Great Backyard Bird Count

February 16, 2021

The 24th annual, four-day, Great Backyard Bird Count just ended yesterday. I had never participated in this event before and I’m not quite sure why. Maybe I thought it would be too time-consuming or that only experienced birders would be able to do it. Maybe I thought it would be too complicated. Whatever the reasons, none of them proved true. Over the course of four days, I counted most of the birds from the comfort of my easy chair, the rest by standing in our back yard, camera in hand!

American Robin
Cedar Waxwing enjoying berries

“The Great Backyard Bird Count (GBBC) is a free, fun, and easy event that engages bird watchers of all ages in counting birds to create a real-time snapshot of bird populations.” www.audubon.org

Blue Jay

“The massive international community science project, held over four days every February, collects data that provides scientists with a long-term record of bird distribution and numbers over time, helping to identify trends that might be associated with urbanization or climate change.” https://news.wttw.com/2021/02/12/global-great-backyard-bird-count-underway

Fox Sparrow

“By participating in the Great Backyard Bird Count, community scientists contribute data that we use to protect birds and the places they need, today and tomorrow. In return, studies tell us that pausing to observe birds, their sounds and movements, improve human health. Participating in the Great Backyard Bird Count is a win-win for birds and people.” https://earthsky.org/earth/register-participate-great-backyard-bird-count

Downy Woodpecker

“During the 2020 count, more than 250,000 checklists were submitted from over 100 countries, and a record 6,942 species were counted. That is a large proportion of the estimated 10,000 bird species that live on Earth today.” https://earthsky.org/earth/register-participate-great-backyard-bird-count

American Robin

The Northern Cardinal nearly always tops the list as the number one bird reported followed by Dark-eyed Juncos, Mourning Doves, Downy Woodpeckers, Blue Jays, House Sparrows, House Finches, American Crows, Black-capped Chickadees and Red-bellied Woodpeckers.

White-throated Sparrow

With the exception of the Black Crows, all of those birds were on my list but in a different order of frequency. I also found Robins, Goldfinches, Cedar Waxwings, Brown Creepers, Northern Flickers, Tufted Titmice, White-breasted and Red-breasted Nuthatches, Hairy Woodpeckers, White-throated Sparrows, Fox Sparrows, and one new addition, a Yellow-bellied Sapsucker!

Yellow-bellied Sapsucker

Even though it’s called a ‘backyard bird count’, you don’t really have to be in your own backyard. You can go for a walk and count the birds along the way or you can go to a park and sit on a bench with a hot cup of tea in your hand. But for this, my first ever Great Backyard Bird Count, I actually counted the birds in my own backyard. In terms of variety, it was probably the very best place for me to be. Over the course of the four day event, I identified eighteen different species of birds!

American Goldfinch

If you haven’t already participated in the Great Backyard Bird Count, put it on your calendar for February 2022. It’s easy and fun– and an immensely good thing for all our feathered friends!

American Robin

Happy birding!

Winter Photography

February 1, 2020

I love going out on picture walks. It’s one of my favorite things to do! Even in the dead of winter!

Out for a lovely, snowy day in January

By all accounts, this has been a relatively mild winter here in Michigan, so I had been eagerly waiting for a really big snowfall to come along!  We did have a few short bouts of snow in December and January, but it melted quickly. Yesterday, though, on the very last day of January, it finally happened!! We had what I would call “a magnificent snowfall.” Huge, fluffy flakes swirling all around– giving the world that magical snow-globe kind of feeling! It was perfect! I had to get out the door!

Female Northern Cardinal with just a touch of snow
Eastern Bluebirds stay here all winter and enjoy berries like these

Getting out the door, though, was the easy part; trying to stay warm and take pictures at the same time, was not —especially when the wind chill was well below freezing. I can easily put on two or three layers of pants, sweaters, socks and hats, but I cannot do the same for my hands –not if I expect to be able to operate any of the tiny buttons and dials on my camera!  Over the years, I have tried various combinations of mittens and gloves and hand warmers to solve the problem with varying degrees of success –or lack thereof!

