Sunday, May 22, 2016

Gobblers, Bucks, and Bluebirds

The Eastern Wild Turkey is one of my favorite subjects to photograph during the spring months and I have spent many hours afield filming and photographing them this year.  I love to capture the gobblers as they perform the courtship display and for a time from mid-April thru mid-May I saw them doing this almost every day.  One thing I love about video is the ability to get dramatic close-ups at very long range, but with that being said I am not happy until I get a good supply of still photos each spring and on a few occasions this year, they came close enough for excellent still portraits.

I also like to document the development of the antlers of the whitetail bucks.  I have seen a few bucks with branch antlers so far.  I was not able to get still photos of them, but I have photographed a few that have not yet branched.  The first buck pictured below was a small rack buck last year with four or five points so he should grow a decent rack this year.

2nd Year Rack Buck
This deer has only partially changed from the winter to the summer coat and looks very ragged, but the buck below has almost completed the shedding process.  He was a small spike last year and should grow a respectable rack this year.

Another Prospective Rack Buck
While waiting for the deer and turkeys to appear I am always looking for other subjects to photograph and one morning a bluebird caught an earthworm in the meadow in front of me and flew to a limb and paused with it before flying on to its' nest with it.

Bluebird With Earthworm
 All photos were taken with the Canon 5D MKIII and the 600mmF4.0 IS L lens.

Originally posted at Pennsylvania Wildlife Photographer by Willard Hill.

Saturday, April 30, 2016

Strutting Gobblers and Other Springtime Wildlife

Spring, the wildflowers are blooming, the birds are singing, and the male turkeys are gobbling--what an exciting time to be afield. I have been out every morning this spring and have seen a lot of wildlife, but good close-up encounters with mature gobblers strutting seem to be harder to come by than usual.  When the turkeys are not present it is good to photograph the wildflowers.

Spring flowers add beauty to a day afield

When the turkeys are present and one or more gobblers are strutting and gobbling it makes for an exciting photographic experience.

Mature Gobbler in full strut:Canon 5D MKIII-600mm lens
One of the most desirable and dramatic photos of a bull elk is to capture him bugling and over the years I have tried to duplicate these results with turkeys, but it seems the actual act of gobbling does not look as impressive as the elk bugling.  Maybe someday I will get the perfect photo and change my mind., but for now I would say that capturing them strutting usually yields more impressive photos.  It actually seems to work better to document the actual gobbling with video as you get to see the bird go through the entire process as well as hear the exciting sound of the gobble.

Mature Gobbler in mid-gobble: Canon 5D MKIII-500mm lens

Gobbler pauses from courting to look for danger: Canon 7D MKII-100-400mm IS II
 Of course the reason for all of this excitement is the hens and often some of the best activity occurs when hens are present and the gobblers are performing the courtship display.  They also strut and gobble at times when no hens are present, but it is much more likely to happen when they are there.

Hen pauses from feeding while gobblers strut in adjacent meadow: Canon 7D MKII-100-400mm IS II
If you look closely in the photo below, this hen has a small beard (look just below the first green brier that goes partly across its' chest), but it is a hen nonetheless.  You can tell this by a combination of factors the most important factors being the drab coloration compared to the gobblers and the smaller size.  Few hens grow beards, but they are not exactly rare.  I usually film or photograph at least one each year.

Bearded Hen: Canon 7D MKII-100-400mm IS II
Filming and photographing other species that happen along adds to the enjoyment of the day and I especially like to capture the deer doing something interesting, such as this young buck browsing.

Young deer browsing: Canon 7D MKII-100-400mm IS II
When I was young fox squirrels were seldom seen in my area, but now I am likely to see as many or more of them than the grays.

Fox Squirrel: Canon 7D MKII-100-400mm IS II
With the arrival of May the trees will soon be covered with leaves and wildlife movement patterns will change to a certain extent.  Already the peak of the gobbling season is over and birds are not heard or seen as often.  Today is the first day of the spring gobbler season and this will also have a dampening effect on gobbling activity, but there will be periodic upswings in activity until the mating season is over in early to mid-June.

Originally published at Pennsylvania Wildlife Photographer by Willard Hill.

Friday, April 1, 2016

Late March Wildlife-PA Bull Elk Shed Antlers

Herd Crosses Wetlands Area-Dewey Road
After my early March trip to Middle Creek Wildlife Management Area to film and photograph the Snow Goose Migration, I concentrated on filming whitetail deer and eastern wild turkey gobblers until March 21st, when I traveled to Pennsylvania Elk Country for several days of filming Pennsylvania Elk.

Today's post features a 2 minute 47 second video of the best clips recorded during this period.  It begins with a herd of whitetail deer crossing a stream and then features two clips of birds and one of turkey gobblers, gobbling and skirmishing.  The action then shifts to elk country where you get to see a large herd of elk crossing a wetlands.  This was filmed on Dewey Road at the Gilbert Farm Viewing Area.  A  herd was grazing at the main viewing spot, while another  herd was feeding near the ponds to the south of Dewey Road.  I was filming the herd at the ponds, when suddenly the air was filled with squealing  and screaming as the first herd came down the hill and joined the elk at the ponds.

