Winter Morning Musings

December 27, 2022

As I sit here in the early morning darkness on a late December day with a hot cup of tea in my hand and a toasty fire in front of me, I’m thinking back to the warmer, brighter days of summer where I would have already left the house by now; where I would have had my camera slung across my shoulder as I rushed out the door, not wanting to miss that “golden hour” of photography just past sunrise. This time of year, though, there’s absolutely no need to rush. The sun won’t rise for another two hours and the golden hour (if the sun comes out at all), won’t happen for at least three!

Pileated Woodpecker during the ‘golden hour’ just before sunset
Female Ruddy Duck and a male Gadwall during an evening ‘golden hour’

We haven’t seen much of the sun this December. In fact, it’s been “mostly cloudy” or totally overcast every single day. When the forecast calls for partly cloudy skies rather than mostly cloudy, I’m elated! It means there will be at least a few moments of sunshine to enjoy during the day! But then I wondered: if there’s sunshine to be had on a partly cloudy day, what’s the definition of partly sunny day? According to the National Weather Service, they’re exactly the same thing! If I ran the circus, it would always be called a partly sunny day –a much happier outlook than cloudy!

Even on the sunniest of winter days, though, taking pictures is never easy, especially when it’s bitterly cold and the temperatures fall into the single digits, like they did this past week during our “blizzard of the century.” One day it was only 3 degrees above zero with a wind chill of minus 17! I went outside anyway, mostly to see if I could stay warm enough under multiple layers of clothing and still propel myself forward!

Testing the elements: Wind Chill minus 17 degrees!!

On that particularly frigid day, I went for a walk without my camera just to see how it would feel. Surprisingly, I was so hot under all those layers that I worked up a sweat!  It wasn’t so much the multiple layers of clothing that made me hot, but the act of walking.  If I had been standing still taking pictures, I would not have stayed warm for very long!  Luckily, whenever I do get the urge to take pictures on a bitterly cold day, I can just step out our back door, take a few shots, and pop back in as soon as I get cold. There’s plenty of wildlife right outside our door to keep me entertained for hours.

“Eh, what’s up, Doc?” (One of our backyard visitors)
The Red Squirrels provide plenty of entertainment on a daily basis!

Most of the time I can keep my body quite warm, but my fingers eventually freeze. I’ve tried a wide variety of mittens and gloves with varying degrees of success, but any mittens thick enough to keep my fingers from freezing, are too thick to operate the tiny buttons on a camera! It’s a frustrating dilemma that I’ve been trying to solve for quite some time.

I thought these Canada Geese looked beautiful in the late afternoon sun!
Great Blue Heron on a fishing expedition over the open ponds at a local fish hatchery

A few years ago, I started adding hand warmers to my pockets. They were a really big help initially, but none of them ever stayed warm enough, long enough to keep me happy. So, I went online to research what other outdoor enthusiasts were using and ultimately ordered a pair of Ocoopa Rechargeable Hand Warmers that would reportedly stay hot for 15 hours!! They will arrive just in time for an unseasonably warm break in the weather and a dismal forecast of rain. Perfect timing!

White-throated Sparrow in our backyard
Male Red-bellied Woodpecker

I love the challenge of winter photography and all the unique picture opportunities it affords, but I really miss all the colors, and all the creatures, and all the different ways that taking pictures in the warmer months is so much easier!!

Another one of the beautiful deer in our backyard
Male Downy Woodpecker in our backyard
American Tree Sparrow on a very snowy day
Male Wood Duck on ice

Most of all, I miss the sunshine—and my warm fingers.

“That’s All, Folks!”

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.

Strange Blessings

September 25, 2022

There are many things I am thankful for in this life; the love of family, our good health, food on the table, a roof over our heads, and a multitude of other blessings. Near the very bottom of that list, but certainly not last, I am thankful that flowers don’t fly! It may seem like a very strange thing to be thankful for, but I am a nature photographer, and things that don’t fly are so much easier to photograph than things that do!

A beautiful Purple Coneflower with a crown of jewels!
Great Willowherb– which happens to be a very tiny flower!

I’m always a bit anxious when I photograph things that fly because there is just the tiniest window of opportunity to get things right before the winged creature disappears! Once I spot the bird, butterfly, or dragonfly, there’s rarely enough time to adjust the focus, let alone change the ISO, the f-stop and the shutter speed before they disappear!

Female Mallard who was gracious enough to let me take her picture and not fly away!
Male Widow Skimmer dragonfly

The other difficult thing about winged creatures is, they never let you know when they’re leaving! I remember the first time I was trying to take a picture of a butterfly. It was years ago, but it still comes back to me every time something flies away without a sound. For some reason, I kept thinking that the creatures I was taking pictures of would make some kind of noise when they left, like people do when they shuffle their feet, shut the door, or say goodbye. You definitely know when humans have left. Most of the time, you even know exactly where to find them! But not so much with birds and butterflies! They just silently flutter away without a sound and, most of the time, I have absolutely no idea where they’ve gone. I wish they all wore bells!

