Saturday, March 12, 2016

Amphibian High-5!

It's that time of year again!  Amphibians are crossing roads to go to their breeding pools.

This American toad wanted a high five, as I moved it to safety from a road to the side, in the direction it was travelling.

High-fived a toad a few days ago.  Photo: Brian Balik
I'll be counting amphibians again this year and assisting other researchers when I can.  We're getting ready for fox kit season soon, so look forward to some results and photos from that in the next few months.

Sunday, January 10, 2016

Eagle Transport

Bald eagle, one of America's most majestic creatures sitting in a crate in my vehicle.

I've transported some really interesting creatures in the past few years, as I work in places where wild animals are kept as "animal ambassadors", have been trained to transport wildlife, and volunteer and work with projects that allow me to handle these animals.

Just when I think I've "seen it all", some really interesting opportunities always seem to arise.

One of the most recent examples of this happened a few days after Thanksgiving this past year.  

I heard through the "wildlife biologist grapevine" that an injured bald eagle from Virginia needed to be transported to a wildlife rehabilition center.  The eagle was reported injured by fishermen in central/Eastern Virginia and a Conservation Police Officer was tasked with restraining it for its own protection and getting it to a rehabilitation facility.

The logistics of this made it difficult, as a lot of mileage and time would be needed to get this eagle to the care it needed. A "middle man" became necessary to meet the Officer, intercept the eagle, and chauffeur it to the rehab center.
Carrying crate with eagle inside.

I quickly became this middle man.

Now, I've had a lot of precious cargo in my RAV4 before, but never a bald eagle, so this was a first, even for my standards.  I didn't have much in the way of plans for the evening and I knew it would only cost a few bucks to make the drive, so I was pretty excited to be able to not only help the animal, but all parties and agencies involved as well.

The Conservation Officer arrived promptly to my house with the injured eagle.  We exchanged hellos and some "how to's" and "do nots" were respectfully given to me, after all this was a federally protected bird. I agreed to make the drive one final time and was basically left to my own devices as long as this eagle made it to where it needed to go.

Also in my car were some members of the Sweeney family.   They are good friends of mine, and I wanted someone else to be there in case something went awry. I figured that the eagle would be fine for most of the ride in the very back of my SUV, but it wouldn't hurt to have some others checking on it once in a while, so that I could concentrate on driving.  They agreed to join me and their eyes lit up when they first saw the mature eagle.  It would be a good experience for everyone involved.

The first part of the drive went very smoothly.  We made our way westward and ultimately southwest to Waynesboro, Virginia.

As the Sweeney-filled, Brian-driven, bald eagle carrying Toyota Rav4 made its way down Route 340, a surprise almost stopped our vehicle completely.

A large black bear sprinted right across the road and my car came no more than 1 foot from hitting it. The passengers all screamed "BEAR!"

It was alive and well, running full speed through the road's lanes.

We saw the beast hurtle down into a wooded area off the road and eventually it was just a blur in the darkness.

After about 15 seconds of our bodies pumping adrenaline, we all exchanged laughs and agreed that this kind of experience would only happen to someone like me.

I'm glad we avoided having to take two animals to the Wildlife Center that evening.

The eagle arrived at the designated destination, hurt from its reported injury, but still breathing.  We meet with staff at the Wildlife Center of Virginia, people who came into work that late, just to intercept the eagle from me.  They do some amazing work at that facility and I highly support what they do and share.

I was happy that I did my part in this and am thrilled to have friends that also enjoy this type of adventure.

It was good to give back to wildlife, as it gives me so damn much.

Wednesday, December 2, 2015

Owl Banding in Maryland

One of the joys of being in the wildlife biology and naturalist community is being invited out to other people's projects and seeing what interesting endeavors they've been taking on.  It's a great way to network, learn about different species, and of course, enjoy each other's company.

Kerry Wixted, a professional biologist and friend, invited a few people (including some of us Virginians!) out to something really special that she works with a few hours away in Maryland.  She does some interesting work with Project Owlnet, a research project that is focused on Northern Saw Whet Owl (and other owl species) information, banding, and data.  

I couldn't say "no".  Really, this stuff is right in my wheelhouse, and I agreed to come and help her out for a night.

With us, we also had other D.C. area naturalists and biologists, including Natalie Sutton who is a good friend and works with me in Virginia.

Natalie and I arrived at the site after we got off work and the mist nets were already set up.  These nets are put up horizontally on vertical poles.  A wildlife calling device called a FoxPro is set up near the nets.  FoxPros are electronic speakers that people can download wildlife noises and calls onto.  Kerry had downloaded an owl call onto this one.  The FoxPro and net work in combination with each other and owls fly towards the caller, and eventually into the net.
Natalie Sutton holding a Northern Saw Whet Owl.
Net checks are done at certain intervals so that birds are not captured for long at all.  The first net check was happening right as Natalie and I arrived.  Weather and other abiotic factors can have a big impact on the success or amount of owls captured each night, and for the past few days, it had been really warm for the time of year.   We weren't really sure what to expect. The first net check was a successful one though.  Kerry had an owl ready to be observed and banded!

