Great Smoky Mountains

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A week ago, I returned from Wears Valley, Tennessee, which is adjacent to Great Smoky Mountains National Park.  I was there for a family reunion, and of course, to do some nature photography in and around the park. Of all of our national parks, Great Smoky Mountains National Park is the most visited with over 9 million visitors a year. Unfortunately, it is also the most polluted park, because it is downwind from major cities, industry, and power plants. The pollution significantly affects visibility and the health of the park’s fauna and flora. Since 1948, visibility has decreased 80 percent in the summer to 40 percent during the winter, or about 20 miles in the summer to 100 miles during the winter. Knowing this, I was concerned about effectively photographing the Great Smoky Mountains. The Smokies get their name from the clouds that blanket the valleys and mountains, not from the pollution that hinders the views.

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I arrived Saturday after the fourth of July, and the traffic on the roads near the park was worse than traffic around Washington DC, where I live. The amount of people and cars in and around the park, made it difficult at times to do serious landscape and wildlife photography, because the crowds were at the park’s most popular and beautiful locations. Regardless, the park encompasses over 522,000 acres, making it one of the largest protected areas in the eastern U.S., with plenty of locations to find solitude and beautiful scenes to photograph, like the one above and below in Cades Cove.

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One morning, I went to Laurel Falls with some family members from the reunion. It was a perfect morning to photograph the falls since it was overcast and the sunlight filtered. The falls are located 1.25 miles up a mostly paved trail (with many people coming and going). It was a challenge to compose and shoot the below image due to the large number of people at the falls. Notice, there are no people in my image. That is because I typically avoid photographing people and manmade objects. To capture this image, I had to wait patiently (not really) until there were no people or children in the frame.

Laurell-Falls-Great-Smoky-Mountain-National-ParkUsing a wide angle lens contributed to the challenge, but it was a necessity to capture the entire falls. I could not step back to open the view/composition because the space in front of the falls was very limited, and there were people everywhere. I shot the below image with my iPhone to capture this memorable moment. Actually, it was not a good memory,  but I did enjoy being with the family, and I did get the shot.

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After seeing the above photo, you get the picture (people everywhere), and you can better appreciate and understand the challenge of capturing the images in this article. I was expecting the park and surrounding areas to be busy, but it was almost unbearable at times. It was not my vision of an ideal outdoor experience. Nevertheless, I made the best of it, immensely enjoyed the family reunion, and was able to capture some of the park’s spectacular beauty, like the scene below.

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One of the most popular locations of park visitors and photographers is Clingmans Dome. It is the tallest peak in the park, towering 6,643 feet, and one of 16 mountain peaks over 6,000 feet. I went there during the day with family members, but I was also there on the “hunt” for the perfect location to photograph a mountain sunrise. After assessing a number of other locations, Clingmans Dome seemed to be the best. Unfortunately, as a sign states at Clingmans Dome, many people (80% of its visitors) are disappointed with the very limited views because of cloud cover, which of course is why the mountains are called the Smokies. Regardless, after seeing the potential, I made plans to shoot the sunrise from the top of Clingmans Dome. Below are three images from Clingmans Dome from my first visit.

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The following day, I got up at 4:15 AM to photograph the sunrise from Clingmans Dome.  From where I was staying in Wears Valley, it was about a 95 minute drive on dark, winding mountain roads. When I reached the parking lot near the peak, I could see stars in the dark sky. I was excited that the mountain top was not covered in clouds (and people). I could not believe it, I was the only one there. At a minimum, I expected to see other photographers shooting the sunrise.

Knowing that clouds could sweep in quickly and that the sun would be rising very soon, I very quickly hiked, carrying my camera gear and tripod, a half mile up the trail’s steady incline to the viewing platform at the top. It was windy and a cool 53 degrees, and by the time I got to the top, clouds were rapidly moving into my view of where the sun would rise. Clouds already covered the lower mountains and began filling up the sky. I managed to take only a couple shots before the mountain top and view was entirely engulfed in clouds. Unfortunately, it was before the sun rose above the horizon. Nevertheless, the below dawn image is one of my best sunrise photographs. I am having it printed 24″x36″, matted, and framed to hang in my home. Be sure to click on the image to view it full screen.

