One of the many joys of a picture walk is never knowing what I’ll find or who I’ll meet along the way. Yesterday, I met a dog named Norman. It brought a smile to my face. Why would anyone name a dog, Norman, I wondered? It seemed like a very formal moniker for such a small, scruffy little beast. So, I posed the question to the human attached to the other end of the leash, “Why Norman?”
“Well,” she said, “I named him after my dad who recently passed away.”
That was even funnier, I thought, to name a dog after your dead parent, but I kept my chuckle to myself. Instead, I shared the fact that my own father was also deceased and was also named Norman! For the life of me, though, I couldn’t even imagine naming a dog after my dead parent! It just didn’t seem right–and it conjured up an unappealing visual in my head of walking my dad on a leash and cleaning up all his messes!
Earlier in the day, long before I met up with Norman, I had been walking along the creek behind our house hoping to find a wood duck in the early morning light. I expected one to swim out from the cattails along the bank, but it splashed down suddenly in the water next to me and jolted me out of my quiet reverie! Later, I was pleasantly surprised to find a female northern shoveler and a male blue-winged teal swimming in close proximity to the newly-arrived wood duck. What a great find! Both the shoveler and the teal are rare visitors to our creek!
Once the early morning light started to change, and no longer had that soft golden glow, I wandered through the woods adjacent to the creek and headed over to a nearby preserve where I hoped to find a loon. I had never seen a loon here in Michigan, but knew that one had recently been spotted on the lake at the preserve and hoped I’d get a picture!
It took me awhile to find the loon. It’s not a very colorful bird, and it does have a habit of swimming rather low in the water. Even on a relatively small body of water, like the one I was visiting, loons can be difficult to spot.
While I had my camera focused on the loon, something in my peripheral vision distracted me. It was an Osprey flying towards me on the left with a good-sized fish in its talons!! I turned to take its picture and didn’t have time to change the settings on my camera. I just started shooting as fast as I could and hoping for the best! In photography, this method of shooting is often called ‘spray and pray!’ Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. But it’s always worth a try.
As I continued walking around the lake, I was delighted to find two great blue herons in relatively close proximity to one other! I’ve never seen two blue herons at the same time except at a rookery. A short time later, I spotted a third!
One of the birds that never takes me by surprise is the Canada goose! It’s absolutely everywhere, but quite easy to overlook as a desirable photography subject. Even the most mundane of subjects, like the Canada goose, though, can make for a beautiful photograph given the right circumstances and a little bit of ingenuity. If nothing else, Canada geese are great subjects for practicing one’s photography skills; they’re not hard to find, they’re easier to photograph than smaller, flightier birds, and they really are stunning in their own right.
On this particularly warm spring day, I also saw swans, turtles, grackles, and one very busy muskrat chewing away on something tasty; totally oblivious to my presence. Up in the trees surrounding the lake, there was a musical assortment of robins, chickadees, bluebirds, red-winged blackbirds, golden-crowned kinglets, yellow-rumped warblers, and one little brown creeper scurrying up a tree.
I always head out on these picture walks wondering what kinds of surprises I’ll find or who I’ll meet along the way. Yesterday, my best surprise was the osprey with the fish, but the funniest surprise was the dog named Norman, and the story of his name. I’m still smiling!
As I sit here in the early morning darkness on a late December day with a hot cup of tea in my hand and a toasty fire in front of me, I’m thinking back to the warmer, brighter days of summer where I would have already left the house by now; where I would have had my camera slung across my shoulder as I rushed out the door, not wanting to miss that “golden hour” of photography just past sunrise. This time of year, though, there’s absolutely no need to rush. The sun won’t rise for another two hours and the golden hour (if the sun comes out at all), won’t happen for at least three!
We haven’t seen much of the sun this December. In fact, it’s been “mostly cloudy” or totally overcast every single day. When the forecast calls for partly cloudy skies rather than mostly cloudy, I’m elated! It means there will be at least a few moments of sunshine to enjoy during the day! But then I wondered: if there’s sunshine to be had on a partly cloudy day, what’s the definition of partly sunny day? According to the National Weather Service, they’re exactly the same thing! If I ran the circus, it would always be called a partly sunny day –a much happier outlook than cloudy!
