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!

Childhood Memories

January 25, 2023

A friend of mine, Jen Herro, recently posted her first blog, A Carpenter’s Garden, and it struck a chord with me. She is a watercolor artist with a passion for the natural world.  Our lives first became entwined when Jen asked if she could use one of the photographs I had posted on The Naturalist’s Notebook Facebook page as a reference piece for one of her paintings. We have never met in person, but through our shared passion for nature and art, it feels as if we’ve been friends forever.

In her introductory post, Jen tells about how her love for the outdoors began in childhood while visiting her grandparents’ cabin in the big north woods of Minnesota. Her grandfather, a naturalist, taught her how to “appreciate the wildness of the land,” how to paddle a canoe, start a campfire and make baked beans in a pot buried in the ground. It sounded like an idyllic childhood, and it made me wonder where my own love for the outdoors had come from.

Mute Swan Cygnet during a recent snowstorm

I didn’t have a grandfather who taught me how to canoe or build campfires, but I did have a dad who took me fishing. He was also the person who gently told my mother to “let her be” when I wanted to climb trees, play baseball, and wear blue jeans. Her preference would have been to see me in dresses, playing with dolls, and not running amok through puddles!

Six year old me worried about holding a fish I recently caught

My parents did make one grand and loving attempt at giving my brother and I outdoor experiences, though, by taking us camping.

We left home on a hot and humid summer day during the biggest mosquito convention ever, and drove ‘up north’ to find a campsite, pitch a tent, and spend a fun weekend away from home! Mother Nature had other plans. She wanted rain, lots of rain–so much rain that our borrowed tent leaked like a sieve. We were miserable.

I don’t remember going on any nature hikes that weekend, roasting marshmallows, or fishing with my dad, but I do remember slogging through the rain and mud with my nature-weary mother at 2:00 in the morning hoping to find an outhouse! That’s what stayed with me all these years, the rain and the outhouse! It wasn’t the camping experience any of us had hoped for, but it was, nonetheless, memorable!

Carolina Wren in our backyard
A sweet white-tailed deer in our backyard

So, it’s probably safe to say that my love of the outdoors didn’t come from my parents or even my grandparents, at least not in the way that it did for Jen.

What I had was the joy of growing up during the 1950s, when we spent our summer days playing outside with friends, climbing trees, catching bugs, looking for snakes, and exploring the nearby woods. We didn’t have cell phones or iPads to keep us entertained; we barely had a television! What we did have was each other, and the wide-open spaces of our neighborhood, and the nearby parks.  The true origins of my interest in Mother Nature remains a mystery, but the freedom I had as a kid to spend all day exploring and interacting with her, kept the love alive.

Belted Kingfisher during a recent snowfall

As an adult, I’ve mostly chosen outdoor adventure vacations, rather than leisurely indoor ones.   My husband and I have hiked in Scotland, England and Wales, and have backpacked more than a thousand miles on the Appalachian Trail. We’ve also enjoyed a good deal of biking, canoeing, and kayaking along the way.  But it wasn’t until I took up photography a few years ago, that the natural world really opened up for me. I found birds I’d never seen before, took close-ups of butterflies I’d only known from a distance, and examined the details of a thousand little dragonflies that only a good camera and a long lens could afford me.

A bird I’d never seen before! (some sort of Mallard Hybrid)
Eastern Tiger Swallowtail on Butterfly Bush (taken last summer)

It doesn’t really matter where my love of nature ultimately came from, whether it was a father who took me fishing, or a mother who just let me be, I have reaped its benefits my entire life. The countless hours I have spent outdoors have always brought me joy; being able to photograph what I love has been an unexpected bonus!

That’s all, folks!

Winter Morning Musings

December 27, 2022

As I sit here in the early morning darkness on a late December day with a hot cup of tea in my hand and a toasty fire in front of me, I’m thinking back to the warmer, brighter days of summer where I would have already left the house by now; where I would have had my camera slung across my shoulder as I rushed out the door, not wanting to miss that “golden hour” of photography just past sunrise. This time of year, though, there’s absolutely no need to rush. The sun won’t rise for another two hours and the golden hour (if the sun comes out at all), won’t happen for at least three!

