Morning Light

November 19, 2023

Note: Most of the pictures in this post were taken on earlier picture walks

I was sitting in my favorite chair at 5 a.m. on this cold November morning, enjoying a toasty fire, drinking a hot cup of tea, and contemplating the day ahead. Every once in a while, I’d look out the window to see if the sun had come up.

By 7:45, I could see just a hint of light on the very top of the trees along the far side of the creek behind our house. I wrestled with my choices for the day– stay warm and cozy inside the house, or go out into the cold November air and take pictures. The conditions were perfect: early morning light, no wind, and clear skies. I thought maybe a northern shoveler would unexpectedly drop by, or that a few wood ducks might swim out from the reeds as they sometimes do, or that a great blue heron would be scouting for fish along the opposite bank.  I might even see a rare mink scurrying by. Anything was possible!

Great Blue Heron
American Mink

There was no choice, really; whether to stay inside or to go outdoors. The morning light beckoned. It would be impossible for me to stay home on such a beautiful day! There was such promise in the air! But, it was only 32 degrees! I wasn’t ready to face the cold! And getting dressed would be a challenge– because cold weather photography, where I might not move for hours on end, takes careful planning. Should I wear two layers or three? Do I need mittens or gloves? Boots or shoes? There were too many decisions to be made this early in the morning!

All bundled up for the cold on an earlier picture walk

By 8:15, though, I was out the door. The sun had risen a little higher in the sky, the water in the creek was perfectly still, and I planted myself in the very best spot I could find where the sun would be at my back.

Cherry Creek in the early morning light

I stood quietly and waited. The squirrels were scampering through the leaves behind me and running across the branches overhead. Now and then, I’d hear a red-bellied woodpecker tapping on one of the nearby trees. A handful of birds were greeting the new day with their joyful song while a solitary goose flew by.

Canada Goose

Not far from where I was standing, I could hear the familiar sound of the male red-winged blackbirds as they flitted among the cattails. They have a short, one-second song that starts with an abrupt note and turns into a musical trill. The females usually respond to the singing males with a chit-chit-chit sound, but I never heard their replies. Perhaps, the females have already flown south for the winter.

Male Red-winged Blackbird in the reeds along Cherry Creek

After about an hour of standing and waiting, I took a seat on the bench next to me; my hopes slowly dwindling. There had been no signs of any shovelers, wood ducks, or herons. I would have been happy at that point if even a mallard had floated by!

Female Mallard from an earlier walk

Eventually, the cold air settled into my bones, and I had run out of things to talk to myself about. I tried, instead, to concentrate on all the different birds I could see or hear in the trees around me, like the chickadees, tufted titmice, cardinals, robins, cedar waxwings, woodpeckers, sparrows, and blue jays. They provided a symphony of songs and a bit of entertainment as I sat watching for the elusive ducks and herons to appear on the creek.

Downy Woodpecker

By 9:30, I was ready to throw in the towel and go for a walk in the sun so I could soak up some of its warmth. Before leaving my temporary roost, though, I moved closer to a nearby bush where I had been watching the cedar waxwings gobbling up berries, hoping I could maybe get a picture of them! With all the foliage obstructing my view, it was more of a challenge than I expected!

Cedar Waxwing enjoying the berries

After managing to get a few waxwing shots (and one fat robin), it was time to move on to more promising grounds. I headed over to the business park next door thinking I would find a red-tailed hawk, a migrating duck, or maybe even a bluebird. All I found were pigeons.

Three pigeons on a lamp post!

Where was everybody??

It was almost noon and the temperature had climbed from a chilly 32 degrees to a toasty 50. I was so HOT! I had taken off my hat, mittens, and scarf and stuffed them into the pockets of my coat; the pockets that were already jammed full with two rechargeable hand-warmers, one cell phone, and a set of keys. Eventually I had to take off the coat as well and tie it around my waist or I would totally disintegrate from the heat! It was time to head home.

A big fat Robin enjoying the same berry bush as the Cedar Waxwings

In the end, I didn’t have much to show for all my efforts: no wood ducks, no hawks, no shovelers, no mallards. It’s always disappointing when this happens, but I just can’t force the birds to show up when I want them to– or to get them to sit still in the right light while I adjust my settings.

On a particularly slow picture day, like this one, I have to remind myself that the most important thing is the walk itself, not the pictures. At my age (76), spending the day outdoors traipsing about is a gift; one that I treasure. Having my camera along, just makes all that exercise more interesting.

And that’s what keeps me going out the door–even on the least promising of days.

Cedar Waxwing

Down the Rabbit Hole

October 21, 2023

‘Down the rabbit hole’ is an English-language idiom which refers to getting deep into something, or ending up somewhere strange—or wonderful. Lewis Carroll introduced the phrase in 1865 as the title for Chapter One of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.

An adorable Eastern Cottontail Rabbit

I tumbled down the nature photography rabbit hole quite by accident and I fell in deep. It all started about seven years ago when my husband asked me what I wanted for Christmas. It took a while for me to come up with something I really wanted, but eventually I hit upon the idea of a camera. I wanted a better one than we had. My request came when we had two small grandchildren and I thought if I had a better camera, I could take better pictures of them. But that’s not what happened!

Male Mallard

We went to Florida for the first time that winter and visited some of the most amazing preserves with incredible wildlife. It gave me the opportunity to use my new camera for the very first time. It wasn’t a fancy camera, but it did have a built-in zoom lens and I could get much better shots of birds and other wildlife than I ever had before! I was hooked! (The pictures below were taken with more recent cameras.)

