Chesapeake Insider

Tig Tillinghast


Jody Couser, senior vice president of communications at Chesapeake Conservancy, recently caught up with Tig Tillinghast, a Vermont resident whose in-laws live on the Rappahannock River by Fones Cliffs in Virginia. Tig put a previously broken DSLR camera into duty on their property for a new exciting purpose. He hooked up an external battery and a device that automated the camera to take a picture every few seconds. As a result, he captured this breathtaking image of a bobcat in 2016.

Tig, first of all, how lucky are you? Not everyone's in-laws live in such a beautiful place as Fones Cliffs. Tell us about this special place.

We are amazingly lucky. I fell in love with this girl back in college, and I actually visited the farm back when some of her older relatives were alive, almost ten years prior to our getting married. At the time I didn’t care one way or the other about the land, but just about this person. But the sense of place sort of creeps up on you. I was able to meet her grandfather, who passed away while we were still in school, and later got to know her grandmother. I think the personal observation and understanding of those relationships greatly affected my own sense of the land’s place in their lives. It can be infectious.

An accident broke your DSLR camera when you were loading wood into your truck. How did you get the idea to redeploy the camera in this new way? What animals were you hoping to see?

I’d observed a game trail coming from a creek off the Rappahannock, with multiple beaver scats placed just before a fallow field. I was hoping to get a pretty shot of a beaver staring contemplatively into the field, with the trail opening behind him giving a zig-zag sort of “leading line” to the animal’s head. I had it all planned out in my head. These sorts of things never work out for me the way I expect, but it’s useful to have an objective. I knew that an infrared trigger wouldn’t work well because it would capture just a random moment, so I chose to use the device that just kept taking pictures. With a rhythmic click, animals tend to ignore it. It may have actually attracted the cat.

Had anyone seen this bobcat before or was it a complete surprise?

There had been a few bobcat sightings in the area leading up to this, which had surprised me because by this time I’d had more than 20 years of experience here and hadn’t even heard of someone seeing one. Bobcats happen to be an interest of mine up in Vermont, where I live. We happen to live near a south-facing talus slope, which is the critical denning habitat they often lack here. In New England that’s considered a limiting population factor, so I certainly wasn’t thinking I’d come across one in Essex County, which seems to me to have as many talus slopes as it has ski lifts. But over those years, I’ve also seen a bunch of things come in that weren’t supposed to be there. It’s a pattern that plays out somewhat regularly. I’ll see something like a brown pelican or a coyote for the first time every few years, and my in-laws will roll their eyes when I tell them. Then I’ll hear from them a year later that these things have become regulars. I think having an outsider’s eye is useful because my ignorance leads to an open mind.

What was it like discovering this image on your camera?

Thinking back, it was pretty funny. My first reaction was “Oh no!” because this cat had come and ruined my beaver photo. But I saw the thrill of it a couple seconds later. I should mention that the picture was taken pretty late into the evening, and the light was terrible. Some of these exposures were as long as six seconds, which is about impossible to take without getting a very, very blurry photo. Except on a windless evening if you are taking a picture of a cat famous for still stalking. For all of the hundreds of dumb things that have ruined my photos, sometimes equally dumb luck comes and gives you a great shot.

I'm not sure many people are aware that bobcats still live in the Chesapeake watershed, and we share their habitat (see Chesapeake Bay Program's website to learn more). Were your in-laws' neighbors surprised?

If I remember correctly, I think my father-in-law had actually captured a picture of one of the cats earlier in the summer while driving on the farm. They knew they were around. Talking to some farmers down there, they told me they’d seen them occasionally, often while the farmers were on farm machinery, which seems to throw off the cats’ wariness.

How much attention did this image receive in 2016?

It blew up a bit on social media. It’s a pretty picture of a highly charismatic furry creature. What’s not to like? I doubt the brown pelican would do that, no matter the composition or quality of light.  

What is your favorite time of year to visit your in laws?

I love coming down during the changes of season. I got married outside on the farm on April 17, which my mother-in-law correctly gauged was exactly the time when things had been warm enough to get really pretty, but the biting bugs hadn’t yet come out. During the ceremony, bald eagles fought osprey for their fish in the air above us. During that time of season, you can see all sorts of stuff just starting. This is also a good time to have young children outdoors and be able to trick them into thinking it’s fun.

But staying a bit after Christmas, we’ll get the eagles and great horned owls starting to mate and nest. In the heat of the summer, the marsh is amazing if you get out in a kayak. In general, if you can sit for an hour anywhere down here, interesting things will start to come by, thinking you’ve moved on. But that’s not terribly compatible with holding the interest of kids 7 to 9 years old, and that’s been my controlling factor for a while.

What are some places nearby that you like to visit?

We visit Warsaw often when we come down. The Northern Neck is fascinating to me. It has the rolling river type land, but also these cliffs that go up against the east side of the Rappahannock. When you have these major changes in topography, more critters find more niches, and there’s just so much richness. We have family near the Cat Point Creek area, where there’s a big chunk of the Rappahannock River Valley National Wildlife Refuge. There’s something about that river valley that causes the most beautiful sunset views. (Plus there’s a bakery in Warsaw now, which is a hit with the kids.)

Rappahannock River Valley National Wildlife Refuge

Established in 1996 to conserve fish and wildlife habitat along this vital tributary of the Chesapeake Bay, the refuge focuses primarily on protecting and managing tidal and inland wetlands, and adjacent uplands, to benefit wildlife.

Jody Couser

Jody is the senior vice president of communications with the Chesapeake Conservancy. She has a public relations background and served as spokeswoman for Anne Arundel County, MD. 

October 22, 2020

Main image: Photograph by Tig Tillinghast
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