If Kingfishers were more like dragonflies, I wouldn’t have to work so hard trying to get a picture! Dragonflies are abundant. Kingfishers are not. Dragonflies let me stand close and take dozens of pictures. Kingfishers notice my presence from a hundred yards away and take off. Dragonflies eventually take off but come right back to the same spot and pose again. Kingfishers disappear.
Today was a perfect example. As I was walking slowly through the Wolf Lake State Fish Hatchery in search of something interesting to photograph, I noticed a ‘blip’ out of the corner of my eye and froze—hoping not to startle whatever it might be. It was a barely visible belted kingfisher hunkered down on a tree limb! Rarely do I see them before they see me and this one was close enough (within 15 yards) for a decent picture– if I zoomed in all the way and was stealthy enough not to scare him.
Ever so slowly, I started lifting my camera –maybe an inch, maybe two, and he was gone! That was all it took! Kingfishers are so incredibly perceptive—and skittish. Or maybe it’s just me. Mel said that the kingfishers he saw along the Kalamazoo river while he was canoeing this week were easy to spot and didn’t fly away when he approached. Hmmm. Whatever the reason, I’d lost my chance. Maybe if I had a duck blind and a year’s worth of patience, I could get the perfect shot, but I have neither.
So I continued my languid walk in the late afternoon heat
hoping some other birds would be more cooperative. It didn’t take long before I
spotted three swallows sitting on a branch over the water, but they were on the
wrong side of the sun and difficult to photograph. I tried anyway.
Slowly, I turned my camera in the direction of the sound and saw my kingfisher diving into the pond in search of dinner. Once the bird emerged from the water, I was able to follow its flight path into a tree on the edge of the pond. Unfortunately, the bird was so far away, all I could see was a small white dot in a sea of green. When she dove in again, I tried to follow her path with my camera– but at 25 miles an hour, it was mostly folly. Eventually, when the kingfisher landed on my side of the pond, I took a million and a half pictures hoping that one or two might actually turn out. She was still pretty far away.
If this kingfisher had been a dragonfly, she would have landed within 10 feet of me. She would have stood around patiently for a variety of poses, flown away briefly and then come back for a few more shots. As it was, I was left with a super elusive bird that hates to have its picture taken and never hangs around for a minute if there’s any chance at all that someone might be watching!
At the very end of the day yesterday, I wandered over the Wolf Lake State Fish Hatchery in Mattawan, Michigan. I hadn’t been there in quite awhile and I wondered what I might find.
Not long into my walk, I saw (and heard!) a couple of Eastern Kingbirds flying overhead. They were squawking pretty insistently and hanging out near a tree where I had frequently seen them last year. With all the squawking and hovering, I figured there must be babies nearby, so I decided to stick around for awhile, but not too close. Once I stood still, the birds did too. They found branches to sit on and, except for a few forays into the air to catch bugs, they stood guard– or at least that’s what I assumed they were doing.
Several times during my bird ‘vigil’, I attempted to pull myself away. But I just couldn’t. There’s something about a beautiful bird sitting cooperatively in a tree on a clear, sunny afternoon, that makes it hard for me to leave. So I didn’t.
My patience eventually paid off! Hidden deep in the leafy branches of the tree were the two little birds that mama and papa had been squawking about earlier. The two ‘babies’ were sitting quietly on a branch tucked away safely in the middle of the tree. Fortunately, there was a rather large opening in the branches which gave me a pretty clear view of the babies (once I noticed them!) and I proceeded to take an excessive number of pictures. But, if I hadn’t been obsessed with taking so many pictures, I never would have seen the Third Bird! Three baby Kingbirds! What a treat!
It’s easy for me to stop taking pictures of something when the lighting isn’t just right, or the subject is moving too fast, or I can’t quite get the right angle for a good picture, but when everything is ‘just right’, like it was for these little birds and their parents, I find it nearly impossible to pull myself away.
Eventually, though, I just had to move on so that I could enjoy the rest of my walk through the hatchery before the late afternoon shadows grew too long and too dark for any more pictures.
Today Mel and I went in search of somewhere different to take pictures so we drove north of Kalamazoo for about an hour and looked for a preserve that I had found online. The description I had read sounded great and the reviews were good, but when we arrived, the trail didn’t look very promising. We were deposited at the end of a cul-de-sac by our GPS and were facing a very narrow path through a heavily wooded forest. We were actually looking for more open spaces– and water if possible. Both features would be better for finding birds and bugs and flowers. So, we drove 10 or 15 miles east looking for another park I’d found online and ended up at the East Paris Park Nature Loop in Kentwood. This park has an .8-mile paved trail that passes through wetlands, ponds and a small forest. Perfect!
