Trip Report, Chincoteague NWR, November 2020
Chincoteague NWR is located on the southern Virginia end of the barrier island of Assateague. In the fall, the refuge attracts large numbers of snow geese along with ducks, swans, herons, ospreys, shorebirds and other migrants. It is also the home to wild horses, deer, raccoon, fox squirrels, and other animals. Used to being protected, the wildlife is unusually tolerant of humans and presents visitors with great photo opportunities. It is one of my favorite places to photograph wildlife in both the fall and spring. I have been conducting photo workshops there for many years. Numbers of species and the variety has shifted over the years. The refuge is located along the Atlantic Flyway. Once over 40,000 snow geese stopped at the refuge doing fall migration Now they stop farther north but still several thousands visit the refuge today along with shorebirds, swans, and other waterfowl.
Chincoteague NWR website:
Trip report – Fall 2020
First Stop – Sunrise
Several mornings were foggy and allowed me to create images different from many I have taken here before at this location. The two photos below were taken on one of those mornings. I like the layers revealed by the lifting fog and sense of calm these images invoke. In terms of exposure if using aperture priority, I had to increase my exposure compensation by at least +2. Remember that the light meter assumes it is pointed at something mid-tone and will darken the exposure to make it so, thereby underexposing the image.
First Stop – Sunrise
I had a treat one morning at sunrise when a large flock of White Ibis circled overhead with many landing in front of me. They were joined by herons and a few ducks. When photographing the birds against colored sky and water, I had to be careful that their silhouettes did not merge with the silhouettes of other birds or the surrounding grasses.
Several mornings were foggy and allowed me to create images different from many I have taken here before at this location. The two photos below were taken on one of those mornings. I like the layers revealed by the lifting fog and sense of calm these images invoke.
In terms of exposure if using aperture priority, I had to increase my exposure compensation by at least +2. Remember that the light meter assumes it is pointed at something mid-tone and will darken the exposure to make it so, thereby underexposing the image.
Black Duck Pool
After shooting sunrise, I will check out the scene across the road for horses and herons in the early morning light. If there is nothing of interest, I typically drive towards the beach checking out the borrow ditches on the side of the road for herons, ducks and other visitor that are in good light and in a suitable non-distractive background.
Note: In the summer it is difficult to photograph wildlife other than in the early morning and late in the pm since there is a lot of traffic on Beach Road as folks head to the public beach for the day.
On the morning that I saw the flock of ibis at sunrise, I found a large number of individuals engaging in a feeding frenzy at the junction between the borrow ditch on the left and Swan Cove. They were joined by a few herons. This is the first time that I have witnessed such a high number of ibis together. When they finished feeding in one area, they moved up the borrow ditch congregating at various points along the way. My car worked beautifully as a mobile blind. I could move the car and follow the birds as they traveled upstream. I shot from the car as to not disturb the birds and used a bean bag on the window sill to securely support my lens and camera.
Occasionally in the same area I have encountered a fox or raccoon, so I am always checking the edges of the road for cooperative subjects.
One of my favorite spots to photograph is Swan Cove. It typically attracts are large number of birds including shorebirds that often feed in the shallows near the road at low tide. On this trip I encountered a group of Yellowlegs and Dowitchers feeding close to the shore. Again I used my car as a mobile blind, shooting from the window with my 600 mm lens mounted on my home-made beanbag. On a day there was little wind and I was able to capture images of the birds with their reflection in the water. I always look for small ducks and grebes in this pool. On this trip I was able to photograph several tolerant Pied-Billed Grebes, Buffleheads and Ruddy Ducks close to shore, sleeping, preening and diving for food.
Black Duck Pond
Often later in the morning I check out the marsh and fields across from Black Duck Pond. I typically look for horses in the marsh and around small stands of trees. Around 9 a.m. on more than one morning, I got a number of photos as the horses crossed the marsh and fed on the grasses. Sometimes blackbirds would land on their backs, I am guessing, eating insects.