Limpkin in Florida
Roseate Spoonbill in Florida
Painted Bunting in Florida

Within a year or so, I was already yearning for a better camera and a longer lens; a camera with a quicker shutter response time, and a lens that could capture birds that were even farther away. Once I had the newer camera and the longer lens (thanks to my husband’s diligent research), I spent more and more time outdoors taking pictures, totally immersed in my own little world.

Fawn in the greenery near our house

It wasn’t long before I had exhausted the shutter life of that second camera, with well over 100,000 pictures, and started looking for yet another camera and an even longer lens!

Carolina Wren on our deck

To date, I’ve gone through four cameras in seven years, mostly because I exceed the recommended shutter life of each of them. My current camera is a Nikon D500 with a shutter life of 200,000 cycles; I’m well over 127,000 after only a couple of years! The lens I use most often is a Sigma 150-600mm.  The D500 camera and the Sigma lens have been the perfect combination for me and for the things I like to photograph.

Nikon camera with Sigma lens on a monopod

I go out almost every day in all kinds of weather, even if ‘going out’ means just standing on our deck or in our backyard. Some of my favorite shots have happened right outside our back door where I have a ‘designated tree stump,’ placed in the yard, and a ‘designated tree branch’ attached to the deck for bird and mammal ‘portraits’. Plus, we have a beautiful bank of trees nearby and a small creek behind the house, both of which are attractive to a variety birds and mammals.

Red-breasted Nuthatch on the ‘portrait branch’

I love going on picture walks! I love looking for interesting things to photograph, whether it’s a bald eagle or a green bottle fly! It’s all quite fascinating, especially when I bring up the pictures on my computer and can see so many amazing details—like the individual hairs on a fly, or the tiny red mites on a dragonfly!

American Bald Eagle
Male Monarch (males have two distinct black spots on the lower wings)

One of the things I also enjoy doing after taking all those pictures is finding interesting facts about the creatures I’ve photographed and then sharing what I’ve found on Facebook, our local newspaper, or this blog.

Two male grackles on my ‘designated stump’ engaging in ‘bill tilt’ behavior to establish dominance. Whichever bird can maintain this posture the longest wins!

The name ‘picture walks’ started years ago when I first fell down this rabbit hole and was heading out the front door for a walk. If I was leaving the house without my camera, I’d tell my husband I was going on a ‘regular walk’, which meant I’d be home in an hour. If I was leaving the house with my camera in hand, I’d say I was going on a ‘picture walk,’ which was code for “I won’t be home anytime soon!”

White-crowned Sparrow in our backyard
White-tailed Deer in our backyard only a few feet from where I was standing

Some of the rabbit holes we fall into can be disastrous.

This one has been quite delightful.

Arcadia Marsh Nature Preserve

September 27, 2023

A few weeks ago, my husband and I made our first trip to the Arcadia Marsh Nature Preserve in Arcadia, Michigan. What a wonderful place to walk and see a wide variety of birds, plants, and butterflies at relatively close range! Over 250 species of birds have been identified at the marsh (17 of which are considered endangered or threatened) and at least 200 different species of plants have been recorded. Best of all, there is a wide, well-maintained ¾ mile boardwalk through the middle of the preserve that makes it easily accessible for everyone.

Arcadia Marsh Nature Preserve Boardwalk

Arcadia Preserve is one of only a few remaining coastal marshes along Lake Michigan’s Lower Peninsula shoreline. Sadly, most of all the original Great Lakes marshes have been destroyed, making restored marshes like this one extremely important ecologically. Thanks to the extensive restoration efforts by the Grand Traverse Regional Land Conservancy (GTRLC), countless volunteers and dedicated partners, this beautiful nature preserve is healthier than it has been in decades. As a result, Arcadia Marsh Nature Preserve has become known as one of the best birding locations in the entire state of Michigan!

Arcadia Marsh Nature Preserve Boardwalk

In my short, two-hour visit on September 15th, I was able to photograph eleven different birds, two of which I rarely ever see, one of which I have never seen in Michigan, one I’ve never seen anywhere, and one that’s usually so elusive that I rarely get to photograph it at all!

Rusty Blackbird

Up until about two years ago, I’d never even heard of a Rusty Blackbird and had no idea what they looked like.  A fellow-birder/photographer had seen a few of them at one of our local birding spots, the Wolf Lake State Fish Hatchery. Not long afterwards, I went searching for them. When I happened upon a small group of birds I’d never seen before, I thought, this must be my mystery bird! It was the last time I’d see a Rusty Blackbird– until this visit to Arcadia Marsh.

Female Rusty Blackbird

According to the Cornell Lab’s website, All About Birds, “The Rusty Blackbird has undergone one of the sharpest and most mystifying recent declines of any North American songbird.”  Some researches speculate that the severe hunting of beavers across hundreds of years has contributed to the reduction of suitable habitats for Rusty Blackbirds. Fewer beaver ponds mean fewer Rusty Blackbirds. Some attribute their decline to the loss of habitat caused by human ignorance or indifference. Others report that Rusty Blackbirds, particularly from the northeastern areas of North America, have been found with unusually high levels of mercury contamination; a contributing factor in all likelihood.

