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

I love to write. I love pulling my thoughts together and putting them down on ‘paper’. Writing things out forces me to clarify what I’ve seen and what I’ve learned. My hope is that those stories prove interesting or educational or somehow beneficial to someone else. If nothing else, though, the stories I write serve as ‘memory keepers’ for me when, years from now (or maybe next week!) the details of a particular walk will have eluded me!

Fox Squirrel

There are certainly other boxes that could be checked off, such as ‘picture walks vacation destinations’ and ‘picture walks creative projects’, but the four I’ve described are at the very top of my list and are all the motivation I need to get out the door for another day of exploration.

Eastern Bluebird

The Peace of Wild Things

September 19, 2020

This poem by Wendell Berry was posted recently by a friend and it really resonated with me, especially during these very stressful and troubling times. It speaks volumes about the peace we can find in nature and of the comfort it can provide.

There’s nothing more that I can add to this beautiful poem, so here are a few of my wild things to enjoy vicariously…

American Bullfrog
Carolina Wren
Male Monarch Butterfly
Praying Mantis
Eastern Giant Swallowtail
Woodland Sunflower

Silver Linings

September 1, 2020

I love going out in the cool morning light for a picture walk, especially during these hot summer days when the afternoon temperatures have been well into the 90s! But our lovely summer days are quickly coming to an end, a bittersweet reminder that fall and winter are close at hand. I am looking forward to the cool, crisp days of fall, but am acutely aware that they will come at a price– all the colorful butterflies, dragonflies and frogs that I love to photograph will soon be gone.  Come winter, the world will be even more monochromatic.

Eastern Tiger Swallowtail
American Bullfrog

That said, my walk the other morning was a perfect blend of Summer and Fall. It was deliciously cool in the morning, sunny and warm by the afternoon; much too cold for the frogs and dragonflies as the day began, but plenty warm a few hours later for all my favorite creatures to be out sunning themselves!

Blue Dasher
Monarch Butterfly
Black Elderberry

Knowing full well that colder weather is nipping at my heels, I’ve been out nearly every day for at least a couple of hours trying to capture what’s left of summer. Because of the pandemic, we haven’t traveled far and I’ve been limited to visiting the same preserves and natural areas closest to home many times over. When I’m in the midst of taking my 700th picture of a monarch or a blue dasher or a bullfrog in the same preserve I’ve been to hundreds of times, I stave off the potential monotony of it all by telling myself “It’s all practice, Jeanne, It’s all practice”– It’s a different day and a different light, every shot I take is a new challenge!

Barn Swallow
Painted Turtles
Female Baltimore Oriole

The silver lining to going back to the same places over and over again is that I really get to know its inhabitants; a case in point is the Wolf Lake State Fish Hatchery. I’ve been going there at least twice a week for years—and even more so during this pandemic. It’s a wonderful place to explore with dozens of ponds and lots of wildflowers. I’ve been there so many times that I know the best places to look for frogs; the most likely places to find the swallows perched on limbs, and which ponds the kingfishers favor most. I thoroughly enjoy this knowledge and this familiarity —but I am still longing for a change of venue. 

Female Red-winged Blackbird
Eastern Kingbird

Hopefully, by this time next year, the world will be open again and we can all feel safe in our travels—however small those travels may be.

White-tailed Deer

Racing the Sun

August 16, 2020

My favorite time of day for going on a picture walk is early, early morning– just as the sun is coming up. It’s a quiet, peaceful time of day when the rest of the world is not yet awake and not yet making noise. It’s a time of day when it’s easier to hear the birds and easier to notice the movement of the grasses where a wiggling bug or bird might emerge.

One of my favorite early morning shots was this little chipmunk perched in a tree with an abundance of colorful flowers in the background.
Monarch

Oftentimes, there’s a mist across the water that adds to the dreaminess of an early morning walk. If I’m lucky, I’ll catch a dragonfly or two laden with dew drops and not quite ready to fly, or a spider web sparkling in the sunlight. The morning sun has a way of making everything look fresher and brighter and more saturated. The problem is, the morning sun doesn’t last long and I always feel like I’m racing against it for a few good shots.

Familiar Bluet Damselfly on a dewy blade of grass
Barn Swallow
Eastern Tiger Swallowtail

The race begins long before I leave the house.  In truth, it starts the night before when I lay my clothes out in the guest room so that, come morning, I can get ready without waking up my better half. In order to win my race against the sun in these waning days of summer, I need to be out the door by 6:00 or 6:30 a.m., depending on how far I have to drive. If I leave later than I should have, then the race becomes literal!

