For the past five years, the coming of spring brought excitement and anticipation to the arrival of one of my favorite warblers to a location very close to my home. Many of you have heard me mention, or read about through my prior posts, loving references to the Hanover Watershed Wildlife Management Area which shares its acreage with both York County Pennsylvania and Carroll County Maryland along the Mason-Dixon Line. There is a special section of this area that sits on the Pennsylvania side just below the MD state line which was a clear-cut, freshly planted with pine seedlings along with a thorny and brushy under story that seemed to be a highly prized breeding habitat of the Prairie Warbler.
This area had been a prior favorite of mine for the Indigo Bunting and the numerous sparrows present. I kept hearing multiple symphonies’ of a rapidly ascending sweet trill including a “check note” that I just couldn’t quite put my finger on. I was at that time, still very new to birding and especially new world warblers.
This was also a familiar tune that I had heard near the scrubby and wooded areas of the Gettysburg National Battlefield during some of my visits, but I hadn’t laid eyes on this songster at neither location.
So I spent an evening listening to the song of every warbler on my iBird smart phone app until I put a name to the sound.
A few days later I returned to my little spot in the watershed to see if I cold get a visual and capture a few images of this beautiful woodland warbler. The area covers about 2,000 feet of length and 670 feet of width along a busy roadway running north-east. The location is posted so any observing or photography had to be done from the vehicle along the road shoulder and when the weather is dry, the grassy shoulder is suitable to get off the road completely and safely out of the way of traffic.
There is however, signs warning “No Parking”, but luckily the caretakers of the property know both me and my vehicle well and afford me tolerance for my undertakings. The entire watershed is posted and not open to the public with the exception of the hunting area on the Maryland side which is by permit only, so all birding must be done off the roadways; the majority of which are gravel with very light traffic.
I started my exploration at the southern most corner of the property and there I heard the first song of the Prairie that morning. I also knew what I was now looking for so spotting the bird was much easier and faster and his location gave me multiple opportunities for photography. It’s funny how they seemed not to be bothered by me sitting there quietly enjoying and capturing their presence. I must have heard, observed and photographed at least 6 or 7 birds along that stretch of road during the morning hours that day along with the one pictured right perched on the top of a pine sapling. And that didn’t include the other birds I had either heard or spotted farther into the property.
“Peek-A-Boo” with the Prairie Warbler
How some of our warblers get their names behooves me considering the Magnolia has noting to do with the magnolia tree and the Prairie doesn’t live in, or is associated with open prairies. The Prairie prefers scrubby areas, grown over brushy pastures, young pines and breeds in dry old clearings, edges of forest, and sandy Pine Barrens with undergrowth of scrub oaks, and notably on ends of slopes and ridges. Now that I come to think of it, I have heard this song over in the New Jersey Pinelands while photographing wild orchids at several of the bogs. Some of the permanent residents of this species in Florida prefer the coastal mangrove forests. It also takes a liking to power-line right-of-ways, Christmas tree farms and abandoned orchards.
“Lurking in the Shadows” A Prairie Warbler captured with the flash..
Interesting facts include that Prairie Warbler males typically return to the same breeding territory used in previous years. This species is monogamous and will typically find a new mate each year. The female might leave after a nesting attempt with one male and attempt to mate with another male; and then some males may also mate with multiple females in non-adjacent territories Pairing normally occurs approximately one week after the male returns to his territory with breeding occurring from mid May to Mid July.
“Birds and Blooms” …. What an appropriate image..
The Prairie warbler’s breeding range encompasses most of the eastern United States from eastern Texas, north through southern Missouri, northeast through southern New England, and south to northern Florida. There are also isolated populations north into Michigan which are listed as “endangered” and continue into southern Ontario. The non-breeding range is almost exclusively within the Caribbean islands, with a few birds holding a permanent residence within the extreme south-eastern US (Florida).
“King of the Thorns” no problem with his perch whatsoever…
The Prairie warbler will begin breeding within its first year and will breed annually throughout its lifespan average of 3.5 years to a maximum potential of 10.5 years. The female will normally lay a clutch of 3 to 5 eggs and though only one brood is typical, she may lay an additional clutch. Post-fledgling mortality in this species is very high, but mortality from post-fledge to independence is quite low at only 18%…
“Sing A Happy Song”…. After the “attentive” pose above, he let out a tune…
As with so many of our warbler species, the greatest threat is habitat loss caused by development and “clean” farming. Habitat is also critical within its winter range and much has been lost to wood cutting, agriculture and of course more development. Besides habitat loss, Wind Turbines along migration routes and feral cats have also taken a toll, especial with the latter in Florida. I can remember a trip to the 10,000 Islands Region (southwest coast) and the Florida Keys where I witnessed an abundance of feral cats. I counted almost two dozen at one motel we stayed at in Marathon. Hurricanes and children hunting with sling-shots is also a major threat in the Caribbean.
“Rear View” …. A nice over the shoulder pose
Another pair of serious threats to the Prairie Warbler, like many of the warbler family, is the Brown-headed cowbird which acts as a nest parasite to this species and can cause the female to leave the nest completely. Then finally predators such as snakes and corvids take their toll. In fact predators are responsible for about 80% of nesting failures… Like many of our New World Warblers and other songbirds, populations have been declining over the past years.
“Face to Face” with the Prairie Warbler …. What more could one ask for !
All of the images presented throughout this post were captured at the same location over the past few years. However, as I had mentioned before, this little jewel can be found almost anywhere in his suitable habitat. The population in my favorite spot has been declining somewhat as the planted pines continue to grow taller shading out the sun dependent brushy under story. But, I will look for them again this coming spring as I always do…
Happy Birding to All!
Avian Photography is truly a passion and I honestly have to say, of all the species I photograph, the colorful and tiny wood warbler has to be my favorite. The majority of my friends and peers much prefer the majestic “raptor” and owls as their subjects of choice. While I enjoy photographing those as well, and especially the rarest Accipiters and Buteos (Hawks) to my region; I find trying to follow the tiniest of bird with a long telephoto lens; where the word “still” is a total misnomer in and out of the tightest of natural cover, “the ultimate photographic challenge”. Then you add forever changing light, from one extreme to another, creating an exposure nightmare and adding a final touch to the feat.
A Michaux State Forest Black and White goes “Vogue” for the camera
This post will be the beginning of a series dedicated to the “Woodland Warbler” and contain the species I have been fortunate enough to photograph; and over time collect enough imagery to keep things interesting. Just photographing these birds is only half of the challenge whereas establishing the proper identification for each can be the difficult part. Spring and breeding season identifications can be as simple as just looking them up in reference materials such as a pocket guide-book or on a smart-phone app. Fall and migrating birds can create quite a bit of confusion with many species appearing similar, or with some completely changing in appearance. In some cases, one has to really pay attention to some very subtle differences between the “look-a-likes”… All in all, this is what keeps it fun and interesting.
Black and White warbler photographed deep within the
Rhododendrons of the Michaux State Forest in Pennsylvania.
One of my favorites, and one of the most prolific breeders to my region is the Black and White Warbler, which is the only member of the genus Mniotilta; which means “moss plucking” and refers to the bird’s habit of probing for insects. The Black and White warbler is also one of the first to arrive to the breeding grounds which includes from southern Canada south through the eastern U.S., and south to Florida. It winters along the Gulf Coast, the Caribbean, Central America, and South America. I often see wintering populations during my Christmas trips home to the Texas Gulf Coast
“Just Hanging Around”
The Black and White warbler forages unlike any other of the warbler species, with the movements of crawling up and down tree trunks or under or over branches like the nuthatch. With the unusual long hind toe and claw on each foot that allows them to move securely on the surface of tree bark, they were once referred to as the Black and White Creeper. However, the Brown Creeper can only move up the tree whereas the Black and White warbler can climb or descend in any direction.
Black and White Creeper???
Black and White warblers breed in both purely deciduous and mixed deciduous-conifer forests with a preference to large mature trees with an under-story of smaller trees and shrubs. During the migration and winter, this warbler can be found in a variety of forest types as well as woodland borders, gardens, and coffee plantations.
An “Attentive Pose” by this Black and White Warbler
photographed in Dorchester County Maryland
During the spring and after they form a pair, the female will begin building the nest which is cup-shaped and is made of leaves and grasses. The nests are constructed on the ground and normally at the base of a tree or next to a fallen log and are usually well concealed under dead leaves or branches.
Once the nest is finished, the female will lay a clutch of 4 to 6 eggs which are white and with brown flecks in appearance. The incubation period consists of 10 to 12 days. The male will occasionally bring the female her meals during the incubation period. After the chicks hatch, both parents will assume the duties of feeding the young and defending the nest
“Belting Out a Tune”
The song of the Black and White Warbler is commonplace
in the Michaux State Forest of Pennsylvania
The chicks will normally fledge and leave the nest after 8 to 12 days, but will remain within their parent’s territory for 2 to 3 weeks before setting out on their own. Most Black and White warbler pairs will raise only one brood per year. However, some breeding pairs are able to raise two broods per summer. Black-and-white warblers are diurnal (active during the day) and all are migratory.
“Wee-see – Wee-see – Wee-see – Wee-see”
sings another Michaux Black and White Warbler
The Black and White Warbler is a fairly common bird of the forest with a present population of about 140,000,000 across their range. The species has a preference for large forested areas and one of the major threats facing them is forest fragmentation. Nest parasitism by cowbirds and as insectivores, pesticide poisoning is another major concern for this species… As a “nocturnal migrant”, Black-and-white Warblers are a frequent victim of collisions with glass, towers, and wind turbines.
A fall migrant grants me a sweet pose in my beloved and close to home,
Hanover Watershed Wildlife Management Area
At present, Black and White warblers are not threatened or endangered. However, they are protected under the U.S. Migratory Bird Act. May we keep the populations safe and happy!
