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Updated: Aug 25, 2023

“The only impossible journey is the one you never begin.” -Tony Robbins
Juvenile Green Heron learning to brave the waters for food. Summer, Canon R3, 100-500

As a kid, growing up farming in rural North Carolina, I was the one who ran towards the person who was yelling “snake!” as everyone else fled. Nature and wildlife are in my bones. Curiosity is my drug of choice and discovering the interconnectedness of the creatures that share this globe, my obsession.

Late August 2020-
“To Strive, To Seek, To Find…AND NOT TO YIELD.” - Tennyson

I ventured out on day one with my brand-new Rebel T7 and a 75-300 lens and the rest, as we all too often say, is history. It was month five of the pandemic and I was free to get out and shoot in the mornings. My destination? Beautiful Greenfield Lake, just minutes from my home in downtown Wilmington, NC. I had for some time been venturing out in search of micro-worlds around downtown equipped with my iPhone and a clip-on macro lens. The results were fantastic and soon I found myself in need of a digital camera with some reach. The recommendation came to grab a T7 and go out in the field. A photographer friend told me to put it on Manual and LEARN by DOING, and that’s exactly what I did; daily; for months! I immediately captured fantastic results and after three months of relentless field work I upgraded to a Canon 5D Mark IV, and a 100-400 zoom lens. Many thousands of captures later, I acquired the Canon R3 mirrorless, and the 100-500RF lens, once again changing the game. All the while Greenfield Lake being my primary go-to to commune with and discover our local and visiting wildlife. And so here we are…
MACRO of CRAB SPIDER on Goat's beard flower, lakeside. CANON 5D MARK IV, 100mm MACRO LENS

January 2023 – The world still dealing with the aftermath of a pandemic, I delve deeper and deeper into the natural world and the translation of that world into art photography. Here are some of my experiences at our local Greenfield Lake.

Greenfield Lake is a fascinating gem of an ecosystem. In the heart of downtown Wilmington, it is a shallow cypress bog / lake that attracts thousands of migrating birds each year because of the proximity to the Atlantic and the neighboring Cape Fear River basin, and its shallow water levels, which at an average of only 4 feet deep, make the perfect hunting grounds, especially along the lake’s edges. For nearly 28 years I have walked the greenway that surrounds the water, and seen the turtles, anhingas, cormorants, great egrets and great blue herons, mostly, from afar. I had no solid concept, until I set out onto the water with my newly acquired kayak, what a wealth of life there was to discover. From the tiniest spiders to a host of heron species, gators, turtles galore and even visiting river otters, (a rarity I was privileged to witness), it is quite literally overflowing with life. Observing them on a much deeper level, learning their habits, how they structure their days, how they interact with one another, where they prefer to hunt, etc., is thrilling in every way. That 12- year-old wannabe biologist in me is sparked backed to life with each encounter.

Most will say that the kings of the lake would be the plethora of American alligators that cruise the lake and nest in their hides along the more remote edges, and perhaps they are correct. But in my humble opinion that title belongs to the Great Blue Herons. At five feet tall, these are the largest herons in the world, and though stunningly graceful, they are ferocious predators, and absolute opportunists when it comes to a meal. Watching them hunt is mesmerizing (as it is with all herons), but unlike most other herons and egrets that inhabit the lake, their size allows for a much wider range of treats to be enjoyed.
"THE MAESTRO" Great Blue Heron having a late afternoon sun bath at Greenfield Lake. Canon R3, 100-500.

