Morning Light

November 19, 2023

Note: Most of the pictures in this post were taken on earlier picture walks

I was sitting in my favorite chair at 5 a.m. on this cold November morning, enjoying a toasty fire, drinking a hot cup of tea, and contemplating the day ahead. Every once in a while, I’d look out the window to see if the sun had come up.

By 7:45, I could see just a hint of light on the very top of the trees along the far side of the creek behind our house. I wrestled with my choices for the day– stay warm and cozy inside the house, or go out into the cold November air and take pictures. The conditions were perfect: early morning light, no wind, and clear skies. I thought maybe a northern shoveler would unexpectedly drop by, or that a few wood ducks might swim out from the reeds as they sometimes do, or that a great blue heron would be scouting for fish along the opposite bank.  I might even see a rare mink scurrying by. Anything was possible!

Great Blue Heron
American Mink

There was no choice, really; whether to stay inside or to go outdoors. The morning light beckoned. It would be impossible for me to stay home on such a beautiful day! There was such promise in the air! But, it was only 32 degrees! I wasn’t ready to face the cold! And getting dressed would be a challenge– because cold weather photography, where I might not move for hours on end, takes careful planning. Should I wear two layers or three? Do I need mittens or gloves? Boots or shoes? There were too many decisions to be made this early in the morning!

All bundled up for the cold on an earlier picture walk

By 8:15, though, I was out the door. The sun had risen a little higher in the sky, the water in the creek was perfectly still, and I planted myself in the very best spot I could find where the sun would be at my back.

Cherry Creek in the early morning light

I stood quietly and waited. The squirrels were scampering through the leaves behind me and running across the branches overhead. Now and then, I’d hear a red-bellied woodpecker tapping on one of the nearby trees. A handful of birds were greeting the new day with their joyful song while a solitary goose flew by.

Canada Goose

Not far from where I was standing, I could hear the familiar sound of the male red-winged blackbirds as they flitted among the cattails. They have a short, one-second song that starts with an abrupt note and turns into a musical trill. The females usually respond to the singing males with a chit-chit-chit sound, but I never heard their replies. Perhaps, the females have already flown south for the winter.

Male Red-winged Blackbird in the reeds along Cherry Creek

After about an hour of standing and waiting, I took a seat on the bench next to me; my hopes slowly dwindling. There had been no signs of any shovelers, wood ducks, or herons. I would have been happy at that point if even a mallard had floated by!

Female Mallard from an earlier walk

Eventually, the cold air settled into my bones, and I had run out of things to talk to myself about. I tried, instead, to concentrate on all the different birds I could see or hear in the trees around me, like the chickadees, tufted titmice, cardinals, robins, cedar waxwings, woodpeckers, sparrows, and blue jays. They provided a symphony of songs and a bit of entertainment as I sat watching for the elusive ducks and herons to appear on the creek.

Downy Woodpecker

By 9:30, I was ready to throw in the towel and go for a walk in the sun so I could soak up some of its warmth. Before leaving my temporary roost, though, I moved closer to a nearby bush where I had been watching the cedar waxwings gobbling up berries, hoping I could maybe get a picture of them! With all the foliage obstructing my view, it was more of a challenge than I expected!

Cedar Waxwing enjoying the berries

After managing to get a few waxwing shots (and one fat robin), it was time to move on to more promising grounds. I headed over to the business park next door thinking I would find a red-tailed hawk, a migrating duck, or maybe even a bluebird. All I found were pigeons.

Three pigeons on a lamp post!

Where was everybody??

It was almost noon and the temperature had climbed from a chilly 32 degrees to a toasty 50. I was so HOT! I had taken off my hat, mittens, and scarf and stuffed them into the pockets of my coat; the pockets that were already jammed full with two rechargeable hand-warmers, one cell phone, and a set of keys. Eventually I had to take off the coat as well and tie it around my waist or I would totally disintegrate from the heat! It was time to head home.

A big fat Robin enjoying the same berry bush as the Cedar Waxwings

In the end, I didn’t have much to show for all my efforts: no wood ducks, no hawks, no shovelers, no mallards. It’s always disappointing when this happens, but I just can’t force the birds to show up when I want them to– or to get them to sit still in the right light while I adjust my settings.

On a particularly slow picture day, like this one, I have to remind myself that the most important thing is the walk itself, not the pictures. At my age (76), spending the day outdoors traipsing about is a gift; one that I treasure. Having my camera along, just makes all that exercise more interesting.

And that’s what keeps me going out the door–even on the least promising of days.

Cedar Waxwing

The Best Day Ever

May 4, 2023

It was the best day ever– as good or better than all the other best days I’ve ever had taking pictures! After a long, cold, Michigan winter, and a wet, dreary spring, I was more than ready for a warm, sunny day. But it didn’t start out warm, or sunny. At seven o’clock in the morning, it was only 39 degrees and overcast. I had left the house thinking it was going to get warmer much faster than it did, and hadn’t dressed appropriately! Standing still taking pictures was bone-chilling cold. By mid-afternoon, though, the temperature had climbed to a blissful 65 degrees and I wrapped myself up in all its warmth.

American Robin: The first thing to greet me this morning

This particular picture walk started out down by the creek behind our house shortly after sunrise. I was hoping to get some good reflection shots of our resident wood ducks swimming along on the perfectly still waters, but it’s hard to catch a wood duck! They swim off in the opposite direction as soon as they catch a glimpse of me! Today, though, I was lucky. Either they didn’t notice I was there, or they didn’t care, and I took more than enough pictures to keep me happy—at least for a while!

