Tag Archives: North Carolina

Swimming Horses


Along the coast of North Carolina, there is a population of wild horses thought to be the oldest in North America. It was here where Western Civilization first crashed into mainland North America, and these horses are thought to be the result of these very first attempts and exploration and colonization.

This breed is known officially as the Banker horse, and unlike those wild herds of the west, the two populations of these mustangs are federally protected due to their historical significance.

For the last 400 years, these horses have adapted to a world of sand and salt, of hurricanes and nor’easters. Surviving on salt marsh grass such as spartina, and digging their own wells in the by pawing down to through the sand in low areas known as swales, these horses have survived countless calamities – including the shipwrecks for which some the original stock of horses are believed to have washed ashore form.

On one particular island, many of the individuals swim out along the edge of an inlet, through a bull shark nursery, fighting tidal rips, and risking drowning, to access tiny marsh islets where they will feed until the tide begins to drop again and they swim with the current back to their island home.

I created this image from my skiff – a flat bottom boat specifically designed for running in and navigating the treacherous shoal water around these islands. I have spent countless hours on these islands photographing the horses that eke out a living there. And this is a particular shot that I have spent several years trying to capture.

Part of the problem in the past, was that I was attempting to photograph these horses while they were actually swimming. Seeing a herd of these animals sweep past you with the current is an incredible experience, but it is definitely one that is best captured with video not still photography. What it finally took, was realizing that, from a still photography perspective, capturing the horses just before they officially kicked free of Terra firma was the moment that made the photograph.

Let the horses swim and you have a distinctly awkward horse head that looked like a furry alligator’s head sticking above the water. I still have ideas floating around in my brain for a shot that will work with the actual swimming, but I will need an underwater housing and a 9 inch dome port to make that happen.

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Wild Horses, Workshops, and Wind

Friday was perfect. Calm winds, blue skies, comfortable temperatures, and a general sense of euphoria prevailed. Standing upon the bow of the boat I watched as thousands of dogfish (smallish sharks) swam into the estuary to breed. Even a loggerhead sea turtle made its seasonal debut to the region right beside our boat. Thus far from what I could gather back in town, this was the first one to be seen this season. The object of our interests this day however were wild horses.

With each workshop that I conduct, especially those off the Outer Banks or ones that require logistical planning such as boats or pilots, I will typically spend a couple of days scouting out the area ahead of time so that way when the customers arrive I have a solid two days worth of personal knowledge of the exact locations and conditions that we will be photographing. This of course saves time, and allows me to put folks right where they need to be in order the get the most out of such trips.

Despite photographing the Shackleford Banks horses numerous times before, I make it a policy to scout before hand. This workshop was no different. After a 30 minute boat ride across Back Sound and up through the notoriously treacherous shoals of The Drain, the horses where exactly where I expected them to be. With the immense strength of the tides around this area, shoals and channels have a tendency to change on a regular basis, and you can pretty much go to the bank on the fact that the winter storms will have dramatically reshaped some aspect of these inlets and the surrounding areas.

Witch a check of the tides and a slow cautious approach we throttled up in between several shoals that were now exposed about 3 feet above the waters edge. Hundreds of horseshoe crabs had stranded themselves upon the shoal to keep from washing out with the tides, and had begun to bury themselves in the sand to save themselves from baking to death in the relentless heat of the sun. Horses stood on one of the islands gorging themselves with the fresh spring growth of the spartina while other bands could be seen throughout the area following suite.

Upon beaching the boat and throwing out the anchor onto dry sand, we preceded to make our way along of the shoals across from the horses. The better part of the day was spent chest deep in the water, lenses and cameras on tripods, photographing horses walking the precarious banks of oysters and browsing their way two and from the waters edge. At last, what had been waiting so patiently for, and what these horses are so notorious for, the harem began the arduous swim across the swift moving channels to greener pastures.

As luck would have it however, over night everything changed dramatically. Winds that were blowing out of the Northeast switched around to the Southwest and came barreling down on us with 20-30mph and gusts up to 40. NOAA issued a small craft advisory for the area and the pilot of the boat that we were using made decided to err on the side of caution and informed us that it was just too windy to accomplish our goals for Saturday. Well the last thing I wanted was for my customers to have to sit around for an entire day with nothing to do and pay for an extra nights hotel room. Thus, we switched plans to photograph a different population of wild horses in vicinity. Just a short hop by boat from Beaufort we were put off onto Carrot Island which is part of the Rachel Carson Estuarine Preserve and home to around 50 or so horses. Though these horses have a completely different linage, history, ancestry, etc, from the Shackleford horses, they are quite the stunning and regal in physique.

