No Two Days

August 15, 2019

Even though I sometimes get tired of going back to the same preserves over and over again, the truth is, no two days are ever the same. The location may be the same but everything else is up for grabs—the weather, the time of day, which creatures decide to show up and whether I can even get the settings right on my camera!

Barn Swallows
My favorite photo this week!
Red-tailed Hawk at the top of a tree
8 Point Buck!
Great Blue Heron

This past week, I went back to the Wolf Lake State Fish Hatchery twice, the Chipman Preserve twice and three other places for repeat visits, but not in the same week—the Kalamazoo Nature Center,  Western Michigan University’s Business Technology and Research Park, and Asylum Lake Preserve.

Wild Turkey heading for cover!
American Goldfinch and a Field Sparrow

The good thing about going back to the same place over and over again, though,  is that I get to know the patterns and routines of some of it’s inhabitants, particularly the birds. In the last three visits to the Wolf Lake State Fish Hatchery, for instance, a small green heron has been fishing in the same pond, on the same log and at the same time every single day! I could practically set my watch by the regularity of his fishing expeditions.

Green Heron on his daily fishing expedition
Brown Thrasher
Three Painted Turtles

Also at the Wolf Lake State Fish Hatchery, I’m guaranteed to find a Kingfisher or two hanging out around the back ponds. Unfortunately, kingfishers are very astute birds and can hear (or see) me coming long before I even leave the house! They are very good at making themselves unavailable for any kind of photo shoot. So, I have decided that, in order to get any kind of worthwhile pictures of a Kingfisher, I’m going to have to set up a bird blind at the hatchery– or just stand in one place, camera in hand, until my next birthday.

Female Red-winged Blackbird on Sumac

Another benefit of going to the same place repeatedly is that it increases the likelihood of noticing something that’s out of kilter, or not typical. On one of my repeat visits this week, it was a small blue speck in a tree that looked out of place.  That small blue speck turned out to be an Indigo Bunting! I rarely ever see them and was happy to get several reasonably good shots before he flew away.

Bumblebee and a Hummingbird Moth on Bee Balm
Pearl Crescents on Butterfly Weed
Close-up of a Silver Spotted Skipper (photo by Mel Church)

Also, as a regular visitor to our local preserves and sanctuaries, I sometimes run into other birders who have shown me the location of birds I would never have found on my own, like a Red-eyed Vireo, a Prothonotary Warbler and, most recently, a yellow billed cuckoo (Who knew we even had Cuckoos in Michigan??).

Autumn Meadowhawk dragonfly

So, when I start out on a picture walk to a place I’ve been a million times before, I sometimes have to give myself a little pep talk so I don’t feel ho-hum about the same old place. My pep talk goes something like this…

“Even if you don’t find something new, this is a great place for a walk!” or

“This might be the day you get the best picture ever!” or

“This might be the day you get a picture of an eagle, or a cuckoo or even a blue footed booby!”

Field Sparrow
American Goldfinch on Thistle

It’s all good though,  I always find something interesting, even if it’s not new. And, if nothing else, I get some exercise—although, with all the stopping I do to take a picture, it sometimes takes me three hours to walk a mile! My Picture Walks might more accurately be called Picture Shuffles!

Painted Lady
Black Swallowtail on Thistle

Eight Walks

August 8, 2019

1. Oshtemo Public Library, Oshtemo, Michigan

I am always looking for someplace new to take pictures, but it isn’t always easy. Sometimes, it takes a little creativity to come up with a new venue and Mel got the prize for coming up with the Oshtemo Public Library as a possible photo walk opportunity. On the surface, a library seems like an odd choice– but this one was surrounded by wild flowers! So we grabbed our cameras and headed out the door.

My best picture for the day came quite by accident. While I was trying to be creative and shoot a flower from the ground up, a beautiful Tiger Swallowtail landed on top of it! What luck! I was so shocked, though, I almost lost the shot!

Eastern Tiger Swallowtail on a Coneflower

2. Portman Preserve, Paw Paw, Michigan

The Portman Nature Preserve is one of almost two dozen preserves in southwest Michigan that are maintained by the Southwest Michigan Land Conservancy. I’ve been to Portman many, many times, but there’s always something new to discover. Today it was all the butterflies and hummingbird moths flitting among the wildflowers near the parking lot!