Black-capped Chickadee enjoying the snow!
A beautiful Bluejay waiting for his turn at the peanuts

As the weather got progressively colder this winter, I tried yet another new idea. Instead of gloves, I tried two layers of very thin mittens (along with my usual rechargeable hand warmers). I picked mittens instead of gloves so that my fingers could keep each other warm; and I chose thin ones so that I could still feel the buttons on the camera! The inner mitten was a wool blend and the outer one a wind-proof, water-proof shell. So far, this combination has been working at least as well as most I have tried –but the jury is still out. When I’m not actively engaged in taking pictures, I stuff my hands deep into my pockets and hold on to those toasty hand-warmers.

This lovely, little Fox Sparrow was a new bird for me! He was right in my own back yard!
Male Downy Woodpecker

The problem is, most of the birds I encounter are not particularly interested in seeing me with my hands in my pockets standing around doing nothing! As soon as my hands go in the pockets, they start badgering me to take another picture!

“Pick me! Pick me!” they chirp insistently. “I’m the prettiest! Pick me!

How can I resist??

White-breasted Nuthatch with two tiny snowflakes on its beak!
Red-breasted Nuthatch
Contrary to popular belief, many Robins stay here all winter.

So I continue to traipse about for hours on end, encumbered by multiple layers of hats, scarves and sweaters in happy pursuit of the ‘prettiest one’– all the while wondering how these tiny little creatures manage to stay warm with their skinny bare feet and tiny feathered bodies, while I, on the other hand, am barely staying warm.

White-throated Sparrow– another little bird that hangs out in our backyard
American Tree Sparrow on one of our snowiest days

It’s just one of the many fascinating mysteries of nature, I guess. Mysteries that keep drawing me in –and sending me back out for more!

Worth Looking For

January 14, 2021

During these long winter months in Michigan, it isn’t the snow or the cold or the relatively short hours of daylight that make ‘surviving’ winter a challenging endeavor, it’s the endless days of overcast skies. It’s just hard to stay upbeat and pleasant with so many dreary days in a row! When the sun finally does come out, though, everything seems happier, even the birds are smiling!! All seems right with the world… until it isn’t.

A happy looking Female Mallard hybrid on a sunny day at the Kellogg Bird Sanctuary, January 6, 2021

On Wednesday, January 6, 2021, the sun was expected to shine all day. I absolutely couldn’t wait to get outside and take pictures! And even though it was going to be the coldest day ever, I had to get out of the house with my camera to see what I could find.

Adult Trumpeter Swan, Kellogg Bird Sanctuary January 6, 2021
Juvenile Trumpeter Swan, Kellogg Bird Sanctuary, January 6, 2021

In order to insulate myself against the frigid temperatures, though, I wore three long-sleeved shirts, one fleece jacket, one wind-breaker, one winter coat, two pairs of gloves, one scarf, two hats, and a pair of over-boots to keep my feet from freezing. Inside each pocket of my coat were rechargeable hand-warmers! I was well insulated against the cold, but not well insulated against the breaking news on the radio as I drove home from my blissful day of picture taking.

Cedar Waxwing enjoying juicy red berries on a cold winter day
American Robin enjoying a tasty snack on a winter’s day

The Capitol building of our beloved country was under siege by armed insurgents who were hell bent on overthrowing our election and doing as much damage as possible along the way—smashing windows, breaking down doors, destroying historic property, threatening the lawmakers and beating one Capitol police officer to death. It wasn’t until I got home and turned on the TV that I saw the full extent of the mayhem, hate and carnage that was still taking place.

Dark-eyed Junco in the snow
Northern Pintail

In the span of just a few short minutes, my peaceful day among the birds had been totally upended and set on fire.

