I was looking back over my pictures from these last few years and was amazed at all the things I’ve seen, all the things I’ve learned, and all the things that have totally surprised me.
I’m not sure yet what my biggest surprise has been, but yesterday morning a memory popped up on my Facebook page from January of 2018 that started me thinking.
It was a very cold and snowy January day and I had been walking tentatively through deep snow across a semi-frozen creek near my home when I happened upon a Great Blue Heron! It was standing rigidly and alone in a large expanse of snow like a one-legged sentry keeping watch over the manor. Of all the things I expected to see that day, a Great Blue Heron was not one of them! I had assumed they had all left for the winter and were basking in the sun some place far south of here.
When I finished my picture walk that day, I immediately went to my computer to research ‘great blue herons in the snow’. I found out that they can, indeed, be here in Michigan in January, but “generally move away from the northern edge of their breeding range in winter.” Smart birds! If they do stay, Great Blue Herons will find patches of open water to feed on small fish or crustaceans that are hanging out along the edges. But, when the fish aren’t available, herons will eat mice, voles, and small birds. “One hungry heron was seen chowing down a litter of feral kittens.” Oh my.
Another thing that has surprised me over the years is how many different dragonflies and damselflies there are, how many different colors they display, and what unusual mating practices they engage in!
According to my research, there are about 5,000 species of Odonata (dragonflies and damselflies) worldwide; here in Michigan, there are about 162! I don’t know how many actual colors they come in, but I’ve seen green, blue, brown, black, white, red, pink, gold, yellow, orange and purple! Who knew?
During mating, the male dragonfly (or damselfly) grasps the female at the back of the head and the she curls her abdomen under his body to pick up sperm from the male’s secondary genitalia at the front of his abdomen, forming the “heart” or “wheel” posture. It’s a rather peculiar set up, I thought!
Another insect that surprised me was the butterfly. I didn’t know that they had taste receptors in their feet or ears in their wings!! “The ears consist of membranes that are stretched taut over oval holes, and that vibrate when incoming sounds hit them.” Before 1912, scientists thought all butterflies were deaf, but discovered that these insects respond to the human voice and to the sounds of birds during flight. The receptors, scientists discovered, were in the butterfly’s wings! What a handy skill to have if you didn’t want to be somebody’s lunch!
I was also amused to learn that a group of butterflies is called a ‘flutter” and that a group of butterflies gathered together to drink from a mud puddle is called a ‘puddle club’! Too funny!
One more surprise came while I was out taking pictures and came across a Black-capped Chickadee that looked as if it was injured. But, when I moved closer to see if I could help, the bird quickly flew away. My little chickadee was apparently engaged in a behavior called ‘sunning’ and did not need any help from me!
“Bird sunning is the act of spreading out in full sunshine to expose plumage and skin to direct sunlight.” The main reason birds do this is to maintain the health of their feathers. Sunning can dislodge parasites. If birds don’t rid themselves of these parasites, they can infect the bird’s feathers and cause problems for flight, insulation, and appearance– all of which impact survival. Hundreds of different bird species engage in ‘sunning’ behaviors!
Every time I go for a ‘picture walk’, I learn something new!
In the span of just eight days, from December 19th to December 26th, my picture walk weather went from a frigid 16 degrees and 20 mile an hour winds to a balmy 61 degrees and no wind at all!
From the 19th to the 26th, I went from wearing two, three and four layers of clothing (depending on what body part I was trying to keep warm) to wearing almost nothing—no hat, no mittens, no earmuffs! It was warmer here in Michigan on Christmas day than it was in southern California! Go figure!
The hardest part of taking pictures on a really cold day, is keeping the fingers of my right hand from totally freezing off. My pointer finger (and its nearby friends) risk a bit of frostbite every time they leave the warmth and security of my mitten. Unfortunately, they are forced to venture out every single time I have to change the settings on my camera. What saved them on December 19th, though, was an early Christmas gift from my husband—a pair of toasty, re-chargeable hand warmers!