Viceroy

3. Wolf Lake State Fish Hatchery, Mattawan, MI

The Wolf Lake State Fish Hatchery is one of my very favorite places to visit. With dozens of ponds scattered around the property and lots of places to hide in the surrounded bushes and trees, it’s a great haven for birds, butterflies, dragonflies, foxes, frogs, turtles, rabbits, deer– and a few snakes. I never run out of things to photograph here!

Great Blue Heron
Caspian Tern passing through our area– a real surprise!
Young Eastern Kingbird

4. Kellogg Bird Sanctuary, Augusta, MI

Kellogg Bird Sanctuary is another great place for a picture walk. In addition to large flocks of geese, swans and ducks, the bird sanctuary is home to many other smaller birds as well as a variety of birds that are just migrating through. On today’s visit, though, I mostly took pictures of butterflies!

Baby Barn Swallows
Just before leaving the Kellogg Bird Sanctuary’s Visitor’s Center, I spotted these baby barn swallows, five in all, crammed into a little nest close to the ceiling of the breezeway.
Eastern Tiger Swallowtail

5. Kalamazoo Nature Center, Kalamazoo, MI

There are a variety of different habitats to visit at the Kalamazoo Nature Center including prairies, woods and gardens. Today, Mel and I both visited the Butterfly Garden as well as the nearby wildflower patches on the edges of the entry road. Both areas were bursting with butterflies, but my favorite catch of the day was a hummingbird!

Ruby-throated Hummingbird
Ruby-throated Hummingbird

6. Paul Henry, Thornapple River Trail, Middleville, MI

I first learned about this trail along the Thornapple River last fall when Mel and I participated in a Woodpecker Festival! Since then, I’ve made a point of driving up to Middleville a few more times to take picture walks. It’s an easy walk along a paved trail and lots of different birds are attracted to the area in and around the Thornapple River. Here’s what I found…

Red-headed Woodpecker– my favorite catch of the day!
Blue Dasher Dragonfly
Seven Turtles (can you find #7?)
Two-headed turtle– or big turtle on top of smaller turtle?

7. Gagie School Garden, Kalamazoo, MI

Along one of the main roads into downtown Kalamazoo, is a small garden that was created by the nearby, privately owned Gagie School. It is a beautiful patch of color along a busy commercial road…

A tattered American Lady butterfly
Monarch butterfly

8. Wau-Ke-Na, William Erby Smith Preserve, Fennville, MI

The Wau-Ke-Na Preserve (“forest-by-the-water”) is another one of the natural areas being maintained and preserved for future generations by the Southwest Michigan Land Conservancy. There are two different sections to the preserve made up of a north and a south tract. Mel and I took the south tract today and ambled along a well mowed trail through prairie grasslands which were adjacent to forested areas. We heard a lot of birds in the nearby trees but weren’t able to capture many. They were too elusive. The butterflies, however, were close at hand and infinitely more cooperative!

The mowed paths at Wau-Ke-Na Preserve
Eastern Kingbird high in a tree
Eastern Black Swallowtail

With so many beautiful things to see out there, it’s hard for me to even sit for awhile in my comfortable chair writing this. Fortunately, my chair faces a sliding glass door where I can look up periodically and be entertained by all the birds coming to our feeders or hanging out in the nearby trees–Red-winged Blackbirds, Chickadees, Bluejays, Grackles, Cardinals, Baltimore Orioles, Nuthatches, Tufted Titmice, Downy Woodpeckers, Red-bellied Woodpeckers, House Finches and the ubiquitous little Sparrows. What a feast!

Oh the Places You’ll Go!

July 30, 2019

Dr. Seuss’s children’s book, Oh the Places You’ll Go! came to mind this evening as I was reviewing all the places I’ve been these past 10 days on picture walks:  Western Michigan University’s Business Technology and Research Park, which is right next door, Asylum Lake Preserve, which is right across the street, the Kalamazoo Nature Center, Ft. Custer State Park in Augusta, Wolf Lake State Fish Hatchery in Mattawan, Calvin Ecosystem Preserve & Native Gardens in Grand Rapids, Wau-ke-na Preserve in South Haven,  and the Oshtemo Public Library just down the road!

