Riding Out the Storm

March 15, 2020

Osprey on the wing

In the ten days since I last posted, so much has happened here in the states (and all over the world) in terms of the Coronavirus. We are officially in a ‘state of emergency’. Schools, libraries, restaurants and churches have closed all across the country for an indefinite period of time. Broadway has closed, Disney World has closed, New York City’s St. Patrick’s Day Parade has been cancelled and the Boston Marathon has been postponed!  And this is only the beginning!

Osprey with his ‘catch of the day’

For many people, this emergency presents a severe economic hardship, for others, it is just an inconvenience, and for some, it will be a death sentence.  

Common Moorhen

In order to help mitigate the spread of COVID-19, to ‘flatten the curve’ as they say, we are being asked to limit our contacts with other people, to practice ‘social distancing’ as much as possible. For Mel and I, the changes will be minimal. We’re retired. We won’t have lost wages. We won’t have young ones at home who need childcare, and we won’t have elderly parents in our care. In fact, at ages 66 and 73, we ARE the elderly!!  

Bald Eagle

For our part, then, we’ve stopped going to the coffee shop, stopped going to restaurants and stopped going to any stores other than an occasional visit to the grocery store. What we haven’t stopped doing is going out for walks.  

Brown Pelican diving for dinner!

I am beyond thankful that we, as a nation, haven’t yet been  restricted from leaving our homes like other countries have had to do. If this becomes necessary, we would readily comply, but home confinement would, no doubt, stress the limits of my ability to stay sane– or even pleasant! 

Wood Stork

My picture walks are an antidote to all the upheaval. They keep me interested, excited and connected to the world around me—they keep me healthy. So, I am hoping I won’t have to give up my walks during this crisis, and that they will continue to do what they have always done, which is to save my sanity during these very troubled times.  

All done!

For those of you who are housebound or otherwise unable to spend time with Mother Nature, I hope the pictures here provide joy or, in some way, pique your interest in the wonders of the natural world, and that they will help you ride out this storm!

Maybe Tomorrow…

March 5, 2020

Great Blue Heron

Mel and I have been to eight different nature preserves in as many days—both with cameras in hand.

Great Blue Heron with the catch of the day!
Purple Gallinule

One of my favorite new places that we visited was the Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary in Naples, Florida, described as “a journey into the heart of the Everglades ecosystem… a 2.5-mile adventure through pine flatwoods, wet prairie, around a marsh, and finally into the largest old growth Bald Cypress forest in North America.” I had to go!

Black-bellied Whistling Ducks
Mama Alligator and her babies (look below her for the babies)

I wasn’t particularly interested in finding the usual swamp creatures like alligators and turtles, I’d already seen plenty of them. What I really hoped to find was a painted bunting. They are such incredibly beautiful birds– and I had never seen one before!

Pine Warbler
Gopher Tortoise

Ironically, Mel and I spent 5 hours taking pictures along the boardwalk, but I didn’t get my bunting picture until we were back at the visitor’s center and I saw one hanging out near the bird feeders! (I prefer to get my birdies out ‘in the wild’ rather than by a feeder, but I was not about to pass this one up over a technicality!)

Painted Bunting

Another new place we visited was the Babcock Ranch Preserve Footprints Trail in Punta Gorda. Unfortunately, the trail had just undergone a controlled burn and several areas near the trail were still smoldering. Even though we had a hard time finding much of anything to photograph, Mel spotted the one thing I had hoped to find the most—a Barred Owl. Everywhere we go, we look up in the trees hoping to spot an owl, but they are usually well camouflaged and hard to find. This one was high up in a tree, but otherwise visible. I zoomed in, took dozens of shots, and left happy. What a treat!

Barred Owl

All the other places we visited this past week or so, Celery Fields in Sarasota, Ollie’s Pond in Port Charlotte, Lemon Bay Park in Englewood, and the State College of Florida in Venice were places we had visited before at one time or another. They are all dependable places for finding birds, butterflies, bugs or alligators– and we were not disappointed!

