Morning Light

November 19, 2023

Note: Most of the pictures in this post were taken on earlier picture walks

I was sitting in my favorite chair at 5 a.m. on this cold November morning, enjoying a toasty fire, drinking a hot cup of tea, and contemplating the day ahead. Every once in a while, I’d look out the window to see if the sun had come up.

By 7:45, I could see just a hint of light on the very top of the trees along the far side of the creek behind our house. I wrestled with my choices for the day– stay warm and cozy inside the house, or go out into the cold November air and take pictures. The conditions were perfect: early morning light, no wind, and clear skies. I thought maybe a northern shoveler would unexpectedly drop by, or that a few wood ducks might swim out from the reeds as they sometimes do, or that a great blue heron would be scouting for fish along the opposite bank.  I might even see a rare mink scurrying by. Anything was possible!

Great Blue Heron
American Mink

There was no choice, really; whether to stay inside or to go outdoors. The morning light beckoned. It would be impossible for me to stay home on such a beautiful day! There was such promise in the air! But, it was only 32 degrees! I wasn’t ready to face the cold! And getting dressed would be a challenge– because cold weather photography, where I might not move for hours on end, takes careful planning. Should I wear two layers or three? Do I need mittens or gloves? Boots or shoes? There were too many decisions to be made this early in the morning!

All bundled up for the cold on an earlier picture walk

By 8:15, though, I was out the door. The sun had risen a little higher in the sky, the water in the creek was perfectly still, and I planted myself in the very best spot I could find where the sun would be at my back.

Cherry Creek in the early morning light

I stood quietly and waited. The squirrels were scampering through the leaves behind me and running across the branches overhead. Now and then, I’d hear a red-bellied woodpecker tapping on one of the nearby trees. A handful of birds were greeting the new day with their joyful song while a solitary goose flew by.

Canada Goose

Not far from where I was standing, I could hear the familiar sound of the male red-winged blackbirds as they flitted among the cattails. They have a short, one-second song that starts with an abrupt note and turns into a musical trill. The females usually respond to the singing males with a chit-chit-chit sound, but I never heard their replies. Perhaps, the females have already flown south for the winter.

Male Red-winged Blackbird in the reeds along Cherry Creek

After about an hour of standing and waiting, I took a seat on the bench next to me; my hopes slowly dwindling. There had been no signs of any shovelers, wood ducks, or herons. I would have been happy at that point if even a mallard had floated by!

Female Mallard from an earlier walk

Eventually, the cold air settled into my bones, and I had run out of things to talk to myself about. I tried, instead, to concentrate on all the different birds I could see or hear in the trees around me, like the chickadees, tufted titmice, cardinals, robins, cedar waxwings, woodpeckers, sparrows, and blue jays. They provided a symphony of songs and a bit of entertainment as I sat watching for the elusive ducks and herons to appear on the creek.

Downy Woodpecker

By 9:30, I was ready to throw in the towel and go for a walk in the sun so I could soak up some of its warmth. Before leaving my temporary roost, though, I moved closer to a nearby bush where I had been watching the cedar waxwings gobbling up berries, hoping I could maybe get a picture of them! With all the foliage obstructing my view, it was more of a challenge than I expected!

Cedar Waxwing enjoying the berries

After managing to get a few waxwing shots (and one fat robin), it was time to move on to more promising grounds. I headed over to the business park next door thinking I would find a red-tailed hawk, a migrating duck, or maybe even a bluebird. All I found were pigeons.

Three pigeons on a lamp post!

Where was everybody??

It was almost noon and the temperature had climbed from a chilly 32 degrees to a toasty 50. I was so HOT! I had taken off my hat, mittens, and scarf and stuffed them into the pockets of my coat; the pockets that were already jammed full with two rechargeable hand-warmers, one cell phone, and a set of keys. Eventually I had to take off the coat as well and tie it around my waist or I would totally disintegrate from the heat! It was time to head home.