We are very fortunate, I think, to have so many beautiful places near at hand to explore— but, even a small backyard can be an inviting place for birds, butterflies and other creatures to visit if the environment is enticing enough for them to stay for awhile. Sometimes I enjoy just standing outside our back door ‘capturing’ all the birds as they sit in the trees before flying in to eat at our feeders.  Our backyard itself is insignificant, but the communal yards of our condo development abut the edge of a woods and small creek– making it a haven for a large variety of birds, a small herd of deer and a rafter of wild turkeys. So even if I never left our our yard or our neighborhood, I’d still have lots of opportunities for pictures!

Every time I go out to explore, whether I wander near or far, I always wonder what I’ll find. Here’s the rest of what I found this week….

A beautiful fawn wondering what the heck I’m doing in his neighborhood!
House Wren with a Praying Mantis for dinner
Slaty Blue Dragonfly
Mama Wood Duck and her brood
Green Heron with a tiny fish
Northern Rough-winged Swallows
Monarch Butterfly on Coneflower
Eastern Tiger Swallowtail
Eastern Tiger Swallowtail

Zooming In

July 23, 2019

Every time I sling my camera over my shoulder to go on a picture walk, I’m excited by the possibilities of what I might find. In the back of my mind, I’m always hoping that I’ll find something new. More often than not, I find something I’ve already seen before. The joy in that, though, is learning something new every time I watch a creature in its natural environment.

Viceroy Butterfly
Viceroy and Monarch Butterflies look very similar but the Viceroy has a black line across the hind wings and the Monarch does not. The Viceroy is also a bit smaller than the Monarch. Also, the caterpillars of these two butterflies are significantly different in appearance.
Canada Geese
I just liked the way these geese looked lined up along the shore with such a clear reflection.

Today, for instance. I was standing on the shoreline of one of the ponds at the Wolf Lake State Fish Hatchery observing dozens of swallows swooping through the air catching bugs. As I was watching, I noticed that some of the birds were taking  breaks in a nearby tree—so I zoomed in. To my surprise none of  the birds in the tree were swallows! They were cedar waxwings! I had never seen cedar waxwings swooping and diving over a body of water like that—or maybe I had always assumed the birds I was looking at were swallows! It was nearly impossible for me to tell the difference between the swallows and the waxwings as they quickly flew through the air snatching insects.

A beautiful Cedar Waxwing

While I was standing on the shore observing the swallows and waxwings, I noticed a small yellow bird flitting around sporadically in the underbrush below me. My heart skipped a beat! I thought for sure it was a Prothonotary Warbler like the one I had seen in the exact same spot last year. Back then, I had been so excited to find a bird I had never seen before– and then profoundly disappointed to find the battery on my camera was dead! In my naiveté, I thought if I rushed home for a new battery and then rushed back (40 minutes minimum), the bird would still be there.  It was a huge long shot for sure, but I had nothing to lose. Surprisingly, though, I made it back in time to get the shot!  Today’s bird, however, was not a Prothonotary Warbler, but a Yellow Warbler—equally cute but not particularly rare.

A lovely Yellow Warbler

After a million or so pictures of the Yellow Warbler and the Cedar Waxwings, I decided I needed to get a little exercise –it was, after all, a picture walk, and I had been standing in the same place for over an hour! Within 100 yards, though, I had to stop again because I spotted even more swallows swooping over an adjacent pond– with dozens more perched in a nearby tree along the bank. When I zoomed in on them individually, I could identify Bank Swallows, Northern Rough-Winged Swallows, Barn Swallows and Tree Swallows! I didn’t even know they all hung out together!

Barn Swallow
Northern Rough-winged Swallow

As it turns out, I got very little exercise today, but tons of pictures! To make up for the walking shortfall, Mel and I went for a stroll in our neighborhood later in the day. As part of our itinerary, we stopped at our local Prairie Garden– and immediately spotted two Hummingbird Moths! They are such beautiful insects and I hardly ever see them– so I couldn’t wait to finish our walk and grab my camera! Not only were the two moths still there when I returned almost an hour later, they positioned themselves in just the right spot for pictures—plus they stayed around long enough for me to experiment with different settings so that I could freeze the wing action and get the right exposure. I was quite happy with the results.

