Hoping for a Surprise

June 19,2019

A couple of days ago, Mel and I decided to take advantage of a rare five minute spate of good weather here in Michigan and headed over to one of our favorite picture walk spots, the Wolf Lake State Fish Hatchery. It’s only about 10 miles from our home and, with two dozen ponds, it’s  a great place to find birds, butterflies, dragonflies, turtles, frogs and snakes, so we are frequent visitors.

Male Tree Swallow

On his particular day, though,  I was hard pressed to find anything new or interesting to photograph. Over the years, I’d already taken pictures of every single red-winged blackbird, most of the dragonflies, and all of the geese. I was hoping for a surprise.

Juvenile Tree Swallow sitting in a Mulberry Tree

About an hour into my walk, having only gotten a few flowers and a red-winged blackbird, I was about to call it a wrap. But when I turned the corner on one of the last ponds, I spotted two small birds perched low on a branch about 25 feet away. Taking extreme caution not to scare them, I slowly raised my camera so that I could zoom in on them before they had a chance to fly away. Only they didn’t. So I kept snapping. Every once in awhile, they would flutter their wings, squawk a bit, and open their mouths wide hoping to be fed. These were young tree swallows that had already fledged the nest but were still being fed by their parents.

Two little cuties looking back at me!
“Hey, when do you think dad’s coming back with food?”
“I’m really hungry, aren’t you???”
“MOM! DAD!! We’re hungry!!”

Once I realized that they were waiting to be fed, I hoped I could get a few shots of the parents feeding them– but getting a shot like that would require keeping my camera focused constantly on the two little ones, which would be really hard for me to do without a tripod. My camera, with it’s long 600mm lens, weighs more than six pounds, and to hold it up to my eye for an extended period of time like that would be hard on my back—but I really, really, wanted that shot! So I became my own tripod.

“Here comes the food!!”
“Oh, man!! He missed us!!”
“Look! There he goes!”
“Don’t leave now! They’ll be back soon!”

First I got down on one knee and propped my elbow on the other knee– which relieved my back and steadied the camera—for a minute, until my foot and hip started to fall asleep. So I assumed tripod position #2 and sat down on the ground with both elbows propped on both knees. It worked great– for about 5 minutes. So I went back to what I always do, I stood up.

“Here comes dad with dinner!”
“Feed ME! Feed ME!
“How soon do you think he’ll be back??”
“Thanks, Dad! You’re the best!”
This is the wrong swallow coming in! It’s a Northern Rough-winged Swallow, not a Tree Swallow!
I couldn’t tell if the kids were hoping for food no matter who made the delivery, or if they were yelling at the intruder!

Eventually, I got the shots I wanted of dad flying in to feed the kids– but I had hoped to get even more. Unfortunately, the ‘tripod’ I was using had a manufacture date of 1947 and was about to expire!

Endless Possibilities

June 15, 2019

Song Sparrow

Yesterday. It. Did. Not. Rain. I say this because it seems like it’s been raining forever! So a day without rain seems like nothing short of a miracle. I was prepared to take full advantage of the miracle and the endless possibilities! Should I go for a picture walk at a new preserve or should I go to an old one? Should I drive 40+ miles or stay closer to home? Should I go early in the day or wait until the afternoon? After a long, animated discussion with myself, I decided to go someplace in the afternoon to a place I’d been before that was not close to home– Bernard W. Baker Sanctuary in Bellvue, Michigan, a mere 44 miles away.

Song Sparrow– up close and personal!
Widow Skimmer

It’s pretty hard to convey in words how excited I get anticipating another picture walk—especially if it’s someplace I’ve never been before, or someplace I haven’t been in a long, long time. But the possibilities are endless– even if it’s somewhere I’ve been a million times before! Will I see a new bird or butterfly or moth? Will I get a picture that I’m really, really pleased with? Will the weather cooperate or will it rain on my parade?  