A big fat Robin enjoying the same berry bush as the Cedar Waxwings

In the end, I didn’t have much to show for all my efforts: no wood ducks, no hawks, no shovelers, no mallards. It’s always disappointing when this happens, but I just can’t force the birds to show up when I want them to– or to get them to sit still in the right light while I adjust my settings.

On a particularly slow picture day, like this one, I have to remind myself that the most important thing is the walk itself, not the pictures. At my age (76), spending the day outdoors traipsing about is a gift; one that I treasure. Having my camera along, just makes all that exercise more interesting.

And that’s what keeps me going out the door–even on the least promising of days.

Cedar Waxwing

Arcadia Marsh Nature Preserve

September 27, 2023

A few weeks ago, my husband and I made our first trip to the Arcadia Marsh Nature Preserve in Arcadia, Michigan. What a wonderful place to walk and see a wide variety of birds, plants, and butterflies at relatively close range! Over 250 species of birds have been identified at the marsh (17 of which are considered endangered or threatened) and at least 200 different species of plants have been recorded. Best of all, there is a wide, well-maintained ¾ mile boardwalk through the middle of the preserve that makes it easily accessible for everyone.

Arcadia Marsh Nature Preserve Boardwalk

Arcadia Preserve is one of only a few remaining coastal marshes along Lake Michigan’s Lower Peninsula shoreline. Sadly, most of all the original Great Lakes marshes have been destroyed, making restored marshes like this one extremely important ecologically. Thanks to the extensive restoration efforts by the Grand Traverse Regional Land Conservancy (GTRLC), countless volunteers and dedicated partners, this beautiful nature preserve is healthier than it has been in decades. As a result, Arcadia Marsh Nature Preserve has become known as one of the best birding locations in the entire state of Michigan!

Arcadia Marsh Nature Preserve Boardwalk

In my short, two-hour visit on September 15th, I was able to photograph eleven different birds, two of which I rarely ever see, one of which I have never seen in Michigan, one I’ve never seen anywhere, and one that’s usually so elusive that I rarely get to photograph it at all!

Rusty Blackbird

Up until about two years ago, I’d never even heard of a Rusty Blackbird and had no idea what they looked like.  A fellow-birder/photographer had seen a few of them at one of our local birding spots, the Wolf Lake State Fish Hatchery. Not long afterwards, I went searching for them. When I happened upon a small group of birds I’d never seen before, I thought, this must be my mystery bird! It was the last time I’d see a Rusty Blackbird– until this visit to Arcadia Marsh.

Female Rusty Blackbird

According to the Cornell Lab’s website, All About Birds, “The Rusty Blackbird has undergone one of the sharpest and most mystifying recent declines of any North American songbird.”  Some researches speculate that the severe hunting of beavers across hundreds of years has contributed to the reduction of suitable habitats for Rusty Blackbirds. Fewer beaver ponds mean fewer Rusty Blackbirds. Some attribute their decline to the loss of habitat caused by human ignorance or indifference. Others report that Rusty Blackbirds, particularly from the northeastern areas of North America, have been found with unusually high levels of mercury contamination; a contributing factor in all likelihood.

Savannah Sparrow

Not far from where the Rusty Blackbirds were perched, I watched a much smaller bird dart back and forth across my field of vision. It looked like a fairly nondescript bird from where I was standing on the boardwalk, but when I zoomed in, I could see a tiny bit of yellow above its eye. That got my attention! But it wasn’t until I returned home that I was able identify it as a Savannah Sparrow, a bird I’d never seen before!

Savannah Sparrow

Surprisingly, Savannah Sparrows are one of the most numerous songbirds in North America! They don’t visit backyard feeders, but they may come to your yard if you have open fields nearby. Or, if you keep a brush pile on your property, you might be lucky enough to see a small flock of them swoop down and take cover in the pile during migration or over the winter depending on where you live.

Cedar Waxwing

Also flitting about in the same trees as the Rusty Blackbirds and the Savannah Sparrows, were the Cedar Waxwings. These are such beautiful birds! Cornell Lab’s website All About Birds came up with one of the best descriptions I’ve found so far, “…the Cedar Waxwing is a silky, shiny collection of brown, gray, and lemon-yellow, accented with a subdued crest, rakish black mask, and brilliant-red wax droplets on the wing feathers.”

