I am a 73 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!
All of a sudden, it seems, Fall is upon us; and winter will be close on its heels! A little more than a week ago, temperatures were in the 80s and our air conditioner was running full tilt! Yesterday we had on jackets, today it’s t-shirt and sandal weather! For the next several months, we will be riding this weather roller coaster of warm sunny days followed by cold, wet, dreary ones, followed by snow and ice. It’s a season for readjusting our expectations and for re-learning how to accept the good with the bad.
We all look forward to the beautiful Fall colors in Michigan and to the reprieve from Summer’s sweltering heat. We marvel at the first magical snowfall and smile at the appearance of the first goofy-looking snowman. But all these seasonal joys come with a price, or at least a trade off.
I am not a Winter person. It’s not that I don’t love a beautiful snowfall or a long walk through a silent, snow-covered woods. I do. But, I miss the vibrant colors! I miss the long, lazy days of sunlight where the fields are awash with flowers. I miss the bright orange monarchs settling into a bed of purple asters, the ruby red Meadowhawks perched delicately against a muted backdrop of goldenrod, and the tiny blue damselflies showing off their colors against a sea of green leaves.
Come winter, there will still be beautiful things to photograph, but the array of colors will be much harder to come by, as will the days of pleasant weather suitable enough for taking pictures.
Rather than dread the coming of winter, though, with its shorter days and color-deprived landscape, I am doing my best to savor the sunny days as they come; the colorful dragonflies and butterflies as they linger, and the waning days of long walks unencumbered by bulky layers of winter clothing!
It seems a bit like life itself, I guess. We need to savor what we have while we have it; to not waste valuable real estate in our brains worrying about what the future might bring; and to remember that even on the most monochromatic days, one small cardinal can brighten the entire landscape!
I recently ‘celebrated’ the one-year anniversary of my newest camera, a Nikon D500, and wondered how many pictures I had taken over the past 12 months. In camera terms, those pictures are referred to as shutter actuations. The process for determining shutter actuations for any digital camera is quite simple. For my Nikon D500, I had to first clear my memory card of all pictures, take one shot, and then upload that shot to the website myshuttercount.com. In a matter of seconds, I had my answer!
Over the course of this past year, I have taken 47,294 pictures, which averages out to 129 pictures a day! This may seem like a huge number, but it doesn’t surprise me. My last camera was well over its recommended lifespan of 100,000 pictures before I decided that it might be time to look for a new camera!
I go for picture walks almost every day —partly for the exercise and partly for the pictures. In truth, though, I need the exercise more than I need the pictures, but I love the pictures more than I do the exercise! It’s not that I need another picture of a robin, or a frog, or a butterfly —I just love being outdoors, observing nature, and taking pictures! So, instead of heading out with the expectation that I will find something new or different, or exciting, I just consider every picture walk a ‘practice session’. Every day is different, even if the subject matter is the same.
For me, the ‘practice’ part of taking pictures involves three basic settings: ISO, f-stop, and shutter speed. I make adjustments to one or all of those settings every time I take a picture. If I’m lucky, the subject I’m trying to capture will sit still for a minute while I pause to adjust one setting or the other. If I’m not so lucky, I’ll only get one chance and hope for the best! When I go through my pictures at the end of the day, I’ll evaluate which settings worked and which ones didn’t—and hopefully remember what I’ve learned the next time I go out!
It’s a bit of a game for me, really; one that I thoroughly enjoy. How often can I get the settings right on the first try? How often can I get the settings right after only a few adjustments? My end goal is to have as many pictures as possible that won’t need editing —which would be an indication that I’m getting better at predicting which settings are needed for any given picture.
That’s not to say that I don’t enjoy editing, I do! There are only a few features I know how to use and they serve me well: cropping, saturating, darkening, lightening, sharpening, and cloning. Of those six features, my very favorite is cloning! Cloning allows me to remove unwanted things from a picture that I couldn’t actually remove when I took the shot —like branches, leaches, bugs, and poop! Just the other day, I took a sharp, clear picture of a grasshopper perched nicely on a leaf, but there was poop all over the leaf! It seemed like an otherwise flawless picture, so, I used my cloning tool to replace all the unsightly dibs and dabs by copying the clear, green parts of the leaf and covering up the excrement!
It doesn’t really matter to me that I already have thousands of pictures of bullfrogs, or bluebirds, or bunnies, I’ll still go out again tomorrow, and the next day, and the next because it’s fun, and because it’s all good practice!
Every once in a while, I’ll catch something new out there and all that practice pays off!!
When I was a child, the phrase “Stop, look and listen” was the mantra drilled into our heads to keep us safe as we approached a street crossing. That phrase often floats back into my head when I’m out taking pictures—not as a warning to keep me safe, but as a reminder to pay attention to all the beautiful and interesting things around me.
The more I thought about this phrase, though, the more I wondered if I had ever really heard it as a kid or if it was just another one of those jumbled childhood memories that pop into my head periodically! So, I Googled it! What I found surprised me.