Common Whitetail, female
Northern Crescent

Yesterday, the trail ahead was so incredibly quiet– just the sound of the wind and the birds to soothe me. And I was surrounded by wildflowers– thousands of  delicate yellow blossoms  interspersed with tall, deep purple lupine. Flitting around among the flowers were a variety of butterflies and ethereal looking dragonflies. Then, against a perfectly blue sky I saw cardinals, bluejays, yellow warblers, orioles, kingbirds, sparrows and rose breasted grosbeaks. I didn’t get pictures of most of them, but I sure enjoyed watching them.

Lupine among the yellow Coreopsis
Yellow Warbler

One bird that I did manage to capture was a tree swallow. There were dozens of them flying overhead scooping up insects as they went. I was eager to see if I could get a good shot of one of them in flight– it’s a fun photographic challenge. The swallows, however, were not happy with my plan. Apparently, I was way too close to their nest boxes and they immediately started to dive bomb my camera! I couldn’t believe how fast they were and how close they came to the tip of my lens before veering off! It was unnerving– but I got the picture, both literally and figuratively, and left them alone.

Tree Swallow in flight
Tree Swallow in the nest box

When I go through my pictures at the end of each day, I often turn to Mel with a smile on my face and say, “It’s just like going on a treasure hunt!” I never know what I’m going to find or where I’ll find it, but I almost always bring home something that delights me—sometimes a picture, sometimes a story, sometimes both.

Great Blue Heron
Checkerspot Butterfly

Walk Slowly, Stop Often

June 12, 2019

As I was out walking today, I started thinking about what advice I would give others who might be interested in going on picture walks of their own. The first thing that came to mind was to walk slowly and stop often. It’s what I do every time I’m out taking pictures and it feels very therapeutic—like an antidote to all the stress in the world today.

A beautiful Common Yellow-throat out in the meadow
When this brilliantly colored Bluebird flew past, I thought at first it was an Indigo Bunting!

By walking slowly, I have time to notice all the little things going on around me—a caterpillar climbing up a stem, a small butterfly perched on a flower, a hummingbird taking a break. When I walk slowly, I also try to walk as quietly as I can. If the path is covered in dry, noisy leaves, I look for a grassier edge where I might move more quietly. Walking slowly and quietly also means that I’ll be less likely to scare away the critters that I might like to photograph.

I came upon this chipmunk so quietly that he didn’t realize I was only a few feet away!
Red-spotted Purple Butterfly
Silver-spotted Skipper Butterfly
Great Blue Heron fishing in the mucky water

On any given picture walk, I stop dozens if not hundreds of times—to look around, to observe what’s going on around me, to take in my surroundings– all 360 degrees of it (including the sky above me!). Sometimes I find a place to sit for awhile. It’s amazing how much is happening around me that I am mostly unaware of when I’m on the move or thinking of other things.

Tiger Swallowtail
Spatterdock Darner Dragonfly (I think)

One of the ‘mantras’ running through my head when I’m out taking pictures is “Shoot the way your shadow goes!”  In other words, make sure the sun is behind me. I’m always looking for my shadow when I’m out taking pictures and I often choose which way to turn so that my shadow is in front of me, or at least pointing in the direction of the most favorable pictures.

Young Sandhill Crane
Sad-faced Box Turtle!

Perhaps because I’m relatively new to nature photography, I take an excessive number of pictures– hedging my bets in favor of  getting at least one good shot out of the bunch! With digital photography, there’s nothing to lose with this approach—other than the long hours one might spend sorting through and editing so many pictures. For the most part, though, I enjoy the process.

Twelve-spotted Dragonfly
Barn Swallow on a white bridge

The other thing I’ve learned along the way is to ‘assume nothing’. Just because a bird is small and brown, doesn’t mean it’s just another sparrow, or just because a bird is red, doesn’t mean it’s just another cardinal. If it IS a sparrow or a cardinal, it doesn’t mean I shouldn’t take a picture. Even though sparrows and cardinals are as common as ticks and I already have a million pictures of them, it’s all good practice– and you know what they say about practice!

