This time of year, when all the beautiful summer flowers have died back, when many of the birds and most of the butterflies have already left for the season, and when my favorite amphibian, the American bullfrog, sits in the muck at the bottom of a pond until spring, I’m often hard-pressed to find things to photograph.
On a recent picture walk, for example, I trudged around for hours with my heavy camera equipment slung across my shoulders hoping for at least one tiny bird or one late-season dragonfly to land nearby. But all I managed to capture that day was a chipmunk, a fungus, and a fern!! The fungus and the fern were mostly desperation shots (for lack of anything better to shoot), and the chipmunk, well, chipmunks are just cute. I had hoped for so much more!
As the world is slowly being drained of color, and the weather vacillates wildly from blissfully pleasant to bitterly disgusting, it takes a lot more motivation, and a whole lot more creative thinking on my part to go for a picture walk. It’s so much harder to find things to photograph! My slow deliberate rambles become even slower as I take more time to investigate whether some nondescript plant has any ‘picture potential’. I ponder the possibilities of a curled-up leaf, or a milkweed pod, as well as a host of other ubiquitous things, like mushrooms, mallards, and geese, to see if something ordinary can look extraordinary—or at least interesting! Usually, if I look hard enough and long enough, I’ll find something!
To keep the boredom from setting in, I rotate through a variety of different nature preserves, both near and far. They may have the same birds, and the same dying plants that I have near to home, but the setting is new! I also go out at different times of the day, in different kinds of weather, with one lens or the other, just to mix things up and to keep myself from losing interest.
Since I started this hobby several years ago, I’ve taken well over 200,000 pictures! I don’t really ‘need’ another mallard, goose, or chipmunk, but I do need all the collateral benefits that come with every walk in the woods, every amble through a field of goldenrod, and every contemplative moment I’ve spent beside a pond watching a bird glide effortlessly along, or a great blue heron stand motionless for hours waiting for lunch to swim by. When I’m out on a picture walk, totally immersed in the task at hand, there’s absolutely no room left in my head for anything else. It’s the perfect antidote to life’s worries.
It’s those collateral benefits that keep me going back for more.
There are many things I am thankful for in this life; the love of family, our good health, food on the table, a roof over our heads, and a multitude of other blessings. Near the very bottom of that list, but certainly not last, I am thankful that flowers don’t fly! It may seem like a very strange thing to be thankful for, but I am a nature photographer, and things that don’t fly are so much easier to photograph than things that do!
I’m always a bit anxious when I photograph things that fly because there is just the tiniest window of opportunity to get things right before the winged creature disappears! Once I spot the bird, butterfly, or dragonfly, there’s rarely enough time to adjust the focus, let alone change the ISO, the f-stop and the shutter speed before they disappear!
The other difficult thing about winged creatures is, they never let you know when they’re leaving! I remember the first time I was trying to take a picture of a butterfly. It was years ago, but it still comes back to me every time something flies away without a sound. For some reason, I kept thinking that the creatures I was taking pictures of would make some kind of noise when they left, like people do when they shuffle their feet, shut the door, or say goodbye. You definitely know when humans have left. Most of the time, you even know exactly where to find them! But not so much with birds and butterflies! They just silently flutter away without a sound and, most of the time, I have absolutely no idea where they’ve gone. I wish they all wore bells!
A few bigger birds, like the great blue heron and the little green heron will, on occasion, let you know they’re leaving by blurting out a raspy squawk or two. Sometimes, I can even get a decent picture as they depart. Or, consider the lowly bullfrog, who doesn’t exactly have wings, but will at least let me know when it’s leaving by yelling, “YEEP!” as it jumps into the water. Unfortunately, by the time I hear the “YEEP”, it’s too late for a picture!
That’s why I’m thankful for flowers. They don’t fly off and they don’t leap in fright when they hear me coming. I can walk right up and take a picture! I can take a hundred pictures if I like. I can change my settings a million times, take a break for lunch, make a phone call, and come back later. They never fly away!
In a world where everything else disappears without so much as a polite goodbye, it’s a total luxury to photograph flowers –as well as anything else that doesn’t leap, fly, dive, or run away in fright!
I have a mental checklist that I review every time I leave the house for a picture walk: Is my camera battery fully charged? Is my memory card inserted? Do I have an extra card and an extra battery? Do I have my phone and is it fully charged? Do I have my monopod? But, after what happened yesterday, I should probably switch my mental list to an real list!
