Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge/Assateague Island
Trip Report (Dec 2015)
Arrived at Chincoteague, VA on Thanksgiving 2015 to spend several days with friends for the holiday. On Friday, at the Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge Visitors Center, I delivered a presentation on wildlife photography as I do for the refuge at least once a year. My friends departed at the beginning of the week leaving me to begin scouting locations for my upcoming workshop, sites most likely to provide participants with good photo opportunities. The weather was rainy and cloudy much of the week making my job challenging. To make matters worse, the number of birds, particularly snow geese, this year was fewer than in the past, perhaps due to the warm weather in November and early December. It did not help matters that the phragmites along the banks of the borrow ditches was high in many places making photography difficult and the birds hard to spot.
Luckily there were some small breaks in the weather. Sleeping-in is not wise since you never know what Mother Nature has in store for you. One morning at dawn, light fog floated over the water that reflected the golden color of the sky. Geese floated into the scene and provided some needed foreground. Later that day I spotted a fox squirrel in soft light gathering leaves for her nest. On another day, I spotted her again on the side of the road dining on pinecones. The low light meant I had to use ISOs higher than normal to freeze the action (800 and 1600). On another morning, I grabbed a striking pre-dawn shot of the lighthouse as I enter the refuge.
Outside the refuge, I explored the town of Chincoteague and the small boat harbor. I talked to a few watermen and photographed them off-loading their catch. This year was the first time I witnessed workboats returning to the harbor at sunset. This presented me with nice opportunities for sunset photography.
With the low number of birds present of the refuge, I was concerned that my workshop participants arriving on the upcoming weekend would be disappointed with photo opportunities. Besides the small boat harbor, I looked for new subjects to photograph around town. On a foggy morning, I stopped at the intersection where there was a steam driven tractor on display. I had passed it many times but never took the time to examine it. With camera in hand, I discovered interesting details worthy of snapping some shots. Elsewhere in town I took a few shots of outdoor displays and a peculiar mallard with feathers stuck on its bill.
On Friday, finally the weather improved. At dawn, the sky had a bit of color near the horizon so I combined silhouettes of pines against the colored background – layers of color for a slightly abstract feel. Weather conditions continued to improve and so did the number of birds on the refuge. The small group of snow geese that had been hanging out on the beach at Toms Cove near the Life Saving Station, moved north resting on the sand near the beach parking lot. Honking as each new wave of geese arrived, their numbers grew. Against the blue sky, one V of geese after another filled the sky and descended to join the original flock. It was a beautiful sight. I spent the better part of morning photographing the spectacle, much of the time photographing from in my car to avoid disturbing the birds. (Lens primarily used: Nikon 80-400 mm chosen for its flexibility).
In the afternoon Friday, 4 Dec, the impoundment along Beach Road was full of birds – ruddy ducks, buffleheads, cormorants, and flocks of yellowlegs and herons. Weirdly as quickly as the birds appeared, the number dropped significantly the following day when my workshop began.
I had a full workshop this time with 8 participants of varying skill levels. The critique sessions revealed that all walked away from the workshop with very nice images and fresh ideas to improve their photography. Saturday ended with a great sunset at the small boat harbor. We arrived just in time to catch a huge sun dropping behind a trawler tied up at end of the dock. Sunday began with sunrise photography at the beach to be followed by photography of horses and a few herons along the service road. (I rented the Chincoteague Natural History Association tram for part of Sunday morning.)
My lesson learned. Don’t give up despite the weather or other disappointments. If you keep a positive attitude, you are bound to find something interesting to photograph.