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!
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!
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!
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!
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!
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!
Oftentimes, when I’m out taking pictures, I think about all the things I’ve learned along the way– about photography, about the critters I’ve seen, and about myself.
There are so many things I didn’t know at the beginning of this photographic journey that I know now, and so many things I do differently as a result. When I first started taking pictures, I didn’t really have a plan and not much of a clue about what I was doing. I’d be walking along, see something pretty, and take a picture. Click! Now, I am more likely to plan ahead, to anticipate where a bird or a butterfly might land, or where the frogs and turtles might be hanging out—rather than just being surprised by random events!
While I’m out on a picture walk, I’m also thinking about the settings on my camera and whether I’ll be ready for the next shot. I walk more slowly, more quietly, and more deliberately than I used to, and pay closer attention to the all the sights, sounds and shadows around me. When there’s a faint rustling in the grass or the bushes nearby, I stop. It could be a baby bird– or it could be a giant turtle. When a small shadow passes by me on the ground, I look up in the sky to see what bird is on the wing; it could be an eagle, or it might be a red-tailed hawk. There are so many interesting things out there to photograph, but finding them and capturing them in pictures does take a fair amount of patience, and a good deal of time!
After years and years of picture walks, often to the same local places, I’ve also gotten much better at noticing changes or ‘aberrations’ in the environment. The other day, for example, there was just the slightest hint of something small and round and ‘out of place’ across the pond. It caught my attention because it had a bluish cast to it. Blue isn’t a color I usually see this time of year and I wondered if it was just somebody’s litter—or something else. When I zoomed in, I discovered that it was a turtle—the first one I’d seen since last fall! A few days later, I saw a small ‘bump’ protruding from the top of a very tall, very dead tree. It looked out of place and it grabbed my attention The little ‘bump’ turned out to be a squirrel peeking out ever so slightly from a small hole in the tree where I would have expected to see a bird. There are surprises everywhere!
Over the years, I’ve also learned the art of standing still. Many times, my picture walks have become ‘picture stands’. I’ve learned that if I stand still long enough, I become invisible. The birds go about their usual business, and chipmunks scamper by so closely that I could almost touch them.
When I’m not standing still, I’m barely moving; hoping not to disturb any of the creatures around me. Most of them, however, are hyper vigilant; worried that I might be a giant predator. Even the slightest movement on my part will send them scampering off. The belted kingfishers are particularly adept at knowing when I’m in the area, no matter how slowly I walk or how far away I stand. I swear they know I’m coming even before I leave the house!! The only reason I have any kingfisher shots at all is because I arrived on the scene before they did and never moved!
Turtles also know when I’m on the way, but they’re not quite as nervous as the kingfishers. Still, they can be twenty yards from shore, sitting on a log and jump overboard if I even start to lift my camera to my eye. Frogs, surprisingly, are much less ‘jumpy’ than turtles and will let me come in for a closer shot–but only if I move very slowly!
In my non-photography life, I’m often rushing around quickly trying to do two or three things at a time thinking that I’m saving time or being more efficient. I am not. When I’m out taking pictures of birds, turtles and frogs, though, speed does not work. Speed scares the animals. Speed ruins pictures. I’ve learned to walk slowly, to stop often and to stay focused, usually for hours at a time. It’s a type of meditation, I think, and it has helped keep me on an even keel– especially during these difficult years of political upheaval and pandemic isolation.
One of my very favorite times to go for a picture walk is early in the morning just after sunrise when there is no wind, and the water on the pond is so perfectly still that the reflections of the birds can take my breath away. I rarely get a day like that, but when I do, the results seem magical.
As we quickly move into the month of December, it will be harder and harder to find open water. Most of the ponds are already starting to freeze. Once frozen, though, they will offer up a whole different kind of magic!
A few years ago, when I was out taking pictures around the ponds at our local fish hatchery, I kept hearing weird noises in the distance. My first thought was, “What kind of bird is THAT??” But then saw two people near one of the ponds who looked as if they might be throwing things across the frozen water. After watching and listening for quite awhile, I decided they must be skipping stones across the ice!! Maybe that’s where the sound was coming from!
