I am outdoors almost every day for at least an hour or two taking pictures. I never know what I’ll find, but there’s always something that captures my attention– even a common housefly, in the right light, makes for a beautiful picture!
I’ve taken thousands of pictures over the years, and I sometimes think, “What more can I find?” When I don’t go for a picture walk, though, I also wonder, “What am I missing? It’s that one burning question that drives me out the door every day– except for rainy days. I don’t go out on rainy days– unless there’s an interlude!
During one of those interludes the other day, I satisfied my need for taking pictures by standing under the overhang of our second story deck and capturing all the different birds near our feeders who didn’t seem to mind the rain as much as I did.
Yesterday, the interlude was supposed to last from 7:00 to 11:00 a.m. So, I grabbed my camera and headed out the door– but not without a backpack full of rain gear just in case the weather forecast was wrong. It was. By the time the rains came, though, I’d already gotten enough pictures to keep me happy.
When the weather cooperates, the possibilities are endless, but I sometimes have to remind myself of this fact; that no matter how many times I go out or how many pictures I take, there will always be something new or interesting to photograph. It’s mostly a matter of staying curious and being patient.
Even if it’s the same dragonfly I’ve seen a million times, the location and the lighting will always be different. Even if it’s the same preserve I’ve been to every day for a week, a new bird or bug will invariably catch my attention. So, I keep going out every chance I get –but not when it’s raining!!
When I first started taking picture walks five years ago, it was just a hobby that I squeezed in between the joys of grandparenting, driving senior citizens to their doctor’s appointments, and volunteering with my dog at a local school. Seventeen months ago, when this pandemic started, all those enjoyable and productive activities came to an abrupt halt. I was faced with entire days, weeks, and months with no particular plans and no particular purpose.
I was thankful to be retired; to not have to worry about working from home (or losing my job) while simultaneously caring for children who were struggling to navigate a world of virtual learning. But I had lost my sense of routine and a feeling of purpose that babysitting grandchildren and volunteering had afforded me.
Eventually, I carved out a new routine of Zoom and Facebook visits with our kids, grandkids and friends. Sometimes, whenever the weather cooperated and everyone was available, there would be ‘family walks’ to various preserves and nature centers —all of us wearing masks and avoiding close contact. I was staying connected, but it was a bittersweet reminder of how much everything had changed and how much we had all lost.
And there were still so many hours to fill…
Over time, those empty hours slowly started filling up with longer and more frequent picture walks. It was, in many ways, the perfect pandemic diversion: a solitary outdoor activity that kept me happy and totally absorbed. After every excursion, there would be hundreds of pictures to look forward to –another delightful and time-consuming task!
Once the pictures were labeled, cropped and edited, there was research to do and stories to write about all the different creatures I had found. When I posted those pictures and discoveries on Facebook or in this blog, it was just one more way to stay connected with others, one more lifeline.
This last year and a half has been exhausting, terrifying and isolating. Most of all, I have missed spending in-person time with our kids, grandkids, and friends. At my very core, I have missed just feeling comfortable and safe around other people without the fear of catching or spreading a deadly disease. Thankfully, we have been able to get vaccinated; our friends and family members (except for the little ones) have gotten vaccinated, and our lives are slowly beginning to blossom again.
My picture walks were a blessing during this long, difficult year. They gave me a routine and a purpose and a connection. My forays into nature also provided solace; an island of calm in a sea of turmoil. It’s just not possible to spend time outdoors and not feel comforted by the wonder of it all.
Spring in Michigan is a “hot mess”! On any given day it can be raining, snowing, or sleeting; sometimes all three in rapid succession. The next day it’s sunny and eighty degrees! One minute Spring says, “Put your woolies on!” and the next minute she yells, “Time for shorts!” Her mood swings are extreme and sometimes harsh but we always welcome her with open arms for the wonderful palette of colors, songs, and creatures that she brings along with her.
The capriciousness of Spring has been both difficult and delightful in terms of photography. During an unexpected snow squall, I run the risk of damaging my equipment but also have the opportunity to photograph birds that normally wouldn’t be present on a snowy day– like the Tree Swallow above. It’s even possible to catch a Mourning Cloak butterfly on an early spring day with snow still blanketing the ground. These butterflies overwinter here as adults and may even make an appearance in the middle of winter if temperatures are warm enough.
What I really look forward to in Spring is the return of the bullfrogs! When temperatures creep up into the 50s and 60s, I eagerly search for their big, bulgy eyeballs just above the waterline and then hope that they’ll stay long enough for me to get a picture. I’m also on the lookout for the glint of wet turtle shells. Sometimes the glint will be out in the open water, and sometimes it will show up on a log. On a really warm day, there will be dozens of glints! When there isn’t enough space on that log for all the turtles in waiting, they will clamber on top of one another any way they can!