The world of “Avian Photography” is filled with discovery, wonder and intrigue presenting a “never ending” learning environment as well as a sense of accomplishment after successfully pursuing and photographically capturing your subject…
Step one begins with research and careful study of your subject’s biology, preferred habitat, seasonal movements and daily habits; hunting, feeding, etc… Once you accomplish the preceding, it’s time to start looking! Although sometimes quite fickle, finding owls is not a difficult chore. Most are quite habitat oriented during select seasons or year round. Some are migratory and some are not.
Above, with an intense stare, a short-eared owl patrols the winter grasslands of Adams County, Pennsylvania in search of prey.
The Short- eared Owl, Asio flammeus, is a creature of our “open spaces”; including the prairie, meadows, tundra, moorlands, marshes, savanna, and scattered woodlands sharing the fore mentioned. Short eared owls can be found on every continent except Australia and Antarctica.
Drawing a line from the southern border of New York state and tracing it west would mark the southern edge of their breeding range, however the Short- eared Owl is also one of a few species that seems to have benefited from strip-mining. It will occasionally nest on reclaimed and replanted mines south of its normal breeding range. Northern populations are believed to be highly migratory and nomadic; recently showing an increase of the owls at the edge and farther south of their normal breeding range especially during the winter months.
A Short-eared Owl carefully watches a Northern Harrier above violating his feeding territory on a brackish marsh near the Chesapeake Bay in the state of Maryland…
Finding the Short- eared Owl in the Mid-Atlantic region is again a task of locating suitable habitat along with applying a lot of patience while exploring each location. A lot of grief can be avoided by searching the local birding “List Serves” and/or using e-Bird’s vast mapping and sighting resources for recent sightings. But, even with all of the available information, sighting and photographing these birds can be “hit or miss” at your selected locations.
King of the Hill”….Variations on a Pose…
A Pennsylvania short-ear enjoys an elevated perch to keep an eye out for dinner.
You can spend hours watching for one to take flight and still not see an owl. As a photographer, things become even more critical, especially the available light and its angle. The optimum time of day to spot the short-eared owl is during the late afternoon hours until dusk, or an hour before sunrise and perhaps a couple of hours afterwards. However, it’s not unusual to see this species during the daylight hours “on the wing” over and hunting the grasslands and marshes. As I have learned over the years past, this normally nocturnal or early/late hunter may choose to perform his activities far earlier in the day and rest quietly during the normal feeding window.
Owl and raptor photography has somewhat become a “main-stay” for me during the winter months while my other feathered friends are on hiatus in the tropics. While I like to photograph wintering waterfowl as well, I normally always end my day with an owl outing during the final hours of daylight; and many times joining my good friend Larry Hitchens on Maryland’s Eastern Shore and what he calls his “Lower-Slower” Dorchester County. Larry’s knowledge of reputable locations, as well as the habits of these birds has been immensely helpful in my success with the short-ear and other owl species.
A short-ear patrols the Adams County grasslands in south-central Pennsylvania.
I will make an effort here to share a few notable locations to begin your short- ear experience. These areas normally see this species on a yearly basis, but it is still wise to use the links I provided above before heading out. I also noted that much of a successful outing can be “hit or miss” and almost based on the “luck of the draw” so frustration can be common place.
“Strike A Pose”
Freedom Township Grasslands, Adams County Pennsylvania
I will begin close to our home near Gettysburg Pennsylvania and travel south from the Freedom Township Grasslands (which I will cover shortly) along Bullfrog Road into Maryland’s Carroll County to the road’s end at Baumgardner Road. The field to the east, just before Baumgardner is productive year after year it seems and we enjoyed a pair of “shorties” there just this past weekend. A previous report sighted 3 at that location along with a pair of Northern Harriers and other raptors…… Map via Google
Freedom Township Grasslands…Traveling west from Business Route US 15 on Millerstown Road, through the Battlefield and after Millerstown becomes Pumping Station Road just past West Confederate Ave, and continuing will take you through the heart of the Freedom Township Grasslands to the intersection of Bullfrog Road previously mentioned. This road will also take you to the historic and “hallowed” Sachs Covered Bridge which is well worth a visit before waiting for the Short-ears to fly. All of the “flight” and snow images were captured in this area…. Map via Google
“The Capture”…. Freedom Township Grasslands, Adams County, Pennsylvania
On the “negative side”, last winter we found 7 short-eared owls in the field on the left just before the intersection of Pumping Station and Bullfrog Roads. However, this spring brought the plowing under of most of that field and the planting of corn which certainly will not benefit the owls and the other grassland species. “What was once supposed to be preserved”, is now falling victim to estate development and farming.
There still are substantial areas of grasslands available, but for how long is anyone’s guess! The same is happening to the Gettysburg Battlefield National Park. Just a couple of years back the park contained huge expanses of grasslands, especially along Business Route US 15. For visitors to the park with an eye for nature, these fields always held a few short-eared owls as well as many raptors. Meadowlarks and Bobolinks were also once abundant visitors.
These same fields today are now mostly farmland, which the Historical Society wanted to bring the area back into the Civil War era. However, I seriously doubt that today’s modern farm equipment and hybrid crops were used or planted during that period of our history! I’m also willing to guess that most visitors to the park would much rather see a rich natural environment with flora and fauna instead of commercial modern-day farming of which they can see on any highway across America.
“A Watchful Eye”
This short-eared owl keeps a careful watch of another patrolling his hunting grounds
There are several other locations to look for the short- ear, and where I have observed them in the past not too far from my home here in south-central Pennsylvania. Just above the Mason Dixon Line, and just above the town of Stewartstown, lies a reclaimed landfill planted in native grasses called the Hopewell Township Recreation Area. The area will occasionally host the Short- eared Owl as well as other grassland raptors and songbirds. Map via Google.
There are a series of trails that traverse the property and two nice viewing platforms have been added, one at the parking lot and the other mid-field. The area has become very popular with dog walkers and I’m not sure as to the impact on the wildlife.
Freedom Township Grasslands
Another notable location to find the short-eared owl, is the Middle Creek Wildlife Management Area, sharing acreage in both Lancaster and Lebanon Counties, Pennsylvania. Middle Creek is most frequently visited by waterfowl enthusiasts, especially in early March for its amazing population of migrating snow geese, but also holds a nice population of raptors and various owl species that patrol its surrounding grasslands. The owls are most prevalent along Kleinfeltersville Road, north of the Visitors Center through the rolling uplands. This is really the only access to the area during the winter months until the first of March when the tour road opens. Map via Google..
A Pennsylvania short- ear rests along a plowed farm lane upon a clump of snow
As I have previously mentioned, wide – open grasslands and wetlands compose the primary winter habitat for the Short – eared Owl. Traveling eastward to the coastal plains and marshes of Maryland and Delaware, present numerous opportunities to find this owl; in fact almost too many to mention. However, I will list a few of my favorites.
A Fishing Bay Short – eared Owl perches on a Trappers mark….
Larry’s beloved “Lower – Slower” Dorchester County in Maryland was my introduction to this owl species and still remains productive year after year. The Chesapeake Bay, Blackwater, Choptank and Nanticoke River wetlands are prime locations. Public lands like the Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge (Map via Google) and the Fishing Bay Wildlife Management Area (Map via Google) provide plenty of access. The thing to remember about this area, is to find a “back-road” to explore during the late afternoon hours until sunset/dusk and keep an eye out for hunting owls.
A Fishing Bay short-ear takes a break from patrolling the wetlands
Traveling farther south via US Route 50 to Salisbury and then US Route 13 towards Virginia and the town of Princess Anne, the Deal Island Wildlife Management Area (Map via Google) offers back-road access to a vast wetland complex and notable sightings of the short-eared owl. This area is also very productive for wintering waterfowl. Again, I want to stress you doing a little research via the birding reports and eBird. You never quite know when one will be reported.
Finally, I will include the state of Delaware in my presentation and several popular locations to find the short-eared owl. Starting with the Bombay Hook National Wildlife Refuge (Map via Google) and heading a short distance south to Port Mahon Road and then the Prime Hook National Wildlife Refuge and of course, “parts in-between”.
I have observed this owl species at the Bombay Hook refuge on quite a few occasions during both the early morning and late evening hours flying out over the Delaware Bay marshes, adjacent to both the Shearness and Bear Swamp Pools. Most visitors have their eyes glued to the fauna occupying the fresh-water impoundments at the refuge and pay little attention to the open marshes to the east along the bay and miss the spectacle. So, on your next early or late visit, you just might want to make a little extra effort to be observant to the marsh.
Just a few miles to the north of the Bombay Hook refuge is the Woodland Beach Wildlife Management Area (Map via Google) and I have observed a short-ear patrolling the marsh from the observation tower a few years back so this might be a good spot to check out as well.
A Fishing Bay short-ear lands on a Trappers Mark
Traveling south from Bombay Hook along DE Route 9, you come to the town of Little Creek and Port Mahon Road, (Map via Google) which is a very popular route for those with an interest in shore-birds. This road is also very well known for wintering short-eared owls and sightings are reported on a yearly basis. Just be very careful when traveling this road as only half is paved and the rest is sand, shell and rocky rip-rap. You can easily damage tires if not paying attention to your route of travel. A favorite spot of mine to watch for the owls is from the elevated steps of the fishing pier.
A bit farther south of Port Mahon Road lies the Ted Harvey Conservation/Wildlife Management Area (Map via Google) and the Logan Tract of the Little Creek Wildlife Area at the end of DE Route 9, via Kitts Hummock Road; and then continuing south along DE Route 1, Bowers Beach Road contains favorable habitat near it’s end and the Delaware Bay.
Then finally, Broadkill Road, (Map via Google) ending at Broadkill Beach through the Prime Hook National Wildlife Refuge also contains suitable habitat and is certainly worth taking a gander…
Hopefully, all of the above areas mentioned will give ‘owling” fans a bit of reference and a few starting points to begin their adventures. Finding these birds is “game of chance” on most occasions, but can be a lot of fun and the rewards when successful are by far worth the effort..
Happy “Owling” Everyone!!!
