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

I came back extremely arm weary!

Yes, another birding trip to the Muskegon area, I did look for wildflowers, honestly, I did. But there were none to be seen at any of the place I went. I really wanted to try out the close focusing performance of my new lenses, particularly the 15-85 mm I purchased this last week. So, once again, this is going to be mostly birds, with a few other things thrown in to break up the monotony.

My first stop was Lake Harbor Park on the west end of Mona Lake. I have posted about it before, and it is on the opposite end of Mona Lake from where I went to shoot the eagle photos last month. Some one had posted that they had seen a flock of avocet there last week, but neither I, nor any one else who showed up looking for them could find them.

I did find this guy though.

Black phase of a grey squirrel

Black phase of a grey squirrel

For all the years that I used the Nikon D50 I tried to get an acceptable photo of one of these, and never did. I am learning just how much better this new Canon 60 D is when compared to the Nikon, what a difference! In fact, now it’s easy to get good photos of grey squirrels in the black phase.

Black phase of a grey squirrel

Black phase of a grey squirrel

No more unrecognizable black lumps!

I am quite surprised by the difference that there is between the camera bodies, I attributed most of my problems to the inexpensive lens I was using. However, I am not going to go back on what I said in my post about buying camera gear on a budget.

In fact, I think that what I’m learning reinforces that in many ways. Sure, the Canon 60 D body is light years better than the old Nikon D 50 body, but most of that is due to improvement in sensor technology over the years. The 60 D is not an entry-level body, but it is the lowest priced body in Canon’s mid-level bodies.

Couple that with some quality glass, and for the first time since I switched to digital, I am getting some really good photos now. I still contend that if you’re in the market for new camera equipment, start with the lenses, buy quality glass, then buy the best body that you can afford.

That brings up something else, I am developing an entire new attitude towards my photographic endeavors. I trust the Canon and the lenses I have now, and I find myself being much more selective as to what and when I shoot. With the Nikon it was shoot anything at any time, and hope to get a good photo. Maybe the highest compliment that I can give to my new gear is that it is predictable, after less than 1,000 pictures, I know what I am going to get.

I shot over 40,000 with the Nikon, and never knew how any of them would turn out. I don’t feel like rehashing all the problems I had with the Nikon, but I think that you can see the leap in the quality of the photos I’m posting, even in the reduced quality versions you see online here.

So, now I see a species of bird that I have already photographed with the new Canon, and I think to myself, I already have a better shot than what I’m going to get this time, there’s no need to shoot and hope.

That doesn’t stop me from shooting lots of photos though, as there are so many things to photograph, but here’s an example from today, even if it is out of order as far as the way the day progressed.

Ruby-crowned kinglet

Ruby-crowned kinglet

That photo has not been cropped at all! It would be darned hard to get a much better photo than that, unless I catch one so close that I can zoom out and still nearly fill the frame. So after that one, I won’t be shooting many ruby-crowned kinglets any longer. Could it be that I’ll run out of things to photograph with the new Canon? I doubt it.

If I catch a male kinglet displaying his red crown, of course I’ll shoot that. 😉

OK, now let’s get back to the beginning.

I never did find the avocet, but there were other things to photograph besides the squirrels, like a pair of American black ducks hanging out with some mallards.

American black duck

American black duck

And, to practice on my action shots, a male mallard coming in for a landing.

Male mallard in flight

Male mallard in flight

And, since I’m a frustrated portrait photographer at heart, a few mallard portraits to test out my new gear.

Male malard

Male mallard

Male malard

Male mallard

Then, I strolled down the channel to the Lake Michigan shore, I thought that it would be a good spot to compare the performance of my lenses. Here’s the shoreline shot with the Sigma 150-500 mm set at 200 mm…..

Lake Michigan at the Mona Lake channel

Lake Michigan at the Mona Lake channel

Here’s about the same shot with the Canon 70-200 mm L series lens set to 200 mm.

Lake Michigan at the Mona Lake channel

Lake Michigan at the Mona Lake channel

I took a series of shots with each lens, they aren’t very interesting, so I won’t bore you with them. But, the replacement 70-200 mm is definitely sharper than the one I exchanged! I wonder if there are slight differences between bodies and lens that cause slight, but noticeable problems?

I didn’t get the composition exactly the same with each lens, as I didn’t really want to be changing lenses on the sandy beach, so to switch, I walked back to where there was vegetation to prevent any sand blowing around, and into my camera or lens. It was while walking back off the beach that I found this guy brightening up an already cheery day with his song.

