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Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge

Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge is a really cool place. Normally, I research locations pretty well before going just so I know what to expect. Well, I was looking at the map since I was staying the night in that area of Maryland and just picked it. My original plan was to go to Calvert Cliffs but I have been there a couple of times already and wanted somewhere new.

blackwater wildlife refuge
The marshy-swampy refuge//embedr.flickr.com/assets/client-code.js

My first introduction to the refuge was stopping along the road to photograph a heron. It was in a farm trench and I thought it would make a cool photo. I managed to take a couple of pictures and then was swarmed by these fly/bee-like bugs. They weren’t bees but had a yellow-ish wing and flew like flies. Everywhere. In my face. In my hair. On my car. The kind of swarm where you start flailing around and trying to get into the car and then wonder if anyone saw you acting like a completely fool. If you’ve ever visited the Great Dismal Swamp (or other similar spot) you’ll understand. Needless to say, my photos of the heron weren’t great.

When I drove up to the visitor center, I was worried that they’d swarm again as I got out of the car. I put on a hat, just in case, and braced myself. Thankfully, there was no swarm and I was free to saunter to the doors. They wonderful ladies inside informed me that the park is a driving park. There are some trails but mostly you drive through and there are pull-offs. I also hadn’t realized it was $3 to enter. I had no cash (BRING CASH!). I am able to send it in later or pay the next time I go. I felt bad. I never want to get in somewhere without paying.

On my way back to the car, I noticed a small pond with tons of dragonflies. I grabbed my camera and was able to capture some new-to-me dragonflies. I saw them landing in the tree branches which I thought was kind of funny. It was a hot and sunny day so I guess they, too, wanted some shade. There were a couple of butterflies floating around as well.

Dragonfly at the Refuge
Swallowtail

I then started on my drive. My first stop was at a boardwalk area over the marsh/pond. From there, you could see a long ways. The ospreys and red-winged black birds were very loud. I spotted an egret fishing as well as some other duck or goose. I couldn’t get a good look at it but it wasn’t a type I had seen previously. From there, I kept driving. I stopped at almost every pull-off. I spotted 5-6 different herons – all flying by and never landing for a decent photo. And, again, dragonflies were everywhere. I spotted a Pileated Woodpecker that didn’t care about me. I basically walked right up to it and took photos from down below. I love watching them bang their heads against the trees.

Egret Fishing
Woodpecker hard at work

I could hear thunder in the sky and knew a storm was approaching. I maybe should have hurried up a little but I just loved being there. It wasn’t busy at all. For most of the time I was there, I was alone. The only exception being the boardwalk area. I could get out of my car and just listen. The sounds of nature filled the air. It was refreshing. At one point, the drive took me past an osprey’s nest. The babies were in there but down pretty far in the nest so I couldn’t spot them. The mama (I presume) was there keeping watch. The ospreys were numerous. I lost count at how many I spotted. I saw a smaller, black bird, trying to scare one off. The two flew around and, of course, the osprey just landed back to where it started.

Can you spot the wing of the baby?
Ospreys fighting over this tree

The store was drawing closer. I waited to try and get photos of the lightning but couldn’t quite time it right. The bolts were too far between strikes for me to try and guess. I finally saw a heron ready for a photo but when I started to put my window down the car was swarmed by small bugs. I quickly raised it back up but not before 12-15 had entered my car. At first I thought they were mosquitoes and I was a bit worried they’d attack me. They weren’t. Since there were no other cars around, I parked and proceeded to kill just about every one of those little buggers.

Storm Clouds

I wish I could have had more time. If you visit, be sure to take a long lens as you may not be close to the birds in the water. I had my 18-200mm but my 500mm would have been better.

On my way out of the refuge I did stop at the Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad National Historic Site. Many people probably don’t realize that the Underground Railroad relied heavily on swamp and marsh areas. When you experience the bugs at these places it is hard to believe they were able to get through undetected. The Site has a museum with artifacts, videos, and more. I say it is a must-see for everyone.

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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

Spring Time Babies

It is spring now and that means sports for me.  My son has soccer 5 days a week and my daughter usually has 2-3 softball games a week. Yes, it keeps me busy.  Usually, when my son is practicing soccer, I’m trying to run. It has been a bit tough with the winter-like weather we’ve had. I have bad asthma and so cold weather isn’t my friend (and neither is the pollen count this week).  I still manage to get out and walk though.

I noticed 4 weeks ago that there was a mama goose who had nested at a pond at the soccer fields. As I approached the pond one day, the male honked and honked. I couldn’t figure out why he was in such an uproar. Finally, I spotted the female with her head down trying to hide.  It was quite remarkable.