When I tried skipping stones across the pond later in my walk, I was pleasantly surprised that I could replicate the very same sound! I also discovered that different sized stones would change the pitch. Fist-sized stones, however, broke through the ice. When I got home and could do a little research, I learned that this phenomenon is called “acoustic dispersion” and that others who have described the sound likened it to a “laser blast from a galaxy far, far away” or the “chirp of an exotic bird”. It was a little bit of both, I thought. If you’re interested in reading more about it, here’s a good link: https://science.howstuffworks.com/skipping-stones-on-ice-makes-crazy-sci-fi-sounds.htm
The frozen ponds also offer a great opportunity for photographing all the shore birds who are trying to cope with this drastic change in their watery environment! Sometimes, when the ice has just started to form, it looks as if all my web-footed friends are walking on water!
As I sit here at home on this cold November day, looking out at all the little birds enjoying the food in our feeders, I’m secretly wishing for snow—lots of snow; the biggest, whitest, fluffy kind of snow that falls to the ground in no particular hurry and quickly turns a drab overcast day into a winter wonderland! If that happens, I’ll be out the door in a heartbeat!
I love getting pictures of the birds sitting on the snowy limbs with their feathers all puffed up against the cold, surrounded by the gently falling snow. A few weeks ago, we had a very brief but spectacular snowfall like that and I hurried outside with my camera to capture as many birds as I could before the snow completely melted. There were Red-winged blackbirds, Northern Cardinals, Black-capped Chickadees, American Robins, Tufted Titmice, Dark-eyed Juncos, House Sparrows, American Goldfinches, and one big surprise, a Hermit Thrush– a bird I’d never seen before!
As we enter into our second winter of a very long and heartbreaking pandemic, I am beyond thankful for this photography hobby. It has kept life interesting, and made these past two years of social isolation and constant uncertainty manageable. Photography gets me out the house and affords me the opportunity to look for all the beauty I can find in the most ordinary of things: quiet snowfalls, skipping stones on ice, and the unexpected loveliness of a little brown duck on still waters.
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.
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.
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 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!
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!!
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!!
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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!
(All of the pictures in this post were taken in the early morning sun.)
Amid the hundreds of thousands of deaths across the globe due to COVID-19, the senseless and horrific deaths of black men and women at the hands of white racists here in the states, the rioting across our country as the result of those crises, and the ‘leadership’ of a president who continues to fan the flames of hate and intolerance, it’s often hard to find joy.
Most days, what saves my soul from total despair are my picture walks. When I’m out and about on a trail with my camera, the sadness of the world falls away as I look for things to photograph that capture my attention, my curiosity or my heart. It feels like a form of meditation.
The Cambridge English Dictionary defines meditation as, “the act of giving your attention to only one thing, either as a religious activity or as a way of becoming calm and relaxed.”
Once I spot something that looks interesting or beautiful or odd, there’s no room in my brain for any worries other than how to get the best shot that I can. It’s a game of sorts really–one that I never seem to tire of. Did I get the settings right? Should I change where I’m standing? Can I get a little closer without scaring the animal away? When I do get most of those things right, and the picture turns out clear and crisp and appealing, I feel like I’ve accomplished something.
In addition to feeling like I’ve accomplished something, my picture walks are good therapy. At the end of a very long day of unrelenting heartbreak in the news, I can take to the trails to unwind and re-focus, both literally and figuratively, to find all the beauty that still remains.
We have been sheltering in place for over two months now and our lives have fallen into a new rhythm, a new pattern, a new kind of un-hurriedness.
Even though the restrictions in our state are loosening and many businesses are gradually opening up (within certain guidelines and directives), Mel and I will be following our own guidelines for the foreseeable future. We won’t really feel safe until there’s a vaccine for COVID-19, which isn’t expected, at the earliest, until January 2021. In the meantime, we are wearing our masks in public, avoiding the grocery store as much as possible, and giving each other pandemic haircuts!!
That said, we do make a point of getting out for a walk every day, and I make a point of getting out for a Picture Walk nearly as often. In an effort to avoid running into other people, however, many of my picture walks have become ‘picture visits’. A picture visit involves little or no walking and a fair amount of sitting. One of my easiest ‘picture visits’ involves walking out our back door to the deck and taking pictures of the neighborhood birds perched on the branches in the nearby trees.
