A Change of Pace: Turtles!

Sometimes I have to walk away from the common challenges of wildlife photography, subjects like deer feeding in fading light, butterflies darting erratically across a meadow, tiny birds searching for berries in dense undergrowth, an eagle soaring in the clouds.

Turtles loafing in the warm afternoon sun on late summer days is a nice alternative, one where speed and light are inconsequential! Turtle searching led me to the Chenango Canal towpath trail and wetland complex.

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My first encounter was a painted turtle basking in the warm gravel at the edge of the road.  I managed to capture a few portraits before it crawled into the swamp.

 

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A hundred meters down the towpath trail, I saw what appeared to be a shiny flat rock in the grassy center strip. Something wasn’t right – too shiny – so I approached cautiously. Oh boy – a young snapping turtle! It was tiny by snapper standards, about the size of a hand with fingers extended. Speaking of fingers …..

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I wanted one more image, that of a big, mature snapper, but much of the shallow water along the near bank was obscured by the tall, dense growth of Touch-me-not (Jewelweed).

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Eventually I found a clear view of the canal in prime turtle habitat, but saw nothing but a large, slimy rock covered in algae and mud. Time to give up and head home……or not!?

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The rock had a neck and head! Snappers can live 30 to 40 years and weigh up to 35 pounds; I think this prehistoric monster is living proof!

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Photos by NB Hunter. © All Rights Reserved.

 

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Mating Wheels

I’ve learned to expect the unexpected during late summer excursions to wetlands and sluggish waters. A recent trip in search of large subjects like snapping turtles and beavers resulted in just the opposite: macro photography of insects in the order Odonata. Conspicuous dragonfly and damselfly activity caught my attention and the discovery of mating pairs in the characteristic “mating wheel” formation was a nice surprise.

Territorial fighting among breeding males is fierce. The tattered wing of this Common Pondhawk may be battle scars.

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Common Pondhawk defending its mating territory

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Mating pair of Common Pondhawk dragonflies 

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Mating pair of damselflies

Photos by NB Hunter. © All Rights Reserved.

Meadowhawk Dragonflies

Foraging and perching dragonflies are an entertaining – and valuable – component of wetland landscapes in summer. Meadowhawks like this one (Sympetrum spp.) are smallish and very common, but a male under magnification is a thing of beauty. The mosquito population has exploded during this wet summer, so I hope to see lots of plump, well-fed dragonflies in my travels!

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Photo by NB Hunter. © All Rights Reserved.

Tree Frogs

Months of unusually wet weather have favored our frog populations. A deafening chorus of slow trills engulfed and entertained me in early June as I fished a favorite trout stream in twilight. They were Gray Treefrogs, breeding males, more abundant and vocal in forested wetlands this year than I can ever remember. Pond edges are now lined with bullfrogs and immature wood frogs are underfoot, even in moist, shaded lawn habitats.

This story centers on the Gray Treefrog (Hyla versicolor) because it’s not well known, is rarely seen, and has the chameleon-like ability to camouflage itself, changing color to match its substrate.

A friend milks his cows on two shifts, the second shift in the dark of the night. The old, neglected milk house (benign neglect of course) is surrounded by weedy shrubs and covered in creeper vines. A small, broken window bridges the exterior jungle with the humid, cave-like environs within. A small stream and wetland habitats are within a stone’s throw of the barn. Textbook frog habitat!

One night a flip of the milk house calendar from July to August exposed a tiny, dark-colored treefrog clinging to August. A Gray Treefrog in typical, drab colors had been exposed!

Days later, I got the call I was hoping for: a green treefrog had been captured in the milk house for me to identify and photograph. It was actually a Gray Treefrog in green camouflage – something I had never seen. Before returning the tiny frog (less than 3 cm long) to the milk house thicket, we placed it on an old wooden silo for portraits. In just a few minutes its feet and lower legs were silo gray! This fascinating little frog is a ninja survivor of the highest order!

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Photos by NB Hunter. © All Rights Reserved.

Pond Life

Small, warm-water ponds are a nice change of pace and delightful mid-summer escape.

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Adult merganser and snapping turtle at rest… young mergansers might be a meal for this snapper!

Last week I was invited to a private woodland pond to observe and photograph a family of beavers. There was plenty of time to spare in between beaver sightings and I soon became entranced with the cold blooded creatures hunting the shoreline and shallow waters. Most prominent were the bullfrogs. Dozens dove into the pond from the weedy bank as I scouted the water.  Soon after I had taken a seat and steadied the camera, they began to pop up to the surface, bulging eyes announcing their presence.

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Huge dragonflies were patrolling the waters with grace and beauty. This one stopped on a dime and hovered in front of me, seemingly to show off its amazing flying skills and pose for documentation.

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An adult beaver finally appeared on a far bank. It had been foraging in a thicket above the water line and would soon be heading back to the lodge with a freshly cut tree branch to feed its young.

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A conversation about beaver and the aquatic habitats that they create is incomplete without mention of the Red-spotted Newt. Two of the three stages of the complex life cycle of this salamander are dependent on clean, quiet waters like beaver ponds. The middle stage, an immature adult (“Red Eft”), is terrestrial. They inhabit the moist, shaded habitat of the forest floor and can be found wandering around at any time of the day or night.

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Photos by NB Hunter. © All Rights Reserved.

Hide and Seek with a Great Blue Heron

I often encounter the resident Great Blue Heron when walking a canal towpath. On this occasion, we came eye-to-eye at 75 meters and it tolerated my advance, for awhile. It eventually tired of the game, took flight, and headed for its preferred wetland habitat – straight up the canal past me!

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Photos by NB Hunter. ©All Rights Reserved.

Forested Watersheds

This is an excerpt from my photo journal after an annual camping and fly fishing trip in the mountains of northern Pennsylvania in late May and early June.

A seven mile descent into a narrow stream valley typifies the terrain and landscape of the Allegheny Plateau. This particular watershed of about 50 square miles is a tiny window into a much larger, mostly forested region of over two million acres of public land. Advocates of eco-tourism call it “Pennsylvania Wilds”. Decades of camping, fly fishing, sightseeing and research in PA Wilds have given me a foundation and perspective for virtually all matters of conservation and environmental health. That will no doubt be evident in this post.

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The sweltering heat wave blanketing much of the U.S. and the latest issue of Nature Conservancy magazine (“Blue Revolution: Rethinking Water on a Thirsty Planet”; Summer 2017) led me to focus on one aspect of my annual trip that is becoming more and more precious with the passage of time: the clean, cold surface waters of forested watersheds.

Upon our arrival, we were not surprised to see that weeks of cool, rainy weather had resulted in water levels a foot above normal. But, the turbulent waters were nearly free of sediment due to the absence of development and continuous forest cover.

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Small, freestone mountain streams recovered quickly and were well on their way to “normal” after just two days without rain – another wonderful feature of a pristine watershed.

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Mayfly activity … as well as dry fly fishing … followed a more predictable pattern when temperatures rose and water levels receded.

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A Green Drake mayfly spinner (Coffin Fly)

Spring seeps trickling over exposed rock enhanced the visual experience and supported lush growth of ferns and wild flowers.

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Virginia Waterleaf thriving in the moist, shady microsite of a spring seep

“Hydrologists estimate that if all the water on Earth filled a 5-gallon bucket, just one drop of it would represent the clean, fresh water accessible to humans.” – Nature Conservancy magazine, Summer 2017.

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Photos by NB Hunter. ©All Rights Reserved.