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!

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

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

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!

A Holiday Collection

December 28, 2019

A beautiful wild Turkey at Kensington Metropark on a very frigid December day

In the span of just eight days, from December 19th to December 26th, my picture walk weather went from a frigid 16 degrees and 20 mile an hour winds to a balmy 61 degrees and no wind at all!

Tufted Titmouse

From the 19th to the 26th, I went from wearing two, three and four layers of clothing (depending on what body part I was trying to keep warm) to wearing almost nothing—no hat, no mittens, no earmuffs! It was warmer here in Michigan on Christmas day than it was in southern California! Go figure!

Canada Geese on a balmy day in Michigan
Canada Geese on Ice!
Mute Swan

The hardest part of taking pictures on a really cold day, is keeping the fingers of my right hand from totally freezing off.  My pointer finger (and its nearby friends) risk a bit of frostbite every time they leave the warmth and security of my mitten. Unfortunately, they are forced to venture out every single time I have to change the settings on my camera. What saved them on December 19th, though, was an early Christmas gift from my husband—a pair of toasty, re-chargeable hand warmers!

A curious White Tail Deer
Sharp-shinned Hawk
An inviting portal into the woods
Morning Reflections

Winter days in Michigan, even when the weather is balmy and clear, is a challenging time to find things to photograph. I usually have to look long and hard to find anything at all. Fortunately, I enjoy the ‘hunt’. It’s a very relaxing endeavor to go on a picture walk because all of my attention is focused on the looking. When I actually do find something, my heart skips a beat —even if it’s  ‘just another deer’ or ‘just another sparrow’. The subjects may be the same as yesterday but everything else is different—a different day, a different location, a different set of weather conditions. So I snap away to my heart’s content adding another hundred pictures to my rapidly expanding collection.

House Finch enjoying a sunny day
Starlings
There were dozens of these birds all gathered at the tops of the trees.
Starling, a beautiful but invasive species
Bluebird on Staghorn Sumac
I had been admiring the bright red sumac and wishing that a bird would land on one –and then this bluebird happened along!
Mute Swan
I was touched by the fact that beautiful swan let me get within a few feet of it without being scared off– so that I could take pictures of the ducks out on the pond!
Mallards on the pond

Picture Walk or Regular Walk?

November 9, 2018

Once in awhile, I just go on a ‘regular’ walk, not a picture walk. After my 600 picture marathon the other day, I thought it might be a nice  to just go on a ‘regular’  walk– and not stop every two feet to  take a picture! With that goal in mind, Mel and I strapped on our binoculars and headed out the door for a leisurely ‘regular’ walk down the Portage Bike Trail.

Just  before heading out the door, though,  I grabbed my  camera (I couldn’t help myself!). It wasn’t my usual camera, the Nikon with the super long lens– just my little Canon, the one that got me hooked on  nature photography in the first place, the one that takes reasonably good pictures, but is extremely frustrating for me to use (hard to locate target at a distance and hard to hold the camera steady when it is fully zoomed in).

Nonetheless, I grabbed it, mostly because it’s lightweight– and it meant that I was mostly going a regular walk, NOT a  picture walk.  BIG mistake! I missed getting the best shots  of a red tailed hawk, mallards, a bluebird, a cardinal, a bluejay, a pair of gadwalls, a northern flicker, downy woodpeckers and a belted kingfisher! Even though I missed out on a lot of good shots, the pictures I did get were worth posting because they afforded me the opportunity to share some really fun facts!

trail 11-8-2018 2-43-47 PM
It was a super beautiful fall day for a walk!

mallard 11-8-2018 2-39-33 PM
This mallard was ‘dabbling’ in the water nearby and occasionally glanced our way as we stared down at her.

red bellied woodpecker 11-8-2018 2-55-11 PM
I couldn’t get this red bellied woodpecker to look at me, but I decided to include his picture because I always thought it was odd that they were called ‘red bellied’ when their red head was much more obvious. This woodpeckers ‘red belly’ is very pale and rarely seen because it usually has it pressed up against a tree!

KINGFISHER 11-8-2018 3-29-43 PM
This belted kingfisher was really far away and I’m surprised my little Canon got such a good  picture!  Kingfishers hover over the water hummingbird style looking for fish, then dive head first into the water to snatch their prey with a dagger like bill. Since fish are rather slippery, the kingfisher first wacks its catch sideways against the tree or whatever it is sitting on. Presumably this stuns the fish and makes it easier to maneuver it and eat it.

Gadwalls 11-8-2018 2-32-09 PM
Male Gadwalls.  Gadwalls are dabbling ducks—they ride fairly high in the water and  tip forward to graze on submerged plants that they can reach with their outstretched necks. They rarely dive. Gadwall sometimes steal food from American Coots.

flicker 11-8-2018 3-47-06 PM
Northern Flicker. Although it can climb up the trunks of trees and hammer on wood like other woodpeckers, the Northern Flicker prefers to find food on the ground. Ants are its main food, and the flicker digs in the dirt to find them. It uses its long barbed tongue to lap up the ants.

downy woodpecker 11-8-2018 3-24-54 PM
Downy Woodpecker. The Downy Woodpecker eats foods that larger woodpeckers cannot reach, such as insects living on or in the stems of weeds.

bluejay 11-8-2018 3-51-25 PM
Bluejay. I couldn’t believe the size of the acorn that this bluejay was trying to bury!!  Their fondness for acorns is credited with helping spread oak trees after the last glacial period.

Baltimore Oriole nest 11-8-2018 2-40-54 PM
Baltimore Oriole nest. Baltimore Orioles rank among the world’s most accomplished nest-builders. Female orioles weave nests that hang like pendants. You can spot these hanging nests most easily when the trees have lost their leaves. The female builds the nest in about a week, meticulously weaving long, flexible strands of grass — and adding in man-made materials she finds close at hand.