Three Gifts

June 4, 2022

I have a mental checklist that I review every time I leave the house for a picture walk: Is my camera battery fully charged? Is my memory card inserted? Do I have an extra card and an extra battery?  Do I have my phone and is it fully charged? Do I have my monopod? But, after what happened yesterday, I should probably switch my mental list to an real list!

Yellow Warbler
Cedar Waxwing

I was off on another picture adventure and eager to see what surprises awaited me.  My destination was a favorite nature center about an hour away from home. Whenever I go on a picture adventure, I feel an immediate sense of calm wash over me once I arrive. Yesterday was no exception. I drove into the parking lot, took a deep, relaxing breath, and prepared for my three-hour escape into nature’s arms– until I realized there was no memory card in my camera!!

Canada Goose Gosling

I had made this mistake before and had come prepared with an emergency back-up card! Perfect! Once the card was inserted, I happily set off into the ‘wild’ hoping for a day filled with beautiful little creatures and colorful flowers. My joy was short-lived.

Trumpeter Swan
American Toad singing!

Forty-five minutes into my walk, after taking only three measly pictures, my memory card said ‘full’!! What??? How could that be?? I tried every ‘high tech’ solution I could think of to remedy the situation: pull the card out and put it back in; turn off the camera, turn it back on, and re-format the memory card–repeatedly. Nothing worked! It was time for plan B!  Look for the nearest store!

American Bullfrog
Great Blue Heron shaking the water off

I hustled back to my car as fast as a marginally nimble 75 year-old can hustle on an uneven boardwalk with an expensive camera, a 600mm lens, and a 5 foot monopod! Once in my car, I drove as quickly as was legally possible to the nearest store to find another memory card– and hope that it worked. It didn’t. But I had already driven back to the nature center before I found out!

Field Sparrow

At that point, I could have just thrown in the towel. I could have just gone for a ‘regular’ walk and not taken pictures. But it was completely impossible for me to do that! This particular nature center had a butterfly house. It was the perfect place for close-up shots of stunning and unusual butterflies. I had to stay!

White Peacock Butterfly in the Butterfly House at the Nature Center
Garden White Butterfly in the Butterfly House at the Nature Center
Monarch Butterfly in the Butterfly House at the Nature Center

So, I went back into town to a different store and looked for a different memory card. While standing in the aisle reading the descriptions on each of the various cards, I suddenly realized why the first card hadn’t work and dashed out of the store. Back to the nature center for my third and final attempt at trying to salvage what was left of an otherwise lovely day!

Pipevine Swallowtail Butterfly in the Butterfly House at the Nature Center
Zebra Longwing Butterfly in the Butterfly House at the Nature Center

I had first arrived at the nature center at 9:00 a.m. It was now noon. The soft morning light was long gone, as was the cool morning air. It had been a frustrating start to what was supposed to have been a calm and relaxing day. I was totally frazzled.

Rose-breasted Grosbeak

But, keeping things in perspective is everything. The day was still young. The weather was still great and, most of all, I was very much alive and well, doing something I dearly loved— three priceless gifts that not everyone gets to enjoy. It was all I really needed to remember and off I went…

Trumpeter Swan coming in for a landing

Hidden in Plain Sight

May 5, 2022

I love going on picture walks! When I’m out on the trails looking for something beautiful or interesting to photograph, I am totally engrossed in what I am doing. Sometimes, though, my very best picture walks, aren’t walks at all. I just stand in one place for the longest time until I become invisible; no longer noticeable to birds or other nearby creatures: Hidden in plain sight.

Common Grackle along the Portage Creek
One of the very loud wild turkeys that I frequently hear across the creek as they try to attract a lady friend.

One of my favorite places to ‘hide’ has been my own backyard. There’s a quiet, inviting creek just down the hill where the wood ducks, mallards and geese come to swim and the white-tailed deer come to drink. There are tall, mature trees on both sides of the creek that provide both shelter and a place to nest for a wide variety of songbirds, and a small contingency of squirrels. Most days, there’s a delightful cacophony of birds singing and wild turkeys gobbling as they try to attract a mate. Interspersed with all the singing and gobbling, you will hear the rat-ta-tat-tat of the woodpeckers and, in early spring, there will be the soothing chorus of tree frogs.

