It was about 10:30 in the morning when I decided to "camp out" and finally have some breakfast (deluxe trail mix) tossed into my little canvas sack, here among the reeds at Wolfe's pond, on it's side that lies opposite from the ocean. I had been hiking for almost an hour to get to this spot which gives me a nice open view of the swan's nest I found here last month. To this point I had had quite a morning of activity already and needed to stop and eat.
So I removed my campers mat ( purchased at Paragon's sporting goods for just such trips as these). As the cushy nylon mat rolls up nicely and can convert into a handy chair giving me a dry comfortable place to sit even in mucky muddy locals like this, pulled out my 'breakfast' and relaxed while taking in what little nature activity I could spot around me.
By now I had already been here since 5:30 and used both cameras and all 4 of the lenses I brought with me. (I 'only' brought 4 lenses because Wolfe's pond here near the southern tip of Staten Island, is huge and the trees and bushes dense). I needed to go as light as possible to allow myself to successfully navigate it. If someone had told me I when I arrived here at dawn that I would achieve that feat even after staying here all day I would have been semi shocked, for when I scanned the lake from one end to the other mostly all that seemed to stick out to me was mud.
The tide was most definitely out and the channel that connects the lake to the Atlantic which lies a stones throw from here, funneled a ton of water out to sea, leaving the picturesque lake I visited 3 weeks ago, devoid of anything photogenic, or so it seemed at first to my disappointed eyes. But having risen out of bed at 3:30 in the morning I sure as heck wasn't going to just turn around and go home. So I hiked all around the sticky muddy shore on this side hoping to find something that would look good in the soon to be arriving sunrise to photograph. But between what was left on this part of the lake after the devastation of Hurricane Sandy, and the still ongoing reconstruction to keep the floods and intrusion of salt water from ever happening to that level again, I found nothing before the sun came up.
The low water level did uncover some small plant roots normally unseen and I stopped to photograph it. If I had paid more careful attention to it earlier and set up just as the sun came up, it would have made for a really nice shot, but now the scene merely looked ok. And I thought that would be the way the whole day would go but as it turned out this giant "mud puddle" was full of nice surprises today.
The first happened a few minutes later. I had stopped to line up some flowering bushes so that the lake would be in soft focus behind them in the nice early morning light. It was about the only way I could think of to include the lake in any scenic shot and not look like an abandoned watering hole from a Serengeti drought. Not the fabulous panoramic sunrise shot I hoped to capture that coerced me to get up out of bed at 3:30 in the morning, but it would have to do.
When I closed in on the flower laden bush I discovered many busy bees gathering nectar, dutiful creatures that they are to be so hard at work at this early hour. Switching from my 24-70mm zoom on my full frame camera to my 90mm macro on my cropped sensor Nikon, I took advantage of the wonderful early morning light as the combination of it, the bees and the flowers they were feeding on gave me a bushel full of great images to choose from.
Soon the bees moved on from the flowers within my easy reach and on up to ones difficult or impossible for me to get at. At least one I spotted I could get within camera range of if I could squeeze my body into a small cranny in the bush and wiggle my way inside. So I looked down first to make sure I didn't miss and disturb any bees still in the front of the bush, and get myself stung in the process. Nope no bees but there was something very small hanging on the edge of one of the leaves. It was a caterpillar. It's color and texture made it look as if it were made of wrought iron. And when the light hit it, ooh the wonderful kaleidoscope of colors. There's another and another. Most were molting. And so the lake had given me my second surprise and it was barely past 8:00.
After grabbing a few shots of the bush and lake that I originally walked over here to get in the first place, I turned around to head back to where I left my camera bag so I could start walking towards my main reason for coming here today, that aforementioned swan's nest.
As I started to pack up my gear, strewn around the muddy shoreline on top of my bag and every dry piece of drift wood and rocks I could find, I looked up into the eastern sky and squinting into the rising sun spotted ospreys circling above. In fact LOTS of them. The first year I came to this lake nearly a decade ago I spotted only one. He (or she) had a nest at an adjoining small lake near here on the other side of Hyland blvd. ( Never did find the nest in that mini jungle). Obviously the hunting had been superb and had caused a population explosion among the ospreys.
Now whenever that lone osprey would return to the lake to hunt I tried to capture shots of him attempting to catch fish. Ospreys are the most fascinating birds to watch do this. Instead of gliding along the surface like all other fish hunting raptors, they circle high above then dive bomb straight down, disappearing totally below the surface then come back up a second or two later. It's an awesome sight.
But if any of you are familiar with my nature gallery here on SmugMug and the equipment I was using back then, then you know I had less than a zero percent chance of capturing a shot like that in those days, as no combination of camera and lenses I owned at the time was capable of locking onto a speeding bullet like this diving straight down. Even now it wouldn't be easy, as even though my D500 camera and Tamron 100-400mm zoom runs circles around anything I've ever used before, my 100-400mm is not really good enough for challenging situations like this. Great a lens as it is I really need to pair my D500 up with a multi thousand dollar nikkor lens to capture this feeding frenzy. But you always have to work with what you got.