The bird was brought back to the banding station and Kerry worked very patiently and diligently to not only get the required data, but to do it in a way that was good for the bird as well.  She put a metal band around the bird's foot.  This is so that if the bird is captured again in the future, other biologists will know it is a recaptured bird, and they can compare this day's data, with the current data.

Kerry was taking data, as well as explaining to us about what she was doing.  A collection of numbers was being jotted down on a paper too.  We eventually determined that the bird was a male northern saw-whet owl.

Brian Balik (author) with a Northern Saw Whet Owl after banding.
Saw-whet owls are the smallest species of owl native to Maryland.  From what I've seen, they only stand about 15-21 centimeters tall, as adults.  I've never seen one up close before (though I'm pretty sure I've seen one or two from a distance), so this was quite an experience for me.

These owls spend most of their adult lives in trees, looking into the forest for prey animals such as mice and voles.

Once the bird was observed, it was time for us to quickly and carefully release it.  The bird eventually decided it was fine for itself to take off and all of us watched.  We saw the flap of the wings at first, and then eventually the whole body soar into the star-soaked night sky.

Friday, November 6, 2015

Increase Your Chances At Seeing Wildlife

I've spent almost the entirety of the past few years observing animals, studying them, and teaching people about them. One of the main questions people ask me, is "How can I see what you see?". Well, here are some of my secrets. These are my personal tips on how to see more animals while you are hiking or just outside, even for an hour.

  • Look Up.     Birds are the most obvious animals that you might see while looking up, though just over a week ago, a person in my hiking party spooked a roughed grouse from right under her feet, so always keep your eyes all over the place.  Believe it or not, some species that people usually see on the ground can easily be found in trees.  Black snakes and green snakes are animals that can easily "pop out" in your eyesight from above, as they are very good at climbing in trees.  Bears and groundhogs also commonly go up into trees, despite many people's beliefs about them.

  • Look Down.    Looking down gives you the opportunity to see more salamanders, frogs, chipmunks, and even animal tracks.  If you can find animal tracks, identify them, and take a mental note of what is around.  Look for the specific animal while continuing to walk.

  • Walk Slowly.    Some of you might be reading the above bullet points and are thinking "How can you both look up and down at the same time?"  Well, you can't, so walk slowly so you can repeatedly do each.  Walking slowly also can be a quieter type of walk, lessening the chances of you scaring wildlife.

  • Pish!    Pishing is making the sound "pish" with your mouth, repeatedly for a few seconds. This is a little naturalist and biologist trick to scare birds from their hiding places, making them fly out from thick leaves or brush.  This can be tricky though, as some birds will get too scared and fly off very fast and very far.

  • Look for both color differences and movement.   Black bears against a green background and red cardinals against white snow are some really easy examples of color differences you should look for.  It's easy, as a lot of animals stick right out against various backgrounds, even the most camouflaged ones.   Animals move, sometimes extremely slowly, but they move! Even the most camouflaged wildlife will move, providing a better opportunity for you to see them, as they move against these different backgrounds.

  • Get outside.  This one is pretty self-explanatory, but it's one of the most important.  Just walking a mile in your local park a few times a week can provide very interesting wildlife sightings.  Increase your chances and get another excuse to get outside.

  • Use binoculars.   Binoculars really help you hone on the wildlife you have detected using your regular eyesight.  They can also be used to scan large fields and meadows from a distance, limiting the chances of you scaring the wildlife when you first enter a field.

  • Use your peripheral vision.    Most animals that I see are seen first by my peripheral vision. This happens because this type of vision can detect movement very effectively.  Color differences are also picked up easier if you use your peripheral vision more.

  • Protect your eyes while in the woods.   If going off trail or walking on a property with no trail, I highly recommend wearing sunglasses or safety glasses.  I commonly wear shooting glasses, as they are easily accessible to me, and are very effective.  I've both been told this (by other biologists, as well as multiple conservation officers) and learned the hard way to always protect your eyes.  Going into the woods might mean that branches and thorns will be in the way of you.  This very easily leads down to a road of pain and misery.  Also, gnats have a harder chance of getting into your eyes if you wear sunglasses.  Protect those eyes!  You'll be glad you did, besides, if you have injured eyes, it's very hard to see wildlife.

  • Invest in a field guide.   Some field guides provide useful information on whereabouts of certain animals, especially at different times of the year.  It's worth a few dollars if you are outside all the time.

  • Get High!     Ascend quietly onto ridges and small peaks in a forest.  Be extremely silent as you are going uphill.  Once you get to the top, look down and look for movement. This is how I often see deer, bear, and turkeys.

Sunday, November 1, 2015

Squirrel Selfies

Gray Squirrels are one of the most photogenic and "up in your face" mammals I've encountered in Virginia.

They're so. . . squirrely.

