Lessons Learned

March 28, 2021

Sometimes, when I’m out on a picture walk, I think about all the things I’ve learned along the way that I didn’t know when I started out on this photography journey; things that can’t be found in the instructional manuals, YouTube videos, or ‘Dummy’ books; things like patience and planning.

Photo by a fellow photographer, Bill Krasean
Wolf Lake State Fish Hatchery, Mattawan, Michigan

This past February, when it was still bone-chilling cold, I stood outside in shin-deep snow for the better part of two days on the off-chance that a leucistic Robin would re-appear in my friend’s backyard. It was a marginally idiotic thing to do given the unlikelihood that this particular robin would return to this particular yard and land anywhere remotely close to where I was standing! As far as I could tell, there was no compelling reason for him to return any time soon.

Black Crow on a snowy winter day in February

Leucism (pronounced loo-kiz-em or loo-siz-em) is a partial loss of pigmentation, which can make an animal have white or blotchy colored skin, hair, or feathers. The leucistic Robin on my radar that day was completely white except for a small patch of color on the top of its head.

At some point during my second day of waiting, the elusive white robin landed high in a nearby tree and later flew to the edge of a neighbor’s roof! He appeared to be drinking water from the eavestrough and every time his head bobbed up to swallow, I tried to get a picture. After an excessively long bout of drinking, the thirsty bird stood quietly on the edge of the gutter so that I could get this clear, uncluttered shot.  My patience had finally paid off!

The elusive white Robin on a cold, sunny day in February

The other thing instructional manuals sometimes fail to mention is the importance of planning ahead; not the kind of planning that involves decisions about what to wear on a cold, snowy day of picture-taking, or what mittens work best in sub-freezing temperatures, but what essential items you must have in your pockets!

The Grackles returned in early March

Mallards stay all winter and bravely cope with our unpredictable Michigan weather.

A few years ago, in June of 2018, I had been out on a picture walk all morning when a fellow birder alerted me to a rare Prothonotary Warbler flitting around in a bush near the edge of a small pond. I had never seen this particular bird before and really wanted a picture! Once I spotted its bright yellow body bouncing around from branch to branch, I held my camera as steady as possible and pressed the shutter– but there was no familiar ‘clickity, click, click’ of a camera taking multiple shots in rapid succession. My battery was utterly and completely dead!!

On a very unseasonably warm day in March, the turtles came out to sun themselves.
The turtle in the middle, with the distinctive yellow throat, is a Blanding’s Turtle.
It is a ‘species of concern’ in Michigan

In a state of frantic desperation, I ran to my car, plopped the camera on the passenger seat, and raced home for another battery, hoping I’d return in time to get a picture of the warbler! In my hasty drive home, I turned a corner much too quickly and my well-loved camera with its attached telephoto lens went flying to the floor!!

My favorite Grackle picture
Taken on a warm day in early March

The best I could do was to continue on my mission, fetch the battery, and hope that the camera wasn’t permanently damaged. Forty minutes later, I arrived back at the pond and searched for the tiny yellow bird once again. Not only was he still flitting around, my camera had survived the fall and I was able to capture the moment!! If only I had carried that extra battery in my pocket to begin with!

The Prothonotary Warbler that I almost missed!

The other lesson, if you can call it that, is practice. Over the last four or five years, I have taken thousands upon thousands of pictures. I absolutely do not need another robin, another frog, or another monarch for my ‘collection’; but every shot I take is an opportunity to learn something new, either about the creature I’m trying to photograph or about the camera settings I’m trying to use. I don’t have any ‘lifer’ birds or bugs, that I specifically go looking for; I’m pretty much content with whatever I find wherever I find it. In fact, that’s the very best part: finding the most extraordinary things in the least extraordinary of places.

The much-loved Sandhill Cranes returned in March to the delight of many!

I know there is much to be said about the importance of reading the owner’s manuals and studying the instructional videos before venturing forth on any new skill set, but the very best lessons, the ones that have stuck with me the longest, have been the ones I learned along the way by trial and error.

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!

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

Who Knew?

July 2, 2020

Every time I’m out on a Picture Walk I learn something new– sometimes it’s a new bug or a new plant; sometimes it’s a new animal behavior; and sometimes it’s just a matter of looking at familiar things in a new and different way.

White Tail Deer looking as curious about me as I was about him!