The sun was high enough at this point to make locking in on the ospreys difficult but it also made for dramatic high key back lighting and so I collected still more nice images for my nature gallery, surprise number three. At this point I had already used both camera's and all 4 lenses, and must have collected at least 500 images and I hadn't moved from eye shot of where I dropped my camera bag, when I decided to stick around and make the best of what I was sure to be a dull day for photographing.
Once the last osprey had flown off I finally headed for that ideal spot across from the swan's nest on the other side of the lake. To get there I was going to have to go the long way around, as the ongoing reconstruction cut off access around the beach side of the lake, and my shorter more direct route to my nest watching spot. And the stream on the other end of the lake was too wide to cross until you reach near the end of it where it runs under Hyland blvd. That meant it was going to be and hour trek at least, and I wanted nice lighting of the nest in case the babies had hatched already, and not the lousy midday lighting when the sun is at its zenith in the sky.
There are several hiking trails on the other side of the lake and past experience has taught me to avoid almost all of the ones that turn off earlier to the right in an attempt to make a shorter trip around the southern tip of the lake, for they all lead to the stream I had no chance of jumping with all this gear on my back. So I took the trail farthest to the left knowing it was undoubtedly the longest way around, but while I was totally unfamiliar with it, it ultimately would save time - not having to eventually double back up a steep path that had led me to that stream I couldn't jump (something that had happened to me many times before). This trail would take me completely around all that.
As I walked through the thick trees and bushes I struggled to stay on the narrow path over grown in many spots, and never haven gone this way before I found it easy to get off of when I wasn't careful. Ducking under a low tree limb then pushing through a thick clump of branches and vines, carefully avoiding the ones with the thorns in my thin light weight summer clothing, I looked ahead to try and relocate the trail I was almost sure I had strayed off of (and I had) and instead I found myself gazing at a sea of green. It was a large bog. Trees and plants covered in lichen, fallen trees covered in moss, and the bog surface completely covered in algae.
It was a symphony of greens. Better still was the lighting. The immense tree growth put the entire bog in shadows, however in a couple of spots the sun, now high enough to look down on all the trees, managed to punch a few holes through like spot lights on a Broadway stage. And so quite accidentally I had stumbled onto lake surprise number four. (Five if you include the egrets that didn't immediately take flight when I slowly pushed through the tall reeds along the western shore of the lake and let me photograph them hunting for breakfast).
By the time I arrived at my chosen spot to photograph the nest it was around 10:15 so despite the myriad of things that popped up distracting me from getting to this spot to this point, I still managed to get here with about 45 minutes of decent light before the sun got so high up in the sky that the lighting on my all white swan would become harsh and unforgiving. But as I took off my backpack and started unpacking my gear it looked like my day of surprises had finally come to an end.
First of all, if the extreme low tide made the lake look un-photogenic on the ocean side of Wolfe's pond, here on the far end it made the lake look positively ghastly. Dusty looking mallards sat in what little puddles of water they could find, putting the finishing touches on this sorry looking sight.
Well let's see if I see a baby swan's head pop up and give me something along with mother swan to shoot, because none of the many fish feeding fowl, like kingfishers or snowy egrets were coming over here today. No water no fish, no fish no birds. But both those hopes were dashed quickly, as our expecting mother got up out of the nest just as I cleared the reeds, washed her lower body in what little muddy water there was, then took off to join her husband on the other end of the lake.
Now there's no way she would have let the nest get out of her eye shot, if even that, if the babies had hatched. And now with her flying off to join hubby the only thing I had left to shoot was an empty nest. Well I was hungry, so I converted my mat into a chair sat down, tuned my portable radio to ESPN and started munching on my breakfast.
After finishing, I closed my eyes and took a short unplanned nap. And when my eyes opened again, mother swan had returned along with hubby trailing far off behind her and I got a few nice shots of her putting a few finishing retouches to the nest. Finally time to go I thought. I had a ton of chores to do at home and I should count my blessings, head home and do them as I had already collected more shots than I could have ever hoped for when this day started.
So I rolled over on my right as it is about the easiest way to get out of this low lying yet surprisingly comfortable camping chair. As I did my eyes spotted something on one of the reeds about 6 ft right in front of me, it was a dragonfly, wings spread directly in front of me, which was amazingly fortunate. For if he was at any other angle to me there would have been nowhere clear for me to stand to photograph him. Now I didn't even have to get out of my chair. More gifts from above today, surprise number five.
As I snapped a few pictures of it I admired his wings, really beautiful even by dragonfly standards as their wings are usually arresting anyway. As I admired this ones wings the sun peaked out from behind the clouds and sent a shaft of light through the trees above my head. The light slipped through the reeds and onto his wings and made them look even more marvelous - like a set of stained glass windows. Then just as fast the sun disappeared behind a cloud and took the wonderful lighting with it before I could capture it on film.
Looking up at the steadily moving patchy clouds I could tell if I was patient enough and the dragonfly didn't fly away, eventually the still rising sun would send more rays of lights down on my newest photographic interest, and make those gorgeous wings really stand out again. Given how good the lake had been to me thus far today there was no way I wasn't going to stick around and allow it another opportunity to delight me.
NYCStaten IslandWolfe's Pondnaturesummer