A year round resident, This GREAT BLUE HERON fished the runoff daily. CANON 5D MARK IV, 100-400

If Great Blues are the Kings, then the Great Egrets, with their stunning pure-white plumage, are certainly the crown jewels of the lake. They can easily be seen in mass certain times of the year, standing out against the fall-transformed orange of the cypress trees, and gracefully floating through the air. Easy to spot, and fairly adapted to human presence, they are a delight for those who visit this place.
GREAT EGRET sunning in the late afternoon Summer of 2020. Canon Rebel T7, 75-300
GREAT EGRET fishing with reflection. CANON R3, 100-500

Another jewel, perhaps we should say the “costume jewelry” of the lake, are the turtles! Specifically, the Yellow-Bellied Sliders. Given this name because of their behavior of sliding off their dry perches of fallen branches and tree trunks, back into the water as humans or a predator approach in tandem with their bright yellow bellies. If you hear a splash as you round a corner, chances are it was a slider. Their numbers here are enormous. They inhabit every square inch of this bog, and you cannot walk or kayak around the lake without seeing them. It is very common to see entire groups, all ages and sizes, congregated along a single fallen tree. And they are quite beautiful, their namesake yellow bellies, catching the eye.
YELLOW BELLIED SLIDER emerging from the lake. Canon R3, 100-500
A typical sunny afternoon on the trunk of a lake bound cypress tree. Canon 5D Mark IV, 100-400
SLIDERS drying in a row. Typical behavior mid lake. CANON R3, 100-500

The other turtles to be observed here are the common snappers, and you may need to do a bit of a deep dive into the offshoot fingers of the lake to find them. Quite large and prehistoric in appearance, they are quite shy around humans. If you are lucky enough to come across one, be still for a moment and they will resurface, and observe you from afar. If you see a sudden cluster of water bubbles on the lake surface, there just might be a snapper just below the surface.
Pair of SNAPPING TURTLES mating in a far branch of the lake. Canon 5D Mark IV, 100-400

While we are on the subject of reptiles, let me backtrack to the American alligators. They are such fascinating creatures, and their numbers are also quite plentiful for a downtown area. Ranging in age and size from hatchlings to a not uncommon 10-12 foot adults (some report a larger male who terrorizes the females in mating season), they can easily be observed swimming on the lake surface during the warmer months and even on warmer days in the winter here, because of our temperate atmosphere. In general, they will sink below the surface if you are approaching, and you will see the snout and eyes resurface when they feel at a safe distance from you. They can also be observed from a boat along the sunny side of the lake, sometimes several together. If you get too close, they will exhibit the behavior of thrashing and immediately disappear below the surface. This is akin to the rattle of a rattlesnake, meant to scare you off as they retreat.

ADULT AMERICAN ALLIGATOR on a water testing system mid-lake. CANON R3, 100-500

Working with a 100-500 lens allows me to really get into the eyes of these lake inhabitants. And with some of them, for example the great blue herons in the late afternoon sun after a day of hunting, I gain enough trust to get within a few feet and look deep into their eyes and commune without the lens. It is an honor, and a privilege not easily attained. But over time some of the permanent residents have come to know me, trust my presence, and allow me into their world, enjoying a proximity to them not often experienced by humans.
CLOSE-UP of Juvenile Green Heron through cypress brush. CANON R3, 100-500

That brings me to the Green Herons! AHHHH the Green Herons...
ADULT GREEN HERON perched on a submerged log, doing a mating call. CANON R3, 100-500

I like to refer to them as the “footballs” of the heron world. These are fairly elusive, small herons, who prefer the overgrowth around the water-bound cypress trees to nest in in the Spring and Summer months. And unlike most herons you are unaware of their long necks until they decide to stretch them out. In my first Summer exploring the lake via kayak, I saw two fluffy heads appear against the bright green cypress trees, on a low-lying branch just above the surface. I paddled to safe distance as not to frighten them back into the safety of the overgrowth and began shooting. The 300mm focal length was sufficient to get some fairly clear shots. What struck me most as I constantly re-maneuvered my kayak, was that they, as juveniles in a brand-new world, were in turn, curious about me! Ultimately a third juvenile appeared, and an obsession was born. Every day for weeks I would visit these beauties, observing their habits, seeing them begin to interact with the world around them, ultimately hunting insects, then with building confidence, looking to the waters for food. The parents always hovered nearby, exhibiting a healthy distrust of my presence, but tolerating it once they observed my non-intrusive behavior.
JUVENILE GREEN HERON captures a bottle fly. Precision. CANON R3, 100-500

