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

The birds, they task me, they heap me

Call me frustrated.

OK, enough cheesy references to Herman Melville’s classic “Moby Dick”, because this won’t be a classic by any stretch of the imagination.

You’re all probably frustrated as well, reading about my frustrations as it pertains to birds, sorry, I can’t help myself, as I swear, the little buggers are taunting me! Even more than usual of late.

Take Saturday, I went back to the county park near where I live where I had gotten the so-so shots of a Carolina wren a few weeks ago. I had just gotten started on my walk, when I saw the form of a wren flitting about in the brush ahead of me. I couldn’t ID it because the lighting was so bad, so I tried to get closer. The darned wren stood up on the sawed off end of some brush and started dancing, it looked like a school child dancing to get the attention of the teacher to get permission to visit the restroom, and quickly!

Winter wren dancing

Winter wren dancing

Winter wren dancing

Winter wren dancing

With the lighting as bad as it was for those, there’s no way that I can use them for my photo life list project, and I was fairly certain that was going to be the case when I shot them, but hope springs eternal, even if reality sucks. 😉 It was as if the wren knew that I was in the wrong position for a good photo, the way that it perched there and danced.

I followed the wren, hoping for better shots, at one point it flew very close to me and landed on a large limb, for a split second. Before I could raise the camera up, the wren dove into an old woodpecker hole in the limb. I saw then that the wren was a winter wren, and not the Carolina wren I have been chasing for three weeks. I thought that I may get a shot of it as it exited, but it came out of that woodpecker hole as if its tail were on fire! So I continued to follow it the wren, and the next photo is the best of a very bad lot.

Winter wren partially hidden in the brush

Winter wren partially hidden in the brush

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again, people ooo and aahh over shots of bald eagles, but they are an easy species to photograph, I just find them, then shoot away. It’s the little birds that are difficult subjects!

To prove that I haven’t become a complete bird brain yet, I did shoot a few photos of deer and formations in the ice.

Whitetail doe

Whitetail doe

Whitetail doe

Whitetail doe

Ice

Ice

Ice

Ice

The ice photos look much better in a larger size, trust me, they look weak here, you can click on any photo here for a larger view.

I also shot a couple of a fox squirrel drinking the water drops that had formed on the underside of some branches.

Fox squirrel drinking from water drops

Fox squirrel drinking from water drops

Fox squirrel drinking from water drops

Fox squirrel drinking from water drops

But, back to birds. My parents, especially my mom, were always interested in birds, we had bird feeders in the back yard long before it became popular. My dad would set his camera up and photograph the birds as they came and went to the feeders. When my dad was forced to retire early because of a heart condition, he started building an almost unbreakable bird feeder which he sold to supplement his disability insurance. (I say almost unbreakable because nothing stands up to a determined bear or hurricane force winds slamming a bird feeder into a concrete wall)

I have found that over the years, I have gotten lazy when it comes to making a positive ID as to the exact species of birds I see. A seagull is a gull, is a gull for example, or sparrows are another example. I would only identify birds by family for many species, and call it good.

Since I have gotten back into photography, and started this blog, my birding began to get back to where it should have been all along, and here’s why.

Later during my walk, as I was nearing the end of the five miles I did that day, I saw a flock of sparrows in the brush along Buck Creek. My first glance told me that they were probably just chipping sparrows, but, since I started my photo life list project, probably doesn’t cut it any longer. By then, the weather had gone downhill, it was sprinkling a little, and I’ll admit that I was dog tired for some reason, maybe it was five miles through heavy, slushy snow covering the trails.

Anyway, there was something about the chirping coming from the sparrows in question that told me that they weren’t chipping sparrows, and that I needed to investigate further. As I was working on the post for chipping sparrows that I have already done, I read that American tree sparrows look very similar to chipping sparrows, but the only part of the differences between the two that I could remember at the time was that the tree sparrows have a dark spot on their chest.

Maybe it was because I was tired that I broke my own first rule of critter photography, shoot first, shoot quickly, and then ask questions later. I wanted to get a photo of one of the sparrow’s chests, to make a positive ID. However, all the sparrows were perched with their backs to me, and I passed up what would have been good shots, hoping to get a chest shot, to see the dark spot, if they really were tree sparrows.

The wind didn’t help, for when one sparrow finally turned towards me, the way its feathers were being blown in the wind made me wonder if the dark spot I was seeing was its permanent markings, or caused by the wind moving its feathers around.

American tree sparrow in the wind

American tree sparrow in the wind

So, I shot some more.

American tree sparrow

American tree sparrow

American tree sparrow

American tree sparrow

By then I was almost positive the birds were American tree sparrows and not chipping sparrows so I tried for more shots of them at any angle. But by then, all my fooling around trying to get a chest shot had spooked most of the flock to the other side of the creek, and these are the best I could do.

