Great Backyard Bird Count

February 16, 2021

The 24th annual, four-day, Great Backyard Bird Count just ended yesterday. I had never participated in this event before and I’m not quite sure why. Maybe I thought it would be too time-consuming or that only experienced birders would be able to do it. Maybe I thought it would be too complicated. Whatever the reasons, none of them proved true. Over the course of four days, I counted most of the birds from the comfort of my easy chair, the rest by standing in our back yard, camera in hand!

American Robin
Cedar Waxwing enjoying berries

“The Great Backyard Bird Count (GBBC) is a free, fun, and easy event that engages bird watchers of all ages in counting birds to create a real-time snapshot of bird populations.” www.audubon.org

Blue Jay

“The massive international community science project, held over four days every February, collects data that provides scientists with a long-term record of bird distribution and numbers over time, helping to identify trends that might be associated with urbanization or climate change.” https://news.wttw.com/2021/02/12/global-great-backyard-bird-count-underway

Fox Sparrow

“By participating in the Great Backyard Bird Count, community scientists contribute data that we use to protect birds and the places they need, today and tomorrow. In return, studies tell us that pausing to observe birds, their sounds and movements, improve human health. Participating in the Great Backyard Bird Count is a win-win for birds and people.” https://earthsky.org/earth/register-participate-great-backyard-bird-count

Downy Woodpecker

“During the 2020 count, more than 250,000 checklists were submitted from over 100 countries, and a record 6,942 species were counted. That is a large proportion of the estimated 10,000 bird species that live on Earth today.” https://earthsky.org/earth/register-participate-great-backyard-bird-count

American Robin

The Northern Cardinal nearly always tops the list as the number one bird reported followed by Dark-eyed Juncos, Mourning Doves, Downy Woodpeckers, Blue Jays, House Sparrows, House Finches, American Crows, Black-capped Chickadees and Red-bellied Woodpeckers.

White-throated Sparrow

With the exception of the Black Crows, all of those birds were on my list but in a different order of frequency. I also found Robins, Goldfinches, Cedar Waxwings, Brown Creepers, Northern Flickers, Tufted Titmice, White-breasted and Red-breasted Nuthatches, Hairy Woodpeckers, White-throated Sparrows, Fox Sparrows, and one new addition, a Yellow-bellied Sapsucker!

Yellow-bellied Sapsucker

Even though it’s called a ‘backyard bird count’, you don’t really have to be in your own backyard. You can go for a walk and count the birds along the way or you can go to a park and sit on a bench with a hot cup of tea in your hand. But for this, my first ever Great Backyard Bird Count, I actually counted the birds in my own backyard. In terms of variety, it was probably the very best place for me to be. Over the course of the four day event, I identified eighteen different species of birds!

American Goldfinch

If you haven’t already participated in the Great Backyard Bird Count, put it on your calendar for February 2022. It’s easy and fun– and an immensely good thing for all our feathered friends!

American Robin

Happy birding!

Winter Photography

February 1, 2020

I love going out on picture walks. It’s one of my favorite things to do! Even in the dead of winter!

Out for a lovely, snowy day in January

By all accounts, this has been a relatively mild winter here in Michigan, so I had been eagerly waiting for a really big snowfall to come along!  We did have a few short bouts of snow in December and January, but it melted quickly. Yesterday, though, on the very last day of January, it finally happened!! We had what I would call “a magnificent snowfall.” Huge, fluffy flakes swirling all around– giving the world that magical snow-globe kind of feeling! It was perfect! I had to get out the door!

Female Northern Cardinal with just a touch of snow
Eastern Bluebirds stay here all winter and enjoy berries like these

Getting out the door, though, was the easy part; trying to stay warm and take pictures at the same time, was not —especially when the wind chill was well below freezing. I can easily put on two or three layers of pants, sweaters, socks and hats, but I cannot do the same for my hands –not if I expect to be able to operate any of the tiny buttons and dials on my camera!  Over the years, I have tried various combinations of mittens and gloves and hand warmers to solve the problem with varying degrees of success –or lack thereof!

