Hidden Gems: Cape Charles, Virginia

 

Note:  Special thanks to my photographer friend Kim, who introduced me to, and guided me through, this special place.

The Eastern Shore of Virginia is a 70-mile tract of land on the Delmarva Peninsula enclosed by the Atlantic Ocean on the east and the Chesapeake Bay on the west.  Its northern border with Maryland and Delaware separates it completely from the rest of Virginia.  On the Atlantic side, a series of barrier islands forms the longest remaining natural coastline along the entire eastern seaboard.

Cape Charles 04 Sunset

Sunset overlooking the Chesapeake Bay, Cape Charles, Virginia

Although this region is one of the earliest colonized areas of North America, Native American tribes flourished here long before European settlers first arrived at the beginning of the 17th Century.  Characterized by fertile, easily tilled land and surrounded by the bay and ocean  waters, the area remained a seafood and agricultural region with scattered small towns for almost 300 years.

Cape Charles 03 Pearl Valley

Pear Valley 18th Century home, National Historic Landmark

(This tiny, frame house outside Eastville, VA has one room downstairs and two partial rooms in a sort of attic. It is an example of a middle class home in 1740)

In 1883, a group of railroad investors hatched the idea of a rail-sea link that would extend the terminus of the existing rail line in Maryland 65 miles down the peninsula to a massive pier where the rail cars would be loaded onto special barges that would carry them across the 36-mile stretch of water to a terminus in Norfolk.

Cape Charles 11 Old FerryPier

Sunset Old Ferry Pier, Cape Charles, Virginia

The creation of the new rail-sea line was the reason for the creation of Cape Charles which, from its very conception, was a planned community and its original layout is still visible today.  Many of the original  homes still stand, a diverse range of styles including Victorian, Colonial Revival, and even some of the Sears and Roebucks houses that were delivered as a “kit” of 30,000 pieces and a 75- page manual.

Cape Charles 02 Kellys Pub

Intersection of Mason and Pine Streets (looking left)

The above image shows a former bank, dating from the early 20th Century, that has been renovated and is now a popular Irish pub.

CapeCharles 03A Libray

Intersection of Mason and Pine Streets (looking right)

The above image shows a former bank, dating from the early 20th Century, that became a branch of the Bank of America and is now the town library.

With daily trains arriving from New York, the town quickly became the economic center of the  lower peninsula.  Benefitting from a planned system of paved streets, electricity, telephones, and central water and sewage systems, it was more cosmopolitan than the other shore towns.  But the glory years began a downturn with the Great Depression in the 1930s, the decline of the railroads after World War II, and the opening of the Bay-Bridge tunnel in 1964.

Cape Charles 05 AT Altitude Galley

The At Altitude Gallery, opened in 2015 by photographer Gordon Campbell in the renovated Wilson’s Department store and exhibiting his dramatic aerial photography of the Cape Charles area. 

But, after several decades of continued economic and population decline, the trend has reversed.  As indicated in the above image, new businesses have opened and its potential for tourism has been recognized.  As indicated in my images below, photographers are particularly smitten with its natural beauty and diversity of subject matter.

Cape Charles 08 Oyster Sunrise

Sunrise at Oyster

(Oyster is small unincorporated community, named for its fishing industry, located about 5 miles from Cape Charles on the opposite side of the peninsula.)

Cape Charles 01 Osprey

Osprey Nest at Sunrise, Cape Charles, Virginia

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Sand Dunes off Bay Avenue, Cape Charles, Virginia

Cape Charles 10 (Kite Surfers)

Kite Surfers, Cape Charles, Virginia

Cape Charles 07 Eyre Gardens

Eyre Hall Gardens, Cape Charles, Virginia

(Eyre descendents have owned land in the lower portion of Northampton County continuously since 1622 for 12 generations. The gardens, while privately owned are open to the public and are among the oldest gardens in the United States)

Galapagos Islands (Part 3)

The Galapagos Islands and Charles Darwin have been inextricably linked since the publication of his “Origin of the Species” 25 years after he visited the islands as a 22-year old geologist aboard HMS Beagle.  While Darwin is generally credited with conceiving the idea of evolution, the theory actually had its beginnings with a French naturalist, Jean Baptiste de Lamarck, who died in poverty and obscurity six years before Darwin arrived in the Galapagos Islands. Darwin’s contribution, however, was equally important.  He explained how and why evolution occurs.

