A Photography Journey

August 4, 2020

As I pondered what to write today, I was thinking back on my short but immensely gratifying photography journey.

Juvenile Barn Swallow

It started innocently enough in the fall of 2016, when my husband asked me what I wanted for Christmas. I had no idea!  But, he likes finding things that surprise me, so I gave it some thought. What I came up with was “a better camera”. For many, many years, all I had was a very small, pocket-sized, Canon Powershot.

Willow Flycatcher

Once I told Mel about my ‘better camera’ idea, he went to work researching it. What he came up with was another model of the Canon Powershot –but a bigger, better version with a built-in zoom lens. I now refer to this camera as my ‘gateway drug’! As soon as I realized what was possible with a better camera, I was hooked!

Eastern Tiger Swallowtail on Butterfly Bush

It wasn’t long before I was outdoors nearly every day taking pictures of birds, butterflies, frogs, turtles– anything I could find that grabbed my attention. Eventually, though, I started musing about what I might be able to do with an even better camera—one that could capture the birds that were even farther away, and would also have a faster response time.

Slaty Skimmer

Male Eastern Pondhawk

Since Mel enjoys doing the research and I do not, he’s the one who went to work looking for another camera, one that would take a detachable telephoto lens. What he came up with was a Nikon D3400 and a 75-300mm lens. Once it arrived, I was out the door!

Painted Turtle

I think another year went by, maybe less, and I found myself wanting to capture creatures that were even farther away. Mel took off on another search and came up with a 150-600mm lens from Sigma that would probably do the trick. But it was much longer and much heavier than the one I currently had and I was hesitant. When it arrived, I was still hesitant. It just seemed too big and too heavy for me to handle comfortably. But I was eager to take close-ups and quickly overcame my reluctance. I have not put it down since!

Eventually, the constant lifting and focusing with a lens that size made my back ache and I reluctantly added a monopod to my set up.  It’s a bit of a bother sometimes to have the monopod attached, but I can now focus on a subject for an indefinite amount of time without having to give my back a break.

This insect was a huge surprise! It’s a female BOTFLY laying an egg on a blade of grass. I’ve never seen one before and didn’t know we even had them in the U.S.!

After the Nikon D3400, came a Nikon D5600, which is what I have been using for the last couple of years. This camera and I have gone on a picture walk together nearly every day and I have taken hundreds of pictures with it on each of those walks. Periodically, I have checked to see how much ‘shutter life’ it had left.

My D5600 had been given a shutter life of 100,000 shots. When I last checked, I had taken well over 151,000 pictures! I felt as if we were on borrowed time and decided to start looking for a new one.

Red-tailed Hawk

Once again, Mel returned to the drawing board to find a camera that was well suited for wildlife photography. What he found was a Nikon D500. It arrived a just a few days ago and we have already become fast friends!

With a shutter life of 200,000 shots, I’m looking forward to many years and many pleasant journeys with my newest walking companion!

Butterfly Weed

Treasure Hunts

Every time I pick up my camera bag and head out the door, I feel like I’m going on a treasure hunt. The treasures I find might be as simple as a single flower with the sunlight shining through, an intricate dragonfly wing, a reflection of a bird on the water, or a baby bird waiting to be fed. It’s all good– and it all serves as a powerful antidote for what is not so good during these troubled times.

Here are my favorite treasures from the past few weeks. I’ll let them tell the story…

American Bullfrog

This Bullfrog is one of my favorite treasures from the past few weeks. First of all, I love bullfrogs! They have such expressive faces and funny little bodies! This particular bullfrog was one of many at the Spirit Springs Sanctuary in Marcellus, Michigan.

When I arrived at the sanctuary shortly after dawn, the whole pond was an orchestra of bullfrog voices– a deep baritone ‘galumping’ sound that echoed all through the nearby woods. It was music to my ears!

What surprised me about this frog was that he was perched at the top of a four foot tree stump in the middle of the water. All of his friends, however, were playing it safe along the shore. What a maverick!

