My adventures in the woods, streams, rivers, fields, and lakes of Michigan


I think that it will work

In one of my recent posts, I said that I was thinking of doing outings where I’d shoot mainly close-ups and macro photos, and that I should arrange the required photo gear for the dedicated outings accordingly. While I didn’t find many subjects suitable to photograph on my last day out with the camera, and a stiff breeze would have made such photography very difficult, I did manage to shoot this image.

British soldier lichens hiding in the fruiting bodies of moss

That was shot with one of the 60D bodies and my 100 mm macro lens. I think that I’ll use that camera body for all of my close-up and macro photos from now on, as the image quality is more than good enough. Plus, I have found that the less often that I change lens and/or accessories on my cameras, the less often I have to clean the sensors to get rid of dust spots in my images. Using the 60D body will also reduce the wear and tear on the 7D bodies that I have, which will help to prolong their lives.

In addition, once I have a full frame sensor body and the wide-angle lenses for it, I can still make use of the wide-angle lenses that I have now for my close-up photography of smaller subjects on the 60D body, which is a good use for them.

News flash:

I went to the Muskegon County wastewater facility yesterday, April 17th, and I was able to add another species of bird to my photo life list, a Franklin’s gull.

Franklin’s gull in flight

That’s hardly a good photo of the Franklin’s gull, but what I saw through the viewfinder told me that it wasn’t one of the more common Bonaparte’s gulls…

Bonaparte’s gull in flight

…as the Franklin’s gull has very dark red, almost black, legs, and Bonaparte’s gulls have bright reddish-orange legs, as you can see.

I stuck with the Franklin’s gull, and it landed to do a little preening, so I managed a few photos of it then also. You can also see another difference between the two species in this photo, the Franklin’s gull has a larger, dark red bill compared to the all black bill of the Bonaparte’s gull.

Franklin’s gull

This gull was probably forced down in the storm that we had this last weekend, and was actually just ending as I shot the photos of it that I did. It was still snowing lightly as I reached the wastewater facility, with the temperature well below freezing still. I shot two photos to show the difficulty of shooting photos of a rare gull on this day.

One thing is the number of more common species of gulls there, here’s just a few of the gulls hanging out there.

A mixed flock of gulls

Those are mostly ring-billed gulls, with a few herring gulls in the flock, and there was also a lesser black-backed gull in the flock that I didn’t get a photo of. You can also see that the road was covered with snow, here’s a photo to show how much snow fell this weekend, and it also gives you an idea how strong the wind was with this last storm.

Is it really the middle of April?

That looks more like the dead of winter than the middle of April. But, at least by then, the snow had ended and the light was improving a bit.

One thing that I have to remember is how much the weather plays a part while birds are migrating. A nasty storm like the one this weekend forces birds to seek refuge from the weather, especially when high winds are part of the storm as they were this past weekend. I found another bird that was probably knocked down by the storm…

Eastern Phoebe

…I’m not 100% sure of my identification of the bird as a Phoebe though. It appeared distressed, so I shot that photo and moved on.

There were also thousands of ducks at the wastewater facility, but it’s hard to say how many were forced down by the storm, when thousands of ducks on any given day during migration isn’t unusual there. I was able to shoot some of my best images of a male ruddy duck in full breeding colors though.

Male ruddy duck

Since ruddy ducks are so small when compared to other ducks, it’s harder to get close enough to them to show the details in their feathers well.

Male ruddy duck

I also love the shade of blue that their bills have during the mating season.

Male ruddy duck

That ruddy duck was a little mixed up though, as there were many flocks of that species scattered across the lagoons at the wastewater facility, while that one male was hanging out close to shore with a large flock of coots.

American coot bathing


American coot bathing


American coot bathing


American coot bathing


American coot bathing

Other than finding the Franklin’s gull, and despite the large number of waterfowl and gulls there at the wastewater facility, it was a pretty boring day. The light was so poor that I had to be very close to the subjects that I was trying to photograph, but that isn’t always possible, as you know if you’ve ever attempted to shoot birds. So, going back to where I started this post, I did some lens and equipment testing to help myself think through a few things.

You may remember this image from my last post…

Herring gull

…as I said then, it isn’t just tack sharp, it’s razor-sharp. I attempted to duplicate that image which was shot with the 100-400 mm lens and 1.4 X extender using the 300 mm lens and 2 X extender that I have.

Herring gull portrait

That’s “only” tack sharp, not razor-sharp, still, for close-ups and near macro photos, the 300 mm lens and 2 X extender is a very good option for me to use. Although, I may have to repeat that test on a day when the light is better. Both images were shot at ISO 100, so the camera’s resolution should be equal, but better light would help to define the details in the gull’s feathers more. The 300 mm lens and 2 X extender does get me a little closer to the subjects than the 100-400 mm lens and 1.4 X extender.

I know one thing, I used the 400 mm lens to shoot the head shot of the Bonaparte’s gull towards the beginning of this post, and also for this series, showing another Bonaparte’s gull picking a morsel of food out of the water.

Bonaparte’s gull feeding in flight

None of these were cropped at all, that’s how close I was to the gulls.

Bonaparte’s gull feeding in flight

You can see that the gull had plucked something from the water…

Bonaparte’s gull feeding in flight

…and had swallowed it by the time this photo was taken.

Bonaparte’s gull feeding in flight

What I was really trying to do was to get a head and shoulders shot of one of the gulls, but the 400 mm lens wouldn’t focus as close as required for that type of shot. So, I switched to the 300 mm lens with no extender, what a waste of time that was. I couldn’t get that lens to auto-focus on any of the gulls that were flying past me, not even at longer ranges. How I was ever able to get any photos of smaller birds with that lens escapes me now, the auto-focus of the 300 mm lens is as slow as molasses. It’s no wonder that I went back to the Sigma 150-500 mm lens to shoot smaller birds, even though the glass in the Sigma lens is inferior to the glass in the Canon 300 mm lens.

I knew that the 300 mm lens was slow, but this test really showed me how slow it really is. The same light, the same birds, the same distances, the same camera, and the same settings, the only difference was the lens itself. The 400 mm lens was the hands down winner of this test, it’s no wonder that the 400 mm lens is known as being a great lens for birds in flight.

Still, the 300 mm lens does have a few redeeming qualities, it’s ability to focus very close to the subject, and how sharp it is even when using the 2 X extender behind it for near macro photos, even though the already slow auto-focusing of the lens slows down even more when using the extender.

Another news flash:

I decided that rather than prattle on about my future plans, that with the nicest evening of the year so far, I should go out and shoot some of the photos that I’ve been thinking about for some time now.

Actually, the evening was more of a scouting trip along with figuring out which lenses I would need to shoot some of the things that I have in mind when the weather becomes even better. It was still chilly on this evening, but there wasn’t a cloud to be seen. Once the wind died down a little, it felt warmer than it had earlier, even though the actual temperature was dropping like a rock because of the clear skies. I needed the clear skies for an image that will show up later in this post.

I started out shooting photos of a few places in downtown Grand Rapids, Michigan, which is my home town. One of the first photos I shot was this building…

The Plaza Apartments in downtown Grand Rapids, Michigan

…and the only reason that I’m including it here is because the glare that you see in the lower right of the building was shining on a window facing that building…

Reflections of reflections

…and that led to the image above. If I had been a little quicker in getting that shot it would have been even better, as the reflections were fading away as I got the right lens on the camera and moved to the best position to shoot that image.

I also shot a few photos of what is known as the Blue Bridge, for obvious reasons.

The Blue Bridge

The city spent a small fortune on a special lighting system for this old trestle bridge that has been converted into a pedestrian walkway across the Grand River. I was also trying out the newer 16-35 mm lens and the perspective correction in Lightroom, because I plan to photograph the bridge at night sometime, and I need to have some idea how much space I need to leave around a subject for Lightroom to bend, stretch, and crop an image…

The Blue Bridge in Grand Rapids, Michigan

…so that buildings and other objects don’t look to be falling away from the camera, or much wider at their base than at the top.

While I was scouting the area, a pair of mallards landed in the river below me, and the light at the time told me to shoot a photo of them, even though I had the wide-angle lens on my camera.

Mallards in the evening

Because of the very low sun angle at the time, you can see the undulations in the river, not only the wakes of the ducks, but in the other parts of the river as well.  The undulations in the river are from the rapids that gave Grand Rapids its name, but are now covered be several feet of water behind a low head dam built to make that section of the river navigable by boats. I have plans to shoot more photos of along the river there, I’ll have to remember to shoot late in the day to get the same low sun angle when I do.

I had a little while to go before I could shoot the image that I had come for, so I decided to scout a couple of the old churches nearby. I hadn’t planned on shooting any photos this evening, I just wanted to see if the churches were worth another trip. This one is!

The Basilica of Saint Adalbert at night

It never occurred to me to photograph a church at night, but seeing the light streaming through the stained glass windows from the inside of the church made me get out my tripod to capture that moment. However, the stained glass windows are lost in that image, so I’ll have to return and shoot a number of images with a longer lens to show how beautiful the windows are. There are a few statues on the other side of the church that I’d like to photograph as well.

Because of the way that the basilica is oriented, and the number of different individual subjects that make up the basilica as a whole, I should return several times to photograph them at different times of the day to photograph them all well. Here’s a handheld shot of the basilica to give you more of an idea as to the things about it that are moving me to photograph it better.

The Basilica of Saint Adalbert at night

Because I shot that handheld, there’s a lot of noise in the image, and I couldn’t get far enough away from the structure to leave room for Lightroom to correct the perspective distortion in that image either. That’s why different parts of the building seem to lean in unnatural ways. I shot that one just to help myself plan future return trips and to give my memory a nudge as to what things I want to shoot close-ups of during those return trips.

Anyway, it was almost dark, so I returned to the spot where I shot the mallards and set-up to shoot a night view of part of the city of Grand Rapids.

Grand Rapids, Michigan, at night

You may remember that I mentioned that I had shot photos of the last full moon to use to produce fake images of the full moon appearing where it can’t be except by stacking images together. My 7D Mk II will shoot multiple images, and you can use an image already stored on the memory card as one of the images in a stack. So, I selected a shot of the full moon as the first image in the stack, but the moon was in the wrong place…


…that was a little too low in the sky!

I had actually planned on that problem to some degree, I had shot the full moon at a number of different focal lengths and in different areas of the frame. I finally was able to produce the image that I wanted.

The full moon over Grand Rapids, Michigan

Totally fake, but I like it. The full moon would never appear in that position naturally, it’s too low in the sky for one thing. Also, there’s no way that I could have gotten the exposure for both the moon and the city lights correct in one image. And, I shot the moon at 200 mm and the city lights at 28 mm, which makes the moon appear much larger in the image than it would otherwise. However, what motivated me to shoot that image the way I did was seeing a very similar scene of the full moon over Grand Rapids as I was driving for work one night. I thought that the full moon shining down on the city as it was all lit up and the lights reflecting off from the river was a beautiful thing to see at the time that I saw it.

I’ll have to be careful, this may start a dangerous trend for me, for seeing that image has me thinking of ways to add the reflection of the moon on the river to that image. 😉 However, there are times when our eyes see things differently than a camera possibly can record a scene, so is it wrong to produce images that are closer to what we see in real life than what a camera can record, even if it means doing things like shooting multiple exposures? All that I’ve done in reality is to produce an image very similar to what I saw in real life, even if it took trickery to record what I saw in a camera.

The full moon may not ever rise in that position to allow me to shoot that image straight without resorting to multiple exposures, but in the past, when I have tried to show the rising moon in an image, the moon tends to fade into the background and not appear to be as large as it looks to me as I watch the moon rise.

I didn’t produce that image to learn how to create fake images, but to use the same techniques in the future to produce better realistic images. There have been several times when I was shooting landscapes as the full moon rose, and as I said, so far, I’ve found it impossible to get both the landscape and the full moon exposed correctly, even shooting HDR images. That’s because the moon is so much brighter than the landscape to the camera. Our eyes can adjust for both, but the camera can’t. I hope to use what I learned in making the image above to shoot landscapes at moonrise and have them look natural, rather than the moon blown out to being a giant white blob in the sky. Or, to have the moon disappear in the background when it appears so prominent to the eye when looking at the scene before me.

All in all, it was an enjoyable evening spent learning a great deal about photography, and I was able to get a few very good images in the process. If my work schedule continues as it’s been for the last month, and as the weather improves, you may see more night photography from me in the future. That’s because I have a good deal of time off from work with my current schedule, but other than Tuesdays, most of the time off is at night, when nature photography isn’t possible for me. That’s okay with me, this was a nice change of pace from what I usually do.

That’s it for this one, thanks for stopping by!


Finally? Have we turned the corner?

Could it be? I have the day off from work and the weather forecast is for a nice sunny day for a change. Not only will it be sunny, but it will only be about ten degrees below our average high temperature for this time of year, not the more typical twenty degrees below average that’s been the norm around here this year. Best of all, no snow today at least, when we’ve received at least some snow on 9 of the last 11 days. If only I hadn’t overslept, but that’s the way it goes. At least by over sleeping this morning, I’ll avoid having to scrape the frost off from the windows of my Subaru.

I’m off, be back later.

I was wrong, even though I got a late start, I still had to scrape the frost off from the windshield of my car, but at least it warmed up later in the day. And, the day turned out to be pretty good as far as the quality of photos that I shot, along with the variety of birds. I’m going to begin this post with an image which is just okay, but I worked very hard to get it.

Golden-crowned kinglet

I had forgotten just how quick those little buggers are as I tried to find it, or keep it, in the viewfinder long enough to get any photo of it.

Golden-crowned kinglet

I shot more than a few photos of empty branches where the kinglet had been as I began to press the shutter release, they’re that quick. I had to get back in the thick brush with them in order to get close to them, which also made it tougher to shoot photos of them, because not only was I trying to find small openings in the vegetation to shoot through, but the vegetation limited my movements by snagging on my clothing as I tried to move.

By the way, those were shot at the Muskegon Lake Nature Preserve later in the day after it had warmed up a little. My day began on my way to the Muskegon County wastewater facility, when I pulled over to the shoulder of the road to shoot this photo.

Snowy owl on the roof of a house

The light was all wrong, but I had seen the same snowy owl on the roof of the same house on my way home the last time I was there, and that’s a for the record type photo to record my sighting(s) of the owl. You can see frost on the roof of the house in the shadow of the owl, it had been perched there for quite a while. And as I said, it had been perched on the same house last week when I drove past the house, so there must be something that the owl likes about that house.

Just a short distance away, I found this bald eagle looking for a snack.

Bald eagle

I hadn’t even arrived at the wastewater facility yet, and already the day was looking good.

Bald eagle

It was nice to have good light for a change…

European starling

…even if I shot just a starling in the sun.

I went looking for waterfowl first, and found the same two species of grebes that I had photos of in my last post.

Male horned grebe

While not yet in full breeding plumage, this one shows the “horns” that are the reason they are named horned grebes.

Male horned grebe

The eared grebe…

Eared grebe

…was still hungry, and wouldn’t pose for a photo.

Eared grebe diving

You can see how smoothly they enter the water as they dive in that photo.

A short time later, I found a male horned grebe looking great in his full breeding plumage.

Male horned grebe

Of course I wish that I had been closer to it so that you could see the details in its feathers, but at least you can see its colors.

Closer is usually better, as this image of a female bufflehead shows.

