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.
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.
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.
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 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!
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!!
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!!
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 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.
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.
As I pondered what to write today, I was thinking back on my short but immensely gratifying photography journey.
It started innocently enough in the fall of 2016, when my husband asked me what I wanted for Christmas. I had no idea! But, he likes finding things that surprise me, so I gave it some thought. What I came up with was “a better camera”. For many, many years, all I had was a very small, pocket-sized, Canon Powershot.
Once I told Mel about my ‘better camera’ idea, he went to work researching it. What he came up with was another model of the Canon Powershot –but a bigger, better version with a built-in zoom lens. I now refer to this camera as my ‘gateway drug’! As soon as I realized what was possible with a better camera, I was hooked!
It wasn’t long before I was outdoors nearly every day taking pictures of birds, butterflies, frogs, turtles– anything I could find that grabbed my attention. Eventually, though, I started musing about what I might be able to do with an even better camera—one that could capture the birds that were even farther away, and would also have a faster response time.
Since Mel enjoys doing the research and I do not, he’s the one who went to work looking for another camera, one that would take a detachable telephoto lens. What he came up with was a Nikon D3400 and a 75-300mm lens. Once it arrived, I was out the door!
I think another year went by, maybe less, and I found myself wanting to capture creatures that were even farther away. Mel took off on another search and came up with a 150-600mm lens from Sigma that would probably do the trick. But it was much longer and much heavier than the one I currently had and I was hesitant. When it arrived, I was still hesitant. It just seemed too big and too heavy for me to handle comfortably. But I was eager to take close-ups and quickly overcame my reluctance. I have not put it down since!
Eventually, the constant lifting and focusing with a lens that size made my back ache and I reluctantly added a monopod to my set up. It’s a bit of a bother sometimes to have the monopod attached, but I can now focus on a subject for an indefinite amount of time without having to give my back a break.
After the Nikon D3400, came a Nikon D5600, which is what I have been using for the last couple of years. This camera and I have gone on a picture walk together nearly every day and I have taken hundreds of pictures with it on each of those walks. Periodically, I have checked to see how much ‘shutter life’ it had left.
My D5600 had been given a shutter life of 100,000 shots. When I last checked, I had taken well over 151,000 pictures! I felt as if we were on borrowed time and decided to start looking for a new one.
Once again, Mel returned to the drawing board to find a camera that was well suited for wildlife photography. What he found was a Nikon D500. It arrived a just a few days ago and we have already become fast friends!
With a shutter life of 200,000 shots, I’m looking forward to many years and many pleasant journeys with my newest walking companion!
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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!!
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.
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!
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.
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.
I have been staying close to home for most of my picture walks lately because of COVID-19 and the need for social distancing. It’s amazing to me that some of my favorite places to walk have been ‘packed’ with people–at least the parking lots have been over-flowing when I drive by. These days, having so many people to worry about is anxiety provoking for me. So, I’ve been taking more pictures from our deck, our backyard and the nearby woods. Occasionally, I’ve gone for a short drive to our state fish hatchery where there are several large ponds and plenty of room to walk without running into anyone, or to the not-so-distant bird sanctuary that is also lightly populated.
Even when I do find a fairly isolated place, I always have a mask tied around my neck ready to pull up over my mouth and nose if need be. Perhaps, I’m being overly cautious, but as an older person with no desire to die just yet, I’m not willing to take more risks than necessary. The stakes are too high.
More Backyard Birds:
After two and a half months of summer-like weather in Florida, it’s been fun to watch spring unfold here in Michigan. The trees are getting greener, the flowers are starting to bloom, the migrating birds are coming back, and our favorite spring peepers are ‘singing’ in the creek behind our house. Every evening, if our windows are open, we can fall asleep to a comforting chorus of these tiny melodic frogs.
“Spring peepers are to the amphibian world what American robins are to the bird world. As their name implies, they begin emitting their familiar sleigh-bell-like chorus right around the beginning of spring. The spring peeper is Michigan’s smallest frog (0.75 – 1.38 in. long) also its loudest.”
As I write this blog in the early in the morning light, our windows are open, the sun is shining and, from the comfort of my easy chair, I can watch all the different birds coming to our feeders or to the nearby trees just beyond our deck —Baltimore Orioles, American Goldfinches, Blue Jays, Cardinals, House Finches, Starlings, Red-winged Blackbirds, Grackles, Black-capped Chickadees, and a variety of woodpeckers. I’m still waiting for the Red-breasted Grosbeaks, the Cedar Waxwings and the Hummingbirds to arrive.
I spend as much time as I can outdoors, usually with my camera, even if it means just sitting outside for hours watching the birds and the squirrels and the chipmunks. I learn so much about animal behavior. It’s also the best prescription I have for finding joy.
A little over a week ago Mel and I and our two old dogs made a twenty-two hour, thirteen-hundred-mile drive from Florida to Michigan in our small over-stuffed car. We left Florida at 8:00 a.m. on a Tuesday and arrived home at 6:00 a.m. Wednesday morning!
Because of the pandemic, we didn’t want to stay at any hotels along the way and we didn’t want to stop anywhere for food. So, prior to leaving Florida, we stocked up the car with ‘survival food’—cookies, muffins, apples, bagels, cheese and nuts. To stay awake, we loaded up a gallon of tea and a half gallon of coffee. To stay hydrated, we included two gallons of water (one for the humans, one for the dogs). With all that liquid to consume, though, we did have to stop occasionally for a bathroom break!
We are happy to be back home to our familiar surroundings, familiar belongings and familiar routines, but after ten weeks of unrelenting sunshine, it has been an adjustment getting used to grey skies and cold weather. We have even had snow!!
In spite of the weather, I have managed to get out and take pictures almost every day. Thankfully, the ‘stay at home’ orders from our governor have not restricted people from going outdoors as long as they abide by the 6 foot ‘social distancing’ recommendations. Keeping my distance while out on a walk has not been a problem—but having to worry about avoiding people has. It’s hard not to socialize when we are already so isolated!
My picture walks have always been a source of comfort to me and they are even more so during this pandemic. As soon as I strap on my camera and walk out the door, I feel a sense of calmness wash over me.
As I amble through the woods and fields, I am so engrossed in looking for things to photograph that it’s easy to forget all the ugliness in the world around me. And then, when I sort through my pictures at the end of the day, I am reminded of all the beauty that yet remains.