Winter days in Michigan, even when the weather is balmy and clear, is a challenging time to find things to photograph. I usually have to look long and hard to find anything at all. Fortunately, I enjoy the ‘hunt’. It’s a very relaxing endeavor to go on a picture walk because all of my attention is focused on the looking. When I actually do find something, my heart skips a beat —even if it’s ‘just another deer’ or ‘just another sparrow’. The subjects may be the same as yesterday but everything else is different—a different day, a different location, a different set of weather conditions. So I snap away to my heart’s content adding another hundred pictures to my rapidly expanding collection.
I’ve been traipsing about on and off for the last week or so looking for interesting things to photograph, but it’s not always easy here in Michigan during the winter months. The trees are bare and the sky is often cloudy. Some days it feels like spring, other days it feels like Siberia. Usually I can dress for the weather and still take pictures —unless it’s raining. Like today. I don’t mind getting wet, but my camera sure does!
Yesterday, by contrast, it was cold and windy– but good enough for a picture walk. My destination: Kellogg Bird Sanctuary. This sanctuary is home to a large number of ducks and swans and geese who like to hang out along the edges of Wintergreen Lake and create a tremendous racket with all their honking and quacking and squabbling.
On any given day at the sanctuary, you can find hundreds of mallards waddling about on the grass or dabbling about in the lake. They are great socializers and mingle freely among the hundreds of Canada Geese and dozens of swans who also call the bird sanctuary home. It was against this backdrop that I played my duck version of ‘Where’s Waldo?’, the game where you have to find a cartoon type character dressed in a red and white striped shirt hidden among hundreds of other characters and objects that look frustratingly similar.
In the duck version of ‘Where’s Waldo?’ I was looking for a lone duck, among the hundreds of mallards, that was not like the others, — maybe a Gadwall or a Wigeon or a Wood Duck. An ‘odd duck’ like this is very hard to find among so many mallards. But yesterday, I found my ‘Waldo’—and his wife! (I knew it was his wife because he made an unexpected conjugal visit right in the middle of the lake while I was trying to take a family-friendly, G-rated photo!) The ducks I was looking at were totally new to me and I just kept snapping pictures so I could, hopefully, identify them later.
In spite of all the resources I had available, however, I could not identify these two ducks–not as a particular breed anyway. What I should have realized sooner rather than later, though, was that these two birds were mallard cross breeds.
After reading up on mallards a little bit, I learned that there are many different ducks in the ‘mallard family’ and those ducks are able to breed with one another. The offspring of these unions would then be referred to as a ‘cross breeds” by some or ‘hybrids’ by others.
The bird that we commonly call a ‘mallard’ can mate with domestic ducks as well as Northern Pintails, American Black Ducks, American Wigeons, Northern Shovelers, Cinnamon Teals, Green-winged Teals and Gadwalls.
I still don’t know what mallard mix produced the birds I saw today, but they certainly were an interesting pair!
Almost all the snow had melted from our big, unexpected snowfall on November 13th when my husband and I decided to take advantage of an unusually ‘balmy’ day for a picture walk. Temperatures were expected to be in the low 40’s– a relative heat wave compared to what we had been experiencing and it wasn’t supposed to rain or snow! So we headed up to the Muskegon County Wastewater Treatment Plant to see what we could find. With all of it’s man-made ponds, the wastewater site is a great place for birding!
Until a few years ago, neither of us had any idea that a wastewater treatment site could be a great place to find birds. On our first visit there two years ago, we got to see an elusive Snowy Owl and were really hoping to see another one. What we found instead were tons of Northern Shovelers, a few Ruddy Ducks, the usual cluster of Mallards, lots of Buffleheads, a few Lesser Scaups, and a boatload of Geese and Gulls. Many of the birds we saw, however, were too far out in the water to get a decent shot, or they were swimming along the edges on the wrong side of the sun!