Black Swallowtail Butterfly on Milkweed

Another treasure was this Black Swallowtail Butterfly that conveniently landed right in front of me on a beautiful milkweed blossom. Well, it only became ‘convenient’ after I had traipsed through high weeds and brambles, risking ticks and scratches, to at least be in the vicinity of the few butterflies I saw flitting around! After that, it was a convenient shot!

Flower in the sunlight

I love the way sunlight plays with the flowers. This picture was originally over-exposed. I was shooting into the sun and my settings weren’t right. So, I experimented with it while I was editing and just kept making it darker and darker until I had this. I just liked the way it looked.

In the early morning light. when there’s absolutely no wind, it’s fun trying to get a perfect reflection! This Canada Goose wasn’t the least bit interested in my picture taking goals and I had plenty of time to experiment with my settings.

Tawny Emperor Butterfly

I must have taken a hundred pictures of this Tawny Emperor Butterfly trying to get a decent picture. It was so windy that this little emperor had all he could do just to hang onto the leaf and I had all I could do to snap a picture at just the right moment when there was a nano-second of calm. I also had my shutter speed set really high!

Snowberry Clearwing Moth (aka hummingbird moth)

For me, finding a Hummingbird Moth like this one is always a treasure. Normally, it’s hard to capture a picture of one of these moths because they flit around so quickly and their wings are a blur, but this one decided to rest for a minute or two and I was able to get a clear picture.

Female Widow Skimmer

Dragonflies never cease to amaze me. They are not only beautiful, they are engineering marvels.

Dragonflies are like helicopters. Or, it might be more accurate to say helicopters are like dragonflies because helicopters were designed to mimic dragonfly abilities. Dragonflies can fly in any direction (up, down, forward, backward) or simply hover. All four wings move independently and can rotate on an axis for incredible flight control. They can make hairpin turns mid-flight, changing direction instantly–and they can fly upside-down.”

Silver-tailed Petal-cutter Bee

As soon as I saw this insect I knew I’d never seen one before (or noticed may be a more accurate word). It looked kind of like a bumble bee but some things were quite different– like the smooth black back and the fuzzy yellow underside. The head didn’t look quite right for a bumble bee either. When I got home and used my iNaturalist app to identify it, I found out that it was probably a Silver-tailed Petal-cutter Bee. These bees cut petals off of flowers to line the walls of their nests (There are also Leafcutter Bees.)

Eastern Tiger Swallowtail

This Eastern Tiger Swallowtail is such a beautiful insect and butterflies, in general, are incredible creatures– having the ability to transform themselves from caterpillars to butterflies.

“In Chinese culture, butterflies often symbolize having a long and healthy life. In Russia and in Ireland, butterflies are sometimes seen as the souls of departed loved ones waiting to pass through purgatory. In Greek mythology, butterflies are meant to show the souls of loved ones. In various Native American mythology, butterflies symbolize the human spirit.”

Spiderwort

This stunning little plant has a rather ugly little name– Spiderwort! It is a very hardy North American native perennial with quarter-sized flowers that only last a day. As the petals fade, they become almost translucent, giving Spiderworts their other common name, Widow’s Tears.

Last but not least was this little treasure– a baby bird floundering around in a bush wondering what to do. I thought it had fallen from a nest but after 20 minutes or so, it flew up to a nearby pine tree where it was eventually fed by its very attentive Dad (a Cardinal).

So, if you’re looking for the perfect antidote to a stressful day, or the perfect complement to an otherwise happy one, go on a treasure hunt!

Outtakes:

Who Knew?

July 2, 2020

Every time I’m out on a Picture Walk I learn something new– sometimes it’s a new bug or a new plant; sometimes it’s a new animal behavior; and sometimes it’s just a matter of looking at familiar things in a new and different way.

White Tail Deer looking as curious about me as I was about him!

Let’s start with the dragonflies. Before my picture taking hobby began a few years ago, I didn’t know that there were over 5,000 different species in the world or that they have been around for over 300 million years! Back in the ‘old days’, dragonflies were enormous– with wingspans of nearly 30 inches! By comparison, the largest dragonfly in the world today has a wingspan of less than 8 inches, and most of the dragonflies that I have found have wingspans of 3 inches or less.