Other creatures who return in early spring include the Red-winged Blackbirds, the Grackles, and Starlings, all of whom I can watch from the comfort of my easy chair as they gobble down the smorgasbord of seeds and suet that I have left for all the birds to enjoy. A week ago, I added sugar water, and grape jelly to this buffet in anticipation of the Baltimore Orioles and the Hummingbirds. Yesterday, to my surprise, the first Oriole appeared! I usually don’t see them this early! It won’t be long, then, before the Rose-breasted Grosbeaks and the Hummingbirds will be stopping by.
All of these birds are a welcome burst of color, song, and activity after so many months of leafless trees, grey skies, and inclement weather!
Spring in Michigan is definitely a fickle season; it’s also my favorite. I love watching the bare trees fill up with green leaves and colorful blossoms, and seeing new life begin as the birds go about building nests and raising babies. Most of all, I love listening to the spring peepers down by the creek playing their vocal instruments and lulling me to sleep on a warm Spring evening.
Sometimes, when I’m out on a picture walk, I think about all the things I’ve learned along the way that I didn’t know when I started out on this photography journey; things that can’t be found in the instructional manuals, YouTube videos, or ‘Dummy’ books; things like patience and planning.
This past February, when it was still bone-chilling cold, I stood outside in shin-deep snow for the better part of two days on the off-chance that a leucistic Robin would re-appear in my friend’s backyard. It was a marginally idiotic thing to do given the unlikelihood that this particular robin would return to this particular yard and land anywhere remotely close to where I was standing! As far as I could tell, there was no compelling reason for him to return any time soon.
Leucism (pronounced loo-kiz-em or loo-siz-em) is a partial loss of pigmentation, which can make an animal have white or blotchy colored skin, hair, or feathers. The leucistic Robin on my radar that day was completely white except for a small patch of color on the top of its head.
At some point during my second day of waiting, the elusive white robin landed high in a nearby tree and later flew to the edge of a neighbor’s roof! He appeared to be drinking water from the eavestrough and every time his head bobbed up to swallow, I tried to get a picture. After an excessively long bout of drinking, the thirsty bird stood quietly on the edge of the gutter so that I could get this clear, uncluttered shot. My patience had finally paid off!
The other thing instructional manuals sometimes fail to mention is the importance of planning ahead; not the kind of planning that involves decisions about what to wear on a cold, snowy day of picture-taking, or what mittens work best in sub-freezing temperatures, but what essential items you must have in your pockets!
A few years ago, in June of 2018, I had been out on a picture walk all morning when a fellow birder alerted me to a rare Prothonotary Warbler flitting around in a bush near the edge of a small pond. I had never seen this particular bird before and really wanted a picture! Once I spotted its bright yellow body bouncing around from branch to branch, I held my camera as steady as possible and pressed the shutter– but there was no familiar ‘clickity, click, click’ of a camera taking multiple shots in rapid succession. My battery was utterly and completely dead!!
In a state of frantic desperation, I ran to my car, plopped the camera on the passenger seat, and raced home for another battery, hoping I’d return in time to get a picture of the warbler! In my hasty drive home, I turned a corner much too quickly and my well-loved camera with its attached telephoto lens went flying to the floor!!
The best I could do was to continue on my mission, fetch the battery, and hope that the camera wasn’t permanently damaged. Forty minutes later, I arrived back at the pond and searched for the tiny yellow bird once again. Not only was he still flitting around, my camera had survived the fall and I was able to capture the moment!! If only I had carried that extra battery in my pocket to begin with!
The other lesson, if you can call it that, is practice. Over the last four or five years, I have taken thousands upon thousands of pictures. I absolutely do not need another robin, another frog, or another monarch for my ‘collection’; but every shot I take is an opportunity to learn something new, either about the creature I’m trying to photograph or about the camera settings I’m trying to use. I don’t have any ‘lifer’ birds or bugs, that I specifically go looking for; I’m pretty much content with whatever I find wherever I find it. In fact, that’s the very best part: finding the most extraordinary things in the least extraordinary of places.
I know there is much to be said about the importance of reading the owner’s manuals and studying the instructional videos before venturing forth on any new skill set, but the very best lessons, the ones that have stuck with me the longest, have been the ones I learned along the way by trial and error.
The 24th annual, four-day, Great Backyard Bird Count just ended yesterday. I had never participated in this event before and I’m not quite sure why. Maybe I thought it would be too time-consuming or that only experienced birders would be able to do it. Maybe I thought it would be too complicated. Whatever the reasons, none of them proved true. Over the course of four days, I counted most of the birds from the comfort of my easy chair, the rest by standing in our back yard, camera in hand!