Baby Goose
Eastern Bluebird with a mouthful of grubs and spiders (?)
Teasel in the waning sunlight

So, walk slowly, stop often– and take a lot of pictures!

Falcon Watch!

June 9, 2019

The other day, Mel and I were invited to be part of a ‘peregrine falcon watch team’ in downtown Kalamazoo. There were three teenage peregrine falcons who were ready to fledge, or leave the nest, within the next few days.

Two of the three juvenile Peregrine Falcons getting ready to fledge

“Since 2010, Peregrine Falcons have been returning to the Fifth Third Bank building in downtown Kalamazoo for nesting. Thanks to the bank, the Michigan Department of Natural Resources, and the efforts of Audubon Society of Kalamazoo (ASK), in 2014, the birds successfully nested in and fledged four chicks from the nesting box installed by the ASK. Then, in January 2015, two cameras and a microphone were installed so that you can now catch live footage as the Peregrine Falcon web camera captures each moment.” https://www.kalamazoofalcons.com/

Peregrine Parent
Peregrine Parent

The nest is on about the 10th floor of a downtown bank building and we would be watching from the roof top of a nearby parking structure. Our job was to see if any of the teenagers took their first flight, and if they did, where they landed and if they were successful—meaning they didn’t crash and burn or land so far down that they couldn’t fly back up to the nest. If they did land on the ground or got hurt, our job was to call Gail and then do our best to rescue the bird or keep it safe until she arrived. A rescue would involve wrapping the bird gently in a towel, putting it in a ventilated covered box and waiting until Gail could return it to the nest on the side of the bank building. Access to the nest requires  going to the 10th floor of the bank building, accessing one of the offices, climbing through a window, and dropping into a deep window well.

Bringing home the bacon!
Feeding the kids

Not surprisingly, Mel and I brought our cameras to this falcon watch assignment. My favorite shots on the first day (although they weren’t the best shots in terms of sharpness) were of the young falcon who was captivated by a carpenter bee zooming all around him. It reminded me of a small child who was totally distracted from the task at hand!

Young falcon distracted by a carpenter bee!

By the very end of my very first watch day, none of the birds had fledged. So I went again the next day, but not early enough! One of the birds had taken flight by 7:30 a.m. and I didn’t get there until 11:00!

After the peregrine took off, it was unclear where he had landed and the folks who had been keeping an eye on him, spent a long time trying to find him. Fortunately, one of the ‘falcon watchers’ lives in the condo unit adjacent to the bank where the nest is located. He tracked down the maintenance worker for the building who readily provided access to the roof where they spotted our young flyer!

By the time I arrived, flyer number one was perched on the edge of a building overlooking one of the busiest and nosiest streets in Kalamazoo– which made us all worry even more that he might take flight again and land in the road. Gail was keeping an eye on him from down on the street while I was keeping watch from the parking garage to see if either of the remaining birds decided to fly. Nobody did.

Parent flying high

Then I went down to the street with Gail and watched the bird on the ledge while someone else watched the other two birds from the parking garage. After an hour or two, I traded places with the person on the parking garage and the bird on the ledge decided to fly! Darn! I missed it! He had flown from his street side perch to a metal tower closer to the parking garage– but I never saw him fly in! Double darn! I did however get a few pictures of him once he landed.

The first falcon out of the nest lands on a metal tower

By 7:00 p.m. of the third day, I was reluctant to leave because I had really, really wanted a picture of one of the juveniles in flight. It was not to be! Oh well, it was a fun watch (albeit tedious at times) and I got an inordinate number of falcon pictures in the process!

A Day Without Rain

May 31, 2019

Today is the last day of May, but the first day of the entire month that I can remember having no rain at all in the forecast!!  Given this rare opportunity, Mel and I didn’t waste any time throwing our camera bags in the trunk of the car and heading out the door by 7:30 a.m. Our destination: South Haven, Michigan– less than an hour away. Our plan: to have fun—and maybe take a few pictures!