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Within a couple minutes, the entire mountain top and as far as I could see was covered in a thick layer of clouds. As fast as they rolled in, I thought they might clear before the sun rose, but that was not the case. I did see and was able to capture the sun very briefly as it struggled to shine through the thick clouds. As it turned out, that image (below) is also beautiful but in a mystical or mysterious way, and obviously very different than the above image before the clouds completely covered the sky.

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If you are wondering why there are so many dead trees in these images, it is because of insects (Balsam Woolly Adelgid (Adelges piceae)) that were introduced in trees from Europe that infest and kill stands of Fraser Fir trees. The insects inject toxins into the tree that block the flow of nutrients, and the trees die of starvation. Fir trees were the dominant tree at high elevations in the lower Appalachian Mountains.

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On my last day in the park, I photographed some of the small falls (above and below images) along the Roaring Fork Nature Motor Trail. It too was very busy with visitors, but I managed to locate several small falls where I could take some unobstructed photographs.

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I was also very fortunate to see and photograph Elk, Black Bears and their cubs, Wild Turkeys, deer, and a herd of wild horses. Some of those images are below, starting with the Elk. It took awhile, but eventually the Elk stopped feeding and stared at me while I took this image. Below the Elk image is a photograph of the herd of wild horses near the entrance to Cades Cove.

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The below images were also taken in Cades Cove.  I went there several times, and every time I went, I saw Black Bears. According to the Park Service there are two bears in every square mile of the park, or about 1,500. In the below image, I was driving the oneway road around Cades Cove, when a mother bear was strolling along the road with her three cubs. She followed the barbed wire fence until there was an opening and then led her cubs into the open field.

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In the below image, you can see the three cubs in the tall vegetation following their mother, and at one point, one of the cubs stood up to look around.

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Black-Bear-and-Her-Three-Cubs

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As you can see in my photos, Black Bears in the park are black, but in other parts of the country they may be brown or cinnamon. They may be six feet in length and up to three feet high at the shoulder. During the summer months, an adult male bear can weigh as much as 250 pounds while adult females are generally smaller and weigh slightly over 100 pounds. Bears typically double their weight by the fall, and male bears over 600 pounds can be found in the park. Unfortunately, I only saw one male bear, which was feeding deep in a heavily wooded area, but when it spotted me, it quickly left. Bears can live 12-15 years or more, however, bears which have had access to human food and garbage have a life expectancy of only half that time. That makes me wonder what our food is doing to us.

During another visit to Cades Cove, a female Black Bear and her two cubs were feeding not too far off the road. The cubs stayed mostly out of sight, but I managed to get one image of the cub standing up to look around. This image is followed by images of the cub’s mother.

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I saw several turkeys (some driving cars) and in open fields in and around the park. Below are two images of a female Wild Turkey that I saw in Cades Cove.

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Finally, below is one of the deer images that I also took in Cades Cove. This deer was watching me closely as I was photographing a bear. Cades Cove turned out to be an outstanding place to see wildlife.

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It has been over a month since my last article on this blog, but it is not due to a lack of photography. I have many images to process and post from other trips, but I wanted to get this one posted first because of the incredible scenery and abundant wildlife that I saw in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. If you have not been there, I highly recommend a visit, but also recommend it not be around a holiday, like the fourth of July, unless you do not mind a lot of people and cars. The best time to visit is in the spring before the large numbers of visitors begin arriving at the park. Obviously, autumn would be perfect to see the fall colors, but it is also one of the busiest times of the year.

The images in this article were photographed with either a Nikon D700 or D800 and a variety of Nikon lenses to include: 16-35mm, 28-300mm, 24-70mm, 70-200mm with a TC20, and 600mm. EXIF data is available by email.

One more item of interest, I was interviewed for the American Wild Bird website in June, and the video of the interview can be seen on the American Wild Bird website home page. If you enjoy photographing birds or just looking at excellent bird photographs, I highly recommend that you visit this website often.

Comments on my blog and this article are appreciated and can be entered below by clicking on “Comments” found below the Like this: section.  You can also read other’s comments there.

