Down the Rabbit Hole

October 21, 2023

‘Down the rabbit hole’ is an English-language idiom which refers to getting deep into something, or ending up somewhere strange—or wonderful. Lewis Carroll introduced the phrase in 1865 as the title for Chapter One of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.

An adorable Eastern Cottontail Rabbit

I tumbled down the nature photography rabbit hole quite by accident and I fell in deep. It all started about seven years ago when my husband asked me what I wanted for Christmas. It took a while for me to come up with something I really wanted, but eventually I hit upon the idea of a camera. I wanted a better one than we had. My request came when we had two small grandchildren and I thought if I had a better camera, I could take better pictures of them. But that’s not what happened!

Male Mallard

We went to Florida for the first time that winter and visited some of the most amazing preserves with incredible wildlife. It gave me the opportunity to use my new camera for the very first time. It wasn’t a fancy camera, but it did have a built-in zoom lens and I could get much better shots of birds and other wildlife than I ever had before! I was hooked! (The pictures below were taken with more recent cameras.)

Limpkin in Florida
Roseate Spoonbill in Florida
Painted Bunting in Florida

Within a year or so, I was already yearning for a better camera and a longer lens; a camera with a quicker shutter response time, and a lens that could capture birds that were even farther away. Once I had the newer camera and the longer lens (thanks to my husband’s diligent research), I spent more and more time outdoors taking pictures, totally immersed in my own little world.

Fawn in the greenery near our house

It wasn’t long before I had exhausted the shutter life of that second camera, with well over 100,000 pictures, and started looking for yet another camera and an even longer lens!

Carolina Wren on our deck

To date, I’ve gone through four cameras in seven years, mostly because I exceed the recommended shutter life of each of them. My current camera is a Nikon D500 with a shutter life of 200,000 cycles; I’m well over 127,000 after only a couple of years! The lens I use most often is a Sigma 150-600mm.  The D500 camera and the Sigma lens have been the perfect combination for me and for the things I like to photograph.

Nikon camera with Sigma lens on a monopod

I go out almost every day in all kinds of weather, even if ‘going out’ means just standing on our deck or in our backyard. Some of my favorite shots have happened right outside our back door where I have a ‘designated tree stump,’ placed in the yard, and a ‘designated tree branch’ attached to the deck for bird and mammal ‘portraits’. Plus, we have a beautiful bank of trees nearby and a small creek behind the house, both of which are attractive to a variety birds and mammals.

Red-breasted Nuthatch on the ‘portrait branch’

I love going on picture walks! I love looking for interesting things to photograph, whether it’s a bald eagle or a green bottle fly! It’s all quite fascinating, especially when I bring up the pictures on my computer and can see so many amazing details—like the individual hairs on a fly, or the tiny red mites on a dragonfly!

American Bald Eagle
Male Monarch (males have two distinct black spots on the lower wings)

One of the things I also enjoy doing after taking all those pictures is finding interesting facts about the creatures I’ve photographed and then sharing what I’ve found on Facebook, our local newspaper, or this blog.

Two male grackles on my ‘designated stump’ engaging in ‘bill tilt’ behavior to establish dominance. Whichever bird can maintain this posture the longest wins!

The name ‘picture walks’ started years ago when I first fell down this rabbit hole and was heading out the front door for a walk. If I was leaving the house without my camera, I’d tell my husband I was going on a ‘regular walk’, which meant I’d be home in an hour. If I was leaving the house with my camera in hand, I’d say I was going on a ‘picture walk,’ which was code for “I won’t be home anytime soon!”

White-crowned Sparrow in our backyard
White-tailed Deer in our backyard only a few feet from where I was standing

Some of the rabbit holes we fall into can be disastrous.

This one has been quite delightful.

Find the Joy

November 21, 2022

“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!

The Carolina Wren sings a very joyful song

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.

American Robin on a snowy day enjoying a crabapple tree

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.

Downy Woodpecker on a very snowy day!

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.

Eastern Bluebird weathering the elements on a snowy winter’s day
Mourning Dove

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!

Dark-eyed Junco

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.

Wilson’s Snipe, a migrating bird at the Wolf Lake State Fish Hatchery
American Wigeon, a migrating bird that visits a nearby pond

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!

Male Northern Cardinal

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! 

Find the joy!

White-tailed deer, one of the other beautiful creatures I often see on my walks

Walk Slowly, Stop Often, Stay Focused

April 1, 2022

Oftentimes, when I’m out taking pictures, I think about all the things I’ve learned along the way– about photography, about the critters I’ve seen, and about myself.

