I am a 72 year old retired teacher with an avid interest in hiking and photography. I am not a professional photographer, but spend almost every day exploring the natural world and taking pictures and honing my skills. When I review the pictures I have taken, I love researching information about the things I have found-- and then sharing my results with others. The time I have spent walking in the woods (including 4 months on the Appalachian Trail at 68) has always been somewhat therapeutic. When I added photography to the mix a few years ago, it quadrupled the therapeutic effect! Opening pictures on my computer at the end of the day is like opening presents. There are always surprises! It allows me to see so many details that were not visible to my naked eye! I have learned so many new things about birds and bugs, reptiles and mammals that I never knew before--and I have also found, that when I share with others, I invariably learn something new!
Going for a ‘picture walk’ is a lot like a scavenger hunt, I think. It’s not that I have a list of things to find, but every picture I take feels like a little treasure I’ve collected and put in my pocket. When I get home, I empty my pockets of all the things I’ve found and decide what to keep and what to throw away. The nice thing about this kind of treasure is that my pockets are always big enough! And that’s a good thing– because sometimes I have more than 500 treasures to sort through!
After months and months of dreary Michigan skies, it was a welcome relief to finally arrive in Florida for 10-weeks of respite. It’s not that I don’t like winter, I actually love the snow; but in Michigan, it doesn’t come often and it doesn’t stay long. Most of the time it turns to slush. The straw that breaks the camel’s back, though, is the never-ending days of gray. I can live with the slush, but it’s hard to forego sunshine day after day.
So, for the last four years, we have loaded up our cameras, fishing gear, inflatable kayaks and our two very old dogs to head south, to sunnier skies, to warmer days and never ending picture opportunities.
We arrived at our rental destination late Monday afternoon and I could barely contain myself. I was so tired of sitting in the car for days on end that I could hardly wait until Tuesday morning to go for a picture walk! As soon as the sun was up, that’s exactly what I did.
My first picture walk on Tuesday morning was around the wonderful little Ollie’s Pond. Later in the day, I went to the Larry Taylor Kiwanis Park not far from our rental. Today, Mel and I went to two more parks. After months of relative blight in Michigan, I felt as if I had won the lottery: Cormorants, Anhingas, Egrets, Great Blue Herons, Mergansers, Little Blue Herons, Tri-colored herons, Blue-winged teals…the list was almost endless.
I was simultaneously overwhelmed and rejuvenated with all there was to see!
I’m sitting here in front of a warm fire looking out at the falling snow and the hungry birds flying into our feeders for a bite to eat, and trying to decide how many layers I would have to wear to stay warm on a picture walk today. It’s been snowing (or sleeting) on and off for the past two days and my weather app says the wind chill is below zero. I ultimately decided that the number of layers I would have to wear would probably exceed the number of steps I could take trying to walk– kind of like Ralphie in the movie A Christmas Story.
While contemplating the saneness of leaving my warm fire and my comfortable chair to go for a picture walk, I decided to sort through the pictures I’ve already taken in the last three weeks and then re-evaluate!
I’ll start with New Year’s Eve. The weather was relatively mild then and I was surprised to find so many robins out and about looking for something good to eat. I didn’t expect to even see robins because I had grown up believing that they left for the winter and returned in the spring; that they were, in fact, the ‘harbingers of spring’.
What I found out, though, was that most of our robins just stay put; that we don’t often see them in winter because they spend more time roosting in trees and less time rooting around in our yards. The robins I saw were doing both– roosting in the trees and rooting around on the ground. They had found berries up high and grubs down below.
The berries that had attracted so many robins had also attracted Cedar Waxwings and Starlings. Interestingly enough, both Robins and Cedar Waxwings have been known to become intoxicated from eating too much fruit that has already become fermented!
A few days later, I decided to take advantage of an unusually sunny morning and headed over to the Wolf Lake State Fish Hatchery to catch what I could of the ‘golden hour’. It was a good thing I did because, for the next several days, the weather was gloomy, gray and wet.
After enduring several days of dismal weather, I was eager to get out and take pictures again– but it was still raining! I couldn’t take pictures in the rain (my camera would suffer), so I settled for a ‘picture stand’ instead of a ‘picture walk’ by positioning myself under our second story deck and shooting the birds that were perched in the nearby trees.
For the next few days after that, the weather was fairly cooperative and I managed to visit several familiar places plus one new one, the Paw Paw Prairie Fen. My biggest surprise was finding a Great White Egret fishing in a pond near the fen! I rarely see them in the summer, let alone the middle of winter. I also found a Great Blue Heron, but he decided to fly away before I could get a close-up!
