Cool Spring Battlefield

Sometimes I debate with myself if I should share a place or not. Many of us photographers are not disclosing locations of photos because those locations can be overran with people hurrying to get a photo. I do hikes that I don’t share but I decided to go ahead with this post. Why? This is conservation land that is protected and I want people to know what is possible. This wonderful nature preserve sits next to Shenandoah River and is in Clarke County.

Shenandoah River as it runs through Clarke County, VIrginia
Shenandoah River

Cool Spring Battlefield sits on land that, just a few year ago, was a golf club. When a friend told me about it ages ago, he said, “you know, the old golf club.” Well, I am not a golfer so I wasn’t sure. I did some research and located the area and headed there last year. I loved it. The care of the land is under Shenandoah University. They use it for learning but are also allowing the land to grow back to its nature habitat. There are paved trails that were once for golf carts and some unpaved trails. And the place is huge. I only went a little ways my first time there. This time, I wanted to go to the end. It was well worth it because there is a section that climbs quite a ways and you have a beautiful view of the rolling countryside located on the opposite side of the river.

Beautiful View

I went pretty early in the morning and was blessed with a mostly empty park. The peacefulness was needed and I enjoyed the silence. While walking, I passed a Yellow-Crowned Night Heron. I was sad to have disturbed it. I attempted a photo but it was just a bit too far away and behind some tall grass so I couldn’t get a good focus. More on the herons later… As you reach the far end of the trail you’ll hear a waterfall. While it is not very large, it is pretty. I’m excited to return to photograph this waterfall in the spring and then again in the fall. I think the scene will be even better! It started to snow pretty heavily while I was attempting photos of the falls so I eventually had to stop. The flakes kept landing on my lens and I couldn’t wipe them away fast enough.

Waterfall at end of former golf course

The trail continues on past the waterfall. There is a ranger/park sign structure with a sheet of paper and pen. You are required to sign your name and state where/how far you’ll be hiking. This is a safety requirement and everyone should comply with it. The River Trail eventually meets up with the Appalachian Trail. I’m definitely going to be returning for that section of the hike.

If you like birds, one of the highlights of the park is the Great Blue Heron Rookery located across the Shenandoah River. It is quite a beautiful sight. When I have been there, the sky has been gray so they look like vampires hanging out on the branches with their nests. I counted 13 along with several nests. It is a sure thing that you’ll see herons when you visit this park. As always, please respect them and give them their space.

Heron Rookery with great blue herons and nests
Heron Rookery

What I love about this place is that it is a wonderful example of land conservation. Closer to me, in Loudoun County, Goose Creek was a golf course. I saw just last fall that it closed. They will be building houses on the land now and have already built a storage unit. This golf course ran right next to Goose Creek (duh) and it, too, could have been conserved instead of being turned over to more development. Granted, Cool Spring was a historic area due to the battles that took place during the Civil War and that probably went a long way in protecting it from development. However, this is a great option for future golf courses that go under. Let the land grow back naturally and preserve the trails for runners, bikers, hikers, etc. I found out, after emailing a word of thanks to those who administer the land, that there are thousands of acres of land protected around the former course and across the river. I think it would add up to close to 4,000 acres. That is remarkable.

If you decide to visit Cool Spring Battlefield, please respect the rules. Your dog stays on a leash. You Leave No Trace. No fires. Respect the land and stay on trails as much as possible Let’s keep the land pristine and beautiful.

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Protecting Wildlife as a Photographer

The other day I went looking for an owl to photograph. I have a fondness for owls. Not only do I think they are beautiful, but, they are fun to watch. You can almost see their feelings on their faces.

I had been standing there for just a short time (maybe 30 seconds my second time around) and a woman asked me to move along. Or basically, “Don’t stay too long!” I was taken aback a bit. Honestly, I thought her shouting that at me to get my attention was worse than me standing to take a few photos. I explained I knew what I was doing and she shrugged and moved along.

I did photograph the owl twice. Both times, I kept it very short. The telephoto lens meant I didn’t need to get super close and I could take a bunch at different settings. I then left, walked away for a while, and then returned for a different angle. I had no plans to stress out the owl. I don’t even share where the owl is and I respect it. It is their habitat – not ours. As I left, I walked down the trail and eventually met up with the woman again.

She took time to apologize for how she came across and I explained that I felt like us talking was more disturbing than me standing quietly and shooting. What she explained next was so annoying. A photographer had come a year ago, at dusk, and set up his tripod and flash and proceeded to photograph the little owl. The flash is a big no-no. And setting up just to use the flash? That’s just wrong. The owl flew away and didn’t return for a long time. As nature photographers, it is imperative that we respect nature. That means that we may not get a perfect shot. We may miss an opportunity or can’t get as close as we’d like. What matters is that wildlife and nature go as undisturbed as possible.

I remember one time I was driving and saw a Great Horned Owl. It was on a branch that I could see from the road. Clearly. I turned my car around and drove back. I suppose I could have parked my car somewhere, gotten out and walked to a spot to get a closer shot. But I simply rolled down my window, looked for cars, and shot as much as I could. The photos aren’t great. I didn’t have a big telephoto with me. I was in a hurry and hadn’t changed my depth of focus. But I had a wonderful experience with the owl.