Female Common Goldeneye
Three Canada Geese and a Male Gadwall

Today, as I look back through the pictures I took on January 6th, I am reminded of all the beauty that still exists in the world. And, I am reminded as well that beauty is not always easy to find or even easy to hang on to once you do find it, but it’s always worth looking for.

Trumpeter Swan, Kellogg Bird Sanctuary, January 6, 2021

Wandering with a Sense of Wonder

December 28, 2020

I came across the phrase, wandering with a sense of wonder, while researching ideas for my previous blog, Photography as Meditation. Alice Donovan Rouse, in her blog titled Photography and Meditation wrote, “I realized that wandering with a sense of wonder embodies the same methodology as yoga—it’s an exercise in focus and acceptance of whatever it is we may encounter along the way.”

I found this pretty, little Dark-eyed Junco as I wandered through the Blandford Nature Center in Grand Rapids, Michigan on an unusually warm and sunny winter day

That’s exactly how I envision my ‘picture walks’ –as wandering with a sense of wonder.  On most of my ventures, I set out with no particular goal in mind other than to find whatever it is that I think is pretty or interesting– and take a picture. It might be a beautiful bird or butterfly, but it might just as easily be a rock or a fungus. It might even be a single sound that catches my attention and sends me off in a different direction.

Rocks in a thin layer of ice at Western Michigan University, Kalamazoo, Michigan
An interesting looking fungus on a cool winter day in our nearby woods

About two weeks ago, I was out taking pictures at the Wolf Lake State Fish Hatchery in Mattawan, Michigan, and was mystified by a sound in the distance, a sound I had never heard before. At first, I thought it might be a bird or maybe even an injured animal, but quickly divested myself of that idea when I decided it didn’t sound like any living thing on this planet! It sounded more like something from outer space!

This strikingly handsome Red-tailed Hawk at the Blandford Nature Center in Grand Rapids, was keeping a close eye on me as I tried to take his picture.
A Juvenile Bald Eagle flew overhead as I was taking pictures below at the Fish Hatchery.

My curiosity was getting the better of me when I spotted two people in the distance bending down close to the ground as if they were examining something quite small. When they stood up, it appeared as if they were throwing these things into the pond— and that’s when the strange noises began! It happened again and again as they threw stuff into the pond. They were far too distant for me to see exactly what they were throwing, but the most likely answer was rocks. All of a sudden, the proverbial light went off in my head! They were throwing stones across an ice-covered pond!! Fascinating!

A Northern Flicker at the Kalamazoo Nature Center that kept scurrying ahead of me down a path

Once the couple had moved out of range, I started experimenting for myself. The first rock I found was too small and made a disappointing ‘click-click-click’ sound across the pond. The second stone was too big and crashed unceremoniously through the thin ice. After a dozen or so rocks of various sizes and two small ponds with varying degrees of ice, I decided that a rock that was a little smaller than my fist made the best ‘pew-pew-pew’ sound as it skittered across the ice. Take a listen…

A very short video of one of my successful rock tosses across an icy pond at the Wolf Lake State Fish Hatchery

Once I returned home and could do a little research on the subject, I found an article by Mark Mancini titled, Skipping Stones on Ice Makes Crazy Sci-Fi Sounds, where he describes the sounds of this phenomenon perfectly “Skip a stone across a frozen lake and you might hear a high-pitched sound that’s both familiar and otherworldly. It’s like the chirp of an exotic bird or a laser blast from a galaxy far, far away.”

https://science.howstuffworks.com/skipping-stones-on-ice-makes-crazy-sci-fi-sounds.htm

Male Cardinals certainly brighten up the landscape on these long, colorless winter days.

I also learned that the phenomenon itself is “… a classic example of acoustic dispersion. Sound waves are made up of multiple frequencies, including high ones and low ones. When a sound travels through air, its component frequencies usually travel together at the same rate, so they all reach the human ear more or less simultaneously. But sometimes, when a sound wave passes through a solid medium (like ice), those high and low frequencies get separated. Being faster, the high-frequency wavelengths zip ahead of their low-frequency counterparts. As a result, you may hear a gap between the high notes and the low notes contained within the same sound. That’s acoustic dispersion in a nutshell.” How interesting!