Over the next 4 weeks, I kept watch. I would go and see how she and the eggs were progressing. I never saw her partner again but she would be there. Head down. Hiding. And even just this past Saturday, I stopped by.  As I photographed blue birds, northern flicker, hawk, and other birds I noticed she was still on her eggs. And then it happened. This past Tuesday I arrived and there was the family. Did I bring my camera? No. Of course not. I stood there and watched them and debated going home for it.  I don’t live too far and knew it wouldn’t take me too long. I also figured I could return the next night with it.  I finally decided to go and ran back to my car.

I returned and did my best to photograph the little cuties. There were 8 in total.  I noticed one egg hadn’t hatched and so I figured they had to just be hours old.  The cuteness was almost overwhelming. I kept texting a friend with that exclamation. I finally looked at my camera and my heart dropped when I noticed I hadn’t changed my aperture. Ugh! I reviewed some shots and yes, they were out of focus as the depth of field was too narrow for the distance.  I fixed that and managed to get a few decent shots. I really wanted ones of them swimming.

Last night, we went early so I could show my son the goslings. They weren’t there. I figured they would be there for the next couple of weeks. I hadn’t anticipated them going elsewhere until the babies could fly.  I was bummed (and incredibly happy I had returned for my camera the night before).  As we drove back to his soccer field, I looked at a pond closer to the main road.  And there they were. How did they get there?  It is a mile from pond to pond. The new pond has a fence all the way around it.  I was perplexed. And a bit sad because I really looked forward to watching them grow.

Here are a few shots to enjoy! Click to enlarge.

 

 

Back to Burke Lake

Saturday morning was a flurry of activity in my house what with two toilets overflowing… I had thought about going to shoot the sunrise somewhere but alas, that didn’t happen. After all of the cleaning was done I needed some stress relief. I considered driving out to Shenandoah but I have been itching to get back to Burke Lake and hike the whole perimeter.

The day was sunny. The previous night the weather reporter guaranteed that there would be less wind (liar!!). I didn’t dress as warmly as I did for 5 degree weather in the mountains and I somewhat regret that. The temperature didn’t seem to get to the predicted highs and the wind was still pretty strong. Note to self: Always bring a scarf.

marinapano

Burke Lake Marina

 

I was pleased to see the parking lot fairly empty. Burke Lake is a very popular place (for many good reasons) but I really needed some solitude. The past two-to-three weeks had been very stressful and, well, not happy. There was nothing specific but let’s just say that hormonal changes in us, ahem, older women aren’t fun. I parked and decided to go counter-clockwise around the lake. I always go the same way so had to mix it up a bit. The best part was I was totally alone for at least an hour.

I often wonder if the average person out on a trail or at a park notices much of anything. I know that I look around, look up, stop, listen and have a tendency to be aware of birds and other wildlife. This paid off on Saturday as I looked up and there on a branch not 20 yards away from me was a big, fluffy Red-tailed hawk. It was gorgeous. As it turned its head and looked at me I wondered if it would fly away. I creeped forward a little bit and still it sat. In fact, it didn’t move the entire time I stood there and took photos. I heard people across the lake and worried they would walk to my spot and scare it off. Thankfully, they detoured and headed to a nearby parking lot. The beautiful bird allowed me to take several photos. I eventually moved on and took a few more from across the lake.

hawk-front

Hawk from across the lake

 

One thing I have always taught my kids is to not yell and be boisterous in nature. While on a trail, I try to talk in a normal voice, not yell up to my kids (if possible), or just be loud. I think keeping voices down wile on a trail is polite. It seemed few people felt the same way on Saturday. Regardless of how sound travels, I shouldn’t be able to hear a full conversation from 100 yards away. Just a note: be aware of others who may want some peace while hiking or trail running.

I continued around the lake and was able to see my first Merganser ducks. They are comical looking ducks. Their heads are enlarged a bit and their eyes appear tiny. I was pretty thrilled to watch them for awhile and take some photos. My timing was pretty bad because it seems they would dart just as I took a photo.

As I made my way further around the lake I was able to spot some deer, various birds, and another hawk (this one more skittish). Again, wondering if I was the only one to ever see them. Others seemed intent on chitchatting (perfectly fine) or looking down. By the time I reached the marina again, I felt really great…and cold. A large number of geese had gathered at the marine and they were so loud. They would fly in and land on the ice and then slide for a couple of feet – such talent. The ice, blue skies, and sun made for wonderful reflection photos.

seagullreflection

Seagull with great reflection

 

Eventually, I decided to head home. I really wanted a hot shower. If you live in or near Fairfax County and have yet to go to Burke Lake – get there. It is such a wonderful place and has plenty to do (at least in the warmer months).  Next visit: running the perimeter!

goosereflection

Goose on ice