Introduction to Bird and Nature Photography with Brian Zwiebel, February 18th and 25th

Thursdays, February 18 & 25, 2021
7 – 8 pm
Cost $25
Register here.

This introductory program is great for beginners but will offer a few nuggets for the intermediate shooter as well. Learn what Brian does and what you should do too, every time you get your hands on a new digital camera. Discover what a histogram is, how to read it and use it to make better exposures. Learn to improve your images with better compositions and backgrounds as well as how to improve your action and behavior images. All of this and much more will be included in the program and each talking point supported by Brian’s award-winning photography. Presented by Audubon Society of Northern Virginia.

Winter is for Nature Lovers

Article and photos by Barbara J. Saffir (c)

Don’t hibernate! Winter is for nature lovers.

You can glimpse Bald Eagles nesting, self-heated skunk cabbage wildflowers that resemble Georgia O’Keefe paintings, perky kinglets that pop up their ruby-red crests when they’re excited, sly foxes hunting for a mate, and many other winter wonders mentioned below. It’s enough to transform winter loathers into winter lovers.

Ruby-crowned Kinglet

But before heading out on frosty trails, it’s important to gear up and to prepare so you truly have fun and stay safe rather than just enduring an uncomfortable walk.

Bring water, a snack, and a fully charged cell phone. Watch the radar with your own eyes and consult two different weather apps. Tell someone where you’re going. Dress for 20° colder than it is, especially if you’ll be standing around for more than 60 seconds. Wear layers. Feel fireplace-warm with a scarf, a hat, gloves, ear muffs, wool socks, and hand/toe warmers.  If it’s snowy, icy, or soggy wet, clip Yaktrax or similar cleats onto your waterproof shoes or consider Gore-tex boots or spiked trail-running shoes to stay warm and to prevent falling. Or grab your snowshoes or cross-country skis to discover more of winter’s treasures. 

There are also a slew of other benefits to winter treks, such as a shot of long-lasting energy, stronger muscles and bones, better cardiovascular health, and an uplifted soul.

Whose soul would not be inspired by watching colorful “snowbirds” that choose to winter in Virginia instead of Costa Rica, greenery that paints khaki forests with cheer, and Instagram-worthy views of landscapes and critters that are usually hidden by a tangled thicket of trees and shrubs? And did I mention that (virtually all) snakes and ticks are “sleeping”?

Yellow-bellied Sapsucker

Some of my favorite winter birds are Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers (no, it’s not a cartoon character), White-throated Sparrows (they sometimes sound like computers), Ruby-crowned Kinglets and Golden-crowned Kinglets (my latest infatuation), Red-breasted Nuthatches (2021 is an irruption year), and Dark-eyed Juncos (I once saw a leucistic one). I also adore photographing wintering waterfowl like Canvasback ducks with rusty red heads and bright red “vampire” eyes, elegant “super-model” Tundra Swans, chunky “boy-next-door” Snow Geese, and feisty American Wigeon ducks with green-striped heads and squeaky voices.

You can pinpoint these birds’ locations with the free eBird app and it can alert you to rarer visitors, like teensy but tough Rufous Hummingbirds.  (One is visiting the Beatrix-Farrand designed Green Spring Gardens as of late December, 2020.) Free Merlin, Audubon, and other birding apps can help you identify your finds with photos, bird songs, territory maps, and more. 

Red fox

You’ll know you’ve stumbled upon a sapsucker if you hear meow-like sounds and spot trees with perfect rows of square holes.  Itsy-bitsy Golden-crowned Kinglets might flit down beside you to show off their sunflower-yellow crests.  These and many other birds hang out in forests or at the forest edge, especially if it bumps into a meadow.  It doesn’t hurt if there’s a creek, a waterfall, a bird bath, or another water source nearby. In Northern Virginia and throughout the DMV, you’re never more than a mile from a “birdy” park or other public land. Winter ducks even promenade around the pond at Constitution Gardens near the U.S. Capitol.  Red foxes also live on the National Mall, parading around at dawn and dusk before joggers and tourists scare them away. Red foxes are probably prowling through your own backyard or neighborhood park in the winter since it’s their breeding season.

Juvenile Great Horned Owl

And don’t forget our common birds like fire-engine red Northern Cardinals (one of the most beautiful birds on the planet) that you can often see better without leaves obscuring your views. The more you notice about them, the more likely you’ll fall in love.  Relatively common birds like Bald Eagles and owls nest in the winter.  Depending on the weather, Virginia’s Great Horned owlets typically hatch in the winter. Fuzzy eaglets greet the world a tad later: by late winter or early spring.  But if you’re lucky, you might catch Ma and Pa Eagle adding new sticks to their massive nests in early winter and sitting on their eggs by February.  Both of these big nesters live along the Potomac River in Arlington near Spout Run. Another eagles’ nest flanks the main trail through the Dyke Marsh Wildlife Preserve. To find dozens of others in Northern Virginia, consult the Center for Conservation Biology’s unparalleled eagle nest map. Just don’t venture closer than 330 feet to an active nest or the feds might swoop in to bust you for breaking the law since eagles are still protected.  