Cedar Waxwing

The one I found at the marsh was doing what waxwings do best, catching dragonflies out of the air and bringing them back to a nearby tree to eat.

Cedar Waxwing with a tasty dragonfly

Northern Harrier

Not far beyond the trees where I had been enjoying the Rusty Blackbirds, the Savannah Sparrows and the Cedar Waxwings, there was a large bird of prey flying low over the marsh, periodically diving into the vegetation and then reappearing. I wasn’t sure what it was, but it looked a lot like a Northern Harrier I had once seen in Florida a few years ago. I had never seen one in Michigan, but the Northern Harrier is a distinctive looking bird even from far away. It’s a slim, long-tailed hawk that likes to glide low over marshes and grasslands, holding its wings in a wide V-shape. Northern Harriers are mostly looking for small mammals and small birds, but they can also capture larger prey like rabbits and ducks!

Northern Harrier cruising low over the marsh

Great Egret and Great Blue Heron

Wading through the shallow marsh waters on the opposite side of the boardwalk as the Northern Harrier, I could see a Great Egret and a Great Blue Heron in search of their next meal. I have way too many pictures of Great Blue Herons, but very few of the Great Egret, especially here in Michigan. The Great Blue Herons can be found all over Michigan throughout the year, but the Great Egrets only pass through during migration.

Great Egret

The Great Egrets and the Great Blue Herons are both impressive looking birds, but the Egret is slightly smaller and more graceful looking. These two herons hunt by standing motionless or by wading ever so slowly through shallow water to capture a fish using a deadly jab with their large bills.

Great Blue Heron

Great Egrets were hunted nearly to extinction for their feathers in the late nineteenth century, sparking some of the first laws to protect birds. The National Audubon Society, one of the oldest environmental organizations in North America, uses the Great Egret as its logo.

Green Heron

Just below the boardwalk where I was standing, there was a beautiful, little Green Heron who was also waiting patiently, like his much bigger cousins, to catch a quick lunch. All three of these birds are masters in the art of patience. They can stand motionless seemingly forever waiting to stab or grab an unsuspecting fish, frog or tadpole with their dagger-like bills.

Green Heron

Most interesting is the fact that the Green Heron is one of the world’s few tool-using bird species! It often creates fishing lures with things like bread crusts, insects, or feathers, dropping them on the surface of the water hoping something tasty will take the bait!

Belted Kingfisher

Most of the time, this is the bird that’s hardest for me to ‘capture.’ It is very skittish, and I swear it knows that I’m on my way to take its picture long before I even leave the house!  At the Arcadia Marsh, though, the Belted Kingfishers seemed oblivious to humans. I’m guessing these kingfishers are acclimated to all the foot traffic on the boardwalk and have learned to just ignore the movement. As a result, I was able to take a dozen or more pictures before this particular bird decided she wanted to go elsewhere to fish.

Female Belted Kingfisher

Belted kingfishers are one of the few bird species where the female is more colorful than the male, sporting a chestnut or rust-colored band across her chest. Males are all blue-gray and white. In the pictures below, the kingfisher on the left is female and the one on the right is male.

Red-winged Blackbirds

Red-winged blackbirds are one of the most abundant birds across North America. Wherever there’s standing water and vegetation, you’ll most likely see or hear a Red-winged Blackbird! In late February or early March, it’s the familiar sound of the returning Red-winged Blackbirds that warms my heart and foreshadows Spring’s impending arrival.

Female Red-winged Blackbird
Male Red-winged Blackbird

Song Sparrow

The Song Sparrow is a relatively plain looking, little bird that can be easily overlooked and underappreciated, but every time I see one belting out a song from the top of a tree or a nearby bush, I can’t help but call them endearing. Song Sparrows seem so earnest in their attempts to sing a beautiful song, that they can make any ordinary day feel happier!

Song Sparrow belting out a song!