After this group flew off for the season, I eagerly awaited the next breeding season, and set out daily once Spring arrived, observing the migrating adults begin to nest build, and finally seeing the hatchlings surface. Again, trust was gained and equipped now with my R3 and a 500mm lens, I was able to capture marvelously clear photographs of these curious juveniles. One of a pair of hatchlings I discovered mid-lake, I affectionately named Dandelion Head. While they all had the fledgling white tufts of feathers, one had a long follicle that resembled a dandelion seed about to take to the wind. These two herons came to recognize me as part of their daily routine and I thrilled in being, at times, literally 2 feet from them, as they went about their business. Captures of them trapping bottle flies and learning the ropes of hopping from cluster to cluster was great fun, and then one day, as they matured, I was able to catch one of their first flights to a nearby tree! As a result of my obsession, I have been helping the local Audubon chapter keep records of Green Heron nesting areas at Greenfield Lake and beyond.
DANDELION HEAD. Juvenile Green Heron. CANON R3, 100-500, AUDUBON TOP 100, 2023!!!

Another element of this lake’s ecosystem are the arachnids and insects that go mostly unobserved, at least closely, by those who roam the outer edges of the lake. When I focus my eye to the micro, a whole new universe unfolds. These small wonders are responsible for bringing the lake to life each spring. Pollinating blooms, becoming food for turtles and birds, and providing a very necessary biological building block to this ecosystem! And the opportunity to practice my macro photography skills, where it all began, is exciting!
SPOTTED FISHING SPIDER on floating primrose willow. CANON 5D MARK IV, 100mm MACRO

MACRO of CRAB SPIDER on Goat's beard flower, lakeside. CANON 5D MARK IV, 100mm MACRO LENS

The dragonflies are a favorite of the insect world here. Their structure and colors are magnificent when seen up close. Ferocious hunters, I have captured shots of females devouring their mates on several occasions. Photographing them is a challenge but the payoff is worth it!
BLUE DASHER DRAGONFLY on Knotweed. Lakeside. CANON 5D MARK IV, 100-400
BLUE DASHER DRAGONFLY on Lantana Lakeside. CANON 5D MARK IV, 100-400

Well the wings of the dragonfly have reminded me to get back to the other birds that inhabit the lake. The Double Crested Cormorants are in many ways the misunderstood clowns of the lake. From afar they appear to simply be dull brown or black birds. But when observed at close proximity, their true beauty is evident. Stunning blue eyes set against the contrasting orange and black of their hooked beaks, and stunning plumage that captures sunlight.
Female Cormorant atop a bald cypress mid lake. My favorite perch. CANON R3, 100-500

Their giant webbed feet, while ideal for diving, create a bit of an awkward situation when attempting to land on the small upper branches of the cypress trees at dusk. While a challenge for them, it is a delight to witness. To add to that challenge, the other cormorants become territorial once they have procured a branch and will squawk and flap at any approaching individual. Hilarity often ensues, in the form of crash landing and plummets into the lake waters below.
Silhouette treatment of the clumsy Cormorant dance at dusk. CANON R3, 100-500

Well that's it for PART ONE of my Greenfield blog, and honestly it has only scratched the surface of the adventures I have had there over the last 3 years! The short of it is that Greenfield Lake became my training ground for wildlife photography, and has led me to greater adventures around the Southeast US, the Everglades and beyond. It will always hold my heart. Part 2 of this Greenfield blog will come soon...Here's a preview in photos...

The majestic OSPREY atop my favorite Bald Cypress perch. CANON R3, 100-500
GOLDEN SILK ORBWEAVERS devouring a captured CICADA. CANON 5D MARK IV, 100-400
GREEN TREE FROG, resting lakeside. CANON R3, 100-500
Face in THE MAN TREE, the oldest recorded tree in Greenfield. CANON 5D MARK IV, 100-400





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