In this same area I found a cooperative female Belted Kingfisher sitting on a post. I spent a delightful hour with her as she flewdown to catch fish, landed on the post again, shook off water, preened. and stretched its wings. I got a number of great images shooting from my car with my 600 mm F4 lens combined with a 1.4 teleconverter
Also in the same marsh where there were pools of water and a channel, I was able to photograph herons feeding, groups of Buffleheads swimming the channel as well as Double-crested Cormorants swimming, diving or sitting on dead snags drying their wings. This past year the water level in the marsh was perfect for shooting across marsh at sunset.
Little Toms Cove
I frequently check out this area near the water control devices that allow water to pass under the road to Swan Cove. Often when you have an obstruction in waterway, macroinvertebrates and other organisms accumulate around the opening often attracting fish and birds. This year I encountered a bird that I had not photographed before, a Surf Scoter, a sea duck typically seen flying over the ocean. This past November there was a Horned Grebe hanging out in the same location. When the tide is out, I often see rails or oystercatchers feeding on the exposed mud flats.
In the winter some photographers go to Barnegat Light and State Park in New Jersey, The photographers brave the cold to photograph sea ducks from the jetty at the inlet — a favorite is the Harlequin Duck. I have not visited the site in the winter but have seen great results. However, conditions can be dangerous with icy rocks and a rough surf with waves that might swamp you and your equipment.
I always check out the beach for a colorful sunrise or shorebirds feeding along the water’s edge. The best time to photography is when the tide is low and when more of the beach is exposed. When photographing shorebirds, in the morning at Chincoteague it is difficult to avoid shadows covering much of the bird without moving out into the surf. However with post processing in Lightroom and Camera Raw, you can lighten the shadows with a selection brush. I always concentrate on birds that are moving towards me, not retreating. In the afternoon, it is easier to capture these images since the bird often is lit by the soft warm light at the end of the day.
On the bayside of Little Toms Cove opposite the beach, I often find an assortment of shorebirds, herons and an occasional fox. On this visit, there were Great Egrets flying back and forth feeding near posts marking private clam beds. I also photographed aa Black-bellied Plover and a Dunlin in winter plumage feeding amongst the oddly colored organism called Sea Pork. It is a colony of tunicate organisms which are plankton feeders. Though an oral siphon, they draw seawater through their bodies and pass it through a sieve-like structure that traps food particles and oxygen, eventually to exit through the atrial siphon. One sunset when the tide was out, I captured the remarkable colors and patterns as the setting sun lite the mud flats.
On fall afternoons, I often checked out the wildlife drive around Snow Goose Pool (only open to cars after 3 pm). This time not long after I entered the drive, I saw a flock of ducks explode in flight from the marsh. It took me a minute to realize that a bald eagle had swooped over the group. It missed catching a duck and flew back to the pine tree where it often perched near its nest. Unfortunately, I was distracted by the ducks, I missed the shot of the eagle. On other trips I have seen a pair of eagles siting on the edge of the marsh in the same area. Northern Harrier (Marsh Hawks) also hunt in the area.
Farther around the Wildlife Loop is Shoveler Pool which typically attracts ducks, geese, and swans. I was not disappointed this year for small groups of Pintail Duck, Green-wing Teal and Black Ducks took off and landed in the pool. Each day there were a number of Tundra Swans resting and feeding in the same area. Some individuals were quite aggressive, chasing geese and other swans. Before attacking, they often became very vocal, extending their necks low to the water and picking up speed. This fall the water level was low with weeds poking through the water’s surface, often leaving me with a somewhat distracting background behind the birds.
In the background of this pool was a stand of dead pines. These are Loblolly Pines which were killed by an infestation of Southern Bark Beetles that attack old or diseased trees. In several places in the refuge you will see similar stands of dead trunks. Refuge personnel replaces these dead pine trees with hardwoods such as red maple, water oak, and sassafras, creating a more varied habitat for wildlife. During your visit you may see young trees wrapped in plastic for protection.
If all goes well in May, I will return to Chincoteague NWR to photograph, hopefully to capture new and different images.