American tree sparrow

American tree sparrow

American tree sparrow

American tree sparrow

Once I got back home and refreshed my memory by looking up American tree sparrows online, I found other ways of making a positive ID. Chipping sparrows have a bold white eyebrow and black eye stripe, plain gray breast with no markings, and a solid black bill. American tree sparrows have a bright rusty crown and eye stripe, bicolor black and yellow bill, and a small dark spot on center of otherwise plain breast. So, the sparrows in question were certainly American tree sparrows, but I had blown the opportunity for some good photos of them by holding out for the chest shots. Aaargh!

Now the question becomes, do I use those crummy photos in a post in my photo life list project, or wait until I get better ones. American tree sparrows aren’t year round residents, they migrate though Michigan in the spring and fall. It could be years before I run into more of them while they are migrating. Or, maybe not, for after boning up on identifying them, I noticed that a shot I had taken earlier in the week while on my daily walk around home that I had shot this one, thinking it was a chipping sparrow.

American tree sparrow

American tree sparrow

That was a practice shot, trying to get a good photo in bad lighting conditions, and it turns out that the bird wasn’t what I thought that it was when I shot it. And, for further proof that I really need to better my birding skills, I went back to the post that I did on chipping sparrows and found this photo!

American tree sparrow

American tree sparrow

It wasn’t a chipping sparrow, it’s an American tree sparrow. Seems that the little buggers are far more common than I thought, and I have to be a lot more positive in my identifications!

Oh, and here’s a chipping sparrow for reference.

Chipping sparrow

Chipping sparrow

Why can’t all species be easy, like chickadees?

Black capped chikadee

Black capped chickadee

Black capped chikadee

Black capped chickadee

Or northern cardinals?

Female northern cardinal

Female northern cardinal

Female northern cardinal

Female northern cardinal

Male northern cardinal

Male northern cardinal

Male northern cardinal

Male northern cardinal

Male northern cardinal

Male northern cardinal

Male northern cardinal

Male northern cardinal

Male northern cardinal

Male northern cardinal

Female northern cardinal

Female northern cardinal

Female northern cardinal

Female northern cardinal

Or great blue herons?

Great blue heron

Great blue heron

Great blue heron

Great blue heron

Great blue heron

Great blue heron

Great blue heron

Great blue heron

Great blue heron

Great blue heron

No some birds have to be difficult, or I should say, I’m not a skilled enough birder yet at this point. Here’s another example. I spotted a hawk in a tree and shot a few photos, more for practice than anything else, as I wasn’t paying a lot of attention to what species of hawk it was. I just assumed that it was a red-tailed hawk, as they are the most common around here.

Red-shouldered hawk

Red-shouldered hawk

Even from that photo, I may have identified the hawk as a red-tailed, but when I blew up this next photo, I saw how wrong I can be!

Red-shouldered hawk

Red-shouldered hawk

From its facial features and tail, I saw then that it was a red-shouldered hawk, not a red-tailed. This is a red-tailed hawk.

Red-tailed hawk in flight

Red-tailed hawk in flight

OK, so you can’t really use that last one as a comparison, I just threw it in here because I like it! But, even that hawk had to be difficult, it was circling the area, but would not clear the trees, so I had to pick a hole in the branches to get that shot.

I’m learning, a lot. Not only on how to identify birds, but also what a wonderful group of people birders are. I have now met several members of the Muskegon County Nature Club, and they have all been very helpful. And, that goes with a post that Tracy of Seasons Flow just did on red crossbills in his area. The crossbills were feeding from some one’s backyard feeder, and the home owner, who just happens to be a serious birder himself, is allowing birders to visit his backyard to see the crossbills.

Oh, and there’s one more source of frustration for me, people who trash our environment.

Trash in Buck Creek

Trash in Buck Creek

Now how the heck does a fire extinguisher end up in a creek? The plastic bottles are bad enough, that’s just laziness on the part of who ever brought them to the park, but a fire extinguisher?

Back to birds again, I actually enjoy the trials and tribulations I go through to get the photos of birds that I get, and if becoming a better birder makes me even more observant, then that’s a good thing. I’m meeting nice people and having fun, even if it becomes frustrating at times, so I’m enjoying myself, and who can ask for more?

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

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17 responses

  1. I often encounter the same sort of frustration when I’m trying something new or trying to improve on something familiar.

    March 11, 2013 at 1:37 am

    • Thanks, that’s the way it seems to go for most of us.

      March 11, 2013 at 2:04 am

  2. I’m very happy trying to identify plants-the subtle variations in bird plumage would make me a crazy person in a very short time, I think. I like the shots of the cardinals and that last heron shot with snow in the background is a keeper. I can’t think of a single time when I’ve seen a heron with snow on the ground.
    Speaking of trash, yesterday I found a wheelbarrow wrapped around a tree. It was a red one that looked relatively new, and even still had air in the tire. Apparently the creek flooded and took it out of someone’s yard.