It’s a real challenge this time of year to even get out of the house and take pictures let alone find something interesting to photograph. The weather always plays a role in my decision making and it’s often too cold, too wet or too icy to go mucking about with expensive camera equipment. The upside, though, to winter photography is freshly fallen snow. It provides the perfect backdrop for all the birds who are out and about braving the elements along with you– and the bare trees make them infinitely more visible!
In spite of the vagaries of winter weather, I usually manage to get out for a picture walk on most of our winter days. More often than not, though, I lug my camera around for hours without finding much of anything. Fortunately, I’m easily entertained and all it really takes to keep me going, is one good shot — whether it’s a tiny wren, a solitary eagle, a wild turkey or even a common duck (just as long as it’s not swimming around on the wrong side of the sun!).
In the past two weeks, we have gone from balmy t-shirt weather to sub-freezing arctic temperatures and 5 inches of snow! For towns closer to Lake Michigan, it has been more like 24 inches!! Totally crazy weather for sure, but amazingly beautiful— that is if you don’t have to drive in it, shovel it, or survive in it! There have been multiple car pile-ups all over the state and I am quite thankful that I have been able to enjoy most of this ‘bad weather’ from the comfort of my home.
It’s not snowing here at the moment, but it’s only 12 degrees with a wind chill of 7! I’m sitting at home all cozy and warm debating about whether I even want to go outside and take pictures!
It’s not that I don’t love taking wintertime pictures, it’s just that there are so many challenges– mostly how to stay warm. What hat to wear? Which jacket to don? How many layers will be good enough? Then, after all those decisions are made, what’s the best way to keep my ‘shooting’ finger warm? I don’t need to have my pointer finger exposed to press the shutter, but I do need to have it bare in order to change the settings on my camera. I’ve tried all different kinds of special mittens and gloves to address the problem, but with limited success. Recently, though, I’ve discovered that if I wear the right jacket, and I stuff my gloved hand into a warm pocket between shots, I can keep my finger (and its nearby friends) reasonably warm.
When it’s this cold outside, the hardest decision really is whether to even leave my very comfy chair, my hot cup of tea and my very warm fire– especially when all the birds I really need to see are right outside my window—dark eyed juncos, cardinals, house finches, house sparrows, red-winged blackbirds, tufted titmice, goldfinches, bluejays, red-bellied woodpeckers, black-capped chickadees, robins, downy woodpeckers and nuthatches. So why leave?
For the wonder of it all, I guess.
There’s always something that surprises me, or moves me, or causes me to wonder. Today it was the deer that let me pass by without being frightened, and the Red-tailed Hawk that landed in a nearby tree, and the White-throated Sparrow that was almost close enough to touch. I never cease to be amazed by it all– so I keep going out, even when it’s too cold to blink.
It’s Friday November 1st and it’s freezing outside—literally. My weather app says it’s 31 degrees and it feels like 23! Yikes! Less than two weeks ago, it was so sunny and warm that we were out walking in shorts and t-shirts! Michigan weather is like that– happy one day, miserable the next.
In spite of the vagaries of Michigan weather, I’ve had a surprising number of opportunities to squeeze in a picture walk here and there. When it looked like I only had an hour or two between bouts of rain, I’d stay close to home and visit the business park next door, or the nearby woods where we live, or the preserve across the street. When there was a bigger window of opportunity, I’d venture further afield to the fish hatchery, the nature center, or the bird sanctuary.
Once the season changes from warm summer days to fall and winter chilliness, it gets harder and harder for me to find things to photograph. When I was out at the fish hatchery the other day, for example, it took me forever to spot the well-camouflaged snipes, yellowlegs and killdeer out on the mudflats. It also took me beyond forever to pick out the Northern Shovelers swimming among the mallards in the adjacent pond. From a distance, those birds all looked the same. It was kind of like a ‘Where’s Waldo’ search– but without Waldo’s brightly colored clothes!
