Sunday, August 30, 2015

New Winslow Hill Viewing Area To Be Dedicated

New Winslow Hill Viewing Area-Gilbert Farm
Regular readers of this blog are well aware of the changes to the elk viewing areas on Dewey Road and it seems likely that by this time many will have traveled there to view them personally. At any rate, on Thursday August 27th I received the following Pennsylvania Game Commission News Advisory pertaining to the dedication of the new facilities.

PA Game Commission News Advisory
For Immediate Release
August 27, 2015

New Elk and Wildlife Viewing Area to be Dedicated

The Pennsylvania Game Commission will dedicate the new Winslow Hill Viewing Area at a ceremony to be held on site Friday, Sept. 4 starting at 1 p.m.

Following the dedication, Game Commission representatives will kick off the fall viewing season by announcing plans for additional public facilities, as well as their fall program schedule centering on elk and wildlife viewing. Game Commission Executive Director R. Matthew Hough said the facilities and activities underscore the tremendous and growing interest in viewing wildlife, particularly elk.

In 2014, over 400,000 wildlife enthusiasts came to the Winslow Hill portion of State Game Lands 311 and the nearby Elk Country Visitor Center to view elk. This was a higher number of visitors than anyone predicted, and well more than existing facilities were designed to accommodate. Due to a need for improved viewing platforms, additional parking and safer traffic patterns, the Game Commission contracted the Larson Design Group, of Williamsport, to design a safer and more efficient wildlife viewing area.

From state Route 555 in Benezette, turn onto Front Street, then turn right onto Winslow Hill Road. Follow Winslow Hill Road approximately 2.5 miles. The dedication will take at the Winslow Hill Viewing Area off Dewey Road.
For the remainder of today's post I will share some photos and a bit of analysis of the situation. Of course this is written from the perspective of a serious wildlife photographer and most of the input I have heard is from others of a similar bent.

In the past, large numbers of elk enthusiasts parked in the pull-off along the edge of Dewey Road that stretched from the end of the tree line that ran along the right of the road to the site where the Gilbert house and barn used to stand. Many set up lawn chairs, cameras, spotting scopes, etc and spent an entire morning of evening there as the photos below show.

Elk Viewing Dewey Road-2009

The Gilbert Meadow-Taken From Road-bank
Most I have talked to are concerned that visitors will be required to stand in the gravel covered area behind the stones shown in the first photo, which would not be sufficient to contain a large number of people-- especially those with tripods, etc. set up. The photo below is taken from standing in the viewing area and looking down Dewey Road on August 18th and shows what happened to the area where the vehicles are parked in the photos above. 

Former Parking Area-From New Viewing Area
At the time there were not any No Parking Signs along Dewey Road in that area, but the roadway is only just possibly wide enough for a single line of vehicles to park along the field and if that is allowed there would be little room to maneuver around them on foot. There is a berm or bank that runs the entire length of the road in this area that ranges from about knee to waist-high, if I recall correctly. One could stand there with a camera and tripod and successfully photograph elk in the meadow, but the big question remains if this will be allowed. It only takes a short time for No Parking or No Standing signs to be erected and they could well be there even as I am writing this, or at any time in the future. Even if one can stand here, the days when one could pull-in and set up a lawn chair with a good view of the meadow seems to be a thing of the past which is especially devastating to those with physical infirmities that could not handily walk to the viewing “platform”.

There is either a parking area or a turn-around spot where the Gilbert house used to stand (no actual parking area signs were there on the 18th, but there was an informational kiosk such as usually erected in parking lots). Restricted signs are posted around this in such a manner that one cannot, however, see into the field without walking up the hill along Dewey Road to do so.

Parking Lot-Turn-around At Gilbert House Site
It will be interesting to see how the area is posted and the rules are enforced for the peak period of the September rut. I will wait until I see how this shakes out before forming a definite opinion, but at this point I can't help but think this appears to have been designed for casual tourism where the visitor stops by Elk Country Visitor Center, then drives up the hill or travels by tour bus, walks to the viewing area, snaps a few photos with their cell phone camera, then turns and walks away. There seems to have been little to no consideration for the needs of the serious wildlife enthusiast.

Originally Published at Pennsylvania Wildlife Photographer by Willard Hill.

Saturday, August 22, 2015

The Shedding Of The Velvet-2015

Ready To Shed Velvet
The last two weeks have been a period of change in Pennsylvania Elk Country, as the bull elk shed the velvet. The new velvet covered antlers begin growing soon after the previous years rack is shed in late winter and early spring. with new antler growth beginning almost immediately. The new antlers are covered with "velvet" which is composed of a soft velvety feeling tissue, which contains a network of blood vessels that carry nourishment to the developing antlers. The antlers reach their full size during July and by early August the velvet begins to dry and crack and eventually peel away, exposing the hard bone like antlers that the animal will carry throughout the autumn and winter.

The bull in the photo below is starting the process with small bits of loose velvet hanging from the antlers and bloody areas with patches of the underlying antler structure showing through.

 Starting To Shed
When the velvet is completely ready to be shed, the animals hasten the process along by aggressively horning trees, saplings, and the ground. At this point it is common to see the velvet hanging from the antlers in long, loose strips.

Shedding Almost Completed
The process  is usually completed in a day or so and the bull is left with the hard, bone like antlers that he  will carry throughout the autumn and winter.

Shedding Completed
Now that the velvet is gone sparring intensifies as the first stirrings of the pre-rut sweep through the herd. While I prefer to photograph elk in a natural setting, it seems that many of the bulls were hanging close to cabins and houses this week and on Wednesday morning I photographed two fine bulls sparring close to a cabin.

