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:

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
Ruby-throated Hummingbird on Trumpet Vine

I am not a Winter person. It’s not that I don’t love a beautiful snowfall or a long walk through a silent, snow-covered woods. I do. But, I miss the vibrant colors! I miss the long, lazy days of sunlight where the fields are awash with flowers. I miss the bright orange monarchs settling into a bed of purple asters, the ruby red Meadowhawks perched delicately against a muted backdrop of goldenrod, and the tiny blue damselflies showing off their colors against a sea of green leaves. 

Male Autumn Meadowhawk dragonfly
White-tailed Deer

Come winter, there will still be beautiful things to photograph, but the array of colors will be much harder to come by, as will the days of pleasant weather suitable enough for taking pictures.

Milkweed seeds in the wind

Rather than dread the coming of winter, though, with its shorter days and color-deprived landscape, I am doing my best to savor the sunny days as they come; the colorful dragonflies and butterflies as they linger, and the waning days of long walks unencumbered by bulky layers of winter clothing!

Mallard on the wing
Bald Eagle

It seems a bit like life itself, I guess. We need to savor what we have while we have it; to not waste valuable real estate in our brains worrying about what the future might bring; and to remember that even on the most monochromatic days, one small cardinal can brighten the entire landscape!

Northern Cardinal enjoying a November snowfall

It’s All Practice!

September 8, 2021

I recently ‘celebrated’ the one-year anniversary of my newest camera, a Nikon D500, and wondered how many pictures I had taken over the past 12 months. In camera terms, those pictures are referred to as shutter actuations. The process for determining shutter actuations for any digital camera is quite simple. For my Nikon D500, I had to first clear my memory card of all pictures, take one shot, and then upload that shot to the website In a matter of seconds, I had my answer!

Great Spangled Fritillary Butterfly
My favorite amphibian, the American Bullfrog!
A beautiful Eastern Tiger Swallowtail on Butterfly Bush

Over the course of this past year, I have taken 47,294 pictures, which averages out to 129 pictures a day! This may seem like a huge number, but it doesn’t surprise me. My last camera was well over its recommended lifespan of 100,000 pictures before I decided that it might be time to look for a new camera!

Common Green Darner Dragonfly shortly after emerging

I go for picture walks almost every day —partly for the exercise and partly for the pictures. In truth, though, I need the exercise more than I need the pictures, but I love the pictures more than I do the exercise!  It’s not that I need another picture of a robin, or a frog, or a butterfly —I just love being outdoors, observing nature, and taking pictures! So, instead of heading out with the expectation that I will find something new or different, or exciting, I just consider every picture walk a ‘practice session’. Every day is different, even if the subject matter is the same.

Ruby-throated Hummingbird
Hummingbird Clearwing Moth on Bee Balm

For me, the ‘practice’ part of taking pictures involves three basic settings: ISO, f-stop, and shutter speed. I make adjustments to one or all of those settings every time I take a picture.  If I’m lucky, the subject I’m trying to capture will sit still for a minute while I pause to adjust one setting or the other. If I’m not so lucky, I’ll only get one chance and hope for the best! When I go through my pictures at the end of the day, I’ll evaluate which settings worked and which ones didn’t—and hopefully remember what I’ve learned the next time I go out!

Cardinal Fledgling looking somewhat apprehensive
Ruby-throated Hummingbird on Orange Jewelweed

It’s a bit of a game for me, really; one that I thoroughly enjoy. How often can I get the settings right on the first try? How often can I get the settings right after only a few adjustments? My end goal is to have as many pictures as possible that won’t need editing —which would be an indication that I’m getting better at predicting which settings are needed for any given picture.

Green Heron voicing his opinion!
Great White Egret– a rare sight for me!

That’s not to say that I don’t enjoy editing, I do! There are only a few features I know how to use and they serve me well: cropping, saturating, darkening, lightening, sharpening, and cloning. Of those six features, my very favorite is cloning! Cloning allows me to remove unwanted things from a picture that I couldn’t actually remove when I took the shot —like branches, leaches, bugs, and poop! Just the other day, I took a sharp, clear picture of a grasshopper perched nicely on a leaf, but there was poop all over the leaf! It seemed like an otherwise flawless picture, so, I used my cloning tool to replace all the unsightly dibs and dabs by copying the clear, green parts of the leaf and covering up the excrement!