Greater Snow Geese
Middle Creek Wildlife Management Area
Lancaster County, Pennsylvania
hat could be more exhilarating for a lover of birds than the visual treat of tens of thousands of Snow Geese launching from their over-night roost during the early dawn hours in an exploding massive cloud of white and painted with a warm glow from the rising sun! And it’s not only a spectacle of sight, but sound as well, which at close range can be quite intense to the human ear. But it’s an experience of an audible magnitude that one will remember and cherish for the rest of their lives.
This “Blast-off” as many of us call it, can be the highlight of the day and an overwhelming experience for the avid waterfowl enthusiast. It only requires a journey to your favorite wildlife refuge or other location where these birds are present during the wee hours of the morning, and then arriving at or before nautical twilight, finding the birds, setting up and then patiently waiting for the event… Let’s not forget the stop en-route at your favorite local donut shop for coffee and those delectable sugary treats that so many of us simply cannot do with out.
For the waterfowl photographer, this extravaganza can often take place before he or she has suitable light to accomplish their craft. But today’s modern digital DSLR’s are capable of capturing images in very low light so opportunities are on the increase. However, all is not lost “missing the shot” as just experiencing the event itself is worth the trip, even with the camera sitting idle on the seat of your vehicle.
Weather can play a major role in the morning departure of these birds to their chosen feeding grounds as well as the distance they have to travel. I have seen them wait until well after sunrise to lift-off on numerous occasions, especially on foggy mornings.
Exodus with a “splash” of color….
The rising sun adds a warm reddish glow to this somewhat abstract composition of thousands of Greater Snow Geese “blasting off” from the Raymond Pool at the Bombay Hook National Wildlife Refuge in Delaware.
Growing up along the Louisiana and upper Texas Coast, the first hint of a November chill would bring anticipation of the arrival of thousands of Lesser Snow Geese, White-fronted Geese (Speckle-bellies) and wintering ducks to the marshes and coastal prairies. During my younger years my excitement was more from a hunting perspective but as I grew older the visual enjoyment alone became equally exciting or perhaps even more so. I have long since put down the gun for the camera instead and enjoy observing and photographing life more than taking it for whatever the reason.
Waterfowl hunting had been a tradition among my family and friends; more so than deer or any other game. Hunting the Wild Turkey was a close second as far as a dedication and source of enjoyment, and I still enjoy that challenge to this day, although “Old Tom” will normally outsmart me on most occasions.
Just being out in the marsh long before sunrise, mucking around setting up decoys and then retiring to your blind or boat, sipping coffee and waiting for the first sound of “whistling wings” is an experience everyone should experience, even the non-hunting folks.
“Grey Skies – White Cloud”
A mid-morning “blast-off” near Willow Point at the Middle Creek Wildlife
Management Area in Lancaster County Pennsylvania.
Relocating to the Mid-Atlantic region to work for the National Geographic Society had presented numerous opportunities for new birding and wildlife adventures within a variety of habitats I had longed to explore for prolonged periods of time instead of just a “tourist glance” during some of my previous “quick” visits. As far as waterfowl and coastal birds, my move would be an introduction to new species I had desired to see in “real life” and not just photographs on the pages of reference materials. I was also pleased to find many of the species I consider “old friends” from the Gulf Coast, but dressed in brilliant breeding plumage’s instead of the dull colors of their winter attire we so commonly see in Texas and Louisiana and their wintering grounds.
Remembering the huge flocks of Lesser Snow Geese from the Texas coastal prairies, like the “Katy Prairie” west of Houston sparked an interest in what I could find within the region of my new home here in the Mid-Atlantic States. I knew the Greater Snow Goose was a huge draw for the waterfowl hunter as well as the waterfowl photographer and birding enthusiasts. So I began my exploration for this prolific species along the eastern shores of Maryland and Delaware east of the Chesapeake Bay and along the coastal reaches of the Delaware Bay.
A young Greater Snow Goose stands alongside the Wildlife Drive
at the Bombay Hook National Wildlife Refuge in Delaware.
The coloration is prior to gaining the pure whites of the adult.
Agricultural areas are a big attraction for Snow Geese with the plentiful food sources of their favor and the Mid-Atlantic coastal region, like the Texas and Louisiana coastal prairies support farming as a major industry. The crop yield is a bit different with rice and grasses being the major draw in Texas and Louisiana while winter wheat and other various and numerous grains are prevalent within the Mid-Atlantic coastal areas.
Maryland and Delaware both host major National Wildlife Refuges that provide safe places for resting and roosting wintering geese, however Delaware seems to lead the two in sheer populations. Bombay Hook and Prime Hook National Wildlife Refuges are the stars of Delaware and both offer the waterfowl lover and photographer great opportunities to observe and photograph these birds at rest as well as the popular early morning “blast-off” from the roost on many occasions.
“Whats for Dinner?”
An adult pair of Greater Snow Geese probe the corn stubble for left-over morsels
near the Visitors Center at the Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge
in Dorchester County, Maryland
Bombay Hook NWR seems to have lost the draw of many of the roosting birds since a political lawsuit took the on-site farming away and the geese lost a safe place to feed and graze before retiring for the night. The loss of the farming is a whole other story that I won’t go in to other than to say a few misguided humans won the battle and the majority of the wildlife lost!! You can still find roosting birds on the Raymond and Shearness Pools but not in the huge numbers as years past it seems.
“Lift-Off from 13 Curves”
A huge flock of Greater Snows I found along 13 Curves Road
near the Prime Hook National Wildlife Refuge take to the sky in a flurry.
Maryland’s Dorchester County is home to the Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge and its adjoining neighbor the Fishing Bay Wildlife Management Area which provide safe resting and roosting locations for some of Maryland’s Snow Goose populations. However for good viewing, the later winter months are the best at the Blackwater refuge.
Other good areas around Maryland for observing Snow Geese include the portion of the state south of the city of Salisbury and also eastward to the towns of Berlin and Ocean City; and then southward to Assateague Island. The Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge just across the border in Virginia is a Snow Goose “Hot-Spot”..
“Monkey See – Monkey Do”
The flock at the Middle Creek WMA take to the air during a Bald Eagle fly over!
When one bird senses danger, the others will follow the lead to safety.
The state of Pennsylvania is another farming mecca with the eastern portion of the state, and especially the counties of Lancaster and Lebanon which lie east of the Susquehanna River, hosting feeding and resting places for thousands of Greater Snow Geese and many other waterfowl species during their migratory travels. Here plentiful field corn silage spills and leftovers are the main attraction with more winter wheat and various grasses as an added enticement.
An area along the borders of these two counties was set aside to host the large Middle Creek Wildlife Management Area and lake which give these travelers a safe place to rest and roost for their journey. Like the Blackwater refuge in Maryland, Middle Creek is the most productive for the larger numbers of snow geese during the late winter and early spring.
Seemingly “well fed”, Mom and Pop pose for me and a family portrait at the Middle Creek WMA.
I did forget to ask them for their address so I could mail them a picture.
“Fading Colors forWhite Arrivals”
The last of the fall colors welcome a flock of Greater Snow Geese
to the Shearness Pool at the Bombay Hook National Wildlife Refuge.
Many of my friends and peers who share the love of Avian photography, and especially the ones who are dedicated to waterfowl have this “obsession” with photographing “birds in flight” or BIF as they call it.
As a photographer who spends most of his time with the little song birds hopping from branch to branch in a bush or tree, photographing birds in flight is not one of my stronger points. However, I do enjoy taking the challenge once every “Blue Moon” or so!
I will dedicate these remaining images to “their obsession” and my sometimes feeble attempts at it to pay my respect and homage to their dedication and skills.
“A Perigee Departure”
One of my favorite images from the Bombay Hook National Wildlife Refuge is
this sunrise departure of Greater Snow Geese during the setting of a Perigee Moon.
As with the above “sunrise image”, sunsets (below) can add their own splendor by warming colors to your subjects backgrounds and the evening sky. We photographers call this “sweet light” and for those who prefer to rise later or depart early truly miss out. “Bankers Hours” are not for the dedicated photographer of nature.
“Gear Down and Locked”
The aviation term applies here as four Greater Snow Geese have their feet extended
and wings cupped like the flaps on a jet-liner slowing their decent while on a sunset
approach to a field at the Bombay Hook National Wildlife Refuge.
Using the low sun at about 3:30 PM on a chilly January day, I captured the image of
these seven birds on their final approach to a pond at the base of the Woodland Beach WMA
observation tower from which I was shooting. The geese were approaching straight towards me.
Several years back on a gray, cold and blustery day in March, I and my beloved 90-year-old friend Elmer Schweitzer joined friends Steve Keller and Eric Gerber for an outing to photograph the Snow Geese up close and personal from the auto-tour loop at the Middle Creek WMA in Lancaster/Lebanon Counties Pennsylvania.
Eric was kind enough to lend me an older Canon 600mm lens for some “Bird In Flight” photography of individual birds. Again, this is not my strong point as far as photography is concerned but I had a blast and managed some half-way decent images. The guys set up on tripods, but I had to improvise and use a bean bag off of the passenger door frame of my vehicle.
Still, “all in all”, things fell in place, and even with the older relic lens and the lack of image stabilization that these new shooters consider a “must have” I managed. I guess it’s my “old schooling” and after all I have been shooting for over 40 years and long before IS was a thought in some technicians mind..
Here are just a sampling of the approach and landing sequence results below……..
“Smooth and Steady”
Who could ask for a nicer composition? This adult Greater Snow goose had just departed
from the lake so take notice to the water droplets from his feet.
“Shallow Bank – Eyes Forward”
Just a nice shallow turn before the final to landing…
“The Three Amigos”
Perhaps Mom with two of her offspring making their approach to the field below.
“A Slight Adjustment”
Two youngsters on a final approach as the following bird makes a slight turn to the right
to land beside and with the leading goose..
A “Blue Phase” Snow goose picks a spot for his touchdown in the flock below.
He will stand out like a “sore thumb” in the field of white..
“Feathers For Flight”
As a pilot I am amazed as to how the feathers of the wings and tail of these birds closely
resemble and act like the control surfaces of an aircraft. Looking at the upper portions
of the wings on this Snow, you can see the deep curvature of the leading edge
like the “slats” or flaps on a jetliner. I would imagine this is how we humans
developed the principles of flight we use today!