Savannah Sparrow

Not far from where the Rusty Blackbirds were perched, I watched a much smaller bird dart back and forth across my field of vision. It looked like a fairly nondescript bird from where I was standing on the boardwalk, but when I zoomed in, I could see a tiny bit of yellow above its eye. That got my attention! But it wasn’t until I returned home that I was able identify it as a Savannah Sparrow, a bird I’d never seen before!

Savannah Sparrow

Surprisingly, Savannah Sparrows are one of the most numerous songbirds in North America! They don’t visit backyard feeders, but they may come to your yard if you have open fields nearby. Or, if you keep a brush pile on your property, you might be lucky enough to see a small flock of them swoop down and take cover in the pile during migration or over the winter depending on where you live.

Cedar Waxwing

Also flitting about in the same trees as the Rusty Blackbirds and the Savannah Sparrows, were the Cedar Waxwings. These are such beautiful birds! Cornell Lab’s website All About Birds came up with one of the best descriptions I’ve found so far, “…the Cedar Waxwing is a silky, shiny collection of brown, gray, and lemon-yellow, accented with a subdued crest, rakish black mask, and brilliant-red wax droplets on the wing feathers.”

Cedar Waxwing

The one I found at the marsh was doing what waxwings do best, catching dragonflies out of the air and bringing them back to a nearby tree to eat.

Cedar Waxwing with a tasty dragonfly

Northern Harrier

Not far beyond the trees where I had been enjoying the Rusty Blackbirds, the Savannah Sparrows and the Cedar Waxwings, there was a large bird of prey flying low over the marsh, periodically diving into the vegetation and then reappearing. I wasn’t sure what it was, but it looked a lot like a Northern Harrier I had once seen in Florida a few years ago. I had never seen one in Michigan, but the Northern Harrier is a distinctive looking bird even from far away. It’s a slim, long-tailed hawk that likes to glide low over marshes and grasslands, holding its wings in a wide V-shape. Northern Harriers are mostly looking for small mammals and small birds, but they can also capture larger prey like rabbits and ducks!

Northern Harrier cruising low over the marsh

Great Egret and Great Blue Heron

Wading through the shallow marsh waters on the opposite side of the boardwalk as the Northern Harrier, I could see a Great Egret and a Great Blue Heron in search of their next meal. I have way too many pictures of Great Blue Herons, but very few of the Great Egret, especially here in Michigan. The Great Blue Herons can be found all over Michigan throughout the year, but the Great Egrets only pass through during migration.

Great Egret

The Great Egrets and the Great Blue Herons are both impressive looking birds, but the Egret is slightly smaller and more graceful looking. These two herons hunt by standing motionless or by wading ever so slowly through shallow water to capture a fish using a deadly jab with their large bills.

Great Blue Heron

Great Egrets were hunted nearly to extinction for their feathers in the late nineteenth century, sparking some of the first laws to protect birds. The National Audubon Society, one of the oldest environmental organizations in North America, uses the Great Egret as its logo.

Green Heron

Just below the boardwalk where I was standing, there was a beautiful, little Green Heron who was also waiting patiently, like his much bigger cousins, to catch a quick lunch. All three of these birds are masters in the art of patience. They can stand motionless seemingly forever waiting to stab or grab an unsuspecting fish, frog or tadpole with their dagger-like bills.

Green Heron

Most interesting is the fact that the Green Heron is one of the world’s few tool-using bird species! It often creates fishing lures with things like bread crusts, insects, or feathers, dropping them on the surface of the water hoping something tasty will take the bait!

Belted Kingfisher

Most of the time, this is the bird that’s hardest for me to ‘capture.’ It is very skittish, and I swear it knows that I’m on my way to take its picture long before I even leave the house!  At the Arcadia Marsh, though, the Belted Kingfishers seemed oblivious to humans. I’m guessing these kingfishers are acclimated to all the foot traffic on the boardwalk and have learned to just ignore the movement. As a result, I was able to take a dozen or more pictures before this particular bird decided she wanted to go elsewhere to fish.

Female Belted Kingfisher

Belted kingfishers are one of the few bird species where the female is more colorful than the male, sporting a chestnut or rust-colored band across her chest. Males are all blue-gray and white. In the pictures below, the kingfisher on the left is female and the one on the right is male.

Red-winged Blackbirds

Red-winged blackbirds are one of the most abundant birds across North America. Wherever there’s standing water and vegetation, you’ll most likely see or hear a Red-winged Blackbird! In late February or early March, it’s the familiar sound of the returning Red-winged Blackbirds that warms my heart and foreshadows Spring’s impending arrival.

Female Red-winged Blackbird
Male Red-winged Blackbird

Song Sparrow

The Song Sparrow is a relatively plain looking, little bird that can be easily overlooked and underappreciated, but every time I see one belting out a song from the top of a tree or a nearby bush, I can’t help but call them endearing. Song Sparrows seem so earnest in their attempts to sing a beautiful song, that they can make any ordinary day feel happier!

Song Sparrow belting out a song!

Black-capped Chickadee

Last, but certainly not least, is the affable little chickadee. I never grow tired of trying to capture them. They are almost universally considered “cute” thanks to their oversized heads, tiny bodies, and insatiable curiosity about everything– including humans. Black-capped Chickadees are one of the easiest birds to attract to your feeders and one of the first birds to come to your outstretched hand for seeds.