The same goes for any wildlife. Bears in Shenandoah. Turtles in ponds. Anything out west. It is one reason so many photographers are no longer sharing locations. I won’t tell anyone where this owl is unless I know, 100%, they are a photographer that respects nature. It took me 2-3 times of going to the location just to find the owl. I knew the general area and that was enough. We go. We search. We respect. I wish everyone operated this way.

Below… the little cutie!

Eastern Screech Owl by Jennifer Gonzalez - Ashburn, Virginia
Eastern Screech Owl

Manassas National Battlefield

A couple of weeks ago I was suffering… not from a cold or sickness or anything serious… just suffering from not having been outside very much. I’ve popped out here and there. I even got outside when it snowed. But a couple of weeks ago, I was tired of the rain. I also feel weird when I don’t “experience” a sunset for awhile. I saw that the clouds were going to clear out and that was my cue to get somewhere.

I decided on Manassas National Battlefield because I had seen a lot of cool sunset photos there and wanted to try for my own. One of the nice things about the place is that there are any number of compositions to be had. There are buildings. Monuments. Canons. Houses. The wide open spaces really give you a lot of options. I reached out to someone who had just moved to the area and asked if he wanted to go as well. We met there and wandered around chatting and shooting. I was worried that I hadn’t really gotten many good photos. I shot handheld for much of the early evening. As it turns out, the sky wasn’t very dramatic. The clouds moved out entirely. Thankfully, though, the sun was powerful and provided a beautiful glow.

One thing I have been attempting is to take more shots at different exposures and combine them. I have done it in the past but I feel more confident with it now and have learned how to do it better. I can honestly say it made the difference with my photos. Have you been to Manassas National Battlefield for photography? I know that I can’t wait to go back. I didn’t care for any of my canon photos so maybe I’ll try to capture them in a more interesting way.

First Day Hike – Welcome 2019!

If you only knew how long I sit around wondering where to hike, you’d laugh. I go through blogs. I open up my maps. I peruse my waterfall book. I can never decide. Maybe that’s because I have so many wonderful options? I knew I wanted a waterfall. That much was sure. This past Sunday my son and I set out for an off trail hike in Shenandoah to a big waterfall but due to my wonderful hydration bladder leaking and soaking my sweatshirt, we didn’t go. It would have made me very cold to hike with it like that and my base layer wasn’t warm enough. Ugh. We had fun roaming Big Meadows for a bit and driving Skyline.

I needed something new so I decided on Kilgore Falls in Maryland. It would be a 2 hour drive but I figured that was better than 3 hours to other ones I considered. I slept poorly and almost scrapped the whole thing yesterday morning but I saw an inspiring post on Instagram so I dragged myself out of bed and went.

As I was driving, I was willing the sun to stay behind the clouds. I felt like I had to hurry (I didn’t). I passed some beautiful farmland scenes that I would have liked to photograph but I really felt a need to get to the trail. I finally arrive and, boom, the trail doesn’t open until 10:00 am. 10:00 am? Really? That is so late. So crazy. I ran and used the port-a-potty (which I am happy to say was incredibly clean) and wondered what to do. I decided to zip on over to Conowingo Dam. I have wanted to go for a long time and figured this was my chance. I didn’t know if I’d see any eagles but had nothing to lose.

I got there and walked around a bit. I wasn’t seeing a lot of activity other than vultures. Whoopdedoo. I see those everyday around my house. And then I heard this sound. It was loud and sounded like birds could be fighting. Nope. Quite the opposite. It was two eagles getting it on (cue Marvin Gaye) on top of the electric tower. I obviously didn’t have my super telephoto lens with me but did have my 18-200mm. I zoomed in as best as I could to grab a photo. I was quite amused. When they were done, they just sat there. I guess they were being in the moment of what just took place. I figured this was a good time to head back to the trail head.

Eagles up high making new eagles

Hooray it was open! I was a bit worried about the number of cars I saw and thought there might be too many people for good photos. Thankfully, they were no where to be found except for one photographer. Walter. I thought he was packing up to go but he was interested in getting to the other side of the creek where the best photos would be. The water wasn’t super deep but it would be cold. We were both interested in avoiding that. So we walked. And walked. We followed the creek for quite a ways to see if there was a better place to cross over. Nope. It just got deeper. Like to my thighs deep. We turned around and walked back to where we started. I finally got the courage to walk up along the side of the big boulder and did get my feet wet. I thought, “I can do this!” so I walked out a bit more for a better photo. I turned and walked back and Walter decided to go. We ended up getting photos of each other in the process which was cool. As I stood there waiting, two young adults walked up and just walked across the creek without hesitation. I had to laugh. Youth. Never afraid. Bold. And it was then I knew I was walking across too. So when Walter returned we made our way across the creek. It wasn’t so bad. Cold, yes. But worth it. The other side of the waterfall was beautiful and made for great photos.

Walter on one side of the waterfall
I heard leading lines were a thing
Kilgore Falls in Black and White

The things we do for photos…. It ended up being a great way to spend New Year’s Day. I met a great photographer (go see his work). We had fun. I saw eagles mating.