On my visit to the Kellogg Bird sanctuary, I was saddened to learn that two of the birds I loved to photograph had died the previous year– a beautiful Mandarin Duck and a rare Red-breasted Goose. Both birds were one-of-a-kind at the sanctuary, so it was particularly sad to lose them.
Once a month, I like to stop in at the Kensington Metropark Nature Center on my way across the state to babysit my grandson. The birds at Kensington are abundant and fearless. They eagerly anticipate all the visitors who come by and ply them with birdseed. If you stand still and hold out a handful of seeds or peanuts, the birds will land on your hand within a matter of seconds– chickadees, nuthatches, titmice, downies, and sometimes, even the bigger birds will land– like the red-bellied woodpeckers. It’s always delightful!
In the time it’s taken to write this blog, the temperature outside has gone up one whole degree— time to bundle up and see what’s waiting for me out there!
I was looking back over my pictures from these last few years and was amazed at all the things I’ve seen, all the things I’ve learned, and all the things that have totally surprised me.
I’m not sure yet what my biggest surprise has been, but yesterday morning a memory popped up on my Facebook page from January of 2018 that started me thinking.
It was a very cold and snowy January day and I had been walking tentatively through deep snow across a semi-frozen creek near my home when I happened upon a Great Blue Heron! It was standing rigidly and alone in a large expanse of snow like a one-legged sentry keeping watch over the manor. Of all the things I expected to see that day, a Great Blue Heron was not one of them! I had assumed they had all left for the winter and were basking in the sun some place far south of here.
When I finished my picture walk that day, I immediately went to my computer to research ‘great blue herons in the snow’. I found out that they can, indeed, be here in Michigan in January, but “generally move away from the northern edge of their breeding range in winter.” Smart birds! If they do stay, Great Blue Herons will find patches of open water to feed on small fish or crustaceans that are hanging out along the edges. But, when the fish aren’t available, herons will eat mice, voles, and small birds. “One hungry heron was seen chowing down a litter of feral kittens.” Oh my.
Another thing that has surprised me over the years is how many different dragonflies and damselflies there are, how many different colors they display, and what unusual mating practices they engage in!
According to my research, there are about 5,000 species of Odonata (dragonflies and damselflies) worldwide; here in Michigan, there are about 162! I don’t know how many actual colors they come in, but I’ve seen green, blue, brown, black, white, red, pink, gold, yellow, orange and purple! Who knew?
During mating, the male dragonfly (or damselfly) grasps the female at the back of the head and the she curls her abdomen under his body to pick up sperm from the male’s secondary genitalia at the front of his abdomen, forming the “heart” or “wheel” posture. It’s a rather peculiar set up, I thought!
Another insect that surprised me was the butterfly. I didn’t know that they had taste receptors in their feet or ears in their wings!! “The ears consist of membranes that are stretched taut over oval holes, and that vibrate when incoming sounds hit them.” Before 1912, scientists thought all butterflies were deaf, but discovered that these insects respond to the human voice and to the sounds of birds during flight. The receptors, scientists discovered, were in the butterfly’s wings! What a handy skill to have if you didn’t want to be somebody’s lunch!
I was also amused to learn that a group of butterflies is called a ‘flutter” and that a group of butterflies gathered together to drink from a mud puddle is called a ‘puddle club’! Too funny!
One more surprise came while I was out taking pictures and came across a Black-capped Chickadee that looked as if it was injured. But, when I moved closer to see if I could help, the bird quickly flew away. My little chickadee was apparently engaged in a behavior called ‘sunning’ and did not need any help from me!
“Bird sunning is the act of spreading out in full sunshine to expose plumage and skin to direct sunlight.” The main reason birds do this is to maintain the health of their feathers. Sunning can dislodge parasites. If birds don’t rid themselves of these parasites, they can infect the bird’s feathers and cause problems for flight, insulation, and appearance– all of which impact survival. Hundreds of different bird species engage in ‘sunning’ behaviors!
Every time I go for a ‘picture walk’, I learn something new!
In the span of just eight days, from December 19th to December 26th, my picture walk weather went from a frigid 16 degrees and 20 mile an hour winds to a balmy 61 degrees and no wind at all!
From the 19th to the 26th, I went from wearing two, three and four layers of clothing (depending on what body part I was trying to keep warm) to wearing almost nothing—no hat, no mittens, no earmuffs! It was warmer here in Michigan on Christmas day than it was in southern California! Go figure!
The hardest part of taking pictures on a really cold day, is keeping the fingers of my right hand from totally freezing off. My pointer finger (and its nearby friends) risk a bit of frostbite every time they leave the warmth and security of my mitten. Unfortunately, they are forced to venture out every single time I have to change the settings on my camera. What saved them on December 19th, though, was an early Christmas gift from my husband—a pair of toasty, re-chargeable hand warmers!