Monday July 1, 2019
I only had a small window of opportunity to go for a picture walk today so I grabbed my camera late in the day and walked over to Western Michigan University’s Business Technology and Research Park, which is right next door to where we live. Aside from the shortcut I had to take through a patch of tall grass, the business park is paved. Usually I prefer a dirt path to a paved one, but these days, with all the rain we’ve had, I’ve been gravitating towards un-muddy, paved trails. I have also been gravitating towards paved trails because the dirt paths, if they are narrow, usually have tall grass skirting the edges and are prone to have ticks. I do not want to be bitten by a tick. They carry Lyme’s disease. Mind you, I’d walk through a whole field of tall, wet, sticky weeds if it meant getting a good picture, but I’m not a fan of a pointless stroll.
Tuesday July 2, 2019
Because we’ve had so much rain lately, I decided, once again, to find a paved rather than a dirt trail for my picture walk and I ended up in Portage on my favorite section of the bike trail. No sooner had I started down the trail when I was caught off-guard by a brief but unexpected rainfall. Not knowing how long the rain would last, I started frantically searching for a way to keep my camera dry and spotted a nearby trashcan that had a lid! Fortunately, I never had to resort to placing my well-loved traveling companion in a bin full of banana peels, sticky pop cans and ants, but I was close!
The Portage bike trail wanders through wooded areas and ponds and is usually a really good place to find birds and other critters. Besides the ubiquitous ducks and geese, I’ve sometimes spotted Great Blue Herons, Green Herons, Cedar Waxwings, and an occasional mink!
Today’s bonanza, however, was of the amphibious kind— lots and lots of frogs! Grumpy frogs, sad frogs, croakers and jumpers! Did you know that a jumping frog often lets out a loud squawk before catapulting itself into the air?? On more than one occasion, when I have been walking in quiet contemplation, I have been jolted back to reality by the unexpected “SQUAWK” of a frog leaping into the water! It always takes me by surprise!
Wednesday July 3,
Today, against our better senses, Mel and I decided to go for a late afternoon walk through one of our nearby preserves, the Wolf Tree Nature Trail. It was so, so unbearably hot that we didn’t last long at all. I was about to say here that I’ve never ever felt that hot, sticky and miserable in my life, but I had. It was 4 years ago in the deep, south, when Mel and I were backpacking on the Appalachian Trail. It was 90 hot degrees and very humid, just like today– only we had the added discomfort of carrying 30 pound backpacks and walking uphill. Today was almost that miserable, but not quite! At least today I could go home to air conditioning and a refreshing shower! Back then we were five days stinky with no shower in sight!
Thursday July 4, 2019
I walked back to WMU’s campus again today for a late afternoon walk and it was still hot– but not as hot as yesterday. Thank goodness! If I had gone home early, there’s so much I would have missed—flowers, dragonflies, birds, butterflies, and a sweet young deer less than 10 feet from me! What a treat!
Friday July 5, 2019
Mel and I both headed out late in the day to the nearby Al Sabo Preserve bike trail. Once again we chose a paved trail in order to avoid the tall grasses and muddy patches on the non-paved trails. It was still hot, but not unbearably so and we lasted more than an hour and a half. The fields along both sides of the bike trail were covered in tall grass and wildflowers and were exploding with dragonflies– Halloween Pennants, Calico Pennants, Widow Skimmers, Twelve-spotted Skimmers, Pondhawks, and a totally new one for me, a beautiful Spangled Skimmer! I couldn’t believe how many dragonflies there were! I’ve really never seen so many in one place at one time! It was great fun trying to ‘capture’ them in all of their artistic poses!
Hopefully, better weather is in our future—but, to live in Michigan is to always hope for better weather!
One of my very favorite places to visit here in Michigan for bird watching and photography is the Kensington Metropark Nature Center in Milford: https://www.metroparks.com/facilities-education/kensington-nature-center/ Any time I travel to the other side of the state to babysit our grandson, I love stopping at Kensington to walk the nature center trails– with a pocketful of birdseed.
