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

Learning a few lessons

On Sunday, April 14, I drove over to Muskegon for a day of birding, using my new camera and lenses. Since part of the day consisted of photographing waterfowl from my vehicle, drive by birding as I call it, I am going to bore every one to start by heaping praise on my new Subaru.

I Love my Forester! I filled up the gas tank before starting for Muskegon, and with a tailwind on my way there, the display for the fuel mileage was reading just under 32 MPG! Not bad for a small all wheel drive SUV. I say small, because that’s how the Forester is classified, there’s more head and leg room in it than in my old Ford Explorer, and just as much cargo space in the rear. Yet the Forester drives like a vehicle much smaller then the Explorer, as far as how nimble it is. And, getting almost 32 MPG sure beats the 20 MPG that was the best the Explorer ever got.

However, I found out that the extra cabin space was actually a hindrance while trying to shoot photos from inside of the Forester. The old Explorer was so narrow that I could easily open the passenger side window, and stick my lens out when required for photography purposes.

The Forester is just enough wider that I found it extremely difficult to do the same thing in it. But, part of that is the due to the size and weight of the Sigma 150-500 mm lens as well.

Anyway, if you’re in the market for a fun to drive, safe, fuel-efficient, well-built vehicle, you owe it to yourself to at least check out a Subaru. They’re not sexy, but they get the job done.

Next up, the weather report. The forecast called for morning rain/snow showers, with clearing and possible sunshine for the afternoon. The rain/snow was over here in Grand Rapids when I set out, but I ran into it again just as I got to Muskegon. Boy, did I ever, as you will see.

My first stop was the Muskegon County wastewater treatment facility, and just as I pulled in, the snow really picked up in intensity, reducing visibility to less than a quarter of a mile. It was snowing so hard that the ground was soon covered, in spite of the fact that the temperature was above freezing.

In the very first pond that I came to, there was a pair of hooded mergansers taking shelter from the storm. This is when I learned that I couldn’t shoot photos out of the passenger side window of my Forester. So, I drove past them, turned around and came back, and to my surprise, they sat there as I started shooting photos. I was overjoyed! They are such skittish birds, I couldn’t believe it when I could zoom in on them to the point where I could see the water dripping from the male’s bill in the viewfinder of my camera as I was shooting. What I didn’t know, but the birds must have, was that the photos I was taking would come out like crap because of the heavy snow falling at the time.

Hooded merganser pair

Hooded merganser pair

Believe me, it looked much better through the viewfinder.

So, I drove around the west lagoon, blissfully shooting photos of bufflehead, golden eye, northern shovelers, coots, ruddy ducks, etc. thinking that I was getting some really good photos. Because of the bad weather, as is often the case, the birds were holding tight, not wanting to move from the sheltered areas in which they were holding. What I didn’t know was that I was actually shooting photos of the falling snow as much or more than I was shooting photos of waterfowl. But, I didn’t now that until I got back home and downloaded the photos to my computer.

One lesson I did learn right there at the time was to never shut the camera off. I hate to harp about the position of the on/off switch on the Canon 60D, but the second or two I lose while fumbling for the switch is enough for a bird to take flight, or dive to avoid being photographed. After a couple of instances when I missed the opportunity to take a shot of the falling snow with a duck in the background, I left the camera on except when I was travelling to other areas….

Horned grebe in the snow

Horned grebe in the snow

Battery life is good enough to let me get away with it.

I used that last shot for a couple of reasons. One is that the horned grebes are beginning to change to their breeding colors. The second was to show just how hard it was snowing, you can see snow on the grebe’s back because the snow was coming down faster than it would melt off from the grebe.

By the time I got to the back corner of the west lagoon, the snow was letting up, and I managed to salvage a few shots.

A pair of Ruddy ducks

A pair of Ruddy ducks

Male northern shoveler

Male northern shoveler

Female northern shoveler

Female northern shoveler

American coot

American coot

Blue winged teal

Blue winged teal

Herring gull

Herring gull

Herring gull

Herring gull

There were few waterfowl in the east lagoon, I have no idea why, but that’s the way it was. There were however, dozens if not hundreds of tree swallows skimming over the waterways that ring the lagoons, and connect the ponds together. Feeling really brave, I tried my hand at photographing the swallows in flight, and here’s the best of a half a dozen attempts.

Tree swallow in flight

Tree swallow in flight

Keeping a 500 mm lens on a swallow in flight is no easy task, this female gadwall proved to be a little easier.

Female gadwall in flight

Female gadwall in flight

But, I missed the male, darn.

This meadowlark fell victim to camera shake I believe, because I was trying to shoot through the passenger window of my Forester, and couldn’t get into a steady position.

Meadowlark

Meadowlark

Meadowlark

Meadowlark

I was able to catch this kestrel through the driver’s side window, some sun would have helped this one out.

