Before Pictures: A Photography Journey

July 4, 2022

Before I started taking pictures, there was so much I didn’t know about the world outside my own front door. I didn’t know that dragonflies came in a rainbow of colors, that turtles shed parts of their shells, or that we had cuckoos in Michigan! I didn’t know that cedar waxwings could get drunk eating fermented berries, or that great blue herons would stay here throughout our cold Michigan winters. My enlightenment all started with a Christmas wish.

A brown, white and yellow Widow Skimmer dragonfly

In the Fall of 2013, my husband, Mel, started asking me what I wanted for Christmas. I gave his question a good deal of thought and came up with the idea that I’d like to have a better camera. All I had was a pocket-sized Canon PowerShot– a lightweight and easy to carry camera with very limited capabilities.

Michigan’s Black-billed Cuckoo
A Great Blue Heron that decided to stay in Michigan for the winter!

Once I told Mel what I wanted, he went to work doing the research and came up with a bigger, better version of the Canon PowerShot that he thought might work. I loved it– and ultimately, dubbed it my “gateway drug”.

Eastern Kingbird babies hoping for lunch!
A giant snapping turtle taking a break on a very hot day!

I happily used that camera on and off for the next three and a half years; taking the usual family photos and typical vacation shots. It wasn’t until we went to Florida in 2016 for our first extended stay that my addiction to nature photography really kicked in. There were so many rookeries, sanctuaries and preserves with new and unusual birds, mammals, and reptiles that I had absolutely no trouble feeding my ‘habit’!

Florida alligator taking a siesta

Eventually though, I started wanting more. I wanted a camera with a faster response time so that the bird on the limb would still be there once I pressed down the shutter button. I wanted to get pictures of the birds and butterflies that were farther and farther away, and I wanted sharper images. Mel went back to work looking for a camera that would do all those things—without causing us to re-finance our home! By July of 2017, I had my new camera, a Nikon D3400 and a detachable 70-300mm zoom lens. I was back in business!

A bright-eyed Yellow Warbler
Common Yellowthroat

At some point along the way, Mel decided to take up his photography hobby again and assumed ownership of my D3400 after finding me a Nikon D5600 to take its place. We were both hooked!

Spiny Softshell Turtle

I loved all the beautiful pictures I could get with my D5600 and the 70-300mm lens, but there were birds and butterflies still out of reach that I wanted to capture! After a bit of research, Mel thought that a Sigma 150-600mm lens might do the trick. I was well aware of the size and weight of this lens based on what I had read, but when it actually arrived, I thought “What on earth have I done??” It looked huge! It felt heavier than I expected and I had serious reservations about my ability to carry it around for hours on end. But, I really, really wanted to take ‘far away pictures’ so off I went, camera and lens in hand.

The BIG lens!

I used that set up for a year or so before my back started telling me that it might be better to add a monopod to my camera in order to support all that weight when I stood for hours taking pictures. Adding a monopod would mean I’d have a little more weight to carry as I walked along, but I wouldn’t have to hold the camera up to my eye unsupported as I patiently waited for the ‘perfect shot’ or tried to pan the movement of a bird in flight. My back has thanked me many, many times over.

Taking pictures using the camera mounted on a monopod– a good back-saver

I used the Nikon D5600 for two or three years along with the 150-600mm lens before totally exceeding the picture expectancy of my camera with over 100,000 shots!! I decided to trade it in for a Nikon D500, a camera that was highly rated for nature photography and has totally lived up to that assessment!

Blanding’s Turtle
Barn Swallow

Before taking pictures, I had already loved going on nature walks– but there was so much I didn’t see! With my camera in hand the world suddenly opened up!! I paid more attention.  I noticed things I had never noticed before– like the subtle movement of a blade of grass that might mean a dragonfly had landed, or the tiny ‘bump’ at the top of a long-dead tree that might mean a hummingbird was resting; or the infinitesimal speck of blue on a shiny green leaf that might mean a damselfly was nearby.

Hagen’s Bluet Damselfy

All of those creatures had been there all along, but I never saw them —until I started taking pictures!

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

Racing the Sun

August 16, 2020

My favorite time of day for going on a picture walk is early, early morning– just as the sun is coming up. It’s a quiet, peaceful time of day when the rest of the world is not yet awake and not yet making noise. It’s a time of day when it’s easier to hear the birds and easier to notice the movement of the grasses where a wiggling bug or bird might emerge.

