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Against All Odds, Loons survive
So far this summer, the wind, rain, and thunder storms have been difficult not only for our spirits in the North East, but for the hatching of our nesting loons. Despite the threat of rising water levels, many of the loons have successfully hatched. The pair I have been observing, hatched in the nick of time — temperature in the mid fifties, forceful winds, and a surge of constant battering waves could have wiped them out completely at any time. Their nest site was only two inches from the water at the peak of the floods. One day as I checked on them, an adult loon and then a second adult came around the island. As they swam closer, I could see two little chicks bobbing between them. The family swam on, staying close to each other, relocating to a nearby cove where they would raise their chicks. They made it against the odds.
Why do loons nest on the edge of lakes?
Loons have large bodies, making it cumbersome to walk on land. They build their nests on the edge of lakes for safety — should a predator appear they can quickly slip out of the nest into the water.
Downy Black Fluffy Balls
According to the Maine Audubon Society, “Newly hatched loon chicks are downy black fluffy balls that weigh roughly a quarter of a pound, the same as a stick of butter. They can swim right away, and will try to dive, though they have trouble staying under water for very long. They may feed themselves insects from the surface of the water but rely on their parents for food. By two weeks of age they gain about seven times their body weight. That’s like a baby growing to the size of a third grader in just fourteen days! ”
Why do loon chicks ride on their parents’ backs?
It’s chilly in early summer — water temperatures are not quite like July. Loon chicks cannot maintain their own body temperatures just yet, similar to human newborn humans.
They are not able to swim as fast as their parents — they need to stay close for survival. Parents will invite them under their wing when they need to move quickly away from danger.
Snapping turtles and big fish are threats to little chicks.
Bald Eagles can spot a meal a mile away, which is another reason for riding on the back. Loons are fierce fighters when they have to protect their young.
One day on the lake I was stunned to see chick #1 attack his sibling with a vengeance — pecking the top of his head with a gleam in his eye. When his parents surfaced he quickly changed his demeanor like he was an angel waiting for them. Chick #2 was a little dazed, but recovered quickly. I have not seen this before and since found out it’s fairly common. Just like in human families, loon brothers and sisters don’t always get along. The chick that hatches first generally is the bigger chick and what starts out as a tiny difference can quickly turn into a big advantage because the bigger (often the more aggressive one) can beg for more food from its parents. If the parents don’t catch enough food for both chicks, chances are the bigger chick will be the only one to survive.
It is a tough go for loons. Even if they stick close to their parents, the chance of chicks surviving through their first few weeks is quite low. Statistics say only 25% make it through the summer.
Symbol of the Northern Wilderness
I feel fortunate to be able to sit quietly in my kayak with my telephoto lens, at a distance from the loons (on a lake where many people kayak, so the loons are used to it) and watch them for hours. It is hard to describe the feeling like you are immersed in the loon’s world — truly a privilege. It has been said that no animal better symbolizes northern wilderness than the common loon, except perhaps moose!
One of the most interesting parts of being a nature photographer is the act of using the camera to take control of nature for a split second in time. Or, in the case of waterfalls, 1/25 of a second (or thereabouts, depending). Many of us use a combination of equipment and post production technique to bring our own perspective of the natural world into our collections. Here in New Hampshire, that natural world I speak of is starting to get very, very green. It’s great for the spirit, and a welcome sight for me and my lenses.
Even through spring has completely “sprung” in Southern New Hampshire, it’s still slowly coming along here in the White Mountains. In the past two weeks, we’ve experienced temperatures in the low 20’s at night, and the mercury has struggled to climb into the mid 40’s during the day (we’ve also seen a couple of days in the high 70’s, but that’s besides the point). The emerald spring foliage that the high hills are known for needs rain and warm weather to really start to pop; both are just now beginning to take place. However, I can assuredly say that within the next week or so, “Stick Season” will essentially be over. That means that waterfalls and wildflowers are on everyone’s mind.