American kestrel

American kestrel

I drove around the north end of the wastewater facility, but found nothing special worth photographing. By that time though, the sun was breaking through the clouds. I thought about going around the lagoons again, but I didn’t know how bad the photos I had taken previously were, and I had other stops I wanted to make. That, and more people were showing up since the weather was getting nicer. I looked for the hooded mergansers, they were gone, and I saw several cars working the lagoons, so I doubted if I would get as close to the waterfowl as I had earlier, when I was the only one there.

I headed up to the headquarters for the Muskegon State Game area, to do some walking rather than driving. I learned another lesson there.

The Sigma lens came with a very nice carrying case, complete with strap. I had the Sigma on the camera, but had placed the Canon 70-200 mm lens in the case to make it easy to carry, I thought. The strap on the case is too short to go over my head and carry over my shoulder that way, I can only put the strap on my shoulder. The strap kept sliding off my shoulder as I walked, so I ended up carry the case and spare lens in one hand, and the camera and Sigma lens in the other, not a great arrangement. That’s one instance when I should have tried that at home. 😉 On one of the rainy days this week I’m going to have to rearrange the dividers in my camera bag to hold the Canon lens I have so I can carry it with me. I’ve been so busy buying and learning new equipment that I haven’t gotten around to that chore yet. I’ll wait until I pick up the EF S 15-85 mm lens so that I can rearrange the dividers to hold both Canon lenses, then find a way to attach the Sigma lens case to my camera bag solidly.

Anyway, it didn’t matter too much, I only walked a few hundred yards down the trail when I came to a large flooded area, with no way around it. I headed back to where I had parked and set off in the other direction, only to go a short way before coming to another flooded area. So much for this spot.

I drove down to the Messenger Road parking area to try that. I had never been there before, but had heard it was a good spot for birding. As I entered the parking area, I wasn’t holding out much hope, as it turned out to be on the edge of a very large marsh, hundreds of acres of marsh. With all the rain we had, which flooded the birding trails at the headquarters, I didn’t think that I would find a place to walk at all. But, there’s a dike there that controls the water levels in the marsh, with a trail along the top of it. It looked high and dry, so I set off down the trail.

It wasn’t long before I saw this raccoon hunting for food on the edge of the dike.

Raccoon

Raccoon

When it spotted me, it took off swimming through the swamp to a tree to safely climb.

Swimming raccoon

Swimming raccoon

I made it almost a mile from my vehicle when I came to a spot where the dike was being washed away by the flood waters, so much for this trail.

I turned around and headed back to my vehicle, pausing long enough to shoot this kingfisher.

Belted kingfisher

Belted kingfisher

Belted kingfisher

Belted kingfisher

Yeah! With some sun, the Sigma really does the job! That extra reach sure came in handy for those.

OK, so I wasn’t having much luck looking for a place to walk, as everything was flooded, so I headed to the Muskegon Lake channel, as I knew that would be high and dry. I went to the north side this time, in Muskegon State Park, as it was now late afternoon, and I would get good lighting on either side, but the north side was a shorter drive.

I got to the channel to find the wind blowing out of the east in excess of 30 MPH, with three-foot swells (at least), and no birds other than gulls in sight. I felt a moment of letdown, then saw some wind surfers doing their thing at the entrance to the channel. I thought “What the heck, shooting them will be a good test of the lens and camera”.

So, I walked down to where I had a good view of them, and shot away.

Windsurfers

Windsurfers

Windsurfers

Windsurfers

Windsurfers

Windsurfers

Windsurfers

Windsurfers

Windsurfers

Windsurfers

Windsurfers

Windsurfers

Windsurfers

Windsurfers

One is a little blurry, but I would say not bad at all. The windsurfers were moving at a pretty good clip, and I think that they were a good test of my new gear. But, I was after birds, so I thought that I would go to the snug harbor access area in the State Park to see what I could find there.

Oh, before I forget, the wind was so strong there that every time I set the case holding the spare lens down on the ground to take photos, I had to be careful that it didn’t blow away, or into the channel. That held true when I spotted this female red-breasted merganser that appeared out of nowhere.

Female red-breasted merganser

Female red-breasted merganser

She did her best impression of a submarine periscope for me.

Female red-breasted merganser

Female red-breasted merganser

Then I got a good shot of her while zoomed in all the way between waves!

Female red-breasted merganser

Female red-breasted merganser

Her mate wanted nothing to do with having his photo taken.

Male red-breasted merganser in flight

Male red-breasted merganser in flight

I started walking back to my vehicle, when this also appeared out of nowhere!

Common loon

Common loon

Common loon cropped

Common loon cropped

Common loon diving

Common loon diving

After the loon dove, I never did see it again, and believe me, I looked for it!

I did however find another horned grebe in the process of getting its breeding plumage.

Horned grebe

Horned grebe

Horned grebe

Horned grebe

And, I shot a few more of the windsurfers for the heck of it.