Song sparrow singing

Song sparrow singing

I see that my adult ADHD kicked in and I have digressed again. Anyway, I had planned on doing a more thorough test of all three lenses, maybe even setting up my tripod and doing things right for a change. But, while I was shooting with the Sigma and the L series lens, I thought that it wouldn’t be worthwhile to test the 15-85 mm at the same time. It’s just a boring sugar-sand beach that goes on and on, for hundreds of miles, why lengthen it out even more with a wide-angle lens? 🙂

Anyway, I am very happy with the replacement L series lens, but I can’t say as I can see why people go so gaga of the L series lenses, it doesn’t look much if any sharper than the Sigma. I later tested the 15-85 mm lens, and found out that it is just as sharp as both of the longer lenses, so now I no longer have any reason to blame my equipment when I take crappy photos. And I do still take crappy photos, even though I know that they will be crappy when I shoot them.

I saw a common loon in Mona Lake, I knew that the lighting was horrid, but I shot three photos anyway. I’m not going to post them, as something else is occurring now, the majority of the photos I take are good. For some reason, I find myself not wanting to post the bad ones any longer. Don’t worry, I’ll still post a few now and then. 😉

One more thing about the time that I spent comparing the lenses on the beach. I said earlier that the results that I see from the Canon are predictable, and they are. I knew that the shots on the beach were likely to be a little over-exposed with the Canon. So, not only did I check the lenses, I also played with the exposure compensation at the same time. I shot the series with each lens with the exposure compensation set at 0, -1/3, and -2/3 stop compensation, and just as I suspected, -1/3 stop came out the best, with both lenses. I’m feeling like a real photographer again!

I shot a few other subjects with the L series lens, it’s a keeper, but I won’ bore you with those photos, as they’re nothing special, besides, you all want to see your favorite punk rocker ducks, the red-breasted mergansers, don’t you?

Male red-breasted merganser

Male red-breasted merganser

Female red-breasted merganser

Female red-breasted merganser

Male red-breasted merganser

Male red-breasted merganser

None of those were cropped either, and they were taken at the Muskegon channel, my second stop of the day. I have to say that some good weather and a good camera and lens makes for some much better photos than I am used to turning out!

A walk up and down the channel didn’t yield many more waterfowl photos, just a few coots, a goose, and a mute swan on her nest, nothing special, so I’m not going to bore you with them. I did however manage a few photos of a pair of barn swallows taking a break.

Barn swallow

Barn swallow

Barn swallow wondering what the heck was being pointed at it

Barn swallow wondering what the heck was being pointed at it

I think that the barn swallow was looking into the lens hood of the Sigma lens thinking that it would be a good place to build its nest.

Other than a flyby from a turkey vulture….

Turkey vulture in flight

Turkey vulture in flight

…I have no other photos from the channel to add here. With warmer weather, and increased boat traffic, the channel won’t be the birding hotspot that it has been this winter until next fall. But, I’ll probably stop now and then, as you never know what you will find there.

My next stop was the Muskegon Lake Nature Preserve, a small area on the northeast corner of Muskegon Lake, where the north branch of the Muskegon River enters the lake. It’s a marshy area, and it may exemplify how a small parcel of land in the right hands can become a nice little touch of nature in a developed area. The preserve is tucked in between a major highway to the east, and a condominium/marina to the west.

The Muskegon Environmental Research & Education Society has done a great job of building a series of boardwalks and observation towers there, and the preserve serves not only as a home to many species of birds, but also as a resting area for birds during migration. I’ve stopped there once or twice before, and I think that I have mentioned it previously.

Anyway, the place was filled with birds on Sunday, both residents and migrants. The birding started before I had crossed the footbridge from the parking lot into the preserve proper. These are not great photos, but I saw this brown bird under the footbridge. It looks similar to a female cowbird, but not exactly, and it didn’t behave like a cowbird at all.

???

???

???

???

I say that it didn’t behave like a cowbird, for one thing, it was by itself, and cowbirds typically are found in flocks. It was secretive, staying in the thick brush, while cowbirds generally prefer open fields. It never made a sound, and cowbirds are often very vocal. I’m not sure what it was, probably a cowbird looking for a nest of another species of bird in which to lay an egg.

There were hundreds of ruby-crowned kinglets flitting around.

IMG_1041

Male Ruby-crowned kinglet

They kept me quite busy trying to keep up with them, and also avoiding them. I had one in the viewfinder, and just as I was about to click the shutter, the kinglet flew straight at the camera lens. They may be tiny little birds, but seen through a 500 mm lens at less than 5 feet, they can appear quite large when headed straight at you. A couple of others almost touched me as they went past me. Swinging the Sigma lens around getting the photos that I did started to wear me out.