Halloween Pennant Dragonfly

The other thing I didn’t know about dragonflies, beside the fact that there are so many of them, is that male and female dragonflies often look distinctly different—they can even be different colors! Dragonflies, in fact, come in a wide variety of colors including blue, green, red, yellow, orange, black, pink, and brown. I never knew that before taking my picture walks!

Dot-tailed Whiteface Dragonfly

I’ve also had lots of bird surprises—the biggest one coming just a couple of days ago when a Common Grackle landed right in front of me with a very large tadpole in its beak. The tadpole was so big that I thought, at first, it was a fully grown frog–and then I noticed the long tail! I had no idea that Grackles were meat eaters! This prompted me to do a little research…

“The Common Grackle eats mostly insects, berries, seeds, fruit, and bird eggs, although it is also known to eat frogs, fish and snakes. You could say it will eat whatever food it can find!”

Common Grackle with giant tadpole for breakfast!

Then there’s the Robins. Even though I have seen Robins around me all my life, I really didn’t know much about them.  For starters, I had no idea they liked grape jelly! The other day, though, I caught one gulping it down at our Oriole feeder! What was going on? When I looked for answers, I was surprised to find out that Robins not only like jelly, some of them have even been known to bring worms to the feeder and dunk them in the jelly before swallowing them!! Who knew?

American Robin

Speaking of worms, I also learned that even with a beak-ful of them, a Robin can dig for more and not lose the ones he already has! Like this!

American Robin

Another bird I’m familiar with, and have photographed often, is the Green Heron– but I knew little about them! The most amazing thing I found out along the way is that this bird is a tool user!! While I have not observed this behavior myself, I hope someday to have that opportunity!

“The Green Heron is one of the world’s few tool-using bird species. It often creates fishing lures with bread crusts, insects, and feathers, dropping them on the surface of the water to entice small fish.”

Green Heron

Last but not least, one of my favorite creatures of the pond, is the very large and very noisy, American Bullfrog. I love hearing them ‘croak’ (which has been described as a “deep, booming, Jug-o’-rummm!” sound), and I love seeing their goofy, expressive faces. What I didn’t know about them, though, is that they have teeth! Really! It’s not a full set of teeth like we have but “North American bullfrogs have teeth in the roof of their mouth and a muscular tongue capable of flipping prey into their mouth.

American Bullfrog

Who knew??

Reason to Sing

June 18, 2020

Eastern Wood Peewee

I have been on so many picture walks since I last wrote that I’m having a hard time choosing which pictures to post and which ones to cast aside. At this time of year, there are so many beautiful things to photograph that it’s hard to stop taking pictures! The woods and the fields are bursting with new life, and so many colors!! I take hundreds of photos every time I’m out on a walk because almost everything grabs my attention!

Spiderwort

Sometimes, my husband, Mel, and I go on picture walks together. He often shoots with a close-up lens, while I almost always use a 600mm telephoto lens. When we go out together, it’s nice to have a mix of shots—he finding the tiniest of bugs or the finest of detail, and me zooming in on creatures well beyond the tip of my camera. We see the world around us through a different lens—both literally, figuratively!

Mel’s close-up of a female Blue Dasher
Female Blue Dasher

The pictures here were gleaned from 14 different photo shoots at seven different locations over the course of about two weeks. All these pictures were taken in relatively close proximity to where we live: Wolf Lake State Fish Hatchery (10 miles), Western Michigan University’s Business Technology and Research Park (.5 miles), West Lake Nature Preserve (10 miles), Chipman Preserve (14 miles), Pierce Cedar Creek Institute (35 miles), Kalamazoo Nature Center (10 miles) and downtown Kalamazoo for a Peregrine Falcon watch (2 miles). We’re lucky to have so many natural resources so close at hand!

Female Red-winged Blackbird

Wherever I take pictures, I tend to walk as slowly and as quietly as possible so that I don’t overlook anything, and so I don’t scare anything away! Surprisingly, even turtles out in a pond, far from where I am walking, will know that I’m coming long before I arrive and slip quietly into the water from wherever they are perched! Bullfrogs, sitting hidden in the grass along the shore, will leap in fright if they know I’m on my way. I’ve been startled out of my skin on more than one occasion as they catapult themselves into the nearby water and let out a loud ‘squawk’!  When I do happen upon an animal or an insect that hasn’t noticed my arrival, I feel as if I’ve really accomplished something!