One of my favorite early morning shots was this little chipmunk perched in a tree with an abundance of colorful flowers in the background.
Monarch

Oftentimes, there’s a mist across the water that adds to the dreaminess of an early morning walk. If I’m lucky, I’ll catch a dragonfly or two laden with dew drops and not quite ready to fly, or a spider web sparkling in the sunlight. The morning sun has a way of making everything look fresher and brighter and more saturated. The problem is, the morning sun doesn’t last long and I always feel like I’m racing against it for a few good shots.

Familiar Bluet Damselfly on a dewy blade of grass
Barn Swallow
Eastern Tiger Swallowtail

The race begins long before I leave the house.  In truth, it starts the night before when I lay my clothes out in the guest room so that, come morning, I can get ready without waking up my better half. In order to win my race against the sun in these waning days of summer, I need to be out the door by 6:00 or 6:30 a.m., depending on how far I have to drive. If I leave later than I should have, then the race becomes literal!

I love finding the frogs when I’m out on a walk. Sometimes, it’s a bit like a Where’s Waldo challenge!
Carpenter Bee working a flower

Once I arrive at my destination, the race continues– because I want to be everywhere at once before the sun is too high in the sky. If you’ve never been in a race against the sun, it’s hard to explain the urgency—or the delight, if you win!

Monarch

(All of the pictures in this post were taken in the early morning sun.)

Sawtooth Sunflower (I think)

A Photography Journey

August 4, 2020

As I pondered what to write today, I was thinking back on my short but immensely gratifying photography journey.

Juvenile Barn Swallow

It started innocently enough in the fall of 2016, when my husband asked me what I wanted for Christmas. I had no idea!  But, he likes finding things that surprise me, so I gave it some thought. What I came up with was “a better camera”. For many, many years, all I had was a very small, pocket-sized, Canon Powershot.

Willow Flycatcher

Once I told Mel about my ‘better camera’ idea, he went to work researching it. What he came up with was another model of the Canon Powershot –but a bigger, better version with a built-in zoom lens. I now refer to this camera as my ‘gateway drug’! As soon as I realized what was possible with a better camera, I was hooked!

Eastern Tiger Swallowtail on Butterfly Bush

It wasn’t long before I was outdoors nearly every day taking pictures of birds, butterflies, frogs, turtles– anything I could find that grabbed my attention. Eventually, though, I started musing about what I might be able to do with an even better camera—one that could capture the birds that were even farther away, and would also have a faster response time.

Slaty Skimmer

Male Eastern Pondhawk

Since Mel enjoys doing the research and I do not, he’s the one who went to work looking for another camera, one that would take a detachable telephoto lens. What he came up with was a Nikon D3400 and a 75-300mm lens. Once it arrived, I was out the door!

Painted Turtle

I think another year went by, maybe less, and I found myself wanting to capture creatures that were even farther away. Mel took off on another search and came up with a 150-600mm lens from Sigma that would probably do the trick. But it was much longer and much heavier than the one I currently had and I was hesitant. When it arrived, I was still hesitant. It just seemed too big and too heavy for me to handle comfortably. But I was eager to take close-ups and quickly overcame my reluctance. I have not put it down since!

Eventually, the constant lifting and focusing with a lens that size made my back ache and I reluctantly added a monopod to my set up.  It’s a bit of a bother sometimes to have the monopod attached, but I can now focus on a subject for an indefinite amount of time without having to give my back a break.

This insect was a huge surprise! It’s a female BOTFLY laying an egg on a blade of grass. I’ve never seen one before and didn’t know we even had them in the U.S.!

After the Nikon D3400, came a Nikon D5600, which is what I have been using for the last couple of years. This camera and I have gone on a picture walk together nearly every day and I have taken hundreds of pictures with it on each of those walks. Periodically, I have checked to see how much ‘shutter life’ it had left.

My D5600 had been given a shutter life of 100,000 shots. When I last checked, I had taken well over 151,000 pictures! I felt as if we were on borrowed time and decided to start looking for a new one.

Red-tailed Hawk

Once again, Mel returned to the drawing board to find a camera that was well suited for wildlife photography. What he found was a Nikon D500. It arrived a just a few days ago and we have already become fast friends!

With a shutter life of 200,000 shots, I’m looking forward to many years and many pleasant journeys with my newest walking companion!