“Approaching the Landing Zone”
An Adult Greater Snow goose prepares for his touchdown…
“Picking a Spot In a Field of White”
Just before touch-down, this Greater Snow maneuvers for an open area to land…
“Student Pilot – Close Quarters”
A juvenile Snow goose jockey’s for a tight landing spot while the adults watch…
In conclusion, I hope everyone has the opportunity to enjoy these birds as much as I have. I look forward to this season and many more in the future for chances to observe and photograph these amazing birds along with so many others along our coastal prairies and marshes whether it be the Mid-Atlantic or Gulf coasts.
“The Over The Hill Gang”
at the Middle Creek WMA
(from left to right) Steve Keller, from Reading Pennsylvania;
along with my “young” and chipper 90 year old friend Elmer Schweitzer
and yours truly with camera and lens by Canon, Tripod by Chevrolet and my
modern gimbal head by Wildlife Imaging constructed of fabric and “beans”…
Photo taken by good friend Eric Gerber
Each of our wonderful seasons can bring a variety of birding and avian photography opportunities, but the shorter days with the slightest hint of a chill in the air, will signal the return south for many species and the chance to observe and photograph not only our local resident feathered friends, but the many others that only pass through our area on their journey from their summer breeding grounds to their wintering habitats. This has to be my favorite time of year to get out and explore a few of my favorite nearby birding locations on almost a daily basis to see who might be passing through and/or taking a rest during their arduous trip south.
I concentrate my efforts with dedication and zeal during my exploration of my local haunts; spending hours looking and listening for the slightest movement or sound from the woodlands and grasslands near my home. The following will be a small sampling of my photographic efforts during the past fall seasons.
You never really know what species of passerine (perching birds) you might find during the fall migration and this period is truly “a time for discovery” or a renewal of your discoveries with avian species you may have seen passing through during the spring months. Searching for individual species during the spring and summer months is usually more specific to their habitat and breeding locations, whereas the sightings in the fall are normally less habitat restrictive and more based on their chosen route of travel.
Above is a migrant Blackpoll warbler I found resting in my local watershed. He was quite the beauty!
Weather can play an important role during both the fall and spring migration as we look for a phenomenon called “fallout.” Inclement weather, usually including strong winds and rain, slows the migrating birds down causing them to rapidly use up their stored energy reserves. Thousands of extremely tired migrants are forced to seek shelter, food and a period of rest thus presenting an ideal time for observation and photography by “considerate” birding enthusiasts and avian photographers.
I cannot stress enough the importance of “consideration” to the welfare of these species that should be given by the birding community and avian photographers; and the public in general!! Harassing these birds by any means during a“fallout” is just as detrimental to the bird as the same bad behavior as trying to get a “closer look” or a better picture by invading their space or using any sounds, vocal or recorded, while they are establishing their territories, nesting and raising their young. There are plenty of times when these practices can be safe as long as they are kept to a minimum.
Patience is a “virtue”, and a careful dedicated study of a chosen area can pay off in royal dividends when it comes to getting that close look or excellent photograph of a bird.
A very common fall visitor to my watershed and other favorite nearby locations; and normally in abundant numbers, is the Magnolia Warbler. (pictured above)
I am more into quality than quantity when it comes to my bird observations and photography! I’ve never been one to go out and see just how many species I can add to a list in a single outing, but I admire those who do and their efforts are helpful to all of us in the birding and avian photography community.
I guess my “list” would consist of my photographs for the day. I do keep notes on occasion, and submit “special” findings to e-bird and sometimes the local birding list-serves.. I by far more enjoy quietly observing and photographically documenting the behavior of a given species for an extended period of time.
My method of “discovery”, and hopefully successful observation and photography of a species will include finding a “birdy” location along my way and quietly sitting and watching the landscape for activity; and I may sit for hours at a single location “waiting and watching” while taking advantage of any photographic opportunities that present themselves. I might be using my vehicle as a “hide” on a seldom traveled or an “off the beaten path” roadway or hiking through the woodlands, grasslands or coastal marshes.
I have always been somewhat a loner and rarely participate as a member of large birding or photography groups. I prefer to observe and photograph nature in quiet solitude with a minimum of distractions. I work better that way and I have more time to devote to an individual member of a species and capture its behavior and every day activities.
I do have a very special birding friend, and that is my Chocolate Labrador Retriever, Tucker who enjoys our outings as much as his dad! He likes to sit in the rear seat of my vehicle and watch the birds as I photograph them from my window. I do have a few human friends who accompany me on occasion.
An uncommon visitor to my watershed, this Blue-winged warbler (pictured above) was a very surprising find and nestled in a lovely setting for a photograph. However, I have seen a breeding pair not far away in another favorite area along the Kowomu Trail in northern Carroll County Maryland. I have noticed them at that location for several years now. I also had one singing along a gravel road on the border of the Codorus State Park in York County Pennsylvania during the spring.
As I mentioned above, I have “select” areas where I heavily concentrate my attention and effort during the fall migration. Most are very close to my home while several others are located in neighboring states. The “hot-spots” near my home are located within both the states of Pennsylvania and Maryland and I luckily reside less than one-half mile just above the noted Mason-Dixon Line separating the two.
The area I frequent the most is the Hanover Watershed CWMA and the Hanover Watershed (joined together) in Carroll County Maryland and York County Pennsylvania. It’s an easy 5 minute drive and allows me daily visits with more time to observe and photograph and less time to travel. “Its back-yard birding at it’s best!”
The Hanover Watershed CWMA has been full of surprises this past fall and the above Canada Warbler was a first for me at this location. I normally find this species deep within the rhododendrons and along the small clear streams of the Michaux State Forest, just west of Gettysburg Pennsylvania and another one of my favorite fall locations.
The Hanover Watershed CWMA (Maryland) and the Hanover Watershed (Pennsylvania)
Located in portions of Carroll County Maryland and York County Pennsylvania, the Hanover Watershed CWMA (Carroll County MD) and the Hanover Watershed (York County PA) provide a mixed forest rural oasis for bird life along the Mason Dixon Line!
Travel through the watershed is by less traveled gravel roads with plenty of room to pull of to the side and park to hike the roads themselves for birding and photography opportunities.
A “breeding” resident and a consistent songster with his “Teacher – Teacher – Teacher” tune, the Ovenbird is quite abundant within the Watershed and most of my local haunts!
The Hanover Watershed CWMA (Wildlife Management Area) on the Maryland side, is a “by permit only” hunting area which I believe tends to see very little pressure from sportsmen, at least far as long as I have been frequenting the area. I can’t recall ever hearing a shot fired. I would guess that the location is mostly bow hunting orientated!
The primary and most productive access to both the CWMA and Hanover Watershed proper is by Kridler’s Schoolhouse Road, which can be reached directly off of E. Deep Run Road, west of MD Route 30 or from MD Route 30 via Yingling Road just before the Pennsylvania state line.
A very exciting find for me during the fall migration of 2012, was this Nashville Warbler searching for food in a brushy area, just after crossing the Pennsylvania state line along Kridler’s Schoolhouse Road.
Ironically, I found this Mourning Warbler less than 10 feet from the same spot this year. (2013) Another exciting find that “made my day”! It’s amazing how closely these two species resemble each other except for the gray neck and throat of the Mourning..
Traveling from E. Deep Run Road along Kridler’s Schoolhouse Road you will pass through a small rural residential area and then down a hill through woodlands to the junction of Yingling Road!
Turning left and continuing on Kridler’s Schoolhouse Road, you will pass a willow grove on your left (private property) that is a birding “hot-spot” and very productive throughout the seasons.
I have photographed over 30+ species at this location. I made it a point to introduced myself to the landowners and over the past years have gained their trust. Birding and photography can be excellent from the road in front of their property.
The open areas are loaded with Cardinal flowers (Lobelia cardinalis) and Spotted Jewelweed (Impatiens capensis) during the mid to late summer months and can draw hummingbirds by the dozens.
Another exciting surprise during the fall migration of 2012 was this rather inquisitive Kentucky Warbler who paid me a visit along Kridler’s Schoolhouse Road. This was first for me as far as photographing this species, although I hear their songs on a regular basis during the spring.
From the “willow grove” and continuing north on Kridler’s Schoolhouse Road, your journey will take you through mixed forests as you follow the tiny headwaters of South Branch Conewago Creek and some of the best birding and photography opportunities within the CWMA.
You will pass the junction of Garrett road and continue across the Pennsylvania state line and enter the Hanover Watershed which is a joint venture with the borough of Hanover and the P.H. Gladtfelter Paper Company located in Spring Grove Pennsylvania.
During the fall migration of 2012, I found this Yellow-rumped Warbler sitting on a limb of a fallen tree just north of the Garrett Road intersection. He was more than willing to pose for a few pictures.
After crossing a small bridge over the South Branch Conewago Creek and continuing up the hill thorough the woodlands, Kridler’s Schoolhouse Road will come to an end at it’s junction with Bankard Road. Be sure to be very observant along Kridler’s Schoolhouse Road before crossing the creek for fall raptors, especially the Red-shouldered Hawk (Buteo lineatus) and Red-tailed Hawk (Buteo jamaicensis) whom are normally present!
There are several pairs, if not more of Red-shoulders and Red-tails who breed within and call the watershed home on a yearly basis. Both the Great Horned Owl (Bubo virginianus) and the Barred Owl (Strix varia) reside within the watersheds forests and the late fall is a great time to listen for their “hoots” of courtship. If you’re lucky, you might even get to observe and/or photograph one!
One of my favorites, and most contrasting in colors, is the Black-throated Blue Warbler (pictured above) which I also normally find among the Laurel thickets within the mountainous terrain of the Michaux State Forest west of Gettysburg. Historically, this was a “first ever” find for me in the Hanover Watershed CWMA and took place this past fall (2013).