Female bufflehead

She was tired of the males chasing her, and so she waddled up on a rock…

Female bufflehead

…as her mate fended off the advances of the other males in the area.

Male bufflehead

Here’s the female watching her mate in action.

Female bufflehead watching her mate fend off other males

These bufflehead were too close to me to shoot a video, or at least that’s what I thought at the time. A little later, I saw another flock of them coming my way, so I shot a number of videos of them in action.


I did most things wrong while shooting that, I should make a cheat sheet to remind me of the correct camera settings to produce better videos.

I didn’t speed up the video, that’s how quickly the bufflehead move, which is what makes shooting still photos of them in action difficult. I think that you can see the posturing that the males do, a lot of head bobbing, short but fast chases, and short flights as the males try to attract the female’s attention. You can also see how hard the male works to keep the other males away from his mate, he must burn a lot of energy swimming in circles, always on the look-out for other males getting close to her.

It would help if I found a place where I could shoot videos without the sounds of heavy construction equipment, or the wind for that matter, from distracting the viewers of my videos from the action that I’m trying to capture.

I sat in one place for a while, as a small flock of northern shovelers fed in front of me.

Male northern shoveler

I was hoping that the shovelers being so close to me would make a flock of lesser scaup coming in my direction feel that it was safe to keep coming…

Male lesser scaup

…but, that was as close as the scaup would come, so I shot a few more of the shovelers.

Male northern shoveler

I love photographing waterfowl, especially in the spring when the males display their breeding plumage and you can see how colorful they are. But, capturing all their glory in one image is close to impossible from what my efforts so far tell me. Take wood ducks…

Wood ducks

…that first image is a good one as far as the male looking towards the camera, but when he turned his head away from me, it shows more of the colors of his feathers on his head and neck.

Wood ducks

Even then, the second photo only shows the colors on the top of his head, not the colors in his cheeks when the light hits him right.

Male wood duck

Those were shot later in the day at the headquarters area of the Muskegon State Game Area.

Still later in the day, I found another pair of wood ducks at the Muskegon Lake Nature Preserve, and shot this image that shows the purple feathers under the tail of the male wood duck.

Male wood duck

However, in that image, the wood duck’s face looks black because the light was wrong for its face.

I was thinking of doing a post about the difficulties of photographing ducks well, since I saved more photos from this day than what I have room for in a single post. But what the heck, here’s another example of how the feathers on a duck’s head seem to change colors as the way that light reflects from the feathers changes.

Male bufflehead

Neither of these photos show the bufflehead in a good pose though, as he’s looking away from the camera.

Male bufflehead

Yes, I shot quite a few photos of the bufflehead that morning…

Male bufflehead landing


Male bufflehead landing


Male bufflehead taking off


Male bufflehead taking off


Male bufflehead after landing

…as they’re even more fun to watch than mallards are.

It looks like we haven’t fully turned the corner towards spring yet, there’s another winter storm bearing down on Michigan as I type this on Friday morning. This one is forecast to be the worst of the string of winter storms that have hit us since spring officially arrived. While the weather may not have turned the corner yet, my photos have.

I may not have gotten a perfect image of any of the species of ducks that I shot on this day, it has struck me that even in the actions shots of the bufflehead, I have been able to show at least some of the colors of their heads in most of the images. That applies to the wood ducks also, I’m now getting images that seemed impossible to me just a few years ago. Some of that is due to my improved skills in Lightroom, but most of it is because I’m still improving as a photographer. Still, I can’t explain all of it though, such as why the sharpness of the images that I shoot continues to improve.

I wasn’t going to post any more images of gulls for a while, but I have a couple of images that are just too good not to share.

Herring gull

I was going to avoid the gulls during this outing, but some one told me that there was a laughing gull in with the ring-billed and herring gulls, so I had to check it out so that I could add that species to my photo life list. It turned out that the person who told me they had seen a laughing gull was mistaken, it was a Bonaparte’s gull, not a laughing gull. However, I couldn’t resist shooting this herring gull as I was looking for the other gull.

Herring gull

The images of the herring gull that I shot are beyond tack sharp, they’re razor-sharp, and I can’t explain why the sharpness of my images continues to improve.

Even in the low-light conditions that I had on the last few outings, my images are getting better all the time, which is my goal. I continue to wonder just how more improvement there can be, other than through purchasing better equipment. Then, I have to ask myself, is there better equipment than what I have already? Other than upgrading to a full frame sensor body with better dynamic range and lower noise at higher ISO settings, I don’t think that there is equipment that I can purchase that would improve my images enough to be worth the cost. Those two images of the gull are as good as any image that I’ve seen, not that I’m bragging of anything. 😉

By the way, the gull was shot with the 1.4 X tele-converter behind the 100-400 mm lens, so don’t believe it when some one says that using a tele-converter results in images that are not sharp. And, that gives me an idea to try on my next outing when I have light that’s equally as good as it was on this day.

As I typed this and proof read it, it occurred to me that it could be that my images continue to improve because I’m always trying new things out as far as getting the best from the equipment that I have, and trying new techniques as well. It’s also because I’m always looking at the flaws in my images and finding ways to eliminate them, or work around them. It would be easy to look at some of the photos in this post so far and be content with them as being the best that I can do, but I don’t do that. No, I still see flaws in even my best images, and unless some one is willing to do that, they will never improve. That doesn’t apply to only photography, but every aspect of a person’s life.

Part of what drives me to improve my photos is to show others the wonders of nature. The behavior of the bufflehead is one example, another is the way that the feathers of birds differ depending on the species of bird. Look at how sleek the gull looks in the images above, and how fine the individual fibers of its feather are. Then, look at this chickadee…

Black-capped chickadee

…and you can see that the fibers of its feathers are coarser than those of the gull. It’s the same for this tufted titmouse.

Male tufted titmouse

Its feathers are also made from fibers that are coarser than those of the gull. By the way, I know that the titmouse is a male…

Male tufted titmouse singing

…because he was singing to attract a mate.

Male tufted titmouse singing

After a quick look around to see if he was having any success…

Male tufted titmouse

…off he went.

Male tufted titmouse

That also shows you how much I had cropped the previous images of him.

You know, I could be wrong about the size of the fibers that make up the feathers of various species of birds, it could be that the fibers of the smaller species of birds only look larger because of the relative size of the birds, but I don’t think so. But to prove that, I’ll have to get even closer to one of the sleek-looking species of birds, such as the gulls or a cedar waxwing to be 100% sure of it.

I had a theory that the smaller birds had coarser fibers in their feathers as a way to trap more insulating air in their feathers to help them stay warm during the winter, but that’s just a theory of mine.

So much for signs of spring coming soon, it’s a miserable weekend around here with copious amounts of rain, sleet, freezing rain, and of course, more snow on the way for later in the weekend. To make things even worse, if that’s possible, all the precipitation is being accompanied by a very cold, very strong, northeast wind. I’m afraid that I have a couple of very long nights ahead of me at work, as it will be very slow going as slick as the roads are forecast to be. I may not have recovered enough to go out with the camera next week, even if the weather does improve slightly. That’s okay, I have a few photos left from the day that I shot the ones in this post.

That’s it for this one, thanks for stopping by!

The little spring that couldn’t

I’m starting this post on Easter Sunday, April 1st. When I woke up this afternoon and checked the weather, the temperature was right at the freezing mark, with a 20 MPH wind out of the northwest, and occasional snow flurries floating past my window. The first half of the month of April is forecast to be very cold and wet for this time of year, so I’m not sure when I’ll get out with my camera soon.

I thoroughly enjoyed my last time out with my camera, exploring the world through the wide-angle lens, I have to do that more often than what I have been the past few years.

I have some ideas in mind for future outings, but then, I always have ideas in mind, but I usually end up doing the same old thing, going to the Muskegon area and chasing birds in hopes of getting better photos than I have in the past, or finding new to me species of birds. I’ve said it before, but I think that I really mean it this time, I have to change things up at least a little, and go back to shooting a wider variety of subjects than just birds.

To that end, I went out the other night and shot a few images of the full moon, for use at a later time. My camera will shoot multiple exposures, so I’m thinking about altering reality by using the full moon image as a background with other night-time subjects in the foreground. I’m anxious to see how that experiment works out.

Well, despite a sketchy weather forecast, my one day off from work this week turned out better than expected. I had planned to spend the day doing some shopping and running some errands, but a quick check of the regional radar when I woke up told me that I’d have several hours at least before the storm that was coming this direction hit. So, I packed my camera gear into my Subaru, and set off for Muskegon again, as the temperature was only slightly above freezing, and my car makes a fair hide in such conditions. I found that more species of birds are returning, in spite of the fact that winter seems to be firmly in place yet.

Horned grebe

A little later, I found the horned grebe’s cousin, an eared grebe.

Eared grebe

Since I haven’t posted as many photos of eared grebes as I have horned grebes, here’s another photo of the same bird.

Neither species of grebe had completely changed to their full breeding plumage yet, I don’t know if the extended winter has had anything to do with that or not, but I hope to catch them both once they have reached their peak breeding plumage.

I thought that I had stumbled across a very rare visitor to Michigan when I saw this duck through the viewfinder…

Oddly colored male common goldeneye duck

…however, after checking my Sibley’s field guide and other sources for bird identifications, I have concluded that the bird is just a common goldeneye that has much more white on its face than normal. Here’s how 99.9% of male common goldeneyes look.

Common goldeneye

It always pays to be careful when identifying birds, because while all members of a species generally look very much alike, there’s a chance that it could be an individual that for whatever reason, looks much different from other members of the same species.


The duck in question has been tentatively identified by others as a common goldeneye X bufflehead hybrid, and that does make sense.

While I’m on the subject of identifying species of birds, I suppose that this is a good place to throw this photo in.

Male rusty blackbird

To be honest, I can’t be 100% sure of my identification of that bird from my photo alone. It could be a Brewer’s blackbird if you only see the photo. However, from the fact that I found it in a swamp, you can see water under the vegetation, and from the calls that the flock of blackbirds were making, I was able to identify the bird as a rusty blackbird. Brewer’s blackbirds prefer drier habitat, and their calls are completely different from that of rusty blackbirds.

That’s the second time that I’ve seen rusty blackbirds that I know of, and both time it was very difficult to get a photo of one, despite the fact that I saw flocks of them both times I’ve seen them. They’re very wary of humans from what I can tell. If the weather had been better, I could have tried out my portable hide in an attempt to get better images, as I spooked the flock away twice, and each time they returned to the same area to search for food again. I managed a couple of photos of the blackbirds by hiding behind a tree and waiting for them to return. But I was getting chilled as raw as the weather was, even though it didn’t take very long for the birds to return.

I also attempted a few photos of moss and lichens…

Unidentified moss

…shot first with the 16-35 mm lens above, then with my 100 mm macro lens below…

Unidentified lichen

…all the while dealing with windblown rain and ice pellets hitting me in the face.

Unidentified moss

That’s the way the weather was for most of the day, some periods when it was dry but windy, then squalls would move through the area with light rain, some if it frozen, as it hit the ground. Had the weather been better, I would have put much more effort into getting better images, but that applies to all the photos that I shot this day.

Male eastern bluebird

At least I caught the bluebird in a good spot for photos, but the low light means that there’s too much noise in these images to be good ones.

Male eastern bluebird

I did practice a few bird in flight photos, despite the dreary light.

Female mallard in flight


Male mallard in flight


Male northern shoveler in flight


Male bufflehead in flight

Later, I spotted a very large flock of turkeys, here’s one of them…

Turkey on the run

…and to my surprise, some of the youngsters in the flock took flight…

Turkey in flight

…while the adults were content to stick to the ground and run from me the way that turkeys normally do. While they are capable fliers, turkeys seldom take to flight other than to roost in trees at night, or when a predator is very close.  It was odd to see the younger turkeys in the flock take flight when I wasn’t very close to them, I had to crop the image above quite a bit because the turkey was so far away from me.

By the way, it’s 11 AM as I’m working on this post, and it’s still below freezing outside, there’s snow covering the ground, and snowflakes blowing past my window, on April 4th. That’s the forecast for the next week as well, cold with mixed rain/snow showers, will this winter ever end?

Anyway, you can see that in the backgrounds of most of these photos, everything is still brown, with only a hint of green in places. Here’s three images of a crow landing that show how the feathers on its back and wings react to the airflow past them, and these photos show how brown everything is yet.

American crow landing


American crow landing


American crow landing

Here’s the same crow a little later, as it searched for food.

American crow

I can’t wait until the grasses turn green again, I’m sick of seeing brown, and sick of seeing the white of snow for that matter.

I wasn’t able to get photos of some of the new spring arrivals yet, such as ruddy ducks, which have returned from down south. There were quite a few of them around, but they all stayed out of camera range.

More bufflehead have also returned, this is a typical scene.

Female bufflehead surrounded by five males

There seems to be an excess of males in relationship to the number of females, because if there was a female, she had many more males around her. They seem to have paired up for the spring, but that didn’t stop the other males from showing off.

Male bufflehead showing off for a female

This male seemed to be saying “A pox on you!” to a rival male.

Male bufflehead showing off for a female, when another male got between them

I’m still hoping for a day with good light and light winds, so that I can set-up the camera to shoot videos of the male bufflehead antics as they try to impress the females, it is entertaining to watch, much more than my still photos show.

My last bird images from the day are of a juvenile Bonaparte’s gull feeding.

Juvenile Bonaparte’s gull


Juvenile Bonaparte’s gull

And, my last photo from the day is this old stump that’s decaying.

Decaying wood

In case you hadn’t figured it out, decaying wood fascinates me because of the patterns that are formed by both the growth of the wood when it was still alive, and by the way that it slowly rots away to reveal even more of the patterns to us. In some ways, the patterns in decaying wood remind me of places where rock has been weathered away over eons to produce landscapes such as Monument Valley, or the hoodoos of the Badlands in the Dakotas.

I never got close enough to any of the birds to try to use the flash again, as I had finally learned how to do on my last outing. I should have used it for the moss and lichens, but the weather was just too miserable at that point to play around with the flash unit. But, now that I have finally gotten my cameras to function with high-speed flash synchronization, it will be another tool in my toolbox to use when the conditions warrant it. If it works well, I may purchase a flash modifier that will throw the light from my flash unit farther, as the flash modifiers, like a Better Beamer, are relatively inexpensive. All that a Better Beamer does is to focus the light from a flash unit that is designed to spread the light from the unit over a wide area, into a narrower beam of light more suited for use with a telephoto lens.

It’s now Thursday afternoon, I have a couple of errands to run today, but I may make it out this evening for a little while around home. That’s before the next storm hits, there’s yet another winter weather advisory for tonight and tomorrow for a few more inches of snow. This is a rhetorical question being asked by most of us in the northern hemisphere, will there ever be a spring this year?

It was still quite cold while I ran the errands that I had to do, so I decided not to go out with a camera after all. The temperature outside never made it close to what had been forecast, and the wind was still stiff and cold out of the northwest. To be fair, the forecast called for lighter winds, but since the winds yesterday were of gale force, the wind today was lighter, but not what I would classify as light.

There is hope though, the longer range forecast do show a warm-up coming the middle of next week, I sure hope that it is correct this time. This equilibrium between the rate that fresh snow falls and then melts again is getting to me, it seems as if it’s been going on forever. We never had a warm spring day in March, and not a single one yet in April. The last nice day was back in the end of February, no wonder it seems like forever ago.