At Dyke Marsh, you might also see Barred Owls “honeymooning” this winter.  Babies come a bit later. This popular peninsula on the Potomac River attracts a great variety of birds year-round.

Huntley Meadows Park is another “must see” bird hangout.  Cute Brown Creepers with two-toned curved beaks zip head first down the frigid tree trunks while Northern Pintail ducks dabble for dinner along the boardwalk of this locally famous wetland. If you’re extra lucky, you might spy a common muskrat chomping on its leafy green dinner. In late February and early March, woodcocks perform spiral “sky dances” to lure mates.


Some parks, like Ellanor C. Lawrence Park, hang bird feeders, which makes it even easier to gawk at beautiful birds close-up.   But you don’t have to visit those hotspots for a bevy of birds. Just trek anywhere along Fairfax County’s 40+ mile Cross County Trail and NOVA Park’s 45-mile W&OD Trail to find these treasures.  Before you go, open Fairfax County’s comprehensive “Trail Buddy” trail map in the free ArcGIS Explorer app and you’re all set.  With that in your pocket, try going on an adventure alone one day.  You’ll likely find more birds and critters.  Or if you’re in a group, stop often to listen for sounds of life.  

Wherever you go, you might encounter rascally raccoons, acrobatic eastern gray squirrels (and maybe some black morphs), white-tailed deer, and perhaps even a Virginia opossum, North America’s sole marsupial.  Salamanders and green treefrogs also stick around in the winter. Sometimes they’re no farther away than underneath a flat log or a hefty rock.  It’s best to leave them slumbering. (Unless you’re conducting an iNaturalist bioblitz!) But thumb-nail sized spring peeper frogs will announce where they are in late winter with their deafening, high-pitched wailing.

Virginia’s forests are dotted with green life all winter long. Clumps of American mistletoe are visible near the treetops. The white berries of this parasitic plant are poisonous for humans but a yummy snack for Cedar Waxwings and other crayon-colored birds.  

Lush Christmas ferns paint the forests a deep green hue.  Light-green, yellow-green, and gray-green lichens light up trees and rocks. Bog clubmosses form a spongy green oasis on the ground. Invasive plants, such as English ivy, wind their way up trees. They’re not good for the health of the trees, but birds and critters find them a warm and welcoming hideout. Pint-size partridge-berry plants (the Virginia Native Plant Society’s “Wildflower of the Year” in 2012) and spotted wintergreen plants also decorate the dirt.  The leaves of August-blooming Cranefly orchids stand out. They are green on top and plum-colored underneath.

Native and non-native flowers, berries, and seeds also brighten the winter woods. You can find little white snow drops spreading along the ground; sunshine-yellow leatherleaf mahonia and winter jasmine; spiky apricot-colored and pale yellow witch hazel flowers; and ivory and pink hellebores; along with brick-red sumac seeds, beaming American red holly berries; and glowing red winter holly berries.

And all those eye-candy seeds and berries must taste like real candy to critters and birds. Maybe they like them so much that it has transformed them from winter loathers into winter lovers. 

Virginia is for Wildlife Photography Lovers

Article and photos (c) by Barbara J. Saffir; Feature photo from

No need to zip off to Zimbabwe or cruise to Costa Rica to photograph cool critters, bodacious birds, and blindingly beautiful flowers. Just go on safari at a Virginia State Park.

Sunflower-yellow prothonotary warblers adorn the trees and the trails at Mason Neck State Park, practically in the shadow of the nation’s capital. Acrobatic dolphins frolic along the Atlantic Ocean beaches at pristine False Cape State Park. And perhaps Virginia’s most unique fantasyland of nature and wildlife can be captured at mountainous Grayson Highlands State Park, where fuzzy black bears forage in the forests and wild ponies pose by purple rhododendrons and orange flame azaleas along the legendary Appalachian Trail.

Virginia is one of the most diverse states in the entire country as far as flora and fauna go. And with 39 state parks — and counting, as more continue to open — all 8.6 million Virginians are roughly an hour away from one or more of Virginia’s award-winning parks.

Treasures await casual to advanced photographers year-round, though the critter parade and the backdrops change with the seasons. For example, winter is the best time to capture bald eagles nesting along the Potomac River at Mason Neck, Westmoreland, and Caledon state parks.

And with no leaves to block the views, it’s easier to catch mama eagle carting a carp in her razor-like talons to feed her famished eaglets. At Sky Meadows State Park in winter, no leaves mean a clear shot of a fox squirrel or a red-headed woodpecker.