So when you travel to the Galapagos Islands, an eerie feeling comes over you as you realize that the individual birds, mammals, and reptiles you are viewing and photographing most likely are direct descendants of the very creatures that inspired one of the most revolutionary scientific conclusions in history.

At the same time, this wildlife sparks a sense of wonder regardless of its ancestry.  And that is what the rest of this post will focus on.

Galapagos 29 3 Boobies

Blue-footed Boobies Conferring

Although I rated the Sally Lightfoot Crab as having the coolest name, my overall favorite should be no surprise;  it is the blue-footed booby.

Galapagos 30 Booby

Their ridiculously colored blue feet, serving as their namesake, ironically are contradicted by the steely gaze of their arresting eyes and the impeccable sleekness of their plumage.  When their stare fixes you, you become grateful that you are not a small fish.

But while humans may smirk at their garishly colored feet, the color blue is a very big deal to both the male and female booby.  The  males take great pride in their fabulous feet. During mating rituals, male birds show off their feet to prospective mates with a high-stepping strut. The bluer the feet, the more attractive the mate.  The short video clip below was filmed by our trip leader.

(Video by James Zimbelman, Smithsonian Institution)

Yet, when you watch the birds in their role as a predator, you realize why that piercing glare gave you pause.  Circling high above the ocean in search of anchovies and other small fish,   they will suddenly fold their long wings back around their streamlined bodies and plunge into the water at speeds up to 60 mph.  It happens so quickly that I failed in every attempt to capture that critical moment of hitting the water.  The best I could do was the shot below, when a successful plunge was followed by the bird as he/she was taking off.

Galapagos 10 Blue Footed Booby

Blue-footed Booby on Take-off Run

There are many ways to see the Galapagos Islands including larger ships (about 90 passengers), small charter vessels that may take as few as 12-16 passengers, or on-island lodging (ranging from regal to rustic).  Choosing the latter may restrict your ability to visit more than 1-2 islands unless you are willing to change lodging a few times.  The variety of wildlife you will see depends on which islands you choose to visit.  Not all itineraries are the same.  But however long you stay, you will be glad you made the journey.

Galapagos 26 (Straight Shot No Tricks)

  Frigatebird at Sunrise, Galapagos Islands

(Technical: Nikon D810 handheld with 24-70mm f/2.8 lens at 70mm; exposed @ 1/800th sec. @ f/16, ISD 400; No Photoshop trickery used in positioning the bird over the sun)

 

Galapagos Islands (Part 2)

Galapagos 20 Approaching Storm

Approaching Storm at Sunset

(Techniical Stuff: Nikon D810 handheld on moving ship with 70-200mm f/2.8 lens extended to 150mm; exposure 1/250th sec. @ f/14, ISO 800; four images photomerged)

The volcanic archipelago making up the Galapagos Islands is relatively young by geological measures and on some of the newer islands you may see only the initial stages of plant life.

Galapagos 12 Cactus

A Cactus Plant Finds a Spot on a Lava Formation

One of the strange aspects of volcanic activity is the formation of lava tubes.  Don’t ask me for an understandable explanation, but it has to do with the lava flow cooling and becoming hard on the surface, while still-hot lava continues to move under the hardened surface.  In some cases, when the eruption ends, the last of the moving lava proceeds through the channel, draining it and leaving a long cave behind.

Galapagos 22A Lava Cave

Lava Tunnel

(Technical Stuff: Nikon D810 handheld with 24-70mm f/2.8 lens extended to 24 mm; exposure 1/25th sec. @ f/2.8, ISO 1600; two images photomerged)

The tunnel was interesting but very dark and creepy, a great location for a horror movie. And it was the wildlife we wanted to see so not a lot of time was spent there.

Galapagos 28 Sea Lions and iguana

Two Sea Lion Pups Napping as Marine Iguana Strolls By

The Galapagos marine iguana is the only iguana that has evolved from a strictly land-based creature to one that swims and feeds in water.  They are found nowhere else on the planet.  They feed on ocean algae, often fully submersed, and even have a special gland common to marine birds that enables them to extract excess salt from their blood and sneeze it out several times a day.