It’s now Saturday afternoon, and I have to work tonight. No big deal, it may not make it above freezing at all today. The good news, if you can call it that, is that my next day off from work may be a little warmer, the first day of a forecast short-lived warming trend that will last for a few days at least. Then, it will be back to unseasonably cold again.

Snow in Michigan in April isn’t unusual, we often get at least some snow during the course of the month. What’s unusual this year is that the temperature is staying 20 degree Fahrenheit below average, with some snow on most days, for day after day after day, with no warm spells in between. At least we may get 3 or 4 days of near average temperatures next week before it turns cold again.

So once again, I’ve turned my thoughts to how do I improve my photos. In my last post, I identified three species of warblers that I hope to add to my life list of birds seen and photographed this summer, in this post, I’m going to discuss my close-up or macro photography.

There have been a few times when I’ve lucked out and gotten a good macro image.


However, it’s been mostly luck, because I don’t put the required effort into most of my attempts at close-up photography, as the photos of the moss and lichen earlier in this post show. So, I have decided that this will be the year that I concentrate on working harder to get better close-up images more often.

Praying mantis

You really can’t call the mantis image a macro, as it was shot with my 300 mm f/4 L series lens and 2 X tele-converter behind it. That’s a great combination to use for insects, because I’m able to stay farther away from the subject, but still get close to macro images.

Flowers don’t run away…

Purple coneflower

…but they do present other challenges, such as how to get the entire flower in focus at such close range, when there’s very little depth of field when shooting that close.

I know that there are at least two things that I need to do more often to improve my close-up photography, manually focus more often, and probably the most important thing, make use of auxiliary lighting.

On the subject of manual focus, I’ve found that it doesn’t matter if I’m using my macro lens, one of my long lenses, or a wide-angle lens, when I get down close to the limits of the minimum distance that the lens will focus to, auto-focus isn’t that accurate, if it works at all. For all three of the images above, I turned the auto-focus off, manually focused the lens to its minimum distance, then moved towards the subject until I had a sharp focus, then pressed the shutter release. I did the same thing for this image as well.

Monarch butterfly

That brings me to the subject of auxiliary lighting, something that I know would improve my close-up images the most. When shooting so close to a subject, you have to stop the lens down to get any depth of field at all, and when you do, the ISO goes up and/or the shutter speed drops to the point where it’s impossible to get a sharp image due to camera movement.

Both of the camera bodies that I use for close-up photography have built-in flash units, but those are worthless when you’re that close to the subject. That’s because the built-in flash is so low that the lens casts a shadow over the subject, meaning no light from the flash reaches the subject.

Using the speedlite that I have takes care of that problem to a degree, but it’s hard to control such a powerful source of light that close to a subject. I need to diffuse the light coming from the flash unit, and/or get it off from the camera and further from the subject. I have a cord that allows me to use the flash unit off from the camera, but it’s a royal pain trying to hold the flash with one hand, while trying to steady the camera with just the other hand, it doesn’t work. That, and the remote cord that I have is coiled, and the memory of the coils is so strong that it takes a good deal of effort on my part to stretch the cord out as far as I’d like to move the flash away from the camera.

I watched several videos from some one who is excellent at close-up and macro photography in my opinion, and took note of the set-up he uses. The problem that I saw with his set-up is that it was held together with tape and rubber bands for the most part, and I don’t want to fool around taping my flash unit to the camera, then fashioning a diffuser together the same way, with tape and rubber bands, although he used his makeshift rig very well. But, all that he does most of the time is close-up photography, so building his set-up the way that he does is no big deal for him.

So, what I need to do is come up with something that holds both the flash unit and a diffuser in their proper places that can be easily used, but also removed from the camera easily when I’m not shooting close-ups. There are brackets made just for that, and they aren’t that expensive.

I also need to use the LED light that I also have more often, alone, or in conjunction with the flash unit. The few times that I’ve put forth the effort to do that has paid off most of the time, but I keep the LED light buried in my camera backpack, and seldom make the effort to dig it out.

What I really need to do most of all is to simply devote days to close-up photography, and ignore most other subjects on those days. That’s something that I’ve known for some time as well, but I’ve never acted on that thought before, I will this year if the weather ever improves.

In my last post, I had a few photos that I shot on a day when I took just the 16-35 mm lens with me, and some of the images that I shot were close-ups of smaller subjects such as lichens. But as I noted in that post, the 16-35 mm lens on my crop sensor 7D Mk II is the equivalent of a 24 mm lens at 16 mm. So, I dug out my 10-18 mm lens and made some test shots inside with it. On the 7D, the 10-18 mm lens is close to what the 16-35 mm lens will be on a full frame camera, such as the 5D Mk IV that I plan on purchasing. My problem is that I have so much camera gear, I forget to put it to use most of the time.

Hopefully, that will change if I devote myself to close-up photography on days when the weather is right for it. I get frustrated easily if it’s a windy day, and everything that I attempt to photograph is swaying around in the wind so much that I can never get a sharp image of the intended subject. I’ve also been frustrated when trying to use a tripod for close-up photography, the camera may remain motionless, but the subjects often don’t. However, if I pick days with little to no wind, I should be able to put my tripod to better use, and combined with using auxiliary lighting, improve my images quite a bit.

One thing that I should mention also is that in some of the videos that I’ve watched on the subject of macro and close-up photography, the photographers go to great lengths to create scenes indoors so that they don’t have to deal with the wind, and they have full control over the lighting. One of the presenters of a video that I watched built a tiny pond in his home, then purchased a frog, from wherever it is that one purchases frogs, then shot excellent photos of the frog in the pond that he had created indoors.

Another photographer had shot scenes outdoors that he then printed out to use as backgrounds for his macro subjects shot indoors, in much the same way that filmmakers in Hollywood use painted backdrops as a replacement for shooting on location.

While such efforts make for excellent results, that’s not my cup of tea. I’d rather deal with the frustrations of shooting outdoors than to spend my time inside building sets to use in the background of my photos.

Anyway, in playing around with my wide-angle lenses, I’ve found two things to be true. One, I need to turn the auto-focus off and focus manually when shooting at the close end of their focusing range, just as I have to do with my longer lenses. Also, they are a good option to use when I need more depth of field than what I get with my longer lenses. While the subjects appear smaller when using the wide-angle lenses, it isn’t by very much at the close end of their focusing range, and I can always crop down if needed.

Another thing that I should note is that the camera body isn’t that important. In the four example images from the past that I added at the end of this post, two were shot with my 7D Mk II, and two were shot with the older 60D body. There’s no difference in image quality that I can see. That’s one of the reasons that I’ve continued to use the 60D body for macros, since I’m focusing manually when I’m doing things the right way, the image quality from the 60D is more than good enough. If I come up with a rig that helps me to master auxiliary lighting, both the flash unit and constant LED light, then I can keep the ISO settings low enough that noise isn’t an issue in my images, as it is most of the time when I use only natural light.

Unidentified skipper butterfly

That was from last spring, and another lucky shot.

Crown vetch

If my work schedule continues as it has been, I’ll have the time this summer to get out around home to shoot more photos like the last two. With so much development going on around where I live, birds and other wildlife has become very scarce, but there are still flowers and insects to photograph if I spend more time outside at home. Other than the park down the road, most of the vacant land has been cleared for a storage unit, more apartments, and a condominium development, it just isn’t the same place that it was when I moved here.

So, what I think that I’ll do is to set-up one of my camera bags or backpacks specifically to hold just the items that I need for close-up photography, and concentrate my efforts on those type of images when the weather is suitable. That would be days with good light, and light winds, and I could spend all my time shooting only close-up photos.

That is, if it ever warms up around here.

That’s it for this one, thanks for stopping by!

On the lookout

I’m still looking for places where I can either set-up my portable hide, or to use something more permanent to shoot better images of birds and other wildlife. Of course, the number one priority is that there’s sufficient wildlife around to photograph so that I don’t get bored while sitting in a hide for very long. With that in mind, I’m always on the lookout for places, and along with that goes figuring out what characteristics cause wildlife to congregate in a smaller area. That’s proving to be more difficult that I had anticipated.

With my job as a truck driver, I’m always checking out places along the highway where I see wildlife in large numbers to help myself learn what the characteristics are that draw concentrations of wildlife, and so far, I’m as clueless as I was before I began my search.

I see dozens of small ponds, both natural and man-made, lakes, marshes, swamps, small streams, and larger rivers in my travels for work. Some hold large numbers of ducks and other birds almost all of the time, while most of them seldom have any ducks or wading birds around them ever, even though these places appear to the human eye to be nearly identical.

I have to assume that the quantity and quality of food is the driving factor which determines what bodies of water or other places draw wildlife in numbers that would make it worthwhile for me to set-up a hide to shoot photos. However, I’ve not been able to figure out by looking at an area how I can detect places that have the right food for wildlife so that I’ll be able to make wise choices when I sit in one place for very long.

For one thing, I began photographing the birds of the wooded areas, and they tend to be opportunistic feeders that are always on the move, looking for food sources as they flit from one tree or bush to another. Chickadees, titmice, nuthatches and woodpeckers are the species that I’m referring to here, because other than a bird feeder to hold them in one place, they’re always on the move. My preferred way of photographing them was to walk through the woods until I ran into a flock of these birds actively feeding, then getting ahead of the flock after I had determined which direction they were moving. Then, I could wait for individuals within the flock to perch somewhere close enough to me for a good image.

It helps that over the years I’ve learned what types of habitats these woodland species prefer as they search for food, and the behavior patterns of these species.

So, as I drive for work or other reasons, I’m learning which bodies of water have birds in and around them, and which ones don’t, however, the why still escapes me. What really confuses me is that there are several places where the road was built by filling the middle of a small body of water to build the road, effectively dividing the body of water in half. On one side of the road, there’ll be waterfowl and/or wading birds, and on the other side, nothing, even though at one time before the road was built, the now two bodies of water were once one. That’s something that I can’t figure out, since I can’t see anything different between the bodies of water on either side of the road. Obviously, the birds see a difference, when I can’t.

Another thing that I notice is that if even a small body of water attracts birds during migration, then many species seem to be able to find it at various times and make use of it. The example that I have in mind is a small swamp, less than an acre in size, that sits right next to the expressway east of Grand Rapids. I’ve seen wood ducks, other dabbling ducks, various species of herons and egrets, and Canada geese all use that tiny swamp for a day or two, sometimes a week or more, before moving on. In the first place, I was surprised to see that any species of waterfowl was able to find such a small swamp in the woods, but then, the variety of species using it surprised me even more. There are over a dozen other similar small swamps nearby, but only that one attracts birds.

By the way, I’ve considered making that tiny swamp one of the places to set-up my portable hide from time to time, but I find the thought of sitting along side a busy expressway while waiting for the birds quite unappealing. Also, while the north edge of the swamp is within the right-of-way of the expressway, the south side is on private property, so I’d be trespassing if I were to set-up in the best position for photos.

So, I do know of quite a few bodies of water that attract birds, however when it comes to most of them, there’s something other than the birds themselves which precludes myself from setting up the portable hide at any of those locations. Usually it’s due to the fact that where I’d set-up is on private property. Still, even when I’m at the Muskegon County Wastewater facility or any other public place, I’m attempting to learn what causes the birds to concentrate in a small area that would make it a suitable place to set-up a hide.

I am learning that weather plays a role in determining where birds congregate, more so when they’re resting than actively feeding, but even then, weather is still part of the equation. All wildlife, birds included, prefer to be somewhere out of the wind if it’s cold, but where there’s a light breeze if it’s warm for example. I’ve also noticed that some species of ducks seem to prefer to feed in areas where the wind is stronger, maybe the wind and waves make it easier to find their preferred food. Also, I haven’t paid enough attention to specific species in specific types of weather to say anything hard and fast about it, I should be taking notes over time as I study this.

I’ve been using my photos as notes in a way, and to that end, I’ve tried to use the GPS capabilities of my camera for that my last two times out. However, on the first day that I activated the GPS of the camera, it failed to ever make a connection with enough satellites to pinpoint my locations that day. It worked a little better the second day, but it still wasn’t very reliable, I need to use it more often I guess.

I should have tried the GPS sooner, but the battery life of the Canon D Mk II wasn’t great to begin with. Now that I have battery grips that hold two batteries, I finally decided to try the GPS out. I can plot the location of where I shot each photo in the maps section of Lightroom once I get better at using the GPS. That may end up assisting me to find specific locations to return to where I can set-up a hide and wait for wildlife to come to me.

I’ve found three new to me nature preserves all in close proximity to one another, about an hour drive from where I live. I hope to check these out soon when I have a day off from work. That may come this week, but it’s forecast to rain that day, so I haven’t decided if I’ll make the trip there or not yet.

I’m going to interrupt my train of thought at this point for a few photos. I have had my day off from work, and while it was raining in the early morning hours, the rain eventually ended and I was able to shoot a few fair photos of few species of birds either on their way through this area to their breeding grounds further north, or they will stay in the area to breed here.

Canvasback duck

That’s a species on its way further north, here’s one that will be around all summer, although this individual bird may go farther north for the summer.

American coot

You may be able to see the water drops on the coot’s back, it was still drizzling when I arrived at the Muskegon County Wastewater facility.

There wasn’t much light to work with, and only a few species of birds to photograph, so I decided to attempt to learn how to make use of what is known as high-speed flash synchronization. I’m not going to go into the details of how the shutter in a DSLR works, along with how that relates to using a flash, I’ll only say that many cameras limit how fast of a shutter speed that you can use and still use the flash. On my old Pentax film camera, that shutter speed was 1/60 second, or the flash wouldn’t function correctly. On my Canon 7D Mk II, the fastest regular flash synchronization speed is 1/250 second, unless you enable the high-speed flash synchronization.

Since I’m using long telephoto lenses, and shooting subjects that are moving, even if slowly, I need to keep the shutter speed as high as I can get it to freeze the motion of something like the coot in the photo above as it bobbed up and down on the waves. I didn’t use the flash for the photo above though, it took me a while to find all the menu settings required to make the high-speed flash synchronization function. That’s even though I had read the manual for the camera in advance, as I knew that it was a tool that may come in handy at times. Canon does not make it easy to use the high-speed flash synchronization.

I thought that I had it set for this image, but I was wrong, the flash didn’t fire.

Song sparrow

This skunk was too far away for me to attempt using the flash, so I don’t know why its eyes look as if the flash fired.


I also tried to use the flash creatively for this photo…

Raindrops on prairie grass

…with limited success, the same is true of this photo…

Unidentified fungal objects

…I should have used a wider lens and gotten closer for that one though.

This sandhill crane was too far away to try the flash…

Sandhill crane

…but it was nice to see that they’ve returned to this area for the summer.

Finally, I sat near a gull and worked out everything that was needed to make high-speed flash synchronization function on my camera.

Ring-billed gull

If you look closely at the gull’s eye, you can see a spot of light reflected from the flash, and that image was shot at 1/400 second, so the high-speed flash synchronization does work.

By the way, I have the flash compensation set to -1 2/3 stops so that it looks like I didn’t use the flash in the final image, other than the reflection of the flash in the eye of the gull. I haven’t used my flash unit often enough to be truly proficient with it, but I have used it enough to know that you need to dial down the flash to prevent getting images where it looks like the flash was the only source of light. All I want the flash to do is to add a little fill light at times, and so that I can keep my shutter speeds fast enough without cranking the ISO so high that I get noise in my images.