I love finding the frogs when I’m out on a walk. Sometimes, it’s a bit like a Where’s Waldo challenge!
Carpenter Bee working a flower

Once I arrive at my destination, the race continues– because I want to be everywhere at once before the sun is too high in the sky. If you’ve never been in a race against the sun, it’s hard to explain the urgency—or the delight, if you win!

Monarch

(All of the pictures in this post were taken in the early morning sun.)

Sawtooth Sunflower (I think)

A Photography Journey

August 4, 2020

As I pondered what to write today, I was thinking back on my short but immensely gratifying photography journey.

Juvenile Barn Swallow

It started innocently enough in the fall of 2016, when my husband asked me what I wanted for Christmas. I had no idea!  But, he likes finding things that surprise me, so I gave it some thought. What I came up with was “a better camera”. For many, many years, all I had was a very small, pocket-sized, Canon Powershot.

Willow Flycatcher

Once I told Mel about my ‘better camera’ idea, he went to work researching it. What he came up with was another model of the Canon Powershot –but a bigger, better version with a built-in zoom lens. I now refer to this camera as my ‘gateway drug’! As soon as I realized what was possible with a better camera, I was hooked!

Eastern Tiger Swallowtail on Butterfly Bush

It wasn’t long before I was outdoors nearly every day taking pictures of birds, butterflies, frogs, turtles– anything I could find that grabbed my attention. Eventually, though, I started musing about what I might be able to do with an even better camera—one that could capture the birds that were even farther away, and would also have a faster response time.

Slaty Skimmer

Male Eastern Pondhawk

Since Mel enjoys doing the research and I do not, he’s the one who went to work looking for another camera, one that would take a detachable telephoto lens. What he came up with was a Nikon D3400 and a 75-300mm lens. Once it arrived, I was out the door!

Painted Turtle

I think another year went by, maybe less, and I found myself wanting to capture creatures that were even farther away. Mel took off on another search and came up with a 150-600mm lens from Sigma that would probably do the trick. But it was much longer and much heavier than the one I currently had and I was hesitant. When it arrived, I was still hesitant. It just seemed too big and too heavy for me to handle comfortably. But I was eager to take close-ups and quickly overcame my reluctance. I have not put it down since!

Eventually, the constant lifting and focusing with a lens that size made my back ache and I reluctantly added a monopod to my set up.  It’s a bit of a bother sometimes to have the monopod attached, but I can now focus on a subject for an indefinite amount of time without having to give my back a break.

This insect was a huge surprise! It’s a female BOTFLY laying an egg on a blade of grass. I’ve never seen one before and didn’t know we even had them in the U.S.!

After the Nikon D3400, came a Nikon D5600, which is what I have been using for the last couple of years. This camera and I have gone on a picture walk together nearly every day and I have taken hundreds of pictures with it on each of those walks. Periodically, I have checked to see how much ‘shutter life’ it had left.

My D5600 had been given a shutter life of 100,000 shots. When I last checked, I had taken well over 151,000 pictures! I felt as if we were on borrowed time and decided to start looking for a new one.

Red-tailed Hawk

Once again, Mel returned to the drawing board to find a camera that was well suited for wildlife photography. What he found was a Nikon D500. It arrived a just a few days ago and we have already become fast friends!

With a shutter life of 200,000 shots, I’m looking forward to many years and many pleasant journeys with my newest walking companion!

Butterfly Weed

Treasure Hunts

Every time I pick up my camera bag and head out the door, I feel like I’m going on a treasure hunt. The treasures I find might be as simple as a single flower with the sunlight shining through, an intricate dragonfly wing, a reflection of a bird on the water, or a baby bird waiting to be fed. It’s all good– and it all serves as a powerful antidote for what is not so good during these troubled times.

Here are my favorite treasures from the past few weeks. I’ll let them tell the story…

American Bullfrog

This Bullfrog is one of my favorite treasures from the past few weeks. First of all, I love bullfrogs! They have such expressive faces and funny little bodies! This particular bullfrog was one of many at the Spirit Springs Sanctuary in Marcellus, Michigan.

When I arrived at the sanctuary shortly after dawn, the whole pond was an orchestra of bullfrog voices– a deep baritone ‘galumping’ sound that echoed all through the nearby woods. It was music to my ears!

What surprised me about this frog was that he was perched at the top of a four foot tree stump in the middle of the water. All of his friends, however, were playing it safe along the shore. What a maverick!

