“If you choose not to find joy in the snow, you will have less joy in your life but still the same amount of snow.” Anonymous
I love this quote– and the snow!
It’s hard not to feel a certain child-like wonder when the first big flakes of snow fall from the sky and transform our world into a winter wonderland. I love sitting by the fire with a hot cup of tea in my hands watching the snow pile up outside our window and marveling at the little songbirds as they fluff up their feathers to ward off the cold. I’d like to invite them in for a while to warm up. Instead, I put on three layers of pants, three shirts, a balaclava, a fuzzy hat, a down coat, a neck warmer, mittens, and boots, and join them, camera in hand.
For the last several days, the snow has been falling almost non-stop! The birds don’t seem to mind, though, and are flitting about everywhere, enjoying the easy source of food in our feeders and occasionally taking sips of warm water from the birdbath. I’ve taken hundreds of pictures of them hoping to find among the mix, one of the ‘vagrants’ –birds who are part of a phenomenon known as an ‘irruption’ which is currently taking place across eastern North America.
An irruption is a sudden change in the population density of an organism. In the lives of our feathered friends, an irruption occurs when the birds who live farther north run out of food, and move farther south to find sustenance. Some of the irruptive species here in Michigan include purple finches, redpolls, evening grosbeaks, red-breasted nuthatches, pine grosbeaks, pine siskins, and bohemian waxwings.
These irruptions commonly occur every few years and mostly impact the finches and other species that winter in the boreal forests of Canada and further north. The primary food source for these birds comes from pine cones. When the pine cone crop is poor over the summer, it foreshadows a difficult winter for these birds. The shortage of seeds that the pine cones produce forces these birds to move beyond their normal range in search of food. If multiple types of trees fail to produce a seed crop during the same year, multiple species of birds will move further south.
Irruptions vary widely in size, frequency, and duration. Some birds will stay in an area for weeks at a time, while others might only stay for a day. Regardless of the size of the flock or the duration of their visit, it’s an exciting time for birders!
I would love to see any one of these wayward birds on my picture walks, but I have been happy enough with my usual backyard visitors, as well as the interesting mix of migrating birds that visit Kalamazoo this time of year, like the fox sparrows, the white throated sparrows, the American wigeons and, the very peculiar, Wilson’s snipe.
I’ve been out in the snow several times recently looking for the evening grosbeaks, the red-breasted nuthatches, and the other ‘irrupters’ who might be passing through, but I have come up empty handed. On any given picture walk, though, there is always the possibility that something new might come along, and ‘possibility‘ is always a great motivator!
On these beautiful, winter days, I love the challenge of bundling up like a kid to stay warm and trudging through freshly fallen snow to photograph a bird, as I revel in the joy that, at age 75, I can still do this!
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.
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!
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!
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.
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.
It’s those collateral benefits that keep me going back for more.
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!
As I approached a new hiking trail the other day, I was disappointed to see that I might just be walking through a dark woods all morning. Normally, I love walking through the woods, but not when I’m taking pictures. It’s usually too dark, or the light is too dappled for a good picture. I seriously contemplated going somewhere else, but gave myself a little pep talk instead. Even in the darkest of woods, I reasoned, there are patches of sunlight, and in those patches of sunlight, there could be a deer, or a chipmunk, or a shiny, new spiderweb! There’s always something, I thought. So off I went.
As I ambled along the trail looking for things to photograph, my thoughts kept turning back to my cousin’s young son who had recently been diagnosed with an inoperable brain tumor. I was envisioning the anguish and the heartbreak that comes with such a diagnosis and wishing there was some way to make everything all better. I thought about the dark woods ahead; the one that they were facing, and hoping they would find patches of sunlight along the way that would make their journey less difficult. An unexpected kindness, perhaps, or a hopeful word.
Sometimes, the path I take through a dark woods leads me to an open meadow, or a hill top, or a pond, where the sun washes gently over everything, and the world looks like a brighter, happier place. I love when that happens! Sunshine opens up all sorts of possibilities!
And, on one very rare occasion, as I stood quietly at the edge of a pond hidden in the woods, a bald eagle swooped down out of nowhere and captured a fish right in front of me!