I was off on another picture adventure and eager to see what surprises awaited me. My destination was a favorite nature center about an hour away from home. Whenever I go on a picture adventure, I feel an immediate sense of calm wash over me once I arrive. Yesterday was no exception. I drove into the parking lot, took a deep, relaxing breath, and prepared for my three-hour escape into nature’s arms– until I realized there was no memory card in my camera!!
I had made this mistake before and had come prepared with an emergency back-up card! Perfect! Once the card was inserted, I happily set off into the ‘wild’ hoping for a day filled with beautiful little creatures and colorful flowers. My joy was short-lived.
Forty-five minutes into my walk, after taking only three measly pictures, my memory card said ‘full’!! What??? How could that be?? I tried every ‘high tech’ solution I could think of to remedy the situation: pull the card out and put it back in; turn off the camera, turn it back on, and re-format the memory card–repeatedly. Nothing worked! It was time for plan B! Look for the nearest store!
I hustled back to my car as fast as a marginally nimble 75 year-old can hustle on an uneven boardwalk with an expensive camera, a 600mm lens, and a 5 foot monopod! Once in my car, I drove as quickly as was legally possible to the nearest store to find another memory card– and hope that it worked. It didn’t. But I had already driven back to the nature center before I found out!
At that point, I could have just thrown in the towel. I could have just gone for a ‘regular’ walk and not taken pictures. But it was completely impossible for me to do that! This particular nature center had a butterfly house. It was the perfect place for close-up shots of stunning and unusual butterflies. I had to stay!
So, I went back into town to a different store and looked for a different memory card. While standing in the aisle reading the descriptions on each of the various cards, I suddenly realized why the first card hadn’t work and dashed out of the store. Back to the nature center for my third and final attempt at trying to salvage what was left of an otherwise lovely day!
I had first arrived at the nature center at 9:00 a.m. It was now noon. The soft morning light was long gone, as was the cool morning air. It had been a frustrating start to what was supposed to have been a calm and relaxing day. I was totally frazzled.
But, keeping things in perspective is everything. The day was still young. The weather was still great and, most of all, I was very much alive and well, doing something I dearly loved— three priceless gifts that not everyone gets to enjoy. It was all I really needed to remember and off I went…
Oftentimes, when I’m out taking pictures, I think about all the things I’ve learned along the way– about photography, about the critters I’ve seen, and about myself.
There are so many things I didn’t know at the beginning of this photographic journey that I know now, and so many things I do differently as a result. When I first started taking pictures, I didn’t really have a plan and not much of a clue about what I was doing. I’d be walking along, see something pretty, and take a picture. Click! Now, I am more likely to plan ahead, to anticipate where a bird or a butterfly might land, or where the frogs and turtles might be hanging out—rather than just being surprised by random events!
While I’m out on a picture walk, I’m also thinking about the settings on my camera and whether I’ll be ready for the next shot. I walk more slowly, more quietly, and more deliberately than I used to, and pay closer attention to the all the sights, sounds and shadows around me. When there’s a faint rustling in the grass or the bushes nearby, I stop. It could be a baby bird– or it could be a giant turtle. When a small shadow passes by me on the ground, I look up in the sky to see what bird is on the wing; it could be an eagle, or it might be a red-tailed hawk. There are so many interesting things out there to photograph, but finding them and capturing them in pictures does take a fair amount of patience, and a good deal of time!
After years and years of picture walks, often to the same local places, I’ve also gotten much better at noticing changes or ‘aberrations’ in the environment. The other day, for example, there was just the slightest hint of something small and round and ‘out of place’ across the pond. It caught my attention because it had a bluish cast to it. Blue isn’t a color I usually see this time of year and I wondered if it was just somebody’s litter—or something else. When I zoomed in, I discovered that it was a turtle—the first one I’d seen since last fall! A few days later, I saw a small ‘bump’ protruding from the top of a very tall, very dead tree. It looked out of place and it grabbed my attention The little ‘bump’ turned out to be a squirrel peeking out ever so slightly from a small hole in the tree where I would have expected to see a bird. There are surprises everywhere!
Over the years, I’ve also learned the art of standing still. Many times, my picture walks have become ‘picture stands’. I’ve learned that if I stand still long enough, I become invisible. The birds go about their usual business, and chipmunks scamper by so closely that I could almost touch them.
When I’m not standing still, I’m barely moving; hoping not to disturb any of the creatures around me. Most of them, however, are hyper vigilant; worried that I might be a giant predator. Even the slightest movement on my part will send them scampering off. The belted kingfishers are particularly adept at knowing when I’m in the area, no matter how slowly I walk or how far away I stand. I swear they know I’m coming even before I leave the house!! The only reason I have any kingfisher shots at all is because I arrived on the scene before they did and never moved!