Butterfly Weed

Treasure Hunts

Every time I pick up my camera bag and head out the door, I feel like I’m going on a treasure hunt. The treasures I find might be as simple as a single flower with the sunlight shining through, an intricate dragonfly wing, a reflection of a bird on the water, or a baby bird waiting to be fed. It’s all good– and it all serves as a powerful antidote for what is not so good during these troubled times.

Here are my favorite treasures from the past few weeks. I’ll let them tell the story…

American Bullfrog

This Bullfrog is one of my favorite treasures from the past few weeks. First of all, I love bullfrogs! They have such expressive faces and funny little bodies! This particular bullfrog was one of many at the Spirit Springs Sanctuary in Marcellus, Michigan.

When I arrived at the sanctuary shortly after dawn, the whole pond was an orchestra of bullfrog voices– a deep baritone ‘galumping’ sound that echoed all through the nearby woods. It was music to my ears!

What surprised me about this frog was that he was perched at the top of a four foot tree stump in the middle of the water. All of his friends, however, were playing it safe along the shore. What a maverick!

Black Swallowtail Butterfly on Milkweed

Another treasure was this Black Swallowtail Butterfly that conveniently landed right in front of me on a beautiful milkweed blossom. Well, it only became ‘convenient’ after I had traipsed through high weeds and brambles, risking ticks and scratches, to at least be in the vicinity of the few butterflies I saw flitting around! After that, it was a convenient shot!

Flower in the sunlight

I love the way sunlight plays with the flowers. This picture was originally over-exposed. I was shooting into the sun and my settings weren’t right. So, I experimented with it while I was editing and just kept making it darker and darker until I had this. I just liked the way it looked.

In the early morning light. when there’s absolutely no wind, it’s fun trying to get a perfect reflection! This Canada Goose wasn’t the least bit interested in my picture taking goals and I had plenty of time to experiment with my settings.

Tawny Emperor Butterfly

I must have taken a hundred pictures of this Tawny Emperor Butterfly trying to get a decent picture. It was so windy that this little emperor had all he could do just to hang onto the leaf and I had all I could do to snap a picture at just the right moment when there was a nano-second of calm. I also had my shutter speed set really high!

Snowberry Clearwing Moth (aka hummingbird moth)

For me, finding a Hummingbird Moth like this one is always a treasure. Normally, it’s hard to capture a picture of one of these moths because they flit around so quickly and their wings are a blur, but this one decided to rest for a minute or two and I was able to get a clear picture.

Female Widow Skimmer

Dragonflies never cease to amaze me. They are not only beautiful, they are engineering marvels.

Dragonflies are like helicopters. Or, it might be more accurate to say helicopters are like dragonflies because helicopters were designed to mimic dragonfly abilities. Dragonflies can fly in any direction (up, down, forward, backward) or simply hover. All four wings move independently and can rotate on an axis for incredible flight control. They can make hairpin turns mid-flight, changing direction instantly–and they can fly upside-down.”

Silver-tailed Petal-cutter Bee

As soon as I saw this insect I knew I’d never seen one before (or noticed may be a more accurate word). It looked kind of like a bumble bee but some things were quite different– like the smooth black back and the fuzzy yellow underside. The head didn’t look quite right for a bumble bee either. When I got home and used my iNaturalist app to identify it, I found out that it was probably a Silver-tailed Petal-cutter Bee. These bees cut petals off of flowers to line the walls of their nests (There are also Leafcutter Bees.)

Eastern Tiger Swallowtail

This Eastern Tiger Swallowtail is such a beautiful insect and butterflies, in general, are incredible creatures– having the ability to transform themselves from caterpillars to butterflies.

“In Chinese culture, butterflies often symbolize having a long and healthy life. In Russia and in Ireland, butterflies are sometimes seen as the souls of departed loved ones waiting to pass through purgatory. In Greek mythology, butterflies are meant to show the souls of loved ones. In various Native American mythology, butterflies symbolize the human spirit.”

Spiderwort

This stunning little plant has a rather ugly little name– Spiderwort! It is a very hardy North American native perennial with quarter-sized flowers that only last a day. As the petals fade, they become almost translucent, giving Spiderworts their other common name, Widow’s Tears.

Last but not least was this little treasure– a baby bird floundering around in a bush wondering what to do. I thought it had fallen from a nest but after 20 minutes or so, it flew up to a nearby pine tree where it was eventually fed by its very attentive Dad (a Cardinal).

So, if you’re looking for the perfect antidote to a stressful day, or the perfect complement to an otherwise happy one, go on a treasure hunt!

Outtakes: