Strange Blessings

September 25, 2022

There are many things I am thankful for in this life; the love of family, our good health, food on the table, a roof over our heads, and a multitude of other blessings. Near the very bottom of that list, but certainly not last, I am thankful that flowers don’t fly! It may seem like a very strange thing to be thankful for, but I am a nature photographer, and things that don’t fly are so much easier to photograph than things that do!

A beautiful Purple Coneflower with a crown of jewels!
Great Willowherb– which happens to be a very tiny flower!

I’m always a bit anxious when I photograph things that fly because there is just the tiniest window of opportunity to get things right before the winged creature disappears! Once I spot the bird, butterfly, or dragonfly, there’s rarely enough time to adjust the focus, let alone change the ISO, the f-stop and the shutter speed before they disappear!

Female Mallard who was gracious enough to let me take her picture and not fly away!
Male Widow Skimmer dragonfly

The other difficult thing about winged creatures is, they never let you know when they’re leaving! I remember the first time I was trying to take a picture of a butterfly. It was years ago, but it still comes back to me every time something flies away without a sound. For some reason, I kept thinking that the creatures I was taking pictures of would make some kind of noise when they left, like people do when they shuffle their feet, shut the door, or say goodbye. You definitely know when humans have left. Most of the time, you even know exactly where to find them! But not so much with birds and butterflies! They just silently flutter away without a sound and, most of the time, I have absolutely no idea where they’ve gone. I wish they all wore bells!

Pearl Crescent butterfly
Eastern Carpenter Bee that can also be difficult to capture!

A few bigger birds, like the great blue heron and the little green heron will, on occasion, let you know they’re leaving by blurting out a raspy squawk or two. Sometimes, I can even get a decent picture as they depart. Or, consider the lowly bullfrog, who doesn’t exactly have wings, but will at least let me know when it’s leaving by yelling, “YEEP!” as it jumps into the water.  Unfortunately, by the time I hear the “YEEP”, it’s too late for a picture!

Great Blue Heron
American Bullfrog that will leap in fright if he notices me coming!
If turtles hear or feel my footfalls, or if they see me coming, they will dive under water as fast as they can!

That’s why I’m thankful for flowers. They don’t fly off and they don’t leap in fright when they hear me coming. I can walk right up and take a picture! I can take a hundred pictures if I like. I can change my settings a million times, take a break for lunch, make a phone call, and come back later. They never fly away!

Giant Sunflowers
Male Monarch Butterfly

In a world where everything else disappears without so much as a polite goodbye, it’s a total luxury to photograph flowers –as well as anything else that doesn’t leap, fly, dive, or run away in fright!

Common Sneezeweed

Patches of Sunlight

August 25, 2022

Patches of sunlight in a dark woods

As I approached a new hiking trail the other day, I was disappointed to see that I might just be walking through a dark woods all morning. Normally, I love walking through the woods, but not when I’m taking pictures. It’s usually too dark, or the light is too dappled for a good picture. I seriously contemplated going somewhere else, but gave myself a little pep talk instead. Even in the darkest of woods, I reasoned, there are patches of sunlight, and in those patches of sunlight, there could be a deer, or a chipmunk, or a shiny, new spiderweb! There’s always something, I thought. So off I went.

This White-tailed deer was grazing in an open meadow just beyond a wooded section of trail

As I ambled along the trail looking for things to photograph, my thoughts kept turning back to my cousin’s young son who had recently been diagnosed with an inoperable brain tumor. I was envisioning the anguish and the heartbreak that comes with such a diagnosis and wishing there was some way to make everything all better. I thought about the dark woods ahead; the one that they were facing, and hoping they would find patches of sunlight along the way that would make their journey less difficult. An unexpected kindness, perhaps, or a hopeful word.

Rosinweed Sunflower catching the sun
Pileated Woodpecker highlighted by a ray of sunshine

Sometimes, the path I take through a dark woods leads me to an open meadow, or a hill top, or a pond, where the sun washes gently over everything,  and the world looks like a brighter, happier place.  I love when that happens! Sunshine opens up all sorts of possibilities!

Flowers in an open meadow
I loved the effect of the sunlight on this small pond

And, on one very rare occasion, as I stood quietly at the edge of a pond hidden in the woods, a bald eagle swooped down out of nowhere and captured a fish right in front of me!

Bald Eagle making a surprise catch right in front of me!