I did attempt to use the flash a few times as fill light when I was still using the 60 D camera bodies that I have, but with limited success. Since I now have both of the 7D Mk II bodies dialed in for high-speed flash synchronization, I think that I’ll use the flash more often in tough lighting situations.

Later in the day, I went searching a nearby swamp in hopes of seeing and shooting rusty blackbirds, but I couldn’t find any. I did see a pair of wood ducks, and a few other birds, and that same spot is where I had seen pileated woodpeckers in the past, so I sat there for a while in hopes that the wood ducks would come out of hiding, or that I’d get a chance to photograph other species of birds there. I had no luck as far as birds, but as I was sitting there, I decided to shoot this photo just to show how the trees in the swamp were mostly covered by lichens.

The “lichen tree” swamp

I shot that with the newer 16-35 mm f/4 L series lens, which is the last lens that I’ve purchased. The more that I use that lens, the more that I love it! The sharpness, clarity, and color rendition of that lens are all excellent, a huge step up from the EF S 15-85 mm lens I was using for most of my wide-angle photos, and the 15-85 mm lens is a good lens. It’s just that the 16-35 mm lens is one of the very best that Canon makes. I really need to use that lens more often.

However, using a wide-angle lens is like using the flash unit, I haven’t used either often enough to become proficient in using them. There never seems to be enough time, but if I don’t begin seeing more birds soon, that may change.

I have two more images from this day off from work to share…

American coots taking flight

…not great, but it does give you a little idea as to how far they have to run across the surface of the water to build up enough speed for them to get airborne, and it shows their lobed feet fairly well, although you can’t see how green their feet are.

By the time that I shot this last one, the light had improved to where I didn’t need the flash unit to get a good image.


The weather forecast is looking grim, it may not make it above freezing one or two days next week, even though it will be the first week of April. In fact, they are forecasting well below average temperatures for the first two to three weeks of April, yuck! However, that’s all the whining about the weather that I’m going to do at this point, for just as I learned how to make use of the high-speed flash synchronization on this last day out, there are other things that I can work on until the weather improves, such as learning how to put my wide-angle lens, and other lenses for that matter, to better use.

Also, getting back on track as far as finding other places to go, I have a few more thoughts on that subject.

The Grand Rapids, Michigan area where I live is only about 75 miles north of the state border with Indiana, yet there are several species of birds that are rare this far north in Michigan. I’ve been putting some of the time that I’ve been stuck inside because of the weather to good use, finding the areas where the birds that I’m looking for in the My Photo Life List project that I’m working on can be found in larger numbers than they are here where I live. I’ve identified a few places to the south of Grand Rapids where I’ll stand a better chance of seeing these species of birds. I think that once these species begin arriving for the breeding season, I’ll be taking trips to search for them, and I may find places to sit in a hide as I search for the individual species that I’m looking for. That may allow me to kill two birds with one stone (sorry) by adding new species of birds to my project, and finding good places to set-up a hide. Even if I don’t find places to set-up the hide, at least I’ll have a chance of getting good images the way that I have been up till now.

I knew that the time would come when I had to travel farther from home to find the remaining species that I need to complete the My Photo Life List project of all the species of birds found in Michigan. I think that the time has come, but the places to the south of me that I need to visit are no farther from where I live than Muskegon is, only the direction is different. I have photos of every species of duck except one, the harlequin duck, which is only seen in very limited numbers during migration periods. I’ve made a large dent in the geese seen in Michigan, the rest are also migrants on their way through the area. Between the ones that I’ve found around home and also during my spring vacations around Alpena, Michigan, I’m doing well with warblers also. However, it’s three species of warblers that I’ll be looking for specifically when I travel south, the cerulean and prothonotary warblers, and the Louisiana waterthrush, which is a member of the warbler family.

Just as I spent the past two summers tracking down and getting specific species of birds such as the Virginia rail, marsh and sedge wrens, and a least bittern, I think that this will be the summer that I work on the three species of warblers that I’ve already mentioned. I’ve been researching the exact habitat that each of these species prefers, so that when the time comes for their arrival for the season, I’ll be ready to go looking for them. Of course I won’t limit myself to just these three species, but tracking them down is my goal for the year.

That, and learning other aspects of photography, as I’ve said many times, I don’t use a wide-angle lens often enough to become proficient with them. To that end, yesterday I put the 16-35 mm lens on my camera, grabbed a couple of accessories, and went for a walk around home for the first time this year. The light was crappy, the temperature cool, but at least there wasn’t much wind, yet. It had rained in the morning as I went to bed, but by the afternoon, it was only dark and dreary.

Most of these photos don’t belong in my blog, but they were shot as I tried various ways of composing scenes…

The “S” curve as a tool in composition

…playing with the aperture to change the depth of field…

Depth of field testing

…and in general, learning how much that shooting a scene with a wide-angle lens expands a scene.

Making a short bridge look longer

When shooting the images above, I was surprised by how far I could open up the aperture, which results in less depth of field, and still get what I wanted in focus to be in focus. However, when shooting a very close range, depth of field remains an issue, just as it does when I use a longer lens, such as my 100 mm macro lens.

Lichen on a knot in a fence rail

I think that I was also dealing with camera shake, as I was shooting at very slow shutter speeds due to the lack of light. I suppose that I could have used a flash if I had thought that any of these images would be any good. However, my main goal was learning how to see through a wide-angle lens. The 16-35 mm lens does have image stabilization, however the IS isn’t as good in that lens as the IS in the 100 mm macro lens that I have, at least not for close-up work.

I worked hard on the composition of most of these images, I was very surprised at how much small changes in my position made huge differences in how the final images looked…


…even when I knew that I’d never get the composition that I really wanted as I surveyed a scene. The only way that I could have shot that last photo exactly the way that I had in mind was to have gotten into the stream and kept the camera just a few inches above the water. However, it tells me that I’m on the right track.

I should have used a polarizing filter for that image to reduce the glare off from the water, but my shutter speed was already so low that you can see motion blur in the water.

I also could have used my tripod for these photos, in fact, I should have. However, I don’t have the patience to set-up the tripod, view the scene as it appears at that precise spot, then move the tripod a matter of a few inches, to recheck how the scene looks from that vantage point. Not for these images anyway, but I did learn that’s what will be required if I’m going to get serious about wide-angle photography. For example, as I was shooting the wooden fence in the photo above, I found that just an inch or two change in my position made a large difference in how much I liked the resulting image.

If I were a really patient person, I’d also use focus stacking software to get everything in a scene such as this…

British soldier lichens

…in focus and sharp, but that was one of the first images that I shot yesterday. It was a learn as I went kind of day. And, I don’t have the patience to shoot dozens of images, moving the focus ring of the lens a minute amount between images, that’s required to use focus stacking software effectively, maybe someday. As bad as that image is, I still like the colors and the three-dimensional effect that I was able to get. I could have gotten straight on to the lichens…

Unidentified lichen

…but then I would have ended up with a flat looking image like that last one.

I find that when I like a scene that I’m shooting…

Patterns in some tree bark

…that I’m willing to put the extra effort required to get a good image of the scene.

I did see some flowers, and they were a welcome sight…

Crocus about to bloom

…but I wish that they had been fully open.

Overall, the few hours that I spent with the 16-35 mm lens were wonderful, getting back to shooting subjects other than birds…

White pine cone opening

…and seeing the smaller things in nature, such as the purple color of the inside of this cone again.

The 16-35 mm lens is definitely a winner…

White pine flower?

…even though it is like a 25-56 mm lens on my 7D Mk II with its crop sensor. That’s okay, as it gives me some idea what it will be like to use the 24-105 mm lens that I plan on purchasing on the 5D Mk IV camera body that I’m also going to purchase. I now have a better idea of how wide the 24-105 mm lens will be on the full frame 5D, and what I can expect from using them together.

I need to get out and do what I did yesterday more often, both for the different subjects that I shot, and learning to use my camera gear more effectively. Once I have purchased the 5D Mk IV, I’ll definitely have to repeat this type of outing a few times, as the 16-35 mm lens will produce very different images on a full frame camera than it does on the crop sensor 7D that I’m using.

By the way, one of the accessories that I took with me and used was the set of extension tubes, which is the poor man’s way of doing macro photography. I did use an extension tube behind the 16-35 mm lens a few times, and it does allow me to get closer to a subject. That method of macro photography isn’t as good as using the 100 mm macro lens, but it helps me decide which gear is essential if I do a longer hike, and what gear I can leave behind.

It’s funny how a few lenses that weigh two or three pounds each, along with all the rest of the gear in my photo backpack add up to over twenty pounds if I carry everything that I own with me. That’s too much, so I’m looking for ways to minimize what I bring on hikes and still shoot the photos that I’d like to be able to shoot. So, even though I didn’t shoot any great images, the images that I did return with taught me a great deal, so I consider the day a successful one.

That’s it for this one, thanks for stopping by!

Watching to learn

Since I haven’t been out to shoot any more photos since my last post yet, I’m sorry, but I’m going to begin this post with more boring talk about photography.

First of all, I lied, the Canon 5D Mk IV doesn’t have two stops of improved high ISO improvement over my 7D Mk II, it’s almost three stops better, 2.76 stops to be precise. That will be a huge benefit when I’m shooting in low-light. I will be able to shoot at ISO 3200 with the 5D and get less noise than I do with the 7D set at ISO 800 as an example. At ISO 800 with the 7D, I see very little noise, and I’ve never used Lightroom to decrease the noise at that setting. ISO 3200 is a different story with the 7D, by then, noise is very noticeable, and I have to use Lightroom to reduce the noise. That means a loss of detail as the software can’t differentiate between details and noise perfectly. Not only that, but I lose color depth and dynamic range when shooting at that high of an ISO setting, which won’t be as noticeable if I switch to the 5D.

For the heck of it, I compared those two bodies to the new Canon 6D Mk II, and while it has almost the same increase in higher ISO settings as the 5D does, the 6D MK II has no improvement in dynamic range at all over the 7D Mk II.  The 6D also has a weaker auto-focusing system than the 7D does, so there’s absolutely no reason for me to consider the 6D Mk II at all as a full-frame camera to complement my current 7D bodies. It’s no wonder that the 6D Mk II was panned by the critics when it was introduced. It’s hard to believe that Canon just introduced a new version of a full frame sensor camera with no improvement in dynamic range over a 3 to 4 year old crop sensor camera which is what the 7D Mk II is.

I had planned to purchase Canon’s 24-105 mm lens to go with the 5D Mk IV body, and I still plan to. However, my original plan was to purchase the lens first, then the camera. That’s what has changed, thinking about how much my images could be improved if I use the 5D Mk IV versus the 7D with the long lenses that I already have and use. I think that I’ll save up for the camera first, as I can put it’s better image quality to use immediately. If I were to purchase the 24-105 mm lens first, it really wouldn’t do anything for me until I got around to purchasing the full-frame body anyway.

Sigma also offers a 24-105 mm lens in their art series of lenses which is sharper and transmits more light than the Canon lens, however, there are two drawbacks to the Sigma lens. First, it isn’t weather sealed the way that Canon’s lens is, and it takes a different size filter than what I currently have. The Sigma lens is cheaper than the Canon lens at first glance, but when you add the cost of purchasing the required filters, then the price difference goes away. And, while sharper is better, I’m afraid that I’d end up ruining the Sigma lens since it isn’t weather sealed the way that the Canon lens is. I’ve already gotten some dust in my EF-S 15-85 mm lens, I’m afraid of the same thing happening to the Sigma lens if I chose it over the Canon. And, while I’ve never shot photos in a rainstorm, I have taken photos in mist and drizzle, along with misty conditions near many waterfalls, so weather sealing is an important feature to me.

It hasn’t been only camera gear that I’ve been thinking about, it’s also been how can I put the gear that I have to use. I’ve written a lot about wanting to shoot more videos, but there are other types of photography that I’m interested in other than strictly nature photography. Related to video is time-lapse photography, something that I can do in camera with my current 7D bodies. I’ve done one or two versions of time lapses in the past, but I don’t remember if I posted them here in my blog or not.

One thing that holds me back from trying more time-lapse photography is the fact that the camera and lens used are tied up for the entire time that it takes to complete the series of images that make up the completed time-lapse movie. Not only that, but I’m tied to one location for as long as it takes to complete the series of photos for the time-lapse. That is, unless I’d be willing to leave my camera unattended out in the woods somewhere, which isn’t likely to happen.

With the addition of another camera body, that will free up one of the cameras that I have to set-up and shoot the sequence of images that make up a time-lapse movie. If I were to find a slime mold for example, I could set-up to shoot a time-lapse of it in hopes of showing how they move. Even though they’ve been done many times before by others, I could shoot a time-lapse of a flower opening, or a sunrise, or sunset.

That takes me to the main point of this post as I’m starting it. The main reason that I haven’t shot many videos or time-lapse movies is that I’ve normally been on the move while I’m shooting photos. My hikes may have been getting shorter over the past few years, but I’ve still been hiking. There have been only a few times when I sat somewhere for any length of time, and even then, when I sat, it was part of a hike for the day.

I learned a great deal as I sat at the Muskegon Lake Nature Preserve shooting the images that are in my last post. I’ve known for some time that sitting and letting the wildlife come to me would result in better images than trying to stalk a bird or critter that I’ve seen in the distance. But, I’m also learning that sitting and observing wildlife is a better way to learn the behaviors of the wildlife than watching the wildlife at a distance.

If I’m just sitting someplace, and have the camera gear to do it, then I’ll also be able to shoot more time-lapse movies in the future, as I won’t have to worry about leaving an expensive camera and lens unattended while the camera records the images that make up the time-lapse.

Another example of something that I’d like to record is how a bird goes about building its nest. I’ve always wondered how birds know instinctively how to construct a nest, since it isn’t as if adult birds hold classes for their young to teach them how to construct a nest. Also, many species of birds build quite complicated nests in layers of different types of materials, I’d like to be able to record that as well.

Finding places to sit and observe wildlife, and shooting just still photos, time-lapse movies, and videos is really beginning to appeal to me. It must be because I’m getting older that I now feel that I have the patience to do that, rather than what I have been doing in the past. It’s also driven by a desire to show others the things that I see in nature, in a way that’s understandable to them. I could describe such things, but the use of imagery, in one form or another, is a much better way of passing along the things that I see. Sometimes still images will be the best way to tell a story, but I have to include videos and time-lapse movies in the mix for may of the things that I’d like to show people.

However, it may be a while before I sit in one place anywhere outdoors, as the cold and snow have returned. Not the bitter, bone-chilling cold of the dead of winter, but cold enough so that some snow remains on the grass on most days, and most of the lakes and ponds still have at least a partial covering of ice.

On my last day that I wasn’t scheduled to work, some one else called in sick, and they asked me to fill in for that person. Since it was cold and snowy that day anyway, I agreed, thinking that I may as well make some extra money as to sit home staring at the computer screen all day.

That trend continues, I did make it out for my next day off from work, but I may as well have worked that day. There were intermittent snow squalls driven by winds howling out of the north, mixed with what were times with fairly good light. However, there were very few birds to be found. I never saw a red-winged blackbird, robin, or any of the other early arrivals to the area that I saw on my previous day off from work. I don’t know if those birds continued north, I doubt that, since there’s still snow cover not too far north of where I live. I believe that those birds retreated back to the south to wait for the weather here to improve.