Even in the darkest of woods, there are always patches of sunlight, unexpected joys, and sometimes, glimmers of hope.
I almost didn’t go for a picture walk today. It was already beyond hot and well beyond humid. It was also the middle of the day and not the best time for pictures — or for humans. But, I was restless, and eager to be on the move, so I grabbed my camera and off I went. As I left our cool air-conditioned home and stepped out into a steamy summer day, I comforted myself with the thought that I might find lots of dragonflies and butterflies!
I headed out at 11:00 a.m. and photographed almost everything I saw for three enjoyable hours. It was just one walk, but I took so many pictures and observed so many creatures getting on with their lives, that I felt a bit like a teensy-weensy Jane Goodall or Diane Fossey out doing field work. All I had to do was swap out the chimpanzees and mountain gorillas for dragonflies, butterflies, birds and frogs and I was good to go! It was a huge stretch of the imagination, but it made for a more interesting walk! Here are my field notes!
Date: July 19, 2022
Location: Wolf Lake State Fish Hatchery, Mattawan, Michigan
11:04 a.m.Eastern Tiger Swallowtail Butterfly When I spotted this beautiful Eastern Tiger Swallowtail flitting among the lavender-colored Bee Balm, it took my breath away! The conditions for getting a good picture were perfect–light shade, no harsh shadows.
11: 24 a.m.Calico Pennant Dragonfly, male The dragonflies were plentiful today! Before taking up photography, I didn’t realize there were so many different dragonflies in so many different colors! Worldwide, there are about 7,000 species of dragonflies. Here in Michigan, there are about 160. This Calico Pennant is very common in our area.
11:34 a.m.Halloween Pennant Dragonfly, male I seem to see male dragonflies much more frequently than I do females. Perhaps because the males are generally more colorful and easier to spot. Halloween Pennants look very similar to Calico Pennants, but instead of small spots they typically have larger dark bands on their wings. Adult males have orange and black bodies, while females (and young males) have bodies that are yellow and black.
11:37 a.m. Viceroy Butterfly The Viceroy Butterfly is often mistaken for a Monarch. The main visual difference between the Viceroy and Monarch is the black line across the viceroy’s hind wings, which monarch butterflies do not have. The viceroy is also smaller than the monarch. You can also tell them apart when they are in flight. Monarchs have a more floating flight pattern, while viceroys fly more quickly and more erratically.
11:39 a.m. Blue Dasher Dragonfly, male This is a very small and a very common dragonfly. The male has a bright blue body with a dark tip, while the female has a black and yellow striped body, and tends to be browner in color. Males have green eyes while females have red eyes. They really look like two entirely different dragonflies, which is often true of other dragonflies.
11:52 a.m. Eastern Pondhawk dragonfly, male The Male Eastern Pondhawk dragonfly is almost the same chalky blue color as the Blue Dasher pictured above, but it is noticeably bigger than the Dasher and doesn’t have the same dark tip on its tail. The Pondhawk is 1.5 to 1.7 inches long while the Dasher is only 1 to 1.5 inches long. The female Eastern Pondhawk is green.
11:55 a.m. Twelve-spotted Skimmer, male I wanted to call this a Twenty-spotted Skimmer but, apparently, you’re only supposed to count the dark spots not the white ones! The twelve-spotted skimmer is a common North American dragonfly, found in southern Canada and in all 48 of the contiguous U.S. states. It is a large dragonfly at 2.0 inches in length.
12:01 p.m. Eastern Pondhawk dragonfly, female Male and female dragonflies often look completely different from one another and the Eastern Pondhawks are a good example of this. The male (pictured above) is a dusty blue color, while the female is green and black.
12:06 p.m. Great Blue Heron The Great Blue Heron is the largest of our North American herons weighing in at around 5 pounds. They will eat nearly anything within striking distance, including fish, amphibians, reptiles, small mammals, insects, and other birds. Great Blue Herons can stand patiently like this for what seems like forever waiting to impale a fish with their dagger-like bills.
12:14 p.m. Widow Skimmer dragonfly, male This is my very favorite dragonfly to photograph! It makes for such a beautiful picture. The Widow Skimmer gets its name because the male dragonfly leaves the female by herself as she lays her eggs, thereby ‘widowing’ her. This behavior is unlike some other species where the male guards the egg-laying female.