Cabin Fever and The Waterfall Problem
With respect to New Hampshire’s waterfalls, one mistake that many photographers and enthusiasts make is researching too early (thanks mostly to cabin fever) and therefore getting into the field too early. Bare branches do not lend themselves to creating a lovely spring waterfall scene, and a little patience goes a long way. By and large, this patience also helps with overcoming a second side effect of an early waterfall adventure — too much water due to late winter/early spring runoff. With shutter speeds of a quarter second and up, a massive amount of water can cause blown-out highlights within your composition.
Just a Few Words on Technique and Equipment
When the time is right, that is, when you are ready and the falls are ready, there are some widely accepted principles that tend to work well in waterfall photography. While these tips might be an insult to the advanced photographer’s intelligence, they will help to get the novice up and running for their first successful waterfall shots. For starters, always bring a tripod. Also plan on getting it wet. You simply cannot handhold a camera at the shutter speeds needed to produce a silky and majestic look to your waterfall composition. And when I discuss composition, you’ll understand why it’s important to plan for a moderate soaking.
Consider a filter or two. A polarizer is always a safe bet since it will help you to take the glare off the water and wet trees and rocks. A neutral density filter will let you get a lot more drag out of your shutter. Stacking is okay, just play with it and find the desired effect.
Pictures that contain a flowing body of water tend to look better when the water appears to “flow through” the image. Therefore, it is necessary at times to be in the stream of water when taking your shot. You will need to keep your own safety (and the safety of your camera) front of mind, but don’t rule out the possibility of getting your feet wet.
My Gift to You – Three NH Waterfalls to Capture
New Hampshire has over 70 waterfalls of varying sizes and types. Some are easier to shoot than others, and some are easier to get to than others. I have personally hiked over 8 miles just to get to a particular falls that I wanted to photograph, and the planning and time that goes into that kind of shoot is a big commitment. There are three in particular that I like to recommend to folks who are looking for a big payoff without a long backpacking journey. And the best part of all, they can all be seen in less than half a day since they’re bundled within a 1.5 mile radius in Pinkham Notch!
Crystal Cascade – 10 minute walk up the Tuckerman Ravine Trail. Horsetail in type. Absolutely incredible in the spring (and the fall)!
Glen Ellis Falls – 7 minute walk down the trail at the Glen Ellis Falls parking area. Plunge in type, and known for getting even distant onlookers a little wet.
Thompson Falls – about a 1 mile hike from the parking lot at the Wildcat Ski Area. A deeper-woods commitment, but quite a spectacle. Cascade in type.
Entire books have been written on this topic alone, so trust me when I say that I could go on and on. Hopefully you have tamed your early lust for waterfalls, and you’re now ready to get out and capture some images the way that New Hampshire’s landscapes intend for them to be captured.
~ Matt Stearns
Matt Stearns is a freelance photographer and writer based in the Southern White Mountains of New Hampshire. His work is focused on the artistic interpretation of New Hampshire’s high peaks and surrounding waters. Discover his work online at matthewstearns.com.
With 265 acres of beautifully landscaped grounds planted with more than 15,000 species from around the world, the Arnold Arboretum is an oasis in the heart of Boston’s Jamaica Plain neighborhood. Established in 1872, it is managed under a partnership between Harvard University, which maintains the collections and conducts research and public education, and the city of Boston. The Arboretum is worth a visit in any season, but is especially picturesque in spring when the colorful blooms of the various trees, shrubs, and flowers are at peak.
The Arboretum’s visitor center is located in the Hunnewell Building at the Arborway (Route 203) entrance. Here services include maps, a model of the grounds, and gift shop. Several miles of paved roads (closed to public vehicles) and footpaths allow easy exploration of the grounds. There are numerous options for walkers, ranging from easy strolls to long circuit hikes of 4 miles or longer. Meadow Road continues south from the center and passes a variety of trees and shrubs en route to three ponds and the Bradley Rosaceous Collection, where one may view roses, cherries, crabapples, and other plantings.