I shot very few photos, and most of those were of gulls. I was so bored that I spent most of my time checking out the huge flocks of gulls that have returned to the Muskegon County wastewater facility, looking for species of gulls other than the ring-billed and herring gulls that number in the thousands there. I had no luck on that count.

It’s a funny thing, I can sit there and entertain myself shooting photos of gulls for hours, either in flight or perched. However, I hate going through those images at the end of the day, and even more, I hate posting any more of them here. It’s all about practicing various things while I’m shooting the images, getting super sharp images with a good background behind the gull, but I’ve shot so many excellent photos of gulls that it’s boring to me other than the act of shooting the images in the first place. Still, I know that it’s helpful to practice, so I shot away even though I knew that I’d end up deleting most of the images in the end.

Ring-billed gull


Ring-billed gull in flight


Ring-billed gull in flight

It isn’t just myself that’s having trouble finding more species of birds this year, when I look at the birding reports from the area on eBird or other sources that I know of, there are very few species of birds being reported by even the top birders in the area. I hope that it changes when the weather finally improves here.

I did find a few northern shovelers…

Northern shovelers

…but only a few, when they usually number in the hundreds when they’re at the peak of migration. I also found a lone female wood duck…

Female wood duck

…which speaks of how few waterfowl that are around, if a young female wood duck is all alone when it’s the time of the year for them to pair up for the breeding season, then you know that there aren’t many wood ducks around, at least not males.

I did see a few bufflehead, with the males doing their courtship displays for a female. I tried to shoot a video, but with the wind howling the way that it was, and how far the bufflehead were away from me, the videos aren’t worth posting here.

I have one last photo from the day, of one of the many snow squalls in the distance as it approached.

Snow squall in the distance

I’m going stir crazy, or I should say, I’m suffering from a severe case of cabin fever. It doesn’t help that I’ve come down with a cold, my second of the winter. I know that I’ve been repeating myself in these posts lately, but at the current time, planning for the future is all that I’m able to do.

I don’t want to make it sound as if the snow is continuing to pile-up outside, but we’ve gone over 6 feet of snow for this winter, and Muskegon is up over 8 feet for the winter so far. The snow and warmth seem to have reached an equilibrium, with the fallen snow melting at about the same rate that new snow falls. As you can see in the last photo above, there’s really no snow on the ground, but it continues to snow here off and on with each new snowfall melting when the snow let’s up. It’s the cold and the wind that are keeping me indoors more than the snow itself.

You may have read or heard of the series of storms battering the east coast of the United States, maybe you even live where the storms have been occurring. Michigan, being close to 1,000 miles to the west of where the series of nor’easters have been wreaking havoc, is on the back side of those storms. That means a strong north wind most of the time, pulling cold air from Canada straight down over Michigan. As an example, yesterday, a wind gust of 49 MPH was recorded in the area, and that wasn’t an unusual day this spring. Last week or the week before, a wind gust over 50 MPH was reported. If the actual air temperature has been warm enough for me to venture outside, the winds have kept me inside.

A typical day has been to wake up to a freshly fallen layer of snow covering the grass, with temperatures well below freezing. While it warms up enough during the day to melt the new snow, with the near constant strong winds, it hasn’t been pleasant to spend any amount of time outside. While there was no snow on the ground this morning when I got out of bed, the temperature didn’t rise to the freezing mark until around noon.

It’s just my theory, but I believe that it’s been the winds that have been holding up the migration of many of the birds, as much as the cold and snow. Whatever the reason for the lack of birds this year, I hope that it ends soon. I was spoiled with one day of beautiful weather at the end of February, and while I won’t be holding out until we get another day as nice, tolerable would be a big step forward. This weekend is forecast to fit that definition, however I have to work. For my next scheduled day off, the weather looks good, but not great. I hope that the forecast holds, and that I can even find a few more birds to photograph.

As I said, I’ve been checking out the bird sightings online, and all the numbers are down this spring, both in number of species, and the number of any one species of birds that are being seen.

Well, I’ve been working on this post for so long that the weather has improved slightly, and a few more birds are returning to this area as they migrate north. Yesterday was the first day of spring, and I had the day off from work. Even though it was still cold enough for there to be ice…

Ice on the first day of spring 2018

…and snow left on the ground in places, it did warm up to above freezing in the afternoon.

I did see more birds in both overall numbers and in the number of species, but the darned birds were very uncooperative, except for the gulls of course.

Ring-billed gull portrait

That was shot towards the end of my day, as I had gotten bored and searched through the flocks of gulls looking a new to me species of gulls. I shot that one and included it here because I was practicing getting the gull’s eye in sharp focus with the short depth of field that you get when you’re that close to the subject, and the subject has a long bill protruding toward you that the auto-focus would rather focus on rather than the eye. It looks easy in the still photo, put the focus point on the bird’s eye and shoot, but the gull was doing what most birds do most of the time, swiveling it’s head all around looking for predators and watching the other gulls in case they had food, or were trying to dislodge this gull from its preferred perch.

I did find this gull…

Unidentified gull

…which may be a young great blacked-backed gull getting its adult feathers, or it could be an oddly colored young herring gull, or possibly a hybrid of those two species. I’m not sure how often gulls produce hybrids, but that gull looked too small to be a great black-backed, and too dark to be a herring gull. Exactly what it is doesn’t matter though, so I’ll leave it as an unidentified gull at least for now as I know of no other species it could be that I haven’t already gotten photos of for the My Photo Life List project that I’m working on.

I said that the birds wouldn’t cooperate, here’s a couple of examples.

Male northern harrier in flight in front of an irrigation sprayer

That’s the only shot of the harrier that I was able to get that you can see its eye in.

Butt shot of a sandhill crane in flight

There was a stiff wind blowing out of the northeast, which is always a cold wind around here this time of the year, and I believe that because of the wind, most of the birds stayed low as they were flying. That could have been a good thing, however, most of the time the birds were right on top of me before I saw them coming. On the rare occasion that I was able to get into position to take advantage of the fact that birds tend to take-off or land into a strong wind, then I was shooting towards the south meaning that the birds were on the wrong side of me as far as the sun.

Greater scaup in flight

Also because of the wind, the waves on the two storage lagoons made photographing swimming ducks more difficult.

Male bufflehead preening

The slightest change in the way that the sunlight strikes a bird with iridescent feathers changes the way that the bird looks in a photo taken at that instant. With the larger waves that you can see in these photos, even though the bufflehead wasn’t moving, the light was constantly changing as I shot these.

Male bufflehead preening

You can see in the photos that the bufflehead’s feathers on its head changed colors as how the sun hit those feathers changed. That’s another thing that I’ll have to take into consideration, just like getting the gull’s eye sharp in the earlier photo, once I find places to sit and have the birds come very close to me.

And, since I use a relatively slow shutter speed to shoot portraits, the movement of ducks caused by the waves made it more difficult to get sharp photos that also showed their coloration as well as I hoped.

Male greater scaup

I took some time to move to another location in search of rusty blackbirds that have been sighted in the area, but I wasn’t able to find them. However, in the swamp that I was searching for them in, there were a few pileated woodpeckers around and a pair of hooded mergansers circling over me.

Hooded mergansers in flight

Not a very good image at all, I had to wait until the mergansers entered a small opening between the trees in the swamp, and the auto-focus didn’t have time to lock onto them in the short amount of time it took them to fly through the opening in the trees. Also, I waited far too long for one of the pileated woodpeckers to show itself in range of my camera and lens, but I never did get a good clear look at any of them, stationary or in flight.

I guess that you could say that it was the theme for the day, I stayed in several locations hoping that I’d be able to get some really good images by sitting and waiting for the birds to come to me, but I never found a good spot to just sit and wait. However, it was a nice day overall despite the cold wind blowing, as it was good to see a wider variety of birds for a change.

Northern shovelers


Northern shovelers


Male common merganser


Male gadwall

Now then, I’ve been going on at length about sitting and waiting more often, but I’ll never fully stop moving around at times in search of interesting things to photograph. If I hadn’t been on the move at the time, I would have never captured this series of photos that show a crow burying food for later.

American crow burying food for later

When I first saw the crow, it had food in its beak, but by the time I got into position to shoot this series…

American crow burying food for later

…the crow was gathering bits of dried grass to use to bury the food it had found…

American crow burying food for later

…carefully making sure that what it was burying didn’t show.

American crow burying food for later

I knew that many other species of birds store food for later by hiding it, so it shouldn’t come as a surprise that a bird as intelligent as crows are would also cache food for later. Now, not only have I seen a crow doing it, I have captured most of it in photos.

A little later, I saw something else that I’d never seen before, a mink out in the open on a sunny day.

A mink on the run

I’ve seen many mink in the past, but they tend to be out in low light situations, or stay as hidden as possible in vegetation.

A mink on the run

I don’t know if this mink had a run in with a predator, or if it had been injured in a fight with another mink…

A mink on the run

…you can see a wound on the back of its neck, and that it’s missing some fur on the end of its tail. Mink are extremely territorial, and one of the least sociable creatures on Earth. A male mink will not tolerate another male mink in its territory, and will seldom allow a female to enter its territory other than in the breeding season.

They live in burrows that they either dig themselves, or take over from a muskrat or rabbit, which begins as a meal for a mink in the first place.

A mink entering its burrow

Mink may look like rodents, but they are related to weasels, ferrets, and otters.

Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to get photos of many of the returning species of birds that I saw in the distance, nor a photo of a northern shrike that I saw. It was one of those days when getting close to anything was tough, I think that the wind plays a part in that. On very windy days like this was, all the vegetation sways in the wind, making it harder for animals to spot the movements of possible predators. Also, the sounds of the wind mask the sounds that a predator may make, which also tends to make all wildlife more skittish.

Anyway, I’ve prattled on long enough, as my next post will probably be long on words and short on photos again. My next scheduled day off from work is forecast to be warm, but with an all-day rain, so I don’t know if I’ll even venture out.

That’s it for this one, thanks for stopping by!

Virginia Rail, Rallus limicola

Note: this post, while published, is a work in progress, as are all posts in this series, My Photo Life List. My goal is to photograph every species of bird that is seen on a regular basis here in Michigan, working from a list compiled by the Michigan chapter of the Audubon Society. This will be a lifelong project, that I began in January of 2013, and as I shoot better photos of this, or any other species, I will update the post for that species with better photos when I can. While this series is not intended to be a field guide per se, my minimum standard for the photos in this series is that one has to be able to make a positive identification of the species in my photos. The information posted here is from either my observations or the Wikipedia, the online free encyclopedia, however, I have personally shot all the photos appearing in this series.

Virginia Rail, Rallus limicola

The Virginia rail (Rallus limicola) is a small water bird, of the family Rallidae. These birds remain fairly common despite continuing loss of habitat, but are secretive by nature and more often heard than seen. They are also considered a game species in some provinces and states, though rarely hunted.

Adults are mainly brown, darker on the back and crown, with orange-brown legs. To walk through dense vegetation, they have evolved a laterally compressed body and strong forehead feathers adapted to withstand wear from pushing through vegetation. Virginia rails have the highest ratio of leg-muscle to flight-muscle of all birds (25% – 15% of body weight respectively). They have long toes used to walk on floating vegetation. Their tail is short and they have a long slim reddish bill. Their cheeks are grey, with a light stripe over the eye and a whitish throat. Chicks are black. Juveniles are blackish brown on upper parts with rufous on the edge of feathers and brownish bill and legs. Their underparts are dark brown to black, while the face is grayish brown. Both sexes are very similar, with females being slightly smaller. Adults measure 20–27 cm, with a wingspan of 32–38 cm, and usually weigh 65-95 g.

The Virginia rail lives in freshwater and brackish marshes, sometimes salt marshes in winter. Northern populations migrate to the southern United States and Central America. On the Pacific coast, some are permanent residents. Its breeding habitat is marshes from Nova Scotia to Southern British Columbia, California and North Carolina, and in Central America. It often coexists with Soras.

The Virginia rail often runs to escape predators, instead of flying. When it does fly, it is usually short distances or for migration. It can also swim and dive using its wings to propel itself.

This bird has a number of calls, including a harsh kuk kuk kuk, usually heard at night. It also makes grunting noises. In spring, it will make tick-it or kid-ick calls.

The Virginia rail probe with its bill in mud or shallow water, also picking up food by sight. It mainly eat insects and other aquatic invertebrates, like beetles, flies, dragonflies, crayfish, snails and earthworms. It can also eat aquatic animals like frogs, fish and some small snakes, as well as seeds. Animal preys constitute the biggest part of this bird’s diet, but vegetation contributes to its diet in the fall and winter.

Courtship starts around May. The male will raise his wings and run back and forth next to the female. Both sexes bow, and the male feeds the female. Before copulation, the male approaches the female while grunting. Virginia rails are monogamous. Both parents build the nest and care for the young, whereas only the male defend the territory. The nest is built as the first egg is laid and consists of a basket of woven vegetation. The nest is made using plants like cattails, reeds and grasses. They also build dummy nests around the marsh. They nest near the base of emergent vegetation in areas with vegetation creating a canopy above the nest.

This birds lays a clutch of 4 to 13 white or buff eggs with sparse gray or brown spotting. The eggs generally measure 32 by 24 millimetres (1.26 by 0.94 in). They are incubated by both parents for a period of 20 to 22 days, in which the parents continue to add nesting material to conceal the nest. When the eggs hatch, the parents feed the young for two to three weeks, when the chicks become independent. The young can fly in less than a month. The pair bond between the parents breaks after the young become independent.


On to my photos:

These images were shot during the summer of 2016 during the course of several visits to the Muskegon Lake Nature Preserve and over the course of several weeks. What is also notable about these images is that they were all shot with my Canon 7D Mk II, 300 mm L series lens, and with the 2 X tele-converter behind the lens.

Virginia Rail, Rallus limicola


These birds are very secretive and difficult to see as they never venture out into the open, this is a more typical view of one.

Virginia Rail, Rallus limicola

But, through perseverance and awaiting for the birds to step into more open areas, I was able to shoot a few good images of them.

Virginia Rail, Rallus limicola


Virginia Rail, Rallus limicola


Virginia Rail, Rallus limicola


Virginia Rail, Rallus limicola


This is number 207 in my photo life list, only 143 to go!

That’s it for this one, thanks for stopping by!


I was a bit rusty, but I loved it!

You’ve already seen one of my images from my last outing, but it will appear here again, along with my thoughts on how I went about shooting it. It was shot on the second to last day of February, the first really nice day that we had around here when I also had the day off from work. And, what a glorious day it was! Not only did it warm up to near 60 degrees (15 C) in the afternoon, but there was great light for most of the time while I was out. That would have been enough for the day to be a memorable one, but on top of those things, the early migrating birds have begun to arrive, and some of them were singing already.

Red-winged blackbird in full “song”

That is, if you call the noises that the red-winged blackbirds make songs. Still, it was a great start to the day, hearing the early sounds of spring after such a long cold winter.

Actually, I was a bit disappointed in that image the way that it came out of the camera. I’m not sure why, but the red patch on the blackbird’s wing was too orange, not red as it looked to me as I shot the image. I used Lightroom to shift the color of the red patch from the orange cast that it had to begin with, more towards red as it appears in the image that you see above.

I’ve had the same thing happen to me before, the red patches on the red-winged blackbird’s wings often look too orange compared to how they look in real life. I’m not sure why, but I think that it has to do with the lack of dynamic range in the sensor of my 7D Mk II, but only time will tell about that. I probably should have worked on the sky in the background as well, since the sky was a deeper blue than the way that it appears in this image.

