BOTETOURT COUNTY, Va. – The Cherry Blossom Trail is a gentle path around the small lake at Greenfield Park in Botetourt County. Greenfield is a modern version of an industrial park, with large steel buildings spread out over hundreds of acres.
Inside the park, companies make everything from heavy machinery to beer.
But we are here for the trail and the lake. Specifically, to have wildlife photographer Garland Kitts show us that amidst this rural version of industry there is a substantial amount of wildlife.
Garland has a knack for finding that wildlife and capturing it through the lens of his camera.
After retiring four years ago, he’s been able to devote several hours a day to the quest.
He’s looking for pictures with a little something extra. It’s not enough to simply see the subject and record it. They must be downright interesting too.
“A win is a shot that is in focus it is a little bit on the unique side. Not just a flat-looking bird or an animal or anything else. It’s something like a bird has a worm in its mouth. Or it’s hanging upside down on a tree,” Kitts said.
After visiting a website called E-bird, where local birders report recent sightings of interesting birds, he’s hoping to photograph a small, somewhat uncommon duck, called a teal.
“I understand there’s probably a couple of Bluewing Teals out here. So hopefully will be able to see those,” Kits explained as we arrived.
On the way to his preferred spot – he suddenly stops, because he heard something.
“I’m looking for a yellow warbler to come flying back over,” Kitts said as a bird chirped somewhere in the cover of the nearby trees and bushes.
Three hours a day of looking for subjects is paying off. He knows a pretty bird when he hears it.
An app on his phone, called Merlin listens to the birdsong and confirms it is a yellow warbler. Kitts places a Bluetooth speaker on a branch and plays back the sounds of the chirping warbler.
Then it’s a waiting game.
And a couple of minutes later the bird homes in on the speaker.
Kitts sees the motion first, then spots the dash of yellow among the branches.
He looks through the lens and waits for an angle, one with no leaves in the way.
Moments later the shutter clicks at 30 frames per second. More than a few of those shots are “good” ones.
Kitts has captured the image of a beautiful yellow bird most people would have never noticed.
It’s a safe bet even the outdoorsiest people have never even seen a yellow warbler.
Say nothing of having taken a picture of one.
If bird photography were baseball, warblers would be single-A, while the mighty birds of prey would be the major leagues.
Songbirds are one thing, but photographing raptors – hawks, falcons, and eagles is a grade above. If bird photography were baseball, warblers would be single-A – while the mighty birds of prey would be the major leagues.
Kitts is just back from California where he captured images of peregrine falcons – which can dive at 180 miles per hour when seeking prey.
“When I first got there the first thing I saw was the male peregrine setting maybe 15 yards from me on a limb on the side of the cliff. I mean a perfect shot,” he said.
As good as that shot was, he went back the next day and struck photographer gold.
“The male went out. He caught a pigeon. Prepared it for the female, by pulling the feathers off of it. And then he launched off the cliff wall and flew in a circle in front of where the cave is - where the nest is,” Kitts said.
He was witnessing how the male and female falcons take care of their young. The male hunts and brings the food – in this case, a pigeon. But he doesn’t come straight to the nest. The birds do an amazing mid-air exchange of lunch for the young.
And Kitts captured the whole thing.
“The male is carrying the pigeon. The female comes under him, still flying and in mid-flight, he hands her (the food) out of his beak into her talons and she flies back into the cave to feed the youngsters,” he explained. “I’ll never have this happen again. What a dream this is to get this photo.”
Talk about a little something extra.
Kitts shares his images on his Facebook page and it’s clear he has an amazing talent.
Photos of water dripping from a beak of a loon, a pair of beavers, a mink along the Roanoke River.
And a den of foxes.
“I went over and kind of did the hiding thing in the weeds. … Sure enough one of the youngsters popped his head up. Got some pretty good shots of him.”
Another of his favorite images is a bald eagle scratching his head.
“I took several shots and he started doing all kinds of funny things moving around. I realized he was wet … then he starts scratching his head. It was very cool to watch. Almost comical and some ways,” Kitts said.
We walked on hoping to find those small ducks – but again birdsong interrupts.
Once again, the song on the speaker. Once again, the reward – a bird amongst the leaves comes into view.
It’s a sparrow-sized bright blue bird called an indigo bunting.
Not a first for Kitts but always worth the space on his digital media.
“Always looking for something I haven’t seen before. The beauty of birding is that you never know,” he said.
Kitts keeps a list of all the birds he has photographed. His life list includes more than 300 species.
We continued walking the Cherry Blossom trail, stepping into openings near the lake in search of the elusive teal. At one point he spotted them in the distance through his binoculars. But the little ducks are camera shy and never come into view when we are near enough for a photo.
“That happens,” Kitts said with a shrug of his shoulders.
After several hours we pack up and are almost back to the car when he hears something else. In the trees above us, is a Baltimore Oriole.
After a few chirps on the speaker, the bird comes into view, and Kitts records another gorgeous shot.
He makes it look easy. But that’s because he’s put in the time.
“You can’t expect to spend 30 minutes today looking for stuff and have it come to you. And have a lot of photos you just can’t do it,” he cautioned.
For Kitts – The Oriole is not one of those elusive birds he’s never seen – it’s not even a bird doing something special.
But once again it’s an example of what any walker or hiker might see if they slow down to smell the roses.
Or maybe listen to the birds.