Black-capped Chickadee enjoying the snow!
A beautiful Bluejay waiting for his turn at the peanuts

As the weather got progressively colder this winter, I tried yet another new idea. Instead of gloves, I tried two layers of very thin mittens (along with my usual rechargeable hand warmers). I picked mittens instead of gloves so that my fingers could keep each other warm; and I chose thin ones so that I could still feel the buttons on the camera! The inner mitten was a wool blend and the outer one a wind-proof, water-proof shell. So far, this combination has been working at least as well as most I have tried –but the jury is still out. When I’m not actively engaged in taking pictures, I stuff my hands deep into my pockets and hold on to those toasty hand-warmers.

This lovely, little Fox Sparrow was a new bird for me! He was right in my own back yard!
Male Downy Woodpecker

The problem is, most of the birds I encounter are not particularly interested in seeing me with my hands in my pockets standing around doing nothing! As soon as my hands go in the pockets, they start badgering me to take another picture!

“Pick me! Pick me!” they chirp insistently. “I’m the prettiest! Pick me!

How can I resist??

White-breasted Nuthatch with two tiny snowflakes on its beak!
Red-breasted Nuthatch
Contrary to popular belief, many Robins stay here all winter.

So I continue to traipse about for hours on end, encumbered by multiple layers of hats, scarves and sweaters in happy pursuit of the ‘prettiest one’– all the while wondering how these tiny little creatures manage to stay warm with their skinny bare feet and tiny feathered bodies, while I, on the other hand, am barely staying warm.

White-throated Sparrow– another little bird that hangs out in our backyard
American Tree Sparrow on one of our snowiest days

It’s just one of the many fascinating mysteries of nature, I guess. Mysteries that keep drawing me in –and sending me back out for more!

Wandering with a Sense of Wonder

December 28, 2020

I came across the phrase, wandering with a sense of wonder, while researching ideas for my previous blog, Photography as Meditation. Alice Donovan Rouse, in her blog titled Photography and Meditation wrote, “I realized that wandering with a sense of wonder embodies the same methodology as yoga—it’s an exercise in focus and acceptance of whatever it is we may encounter along the way.”

I found this pretty, little Dark-eyed Junco as I wandered through the Blandford Nature Center in Grand Rapids, Michigan on an unusually warm and sunny winter day

That’s exactly how I envision my ‘picture walks’ –as wandering with a sense of wonder.  On most of my ventures, I set out with no particular goal in mind other than to find whatever it is that I think is pretty or interesting– and take a picture. It might be a beautiful bird or butterfly, but it might just as easily be a rock or a fungus. It might even be a single sound that catches my attention and sends me off in a different direction.

Rocks in a thin layer of ice at Western Michigan University, Kalamazoo, Michigan
An interesting looking fungus on a cool winter day in our nearby woods

About two weeks ago, I was out taking pictures at the Wolf Lake State Fish Hatchery in Mattawan, Michigan, and was mystified by a sound in the distance, a sound I had never heard before. At first, I thought it might be a bird or maybe even an injured animal, but quickly divested myself of that idea when I decided it didn’t sound like any living thing on this planet! It sounded more like something from outer space!

This strikingly handsome Red-tailed Hawk at the Blandford Nature Center in Grand Rapids, was keeping a close eye on me as I tried to take his picture.
A Juvenile Bald Eagle flew overhead as I was taking pictures below at the Fish Hatchery.

My curiosity was getting the better of me when I spotted two people in the distance bending down close to the ground as if they were examining something quite small. When they stood up, it appeared as if they were throwing these things into the pond— and that’s when the strange noises began! It happened again and again as they threw stuff into the pond. They were far too distant for me to see exactly what they were throwing, but the most likely answer was rocks. All of a sudden, the proverbial light went off in my head! They were throwing stones across an ice-covered pond!! Fascinating!

