Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge

Coyote Looking Over Shoulder - The Story Behind the Image by Todd Henson

Coyote in a field looking back over its shoulder

Coyote are far more widespread and abundant than we might think. They are sly creatures, able to stay mostly out of view and under our radars, even while living almost next door. I have only rarely seen them and only in one wildlife refuge.

I had spent the afternoon hiking the refuge and photographing anything I could find. It was nearing closing time of the refuge so I started picking up my pace. It’s difficult to photograph here in the afternoon knowing there’s a fixed time when the gates close and I need to be out. If I find something interesting to photograph I want to stay as long as the opportunity holds. But when visiting in the late afternoon I always have to temper my enthusiasm enough to keep moving towards the exit.

Coyote at the end of the trail, watching me

To reach the parking lot I needed to hike along a service road that splits a large field. The refuge personnel had recently mowed this field, so it was easy to spot any sizable creatures hanging out in the field. I didn’t notice anything until I was close to the end of the field where I noticed a coyote standing at the end of the road in front of me.

Up to this point every coyote I had seen had quickly trotted to cover when it realized I’d noticed it. Quite likely, some had seen me and disappeared before I ever noticed them. But this coyote was different. When it noticed me, it trotted out into the field to my left. Perhaps that’s what they always did but I never noticed because the field wasn’t mowed at those times. Eventually it turned and began walking parallel to me but in the opposite direction, limping, as it appeared to have injured a leg. When it was finally perpendicular to me it stopped and turned back the way it came, the direction I was going.

Coyote watching me from the edge of the field

Coyote limping, notice the reddish patch on its rear leg

I didn’t capture a large number of photos since time was short, but I did capture some. In one image the coyote is paralleling me with it’s head forward and its tail raised. In another it stopped and looked directly at me, sniffing, perhaps as curious about me as I was of it. I was watching its behavior closely, in case it began moving towards me, but it never did.

Coyote walking parallel to me, tail straight out

Curious Coyote, watching me and sniffing

The final image is my favorite. The coyote is standing still looking over its shoulder back behind it. I like that pose. It prompts me, and hopefully the viewer, to wonder what the coyote was looking at. Was it looking for prey? Had it just heard a noise, perhaps a motor boat along the river? I’ve no idea, but I’m glad I captured an image that leaves me wondering and thinking. And I’m also thankful I had this opportunity to photograph a coyote. Perhaps I’ll have other opportunities in the future.

Final image of Coyote, looking back over it's shoulder

Green Frog - The Story Behind the Image by Todd Henson

Portrait of a Green Frog

I was hiking through Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge on a late April afternoon with a group of friends. We were there to photograph a pair of nesting osprey who had built a nest atop a duck blind in the bay just off one of the trails. It was a great location that provided very good views of the osprey and the nest, and it worked for both morning and afternoon light. Morning light lit up one side of the nest and afternoon light lit up the other.

When we’d finishing photographing the osprey we continued down the trail. These types of locations can be hit or miss, you never really know what you might encounter. Before the osprey nest we’d found a northern black racer snake moving from the brush towards us on the trail. After the osprey nest we watched and photographed a pair of red-breasted merganser diving for fish in the bay. But the next encounter, a lone green frog, is the subject of this story.

We were walking along one of the trails heading back to the parking lot, as it was getting close to the time the gates of the refuge automatically close for the night. The trail splits two wetland areas and runs along marshy terrain. This stretch is often more humid and bug-ridden than some of the other trails, with flying biting bugs and ticks on the grass along the trail. The trail itself is a service road with a patch of grass between the two tire trails. Halfway along this trail we ran into a lone green frog sitting in the middle of one of the tire trails. Honestly, I didn’t even notice the frog. I’d been watching the treeline for birds. But one my friends spotted the frog and started photographing it.

One of the early lessons I learned in wildlife photography is to capture an image early if the shutter sound won’t scare off whatever you’re photographing. This assures you get a shot, even if it’s not the best shot possible. I like to both document wildlife and try to produce the most pleasing photographs I can. So I document first, then take the time to create a pleasing image if the wildlife decides to stick around.

The green frog proved very accommodating. The first photograph I made was from full tripod height looking down on the frog. This was the documentary shot. Even if the frog hopped back into the brush I had an image. I was using a Nikon 200-400mm f/4 lens with a 1.4x teleconverter on a Nikon D300 camera body. With the teleconverter the lens has a focal range of 280-560mm. For the first shot I had the lens zoomed out to 550mm at an aperture of f/8. The ISO was at 500 giving me a shutter speed of 1/100 sec. That’s a little slow for 550mm but the subject was not moving and I was on a tripod.

Green Frog. First attempt, assuring I can at least document having seen the species.

When the frog continued to pose, never moving, I took my camera off the tripod and got down near the ground to try to capture a more pleasing image. Being lower and at less of an angle allowed me to capture more of the frog in focus. I also stopped the aperture down to f/11 and raised the ISO to 640 giving me a shutter speed of 1/80 sec. The photo is still angled slightly askew, but I like the image better than the first one.

Green Frog. Second Attempt. Getting better.

I felt I could still do better. So I lay down on the grass in the middle of the trail and placed my camera and lens on the gravel, as low as they could possibly go. I also inched a little closer to the frog and made sure the frame was level. This put me at 330mm, still at ISO 640 with an aperture of f/8 and a shutter speed now at 1/160 sec. This resulted in the third and final image, the one I’m most pleased with. Being parallel to the frog allowed me to keep most of the frog in focus. Being at the same level as the frog, ground level, allowed me to throw the background completely out of focus which helps the frog really stand out.

Portrait of a Green Frog. Final Image.

Having captured what I felt was a really nice image I put the camera back on the tripod and we all headed towards the parking lot. Remember how I mentioned the bugs along the trail? I was so engrossed in photographing the green frog I never thought to look for ticks in the grass I was laying in. When we reached the parking lot one of my friends stopped me and came over to look at my face. He found a tick right between my eyes. Thankfully, it hadn’t been there long so he was easily able to remove it. I was amazed I hadn’t felt it, but then again, I’ve never felt any of the ticks that’ve bit me.

So when the day was finished I’d had a very enjoyable hike with a group of friends and created at least one photograph I was very happy with. And I was able to learn a couple lessons along the way, which is always a good thing. First off, always check yourself for ticks when returning from a hike. If you can remove the ticks quickly you’re far less likely to contract any of the diseases they can carry. The second lesson was related to the final photograph. If I were to do it again I would likely stop down the aperture a bit more, perhaps to f/11, to try to capture a little more depth of field, giving me more of the frog in focus.

The final version of Portrait of a Green Frog is available for purchase as wall art or on a variety of products.

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