Snapping Turtle making a run for it as I approached!
Shooting Butterflies in the wind!

No matter where I go or what I find, my picture walks are making this pandemic bearable. There is comfort in knowing that I have places nearby where the cycle of life quietly ambles on and the birds still find reason to sing.

A cheerful little House Wren with lots of songs to sing!

The Beauty that Remains

May 31, 2020

Amid the hundreds of thousands of deaths across the globe due to COVID-19, the senseless and horrific deaths of black men and women at the hands of white racists here in the states, the rioting across our country as the result of those crises, and the ‘leadership’ of a  president who continues to fan the flames of hate and intolerance, it’s often hard to find joy.

This one daisy standing alone in a dark field reminded me of how hard it is to find joy
when everything looks so bleak.

Most days, what saves my soul from total despair are my picture walks. When I’m out and about on a trail with my camera, the sadness of the world falls away as I look for things to photograph that capture my attention, my curiosity or my heart. It feels like a form of meditation.

A Nessus Sphinx Moth (aka Hummingbird Moth)
Yellow Warbler

The Cambridge English Dictionary defines meditation as, “the act of giving your attention to only one thing, either as a religious activity or as a way of becoming calm and relaxed.”

White-tailed deer looking coy

Once I spot something that looks interesting or beautiful or odd, there’s no room in my brain for any worries other than how to get the best shot that I can. It’s a game of sorts really–one that I never seem to tire of. Did I get the settings right? Should I change where I’m standing? Can I get a little closer without scaring the animal away? When I do get most of those things right, and the picture turns out clear and crisp and appealing, I feel like I’ve accomplished something.

The Bullfrogs always bring a smile to my face!
Columbine
Green Heron
Mourning Dove

In addition to feeling like I’ve accomplished something, my picture walks are good therapy. At the end of a very long day of unrelenting heartbreak in the news, I can take to the trails to unwind and re-focus, both literally and figuratively, to find all the beauty that still remains.

Spotted Sandpiper
Mute Swan
Northern Map turtle shedding its scutes
Lupine

Just Enough

May 21, 2020

We have been sheltering in place for over two months now and our lives have fallen into a new rhythm, a new pattern, a new kind of un-hurriedness.

Red-bellied Woodpecker
Yellow-rumped Warbler

Even though the restrictions in our state are loosening and many businesses are gradually opening up (within certain guidelines and directives), Mel and I will be following our own guidelines for the foreseeable future. We won’t really feel safe until there’s a vaccine for COVID-19, which isn’t expected, at the earliest, until January 2021.  In the meantime, we are wearing our masks in public, avoiding the grocery store as much as possible, and giving each other pandemic haircuts!!

Palm Warbler
American Goldfinch

That said, we do make a point of getting out for a walk every day, and I make a point of getting out for a Picture Walk nearly as often. In an effort to avoid running into other people, however, many of my picture walks have become ‘picture visits’. A picture visit involves little or no walking and a fair amount of sitting. One of my easiest ‘picture visits’ involves walking out our back door to the deck and taking pictures of the neighborhood birds perched on the branches in the nearby trees.

A sweet young deer in our nearby woods
Barn Swallow
Tree Swallow

Another kind of ‘picture visit’ involves walking 50 yards or so down to the edge of the creek with my lawn chair and camera to sit for awhile and watch Mother Nature’s live TV show with cameo appearances by Great Blue Herons, White Egrets, Mr. and Mrs. Wood Duck,  a Canada Goose family, Mr. and Mrs. Mallard, a muskrat, a woodchuck, and a bird I’d never seen before, the Northern Water Thrush!

An unusual blue-headed Mallard (they usually have green heads) in the creek behind our house

Most of my picture walks lately have been close to home, where I just walk out the door and wander through the nearby woods, or, if I wander a little further, to the college campus next door where there are numerous ponds and plenty of open spaces to attract both large and small birds. Some of my best surprises have included a Spotted Sandpiper, a Solitary Sandpiper, a Yellow Warbler and, my favorite, the Green Heron.