Galapagos 11 Sea Lion YawningSea Lion Yawning

The sea lions found in the Galapagos Islands are the smallest of the sea lion species.  The female gives birth to a single pup a year after mating and she stays with it for the first week after birth.  She then will depart for one to four days to hunt, while other females of the colony stay behind to watch over the youngsters.  Eventually, the pups join their mother to develop swimming and hunting skills.

Galapagos 28 Mocking BirdGalapagos Mocking Bird

(Techniical Stuff: Nikon D810 handheld with 70-200mm f/2.8 lens extended to 200mm; exposure 1/250th sec. @ f/8, ISO 800; very tight crop of final image)

The smaller birds, such as the Galapagos mocking bird, were more timid than most of the island wildlife but they still provided photo opportunities on occasion.  Interestingly, there are seven subspecies of the Galapagos mockingbird, and each one seems to be largely endemic to different islands of the archipelago.  Apparently, it was the differences (such as beak size and shape) among these birds, as well as his better known study of the Galapagos finches (15 subspecies) that sparked Darwin’s thinking about adaptive evolution.

 

Galapagos 24 Floreana IslandSunrise, Floreana Island

 

 

Coming Next: The World Famous Blue-Footed Booby

Galapagos Islands (Part 1)

Galapagos 21 Another Sunrise           Sunrise on the Equator, Pacific Ocean

The Galapagos Islands are a chain, or archipelago, formed by volcanic action over the past 5 million years.  Located on the equator about 600 miles west of Ecuador. But what makes them special is the unique array of wildlife that is found there.  Many of the species are found nowhere else on earth and, because they lack natural predators, most have no fear of the thousands of tourists (even photographers) who come to see them every year.

Galapagos 02 Land Iguana

Galapagos Land Iguana, Feeding on Succulents

The Galapagos Land Iguana is primarily an herbivore, feeding mostly on cacti and other succulents and thus can go for long periods without drinking water.  This species can weigh up to 13 pounds and they can live for as long as 50 to 60 years. The female lays up to 20 eggs in burrows they have excavated.

Galapagos 07 Frigate Red Chest

 

There are two kinds of frigatebirds on the islands, but the males of both variants possess the distinctive red throat pouch which inflates into enormous heart-shaped balloons. It can take up to 30 minutes for the pouch to completely fill as the male hopes to enthrall a passing  female.

Galapagos 03 Frigate Bird with Nest MaterialFrigatebird Carrying Nesting Material

 

Nesting occurs in colonies that may include members of both variants.  The nests are constructed mostly by the female with materials brought in by the male.  The birds can have wing spans of 7 feet.

CGalapagos 04 Frigate ChickYoung Frigatebird Chick on Nest

The female lays only one egg and it may take 40-50 days to hatch.  Both parents share in the nesting and feeding after hatching.  It will take another 20-24 weeks before the juvenile fledges but they continue to be fed for another 20 weeks or more before they fend for themselves.   Because of the length of this cycle, the female can reproduce only once a year at the most.

Galapagos 27 Comorant

Galapagos Flightless Cormorant Drying “Wings”

The Flightless Cormorant is unique to the Galapagos and is found on only two of the islands.  Only 1,000 breeding pairs exist.  Having no land-based predators, natural selection favored those birds that were better built for swimming and diving.  Their wings are about 1/3rd the size needed to fly.

Galapagos 17 ComorantFlightless Cormorant with a Catch

Their courtship is unusual because it is the female that aggressively seeks out the male, and subsequently will depart her partner and offspring to re-mate serially with different males while males raise the young by themselves.

Galapagos 08 CrabSally Lightfoot Crab (Yes, really!)

Winner of my award for the creature with the best name (barely edging out the blue footed booby), the colorful  Sally Lightfoot Crab is a common sight in the Galapagos Islands.  According to one source, this little beastie is named after a famous Caribbean dancer because of its incredible agility.  I don’t know about the namesake, but these guys are quick.

Galapagos 01 SurfWave Breaking in Late Afternoon Light

 

Next:  Galapagos Islands (Part 2)

 

 

New Year, New Gear!