I enjoy the challenge, though, of trying to find things. It’s a big part of what makes photography such an addictive hobby. When I am concentrating on finding an elusive bird or insect or mammal, there’s no more room in my brain for anything else–like today’s politics or the devastating effects of climate change or the well being of my friends and family. So I keep going back for more, for another ‘fix’, as often as I can.
Over the last couple of years, I’ve wondered exactly how much of an addiction to photography I really have. How many pictures does it take to qualify as an addiction? a thousand? Five thousand?? I know that I take a lot, but what, exactly, is a lot?
There are several different websites you can go to where you can determine how many ‘shutter actuations’, or pictures you have taken, for any given camera. I’ve had my current camera, a Nikon D5600, for exactly 2 years and I’m the only one who’s uses it. As of September 2019, I’ve apparently taken 109,510 pictures!! That’s a lot of pictures by any standard I expect! In fact, Nikon says that the shutter expectancy for my particular camera was met when I’d reached 100,000 pictures!
I’m going to guess, that If there’s a standard by which one qualifies as an addict, this is probably it!
I’ve been posting nature stories and pictures on Facebook almost daily for close to three years now. What I have really enjoyed are the ‘memories’ that pop up from ‘one year ago today’ or ‘two years ago today’, or ‘three years ago today’. By looking at the same date in multiple years, I’m getting a better idea of what birds and insects I can expect to find in the spring and summer, which ones will have already left by fall, and which brave souls will stay here all winter. I am also learning which birds are likely to be migrating through our area during the spring and fall and where I might find them.
Of course, Mother Nature has had a big roll to play in what I might see and when I might see it. October has always been a fickle month here, with great variations in the weather– hot one day and cold the next. It can rain cats and dogs on Monday and blanket us in snow on Tuesday. We just never know what we’re going to get.
The hot days seem to be getting hotter and more frequent, though. We’ve had temperatures in the 80s in October which is not normal and doesn’t bode well for the future. Unfortunately, we are also seeing extremes like this (and much worse) across the globe, the effects of which have already been profound and devastating for the birds and other creatures we share our planet with. I hope it’s not too late for us to right the wrongs we’ve inflicted.
When looking back on all my nature related posts from the last three years, I was somewhat surprised to see how often the exact same things showed up on almost the exact same dates—like the Wilson’s Snipes I found the other day. They have arrived at the Wolf Lake State Fish Hatchery on or around October 9th for the last three years that I’ve been paying attention. Other birds that have shown up around the same time have been the Lesser Yellowlegs, the Killdeer, and the Sandpipers. I expect there are others, but these are the ones I have a photographic record of.
Looking back over three years of pictures and posts was a fun but challenging activity. It was a good way for me to see patterns and to reminisce about the nature preserves and sanctuaries I love to visit. Deciding which pictures to leave out was difficult– there were so many that represented ‘the best of October’ that I had a hard time choosing. And even though there seems to be an excessive number of pictures here, I really did leave most of them on the cutting floor!
When I looked at the calendar to see how long it had been since Mel and I had returned from our vacation in Colorado, I was surprised to see that it hadn’t even been two weeks—It seems like forever ago!
It was so much fun being someplace else and finding new things to photograph like the elk in Estes Park, the Pelicans in Ft. Collins and the Clark’s Nutcracker in the Rocky Mountains. Coming home was a stark reminder of how quickly we are moving towards winter.
This Katydid was such a pleasant surprise! I rarely find them because they usually blend in so well with their environment. This one stuck out like a sore thumb!
When I go out for picture walks now, it’s much harder to find birds, butterflies and dragonflies. The birds I am seeing now are mostly Goldfinches, Eastern Phoebes and Cedar Waxwings. In the butterfly department, I’m still seeing a few of the bright orange Monarchs, an occasional Silver Spotted Skipper, some Clouded Sulphurs and Orange Sulphurs, and a plethora of the little Cabbage Whites. A small assortment of dragonflies are still hanging around, especially the beautiful red Autumn Meadowhawks– and occasionally I see a Halloween Pennant or a Slaty Blue, but the dragonflies are few and far between these days.