Black-capped Chickadee
Feeding a Black-capped Chickadee by hand (taken at a different preserve)

Even if you’re not a birder or a photographer, the Arcadia Marsh Nature Preserve is worth putting on your bucket list if you just want a nice place to enjoy a little slice of nature with an easily accessible trail.  Before your visit, check out this website for directions, rules, maps, and more detailed information:

Waning Days of Color

September 2023

A few days ago, I visited the Paw Paw Prairie Fen Preserve in Mattawan, Michigan, one of our local nature areas. It’s a beautiful preserve with a well-maintained 1.5 mile trail that meanders through wild flowers, trees, ponds, and tall prairie grasses. The land is owned and maintained by The Nature Conservancy, a global environmental nonprofit organization.

Bottlebrush grass is a perennial grass native to the eastern United States and Canada. Bottlebrush Grass gets its name from the spiky seed heads that look just like the brush used to clean bottles,

“In 2004, this site was slated for a housing development. Topsoil had been removed, road routes had been laid out and neighborhood landscaping was being installed. The Nature Conservancy was alerted to rare wetland communities here and began negotiations to acquire the land. Today The Nature Conservancy owns 106 acres along the east branch of the Paw Paw River, including rare prairie fens, and a beautiful array of prairie plants and wildlife.” (from the descriptive sign at the entrance of the preserve)

This plant was likely named for Joseph Shauquethqueat, a highly-respected Mohican sachem or paramount chief, also known to white neighbors as Joe Pye, who lived in the Mohican community in Stockbridge, Massachusetts in the late 1700’s to early 1800’s. Joe Pye weed has a long history of medicinal use, including as a diuretic, for easing urinary tract issues, joint stiffness, and gout. It is also used to treat reproductive issues and diabetes.

I started my picture walk at 2:30 in the afternoon hoping to eventually catch the late afternoon sun. For the first hour and a half, I saw virtually nothing to photograph, except for a few random plants, and an untold number of autumn meadowhawk dragonflies. I had been hoping for butterflies and birds, and a much wider variety of dragonflies. I had even hoped to find a praying mantis or two. But there were only the meadowhawks, and a few interesting plants to entertain me.

The autumn meadowhawk is a bright red or yellow dragonfly that has yellow legs. It lingers longer through the summer season than most dragonflies.

Autumn meadowhawks, as the name implies, are most active from late summer through fall, and are abundant in open meadows or prairies like the one I was in. They are often the last dragonflies you will see as the colder weather sets in. If there hasn’t been a hard freeze, it’s even possible to find them in November!

Goldfinches are among the strictest vegetarians in the bird world, selecting an entirely vegetable diet and only inadvertently swallowing an occasional insect.

At the ninety minute mark, I finally spotted something other than a meadowhawk– a praying mantis! There were probably hundreds of them hidden in the grasses all around me, but praying mantids are particularly well-camouflaged and extremely hard to find! I was thrilled that this one was out in the open and clinging to the underside of a stalk of goldenrod. The most fascinating thing about this insect is its ability to rotate its heads 180 degrees! No other insect can do this, and it’s particularly creepy to zoom in on one and find it staring back at you from over its shoulder!

The praying mantis is so named because when waiting for prey, it holds its
front legs in an upright position as if they are folded in prayer. Don’t be fooled
by its angelic pose, however, because the mantid is a deadly predator!

While I was watching the praying mantis, a small bird flew across my peripheral field and landed in a distant tree.  It wasn’t close enough for a good picture, but I took a few quick shots anyway so that I could identify it later.  The bird turned out to be an Eastern Wood-Peewee; an olive-gray bird with dark wings and an off-white belly. It’s bigger than a Black-capped Chickadee but smaller than an Eastern Bluebird.

The Eastern Wood-Pewee’s plaintive song of three sliding notes (pee-a-weeeee) is distinctive and easy to learn. (This photo was taken on a different walk.)

Thirty minutes later, I came across my best surprise of the day, a ruby-throated hummingbird! They are usually on the move and hard to capture, but this one landed on a branch and sat for a spell.

The extremely short legs of the ruby-throated hummingbird prevent it from walking or hopping. The best it can do is shuffle along a perch.

Once the hummingbird flew off, I continued down the path and found my first and only monarch for the day perched on a lovely stand of deep purple ironweed—the perfect plant for a monarch photo! Later, a great spangled fritillary came along and landed on the very same plant! Ironweed is an absolute butterfly magnet! The clusters of hairy purple to pink flowers are irresistible to pollinators, especially swallowtails and monarchs.

White spots on monarch butterfly wings may help them fly better during long migration from Canada to Mexico, new research shows. These spots are believed to alter the airflow patterns around the monarch’s wings, enhancing their flight efficiency. Remarkably, monarchs are the only insects known to embark on such an extensive journey.
Great spangled fritillaries are relatively large butterflies with a wingspan of 2 to 4 inches and a length of 3.5 to almost 4 inches!

I had a hard time pulling myself away from the butterflies, but there was a small pond nearby and I had noticed cedar waxwings there earlier in my walk. They had been flying back and forth across the pond catching insects. This time of year, cedar waxwings supplement their fruity diet with protein-rich insects like mayflies, dragonflies, and stoneflies, which they often catch on the wing.

The name “waxwing” comes from the waxy red secretions found on the tips of the secondaries of some birds. The exact function of these tips is not known, but they may help attract mates.

