Spring in Michigan

April 28, 2021

Spring in Michigan is a “hot mess”! On any given day it can be raining, snowing, or sleeting; sometimes all three in rapid succession. The next day it’s sunny and eighty degrees! One minute Spring says, “Put your woolies on!” and the next minute she yells, “Time for shorts!” Her mood swings are extreme and sometimes harsh but we always welcome her with open arms for the wonderful palette of colors, songs, and creatures that she brings along with her.

Tree Swallows return to Michigan in early April.
As I was taking this picture, a brief but heavy snow squall
was heading our way!

The capriciousness of Spring has been both difficult and delightful in terms of photography. During an unexpected snow squall, I run the risk of damaging my equipment but also have the opportunity to photograph birds that normally wouldn’t be present on a snowy day– like the Tree Swallow above. It’s even possible to catch a Mourning Cloak butterfly on an early spring day with snow still blanketing the ground. These butterflies overwinter here as adults and may even make an appearance in the middle of winter if temperatures are warm enough.

Mourning Cloak Butterfly on a chilly spring day

What I really look forward to in Spring is the return of the bullfrogs! When temperatures creep up into the 50s and 60s, I eagerly search for their big, bulgy eyeballs just above the waterline and then hope that they’ll stay long enough for me to get a picture. I’m also on the lookout for the glint of wet turtle shells. Sometimes the glint will be out in the open water, and sometimes it will show up on a log. On a really warm day, there will be dozens of glints! When there isn’t enough space on that log for all the turtles in waiting, they will clamber on top of one another any way they can!

Nine Painted Turtles crammed on a log while turtle number ten (lower right) waits for a space to open up!
One small Map Turtle uses a larger Map Turtle for a resting spot!

Other creatures who return in early spring include the Red-winged Blackbirds, the Grackles, and Starlings, all of whom I can watch from the comfort of my easy chair as they gobble down the smorgasbord of seeds and suet that I have left for all the birds to enjoy. A week ago, I added sugar water, and grape jelly to this buffet in anticipation of the Baltimore Orioles and the Hummingbirds. Yesterday, to my surprise, the first Oriole appeared! I usually don’t see them this early! It won’t be long, then, before the Rose-breasted Grosbeaks and the Hummingbirds will be stopping by.

A beautiful, iridescent male Grackle
The Baltimore Orioles arrived early this year!

All of these birds are a welcome burst of color, song, and activity after so many months of leafless trees, grey skies, and inclement weather!

The Canada Goose is here all year long but is particularly handsome on a calm, spring morning.
Red-bellied Woodpecker carving out a home where he hopes to raise a family

Spring in Michigan is definitely a fickle season; it’s also my favorite. I love watching the bare trees fill up with green leaves and colorful blossoms, and seeing new life begin as the birds go about building nests and raising babies. Most of all, I love listening to the spring peepers down by the creek playing their vocal instruments and lulling me to sleep on a warm Spring evening.

Enjoy!

Spring Tulips in Middleville, Michigan

Lessons Learned

March 28, 2021

Sometimes, when I’m out on a picture walk, I think about all the things I’ve learned along the way that I didn’t know when I started out on this photography journey; things that can’t be found in the instructional manuals, YouTube videos, or ‘Dummy’ books; things like patience and planning.

Photo by a fellow photographer, Bill Krasean
Wolf Lake State Fish Hatchery, Mattawan, Michigan

This past February, when it was still bone-chilling cold, I stood outside in shin-deep snow for the better part of two days on the off-chance that a leucistic Robin would re-appear in my friend’s backyard. It was a marginally idiotic thing to do given the unlikelihood that this particular robin would return to this particular yard and land anywhere remotely close to where I was standing! As far as I could tell, there was no compelling reason for him to return any time soon.

Black Crow on a snowy winter day in February

Leucism (pronounced loo-kiz-em or loo-siz-em) is a partial loss of pigmentation, which can make an animal have white or blotchy colored skin, hair, or feathers. The leucistic Robin on my radar that day was completely white except for a small patch of color on the top of its head.

At some point during my second day of waiting, the elusive white robin landed high in a nearby tree and later flew to the edge of a neighbor’s roof! He appeared to be drinking water from the eavestrough and every time his head bobbed up to swallow, I tried to get a picture. After an excessively long bout of drinking, the thirsty bird stood quietly on the edge of the gutter so that I could get this clear, uncluttered shot.  My patience had finally paid off!

The elusive white Robin on a cold, sunny day in February

The other thing instructional manuals sometimes fail to mention is the importance of planning ahead; not the kind of planning that involves decisions about what to wear on a cold, snowy day of picture-taking, or what mittens work best in sub-freezing temperatures, but what essential items you must have in your pockets!

The Grackles returned in early March

Mallards stay all winter and bravely cope with our unpredictable Michigan weather.

A few years ago, in June of 2018, I had been out on a picture walk all morning when a fellow birder alerted me to a rare Prothonotary Warbler flitting around in a bush near the edge of a small pond. I had never seen this particular bird before and really wanted a picture! Once I spotted its bright yellow body bouncing around from branch to branch, I held my camera as steady as possible and pressed the shutter– but there was no familiar ‘clickity, click, click’ of a camera taking multiple shots in rapid succession. My battery was utterly and completely dead!!

On a very unseasonably warm day in March, the turtles came out to sun themselves.
The turtle in the middle, with the distinctive yellow throat, is a Blanding’s Turtle.
It is a ‘species of concern’ in Michigan

In a state of frantic desperation, I ran to my car, plopped the camera on the passenger seat, and raced home for another battery, hoping I’d return in time to get a picture of the warbler! In my hasty drive home, I turned a corner much too quickly and my well-loved camera with its attached telephoto lens went flying to the floor!!

My favorite Grackle picture
Taken on a warm day in early March

The best I could do was to continue on my mission, fetch the battery, and hope that the camera wasn’t permanently damaged. Forty minutes later, I arrived back at the pond and searched for the tiny yellow bird once again. Not only was he still flitting around, my camera had survived the fall and I was able to capture the moment!! If only I had carried that extra battery in my pocket to begin with!

The Prothonotary Warbler that I almost missed!

The other lesson, if you can call it that, is practice. Over the last four or five years, I have taken thousands upon thousands of pictures. I absolutely do not need another robin, another frog, or another monarch for my ‘collection’; but every shot I take is an opportunity to learn something new, either about the creature I’m trying to photograph or about the camera settings I’m trying to use. I don’t have any ‘lifer’ birds or bugs, that I specifically go looking for; I’m pretty much content with whatever I find wherever I find it. In fact, that’s the very best part: finding the most extraordinary things in the least extraordinary of places.

The much-loved Sandhill Cranes returned in March to the delight of many!

I know there is much to be said about the importance of reading the owner’s manuals and studying the instructional videos before venturing forth on any new skill set, but the very best lessons, the ones that have stuck with me the longest, have been the ones I learned along the way by trial and error.

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.