Within a short time the entire herd moved on and spent part of the evening feeding near the log cabin on the hill and then later moved on to The Saddle.

Some bull elk shed their antlers as early as late February, but many still have them during the time I was there and I filmed bulls in all of the stages, including bulls that had already shed and were growing new antlers, a bull with one antler shed and one remaining, and bulls that still had both antlers.

This 6x6 still had antlers on March 23rd
 Most bulls that have not yet shed their antlers will do so soon. It will not be long until the new racks will be of substantial size and the new calves will be arriving.

Originally published at Pennsylvania Wildlife Photographer by Willard Hill.

Saturday, March 19, 2016

Middle Creek To Close ?

Recently there has been much ado in the outdoor press about the possible closing of Middle Creek Wildlife Management Area, which is located on the Lebanon/Lancaster County line close to Kleinfeltersville, Pa. Middle Creek is home to a wide variety of wildlife, but it is best know for the massive snow goose migration that occurs each year in late February and March.

The migration attracts large numbers of bird watchers and photographers, many of which return year after year to enjoy an exciting and fulfilling experience.  Unfortunately some in the hunting community view bird watchers, photographers, hikers, etc. with contempt and would like to see the area maintained for hunting only, with other user groups excluded. If they had their way scenes such as those below would be a thing of the past.

Snow Geese At Dawn-Willow Point
Morning Take-off At Willow Point
The problem is that the Pennsylvania Game Commission has not been granted a license increase since 1999 and officials say they cannot continue operating at their current level without making substantial cuts. On February 24, 2016 Executive Director Matt Hough gave the agency's annual report to the General Assembly and testified in front of the House Game and Fisheries Committee. In his report Hough gave an overview of agency activities and accomplishments during the past year, and then went on to discuss some of the cuts the agency is considering if a license increase is not approved.

Here is a portion of Mr. Hough's statement as stated in News Release #017-16:: (to read the release in its' entirety, click Here. )

"This almost 20-year-old pricing structure simply is not sufficient for the agency to maintain its current level of services and respond to the growing list of challenges it currently faces. For instance, it should be noted that none of the wildlife diseases I mentioned were present in Pennsylvania at the time of the last license increase.

Already the Commission has implemented budget cuts in response to decreasing revenues. This past year, we eliminated 28 full-time positions from our complement. This has been done through furloughing employees and not back-filling positions as they became vacant.

We also will not be renewing the contracts for about 45 limited-term employees. Some represented the only means we had to effectively and efficiently monitor many non-game wildlife populations.

In addition, we concluded the agency could not hold the Wildlife Conservation Officer class that was scheduled to begin in March of 2017. In light of that decision, the earliest we could begin a class would be March of 2018, with the cadets graduating a year later. By then, we project almost one-third of the officer districts will be vacant due to retirements.  Obviously, the longer we go without resources to conduct a class, the greater the number of vacant districts across the state, resulting in violations going undetected, a decrease in response time and fewer services that officers can provide to the public.

"Without additional revenues in the near future, we will have to take even greater steps at reducing expenditures. Some of the proposals under consideration include closing facilities – such as the Middle Creek Wildlife Management Area, shooting ranges on game lands, and our Howard Nursery, and substantially reducing the pheasant-stocking program. I have no doubt that these proposals will not be popular with the general public and our hunting-license buyers, but without additional revenues we will have no choice but to make significant reductions to our budget."


But is Middle Creek really likely to close? While I was at Middle Creek last week I did not talk to any Pennsylvania Game Commission personnel, but rather discussed the situation with fellow  wildlife photographers.  In addition I have read quite a bit of  commentary in articles posted online and comments on the PGC Facebook Page.

"Middle Creek being considered for closure cast-strapped Game Commission says" by Ad Crable and published by Lancaster Online on 02/25/2016  is one of the  best articles I have read on the subject. It features interviews with PGC officials both past and present  and has an informative comments section as well.
We always hear that the State Game Lands System was bought and paid for with hunter's license dollars, and in many cases that is true, but according to the article and other information included in the comments section, Middle Creek itself was bought with Project 70 Funds, while Game Lands 46, which adjoins it, was indeed bought with PGC funds. Below is a direct quote from the article which touches on the source of funding and the purpose for building Middle Creek.

"Middle Creek was built with state taxpayer money as part of a statewide referendum and opened in 1973. Its ongoing management is by the Game Commission, which pays for its operation.

Its main purpose was to provide a vital resting stop for migrating waterfowl whose numbers at the time were worrisome. Since then, Canada geese and other species have rebounded."

Another quote, this one from past Game Commissioner, Stephen Mohr, brings us to the main point that I wish to address today. 

 “They are digging themselves a big hole,” Stephen Mohr, a former Game Commissioner and Conoy Township supervisor, said in reaction to the Game Commission's consideration of closing Middle Creek.

“Closing Middle Creek will infuriate the nonhunters. The hunters could care less. The PGC is only attempting to divide the troops. Middle Creek was built with general revenue moneys. Our elected officials should call their bluff.”.