Three hours into my slow, rambling walk, I was ready to head back to my car, but there was one more surprise waiting for me– a very, very tiny American copper butterfly that only flies about two feet above the ground. The upperside of its forewings are a bright copper color with black spots and a gray border. The hindwings are grayish-brown with a copper border. It’s quite a pretty little butterfly when you can see it close-up.


All through the fen, I kept thinking about the changes that were taking place around me; all the beautiful flowers that were already fading away, all the colorful birds and insects that had already left or would soon be leaving, and all the green, leafy trees that would soon be barren.

There was one eastern tiger swallowtail that flew by but it didn’t stop for a picture. This one was taken on a previous picture walk.

It’s not that I dread the changing of the seasons or the coming of winter; I’ll still be traipsing about in the snow looking for a another pretty picture. But I’ll miss the rich variety of birds and insects, and the huge palette of colors that spring and summer throw across the landscape. I always have.

The catbirds were chattering in the trees around me but never came out for a picture. This picture is from a previous walk.

In Pursuit of Wonder

July 21, 2023

Every time I set out on a picture walk, I wonder what I’ll find. I wonder if I’ll see something new, or something interesting, or something particularly beautiful. It doesn’t need to be a bald eagle, or a rare insect, or a breathtaking sunrise —although those things are certainly welcome; I mostly enjoy the pursuit of wonder, and the challenge of capturing just the right photo at just the right moment. I am as easily excited about finding a tiny snail on a stalk of a dead plant as I am about finding an exquisite bird I rarely see. It’s the pursuit itself that never grows old, and pushes me out the door every day.

A small Eastern Heath Snail that could easily go unnoticed
A rare sighting of an Indigo Bunting

Not long ago, I was house-sitting for a friend in a part of our state that I rarely visit. She lives on a seldom-traveled, unpaved country road that quietly meanders into the beautiful and expansive Manistee National Forest. I ventured out on that road early one morning wondering what I might find. The deep shade along the forest road was a welcome relief from the heat, but I wasn’t sure that it would be a good place for pictures. There just wasn’t much light peeking through the trees, except for small patches here and there where the occasional butterfly would land, and the columbines struggled to find sunlight.

The narrow gravel road into the Manistee National Forest
Eastern Tiger Swallowtail
Columbine in the sunlight

I was captivated by the sound of all the birds singing throughout the forest; their voices echoing melodically through the giant cathedral of trees. One of those birds was louder and more insistent than all the others and I wondered who it might be. Fortunately, Merlin* came to my rescue and identified the mystery vocalist as an ovenbird!

The elusive little Ovenbird

I had never seen or heard an ovenbird before, so I stood quietly on the edge of the road, waiting for any movement in the trees, hoping to get a glimpse of one. It didn’t take long, but the setting was so dark, and the bird moved so quickly, that I didn’t think I’d get a decent shot. Eventually, though, my patience paid off.

When I did some research on this elusive little bird, I was fascinated to find out that ovenbirds are smaller than sparrows, and they will only breed where there are large, undisturbed expanses of mature trees and a closed canopy. The forest canopy needs to be so dense that it severely inhibits underbrush from developing on the forest floor, and allows for a deep layer of leaf litter to accumulate.  Ovenbirds spend most of their time foraging in that leaf litter looking for things to eat like crickets, caterpillars, ants, spiders, slugs, and snails. They also need leaf litter to build their nests. This task is left to the female ovenbird who creates a comfy home on the forest floor using dead leaves, grasses, stems, bark, and hair. The finished dome-shaped nest, at 9 inches wide and 5 inches deep, has a squat oval side entrance and resembles a primitive outdoor oven, which is how this bird got its name!

An Ovenbird in the leaf litter with a tasty snack

Halfway through my walk, I came to a wide-open field at the edge of the forest, where an odd-looking bird flew overhead and landed on the top of a utility pole! Even from a distance, it didn’t look like a bird that would normally land on a tall, skinny pole! With long legs, a long neck, and a thin, straight bill, it had the appearance of a fairly typical shorebird. Luckily, the bird on the pole was singing its heart out and Merlin* quickly identified it as an Upland Sandpiper. This particular shorebird, however, loves the prairies, pastures, and croplands rather than the wetlands where its cousins like to hang out! It is also a shorebird that loves to perch on fence posts and perform memorable flight songs over its territories! This bird was behaving true to form!

The long-legged, long-necked Upland Sandpiper on a utility pole!

On my return trip through the forest, I had one more surprise waiting for me– a barred owl! It landed on a branch not far from where I was walking and posed for a few pictures before flying off. Even though barred owls are plentiful in Michigan, this was my first!

Barred Owl in the deep, dark woods!

In between these discoveries, there were butterflies and wildflowers quietly going about their business in the random patches of sunlight, waiting patiently to be noticed, and I obliged.

A very tiny Hobomok Skipper

It was just another ordinary day of small but incredible wonders that, more often than not, go completely unnoticed.    

Patches of sunlight

*Merlin is a free bird identification app

Boundary Waters

June 2023

Mel and I just returned from a five-day canoe trip to the Boundary Waters of northern Minnesota. I had no idea just how immense, remote, and picturesque this area of our country was. According to the Explore Minnesota website, it is “…one of America’s most beautiful and remote places. Its vast wilderness extends 150 miles along the U.S.-Canada border, covering approximately 1,098,000 acres with over 1,100 lakes and 1,500 miles of canoe routes…” What a wonderful place to explore!