The lower slopes of nearby Bussey Hill are home to one of the Arboretum’s most popular collections, a lilac garden with more than 200 species. A festival is held annually during the first weekend in May when the blooms are at or near peak. An easy climb on Bussey Hill Road leads to the partially open 200-foot summit, where there are views to the Blue Hills. Colorful rhododendrons may be viewed along Hemlock Hill Road near the base of the hill. In addition to their scenic qualities, the collections offer habitat for wildlife such as songbirds, bluebirds, butterflies, and small mammals including cottontail rabbits and squirrels.
Scenic Peters Hill marks the Arboretum’s southern boundary. The 240-foot summit, which is the property’s highest point, offers panoramic views across groves of colorful crabapple and cherry trees to the buildings of downtown Boston. If the distance from the visitor center is too far to walk, you can park on Bussey Street and enter at the Peters Hill or Poplar gates. For more information, including directions, events, and descriptions of the collections, visit the Arboretum’s website www.arboretum.harvard.edu.
~ John Burk
John Burk is the author of several books and guides related to New England, which may be viewed on his Amazon page. A detailed description of an Arnold Arboretum hike, as well as 59 other trips in eastern Massachusetts, is available in the Appalachian Mountain Club Best Day Hikes near Boston guide, which John recently coauthored with Michael Tougias.
Here in New England, like most of the United States, our “winter that wasn’t” has been followed by an early spring. Record warm temperatures, with the thermometer hitting 80 degrees in mid March, has everyone thinking about gardening, baseball, golf, etc. The sound of motorcycles can be heard on area roadways, convertible tops are down, snowdrops, crocus, and daffodils are all in bloom at the same time, something I’ve never seen happen before. Migrating birds are showing up at nesting grounds ahead of their normal schedule, peepers can be heard in the woods in March instead of April. Because of recent events in my life, my shooting schedule has become restrictive.
I now only get one week in four to get out and shoot whenever I want. My free week happened to be the 3rd week in March. As I watched the extended forecast for the week, it was hard to believe it was going to be as warm as they predicted. By midweek the high temperature was supposed to hit 80. My mind started to run the list of all the things I could possibly shoot during the week. Flowers were a big possibility, everything was blooming ahead of schedule. I was tempted to go looking for migrating birds as this time of year brings all sorts of birds through here on their way to their summer breeding grounds. With all the options that were rolling around in my mind one kept haunting me….Snowy Owls. I know from talking to other photographers that they have been disappearing, one by one, from places along the New England coast that they have haunted all winter.
I wasn’t able to spend any time looking for them during the winter, except for one brief excursion to Hampton Beach, NH. So what would my chances be if I went looking, now that the weather was supposed to be sunny and 80 degrees? I sent off an email to an online friend who keeps tabs on them in one area all winter. If anyone would know he would. He responded that he had been laid up but had gotten word and confirmed that there were still 3 owls there as of March 18. We planned our trip for March 21.
I set the alarm for 5AM. When I got out of bed and looked out the window it was foggy. We dressed, loaded the gear and mountain bikes into the truck, and got on the road. We were in varying densities of fog all the way to the beach. As we neared the beach the fog began to lift — just the opposite of what normally happens. As we crossed the bridge to the beach we found ourselves in bright sun. I packed my camera gear and Cyndy and I mounted our bikes for the long ride along the beach. Searching for a single bird along 4+ miles of dunes and beach can be like looking for a needle in a haystack. We had ridden about 3 miles when I heard Cyndy say, “Is that him”? I looked in the direction to which she was pointing — the top of a dune between the beach and the road. Looking into the sun I could pick out the unmistakable silhouette of an owl. I knew I had to get on the other side of him for any kind of a picture.