12:16 p.m.Halloween Pennant dragonflies mating Dragonflies and damselflies both create what are called “mating wheels” when they mate. The male (upper dragonfly) grasps the female at the back of her head with the terminal appendages at the end of his abdomen and the female curls her abdomen forward until the tip of her abdomen reaches the male’s sex organs. (Notice the slight difference in coloration between the male and the female. The wings of the male are orange and brown, the female’s are yellow and brown.)
12:19 p.m.Silver-spotted Skipper butterfly The silver-spotted skipper, with its large white spot on the underside of each hind wing, is one of our largest, most widespread and most recognizable skippers. The silver-spotted skipper is found throughout most of the United States and into southern Canada. In the West, it is more restricted to mountainous areas.
12:22 Monarch Butterfly I was saddened, but not shocked, to learn that North America’s iconic Monarch Butterfly, after suffering from years of habitat loss and rising temperatures, was placed on a list of endangered species by the International Union for Conservation of Nature as of July 21, 2022.
12:49 p.m. Eastern Amberwing Dragonfly, male The Eastern Amberwing is a tiny species of dragonfly that only reaches about 1 inch in length. It is one of the smaller dragonflies in North America. Males have clear amber wings, so it is easy to see how this dragonfly got its name. Females have blotch-patterned wings. I usually find these dragonflies perched on lily pads or other plants along the edges of small ponds.
12:53 p.m. Eastern Kingbird The Kingbird gets its name from the aggressive behaviors it exhibits towards other kingbirds and other species. When defending their nests, kingbirds will attack much larger predators like hawks, crows, and squirrels. They have been known to knock unsuspecting Blue Jays out of trees.
12:56 Willow Flycatcher Flycatchers don’t learn their songs from their parents, as many other birds do. Instead flycatchers hatch knowing their songs. Scientists tested this by raising Willow Flycatchers in captivity while letting them listen to only the Alder Flycatcher song all day long. The Willow Flycatcher chicks grew up to sing their own species’ song!
12:57 p.m. Canada Goose The Canada Goose was nearly driven to extinction in the early 1900s. Programs to reestablish the subspecies to its original range were, in many places, so successful that the geese have become a nuisance in many urban and suburban areas.
1:30 p.m. Slaty Skimmer Dragonfly, male The Slaty Skimmer has a body that is about 2 inches long. Each of the four wings has a dark spot on the outer leading edge. Older males are all slate blue with black heads and eyes. Young males and females have brown abdomens and a dark stripe running down the back.
1:34p.m.American Bullfrog This is my very favorite amphibian! I love their big, bulgy eyes, and funny looking faces. I’m always looking for a new frog to photograph, hoping for a funnier face. Bullfrogs are the largest species of frog in the U.S. growing up to 8 inches long and weighing over a pound! Bullfrogs usually spend 2 winters as tadpoles and live around 8 years.
2:06 p.m. Barn Swallow The Barn Swallow is the most abundant and widely distributed swallow species in the world. It breeds throughout the Northern Hemisphere and winters in much of the Southern Hemisphere. I can’t help taking a picture every time I see one!
2:09 p.m. Red-winged Blackbird, female The Red-winged Blackbirds are my harbingers of spring. When I hear them calling from the trees and the reeds along the ponds, I know that spring is not far away. I also know that when a male Red-winged Blackbird bombards me, his babies are nearby, but out of sight!
2:10 p.m Wood Duck, female Wood Ducks usually nest in trees near water, but can sometimes be found nesting over a mile away. After hatching, the ducklings jump down from the nest tree and make their way to water. The mother calls them to her, but does not help them in any way. The ducklings may jump from heights of over 50 feet without injury.
2:12 p.m. Hooded Mergansers, female The Hooded Merganser is the second-smallest of the six living species of mergansers (only the Smew of Eurasia is smaller) and is the only one restricted to North America.
It was just one walk, but there was so much to see!
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.
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.
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”.
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’!
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!
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!
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.
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.
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!
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.
All of those creatures had been there all along, but I never saw them —until I started taking pictures!
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!
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!!
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.
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!