Sheril and Scott on a misty morning paddle
Sheril and Scott on calm waters

When our friends Scott and Sheril asked if we would like to join them on their canoeing adventure to the Boundary Waters, we were eager to give it a try. Mel and I both had previous experience canoeing (albeit leisurely), and lots of experience hiking, sleeping outdoors, and going without creature comforts for months on end. (In 2015, at ages 68 and 61, we had spent four months hiking 1,000 miles of the Appalachian Trail.)

Mel and I ready to launch
Mel and I cruising along

I am now 76 years old, and Mel is 69. We are in good health, and in reasonably good shape, but this trip called for one or the other of us to carry a 17-foot, 45-pound canoe over our head along portages that could be a mile long. I was quite sure that it wouldn’t be prudent for me to carry that canoe, but I also worried about Mel. My balance isn’t as good as it once was, and Mel has been experiencing periodic back and shoulder pain. So, before leaving on our trip, Mel hefted Scott’s canoe over his head to see if it was within the realm of possibilities. It was!  But, Mel was standing on flat ground, and only for a short time. The trail conditions we later faced along the portages were rocky, mucky, long, and sometimes steep. Plus, there were hordes of hungry mosquitoes! It was a lot harder than we expected!

Mighty Sheril (age 64!) carrying one of our canoes (photo by Scott)
The mighty explorers dressed for mosquitoes!

After portaging the canoes from point A to point B, there would also be two or three more trips back and forth to fetch our heavy packs loaded with clothing, tents, and sleeping bags; plus a huge bear canister stuffed full of food and cooking equipment– and all the paddles and life jackets. It was a bit of a challenge!

Mel carrying the food canister
Sheril and Jeanne canoeing in style!

Once we were back on the water, the views were spectacular! Mile after mile of crystal-clear water with thousands of magnificent trees hugging the entire shoreline. No cell towers. No houses. No motorboats. When we stopped paddling, the sound of silence was profound.  

Sheril and Scott
Mel and I heading out

In the early morning hours, and late into the evening when we sat around the campfire, that profound silence would periodically be broken by the haunting, evocative call of the loons, or the sweet, melodic whistle of the white-throated sparrows hiding in the nearby trees. 

Common Loon
White-throated Sparrow

There were many things about this trip that were difficult, but I enjoyed the challenge, and the sense of accomplishment when we finished. I particularly cherished the time we had to spend together around the campfire; to sit and visit, to read, or to just listen to the quiet. I loved stepping outside my tent on the darkest of nights to find a million of the brightest stars I have ever seen. It took my breath away.

An all-day read by the fire
Scott, Jeanne and Sheril

Many, many thanks to our dear friends Scott and Sheril who not only planned this adventure into the wild but also had the experience and the skill-set to guide us through the Boundary Waters safely; to portage our canoe for us when needed, and to creatively change course so that there would be fewer portages and more time in camp.

Mel, Sheril, Scott and Jeanne before our adventure
Mel, Jeanne, Sheril and Scott at the end of our journey

What an amazing trip!


One of our campsites
The bathroom facilities!
Scott sending a message to our kids using a Garmin Inreach mini to let them know when we were safely in camp each night. It also had an SOS feature if we needed it.
Morning Yoga!

On the Road Again

June 5, 2023

We just returned from our first real get-away adventure in almost three years. For the better part of the last three years, we had stayed close to home waiting for the pandemic to end. When it was mostly over, and we were ready to travel, our aging dog could no longer go with us or stay in a kennel. She needed a great deal of care. On April 18th of this year, we had to say our final goodbyes. It was a bittersweet moment in time. After a stressful, isolating pandemic and a heart-wrenching year of doggie hospice, we needed to cut loose.

Our dear, little dog, Brandy who had a long, slow decline.

We headed out to the Driftless Area of Wisconsin. My husband, Mel, had registered to attend a Tenkara fishing get-together/campout near Westby, Wisconsin and I tagged along to take pictures. After three years of home-grown subject matter, I was eager to explore a new environment.

A beautiful columbine growing along the roadside

The Driftless area is approximately 8500 square miles of land, mostly in Southwest Wisconsin, that was untouched by glaciers during the last ice age. The term “driftless” indicates a lack of glacial drift, the deposits of silt, gravel, and rock that retreating glaciers leave behind. As a result, the landscape is characterized by steep, limestone-based hills, spring fed waterfalls, deeply carved river valleys, and the largest concentration of cold-water trout streams in the world! It was a perfect place for Mel to go Tenkara fishing.

Viceroy Butterfly
Monarch Butterfly

Tenkara is a method of fly fishing that originated in the mountains of Japan. It uses very long rods with fixed lengths of casting line attached to the rod-tip, and simple, wet flies as lures. This method of fishing was developed to catch trout in free-flowing rivers like the ones found in the Driftless Areas of Wisconsin. I don’t fish, but I was happy enough to go wandering down the back roads near where Mel was fishing to look for birds, butterflies, dragonflies, and flowers; but not GNATS!

Male Eastern Bluebird

Those little buggers came at me with a vengeance! They were in my eyes, ears, nose, and mouth. They were on my sweaty skin. They landed wherever they could find moisture! Gnats are drawn to the carbon dioxide we exhale, as well as the sweet, fruity smells of our shampoos and lotions. There’s no way to get away from them! I was just one giant, sweet-smelling moisture buffet!

Deer on the edge of the road who was curious about my presence
American Toad looking grim!