In January along the muddiest of creeks, Virginia’s earliest wildflower blooms: curvy cranberry-and-yellow skunk cabbage, which harkens to a Georgia O’Keefe painting. Spring and summer literally paint a rainbow in all Virginia State Parks. Fields of bluebells glow at Shenandoah River State Park. Pink and yellow orchids burst into bloom at others.

Tawny chipmunks perch in mulberry trees and stuff their cheeks with squishy purple berries. Iridescent blue-green ebony jewelwing damselflies sun themselves on rocks and reeds. Red-orange scarlet tanagers fly home with juicy, green caterpillars dangling from their beaks to feed their babies. Violet coral fungus pops out of the musty brown muck.

Fall brings hawks with red shoulders, red tails, or red eyes by the droves to Kiptopeke State Park. And all over the Commonwealth, autumn brings orange, russet, red, and yellow leaves — and orange, russet, red, and yellow birds migrating through that tangled tapestry.

And sure, it doesn’t hurt to own an expensive DSLR camera with a long telephoto lens but a cell phone or pocket camera can capture many memories. One of my mentors started shooting with a $27 camera. Since she only photographed close-ups and never printed photos, it performed perfectly for online posts.

I still carry a point-and-shoot even when I’m lugging around a heavy camera and lens. Sometimes I use it to capture one of my favorite late-summer stars: itsy bitsy green treefrogs with sticky toes and gold eyelids at Leesylvania State Park. At Leesylvania and other state parks, gangly great blue herons sometimes venture so close that a long lens is almost worthless. And it’s especially good to snag close-ups of beauty-queen bugs like handsome meadow katydids with baby blue eyes and red, orange, green, yellow, and turquoise bodies.

At First Landing State Park, nabbing a shot of pelicans promenading above a sandy Chesapeake Bay beach at sunset does not lend itself to a pricy, “fancy-schmancy” camera. But if I’m photographing black bears when they’re gorging on blueberries in June, I prefer a 600 mm lens — and to take the photograph from inside my nice safe car!

Stalking wildlife with a camera is the same as a hunter stalking prey. The most successful safaris require patience, knowledge of the critters and their habitats, silence — and luck. Even when I’m hiking, I stop every few minutes to listen for the sounds of life.

If I glimpse a bird or beast I really crave, my patience grows to equal my desire to capture the subjects and share their beauty, in part so others also fall in love with them and work to protect them. And I always try to photograph ethically as the National Audubon Society teaches: never harm a critter or disturb its ability to thrive.

The best time to capture wildlife is typically near dawn or dusk. But I’ve grabbed some of my most memorable shots when other photographers were sitting on their sofas. Like tree swallows and other birds puffing up their feathers to cope with 95-degree heat at noon. And pint-sized southern flying squirrels — “fairy diddles” — with bulging eyes that only venture out at night. And a red fox and an otter fishing together like BFFs on a snowy riverbank on a blustery 20-degree day.

Every time of day — and every time of the year — is great for nature and wildlife photography. You never know what treasures you’ll discover.

This article originally appeared in the Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation blog and has been reprinted with permission.

NVCT Social Distancing Nature Photo Contest, entries accepted May 11th – June 15th

During these tough times, nature is bringing much-needed peace and tranquility to us all as spring blooms throughout Northern Virginia. Northern Virginia Conservation Trust wants to celebrate this beauty with you by holding the first-ever Spring Edition of their annual photo contest. The rules are the same as usual with one new twist that all photos will be judged together. We welcome submissions from anyone – especially young people – that wish to participate and submit their photos using our guidelines

Categories for Spring 2020:
From My Window
Photos of the nature visible from your window. This can be everything from views to your own flower boxes. Great for folks who may not have their own yards and live in apartments or condominiums.
My Backyard
Photos of the natural world available in our yards to those who have them. Kids and dogs playing are welcome!
Spring is Here
Photos that show the beauty of the world waking up from its winter slumber. New buds on trees, fox kits, baby deer – basically anything that says spring to you.
Social Distancing in Nature
Photos depicting how you and yours are social distancing while being renewed by nature during these difficult times.

Learn more here.

Just for fun: Two nature photography events

Article and photos by Barbara J. Saffir (c)

Critters (& more) Challenge

LIFE’S TOO EASY RIGHT NOW! Right? Of course not. But to take our minds off the pandemic, here’s a nature photography CHALLENGE! From May 1 to May 31, try to photograph as many of the following as you can while social distancing, abiding by all CDC & locale jurisdiction rules, and following ethical photography guidelines. Most of these critters, birds, plants, & landscapes can be found in your own neighborhood or nearby.

