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 →
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.
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 →
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
A 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.
Yep, spring is entering our world and I bet most of you are fine-tuning your equipment, adjusting your winter-weary attitude and charting locations to explore and photograph. You are doing this, right? Continue reading →
Part IV –A little bit about the polar bears of Churchill, Story and photography by Jim Clark
To wrap up this series of four articles on photographing polar bears, I’ve put together a few tidbits of natural history about the bears of Churchill, Manitoba.
What makes Churchill so attractive to polar bears?
The western portion of Hudson Bay (The Bay), where the village of Churchill is located, is a landscape of raised beaches, small ponds, willow thickets and grassy flats interspersed with gravel ridges known as eskers, remnants of the last glaciation.
In my previous two columns I shared how I prepared for my excursion into the Canadian Arctic to photograph polar bears. So let’s now experience the Arctic tundra and photographing bears.
Our daily mode of transportation into the Arctic tundra was a tundra buggy, which is a buslike contraption converted into an all-terrain vehicle with extremely large tires, each measuring more than five feet in height. It’s the only mode of transportation capable of negotiating the rugged, snow-covered terrain. The ride is bumpy along the designated trails, and the top speed is probably around three to five miles per hour.
The tundra belongs to the bears and other Arctic wildlife. During my four days there with my wife and son, our feet never touched the ground. Even when we returned to the tundra-buggy lodge—an arrangement of buggies, which includes sleeping quarters, a dining area, a lounge and separate quarters for staff—we remained several feet above the tundra.
Part II-Techniques for photographing the ice bears of Churchill
Photographing polar bears, I discovered, is not much different from photographing any other wildlife species. You still have to prepare. You still have to understand exposure and how to use different lighting angles. You still must consider the guidelines of composition. You still have to remain patient. And, you still have to know when to act fast to capture that defining moment.
You might have to pinch yourself to realize you are really seeing these majestic creatures in real time. You are photographing the largest land predator in the world located in an isolated arctic environment in the early throes of winter, which can at times be overwhelmingly windy and bitterly cold with lots of snow. So, okay, there are a few differences.
My first experience with the apex predator of the far north: Part I—Planning the Trip
Polar bear in the Canadian Arctic, near Churchill, Manitoba. (c) Jim Clark
Somewhere I read that once you gaze into the eyes of a polar bear, it will change your life. Just a couple weeks ago, I did indeed gaze into the eyes of the foremost apex predator of the far north. In fact, for a week I looked into the eyes of several polar bears during my first-ever trip to Churchill, Manitoba. The experience is something that neither I nor my wife Jamie and son Carson will ever forget. Continue reading →