We started riding slowly down the road. We had to pass fairly close to the owl. Last thing I wanted to do was spook him. As we got close I heard the growl of a large truck coming up behind us. I looked back to see a huge dump truck approaching. It would go right by the owl. All I could do was watch. As the truck passed, the bird gave it an unconcerned look and continued his surveillance of the dunes and beach. I figured if the truck didn’t spook him neither would we — I was right. We stopped when I got to a spot where the sun was lighting the front of the owl. I took the pictures I wanted and then decided to ride to the next crossover and walk the beach back to the owl. I had a feeling he was sitting on the dune, just above the beach. After riding about ½ mile we found a crossover, locked up the bikes, and hiked the beach back.
We found him on the dune just above the beach. I moved as close as I could without spooking him and sat down and started taking pictures. The day had warmed to the point where I was comfortable in shorts and a t-shirt, not exactly Snowy Owl weather. I remembered John Vose’s blog about shooting a Snowy back in the winter in bitter cold with 30+ mph winds and a sub zero wind-chill. Here I was starting to tan. I watched the bird through the telephoto for a while. He was constantly scanning the beach and the marsh. Suddenly his posture changed. He stood taller, tail off the ground.
Suddenly, the massive wings spread and with one downward thrust he was off the dune, moving west toward the marsh. I couldn’t see where he went. We backtracked to the bikes and started riding back along the marsh. We didn’t get far before we discovered Cyndy had a flat. From here we would have to walk back to the truck. As we walked along we spotted him way out in the marsh. He was too far away to photograph but I had gotten what I had come for. The calendar said March 21. Many of the Snowys have already left. How long will this one stay, only the owl knows. One day, a trigger buried deep in the DNA of the bird will release and he will just disappear, guided back to the Arctic by some invisible map only he can see. Will we see him again? Who knows? It may be next winter or 5 years from now. In a future fall season another trigger will trip, be it a food shortage, over population, or some other phenomenon and suddenly they will reappear in our dunes and marshes, gracing us with their presence for another winter season.
At first, with bare trees and dull skies, overcast, rainy April days might not exactly seem inspirational for nature photography. However, these murky days are ideal for photographing subjects such as waterfalls, streams, and wildflowers. On one recent drizzly evening, I visited a woodland stream in the Swift River Valley near my home in central Massachusetts. Fed by the recent rain and high water from the end of the all too long winter, it was alive and roaring with a high volume, and fresh blooms of false hellebore wildflowers adorned both banks.
My favorite time for photographing waterfalls and streams are these weeks of mid to late spring, when flow is still high and leaves are just coming out on the trees. At this time, the leaves have a lush lime green color that loses its luster as the summer progresses. Autumn is also a fine season, especially when October storms raise the water levels. Winter brings more possibilities, including frozen water and ice formations.
Some waterfall trivia: did you know they are relatively mobile geologically? With every pebble washed away by a high flow, a falls gradually levels or migrates upstream, depending on how resistant the rocks are. Places like Quechee Gorge are believed to have been partially shaped by historic waterfalls.
Like other subjects, when photographing waterfalls be sure to try a variety of perspectives. In addition to wide ‘postcard’ views, look for close-ups of individual drops, lips, pools, ledges, potholes, and flowers or trees to frame the scene. Make sure you zoom in enough to get overcast skies out of the frame, as the white makes for a colorless highlight.
Also try different shutter speeds. A long exposure with a tripod produces a silky flowing water effect, but faster speeds that freeze the flow can also be worthwhile. If you can do so safely (be aware that rocks and ravines can be dangerous and some landowners may not permit going off trail), take time to explore the surrounding area, as there are often features such as gorges, pools, and more cascades nearby.
With its variable topography and an average of 45 inches of precipitation annually, New England’s landscape is an ideal environment for waterfalls. Indeed, more than 400 individual falls and cascades have been documented in the region. Many of these, including the tallest and most dramatic, are obviously in the mountains and hills, but cascades may be found anywhere where there’s elevation change.
After the last exposure, I hiked back upstream through the mist to my car. As the weeks and months progress, the character of the falls will change: more wildflowers will come out, they will dry out for a time during the summer, and then come back to life following autumn and winter storms, offering continuous possibilities for photo ops.