Male Wood Duck
Female Wood Duck

After an hour or so of wood ducks, I continued along a path that followed the creek into our nearby woods hoping to find yellow warblers or kinglets. The kinglets ultimately cooperated, but the warblers did not. I love finding kinglets, but they are an extremely challenging bird to photograph as they flit non-stop from one well-hidden branch to another. I took dozens of shots before pulling myself away and heading home for lunch.

Within an hour, I was off again to another small creek and more pictures! This creek, like the one behind our house, widens to form a small pond, and is an excellent place to find a wide variety of birds. To the naked eye, though, it often seems as if the pond has nothing much to offer.  With a telephoto lens, or a good pair of binoculars, a whole new world can open up!

Male Hooded Merganser

I have visited this pond many, many times over the years, but it wasn’t until fairly recently that I discovered the very best place to get good, clear pictures of the birds on the water. Unfortunately, that ‘very best place’ comes with a modicum of anxiety.

Female and Male Blue-winged Teal

In order to access my ‘very best place’, I have to go behind a small, private business along a very busy road. Once behind the building, I have to walk up their back steps to an attached deck where I quietly park myself under their lovely gazebo at the edge of the water. Every time I use this spot, which isn’t often, I fully expect someone to come out of the building and ask me to leave, or to at least ask me what I’m up to!

No one ever does.

Female and Male Northern Shovelers

Today, however, I really, really wanted someone to come out!! I wanted somebody to ask me what I was doing so I could show them all the beautiful birds they were missing, like the Northern shoveler, the blue-winged teal, the gadwall, the hooded merganser, and the magnificent green heron catching a fish! I wanted to show them the hundreds of turtles sunning themselves on the rocks and logs, and I wanted them to hear the orchestra of birds playing right outside their back door!

But no one ever came.

A beautiful Green Heron waiting to pounce on a fish!
He makes the strike!!
And catches his fish!!

I was grateful, though, as I always am, to have this little slice of heaven to myself, to not be extricated from my perch, and to find so many beautiful creatures to photograph!

Two Canada Geese and a slew of Painted Turtles sunning themselves

It really was the best day ever!

Childhood Memories

January 25, 2023

A friend of mine, Jen Herro, recently posted her first blog, A Carpenter’s Garden, and it struck a chord with me. She is a watercolor artist with a passion for the natural world.  Our lives first became entwined when Jen asked if she could use one of the photographs I had posted on The Naturalist’s Notebook Facebook page as a reference piece for one of her paintings. We have never met in person, but through our shared passion for nature and art, it feels as if we’ve been friends forever.

In her introductory post, Jen tells about how her love for the outdoors began in childhood while visiting her grandparents’ cabin in the big north woods of Minnesota. Her grandfather, a naturalist, taught her how to “appreciate the wildness of the land,” how to paddle a canoe, start a campfire and make baked beans in a pot buried in the ground. It sounded like an idyllic childhood, and it made me wonder where my own love for the outdoors had come from.

Mute Swan Cygnet during a recent snowstorm

I didn’t have a grandfather who taught me how to canoe or build campfires, but I did have a dad who took me fishing. He was also the person who gently told my mother to “let her be” when I wanted to climb trees, play baseball, and wear blue jeans. Her preference would have been to see me in dresses, playing with dolls, and not running amok through puddles!

Six year old me worried about holding a fish I recently caught

My parents did make one grand and loving attempt at giving my brother and I outdoor experiences, though, by taking us camping.

We left home on a hot and humid summer day during the biggest mosquito convention ever, and drove ‘up north’ to find a campsite, pitch a tent, and spend a fun weekend away from home! Mother Nature had other plans. She wanted rain, lots of rain–so much rain that our borrowed tent leaked like a sieve. We were miserable.

I don’t remember going on any nature hikes that weekend, roasting marshmallows, or fishing with my dad, but I do remember slogging through the rain and mud with my nature-weary mother at 2:00 in the morning hoping to find an outhouse! That’s what stayed with me all these years, the rain and the outhouse! It wasn’t the camping experience any of us had hoped for, but it was, nonetheless, memorable!

Carolina Wren in our backyard
A sweet white-tailed deer in our backyard

So, it’s probably safe to say that my love of the outdoors didn’t come from my parents or even my grandparents, at least not in the way that it did for Jen.

What I had was the joy of growing up during the 1950s, when we spent our summer days playing outside with friends, climbing trees, catching bugs, looking for snakes, and exploring the nearby woods. We didn’t have cell phones or iPads to keep us entertained; we barely had a television! What we did have was each other, and the wide-open spaces of our neighborhood, and the nearby parks.  The true origins of my interest in Mother Nature remains a mystery, but the freedom I had as a kid to spend all day exploring and interacting with her, kept the love alive.

Belted Kingfisher during a recent snowfall

As an adult, I’ve mostly chosen outdoor adventure vacations, rather than leisurely indoor ones.   My husband and I have hiked in Scotland, England and Wales, and have backpacked more than a thousand miles on the Appalachian Trail. We’ve also enjoyed a good deal of biking, canoeing, and kayaking along the way.  But it wasn’t until I took up photography a few years ago, that the natural world really opened up for me. I found birds I’d never seen before, took close-ups of butterflies I’d only known from a distance, and examined the details of a thousand little dragonflies that only a good camera and a long lens could afford me.

A bird I’d never seen before! (some sort of Mallard Hybrid)
Eastern Tiger Swallowtail on Butterfly Bush (taken last summer)

It doesn’t really matter where my love of nature ultimately came from, whether it was a father who took me fishing, or a mother who just let me be, I have reaped its benefits my entire life. The countless hours I have spent outdoors have always brought me joy; being able to photograph what I love has been an unexpected bonus!

That’s all, folks!