Pileated Woodpecker in our backyard
One of many, many Canada Geese roaming the grounds and swimming in the creek behind our house.

When I’m not on my home turf, my favorite hiding place is anywhere I can find a source of water, no matter how small. This past winter, when the creek was mostly frozen over, there was a very small opening in the ice where three thirsty robins had gathered for a drink. It made for a great shot! A few days ago, I was standing quietly among the cattails along the mucky edge of a very tiny pond, when a red-winged Blackbird landed directly in front of me! Another great photo opportunity!

Three beautiful American Robins on a cold winter day enjoying a drink from a small opening in the ice
Golden-crowned Kinglet

As much as I enjoyed getting that close-up of a Red-winged Blackbird, it is not the most interesting or challenging bird I’ve attempted to photograph. The real picture prize for me has been the Belted Kingfisher. It’s virtually impossible for me to photograph unless I’ve been standing inconspicuously for a very long time! If the Kingfisher arrives before I do, I don’t stand a chance! They know I am coming long before I even leave the house!

Belted Kingfisher who happened to land right in front of me!

My best ‘hiding in plain sight’ shot was not a Kingfisher or a Red-winged Blackbird, but a Bald Eagle! I had been standing in the tall grass along the edge of a lake when an impressively large Bald Eagle swooped down out of nowhere, grabbed a fish from the water in front of me and quickly flew off! Luckily, I was able to get in a few shots before he totally disappeared! It was the best catch of the day—at least for me!!

Bald Eagle who unexpectedly flew in and grabbed a fish right in front of me!

The secret to hiding in plain sight is simple: be quiet and be ready! It also helps to have your camera mounted on a tripod or a monopod so that the act of lifting the camera to your eye doesn’t scare away your subject. Once you find a place to stand, check your camera settings, take a few practice shots, and then be still!  If you’re lucky, you’ll soon blend in to the landscape!

Red-bellied Woodpecker in our backyard
A Mourning Cloak butterfly that was a very pleasant surprise in early April!

I never know what surprises await me, but I always feel a sense of accomplishment when I’ve been able to hide in plain sight and photograph all the critters who might otherwise disappear at the very sight of me!

Even though I wasn’t invisible to this beautiful red fox, it didn’t seemed concerned that I was standing nearby as long as I didn’t move!

Walk Slowly, Stop Often, Stay Focused

April 1, 2022

Oftentimes, when I’m out taking pictures, I think about all the things I’ve learned along the way– about photography, about the critters I’ve seen, and about myself.

Mute Swan on quiet waters

There are so many things I didn’t know at the beginning of this photographic journey that I know now, and so many things I do differently as a result. When I first started taking pictures, I didn’t really have a plan and not much of a clue about what I was doing. I’d be walking along, see something pretty, and take a picture. Click! Now, I am more likely to plan ahead, to anticipate where a bird or a butterfly might land, or where the frogs and turtles might be hanging out—rather than just being surprised by random events!

Canada Geese in a heated debate

While I’m out on a picture walk, I’m also thinking about the settings on my camera and whether I’ll be ready for the next shot. I walk more slowly, more quietly, and more deliberately than I used to, and pay closer attention to the all the sights, sounds and shadows around me. When there’s a faint rustling in the grass or the bushes nearby, I stop. It could be a baby bird– or it could be a giant turtle. When a small shadow passes by me on the ground, I look up in the sky to see what bird is on the wing; it could be an eagle, or it might be a red-tailed hawk. There are so many interesting things out there to photograph, but finding them and capturing them in pictures does take a fair amount of patience, and a good deal of time!