Hummingbird Moth
Hummingbird Moth
Hummingbird Moth

In spite of all the pictures I took today, I didn’t find anything new– but I certainly had a great time looking!

Heat Wave

July 21, 2019

It’s been a hot and steamy week with periodic bouts of rain, but I still managed to squeeze in a picture walk every day except Friday. It was just too hot to enjoy much of anything that day! The temperature peaked at 93 degrees and the heat index, or how it really felt outside, topped 100 degrees!  I expect even the birds and the bees thought twice about expending any extra energy flitting about in that heat!

Sunday July 14, 2019

Kalamazoo Nature Center, 7000 N Westnedge Ave, Kalamazoo, MI

The Kalamazoo Nature Center is one of my favorite places to go for a picture walk. There are so many different habitats to visit and more than 14 miles of hiking trails. For today’s picture walk, I spent all my time in the Tall Grass Prairie looking primarily for birds but finding mostly flowers, butterflies and dragonflies.

Silver Spotted Skipper on Bee Balm
1/1000 sec, f/7.1, ISO 500
Coneflower
1/1000 sec, f/7.1, ISO 500
Twelve Spotted Skimmer, female
1/800 sec, f/7.1, ISO 400

Monday July 15, 2019

Al Sabo Land Preserve, 6310 Texas Drive, Kalamazoo MI

Ten days ago when Mel and I last visited the Al Sabo Preserve, we were blown away by how many different dragonflies there were: Blue Dashers, Calico Pennants, Common Whitetails, Dot-tailed Whitefaces, Eastern Pondhawks, Halloween Pennants, Spangled Skimmers, Twelve-spotted Skimmers and Widow Skimmers. That may not seem like enough to blow us away, but the male and female dragonflies of each type look totally different from each another so it always seems as if there are twice as many different types!

Dot-tailed Whiteface Dragonfly
1/500 sec, f/6.3, ISO 800
Spangled Skimmer
1/500 sec, f/8, ISO 800

There are apparently over 5000 different dragonflies and damselflies worldwide and about 162 different species in Michigan. I’ve found a wide variety of them, but nowhere near the state total!

Twelve Spotted Skimmer, male
1/640 sec, f/6.3, ISO 640
Widow Skimmer, male
1/800 sec, f/6.3, ISO 640

Today, though, when I walked the bike trail that skirts the woods and the meadows of Al Sabo preserve, there didn’t seem to be the same abundance of dragonflies as there had been a little over a week ago, but I still enjoyed my walk and was pleased to find an Eastern Comma butterfly, which I rarely see

Eastern Comma Butterfly
1/800 sec, f/6.3, ISO 1000

Tuesday July 16

Western Michigan University, Business Technology and Research Park, Intersection of Drake and Parkview Rd., Kalamazoo, MI

I particularly love this little ‘park’ –partly because it’s right next door and partly because I’m guaranteed to find something interesting –- Great Blue Herons and Swans, Barn Swallows and Tree swallows, Killdeer and ‘regular’ Deer, Frogs, Turtles, Geese and Goldfinches, and once upon a time, an elusive Green Heron. Even though it is not a ‘park’ in the strictest sense of the word, the green spaces around all the different buildings have been so well designed with an abundance of wildflowers and several ponds that it is a definite haven for a wide variety of birds, butterflies, amphibians and mammals.

Barn Swallow
1/640 sec, f/6.3, ISO 640
Cedar Waxwing
1/1000 sec, f/6.3, ISO 640
Local deer giving me the raspberries!
1/800 sec, f/6.3, ISO 500
Mute Swan
1/320 sec, f/6.3, ISO 800

Wednesday July 17

Kensington Metro Park Nature Center, 4570 Huron River Parkway
Milford, MI 48380

Kensington Metro Park is about 2 hours from our home, but since it is on the way to visiting our grandson, I make a point of stopping in for a picture walk every time I travel to that side of the state. It’s a unique environment with an active heron rookery, friendly Sandhill Cranes, fearless Songbirds, Red-winged Blackbirds and Woodpeckers who eagerly pester you to feed them out of hand, and an elusive white deer! I always find something of interest to photograph at Kensington.