The kinglets are far from the only birds that were there.

Eastern phoebe

Eastern phoebe

Female red-winged blackbird

Female red-winged blackbird

Carolina wren singing

Carolina wren singing

Carolina wren

Carolina wren

Somewhere in this timeframe, two things happened that negatively affected my photos. One, a layer of heavy cloud cover moved in. And two, I either accidentally bumped, or more likely forgot to reset the exposure compensation on my camera so that it was set to -1/3 compensation, at exactly the wrong time with the clouds. Being a complete idiot, I didn’t notice that until much later.

But, in spite of that, I got fair photos of a yellow-bellied sapsucker at work drilling holes in the bark of trees.

Yellow-bellied sapsucker

Yellow-bellied sapsucker

Yellow-bellied sapsucker

Yellow-bellied sapsucker

Then, a rather strange thing happened, maybe it isn’t strange, maybe it’s just something I’ve never seen before.

A couple of chickadees tried to drink the sap oozing from the holes drilled by the sapsucker.

Black capped chickadee

Black capped chickadee

But, every time the chickadees got close to the sap, a yellow rumped warbler would drive the chickadees off, and drink the sap itself.

Yellow rumped warbler

Yellow rumped warbler

Getting shots of the small birds fighting over the sap was impossible with the Sigma 150-500, but that didn’t stop my from trying. However, I am not going to post photos of greyish blurs streaking across the frames of my photos.

I knew that some other species of birds would often feed on both the sap, and any insects attracted to the sap, where sapsuckers drill through the bark of trees. But I didn’t know warblers were one of them, and I didn’t know that one would be belligerent about it.

That was near the end of my first lap around the Muskegon Lake Nature Preserve, I stopped off at my Subaru, had a drink and a snack, and went back around the opposite way. I got a few more (actually many more) photos of the kinglets, yellow rumped warblers, and female red-winged blackbirds.

Ruby-crowned kinglet

Ruby-crowned kinglet

Yellow-rumped warbler

Yellow-rumped warbler

Yellow-rumped warbler

Yellow-rumped warbler

Yellow-rumped warbler

Yellow-rumped warbler

Female red-winged blackbird

Female red-winged blackbird

Female red-winged blackbird

Female red-winged blackbird

Even though Muskegon Lake Nature Preserve isn’t very large, two laps around it shooting small birds had left me arm weary from all the four pound arm curls I did while hoisting the Sigma lens up to shoot the photos. I took nearly 400 for the day, and of course missed many times that amount as the birds would move before I could get a shot.

But, I wasn’t done yet, I headed to the Snug Harbor portion of Muskegon State Park to see if there was anything there worth photographing. Just a pair of mute swans in flight.

Mute swans in flight

Mute swans in flight

There were a few other ducks in around as you can see in the background, but not many, and not close enough for a photo. That was OK, as my real reason for stopping there was to check to see if the eagles were nesting, they were!

As I was checking the nest to see if the female was there, I saw this very brave raccoon in a tree quite close to the eagle’s nest.

Raccoon

Raccoon

Since raccoons sometimes raid the nests of birds to eat the eggs, and since eagles are very fierce in defending their nest, I’m surprised that the raccoon wasn’t chased out of the area by the eagles.

It’s hard to get a good shot of the eagle on her nest, as they chose a very tall tree on top of one of the larger hills in the area. But, I’ll throw in one photo, if you look closely, you can see the female’s head.

Female eagle on nest

Female eagle on nest

I stood there for about ten minutes or so, hoping the male would arrive with a meal for his mate. That’s about as long as I like to hang out near the nest, although I can tell that a few people stick around longer, and it doesn’t seem to bother the eagles. This is the fourth year that I know of that they have used this nest, and they attract a crowd at times.

Two couples arrived to look at the nest and eagles, and ask me a lot of questions about eagles, I guess carrying a big lens makes me an expert. 😉 (You would have had to have read the post I did about the snowy owl trip and the guy with the BIG LENS to get that joke)

Anyway, I was standing with my back to the nest, explaining that eagles mate for life and use the same nest every year, when the young hatch, and so on, when the male flew up. I didn’t see if he had brought supper or not, by the time I turned around to see him, he had perched near the nest.

Male bald eagle

Male bald eagle

With a little more light, that would have been a great shot, but it was getting late in the day.