Even on the sunniest of winter days, though, taking pictures is never easy, especially when it’s bitterly cold and the temperatures fall into the single digits, like they did this past week during our “blizzard of the century.” One day it was only 3 degrees above zero with a wind chill of minus 17! I went outside anyway, mostly to see if I could stay warm enough under multiple layers of clothing and still propel myself forward!
On that particularly frigid day, I went for a walk without my camera just to see how it would feel. Surprisingly, I was so hot under all those layers that I worked up a sweat! It wasn’t so much the multiple layers of clothing that made me hot, but the act of walking. If I had been standing still taking pictures, I would not have stayed warm for very long! Luckily, whenever I do get the urge to take pictures on a bitterly cold day, I can just step out our back door, take a few shots, and pop back in as soon as I get cold. There’s plenty of wildlife right outside our door to keep me entertained for hours.
Most of the time I can keep my body quite warm, but my fingers eventually freeze. I’ve tried a wide variety of mittens and gloves with varying degrees of success, but any mittens thick enough to keep my fingers from freezing, are too thick to operate the tiny buttons on a camera! It’s a frustrating dilemma that I’ve been trying to solve for quite some time.
A few years ago, I started adding hand warmers to my pockets. They were a really big help initially, but none of them ever stayed warm enough, long enough to keep me happy. So, I went online to research what other outdoor enthusiasts were using and ultimately ordered a pair of Ocoopa Rechargeable Hand Warmers that would reportedly stay hot for 15 hours!! They will arrive just in time for an unseasonably warm break in the weather and a dismal forecast of rain. Perfect timing!
I love the challenge of winter photography and all the unique picture opportunities it affords, but I really miss all the colors, and all the creatures, and all the different ways that taking pictures in the warmer months is so much easier!!
Most of all, I miss the sunshine—and my warm fingers.
As I sit writing this piece, long before sunrise, on another cold and windy February day, I am contemplating the advisability of even attempting a picture walk. The weather forecast calls for 15 to 25 mile an hour winds with gusts over 40! On the other hand, temperatures might exceed 40 degrees —quite balmy compared to the below zero wind chill conditions I was faced with the other day! Usually, I can put on enough layers to stay warm, even on the coldest of days, but strong winds make for a much bigger challenge.
Most days, I’m up for that challenge but, I must admit, I’m growing weary of it all. These long winter days, where I have to plan for so many weather contingencies, and have to wear so many layers, are weakening my resolve—especially during the past two years of this pandemic where we haven’t been able to venture far from home. The birds in my backyard are quite tired of me begging for a photo shoot.
For the next few days, though, my backyard birds can take a break while I babysit my grand-dog on the opposite side of the state. There are lots of new places to explore here and once the sun is up, I expect I’ll venture out in spite of the wind and in spite of the cold! I’d much rather be outside searching for the possibility of something new than sitting here on the couch.
After writing those first few paragraphs, I did, indeed venture out– first to a nearby nature center and then to a nearby park.
I found the usual assortment of birds at the nature center—chickadees, finches, cardinals, nuthatches and goldfinches, but it was a brand-new setting! When I arrived at my second destination, I really hit the jackpot! Beaudette Park in Pontiac, Michigan, had a very large pond of open water and it was teeming with a wide variety of waterfowl, some of which I’d never seen before!
This time of year, it’s highly unusual to find open water in Michigan. Most lakes and ponds are frozen over. This particular body of water had the ubiquitous array of mallards, swans and geese, but it also had mergansers, buffleheads, redheads, ring-necked ducks, goldeneyes and canvasbacks!! It was the canvasbacks I’d never seen before. I couldn’t stop taking pictures!
Days later, I was still sorting through all the hundreds of pictures I took that day!
In spite of all the inherent beauty to be found in a picture of freshly fallen snow and a colorful bird here and there, I am more than ready for the arrival of spring; ready to be free of these bulky winter clothes, grey skies, and frigid temperatures. I’m beyond hungry for the colors to return, for the sweet smell of a newly mowed lawn, and for the sheer delight of a warm patch of sun on my bare skin!
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.