Photographers are always looking for new tools and techniques to help improve our work or to facilitate the exploration of new subject matter.  For me, it was the latter scenario—I recently purchased a new telephoto lens with the intention of taking a stab at wildlife photography.  As a long-time Nikon shooter and, as one not prone to splurge on gear, I settled on the Nikon AF-S NIKKOR 200-500mm f/5.6E ED VR  telephoto zoom and the Nikon 1.4 tel-extender.  When combined, they theoretically provide the capability to take a shot at 700mm.  That’s a big jump from my previous maximum of 340mm using a 1.7 extender with my 70-200m f/2.8 lens.

Weight is also a consideration.  The weight of the f/5.6 zoom lens is 5.1 lbs., while the weight of the 500mm f/4 prime lens is 8.54 lbs.   And for those who consider the weight of their wallet, the price difference is more than $5,000.

But how does it perform?  The answer to this question is still open, but some preliminary findings can be made.  In my view, it’s usually wise to take small steps while becoming familiar with a new piece of equipment.  So, I decided to start in my own backyard where the presence of a several bird feeders attracts a decent variety of birds, especially during the winter months.

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Pileated Woodpecker  (male)

(Nikon D800E with Nikon 200-500mm lens on tripod;  1/400th sec @ f/5.6, ISO 3200)

The image above was not cropped and there was no sharpening in Photoshop. Due to the large size of original file, it would come out as a 16 X 24” print without any upsizing.  Given the low light situation, a high ISO was necessary so there probably would be a bit of noise evident in a full-sized print.

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Pileated Woodpecker (female)

(Nikon D810 with 200-500mm lens & 1.4 extender on tripod;  1/125th sec @ f/8, ISO 1600)

Adding the extender brought the subject really close.  But I found that the D800E had difficulty resolving focus with the extender.  Switching to the Nikon 810 brought better results but it had become clear the extender has limited utility in low light situations.  As before, this is an uncropped image.  A full stop was lost due to the extender, but by dropping the shutter speed, it was possible to use a lower ISO.  This speed, however would far too slow without a tripod, let alone a bird in flight.

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Avian Food Fight #1

(Nikon D810 with 200-500mm lens & 1.4 extender on tripod; 1/1600th sec @ f/9, ISO 1600)

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Avian Food Fight #2

(Nikon D810 with 200-500mm lens & 1.4 extender on tripod; 1/1600th sec @ f/8, ISO 1600)

The feeder in the two images immediately above is about twice as far away and the birds are much smaller.  But it was well illuminated by sunlight so a faster shutter speed was possible and focusing was not a problem.

Having tested the lens in a familiar environment and with full knowledge of knowing exactly where to point the camera before the birds arrived, it was now time to try for something a little more difficult—birds in flight.  I spent a bit of time practicing on a flock of buzzards at the nearby Great Falls National Park.  I will spare you samples of the results.  They turned out fine, but buzzards??

We need something more impressive.  Something regal and majestic, like a bald eagle.

Luckily, there is a location about two hours away where a large number of bald eagles gather in the winter.  It is the Conowingo dam in Darlington Maryland and I learned of it from Jim, a photographer colleague who had been there.  More information about it can be found here.

So, with a forecast of sunny weather on Wednesday, Jim and I drove up in the teeth of the morning rush hour traffic.   Jim was correct—there were many eagles to see and, as noted in the referenced link above, there were many photographers there as well.  But the weather man had lied—a heavy cloud cover arrived as we drove into the parking lot.

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In addition to large numbers of eagles and photographers, there were also numerous vultures (buzzards).  Not a problem I thought, until I saw this sign.

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But, there were so many cars in the lot, what were the chances?  We rolled the dice and decided to stay. (That part worked out as we hoped–they did not attack my car)  Here are two examples of the results.