I hustled back to the car as fast as I could to see if my insect repellent Buff would help. ( A Buff is a long tube of thin material that you can pull over your head to cover everything but your eyes. My eyes were protected, at least somewhat, by my glasses. The Buff was a tremendous help; it allowed me take pictures, but it didn’t stop all the gnats who really wanted to get me from crawling into my Buff or going behind my glasses! I did have bug repellent on, but it was no match for these guys! Later, we went to a store and found a repellent that was recommended for gnats and it seemed to work for about an hour before needing to be replenished. It was a welcome relief!

Me and my Buff fending off the gnats!!

In spite of the gnats, and the unseasonably hot temperatures, it was good to be on the road again; to engage in our favorite hobbies in a new environment, to sleep outside in our tent and hear the barred owls calling, “Who cooks for you? Who cooks for you?” and to wake up in the morning to the sound of birds filling the air with their joyful noise. It was a welcome respite from the unwelcome ‘noise’ in our everyday lives.

Dot-tailed White-faced dragonfly in the obelisk position to cool off

In just a few days, we’ll be on the road again; to the Boundary Waters of northern Minnesota for a five-day canoe trip with friends.

Can’t wait!

Great Blue Heron overhead (note the shadow of its head on the lower wing!)
A teeny tiny Ruby-throated Hummingbird high up on a utility wire!
Snapping Turtle feasting on the tadpoles
Red-spotted Admiral butterfly

The Best Day Ever

May 4, 2023

It was the best day ever– as good or better than all the other best days I’ve ever had taking pictures! After a long, cold, Michigan winter, and a wet, dreary spring, I was more than ready for a warm, sunny day. But it didn’t start out warm, or sunny. At seven o’clock in the morning, it was only 39 degrees and overcast. I had left the house thinking it was going to get warmer much faster than it did, and hadn’t dressed appropriately! Standing still taking pictures was bone-chilling cold. By mid-afternoon, though, the temperature had climbed to a blissful 65 degrees and I wrapped myself up in all its warmth.

American Robin: The first thing to greet me this morning

This particular picture walk started out down by the creek behind our house shortly after sunrise. I was hoping to get some good reflection shots of our resident wood ducks swimming along on the perfectly still waters, but it’s hard to catch a wood duck! They swim off in the opposite direction as soon as they catch a glimpse of me! Today, though, I was lucky. Either they didn’t notice I was there, or they didn’t care, and I took more than enough pictures to keep me happy—at least for a while!

Male Wood Duck
Female Wood Duck

After an hour or so of wood ducks, I continued along a path that followed the creek into our nearby woods hoping to find yellow warblers or kinglets. The kinglets ultimately cooperated, but the warblers did not. I love finding kinglets, but they are an extremely challenging bird to photograph as they flit non-stop from one well-hidden branch to another. I took dozens of shots before pulling myself away and heading home for lunch.

Within an hour, I was off again to another small creek and more pictures! This creek, like the one behind our house, widens to form a small pond, and is an excellent place to find a wide variety of birds. To the naked eye, though, it often seems as if the pond has nothing much to offer.  With a telephoto lens, or a good pair of binoculars, a whole new world can open up!

Male Hooded Merganser

I have visited this pond many, many times over the years, but it wasn’t until fairly recently that I discovered the very best place to get good, clear pictures of the birds on the water. Unfortunately, that ‘very best place’ comes with a modicum of anxiety.

Female and Male Blue-winged Teal

In order to access my ‘very best place’, I have to go behind a small, private business along a very busy road. Once behind the building, I have to walk up their back steps to an attached deck where I quietly park myself under their lovely gazebo at the edge of the water. Every time I use this spot, which isn’t often, I fully expect someone to come out of the building and ask me to leave, or to at least ask me what I’m up to!

No one ever does.

Female and Male Northern Shovelers

Today, however, I really, really wanted someone to come out!! I wanted somebody to ask me what I was doing so I could show them all the beautiful birds they were missing, like the Northern shoveler, the blue-winged teal, the gadwall, the hooded merganser, and the magnificent green heron catching a fish! I wanted to show them the hundreds of turtles sunning themselves on the rocks and logs, and I wanted them to hear the orchestra of birds playing right outside their back door!

But no one ever came.

A beautiful Green Heron waiting to pounce on a fish!
He makes the strike!!
And catches his fish!!

I was grateful, though, as I always am, to have this little slice of heaven to myself, to not be extricated from my perch, and to find so many beautiful creatures to photograph!

Two Canada Geese and a slew of Painted Turtles sunning themselves

It really was the best day ever!

A Dog Named Norman

April 10, 2023

One of the many joys of a picture walk is never knowing what I’ll find or who I’ll meet along the way. Yesterday, I met a dog named Norman. It brought a smile to my face. Why would anyone name a dog, Norman, I wondered? It seemed like a very formal moniker for such a small, scruffy little beast. So, I posed the question to the human attached to the other end of the leash, “Why Norman?”  

“Well,” she said, “I named him after my dad who recently passed away.”

Black-capped Chickadee
White-tailed deer, a common visitor on my walks

That was even funnier, I thought, to name a dog after your dead parent, but I kept my chuckle to myself.  Instead, I shared the fact that my own father was also deceased and was also named Norman! For the life of me, though, I couldn’t even imagine naming a dog after my dead parent! It just didn’t seem right–and it conjured up an unappealing visual in my head of walking my dad on a leash and cleaning up all his messes!