Turtles also know when I’m on the way, but they’re not quite as nervous as the kingfishers. Still, they can be twenty yards from shore, sitting on a log and jump overboard if I even start to lift my camera to my eye. Frogs, surprisingly, are much less ‘jumpy’ than turtles and will let me come in for a closer shot–but only if I move very slowly!
In my non-photography life, I’m often rushing around quickly trying to do two or three things at a time thinking that I’m saving time or being more efficient. I am not. When I’m out taking pictures of birds, turtles and frogs, though, speed does not work. Speed scares the animals. Speed ruins pictures. I’ve learned to walk slowly, to stop often and to stay focused, usually for hours at a time. It’s a type of meditation, I think, and it has helped keep me on an even keel– especially during these difficult years of political upheaval and pandemic isolation.
Over the last several years, I’ve gone on hundreds of picture walks and taken thousands of pictures. I often visit the same preserves and nature centers over and over again and take pictures of the very same plants and creatures that I did before. On the surface, this might seem like an extremely boring thing to do; that I would run out of things to photograph that were interesting or novel or fun. The truth is, it never stops being fun. Every day is different and every walk brings new surprises —even if the subject matter is the same.
On rare occasions, the surprise will be a brand-new bird or a brand-new insect! More often than not, I photograph things that I’m already quite familiar with. The surprise comes when that familiar thing is in an unexpected place or shows up at an unexpected time of year. For example, I’ve taken an embarrassingly high number of bullfrog pictures. By any reasonable standard, I don’t need another bullfrog! But a few days ago, on a cool October afternoon, I was surprised to find a big green bullfrog perched comfortably on a log soaking in what little sun he could find. It was barely 50 degrees! I thought all the frogs would be hunkered down staying ‘warm’ under water! So I took his picture– to remind myself that frogs can tolerate much cooler temperatures than I had expected.
Last winter, in late January, I was surprised to find an Oregon Junco sitting in a tree not far from our back deck! Oregon Juncos aren’t usually found this far east, but there he was! After doing a little research, I discovered that on very rare occasions Oregon Juncos will show up in the western lower peninsula of Michigan! I learned something new!
Sometimes, the surprise I find is as simple as getting a picture at all!! Belted Kingfishers, for instance, are notoriously skittish birds. It is impossible to sneak up on one. They always see me coming no matter how carefully I approach. Whenever I’m lucky enough to actually get a picture of one, it’s because I had arrived first and the Belted Kingfisher came by later, totally unaware of my presence!
The secret to finding so many surprises, I think, is to stay curious and to expect the unexpected. Even the most ordinary things can yield extraordinary surprises.
All of the pictures here represent a surprise of one sort or another.
When you maintain a sense of curiosity and wonder about the natural world, there will always be surprises!
This poem by Wendell Berry was posted recently by a friend and it really resonated with me, especially during these very stressful and troubling times. It speaks volumes about the peace we can find in nature and of the comfort it can provide.
There’s nothing more that I can add to this beautiful poem, so here are a few of my wild things to enjoy vicariously…
I love going out in the cool morning light for a picture walk, especially during these hot summer days when the afternoon temperatures have been well into the 90s! But our lovely summer days are quickly coming to an end, a bittersweet reminder that fall and winter are close at hand. I am looking forward to the cool, crisp days of fall, but am acutely aware that they will come at a price– all the colorful butterflies, dragonflies and frogs that I love to photograph will soon be gone. Come winter, the world will be even more monochromatic.
That said, my walk the other morning was a perfect blend of Summer and Fall. It was deliciously cool in the morning, sunny and warm by the afternoon; much too cold for the frogs and dragonflies as the day began, but plenty warm a few hours later for all my favorite creatures to be out sunning themselves!
Knowing full well that colder weather is nipping at my heels, I’ve been out nearly every day for at least a couple of hours trying to capture what’s left of summer. Because of the pandemic, we haven’t traveled far and I’ve been limited to visiting the same preserves and natural areas closest to home many times over. When I’m in the midst of taking my 700th picture of a monarch or a blue dasher or a bullfrog in the same preserve I’ve been to hundreds of times, I stave off the potential monotony of it all by telling myself “It’s all practice, Jeanne, It’s all practice”– It’s a different day and a different light, every shot I take is a new challenge!
