Tag Archives: Outer Banks

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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If only I had a picture of me taking this picture


I had just pulled my boat into the protected bay inside of the marsh where these horses were feeding. I was still actually idling my way in when this whole scenario began to unfold and really had no time to get myself into position, the boat anchored securely, and me and my gear into the water and set up on a shoal (sandbar) to shoot this.

Realizing I was in a sort of do or die moment here, I chucked the anchor of the bow, ran back to my camera, wrapped my leg around the chrome pole to the hardtop over the center console of my boat, and then hurled my body over the side of the boat. The result was me dangling head first over the water with me ankles hanging onto that pole for dear life.

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Season of Surf

The end of August and the month of September has proven to be yet another great round of surf for us out there on the Outer Banks. These photos are a mixture of Hurricane Danielle and Hurricane Earl. So much to shoot in SO little time!

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Red Fox and Sand Dunes

Over the course of the last week I have going pretty much non stop. Doug Gardner was in town with the film crew for Wild Photo Adventures and we were shooting an episode for season 4 of the show. The only problem however was that weather had other plans for us. Day after day were were pummeled by rain and gale force winds from a sub-tropical storm that was inching its way past the Carolina coast. Much of the first part of the week was litterally spent staring out the windows of hotels while we waited from breaks in the outer bands of the storm so that we could shoot. Once the system finally moved off however, it was immediately followed up by a cold front and more overcast skies.

Maybe someone was feeling sorry for us upstairs because the last day of shooting revealed this mother red fox and her four kits in the sand dunes. I have been watching this den site for sometime now. First there was one hole, then two, then three. . . I knew that there was some sort of activity going on but until now the vixen had alluded me. This is not so surprising as foxes are stealthy and when attempting to raise young they do their best to try not to bring attention to themselves as predation on young can be high.

When we first spotted the mother fox it was just me and photographer / cinematographer  Eric Horan. Slowly we began to inch out way up into place with my truck. As this den sight was relatively close to a sand road behind the dune, I assumed that she might be somewhat habituated to vehicles at this point but did not want to push it by climbing out of the suburban. At first she appeared to be nervous and we thought that it might be best if we simply moved on so that we didn’t disturb the den. However, all of a sudden here comes two of her kits charging down the dune after each other in play. Bringing my lens back to mom, I saw that she was completely relaxed now even with her kits just 20 yards away from us.

Doug and the other camera man were about 10 miles south of us on the beach filming horses at this time. After about 45 mins of filming and photographing the mother and her kits Doug finally got through to us on his cell phone and when I told him what was going everyone dove into his Tahoe and raced up the beach to our location. With two trucks now in place and the rest of the crew setting up on tripods it was now apparent that we had spent enough time here with her that she was going to allow us to work outside the vehicles. Over the course of the next hour, when the skies became overcast again, we made some incredible images of these beautiful canines.

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Back on the Beach

Action on the beach here picked up pretty much on cue for the horses. Late April brought the hatching of biting flies here on the island and subsequently horses out to the beach. Of course, this is also both breeding and foaling season for these horses. The culmination of these three major events in the horses lives offers the photographer some of the years best opportunities for making photographs of these creatures.

I had the pleasure of taking the stock holders of the Great American Photography Workshops out to photograph these horses the other day. We had horses on the beach, fights in the dunes between stallions, and a newborn foal. I would say that was a successful shoot!

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Wild Horse Photography Workshops

[xr_video id=”3fd08341a99449008467d241c2456d0b” size=”sm”]

Back in January over the course of our Wild Horses and Waterfowl workshops, Doug Gardner shot this footage. Something of a teaser for whats to come. . .

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Visual Exploration

I’m currently working on a project photographing the giant migratory sand dunes of North Carolina. These migratory dunes were created thousands of years ago when the elevation of these islands began to build up from the onslaught of giant hurricanes and northeasters. As I have written about before on here, as well as in an upcoming article for Wildlife in North Carolina Magazine (September 2010), these barrier islands migrate in response to rising sea levels. Part of this process is through the building up of sand via overwash. Many people think that when storms ravage these islands that sand is eroded away. The sand doesn’t disappear however, its just moved around. Take Hurricane Isabel for instance, when the storm surge overwashed the village of Hatteras, it deposited nearly 2 meters of sand (7 feet) across the town!

As overwash continues throughout the centuries from the large storms, sand continues to build. Now, based upon the geographical orientation of the barrier islands, all of this sand can form giant sand dunes. The northern half of the Outer Banks for instance runs from northwest to southeast. The prevailing winds here in turn are northeast and southwest. This means that sand is constantly being blown back and forth across the island. If the island was north to south, such as Core Banks, than these giant dunes could not form as sand would constantly be blown down the island and spread out. The Outer Banks with their orientation in such a way so as to constantly pick up incoming sand from the beach therefore are perfectly positioned to build large sand dunes such as Jockey’s Ridge and Penny’s Hill. Shackleford Banks is another island with such an orientation and therefore contains several large dunes. Shackleford however is positioned along a northwest to southeast axis meaning that the prevailing northeastern winds build up sand from the backside, while the southwest winds push it inward from the beach.