Mute Swan on quiet waters

There are so many things I didn’t know at the beginning of this photographic journey that I know now, and so many things I do differently as a result. When I first started taking pictures, I didn’t really have a plan and not much of a clue about what I was doing. I’d be walking along, see something pretty, and take a picture. Click! Now, I am more likely to plan ahead, to anticipate where a bird or a butterfly might land, or where the frogs and turtles might be hanging out—rather than just being surprised by random events!

Canada Geese in a heated debate

While I’m out on a picture walk, I’m also thinking about the settings on my camera and whether I’ll be ready for the next shot. I walk more slowly, more quietly, and more deliberately than I used to, and pay closer attention to the all the sights, sounds and shadows around me. When there’s a faint rustling in the grass or the bushes nearby, I stop. It could be a baby bird– or it could be a giant turtle. When a small shadow passes by me on the ground, I look up in the sky to see what bird is on the wing; it could be an eagle, or it might be a red-tailed hawk. There are so many interesting things out there to photograph, but finding them and capturing them in pictures does take a fair amount of patience, and a good deal of time!

Common Grackle
Eastern Fox Squirrel high up in a dead tree

After years and years of picture walks, often to the same local places, I’ve also gotten much better at noticing changes or ‘aberrations’ in the environment. The other day, for example, there was just the slightest hint of something small and round and ‘out of place’ across the pond. It caught my attention because it had a bluish cast to it. Blue isn’t a color I usually see this time of year and I wondered if it was just somebody’s litter—or something else. When I zoomed in, I discovered that it was a turtle—the first one I’d seen since last fall! A few days later, I saw a small ‘bump’ protruding from the top of a very tall, very dead tree. It looked out of place and it grabbed my attention The little ‘bump’ turned out to be a squirrel peeking out ever so slightly from a small hole in the tree where I would have expected to see a bird. There are surprises everywhere!

Over the years, I’ve also learned the art of standing still. Many times, my picture walks have become ‘picture stands’. I’ve learned that if I stand still long enough, I become invisible. The birds go about their usual business, and chipmunks scamper by so closely that I could almost touch them.

Canada Goose in quiet reflection
Red-bellied Woodpecker

When I’m not standing still, I’m barely moving; hoping not to disturb any of the creatures around me. Most of them, however, are hyper vigilant; worried that I might be a giant predator. Even the slightest movement on my part will send them scampering off.  The belted kingfishers are particularly adept at knowing when I’m in the area, no matter how slowly I walk or how far away I stand.  I swear they know I’m coming even before I leave the house!! The only reason I have any kingfisher shots at all is because I arrived on the scene before they did and never moved!

The elusive Belted Kingfisher

Turtles also know when I’m on the way, but they’re not quite as nervous as the kingfishers. Still, they can be twenty yards from shore, sitting on a log and jump overboard if I even start to lift my camera to my eye. Frogs, surprisingly, are much less ‘jumpy’ than turtles and will let me come in for a closer shot–but only if I move very slowly!

In my non-photography life, I’m often rushing around quickly trying to do two or three things at a time thinking that I’m saving time or being more efficient. I am not. When I’m out taking pictures of birds, turtles and frogs, though, speed does not work. Speed scares the animals. Speed ruins pictures. I’ve learned to walk slowly, to stop often and to stay focused, usually for hours at a time. It’s a type of meditation, I think, and it has helped keep me on an even keel– especially during these difficult years of political upheaval and pandemic isolation.

Redhead Ducks on the wing

Still Waters

November 29, 2021

One of my very favorite times to go for a picture walk is early in the morning just after sunrise when there is no wind, and the water on the pond is so perfectly still that the reflections of the birds can take my breath away. I rarely get a day like that, but when I do, the results seem magical.

Male Mallard on very still water
Canada Goose floating on ‘glass’
Greater Yellowlegs

As we quickly move into the month of December, it will be harder and harder to find open water. Most of the ponds are already starting to freeze. Once frozen, though, they will offer up a whole different kind of magic!

Male Mallard doing an ice dance!

A few years ago, when I was out taking pictures around the ponds at our local fish hatchery, I kept hearing weird noises in the distance. My first thought was, “What kind of bird is THAT??”  But then saw two people near one of the ponds who looked as if they might be throwing things across the frozen water. After watching and listening for quite awhile, I decided they must be skipping stones across the ice!! Maybe that’s where the sound was coming from!

Juvenile Trumpeter Swan trying out the new ice

When I tried skipping stones across the pond later in my walk, I was pleasantly surprised that I could replicate the very same sound! I also discovered that different sized stones would change the pitch. Fist-sized stones, however, broke through the ice. When I got home and could do a little research, I learned that this phenomenon is called “acoustic dispersion” and that others who have described the sound likened it to a “laser blast from a galaxy far, far away” or the “chirp of an exotic bird”. It was a little bit of both, I thought. If you’re interested in reading more about it, here’s a good link: https://science.howstuffworks.com/skipping-stones-on-ice-makes-crazy-sci-fi-sounds.htm

One more happy-looking mallard trying to walk on ice!

