Over the last several years, I’ve gone on hundreds of picture walks and taken thousands of pictures. I often visit the same preserves and nature centers over and over again and take pictures of the very same plants and creatures that I did before. On the surface, this might seem like an extremely boring thing to do; that I would run out of things to photograph that were interesting or novel or fun. The truth is, it never stops being fun. Every day is different and every walk brings new surprises —even if the subject matter is the same.
On rare occasions, the surprise will be a brand-new bird or a brand-new insect! More often than not, I photograph things that I’m already quite familiar with. The surprise comes when that familiar thing is in an unexpected place or shows up at an unexpected time of year. For example, I’ve taken an embarrassingly high number of bullfrog pictures. By any reasonable standard, I don’t need another bullfrog! But a few days ago, on a cool October afternoon, I was surprised to find a big green bullfrog perched comfortably on a log soaking in what little sun he could find. It was barely 50 degrees! I thought all the frogs would be hunkered down staying ‘warm’ under water! So I took his picture– to remind myself that frogs can tolerate much cooler temperatures than I had expected.
Last winter, in late January, I was surprised to find an Oregon Junco sitting in a tree not far from our back deck! Oregon Juncos aren’t usually found this far east, but there he was! After doing a little research, I discovered that on very rare occasions Oregon Juncos will show up in the western lower peninsula of Michigan! I learned something new!
Sometimes, the surprise I find is as simple as getting a picture at all!! Belted Kingfishers, for instance, are notoriously skittish birds. It is impossible to sneak up on one. They always see me coming no matter how carefully I approach. Whenever I’m lucky enough to actually get a picture of one, it’s because I had arrived first and the Belted Kingfisher came by later, totally unaware of my presence!
The secret to finding so many surprises, I think, is to stay curious and to expect the unexpected. Even the most ordinary things can yield extraordinary surprises.
All of the pictures here represent a surprise of one sort or another.
When you maintain a sense of curiosity and wonder about the natural world, there will always be surprises!
When I was a child, the phrase “Stop, look and listen” was the mantra drilled into our heads to keep us safe as we approached a street crossing. That phrase often floats back into my head when I’m out taking pictures—not as a warning to keep me safe, but as a reminder to pay attention to all the beautiful and interesting things around me.
The more I thought about this phrase, though, the more I wondered if I had ever really heard it as a kid or if it was just another one of those jumbled childhood memories that pop into my head periodically! So, I Googled it! What I found surprised me.
The first item to come up was a YouTube video of the Stylistics singing “Stop, look, listen (to your heart)” from 1971. I remember the Stylistics, but I was already twenty-four years old by the time that song was popular! The Stylistics’ video was followed by a Marvin Gaye video, followed by a raft of cartoons and a long Wikipedia summary of all the different ways “Stop, look and listen” had been used across the years including a Broadway musical from 1915! I got totally sidetracked before I finally came across this…
“As a child, you may remember learning to Stop, Look, Listen, and Think before crossing the road. This simple saying has been used across the globe to teach young children the importance of road safety. Before you cross the street, you should Stop a safe distance from the road, Look both ways, Listen for oncoming traffic, and Think through different scenarios. Then and only then should you cross the road.” https://www.terrapinadventures.com/blog/stop-look-listen-communication/
I had not remembered the “Think” part of that phrase, but was happy to learn that, “Stop, look and listen” was not just a figment of my imagination, but a real directive that had been taught to children all over the world! Who knew that seventy years later it would become a helpful photography tip!
When I’m out on a picture walk, the most important part of that phrase is the word ‘stop’; if I just stand still long enough, Mother Nature will get back to whatever it was she doing before I disrupted her. More often than not, there will be an unexpected surprise waiting for me—like an elusive Kingfisher, or a Ruby-throated Hummingbird!
The second part of the mantra, “look” has never been a problem for me. I am always looking — even when I’m driving down the highway at 70 miles an hour, I’m looking. I can spot a red-tailed hawk at the top of a utility pole from more than a hundred yards away –but, in those particular instances, I don’t stop!!
It’s that word “listen” that trips me up! I am often so focused on looking for things, that I forget to listen; to pay attention to the sounds around me. They are, after all, another potential picture source. I’m not very good at identifying birds by their sounds and it doesn’t help my identification skills that most birds are hiding in the trees when they decide to belt out a song!
All I really need to remember, though, is to just ‘stop’! Eventually, that singing bird will emerge and, if I’m lucky, I’ll get a picture! If I’m really, really, lucky, I’ll remember the song!!
I am outdoors almost every day for at least an hour or two taking pictures. I never know what I’ll find, but there’s always something that captures my attention– even a common housefly, in the right light, makes for a beautiful picture!
I’ve taken thousands of pictures over the years, and I sometimes think, “What more can I find?” When I don’t go for a picture walk, though, I also wonder, “What am I missing? It’s that one burning question that drives me out the door every day– except for rainy days. I don’t go out on rainy days– unless there’s an interlude!