Pearl Crescent butterfly
Eastern Carpenter Bee that can also be difficult to capture!

A few bigger birds, like the great blue heron and the little green heron will, on occasion, let you know they’re leaving by blurting out a raspy squawk or two. Sometimes, I can even get a decent picture as they depart. Or, consider the lowly bullfrog, who doesn’t exactly have wings, but will at least let me know when it’s leaving by yelling, “YEEP!” as it jumps into the water.  Unfortunately, by the time I hear the “YEEP”, it’s too late for a picture!

Great Blue Heron
American Bullfrog that will leap in fright if he notices me coming!
If turtles hear or feel my footfalls, or if they see me coming, they will dive under water as fast as they can!

That’s why I’m thankful for flowers. They don’t fly off and they don’t leap in fright when they hear me coming. I can walk right up and take a picture! I can take a hundred pictures if I like. I can change my settings a million times, take a break for lunch, make a phone call, and come back later. They never fly away!

Giant Sunflowers
Male Monarch Butterfly

In a world where everything else disappears without so much as a polite goodbye, it’s a total luxury to photograph flowers –as well as anything else that doesn’t leap, fly, dive, or run away in fright!

Common Sneezeweed

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!

Three Gifts

June 4, 2022

I have a mental checklist that I review every time I leave the house for a picture walk: Is my camera battery fully charged? Is my memory card inserted? Do I have an extra card and an extra battery?  Do I have my phone and is it fully charged? Do I have my monopod? But, after what happened yesterday, I should probably switch my mental list to an real list!

Yellow Warbler
Cedar Waxwing

I was off on another picture adventure and eager to see what surprises awaited me.  My destination was a favorite nature center about an hour away from home. Whenever I go on a picture adventure, I feel an immediate sense of calm wash over me once I arrive. Yesterday was no exception. I drove into the parking lot, took a deep, relaxing breath, and prepared for my three-hour escape into nature’s arms– until I realized there was no memory card in my camera!!

Canada Goose Gosling

I had made this mistake before and had come prepared with an emergency back-up card! Perfect! Once the card was inserted, I happily set off into the ‘wild’ hoping for a day filled with beautiful little creatures and colorful flowers. My joy was short-lived.

Trumpeter Swan
American Toad singing!

Forty-five minutes into my walk, after taking only three measly pictures, my memory card said ‘full’!! What??? How could that be?? I tried every ‘high tech’ solution I could think of to remedy the situation: pull the card out and put it back in; turn off the camera, turn it back on, and re-format the memory card–repeatedly. Nothing worked! It was time for plan B!  Look for the nearest store!

American Bullfrog
Great Blue Heron shaking the water off

I hustled back to my car as fast as a marginally nimble 75 year-old can hustle on an uneven boardwalk with an expensive camera, a 600mm lens, and a 5 foot monopod! Once in my car, I drove as quickly as was legally possible to the nearest store to find another memory card– and hope that it worked. It didn’t. But I had already driven back to the nature center before I found out!

Field Sparrow

At that point, I could have just thrown in the towel. I could have just gone for a ‘regular’ walk and not taken pictures. But it was completely impossible for me to do that! This particular nature center had a butterfly house. It was the perfect place for close-up shots of stunning and unusual butterflies. I had to stay!

White Peacock Butterfly in the Butterfly House at the Nature Center
Garden White Butterfly in the Butterfly House at the Nature Center
Monarch Butterfly in the Butterfly House at the Nature Center

So, I went back into town to a different store and looked for a different memory card. While standing in the aisle reading the descriptions on each of the various cards, I suddenly realized why the first card hadn’t work and dashed out of the store. Back to the nature center for my third and final attempt at trying to salvage what was left of an otherwise lovely day!

Pipevine Swallowtail Butterfly in the Butterfly House at the Nature Center
Zebra Longwing Butterfly in the Butterfly House at the Nature Center

I had first arrived at the nature center at 9:00 a.m. It was now noon. The soft morning light was long gone, as was the cool morning air. It had been a frustrating start to what was supposed to have been a calm and relaxing day. I was totally frazzled.

Rose-breasted Grosbeak

But, keeping things in perspective is everything. The day was still young. The weather was still great and, most of all, I was very much alive and well, doing something I dearly loved— three priceless gifts that not everyone gets to enjoy. It was all I really needed to remember and off I went…

Trumpeter Swan coming in for a landing

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