Please join the Meetup BEFORE MAY 18 and then upload your photos (1 per category) to our Meetup album by May 31. Each find counts ONE point. The “extra credit” categories count FIVE points each. The photographer with the most points who uploads her/his photos by 5/31 at 11:59 p.m. wins. FIRST-PLACE WINNER GETS BRAGGING RIGHTS — AND FIVE (5) FREE PHOTO OUTINGS after our lockdown is lifted and before 5/31/21. SECOND-PLACE WINNER GETS TWO FREE OUTINGS. (Safaris usually cost $5 within 100 miles of the Beltway and $10 outside.)

More information here

“Indoor” Critter Hunt

Look inside your computer, tap your cloud storage, and stroll down memory lane on your external drives for photos of critters & birds that you took ANYTIME for this virtual hunting expedition. RSVP for this critter hunt, upload one photograph per category into this Meetup album, and receive one point. The wildlife photographer with the most points by 5/31/20 at 11:59 pm wins bragging rights and two free photo safaris before 5/31/21. A tie(s) will be decided by the equivalent of a coin toss.

More information here

The Local Lens: Engaging communities through participatory photography

Tuesday, October 29

12:00pm – 1:00pm ET


For coastal fishing communities in Zavora, Mozambique, the ocean is a way of life. Yet coastal overfishing threatens this small and dynamic community on the southeastern coast. Designing a lasting solution first requires understanding the community and the perspective of people. One way to do that is through participatory photography.

Working with renowned photographer, Jason Houston, Rare gave cameras to four community members to document their lives and share their experiences through their own lens. What emerged was a personal look at the daily lives of the people of this extraordinary place along Mozambique’s Wild Coast.

Join Houston and Rare’s BE.Center for a free webinar exploring how participatory photography can be used as a powerful tool for practitioners looking to engage communities and better understand their world.

During this webinar, you will:

  • See stunning photos from this fishing community shot both by Jason Houston and members of the community
  • Hear from Jason Houston about his experience embedding himself in a fishing community
  • Learn the core principles of participatory photography and how you can apply it in your own work to gain insight into community experiences

While the webinar is free, space is limited.


Raptor Education and Photo Encounter, Oct. 19th

Mason Neck State Park Picnic Area

Red-tailed hawk

7301 High Point Rd, Lorton, VA 22079

Saturday, 19 October 2019
Two sessions: 10am or 1pm
$65 for either of the two 90-minute sessions

Would you like the opportunity to photograph magnificent raptors from just 10 feet away? Imagine being close to owls and hawks with your camera in a natural outdoor setting.

The Friends of Mason Neck State Park and Secret Garden Birds and Bees are offering a unique opportunity to get up close to some beautiful birds. Participants will be able to photograph raptors up close. At least four raptors, including a Red-shouldered Hawk, a Red-Tailed Hawk, an Eastern Screech Owl and a Barred Owl, will pose for you on a natural looking perch. You’ll hear from Secret Garden Birds and Bees staff about each one of them, making this a learning experience as well.

This is a fundraising event that will help the Friends continue to present programs and work on projects in support of the Park. $40 of each registration fee is tax deductible to the extent permissible by law.

Space is limited to 20 participants per session, so don’t wait to register! Register at  Raptor Photo Session.

Nature photography on the National Mall: Birds, Butterflies, & Tarantulas

The group, led by Barbara Saffir, nature photographer and author, will meet at the FDR Memorial book store/visitor center on the Tidal Basin on Sunday, 24 February 2019 at 8 am, approximately. Then they’ll hike about 4ish miles total — with lots of stops — first along the Tidal Basin looking for snazzy-looking wintering ducks & then onto Constitution Gardens on the National Mall for more ducks and other birds. Perhaps they’ll even stumble upon an albino squirrel, a red fox, or other capital critter. Afterward, our “adults-only” group will head to the Smithsonian’s National Museum for Natural History for its live insect zoo and live butterfly exhibit. The museum opens at 10 am and you need to BUY IN ADVANCE your own individual butterfly tickets for 10:30 am ($7 to $7.50) . The tarantula feeding is at 11:30 a.m. Butterfly tickets are here:

If they aren’t tuckered out by then, they can optionally stop for lunch at the National Gallery of Art’s Pavilion Cafe by the ice skating rink.

Snow/ice cancels entire event. Rain just cancels the hike but they’ll still go to the Smithsonian and then to the indoor U.S. Botanical Garden.

Parking on Ohio Drive should be plentiful at 8 am. National Park Service may have installed meters, as threatened, so read the meters carefully to see if parking is free. Closest Metro is Smithsonian.

You might want to bring both short and long camera lenses. Also, it is 80° and humid inside the butterfly exhibit. They will be in the museum for about a half hour before we enter that room, but you might want to bring a bag to prevent condensation on your camera before or after.

Register here.