“The Great Backyard Bird Count (GBBC) is a free, fun, and easy event that engages bird watchers of all ages in counting birds to create a real-time snapshot of bird populations.” www.audubon.org
“By participating in the Great Backyard Bird Count, community scientists contribute data that we use to protect birds and the places they need, today and tomorrow. In return, studies tell us that pausing to observe birds, their sounds and movements, improve human health. Participating in the Great Backyard Bird Count is a win-win for birds and people.” https://earthsky.org/earth/register-participate-great-backyard-bird-count
The Northern Cardinal nearly always tops the list as the number one bird reported followed by Dark-eyed Juncos, Mourning Doves, Downy Woodpeckers, Blue Jays, House Sparrows, House Finches, American Crows, Black-capped Chickadees and Red-bellied Woodpeckers.
With the exception of the Black Crows, all of those birds were on my list but in a different order of frequency. I also found Robins, Goldfinches, Cedar Waxwings, Brown Creepers, Northern Flickers, Tufted Titmice, White-breasted and Red-breasted Nuthatches, Hairy Woodpeckers, White-throated Sparrows, Fox Sparrows, and one new addition, a Yellow-bellied Sapsucker!
Even though it’s called a ‘backyard bird count’, you don’t really have to be in your own backyard. You can go for a walk and count the birds along the way or you can go to a park and sit on a bench with a hot cup of tea in your hand. But for this, my first ever Great Backyard Bird Count, I actually counted the birds in my own backyard. In terms of variety, it was probably the very best place for me to be. Over the course of the four day event, I identified eighteen different species of birds!
If you haven’t already participated in the Great Backyard Bird Count, put it on your calendar for February 2022. It’s easy and fun– and an immensely good thing for all our feathered friends!
I love going out on picture walks. It’s one of my favorite things to do! Even in the dead of winter!
By all accounts, this has been a relatively mild winter here in Michigan, so I had been eagerly waiting for a really big snowfall to come along! We did have a few short bouts of snow in December and January, but it melted quickly. Yesterday, though, on the very last day of January, it finally happened!! We had what I would call “a magnificent snowfall.” Huge, fluffy flakes swirling all around– giving the world that magical snow-globe kind of feeling! It was perfect! I had to get out the door!
Getting out the door, though, was the easy part; trying to stay warm and take picturesat the same time, was not —especially when the wind chill was well below freezing. I can easily put on two or three layers of pants, sweaters, socks and hats, but I cannot do the same for my hands –not if I expect to be able to operate any of the tiny buttons and dials on my camera! Over the years, I have tried various combinations of mittens and gloves and hand warmers to solve the problem with varying degrees of success –or lack thereof!
As the weather got progressively colder this winter, I tried yet another new idea. Instead of gloves, I tried two layers of very thin mittens (along with my usual rechargeable hand warmers). I picked mittens instead of gloves so that my fingers could keep each other warm; and I chose thin ones so that I could still feel the buttons on the camera! The inner mitten was a wool blend and the outer one a wind-proof, water-proof shell. So far, this combination has been working at least as well as most I have tried –but the jury is still out. When I’m not actively engaged in taking pictures, I stuff my hands deep into my pockets and hold on to those toasty hand-warmers.
The problem is, most of the birds I encounter are not particularly interested in seeing me with my hands in my pockets standing around doing nothing! As soon as my hands go in the pockets, they start badgering me to take another picture!
“Pick me! Pick me!” they chirp insistently. “I’m the prettiest! Pick me!
How can I resist??
So I continue to traipse about for hours on end, encumbered by multiple layers of hats, scarves and sweaters in happy pursuit of the ‘prettiest one’– all the while wondering how these tiny little creatures manage to stay warm with their skinny bare feet and tiny feathered bodies, while I, on the other hand, am barely staying warm.
It’s just one of the many fascinating mysteries of nature, I guess. Mysteries that keep drawing me in –and sending me back out for more!
During these long winter months in Michigan, it isn’t the snow or the cold or the relatively short hours of daylight that make ‘surviving’ winter a challenging endeavor, it’s the endless days of overcast skies. It’s just hard to stay upbeat and pleasant with so many dreary days in a row! When the sun finally does come out, though, everything seems happier, even the birds are smiling!! All seems right with the world… until it isn’t.
On Wednesday, January 6, 2021, the sun was expected to shine all day. I absolutely couldn’t wait to get outside and take pictures! And even though it was going to be the coldest day ever, I had to get out of the house with my camera to see what I could find.