The trail I like best at the Nature Center meanders around Wildwing Lake. On the eastern edge of the lake is a long boardwalk from which you can see a small island that that is home to a very busy heron rookery. A rook is defined as “a common Old World gregarious crow that nests and roosts in usually treetop colonies”. A rookery is defined as “a breeding place or colony of gregarious birds or animals…” “Gregarious” seems to be one of the operative words here and the herons in this rookery were definitely gregarious!
It was quite a happy surprise for me to find that there were still youngsters in the nests—which I hadn’t expected. I thought they might have all fledged by now. The youngsters I saw, though, were almost as big as the adults and were still dependent on them for food—which, for the parents, looked like a full time job! All those big mouths to feed!
Through the eye of my 600mm lens, I could see a lot of sibling squabbling going on high up in the treetops as the young birds waited impatiently to be fed. Even if you didn’t have a telephoto lens or a pair of binoculars, you could still surmise what was going on by of all the squawking!
It was quite a show up there—with all the parents flying back and forth to the nests, ‘babies’ testing out their wings, and dozens of rambunctious nest-mates poking and pecking at each other! I found it hard to tear myself away.
Eventually, though, I wanted to continue on my way around the lake because I was hoping I might find the ‘famous’ Sandhill Crane couple who have been raising a Canada goose ‘baby’ along with their own biological ‘child’. It’s quite a heartwarming story that I’ve been following on the Birding Michigan Facebook page but that you can also read about here: https://www.audubon.org/news/this-sandhill-crane-couple-adopted-baby-goose. Unfortunately I never found the Goose/Crane family and was left wondering if the goose will stay with his Crane family forever or eventually join a flock of Canada geese. Time will tell…
The other thing I didn’t see today, which really surprised me, were the songbirds that usually flutter around me in the trees along the path hoping that I’ll hold out a handful of seed for them. Every other time I’ve walked these trails, the chickadees, nuthatches, titmice, woodpeckers and other birds have flown around my head or landed on nearby trees trying to get my attention. I always bring a pocketful of seeds because I love having their little birdy feet rest gently on my hand as they carefully decide which treat they like best.
Even though I didn’t see many songbirds today, I’d stop periodically and extend my hand hoping they would see the seeds, but they didn’t. Only one adorable little chickadee was on the ball. Where were all the rest of my birdies?? Was it too hot? Was it the wrong time of day?? Did I have bad karma? I have no idea, but, I must say, the poor turnout was quite disappointing!
The walk itself, though, was NOT disappointing and I took over 500 pictures! By the end of my walk, I felt quite rejuvenated — in spite of the oppressive heat .
A couple of days ago, Mel and I decided to take advantage of a rare five minute spate of good weather here in Michigan and headed over to one of our favorite picture walk spots, the Wolf Lake State Fish Hatchery. It’s only about 10 miles from our home and, with two dozen ponds, it’s a great place to find birds, butterflies, dragonflies, turtles, frogs and snakes, so we are frequent visitors.
On his particular day, though, I was hard pressed to find anything new or interesting to photograph. Over the years, I’d already taken pictures of every single red-winged blackbird, most of the dragonflies, and all of the geese. I was hoping for a surprise.
About an hour into my walk, having only gotten a few flowers and a red-winged blackbird, I was about to call it a wrap. But when I turned the corner on one of the last ponds, I spotted two small birds perched low on a branch about 25 feet away. Taking extreme caution not to scare them, I slowly raised my camera so that I could zoom in on them before they had a chance to fly away. Only they didn’t. So I kept snapping. Every once in awhile, they would flutter their wings, squawk a bit, and open their mouths wide hoping to be fed. These were young tree swallows that had already fledged the nest but were still being fed by their parents.
Once I realized that they were waiting to be fed, I hoped I could get a few shots of the parents feeding them– but getting a shot like that would require keeping my camera focused constantly on the two little ones, which would be really hard for me to do without a tripod. My camera, with it’s long 600mm lens, weighs more than six pounds, and to hold it up to my eye for an extended period of time like that would be hard on my back—but I really, really, wanted that shot! So I became my own tripod.
First I got down on one knee and propped my elbow on the other knee– which relieved my back and steadied the camera—for a minute, until my foot and hip started to fall asleep. So I assumed tripod position #2 and sat down on the ground with both elbows propped on both knees. It worked great– for about 5 minutes. So I went back to what I always do, I stood up.