Black Swallowtail Butterfly on Milkweed

Another treasure was this Black Swallowtail Butterfly that conveniently landed right in front of me on a beautiful milkweed blossom. Well, it only became ‘convenient’ after I had traipsed through high weeds and brambles, risking ticks and scratches, to at least be in the vicinity of the few butterflies I saw flitting around! After that, it was a convenient shot!

Flower in the sunlight

I love the way sunlight plays with the flowers. This picture was originally over-exposed. I was shooting into the sun and my settings weren’t right. So, I experimented with it while I was editing and just kept making it darker and darker until I had this. I just liked the way it looked.

In the early morning light. when there’s absolutely no wind, it’s fun trying to get a perfect reflection! This Canada Goose wasn’t the least bit interested in my picture taking goals and I had plenty of time to experiment with my settings.

Tawny Emperor Butterfly

I must have taken a hundred pictures of this Tawny Emperor Butterfly trying to get a decent picture. It was so windy that this little emperor had all he could do just to hang onto the leaf and I had all I could do to snap a picture at just the right moment when there was a nano-second of calm. I also had my shutter speed set really high!

Snowberry Clearwing Moth (aka hummingbird moth)

For me, finding a Hummingbird Moth like this one is always a treasure. Normally, it’s hard to capture a picture of one of these moths because they flit around so quickly and their wings are a blur, but this one decided to rest for a minute or two and I was able to get a clear picture.

Female Widow Skimmer

Dragonflies never cease to amaze me. They are not only beautiful, they are engineering marvels.

Dragonflies are like helicopters. Or, it might be more accurate to say helicopters are like dragonflies because helicopters were designed to mimic dragonfly abilities. Dragonflies can fly in any direction (up, down, forward, backward) or simply hover. All four wings move independently and can rotate on an axis for incredible flight control. They can make hairpin turns mid-flight, changing direction instantly–and they can fly upside-down.”

Silver-tailed Petal-cutter Bee

As soon as I saw this insect I knew I’d never seen one before (or noticed may be a more accurate word). It looked kind of like a bumble bee but some things were quite different– like the smooth black back and the fuzzy yellow underside. The head didn’t look quite right for a bumble bee either. When I got home and used my iNaturalist app to identify it, I found out that it was probably a Silver-tailed Petal-cutter Bee. These bees cut petals off of flowers to line the walls of their nests (There are also Leafcutter Bees.)

Eastern Tiger Swallowtail

This Eastern Tiger Swallowtail is such a beautiful insect and butterflies, in general, are incredible creatures– having the ability to transform themselves from caterpillars to butterflies.

“In Chinese culture, butterflies often symbolize having a long and healthy life. In Russia and in Ireland, butterflies are sometimes seen as the souls of departed loved ones waiting to pass through purgatory. In Greek mythology, butterflies are meant to show the souls of loved ones. In various Native American mythology, butterflies symbolize the human spirit.”

Spiderwort

This stunning little plant has a rather ugly little name– Spiderwort! It is a very hardy North American native perennial with quarter-sized flowers that only last a day. As the petals fade, they become almost translucent, giving Spiderworts their other common name, Widow’s Tears.

Last but not least was this little treasure– a baby bird floundering around in a bush wondering what to do. I thought it had fallen from a nest but after 20 minutes or so, it flew up to a nearby pine tree where it was eventually fed by its very attentive Dad (a Cardinal).

So, if you’re looking for the perfect antidote to a stressful day, or the perfect complement to an otherwise happy one, go on a treasure hunt!

Outtakes:

Who Knew?

July 2, 2020

Every time I’m out on a Picture Walk I learn something new– sometimes it’s a new bug or a new plant; sometimes it’s a new animal behavior; and sometimes it’s just a matter of looking at familiar things in a new and different way.

White Tail Deer looking as curious about me as I was about him!

Let’s start with the dragonflies. Before my picture taking hobby began a few years ago, I didn’t know that there were over 5,000 different species in the world or that they have been around for over 300 million years! Back in the ‘old days’, dragonflies were enormous– with wingspans of nearly 30 inches! By comparison, the largest dragonfly in the world today has a wingspan of less than 8 inches, and most of the dragonflies that I have found have wingspans of 3 inches or less.

Halloween Pennant Dragonfly

The other thing I didn’t know about dragonflies, beside the fact that there are so many of them, is that male and female dragonflies often look distinctly different—they can even be different colors! Dragonflies, in fact, come in a wide variety of colors including blue, green, red, yellow, orange, black, pink, and brown. I never knew that before taking my picture walks!

