Category Archives: Nature Blog

Diary of the photographic journey of Aaron Smith

Waterfalls in Ricketts Glen State Park

Roaring Forest WaterfallRicketts Glen State Park has some of the most beautiful waterfalls in Pennsylvania. I had spent much of the summer traveling around many of the waterfall locations in the Finger Lakes in New York, and decided to travel around my own state to see how our selection of gushing wonders stacked up. I was not disappointed!


 

The journey begins at the very top of a very tall, forested hill.  The Forest Waterfall with Rockstop has some smaller waterfalls that bring their own brand of beauty.  I spent some time on these, but I had a long hike ahead of me and I wanted to see the big ones.  It didn’t take too long before they started to appear.

 


 

Waterfall FantasyThe Falls Trail can be quite treacherous sometimes.  There isn’t much to separate the photographer from the steep cliff in many places.  Carrying a tripod made my balance a bit lopsided as I edged my way down some of the trickier portions of the trail.  But what awaited around each corner was another astounding sight.  Ricketts Glen State Park boasts 22 named waterfalls, and each one is more dazzling than the last.  After traveling for a couple of miles down the gorge, I came to a loop that started to ascend back up the other side…


 

…or so I thought!  It turns out that the ascent has a completely new Waterfall Paradise with Stone Stairwayset of waterfalls!  I had already been more than impressed by the sights I had witnessed coming down the Falls trail, and I couldn’t believe that a whole new set of photo opportunities awaited me on the return trip!  But I must confess, I was out of shape and quite exhausted from my exertions.  Also, time was ticking and I didn’t really want to get caught in a perilous and unfamiliar spot after dark.  So I had to make haste back up to the parking lot.  I really didn’t cover the park thoroughly, which makes another adventure here is a must!  Although I would warn any travelers that caution and a good pair of hiking boots is advised (and possibly an aerobics class) it is definitely worth a little risk to see this splendid park and its wonders.

 

Birding in New York State

Gull and FishIt was an exceptionally chilly morning when I decided to head out and find some eagles in Dunkirk, NY.  I went up there last year, and there were hundreds of birds on the boardwalk, searching the tiny bits of unfrozen water on Lake Erie for a meal.  The gulls were fighting over scraps of fish.  It was quite a sight, and I couldn’t wait to return.


Fat Cardinal

On my way up to Dunkirk, I decided to stop at the Jamestown Audubon Center & Sanctuary to warm up the camera on some smaller targets.  My first encounter was with a very well-fed cardinal across the pond from me.  He posed for a few shots before flying off into the brush.  Given his shape, I’m surprised it wasn’t more of a slow roll!  I decided to trudge around the pond behind the house and see if I could spot some more colorful subjects.


Junco on BranchI didn’t see much out by Big Pond, so I picked my way back to the car.  As I returned to the parking lot, I noticed some birds along the path by the house and decided to take a few shots.  This puffed up junco was nice enough to mug for the camera.  I decided it was time to see what awaited me on Lake Erie.


I arrived at the boardwalk and felt a stab of disappointment.  There weren’t nearly as many birds as I saw last year, and most of them were simply huddled together on the ice, not moving or doing anything interesting.  Additionally, there was a mist coming off Lake Gull Ready for TakeoffErie that made it almost impossible to see anything.  But one thing gave me hope.  In the car next to me, a man was peering intently with his binoculars out toward the factory in the distance.  Sure enough, a few eagles dotted the landscape near the heat of the smokestacks on the opposite side of the harbor.  But they were too far away to get good shots.  It was time to move in a little closer.


Eagle WatchI did a bit of scouting and found a road that led close to the factory.  There is a conservation club that is directly across from the factory, and I trudged toward the water to see if I could spot my subjects.  There were a couple of eagles in the sky, and I got some distant shots.  But then I looked in the tree above me.  And to my surprise, there was a bald eagle!  I guess we both thought that was a good spot to survey the scene.  The branches around him didn’t make it easy to get a clean shot, but I at least managed to position myself so that I could get an unobstructed view of his head.  He soon grew tired of my company and flew off to find another perch.


Bolstered by my success, I decided to walk along the harbor and see what else the chilly day had in store for me.  It was around 10 below, so I didn’t stray too far from the car.  As I fiddled with the settings onEagle on the Wing the camera, several birds flew directly overhead.  One was an eagle.  He did a circle around the city and came toward me.  I was ready this time to capture the action.  It was truly a remarkable sight.