Ruby-throated Hummingbird
1/1000 sec, f/6, ISO 640
Great Blue Heron high up in the Rookery
1/500 sec, f/6.3, ISO 500
Thistle
1/640 sec, f/6.3, ISO 500

Thursday July 18

Asylum Lake Preserve, Intersection of Drake and Parkview Rd., Kalamazoo, MI

The Asylum Lake Preserve, like the WMU Business Technology and Research Park is within walking distance from my home.  Unlike the business park, though, the Asylum Lake Preserve is an undeveloped tract of land made up of prairies and woods and a small lake. I enjoy walking the trails through the tall grasses looking for new or unusual insects or looking up in the surrounding trees for a bird I haven’t seen before. On one very rare occasion,  I saw a Black-billed Cuckoo. Up until that day, I didn’t even know we had cuckoos in Michigan! Today I managed to capture a rarely seen hummingbird moth, a never seen Northern Pearly-eye butterfly and my very first Spicebush Swallowtail for the season.

Hummingbird Moth
1/1250 sec, f/6.3, ISO 800
Hummingbird Moth
1/1600 sec, f/6.3, ISO 1000
Northern Pearly-eye Butterfly
(shot with a flash)
Spicebush Swallowtail Butterfly
1/1250 sec., f/6, ISO 800
Common Whitetail, male
1/640 sec, f/9, ISO 640
Slaty Skimmer, female
1/800 sec., f/6.3, ISO 1250

Friday July 19, 2019

The heat index topped 100 degrees today! I never went out to take pictures!

Saturday July 20, 2019

Kalamazoo Nature Center, 7000 N Westnedge Ave, Kalamazoo, MI

Mel and I both went out for a picture walk early this morning before it got beastly hot. It still got hot, but not beastly so. Both of us had been hoping to find some of the beautiful Swallowtail butterflies like we had seen this time last year at the Nature Center. But, it was either too early in the day or too early in the season to find them, because we never spotted a single one. Last year at this time, there were dozens of Tiger Swallowtails and Giant Swallowtails flitting around here and there over all the beautiful wildflowers along the entry road. What we found instead was a Ruby-throated hummingbird, a Blue-grey Gnatcatcher, a House Wren, an Eastern Phoebe and a few Cedar Waxwings. I’ll have to go back in a few days to see if I can catch the butterflies again!

House Wren
1/800 sec., f/6.3, ISO 640
Ruby-throated Hummingbird taking a rest high in a tree
1/1000 sec., f/6.3, ISO 800

Of Kingfishers and Dragonflies

July 13, 2019

If Kingfishers were more like dragonflies, I wouldn’t have to work so hard trying to get a picture! Dragonflies are abundant. Kingfishers are not. Dragonflies let me stand close and take dozens of pictures. Kingfishers notice my presence from a hundred yards away and take off. Dragonflies eventually take off but come right back to the same spot and pose again. Kingfishers disappear.

A beautiful blue Slaty Skimmer
One of my favorite dragonflies, a Widow Skimmer, male

Today was a perfect example. As I was walking slowly through the Wolf Lake State Fish Hatchery in search of something interesting to photograph, I noticed a ‘blip’ out of the corner of my eye and froze—hoping not to startle whatever it might be. It was a barely visible belted kingfisher hunkered down on a tree limb! Rarely do I see them before they see me and this one was close enough (within 15 yards) for a decent picture– if I zoomed in all the way and was stealthy enough not to scare him.

Another Beautiful Widow Skimmer, male
The Red Admirals were flitting around with the dragonflies.
I waited around for a long time hoping to get a picture of this bullfrog catching one of the dozens of dragonflies fluttering around him, but he just sat like this forever!!

Ever so slowly, I started lifting my camera –maybe an inch, maybe two, and he was gone! That was all it took! Kingfishers are so incredibly perceptive—and skittish. Or maybe it’s just me. Mel said that the kingfishers he saw along the Kalamazoo river while he was canoeing this week were easy to spot and didn’t fly away when he approached. Hmmm. Whatever the reason, I’d lost my chance. Maybe if I had a duck blind and a year’s worth of patience, I could get the perfect shot, but I have neither.

Widow Skimmer, female
A lovely European Starling in the sunlight
I managed to catch a few of the beautiful, buttery yellow Cedar Waxwings on my walk today.

