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.

Racing the Sun

August 16, 2020

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monarch

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

Sawtooth Sunflower (I think)

The Beauty that Remains

May 31, 2020

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.

This one daisy standing alone in a dark field reminded me of how hard it is to find joy
when everything looks so bleak.

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.

A Nessus Sphinx Moth (aka Hummingbird Moth)
Yellow Warbler

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.”

White-tailed deer looking coy

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.

The Bullfrogs always bring a smile to my face!
Columbine
Green Heron
Mourning Dove

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.

Spotted Sandpiper
Mute Swan
Northern Map turtle shedding its scutes
Lupine

Just Enough

May 21, 2020

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.

Red-bellied Woodpecker
Yellow-rumped Warbler

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!!

Palm Warbler
American Goldfinch

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.

A sweet young deer in our nearby woods
Barn Swallow
Tree Swallow

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!

An unusual blue-headed Mallard (they usually have green heads) in the creek behind our house

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.

Green Heron
Mute Swan

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.

A Blanding’s turtle making life a little easier for his fellow turtle!

A Holiday Collection

December 28, 2019

A beautiful wild Turkey at Kensington Metropark on a very frigid December day

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!

Tufted Titmouse

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!

Canada Geese on a balmy day in Michigan
Canada Geese on Ice!
Mute Swan

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!

A curious White Tail Deer
Sharp-shinned Hawk
An inviting portal into the woods
Morning Reflections

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.

House Finch enjoying a sunny day
Starlings
There were dozens of these birds all gathered at the tops of the trees.
Starling, a beautiful but invasive species
Bluebird on Staghorn Sumac
I had been admiring the bright red sumac and wishing that a bird would land on one –and then this bluebird happened along!
Mute Swan
I was touched by the fact that beautiful swan let me get within a few feet of it without being scared off– so that I could take pictures of the ducks out on the pond!
Mallards on the pond

First Snow

November 10, 2018

path through woods 11-9-2018 9-02-16 AMI 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

squirrel 11-9-2018 8-56-05 AM
“What’s up world?”

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!

RUBY CROWNED KINGLET 11-9-2018 10-34-30 AM
Ruby Crowned Kinglet–A tiny bird seemingly overflowing with energy, the Ruby-crowned Kinglet forages almost frantically through lower branches of shrubs and trees.

golden crowned kinglet 11-9-2018 10-31-051
Golden Crowned Kinglet–Though barely larger than a hummingbird, this frenetically active bird can survive –40 degree nights, sometimes huddling together for warmth.

 

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.

white throated sparrow 11-9-2018 9-51-56 AM
White Throated Sparrow–another bird I don’t often capture and was thrilled to see.

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.

 

 

 

 

gazebo 11-9-2018 10-58-32 AM
Willow Lake, another great spot for birds!

bridge over cherry creek 11-9-2018 8-24-04 AM
Cherry Creek bridge where I often see herons, geese and mallards.

buck 11-9-2018 9-45-56 AM
My 8 point buck!!

snow on berries 11-9-2018 9-31-31 AM
The new snow on the not-ready-for-winter trees looked lovely!

tufted titmouse 11-9-2018 9-11-37 AM
Tufted Titmouse–Tufted Titmice nest in tree holes (and nest boxes), …they use natural holes and cavities left by woodpeckers. These species’ dependence on dead wood for their homes is one reason why it’s important to allow dead trees to remain in forests rather than cutting them down.

deer 11-9-2018 8-39-04 AM
One of several beautiful deer I saw yesterday morning that were easily within 10 or 15 feet of me.

mallard 11-9-2018 11-02-34 AM
A mallard on the wing

cardinal 11-9-2018 10-16-50 AM
The cardinals really stand out in a winter woods.

golden crowned kinglet 11-9-2018 10-32-051
Golden Crowned Kinglet