Walk Slowly, Stop Often, Stay Focused

April 1, 2022

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.

Mute Swan on quiet waters

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!

Canada Geese in a heated debate

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!

Common Grackle
Eastern Fox Squirrel high up in a dead tree

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.

Canada Goose in quiet reflection
Red-bellied Woodpecker

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!

The elusive Belted Kingfisher

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.

Redhead Ducks on the wing

Hungry for Spring

February 24, 2022

Young Trumpeter Swan flying through a snow squall

As I sit writing this piece, long before sunrise, on another cold and windy February day, I am contemplating the advisability of even attempting a picture walk. The weather forecast calls for 15 to 25 mile an hour winds with gusts over 40! On the other hand, temperatures might exceed 40 degrees —quite balmy compared to the below zero wind chill conditions I was faced with the other day! Usually, I can put on enough layers to stay warm, even on the coldest of days, but strong winds make for a much bigger challenge.

Blue Jay stirring up snow in a pine tree
Some Great Blue Herons will stay here throughout the winter, but many more will head south

Most days, I’m up for that challenge but, I must admit, I’m growing weary of it all. These long winter days, where I have to plan for so many weather contingencies, and have to wear so many layers, are weakening my resolve—especially during the past two years of this pandemic where we haven’t been able to venture far from home. The birds in my backyard are quite tired of me begging for a photo shoot.

Carolina Wren near my backyard feeder

For the next few days, though, my backyard birds can take a break while I babysit my grand-dog on the opposite side of the state. There are lots of new places to explore here and once the sun is up, I expect I’ll venture out in spite of the wind and in spite of the cold! I’d much rather be outside searching for the possibility of something new than sitting here on the couch.

Some people believe that the Robin is a “harbinger of spring”, but large numbers of them stay here all winter feasting on berries.

After writing those first few paragraphs, I did, indeed venture out– first to a nearby nature center and then to a nearby park.

Black-capped Chickadees are delightful little birds that can be found in Michigan all year round.

I found the usual assortment of birds at the nature center—chickadees, finches, cardinals, nuthatches and goldfinches, but it was a brand-new setting! When I arrived at my second destination, I really hit the jackpot! Beaudette Park in Pontiac, Michigan, had a very large pond of open water and it was teeming with a wide variety of waterfowl, some of which I’d never seen before!

Canada Goose coming in for a landing!
Some Sandhill Cranes stay here all year long

This time of year, it’s highly unusual to find open water in Michigan. Most lakes and ponds are frozen over.  This particular body of water had the ubiquitous array of mallards, swans and geese, but it also had mergansers, buffleheads, redheads, ring-necked ducks, goldeneyes and canvasbacks!! It was the canvasbacks I’d never seen before. I couldn’t stop taking pictures!

Male Canvasback at Beaudette Park in Pontiac, Michigan
Male Ring-necked Duck

Days later, I was still sorting through all the hundreds of pictures I took that day!

Male Wood Duck

Mallard Ducks are everywhere and they offer endless opportunities for interesting photographs!

In spite of all the inherent beauty to be found in a picture of freshly fallen snow and a colorful bird here and there, I am more than ready for the arrival of spring; ready to be free of these bulky winter clothes, grey skies, and frigid temperatures.  I’m beyond hungry for the colors to return, for the sweet smell of a newly mowed lawn, and for the sheer delight of a warm patch of sun on my bare skin!

I am more than ready to shed these bulky winter clothes and trade this colorless landscape for green leaves and spring flowers!

Still Waters

November 29, 2021

One of my very favorite times to go for a picture walk is early in the morning just after sunrise when there is no wind, and the water on the pond is so perfectly still that the reflections of the birds can take my breath away. I rarely get a day like that, but when I do, the results seem magical.

Male Mallard on very still water
Canada Goose floating on ‘glass’
Greater Yellowlegs

As we quickly move into the month of December, it will be harder and harder to find open water. Most of the ponds are already starting to freeze. Once frozen, though, they will offer up a whole different kind of magic!

Male Mallard doing an ice dance!

A few years ago, when I was out taking pictures around the ponds at our local fish hatchery, I kept hearing weird noises in the distance. My first thought was, “What kind of bird is THAT??”  But then saw two people near one of the ponds who looked as if they might be throwing things across the frozen water. After watching and listening for quite awhile, I decided they must be skipping stones across the ice!! Maybe that’s where the sound was coming from!

Juvenile Trumpeter Swan trying out the new ice

When I tried skipping stones across the pond later in my walk, I was pleasantly surprised that I could replicate the very same sound! I also discovered that different sized stones would change the pitch. Fist-sized stones, however, broke through the ice. When I got home and could do a little research, I learned that this phenomenon is called “acoustic dispersion” and that others who have described the sound likened it to a “laser blast from a galaxy far, far away” or the “chirp of an exotic bird”. It was a little bit of both, I thought. If you’re interested in reading more about it, here’s a good link: https://science.howstuffworks.com/skipping-stones-on-ice-makes-crazy-sci-fi-sounds.htm

One more happy-looking mallard trying to walk on ice!