Black-capped Chickadee

Last, but certainly not least, is the affable little chickadee. I never grow tired of trying to capture them. They are almost universally considered “cute” thanks to their oversized heads, tiny bodies, and insatiable curiosity about everything– including humans. Black-capped Chickadees are one of the easiest birds to attract to your feeders and one of the first birds to come to your outstretched hand for seeds.

Black-capped Chickadee
Feeding a Black-capped Chickadee by hand (taken at a different preserve)

Even if you’re not a birder or a photographer, the Arcadia Marsh Nature Preserve is worth putting on your bucket list if you just want a nice place to enjoy a little slice of nature with an easily accessible trail.  Before your visit, check out this website for directions, rules, maps, and more detailed information:

On the Road Again

June 5, 2023

We just returned from our first real get-away adventure in almost three years. For the better part of the last three years, we had stayed close to home waiting for the pandemic to end. When it was mostly over, and we were ready to travel, our aging dog could no longer go with us or stay in a kennel. She needed a great deal of care. On April 18th of this year, we had to say our final goodbyes. It was a bittersweet moment in time. After a stressful, isolating pandemic and a heart-wrenching year of doggie hospice, we needed to cut loose.

Our dear, little dog, Brandy who had a long, slow decline.

We headed out to the Driftless Area of Wisconsin. My husband, Mel, had registered to attend a Tenkara fishing get-together/campout near Westby, Wisconsin and I tagged along to take pictures. After three years of home-grown subject matter, I was eager to explore a new environment.

A beautiful columbine growing along the roadside

The Driftless area is approximately 8500 square miles of land, mostly in Southwest Wisconsin, that was untouched by glaciers during the last ice age. The term “driftless” indicates a lack of glacial drift, the deposits of silt, gravel, and rock that retreating glaciers leave behind. As a result, the landscape is characterized by steep, limestone-based hills, spring fed waterfalls, deeply carved river valleys, and the largest concentration of cold-water trout streams in the world! It was a perfect place for Mel to go Tenkara fishing.

Viceroy Butterfly
Monarch Butterfly

Tenkara is a method of fly fishing that originated in the mountains of Japan. It uses very long rods with fixed lengths of casting line attached to the rod-tip, and simple, wet flies as lures. This method of fishing was developed to catch trout in free-flowing rivers like the ones found in the Driftless Areas of Wisconsin. I don’t fish, but I was happy enough to go wandering down the back roads near where Mel was fishing to look for birds, butterflies, dragonflies, and flowers; but not GNATS!

Male Eastern Bluebird

Those little buggers came at me with a vengeance! They were in my eyes, ears, nose, and mouth. They were on my sweaty skin. They landed wherever they could find moisture! Gnats are drawn to the carbon dioxide we exhale, as well as the sweet, fruity smells of our shampoos and lotions. There’s no way to get away from them! I was just one giant, sweet-smelling moisture buffet!

Deer on the edge of the road who was curious about my presence
American Toad looking grim!

I hustled back to the car as fast as I could to see if my insect repellent Buff would help. ( A Buff is a long tube of thin material that you can pull over your head to cover everything but your eyes. My eyes were protected, at least somewhat, by my glasses. The Buff was a tremendous help; it allowed me take pictures, but it didn’t stop all the gnats who really wanted to get me from crawling into my Buff or going behind my glasses! I did have bug repellent on, but it was no match for these guys! Later, we went to a store and found a repellent that was recommended for gnats and it seemed to work for about an hour before needing to be replenished. It was a welcome relief!

Me and my Buff fending off the gnats!!

In spite of the gnats, and the unseasonably hot temperatures, it was good to be on the road again; to engage in our favorite hobbies in a new environment, to sleep outside in our tent and hear the barred owls calling, “Who cooks for you? Who cooks for you?” and to wake up in the morning to the sound of birds filling the air with their joyful noise. It was a welcome respite from the unwelcome ‘noise’ in our everyday lives.

Dot-tailed White-faced dragonfly in the obelisk position to cool off

In just a few days, we’ll be on the road again; to the Boundary Waters of northern Minnesota for a five-day canoe trip with friends.

Can’t wait!