Common Grackle
Eastern Fox Squirrel high up in a dead tree

After years and years of picture walks, often to the same local places, I’ve also gotten much better at noticing changes or ‘aberrations’ in the environment. The other day, for example, there was just the slightest hint of something small and round and ‘out of place’ across the pond. It caught my attention because it had a bluish cast to it. Blue isn’t a color I usually see this time of year and I wondered if it was just somebody’s litter—or something else. When I zoomed in, I discovered that it was a turtle—the first one I’d seen since last fall! A few days later, I saw a small ‘bump’ protruding from the top of a very tall, very dead tree. It looked out of place and it grabbed my attention The little ‘bump’ turned out to be a squirrel peeking out ever so slightly from a small hole in the tree where I would have expected to see a bird. There are surprises everywhere!

Over the years, I’ve also learned the art of standing still. Many times, my picture walks have become ‘picture stands’. I’ve learned that if I stand still long enough, I become invisible. The birds go about their usual business, and chipmunks scamper by so closely that I could almost touch them.

Canada Goose in quiet reflection
Red-bellied Woodpecker

When I’m not standing still, I’m barely moving; hoping not to disturb any of the creatures around me. Most of them, however, are hyper vigilant; worried that I might be a giant predator. Even the slightest movement on my part will send them scampering off.  The belted kingfishers are particularly adept at knowing when I’m in the area, no matter how slowly I walk or how far away I stand.  I swear they know I’m coming even before I leave the house!! The only reason I have any kingfisher shots at all is because I arrived on the scene before they did and never moved!

The elusive Belted Kingfisher

Turtles also know when I’m on the way, but they’re not quite as nervous as the kingfishers. Still, they can be twenty yards from shore, sitting on a log and jump overboard if I even start to lift my camera to my eye. Frogs, surprisingly, are much less ‘jumpy’ than turtles and will let me come in for a closer shot–but only if I move very slowly!

In my non-photography life, I’m often rushing around quickly trying to do two or three things at a time thinking that I’m saving time or being more efficient. I am not. When I’m out taking pictures of birds, turtles and frogs, though, speed does not work. Speed scares the animals. Speed ruins pictures. I’ve learned to walk slowly, to stop often and to stay focused, usually for hours at a time. It’s a type of meditation, I think, and it has helped keep me on an even keel– especially during these difficult years of political upheaval and pandemic isolation.

Redhead Ducks on the wing

Hungry for Spring

February 24, 2022

Young Trumpeter Swan flying through a snow squall

As I sit writing this piece, long before sunrise, on another cold and windy February day, I am contemplating the advisability of even attempting a picture walk. The weather forecast calls for 15 to 25 mile an hour winds with gusts over 40! On the other hand, temperatures might exceed 40 degrees —quite balmy compared to the below zero wind chill conditions I was faced with the other day! Usually, I can put on enough layers to stay warm, even on the coldest of days, but strong winds make for a much bigger challenge.

Blue Jay stirring up snow in a pine tree
Some Great Blue Herons will stay here throughout the winter, but many more will head south

Most days, I’m up for that challenge but, I must admit, I’m growing weary of it all. These long winter days, where I have to plan for so many weather contingencies, and have to wear so many layers, are weakening my resolve—especially during the past two years of this pandemic where we haven’t been able to venture far from home. The birds in my backyard are quite tired of me begging for a photo shoot.

Carolina Wren near my backyard feeder

For the next few days, though, my backyard birds can take a break while I babysit my grand-dog on the opposite side of the state. There are lots of new places to explore here and once the sun is up, I expect I’ll venture out in spite of the wind and in spite of the cold! I’d much rather be outside searching for the possibility of something new than sitting here on the couch.

Some people believe that the Robin is a “harbinger of spring”, but large numbers of them stay here all winter feasting on berries.

After writing those first few paragraphs, I did, indeed venture out– first to a nearby nature center and then to a nearby park.

Black-capped Chickadees are delightful little birds that can be found in Michigan all year round.

I found the usual assortment of birds at the nature center—chickadees, finches, cardinals, nuthatches and goldfinches, but it was a brand-new setting! When I arrived at my second destination, I really hit the jackpot! Beaudette Park in Pontiac, Michigan, had a very large pond of open water and it was teeming with a wide variety of waterfowl, some of which I’d never seen before!

