In Pursuit of Wonder

July 21, 2023

Every time I set out on a picture walk, I wonder what I’ll find. I wonder if I’ll see something new, or something interesting, or something particularly beautiful. It doesn’t need to be a bald eagle, or a rare insect, or a breathtaking sunrise —although those things are certainly welcome; I mostly enjoy the pursuit of wonder, and the challenge of capturing just the right photo at just the right moment. I am as easily excited about finding a tiny snail on a stalk of a dead plant as I am about finding an exquisite bird I rarely see. It’s the pursuit itself that never grows old, and pushes me out the door every day.

A small Eastern Heath Snail that could easily go unnoticed
A rare sighting of an Indigo Bunting

Not long ago, I was house-sitting for a friend in a part of our state that I rarely visit. She lives on a seldom-traveled, unpaved country road that quietly meanders into the beautiful and expansive Manistee National Forest. I ventured out on that road early one morning wondering what I might find. The deep shade along the forest road was a welcome relief from the heat, but I wasn’t sure that it would be a good place for pictures. There just wasn’t much light peeking through the trees, except for small patches here and there where the occasional butterfly would land, and the columbines struggled to find sunlight.

The narrow gravel road into the Manistee National Forest
Eastern Tiger Swallowtail
Columbine in the sunlight

I was captivated by the sound of all the birds singing throughout the forest; their voices echoing melodically through the giant cathedral of trees. One of those birds was louder and more insistent than all the others and I wondered who it might be. Fortunately, Merlin* came to my rescue and identified the mystery vocalist as an ovenbird!

The elusive little Ovenbird

I had never seen or heard an ovenbird before, so I stood quietly on the edge of the road, waiting for any movement in the trees, hoping to get a glimpse of one. It didn’t take long, but the setting was so dark, and the bird moved so quickly, that I didn’t think I’d get a decent shot. Eventually, though, my patience paid off.

When I did some research on this elusive little bird, I was fascinated to find out that ovenbirds are smaller than sparrows, and they will only breed where there are large, undisturbed expanses of mature trees and a closed canopy. The forest canopy needs to be so dense that it severely inhibits underbrush from developing on the forest floor, and allows for a deep layer of leaf litter to accumulate.  Ovenbirds spend most of their time foraging in that leaf litter looking for things to eat like crickets, caterpillars, ants, spiders, slugs, and snails. They also need leaf litter to build their nests. This task is left to the female ovenbird who creates a comfy home on the forest floor using dead leaves, grasses, stems, bark, and hair. The finished dome-shaped nest, at 9 inches wide and 5 inches deep, has a squat oval side entrance and resembles a primitive outdoor oven, which is how this bird got its name!

An Ovenbird in the leaf litter with a tasty snack

Halfway through my walk, I came to a wide-open field at the edge of the forest, where an odd-looking bird flew overhead and landed on the top of a utility pole! Even from a distance, it didn’t look like a bird that would normally land on a tall, skinny pole! With long legs, a long neck, and a thin, straight bill, it had the appearance of a fairly typical shorebird. Luckily, the bird on the pole was singing its heart out and Merlin* quickly identified it as an Upland Sandpiper. This particular shorebird, however, loves the prairies, pastures, and croplands rather than the wetlands where its cousins like to hang out! It is also a shorebird that loves to perch on fence posts and perform memorable flight songs over its territories! This bird was behaving true to form!

The long-legged, long-necked Upland Sandpiper on a utility pole!

On my return trip through the forest, I had one more surprise waiting for me– a barred owl! It landed on a branch not far from where I was walking and posed for a few pictures before flying off. Even though barred owls are plentiful in Michigan, this was my first!

Barred Owl in the deep, dark woods!

In between these discoveries, there were butterflies and wildflowers quietly going about their business in the random patches of sunlight, waiting patiently to be noticed, and I obliged.

A very tiny Hobomok Skipper

It was just another ordinary day of small but incredible wonders that, more often than not, go completely unnoticed.    

Patches of sunlight

*Merlin is a free bird identification app

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…