Even in the darkest of woods, there are always patches of sunlight, unexpected joys, and sometimes, glimmers of hope.

Just One Walk

July 19, 2022

I almost didn’t go for a picture walk today. It was already beyond hot and well beyond humid. It was also the middle of the day and not the best time for pictures — or for humans. But, I was restless, and eager to be on the move, so I grabbed my camera and off I went. As I left our cool air-conditioned home and stepped out into a steamy summer day, I comforted myself with the thought that I might find lots of dragonflies and butterflies!

I headed out at 11:00 a.m. and photographed almost everything I saw for three enjoyable hours. It was just one walk, but I took so many pictures and observed so many creatures getting on with their lives, that I felt a bit like a teensy-weensy Jane Goodall or Diane Fossey out doing field work. All I had to do was swap out the chimpanzees and mountain gorillas for dragonflies, butterflies, birds and frogs and I was good to go! It was a huge stretch of the imagination, but it made for a more interesting walk! Here are my field notes!

Field Notes:

Date: July 19, 2022

Location: Wolf Lake State Fish Hatchery, Mattawan, Michigan

Weather Conditions: 90 degrees Fahrenheit, 45% humidity

Time of day: 11:00 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.

Eastern Tiger Swallowtail

11:04 a.m. Eastern Tiger Swallowtail Butterfly When I spotted this beautiful Eastern Tiger Swallowtail flitting among the lavender-colored Bee Balm, it took my breath away! The conditions for getting a good picture were perfect–light shade, no harsh shadows.

Male Calico Pennant dragonfly

11: 24 a.m. Calico Pennant Dragonfly, male The dragonflies were plentiful today! Before taking up photography, I didn’t realize there were so many different dragonflies in so many different colors! Worldwide, there are about 7,000 species of dragonflies. Here in Michigan, there are about 160. This Calico Pennant is very common in our area.

Male Halloween Pennant dragonfly

11:34 a.m. Halloween Pennant Dragonfly, male I seem to see male dragonflies much more frequently than I do females. Perhaps because the males are generally more colorful and easier to spot. Halloween Pennants look very similar to Calico Pennants, but instead of small spots they typically have larger dark bands on their wings. Adult males have orange and black bodies, while females (and young males) have bodies that are yellow and black.

Viceroy Butterfly

11:37 a.m. Viceroy Butterfly The Viceroy Butterfly is often mistaken for a Monarch. The main visual difference between the Viceroy and Monarch is the black line across the viceroy’s hind wings, which monarch butterflies do not have. The viceroy is also smaller than the monarch. You can also tell them apart when they are in flight. Monarchs have a more floating flight pattern, while viceroys fly more quickly and more erratically.

Male Blue Dasher dragonfly

11:39 a.m. Blue Dasher Dragonfly, male This is a very small and a very common dragonfly. The male has a bright blue body with a dark tip, while the female has a black and yellow striped body, and tends to be browner in color. Males have green eyes while females have red eyes. They really look like two entirely different dragonflies, which is often true of other dragonflies.

Male Eastern Pondhawk dragonfly

11:52 a.m. Eastern Pondhawk dragonfly, male The Male Eastern Pondhawk dragonfly is almost the same chalky blue color as the Blue Dasher pictured above, but it is noticeably bigger than the Dasher and doesn’t have the same dark tip on its tail. The Pondhawk is 1.5 to 1.7 inches long while the Dasher is only 1 to 1.5 inches long. The female Eastern Pondhawk is green.

Male Twelve-spotted Skimmer

11:55 a.m. Twelve-spotted Skimmer, male I wanted to call this a Twenty-spotted Skimmer but, apparently, you’re only supposed to count the dark spots not the white ones! The twelve-spotted skimmer is a common North American dragonfly, found in southern Canada and in all 48 of the contiguous U.S. states. It is a large dragonfly at 2.0 inches in length.

Female Eastern Pondhawk

12:01 p.m. Eastern Pondhawk dragonfly, female Male and female dragonflies often look completely different from one another and the Eastern Pondhawks are a good example of this. The male (pictured above) is a dusty blue color, while the female is green and black.

Great Blue Heron

12:06 p.m. Great Blue Heron The Great Blue Heron is the largest of our North American herons weighing in at around 5 pounds. They will eat nearly anything within striking distance, including fish, amphibians, reptiles, small mammals, insects, and other birds. Great Blue Herons can stand patiently like this for what seems like forever waiting to impale a fish with their dagger-like bills.

