NATURE’S VIEW: Still waters and golden light

Story and photography by Jim Clark

For a few years now I have taken my workshop attendees to explore Taylor Landing, an isolated historical boat landing located along Maryland’s lower eastern shore. With the scenic vista of Johnson Bay and the tranquility of a morning shoot, the landing has become a favorite.

A small bay that opens into the much larger Chincoteague Bay, Johnson Bay borders along the western shore of the coastal barrier island of Assateague. The water is protected on three sides, and, weather permitting, it can become very still and flat, with nary a ripple to be seen.

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Pre-sunrise moment on Johnson Bay, Taylor Landing, Maryland. © Jim Clark

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NATURE’S VIEW : About Those “Sea” Gulls

Story and photography by Jim Clark

Birds have always been an important part of my life. At just ten years of age, I could identify birds not only by sight, but also by their songs, calls and even by habitat. There were not many days when I did not have my second edition of the Peterson Field Guide to the Birds within arm’s reach.

So imagine my confusion as a kid, at the beach with my family, hearing adults talking about a flock of sea gulls doing this or a sea gull doing that. Sea gull? I checked my trusty Peterson Field Guide, because I couldn’t remember anything about a species named sea gull.

I quickly learned that there is, in fact, no bird officially named sea gull. Yet, that term persists to this day. If there are sea gulls, then shouldn’t there also be river gulls, lake gulls, parking lot gulls and landfill gulls? There are not.

Sea gulls? No these are adult laughing gulls in breeding plumage, photographed at Assateague Island National Seashore, Virginia.                                                                                     © Jim Clark

Sea gulls? No these are adult laughing gulls in breeding plumage, photographed at Assateague Island National Seashore, Virginia. © Jim Clark

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NATURE’S VIEW: Taking a dive

Story and photography by Jim Clark

Within the North American avian universe, no other bird is like the belted kingfisher. Its look is distinctive. Identifiable by its large bill, chunky body and slate-blue plumage, the belted kingfisher is a common sight along any clear open body of water, whether that be freshwater or tidal.

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Female belted kingfisher at the Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge, Virginia. © Jim Clark

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NATURE’S VIEW: Moments (Part III)

Chasing the Moment

Story and photography by Jim Clark

Knowing when to anticipate a moment can pay dividends in photographing nature, as shown in my column in Part II in the November issue. This article provides an example that illustrates how knowing when to chase a moment can also pay off.

After the conclusion of my final spring workshop along Virginia’s eastern shore, I spent the afternoon exploring the Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge. While on the refuge’s Wildlife Drive, I saw several flocks of white and glossy ibis flying into Snow Goose Pool. As soon as one flock landed, another flock winged over the pines and landed in the same wetland.

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White ibis flying into Snow Goose Pool at Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge, Virginia. © Jim Clark

Before long, several hundred wading birds had gathered in the wetland. With so much avian activity, I decided to stay and photograph this amazing natural event. Only a few hours of daylight remained, so I had to be ready to chase the moment. Now wasn’t a time to fiddle with camera controls, as precious moments could be lost.

I quickly positioned myself to allow for the best angle of ambient light on the birds flying into and feeding in the wetland. For me, that was having the low-angled sun directly behind me. The light washed over the birds, showcasing the details and color in their plumage. I used a continuous high rate of 9 to 11 frames per second to capture the action of birds flying and interacting with each other. For exposure I used both manual and aperture priority settings. For manual, I took a spot reading off the ibis and set my exposure accordingly — as long as the birds were in the same light, the exposure would be correct. For aperture priority, I simply adjusted exposure with the camera’s exposure compensation dial. If I needed more speed, I increased the ISO setting. With a quick look at the histogram on my camera’s LCD monitor, I could make adjustments as needed.

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Juvenile white ibis feeding in wetland at Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge, Virginia. © Jim Clark

My lenses of choice were an 600mm with and without a 1.4x extender on a tripod and an 80-400mm telephoto zoom, handheld to capture the flocks as they flew to the wetland. With my 80-400mm telephoto, I could zoom in on individual birds or action and then zoom out quickly to capture a wider view of the flocks of ibis. My 600mm stayed firm on a sturdy tripod with a Wimberley WH-200 gimbal head, which provided quick and easy follow-throughs when photographing the birds in flight.

Except for the occasional sip of a diet cherry cola, my attention stayed focused solely on the drama playing out in front of me. The activity in the wetland became nonstop. Something was happening no matter where I looked — flocks flying in, birds competing for position, birds chasing other birds to get a prized catch, or just birds standing and waiting their turn for an opportunity.