The first item to come up was a YouTube video of the Stylistics singing “Stop, look, listen (to your heart)” from 1971. I remember the Stylistics, but I was already twenty-four years old by the time that song was popular! The Stylistics’ video was followed by a Marvin Gaye video, followed by a raft of cartoons and a long Wikipedia summary of all the different ways “Stop, look and listen” had been used across the years including a Broadway musical from 1915! I got totally sidetracked before I finally came across this…
“As a child, you may remember learning to Stop, Look, Listen, and Think before crossing the road. This simple saying has been used across the globe to teach young children the importance of road safety. Before you cross the street, you should Stop a safe distance from the road, Look both ways, Listen for oncoming traffic, and Think through different scenarios. Then and only then should you cross the road.” https://www.terrapinadventures.com/blog/stop-look-listen-communication/
I had not remembered the “Think” part of that phrase, but was happy to learn that, “Stop, look and listen” was not just a figment of my imagination, but a real directive that had been taught to children all over the world! Who knew that seventy years later it would become a helpful photography tip!
When I’m out on a picture walk, the most important part of that phrase is the word ‘stop’; if I just stand still long enough, Mother Nature will get back to whatever it was she doing before I disrupted her. More often than not, there will be an unexpected surprise waiting for me—like an elusive Kingfisher, or a Ruby-throated Hummingbird!
The second part of the mantra, “look” has never been a problem for me. I am always looking — even when I’m driving down the highway at 70 miles an hour, I’m looking. I can spot a red-tailed hawk at the top of a utility pole from more than a hundred yards away –but, in those particular instances, I don’t stop!!
It’s that word “listen” that trips me up! I am often so focused on looking for things, that I forget to listen; to pay attention to the sounds around me. They are, after all, another potential picture source. I’m not very good at identifying birds by their sounds and it doesn’t help my identification skills that most birds are hiding in the trees when they decide to belt out a song!
All I really need to remember, though, is to just ‘stop’! Eventually, that singing bird will emerge and, if I’m lucky, I’ll get a picture! If I’m really, really, lucky, I’ll remember the song!!
I am outdoors almost every day for at least an hour or two taking pictures. I never know what I’ll find, but there’s always something that captures my attention– even a common housefly, in the right light, makes for a beautiful picture!
I’ve taken thousands of pictures over the years, and I sometimes think, “What more can I find?” When I don’t go for a picture walk, though, I also wonder, “What am I missing? It’s that one burning question that drives me out the door every day– except for rainy days. I don’t go out on rainy days– unless there’s an interlude!
During one of those interludes the other day, I satisfied my need for taking pictures by standing under the overhang of our second story deck and capturing all the different birds near our feeders who didn’t seem to mind the rain as much as I did.
Yesterday, the interlude was supposed to last from 7:00 to 11:00 a.m. So, I grabbed my camera and headed out the door– but not without a backpack full of rain gear just in case the weather forecast was wrong. It was. By the time the rains came, though, I’d already gotten enough pictures to keep me happy.
When the weather cooperates, the possibilities are endless, but I sometimes have to remind myself of this fact; that no matter how many times I go out or how many pictures I take, there will always be something new or interesting to photograph. It’s mostly a matter of staying curious and being patient.
Even if it’s the same dragonfly I’ve seen a million times, the location and the lighting will always be different. Even if it’s the same preserve I’ve been to every day for a week, a new bird or bug will invariably catch my attention. So, I keep going out every chance I get –but not when it’s raining!!
When I first started taking picture walks five years ago, it was just a hobby that I squeezed in between the joys of grandparenting, driving senior citizens to their doctor’s appointments, and volunteering with my dog at a local school. Seventeen months ago, when this pandemic started, all those enjoyable and productive activities came to an abrupt halt. I was faced with entire days, weeks, and months with no particular plans and no particular purpose.
I was thankful to be retired; to not have to worry about working from home (or losing my job) while simultaneously caring for children who were struggling to navigate a world of virtual learning. But I had lost my sense of routine and a feeling of purpose that babysitting grandchildren and volunteering had afforded me.
Eventually, I carved out a new routine of Zoom and Facebook visits with our kids, grandkids and friends. Sometimes, whenever the weather cooperated and everyone was available, there would be ‘family walks’ to various preserves and nature centers —all of us wearing masks and avoiding close contact. I was staying connected, but it was a bittersweet reminder of how much everything had changed and how much we had all lost.
And there were still so many hours to fill…
Over time, those empty hours slowly started filling up with longer and more frequent picture walks. It was, in many ways, the perfect pandemic diversion: a solitary outdoor activity that kept me happy and totally absorbed. After every excursion, there would be hundreds of pictures to look forward to –another delightful and time-consuming task!
Once the pictures were labeled, cropped and edited, there was research to do and stories to write about all the different creatures I had found. When I posted those pictures and discoveries on Facebook or in this blog, it was just one more way to stay connected with others, one more lifeline.
