On February 12th, I saw my first red-winged blackbird for the season! It seemed too early, I thought. I didn’t expect them to return until March. Within a week, though, I heard a whole chorus of red-winged blackbirds singing in the cattails down by the creek behind our house. It’s the quintessential sound of spring and I love it! I wanted to throw open all our windows and soak up that first glimmer of hope that spring would soon be here in earnest.
But as I write this, I’m snuggled up in front of a fire, with a hot cup of tea close by, hoping we won’t lose power during the upcoming ice storm. All the schools are closed, and so are many businesses, hoping to avoid disaster. The ice storm might materialize, it might not. Such are the vagaries of winter in Michigan: one day it feels like spring, and the next day it feels like we’re living in Antarctica.
I basically have a love/hate relationship with winter. I love the snow, but hate the long overcast days that bring the snow. I love getting pictures of all the winter birds that migrate through Michigan, but hate all the layers and layers of clothing I have to wear to get those pictures. I love a bright, sunny winter day as an antidote to all the gloomy ones, but it’s hard to get a good picture on a brilliant sunny afternoon against a snowy background.
Most of all, I miss the colors and all the warm-weather critters I love to photograph, like the big yellow butterflies, the swampy green frogs, the multitudes of colorful dragonflies, and the iridescent blue swallowtails that nest under the bridge in a nearby park.
Before the pandemic and before we had an aging, incontinent dog to care for, we went to Florida for a few months where I could soak up all the colors and all the interesting critters we never see in Michigan. I have taken pictures of the majestic roseate spoonbills, the brilliant purple gallinules, the pastel pink dragonflies, and a million different Florida flowers! It’s a wonderland of color that I had come to depend on to get me through the drab days of a Michigan winter.
In the meantime, I have been out looking for whatever beauty I can find wherever I can find it, and taking lots of pictures. Whether it’s a chickadee in a snowstorm, a woodpecker on a sunny day, a snow-covered deer in our backyard, or a ubiquitous brown fox squirrel peeking out around a tree in the early morning light, it’s all good, and it’s all fun.
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!
In the ten days since I last posted, so much has happened here in the states (and all over the world) in terms of the Coronavirus. We are officially in a ‘state of emergency’. Schools, libraries, restaurants and churches have closed all across the country for an indefinite period of time. Broadway has closed, Disney World has closed, New York City’s St. Patrick’s Day Parade has been cancelled and the Boston Marathon has been postponed! And this is only the beginning!
For many people, this emergency presents a severe economic hardship, for others, it is just an inconvenience, and for some, it will be a death sentence.
In order to help mitigate the spread of COVID-19, to ‘flatten the curve’ as they say, we are being asked to limit our contacts with other people, to practice ‘social distancing’ as much as possible. For Mel and I, the changes will be minimal. We’re retired. We won’t have lost wages. We won’t have young ones at home who need childcare, and we won’t have elderly parents in our care. In fact, at ages 66 and 73, we ARE the elderly!!
For our part, then, we’ve stopped going to the coffee shop, stopped going to restaurants and stopped going to any stores other than an occasional visit to the grocery store. What we haven’t stopped doing is going out for walks.
I am beyond thankful that we, as a nation, haven’t yet been restricted from leaving our homes like other countries have had to do. If this becomes necessary, we would readily comply, but home confinement would, no doubt, stress the limits of my ability to stay sane– or even pleasant!
My picture walks are an antidote to all the upheaval. They keep me interested, excited and connected to the world around me—they keep me healthy. So, I am hoping I won’t have to give up my walks during this crisis, and that they will continue to do what they have always done, which is to save my sanity during these very troubled times.
For those of you who are housebound or otherwise unable to spend time with Mother Nature, I hope the pictures here provide joy or, in some way, pique your interest in the wonders of the natural world, and that they will help you ride out this storm!
Mel and I have been to eight different nature preserves in as many days—both with cameras in hand.
One of my favorite new places that we visited was the Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary in Naples, Florida, described as “a journey into the heart of the Everglades ecosystem… a 2.5-mile adventure through pine flatwoods, wet prairie, around a marsh, and finally into the largest old growth Bald Cypress forest in North America.” I had to go!
I wasn’t particularly interested in finding the usual swamp creatures like alligators and turtles, I’d already seen plenty of them. What I really hoped to find was a painted bunting. They are such incredibly beautiful birds– and I had never seen one before!
Ironically, Mel and I spent 5 hours taking pictures along the boardwalk, but I didn’t get my bunting picture until we were back at the visitor’s center and I saw one hanging out near the bird feeders! (I prefer to get my birdies out ‘in the wild’ rather than by a feeder, but I was not about to pass this one up over a technicality!)
Another new place we visited was the Babcock Ranch Preserve Footprints Trail in Punta Gorda. Unfortunately, the trail had just undergone a controlled burn and several areas near the trail were still smoldering. Even though we had a hard time finding much of anything to photograph, Mel spotted the one thing I had hoped to find the most—a Barred Owl. Everywhere we go, we look up in the trees hoping to spot an owl, but they are usually well camouflaged and hard to find. This one was high up in a tree, but otherwise visible. I zoomed in, took dozens of shots, and left happy. What a treat!
All the other places we visited this past week or so, Celery Fields in Sarasota, Ollie’s Pond in Port Charlotte, Lemon Bay Park in Englewood, and the State College of Florida in Venice were places we had visited before at one time or another. They are all dependable places for finding birds, butterflies, bugs or alligators– and we were not disappointed!
With all the preserves that Mel and I visited, we ended up with thousands of pictures. Not surprisingly, it takes hours and hours to go through them all. So sometimes, like today, we take a ‘picture holiday’ and just go for a walk without our cameras, but it’s really hard for me to do. I always see something that begs to be photographed! Today it was the iguanas and the dolphins that caught my eye. I didn’t get them today. Maybe tomorrow…