The situation to change locations proved to be fantastic. I have explored Carrot Island both by foot and by kayak before and therefore had a pretty good idea of where some of the better locations for find horses would be. A short hike of about a mile down the beach led us right to a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. In the interior tidal flats we found roughly 40 or so horses grazing in one spot. As wild horses making a living on islands, harems generally consist of only one stallion and 2-4 mares. Thus, we were looking at probably 7 – 10 separate bands. This of course being spring time and therefore breeding season, the air was electric with the nervous energy and tension between the stallions being in such close proximity with each other. Action was an inevitability.

Here are a couple environmental portraits from the days shoot at Carrot. The beauty of the day in my opinion though actually turned out to be the wind – the very thing that threatened to kill the day for us. Without the wind, we would have bypassed this great situation all together. Most of all, the wind added a whole new dimension to the photographs that just weren’t there before – that is manes, tails, sand, and water all a drift in the near gale force winds. This extra dimension adds a more dramatic touch to the photographs. Though I created quite a few great action shots of horses fighting and intermingling, I am posting these due to the fact that they captured the essence of the wind, which of course, is indeed the grand orchestrator of life for all of us who choose to live by the edge of the sea.

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Horses in the Snow

Believe it or not, it does in fact actually snow here on the Outer Banks. Now, this doesn’t happen very often, maybe once a year, but snow we get none the less. Well this weekend weather systems lined up just right to dump about 5 inches of the powdery white stuff across our barrier islands. The further north you went on the island the deeper the snow was of course, and so I headed straight for Carova to photograph the horses.

My original idea was to photograph the horses in falling snow. This is something I have done with other large mammals – bison, elk, deer – with great results, but had not yet captured what I was looking for in this regard with the horses. I wasn’t the only one who was drooling over the idea either. As the storm began to line up and it became obvious that we were going to get snow, my phone started ringing. Richard Bernabe and Jerry Greer were doing a workshop on the Outer Banks this weekend and wanted me to take them and their group up to see the horses as well. Unfortunately we weren’t able to work this out do to vehicle issues.

At the same time, I also had Doug Gardner on the phone Friday looking to turn around and come all the way back to the beach just for some horses in the snow. Now this guy had just spent the last 2 weeks away from his wife and kids shooting and leading workshops out here and had returned home just the night before. Wouldn’t you know it, the very next day he’s down in South Carolina sweet talking his wife to try and convince her to let him come right back. He had a birthday while he was up here and so his family and friends were to throw him a party that night. Well despite all of this, Doug left just as soon as the party was over. How he convinced he wife to let him do this, I have no idea. I think he should give workshops on that!

Leaving out at around 8:30 he was due in to my house around 2 am. Well as the snow continued to fall and conditions in North Carolina deteriorated as the night drew on, 2 am turned into 5 am as he pushed on through a virtual blizzard. Talk about dedicated! Despite waking me up at 3 am, 4 am, and then finally 5 am I was feeling generous and let him crash on the couch for a full 2 hours before I woke him up to go shoot. Since things had fallen through with taking Richard and Jerry’s group up to photograph, I ended up with the whole day to shoot with Doug.

Shortly after finding horses however, the snow tapered off and turned to sleet and the typical Southeastern wintry mix of crap. No worries though, by then we had around 5 inches and I knew once the funk stopped falling from the sky, things had the potential of getting good. Well the mix continued all day finally turning back to snow that night – too dark to shoot of course. The following day however, gale force winds prevailed off of the ocean dropping temperatures down into the low teens and freezing the previous days snow into a hardened sheet of white across the landscape. Food was scarce now for the horses. With the powder, they could easily manage to paw down through the snow. However, with the snow iced over, their food was locked beneath. Therefore activity was practically non existent as the horses tucked up into the thickets and forest waiting out the deadly cold winds.

Not to be beaten by changing weather patters, uncooperative horses, and a failure to obtain my original goals, I simply switched tactics. When the horses tuck in, its simply time for a more intimate approach – as is the case with any large mammal. With the snow blanketing the sand dunes I also wanted to create environmental portraits as well. However, all of these photos turned out looking like they were made in Wyoming! The top one is an example of this. Funny how with a little bit of snow, groundsel bushes suddenly take on the appearance of big sagebrush.

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Seals of South Nags Head

It proved to be a busy day filled with both fantastic discoveries and hearts filled with sadness. With the first call that came into my cell phone today was the voice of one of the North Carolina Wildlife Resource Commission biologists with news of a potentially dead seal. Considering I was in the area, she was hoping that I might go down and investigate the report and if found to be true, transport the dead seal to a freezer at the National Seashore for further examination.

Upon locating the seal, the worst was confirmed as it was indeed dead. As I knelt over the harbor seal pup to examine its condition and figure out how I wanted to get back to my truck, I realized that I was only about a half mile from where I had photographed the last seal that I put in this journal. Considering these seal pups swim hundreds of miles down the coastline to our beaches, the likelihood that this would be the same seal is pretty slim. Yet the heavy thought still managed to weigh me down.