These sand dunes in turn migrate, just like the islands themselves do. With all of that wind, sand is constantly blowing one direction or the other. Considering the predominant wind throughout most of the year is northeast, these dunes are slowly moving in a southwesterly direction overtaking anything that comes in their path. Oh, and when I say anything, I mean anything. Were talking forests, houses, businesses, and as can be seen from the east end of Jockey’s Ridge State Park near the road, miniature golf courses as well.  Ever wonder what that castle is sticking up out of the sand dune? Its whats finally being exposed of a miniature golf course that was buried by the shifting sands decades ago!

As for photography, one of the great things about sand is that it is really sexy. I mean sure, its abrasive, it gets in every nook and cranny of your house and every crevice on your body that abrasive things should never be, but damn if its not fun to shoot. With each gust of wind, the landscape has the potential to change. It build up and tears down. Runnels, ridges, gullies, dunes . . . the features are endless. In order to photograph sand you must embark upon a visual exploration. Really, that sums up landscape photography as a whole, but sand truly exemplifies this concept the best in my opinion. One minute you will be looking at a grand landscape, the next – macro work of sand formations at your feet. The possibilities are endless for a photographer with artistic vision.

As I said, this is an on going project I am working that may potentially become a book. These are just a few of the photos that I made this morning.

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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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When Everything Comes Together

Its good when a plan comes together. Actually, its fantastic. Just the other night I was on the phone with a client who wanted photographs of wild horses for use in both print advertisement as well as his companies website. Throughout the conversation he stressed that he was specifically interested in photographs of horses in the dunes. Well, the following day we were finishing up the last day of a photography workshop and we had be photographing a band of horses grazing waste deep in a wet meadow near the sand dunes. After an hour or so of working these horses we made the decision to move on to the backside of the island and wade out into the marsh to photograph horses grazing there.

As we began to load up, I turned around and spotted yet another band of horses about a half mile away as they were beginning to make their way up the primary dunes. Knowing that the sea oats and American beach grass that grows on top of the dunes had long lost its nutritional value and therefore situations like these would not last long this time of year, I had everyone just jump into the truck as is donning neoprene waders and just holding onto their lenses and tripods.

Hurriedly making our way to the other horses, we sent waves of water into the air as we dashed through holes a couple feet deep in collected rain water. Carefully situating our selves along the southwestern side of the horses so as to optimize our light, we clamored out and began to make our way through the dune field. At first the situation was rather placid with horses grazing upon what scarce food was to be found while two young foals reared back in play with each other.

Suddenly, one of the participants spotted the stallion of the last group charging full force through the dunes. At full gallop he was kicking up a cloud of sand in his wake as his closed the gap between himself and the stallion in front of us. Knowing that this could pan out to be an epic photographic situation, and because we now had a stallion bearing down on us at 35 mph, we all charged up the side of a 20 foot dune to ready for the action.

The stallion that was grazing in front of us immediately positioned himself in between the attacking stallion and his mares and braced himself for the impact and battle royal. Within an instant the opposing stallion was upon him and they both reared back onto their hind legs. With hoofs as weapons they thrust their front legs and at each others body while attempting to sink their teeth into the others necks. Round and round they went like two evenly matched heavy weight boxers locked in battle, the dance of survival at hand, the outcome dubious at best.

At last, the defending stallion turned and began to run is girls away from the challenger who by this point was beginning to make advances to separate the harem stallion from his mares. The horses once again turned and headed straight towards us. Just when we thought they were going to come right up our sand dune the lead mare changed direction and instead pulled around the base of the sand dune. With the stallion bringing up the rear and the challenger on his heals, once again he turned to meet his pursuer. The challenger dug his hoofs into the sand to stop, not sure of what to make of this bold move.

The defending stallion defecated as a means of marking his territory, essentially drawing a line in the sand. The other stallion called his bluff however and once again charged in and reared back with teeth gnashing and hoofs flailing.

In the end, the defending challenger and his mares were driven out of the area by the other stallion. Still full of piss and vinegar however, he soon turned his attention on us. We had begun to make our way back over the the truck when he suddenly came towards us full tilt. You should have seen everyone grabbing tripods and cameras desperately trying to jump behind the truck. Fortunately he veered around us and continued at full gallop back over to his own harem of females.

One of the participants turned around and said he needed a beer and a cigarette after that! I guess that means another happy customer.

Talk about a fantastic day! I came away with some of the best fight shots Ive made, the participants were stoked, and I have one very happy client who is purchasing several of the photos for his advertisements. Just another day at the office.

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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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