Mallard Duck on a clear, calm morning

It doesn’t really matter to me that I already have thousands of pictures of bullfrogs, or bluebirds, or bunnies, I’ll still go out again tomorrow, and the next day, and the next because it’s fun, and because it’s all good practice!

Sandhill Crane, always a delight to see!!

Every once in a while, I’ll catch something new out there and all that practice pays off!!

Orchard Oriole, another rare find for me!

Stop, Look and Listen

July 31, 2021

When I was a child, the phrase “Stop, look and listen” was the mantra drilled into our heads to keep us safe as we approached a street crossing. That phrase often floats back into my head when I’m out taking pictures—not as a warning to keep me safe, but as a reminder to pay attention to all the beautiful and interesting things around me.

American Goldfinch
Green Heron

The more I thought about this phrase, though, the more I wondered if I had ever really heard it as a kid or if it was just another one of those jumbled childhood memories that pop into my head periodically! So, I Googled it! What I found surprised me.

American Bullfrog
Juvenile Great Blue Heron

The first item to come up was a YouTube video of the Stylistics singing “Stop, look, listen (to your heart)” from 1971. I remember the Stylistics, but I was already twenty-four years old by the time that song was popular!  The Stylistics’ video was followed by a Marvin Gaye video, followed by a raft of cartoons and a long Wikipedia summary of all the different ways “Stop, look and listen” had been used across the years including a Broadway musical from 1915! I got totally sidetracked before I finally came across this…

“As a child, you may remember learning to Stop, Look, Listen, and Think before crossing the road. This simple saying has been used across the globe to teach young children the importance of road safety. Before you cross the street, you should Stop a safe distance from the road, Look both ways, Listen for oncoming traffic, and Think through different scenarios. Then and only then should you cross the road.”

Barn Swallow
White-tailed deer fawn

I had not remembered the “Think” part of that phrase, but was happy to learn that, “Stop, look and listen” was not just a figment of my imagination, but a real directive that had been taught to children all over the world! Who knew that seventy years later it would become a helpful photography tip!

Cedar Waxwing
Indigo Bunting

When I’m out on a picture walk, the most important part of that phrase is the word ‘stop’; if I just stand still long enough, Mother Nature will get back to whatever it was she doing before I disrupted her. More often than not, there will be an unexpected surprise waiting for me—like an elusive Kingfisher, or a Ruby-throated Hummingbird!

Belted Kingfisher
Barn Swallow fledgling waiting to be fed

The second part of the mantra, “look” has never been a problem for me. I am always looking — even when I’m driving down the highway at 70 miles an hour, I’m looking. I can spot a red-tailed hawk at the top of a utility pole from more than a hundred yards away –but, in those particular instances, I don’t stop!!

Red-tailed Hawk
Ebony Jewelwing Damselfly

It’s that word “listen” that trips me up! I am often so focused on looking for things, that I forget to listen; to pay attention to the sounds around me. They are, after all, another potential picture source. I’m not very good at identifying birds by their sounds and it doesn’t help my identification skills that most birds are hiding in the trees when they decide to belt out a song!

Common Grackle
Rose-breasted Grosbeak

All I really need to remember, though, is to just ‘stop’! Eventually, that singing bird will emerge and, if I’m lucky, I’ll get a picture! If I’m really, really, lucky, I’ll remember the song!!

Yellow Warbler peeking out from behind a leaf

Rainy Days

June 25, 2021

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!

This is a Botfly, also known as warble fly, heel fly, and a gadfly.
I thought it was an interesting bug to find.
Unfortunately, the larvae of the botflies are internal parasites of mammals.

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!

A beautiful male Pileated Woodpecker in our nearby woods
Eastern Kingbird fanning its tail

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.

A very wet Blue Jay in our backyard!

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.

A Zebra Longwing photographed at the Sarett Nature Center Butterfly House in Benton Harbor, Michigan.
The Zebra Longwing is native to South and Central America

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.

A baby Kingbird wanting more food!