During one of those interludes the other day, I satisfied my need for taking pictures by standing under the overhang of our second story deck and capturing all the different birds near our feeders who didn’t seem to mind the rain as much as I did.
Yesterday, the interlude was supposed to last from 7:00 to 11:00 a.m. So, I grabbed my camera and headed out the door– but not without a backpack full of rain gear just in case the weather forecast was wrong. It was. By the time the rains came, though, I’d already gotten enough pictures to keep me happy.
When the weather cooperates, the possibilities are endless, but I sometimes have to remind myself of this fact; that no matter how many times I go out or how many pictures I take, there will always be something new or interesting to photograph. It’s mostly a matter of staying curious and being patient.
Even if it’s the same dragonfly I’ve seen a million times, the location and the lighting will always be different. Even if it’s the same preserve I’ve been to every day for a week, a new bird or bug will invariably catch my attention. So, I keep going out every chance I get –but not when it’s raining!!
Mel and I have just returned from a vacation in Colorado
where we both enjoyed pursuing our passions—fly fishing for him, nature
photography for me.
Hitchcock Nature Center, Honey Creek, Iowa
Our four day, twelve hundred mile car journey from Michigan to Colorado took us through the states of Indiana, Illinois, Iowa and Nebraska. According to Google Maps, it’s only a 16 hour journey— that is if you don’t stop to sleep or eat or go to the bathroom! We did all of the aforementioned, plus took a side trip to Honey Creek Iowa where we spent two days in a cozy little cabin on the grounds of the Hitchcock Nature Center. While at the nature center, we took pictures walks along the Fox Ridge Run Trail and the Boardwalk Trail.
August 30- September 2
Ft. Collins, Colorado
From Honey Creek, Iowa we headed through Nebraska to Fort
Collins, our first Colorado destination.
Fort Collins is well known for its excellent fly fishing opportunities and a multitude of natural areas to explore. Over the course of our stay in Fort Collins, Mel went fishing several places along the Cache La Poudre River, while I took picture walks along the Hewlett Gulch Trail, the Fossil Creek Reservoir (twice) and at the Colorado State University Annual Trial Flower Garden. Mel joined me for picture walks on one of my visits to the reservoir and at the university flower garden.
Beautiful flowers and butterflies from the Colorado State Annual Trial Garden…
Estes Park, Colorado
As soon as we arrived in Estes Park, Mel headed to the fishing shops and I headed out looking for pictures to take. Surprisingly, the Knoll-Willows Nature Preserve is right in town and only a stone’s throw from where we parked! Within a minute or so of commencing my walk, I spotted a huge bull elk lounging in the underbrush along the edge of the preserve! A little farther down the sidewalk, were several of his girlfriends. Apparently, elk are a very common sight right in Estes Park!
In front of the Visitor’s Center at Estes Park, the Hummingbird Moths and the Hummingbirds were a delight to watch…
September 5, 2019
Rocky Mountain National Park
to Steamboat Springs
We spent the day driving through the scenic, breathtaking Rocky Mountain National Park to reach our second Colorado destination, Steamboat Springs. Mel and I stopped several times through the mountain route to take in all the spectacular views– but I never took any scenery pictures (they tend to be disappointing compared to the real thing), preferring instead to look for the smaller things like birds and butterflies and mammals.
Steamboat Springs, Colorado
While Mel went fishing in the Yampa River, I went walking along the Yampa River Trail, a 7.5 mile multi-use trail that runs through the heart of Steamboat Springs and along the Yampa River. Along that trail, I found other points of interest like the Rotary Park Boardwalk and the Yampa Botanic Park, both of which were wonderful places for a quiet retreat as well as multiple picture opportunities.
On one of the days that Mel didn’t go fishing,
we took a drive up to Fish Creek Falls
together for a picture walk and later spent hours at the Yampa Botanic Garden taking pictures of all the beautiful flowers,
birds and visiting insects.
Stunning flowers from the Yampa Botanic Garden…
Colorado Springs, Colorado
Springs was our last destination in Colorado and we made the best of the time
we had. As soon as we arrived on the afternoon of the 9th, we went for a
picture walk in Palmer Park on a
trail that turned out to be rockier and slipperier than we expected. Not many
pictures got taken—we were too busy watching our footing!
The following morning we headed out to the Garden of the Gods, which is known for its enormous, awe-inspiring geologic
formations, including tall rock spires or hoodoos, and steep cliffs. It’s a
major tourist attraction and well worth the visit.
After our visit to Garden of the Gods, Mel dropped me off at the Bear CreekNature Center to take pictures all afternoon while he explored the fishing shops, bookstores and coffee shops around Colorado Springs.
On Wednesday, our last full day in Colorado, Mel dropped me off at the Cheyenne Mountain Zoo where I spent a delightful five and a half hours taking almost 800 pictures of the zoo animals and of the native birds that were flitting about in the nearby trees!