Dot-tailed Whiteface Dragonfly

I’ve also had lots of bird surprises—the biggest one coming just a couple of days ago when a Common Grackle landed right in front of me with a very large tadpole in its beak. The tadpole was so big that I thought, at first, it was a fully grown frog–and then I noticed the long tail! I had no idea that Grackles were meat eaters! This prompted me to do a little research…

“The Common Grackle eats mostly insects, berries, seeds, fruit, and bird eggs, although it is also known to eat frogs, fish and snakes. You could say it will eat whatever food it can find!”

Common Grackle with giant tadpole for breakfast!

Then there’s the Robins. Even though I have seen Robins around me all my life, I really didn’t know much about them.  For starters, I had no idea they liked grape jelly! The other day, though, I caught one gulping it down at our Oriole feeder! What was going on? When I looked for answers, I was surprised to find out that Robins not only like jelly, some of them have even been known to bring worms to the feeder and dunk them in the jelly before swallowing them!! Who knew?

American Robin

Speaking of worms, I also learned that even with a beak-ful of them, a Robin can dig for more and not lose the ones he already has! Like this!

American Robin

Another bird I’m familiar with, and have photographed often, is the Green Heron– but I knew little about them! The most amazing thing I found out along the way is that this bird is a tool user!! While I have not observed this behavior myself, I hope someday to have that opportunity!

“The Green Heron is one of the world’s few tool-using bird species. It often creates fishing lures with bread crusts, insects, and feathers, dropping them on the surface of the water to entice small fish.”

Green Heron

Last but not least, one of my favorite creatures of the pond, is the very large and very noisy, American Bullfrog. I love hearing them ‘croak’ (which has been described as a “deep, booming, Jug-o’-rummm!” sound), and I love seeing their goofy, expressive faces. What I didn’t know about them, though, is that they have teeth! Really! It’s not a full set of teeth like we have but “North American bullfrogs have teeth in the roof of their mouth and a muscular tongue capable of flipping prey into their mouth.

American Bullfrog

Who knew??

Reason to Sing

June 18, 2020

Eastern Wood Peewee

I have been on so many picture walks since I last wrote that I’m having a hard time choosing which pictures to post and which ones to cast aside. At this time of year, there are so many beautiful things to photograph that it’s hard to stop taking pictures! The woods and the fields are bursting with new life, and so many colors!! I take hundreds of photos every time I’m out on a walk because almost everything grabs my attention!

Spiderwort

Sometimes, my husband, Mel, and I go on picture walks together. He often shoots with a close-up lens, while I almost always use a 600mm telephoto lens. When we go out together, it’s nice to have a mix of shots—he finding the tiniest of bugs or the finest of detail, and me zooming in on creatures well beyond the tip of my camera. We see the world around us through a different lens—both literally, figuratively!

Mel’s close-up of a female Blue Dasher
Female Blue Dasher

The pictures here were gleaned from 14 different photo shoots at seven different locations over the course of about two weeks. All these pictures were taken in relatively close proximity to where we live: Wolf Lake State Fish Hatchery (10 miles), Western Michigan University’s Business Technology and Research Park (.5 miles), West Lake Nature Preserve (10 miles), Chipman Preserve (14 miles), Pierce Cedar Creek Institute (35 miles), Kalamazoo Nature Center (10 miles) and downtown Kalamazoo for a Peregrine Falcon watch (2 miles). We’re lucky to have so many natural resources so close at hand!

Female Red-winged Blackbird

Wherever I take pictures, I tend to walk as slowly and as quietly as possible so that I don’t overlook anything, and so I don’t scare anything away! Surprisingly, even turtles out in a pond, far from where I am walking, will know that I’m coming long before I arrive and slip quietly into the water from wherever they are perched! Bullfrogs, sitting hidden in the grass along the shore, will leap in fright if they know I’m on my way. I’ve been startled out of my skin on more than one occasion as they catapult themselves into the nearby water and let out a loud ‘squawk’!  When I do happen upon an animal or an insect that hasn’t noticed my arrival, I feel as if I’ve really accomplished something!

Snapping Turtle making a run for it as I approached!
Shooting Butterflies in the wind!

No matter where I go or what I find, my picture walks are making this pandemic bearable. There is comfort in knowing that I have places nearby where the cycle of life quietly ambles on and the birds still find reason to sing.

A cheerful little House Wren with lots of songs to sing!