Pileated Woodpecker during the ‘golden hour’ just before sunset
Female Ruddy Duck and a male Gadwall during an evening ‘golden hour’

We haven’t seen much of the sun this December. In fact, it’s been “mostly cloudy” or totally overcast every single day. When the forecast calls for partly cloudy skies rather than mostly cloudy, I’m elated! It means there will be at least a few moments of sunshine to enjoy during the day! But then I wondered: if there’s sunshine to be had on a partly cloudy day, what’s the definition of partly sunny day? According to the National Weather Service, they’re exactly the same thing! If I ran the circus, it would always be called a partly sunny day –a much happier outlook than cloudy!

Even on the sunniest of winter days, though, taking pictures is never easy, especially when it’s bitterly cold and the temperatures fall into the single digits, like they did this past week during our “blizzard of the century.” One day it was only 3 degrees above zero with a wind chill of minus 17! I went outside anyway, mostly to see if I could stay warm enough under multiple layers of clothing and still propel myself forward!

Testing the elements: Wind Chill minus 17 degrees!!

On that particularly frigid day, I went for a walk without my camera just to see how it would feel. Surprisingly, I was so hot under all those layers that I worked up a sweat!  It wasn’t so much the multiple layers of clothing that made me hot, but the act of walking.  If I had been standing still taking pictures, I would not have stayed warm for very long!  Luckily, whenever I do get the urge to take pictures on a bitterly cold day, I can just step out our back door, take a few shots, and pop back in as soon as I get cold. There’s plenty of wildlife right outside our door to keep me entertained for hours.

“Eh, what’s up, Doc?” (One of our backyard visitors)
The Red Squirrels provide plenty of entertainment on a daily basis!

Most of the time I can keep my body quite warm, but my fingers eventually freeze. I’ve tried a wide variety of mittens and gloves with varying degrees of success, but any mittens thick enough to keep my fingers from freezing, are too thick to operate the tiny buttons on a camera! It’s a frustrating dilemma that I’ve been trying to solve for quite some time.

I thought these Canada Geese looked beautiful in the late afternoon sun!
Great Blue Heron on a fishing expedition over the open ponds at a local fish hatchery

A few years ago, I started adding hand warmers to my pockets. They were a really big help initially, but none of them ever stayed warm enough, long enough to keep me happy. So, I went online to research what other outdoor enthusiasts were using and ultimately ordered a pair of Ocoopa Rechargeable Hand Warmers that would reportedly stay hot for 15 hours!! They will arrive just in time for an unseasonably warm break in the weather and a dismal forecast of rain. Perfect timing!

White-throated Sparrow in our backyard
Male Red-bellied Woodpecker

I love the challenge of winter photography and all the unique picture opportunities it affords, but I really miss all the colors, and all the creatures, and all the different ways that taking pictures in the warmer months is so much easier!!

Another one of the beautiful deer in our backyard
Male Downy Woodpecker in our backyard
American Tree Sparrow on a very snowy day
Male Wood Duck on ice

Most of all, I miss the sunshine—and my warm fingers.

“That’s All, Folks!”

Find the Joy

November 21, 2022

“If you choose not to find joy in the snow, you will have less joy in your life but still the same amount of snow.” Anonymous

I love this quote– and the snow!

The Carolina Wren sings a very joyful song

It’s hard not to feel a certain child-like wonder when the first big flakes of snow fall from the sky and transform our world into a winter wonderland.  I love sitting by the fire with a hot cup of tea in my hands watching the snow pile up outside our window and marveling at the little songbirds as they fluff up their feathers to ward off the cold. I’d like to invite them in for a while to warm up. Instead, I put on three layers of pants, three shirts, a balaclava, a fuzzy hat, a down coat, a neck warmer, mittens, and boots, and join them, camera in hand.

American Robin on a snowy day enjoying a crabapple tree

For the last several days, the snow has been falling almost non-stop!  The birds don’t seem to mind, though, and are flitting about everywhere, enjoying the easy source of food in our feeders and occasionally taking sips of warm water from the birdbath. I’ve taken hundreds of pictures of them hoping to find among the mix, one of the ‘vagrants’ –birds who are part of a phenomenon known as an ‘irruption’ which is currently taking place across eastern North America.

Downy Woodpecker on a very snowy day!

An irruption is a sudden change in the population density of an organism. In the lives of our feathered friends, an irruption occurs when the birds who live farther north run out of food, and move farther south to find sustenance. Some of the irruptive species here in Michigan include purple finches, redpolls, evening grosbeaks, red-breasted nuthatches, pine grosbeaks, pine siskins, and bohemian waxwings.