A Blue Jay who landed way too close as he waited for a turn at one of our feeders!

If you ultimately decide that you’d like to try chucking rocks yourself, I’ve read that extra-large expanses of ice lend themselves particularly well to acoustic dispersion, and that you should probably stand a good distance away from the iced-over body of water for the very best effect.

A beautiful American Goldfinch on Oriental Bittersweet

If you want to see the ultimate in stone skipping across ice, watch this video by Cory Williams as he tosses rocks onto an ice-covered lake in Alaska. He apparently struck internet gold when he posted this video in 2014. (Fast forward the video to the 3:50 mark if you want to skip the intro and just see him throwing the rocks.)

https://www.youtube.com/watch?list=UUqEZdtqi4IlzmASqAjHGiHg&v=ZIHF5EoEixc

One of my very favorite little birds, the Black-capped Chickadee

If you wander with a sense of wonder, you’ll never be disappointed!

A young White-tailed deer that came almost close enough to pet!

Photography as Meditation

December 7, 2020

The idea of photography as meditation has been mulling around in my head for quite some time now. The more I go out to take pictures, the more it feels like a form of meditation.

Dark-eyed Junco– Well into the end of November and the beginning of December, we were getting relatively warm, sunny days that were perfect for all-day photography outings

Northern Pintail on a warm November day

Meditation is commonly described as a “practice where an individual uses a technique – such as mindfulness, or focusing the mind on a particular object, thought, or activity – to train attention and awareness, and achieve a mentally clear and emotionally calm and stable state.”

Black-capped Chickadee– Four days after the warm, sunny pictures of dragonflies and turtles shown above, it snowed!
Downy Woodpecker

Whenever I arrive at a woods, a field or a pond to take pictures, a sense of calm washes over me. I quickly become so focused on looking for interesting things to photograph, that there’s absolutely no room in my brain for any of the usual clutter.  Three hours later, I emerge from my ‘trance’, relaxed and ready to face the world. It seems a lot like what I think of as a meditative state.

Hundreds, if not thousands, of Sandhill Cranes flock to the open cornfields this time of year. They are a sight (and a sound) to behold!

Much has been written about the therapeutic effects of time spent in nature, but I had never seen anything written about the therapeutic effects of nature photography or, more specifically, ‘photography as meditation’. I decided to do a little research to see if anyone else had come up with the same idea. Surprisingly, there were entire books on the subject!

Female Mallard in the early morning light
Male Mallard and a Female Mallard Hybrid going head to head
Trooper Swan– a cross between a Whooper Swan (pronounced ‘hooper’) and a Trumpeter Swan

“For many people, photography serves as a form of meditation; a way to separate themselves from their stressful lives. Meditation and photography have much in common: both are based in the present moment, both require complete focus, and both are most successful when the mind is free from distracting thoughts.” (Photography as Meditation by Torsten Andreas Hoffman)

Male Mallard conducting an orchestra of Trumpeter Swans at the Kellogg Bird Sanctuary
Female Mallard, possibly leucistic — Leucism is a partial loss of pigmentation which causes white, pale, or patchy coloration of the skin, hair, feathers, scales or cuticles, but not the eyes.

 “Both photography and meditation require an ability to focus steadily on what is happening in order to see more clearly. Whether you are paying mindful attention to the breath as you sit in meditation or whether you are composing an image in a viewfinder, you find yourself hovering before a fleeting, tantalizing reality.” (Stephen Batchelor, Yale University Press, Meditation and Photography)

Snow Goose migrating through Michigan
Female Bufflehead
A well-camouflaged Wilson’s Snipe who was migrating through Michigan

I had tried ‘regular meditation’ once or twice before, where I would sit quietly and calmly for a short period of time and try to focus my attention on only one thing, but I never mastered the art. On a picture walk, though, I can stay focused for hours and there’s absolutely no room in my brain for the worries of the day to intrude— quite a godsend, I’d say, given this horrifying pandemic and the deplorable state of our government.