Posted in Landscape Photographs, National and State Parks, Nature, sunrise, Wildlife | Tagged , , , , , , , | 24 Comments

Cicadas! Were Here, Mostly Gone Now, and Return in 17 Years

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It’s been several weeks since my last blog article, but it’s not due to a lack of photography. Since my last article in mid-May, I photographed wildlife at a few locations in northern Florida and here in northern Virginia. I am very behind in image processing and posting blog articles. I hope to catch up over the next couple weeks.

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Of all the images that I have taken recently, the ones in this article may not be the most favored, since most people have a strong dislike of insects. I too am not a big fan of insects, especially the ones that often bite me when outdoors, but I do find them interesting. Of particular interest are cicadas because of their unusual life cycle, size, and sounds they produce.

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If you do not live in the mid-Atlantic area, you may not have experienced the recent onslaught of many millions and millions of cicadas that have carpeted the area. They appeared several weeks ago as nymphs emerging from the ground, where they have lived for the last 17 years, since 1996. Shortly after leaving the ground, they shed there exoskeleton and morph into large flying adults to mate, lay eggs, and die, all within about a four week period.

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There are several thousand species of cicadas worldwide and not all have a 17 year lifecycle. The ones we experience here are known as Magicicadas. As you can see in the images in this article, photographed around my home, the adults are colorful with small beady red eyes, colorful bodies, and large clear wings. The males make a loud humming sound to attract the females, and for a couple weeks, the sound was so loud I could here them indoors through closed double pane windows.

After mating, the female cicadas cut slits in young tree branches and deposit hundreds of eggs. When the eggs hatch, the nymphs drop to the ground, where they burrow down and live for 17 years living off the sap in tree roots.

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Even though you may not like insects and do not find cicadas interesting, I highly recommend this video by Samuel Orr as part of a kickstarter project.

Today, as I write this, I hardly hear a cicada and have to look hard in the trees to find one that is alive. There are a lot of dead ones on the ground, making good food for other creatures. Although they are more a nuisance than anything else, I am glad that they will not be back for 17 years, and by then, I expect to be living someplace other than Virginia. Tomorrow, I will go back to processing images other than those of insects.

Posted in Nature | 5 Comments

The Barred Owls Are Back

Barred-Owl

In late April, I kayaked across the lake and up the tree lined creek that flows into the lake where I live in northern Virginia. Far up the creek is where I located a pair of Barred Owls last spring, and where I had recently been hearing them again this spring. Therefore, I knew they were back. The question was whether I would be able to locate them again. Last year, the owls were in an area near the creek that is heavily wooded with very large trees and a heavy under growth. Much of the area around the creek also is a wet floodplain with pools of water and small streams leading to and from the creek.

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Barred Owls  are common in North America and have adapted well to living near suburban areas, however, they prefer hardwood forests near wetlands. Barred Owls do not migrate, and typically live within a 5 – 6 mile radius. Apparently, this pair of owls nest in the same location each spring and then move to other areas for the rest of the year, because it is only during late winter and spring that I hear them across the lake.

As you can see from the images in this article, I was successful in seeing and photographing the pair of Barred Owls. The first two images (above) were photographed in April. That was an exploratory trip to see if I could locate the owls, but last Sunday, I was better equipped and prepared to stay on the creek longer. On this trip, knowing the trees were fully leafed out and that there would be a lot of shade covering the owls, if and when I found them, I brought along and used a Nikon SB900 Speedlight (flash) and a Better Beamer attached to it. A Better Beamer extends and focuses the light further for photographing wildlife at long distances with low light.

Barred Owl Sleeping Against a Tree

On Sunday, as I paddled up the creek, I was constantly looking into the tall trees for an owl silhouette. That is about the only way to spot them, if they are not moving, since they are so well camouflaged and blend into their environment. As I was scanning deep in the woods, I noticed one of the owls sleeping in a tree right alongside the creek and only up about 25 feet. The owl was backlit, well shaded, and its details barely visible. I slowly and quietly paddled back and away from the owl and set up my camera, which was in a water tight bag. After setting it up to include the speed light and Better Beamer, I began photographing the owl. Above is one of the first images I captured. Notice how the owl is leaning against the tree while sleeping. That is a sight I had not seen before.