The frozen ponds also offer a great opportunity for photographing all the shore birds who are trying to cope with this drastic change in their watery environment! Sometimes, when the ice has just started to form, it looks as if all my web-footed friends are walking on water!

As I sit here at home on this cold November day, looking out at all the little birds enjoying the food in our feeders, I’m secretly wishing for snow—lots of snow; the biggest, whitest, fluffy kind of snow that falls to the ground in no particular hurry and quickly turns a drab overcast day into a winter wonderland! If that happens, I’ll be out the door in a heartbeat!

Northern Cardinal on a very snowy day
Female Northern Cardinal

I love getting pictures of the birds sitting on the snowy limbs with their feathers all puffed up against the cold, surrounded by the gently falling snow. A few weeks ago, we had a very brief but spectacular snowfall like that and I hurried outside with my camera to capture as many birds as I could before the snow completely melted. There were Red-winged blackbirds, Northern Cardinals, Black-capped Chickadees, American Robins, Tufted Titmice, Dark-eyed Juncos, House Sparrows, American Goldfinches, and one big surprise, a Hermit Thrush– a bird I’d never seen before!

A Hermit Thrush in a nearby tree that I almost missed!
Black-capped Chickadee

As we enter into our second winter of a very long and heartbreaking pandemic, I am beyond thankful for this photography hobby. It has kept life interesting, and made these past two years of social isolation and constant uncertainty manageable. Photography gets me out the house and affords me the opportunity to look for all the beauty I can find in the most ordinary of things: quiet snowfalls, skipping stones on ice, and the unexpected loveliness of a little brown duck on still waters.

Female Mallard

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!

Photography as Meditation

December 7, 2020

The idea of photography as meditation has been mulling around in my head for quite some time now. The more I go out to take pictures, the more it feels like a form of meditation.

Dark-eyed Junco– Well into the end of November and the beginning of December, we were getting relatively warm, sunny days that were perfect for all-day photography outings

Northern Pintail on a warm November day

Meditation is commonly described as a “practice where an individual uses a technique – such as mindfulness, or focusing the mind on a particular object, thought, or activity – to train attention and awareness, and achieve a mentally clear and emotionally calm and stable state.”

Black-capped Chickadee– Four days after the warm, sunny pictures of dragonflies and turtles shown above, it snowed!
Downy Woodpecker

Whenever I arrive at a woods, a field or a pond to take pictures, a sense of calm washes over me. I quickly become so focused on looking for interesting things to photograph, that there’s absolutely no room in my brain for any of the usual clutter.  Three hours later, I emerge from my ‘trance’, relaxed and ready to face the world. It seems a lot like what I think of as a meditative state.

Hundreds, if not thousands, of Sandhill Cranes flock to the open cornfields this time of year. They are a sight (and a sound) to behold!

Much has been written about the therapeutic effects of time spent in nature, but I had never seen anything written about the therapeutic effects of nature photography or, more specifically, ‘photography as meditation’. I decided to do a little research to see if anyone else had come up with the same idea. Surprisingly, there were entire books on the subject!

Female Mallard in the early morning light
Male Mallard and a Female Mallard Hybrid going head to head
Trooper Swan– a cross between a Whooper Swan (pronounced ‘hooper’) and a Trumpeter Swan

“For many people, photography serves as a form of meditation; a way to separate themselves from their stressful lives. Meditation and photography have much in common: both are based in the present moment, both require complete focus, and both are most successful when the mind is free from distracting thoughts.” (Photography as Meditation by Torsten Andreas Hoffman)

Male Mallard conducting an orchestra of Trumpeter Swans at the Kellogg Bird Sanctuary
Female Mallard, possibly leucistic — Leucism is a partial loss of pigmentation which causes white, pale, or patchy coloration of the skin, hair, feathers, scales or cuticles, but not the eyes.

 “Both photography and meditation require an ability to focus steadily on what is happening in order to see more clearly. Whether you are paying mindful attention to the breath as you sit in meditation or whether you are composing an image in a viewfinder, you find yourself hovering before a fleeting, tantalizing reality.” (Stephen Batchelor, Yale University Press, Meditation and Photography)

Snow Goose migrating through Michigan
Female Bufflehead
A well-camouflaged Wilson’s Snipe who was migrating through Michigan

I had tried ‘regular meditation’ once or twice before, where I would sit quietly and calmly for a short period of time and try to focus my attention on only one thing, but I never mastered the art. On a picture walk, though, I can stay focused for hours and there’s absolutely no room in my brain for the worries of the day to intrude— quite a godsend, I’d say, given this horrifying pandemic and the deplorable state of our government.

Trumpeter Swan on the run!
White-tailed Deer
Woodchuck, also known as a Whistle Pig!

A picture walk continues to be the perfect form of meditation and the perfect antidote to today’s chaos.

Rare Old Bird

The Peace of Wild Things

September 19, 2020

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…

American Bullfrog
Carolina Wren