So I continued my languid walk in the late afternoon heat hoping some other birds would be more cooperative. It didn’t take long before I spotted three swallows sitting on a branch over the water, but they were on the wrong side of the sun and difficult to photograph. I tried anyway.

One of the swallows I managed to capture just before hearing the distinctive sound of a nearby Kingfisher.

Not long into my attempt to photograph the swallows, I heard it, the distinctive and strident rattle of a nearby kingfisher! (https://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/Belted_Kingfisher/sounds)

Slowly, I turned my camera in the direction of the sound and saw my kingfisher diving into the pond in search of dinner. Once the bird emerged from the water, I was able to follow its flight path into a tree on the edge of the pond. Unfortunately, the bird was so far away, all I could see was a small white dot in a sea of green. When she dove in again, I tried to follow her path with my camera– but at 25 miles an hour, it was mostly folly. Eventually, when the kingfisher landed on my side of the pond, I took a million and a half pictures hoping that one or two might actually turn out. She was still pretty far away.

Belted Kingfisher, female
Belted Kingfisher, female

If this kingfisher had been a dragonfly, she would have landed within 10 feet of me. She would have stood around patiently for a variety of poses, flown away briefly and then come back for a few more shots. As it was, I was left with a super elusive bird that hates to have its picture taken and never hangs around for a minute if there’s any chance at all that someone might be watching!

This is what a kingfisher looks like from across the pond using a 600mm lens!
A kingfisher fishing
“Many young kingfishers die within days of fledging,
their first dives leaving them waterlogged so they end up drowning.”

The Third Bird

July 9, 2019

At the very end of the day yesterday, I wandered over the Wolf Lake State Fish Hatchery in Mattawan, Michigan. I hadn’t been there in quite awhile and I wondered what I might find.

This beautiful plant is a new one for me. It’s called a Great Willowherb.
According to my app, iNaturalist, this is an American Black Elderberry

Not long into my walk, I saw (and heard!) a couple of Eastern Kingbirds flying overhead. They were squawking pretty insistently and hanging out near a tree where I had frequently seen them last year. With all the squawking and hovering, I figured there must be babies nearby, so I decided to stick around for awhile, but not too close. Once I stood still, the birds did too. They found branches to sit on and, except for a few forays into the air to catch bugs, they stood guard– or at least that’s what I assumed they were doing.

Mom and Dad Kingbird keeping watch

Several times during my bird ‘vigil’, I attempted to pull myself away. But I just couldn’t. There’s something about a beautiful bird sitting cooperatively in a tree on a clear, sunny afternoon, that makes it hard for me to leave. So I didn’t.

The eastern kingbird (Tyrannus tyrannus) is a large tyrant flycatcher native to North America.
The call of the Eastern Kingbird is a high-pitched, buzzing and unmusical chirp,
frequently compared to an electric fence!

My patience eventually paid off! Hidden deep in the leafy branches of the tree were the two little birds that mama and papa had been squawking about earlier.  The two ‘babies’ were sitting quietly on a branch tucked away safely in the middle of the tree. Fortunately, there was a rather large opening in the branches which gave me a pretty clear view of the babies (once I noticed them!) and I proceeded to take an excessive number of pictures. But, if I hadn’t been obsessed with taking so many pictures, I never would have seen the Third Bird! Three baby Kingbirds! What a treat!

Two baby Kingbirds hiding in the tree

The Third Bird!
Vigilant parent keeping watch

It’s easy for me to stop taking pictures of something when the lighting isn’t just right, or the subject is moving too fast, or I can’t quite get the right angle for a good picture, but when everything is ‘just right’, like it was for these little birds and their parents, I find it nearly impossible to pull myself away.

The ‘big picture’. The Third Bird is hidden in the lower left corner, the other two babies are top center, and one of the parents is in the middle right just below the two babies.
These birds aggressively defend their territory, even against much larger birds.

Eventually, though, I just had to move on so that I could enjoy the rest of my walk through the hatchery before the late afternoon shadows grew too long and too dark for any more pictures.

Widow Skimmer Dragonfly
Question Mark Butterfly
Slaty Skimmer Dragonfly
Widow Skimmer Dragonfly