Silver Linings

September 1, 2020

I love going out in the cool morning light for a picture walk, especially during these hot summer days when the afternoon temperatures have been well into the 90s! But our lovely summer days are quickly coming to an end, a bittersweet reminder that fall and winter are close at hand. I am looking forward to the cool, crisp days of fall, but am acutely aware that they will come at a price– all the colorful butterflies, dragonflies and frogs that I love to photograph will soon be gone.  Come winter, the world will be even more monochromatic.

Eastern Tiger Swallowtail
American Bullfrog

That said, my walk the other morning was a perfect blend of Summer and Fall. It was deliciously cool in the morning, sunny and warm by the afternoon; much too cold for the frogs and dragonflies as the day began, but plenty warm a few hours later for all my favorite creatures to be out sunning themselves!

Blue Dasher
Monarch Butterfly
Black Elderberry

Knowing full well that colder weather is nipping at my heels, I’ve been out nearly every day for at least a couple of hours trying to capture what’s left of summer. Because of the pandemic, we haven’t traveled far and I’ve been limited to visiting the same preserves and natural areas closest to home many times over. When I’m in the midst of taking my 700th picture of a monarch or a blue dasher or a bullfrog in the same preserve I’ve been to hundreds of times, I stave off the potential monotony of it all by telling myself “It’s all practice, Jeanne, It’s all practice”– It’s a different day and a different light, every shot I take is a new challenge!

Barn Swallow
Painted Turtles
Female Baltimore Oriole

The silver lining to going back to the same places over and over again is that I really get to know its inhabitants; a case in point is the Wolf Lake State Fish Hatchery. I’ve been going there at least twice a week for years—and even more so during this pandemic. It’s a wonderful place to explore with dozens of ponds and lots of wildflowers. I’ve been there so many times that I know the best places to look for frogs; the most likely places to find the swallows perched on limbs, and which ponds the kingfishers favor most. I thoroughly enjoy this knowledge and this familiarity —but I am still longing for a change of venue. 

Female Red-winged Blackbird
Eastern Kingbird

Hopefully, by this time next year, the world will be open again and we can all feel safe in our travels—however small those travels may be.

White-tailed Deer

Butterfly Ears and Other Surprises

January 7, 2020

I was looking back over my pictures from these last few years and was amazed at all the things I’ve seen, all the things I’ve learned, and all the things that have totally surprised me.

I was surprised to learn that only male painted turtles have these incredibly long nails!
They are used to grab on tight to the female during mating!

I’m not sure yet what my biggest surprise has been, but yesterday morning a memory popped up on my Facebook page from January of 2018 that started me thinking.

It was a very cold and snowy January day and I had been walking tentatively through deep snow across a semi-frozen creek near my home when I happened upon a Great Blue Heron! It was standing rigidly and alone in a large expanse of snow like a one-legged sentry keeping watch over the manor. Of all the things I expected to see that day, a Great Blue Heron was not one of them! I had assumed they had all left for the winter and were basking in the sun some place far south of here.

Great Blue Heron standing sentry in the snow

When I finished my picture walk that day, I immediately went to my computer to research ‘great blue herons in the snow’. I found out that they can, indeed, be here in Michigan in January, but “generally move away from the northern edge of their breeding range in winter.” Smart birds! If they do stay, Great Blue Herons will find patches of open water to feed on small fish or crustaceans that are hanging out along the edges. But, when the fish aren’t available, herons will eat mice, voles, and small birds. “One hungry heron was seen chowing down a litter of feral kittens.” Oh my.

I was surprised to find out that dragonflies and damselflies could have mites, or parasites on their bodies– sometimes dozens of them! (Look for the small red dots on the underside of this dragonfly near its legs.)

Another thing that has surprised me over the years is how many different dragonflies and damselflies there are, how many different colors they display, and what unusual mating practices they engage in!

According to my research, there are about 5,000 species of Odonata (dragonflies and damselflies) worldwide; here in Michigan, there are about 162! I don’t know how many actual colors they come in, but I’ve seen green, blue, brown, black, white, red, pink, gold, yellow, orange and purple! Who knew?

During mating, the male dragonfly (or damselfly) grasps the female at the back of the head and the she curls her abdomen under his body to pick up sperm from the male’s secondary genitalia at the front of his abdomen, forming the “heart” or “wheel” posture. It’s a rather peculiar set up, I thought!

Another insect that surprised me was the butterfly. I didn’t know that they had taste receptors in their feet or ears in their wings!! “The ears consist of membranes that are stretched taut over oval holes, and that vibrate when incoming sounds hit them.” Before 1912, scientists thought all butterflies were deaf, but discovered that these insects respond to the human voice and to the sounds of birds during flight. The receptors, scientists discovered, were in the butterfly’s wings! What a handy skill to have if you didn’t want to be somebody’s lunch!

I was also amused to learn that a group of butterflies is called a ‘flutter” and that a group of butterflies gathered together to drink from a mud puddle is called a ‘puddle club’! Too funny!

One more surprise came while I was out taking pictures and came across a Black-capped Chickadee that looked as if it was injured. But, when I moved closer to see if I could help, the bird quickly flew away. My little chickadee was apparently engaged in a behavior called ‘sunning’ and did not need any help from me!

Black-capped Chickadee ‘sunning’ itself

“Bird sunning is the act of spreading out in full sunshine to expose plumage and skin to direct sunlight.” The main reason birds do this is to maintain the health of their feathers.  Sunning can dislodge parasites. If birds don’t rid themselves of these parasites, they can infect the bird’s  feathers and cause problems for flight, insulation, and appearance– all of which impact survival. Hundreds of different bird species engage in ‘sunning’ behaviors!

Every time I go for a ‘picture walk’, I learn something new!