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Two immature white ibis fighting at Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge, Virginia. © Jim Clark

I needed to keep my attention on the action and not worry about my settings. The critical part of knowing when to chase a moment is having the confidence in your understanding of exposure and camera settings so you can concentrate on capturing the shot at the right moment in time. So before you head back into nature, be sure to bring your skills at anticipation and chase with you. You’ll be glad you did.

What Drew Them In?

Are you wondering why the ibis and other wading birds were congregating in such large numbers in these wetlands? Well, water in the freshwater pools is carefully managed by refuge staff to provide optimum feeding habitat for waterfowl, shorebirds and wading birds.

In spring, water levels are reduced to create exposed mudflats that attract migrating shorebirds. The lower water level also creates isolated pools of water that concentrate fish for wading birds to feed upon. This is what I was witnessing — a literal feeding frenzy of herons, egrets and ibis. Later, as summer progresses, the exposed mudflats become thick with native vegetation that migrating waterfowl favor for food. As winter approaches, the water control structures are closed to retain rainwater, which creates higher water levels preferred by waterfowl that winter on the refuge. The more you know…

 


A past NANPA president and former contributing editor for Outdoor Photographer, Jim Clark is currently the nature photography instructor for the Chincoteague Bay Field Station, Wallops Island, Virginia. The author/photographer of six books, Jim is particularly proud of two children’s books he did with his son Carson. Jim was also a major contributor to the book, Coal Country. Jim’s website can be found at www.jimclarkphoto.com, blog at www.jimclarkphoto.wordpress.com, or visit him on Facebook.

NATURE’S VIEW; Moments (Part II)

Anticipating the moment

Story and photography by Jim Clark

In Part I, I described the two important personal skills I recommend a nature photographer possess: knowing when to anticipate a moment and knowing when to chase a moment. In this month’s column, I will share an experience that shows how knowing when to anticipate a moment paid dividends for me.

This past spring, my last nature photography workshop of the season took place along the eastern shore of Virginia. The students and I had a great day photographing birds, coastal landscapes and historical fishing villages. It was one of those days when you feel as though, “Life doesn’t get any better than this.” Yet, as I soon found out, it can. Continue reading

NATURE’S VIEW: Moments (Part I)

When to anticipate them and when to chase them

Story and photography by Jim Clark

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At Sandstone Falls, West Virginia, I waited for a bank of low-lying clouds to enter the scene before I photographed it. © Jim Clark

During my childhood living in the remote mountains of southern West Virginia, nature became my addiction. The only way to satisfy my craving was to spend more time outside. I learned about the importance of waiting, listening and observing. After all, I was, at age ten, a hardcore birder, and by simply doing these three things I was able to add more birds to my life list. The more time I spent in the mountains, the more adept I became at reading the landscape, the seasons and the critters.

When I couldn’t be in nature, I read every book I could find about nature and the men and women who made it their careers. I learned that these individuals—Roger Tory Peterson, Rachel Carson and John Burroughs, to name a few—possessed the same skills I was developing: waiting, listening and observing.

Today, through my life-long passion and career in wildlife conservation combined with 40 years of nature photography, I have developed a mantra that always holds true to form: Know when to anticipate and know when to chase a moment. It has worked well for me both as a wildlife ecologist and as a nature photographer.

Knowing when to wait—anticipate—for just the right time to photograph means having the ability to be patient and the intellectual curiosity to determine ahead of time how a moment might play out. I discovered in my early years that the more patient and observant I am, the more knowledge I gain that can be used to decipher, locate or identify an event in future situations. And, by knowing the species, its behavior and habitats, and by understanding the lay of a landscape, I gain an ability to anticipate a moment. Continue reading

NATURE’S VIEW: Fading Light and the Fern

Story and photography by Jim Clark

Along the fabled eastern shore near the state line between Maryland and Virginia, is one of my most favorite places to take workshop students: The Pocomoke River State Park. Bordering the Pocomoke River and Corker’s Creek, this Maryland state park protects one of the last remaining bald cypress swamps on the eastern shore. In fact, the cypress reaches its northernmost limit of distribution on the eastern shore.

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Bald cypress swamp, Pocomoke River State Park, Maryland. © Jim Clark

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The True Value of Your Photography

Story and photography by Jim Clark

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Two pencils © Jim Clark

A few years ago I was invited by the Wood County Reading Association in West Virginia to speak at several elementary and middle-schools in the county. I jumped at the opportunity to speak to these young folks, especially since I’m a native son of West Virginia.