Seriously, these squirrels get right up in both mine and my camera traps' face.  Just this past week, I was hunting with a friend when a squirrel came by.  At first, it made leaves rustle like a 200lb white-tail, only for me to turn my head and see a small, furry bodied rodent pouncing around in the leaf litter.  The squirrel came closer and closer.  My friend said "Here it comes. . . " and I bombarded him with whispers of "shut up, let's see how close it gets before it realizes. .  .keep quiet".

The squirrel ended up not even 2 feet away from me.  Literally it was right there, face to face with two camouflaged humans and it didn't even realize it.   Eventually, I blinked and the squirrel darted away.   They're curious little mammals and will love any kind of well intentioned attention.

They also get right up into the eyeballs of trail cameras.  They know something is "human" about it, but seem to have to go right up to it anyway.

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Instagram Too!

I'm on Instagram (and have been for some time)!  I post a lot more photos on social media than I do on this blog, so check it out!

I cover all my trail camera's "best" photos of course, along with hikes, friends, animal sightings, fishing, kayaking, and general outdoor posts.

Follow me please by clicking here or by following wildlife_fever, and I'll follow you on Instagram as well.

Sunday, October 25, 2015


It's be an interesting fall in the outdoors for me.  My friends and I have had some pumpkin ales, a lot of outdoor outings, and an incredible amount of foliage around us.  In fact, I think this year has provided the most orange, red, and yellow that I've ever seen.  This blog is predominately about Northern Virginia's wildlife, trail cameras, and that sort of thing, but there can't a blog about the outdoors without mentioning the Mid-Atlantic's fall foliage. 

Enough of words, enjoy a few photos.

Shenandoah Mountains.  October, 2015

Chesapeake and Ohio Canal.  October, 2015

Friends in Shenandoah on an October hike with me.

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Peace Like A River

Being a professional naturalist has given me the opportunities to either ride in or drive many kinds of vehicles.  I've been on ATV's, agency pick-up trucks equipped with infrared and night vision scopes, airplanes, motor boats, mountain bikes, John Deere gators, and even a helicopter.  These things make work in parks/wildlife easier, depending on where work needs to be done. Sometimes, not all wildlife is best enjoyed by a fast trail vehicle or the coolest aircraft.  Sometimes, it's all about something meaningful.

Potomac River sunrise
This past spring, I noticed a stretch of forest with bald eagle nests, a heron rookery, and a cormorant rookery. These rookeries are places where flocks of birds come to nest and congregate.   It just sounded like a little slice of wildlife watching heaven to me.  I had to get out there to see the birds and to try to photograph some of them.  The forest was only accessible by boat, and the boat I was dying to take out was in my backyard straddled upon a few sawhorses, on dry land.

The boat's name is Peace Like A River, and for the past 2 years, she had only touched a body of water a few times.  I wanted to change that. 

My desire to take her on the water increased when I was flipping through a small photo album of my grandfather's, from years ago.  This album was basically the story of how that canoe (and a few others) were built by him and of the adventures my mom and uncle had in those canoes, as children.  In between the pages of these photos are blueprints and plans that were used to construct Peace Like A River.  It doesn't seem easy to build one of these things, so it goes without saying that I'm thankful for having one so accessible to me.
Author's grandfather in Peace Like A River.
She's got an incredible amount of character in her wooden body.  She rides smooth, and although some maneuvers can be wobbly at times, she'll make every ride an enjoyable one.  It's even more enjoyable when you think about her history and character.

Author as a child (middle) with family on the Potomac River.
My siblings and I, as young kids, used to really enjoy going for rides in the boat.  My father would do most of the paddling work because as a kid, my main job used to be focused on not flipping the boat or leaning outside of it.  We'd fish from the canoe mostly, and often take breaks for lunch on the islands.  As I child, this was seen as an excuse to explore, an excuse that I still haven't let go of today as an adult.

As I was thinking of a plan to take the boat out and to see the bird rookeries, I figured I'd invite my friend Jeff.  He's a professional photographer with works and ties to National Geographic.  I found it fitting, as we try to find excuses to get out in our local parks anyway.  Plus, he takes amazing photos. He agreed and my excitement to go increased immensely. We paddled on the Potomac near where the birds were nesting.  We didn't disturb them at all, and Jeff got some really good photos of cormorants and herons. The "drop zone" of bird poop was quickly determined by us, so we knew to keep a bit of a distance from the animals.  The nests were probably between 40 and 70 feet in the air, and when a bird needed to poop, they didn't think twice about sending it straight down from that height.  It was an interesting experience, and I'll never forget the commotion of nesting cormorants and herons.

Cormorant rookery (nesting site).  Photo:  Jeff Mauritzen

Peace Like A River was originally a northerner, being built in New Jersey and taken out on bodies of water in Pennsylvania and New Jersey. 

She now resides in Virginia, and her most travelled body of water these days is the Potomac River, turning her into Southern Belle with northern roots.

Brian Balik (author) in Peace Like A River, searching for birds.  Photo:  Jeff Mauritzen
-Big thanks to Jeff Mauritzen for taking amazing photos and coming along on my local excursions.  Click to see more of his work here:  Travel and Wildlife Photography .