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.


Sunday, February 21, 2016

Mid-February Wildlife-Canon 100-400mm L IS II Problems

Whitetail Herd In Snowstorm
 Just a short time ago we were plunged into the depth of winter with deep snow and bitter cold.  This changed quickly; however, as we saw in the Ice-Out post. While snow still remained on the ground in most places, life was much easier for the deer and turkeys as they could now travel about easily looking for food.

Alert Gobbler

Travel Was Easy
Three days later, there was even less snow in the spot the turkeys were photographed  and deer liked to stand there, basking in the rays of the afternoon sun.

Doe Basking In Late Winter Sun

Doe Grooming Fawn
There was even less snow by yesterday morning and I photographed a buck, that was a small spike last fall, and some does feeding in a neighbor's rye field.

Last Year's Spike

Deer Pause From Grazing In Rye
After a chilly start, yesterday turned into a balmy day  that reached the mid 60s.  This made my thoughts turn to the coming spring waterfowl migration and hopefully a trip or two to Middle Creek Wildlife Management Area.  If the current weather pattern does not change, the peak of the snow geese and tundra swan migration should be much earlier than in the past two years.

All photos were taken with the Canon 7D MK II.  The 24-105mm IS L lens was used for the first photo and the 70-200mm 2.8 L IS II was used for the remainder. I love the sharpness of the new Canon 100-400mm IS II, and have been using it a lot this winter, but I have had problems with it (or the camera it is mounted on) locking up (auto-focus stops and the IS doesn't work).  Seldom a day goes by without this happening at least once.  Strangely it seems to do it more often with the 7D MK II, but it does it occasionally with the 5D MK III, the 70D, and the original 7D.  Sometimes simply moving the focusing ring a bit will restore function, while other times re-seating the lens will do the trick, but sometimes the battery must be removed and re-inserted.  I returned the lens and the 7D MK II to Canon at the end of December, and they changed the focus assembly and other parts and calibrated the camera with the lens, but the problem was still there.  I sent the lens back at the beginning of the week and Canon is currently servicing it so I could not use it for the photos in today's post and the 70-200mm is filling in as the telephoto lens to use when photographing from the vehicle until it gets back. Hopefully they will find the problem this time

Originally published at Pennsylvania Wildlife Photographer by Willard Hill.

Sunday, February 7, 2016


"The Crick" after the recent snow
 A medium-size stream flows along the border of our farm.  It is officially known as a "Creek", but to old time Fulton County backwoodsmen it is known as a "Crick"  Since I love the old time vernacular I always refer to it by this name.  There is a fording which one uses to access  the other side which I call "goin' acrosst the crick". I have spent a lot of money on repair bills through the years due to water damage to hubs, brakes, and universal joints incurred by "crossin' the crick" as when it is low enough I usually cross it every day to look for wildlife, but that is a story for another day.

When I was young the creek was usually frozen for most of the winter and we spent a lot of time walking and sledding on the ice.  It was an exciting time when a combination of heavy rainfall and melting snow caused the ice to break up, but in recent years this has not happened nearly as often and I have little photos or HD video of this. This changed somewhat this  past Wednesday when I got  photos and footage of  ice flowing down the creek shortly after it had broken up, but it was not as dramatic as some of the ice-outs that I witnessed as a youth.

We received about 24" of snow from winter storm Jonas.  The weather moderated after a few days and the snow went down substantially raising the creek to levels that required a vehicle with  high ground clearance such as my old Ford Bronco.  There was heavy rain last Tuesday night and I really didn't expect to be able to cross on Wednesday morning,, but it if found that it was still a few inches below the maximum level that I would try.  It was plain , however, that  the level would soon be too high for crossing as the feeder streams running into it were high and muddy. As it turned out I was able to return home the same way, but that was the last crossing until this afternoon.

I  drove to the fording that afternoon in hopes of documenting   the ice going out. When I arrived the ice was already gone from the pond immediately above the fording and the water was high and muddy. As I stood there,  the rushing water grew louder and I could hear the grinding and crashing of ice and looked up the stream and saw it was gorged with ice rushing toward me.  I mostly took video of this, but here is a still of the same general area shown in the first photo except part of it is a bit to the right of the area shown above.I usually cross just above the small trees that the ice is smashing into in the center of the photo.  There are certain reference marks that I know to look for to determine if it is safe to cross and there is little to no risk involved when the stream's flow is stable or declining, but the problem with crossing while it is rising is that if the vehicle stalls it must either be gotten out right away or it is almost certain to be severely damaged. In this case, had I stalled out near the trees when I crossed in the morning,and not been able to retrieve the vehicle before the ice went out, it would have been hammered severely by the ice and likely destroyed.

After taking photos and video in this area, I moved on down the stream to a better vantage point and  took more photos and video, but again I concentrated mostly on video. Immediately below is a short video of this.

Ice Out from Willard C. Hill on Vimeo.

 The old timers had a saying  that the creek only froze over solid enough to walk on once a year and that the ice-out was only a once a year occurrence. Now that the ice is gone, and it is only early February,  it will be interesting to see what the rest of the winter brings and if this saying will prove to be accurate.

Originally published at Pennsylvania Wildlife Photographer by Willard Hill.