The silver lining to going back to the same places over and over again is that I really get to know its inhabitants; a case in point is the Wolf Lake State Fish Hatchery. I’ve been going there at least twice a week for years—and even more so during this pandemic. It’s a wonderful place to explore with dozens of ponds and lots of wildflowers. I’ve been there so many times that I know the best places to look for frogs; the most likely places to find the swallows perched on limbs, and which ponds the kingfishers favor most. I thoroughly enjoy this knowledge and this familiarity —but I am still longing for a change of venue.
Hopefully, by this time next year, the world will be open again and we can all feel safe in our travels—however small those travels may be.
As I pondered what to write today, I was thinking back on my short but immensely gratifying photography journey.
It started innocently enough in the fall of 2016, when my husband asked me what I wanted for Christmas. I had no idea! But, he likes finding things that surprise me, so I gave it some thought. What I came up with was “a better camera”. For many, many years, all I had was a very small, pocket-sized, Canon Powershot.
Once I told Mel about my ‘better camera’ idea, he went to work researching it. What he came up with was another model of the Canon Powershot –but a bigger, better version with a built-in zoom lens. I now refer to this camera as my ‘gateway drug’! As soon as I realized what was possible with a better camera, I was hooked!
It wasn’t long before I was outdoors nearly every day taking pictures of birds, butterflies, frogs, turtles– anything I could find that grabbed my attention. Eventually, though, I started musing about what I might be able to do with an even better camera—one that could capture the birds that were even farther away, and would also have a faster response time.
Since Mel enjoys doing the research and I do not, he’s the one who went to work looking for another camera, one that would take a detachable telephoto lens. What he came up with was a Nikon D3400 and a 75-300mm lens. Once it arrived, I was out the door!
I think another year went by, maybe less, and I found myself wanting to capture creatures that were even farther away. Mel took off on another search and came up with a 150-600mm lens from Sigma that would probably do the trick. But it was much longer and much heavier than the one I currently had and I was hesitant. When it arrived, I was still hesitant. It just seemed too big and too heavy for me to handle comfortably. But I was eager to take close-ups and quickly overcame my reluctance. I have not put it down since!
Eventually, the constant lifting and focusing with a lens that size made my back ache and I reluctantly added a monopod to my set up. It’s a bit of a bother sometimes to have the monopod attached, but I can now focus on a subject for an indefinite amount of time without having to give my back a break.
After the Nikon D3400, came a Nikon D5600, which is what I have been using for the last couple of years. This camera and I have gone on a picture walk together nearly every day and I have taken hundreds of pictures with it on each of those walks. Periodically, I have checked to see how much ‘shutter life’ it had left.
My D5600 had been given a shutter life of 100,000 shots. When I last checked, I had taken well over 151,000 pictures! I felt as if we were on borrowed time and decided to start looking for a new one.
Once again, Mel returned to the drawing board to find a camera that was well suited for wildlife photography. What he found was a Nikon D500. It arrived a just a few days ago and we have already become fast friends!
With a shutter life of 200,000 shots, I’m looking forward to many years and many pleasant journeys with my newest walking companion!
Every time I pick up my camera bag and head out the door, I feel like I’m going on a treasure hunt. The treasures I find might be as simple as a single flower with the sunlight shining through, an intricate dragonfly wing, a reflection of a bird on the water, or a baby bird waiting to be fed. It’s all good– and it all serves as a powerful antidote for what is not so good during these troubled times.
Here are my favorite treasures from the past few weeks. I’ll let them tell the story…
This Bullfrog is one of my favorite treasures from the past few weeks. First of all, I love bullfrogs! They have such expressive faces and funny little bodies! This particular bullfrog was one of many at the Spirit Springs Sanctuary in Marcellus, Michigan.
When I arrived at the sanctuary shortly after dawn, the whole pond was an orchestra of bullfrog voices– a deep baritone ‘galumping’ sound that echoed all through the nearby woods. It was music to my ears!
What surprised me about this frog was that he was perched at the top of a four foot tree stump in the middle of the water. All of his friends, however, were playing it safe along the shore. What a maverick!
Another treasure was this Black Swallowtail Butterfly that conveniently landed right in front of me on a beautiful milkweed blossom. Well, it only became ‘convenient’ after I had traipsed through high weeds and brambles, risking ticks and scratches, to at least be in the vicinity of the few butterflies I saw flitting around! After that, it was a convenient shot!
I love the way sunlight plays with the flowers. This picture was originally over-exposed. I was shooting into the sun and my settings weren’t right. So, I experimented with it while I was editing and just kept making it darker and darker until I had this. I just liked the way it looked.
In the early morning light. when there’s absolutely no wind, it’s fun trying to get a perfect reflection! This Canada Goose wasn’t the least bit interested in my picture taking goals and I had plenty of time to experiment with my settings.