The frozen ponds also offer a great opportunity for photographing all the shore birds who are trying to cope with this drastic change in their watery environment! Sometimes, when the ice has just started to form, it looks as if all my web-footed friends are walking on water!

As I sit here at home on this cold November day, looking out at all the little birds enjoying the food in our feeders, I’m secretly wishing for snow—lots of snow; the biggest, whitest, fluffy kind of snow that falls to the ground in no particular hurry and quickly turns a drab overcast day into a winter wonderland! If that happens, I’ll be out the door in a heartbeat!

Northern Cardinal on a very snowy day
Female Northern Cardinal

I love getting pictures of the birds sitting on the snowy limbs with their feathers all puffed up against the cold, surrounded by the gently falling snow. A few weeks ago, we had a very brief but spectacular snowfall like that and I hurried outside with my camera to capture as many birds as I could before the snow completely melted. There were Red-winged blackbirds, Northern Cardinals, Black-capped Chickadees, American Robins, Tufted Titmice, Dark-eyed Juncos, House Sparrows, American Goldfinches, and one big surprise, a Hermit Thrush– a bird I’d never seen before!

A Hermit Thrush in a nearby tree that I almost missed!
Black-capped Chickadee

As we enter into our second winter of a very long and heartbreaking pandemic, I am beyond thankful for this photography hobby. It has kept life interesting, and made these past two years of social isolation and constant uncertainty manageable. Photography gets me out the house and affords me the opportunity to look for all the beauty I can find in the most ordinary of things: quiet snowfalls, skipping stones on ice, and the unexpected loveliness of a little brown duck on still waters.

Female Mallard

Everyday Surprises

November 5, 2021

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.

This is the American Bullfrog I found on a cool October day when it seemed much too chilly for any sensible frogs to be out and about!
This is the Oregon Junco that came to our backyard last January. Typically, these birds do not wander this far east. On rare occasions, though, Oregon Juncos will show up in the western lower peninsula of Michigan!
Here is one of the best pictures I’ve ever gotten of a Belted Kingfisher. He didn’t see me because I had gotten there first!
This injured Barn Owl was in an enclosure at a nature center and easy to photograph. The surprise was that the picture turned out at all– there were cage wires between my camera and the owl, but they didn’t show up in the picture!
This injured Juvenile Turkey Vulture was also at a nature center and behind cage wires. I was surprised that the wires didn’t show up in the picture and that I could see such fine detail in the Turkey Vulture’s Face.
This Virginia Giant Fly was a surprise for two reasons: I had never seen one before and it’s such a beautiful insect!
Eastern Bluebirds still surprise me because, for the longest time, I didn’t realize that many of them stay here in Michigan all winter, especially in the lower peninsula where I live.
I was really surprised to find this Monarch Butterfly out and about on a late October day. I thought they had all left!
These Common Mergansers took me by surprise because I rarely see them and they are such beautiful birds!
I always look for Praying Mantises in the late summer and early fall, but they are usually so well camouflaged, that I’m actually quite surprised if I find one– especially if it’s in a good position to photograph!
Dark-eyed Juncos are usually on the ground foraging for food and are hard to notice. This one surprised me by landing up in a tree with colorful leaves in the background making him much easier to spot!
Milkweed pods can disperse a surprisingly large number of seeds–sometimes as many as 200!

The Common Grackle, a bird many people dislike for its aggressive behavior,
is surprisingly beautiful bird in the right light.
I was surprised to learn that White-throated Sparrows sometimes cross-breed with Dark-eyed Juncos!
This Yellow-rumped Warbler was a very pleasant surprise when it landed right where I wanted it to– on this brightly colored stem of a Pokeweed plant.
Even though we see these beautiful Fall colors every year in Michigan, they never cease to surprise and delight me!

When you maintain a sense of curiosity and wonder about the natural world, there will always be surprises!

Lessons Learned

March 28, 2021

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.

Photo by a fellow photographer, Bill Krasean
Wolf Lake State Fish Hatchery, Mattawan, Michigan

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.

Black Crow on a snowy winter day in February

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 elusive white Robin on a cold, sunny day in February

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!

The Grackles returned in early March

Mallards stay all winter and bravely cope with our unpredictable Michigan weather.

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!!

On a very unseasonably warm day in March, the turtles came out to sun themselves.
The turtle in the middle, with the distinctive yellow throat, is a Blanding’s Turtle.
It is a ‘species of concern’ in Michigan

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!!

My favorite Grackle picture
Taken on a warm day in early March

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 Prothonotary Warbler that I almost missed!

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.

The much-loved Sandhill Cranes returned in March to the delight of many!

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.