailed-blue Butterfly

Fly on Harbinger of Spring

 

Blister Beetle on Gay Flower

Nature photographers have a vast, untapped resource of photographic opportunities to document these species and to use photography to bring awareness and understanding of why we need pollinators.  Consider this: Worldwide, there are more than 100,000 animal species that are pollinators, including more than 1,500 vertebrate species. From butterflies and moths, to bees, beetles and flies, to hummingbirds and bats, there exists a plethora of species to photograph.

To learn more go to: http://www.fws.gov/pollinators/.  Include images of pollinators as part of your photographic collection.  Post and share them on your website, Facebook page and other social networking sites to bring attention to these critical inhabitants of our fragile earth.

Male Monarch Butterfly on Common Milkweed

A Morning with the Stilts

During my spring and summer trips to the coastal island community of Chincoteague, Virginia, I often catch fleeting glimpses of one of our most colorful and entertaining shorebirds, the black-necked stilt. Unfortunately, fleeting glimpses is all you can get since these long-legged shorebirds frequent the salt marshes and salt pannes along the causeway leading to the village; not the safest place to park and enjoy nature. 

Last June I had an opportunity to finally get a chance to photograph them. I found a safe location away from the speeding cars, trucks, and vans that zip along the causeway.

On the morning I decided to photograph the silts, the weather was perfect with clear skies, mild  temperature and low humidity.  The early morning light was perfect as well. I positioned myself to get full frontal lighting on the birds; the low angled morning light would bathe the bird in a nice warm glow and enhance the bird’s black plumage and long pinkish-red legs.

For a couple hours I photographed these elegant birds as they fed along a small salt panne in the marsh. At times they would take off and chase any other avian intruder that dared invade their space. But once this was accomplished, they would fly back to the salt panne.

The success of this morning was made possible by reading and using the right type of light.  I also did not rush to photograph them, but instead made a slow, steady approach so the birds would not flush. While photographing, I never made any sudden movements.  During this whole time the stilts went about their business, paying me no mind.

My camera set up was Nikon D300s with a Nikkor 600mm f/4 lens with a 1.4 extender on a Wimberley BH-200 Head on a 1548 Gitzo tripod. I had several flash cards with me because in my type of photography, I prefer to work a subject as much as I can. I’m not one to snap a picture and move on; I want to savor the moment before me and watch nature play out before me. Nature first, photography second.

Stilt Fact:  The male stilt has a jet-black back and darker pink-red legs, while the female is tad bit browner on the back with duller colored legs. Unlike many shorebirds, stilts do not perform aerial courtship displays, but they will aggressively fly after potential predators.

Encounter with a Bruin

For several summers my son Carson and I would embark on a week-long journey to explore some of our favorite places in West Virginia. This became a time for father and son to take it easy, discover new things, eat what we want, and spend time as best buddies. Oh yeah, we photographed a bit, too.

One June we visited the usual locations: Canaan Valley, Blackwater Falls, and Cranberry Glades. While walking on the boardwalk at Cranberry Glades we saw signs of a black bear –scat on the boardwalk, broken alder branches, and partially-eaten skunk cabbage. Rounding a corner of the boardwalk, we heard a loud crash to the side of us. We suddenly made out the shape of a bear, which was no more than sixty feet from us.

The bear sauntered into the thickets and disappeared. But it was still thrilling for Carson, who was seven years of age at the time. He was mesmerized by the bruin since he had been wishing to see a bear for a very long time. Within a few minutes, the bear moved on. It made Carson’s day for sure.

On our way back home a few days later we decided to explore the boardwalk once again, hoping for another glimpse of the bear. Not a soul was around, so we had the boardwalk all to ourselves.

After about an hour on the boardwalk, we heard a loud crash in the alder thickets, only this time the noise was much closer. We spotted a yearling bear – not more than 35 feet from us this time – munching on skunk cabbage. With an overcast sky, Carson got a much better look this time.

What struck me the most was seeing how patient Carson was watching the bear. For nearly 30 minutes we watched, photographed, and talked in whispered tones to each other as the bear went about its business.

After several minutes of silence, Carson turned around to me and said, “Dad, if you ever need to get kids to be quiet, just put a bear in front of them.”  This young fellow was now speaking from experience.

For today’s younger generation, the act of patience is more of an anomaly than a routine occurrence. I was proud of how Carson savored the moment and I was equally honored to be with him at this time to share it with him.

Gray Tree Frog – A Sign and Sound of Summer

One sure sign that spring is in full force and that summer is knocking on the door, is the jungle-bird trill of the gray tree frog, Hyla versicolor. The frog’s call always seems to be closer than what you think — it takes a bit of effort to find these small critters. I learned many years ago that the gray tree frog can differ in its coloration – from gray to brown to green — based on its surroundings: another survival strategy for this tiny frog.

I photographed this gray tree frog a couple summers ago at the Banshee Reeks Nature Preserve near Leesburg, Virginia.  One word of caution: when handling these frogs, don’t put your hands or fingers in your mouth or rub you eyes with your fingers!  It will be quite painful from the sting…not that I have any experience with that…