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…

Hello Folks!

This is my very first blog!  Just getting started, but once I get the hang of it, I’ll be posting a variety of notes along with images about my experiences in nature and the lessons I’ve learned as a nature photographer, naturalist, and father.  Hope you enjoy!  Thanks – Jim Clark