Barred-Owl-Stretchng-Leg-and-WingEventually, the owl was awakened by the flash, but not startled. It slowly woke up, stretching its wing and leg (above image). The owl then looked up the creek and called out loudly, and the other owl called back. I tried to locate it, but it was out of sight. The owl I was watching began to move on the branch (next two images), as the two owls called back and forth to each other.

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The owls appear to be nesting in the same tree cavity that I saw and photographed last year when the female was sitting on the nest. Since it was May, and I could not see any owlets, I suspect that the female owl had laid her eggs, which could hatch at any time. Barred Owl eggs hatch in about 4 weeks after they are laid.

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Before long, the Barred Owl took off and flew deep into the woods, and the other owl flew out from where it was hiding and perched on the other side of a nearby tree.  I was barely able to get a clear shot, which I took (above). After that shot, it was time to leave the owls and not disturb them anymore. They clearly wanted to sleep and get their rest, since it is predominantly at night when they are active and hunt for food.

The images in this article were photographed with a Nikon D800 and Nikon 70-200mm lens with a TC20 teleconverter, and as stated above, with a Nikon Speedlight and Better Beamer.

Posted in Bird Photographs, Nature, Wildlife | Tagged | 7 Comments

In the Right Place at the Right Time — Hooded Merganser Ducklings

Hooded-MergansersI have had some highly successful photography trips recently, photographing some of nature’s beautiful and fascinating wildlife, but have not shared much of it on my blog. In fact, it has been about a month since I posted an article. During the month of April, I have been to Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge (NWR), Blackwater NWR, Huntley Meadows Park, and on Lake Montclair. At those locations, I saw and photographed various song birds, shorebirds, wading birds, and eagles, hawks, owls, wood ducks, wild horses, and elk, and I am planning to share some of those images over the next couple of weeks on my blog.

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However, the most exciting photography event happened last weekend at Huntley Meadows Park in Alexandria, Virginia, when I was in the right place at the right time. I was there primarily to photograph Wood Ducks and found a pair casually feeding in a beaver pond and, while photographing them, a hen Hooded Merganser appeared at the opening of a nesting box in the beaver pond. What was odd was that she maintained a position (below image) of half in and half out of the box, while obviously looking around the area for about 15 minutes.

Hen-Merganser-Looking-Out-from-Nesting-BoxDuring that time, I said to a friend, Ernie Sears, who also was photographing the Wood Ducks, “wouldn’t it be incredible if we happen to be here when her ducklings emerge from the nesting box.” At the time, I did not notice the egg shell attached to her chest (below image). On a previous visit to Huntley Meadows, a park volunteer said that last year a photographer spent an entire week, everyday at the same location, in order to photograph the ducklings as they dropped from the nesting box. I never thought we would be so lucky.

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Shortly after my comment to Ernie, the hen Hooded Merganser flew down to the water, and then a duckling appeared at the nesting box opening (below image). I could not believe my eyes. Our timing was incredible!

Hooded Merganser Ducling

Within a few seconds, the duckling saw its mother on the water below and jumped out of the box. Then, another duckling appeared at the opening and did the same. At times, there were two ducklings peering out and then leaping to the pond about 5 feet below. Below are some of the images I captured as they appeared in the opening and jumped to the pond.

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It was an incredible and exciting sight. On several occasions, it looked like the last duckling had appeared and jumped to the pond, but within a short period of time, another appeared and then another. This happened over and over again. In total there were 16 ducklings that jumped from the nesting box to the pond below. As you can see from the above images, their descent was far from graceful, and they certainly were not flying. Some landed head first, others webbed-feet first, and others belly-flopped.

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In the pond, the hen merganser waited for the ducklings to splash down, and then she  quickly paddled to each of them and led them to the group, which was growing larger and larger. She had to react quickly, because whatever direction the ducklings landed in was the direction they start to swim. It was important that she gather them up quickly and keep them together. The small ducklings were defenseless against any predators, but there is some apparent protection when tightly together.

The below images are of the hen merganser swimming around the pole that held up the nesting box as she led the ducklings into the group.