And then to put the “icing on the cake”, I was able to, on the same day, add the Black-throated Blue Mrs. (female) too!!!!!!!! (pictured above)
Not directly related to the fall migration, but taking a left onto Bankard Road from Kridler’s Schoolhouse Road, and proceeding up the hill, will take you to a lovely cut area, (to your right) loaded with new pine growth and is one of the best locations in the Hanover Watershed for finding breeding Prairie Warblers and Indigo Buntings.
I also found a “wayward” Golden-winged Warbler at this location several years back! The fall and winter months bring sparrows such as the White-throated, Field and Song. Eastern Blue birds make an appearance on occasion as well as patrolling raptors!
The fall months also bring the wintering birds to the watershed and one of my favorites is the Ruby-crowned Kinglet. This is just one of about twenty that was occupying this tree and he went “vogue” for a few photographs..
Although the most popular with me, Kridler’s Schoolhouse Road is not the only productive pathway for birding and avian photography in the Hanover Watershed Pennsylvania sections. Another is Deer Road which can be accessed off of PA 94 (Baltimore Pike) or Impounding Dam Road. (traveling south-east from Old Westminster Road) Deer Road is a narrow gravel affair and hardly traveled by motor vehicles except perhaps for the two residences just west of the Baltimore Pike.
I can sit for hours and never see another vehicle west of the two houses. The road is heavily forested except for a logged section to the north and beyond an area of thick tall pines which is the primary tree of this forested area. There is however dense vegetation along the forest floor and very popular with the always vocal Ovenbird who seems to be forever present during the breeding season.
We all are overwhelmed by, and adore the brilliant cool “reds” of the Scarlet Tanager, but hardly pay homage to the female of the species. I found this young lady perched on a low bush below the pine canopy along Deer Road. She was quite the camera ham and seemed to enjoy my company, even with the flash firing away. For a good exposure and color depth, a flash is a necessity along Deer Road!!
For those birding with a good spotting scope or photographing with a long telephoto lens, a few of the standing dead trees in the logged section provide homes for the resident Red-headed and Red-bellied Woodpeckers. Other Woodpecker species within the watershed include the Hairy, Downy and the Pileated.
The rest of the roads that provide access to and travel through the Watershed are productive as well but care must be exercised in pulling off to the side and parking as most are heavily traveled. Also a suitable road shoulder to support a motor vehicle is at a minimum!
One of, if not the most exciting find of the 2013 fall migration, was the Yellow-bellied Flycatcher (pictured above); and only just a few minutes from home at that! I have been searching for this species for the past five years and wanted so badly to be able to includes its portrait to my past blog article, “The Flycatchers” which documented this interesting family of birds. “Wow” was this bird a surprise! The Yellow-bellied Flycatcher breeds much farther north of this area and migrating birds present the only opportunities for one’s observation and photography within my region of the United States.
Codorus State Park, Morningstar Road (Pennsylvania)
Departing the Hanover Watershed and traveling about ten minutes east in southern York County Pennsylvania, Codorus State Park affords numerous opportunities for some excellent birding and photography throughout the seasons. I like to use my vehicle as a “hide” and there is a small gravel road that traces the northern border of the park and provides me with wonderful chances to get that “great photo” of numerous species.
“Now you see me and now you don’t!” This Cerulean Warbler (pictured above) was an inspiring find along Morningstar Road this fall, however he only gave me a short opportunity for a single image! I took the picture and then checked the histogram on the camera LCD for exposure and looked back up and he was gone! So what you see is what you get!!! I heard their familiar song during the spring but hadn’t laid eyes on the bird. Perhaps he is breeding at this location.
Traveling south from the Hanover borough, and east along PA Route 216, Morningstar Road will be your third left after crossing the third bridge over the arms of Lake Marburg. This little road travels east for about a mile or so and ends at its junction with Skyview Drive. It follows a tiny stream on your left with a mixture of dense vegetation and hardwood forest on both sides for about three-quarters of its length before opening up into pastures and farm land.
The most abundant warbler this past fall (2013) throughout my local haunts was the Black-throated Green (pictured above) and these little rascals where everywhere. I must have photographed over 40 individual members of this species during a six-week period. I can’t recall ever encountering so many of these little guys! The Magnolia usually takes the prize in the “abundance” category…
Navigating Morningstar Road to the east, the best birding and photography opportunities will be to your left along the stream. There is a single residence about an eighth-mile on your right that sits back in the woods followed by a farm also to your right near the end of the road.
Most of the right side of the road consists of a steep dirt bank, whereas the left side with the stream provides more open views and better light. During the late spring and summer, the heavily wooded canopy can hamper much of the existing natural light and shooting with a flash is almost mandatory!
The above Great Crested Flycatcher is one of several I observed and photographed this fall! I found these to be a common species for this location over the past few years along with the Least Flycatcher and the Eastern Phoebe. I’m still hoping for that long sought after Olive-sided Flycatcher which has eluded me to this day!
Morningstar Road is a very special favorite of mine during the early spring for wildflowers. The Bloodroot (Sanguinaria) can be found in abundance along the steep dirt bank on the right side of the road. Bloodroot is one of my favorite early blooms along with the Snow Trillium. See “Bloodroot” War Paint and the Medicine Man, an earlier exploration of this lovely wild bloom…
For those exploring the area, and who enjoy narrow and less traveled gravel roads through woodlands, returning to PA 216 and turning right (south) will take you a short distance to the intersection of Allison Mills Road. Turn right on Allison Mills Road and follow it southeast to the junction of Blue Hill Road.
Proceed across Blue Hill Road at a very slight angle to the right and onto Lilly Springs Road, a narrow gravel affair traveling though a densely forested area filled with lovely sights and sounds of avian life.. Allison Mills Road, on its own merit, can be highly productive for a variety of species and follows a small stream.
The Kowomu Trail
Like the Hanover Watershed CWMA, Carroll County Maryland hosts two more of my favorite local birding and avian photography hangouts. Just 5.2 miles or so below the Mason Dixon Line; or 8 miles north of the junction of MD 140 in Westminster MD and 14.5 miles south of US Route 15 in Gettysburg PA. PA/MD 97 (Baltimore/Littlestown Pike) provides access to another narrow gravel road through the rural Maryland countryside and some wonderful birdy habitat.
A juvenile Northern Parula warbler perches on a low limb next to the bridge over Big Pipe Creek.
At the junction with MD 97, Saw Mill Road W will travel for a short distance as a paved road down a hill, to a sharp left turn, and across a single-lane deck bridge across Big Pipe Creek and continue as a gravel lane called the Kowomu Trail….
I discovered the Kowomu Trail about 7 years back while looking for owls in my area and have been a regular visitor since! The section just after crossing the bridge contains woodlands and a brushy stream-side meadow with plenty of cover and food sources for our avian friends. The habitat along the Kowomu Trail can be quite diverse from the previously mentioned to hardwood forests, farmland and a scattering of rural residences with a variety of cultivated flora.
Late summer and early fall brings many species to the Kowomu Trail in not only the migrating warblers but many of the species who actually breed in the area to light.
A Chipping Sparrow “strikes a pose” near the equestrian trail entrance near the eastern end of the area.
The Sparrows begin to make a showing and are easier to find along the trail with the Chipping, Field and Song being the most common. Also in the area are the White-throated, White-crowned and an occasional Fox Sparrow.
I really need to spend more time on the sparrow species and a Face Book friend from Maryland; Bonnie Coats Ott has given me that inspiration over the past year. She goes by the nickname “Sparrow Bon” and has quite a collection of photographs and sightings.
Just one of many lovely Field Sparrows makes an appearance allowing an excellent photographic opportunity.
One of my favorite breeding species that seems to be abundant along the trail is the Veery. With its haunting song and calls one can spend evenings enjoying the symphony of conversation between the different birds present in the area. They tend to be quite shy and finding them for photographs is not an easy chore. But once in a “Blue Moon” and with a little luck, you can find one in the open and get that special shot.
As one of my favorites of the Thrush family, I found this Veery perched in the open near the center parking area along the trail. It didn’t seem to mind my intrusion at all and allowed me numerous photographs and time to observe its beauty.
Both of our eastern species of the Oriole family can be found along the trail throughout their breeding and migration seasons, but it seems the Orchard is the most common. I have heard the Baltimore on numerous occasions but have yet to actually see the bird, more-less photograph it. But I will continue listening and trying.
A lovely male Orchard Oriole makes an appearance in the same tree along the creek near the bridge as I was photographing the juvenile Northern Parula Warbler. His chest is washed in the vivid copper color of the spring breeding season.
I cannot mention the Kowomu Trail without the recognition of my all time favorite discovery there; the Yellow-breasted Chat. This species had been a nemesis for years and while photographing a White-eyed Vireo in a brushy area he made his initial appearance.
If you have never experienced their call or song, it seems to be a tune from the “wilds” of Africa or New Guinea. It is truly interesting with a series of notes and whistles; sort of like that of the Brown Thrasher, less the whistle and far more intuitive and fun. Classified as a warbler, the Chat is much larger. I had read somewhere that this classification may change in the future if not already. I have photographed this fella below over the past three years.
A stunning male Yellow-breasted Chat shares his curiosity and beauty with his photographer friend along the Kowomu Trail in Carroll County, Maryland.
The Union Mills Wetland
My final local haunt to share is a mixture of a forest, brush and wetland habitat known as the Union Mills Wetland. It is a very short distance north of the Kowomu Trail (Sawmill Road) and after passing through the small town of Union Mills. It’s located off a gravel affair called Brown Road, to your left off MD Route 97 from Westminster.
The wetland is well-known to many locals in the birding community and holds a diverse amount of species although they are not always easy to observe. I haven’t spent nearly as much time there as I would have liked to, but plan more visits this year and in the future.
A “Surprise” immature Blackburnian Warbler makes an appearance in some shrubbery along the road through the Union Mills Wetland. The Blackburnian in it’s breeding plumage remains a nemesis to me this day as hard as I have tried to find and photograph one in the open.
