Home Again

April 24, 2020

We are home.

A little over a week ago Mel and I and our two old dogs made a twenty-two hour, thirteen-hundred-mile drive from Florida to Michigan in our small over-stuffed car. We left Florida at 8:00 a.m. on a Tuesday and arrived home at 6:00 a.m. Wednesday morning!

White-throated Sparrow

Common Grackle

Because of the pandemic, we didn’t want to stay at any hotels along the way and we didn’t want to stop anywhere for food. So, prior to leaving Florida, we stocked up the car with ‘survival food’—cookies, muffins, apples, bagels, cheese and nuts. To stay awake, we loaded up a gallon of tea and a half gallon of coffee. To stay hydrated, we included two gallons of water (one for the humans, one for the dogs). With all that liquid to consume, though, we did have to stop occasionally for a bathroom break!

Canada Goose

We are happy to be back home to our familiar surroundings, familiar belongings and familiar routines, but after ten weeks of unrelenting sunshine, it has been an adjustment getting used to grey skies and cold weather. We have even had snow!!

House Finch
American Goldfinch
Black-capped Chickadee
White-tailed Deer

In spite of the weather, I have managed to get out and take pictures almost every day. Thankfully, the ‘stay at home’ orders from our governor have not restricted people from going outdoors as long as they abide by the 6 foot ‘social distancing’ recommendations. Keeping my distance while out on a walk has not been a problem—but having to worry about avoiding people has. It’s hard not to socialize when we are already so isolated!

Male Red-winged Blackbird

My picture walks have always been a source of comfort to me and they are even more so during this pandemic. As soon as I strap on my camera and walk out the door, I feel a sense of calmness wash over me.

Tree Swallows

Ring-billed Gull
Wood Ducks
Tree Swallows

As I amble through the woods and fields, I am so engrossed in looking for things to photograph that it’s easy to forget all the ugliness in the world around me.  And then, when I sort through my pictures at the end of the day, I am reminded of all the beauty that yet remains.

Be safe. Be well. Stay home!

Great Blue Heron

Standing Still

April 9, 2020

My picture walks began a few years ago as a way to combine a little exercise with a little picture taking. Over time, the walks have become less and less about exercise and more and more about picture taking—mostly because I stop so often to take a look that I never get very far!

Black-necked Stilts

On my walks to the various preserves and rookeries, I often see other photographers who have picked a spot to take pictures and they never move, preferring instead, to stay in one place forever! I used to think this would be an incredibly boring thing to do, that I would miss so much if I just stayed in one place.  But, over time, I’ve come to appreciate the benefits of just standing still.  

Sandhill Crane with offspring (called a Colt)
Green Heron

That’s not to say that I have ever parked myself in one spot for hours on end, but I have, on several occasions, stood in one place for a good hour or so. I have found that by parking myself in one place for a while, I become part of the landscape; the birds and the butterflies no longer notice me and go about their business as if I weren’t there. The elusive Kingfisher, which has been extremely hard for me to capture, will land on a nearby branch unaware of my presence; the Black-crowned Night Heron will perch on a fence right in front of me, and the Roseate Spoonbill, totally oblivious to my presence, will continue fishing less than 20 feet away!

Belted Kingfisher
Bald Eagle

When I do stand still for a while and just observe what is going on around me, I find it very calming. I am so absorbed in what I might find, that it’s easy to forget life’s worries.

Cattle Egrets

With the recent introduction of this deadly coronavirus into our lives, we are, as an entire planet, collectively standing still. We can look upon this time of isolation and social distancing as a colossal state of boredom, frustration and angst, or as an opportunity to more closely observe the life around us and to take stock of what’s truly important.

Marsh Rabbit

There is much that is beautiful to be found.

Black-necked Stilt

Be still. Be safe. Be well.

