Find the Joy

November 21, 2022

“If you choose not to find joy in the snow, you will have less joy in your life but still the same amount of snow.” Anonymous

I love this quote– and the snow!

The Carolina Wren sings a very joyful song

It’s hard not to feel a certain child-like wonder when the first big flakes of snow fall from the sky and transform our world into a winter wonderland.  I love sitting by the fire with a hot cup of tea in my hands watching the snow pile up outside our window and marveling at the little songbirds as they fluff up their feathers to ward off the cold. I’d like to invite them in for a while to warm up. Instead, I put on three layers of pants, three shirts, a balaclava, a fuzzy hat, a down coat, a neck warmer, mittens, and boots, and join them, camera in hand.

American Robin on a snowy day enjoying a crabapple tree

For the last several days, the snow has been falling almost non-stop!  The birds don’t seem to mind, though, and are flitting about everywhere, enjoying the easy source of food in our feeders and occasionally taking sips of warm water from the birdbath. I’ve taken hundreds of pictures of them hoping to find among the mix, one of the ‘vagrants’ –birds who are part of a phenomenon known as an ‘irruption’ which is currently taking place across eastern North America.

Downy Woodpecker on a very snowy day!

An irruption is a sudden change in the population density of an organism. In the lives of our feathered friends, an irruption occurs when the birds who live farther north run out of food, and move farther south to find sustenance. Some of the irruptive species here in Michigan include purple finches, redpolls, evening grosbeaks, red-breasted nuthatches, pine grosbeaks, pine siskins, and bohemian waxwings.

These irruptions commonly occur every few years and mostly impact the finches and other species that winter in the boreal forests of Canada and further north. The primary food source for these birds comes from pine cones. When the pine cone crop is poor over the summer, it foreshadows a difficult winter for these birds. The shortage of seeds that the pine cones produce forces these birds to move beyond their normal range in search of food. If multiple types of trees fail to produce a seed crop during the same year, multiple species of birds will move further south.

Eastern Bluebird weathering the elements on a snowy winter’s day
Mourning Dove

Irruptions vary widely in size, frequency, and duration. Some birds will stay in an area for weeks at a time, while others might only stay for a day. Regardless of the size of the flock or the duration of their visit, it’s an exciting time for birders!

Dark-eyed Junco

I would love to see any one of these wayward birds on my picture walks, but I have been happy enough with my usual backyard visitors, as well as the interesting mix of migrating birds that visit Kalamazoo this time of year, like the fox sparrows, the white throated sparrows, the American wigeons and, the very peculiar, Wilson’s snipe.

Wilson’s Snipe, a migrating bird at the Wolf Lake State Fish Hatchery
American Wigeon, a migrating bird that visits a nearby pond

I’ve been out in the snow several times recently looking for the evening grosbeaks, the red-breasted nuthatches, and the other ‘irrupters’ who might be passing through, but I have come up empty handed.  On any given picture walk, though, there is always the possibility that something new might come along, and ‘possibility‘ is always a great motivator!

Male Northern Cardinal

On these beautiful, winter days, I love the challenge of bundling up like a kid to stay warm and trudging through freshly fallen snow to photograph a bird, as I revel in the joy that, at age 75, I can still do this! 

Find the joy!

White-tailed deer, one of the other beautiful creatures I often see on my walks

Collateral Benefits

November 4, 2022

This time of year, when all the beautiful summer flowers have died back, when many of the birds and most of the butterflies have already left for the season, and when my favorite amphibian, the American bullfrog, sits in the muck at the bottom of a pond until spring, I’m often hard-pressed to find things to photograph.

My favorite amphibian, the American Bullfrog, before hibernating for the winter
Male Autumn Meadowhawk Dragonfly

On a recent picture walk, for example, I trudged around for hours with my heavy camera equipment slung across my shoulders hoping for at least one tiny bird or one late-season dragonfly to land nearby. But all I managed to capture that day was a chipmunk, a fungus, and a fern!! The fungus and the fern were mostly desperation shots (for lack of anything better to shoot), and the chipmunk, well, chipmunks are just cute. I had hoped for so much more!

