The American Beech Tree & Sooty Mold (c) Jim Clark

In an earlier blog, I wrote about the American beech tree’s ability to retain its leaves long past the winter months; a survival strategy known as marcescence. The American beech tree is unique in another way: it is the only one of ten species of the genera Fagus in the temperate region of the northern hemisphere to occur in North America.  It’s just another reason for my love of this tree.

Considered the patriarch of the eastern hardwood forest, the presence of American beech trees (Fagus grandifolia) usually indicates a rich forest flora. I say “usually” because intense browsing by white-tailed deer can completely wipe out the forest understory.  Nonetheless, it is always fun to explore a forest that has its share of this beautiful tree.

During one of my winter hikes through a beech-maple forest at the Banshee Reeks Nature Preserve near Leesburg, Virginia, I noticed a conglomeration of black powdery substance piled high on select branches of some beech trees along the trail.  This was the first time I had seen this, so I photographed it and return to my office to begin yet another investigation into the nature of the American beech tree.  What is that stuff?!!!

American Beech Fungus Scorias spongiosa - Banshee Reeks (c)  Jim Clark_23_01

Sooty Mold on branch of American Beech Tree at Banshee Reeks Nature Preserve, VA (c) Jim Clark

I discovered the black powdery substance is a sooty mold that grows on the sugary honey secretion – called honeydew – of insects such as aphids, scales, and whiteflies.

American Beech Fungus Scorias spongiosa - Banshee Reeks (c)  Jim Clark_50_01

Sooty Mold on branch of American Beech Tree at Banshee Reeks Nature Preserve, VA (c) Jim Clark

In the case of the American beech tree, the culprit is most likely the beech blight aphid, which colonize branches of the tree and exudes its honeydew on the branches below the colony. The black mold is caused when the fungus Scorias spongiosa grows on the honeydew deposits. While cosmetically unappealing, the accumulation of sooty mold is harmless to the tree.

So the next time you are hiking in the forest and you see a pile of what looks like burnt charcoal on the branches of an American beech tree, rest assured it’s not from the outdoor cooking of a Keebler elf. It’s just a sooty mold!

Sooty Mold on branch of American Beech Tree at Banshee Reeks Nature Preserve, VA (c) Jim Clark

Sooty Mold on branch of American Beech Tree at Banshee Reeks Nature Preserve, VA (c) Jim Clark

American Beech Fungus Scorias spongiosa - Banshee Reeks (c)  Jim Clark_71_01

Sooty Mold on trunk of American Beech Tree at Banshee Reeks Nature Preserve, VA (c) Jim Clark

Lessons from the lake, Part II: Exploring with an open mind (c) Jim Clark

Beach at Sunset – Assateague Island National Seashore, VA (c) Jim Clark

“When you have seen one ant, one bird, one tree, you have not seen them all.” Edward O. Wilson

Harvard professor emeritus Edward O. Wilson is one of my conservation heroes, and this is one of my favorite quotes. All nature photographers can probably relate to it. There is nature to be seen everywhere and all kinds of wildlife behavior to record.

The little mountain lake in West Virginia that I introduced you to in the previous blog taught me a few additional lessons that reinforce the meaning of that quote.

You have choices, explore your options

Regardless of how often I photograph at a location, I look for (and find) something new to photograph every time I’m there. By simply changing your perspective—slowly moving around a scene—you can discover compositions that have yet to be captured.

Cooper’s Hawk at sunset – Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge, VA (c) Jim Clark

Understanding how to use different lighting situations—side, backlit, diffused, and frontal—also provides more options. While the subject remains the same, the interpretation doesn’t. And changing the focal length provides even more choices on portraying a familiar subject in different ways. For example, instead of using a wide-angle, opt for a mid-range telephoto to compress a scene and isolate a portion of it.

It’s never crowded going the extra mile

Salt Marsh in morning fog 11122014 Queen Anne's Ldg Chincoteague VA (c) Jim Clark_1

                        Coastal Marsh in November morning fog – Chincoteague, VA (c) Jim Clark

Through the years, I have become more discerning in what I photograph and how I go about it—passing up some typical compositions that I’ve done time and time again. Keeping in mind that I have choices and can explore other options, I usually give myself some time to become comfortable in a place. Usually, inspiration quickly follows.

Recently, I spent two weeks photographing along the eastern shore of Maryland and Virginia. On the first day at each location, I didn’t worry about what to photograph. My cameras were at my side, but I took that time to explore and enjoy the area. That’s something I’ve learned to do over time, and I continually strive to instill it in my students. Enjoy the moment first and then the image will come to you. After getting into the moment, I started seeing more to photograph. Instead of rushing, I took my time. I watched, listened and absorbed my surroundings. Then, I decided to push myself by waiting just a little bit longer. While I waited, the marsh told me its stories.

Berwind Lake Wildlife Management Area, McDowell County, WV (c) Jim Clark

The lake at Berwind Lake Wildlife Management Area near War, West Virginia (c) Jim Clark

Going the extra mile means having patience. That’s the gift of nature photography. Savor the special moments that unfold before you. Capture a new, more informed image. Those who view your image just might feel the moment as well.

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.

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:  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

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…