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
Male Ring-necked Duck

Days later, I was still sorting through all the hundreds of pictures I took that day!

Male Wood Duck

Mallard Ducks are everywhere and they offer endless opportunities for interesting photographs!

In spite of all the inherent beauty to be found in a picture of freshly fallen snow and a colorful bird here and there, I am more than ready for the arrival of spring; ready to be free of these bulky winter clothes, grey skies, and frigid temperatures.  I’m beyond hungry for the colors to return, for the sweet smell of a newly mowed lawn, and for the sheer delight of a warm patch of sun on my bare skin!

I am more than ready to shed these bulky winter clothes and trade this colorless landscape for green leaves and spring flowers!

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.

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

The Peace of Wild Things

September 19, 2020

This poem by Wendell Berry was posted recently by a friend and it really resonated with me, especially during these very stressful and troubling times. It speaks volumes about the peace we can find in nature and of the comfort it can provide.

There’s nothing more that I can add to this beautiful poem, so here are a few of my wild things to enjoy vicariously…

American Bullfrog
Carolina Wren