 Sparring Beside A Camp
By late August or early September the full-blown rut will get underway and thousands will travel to Benezette to experience the exciting sights and sounds of the rut.  The rut should be very intense by mid-September and should peak late in the month, or in early October.

Originally published at Pennsylvania Wildlife Photographer by Willard Hill.

Friday, August 14, 2015

Mid-Summer Wildlife

It seems that most of my recent posts have been about Pennsylvania Elk and the new construction in elk country, but I actually spend most of my time afield observing and photographing whitetail deer so today's post will be mostly about deer and some of the other local wildlife.

Mature Doe
 It is relatively easy for me to get good still photographs of does, fawns, and small bucks as I am around an extended family group of deer almost every day and they have come to tolerate my presence quite well. It is always a special treat to get a close-up look at a fawn or to see a doe and fawn nursing.

Fawn In Late June

Currently no mature bucks are using this area as summer range so I must travel to other areas to look for rack bucks. The ones I see are extremely skittish so it is hard to get close enough for good still photos.  As a result, I concentrate on taking video with the Panasonic GH4 and long lenses. With this rig it is possible to take acceptable video at very long range and it is common to get usable footage at ranges such as 300--400 yards--although it is still better to be close if possible.  At times I also carry a still camera if I am not walking too far and fire a few frames even if the range is long. 

8-Point Buck At Long Range
The photo above was taken with the Canon 5D MK III and the new 100-400mm lens.  I didn't have my range finder along that day, but the buck was somewhere between 150-200 yards away.  This was taken hand-held from sitting position and then cropped at  a 4x5 aspect ratio in Adobe Camera Raw to 2MP., which yields a file capable of printing a 4x5 print at 300 d.p.i.  Of course this is not enough resolution for a large print, but it does make a usable photo for internet purposes.

It adds a lot of interest to an outing to encounter other species of wildlife as well. I frequently see a lot of interesting things that are impossible to get the camera in action to photograph, but sometimes things do work out.  I got the photo below as I was fording a back country stream with the Bronco and noticed a flock of Mergansers perched on rocks in the stream. Fortunately they did not become alarmed and I photographed them with the 7D MK II and the 100-400mm.

Mergansers Resting
While I do not see Eastern Wild Turkey as often in the summer as at other times of year, sometimes a good encounter does occur.

Mature Gobbler Looks For Danger
I have seen several flocks of hens and young turkeys--or perhaps I have seen one or two flocks several times--but I have not been able to get either good video or stills of them.  This usually changes once the farmers have harvested the grain and hay fields which makes the birds much more visible when they are feeding in them.  I did get a photo of a hen with a lone poult one summer evening.

Eastern Wild Turkey Hen With Young
I suspect that she had a larger flock, but the others stayed a bit further away and were hidden in the taller grass.

Soon my attention will be shifting to recording the bull elk and whitetail bucks losing their velvet and the onset of the pre-rut and rut.  Bull elk are shedding their velvet now and the elk  rut will get underway in early September and peak toward the end of the month, while the whitetails will not lose their velvet until late August through mid-September and the whitetail rut will not peak until about mid-November.

Originally published at Pennsylvania Wildlife Photographer by Willard Hill.

Thursday, July 30, 2015

While Construction Continues-Calf Sightings Abound On Dewey Road

Intersection OF New Portion Of Dewey Road -Winslow Hill Road
 On my mid-July trip to Pennsylvania Elk Country, I arrived on Monday , the 13th, to find the new section of Dewey Road completed and open to traffic.  The old portion of the road was still there, but it was closed to the public.  On Tuesday they began re-contouring the area and the old portion of the road slowly vanished.

Old Portion Of Dewey Road Vanishes
The view from the new portion of Dewey Road toward The Saddle and the distant mountains is exceptional.

View From New Portion Of Dewey Road
The photo below is taken looking down the new portion of the road to where it intersects the old portion. The road to the new parking lot is not visible, but is directly to the right of the lower right corner of the photo.

New Dewey Road
I didn't film any bulls at the Gilbert Farm. A large herd of cows and calves were in the area, but it was hard to find them close enough for good photographs or to find situations where there were not unwanted objects in the background, or the fog was too thick.  For example, one morning a herd of cows and calves were feeding along the fence shown in the photo above.  While a bit of fog adds to the atmosphere, it was just too thick in this case for good detail and the combination of short grass in the foreground, and orange netting in the background further complicated the situation.

On Friday morning I found them near the Ponds below where the Gilbert Barn once stood.  This time some of them walked into the edge of the parking lot after I stopped and I got a few frames taken with the 5D MK III and the 70-200mm rested over the window-sill of the SUV.

Calf Grazing

Soon the elk crossed the road and began feeding on the hillside above Rucki Road and I got out of the vehicle and mounted the 5D MK III on the 600mm and alternated between taking still photos and filming with the Panasonic GH4.

Alert Calf
The elk worked across the meadow, slanting toward Rucki road, and heading for the woods in the distance, but they did this very slowly and along the way some interesting action took place.  In one instance a cow and calf touched noses and somewhat later they began nursing.

Touching Noses
 I did not walk into the Saddle one time this trip, and all in all I did not spend a lot of time on Dewey Road , but I did check it out at least once on most mornings and evenings. Even with the new construction this is still one of the more reliable areas for producing up-close elk sightings in Pennsylvania Elk Country.

Originally published at Pennsylvania Wildlife Photographer by Willard Hill.