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In the below image, the hen merganser can be seen looking up to the nesting box waiting for the next duckling to jump.

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After the last duckling had landed, the hen merganser kept them tightly together and began to swim toward a creek and into the forest. The ducklings were too obvious out in the open to potential predators, such as hawks. Below are images of the hen merganser and her 16 ducklings as they swam away.

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As you can see by the above images, the drake Hooded Merganser was not around, which is typical. When the hen begins sitting on the nest, after laying her eggs over a couple of weeks, the male departs. Hooded Mergansers nest in tree cavities (and nest boxes), and can lay up to 13 eggs in a clutch. At times, more than one hen merganser will lay eggs in the same nest–this is known as dumping, but only one hen will sit on the eggs until they hatch. A Hooded Merganser nest was once found with 44 eggs in it.

Once the eggs start hatching, they will all hatch in about a 24 hour period, and after they hatch, they all leave the nest at the same time to join the hen either on the ground or water below. Tree cavity nests range in height from 10 – 50 feet above the ground and can be as high as 90 feet. Somehow, the ducklings survive the fall. Some merganser nests have been found over a half mile from water, meaning the hen and her ducklings must walk (or waddle) that distance to reach the water. Comparatively, the ducklings that I photographed had it easy.

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After reading this article, you can see why I titled it, “In the Right Place at the Right Time.” It was most likely a once in a lifetime exciting event to see and photograph.

Posted in Bird Photographs, National and State Parks, Nature, Wildlife | Tagged , | 19 Comments

Two Wood Ducks (and Lots of People)

Beaver-Pond

With the outside temperature at 27 degrees, it was tempting to stay in bed and not get up before sunrise to photograph Wood Ducks. Making it even more difficult were the poor results of last week’s trip–a quick glimpse of one female Wood Duck and no photographs. Nevertheless, I got up, hoping it would be better.

Beaver-Pond-2I arrived shortly after sunrise, meeting a friend in the parking lot. We mounted cameras and lens on tripods, equipped ourselves with secondary camera bodies and lenses, and headed to a beaver pond. While walking through the hardwood forest to the beaver pond, we searched the upper tree canopy, since we had seen several Wood Ducks in the trees on a previous trip, but we did not see any this time.

Shortly after arriving, a pair of Wood Ducks moved from behind a large clump of reeds and began crossing the beaver pond, weaving between reeds, logs, and fallen trees on the far side of the pond. Fortunately, there was no wind, and the pond’s surface was perfect for capturing the reflections of the ducks as they swam in small sections of open water. The ducks knew we were there and moved quickly, crossing the pond in no more than a minute or two. I tracked them through my camera lens as they swam across the pond, and when they were briefly in the open, I managed to fire off a number of (digital) shots.

Pair-of-Wood-DucksAt one point, before entering an open section of the pond, the pair stopped behind some reeds, where the male watched us closely while the female preened her feathers and rested her eyes for a brief moment, which I captured.

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As the Wood Ducks neared the other side of the pond, they began to disappear behind reeds and trees, and were quickly out of sight. Other than a few brief glimpses of them or other Wood Ducks that flew quickly out of the forest and out of sight, we did not have another opportunity to see or photograph any more. That was most likely because, as the morning progressed, we attracted many other photographers and other people wanting to know what we were photographing.

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At one point, there were about ten photographers, counting ourselves, along the beaver pond, as well as other people. The quiet and solitude of the early morning had ended from the chatter of people and children. Wood Ducks are very skittish and wary of people, and typically, when they see people they very quickly hide or fly away. Therefore, since there were so many people, my friend and I packed up our gear and left about midmorning.

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As you can see from the images in this article, it paid off to get up and out early, before the crowds of people arrived.

More Wood Duck images, as well as other photographs from that location, can be seen on my website at: http://stabone.com/p631850478

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The images in this article were photographed with a Nikon D800, using a Nikkor 600mm f4 VRII lens and TC14 Teleconverter and mounted on a Wimberley gimbal head and Gitzo Mountaineer tripod.

Posted in Bird Photographs, Nature, Wildlife | Tagged , , , | 11 Comments