This last year and a half has been exhausting, terrifying and isolating. Most of all, I have missed spending in-person time with our kids, grandkids, and friends. At my very core, I have missed just feeling comfortable and safe around other people without the fear of catching or spreading a deadly disease. Thankfully, we have been able to get vaccinated; our friends and family members (except for the little ones) have gotten vaccinated, and our lives are slowly beginning to blossom again.
My picture walks were a blessing during this long, difficult year. They gave me a routine and a purpose and a connection. My forays into nature also provided solace; an island of calm in a sea of turmoil. It’s just not possible to spend time outdoors and not feel comforted by the wonder of it all.
Spring in Michigan is a “hot mess”! On any given day it can be raining, snowing, or sleeting; sometimes all three in rapid succession. The next day it’s sunny and eighty degrees! One minute Spring says, “Put your woolies on!” and the next minute she yells, “Time for shorts!” Her mood swings are extreme and sometimes harsh but we always welcome her with open arms for the wonderful palette of colors, songs, and creatures that she brings along with her.
The capriciousness of Spring has been both difficult and delightful in terms of photography. During an unexpected snow squall, I run the risk of damaging my equipment but also have the opportunity to photograph birds that normally wouldn’t be present on a snowy day– like the Tree Swallow above. It’s even possible to catch a Mourning Cloak butterfly on an early spring day with snow still blanketing the ground. These butterflies overwinter here as adults and may even make an appearance in the middle of winter if temperatures are warm enough.
What I really look forward to in Spring is the return of the bullfrogs! When temperatures creep up into the 50s and 60s, I eagerly search for their big, bulgy eyeballs just above the waterline and then hope that they’ll stay long enough for me to get a picture. I’m also on the lookout for the glint of wet turtle shells. Sometimes the glint will be out in the open water, and sometimes it will show up on a log. On a really warm day, there will be dozens of glints! When there isn’t enough space on that log for all the turtles in waiting, they will clamber on top of one another any way they can!
Other creatures who return in early spring include the Red-winged Blackbirds, the Grackles, and Starlings, all of whom I can watch from the comfort of my easy chair as they gobble down the smorgasbord of seeds and suet that I have left for all the birds to enjoy. A week ago, I added sugar water, and grape jelly to this buffet in anticipation of the Baltimore Orioles and the Hummingbirds. Yesterday, to my surprise, the first Oriole appeared! I usually don’t see them this early! It won’t be long, then, before the Rose-breasted Grosbeaks and the Hummingbirds will be stopping by.
All of these birds are a welcome burst of color, song, and activity after so many months of leafless trees, grey skies, and inclement weather!
Spring in Michigan is definitely a fickle season; it’s also my favorite. I love watching the bare trees fill up with green leaves and colorful blossoms, and seeing new life begin as the birds go about building nests and raising babies. Most of all, I love listening to the spring peepers down by the creek playing their vocal instruments and lulling me to sleep on a warm Spring evening.
Sometimes, when I’m out on a picture walk, I think about all the things I’ve learned along the way that I didn’t know when I started out on this photography journey; things that can’t be found in the instructional manuals, YouTube videos, or ‘Dummy’ books; things like patience and planning.
This past February, when it was still bone-chilling cold, I stood outside in shin-deep snow for the better part of two days on the off-chance that a leucistic Robin would re-appear in my friend’s backyard. It was a marginally idiotic thing to do given the unlikelihood that this particular robin would return to this particular yard and land anywhere remotely close to where I was standing! As far as I could tell, there was no compelling reason for him to return any time soon.
Leucism (pronounced loo-kiz-em or loo-siz-em) is a partial loss of pigmentation, which can make an animal have white or blotchy colored skin, hair, or feathers. The leucistic Robin on my radar that day was completely white except for a small patch of color on the top of its head.
At some point during my second day of waiting, the elusive white robin landed high in a nearby tree and later flew to the edge of a neighbor’s roof! He appeared to be drinking water from the eavestrough and every time his head bobbed up to swallow, I tried to get a picture. After an excessively long bout of drinking, the thirsty bird stood quietly on the edge of the gutter so that I could get this clear, uncluttered shot. My patience had finally paid off!
The other thing instructional manuals sometimes fail to mention is the importance of planning ahead; not the kind of planning that involves decisions about what to wear on a cold, snowy day of picture-taking, or what mittens work best in sub-freezing temperatures, but what essential items you must have in your pockets!
A few years ago, in June of 2018, I had been out on a picture walk all morning when a fellow birder alerted me to a rare Prothonotary Warbler flitting around in a bush near the edge of a small pond. I had never seen this particular bird before and really wanted a picture! Once I spotted its bright yellow body bouncing around from branch to branch, I held my camera as steady as possible and pressed the shutter– but there was no familiar ‘clickity, click, click’ of a camera taking multiple shots in rapid succession. My battery was utterly and completely dead!!