Trumpeter Swan and three cygnets (Kellogg Bird Sanctuary)

Our day started out with a tasty breakfast at Six Chicks Scratch Kitchen, followed by a picture walk around our favorite park– where we had once spotted a red-headed woodpecker, and were optimistic about finding him (or maybe his 2nd cousin). Ha!! We didn’t even find a robin!

Northern Flicker (Ott Biological Preserve)

We then took a leisurely walk to the end of the South Haven pier and were delighted to watch as the Friends Good Will tall ship set sail into beautiful Lake Michigan.

On the way to our next picture walk destination, the Kal-Haven Trail, we spotted a huge gaggle of Canada geese—which is totally unremarkable in and of itself, but I spotted a couple of orange beaks in that gaggle and yelled, “Stop the car! Stop the car!” Turns out, our mystery beaks belonged to three rather large Greylag Geese, which are native to Europe and the UK, but not here. Hmm.

Greylag Geese
” The ancestor of most domestic geese, the greylag is the largest and bulkiest of the wild geese
native to the UK and Europe.

Our last walk of the day was through a nearby nature preserve where we had hoped to get a few more pictures of birds and flowers and bugs. What we got was mostly bugs–as in mosquitoes, who wanted to eat us. It was as good a time as any to head back home and feed the dogs!

Surprisingly, the sun was still shining when we returned home around 5:00. Knowing that I still had at least another two hours of sunlight left before our perfect sunny day would be over, I grabbed my camera again and went back outside– this time I just walked next door to Western Michigan University’s Business Technology and Research Park. It’s a good thing I did– or I would have missed the red-winged blackbird taking a break in Einstein’s hair, and the barn swallows sitting nicely on a branch, and the deer grazing in the field, and  the great blue heron catching fish in the pond! That’s the thing I always wonder about– what am I missing if I don’t go out??

Red-winged Blackbird in Einstein’s hair! (WMU’s Business Park)
Beautiful Lupine (WMU’s Business Park)
Mute Swan doing a little house cleaning! (WMU’s Business Park)
Barn Swallow (WMU’s Business Park)
Mallard (WMU’s Business Park)

For all the rainy days leading up to this one coveted dry one, I managed to find blocks of time here and there when I could take short picture walks—at Wolf Lake State Fish Hatchery, the Ott Biological Preserve, Kellogg Bird Sanctuary, or our very own deck! There’s always something interesting to see– but I sure hope Mother Nature comes up with some better circumstances in which to see them!!

Female red-winged blackbird (Wolf Lake State Fish Hatchery)
Tree Swallow (Wolf Lake State Fish Hatchery)
Five Turtles (Wolf Lake State Fish Hatchery)
Bleeding Heart (Wolf Lake State Fish Hatchery)

Magee Marsh, Part Two

May 25, 2019

This is a  follow-up story to the previous post titled Magee Marsh. It would be good to read that one first so you have the back story :-). (https://picturewalks.org/2019/05/22/magee-marsh/)

The beautiful, and very accessible boardwalk at Magee Marsh
A beautiful Cape May Warbler

In spite of the unpredictable weather, my husband and I managed to get in at least four hours of picture-taking at Magee Marsh every day of our three day visit. I took so many pictures of so many birds that it’s taken me almost as many hours to go through them as it did to take them—probably more! On one day alone, I  took over 700! Between the two of us, Mel and I captured almost 40 different varieties of birds! What a treat it was to see so many– and so close at hand!

Bay-breasted Warbler

On one of our birding days, Mel and I also spent a few hours at the Trautman Nature Center, which was just a matter of stepping out the door of  the lodge where we were staying and taking a short walk to the nearby Nature Center and its beautiful 2 mile boardwalk through the marshes and fields.