Windsurfer

Windsurfer

Windsurfer

Windsurfer

They were catching some serious air in that wind.

I did stop at snug harbor, and shot a few of a great blue heron in flight, with and without swans.

Great blue heron in flight

Great blue heron in flight

Great blue heron in flight

Great blue heron in flight

Great blue heron in flight

Great blue heron in flight

Great blue heron in flight

Great blue heron in flight

Great blue heron in flight

Great blue heron in flight

Great blue heron in flight

Great blue heron in flight

Great blue heron in flight

Great blue heron in flight

Nothing great, other than the heron, but it was good practice with the new camera and lens. Seeing them here, I’m tempted to put them in full resolution, as they are sharper than they appear here, but you’ll have to take my word for that. I still need to conserve the free space that WordPress provides for photo storage, and if I started posting full resolution photos, I’d never stop, and would soon run out of space.

Oh, and the swans in the photos are all young swans that haven’t reached breeding age yet.

Anyway, I also got some very good photos of red-winged blackbirds to finish off the day.

Red-winged blackbird

Red-winged blackbird

Red-winged blackbird

Red-winged blackbird

Red-winged blackbird

Red-winged blackbird

I saw a couple of eagles as well, and there were many smaller waterfowl hanging out with the swans too. All too fay away for a good photo even with the Sigma lens.

All in all, a very good day, despite the early crop of bad snow photos, but that’s how I learn. I feel I made some real progress as far as getting used to the controls on the camera and Sigma lens, I didn’t have a chance to work with the Canon 70-200 mm today, its time will come. I am also learning their capabilities, and how to adjust to overcome their shortcomings, not that they have many I didn’t know of when I purchased them. The Sigma is a bit slow for action shots, other than in good light, I knew that going in.

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

17 responses

  1. You have me seriously thinking about that Sigma lens….nice work.

    April 16, 2013 at 6:13 pm

    • Well, it’s big, heavy, and at f/6.3, a bit slow, but it is much sharper than I expected it to be. With a small rebate and Sigma’s “cash for clunkers” program, I paid just under $1,000 for it, money well spent in my opinion.

      April 17, 2013 at 1:59 am

  2. A fantastic day out with some very good results. As always, I like a gull and a heron but the sea shots were fun too.

    April 16, 2013 at 6:26 pm

    • Thanks Tom. The gull photos were not cropped at all, they make such good models that even though I have hundreds of shots of them, I continue to shoot them. Being almost all white, they are also a good test of a camera and lens.

      April 17, 2013 at 2:02 am

  3. I think that lens was worth whatever you paid for it. The shot of the gull’s profile is amazing!

    April 16, 2013 at 7:07 pm

    • I think so as well. With a rebate and the cash for clunkers program, I paid under $1,000 for it, and I don’t think that you can beat that. The gull photos were not cropped at all. Yesterday, I found out by accident that the Sigma is even sharper at the lower focal lengths, if that is possible.

      April 17, 2013 at 2:04 am

  4. your posts are always an adventure.

    April 16, 2013 at 9:16 pm

    • Thank you very much, I try.

      April 17, 2013 at 2:05 am

  5. Really great shots. I like the ones with the snowflakes very much. There’s a definite mood to them that I find intriguing.

    April 16, 2013 at 10:36 pm

    • Thanks, you bring up a good point. If i hadn’t been testing my new camera and lens, I could have gone with the moody aspect of the day, and worked that aspect better.

      April 17, 2013 at 2:07 am

  6. Wow, those are some great pictures, especially the Great Blue Heron. When I lived in Florida as a kid, they were everywhere and whenever I see one it makes me think fondly of the exotic nature there.
    And that is my extent of knowledge about birds, other than I love listening to them in the morning before the sun comes up. Very impressive stuff!

    April 17, 2013 at 6:37 am

    • Thanks for the comment, and thanks for reminding me of what I left out of that post, listening to the birds!

      April 17, 2013 at 8:56 am

  7. Looks like you had a very productive day! Loved the pics from the water treatment plant, especially the gull. Really nice!

    April 17, 2013 at 11:17 am

    • Thank you, I still find it hard to believe that one of the best birding areas in southwest Michigan is a wastewater treatment facility.

      April 17, 2013 at 12:54 pm

      • 😀

        April 18, 2013 at 2:02 pm

  8. What a wonderful birding outing. I am indeed quite jealous of all the ducks you’ve found. They are mostly gone from here, off to northern lands. Where..it’s snowing? What’s that about? That’s crazy!

    April 23, 2013 at 8:50 pm

    • Thanks, I was back this weekend, getting ready to post about that trip. Most of the waterfowl have left, but I suspect that they haven’t gone far. They are still measuring snow on the ground in feet in northern Michigan, a blogger friend up there reports another 8 inches yesterday.

      April 24, 2013 at 2:21 am