Blue-winged Teal
Roseate Spoonbill

With all the preserves that Mel and I visited, we ended up with thousands of pictures. Not surprisingly, it takes hours and hours to go through them all. So sometimes, like today, we take a ‘picture holiday’ and just go for a walk without our cameras, but it’s really hard for me to do. I always see something that begs to be photographed! Today it was the iguanas and the dolphins that caught my eye. I didn’t get them today. Maybe tomorrow…

Scavenger Hunt

February 11, 2020

Going for a ‘picture walk’ is a lot like a scavenger hunt, I think. It’s not that I have a list of things to find, but every picture I take feels like a little treasure I’ve collected and put in my pocket. When I get home, I empty my pockets of all the things I’ve found and decide what to keep and what to throw away. The nice thing about this kind of treasure is that my pockets are always big enough! And that’s a good thing– because sometimes I have more than 500 treasures to sort through!

Here’s what I’ve collected this past week…

Alligator
Fun fact: Scientists have observed alligators luring waterbirds by placing sticks and twigs across their snouts while they remain submerged. When the birds go to pick up the twigs for nesting material, the gators chomp!
Roseate Spoonbill
Fun Fact: The collective noun for spoonbills is bowl. Have you ever seen a bowl of Roseate Spoonbills?
Florida’s ‘jungle’! (Photo by Mel Church)
Muscovy Duck
Fun facts: The red fleshy parts around the face on muscovy ducks are called caruncles. They’re also called a face mask. Caruncles help muscovies keep their feathers clean when they dabble in mud.
They also have claws on their feet so that they can perch in trees, much like Wood Ducks.
Halloween Pennant Dragonfly
Osprey
Fun fact: The osprey is the second most widely distributed raptor species, after the peregrine falcon, and can be found on every continent except Antarctica.
Loggerhead Shrike
The Loggerhead Shrike is nicknamed “butcherbird” for its habit of skewering prey on thorns or barbed wire. The shrike grasps its prey by the neck with its pointed beak, pinches the spinal cord to induce paralysis, and then vigorously shakes its prey with enough force to break the neck.
Brown Pelican: the quintessential Florida bird

Hello Sunshine!

February 5, 2020

Great Blue Heron on Ollie’s Pond

After months and months of dreary Michigan skies, it was a welcome relief to finally arrive in Florida for 10-weeks of respite. It’s not that I don’t like winter, I actually love the snow; but in Michigan, it doesn’t come often and it doesn’t stay long. Most of the time it turns to slush. The straw that breaks the camel’s back, though, is the never-ending days of gray. I can live with the slush, but it’s hard to forego sunshine day after day.

I totally missed this alligator at first, thinking it was a rock!
Osprey (Mel’s shot)

So, for the last four years, we have loaded up our cameras, fishing gear, inflatable kayaks and our two very old dogs to head south, to sunnier skies, to warmer days and never ending picture opportunities.

Blue-winged Teals
Little Blue Heron

We arrived at our rental destination late Monday afternoon and I could barely contain myself. I was so tired of sitting in the car for days on end that I could hardly wait until Tuesday morning to go for a picture walk! As soon as the sun was up, that’s exactly what I did.

Osprey makes a ‘one-handed’ catch in Ollie’s Pond!
Juvenile White Ibis

My first picture walk on Tuesday morning was around the wonderful little Ollie’s Pond. Later in the day, I went to the Larry Taylor Kiwanis Park not far from our rental. Today, Mel and I went to two more parks. After months of relative blight in Michigan, I felt as if I had won the lottery: Cormorants, Anhingas, Egrets, Great Blue Herons, Mergansers, Little Blue Herons, Tri-colored herons, Blue-winged teals…the list was almost endless.

Muscovy Duck at Kiwanis Park

I was simultaneously overwhelmed and rejuvenated with all there was to see!

Bundle Up!