Half the battle of photography is being in the right place at the right time.  And when it’s below 0 outside, it’s easy to talk yourself into staying home with a warm mug of cocoa and leaving nature to the birds.  But if you muster up the courage to venture outside, the experience can be truly rewarding.

Snowy Owls at Presque Isle State Park

The Search for the Snowy Owl

Snowy owls are fairly rare in Pennsylvania.  So when the sightings begin to happen, it’s a motivating experience to get out there and get a great photograph.  I had already gone up to Presque Isle State Park in Erie earlier in December, but I seemed to be a little ahead of the action that day.  No snowy owls.  This time, things would be different!

Snowy Owl on LogSo I eagerly drove up to Beach 10 to start my journey.  Gull Point Trail is 1 1/2 miles of sand and frozen mud.  Not the easiest walk, but at least it’s a flat one.  This was just before New Year’s Eve, and it was chilly, but surprisingly there was no snow that day.  I felt confident leaving my shooting hand bare whilst covering my left hand with a glove and wearing my knit hat.  That was a mistake, but we’ll get to that shortly.

Snowy owl in flight around Lake ErieI trudged up the trail and passed a park ranger heading back down the trail.  Apparently, there were quite a few people out to see the owls.  At least the birds should be easy to find!  As I ascended the slope to Gull Point, I noticed several large tripods pointed at a large log.  There was a snowy owl seated there, mugging for the cameras.  Further down the beach, there were two more snowy owls in flight together.  I decided to go for the easy target first.  I eagerly pulled my right hand out of my pocket and got ready for the log owl photoshoot!

Snowy Owl on Coast

The first owl was very cooperative and the pictures were very easy.  With some good shots out of the way, I decided to see if I could get the trickier flight shots of the more active owls.  But as I approached the flyers, my right hand started to feel the effects of the biting wind blowing across Gull Point.  The wind hadn’t been nearly as bad at the parking lot, and I hadn’t even bothered to take my right glove with me.  I tried to get some pictures, but my hand got so numb that I was forced to stop shooting and put my left glove on my right hand, backwards.  Of course, that was right when the owls decided to fly over my head!

Snowy Owl on Lake ErieDespite missing the premiere shot, I did get some great photos.  I got a small chuckle as I left for the day.  There were some other people on the beach trying to locate the owls.  I could clearly see an owl from where I was – he was maybe 30 yards from the bystanders, and they had no idea he was there.  The clever bird was hiding in plain sight!  I can’t wait to go back and hopefully capture some more flight shots of these magnificent birds.

 

Audubon Adventure

Back to my roots

Butterfly on the Rocks
A butterfly suns itself on some white rocks.

It had been quite awhile since I journeyed to the Audubon.  Once a place I visited often, the Audubon took a backseat this summer as I explored the Great Smoky Mountains in Tennessee, and Acadia National Park in Maine.  But the time for journeying to distant lands was over for now, so it made sense to hit some places closer to home and see what new sights awaited me.

Blue-eyed Dragonfly
This blue-eyed dragonfly rests comfortably on a leaf.

One of the best things about the Audubon is that it’s never the same.  That log I captured a turtle on last time may be gone, but perhaps the water line has a revealed a rock to capture a brand new image.  So I spent the beginning of my journey surveying the insects around me.  There were many different kinds of dragonflies around, a monarch butterfly, and some odder insects that I wasn’t as familiar with.  I was using my telephoto lens, which presents a much different view of small creatures than a macro lens might.  The advantage, of course, is that I don’t have to get too close to my quarry to fire off a shot.  After spending an hour photographing the macro world, I realized that I had barely left the entrance!  Time to move on…

Snake!
A mother snake keeps close to her babies.

I moved along the path at just the right time!  I looked over to my right, and couldn’t believe what I saw…a snake!  I was a little closer than I wanted to be.  I’m sure the feeling was mutual.  And then I got even more of a surprise when I realized she wasn’t alone.  I say ‘she’, because wriggling beside her were several baby snakes!  Needless to say, that was a game changer for the situation.  I wasn’t sure I wanted to try to pass through, and she didn’t want to leave the babies alone with me.  But after staring each other down for several minutes, the snake decided she could head back into the brush, and the babies quickly followed.  It was turning out to be quite an exciting day!