Canada Goose coming in for a landing!
Some Sandhill Cranes stay here all year long

This time of year, it’s highly unusual to find open water in Michigan. Most lakes and ponds are frozen over.  This particular body of water had the ubiquitous array of mallards, swans and geese, but it also had mergansers, buffleheads, redheads, ring-necked ducks, goldeneyes and canvasbacks!! It was the canvasbacks I’d never seen before. I couldn’t stop taking pictures!

Male Canvasback at Beaudette Park in Pontiac, Michigan
Male Ring-necked Duck

Days later, I was still sorting through all the hundreds of pictures I took that day!

Male Wood Duck

Mallard Ducks are everywhere and they offer endless opportunities for interesting photographs!

In spite of all the inherent beauty to be found in a picture of freshly fallen snow and a colorful bird here and there, I am more than ready for the arrival of spring; ready to be free of these bulky winter clothes, grey skies, and frigid temperatures.  I’m beyond hungry for the colors to return, for the sweet smell of a newly mowed lawn, and for the sheer delight of a warm patch of sun on my bare skin!

I am more than ready to shed these bulky winter clothes and trade this colorless landscape for green leaves and spring flowers!

Struggling to Survive

January 11, 2022

A lone robin in a bare tree aptly symbolizes the starkness of a Michigan winter

Sometimes I struggle with finding a topic to write about. I can run down one rabbit hole after another looking for ideas and still come up empty handed. Sometimes, I’ll think of things while I’m out walking; other times, I have to browse through all the pictures I’ve taken during the last month or two before an idea pops into my head. As I looked through my December pictures, I was struck by both the hardiness and the loneliness of all the little creatures struggling to survive during our cold, inhospitable winters here in Michigan.

All bundled up and ready to brave the elements!

While I’m bundled up in layer upon layer of warm winter clothing taking pictures, I marvel at all the tiny little birds with their skinny twig-like legs and lightly feathered ‘coats’ braving these cold winter days with nary a mitten or a hat!! Not only do they struggle to stay warm, they have to keep foraging for food or they will die. Some birds will huddle together for warmth, and some will help each other gather food but, for the most part, survival is a solitary pursuit.  

American Robin looking for berries in this heavily snow-laden Juniper Tree.
It wasn’t until just a few years ago, when I started taking pictures of birds, that I learned these Eastern Bluebirds stay in Michigan all winter!

In many ways, this pandemic has also felt like a solitary pursuit for survival. Instead of huddling together and weathering the storm with family and friends, we have had to distance ourselves from each other.  We have had to stay isolated—even within our own homes sometimes! Luckily, though, we haven’t had to forage for food in the same way or with the same tenacity as birds. Granted, our favorite foods may be in short supply during this pandemic, but our very survival has not been dependent on the availability of ice cream and chocolate! (Although they have certainly helped!!)

Earlier in December, before the heavy snowfall, the Robins had a much easier time picking Juniper berries!

Some Great Blue Herons stay in Michigan throughout the winter. If they can’t find open water to catch fish, they will eat crustaceans, mice, voles and small birds!

Even though we have not lost any friends or family members during this pandemic, and even though we have always had food on the table and a roof over our heads, these past two years have been difficult. They have taken a toll. We have all lost something.

Eastern Chipmunk
The Mallards always seem to have a smile on their face no matter how cold it is!!

What has made everything a bit more bearable for me during these long months of isolation have been my picture walks. Spending time outdoors in the active pursuit of beauty has been an almost perfect antidote for all the ugliness wrought by this pandemic. For a couple of hours each day, I’m lost in the happy pursuit of birds, bugs, and critters, followed by hours of pleasant distraction browsing through the resulting pictures.  The final joy comes when I can share what I’ve found with others. Sharing has been a way of staying connected with friends and family.

A little Red Squirrel tucked in against the cold!

A beautiful White-tailed Deer in our backyard with a crown of pine boughs

My picture walks have been a daily reminder for me that even in the darkest of times, beauty can still be found. Some days, though, it’s just harder to find than others.