Just one of a bazillion adorable chipmunks running around the woods!

As the world is slowly being drained of color, and the weather vacillates wildly from blissfully pleasant to bitterly disgusting, it takes a lot more motivation, and a whole lot more creative thinking on my part to go for a picture walk. It’s so much harder to find things to photograph! My slow deliberate rambles become even slower as I take more time to investigate whether some nondescript plant has any ‘picture potential’. I ponder the possibilities of a curled-up leaf, or a milkweed pod, as well as a host of other ubiquitous things, like mushrooms, mallards, and geese, to see if something ordinary can look extraordinary—or at least interesting! Usually, if I look hard enough and long enough, I’ll find something!

Milkweed Pod bursting forth with seeds

To keep the boredom from setting in, I rotate through a variety of different nature preserves, both near and far. They may have the same birds, and the same dying plants that I have near to home, but the setting is new! I also go out at different times of the day, in different kinds of weather, with one lens or the other, just to mix things up and to keep myself from losing interest.

Eastern Bluebird in a Juniper Tree
Mallard hybrid on a golden pond

Since I started this hobby several years ago, I’ve taken well over 200,000 pictures! I don’t really ‘need’ another mallard, goose, or chipmunk, but I do need all the collateral benefits that come with every walk in the woods, every amble through a field of goldenrod, and every contemplative moment I’ve spent beside a pond watching a bird glide effortlessly along, or a great blue heron stand motionless for hours waiting for lunch to swim by. When I’m out on a picture walk, totally immersed in the task at hand, there’s absolutely no room left in my head for anything else. It’s the perfect antidote to life’s worries.

Great Blue Heron
Lincoln’s Sparrow in a Juniper Tree

It’s those collateral benefits that keep me going back for more.

Everyday Surprises

November 5, 2021

Over the last several years, I’ve gone on hundreds of picture walks and taken thousands of pictures. I often visit the same preserves and nature centers over and over again and take pictures of the very same plants and creatures that I did before. On the surface, this might seem like an extremely boring thing to do; that I would run out of things to photograph that were interesting or novel or fun. The truth is, it never stops being fun. Every day is different and every walk brings new surprises —even if the subject matter is the same.

On rare occasions, the surprise will be a brand-new bird or a brand-new insect! More often than not, I photograph things that I’m already quite familiar with. The surprise comes when that familiar thing is in an unexpected place or shows up at an unexpected time of year. For example, I’ve taken an embarrassingly high number of bullfrog pictures. By any reasonable standard, I don’t need another bullfrog! But a few days ago, on a cool October afternoon, I was surprised to find a big green bullfrog perched comfortably on a log soaking in what little sun he could find. It was barely 50 degrees! I thought all the frogs would be hunkered down staying ‘warm’ under water! So I took his picture– to remind myself that frogs can tolerate much cooler temperatures than I had expected.

Last winter, in late January, I was surprised to find an Oregon Junco sitting in a tree not far from our back deck! Oregon Juncos aren’t usually found this far east, but there he was! After doing a little research, I discovered that on very rare occasions Oregon Juncos will show up in the western lower peninsula of Michigan! I learned something new!

Sometimes, the surprise I find is as simple as getting a picture at all!! Belted Kingfishers, for instance, are notoriously skittish birds. It is impossible to sneak up on one. They always see me coming no matter how carefully I approach. Whenever I’m lucky enough to actually get a picture of one, it’s because I had arrived first and the Belted Kingfisher came by later, totally unaware of my presence!

The secret to finding so many surprises, I think, is to stay curious and to expect the unexpected. Even the most ordinary things can yield extraordinary surprises.

All of the pictures here represent a surprise of one sort or another.