Eventually, I got the shots I wanted of dad flying in to feed the kids– but I had hoped to get even more. Unfortunately, the ‘tripod’ I was using had a manufacture date of 1947 and was about to expire!
Yesterday. It. Did. Not. Rain. I say this because it seems like it’s been raining forever! So a day without rain seems like nothing short of a miracle. I was prepared to take full advantage of the miracle and the endless possibilities! Should I go for a picture walk at a new preserve or should I go to an old one? Should I drive 40+ miles or stay closer to home? Should I go early in the day or wait until the afternoon? After a long, animated discussion with myself, I decided to go someplace in the afternoon to a place I’d been before that was not close to home– Bernard W. Baker Sanctuary in Bellvue, Michigan, a mere 44 miles away.
It’s pretty hard to convey in words how excited I get anticipating another picture walk—especially if it’s someplace I’ve never been before, or someplace I haven’t been in a long, long time. But the possibilities are endless– even if it’s somewhere I’ve been a million times before! Will I see a new bird or butterfly or moth? Will I get a picture that I’m really, really pleased with? Will the weather cooperate or will it rain on my parade?
Yesterday, the trail ahead was so incredibly quiet– just the sound of the wind and the birds to soothe me. And I was surrounded by wildflowers– thousands of delicate yellow blossoms interspersed with tall, deep purple lupine. Flitting around among the flowers were a variety of butterflies and ethereal looking dragonflies. Then, against a perfectly blue sky I saw cardinals, bluejays, yellow warblers, orioles, kingbirds, sparrows and rose breasted grosbeaks. I didn’t get pictures of most of them, but I sure enjoyed watching them.
One bird that I did manage to capture was a tree swallow. There were dozens of them flying overhead scooping up insects as they went. I was eager to see if I could get a good shot of one of them in flight– it’s a fun photographic challenge. The swallows, however, were not happy with my plan. Apparently, I was way too close to their nest boxes and they immediately started to dive bomb my camera! I couldn’t believe how fast they were and how close they came to the tip of my lens before veering off! It was unnerving– but I got the picture, both literally and figuratively, and left them alone.
When I go through my pictures at the end of each day, I often turn to Mel with a smile on my face and say, “It’s just like going on a treasure hunt!” I never know what I’m going to find or where I’ll find it, but I almost always bring home something that delights me—sometimes a picture, sometimes a story, sometimes both.
As I was out walking today, I started thinking about what advice I would give others who might be interested in going on picture walks of their own. The first thing that came to mind was to walk slowly and stop often. It’s what I do every time I’m out taking pictures and it feels very therapeutic—like an antidote to all the stress in the world today.
By walking slowly, I have time to notice all the little things going on around me—a caterpillar climbing up a stem, a small butterfly perched on a flower, a hummingbird taking a break. When I walk slowly, I also try to walk as quietly as I can. If the path is covered in dry, noisy leaves, I look for a grassier edge where I might move more quietly. Walking slowly and quietly also means that I’ll be less likely to scare away the critters that I might like to photograph.
On any given picture walk, I stop dozens if not hundreds of times—to look around, to observe what’s going on around me, to take in my surroundings– all 360 degrees of it (including the sky above me!). Sometimes I find a place to sit for awhile. It’s amazing how much is happening around me that I am mostly unaware of when I’m on the move or thinking of other things.
One of the ‘mantras’ running through my head when I’m out taking pictures is “Shoot the way your shadow goes!” In other words, make sure the sun is behind me. I’m always looking for my shadow when I’m out taking pictures and I often choose which way to turn so that my shadow is in front of me, or at least pointing in the direction of the most favorable pictures.
Perhaps because I’m relatively new to nature photography, I take an excessive number of pictures– hedging my bets in favor of getting at least one good shot out of the bunch! With digital photography, there’s nothing to lose with this approach—other than the long hours one might spend sorting through and editing so many pictures. For the most part, though, I enjoy the process.
The other thing I’ve learned along the way is to ‘assume nothing’. Just because a bird is small and brown, doesn’t mean it’s just another sparrow, or just because a bird is red, doesn’t mean it’s just another cardinal. If it IS a sparrow or a cardinal, it doesn’t mean I shouldn’t take a picture. Even though sparrows and cardinals are as common as ticks and I already have a million pictures of them, it’s all good practice– and you know what they say about practice!
So, walk slowly, stop often– and take a lot of pictures!