One very pleasant surprise this past week was a fox. I rarely see them and I’ve never gotten a picture until this one. I’ve also seen a couple of bald eagles –which is always a thrill, but I’ve not been able to get a good picture, they’re always too high in the sky!
Even though it saddens me to say goodbye to summer and its warm sunny days, there are things I look forward to with the coming of winter– like sitting in front of the fire with a cup of tea and a good book, or walking outside into the very first snowfall, or finding an unexpected bird weathering the elements in the middle of January. There’s always something to look forward to, but sometimes, on the coldest, darkest days of winter, I have to look really, really hard!!
Mel and I have just returned from a vacation in Colorado
where we both enjoyed pursuing our passions—fly fishing for him, nature
photography for me.
Hitchcock Nature Center, Honey Creek, Iowa
Our four day, twelve hundred mile car journey from Michigan to Colorado took us through the states of Indiana, Illinois, Iowa and Nebraska. According to Google Maps, it’s only a 16 hour journey— that is if you don’t stop to sleep or eat or go to the bathroom! We did all of the aforementioned, plus took a side trip to Honey Creek Iowa where we spent two days in a cozy little cabin on the grounds of the Hitchcock Nature Center. While at the nature center, we took pictures walks along the Fox Ridge Run Trail and the Boardwalk Trail.
August 30- September 2
Ft. Collins, Colorado
From Honey Creek, Iowa we headed through Nebraska to Fort
Collins, our first Colorado destination.
Fort Collins is well known for its excellent fly fishing opportunities and a multitude of natural areas to explore. Over the course of our stay in Fort Collins, Mel went fishing several places along the Cache La Poudre River, while I took picture walks along the Hewlett Gulch Trail, the Fossil Creek Reservoir (twice) and at the Colorado State University Annual Trial Flower Garden. Mel joined me for picture walks on one of my visits to the reservoir and at the university flower garden.
Beautiful flowers and butterflies from the Colorado State Annual Trial Garden…
Estes Park, Colorado
As soon as we arrived in Estes Park, Mel headed to the fishing shops and I headed out looking for pictures to take. Surprisingly, the Knoll-Willows Nature Preserve is right in town and only a stone’s throw from where we parked! Within a minute or so of commencing my walk, I spotted a huge bull elk lounging in the underbrush along the edge of the preserve! A little farther down the sidewalk, were several of his girlfriends. Apparently, elk are a very common sight right in Estes Park!
In front of the Visitor’s Center at Estes Park, the Hummingbird Moths and the Hummingbirds were a delight to watch…
September 5, 2019
Rocky Mountain National Park
to Steamboat Springs
We spent the day driving through the scenic, breathtaking Rocky Mountain National Park to reach our second Colorado destination, Steamboat Springs. Mel and I stopped several times through the mountain route to take in all the spectacular views– but I never took any scenery pictures (they tend to be disappointing compared to the real thing), preferring instead to look for the smaller things like birds and butterflies and mammals.
Steamboat Springs, Colorado
While Mel went fishing in the Yampa River, I went walking along the Yampa River Trail, a 7.5 mile multi-use trail that runs through the heart of Steamboat Springs and along the Yampa River. Along that trail, I found other points of interest like the Rotary Park Boardwalk and the Yampa Botanic Park, both of which were wonderful places for a quiet retreat as well as multiple picture opportunities.
On one of the days that Mel didn’t go fishing,
we took a drive up to Fish Creek Falls
together for a picture walk and later spent hours at the Yampa Botanic Garden taking pictures of all the beautiful flowers,
birds and visiting insects.