Anyway, with no clouds to block the sun for a change, most of the critters were out enjoying the sun and the warmth, none more than this muskrat.


I shot photos of another muskrat basking in the sun, but it was partially hidden in the weeds, so I’m not going to post any of them, I have enough photos for the day as it is.

One thing that I noticed soon after I began shooting photos was that I was a bit rusty, and I found it hard to get the subject in the viewfinder. My hand to eye coordination was off a bit because I’ve only shot a few photos this year so far. I missed what could have been good photos of a snowy owl in flight, almost directly overhead and in good light, but I couldn’t track the owl because of my being rusty. So, I did what I always do when I feel the need to practice that aspect of photography, I found some gulls to shoot.

Ring-billed gull in flight

And, I couldn’t resist a portrait shot of a gull as well.

Ring-billed gull

After I had practiced shooting gulls in flight with my 400 mm lens, I had an idea to try, switching to a wide-angle lens to get a large number of flying gulls in the frame at one time. So, I put the 16-35 mm lens set to 35 mm on the camera, and shot away. By the way, that lens at 35 mm on my crop sensor camera is 56 mm of effective focal length, about what our eyes see.

Gulls in flight

Not bad, I thought to my self, so I continued shooting with the wide set-up, notice the gull in this next one, slightly to the left and below the center of the frame, attacking the gull below it.

Gulls in flight

Finally, I got the type of shot that I had in mind when I first thought of trying the wide set-up.

Gulls flying in formation

I probably should have used a polarizing filter on the lens, I did think of it at the time, but I prefer to take one step at a time. Since this was my first attempt at using a wide-angle lens for birds in flight, I wanted to keep things as simple as possible. I also could have zoomed out to get even more gulls in the frame as well, but as I said, one step at a time, I’m pleased with how these images turned out. I will keep these images in mind the next time that I’m close to a flock of birds in flight.

The only other notable things about the time that I spent at the wastewater facility were seeing four snowy owls within sight of one another…

Snowy owl number 1

…all perched on the remaining ice…

Snowy owl numbers 2 and 3

… which I’m sure that they did to keep the zoo which is still following them around at a distance…

Snowy owl number 4

…but, I didn’t shoot a photo of the zoo.

The other notable thing was the lack of birds, there were few waterfowl around other than Canada geese and even very few mallards, no eagles in sight, and very few smaller birds other than a few horned larks.

Horned lark

By the time that I shot that photo, it was warming up nicely, so I decided to move to the Muskegon Lake Nature Preserve (MLNP) to shoot small songbirds.

That’s when I shot this image from my last post.

Black-capped chickadee on a bird feeder

I don’t want to cast dispersion on others who photograph birds at a bird feeder, but I find it too darned easy to shoot really good images like that one when you know where the birds will be, what they’ll do, and how to position one’s self for great lighting. I can see how shooting photos of birds at a feeder could be a pleasant hobby, and it is a way to get great images of the birds. Although, there’s not much difference between shooting the birds actually at the feeder and what I did for most of my time at the MLNP. I did sit on a picnic table near the feeders, catching the birds…

Dark-eyed junco


Dark-eyed junco

…and the squirrels…

Red squirrel


Red squirrel

…as they came to the feeders to chow down.

I can’t think of many ways to spend an afternoon as enjoyable as the one that I had. The sun was warm, I was out of the nippy wind that was blowing in from over the still very cold waters of Lake Michigan and still frozen Muskegon Lake, and there were birds singing all around me.

Male northern cardinal singing

I sat at the picnic table most of the time, however there were a few times when I’d have to stand up to get the best view of a bird, with the best background that I could have in an image. However, for the most part, I just sat and observed what was going on around me, shooting photos when I had a chance to get a good one. Of course, the feeders being nearby meant that I had plenty of wildlife around me all the time, if that was always the case, I could easily get into the habit of sitting in one spot for as long as there were things to photograph regularly.

One of the things that I observed was a red squirrel lapping up the sap that was flowing down a small tree.

Red squirrel drinking sap from a tree

I think that I’ve posted similar photos in the past, but I don’t remember if I got an image where you could see the squirrel’s tongue before. Anyway, if I’d have thought about it, I should have gone over and tasted the sap myself, to see what it tastes like. My guess is that it’s sweet, something like unprocessed maple syrup, but I could be wrong about that. Since I often see squirrels drinking sap, it must be something that they enjoy.

On the other hand, this gray squirrel was content to scrounge for seeds that birds had dropped on the ground.

Gray squirrel

There were several squirrels around, including a black morph gray squirrel, but I wasn’t able to get a photo of that squirrel. Every time that it approached my position, one or both of the other gray squirrels would chase the black morph squirrel away. I was able to shoot a few good photos of the regular gray squirrels though…

Gray squirrel

…including this one that really shows off the colors and details of the fur of the squirrel’s tail, although I blew out the highlights of the squirrel’s ears.

Gray squirrel

Did I mention that it was a wonderful early spring day?

I already showed a photo of a male cardinal singing, there were several in the area. However, as I was observing the squirrels and other birds in the area, I was somewhat surprised that the male cardinals didn’t seem very interested in visiting the feeders there. If they weren’t singing, they were simply perched in the lower vegetation, looking around.

Male cardinal

It also dawned on me eventually that I wasn’t seeing any female cardinals. It turns out that I wasn’t the only one hanging out near the feeders for birds to show up, the male cardinals were also, but they only had one specific bird that they were waiting for, female cardinals.

Female northern cardinal

Whenever a female cardinal would approach the feeders, the males would all fly over towards her, trying to woo her into being their mate for the year.

Female northern cardinal

I guess that the females weren’t ready to pick their mate for the year yet though, as most often, they flew away from the pressuring males without ever visiting the feeder. I did find it amazing that the males seemed to know that the lure of food would attract the females though, and that they all seemed to be hanging around waiting for a female to show herself. The female in the photos above left shortly after I shot those photos, as the males were all perching close to her at the time that I shot the images. Cardinals are usually very territorial during the nesting season, however the chance of finding a mate caused the males to not fight over territory, but to spend their time actually finding a mate.

By the way, all of the images that I shot at the MLNP were shot using the 100-400 mm lens and 1.4 X Tele-converter behind it. Working at close range as I was, the 300 mm f/4 prime lens with the 2 X tele-converter would have been an even better set-up to use. I would have been a few mm closer, and I think that the 300 mm lens and extender is a tad sharper than the 100-400 mm lens and 1.4 X extender, but only up close. The 400 mm prime lens doesn’t focus close enough for me to have gotten some of the images that I shot, like this one.

American tree sparrow

That does bring up something that will require more thought if a spend any time at all just sitting to shoot small birds, what set-up will work best. The 100-400 mm lens is the best lens I have to use while moving around, it will focus up close, and for a few of the squirrel photos, I actually zoomed out a little to less than the 560 mm that I get while using the extender.

The 400 mm lens is the sharpest long lens overall that I have, but its minimum focusing distance is 11 1/2 feet, which isn’t close enough for they type of shooting that I did on this day at the MLNP. I’ve found that I can add an extension tube behind that lens to get down to around 8 feet, but then I can’t shoot at longer distances if needed, as when I shot this photo.

Common grackle

The 300 mm lens works very well up close, but it gets softer as the distance to the subject increases, with or without an extender behind it. I’ve used that lens with the 2 X extender in the past, and up close, it’s still as sharp as a tack. This image is from the summer of 2016, but it shows how sharp the 300 mm lens and 2 X extender are when used for subjects close to me, and in good light.

Virginia Rail, Rallus limicola

I can see myself sitting in one place with all three set-ups ready to go depending on the situation. That seems more than a little silly, but each set-up has its own strengths and weaknesses that I have to take into account. Maybe some day, a lens manufacturer will produce the ideal lens, but I doubt if I could afford it if it was ever on the market.

Anyway, a few more photos from the time I spent at MLNP.

Rock dove or pigeon


American tree sparrow


American tree sparrow


Female downy woodpecker


Mourning dove tightrope walking


Mourning dove

Have I mentioned that I thoroughly enjoyed sitting in the sun, listening to the birds singing, shooting a few hundred photos of the more common species of birds and squirrels around here?

One other thing that I should mention, I have finally bitten the bullet and begun to add a small amount of color saturation to my images. Ever since I began shooting in RAW, I’ve had my cameras set to record with nothing added to the images as the camera records them. So, I get the true RAW images in Lightroom, and over time, I’ve noticed that even with a little added vibrance in Lightroom, the colors in my images seem to be a bit drab compared what I see in real life, and in the images shot by others. That’s especially true on a magnificent day such as this one was, the light was as close to perfect as it can get, and yet the colors in the images that I shot seemed to be washed out a little. I didn’t have to add much saturation to the colors to bring these images closer to what I saw through the viewfinder as I pressed the shutter. And, I’m not about to push the saturation slider over to the point where it’s obvious what I’ve done, with unnatural colors and artifacts in the image caused by pushing the color saturation too far. Subtle is still my way of processing my images in Lightroom. That also applies to sharpening, and for that matter, all of the adjustments in Lightroom. I want my images to appear as natural as I can get them, and I’ve found over time, that includes boosting the color saturation just a tad.

As close as the day was to being perfect, my images should reflect that, and not look as though people were seeing an old, faded photo of the things that I shot.

I tried to pay attention to the background while I was shooting, but you can’t always get a clean background when shooting smaller birds.

American robin

And, you can’t always get a clean foreground either, as these images show.

Male house finch

However, since this day was all about enjoying the day and shooting some fair photos of common species, I think that the day was a success.

Male house finch

If only this chickadee didn’t have a twig growing out of its head. 🙂

Black-capped chickadee

If not for the twig in the background, that image would be every bit as good as the one of the chickadee on the feeder. I suppose that I could edit the twig out of the photo in Lightroom, but I’m too lazy to spend that much time on this image.

This week, I took delivery of a tripod collar and quick release plate so that I can mount my 70-200 mm lens on the gimbal head that I have to shoot videos when that lens is the correct one to use. While that set-up doesn’t balance as well on the gimbal head as I had hoped due to the battery grips that I have on the 7D, it will still be better than handholding the camera and lens when shooting video.

With the return of nicer weather, better light, and all that goes with those things, I’m really looking forward to this coming year. While I should know better than to make many plans, I do hope to experiment more this year, as I did when using the wide-angle lens to shoot the gulls in flight.

Despite the negative tone of my last post, things are going well for me this year, other than the weather, and that is already changing for the better. The new job is going well, and I’m much better off financially than I was just a few short months ago before I made the change. Once I get used to dealing with the erratic nature of the scheduling there, I’ll have more time to get outside to play with my camera gear.

I would like to find a spot close to home for those days when I have the time to get out for shorter periods of time than it takes me to go to Muskegon, or one of the other places that I know of now. That’s one of my goals for the year.

Since I plan on doing some experimentation, some scouting, and a few other things that I have in mind, I’m not sure how often I’ll be posting, but I know that it will be more often than it has been the past three months. I can fill a post with images that I shoot in a single day if the day is as nice as this one was.

That’s it for this one, thanks for stopping by!

Bah Humbug!

I began writing this after work on February 11th. A long time ago it seems now as I continue to add more thoughts to it.

It’s been the kind of winter so far where I check out the weather to see what the time frame is going to be for the next winter weather advisory or winter storm warning coming to the area, and if it will be affecting me while I’m working. I think that we had either a warning or advisory every day this past week. Throw in a few wind chill advisories and warnings when it hasn’t been snowing at the same time, and you get an idea of what the weather has been like here in West Michigan this winter.

At the point that I ended the last post I did, I said that I had the day off from work. Sure enough, just about the time that I would have left home to go to Muskegon, the next batch of snow made it onshore from Lake Michigan, and it had begun to snow in Muskegon. I say again, Bah Humbug, I’m sick of winter and the cold and snow.

Just how bad has February been as far as the weather?

Grand Rapids has had measurable snowfall now 11 days in a row, in other words, every day for the month so far. Our average February snowfall is 14.8″ (38 cm) for the entire month, and we are already over 20″ (50 cm) for the month.  Average for an entire winter is 74.9″ (190 cm) and we’re up to 65″ (165 cm) already as of now. February is averaging 7 degrees fahrenheit (14 C) below average, I thought that the thermometer in my Subaru was stuck at 18 degrees (-8 C), but last night it went down to 13 degrees (-10 C). The temperature hasn’t made it above freezing yet this month, and the forecast low temperature the next two days is around 5 degrees (-15 C).

Winters didn’t use to bother me as much as they do now, for one thing, I didn’t drive a truck for a living then. Having to fight the snow and traffic each day is no fun at all. I do get to see how lovely freshly fallen snow can be while I am driving though, it’s not like the old days when I was stuck inside all day and never got to see how it looked outside. Those things take away from my need to get out despite really bad weather conditions.

Then, there’s my passion for photography. In the not too distant past, I used to take a point and shoot camera with me all the time and call it good enough. I could keep the point and shoot camera in a pocket to keep it safe from the weather. However, it was doing just that, always carrying a point and shoot, that rekindled my love for photography. Back in the days of film, I used to shoot a good number of wildlife and nature photographs, but film and the expense of getting the film developed, along with how expensive good camera gear was back then, prevented me from progressing any further along than my old trusty Pentax Spotmatic II camera with a used, low quality 300 mm lens.

It seems like every winter, I look at the point and shoot cameras on the market at the time, and consider purchasing one so that at least I’ll get outside and shoot a few photos from time to time, even if the quality of those photos can’t match what I can do with the “real” cameras and lenses that I currently have. But, then I look at the specs of what the point and shoot cameras are capable of, and see that they don’t come cheap these days for a good one which I would deem worthy enough to carry.

Now that I have quality camera gear, I’m loath to risk it getting damaged by the harsh Michigan winters. That’s even though the camera and lenses that I have now are supposed to be weather sealed and capable of handling snow and cold.

I’ve considered not taking any camera gear with me, and scouting for good locations during the winter months to shoot during the rest of the year, but I know that wildlife uses different habitat in the winter than the rest of the year, so even if I found a great winter spot, it may not be any good at all come spring and summer. And it seems that come this time every year, I start thinking and writing about scouting for places to shoot photos from.

That would be foolishness on my part, the lakes, ponds, and even many streams are frozen over around here this time of year, and I know that birds, and all wildlife for that matter, prefer areas with open water if it’s available. So, it would be much better if I did my scouting during the time of year that I’d plan on being there the most.

It would seem easy enough to find a place in Michigan, which has more public land than other states about the same size, but I’m finding that it isn’t the case. For one thing, most public parks are located on the north shore of the bodies of water that they are on for some reason, I can’t explain it. That would mean shooting into the sun, and poor image quality as a result.

Then, there’s the issue of access, even though it may be public land. Many of the public parks and nature preserves are locked or at least posted as no access before a set time, most often 8 AM. By that time in the summer, the light is already becoming harsh as the sun is getting higher in the sky. And, it isn’t as if I could begin shooting the second that the park opened, it would take some time to get into position and set-up before I could snap the first photo of the day.

Another thing to take into consideration is how crowded the place will be. I’ve found a few good places that I’d like to explore more, but there are so many joggers and cyclists zipping through the area that they scare all the wildlife away.