Still Waters

November 29, 2021

One of my very favorite times to go for a picture walk is early in the morning just after sunrise when there is no wind, and the water on the pond is so perfectly still that the reflections of the birds can take my breath away. I rarely get a day like that, but when I do, the results seem magical.

Male Mallard on very still water
Canada Goose floating on ‘glass’
Greater Yellowlegs

As we quickly move into the month of December, it will be harder and harder to find open water. Most of the ponds are already starting to freeze. Once frozen, though, they will offer up a whole different kind of magic!

Male Mallard doing an ice dance!

A few years ago, when I was out taking pictures around the ponds at our local fish hatchery, I kept hearing weird noises in the distance. My first thought was, “What kind of bird is THAT??”  But then saw two people near one of the ponds who looked as if they might be throwing things across the frozen water. After watching and listening for quite awhile, I decided they must be skipping stones across the ice!! Maybe that’s where the sound was coming from!

Juvenile Trumpeter Swan trying out the new ice

When I tried skipping stones across the pond later in my walk, I was pleasantly surprised that I could replicate the very same sound! I also discovered that different sized stones would change the pitch. Fist-sized stones, however, broke through the ice. When I got home and could do a little research, I learned that this phenomenon is called “acoustic dispersion” and that others who have described the sound likened it to a “laser blast from a galaxy far, far away” or the “chirp of an exotic bird”. It was a little bit of both, I thought. If you’re interested in reading more about it, here’s a good link: https://science.howstuffworks.com/skipping-stones-on-ice-makes-crazy-sci-fi-sounds.htm

One more happy-looking mallard trying to walk on ice!

The frozen ponds also offer a great opportunity for photographing all the shore birds who are trying to cope with this drastic change in their watery environment! Sometimes, when the ice has just started to form, it looks as if all my web-footed friends are walking on water!

As I sit here at home on this cold November day, looking out at all the little birds enjoying the food in our feeders, I’m secretly wishing for snow—lots of snow; the biggest, whitest, fluffy kind of snow that falls to the ground in no particular hurry and quickly turns a drab overcast day into a winter wonderland! If that happens, I’ll be out the door in a heartbeat!

Northern Cardinal on a very snowy day
Female Northern Cardinal

I love getting pictures of the birds sitting on the snowy limbs with their feathers all puffed up against the cold, surrounded by the gently falling snow. A few weeks ago, we had a very brief but spectacular snowfall like that and I hurried outside with my camera to capture as many birds as I could before the snow completely melted. There were Red-winged blackbirds, Northern Cardinals, Black-capped Chickadees, American Robins, Tufted Titmice, Dark-eyed Juncos, House Sparrows, American Goldfinches, and one big surprise, a Hermit Thrush– a bird I’d never seen before!

A Hermit Thrush in a nearby tree that I almost missed!
Black-capped Chickadee

As we enter into our second winter of a very long and heartbreaking pandemic, I am beyond thankful for this photography hobby. It has kept life interesting, and made these past two years of social isolation and constant uncertainty manageable. Photography gets me out the house and affords me the opportunity to look for all the beauty I can find in the most ordinary of things: quiet snowfalls, skipping stones on ice, and the unexpected loveliness of a little brown duck on still waters.

Female Mallard

Everyday Surprises

November 5, 2021

Over the last several years, I’ve gone on hundreds of picture walks and taken thousands of pictures. I often visit the same preserves and nature centers over and over again and take pictures of the very same plants and creatures that I did before. On the surface, this might seem like an extremely boring thing to do; that I would run out of things to photograph that were interesting or novel or fun. The truth is, it never stops being fun. Every day is different and every walk brings new surprises —even if the subject matter is the same.

On rare occasions, the surprise will be a brand-new bird or a brand-new insect! More often than not, I photograph things that I’m already quite familiar with. The surprise comes when that familiar thing is in an unexpected place or shows up at an unexpected time of year. For example, I’ve taken an embarrassingly high number of bullfrog pictures. By any reasonable standard, I don’t need another bullfrog! But a few days ago, on a cool October afternoon, I was surprised to find a big green bullfrog perched comfortably on a log soaking in what little sun he could find. It was barely 50 degrees! I thought all the frogs would be hunkered down staying ‘warm’ under water! So I took his picture– to remind myself that frogs can tolerate much cooler temperatures than I had expected.