Trumpeter Swan on the run!
White-tailed Deer
Woodchuck, also known as a Whistle Pig!

A picture walk continues to be the perfect form of meditation and the perfect antidote to today’s chaos.

Rare Old Bird

Second Summer

November 14, 2020

These first few weeks of November have been idyllic here in Michigan in terms of weather. Even though we’ve had our first sprinkling of snow and a few nights of below freezing temperatures, most of our days have been blissfully sunny and unseasonably warm!

An idyllic ‘second summer’ setting at the Kalamazoo Nature Center
Canada Goose coming in for a landing at the Kellogg Bird Sanctuary

Growing up, we called this spate of pleasant November weather Indian Summer, but in writing this piece, I wondered where that term actually came from and was it even politically correct to say ‘Indian Summer’ anymore. This required some research and what I found was that both the origin of the term and the political correctness of it, depended on who you asked!

Whiffling Geese
“Whiffling is a term used in ornithology to describe the behavior whereby a bird rapidly descends with a zig-zagging, side-slipping motion. Sometimes to whiffle, a bird flies briefly with its body turned upside down, but with its neck and head twisted 180 degrees around in a normal position. The aerodynamics which usually give a bird lift during flying are thereby inverted and the bird briefly plummets toward the ground before this is quickly reversed and the bird adopts a normal flying orientation. This erratic motion resembles a falling leaf, and is used to avoid avian predators or may be used by geese to avoid a long, slow descent over an area where wildfowling is practiced.”

No one really knows how “Indian summer” came to describe such periods of unseasonably warm weather. One theory suggests that early American settlers mistook the sight of sun rays through the hazy autumn air for Native American campfires, resulting in the name “Indian summer.” Others speculate that Native Americans recognized this weather pattern and used the opportunity to gather additional food for the winter.

Dark-eyed Junco
Eastern Bluebird

Some believe the term was coined by European settlers who observed Indigenous people hunting during hot fall days. More derogatory theories say it refers to a summer that is not on time or one that is phony or fake.

Snow Goose, Dark Morph –there were three snow geese migrating through our area, two of the dark morph and one white morph. All three landed on the pond at the Kellogg Bird Sanctuary much to my delight!

A beautiful Mallard/Muscovy Duck Hybrid at the Kellogg Bird Sanctuary, Augusta, Michigan

According to the Farmer’s Almanac, the most likely explanation can be traced to settlers in New England who welcomed cold wintry weather because they could leave their stockades unarmed. They feared warmer weather would invite attacks from the Indians, and they coined the expression “Indian summer” to describe the weather conditions that might make them more vulnerable.

Northern Pintail Duck, Blandford Nature Center, Grand Rapids, Michigan– the Northern Pintails are migrating through Michigan right now and I was lucky to find this one. Even though they are apparently plentiful, I’ve never seen one before.

San Francisco State University American Indian Studies Professor Andrew Jolivette,  said “Using the term Indian summer might seem innocuous, but it’s really part of a larger body of normalized euphemisms that keep Indians tied to nature and an imagined past in the minds of most Americans.”

Sharp-shinned Hawk (juvenile) — a first for me!

To be on the safe side, maybe it’s time for us to find a new name.  In many European countries, a November warm spell is called St. Martin’s summer. In Germany, the Netherlands and Eastern Europe, warm autumn streaks are called old wives’ summer (which might also be politically incorrect!) Spain has a quince summer, (because it’s around this time of year that quince finishes its ripening), and Sweden has a “badger summer” (when badgers have one last chance to replenish their stocks for the winter).

Female Belted Kingfisher at the Blandford Nature Center, Grand Rapids, Michigan

For me, though, I’m going to stick with an English term I found along the way that is definitely innocuous and was put into use long before Indian Summer even came into vogue: Second Summer.