From the moment I arrived, I was treated like royalty, even being chauffeured from school to school. I visited eight schools, spoke to more than 1,000 kids, and although the facilities varied from school to school, we made it work each time. I also gave a program to the local community on my first night. While that was fun and well-attended, my time at the schools touched my heart. Continue reading

The Cutest Animal in Yellowstone

Story and photography by Jim Clark

Nature photographers heading to Yellowstone National Park would have to be a little crazy not to think about the potential for photographing the park’s herds of bison and elk, the striking mountain vistas and waterfalls, and the extraordinary thermal features of geysers, fumaroles and mudpots.

I’m no different. I especially love to photograph Yellowstone’s charismatic megafauna. In fact, my favorite is bison as they roam Lamar and Hayden Valleys. But I also seek out the little critters as well.

Of the 67 mammal species documented in the park, the majority are the smaller ones, including such personal favorites as golden-mantled and Uinta ground squirrels, least chipmunk and yellow-bellied marmot. But the one mammal I absolutely love to watch and photograph is the pika—undoubtedly the most charming and photogenic mammal in Yellowstone.

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American pika, Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming. © Jim Clark

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NATURE’S VIEW: The Conspicuous Long-legged Shorebird of the Marsh

Story and photography by Jim Clark

The black-necked stilt has two special places in my bird-loving heart. First, it’s one of the most beautiful and entertaining shorebirds in North America. I can sit watching them for hours. The second reason? Well, that will be revealed later. For now, let’s learn a little bit about this most unique shorebird.

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Black-necked stilt wades in a salt marsh on Virginia’s Eastern Shore. © Jim Clark

Instead of blending into its environment, the stilt stands out. It is a tall, graceful shorebird with black-and-white plumage, thin red legs, and a long, thin pointed black bill. With a supple, measured walk, the stilt looks to be a delicate and fragile creature. It’s not.

Stilts are vocal and aggressive defenders of their nest sites from all potential threats. Through time, the only threat they couldn’t defend against was their near extinction by humans from market hunting in the nineteenth century. But the determination of conservation-minded people and the passage of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918 finally afforded protection for stilts and hundreds of other bird species.

Black-necked stilt protects its territory from a willet. © Jim Clark

Black-necked stilt protects its territory from a willet. © Jim Clark

Along the Mid-Atlantic coast where I photograph black-necked stilts, their habitat is a salt marsh with its stands of smooth cordgrass, salt marsh haygrass and black rush, and mosaics of salt pannes, ponds, tidal creeks, and mudflats. Stilts prefer the shallow water pools of the marsh where they feed by probing and gleaning along exposed mudflats and in the shallower portions of the pool.

Stilts are vociferous with their loud and incessant “yip-yip-yip” call when agitated. The clamoring call from several pairs of stilts as they keep an ever-watchful eye over their domain is one of the most enjoyable sounds from the marsh.

A pair of stilts I photographed was busy feeding, preening and keeping a watchful eye over their territory. I watched as the pair fed by pecking on insects on the surface of the water, plunging their heads into the water and herding small fish into the shallow portions of the salt pool. I even witnessed this pair fly above me to grab flying insects.

Black-necked stilt. © Jim Clark

Black-necked stilt. © Jim Clark

For the entire morning I photographed the stilts as they fed and defended their territory from would-be intruders. The low-angled morning light bathed the birds in a nice warm glow, enhancing their rich black plumage and pinkish-red legs. I made a slow, steady approach to where I could sit in the marsh and photograph at a low perspective without disturbing them.

My lens of choice was the 600mm f/4 on a very sturdy tripod. For flight images, I used an 80-400mm VR zoom lens. My ISO was just high enough to keep a fast shutter speed and the great morning light allowed me to use much lower settings.

I promised to give you the second reason that stilts have a special place in my heart. The black-necked stilt is the logo for the Chincoteague Bay Field Station where I lead nature photography workshops. The logo (shown in the photo of me below) appears on all their products—shirts, cups, hats and stationery, for example. And the logo is from an image I captured of a black-necked stilt that morning in the marsh.


Jim at CBFS Sign with his stilt logoA past NANPA president and contributing editor for Outdoor Photographer, Jim is also a nature photography instructor for the Chincoteague Bay Field Station, Wallops Island, Virginia. The author/photographer of six books, Jim is particularly proud of two children’s books he did with his son Carson. Jim was also a major contributor to the book, Coal Country. Visit Jim’s website at www.jimclarkphoto.com, blog at www.jimclarkphoto.wordpress.com or visit him on Facebook.