Great Blue Heron overhead (note the shadow of its head on the lower wing!)
A teeny tiny Ruby-throated Hummingbird high up on a utility wire!
Snapping Turtle feasting on the tadpoles
Red-spotted Admiral butterfly

A Dog Named Norman

April 10, 2023

One of the many joys of a picture walk is never knowing what I’ll find or who I’ll meet along the way. Yesterday, I met a dog named Norman. It brought a smile to my face. Why would anyone name a dog, Norman, I wondered? It seemed like a very formal moniker for such a small, scruffy little beast. So, I posed the question to the human attached to the other end of the leash, “Why Norman?”  

“Well,” she said, “I named him after my dad who recently passed away.”

Black-capped Chickadee
White-tailed deer, a common visitor on my walks

That was even funnier, I thought, to name a dog after your dead parent, but I kept my chuckle to myself.  Instead, I shared the fact that my own father was also deceased and was also named Norman! For the life of me, though, I couldn’t even imagine naming a dog after my dead parent! It just didn’t seem right–and it conjured up an unappealing visual in my head of walking my dad on a leash and cleaning up all his messes!

Male Wood Duck

Earlier in the day, long before I met up with Norman, I had been walking along the creek behind our house hoping to find a wood duck in the early morning light. I expected one to swim out from the cattails along the bank, but it splashed down suddenly in the water next to me and jolted me out of my quiet reverie! Later, I was pleasantly surprised to find a female northern shoveler and a male blue-winged teal swimming in close proximity to the newly-arrived wood duck. What a great find! Both the shoveler and the teal are rare visitors to our creek!

Once the early morning light started to change, and no longer had that soft golden glow, I wandered through the woods adjacent to the creek and headed over to a nearby preserve where I hoped to find a loon.  I had never seen a loon here in Michigan, but knew that one had recently been spotted on the lake at the preserve and hoped I’d get a picture!

Common Loon

It took me awhile to find the loon. It’s not a very colorful bird, and it does have a habit of swimming rather low in the water. Even on a relatively small body of water, like the one I was visiting, loons can be difficult to spot.

The painted turtles were out in droves!
Male Mallard flying by

While I had my camera focused on the loon, something in my peripheral vision distracted me. It was an Osprey flying towards me on the left with a good-sized fish in its talons!! I turned to take its picture and didn’t have time to change the settings on my camera. I just started shooting as fast as I could and hoping for the best! In photography, this method of shooting is often called ‘spray and pray!’ Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. But it’s always worth a try.

My ‘spray and pray’ shot of the Osprey with the fish!

As I continued walking around the lake, I was delighted to find two great blue herons in relatively close proximity to one other! I’ve never seen two blue herons at the same time except at a rookery. A short time later, I spotted a third!

Great Blue Heron

One of the birds that never takes me by surprise is the Canada goose! It’s absolutely everywhere, but quite easy to overlook as a desirable photography subject. Even the most mundane of subjects, like the Canada goose, though, can make for a beautiful photograph given the right circumstances and a little bit of ingenuity. If nothing else, Canada geese are great subjects for practicing one’s photography skills; they’re not hard to find, they’re easier to photograph than smaller, flightier birds, and they really are stunning in their own right.

Canada Goose in peaceful repose only a few feet from where I was taking pictures of the wood duck
A busy little muskrat taking a snack break along the edge of Asylum Lake

On this particularly warm spring day, I also saw swans, turtles, grackles, and one very busy muskrat chewing away on something tasty; totally oblivious to my presence. Up in the trees surrounding the lake, there was a musical assortment of robins, chickadees, bluebirds, red-winged blackbirds, golden-crowned kinglets, yellow-rumped warblers, and one little brown creeper scurrying up a tree.

Eastern Bluebird
Little Brown Creeper scurrying up a tree

I always head out on these picture walks wondering what kinds of surprises I’ll find or who I’ll meet along the way. Yesterday, my best surprise was the osprey with the fish, but the funniest surprise was the dog named Norman, and the story of his name. I’m still smiling!

Sandhill Crane

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
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!