I’ve been putting a lot of thought into places that I should scout as a place where I could set-up the portable hide that I have and spend time in photographing wildlife at closer range. Generally, I begin to drift off thinking about the larger tracts of near wilderness areas, such as the Pigeon River Country in northern Michigan. But, the thing is, while there’s a great deal of wildlife there, it’s spread out all through the area, the wildlife doesn’t congregate in many places.

On the other hand, when I think of places near where I live, the parcels of land are mere postage stamp size and often surrounded by human activity. There’s the wetlands that I kayaked once a few years ago that often brings reports of rare birds. That wetland area is surrounded by a shopping center, a few hotels, a few industrial buildings, and an expressway. However, there’s no human activity near the water’s edge proper, which is the reason that it draws so many birds in my opinion. It’s the same with the apartment complex where I used to live, there were hundreds of people living there, yet no one but myself ever ventured to the uncleared portion of the land there. And then, there’s the small parcel of land owned by the Michigan Department of Transportation not far from my home, it’s surrounded by farms and a subdivision of houses, yet hardly any one ventures on that land.

It’s taken me a few years to figure this out, but when wildlife has room to spread out without human interference, it does just that, making it more difficult to find places where the wildlife congregates. On the other hand, in areas where there is little suitable habitat for wildlife, the wildlife is forced to make do with what little habitat that they can find, making the density of wildlife in that area greater, especially during spring and fall migration. That’s the reason that these small tracts of land become tiny birding hotspots and so many rare bird reports come from them, there are few other places for the birds to rest during their migration.That even applies to the small park near where I live now, it is a tiny oasis in a sea of suburbia, although suburbia has been encroaching on the park over the past few years, making it less attractive to wildlife in just the few years that I’ve lived near it.

So, I’ve begun to change my thinking as to finding good places to set-up the portable hide, instead of looking for large tracts of undeveloped land. I think that I’d be better off looking for one of the small parcels of land that may be surrounded by development, but where there’s very little human activity within the small parcel of land itself.

By the way, this post many end up being mostly words, with very few photos. I’ve been out with my camera twice since my last post, and both times it was very foggy with poor light, and with so much snow on the ground that it made getting around difficult to say the least. It’s finally beginning to warm up around here, and I’m going to attempt to get a nice day off from work for a change, hoping that I’ll be able to shoot more than a handful of poor photos like this one.

Red-tailed hawk taking flight

The only reason for my posting this photo is to show the subtle colors of the hawk, and the detail in its feathers, despite the poor light.

I have been making what I think is good use of my time though, even if I haven’t been out with the camera much lately. For one thing, I’ve learned how to edit videos from within Lightroom. While there are far more powerful video editing programs on the market, I really don’t want to take the time to learn how to use them effectively, nor do I want to spend a good deal of time editing the videos that I shoot.

Lightroom has limited capabilities, I can trim the videos for length, and also make exposure and white balance corrections to a video, as I’ve done with this one.


Here’s how it looked before my editing.

I was able to cut out the beginning of the video which was wobbly and out of focus, along with improving the exposure, and shifting the white balance to slightly warmer, since the video was shot on a heavily overcast day.

I also watched a video that explained the Canon 5D Mk IV in-depth, and I learned something that made me want that camera more than ever since I watched the video. With my 7D Mk II, I can auto-focus at f/8 as when I use one of my long lenses with the 1.4 X tele-converter, but I can only use the center point at that aperture. That limits my ability to compose exactly the shot that I’d like, or to use the tele-converter when photographing flying birds.

The newer 5D Mk IV will use most or all of the 61 auto-focusing points down to an aperture of f/8, depending on the lens I use, so it will make it easier to get the composition that I want by putting the auto-focus point on a bird’s eye, when the eye may not be in the center of the frame. A couple of months ago, when I was shooting the snowy owls…

Snowy owl

…being able to move the auto-focus point up in the frame would have made that a much better image. The owl’s back is very sharp, but its eyes and face are slightly soft due to being a little out of focus.

I’ve also done some research to quantify just how much of an improvement that I’d see in low-light performance with the 5D MK IV, and it’s around two stops better as far as noise. I can push the 7D Mk II to around 6400 ISO with significant noise reduction and loss of detail that goes with the noise reduction, and still get a usable image for the web. With the 5D Mk IV, the amount of noise that I’d see in an image with the same exposure settings would be similar to what I see when shooting with the 7D at ISO 1600, that would be good enough to print, not just post here in my blog.

To go with that, the 5D also delivers two full stops better dynamic range, which means better shadow details with less noise in my images as well. That would mean that an image like this one…

American crow on blown out snow

…would actually turn out much better. As you can see, the details in the snow have been lost since they were blown out by the 7D’s lower dynamic range due to it being a crop sensor camera. With two full stops better dynamic range combined with two full stops better low-light/less noise capabilities, the 5D Mk IV is looking better to me all the time.

I will lose the 1.6 crop factor, on my 7D, the 400 mm lens I use actually performs as a 640 mm lens, while on the 5D, it will be a true 400 mm lens. However, with the 5D’s better sensor, I think that it will mostly make up for that difference. Plus, since the 5D can use more auto-focus points at f/8, I can put my tele-converters to better use as well to make up for the loss of the crop factor. And, I’ll still have the 7D to use at the times when it’s a better choice than the 5D is. The two of them together will be an awesome pairing, one that I’m really looking forward to using in the future.

Oh, and by the way, it isn’t just for wildlife photography that I’ll be able to use the 5D to better effect. It will also be for macros, where both better low-light performance and extended dynamic range will improve my images a good deal. While the low-light performance isn’t a factor in landscape photography, the two stops of additional dynamic range will be a huge improvement. And, if I do any night photography, as I hope to, then the low-light performance of the 5D will make a huge difference as well, whether it’s star trails, stills of the milky way, or city lights at night.

I know that all of my babbling about photography and my gear is boring to many, but it means a lot to me. On that subject, one of the things that I wanted to try on my last two outings was shooting a few images to stitch together into panoramas, but the fog was so dense both days that I didn’t bother. If I had seen something worth shooting on a foggy day, I would have, but I never saw such a scene. However, that is something that I’d like to work on for the future, even if my practice images never get posted here or anywhere else. The last sunrise that I photographed would have been a great time for a panorama, since the entire sky was colorful, but I didn’t think of it at the time. I’ve found that I need to practice techniques in advance, so that they do pop into my head at the right time, and I’m ready to shoot what I see at the time when I see it, not think about after the opportunity has passed.

I could go on at length about the advantages and disadvantages of producing panoramic images, but I’ll leave it at this. It’s another tool that I need to learn so that it becomes second nature to me to shoot images to be stitched into panoramas that turn out well enough to be proud of.

It’s been warming up over the last week, and as it looks right now, I should have an excellent day off from work for my next photographic outing.

It’s now the last day of February as I’m working on this post, and I did have an excellent day off from work yesterday, with warm temperatures, and great light for a change. It was chilly as I left home, so I started the day at the Muskegon County wastewater facility, but there wasn’t much going on there as far as birds. Once it had really begun to warm up, I moved to the Muskegon Lake Nature Preserve, and spent the rest of my day there. I think that because this post is already too long on words, and short of photos, that I’ll end this one with just one photo from the day, then, begin my next post with the rest of the photos that I’ve saved for blogging. I shot over 600 photos for the day, don’t worry, only a handful will appear in the next post. But, here’s a photo from yesterday.

Black-capped chickadee on a bird feeder

I’ll save my thoughts on this image, and the rest of the images that I shot for the next post.

That’s it for this one, thanks for stopping by!

Northern Pintail, Anas acuta

Note: this post, while published, is a work in progress, as are all posts in this series, My Photo Life List. My goal is to photograph every species of bird that is seen on a regular basis here in Michigan, working from a list compiled by the Michigan chapter of the Audubon Society. This will be a lifelong project, that I began in January of 2013, and as I shoot better photos of this, or any other species, I will update the post for that species with better photos when I can. While this series is not intended to be a field guide per se, my minimum standard for the photos in this series is that one has to be able to make a positive identification of the species in my photos. The information posted here is from either my observations or the Wikipedia, the online free encyclopedia, however, I have personally shot all the photos appearing in this series.

Northern Pintail, Anas acuta

The pintail or northern pintail (Anas acuta) is a duck with wide geographic distribution that breeds in the northern areas of Europe, Asia and North America. It is migratory and winters south of its breeding range to the equator. Unusually for a bird with such a large range, it has no geographical subspecies if the possibly conspecific duck Eaton’s pintail is considered to be a separate species.

This is a large duck, and the male’s long central tail feathers give rise to the species’ English and scientific names. Both sexes have blue-grey bills and grey legs and feet. The drake is more striking, having a thin white stripe running from the back of its chocolate-coloured head down its neck to its mostly white undercarriage. The drake also has attractive grey, brown, and black patterning on its back and sides. The hen’s plumage is more subtle and subdued, with drab brown feathers similar to those of other female dabbling ducks. Hens make a coarse quack and the drakes a flute-like whistle.

The northern pintail is a bird of open wetlands which nests on the ground, often some distance from water. It feeds by dabbling for plant food and adds small invertebrates to its diet during the nesting season. It is highly gregarious when not breeding, forming large mixed flocks with other species of duck. This duck’s population is affected by predators, parasites and avian diseases. Human activities, such as agriculture, hunting and fishing, have also had a significant impact on numbers. Nevertheless, owed to the huge range and large population of this species, it is not threatened globally.

The northern pintail is a fairly large duck with a wing chord of 23.6–28.2 cm (9.3–11.1 in) and wingspan of 80–95 cm (31–37 in). The male is 59–76 cm (23–30 in) in length and weighs 450–1,360 g (0.99–3.00 lb), and therefore is considerably larger than the female, which is 51–64 cm (20–25 in) long and weighs 454–1,135 g (1.001–2.502 lb). The northern pintail broadly overlaps in size with the similarly-widespread mallard, but is more slender, elongated and gracile, with a relatively longer neck and (in males) a longer tail. The unmistakable breeding plumaged male has a chocolate-brown head and white breast with a white stripe extending up the side of the neck. Its upperparts and sides are grey, but elongated grey feathers with black central stripes are draped across the back from the shoulder area. The vent area is yellow, contrasting with the black underside of the tail, which has the central feathers elongated to as much as 10 cm (3.9 in). The bill is bluish and the legs are blue-grey.

The adult female is mainly scalloped and mottled in light brown with a more uniformly grey-brown head, and its pointed tail is shorter than the male’s; it is still easily identified by its shape, long neck, and long grey bill. In non-breeding (eclipse) plumage, the drake pintail looks similar to the female, but retains the male upperwing pattern and long grey shoulder feathers. Juvenile birds resemble the female, but are less neatly scalloped and have a duller brown speculum with a narrower trailing edge.

The pintail walks well on land, and swims well. It has a very fast flight, with its wings slightly swept-back, rather than straight out from the body like other ducks. In flight, the male shows a black speculum bordered white at the rear and pale rufous at the front, whereas the female’s speculum is dark brown bordered with white, narrowly at the front edge but very prominently at the rear, being visible at a distance of 1,600 m (0.99 mi).

The male’s call is a soft proop-proop whistle, similar to that of the common teal, whereas the female has a mallard-like descending quack, and a low croak when flushed.

This dabbling duck breeds across northern areas of Eurasia south to about Poland and Mongolia, and in Canada, Alaska and the Midwestern United States. Mainly in winters south of its breeding range, reaches almost to the equator in Panama, northern sub-Saharan Africa and tropical South Asia. Small numbers migrate to Pacific islands, particularly Hawaii, where a few hundred birds winter on the main islands in shallow wetlands and flooded agricultural habitats. Transoceanic journeys also occur: a bird that was caught and ringed in Labrador, Canada, was shot by a hunter in England nine days later, and Japanese-ringed birds have been recovered from six US states east to Utah and Mississippi. In parts of the range, such as Great Britain and the northwestern United States, the pintail may be present all year.

The northern pintail’s breeding habitat is open unwooded wetlands, such as wet grassland, lakesides or tundra. In winter, it will utilise a wider range of open habitats, such as sheltered estuaries, brackish marshes and coastal lagoons. It is highly gregarious outside the breeding season and forms very large mixed flocks with other ducks.

Both sexes reach sexual maturity at one year of age. The male mates with the female by swimming close to her with his head lowered and tail raised, continually whistling. If there is a group of males, they will chase the female in flight until only one drake is left. The female prepares for copulation, which takes place in the water, by lowering her body; the male then bobs his head up and down and mounts the female, taking the feathers on the back of her head in his mouth. After mating, he raises his head and back and whistles.

Breeding takes place between April and June, with the nest being constructed on the ground and hidden amongst vegetation in a dry location, often some distance from water. It is a shallow scrape on the ground lined with plant material and down. The female lays seven to nine cream-coloured eggs at the rate of one per day; the eggs are 55 mm × 38 mm (2.2 in × 1.5 in) in size and weigh 45 g (1.6 oz), of which 7% is shell. If predators destroy the first clutch, the female can produce a replacement clutch as late as the end of July. The hen alone incubates the eggs for 22 to 24 days before they hatch. The precocial downy chicks are then led by the female to the nearest body of water, where they feed on dead insects on the water surface. The chicks fledge in 46 to 47 days after hatching, but stay with the female until she has completed molting.

Around three-quarters of chicks live long enough to fledge, but not more than half of those survive long enough to reproduce. The maximum recorded age is 27 years and 5 months for a Dutch bird.

The pintail feeds by dabbling and upending in shallow water for plant food mainly in the evening or at night, and therefore spends much of the day resting. Its long neck enables it to take food items from the bottom of water bodies up to 30 cm (12 in) deep, which are beyond the reach of other dabbling ducks like the Mallard.

The winter diet is mainly plant material including seeds and rhizomes of aquatic plants, but the pintail sometimes feeds on roots, grain and other seeds in fields, though less frequently than other Anas ducks. During the nesting season, this bird eats mainly invertebrate animals, including aquatic insects, molluscs and crustaceans.

Pintail nests and chicks are vulnerable to predation by mammals, such as foxes and badgers, and birds like gulls, crows and magpies. The adults can take flight to escape terrestrial predators, but nesting females in particular may be surprised by large carnivores such as bobcats. Large birds of prey, such as northern goshawks, will take ducks from the ground, and some falcons, including the gyrfalcon, have the speed and power to catch flying birds.

It is susceptible to a range of parasites including Cryptosporidium, Giardia, tapeworms, blood parasites and external feather lice, and is also affected by other avian diseases. It is often the dominant species in major mortality events from avian botulism and avian cholera, and can also contract avian influenza, the H5N1 strain of which is highly pathogenic and occasionally infects humans.

Pintails in North America at least have been badly affected by avian diseases, with the breeding population falling from more than 10 million in 1957 to 3.5 million by 1964. Although the species has recovered from that low point, the breeding population in 1999 was 30% below the long-term average, despite years of major efforts focused on restoring the species. In 1997, an estimated 1.5 million water birds, the majority being northern pintails, died from avian botulism during two outbreaks in Canada and Utah.

The northern pintail is a popular species for game shooting because of its speed, agility, and excellent eating qualities, and is hunted across its range. Although one of the world’s most numerous ducks, the combination of hunting with other factors has led to population declines, and local restrictions on hunting have been introduced at times to help conserve numbers.