Male Widow Skimmer dragonfly

12:14 p.m. Widow Skimmer dragonfly, male This is my very favorite dragonfly to photograph! It makes for such a beautiful picture. The Widow Skimmer gets its name because the male dragonfly leaves the female by herself as she lays her eggs, thereby ‘widowing’ her. This behavior is unlike some other species where the male guards the egg-laying female.

Halloween Pennant dragonflies mating

12:16 p.m. Halloween Pennant dragonflies mating Dragonflies and damselflies both create what are called “mating wheels” when they mate.  The male (upper dragonfly) grasps the female at the back of her head with the terminal appendages at the end of his abdomen and the female curls her abdomen forward until the tip of her abdomen reaches the male’s sex organs. (Notice the slight difference in coloration between the male and the female. The wings of the male are orange and brown, the female’s are yellow and brown.)

Silver-spotted Skipper butterfly

12:19 p.m. Silver-spotted Skipper butterfly The silver-spotted skipper,  with its large white spot on the underside of each hind wing, is one of our largest, most widespread and most recognizable skippers. The silver-spotted skipper is found throughout most of the United States and into southern Canada. In the West, it is more restricted to mountainous areas.

Monarch Butterfly

12:22 Monarch Butterfly I was saddened, but not shocked, to learn that North America’s iconic Monarch Butterfly, after suffering from years of habitat loss and rising temperatures, was placed on a list of endangered species by the International Union for Conservation of Nature as of July 21, 2022.

Eastern Amberwing butterfly

12:49 p.m. Eastern Amberwing Dragonfly, male The Eastern Amberwing is a tiny species of dragonfly that only reaches about 1 inch in length. It is one of the smaller dragonflies in North America. Males have clear amber wings, so it is easy to see how this dragonfly got its name. Females have blotch-patterned wings. I usually find these dragonflies perched on lily pads or other plants along the edges of small ponds.

Eastern Kingbird

12:53 p.m. Eastern Kingbird The Kingbird gets its name from the aggressive behaviors it exhibits towards other kingbirds and other species. When defending their nests, kingbirds will attack much larger predators like hawks, crows, and squirrels. They have been known to knock unsuspecting Blue Jays out of trees.

Willow Flycatcher

12:56 Willow Flycatcher Flycatchers don’t learn their songs from their parents, as many other birds do. Instead flycatchers hatch knowing their songs. Scientists tested this by raising Willow Flycatchers in captivity while letting them listen to only the Alder Flycatcher song all day long. The Willow Flycatcher chicks grew up to sing their own species’ song!

Canada Goose

12:57 p.m. Canada Goose The Canada Goose was nearly driven to extinction in the early 1900s. Programs to reestablish the subspecies to its original range were, in many places, so successful that the geese have become a nuisance in many urban and suburban areas.

Male Slaty Skimmer dragonfly

1:30 p.m. Slaty Skimmer Dragonfly, male The Slaty Skimmer has a body that is about 2 inches long. Each of the four wings has a dark spot on the outer leading edge. Older males are all slate blue with black heads and eyes. Young males and females have brown abdomens and a dark stripe running down the back.

American Bullfrog

1:34 p.m. American Bullfrog This is my very favorite amphibian! I love their big, bulgy eyes, and funny looking faces. I’m always looking for a new frog to photograph, hoping for a funnier face. Bullfrogs are the largest species of frog in the U.S. growing up to 8 inches long and weighing over a pound! Bullfrogs usually spend 2 winters as tadpoles and live around 8 years.

Barn Swallow

2:06 p.m. Barn Swallow The Barn Swallow is the most abundant and widely distributed swallow species in the world. It breeds throughout the Northern Hemisphere and winters in much of the Southern Hemisphere. I can’t help taking a picture every time I see one!

Female Red-winged Blackbird

2:09 p.m. Red-winged Blackbird, female The Red-winged Blackbirds are my harbingers of spring. When I hear them calling from the trees and the reeds along the ponds, I know that spring is not far away. I also know that when a male Red-winged Blackbird bombards me, his babies are nearby, but out of sight!

Female Wood Duck

2:10 p.m Wood Duck, female Wood Ducks usually nest in trees near water, but can sometimes be found nesting over a mile away. After hatching, the ducklings jump down from the nest tree and make their way to water. The mother calls them to her, but does not help them in any way. The ducklings may jump from heights of over 50 feet without injury.