A Northern Flicker at the Kalamazoo Nature Center that kept scurrying ahead of me down a path

Once the couple had moved out of range, I started experimenting for myself. The first rock I found was too small and made a disappointing ‘click-click-click’ sound across the pond. The second stone was too big and crashed unceremoniously through the thin ice. After a dozen or so rocks of various sizes and two small ponds with varying degrees of ice, I decided that a rock that was a little smaller than my fist made the best ‘pew-pew-pew’ sound as it skittered across the ice. Take a listen…

A very short video of one of my successful rock tosses across an icy pond at the Wolf Lake State Fish Hatchery

Once I returned home and could do a little research on the subject, I found an article by Mark Mancini titled, Skipping Stones on Ice Makes Crazy Sci-Fi Sounds, where he describes the sounds of this phenomenon perfectly “Skip a stone across a frozen lake and you might hear a high-pitched sound that’s both familiar and otherworldly. It’s like the chirp of an exotic bird or a laser blast from a galaxy far, far away.”

https://science.howstuffworks.com/skipping-stones-on-ice-makes-crazy-sci-fi-sounds.htm

Male Cardinals certainly brighten up the landscape on these long, colorless winter days.

I also learned that the phenomenon itself is “… a classic example of acoustic dispersion. Sound waves are made up of multiple frequencies, including high ones and low ones. When a sound travels through air, its component frequencies usually travel together at the same rate, so they all reach the human ear more or less simultaneously. But sometimes, when a sound wave passes through a solid medium (like ice), those high and low frequencies get separated. Being faster, the high-frequency wavelengths zip ahead of their low-frequency counterparts. As a result, you may hear a gap between the high notes and the low notes contained within the same sound. That’s acoustic dispersion in a nutshell.” How interesting!

A Blue Jay who landed way too close as he waited for a turn at one of our feeders!

If you ultimately decide that you’d like to try chucking rocks yourself, I’ve read that extra-large expanses of ice lend themselves particularly well to acoustic dispersion, and that you should probably stand a good distance away from the iced-over body of water for the very best effect.

A beautiful American Goldfinch on Oriental Bittersweet

If you want to see the ultimate in stone skipping across ice, watch this video by Cory Williams as he tosses rocks onto an ice-covered lake in Alaska. He apparently struck internet gold when he posted this video in 2014. (Fast forward the video to the 3:50 mark if you want to skip the intro and just see him throwing the rocks.)

https://www.youtube.com/watch?list=UUqEZdtqi4IlzmASqAjHGiHg&v=ZIHF5EoEixc

One of my very favorite little birds, the Black-capped Chickadee

If you wander with a sense of wonder, you’ll never be disappointed!

A young White-tailed deer that came almost close enough to pet!

Silver Linings

September 1, 2020

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.

Eastern Tiger Swallowtail
American Bullfrog

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!

Blue Dasher
Monarch Butterfly
Black Elderberry

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!

Barn Swallow
Painted Turtles
Female Baltimore Oriole

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. 

Female Red-winged Blackbird
Eastern Kingbird

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.

White-tailed Deer

Reason to Sing

June 18, 2020

Eastern Wood Peewee

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!

Spiderwort

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!

Mel’s close-up of a female Blue Dasher
Female Blue Dasher

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!

Female Red-winged Blackbird

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!

Snapping Turtle making a run for it as I approached!
Shooting Butterflies in the wind!

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.

A cheerful little House Wren with lots of songs to sing!

Just Enough

May 21, 2020

We have been sheltering in place for over two months now and our lives have fallen into a new rhythm, a new pattern, a new kind of un-hurriedness.

Red-bellied Woodpecker
Yellow-rumped Warbler

Even though the restrictions in our state are loosening and many businesses are gradually opening up (within certain guidelines and directives), Mel and I will be following our own guidelines for the foreseeable future. We won’t really feel safe until there’s a vaccine for COVID-19, which isn’t expected, at the earliest, until January 2021.  In the meantime, we are wearing our masks in public, avoiding the grocery store as much as possible, and giving each other pandemic haircuts!!