Chestnut-sided Warbler

Trautman Nature  Center didn’t have the swarms of migrating birds like Magee Marsh, but I was really happy with the few things that I did find — Eastern Screech Owls, a Bald Eagle, a Great Egret and a few good shots of a great blue heron.

Great Blue Heron
Two Juvenile Screech Owls
Great Blue Heron
Bald Eagle

After Trautman, we grabbed a quick lunch and headed over to Magee for one last, memorable visit.

Prothonotary Warbler

Admittedly, there are an inordinate number of pictures here, but it was sooo hard narrowing them down! I tried to stick to just one of each kind– but it sure wasn’t easy! Enjoy!

Eastern Wood PeeWee

Note: I’ve done my best to label these birds correctly, but if you find any errors, please let me know. Thanks.

Magee Marsh

May 22, 2019

A month ago Mel and I went to a Woodpecker Festival in Middleville, Michigan, where we met lots of birdy people like ourselves. When we had lunch with a couple of those folks, they told us about a wonderful birding place in Ohio called Magee Marsh (https://www.mageemarsh.org/).

Magnolia Warbler–a new catch for me!

“Magee Marsh, situated on the southern shore of Lake Erie, is a prime stopover for North American warblers during spring migration.  Every year thousands of birders, photographers, and nature lovers flock to this location in spring to witness the unforgettable spectacle of large songbird concentrations preparing to migrate across the great lake toward their breeding grounds in the north. Magee Marsh is just one of those special places that you have to come back to year after year.”

Canada Warbler

As soon as we got home from the Woodpecker Fest, we checked our calendars and booked a room for four days in May at the Maumee Bay Lodge and Conference Center in Oregon, Ohio– which was also recommended to us by our bird people (https://www.maumeebaylodge.com/). It looked kind of fancy and expensive but the non-weekend, off season rate for old people (aka Senior Citizens) was perfect! And, it was only 2 ½ hours from home!

As soon as we arrived yesterday at 1:00, Mel and I headed straight for the marsh because we basically had to ‘make hay while the sun shines’.  The weather was expected to be intermittently rainy for the duration of our stay and, since  it wasn’t currently raining, we hurried down the road about ten miles to the marsh before something changed!

Luckily, it never rained yesterday. Today, however, it’s raining cats and dogs and I am patiently (or maybe not so patiently) waiting for it to stop so we can go back to Magee.

We spent almost four hours yesterday wandering the beautiful Magee Marsh boardwalk– snapping pictures all the while! The nearby trees and bushes were just teeming with birds, mostly warblers, that were singing  and chirping and flitting this way and that in their quest for food or nesting materials or love. And, even though the birds were plentiful and near at hand, they were hard to capture. Small birds are constantly on the move! I’d no sooner locate one and they’d be gone! Or, I’d snap a picture and they’d be gone between the instant I’d pressed the shutter and the camera took the picture. They’re that fast!

Tennessee Warbler

Walking through the marsh was a magical experience! Most birders are reverentially quiet as they walk silently among the trees hoping not to scare the birds and speaking in whispers to fellow birders. It’s almost like being in a church. Many of us were in awe of all the different birds flitting around and I was equally thrilled with all the new birds I saw— like the Magnolia Warbler, the Blackburnian Warbler, the Blackpoll Warbler and  the Canada Warbler! Some birds I’d never even heard of before, like the Bay-breasted Warbler and the Chestnut-sided Warbler. Mel also caught a Prothonotary Warbler, which I’ve only seen once before! It was an very exciting day!

Prothonotary Warbler

I almost forgot to mention how weird it felt to be among ‘my own kind’! Most of the time when I’m out taking pictures,  people stare at me or make comments about the size of my lens! At Magee Marsh, virtually everyone had a long lens. Some people even had super-ginormous lenses with flash extenders mounted on a monopods! I was no longer self-conscious about my comparatively small equipment– that is, until someone, who thought I knew that I was doing with my long lens, would ask me, “What bird is that you’re shooting?” and I’d very self-consciously reply, “I have no idea!”