The area is a favorite of the local hunters who have permission to enter so plan your visits wisely. Waterfowl can be prevalent, but the hunting is for the deer in the area. I do not believe that waterfowl hunting is allowed; at least I have not witnessed any in the past which I am happy to report.
Visiting this area in the early spring can be an experience of “sight and sound” especially with the chorus of Spring peepers and Wood Frogs with the occasional Bull Frog singing bass. Then you add in the tune of the Least Bittern who might make a visit along with other birds and you have a symphony of nature that will impress the most skeptical of listeners.
Another “Surprise” visitor to the wetlands during the last fall migration was this female Blue Grosbeak. I have never observed either the male or female at this location, but then perhaps again, I need to spend more time there.
The wetland is also a great place for sparrows during the fall, winter and spring and I will highlight three species I didn’t image for the Kowomu Trail. The king of the wetlands is the Swamp Sparrow (pictured below) and one of my all time favorites. The grassy areas will hold the Savannah and the woodlands the White-throated Sparrow. I am sure there are more that I didn’t see or hear at the time.
“What a Pose” this beautiful species offered his photographer. I must have photographed his frolic for 20 minutes before he finally disappeared into the reeds.
This lovely Savannah Sparrow made a brief appearance allowing me one image before darting off into the unknown. I had been “graced” with its brief visit.
“Standing Proud” can be well referenced to this handsome White-throated Sparrow. Common Yes; but always a pleasure to observe and photograph. His Majesty had blessed me with his presence this fine day!
So I conclude sharing some of my “secret haunts” with my birding, photographic and good friends. I will perhaps be pistol-whipped by some of my peers for doing so, but sharing has always been my nature and I really didn’t give away the exact locations where I know the birds will be time day after day and I will leave those for you to discover on your own with the dedication I had put into these areas.
I only ask that you keep any disturbance to a “bare minimum” and respect the posted areas of the watershed and other locations. Wetlands are sensitive areas so leave no footprints. Birding and photography needs to be kept to the roadways. Large birding social gatherings within intimate surroundings are a “peeve” of mine and I find them as detrimental to the species as the abusive use of playback or recorded bird songs during the breeding season so I also ask you keep your visits to the small gatherings of a few friends.
I hope you enjoyed my efforts……..Jim Flowers
Where else can one experience, observe and photograph wild puddle and diving ducks “up close and personal”; and the price of admission is simply tossing a little corn to stimulate their appetites and interest…. This is a must see and visit for anyone interested in waterfowl and especially those seriously “Hooked on Quack”.
A few points along the Choptank River waterfront and within the city-limits of Cambridge Maryland have been catering to such addictions over the past many years. My first introduction to this “mid-winter” extravaganza took place about 10 years back and I was totally amazed and hooked for life. I had been enlightened about the “web-footed frolic” by a photographer friend from National Geographic several years before I first experienced this sight on my own.
My initial “ducky” adventure began with a trip down to Maryland’s Eastern Shore and a visit the Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge to attend a photography exhibit during the annual open-house of the visitor’s center. As I explored the hall and the photography on display, I noticed numerous images of “diving ducks” and many seemed to have been captured at one special location. My curiosity was about to kill me and I longed to know just where these fantastic pictures were taken. I strolled through the photographic displays casually chatting with the exhibitors and commenting on their work.
Most photographers are pretty “tight-lipped” about their sources so respectfully I didn’t question their means. Near the end of my visit, I decided to purchase a new migratory duck stamp from the refuge store and during the purchase I made a comment to the sales woman about some of the Canvasback images I had admired and I sure would like to know where they were taken. She immediately smiled and replied, “Those are from Oakley Street over on the Choptank waterfront!”; as if there was no secret and this was certainly not the first time someone had asked! She then filled me in on the annual winter event and that I shouldn’t miss out.
On my way out of the show, I stopped to admire a large portrait of a Great Horned Owl and met photographers, Larry Hitchens and Curtis Brandt. I commented on the owl and then asked if either had any information or directions on how to get to Oakley Street. Curtis smiled and said he was on his way over there and I could follow him! So it began; two great friendships and a heck of a fun yearly winter experience.
Besides Oakley Street, Curtis gave me a short tour of a few more local “hot-spots” along the waterfront. Over ten years have now passed, and my knowledge of the area has grown by leaps and bounds. I found the Oakley Street location popular with birding enthusiasts, avian photographers and tourists; along with the locals and their children who enjoyed feeding the ducks and this seemed to have been the case for many seasons and long before my first visit. I have even seen duck hunters, still clad in their camouflage from the morning hunt, stop by to take a gander at the “spectacle” and variety of species present.
Duck photographer’s wall of shame??? “Perhaps a little”; but I’m as guilty as the rest!!!!! But then again, where else can you take a camera and have “all of your ducks in a row?” (Pun intended)
The “wall of shame” is sort of pet name given by a few of the waterfowl photography purists who insist on a wilder and more natural setting. However, these birds are wild and just a little “belly satisfaction” has been guaranteed over the past years by the seemingly constant food source delivered by their human visitors. (Notice the can and bag of corn in a couple of the above images) Photographically speaking, it’s a wonderful place for those of us “focal length” challenged to easily fill the frame with even the most modest of camera and lens combinations.
Don’t let the “big guns” pictured above fool you. These folks are mostly after flight shots of distant ducks, and not those playing less than a few feet from the wall. You can take awesome detailed images with your smart-phone or family “point n shoot” with little effort.
“Bird in flight” photography seems to be the craze and almost an obsession with today’s waterfowl photographers, especially since the advent of the digital camera, and especially those cameras capable of “machine-gunning” exposures with extremely high frame-per-second rates…
Back in the old days of film, that could get rather expensive and quality seemed more important than quantity. That’s not saying the digital realm is any easier, as you still pretty much have to have a grip on exposure and lighting. Obtaining a good exposure of a fast flying bird with a changing background can be a challenge for any photographer. Then you add a light bird against a dark background or vice-versa which can wreak havoc on the “reflective” in-camera meter giving forever changing exposures and thus causing the photographer to constantly keep a thumb on the exposure compensation dial!
Many, including yours truly, prefer to use a “handheld” exposure meter and take an “incident” reading of the actual light source and shoot in pure manual eliminating a lot of the guesswork in obtaining a workable exposure. Back-lit subjects are a whole other ball game! Back to the “wall of shame” and again “perhaps”, but I have seen quite a few images from this location published and bless the covers of local and national magazines.
Seven primary species of ducks make up the “hungry clan” that can be found just inches away from the wall on the Oakley Street waterfront along the Choptank River. These include the Canvasback, Lesser and Greater Scaup, American Wigeon, Red Head (a few on occasion), Mallard and the American Black Duck. Canada geese are often present and a rare visit by a few Tundra Swans can add to the menagerie. Then there are the “surprises” that can occur by perhaps a Eurasian visitor or two making an unexpected debut.
“You never quite know who will show and join the fun!” For those birding enthusiast with spotting scopes; or photographers with the longer lenses, species like the Common Goldeneye, Buffleheads, Long-tailed duck (Old Squaw), Scoters (Surf and the less common White-winged and Black) and others can be observed farther out in the main river. I can remember a rare Barrows Goldeneye present for a few days one year. The above species seem rather timid and rarely make an appearance close to shore.
A host of Gull species are forever present and some can be quite interesting. A fly over by a Bald Eagle (common on many occasions) will add excitement to the moment by causing the ducks to take flight to avoid becoming “a sitting duck” (more pun intended) and an easy meal for a hungry raptor. The ducks will launch, circle and will return soon as the danger has passed giving the flight photographers opportunities for excellent captures of their return and landing approach. But for most visitors to the Oakley location and other points along the river, the Canvasback is king!!!
Of the largest “Bay Ducks”, the Canvasback is the prize for visiting waterfowl enthusiast and “ducky” photographers along the Cambridge waterfront. The drake (male) is the standout with a beautiful deep brownish/red-head and white back feathers.
Diver hunting is steeped in tradition along the Chesapeake Bay and the “Can” was the top draw. During the fifties roughly 250,000 Canvasbacks wintered along the Chesapeake Bay and represented one half of the wintering North American population; and then by the mid nineteen-eighties, only about 50,000 called the Chesapeake their winter home.”
Throughout the 19th century the Canvasback was considered excellent table fare and the birds were commercially harvested using large-bore shotguns and batteries of cannon and “punt” guns to assault the large rafts of canvasbacks on the bay, killing dozens of birds with a solitary shot. The dressed birds were then shipped to restaurants from Baltimore to Boston and all in between.
This unregulated over-harvesting was almost an end to the once abundant population along the eastern seaboard. Commercial hunting came to an abrupt halt with passage of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918, which empowered the federal government to set seasons and bag limits on the hunting of all migratory game birds.
Recreational hunting today has an impact; especially the illegal hunting of females due to hunters misidentifying the canvasback hen as a female mallard, “but then if you can’t identify your game, you shouldn’t hunt without supervision and someone calling the shots.” The hunting impact of today is only minor compared to that of yesteryear.
At present, habitat degradation (wintering, migratory and summer nesting grounds) and the decline of water quality in the Chesapeake Bay due to increased sedimentation from erosion has caused a dramatic decline in Submerged Aquatic Vegetation (SAV), including wild celery (Vallisneria americana); a main staple of the canvasback by reducing light penetration.
This and other toxins entering their food supply along with disturbance from shoreline development and recreational activities has become a detriment for canvasbacks as well as many other species of waterfowl.
It’s not all “gloom and doom” for the Canvasback and the Chesapeake Bay. The Chesapeake Bay Foundation is the leading organization enlisted in massive restoration projects for water quality, wetland habitat and fisheries restoration and has all the neighboring states involved.
Many recreational hunters are taking a more active role today with adherence to the stricter bag limits and with either actual physical involvement in habitat improvements or with financial contributions to many of the leading edge conservation organizations such as Ducks Unlimited and Delta Waterfowl.
Perhaps one day in the future we will again witness huge clouds of canvasbacks filling our sky’s over the Chesapeake Bay!!!!!