In route to the freezer however, my phone rang again with news of a live seal just a couple miles north of my destination. Since I would be driving right past it I headed out to the beach again in search of the next seal. Let me just say, this was one fat seal pup. No question about it, his fat reserves were holding good. Upon spotting the seal my mind was torn in two directions – photography and biology. With a quick assessment of the seal I noted that it was active and responsive with regular posturing that we expect to see in healthy seals. With that said however, there were also signs that is prompting me to return to the beach in the morning to check on it again to make sure that its condition does not turn over night. Therefore hopefully more to come on this guy tomorrow.

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Pea Island Snow Geese

As is the case most mornings that I am out photographing, the alarm went off at 4:00 am and I was on the road by 4:30. My original destination was to be Poccosin Lakes National Wildlife Refuge to photograph geese blizzards – you know, the photographs of 50,000 geese taking off at once. Continue reading »

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Snow Geese, another visitor from the far North

What is it that I truly love about winter here despite the lack of snow? Well if you havnt guessed it for yourself just yet, its the waterfowl. For starters its what makes the Outer Banks and eastern North Carolina so unique this time of year. Its what has shaped the human history and even economic development of much of this region. Its what towns are named after and the schools in those town are named after famous ducker hunters that were from there. Continue reading »

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Blind Shyness And Lessons On Blending In

For the past several days I have been photographing exclusively at lake Mattamsukeet National Wildlife Refuge. As the swans have begun to return in mass, the action has picked up to a fever pitch out there. One problem that any photographer who attempts to photograph the waterfowl in this area is faced with however, is that these birds are hunted to no end and therefore very wary of people and anything out of the ordinary. From thier nesting grounds to North Carolina, these birds probably move through three seperate hunting seasons. Even here on Mattamuskeet there are schedualed hunts. All of this combines to create a potentially challenging situation for photographers.

Now dont get me wrong, there really are so many birds here that you cannot come to Mattamuskeet and not walk away with photographs of swans – as well as deer and even bald eagles for that matter. But in order to take your photographs up to the next notch, you have to get close, and you in my opinion, you have to get low.

My entry in this photojournal today can be compared to my last entry as I was photographing from the same spot but from a different perspective and weahter conditions. With my last entry, the photographs were all made from sitting down inside of an Ameristep chair blind. This put my lens just a few feet above the water level and really brought out the bordering swamp as a  background to the phtographs. In this current entry however, I was moved back about 30 feet to a higher elevation – my lense probably being 7 feet above the water. In these photographs, I lose the forest as a background and instead have only the water itself to work with.

The reason that I made this change though was due to the skittishness of the birds. Even with my blind pushed back up into the edge of the dead phragmites and zipped up with only my lens hood (which is camoflauged) sticking outside of the blind, the birds were still very wary of my presence. I watched as flock after flock began to fly in, only to notice my blind and flair back out to open water and move around me. I have always had great success with this blind and so at first I couldnt understand what was going on and even if it was really the blind that was spooking them. Then, a great egret started to fly and and land about 10 feet in front of me. When the bird looked right at me and started squaking as it flew off, I knew what the problem was.

That evening I spoke with a couple old school duck hunters from the area about birds being blind shy. They told me that quite often people speak of ducks near the end of the season as being decoy shy, but from their experience its really blind shyness and that if you remove the blind, often the birds will come back into the same spread of decoys they were seemingly flairing from to begin with.

When it comes to photographing wild waterfowl, duck hunters should be your mentor and your best friend. They are the onese who have mastered the art of luring in these wary birds for centuries if not melinia. When people talk of hunters, waterfowl hunters carry a certain mistique – even more so I think than the big game hunters. People use words like obssession to describe thier past time. Food bases, what birds are eatingwhen the first arrive and what they are eating before the leave, migration routes, lunar impact upon migrations, drought conditions of areas thousand of miles away, breeding cycles,  etc. . .  What other sport hunter goes so in depth with their understanding  of ecology, biology, and natural history of thier querry now a days? So like hunting these birds, if you want to photograph them you have to know as much as there is to know about the birds, and you cannot simply walk up to the side of the road and expect to make award winning photographs of them. There is a good reason that waterfowl hunters have decoys, calls, waders, camoflauge, and spend days working to perfect thier hunting blinds before the birds begin to arrive.