Green Heron
Mute Swan

Every picture walk or ‘picture visit’ is a discovery of one sort or another—sometimes it’s a new bird, sometimes it’s a new behavior, and sometimes it’s just enough to be outside and rediscover what a privilege it is, especially during this pandemic, to be in good health and to have the time to enjoy so many of nature’s wonders.

A Blanding’s turtle making life a little easier for his fellow turtle!

Finding Joy

May 4, 2020

I have been staying close to home for most of my picture walks lately because of COVID-19 and the need for social distancing. It’s amazing to me that some of my favorite places to walk have been ‘packed’ with people–at least the parking lots have been over-flowing when I drive by. These days, having so many people to worry about is anxiety provoking for me.  So, I’ve been taking more pictures from our deck, our backyard and the nearby woods. Occasionally, I’ve gone for a short drive to our state fish hatchery where there are several large ponds and plenty of room to walk without running into anyone, or to the not-so-distant bird sanctuary that is also lightly populated.

Backyard Birds:

Common Grackle

Even when I do find a fairly isolated place, I always have a mask tied around my neck ready to pull up over my mouth and nose if need be. Perhaps, I’m being overly cautious, but as an older person with no desire to die just yet, I’m not willing to take more risks than necessary. The stakes are too high.

More Backyard Birds:

Baltimore Oriole
Starling

After two and a half months of summer-like weather in Florida, it’s been fun to watch spring unfold here in Michigan. The trees are getting greener, the flowers are starting to bloom, the migrating birds are coming back, and our favorite spring peepers are ‘singing’ in the creek behind our house. Every evening, if our windows are open, we can fall asleep to a comforting chorus of these tiny melodic frogs.

Spring peepers are to the amphibian world what American robins are to the bird world. As their name implies, they begin emitting their familiar sleigh-bell-like chorus right around the beginning of spring. The spring peeper is Michigan’s smallest frog (0.75 – 1.38 in. long) also its loudest.”

Barn Swallows Squabbling
Yellow Warbler

As I write this blog in the early in the morning light, our windows are open, the sun is shining and, from the comfort of my easy chair, I can watch all the different birds coming to our feeders or to the nearby trees just beyond our deck —Baltimore Orioles, American Goldfinches, Blue Jays, Cardinals, House Finches, Starlings, Red-winged Blackbirds, Grackles, Black-capped Chickadees, and a variety of woodpeckers. I’m still waiting for the Red-breasted Grosbeaks, the Cedar Waxwings and the Hummingbirds to arrive.

Canada Goose on the wing
Canada Goose and Six Goslings
Trumpeter Swan

I spend as much time as I can outdoors, usually with my camera, even if it means just sitting outside for hours watching the birds and the squirrels and the chipmunks. I learn so much about animal behavior. It’s also the best prescription I have for finding joy.

We have much in common with the Solitary Sandpiper these days

Home Again

April 24, 2020

We are home.

A little over a week ago Mel and I and our two old dogs made a twenty-two hour, thirteen-hundred-mile drive from Florida to Michigan in our small over-stuffed car. We left Florida at 8:00 a.m. on a Tuesday and arrived home at 6:00 a.m. Wednesday morning!

White-throated Sparrow

Common Grackle

Because of the pandemic, we didn’t want to stay at any hotels along the way and we didn’t want to stop anywhere for food. So, prior to leaving Florida, we stocked up the car with ‘survival food’—cookies, muffins, apples, bagels, cheese and nuts. To stay awake, we loaded up a gallon of tea and a half gallon of coffee. To stay hydrated, we included two gallons of water (one for the humans, one for the dogs). With all that liquid to consume, though, we did have to stop occasionally for a bathroom break!

Canada Goose

We are happy to be back home to our familiar surroundings, familiar belongings and familiar routines, but after ten weeks of unrelenting sunshine, it has been an adjustment getting used to grey skies and cold weather. We have even had snow!!

House Finch
American Goldfinch
Black-capped Chickadee
White-tailed Deer

In spite of the weather, I have managed to get out and take pictures almost every day. Thankfully, the ‘stay at home’ orders from our governor have not restricted people from going outdoors as long as they abide by the 6 foot ‘social distancing’ recommendations. Keeping my distance while out on a walk has not been a problem—but having to worry about avoiding people has. It’s hard not to socialize when we are already so isolated!