American Robin on a sunny fall day that seemed like summer!

Walking into Winter

October 22, 2020

It’s another cold and rainy October day as I write this– not a day for pictures, but a day for bird watching from my easy chair! I am perfectly situated for this endeavor, with the fireplace in front of me, a large sliding glass door next to me, and a hot cup of tea snuggled between my hands. Just outside that sliding glass door is a second story deck where we have bird feeders filled with sunflower seeds, suet and peanuts. Today, there’s an entertaining assortment of sparrows, nuthatches, titmice, finches, grackles, blue jays, woodpeckers, cardinals, and black-capped chickadees taking full advantage of our all-you-can-eat buffet.

Our lovely fall colors before winter comes in earnest!
The Robins stick around all winter but we don’t often see them once the snow flies.

Unfortunately, this rainy, gloomy weather has persisted for days on end now, with only intermittent bouts of sunshine, so it’s been difficult to squeeze in a picture walk. On the days where I have managed to get outdoors with my camera, it’s been so much harder to find things to photograph; gone are the colorful butterflies and dragonflies, gone are the beautiful fields of wildflowers, and gone are the fickle birds who only enjoy Michigan when it’s warm! What I am finding instead are the migrating birds, the ones just passing through on their way to Florida or other sunny havens—like the sandpipers, the northern shovelers, the greater yellowlegs, the gadwalls, and the white-crowned sparrows. Truth be told, I’m a fickle bird as well, and would scurry off to Florida in a heartbeat– were it not for this horrible pandemic!

Northern Shoveler
Solitary Sandpiper

White-crowned Sparrow

In spite of the colder, darker days ahead and the loss of so much color, I still look forward to my quiet, solitary forays into the ‘wild’ to see what Mother Nature has left for me. It will get bitterly cold in the days ahead and the snow will eventually blanket everything.  I will have to dress warmer,  look harder and wait longer for one bird or another to show up, so I give myself pep talks: “It’s good to be out in nature! It’s good to be out walking and breathing the fresh air! It’s good to have an outdoor hobby!” But sometimes, even the best pep talks in the world won’t stand a chance when the mercury drops below freezing and even my camera doesn’t want to go outside!

My grandson feeding one of the friendly Black-capped Chickadees at Kensington Nature Center
Sandhill Cranes are a common sight (and sound) these October days.
A Red-tailed Hawk on the hunt
An inviting path at the Kalamazoo Nature Center

Checking all the Boxes

October 12, 2020

The other day, I was talking with a friend about this hobby of mine that I love–nature photography; about picture walks, about writing a blog, about being outdoors every day. After listening to me ramble on enthusiastically, she said, “It really checks off all the boxes for you, doesn’t it?”

“Well, yes, I guess it does,” I replied.  And then proceeded to get lost in my head visualizing all of those tiny boxes…

Red-eyed Vireo

Box Number One is the ‘exercise box’. I get out and go for a picture walk almost every day. I may not walk fast and I may not walk far, but I do get up and out the door for three or four hours at a crack–sometimes more. At age 73, that might be considered an accomplishment!

Eastern Bluebird

Box Number Two is ‘connecting with nature’. As soon as I arrive at the woods or fields where I’ll be taking pictures, a sense of calm washes over me as I get ready to explore all the possibilities that lay ahead. I am so focused on looking for things to photograph, that I totally forget about anything that might have worried me before I left the house. A picture walk feels so much like a form of meditation that I decided to Google the words “photography as meditation” to see if anything came up.  I was quite surprised to find that not only had articles been written on this topic, there was actually a book with the same title,  ‘Photography as Meditation’!!

Bog Walk

Box Number Three is ‘making connections with others’. One of the things I really like to do after taking my pictures, is to share them with others. There are so many interesting things to see out there! When I share what I’ve found with others, it starts a conversation. Those pictures and those conversations lead to writing a story, such as this blog, which then leads to Box Number Four.

Eastern Phoebe
Great Blue Heron