Winter days in Michigan, even when the weather is balmy and clear, is a challenging time to find things to photograph. I usually have to look long and hard to find anything at all. Fortunately, I enjoy the ‘hunt’. It’s a very relaxing endeavor to go on a picture walk because all of my attention is focused on the looking. When I actually do find something, my heart skips a beat —even if it’s ‘just another deer’ or ‘just another sparrow’. The subjects may be the same as yesterday but everything else is different—a different day, a different location, a different set of weather conditions. So I snap away to my heart’s content adding another hundred pictures to my rapidly expanding collection.
I’ve been traipsing about on and off for the last week or so looking for interesting things to photograph, but it’s not always easy here in Michigan during the winter months. The trees are bare and the sky is often cloudy. Some days it feels like spring, other days it feels like Siberia. Usually I can dress for the weather and still take pictures —unless it’s raining. Like today. I don’t mind getting wet, but my camera sure does!
Yesterday, by contrast, it was cold and windy– but good enough for a picture walk. My destination: Kellogg Bird Sanctuary. This sanctuary is home to a large number of ducks and swans and geese who like to hang out along the edges of Wintergreen Lake and create a tremendous racket with all their honking and quacking and squabbling.
On any given day at the sanctuary, you can find hundreds of mallards waddling about on the grass or dabbling about in the lake. They are great socializers and mingle freely among the hundreds of Canada Geese and dozens of swans who also call the bird sanctuary home. It was against this backdrop that I played my duck version of ‘Where’s Waldo?’, the game where you have to find a cartoon type character dressed in a red and white striped shirt hidden among hundreds of other characters and objects that look frustratingly similar.
In the duck version of ‘Where’s Waldo?’ I was looking for a lone duck, among the hundreds of mallards, that was not like the others, — maybe a Gadwall or a Wigeon or a Wood Duck. An ‘odd duck’ like this is very hard to find among so many mallards. But yesterday, I found my ‘Waldo’—and his wife! (I knew it was his wife because he made an unexpected conjugal visit right in the middle of the lake while I was trying to take a family-friendly, G-rated photo!) The ducks I was looking at were totally new to me and I just kept snapping pictures so I could, hopefully, identify them later.
In spite of all the resources I had available, however, I could not identify these two ducks–not as a particular breed anyway. What I should have realized sooner rather than later, though, was that these two birds were mallard cross breeds.
After reading up on mallards a little bit, I learned that there are many different ducks in the ‘mallard family’ and those ducks are able to breed with one another. The offspring of these unions would then be referred to as a ‘cross breeds” by some or ‘hybrids’ by others.
The bird that we commonly call a ‘mallard’ can mate with domestic ducks as well as Northern Pintails, American Black Ducks, American Wigeons, Northern Shovelers, Cinnamon Teals, Green-winged Teals and Gadwalls.
I still don’t know what mallard mix produced the birds I saw today, but they certainly were an interesting pair!
Almost all the snow had melted from our big, unexpected snowfall on November 13th when my husband and I decided to take advantage of an unusually ‘balmy’ day for a picture walk. Temperatures were expected to be in the low 40’s– a relative heat wave compared to what we had been experiencing and it wasn’t supposed to rain or snow! So we headed up to the Muskegon County Wastewater Treatment Plant to see what we could find. With all of it’s man-made ponds, the wastewater site is a great place for birding!
Until a few years ago, neither of us had any idea that a wastewater treatment site could be a great place to find birds. On our first visit there two years ago, we got to see an elusive Snowy Owl and were really hoping to see another one. What we found instead were tons of Northern Shovelers, a few Ruddy Ducks, the usual cluster of Mallards, lots of Buffleheads, a few Lesser Scaups, and a boatload of Geese and Gulls. Many of the birds we saw, however, were too far out in the water to get a decent shot, or they were swimming along the edges on the wrong side of the sun!
It’s a real challenge this time of year to even get out of the house and take pictures let alone find something interesting to photograph. The weather always plays a role in my decision making and it’s often too cold, too wet or too icy to go mucking about with expensive camera equipment. The upside, though, to winter photography is freshly fallen snow. It provides the perfect backdrop for all the birds who are out and about braving the elements along with you– and the bare trees make them infinitely more visible!
In spite of the vagaries of winter weather, I usually manage to get out for a picture walk on most of our winter days. More often than not, though, I lug my camera around for hours without finding much of anything. Fortunately, I’m easily entertained and all it really takes to keep me going, is one good shot — whether it’s a tiny wren, a solitary eagle, a wild turkey or even a common duck (just as long as it’s not swimming around on the wrong side of the sun!).