I must have taken a hundred pictures of this Tawny Emperor Butterfly trying to get a decent picture. It was so windy that this little emperor had all he could do just to hang onto the leaf and I had all I could do to snap a picture at just the right moment when there was a nano-second of calm. I also had my shutter speed set really high!
For me, finding a Hummingbird Moth like this one is always a treasure. Normally, it’s hard to capture a picture of one of these moths because they flit around so quickly and their wings are a blur, but this one decided to rest for a minute or two and I was able to get a clear picture.
Dragonflies never cease to amaze me. They are not only beautiful, they are engineering marvels.
“Dragonflies are like helicopters. Or, it might be more accurate to say helicopters are like dragonflies because helicopters were designed to mimic dragonfly abilities. Dragonflies can fly in any direction (up, down, forward, backward) or simply hover. All four wings move independently and can rotate on an axis for incredible flight control. They can make hairpin turns mid-flight, changing direction instantly–and they can fly upside-down.”
As soon as I saw this insect I knew I’d never seen one before (or noticed may be a more accurate word). It looked kind of like a bumble bee but some things were quite different– like the smooth black back and the fuzzy yellow underside. The head didn’t look quite right for a bumble bee either. When I got home and used my iNaturalist app to identify it, I found out that it was probably a Silver-tailed Petal-cutter Bee. These bees cut petals off of flowers to line the walls of their nests (There are also Leafcutter Bees.)
This Eastern Tiger Swallowtail is such a beautiful insect and butterflies, in general, are incredible creatures– having the ability to transform themselves from caterpillars to butterflies.
“In Chinese culture, butterflies often symbolize having a long and healthy life. In Russia and in Ireland, butterflies are sometimes seen as the souls of departed loved ones waiting to pass through purgatory. In Greek mythology, butterflies are meant to show the souls of loved ones. In various Native American mythology, butterflies symbolize the human spirit.”
This stunning little plant has a rather ugly little name– Spiderwort! It is a very hardy North American native perennial with quarter-sized flowers that only last a day. As the petals fade, they become almost translucent, giving Spiderworts their other common name, Widow’s Tears.
Last but not least was this little treasure– a baby bird floundering around in a bush wondering what to do. I thought it had fallen from a nest but after 20 minutes or so, it flew up to a nearby pine tree where it was eventually fed by its very attentive Dad (a Cardinal).
So, if you’re looking for the perfect antidote to a stressful day, or the perfect complement to an otherwise happy one, go on a treasure hunt!
I have been on so many picture walks since I last wrote that I’m having a hard time choosing which pictures to post and which ones to cast aside. At this time of year, there are so many beautiful things to photograph that it’s hard to stop taking pictures! The woods and the fields are bursting with new life, and so many colors!! I take hundreds of photos every time I’m out on a walk because almost everything grabs my attention!
Sometimes, my husband, Mel, and I go on picture walks together. He often shoots with a close-up lens, while I almost always use a 600mm telephoto lens. When we go out together, it’s nice to have a mix of shots—he finding the tiniest of bugs or the finest of detail, and me zooming in on creatures well beyond the tip of my camera. We see the world around us through a different lens—both literally, figuratively!
The pictures here were gleaned from 14 different photo shoots at seven different locations over the course of about two weeks. All these pictures were taken in relatively close proximity to where we live: Wolf Lake State Fish Hatchery (10 miles), Western Michigan University’s Business Technology and Research Park (.5 miles), West Lake Nature Preserve (10 miles), Chipman Preserve (14 miles), Pierce Cedar Creek Institute (35 miles), Kalamazoo Nature Center (10 miles) and downtown Kalamazoo for a Peregrine Falcon watch (2 miles). We’re lucky to have so many natural resources so close at hand!
Wherever I take pictures, I tend to walk as slowly and as quietly as possible so that I don’t overlook anything, and so I don’t scare anything away! Surprisingly, even turtles out in a pond, far from where I am walking, will know that I’m coming long before I arrive and slip quietly into the water from wherever they are perched! Bullfrogs, sitting hidden in the grass along the shore, will leap in fright if they know I’m on my way. I’ve been startled out of my skin on more than one occasion as they catapult themselves into the nearby water and let out a loud ‘squawk’! When I do happen upon an animal or an insect that hasn’t noticed my arrival, I feel as if I’ve really accomplished something!
No matter where I go or what I find, my picture walks are making this pandemic bearable. There is comfort in knowing that I have places nearby where the cycle of life quietly ambles on and the birds still find reason to sing.