The meerkats were great fun to watch. They are both curious and comical!
The best part of going on vacation, besides getting away from every day routines, is finding things I’ve never seen before (and taking pictures!), eating things I’ve never tried before and meeting new people I’ve never met before.
It’s been a hot and steamy week with periodic bouts of rain, but I still managed to squeeze in a picture walk every day except Friday. It was just too hot to enjoy much of anything that day! The temperature peaked at 93 degrees and the heat index, or how it really felt outside, topped 100 degrees! I expect even the birds and the bees thought twice about expending any extra energy flitting about in that heat!
Sunday July 14, 2019
Kalamazoo Nature Center, 7000 N Westnedge Ave, Kalamazoo, MI
The Kalamazoo Nature Center is one of my favorite places to go for a picture walk. There are so many different habitats to visit and more than 14 miles of hiking trails. For today’s picture walk, I spent all my time in the Tall Grass Prairie looking primarily for birds but finding mostly flowers, butterflies and dragonflies.
Monday July 15, 2019
Al Sabo Land Preserve, 6310 Texas Drive, Kalamazoo MI
Ten days ago when Mel and I last visited the Al Sabo Preserve, we were blown away by how many different dragonflies there were: Blue Dashers, Calico Pennants, Common Whitetails, Dot-tailed Whitefaces, Eastern Pondhawks, Halloween Pennants, Spangled Skimmers, Twelve-spotted Skimmers and Widow Skimmers. That may not seem like enough to blow us away, but the male and female dragonflies of each type look totally different from each another so it always seems as if there are twice as many different types!
There are apparently over 5000 different dragonflies and damselflies worldwide and about 162 different species in Michigan. I’ve found a wide variety of them, but nowhere near the state total!
Today, though, when I walked the bike trail that skirts the woods and the meadows of Al Sabo preserve, there didn’t seem to be the same abundance of dragonflies as there had been a little over a week ago, but I still enjoyed my walk and was pleased to find an Eastern Comma butterfly, which I rarely see
Tuesday July 16
Western Michigan University, Business Technology and Research Park, Intersection of Drake and Parkview Rd., Kalamazoo, MI
I particularly love this little ‘park’ –partly because it’s right next door and partly because I’m guaranteed to find something interesting –- Great Blue Herons and Swans, Barn Swallows and Tree swallows, Killdeer and ‘regular’ Deer, Frogs, Turtles, Geese and Goldfinches, and once upon a time, an elusive Green Heron. Even though it is not a ‘park’ in the strictest sense of the word, the green spaces around all the different buildings have been so well designed with an abundance of wildflowers and several ponds that it is a definite haven for a wide variety of birds, butterflies, amphibians and mammals.
Wednesday July 17
Kensington Metro Park
Nature Center, 4570
Huron River Parkway Milford, MI 48380
Kensington Metro Park is about 2 hours from our home, but since it is on the way to visiting our grandson, I make a point of stopping in for a picture walk every time I travel to that side of the state. It’s a unique environment with an active heron rookery, friendly Sandhill Cranes, fearless Songbirds, Red-winged Blackbirds and Woodpeckers who eagerly pester you to feed them out of hand, and an elusive white deer! I always find something of interest to photograph at Kensington.
Thursday July 18
Asylum Lake Preserve, Intersection of Drake and Parkview Rd., Kalamazoo, MI
The Asylum Lake Preserve, like the WMU Business Technology and Research Park is within walking distance from my home. Unlike the business park, though, the Asylum Lake Preserve is an undeveloped tract of land made up of prairies and woods and a small lake. I enjoy walking the trails through the tall grasses looking for new or unusual insects or looking up in the surrounding trees for a bird I haven’t seen before. On one very rare occasion, I saw a Black-billed Cuckoo. Up until that day, I didn’t even know we had cuckoos in Michigan! Today I managed to capture a rarely seen hummingbird moth, a never seen Northern Pearly-eye butterfly and my very first Spicebush Swallowtail for the season.
Friday July 19, 2019
The heat index topped 100 degrees today! I never went out to take pictures!
Saturday July 20,
Kalamazoo Nature Center, 7000 N Westnedge Ave, Kalamazoo, MI
Mel and I both went out for a picture walk early this morning before it got beastly hot. It still got hot, but not beastly so. Both of us had been hoping to find some of the beautiful Swallowtail butterflies like we had seen this time last year at the Nature Center. But, it was either too early in the day or too early in the season to find them, because we never spotted a single one. Last year at this time, there were dozens of Tiger Swallowtails and Giant Swallowtails flitting around here and there over all the beautiful wildflowers along the entry road. What we found instead was a Ruby-throated hummingbird, a Blue-grey Gnatcatcher, a House Wren, an Eastern Phoebe and a few Cedar Waxwings. I’ll have to go back in a few days to see if I can catch the butterflies again!