    March 11, 2013 at 6:32 am

    • Thanks, I think that there are a lot of similarities as far as ID’ing plants and birds, the difference being that plants generally sit still while you’re trying to ID them. I’m also thinking that either one is a good way of keeping one’s mind and memory sharp.

      That heron is somewhat special. I’ve seen it many times over the last few winters, it never migrates south at all, which is strange. Not only that, but he’s very alert, and hard to sneak up on, more so than other herons. I didn’t put all the photos of him that I took, nor did I tell the story, but I was north of the heron when I spotted him, not the best for photography. I managed to work my way all the way around him using trees and brush as cover, until I got that last shot. Even then, he took off not because he saw me, but because a darned mallard did, and alerted the heron to my presence, or I may have gotten even closer.

      March 11, 2013 at 9:18 am

  3. You’re doing a great job getting to learn the nuances of bird id’ing. Here is where some post processing can help. You can add fill light to the Image to lighten up the bird and salvage the pic. I know the real pro bird shooters use a big flash unit.

    March 11, 2013 at 7:45 am

    • Thanks, but I’m a stubborn old fool who likes to have something to complain about. Part of the reason why I took up photography again was as a “tool” to keep my abilities to spot and stalk prey in shape since I stopped hunting many years ago. But I still love the thrill of the hunt, so now I shoot with a camera rather than a gun, and the camera is tougher, which I actually like.

      I have used a flash before, but the wren may have been slightly out of range. There’s also the problem of recycle time with a flash. I should have tried the flash, but I didn’t have time. Besides, I do have a big flash unit, I tried it once while “hunting” deer, and ended up with photos of zombie deer.

      March 11, 2013 at 9:04 am

  4. A great essay! You’ve got plenty of fine photos here, and it’s a good day when I spot a Winter Wren so congratulations on those photos in particular.

    I’ve definitely found birders to be a helpful and friendly lot. Sure, there are some colorful personalities, but you find that in every walk of life.

    I too get frustrtated when I seen trash in natural settings. I found a shopping cart once in a scrubby woods, with a tree trunk growing up through the broken bottom of the cart. The tree will have serious problems with its trunk growing through the metal, I assume. Sad.

    March 11, 2013 at 9:41 am

    • Thank you! I believe that you were one of the people who helped me ID a winter wren I photographed a couple of years ago, not long after I started this blog, so thank you again.

      Birding is one of those things that I thought that I knew something about. I’ve leafed through field guides countless times, reading about the species that caught my interest. But as in so many other things, I find that the more I learn, the less I knew in the first place. It is very humbling, and I hope that budding birders can learn from my mistakes, because I’m better at that than anything else!

      March 11, 2013 at 9:48 am

  5. Love those wrens! They are the cutest (and loudest, I swear, ounce for ounce!) Talk about your wake-up calls… 🙂

    March 11, 2013 at 11:09 am

    • Not only are they cute and loud, they never shut up! You always know when one is near.

      March 11, 2013 at 12:05 pm

  6. I know it wasn’t appropriate for the project, but I love the wren silhouette photos – they capture that sprightly “wren-ness” that I love so much. I have gotten lax about identifying birds – the red-tailed hawks I’m only sure of when I see that tail, so I may be looking at red-shouldered sometimes but don’t bother to figure that out. The tree sparrows – I tend to see chipping sparrows, because that’s what I’m used to. Some of those have probably been tree sparrows. But where I live now no tree sparrows! That’s one way of solving that problem.

    March 14, 2013 at 5:11 pm

    • Thanks, I sort of like the wren pics as well, but I’ll have to get some better ones. I’m learning so much about birds since I began the project, and that’s another plus!

      March 15, 2013 at 2:22 am

  7. I meant to say I’ve never seen a photo of a heron in the snow – then saw the interesting comment & your response above – cool! There would usually be one or two that would overwinter in NYC, and I’m seeing them year round here (Seattle are) but these are much easier places, I think, than where you are, winter weather-wise.

    March 14, 2013 at 5:15 pm

    • It’s just that one heron, all the others have left long ago. He can fly, and doesn’t seem injured in any way, I guess that he likes the cold here over the winter.

      March 15, 2013 at 2:23 am

  8. Pingback: American Tree Sparrow, Spizella arborea | Michigan Birder

  9. Great post Jerry! I loved your American tree sparrow story, you got some great shots. Love the variety photos as well, you’re area is indeed a haven for birdwatchers!

    March 21, 2013 at 9:22 pm

    • Thank you! I think the moral of the tree sparrow story is that it pays not to assume that every little brown bird one sees is the same species as the other little brown birds that one sees quite frequently. Turns out the the tree sparrows are very common here in the winter, I’ve probably seen them many times before and thought that they were chipping sparrows.

      March 22, 2013 at 2:04 am