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Bald Eagle in Flight

(Nikon D810 with 200-500mm lens handheld; 1/1600th sec @ f/6.3, ISO 800)

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Bald Eagle with Fish

(Nikon D810 with 200-500mm lens handheld;  1/5000th sec @ f/11, ISO 1600)

In sum, more testing is needed and hopefully there will be another chance at Conowingo before the eagles depart in late January.  Updates will be included in future posts.  In the meantime…

 

Keep Shooting……

Northwest Passage (Final)

After departing Jessie Harbor on Banks Island, we headed south for yet another bizarre Arctic scene, the “Smoking Hills,” a 25-mile stretch of shoreline named by John Franklin in 1826 on his third expedition searching for the Northwest Passage.

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The Smoking Hills, Franklin Bay, Northwest Territories

The phenomenon of these burning cliffs is neither geothermal nor volcanic in origin.  Deposits of low-grade, sulfur rich coal spontaneously ignite when exposed to oxygen.  As the hills erode, the coal is exposed to the air and starts burning.

 

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Onsite View of the Smoke

We boarded the Zodiacs and headed for the shore, wondering whether the opportunity to breathe sulfuric acid was a good idea.  The climb up the muddy slopes was difficult, but soon we were looking into a ghastly scene evoking Dante’s Vestibule of Hell and the inscribed words: “Abandon hope, all ye who enter here.”

Deciding that the noxious fumes were begining to foster hyperbolic literary allusions, I returned to the shoreline to inspect what turned out to be, at least in geological terms, a psychedelic experience.

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Multi-hued Rock Formation, Franklin Bay

 

arctic-chapter-11-d-16-09-01-3736-clone

Large Stone (Football size) with Unexplained Markings

arctic-chapter-11-d-16-09-01-3764 Multi-hued Cliffside, Franklin Bay

 

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Basalt Boulder with Folded Seams of Sulphur

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Shoreline of Franklin Bay, Northwest Territories

Before heading to the Bering Strait and our final stop in Nome, our captain deviated once again from the normal route in the hope of one last encounter with sea ice.  We headed northwest from Point Barrow, Alaska into the Arctic Ocean and a heavy fog where a batch of sea ice had been reported.  After a few hours we began to see individual chunks of ice on either side of the ship.  As the numbers increased, we could easily see dark spots on the ice just under the water—it was ice algae which is the base of the Arctic food chain. Krill shrimp feed on these algae, and krill are a key part of the diet of whales, seals, fish, and some birds.

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Ice algae–Small Dark Spots in Center Section

Sea ice also serves as resting spots for seals and walruses and we passed examples of both as the ship moved through the water.

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Bearded Seal, Arctic Ocean

 

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Walruses Abanding Ice Floe, Arctic Ocean

Finally, late in the afternoon, we turned back to the south.  Soon we would pass below the Arctic Circle into the Bering Strait and within a few days end our journey in Nome, Alaska.

Some final thoughts—

The Arctic at first glance appears to be a desolate, hostile environment.  But if one looks more closely they will see spots of brilliant colors in the tundra: reds, oranges, yellows.  The deep silence and broad landscapes suggest an emptiness but then you come upon a massive pod of hundreds of narwhals slicing through the water alongside you.  A grey leaden sky turns brilliantly red as the sun shoots through a narrow opening low on the horizon.   You stoop to inspect a tidal pool and see dozens of tiny transparent sea butterflies and sea angels, the size of your thumbnail, carried back and forth by the motion of the water.   We began our journey exploring a 25-mile long channel choked with towering icebergs and a few weeks later we came across a 25-mile stretch of hills that were on fire.  It’s an amazing place and I hope to return.

 

 

 

Northwest Passage–A Short Video

For a change of pace, I thought I would offer up something a little different in this post.  The previous ten posts about this Northwest Passage journey have consisted of words and still photographs.  This time it will be a video report with a musical background.

The Northwest Passage: Into the Arctic Circle

This was my first experiment with video and it was clearly a learning experience.  Perhaps the most important lesson is that, at least for me, a video production is a team effort.  Above all, it requires a talented editor and I had the good fortune to have an excellent partner in this effort.  Her name is Samantha Politis and she took a batch of video files shot with my Nikon D810, a few seconds of drone footage captured by Fredieric Michel, the ship’s videographer, during the visit to the Ilulissat Icefjord (used with his permission), a musical score that she and I selected (license fee paid) and weaved them into a 3 minute video.

I hope you will take a look and let us know what you think.

Next Post (This time for real)–Smoke and Fire)