A Common Denominator

April 2, 2020

We are nearly three weeks into isolating ourselves as a result of the coronavirus pandemic. Mel and I have been staying at home (our Florida rental for two more weeks that is) except for our daily walks and our brief but infrequent trips to the grocery store. Our walks have mostly been to nature preserves and wildlife areas that are not commonly visited by others, and for most of those walks, we have taken our cameras– which is how we have amassed so many pictures in a relatively short period of time!

Tri-colored Heron
Green Heron

Fortunately, photography is a hobby that is serving us well during this time of forced isolation. Even if we become restricted to the parameters of our own backyard, we will still find things to photograph–especially Mel with his macro photography!

One of Florida’s many alligators sunning itself in the grass.
Osprey with its catch of the day

One of the many benefits of this nature photography hobby has been its therapeutic effects. No matter how anxious or worried I am about the overwhelming consequences of this pandemic that we are all suffering through, once I start focusing on the birds and bugs around me, I am almost immediately calmed. All my concentration is focused on the subject at hand and whether the settings on my camera will be correct. But, even before the COVID-19, my picture walks had proven to be quite the magical elixir for restoring a sense of balance, tranquility and joy to my world.

Sandhill Crane parent and offspring

An added benefit of this nature photography hobby has come from sharing my pictures with others, By sharing the things I have seen, I am afforded the opportunity to stay connected to others. The natural world is our common denominator. It gives us a common language with which to converse and to find joy. Pictures are just another way to communicate that joy– particularly during these very uncertain and heart-wrenching times.

Stay safe out there!

Zebra Swallowtail Butterfly (minus the swallow tails!)
Common Grackle

Red Saddlebags with Mites

March 26, 2020

In the midst of this global pandemic, I feel grateful that I can still go out for walks. No matter how anxious or stressed I am by all the heartache and suffering this pandemic has caused, if I can get out for a while and take pictures, I always feel better when I return.

Zebra Longwing
Monarch

I enjoy going to a wide variety of places in hopes of finding a wide variety of interesting things to photograph. But, when I’m limited in the number of choices I have, I just change the time of day that I go– which changes the light as well as the creatures who might be out and about. In the past ten days, I’ve been to nine places, two of which were repeat visits. No matter how many times I go, I always manage to find something that surprises or delights me. If nothing else, it’s all good photography practice. When I do find something unusual, it’s fun to do a little research later and find out more about it.  

White Pelicans
Great White Egret in the morning light

One thing that has really helped my research endeavors is an app called iNaturalist. When I don’t know the name of the bird or bug or plant I’ve photographed, I enter the picture into the app and, within a few seconds, I get back several suggestions as to what it might be. Once I am reasonably certain that I have correctly identified my subject, I go online for more information. That’s how I identified this dragonfly called a Red Saddlebags.

Red Saddlebags with mites

“ The red-mantled saddlebags or red saddlebags is a species of skimmer dragonfly found throughout the eastern United States. It has translucent wings with red veins, and has characteristic dark red blotches at their proximal base, which makes the dragonfly look as if it is carrying saddlebags when flying.”

One interesting thing that you can see on this dragonfly are tiny red dots. A few years ago, this phenomenon surprised me. You can’t really see them with the naked eye (unless, perhaps, the dragonfly is in your hand), so, I was quite surprised the first time I saw the red spots on a dragonfly when I had enlarged a picture on my computer. They’re called mites.

“…these bright red mites, from the tick family, are hitchhikers that feed on body fluids. They jump off when the host drops down over a new pond or wetland.”

Apparently, these mites have little or no adverse effect on their host dragonfly, unless you happen to be a male dragonfly with a body full of them, in which case, you might not be as successful as your friends during the mating process.

Snowy Egret
lily Pad Flower
Tri-colored Heron

Wherever you are in this world living through this pandemic, I wish you good health. If you are able, take a restorative walk outside now and then and look for something that surprises or delights you. If that’s not possible (or not particularly fun for you!), I hope these virtual walks serve a similar purpose!

Stay well.

great blue heron

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!