SnapperTurtle in Blue
A gorgeous reflection of a snapper turtle.

For those who know the layout of the Audubon Society grounds, it may or may not surprise you to know that I hadn’t even gotten away from the building yet!  But I did want to start my expedition around Big Pond, so I forced my feet to keep moving.  I tried my luck crossing the bridge over to Spatterdock Pond, but the high grass proved to hide the wildlife from my camera.  I walked around the pond and over to the double-decker blind overlooking Big Pond.  I usually see a deer or two in my travels, but no such luck on this trip.

Reflecting Frog
A frog with an astounding reflection!

Not so much as a squirrel posed for me as I made my way through the forest.  But I still had high hopes for the back of the pond, and I wasn’t to be disappointed.  I could hear the carp trying to leap out of the water, but they didn’t quite have the oomph that day to get a good shot.  But soon enough, I spotted my target – two frogs were resting in the water on the far side of the path.  If only they would let me get close enough for a good shot…  So I crept slowly toward them, taking a picture every few steps in case they decided to flee.  But they didn’t run and hide, and I was able to get a very nice closeup before moving on.

Wasp Nest
This wasp nest wasn’t as empty as I thought.

I thought I had seen most of what nature was offering that day, and I started to head back around the other side of the pond.  I always make a point to stop at all of the blinds, and today was no different.  I didn’t see much going on outside the last blind, but I did happen to see that there was a wasp nest in the corner of the roof.  It was dark there, and it looked to me like there wasn’t any activity.  Imagine my surprise when I put the pictures in Lightroom, and discovered not one, not two, but three wasps hanging from the bottom of the nest!  You just never know what nature is going to throw your way sometimes.

So it turns out that I don’t need to travel to exotic places to get great shots.  Sometimes they are right there in your own backyard.  The Audubon is always an exciting place to visit, and I can’t wait to get back and see what is in store next!

An Outing with the Elk

The Natural Wonders of Benezette, PA

It was a slow Sunday when my parents contacted me.  They wanted to journey over to Benezette and see if the elk were around yet.  For those who don’t know, the elk come out in the fall, during their mating season.  It was early yet, but there was an off-chance we could get lucky.  After all, Benezette is the elk mecca of Pennsylvania!  So we decided to try our luck.

Town Elk
An elk visits the neighbors in Benezette

And luck out we did!  The elk enjoy walking around town just as much as the forest, and we were treated to some bull sightings the moment we arrived.  I wasn’t sure if I would get another chance to photograph a bull that day, so I decided to get a few shots in town.  It’s very strange to observe an elk weaving between parked cars and wandering around on people’s porches and backyards.   But in Benezette, that is just a typical day!

A fawn in the brush
This fawn saunters through the brush

Of course, I like to get more natural-looking photos, so we headed up to the nature center next.  There was some question whether or not it would even be open on Sunday, and they close the gate when the center is closed.  But we were in luck, and the center was open.  On the trail in front of the center, we didn’t see any elk.  But we did see a fawn making its way through the forest.  It stopped and posed for a few shots.

A mother and baby elk
A mother and baby elk stroll across the field

Next, we traveled to the giant field behind the nature center, and that’s where we found our quarry.  Not just one elk, but a whole herd!  There were many cows and small elk there.  There was one little guy that was particularly vocal the entire time.  It was very exciting, but the best was yet to come.

A bull elk nose to nose with a cow
The bull elk shares a moment with a potential mate

While I was busy trying to get some shots of mothers and babies, my parents excitedly informed me that there was a bull nearby!  And he was a lot closer than I thought he would be – he was standing maybe 20 yards from the trail!  He was quite a large one, and was a magnificent site to behold.  I should point out here that I had my telephoto lens on the camera.  Everyone else was trying to get closer to the bull, and I kept trying to back up!  I did manage to get a few shots of him filling up the frame imposingly.  I also got some neat shots of him interacting with the other elk.  Very cool.

After that, we drove up to the top of the hill and were treated to a vivid sunset with an elk herd grazing in the foreground.  All in all, it was quite a day.  I’m sure we’ll be back again when the leaves start to change colors and the rutting season is in full swing.