Female Hooded Mergansers

2:12 p.m. Hooded Mergansers, female The Hooded Merganser is the second-smallest of the six living species of mergansers (only the Smew of Eurasia is smaller) and is the only one restricted to North America.

It was just one walk, but there was so much to see!

Before Pictures: A Photography Journey

July 4, 2022

Before I started taking pictures, there was so much I didn’t know about the world outside my own front door. I didn’t know that dragonflies came in a rainbow of colors, that turtles shed parts of their shells, or that we had cuckoos in Michigan! I didn’t know that cedar waxwings could get drunk eating fermented berries, or that great blue herons would stay here throughout our cold Michigan winters. My enlightenment all started with a Christmas wish.

A brown, white and yellow Widow Skimmer dragonfly

In the Fall of 2013, my husband, Mel, started asking me what I wanted for Christmas. I gave his question a good deal of thought and came up with the idea that I’d like to have a better camera. All I had was a pocket-sized Canon PowerShot– a lightweight and easy to carry camera with very limited capabilities.

Michigan’s Black-billed Cuckoo
A Great Blue Heron that decided to stay in Michigan for the winter!

Once I told Mel what I wanted, he went to work doing the research and came up with a bigger, better version of the Canon PowerShot that he thought might work. I loved it– and ultimately, dubbed it my “gateway drug”.

Eastern Kingbird babies hoping for lunch!
A giant snapping turtle taking a break on a very hot day!

I happily used that camera on and off for the next three and a half years; taking the usual family photos and typical vacation shots. It wasn’t until we went to Florida in 2016 for our first extended stay that my addiction to nature photography really kicked in. There were so many rookeries, sanctuaries and preserves with new and unusual birds, mammals, and reptiles that I had absolutely no trouble feeding my ‘habit’!

Florida alligator taking a siesta

Eventually though, I started wanting more. I wanted a camera with a faster response time so that the bird on the limb would still be there once I pressed down the shutter button. I wanted to get pictures of the birds and butterflies that were farther and farther away, and I wanted sharper images. Mel went back to work looking for a camera that would do all those things—without causing us to re-finance our home! By July of 2017, I had my new camera, a Nikon D3400 and a detachable 70-300mm zoom lens. I was back in business!

A bright-eyed Yellow Warbler
Common Yellowthroat

At some point along the way, Mel decided to take up his photography hobby again and assumed ownership of my D3400 after finding me a Nikon D5600 to take its place. We were both hooked!

Spiny Softshell Turtle

I loved all the beautiful pictures I could get with my D5600 and the 70-300mm lens, but there were birds and butterflies still out of reach that I wanted to capture! After a bit of research, Mel thought that a Sigma 150-600mm lens might do the trick. I was well aware of the size and weight of this lens based on what I had read, but when it actually arrived, I thought “What on earth have I done??” It looked huge! It felt heavier than I expected and I had serious reservations about my ability to carry it around for hours on end. But, I really, really wanted to take ‘far away pictures’ so off I went, camera and lens in hand.

The BIG lens!

I used that set up for a year or so before my back started telling me that it might be better to add a monopod to my camera in order to support all that weight when I stood for hours taking pictures. Adding a monopod would mean I’d have a little more weight to carry as I walked along, but I wouldn’t have to hold the camera up to my eye unsupported as I patiently waited for the ‘perfect shot’ or tried to pan the movement of a bird in flight. My back has thanked me many, many times over.

Taking pictures using the camera mounted on a monopod– a good back-saver

I used the Nikon D5600 for two or three years along with the 150-600mm lens before totally exceeding the picture expectancy of my camera with over 100,000 shots!! I decided to trade it in for a Nikon D500, a camera that was highly rated for nature photography and has totally lived up to that assessment!

Blanding’s Turtle
Barn Swallow

Before taking pictures, I had already loved going on nature walks– but there was so much I didn’t see! With my camera in hand the world suddenly opened up!! I paid more attention.  I noticed things I had never noticed before– like the subtle movement of a blade of grass that might mean a dragonfly had landed, or the tiny ‘bump’ at the top of a long-dead tree that might mean a hummingbird was resting; or the infinitesimal speck of blue on a shiny green leaf that might mean a damselfly was nearby.

Hagen’s Bluet Damselfy

All of those creatures had been there all along, but I never saw them —until I started taking pictures!

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