Canvasbacks are normally the latest to arrive along the Choptank River waterfront, but this is based on weather and food sources available along their route of migration. I have observed the first birds as early as mid December or as late as mid January.
Last year (2012) it seemed to be near the end of January before their numbers peaked and their presence looked to be down a little as well. But perhaps they may have been scattered throughout more locations along the river and bay.
No matter their numbers present, they’re always a wonder to observe, photograph and share a few tidbits of corn with. Watching their feeding behavior is a joy in its own right as the splashing frenzy of red and white brings life to the Choptank River waterfront.
The preferred breeding habitat of the canvasback lies within the Prairie Pothole Region of North America and extends northward through the sub-arctic river deltas in Saskatchewan and the Alaskan interior. They prefer to nest over water on permanent prairie marshes surrounded by emergent vegetation, such as cattails and bulrushes; which provide protective cover. Canvasbacks migrate through the Mississippi Flyway and then branch off to their wintering grounds in the Mid-Atlantic region and the Lower Mississippi Alluvial Valley (LMAV).
The birds farther west, use the Pacific Flyway to wintering grounds along the coast of California. Historically, the Chesapeake Bay wintered the majority of canvasback population within the United States. Today the canvasback population seems to have stabilized and seem to be increasing, although they are no where as common as they once were. Scientific research and species studies have now shown that by the 1970’s four fifths of the ducks’ diet was made up of Baltic clams, which are very common in the Chesapeake Bay.
The ducks have been able to adapt to the decline in SAV by changing their diet. Unfortunately, redhead ducks, which also feed on SAV tubers, have not been able to adapt, and their populations continue to remain low.
One of the earliest duck species to arrive at the Oakley Street location, the American Wigeon is forever a welcome sight. “Colorful to say the least”, along with their high-pitched whistling “squeaky toy” for a call, they are a charm of sight and sound. I have always found this species intriguing. And when I use the term “colorful”, I’m not just referring their appearance, but their behavior as well.
They are constant aggressors, sparing with the other ducks for attention and food. In the beginning, I found their presence along the salt and brackish Choptank River waterfront somewhat a mystery. Growing up in Texas, the Wigeon I had come to know, mostly inhabit shallow freshwater wetlands, marshes, rivers, ponds and lakes. Perhaps word got out about the popular and free “Corn Soup Kitchen” at the Oakley location.
But after a little thought, I could see where salt and brackish water habitats made sense and would not seem uncommon during the wintering season. I tend to forget that most of our waters in Texas hardly if ever see any ice during the winter months.
American Wigeon numbers can vary at Oakley. I’ve seen days with less than five present and others with more than two dozen swimming around looking for a free meal. The birds always seem to be in pairs as well. If you see a male, you will normally see a female close by
The only other location that I have witnessed larger numbers of wigeon besides Texas was a small creek near my home here in Pennsylvania. It was not unusual to observe fifty to sixty on any given winter’s day. They are a prevalent species in the Mid-Atlantic and perhaps I haven’t looked hard enough or have been the wrong locations.
I remember friends here in the area using the name “Baldpate” in some of our early hunting conversations and had no idea as to the reference. Once enlightened, it made sense due to the white bald-like marking on the drake wigeon’s forehead as pictured above. I guess this just goes to show how limited my waterfowl knowledge and vocabulary had been in the past. But then I still refer to the Long-tailed duck as the “Old Squaw” and Lesser and Greater Scaup as “Bluebills” I would also always spell the name wigeon with the “d”…(widgeon)!!!! I suppose I’m not alone because my “spell-checker” is going nuts trying to insist on adding the “d” at present!
American Wigeon Notes
The American Wigeon breeds throughout the north-western portion of the United States, with the heaviest concentrations in the Dakota’s, Montana, Idaho and Washington State. Breeding pairs can also be found as far south as northeastern California and northern Colorado and as far north as Alaska and the Northwest Territories in northern Canada.
During migration the American Wigeon can be found in most of the lower 48 states and their route will take them down the Atlantic and Pacific coasts to the Gulf of Mexico and beyond; extending south through Mexico and Central America, to the northern parts of South America, as well as the Bermuda Islands and Hawaii. They are rare but regular vagrants to Britain and as far as northeastern Siberia and Japan. During the winter months, they are found most often near freshwater wetlands, lakes, rivers, marshes and protected estuaries and bays, with abundant plant-life for feeding.
American Wigeon have a largely vegetarian diet consisting of the stems, roots and leafy parts of aquatic plants, such as musk grasses and bushy pond-weed; as well as grasses and various agricultural plants. To a lesser extent, they will forage on various aquatic insects, such as damselflies and caddis flies, as well as certain crustaceans, mollusks and terrestrial insects, including beetles. “And let’s not forget corn!”
Another of my favorites, and “Bluebills” as I call them, are fun to observe and photograph. The Lesser Scaup seem to outnumber the Greater Scaup during my visits to the Choptank waterfront. They can be hard to tell apart as well, but following a few guidelines makes the ID a little easier. The Greater’s head is more rounded and less “peaked” than that of the lesser and I find the greater with more whites.
The head and neck of the Greater tends to have the dull green sheen as well but that’s not always a 100% reliable for a proper ID as I have photographs of the Lesser shown here with that same dull green sheen. The Greater has a wider bill with a larger nail that tends to be more triangular, whereas the Lesser’s bill is tapered with a smaller nail. The white wing stripe of the Greater extends to the primaries while the white wing stripe of the Lesser is only to the secondaries. The Greater female also has a larger white patch at the base of the bill.
Do I have you totally confused here, or can we just agree a scaup is a scaup!!!
My first encounters with the scaup species where back in my hunting days along the Potomac River near Fort Washington in Prince Georges County Maryland and then along some of the creeks in Charles and St. Mary’s Counties farther to the south. I had seen scaup in Texas and Louisiana, but as a hunter my primary quarry was that of the Teal, Pintail, Mottled Duck, Mallard and an occasional Wigeon.
I since have pretty much given up the gun for the camera and thoroughly enjoy exploring and photographing the variety of species that bless our natural world. I now enjoy a 365 day waterfowl season. You can still “camo” up, toss out a few decoys in the early morning marsh, blow a few notes on the call and enjoy the hunting experience without firing a shot from the old scatter-gun! I still very much love the waterfowling tradition and miss it immensely, but most of my hunting buddies are long gone along with my dad who taught me the tradition and the respect for our natural resources.
The Greater Scaup’s preferred breeding habitat is on the ground by lakes and bogs and on the tundra near the northern limits of the boreal forest across Arctic and sub arctic regions of northern North America, Europe and Asia. Greater Scaup populations have been on a steady decline in North America since the 1990’s. Biologists and conservationists are unsure of the reason, but some believe that a parasitic trematode found in snails may be to blame.
The Lesser Scaup prefers inland lakes and marsh ponds on tundra from Alaska through western Canada to western Montana. A few breed east of James Bay and the Great Lakes. Notable breeding concentrations, with more than half a million birds at the peak of the season, can be found in Alaska, within the woodlands of the McKenzie River valley and on the Old Crow Flats.
Both the Greater and Lesser Scaup migrate south using the Central and Mississippi Flyways and then branch off from there. Migration begins shortly after their young have fledged and the birds return to the breeding grounds in the early spring; usually during the month of May. Lesser Scaup are typically found in freshwater or slightly brackish habitats and unlike Greater Scaup, rarely are seen offshore when unfrozen freshwater habitat is available.
Thousands of Lesser Scaup winter each year on the Topolobampo lagoons in Mexico, and even in the southernmost major wintering location, Ciénaga Grande de Santa Marta in Colombia where hundreds of birds can be seen.
The Redhead duck is a favorite among the photographers and birding enthusiasts at the Oakley Street location, although only a few may be present at any given time during the peak of the activity. They blend in well with the hundreds of canvasbacks and can be difficult to spot. I cannot recall observing more than two to three males during my visits and the females are even harder to distinguish from the female cans.
I usually find more members of this species in some of the more remote Blackwater Refuge ponds, creeks and slews in that area. The largest concentration I have ever witnessed in the north-east was in a small lake along Interstate 81, just above Cortland New York and the observation took place just this past fall on my way to Syracuse. There were hundreds and it was a sight to behold.
I have also observed several dozen in the past near my home, on Lake Marburg at the Codorus State Park and along Conewago creek in the nearby area. Another productive area to find the Redhead is along the Little Juanita River and especially along the tail-race below the Raystown Lake Dam. I have seen nice numbers present quite a few times, but the birds seem to be in transit and only remain for a short period.
I have observed decent Redhead numbers in Texas and Louisiana, but more often on the large freshwater lakes like Toledo Bend, Sam Rayburn and Livingston in the eastern part of the state than along the coast. Toledo Bend sits on the border of Texas and Louisiana and maintains large open areas of water and lots of aquatic vegetation which these ducks prefer as a food source. I do remember spotting a small raft of these birds on Offats Bayou on Galveston Island a few years back. No matter the location, the Redhead is a wonderful and colorful subject for the avian photographer!
Along with the diving ducks above, Redheads breed in the northern and northwestern prairies of the United States and Canada to Alaska in the north and Colorado to the south. Their preferred habitat includes marshy freshwater lakes, ponds, slow-moving rivers and wetlands within the prairie regions. The primary diet of the Redhead includes the leaves, stems, seeds and roots of aquatic plants. However many aquatic invertebrates are also eaten, especially during the summer months.
While also using the Central and Mississippi Flyways as the initial routes of travel, the Redhead winters on sheltered salt and brackish coastal bays and estuaries and inland lakes across the southern US, from California to Florida and south into Mexico.
Although the above species are the most popular with visitors and the photographers at close range, the number of species present on the river can be amazing. Birders and their “high powered” spotting scopes have the best opportunity to add a new subject to their “life lists” at any given time by scanning the distant waters! But on rare occasions, these somewhat timid species find their way close to shore for a picture or two and nearby observation. Also keep a keen eye out for the rare or not so common species that appear on occasion.