This species’ preferred habitat of shallow water is naturally susceptible to problems such as drought or the encroachment of vegetation, but this duck’s habitat might be increasingly threatened by climate change. Populations are also affected by the conversion of wetlands and grassland to arable crops, depriving the duck of feeding and nesting areas. Spring planting means that many nests of this early breeding duck are destroyed by farming activities, and a Canadian study showed that more than half of the surveyed nests were destroyed by agricultural work such as ploughing and harrowing.

Hunting with lead shot, along with the use of lead sinkers in angling, has been identified as a major cause of lead poisoning in waterfowl, which often feed off the bottom of lakes and wetlands where the shot collects. A Spanish study showed that northern pintail and common pochard were the species with the highest levels of lead shot ingestion, higher than in northern countries of the western Palearctic flyway, where lead shot has been banned. In the United States, Canada, and many western European countries, all shot used for waterfowl must now be non-toxic, and therefore may not contain any lead.

On to my photos:

Although pintails are not rare in Michigan, getting close to one is a rarity because they are very wary of humans due to the hunting pressure that they endure during migration. In fact, pintails were one of the first species that I photographed for this project, but it has taken me almost 5 years to get a reasonably good photo of a male in full breeding plumage. These photos were shot in January of 2018 at the Muskegon County wastewater facility.

Northern pintail ducks


Northern pintail ducks in flight


Northern pintail ducks in flight


Male Northern pintail ducks in flight


Northern pintail ducks in flight


Northern pintail ducks


Northern pintail ducks


Northern pintail ducks


Northern pintail ducks


This is number 206 in my photo life list, only 144 to go!

That’s it for this one, thanks for stopping by!


First real post of 2018

My last post was done in the middle of January, which is when I’m starting this post as well. I still haven’t been outside with a camera yet this year, and I may not make it this week either. I have a doctor’s appointment on my day off from work to make sure that the medicine that I’m taking for my psoriasis isn’t damaging my liver or other vital organs.

I’m more than a bit disappointed about not getting out this week, as it’s forecast to be the nicest day so far this year, with a temperature around freezing, and some sunshine for a change. Oh well, they’re be plenty of nice days this year when I can make it outside to shoot photos.

I think that this new job that I started last fall will actually give me more time for photography once I get used to the schedule. There have been days when even though I worked, I could have easily had the time to get out and shoot some photos from around home, or even have gone to Muskegon and back. But, it’s been so cold that I had no desire to freeze my fingers off for a few photos shot on grey, dreary days when there’s little hope of getting a good photo.

There’s been a lot for me to learn so far on this new job, mostly learning which postal employees know what they are talking about if I have a question. I could easily go on at length about all there is to learn, but I’m beginning to get the hang of it, and despite a few slip ups on my part, it’s going much better than during my first few weeks there. The pay is good, so good that I no longer have to work 10 to 12 hours a day to make ends meet, unlike at the last place that I worked.

I typically only work for 5 to 6 hours a couple of days each week, then a couple of longer days, in the 8 to 10 hour range, depending on the runs that I do. Since I earn $4 an hour more than at my last employer, I still make more money at the new job. Oh, and that $4 an hour is what I see in my paycheck. They also pay another $5 per hour that I use to pay my benefits and never see in my paycheck. My health insurance, dental insurance, and all other benefits come out of that $5 an hour that doesn’t show up in my paycheck, and some of that goes into a retirement savings account after my various insurances are paid for. That goes along with an IRA, and my employer has a profit-sharing program that also goes into my IRA as well. So, financially, I’m much better off at this job than my last.

Still, money is going to be tight until I get the hospital bill that I ran up last spring paid off. I have a rebate card from B&H Camera that I have to use before the end of April, or it will expire, and I’ll lose that rebate. I plan on purchasing a tripod collar and another quick release plate for the gimbal head so that I can mount my 70-200 mm lens on the gimbal head to use it to shoot videos if that’s the focal length required at the time that I shoot the video.

One thing that I’m learning about shooting video is that I don’t have to be zoomed in as tight on a subject for the subject to show up well in the video. Another thing that I’m learning is that I can’t hold the camera steady enough to produce a quality video no matter how short the lens that I use is. I know that most people use a dedicated head for videos, but I don’t want to spring for yet another tripod and head just to shoot videos. In my limited testing, the gimbal head does what I need it to do, steady the camera and lens, yet let me follow the action that I’m trying to shoot.

So far for the year, I have three photos saved that I shot testing ways to make the 400 mm lens focus closer than 11 feet by adding an extension tube behind it. I can get down to eight feet, which will work well for times when I can use it. I also have three short video clips saved as well, as I was trying to get my camera set-up correctly to shoot videos.

I know that I’m going to have to change one of the settings that I changed back to where it was, or it will mess me up as I’m trying to shoot photos while using live view focusing. In a round about way, that takes me to my next point.

I needed another ink refill for my printer, so I stopped at the local camera store to pick one up. While there, I couldn’t resist the chance to check out a Canon 5D Mk IV in person, rather than just reading about it online. While the 5D is laid out almost exactly as the 7D that I use is, I have reprogrammed the 7D to the point where things that I do automatically with the 7D took me a while to do on the 5D because of how I have customized the 7D. That’s okay, as I can customize the 5D to match the way that I have my 7D bodies set-up, still, that reminded me how much I have changed the 7D to shoot the subjects that I do the way that I do. That may not directly affect image quality, however, it does allow me to make the changes to the camera settings as quickly as I need to in order to shoot the photos that I do. And, that does result in better images because I can use the right settings most of the time, since it takes me so little time to make the changes.

On another related note, I finally have made it out to shoot a few photos, including a sunrise for a change.

Muskegon sunrise 1

One thing that has given me fits while trying to shoot a series of images to produce a HDR image as these are is that the 7D that I’ve begun using for landscapes canceled the auto-bracketing for exposure whenever I’d change anything, including refocusing the scene. There have been times when I almost switched back to the 60D body just for that reason, as once I set the 60D for exposure bracketing, it stayed set until I changed it. I went into the menu system of the 7D for another reason, and found a setting labeled AEB auto cancel, and it was enabled. I disabled it, and that put an end to me having to reset the bracketing all the time as I had been doing.

Muskegon sunrise 2

Most of the time I love how customizable the 7D is, but then there are times when some obscure menu setting drives me crazy trying to figure out why the camera doesn’t do what I want it to do.

It was a great sunrise, I could have used a fish-eye lens because the entire sky was colored by the rising sun. I used the 16-35 mm lens at 16 mm for the first one, the 100-400 mm lens set at 100 mm for the second.

Now then, Photomatix recently released a new version of their software to create HDR images, and I’m still learning to make the best use of it. I think that the first image is a little over the top, so I went back and tried it a second time with different Photomatix settings, and this is the result.

Muskegon sunrise 3

That version is much closer to what I was seeing as I shot the photos. I wanted to shoot more photos of the sunrise, but it came to an end rather quickly, almost as if some one had switched off the color all at once. I also wanted to move to another location for a better photo, and switch to my 10-18 mm lens to capture more of the sky, but the sunrise was over by then.

It turned out to be a very nice day, with plenty of sunshine and the temperature getting above freezing for a change. Not only was the weather nice, but I got my best photos to date of northern pintail ducks.

Northern pintail ducks in flight

I almost blew my chance at improving over photos like this one, shot on a bitterly cold, grey day in March of 2014.

Male northern pintail

I’ve been waiting to do a post on this species in the My Photo Life List project that I’ve been working on until I was able to shoot better photos of them than the one above.

Anyway, I was shooting photos of mallards in flight for practice more than any other reason…

Mallards in flight


Male mallard in flight

…because of the way that the light is reflected off from the snow left on the ground to light the underside of their wings.

While I was shooting the mallards, I spotted the pair of pintails much closer to me than I’ve ever gotten to that species before, but I had the bird in flight set-up in my hand. I even got the pintails in focus as they were resting, but like the idiot that I am, I never pressed the shutter button. Instead, I set the bird in flight set-up down, and grabbed the portrait set-up to get what I hoped would be excellent images of the pintails. You know what happened, they took off as I was making the switch, so I had to go back to the bird in flight set-up.

Northern pintail ducks in flight

They may not be brightly colored, but they are very elegant looking ducks, so I was happy that I got the photos that I did. Also, just as with the mallards, the light reflecting off from the snow lit the underside of their wings very well.

Knowing that the pintails would probably return to the same pond as where I found them, I went off in search of other subjects for a while, then I did go back to where I had first seen them. Just as I got there, a pair of male pintails were coming in for a landing.

Male Northern pintail ducks in flight

The pintails knew I was there, so they stayed in the far side of the pond, over twice as far away from me as they had been when I first spooked them. Still, I was able to shoot a few reasonably good photos of them, much better than any of the earlier ones that I had saved over the years.

Northern pintail ducks

You can see in that last image that the females are smaller than the males, and while the females may look like a female mallard, the dark bill of the pintail is one way of telling a female pintail from a female mallard, which have orange bills.

The other photos that I shot this day are only so-so, but at this time of the year, I have to take what I can get.

Juvenile bald eagle in flight


American crow in flight


American crow in flight


American crow in flight


Great blue heron resting

I’ve since made it out again, on a day when the light was horrible, despite the sun trying to burn through the clouds. It was so hazy that it interfered with the auto-focusing system of my usually reliable camera. Not only that, but I wasn’t able to get close to any wildlife at all, other than a snowy owl well before sunrise. Still, it was fun to watch the owl trying to pick off a duck now and then. I never saw it succeed in any of its attacks though, the ducks were too quick to spot the owl as it approached. I eventually lost sight of the owl as dark as it was at the time.

Right after sunrise, this Cooper’s hawk came flying past me though.

Cooper’s hawk in flight

It’s been a while since I’ve shot a photo of a Cooper’s hawk, otherwise I wouldn’t have included that one because of the noise in the image.

Here’s a photo to show how low and close to the snow that snowy owls fly when they’re moving to another perch to hunt from.

Snowy owl in flight

Maybe I’ll catch one coming at me one of these days, rather than flying past me as it glides just above the snow. But, because they fly so low, they’re hard to spot in the distance against a white background.

On the other hand, I spotted these two bald eagles, one adult and one juvenile, soaring towards me as I looked for things to photograph. As they approached me, they took turns flying at one another.

Bald eagles in flight

Since neither of them was carrying food, I don’t know why they would make passes at each other. I don’t know if it’s part of the bonding process between an adult and its young, a game that eagles play, or exactly what the reason is, but it’s something that I see often.

Bald eagles in flight

The adult broke off and headed straight towards me, but I couldn’t get a good photo of it as it passed over my head due to the haze in the air at the time.

The juvenile hung back a little, and when it flew over me, it took a path that put blue sky behind it, so I was able to shoot this one before it got directly over me.

Juvenile bald eagle in flight

Birds in flight have always fascinated me, as they have many people, but the more that I attempt to photograph them, the more fascinated I have become. I should expand that, it isn’t just because I’m trying to photograph birds in flight, but it’s that I’m learning to identify the species of bird flying by just the way that it flies, long before I can see the colors of the bird that I’m seeing at the time.

At the same time that I shot the two male pintails returning to the pond, there were hundreds of mallards also returning to land there at the same time. Yet I had no trouble at all picking the pintails out of the flock of mallards because of the shape and motion of their wings. It’s hard to describe the differences, even though it was easy enough to see as I scanned the incoming flock of ducks as they returned to the pond. For one thing, the pintails flap their wings even faster than the mallards do, and the arc that their wings move in is different as well.

It seems that each species of bird flies slightly different from other similar sized birds, even if they are in the same family of birds, such as ducks. It’s easy enough to tell the difference between a long-winged duck such as a mallard, and a species of duck with much shorter, broader wings, such as a common goldeneye for example.

Male common goldeneye in flight

However, mallards and pintails are very close in size, yet their flight is different enough to allow me to identify which species a duck in flight is, just by the motion of its wings.

I think that I’m paying more attention to the different ways that birds fly because I’m spending much more time near open bodies of water, and at the Muskegon County wastewater facility, where there are vast tracts of open land devoid of trees. For most of my life, I spent most of my time hiking in wooded areas, where I’d see small songbirds flitting from one tree branch to another. Even then I could tell that there were differences in the way that the various species of birds that I saw flew, but most of the time, I couldn’t see birds in the distance because of the trees.

When I’m along the shore of Lake Michigan, or at the wastewater facility, it’s easy to spot a larger bird flying over a quarter of a mile away, and then I’d like to be able to identify it in order to decide if it’s a species of bird worth trying to get closer to or not. That’s where being able to identify the species just by the way that it flaps its wings comes into play. Is the bird I’m seeing a gull, or something else, an eagle, or a turkey vulture, a crow or a falcon? It can be hard to tell by size alone, as across the distances that I can see birds in open areas, it’s more difficult to judge the size of a bird and how far away from me it really is when the bird is in the open sky with nothing nearby to help me judge the bird’s size and distance from me.

As an example, I spotted a hawk a good distance away from me on my lasting outing, but I wasn’t sure of which species of hawk that it was until I had watched it in flight. It was a rough-legged hawk…

Rough-legged hawk in flight

…which I could tell by the way that it hovered over an area pausing to look the area over when it thought that there may be food below.

Rough-legged hawk in flight

However, as much as I could attempt to explain the differences in how similarly sized birds fly, and how you can use that to identify the bird in question, is beyond my writing ability. Even in my still photos, it’s impossible to see the differences, even if I shoot two different birds at one time in the frame together.

American crow harassing a red-tailed hawk in flight


American crow harassing a red-tailed hawk in flight


American crow harassing a red-tailed hawk in flight

To truly show the differences in how those two birds move their wings in flight I’d have to shoot videos, and I’m not good enough at shooting video yet, and I probably will never become good enough in the future. I’m afraid that ability to show what I’m trying to explain would only come if I invested in quality video recording gear rather than relying on the video capabilities of my DSLRs.

I have neither the money to afford expensive video gear, nor the time to learn how to make the best use of it, and I never will bless I were to hit the lottery. So, I encourage you to watch various species of birds in flight so that you may learn of what I’m talking about.

Anyway, I’ve had trouble finding many birds to photograph the last three times that I’ve been out with the camera this year so far. So, I shot a few photos of lichens to pass the time, and to keep my skill at macro photography ready for the spring when the flowers begin to bloom.

Unidentified lichen


Unidentified lichen

The flowers of spring can’t get here soon enough for me, it’s been a long, cold, snowy winter so far, with no hint of that changing in the weather forecasts I’ve seen. I have the day off from work, but I’m not going to bother to go out to shoot any photos, as there’s still more snow about to begin falling here before daylight. The past two weeks have been miserable as far as the cold and snow, although we may get a day or two of around average winter days this coming week. Just getting back to average will seem like a heat wave. And, a day or two without any new snow falling will be a nice change as well.

After I arrived home from work yesterday, I watched the noon forecast, hoping for nicer weather, and that’s what the forecaster said at the time, that there may even be a little sunshine for today. But, when I woke up and checked the forecast at 11 PM, it had changed to include yet more snow for the day. A check of the radar confirmed that there is indeed another band of snow headed towards the area and it will arrive just before dawn, bah humbug!

So, I’m going to finish this post with a pair of flower photos from last fall…



Unidentified sunflower

I have no idea when I’ll be able to do another of my regular posts like this one, so I’ll be filling in the gaps with more posts on the My Photo Life List project until we get some better weather around here, sorry.

That’s it for this one, thanks for stopping by!