Stunning flowers from the Yampa Botanic Garden…
Colorado Springs, Colorado
Springs was our last destination in Colorado and we made the best of the time
we had. As soon as we arrived on the afternoon of the 9th, we went for a
picture walk in Palmer Park on a
trail that turned out to be rockier and slipperier than we expected. Not many
pictures got taken—we were too busy watching our footing!
The following morning we headed out to the Garden of the Gods, which is known for its enormous, awe-inspiring geologic
formations, including tall rock spires or hoodoos, and steep cliffs. It’s a
major tourist attraction and well worth the visit.
After our visit to Garden of the Gods, Mel dropped me off at the Bear CreekNature Center to take pictures all afternoon while he explored the fishing shops, bookstores and coffee shops around Colorado Springs.
On Wednesday, our last full day in Colorado, Mel dropped me off at the Cheyenne Mountain Zoo where I spent a delightful five and a half hours taking almost 800 pictures of the zoo animals and of the native birds that were flitting about in the nearby trees!
The meerkats were great fun to watch. They are both curious and comical!
The best part of going on vacation, besides getting away from every day routines, is finding things I’ve never seen before (and taking pictures!), eating things I’ve never tried before and meeting new people I’ve never met before.
It’s been a productive and surprising picture week—and it’s only Thursday! On some of the days this week, I ‘tripled up’ and went to three different places in one day! So I had hundreds and hundreds of pictures to go through, all of which needed cropping, editing and sorting—or deleting! It’s an enjoyable process, but time consuming.
My favorite part of the editing process is looking at the pictures on my computer screen and seeing everything up close. I’ve found some of the most surprising things during this process– like learning that dragonflies will eat each other and that they are sometimes covered with miniscule mites, that butterflies can still fly in spite of missing much of their wing mass and that our fair state of Michigan has cuckoos (or maybe that isn’t such a surprise!!).
This past week was filled with a variety of other kinds of surprises as well. I found out that just by standing on my back deck taking pictures, I could ‘capture’ more birds than I ever could on a picture walk! In just two hours, I photographed fourteen different kinds birds! If I had waited longer, I expect that all the neighborhood birds would have eventually come by for a portrait shoot!
On my way home from a different kind of photo shoot, I was surprised to find a young red-tailed hawk down on the ground beside a busy road. As soon as I could find a place to park, I went back to see what I could do. Since I had neither a towel nor a box to rescue the bird with, I called my husband to see if he could help. We were hoping to take the bird to a local bird rehab specialist. Fortunately, when Mel arrived and subsequently approached the hawk to cover it up and put it in a box, the bird was able to fly into a nearby tree! It wasn’t going to need a trip to rehab after all!
Another surprise was the weird looking duck I saw at the Bernard W. Baker Sanctuary in Bellvue, Michigan. I had been hoping the bird was one I hadn’t seen before, but when I got home and was able to do some research, I thought it might be a juvenile male Wood Duck. Later, on Facebook, another person posted a similar picture and also called it a juvenile male Wood Duck. They were informed that it was “an adult male wood duck in “eclipse plumage“. Eclipse plumage??? Apparently, the bird was NOT a juvenile, because “immature males wouldn’t have the red eyes yet.” My ‘weird’ looking duck had red eyes, so I guess it was ‘eclipsing’ rather than being immature! Who knew??
On my walk yesterday, along the Paul Henry–Thornapple River Trail in Middleville, Michigan, I was surprised to see a Lesser Yellowlegs and a Solitary Sandpiper. I don’t remember seeing them here in Michigan before and I’ve never seen them along the Paul Henry River Trail. I also saw a Common Green Darner dragonfly. My Google search informed me that this insect is “North America’s most common dragonfly”! For me, it’s actually the least common! I hardly ever see them and when I do, they rarely stop for pictures. This one, for whatever reason, was crawling out of the water –and easy to photograph!
Keep your eyes and ears open! There are so many wonderful surprises out there!