This is the American Bullfrog I found on a cool October day when it seemed much too chilly for any sensible frogs to be out and about!
This is the Oregon Junco that came to our backyard last January. Typically, these birds do not wander this far east. On rare occasions, though, Oregon Juncos will show up in the western lower peninsula of Michigan!
Here is one of the best pictures I’ve ever gotten of a Belted Kingfisher. He didn’t see me because I had gotten there first!
This injured Barn Owl was in an enclosure at a nature center and easy to photograph. The surprise was that the picture turned out at all– there were cage wires between my camera and the owl, but they didn’t show up in the picture!
This injured Juvenile Turkey Vulture was also at a nature center and behind cage wires. I was surprised that the wires didn’t show up in the picture and that I could see such fine detail in the Turkey Vulture’s Face.
This Virginia Giant Fly was a surprise for two reasons: I had never seen one before and it’s such a beautiful insect!
Eastern Bluebirds still surprise me because, for the longest time, I didn’t realize that many of them stay here in Michigan all winter, especially in the lower peninsula where I live.
I was really surprised to find this Monarch Butterfly out and about on a late October day. I thought they had all left!
These Common Mergansers took me by surprise because I rarely see them and they are such beautiful birds!
I always look for Praying Mantises in the late summer and early fall, but they are usually so well camouflaged, that I’m actually quite surprised if I find one– especially if it’s in a good position to photograph!
Dark-eyed Juncos are usually on the ground foraging for food and are hard to notice. This one surprised me by landing up in a tree with colorful leaves in the background making him much easier to spot!
Milkweed pods can disperse a surprisingly large number of seeds–sometimes as many as 200!

The Common Grackle, a bird many people dislike for its aggressive behavior,
is surprisingly beautiful bird in the right light.
I was surprised to learn that White-throated Sparrows sometimes cross-breed with Dark-eyed Juncos!
This Yellow-rumped Warbler was a very pleasant surprise when it landed right where I wanted it to– on this brightly colored stem of a Pokeweed plant.
Even though we see these beautiful Fall colors every year in Michigan, they never cease to surprise and delight me!

When you maintain a sense of curiosity and wonder about the natural world, there will always be surprises!

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!

Checking all the Boxes

October 12, 2020

The other day, I was talking with a friend about this hobby of mine that I love–nature photography; about picture walks, about writing a blog, about being outdoors every day. After listening to me ramble on enthusiastically, she said, “It really checks off all the boxes for you, doesn’t it?”

“Well, yes, I guess it does,” I replied.  And then proceeded to get lost in my head visualizing all of those tiny boxes…

Red-eyed Vireo

Box Number One is the ‘exercise box’. I get out and go for a picture walk almost every day. I may not walk fast and I may not walk far, but I do get up and out the door for three or four hours at a crack–sometimes more. At age 73, that might be considered an accomplishment!

Eastern Bluebird

Box Number Two is ‘connecting with nature’. As soon as I arrive at the woods or fields where I’ll be taking pictures, a sense of calm washes over me as I get ready to explore all the possibilities that lay ahead. I am so focused on looking for things to photograph, that I totally forget about anything that might have worried me before I left the house. A picture walk feels so much like a form of meditation that I decided to Google the words “photography as meditation” to see if anything came up.  I was quite surprised to find that not only had articles been written on this topic, there was actually a book with the same title,  ‘Photography as Meditation’!!

Bog Walk

Box Number Three is ‘making connections with others’. One of the things I really like to do after taking my pictures, is to share them with others. There are so many interesting things to see out there! When I share what I’ve found with others, it starts a conversation. Those pictures and those conversations lead to writing a story, such as this blog, which then leads to Box Number Four.

Eastern Phoebe
Great Blue Heron

I love to write. I love pulling my thoughts together and putting them down on ‘paper’. Writing things out forces me to clarify what I’ve seen and what I’ve learned. My hope is that those stories prove interesting or educational or somehow beneficial to someone else. If nothing else, though, the stories I write serve as ‘memory keepers’ for me when, years from now (or maybe next week!) the details of a particular walk will have eluded me!

Fox Squirrel

There are certainly other boxes that could be checked off, such as ‘picture walks vacation destinations’ and ‘picture walks creative projects’, but the four I’ve described are at the very top of my list and are all the motivation I need to get out the door for another day of exploration.

Eastern Bluebird

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!