What all of these means then, is that even though I was concealed in a blind, it just wasnt good enough. The blind was far to conspicous to these waterfowl. After learning of birds becoming blind shy like this, I set mine up and studied it. First off, it has a slight sheen to the fabric. This means of the light hits it right the blind will be illuminated. Second, its too dark for the phragmites. I have photographed waterfowl from this blind many times before, but not with such a uniformly light tan background as these phragmites. I probably looked like a giant glistening bear with knife and fork in hand to these birds. Or maybe I just looked like the last thing that killed a few of thier friends. Eitherway, these birds were spooking.

So the solution? I will be picking up a couple mats of shadow grass and a thing of burlap this week. The burlap is light and can be spray painted with cattails and phragmites used as stencils to create the perception of depth. The shadow grass on the other hand will make me completely disappear into the dead phragmites, but is really heavy and a burden to tote around. Where I photograph in Mattamuskeet, I can simply cart my gear (with one of those fishing gear carts you see people using on piers) to the area and then just stash the cart. Elsewhere, when I need to done waders and trudge belly deep through the water, I can float the burlap along with the rest of my gear in a large mortar mixing tub with a rope attached to it. This actually works great because it keeps your stuff dry even if you take a fall in the water.

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Tundra Swans of Mattamuskeet

Once again the frigid cold fronts that swept through the last week brought pay dirt to our area in the form of waterfowl.  The eastern population of the Tundra Swan – formally known as the whistling swan – is roughly 100,000. Of this total population it is estimated that a full 75% of these birds winter right here in eastern North Carolina. The vast majority of these birds, the largest of all the swans in North America, can be found at Lake Mattamuskeet National Wildlife Refuge each winter. The refuge this time of year is a sight to behold for sure.

Looking out across the water of North Carolina’s largest natural lake, it would seem as though you could simply walk across Mattamuskeet on the backs of so many thousands of swans. The congregation of these birds is almost overwhelming as this place probably holds the largest concentration of these birds in America. This is a wintertime phenomenon however, as up on the tundra during the breeding season these birds are spread out in pairs across thousands of miles of barren grounds. These sort of mass congregations occur only on the wintering grounds and ornithologists believe that the purpose of these massive gathering areas is for better mate selection. Once again, migration is about food and sex. And when it comes to a providing enough food in a natural habitat for some 40,000 swans to gather in order to find a mate, this lake is just as good as it gets. At 18 miles long and 7 miles wide with an average depth of only around 2 feet deep, this place is a full on Golden Corral buffet for waterfowl in the wintertime.

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immersing onself in the abstract


I have been working on a story for Wildlife in North Carolina magazine about barrier island migration. Every barrier island in the world is migrating. Its just the nature of these sandbars. As ocean levels rise, high tides are higher, and storm surges are farther reaching. With each overwash, sand is desposited onto the island. The storm surge the flooded out Hatteras Village during Hurricane Isabel deposited 2 meters of sand across the town! As this sand builds up, the elevation of the island grows as well. Yet sand is not static. Its shifting, moving, blowing, and constantly being rearanged. To say that change is the only constant on these barrier islands is not just some age old axiom but instead, a matter of physics.

As storms continue to pound the coast, as more overwash comes over the island, as hurricanes connect sea with sounds, sand is continualesly being transfered from the beach and the mid section of the island, to the waters behind it. Essentially, the islands roll overtop of themselves. This is barrier island migration in a somewhat oversimplified explanation.

Photographing for a story of this sort has proven to be quite the challenge. How does one go about photographically telling the story of long term geological processes? Stumps line the beaches of the Outer Banks as they do many other barrier islands. Trees however, do not grow out of the beach, therefore these are artifacts of islands migrating. Same thing with oyster shells along the Atlantic facing beaches. Oysters, like clams and welch snails (what you probably call conchs) do not grow in the ocean either. These are all esturiane species – meaning they live in estuaries, or the water behind the islands. The ended up on the beach because the islands migrated overtop of them and now thousands of years later they are being dug up out of the sand by wave action and tossed up onto the beach.

All of this is fine and dandy for telling a story with photographs, but to really explaine whats going on, you have to get off the island and up into the air. From the air this is no longer an abstract concept. The geography of the islands is a direct product of barrier island migration. The extensive marshes, the sand shoals, nearly every feature of the island has been shaped by this process. From the ground it is imperceptiable. From the air however it could not be more obvious.

Thus, I chartered a plane to fly me overtop of Ocracoke, Portsmouth Island, Core Banks, and Shackleford Banks. All of these save for the town of Ocracoke and the ghost town of Portsmouth are uninhabitated and therefore stand as the best examples.

Flying over these pecarious little ribbons of sand along our coast is quite educating, and a hell of alot of fun. From 1000 feet you really get the feel for just how unstable a landscape we live on out here. As for asthetics, words cannot describe it.

Along with this entry into the photo journal are a few of the photographs made while on this trip. These photos are not necessarily the ones that will acompany the article, but are some of the earthscapes and abstracts that I made while in the air.



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