These irruptions commonly occur every few years and mostly impact the finches and other species that winter in the boreal forests of Canada and further north. The primary food source for these birds comes from pine cones. When the pine cone crop is poor over the summer, it foreshadows a difficult winter for these birds. The shortage of seeds that the pine cones produce forces these birds to move beyond their normal range in search of food. If multiple types of trees fail to produce a seed crop during the same year, multiple species of birds will move further south.

Eastern Bluebird weathering the elements on a snowy winter’s day
Mourning Dove

Irruptions vary widely in size, frequency, and duration. Some birds will stay in an area for weeks at a time, while others might only stay for a day. Regardless of the size of the flock or the duration of their visit, it’s an exciting time for birders!

Dark-eyed Junco

I would love to see any one of these wayward birds on my picture walks, but I have been happy enough with my usual backyard visitors, as well as the interesting mix of migrating birds that visit Kalamazoo this time of year, like the fox sparrows, the white throated sparrows, the American wigeons and, the very peculiar, Wilson’s snipe.

Wilson’s Snipe, a migrating bird at the Wolf Lake State Fish Hatchery
American Wigeon, a migrating bird that visits a nearby pond

I’ve been out in the snow several times recently looking for the evening grosbeaks, the red-breasted nuthatches, and the other ‘irrupters’ who might be passing through, but I have come up empty handed.  On any given picture walk, though, there is always the possibility that something new might come along, and ‘possibility‘ is always a great motivator!

Male Northern Cardinal

On these beautiful, winter days, I love the challenge of bundling up like a kid to stay warm and trudging through freshly fallen snow to photograph a bird, as I revel in the joy that, at age 75, I can still do this! 

Find the joy!

White-tailed deer, one of the other beautiful creatures I often see on my walks

Collateral Benefits

November 4, 2022

This time of year, when all the beautiful summer flowers have died back, when many of the birds and most of the butterflies have already left for the season, and when my favorite amphibian, the American bullfrog, sits in the muck at the bottom of a pond until spring, I’m often hard-pressed to find things to photograph.

My favorite amphibian, the American Bullfrog, before hibernating for the winter
Male Autumn Meadowhawk Dragonfly

On a recent picture walk, for example, I trudged around for hours with my heavy camera equipment slung across my shoulders hoping for at least one tiny bird or one late-season dragonfly to land nearby. But all I managed to capture that day was a chipmunk, a fungus, and a fern!! The fungus and the fern were mostly desperation shots (for lack of anything better to shoot), and the chipmunk, well, chipmunks are just cute. I had hoped for so much more!

Just one of a bazillion adorable chipmunks running around the woods!

As the world is slowly being drained of color, and the weather vacillates wildly from blissfully pleasant to bitterly disgusting, it takes a lot more motivation, and a whole lot more creative thinking on my part to go for a picture walk. It’s so much harder to find things to photograph! My slow deliberate rambles become even slower as I take more time to investigate whether some nondescript plant has any ‘picture potential’. I ponder the possibilities of a curled-up leaf, or a milkweed pod, as well as a host of other ubiquitous things, like mushrooms, mallards, and geese, to see if something ordinary can look extraordinary—or at least interesting! Usually, if I look hard enough and long enough, I’ll find something!

Milkweed Pod bursting forth with seeds

To keep the boredom from setting in, I rotate through a variety of different nature preserves, both near and far. They may have the same birds, and the same dying plants that I have near to home, but the setting is new! I also go out at different times of the day, in different kinds of weather, with one lens or the other, just to mix things up and to keep myself from losing interest.

Eastern Bluebird in a Juniper Tree
Mallard hybrid on a golden pond

Since I started this hobby several years ago, I’ve taken well over 200,000 pictures! I don’t really ‘need’ another mallard, goose, or chipmunk, but I do need all the collateral benefits that come with every walk in the woods, every amble through a field of goldenrod, and every contemplative moment I’ve spent beside a pond watching a bird glide effortlessly along, or a great blue heron stand motionless for hours waiting for lunch to swim by. When I’m out on a picture walk, totally immersed in the task at hand, there’s absolutely no room left in my head for anything else. It’s the perfect antidote to life’s worries.

Great Blue Heron