Palm Warbler
American Goldfinch

That said, we do make a point of getting out for a walk every day, and I make a point of getting out for a Picture Walk nearly as often. In an effort to avoid running into other people, however, many of my picture walks have become ‘picture visits’. A picture visit involves little or no walking and a fair amount of sitting. One of my easiest ‘picture visits’ involves walking out our back door to the deck and taking pictures of the neighborhood birds perched on the branches in the nearby trees.

A sweet young deer in our nearby woods
Barn Swallow
Tree Swallow

Another kind of ‘picture visit’ involves walking 50 yards or so down to the edge of the creek with my lawn chair and camera to sit for awhile and watch Mother Nature’s live TV show with cameo appearances by Great Blue Herons, White Egrets, Mr. and Mrs. Wood Duck,  a Canada Goose family, Mr. and Mrs. Mallard, a muskrat, a woodchuck, and a bird I’d never seen before, the Northern Water Thrush!

An unusual blue-headed Mallard (they usually have green heads) in the creek behind our house

Most of my picture walks lately have been close to home, where I just walk out the door and wander through the nearby woods, or, if I wander a little further, to the college campus next door where there are numerous ponds and plenty of open spaces to attract both large and small birds. Some of my best surprises have included a Spotted Sandpiper, a Solitary Sandpiper, a Yellow Warbler and, my favorite, the Green Heron.

Green Heron
Mute Swan

Every picture walk or ‘picture visit’ is a discovery of one sort or another—sometimes it’s a new bird, sometimes it’s a new behavior, and sometimes it’s just enough to be outside and rediscover what a privilege it is, especially during this pandemic, to be in good health and to have the time to enjoy so many of nature’s wonders.

A Blanding’s turtle making life a little easier for his fellow turtle!

Finding Joy

May 4, 2020

I have been staying close to home for most of my picture walks lately because of COVID-19 and the need for social distancing. It’s amazing to me that some of my favorite places to walk have been ‘packed’ with people–at least the parking lots have been over-flowing when I drive by. These days, having so many people to worry about is anxiety provoking for me.  So, I’ve been taking more pictures from our deck, our backyard and the nearby woods. Occasionally, I’ve gone for a short drive to our state fish hatchery where there are several large ponds and plenty of room to walk without running into anyone, or to the not-so-distant bird sanctuary that is also lightly populated.

Backyard Birds:

Common Grackle

Even when I do find a fairly isolated place, I always have a mask tied around my neck ready to pull up over my mouth and nose if need be. Perhaps, I’m being overly cautious, but as an older person with no desire to die just yet, I’m not willing to take more risks than necessary. The stakes are too high.

More Backyard Birds:

Baltimore Oriole
Starling

After two and a half months of summer-like weather in Florida, it’s been fun to watch spring unfold here in Michigan. The trees are getting greener, the flowers are starting to bloom, the migrating birds are coming back, and our favorite spring peepers are ‘singing’ in the creek behind our house. Every evening, if our windows are open, we can fall asleep to a comforting chorus of these tiny melodic frogs.

Spring peepers are to the amphibian world what American robins are to the bird world. As their name implies, they begin emitting their familiar sleigh-bell-like chorus right around the beginning of spring. The spring peeper is Michigan’s smallest frog (0.75 – 1.38 in. long) also its loudest.”

Barn Swallows Squabbling
Yellow Warbler

As I write this blog in the early in the morning light, our windows are open, the sun is shining and, from the comfort of my easy chair, I can watch all the different birds coming to our feeders or to the nearby trees just beyond our deck —Baltimore Orioles, American Goldfinches, Blue Jays, Cardinals, House Finches, Starlings, Red-winged Blackbirds, Grackles, Black-capped Chickadees, and a variety of woodpeckers. I’m still waiting for the Red-breasted Grosbeaks, the Cedar Waxwings and the Hummingbirds to arrive.

Canada Goose on the wing
Canada Goose and Six Goslings
Trumpeter Swan

I spend as much time as I can outdoors, usually with my camera, even if it means just sitting outside for hours watching the birds and the squirrels and the chipmunks. I learn so much about animal behavior. It’s also the best prescription I have for finding joy.

We have much in common with the Solitary Sandpiper these days

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

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!