Last winter, in late January, I was surprised to find an Oregon Junco sitting in a tree not far from our back deck! Oregon Juncos aren’t usually found this far east, but there he was! After doing a little research, I discovered that on very rare occasions Oregon Juncos will show up in the western lower peninsula of Michigan! I learned something new!

Sometimes, the surprise I find is as simple as getting a picture at all!! Belted Kingfishers, for instance, are notoriously skittish birds. It is impossible to sneak up on one. They always see me coming no matter how carefully I approach. Whenever I’m lucky enough to actually get a picture of one, it’s because I had arrived first and the Belted Kingfisher came by later, totally unaware of my presence!

The secret to finding so many surprises, I think, is to stay curious and to expect the unexpected. Even the most ordinary things can yield extraordinary surprises.

All of the pictures here represent a surprise of one sort or another.

This is the American Bullfrog I found on a cool October day when it seemed much too chilly for any sensible frogs to be out and about!
This is the Oregon Junco that came to our backyard last January. Typically, these birds do not wander this far east. On rare occasions, though, Oregon Juncos will show up in the western lower peninsula of Michigan!
Here is one of the best pictures I’ve ever gotten of a Belted Kingfisher. He didn’t see me because I had gotten there first!
This injured Barn Owl was in an enclosure at a nature center and easy to photograph. The surprise was that the picture turned out at all– there were cage wires between my camera and the owl, but they didn’t show up in the picture!
This injured Juvenile Turkey Vulture was also at a nature center and behind cage wires. I was surprised that the wires didn’t show up in the picture and that I could see such fine detail in the Turkey Vulture’s Face.
This Virginia Giant Fly was a surprise for two reasons: I had never seen one before and it’s such a beautiful insect!
Eastern Bluebirds still surprise me because, for the longest time, I didn’t realize that many of them stay here in Michigan all winter, especially in the lower peninsula where I live.
I was really surprised to find this Monarch Butterfly out and about on a late October day. I thought they had all left!
These Common Mergansers took me by surprise because I rarely see them and they are such beautiful birds!
I always look for Praying Mantises in the late summer and early fall, but they are usually so well camouflaged, that I’m actually quite surprised if I find one– especially if it’s in a good position to photograph!
Dark-eyed Juncos are usually on the ground foraging for food and are hard to notice. This one surprised me by landing up in a tree with colorful leaves in the background making him much easier to spot!
Milkweed pods can disperse a surprisingly large number of seeds–sometimes as many as 200!

The Common Grackle, a bird many people dislike for its aggressive behavior,
is surprisingly beautiful bird in the right light.
I was surprised to learn that White-throated Sparrows sometimes cross-breed with Dark-eyed Juncos!
This Yellow-rumped Warbler was a very pleasant surprise when it landed right where I wanted it to– on this brightly colored stem of a Pokeweed plant.
Even though we see these beautiful Fall colors every year in Michigan, they never cease to surprise and delight me!

When you maintain a sense of curiosity and wonder about the natural world, there will always be surprises!

Savoring the Days

September 29, 2021

All of a sudden, it seems, Fall is upon us; and winter will be close on its heels!  A little more than a week ago, temperatures were in the 80s and our air conditioner was running full tilt! Yesterday we had on jackets, today it’s t-shirt and sandal weather! For the next several months, we will be riding this weather roller coaster of warm sunny days followed by cold, wet, dreary ones, followed by snow and ice.  It’s a season for readjusting our expectations and for re-learning how to accept the good with the bad.

Common Buckeye Butterfly
My favorite amphibian, the American Bullfrog

We all look forward to the beautiful Fall colors in Michigan and to the reprieve from Summer’s sweltering heat. We marvel at the first magical snowfall and smile at the appearance of the first goofy-looking snowman. But all these seasonal joys come with a price, or at least a trade off.

Banded Wood Snail