In reading the comment section on the Pennsylvania Game Commission Facebook page it is clear that some of the more militant hunters would like to see the non-consumptive user excluded from Middle Creek.

Most disturbing to me was a thread on the PGC FB page which began with an individual(from now on referred as commenter A) asking, "Is there snow goose hunting opportunities at Middle Creek? Why can't the bird watchers go ask the farmers instead of us? 

Another person replies-"If you could hunt snows at MC they would not be there.

A replies-"Not true. An area that size, with that quaility of habitat, and along a traditional migratory corridor would always draw snow gesse. Yes it will not be the artificial refugia it is as evinced by these disgusting photos, but the geese will still use the wma, they will just be one their toes more, like wildlife should be"

The photos he was referring to are much like the ones posted below and shows large numbers of snow geese or snow geese with photographers and bird watchers looking on.

"Disgusting photo of Snow Geese In artificial Refugia"
Another "disgusting photo of Snow Geese In artificial Refugia"
 This was a bit too much to take  so I posted the following reply:

Willard Hill "So it is disgusting to have wildlife that is easily view-able by the public? I am sure that if and when the vast numbers of easily view-able birds are gone at some point in the future, that there will be a great effort extended to get them back. You may still have snow geese if the refuge portion of the WMA was opened, but you would not see them in large numbers for long. As for contribution to the upkeep of Middle Creek- many bird watchers would be willing to pay to help support this area, but the Game Commission does not ask them to do so."

This entire string of comments vanished soon after I made the above comment, and I have looked repeatedly to find it again.  Commenter A posted his question in the comments immediately under the main PGC post and all of the replies that vanished were in response to his comment and not as responses to the main PGC post so it is possible that he removed his question and thus deleted the entire string.

Researching this individual led to a Face Book post by  a group called "The Bird Hunting Society", which among other things supports the closing of all but the hunting part of Middle Creek and getting the non-hunters out.  Here it is in their own words.

"If you hunt Pennsylvania take action!

Middle Creek WMA is an upland and waterfowl mecca. Although hunting is allowed, the wma is used more for bird watching. That may be changing. There is a proposal to CLOSE Middle Creek. We are NOT sure but do not believe that means hunting will end, but think rather it will get the non hunters out and decommission many of the unnecessary (useless to hunters and wildlife) facilities. Waterfowl hunting has been by lottery permit on this wma, and that may be a good thing or a bad thing, however we doubt the closure is because of the expense of running the hunting program. We ask you to support the closure but still keep the wma remain available to hunters, and if appropriate to distribute hunting opportunity and provide quality hunting, the controlled waterfowl hunt be kept."

Middle Creek Visitor Center-Some consider it useless to hunters and wildlife and want to see it closed
So there you have it--get rid of those pesky bird watchers and photographers so that the WMA is used only by the real owners and by the way let's forget that this land was not purchased solely with hunting license dollars,

Another thing that really rings my bell is the common refrain to ask the photographer, the bird watcher, etc. to help foot the bill for wildlife conservation, while at the same time making sure they are unable to do so in a method that quantifies their input.  It is really quite simple--make it so that to be present on Game Commission  land within the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania that one must be in possession of a valid hunting licenses or in lieu thereof a valid use permit. The fee could be based on the cost of a resident adult general hunting license.  Since it would be very expensive for a large family, this could be modeled on what  I have seen at the national parks where if one person in the group has a valid pass,this allows all in the vehicle access. There would be some sticky fine points to address for sure, but it could be done.

Many photographers, bird watchers, hikers, etc. that do not hunt, do purchase a hunting license or donate to the PGC. This is a good thing, but the problem with buying the license, is that you are counted as just another hunter.  If every photographer, bird watcher, and hiker bought a hunting license under the current system, there would still be those that said that these groups were still not contributing.  Now if there was a box to check as to why you bought the license that would statistically record what interest group you belong to it would be a different story.  As it currently stands you are still considered a dead-beat who refuses to pay their way because no one but you knows why you bought the license.   The same would be true to a certain extent with donating money because it would be assumed you were basing your donation on a glowing approval of programs as they are currently implemented. I wish to emphasize that this is not a criticism of those that do chose to contribute by buying a license or donating.

Another aspect of the situation and perhaps the most important is that a significant portion of the traditional sporting community and at least a portion of important policy makers in the Pennsylvania Game Commission does not want these interest groups to be paying stakeholders.  This is not only true in Pennsylvania, it is true throughout the rest of the country as well. The problem is only going to get worse as  traditional sources of funding for conservation agencies continues to shrink and they desperately try to maintain sufficient funding without including input or monies from other user groups.  This in turn leads to situations like last year where a blatant attempt was made to exclude everyone not engaged in legal hunting and trapping from State Game Lands for a significant portion of the year.

At this point it seems that the threat of closure is more a strategical move announced to coincide with the seasonal upsurge of interest in Middle Creek due to the spring migration.and hopefully motivate the vast numbers of visitors to contact their state legislators about approving a license increase for the PGC.

Originally published at Pennsylvania Wildlife Photographer by Willard Hill.