January 19, 2020

I’m sitting here in front of a warm fire looking out at the falling snow and the hungry birds flying into our feeders for a bite to eat, and trying to decide how many layers I would have to wear to stay warm on a picture walk today. It’s been snowing (or sleeting) on and off for the past two days and my weather app says the wind chill is below zero. I ultimately decided that the number of layers I would have to wear would probably exceed the number of steps I could take trying to walk– kind of like Ralphie in the movie A Christmas Story.

While contemplating the saneness of leaving my warm fire and my comfortable chair to go for a picture walk, I decided to sort through the pictures I’ve already taken in the last three weeks and then re-evaluate!

I’ll start with New Year’s Eve. The weather was relatively mild then and I was surprised to find so many robins out and about looking for something good to eat. I didn’t expect to even see robins because I had grown up believing that they left for the winter and returned in the spring; that they were, in fact, the ‘harbingers of spring’.

What I found out, though, was that most of our robins just stay put; that we don’t often see them in winter because they spend more time roosting in trees and less time rooting around in our yards. The robins I saw were doing both– roosting in the trees and rooting around on the ground. They had found berries up high and grubs down below.

It seemed like spring when I saw the robins out and about,
but it was still the middle of winter!

The berries that had attracted so many robins had also attracted Cedar Waxwings and Starlings. Interestingly enough, both Robins and Cedar Waxwings have been known to become intoxicated from eating too much fruit that has already become fermented!

This Cedar Waxwing looked a bit ‘tipsy’ as he grabbed for something good to eat!

A few days later, I decided to take advantage of an unusually sunny morning and headed over to the Wolf Lake State Fish Hatchery to catch what I could of the ‘golden hour’. It was a good thing I did because, for the next several days, the weather was gloomy, gray and wet.

Belted Kingfisher– a particularly hard bird to catch!
Trumpeter Swan flying over the Wolf Lake State Fish Hatchery

After enduring several days of dismal weather, I was eager to get out and take pictures again– but it was still raining! I couldn’t take pictures in the rain (my camera would suffer), so I settled for a ‘picture stand’ instead of a ‘picture walk’ by positioning myself under our second story deck and shooting the birds that were perched in the nearby trees.

For the next few days after that, the weather was fairly cooperative and I managed to visit several familiar places plus one new one, the Paw Paw Prairie Fen. My biggest surprise was finding a Great White Egret fishing in a pond near the fen! I rarely see them in the summer, let alone the middle of winter. I also found a Great Blue Heron, but he decided to fly away before I could get a close-up!

On my visit to the Kellogg Bird sanctuary, I was saddened to learn that two of the birds I loved to photograph had died the previous year– a beautiful Mandarin Duck and a rare Red-breasted Goose. Both birds were one-of-a-kind at the sanctuary, so it was particularly sad to lose them.

A lovely American Goldfinch at the Kellogg Bird Sanctuary

Once a month, I like to stop in at the Kensington Metropark Nature Center on my way across the state to babysit my grandson. The birds at Kensington are abundant and fearless. They eagerly anticipate all the visitors who come by and ply them with birdseed. If you stand still and hold out a handful of seeds or peanuts, the birds will land on your hand within a matter of seconds– chickadees, nuthatches, titmice, downies, and sometimes, even the bigger birds will land– like the red-bellied woodpeckers. It’s always delightful!

Red-bellied Woodpecker enjoying my stash of seeds at Kensington Nature Center
Bluejay scooping up the last peanut

In the time it’s taken to write this blog, the temperature outside has gone up one whole degree— time to bundle up and see what’s waiting for me out there!

Here’s what I found…

White-throated Sparrow

So, bundle up and get yourself outdoors!

Butterfly Ears and Other Surprises

January 7, 2020

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 was surprised to learn that only male painted turtles have these incredibly long nails!
They are used to grab on tight to the female during mating!

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.

Great Blue Heron standing sentry in the snow

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.

I was surprised to find out that dragonflies and damselflies could have mites, or parasites on their bodies– sometimes dozens of them! (Look for the small red dots on the underside of this dragonfly near its legs.)

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!

Black-capped Chickadee ‘sunning’ itself

“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!