Mel and I have just returned from a vacation in Colorado
where we both enjoyed pursuing our passions—fly fishing for him, nature
photography for me.
Hitchcock Nature Center, Honey Creek, Iowa
Our four day, twelve hundred mile car journey from Michigan to Colorado took us through the states of Indiana, Illinois, Iowa and Nebraska. According to Google Maps, it’s only a 16 hour journey— that is if you don’t stop to sleep or eat or go to the bathroom! We did all of the aforementioned, plus took a side trip to Honey Creek Iowa where we spent two days in a cozy little cabin on the grounds of the Hitchcock Nature Center. While at the nature center, we took pictures walks along the Fox Ridge Run Trail and the Boardwalk Trail.
August 30- September 2
Ft. Collins, Colorado
From Honey Creek, Iowa we headed through Nebraska to Fort
Collins, our first Colorado destination.
Fort Collins is well known for its excellent fly fishing opportunities and a multitude of natural areas to explore. Over the course of our stay in Fort Collins, Mel went fishing several places along the Cache La Poudre River, while I took picture walks along the Hewlett Gulch Trail, the Fossil Creek Reservoir (twice) and at the Colorado State University Annual Trial Flower Garden. Mel joined me for picture walks on one of my visits to the reservoir and at the university flower garden.
Beautiful flowers and butterflies from the Colorado State Annual Trial Garden…
Estes Park, Colorado
As soon as we arrived in Estes Park, Mel headed to the fishing shops and I headed out looking for pictures to take. Surprisingly, the Knoll-Willows Nature Preserve is right in town and only a stone’s throw from where we parked! Within a minute or so of commencing my walk, I spotted a huge bull elk lounging in the underbrush along the edge of the preserve! A little farther down the sidewalk, were several of his girlfriends. Apparently, elk are a very common sight right in Estes Park!
In front of the Visitor’s Center at Estes Park, the Hummingbird Moths and the Hummingbirds were a delight to watch…
September 5, 2019
Rocky Mountain National Park
to Steamboat Springs
We spent the day driving through the scenic, breathtaking Rocky Mountain National Park to reach our second Colorado destination, Steamboat Springs. Mel and I stopped several times through the mountain route to take in all the spectacular views– but I never took any scenery pictures (they tend to be disappointing compared to the real thing), preferring instead to look for the smaller things like birds and butterflies and mammals.
Steamboat Springs, Colorado
While Mel went fishing in the Yampa River, I went walking along the Yampa River Trail, a 7.5 mile multi-use trail that runs through the heart of Steamboat Springs and along the Yampa River. Along that trail, I found other points of interest like the Rotary Park Boardwalk and the Yampa Botanic Park, both of which were wonderful places for a quiet retreat as well as multiple picture opportunities.
On one of the days that Mel didn’t go fishing,
we took a drive up to Fish Creek Falls
together for a picture walk and later spent hours at the Yampa Botanic Garden taking pictures of all the beautiful flowers,
birds and visiting insects.
Stunning flowers from the Yampa Botanic Garden…
Colorado Springs, Colorado
Springs was our last destination in Colorado and we made the best of the time
we had. As soon as we arrived on the afternoon of the 9th, we went for a
picture walk in Palmer Park on a
trail that turned out to be rockier and slipperier than we expected. Not many
pictures got taken—we were too busy watching our footing!
The following morning we headed out to the Garden of the Gods, which is known for its enormous, awe-inspiring geologic
formations, including tall rock spires or hoodoos, and steep cliffs. It’s a
major tourist attraction and well worth the visit.
After our visit to Garden of the Gods, Mel dropped me off at the Bear CreekNature Center to take pictures all afternoon while he explored the fishing shops, bookstores and coffee shops around Colorado Springs.
On Wednesday, our last full day in Colorado, Mel dropped me off at the Cheyenne Mountain Zoo where I spent a delightful five and a half hours taking almost 800 pictures of the zoo animals and of the native birds that were flitting about in the nearby trees!
The meerkats were great fun to watch. They are both curious and comical!
The best part of going on vacation, besides getting away from every day routines, is finding things I’ve never seen before (and taking pictures!), eating things I’ve never tried before and meeting new people I’ve never met before.