Male Wood Duck

Earlier in the day, long before I met up with Norman, I had been walking along the creek behind our house hoping to find a wood duck in the early morning light. I expected one to swim out from the cattails along the bank, but it splashed down suddenly in the water next to me and jolted me out of my quiet reverie! Later, I was pleasantly surprised to find a female northern shoveler and a male blue-winged teal swimming in close proximity to the newly-arrived wood duck. What a great find! Both the shoveler and the teal are rare visitors to our creek!

Once the early morning light started to change, and no longer had that soft golden glow, I wandered through the woods adjacent to the creek and headed over to a nearby preserve where I hoped to find a loon.  I had never seen a loon here in Michigan, but knew that one had recently been spotted on the lake at the preserve and hoped I’d get a picture!

Common Loon

It took me awhile to find the loon. It’s not a very colorful bird, and it does have a habit of swimming rather low in the water. Even on a relatively small body of water, like the one I was visiting, loons can be difficult to spot.

The painted turtles were out in droves!
Male Mallard flying by

While I had my camera focused on the loon, something in my peripheral vision distracted me. It was an Osprey flying towards me on the left with a good-sized fish in its talons!! I turned to take its picture and didn’t have time to change the settings on my camera. I just started shooting as fast as I could and hoping for the best! In photography, this method of shooting is often called ‘spray and pray!’ Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. But it’s always worth a try.

My ‘spray and pray’ shot of the Osprey with the fish!

As I continued walking around the lake, I was delighted to find two great blue herons in relatively close proximity to one other! I’ve never seen two blue herons at the same time except at a rookery. A short time later, I spotted a third!

Great Blue Heron

One of the birds that never takes me by surprise is the Canada goose! It’s absolutely everywhere, but quite easy to overlook as a desirable photography subject. Even the most mundane of subjects, like the Canada goose, though, can make for a beautiful photograph given the right circumstances and a little bit of ingenuity. If nothing else, Canada geese are great subjects for practicing one’s photography skills; they’re not hard to find, they’re easier to photograph than smaller, flightier birds, and they really are stunning in their own right.

Canada Goose in peaceful repose only a few feet from where I was taking pictures of the wood duck
A busy little muskrat taking a snack break along the edge of Asylum Lake

On this particularly warm spring day, I also saw swans, turtles, grackles, and one very busy muskrat chewing away on something tasty; totally oblivious to my presence. Up in the trees surrounding the lake, there was a musical assortment of robins, chickadees, bluebirds, red-winged blackbirds, golden-crowned kinglets, yellow-rumped warblers, and one little brown creeper scurrying up a tree.

Eastern Bluebird
Little Brown Creeper scurrying up a tree

I always head out on these picture walks wondering what kinds of surprises I’ll find or who I’ll meet along the way. Yesterday, my best surprise was the osprey with the fish, but the funniest surprise was the dog named Norman, and the story of his name. I’m still smiling!

Sandhill Crane

Waiting for Spring

February 22, 2023

Male Red-winged Blackbird

On February 12th, I saw my first red-winged blackbird for the season! It seemed too early, I thought. I didn’t expect them to return until March. Within a week, though, I heard a whole chorus of red-winged blackbirds singing in the cattails down by the creek behind our house. It’s the quintessential sound of spring and I love it!  I wanted to throw open all our windows and soak up that first glimmer of hope that spring would soon be here in earnest.

Backyard Blue Jay in the early morning light

But as I write this, I’m snuggled up in front of a fire, with a hot cup of tea close by, hoping we won’t lose power during the upcoming ice storm. All the schools are closed, and so are many businesses, hoping to avoid disaster. The ice storm might materialize, it might not. Such are the vagaries of winter in Michigan: one day it feels like spring, and the next day it feels like we’re living in Antarctica.

Canada Goose making a dramatic landing on the ice!
Male Mallard flying in close!

I basically have a love/hate relationship with winter. I love the snow, but hate the long overcast days that bring the snow. I love getting pictures of all the winter birds that migrate through Michigan, but hate all the layers and layers of clothing I have to wear to get those pictures. I love a bright, sunny winter day as an antidote to all the gloomy ones, but it’s hard to get a good picture on a brilliant sunny afternoon against a snowy background.

Me all bundled up against the cold!
A happy looking female Mallard on a cold winter day in Michigan

Most of all, I miss the colors and all the warm-weather critters I love to photograph, like the big yellow butterflies, the swampy green frogs, the multitudes of colorful dragonflies, and the iridescent blue swallowtails that nest under the bridge in a nearby park.

Male Hooded Merganser on a layover through Michigan

Before the pandemic and before we had an aging, incontinent dog to care for, we went to Florida for a few months where I could soak up all the colors and all the interesting critters we never see in Michigan.  I have taken pictures of the majestic roseate spoonbills, the brilliant purple gallinules, the pastel pink dragonflies, and a million different Florida flowers! It’s a wonderland of color that I had come to depend on to get me through the drab days of a Michigan winter.

Roseate Spoonbill in Florida
Periwinkle Pinwheel (I think)

In the meantime, I have been out looking for whatever beauty I can find wherever I can find it, and taking lots of pictures. Whether it’s a chickadee in a snowstorm, a woodpecker on a sunny day, a snow-covered deer in our backyard, or a ubiquitous brown fox squirrel peeking out around a tree in the early morning light, it’s all good, and it’s all fun.

Yellow-shafted Northern Flicker
White-tailed deer right outside our back door

I just wish winter didn’t last so long!