Another kind of ‘picture visit’ involves walking 50 yards or so down to the edge of the creek with my lawn chair and camera to sit for awhile and watch Mother Nature’s live TV show with cameo appearances by Great Blue Herons, White Egrets, Mr. and Mrs. Wood Duck, a Canada Goose family, Mr. and Mrs. Mallard, a muskrat, a woodchuck, and a bird I’d never seen before, the Northern Water Thrush!
Most of my picture walks lately have been close to home, where I just walk out the door and wander through the nearby woods, or, if I wander a little further, to the college campus next door where there are numerous ponds and plenty of open spaces to attract both large and small birds. Some of my best surprises have included a Spotted Sandpiper, a Solitary Sandpiper, a Yellow Warbler and, my favorite, the Green Heron.
Every picture walk or ‘picture visit’ is a discovery of one sort or another—sometimes it’s a new bird, sometimes it’s a new behavior, and sometimes it’s just enough to be outside and rediscover what a privilege it is, especially during this pandemic, to be in good health and to have the time to enjoy so many of nature’s wonders.
In the span of just eight days, from December 19th to December 26th, my picture walk weather went from a frigid 16 degrees and 20 mile an hour winds to a balmy 61 degrees and no wind at all!
From the 19th to the 26th, I went from wearing two, three and four layers of clothing (depending on what body part I was trying to keep warm) to wearing almost nothing—no hat, no mittens, no earmuffs! It was warmer here in Michigan on Christmas day than it was in southern California! Go figure!
The hardest part of taking pictures on a really cold day, is keeping the fingers of my right hand from totally freezing off. My pointer finger (and its nearby friends) risk a bit of frostbite every time they leave the warmth and security of my mitten. Unfortunately, they are forced to venture out every single time I have to change the settings on my camera. What saved them on December 19th, though, was an early Christmas gift from my husband—a pair of toasty, re-chargeable hand warmers!
Winter days in Michigan, even when the weather is balmy and clear, is a challenging time to find things to photograph. I usually have to look long and hard to find anything at all. Fortunately, I enjoy the ‘hunt’. It’s a very relaxing endeavor to go on a picture walk because all of my attention is focused on the looking. When I actually do find something, my heart skips a beat —even if it’s ‘just another deer’ or ‘just another sparrow’. The subjects may be the same as yesterday but everything else is different—a different day, a different location, a different set of weather conditions. So I snap away to my heart’s content adding another hundred pictures to my rapidly expanding collection.
I was so eager to get out the door yesterday morning to take pictures that I didn’t even take time to eat breakfast. It was the first snowfall of the season and I was hoping to catch lots of beautiful shots of otherwise ordinary things. I felt like I was ‘racing’ against time, though, because the forecast called for rain in just a few hours. Not wanting to lose any time driving somewhere, I just walked out our front door to explore the woods, streams and ponds in our complex.
It was so beautiful—and so incredibly quiet! The snowfall muffled all the sounds and it felt rather
magical walking so silently through the woods as a few lingering snowflakes drifted lightly to the ground. I’ll probably be sick of all the snow in a month or two, but yesterday, it was a wonderland. Even the squirrels looked cuter in the snow!
My favorite surprise, though, was finding and ‘capturing’ ruby crowned kinglets and golden crowned kinglets. I rarely see them. They are very small and very quick –which makes it a bit of a challenge to get them to sit still long enough for a picture!
At that point in my walk, I had the added challenge of a camera that wouldn’t focus properly. I thought maybe the battery had gotten too cold to function so I pulled it out and tried to warm it up—ha! I wasn’t any warmer than it was! Eventually, though, I got it to work and had another ten minutes or so of picture taking before my little flock of kinglets fluttered off into the woods somewhere.
Just for the record, yesterday’s bird ‘count’ included: white throated sparrows, goldfinches, cedar waxwings, golden crowned kinglets, ruby crowned kinglets, cardinals, tufted titmice, mallards, geese and house sparrows.