Other popular duck species along the Choptank River include the Common Goldeneye, Bufflehead, Ruddy Duck, Hooded and Common Merganser, Long-tailed Duck (Old Squaw) and White-winged, Black and Surf Scoters. And then of course, the Mallard and American Black duck can be seen at any time.
Swans include the Tundra and an occasional Mute while Canada Geese seem to always be present nearby and I have observed an Atlantic Brant at a nearby location. I will highlight a few of the other species I have been able to photograph over the past years at the Oakley Street location.
The Surf Scoter or “Skunk-headed Coot” is my favorite and most colorful of the “Scoter’s” and a fun find along the Cambridge waterfront. You normally have to look far out into the river to see this species.
Upon returning from a Thanksgiving trip to the Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge, friend Eric Gerber and I decided to stop and visit the Choptank waterfront to check and see if any of our duck friends were present. It was still very early for the “divers” but we thought we’d take a gander in any case.
We parked at the Oakley location and noticed a Surf Scoter family rather close to shore, just to the west of the concrete wall and swimming in a westerly direction. So we hopped back into our vehicles and drove to the next street over with shoreline access, parked and slowly walked to the waterfront with cameras in hand hoping to get positioned before the scoter’s approached.
We had to literally skulk and hide along the concrete bulkhead and wait for the birds to come into range. After we managed a few captures, the birds discovered our presence, bolted and made a hasty retreat. Eric by far got the better pictures with a longer lens, but I was happy just to get a close glimpse and a few “snaps” of these beautiful birds, more less any “great” images.
The Surf Scoter is a black and white sea duck with a boldly patterned head and is common along the Pacific and Atlantic coasts during the winter months. It breeds in the shallow lakes of the Boreal forest and tundra of the north. However the young “non-breeding” and immature birds may decide not travel to the breeding grounds and spend their summer primarily along marine coasts southward to Baja California and New Jersey, where they frequent bays and estuaries. I have spotted immature birds along the Jersey shore on many occasions during my spring and summer travels for shorebirds.
“Accidental Exposure”,,, Yep! Quite by accident; and I didn’t realize I had taken his picture until I returned home and was going through the images during my post-processing. The Maryland birding “list-serve” was hopping with sightings of this rare visitor back in 2009 who breeds across Eurasia, from Iceland and the British Isles and east across Russia and Siberia to the Kamchatka Peninsula and the Commander Islands.
Who would have imagined he’d been lounging with a flock of Scaup along the Choptank shoreline, right at the Oakley Street hangout! There were just a few of us hardcore avian photographers there braving the winter chill with no one from the “birding crowd” present to enlighten our experience. But then most of the sighting reports I had read took place near the Holiday Inn on Kent Island and the Narrows!
As a somewhat novice “birder”, (and I use that term loosely) it would have been difficult for me to isolate and ID this guy within the hundreds of “look-alike” ducks cruising the wall looking for a free meal! I may know my ducks, but finding the “Dennis the Menace” of the waterfowl world takes a keen eye and a lot more knowledge than I had at the time! But Wow! “There he was in all of his glory and I had to be in front of the computer to realize my fortune!
The drake (male) tufted duck closely resembles his counterpart, the ring-necked duck. The primary distinction is the tuft of feathers that fall behind the head. Additionally, his sides are white rather than gray and the bill lacks a white margin at the base while in flight a white stripe at the back of the inner wing is displayed. The female is similar in appearance to the Scaup hen, but is blackish-brown with a smaller patch of white at the base of the bill. At the back of the head, there is a small protuberance of feathers, which is much smaller than the male’s. There are no breeding records of tufted ducks in North America
The Tundra Swans were a first for me at the Oakley location a few years back! I normally see these birds feeding in the fields along Egypt Road en-route to the Blackwater refuge or during a fly over above the Choptank River waterfront! On this occasion, I guess curiosity “got their goat” and they wanted to see what the ruckus was about with the huge rafts of ducks so close to shore! Or perhaps what these crazy humans were doing while shivering in the cold.
I watched them land a few hundreds out and slowly make their way to shore! Once they discovered the “Good Eats” they quickly made themselves right at home and even were rather aggressive towards being first in line for the “yellow gold” being tossed into the drink! This was as close as I had ever been to a Tundra Swan. I was tickled at their personalities! You wanted to reach out and pet them!
They’re amazing birds to observe, especially in flight as they portray the “Jumbo Jet” of the waterfowl world and I love their “haunting” calls. The image above is one of my favorites of the encounter. There were actually 3 of them close to the wall.
So who is this guy??? Is it a Mallard? “No, it’s a Black Duck!” NADA!! “It’s both!!” Ya Think?? Yeah, it’s both!! At least I would guess so with the characteristics of both species all in one nice package. It could be the new “In Thing” within the waterfowl world! I’ll tell you though…”It was the biggest darn Mallard I had ever seen!!! But then I have been known to see rather large Eastern Wood Pewee’s as well. Talking about an oxymoron… A large/pewee?????
I figured I’d toss this “Dennis Rodman” duck image in for good measure and show a little more of the diversity along the waterfront! Plus it’s a good “kick-starter for the next segment of this article which adds a little spice and good wit! “Now for the fun!!!!”
“Ice Capades” Not your typical Peggy Fleming or Dorothy Hamil Affair!!! But, “just as Entertaining and with unlimited belly aching laughs!”…
Butt slides, belly flops and bill busters abound during the performance; all on the newly formed “Ice Rink” along the Choptank River waterfront in beautiful downtown Cambridge Maryland… Yes Sir Folks! “Gather the kiddies, Grand Ma, Grand Pa and the Mutt too!”
And don’t forget a sack of corn for that meager price of admission. All will be thoroughly entertained by the ballet style antics of the web-footed performers as they participate in a game of graceful and precise landings not unlike that infamous British Olympian “Eddie the Eagle.”
It’s been a while since we’ve had had a “real winter” with temperatures cold enough for an extended period of time to bring the ice to the Choptank River waterfront of Cambridge Maryland. But when this happens, Oakley Street takes on a whole new perspective with a comical twist as the visiting waterfowl lounge on the ice with the hopes of a morsel or two of corn tossed by their human onlookers. And then of course some type of disturbance, usually an Eagle flying overhead, will cause a massive eruption of the flock to take flight and then return as soon as the threat has passed.
That’s when the fun begins! Watching the ducks return and then attempt some sort of sane landing on their slick runway will bring tons of chokes and almost painful laughs as these creatures make their approach and end up anyway but the right way after touching down on the ice. The Mallards can do this with an ease with the Wigeon coming in a close second, but the off balance bulk of the Canvasback will bring a glowing smile and chuckle to even a funeral attendant.
Several years back I had made an early afternoon trip down to Dorchester County Maryland and the Blackwater area hoping to photograph the evening Short-eared flight. I had a few hours to waste so I decide to stop by Oakley Street and take a gander of what might be happening along the waterfront. I had no idea that the ice had set in so thick.
As Usual, the ducks were all there gathered at the wall and so was friend Brian Schmidt from the Smithsonian Institution along with a big grin on his face from ear to ear. He had a jump on me, watching and photographing the hilarious show. It wasn’t but a short while and another disturbance took place forcing the birds to once again take flight. Then as is the norm, the flock circled to make the up-wind approach directly towards us to allow some fantastic and belly-splitting photography and laughter.
I will mention that laughing while trying to concentrate on exposures and composition is not an easy chore. But it was a lot of fun!
SO the next time we get an extended period of “hard freezing” days you might just plan a trip down to Maryland’s Eastern Shore and the Cambridge waterfront; and maybe, just maybe you might just get to witness the “Funniest Show on Earth” and the “Duckiest Olympics”, all just a few feet before your eyes!!!! Just don’t forget the price of admission!!!!!!
If you would like to see more of the fun, just follow this Link and enjoy a slideshow:
Getting to Cambridge and the Choptank River Waterfront is quite easy! From points north simply head towards Ocean City on US Route 50 after the Chesapeake Bay Bridge and head south. Turn right at the first traffic light, Maryland Avenue (first major intersection) after crossing the Choptank River and travel east across a drawbridge and follow the side-streets to the shoreline. (See Map Below)
From points south, simply reverse the directions and turn left on Maryland Avenue, just before the bridge across the Choptank River.
I have marked the points of interest/waterfowl viewing areas on the map. All can be productive for observing the wintering waterfowl and all provide access to the waterfront with normally sufficient parking at the location or close by! Both Oakley Street and Great Marsh Park are good for close-up photography with Oakley Street being the “highlight” of the area.
The circle near the marina at the eastern side of Long Wharf Park can be productive as well. Remember that all of these locations are located within residential areas so please be respectful at all times to any landowner’s wishes. All it will take is one inconsiderate individual for the city of Cambridge to post “No Parking”and/or “No Trespassing” signs and ruin this for all of us!!!
As I mentioned before, you don’t need to have thousands of dollars invested in photographic gear to reap the benefits of fantastic waterfowl photography along the Choptank River waterfront; and especially at the Oakley Street Location. The big expensive telephoto lenses are fine if you’re shooting flying or approaching birds in the distance! (And you can afford the damn things)
Many times the birds will make an approach and land just a few yards out from the wall, so even the most modest of telephoto zooms will do the job just dandy! A lot of folks use a “fast” zoom in the 70-200mm range and the 300mm and 400mm primes are favorites too! I, and many others will have two camera bodies available with a normal to medium telephoto range on one and a longer lens (500mm +) on the other for the distant work.
However, the most important items for a successful Oakley outing are a good warm coat, gloves and a “sack of corn”…
Good light plays the key role for “Great” photography at these locations and the best light for photography occurs between 11AM and sunset. For the “lovely blue water color”, a sunny day is tops and for the best detail in the birds, and especially for exceptional detail in the whites of the Canvasback, a high-thin overcast is the ticket! But a good technique and knowledge of exposure will yield good results on both occasions! Shutter-speed and an adequate aperture are the main-stays for the flying birds!
I will mention that a strong northwesterly blow will all but ruin your outing so make sure to check the marine forecast before making the trip!
So what’s holding you back?? “Come on Down!!!”………….. Jim Flowers