In order to insulate myself against the frigid temperatures, though, I wore three long-sleeved shirts, one fleece jacket, one wind-breaker, one winter coat, two pairs of gloves, one scarf, two hats, and a pair of over-boots to keep my feet from freezing. Inside each pocket of my coat were rechargeable hand-warmers! I was well insulated against the cold, but not well insulated against the breaking news on the radio as I drove home from my blissful day of picture taking.
The Capitol building of our beloved country was under siege by armed insurgents who were hell bent on overthrowing our election and doing as much damage as possible along the way—smashing windows, breaking down doors, destroying historic property, threatening the lawmakers and beating one Capitol police officer to death. It wasn’t until I got home and turned on the TV that I saw the full extent of the mayhem, hate and carnage that was still taking place.
In the span of just a few short minutes, my peaceful day among the birds had been totally upended and set on fire.
Today, as I look back through the pictures I took on January 6th, I am reminded of all the beauty that still exists in the world. And, I am reminded as well that beauty is not always easy to find or even easy to hang on to once you do find it, but it’s always worth looking for.
I came across the phrase, wandering with a sense of wonder, while researching ideas for my previous blog, Photography as Meditation. Alice Donovan Rouse, in her blog titled Photography and Meditation wrote, “I realized that wandering with a sense of wonder embodies the same methodology as yoga—it’s an exercise in focus and acceptance of whatever it is we may encounter along the way.”
That’s exactly how I envision my ‘picture walks’ –as wandering with a sense of wonder. On most of my ventures, I set out with no particular goal in mind other than to find whatever it is that I think is pretty or interesting– and take a picture. It might be a beautiful bird or butterfly, but it might just as easily be a rock or a fungus. It might even be a single sound that catches my attention and sends me off in a different direction.
About two weeks ago, I was out taking pictures at the Wolf Lake State Fish Hatchery in Mattawan, Michigan, and was mystified by a sound in the distance, a sound I had never heard before. At first, I thought it might be a bird or maybe even an injured animal, but quickly divested myself of that idea when I decided it didn’t sound like any living thing on this planet! It sounded more like something from outer space!
My curiosity was getting the better of me when I spotted two people in the distance bending down close to the ground as if they were examining something quite small. When they stood up, it appeared as if they were throwing these things into the pond— and that’s when the strange noises began! It happened again and again as they threw stuff into the pond. They were far too distant for me to see exactly what they were throwing, but the most likely answer was rocks. All of a sudden, the proverbial light went off in my head! They were throwing stones across anice-covered pond!! Fascinating!
Once the couple had moved out of range, I started experimenting for myself. The first rock I found was too small and made a disappointing ‘click-click-click’ sound across the pond. The second stone was too big and crashed unceremoniously through the thin ice. After a dozen or so rocks of various sizes and two small ponds with varying degrees of ice, I decided that a rock that was a little smaller than my fist made the best ‘pew-pew-pew’ sound as it skittered across the ice. Take a listen…
Once I returned home and could do a little research on the subject, I found an article by Mark Mancini titled, Skipping Stones on Ice Makes Crazy Sci-Fi Sounds, where he describes the sounds of this phenomenon perfectly “Skip a stone across a frozen lake and you might hear a high-pitched sound that’s both familiar and otherworldly. It’s like the chirp of an exotic bird or a laser blast from a galaxy far, far away.”
I also learned that the phenomenon itself is “… a classic example of acoustic dispersion. Sound waves are made up of multiple frequencies, including high ones and low ones. When a sound travels through air, its component frequencies usually travel together at the same rate, so they all reach the human ear more or less simultaneously. But sometimes, when a sound wave passes through a solid medium (like ice), those high and low frequencies get separated. Being faster, the high-frequency wavelengths zip ahead of their low-frequency counterparts. As a result, you may hear a gap between the high notes and the low notes contained within the same sound. That’s acoustic dispersion in a nutshell.” How interesting!
If you ultimately decide that you’d like to try chucking rocks yourself, I’ve read that extra-large expanses of ice lend themselves particularly well to acoustic dispersion, and that you should probably stand a good distance away from the iced-over body of water for the very best effect.
If you want to see the ultimate in stone skipping across ice, watch this video by Cory Williams as he tosses rocks onto an ice-covered lake in Alaska. He apparently struck internet gold when he posted this video in 2014. (Fast forward the video to the 3:50 mark if you want to skip the intro and just see him throwing the rocks.)
The idea of photography as meditation has been mulling around in my head for quite some time now. The more I go out to take pictures, the more it feels like a form of meditation.
Meditation is commonly described as a “practice where an individual uses a technique – such as mindfulness, or focusing the mind on a particular object, thought, or activity – to train attention and awareness, and achieve a mentally clear and emotionally calm and stable state.”