One can hardly anticipate what one can discover on Maryland’s eastern shore. Every exploration will yield a new adventure around every turn in the road, “especially the roads and trails off the beaten path, and through the marshes of this wonderful eco-system.” Unlike my home on the north-east Texas Gulf coast, with its vast coastal and mostly tree-less prairies, the loblolly pine shelter-belts of the mid Atlantic coastal plains are rich and diverse with abundant life. Numerous species of birds call the pines home throughout the four seasons. One of my favorites is the Brown-headed Nuthatch. Then not too far away and sometimes joining these pine stands are the hardwood forests and many brackish tributaries that flow life into the bays and rivers along with the grasses and phragmites that line their shorelines adding to the diversity of habitat for our wild friends.
Yesterday was to be a Owling expedition with perhaps a side trip to Cambridge and the waterfowl photographer’s “Wall of Shame” on Oakley Street where you can photograph the “ducks in a tub”. The plan was to join fellow photographer and friend Larry Hitchens after his morning business appointment somewhere in the deep dark secrets of his beloved “Lower Slower Dorchester” County’s maze of little known wild spots. Dorchester has become a second home for me as it is one of my favorite eastern shore haunts for birding and bird photography. The Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge and the Fishing Bay Wildlife Management Area are just two of Dorchester’s wildlife gems presenting thousands of acres to explore and cherish for wonderful days afield.
The Blackwater refuge has a designated “Wildlife Drive” but as of today it’s far cry from the best location for wildlife observation or photography. Like a lot of the refuges in our country, the funding has fallen grace to more human comfort improvements instead of those aimed at the wildlife and property acquisition But that’s a whole other discussion for another time. Away from “drive” portion of the refuge are numerous and seldom visited areas that can be explored by trails and unimproved sandy roads, most of which are closed to vehicle traffic. However, some are open and under good weather conditions can be easily driven, but with care. My day was to be spent on one of these roads. I will not reveal its location due to sworn secrecy and the threat of decapitation by Mr. Hitchens, but I will share my experiences and photographs. It has been listed on a few birding reports but still is rarely traveled on any regular basis and one can spend an entire day here and not see another human being which was the case yesterday with the exception of one lone female birder. She was only a passer-by and it was a very short time before she returned and made her exit.
I arrived at the roads entrance at nautical twilight and made the dark bumpy drive to its end near a creek within the vast open marsh hoping to park and watch for foraging short-eared owls and perhaps catch a glimpse of a Rough-legged Hawk that had been reported a few days back. Right before dawn, a heavy fog settled in which made observations of any distance or scanning a horizon all but a futile attempt? But it wasn’t all in vane as on one lonely scrubby tree the Rough-legged was found perched giving me a nice view through my binoculars for an easy ID. I remained at this location for about an hour and caught the glimpse of a solitary short-ear cruising the marsh at a low-level searching for breakfast. The view of the owl was short-lived as it disappeared into the fog. I also observed two Northern Harriers doing the same. The light was still way too low and obscured for any photography at this point.
A little later the light improved but the fog blanket remained so I made my way back towards the first shelter-belt of pines hoping to perhaps attract a few small birds or two with a Screech Owl trill and maybe get lucky with a nuthatch. This before departing into Cambridge for a short duck photography session and the “meet up” with Larry. As I found a location to stop, I heard the familiar hooting of a Great Horned Owl and it was very close and loud. I also began to hear other hoots that were different to the one that was so close. The light was still low but with a gentle bump of the ISO and an open lens the light would be sufficient for a few pictures. The “Hoots” seemed to be that of an owl family and perhaps last year’s offspring. It was only a few short minutes before an adult Great Horned perched in a nearby tree, curious to observe his or her company sitting on the road watching. He or she gave me a few shots before retreating further into the pines and then all I could see were shadows flying through the branches. I observed up to three birds moving through the woods.
After another few minutes, I decide to go into Cambridge, visit the ducks and wait for Larry. Arriving at Oakley I only found about a dozen Wigeon and Scaup, but all were well out on the river and no where close enough for photography. I was also “corn less” so any food enticement was out of the question. After visiting for only a minute or two I decided to phone Larry and ask him to meet me at the Blackwater refuge and closer to the good areas. Larry arrived and I made mention of my owl find and we decided to return to the same location, set up our gear and spend the afternoon before going over to Fishing Bay and looking for the evening short-ears. The fog had lifted and given way to lovely sunshine and blue skies upon returning to “the spot”….. Best of all, the light didn’t have the harshness of the typical late fall afternoon glow. Our position was perfect too with the light being directly behind us and our targeted location just about 75 yards across a narrow grassy marsh with perfect openings and branches for the birds to perch in easy view. “Now, if they were just still there…”
“And Yes They Were”, as the hooting and frolicking was still under way by this bunch. They would chase each other into the woods flying back and forth across from our location and sometimes directly overhead and low giving up ample opportunities for wonderful photographs. They would then perch and peer at us for a few minutes, hoot and then resume their play. We observed or heard up to five different birds of this species and all together within this selected area. This is something I had never witnessed. I’m not sure if this was territorial sparring or just Mom, Pop and the kids out for a Saturday afternoon hullabaloo! Whatever the case, it was certainly entertaining and presented a great opportunity for us along with a photographic blessing.
Larry is owl affection ado and the smile on his face was ever-present with a grin from ear to ear. We were both totally over-taken by this and spent a good three hours there enjoying these birds that seemed endless in their play. Larry was shooting his Canon EOS 1D Mark IV and his 600mm lens off a tripod and I was shooting my Canon 5D and the big heavy 400mm f2.8 with the 2x teleconverter attached giving 800mm off the roof of my vehicle on a bean bag. It was a little awkward for me but something I had done many times before and the birds were truly obliging as if they wanted to make my day easy.
As we later departed, the birds were still present and their play continued.
We made our way to a favorite spot along the Fishing Bay marsh and waited for the Short-eared Owls to make an appearance. There were four Bald Eagles present, all in near adult colors, but I could tell they were youngsters, at least at heart as they sparred with in-flight play. We had another full adult perched in a snag just behind us as we sat and waited. Just at dusk one owl appeared, made a few passes and then disappeared into the horizon of the setting sun… I managed one slightly out of focus silhouette image of the owl and that was all. But still what an amazing day it had been! More to come I pray!
PS… God Bless the children and families of Sandy Hook Elementary