Male Red-winged Blackbird

My picture walks have always been a source of comfort to me and they are even more so during this pandemic. As soon as I strap on my camera and walk out the door, I feel a sense of calmness wash over me.

Tree Swallows

Ring-billed Gull
Wood Ducks
Tree Swallows

As I amble through the woods and fields, I am so engrossed in looking for things to photograph that it’s easy to forget all the ugliness in the world around me.  And then, when I sort through my pictures at the end of the day, I am reminded of all the beauty that yet remains.

Be safe. Be well. Stay home!

Great Blue Heron

Standing Still

April 9, 2020

My picture walks began a few years ago as a way to combine a little exercise with a little picture taking. Over time, the walks have become less and less about exercise and more and more about picture taking—mostly because I stop so often to take a look that I never get very far!

Black-necked Stilts

On my walks to the various preserves and rookeries, I often see other photographers who have picked a spot to take pictures and they never move, preferring instead, to stay in one place forever! I used to think this would be an incredibly boring thing to do, that I would miss so much if I just stayed in one place.  But, over time, I’ve come to appreciate the benefits of just standing still.  

Sandhill Crane with offspring (called a Colt)
Green Heron

That’s not to say that I have ever parked myself in one spot for hours on end, but I have, on several occasions, stood in one place for a good hour or so. I have found that by parking myself in one place for a while, I become part of the landscape; the birds and the butterflies no longer notice me and go about their business as if I weren’t there. The elusive Kingfisher, which has been extremely hard for me to capture, will land on a nearby branch unaware of my presence; the Black-crowned Night Heron will perch on a fence right in front of me, and the Roseate Spoonbill, totally oblivious to my presence, will continue fishing less than 20 feet away!

Belted Kingfisher
Bald Eagle

When I do stand still for a while and just observe what is going on around me, I find it very calming. I am so absorbed in what I might find, that it’s easy to forget life’s worries.

Cattle Egrets

With the recent introduction of this deadly coronavirus into our lives, we are, as an entire planet, collectively standing still. We can look upon this time of isolation and social distancing as a colossal state of boredom, frustration and angst, or as an opportunity to more closely observe the life around us and to take stock of what’s truly important.

Marsh Rabbit

There is much that is beautiful to be found.

Black-necked Stilt

Be still. Be safe. Be well.

A Common Denominator

April 2, 2020

We are nearly three weeks into isolating ourselves as a result of the coronavirus pandemic. Mel and I have been staying at home (our Florida rental for two more weeks that is) except for our daily walks and our brief but infrequent trips to the grocery store. Our walks have mostly been to nature preserves and wildlife areas that are not commonly visited by others, and for most of those walks, we have taken our cameras– which is how we have amassed so many pictures in a relatively short period of time!

Tri-colored Heron
Green Heron

Fortunately, photography is a hobby that is serving us well during this time of forced isolation. Even if we become restricted to the parameters of our own backyard, we will still find things to photograph–especially Mel with his macro photography!

One of Florida’s many alligators sunning itself in the grass.
Osprey with its catch of the day

One of the many benefits of this nature photography hobby has been its therapeutic effects. No matter how anxious or worried I am about the overwhelming consequences of this pandemic that we are all suffering through, once I start focusing on the birds and bugs around me, I am almost immediately calmed. All my concentration is focused on the subject at hand and whether the settings on my camera will be correct. But, even before the COVID-19, my picture walks had proven to be quite the magical elixir for restoring a sense of balance, tranquility and joy to my world.

Sandhill Crane parent and offspring

An added benefit of this nature photography hobby has come from sharing my pictures with others, By sharing the things I have seen, I am afforded the opportunity to stay connected to others. The natural world is our common denominator. It gives us a common language with which to converse and to find joy. Pictures are just another way to communicate that joy– particularly during these very uncertain and heart-wrenching times.

Stay safe out there!

Zebra Swallowtail Butterfly (minus the swallow tails!)
Common Grackle