Let’s start with the dragonflies. Before my picture taking hobby began a few years ago, I didn’t know that there were over 5,000 different species in the world or that they have been around for over 300 million years! Back in the ‘old days’, dragonflies were enormous– with wingspans of nearly 30 inches! By comparison, the largest dragonfly in the world today has a wingspan of less than 8 inches, and most of the dragonflies that I have found have wingspans of 3 inches or less.

Halloween Pennant Dragonfly

The other thing I didn’t know about dragonflies, beside the fact that there are so many of them, is that male and female dragonflies often look distinctly different—they can even be different colors! Dragonflies, in fact, come in a wide variety of colors including blue, green, red, yellow, orange, black, pink, and brown. I never knew that before taking my picture walks!

Dot-tailed Whiteface Dragonfly

I’ve also had lots of bird surprises—the biggest one coming just a couple of days ago when a Common Grackle landed right in front of me with a very large tadpole in its beak. The tadpole was so big that I thought, at first, it was a fully grown frog–and then I noticed the long tail! I had no idea that Grackles were meat eaters! This prompted me to do a little research…

“The Common Grackle eats mostly insects, berries, seeds, fruit, and bird eggs, although it is also known to eat frogs, fish and snakes. You could say it will eat whatever food it can find!”

Common Grackle with giant tadpole for breakfast!

Then there’s the Robins. Even though I have seen Robins around me all my life, I really didn’t know much about them.  For starters, I had no idea they liked grape jelly! The other day, though, I caught one gulping it down at our Oriole feeder! What was going on? When I looked for answers, I was surprised to find out that Robins not only like jelly, some of them have even been known to bring worms to the feeder and dunk them in the jelly before swallowing them!! Who knew?

American Robin

Speaking of worms, I also learned that even with a beak-ful of them, a Robin can dig for more and not lose the ones he already has! Like this!

American Robin

Another bird I’m familiar with, and have photographed often, is the Green Heron– but I knew little about them! The most amazing thing I found out along the way is that this bird is a tool user!! While I have not observed this behavior myself, I hope someday to have that opportunity!

“The Green Heron is one of the world’s few tool-using bird species. It often creates fishing lures with bread crusts, insects, and feathers, dropping them on the surface of the water to entice small fish.”

Green Heron

Last but not least, one of my favorite creatures of the pond, is the very large and very noisy, American Bullfrog. I love hearing them ‘croak’ (which has been described as a “deep, booming, Jug-o’-rummm!” sound), and I love seeing their goofy, expressive faces. What I didn’t know about them, though, is that they have teeth! Really! It’s not a full set of teeth like we have but “North American bullfrogs have teeth in the roof of their mouth and a muscular tongue capable of flipping prey into their mouth.

American Bullfrog

Who knew??

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

A Common Denominator

April 2, 2020

We are nearly three weeks into isolating ourselves as a result of the coronavirus pandemic. Mel and I have been staying at home (our Florida rental for two more weeks that is) except for our daily walks and our brief but infrequent trips to the grocery store. Our walks have mostly been to nature preserves and wildlife areas that are not commonly visited by others, and for most of those walks, we have taken our cameras– which is how we have amassed so many pictures in a relatively short period of time!

Tri-colored Heron
Green Heron

Fortunately, photography is a hobby that is serving us well during this time of forced isolation. Even if we become restricted to the parameters of our own backyard, we will still find things to photograph–especially Mel with his macro photography!

One of Florida’s many alligators sunning itself in the grass.
Osprey with its catch of the day

One of the many benefits of this nature photography hobby has been its therapeutic effects. No matter how anxious or worried I am about the overwhelming consequences of this pandemic that we are all suffering through, once I start focusing on the birds and bugs around me, I am almost immediately calmed. All my concentration is focused on the subject at hand and whether the settings on my camera will be correct. But, even before the COVID-19, my picture walks had proven to be quite the magical elixir for restoring a sense of balance, tranquility and joy to my world.

Sandhill Crane parent and offspring

An added benefit of this nature photography hobby has come from sharing my pictures with others, By sharing the things I have seen, I am afforded the opportunity to stay connected to others. The natural world is our common denominator. It gives us a common language with which to converse and to find joy. Pictures are just another way to communicate that joy– particularly during these very uncertain and heart-wrenching times.

Stay safe out there!

Zebra Swallowtail Butterfly (minus the swallow tails!)
Common Grackle