I still wasn’t done, I walked back to the Lost Lake area to see if I could find any wildflowers, as the Lost Lake area is known for marsh wildflowers, but it’s still too early in the year. All I found was a pair of mallards and a pair of pie-billed grebes, here’s one of the grebes, more for the reflections than the grebe itself.

Pie-billed grebe

Pie-billed grebe

On my way back, I gave the Image Stabilization of the Sigma lens and the Canon 60 D body a real test.

Icy moss

Icy moss

That was shot at 500 mm, a shutter speed of 1/200 of a second, and ISO 1600. The photo is hardly spectacular, but I think the results are pretty darned good given the shutter speed and ISO. And, by the time I took that shot, my arms and shoulders ached badly from having carried and used that lens for most of the day. The photos that it produces are so good, I have a hard time convincing myself to switch to one of my other lenses unless the subject demands a shorter lens. I am one happy camper!

By then, the clouds were so thick that it seemed much later in the day than 6 PM, and I had hit 5 areas in total, and shot nearly 400 photos, so I headed home.

On my way home, the clouds broke up and sunshine had returned, so I stopped in downtown Grand Rapids to shoot photos of the flood in progress there. My arms were very glad that shooting the flood called for the use of the 15-85 mm lens, and not the Sigma. 🙂

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

25 responses

  1. I didn’t know that gray squirrels had a black phase, and I didn’t know that you had gray squirrels there.
    I like the mallard portraits. Those birds are always smiling!
    I think, if swallows want to build a nest in your lens hood, that you’ve been standing in one place too long!
    I’ve read that a lot of different birds drink from sapsucker holes, along with insects and animals.
    I wonder why that raccoon was out in daylight-not a good sign.
    I was hoping you’d re-visit the spot where you saw thousands of white trillium last year. That’s a rare sight. Trilliums just started blooming here so maybe it’s too early there.

    April 24, 2013 at 6:31 am

    • The reason you didn’t know about our black grey squirrels is because I could never get a photo of one with the old Nikon.
      I tell myself that I have enough photos of mallards and there is no reason to ever shoot another, but I just can’t stop myself.

      Basically, I agree with sitting still too long, but there’s a part of me lately that wants to go outdoors some place, and just sit for hours the way that “real” wildlife photographers do. I’d blame it on the weight of the Sigma lens, but it actually started last summer.

      Well, the photo makes it look like the coon was out in daylight, but it was more like dusk, so not an unusual time for it to be out.

      I do plan on going to Aman Park, where the trillium bloom in the millions, but I’m sure that most of it is underwater right now. Sand Creek floods in a “dry” spring, the valleys where the trillium bloom will be impossible to reach for a week or more. I may check it out this weekend.

      April 24, 2013 at 9:04 am

  2. Those are some great shots! I would imagine bird photography is something that doesn’t allow for setting up a shot for very long. By the time you’ve gotten a good picture, the bird flies off!

    April 24, 2013 at 7:30 am

    • Thank you. You’re right about birds, basically, the amount of time I have to get a shot is proportional to the size of the bird, the smaller the bird, the less time they sit still.

      April 24, 2013 at 8:49 am

      • Well you are certainly skilled at catching them.

        April 24, 2013 at 9:40 am

  3. I’ve always been confused about the squirrels because up north we get all three colors at the same time – we’ve had brown, black and gray in our yard, and also red ground squirrels, which are so adorable but very, very destructive. Great pics, but you are probably tired of hearing that! 😉 LOL

    April 24, 2013 at 9:39 am

    • Thanks! I used to know a lot more about the squirrels and the color phases, but that has seemed to been lost to age. These days, I just enjoy watching them.

      April 24, 2013 at 9:46 am

  4. I’m exhausted too and that’s just reading about your day.

    April 24, 2013 at 4:32 pm

    • Thanks, I was just trying to keep up with you.

      April 25, 2013 at 1:17 am

  5. Your new lens is extremely impressive. Truly amazing shots. Can’t wait to see what happens when the weather is more cooperative. But you’re certainly coming up with amazing shots even under the less favorable circumstances.

    April 24, 2013 at 4:49 pm

    • Thanks! The flood shots in the previous post were taken with the EF S 15-85mm lens that I recommended to you a while back. It’s a great little lens as well as the Sigma is. But, I doubt that you would want to tote the Sigma around with you.

      April 25, 2013 at 1:20 am

      • You got that right. Some better bird shots might be nice, but I hefted a similar lens at a shop one time and decided it wasn’t worth it to me.

        April 25, 2013 at 1:22 am

  6. What I’ve found is sometimes the canon lenses from the factory are calibrated correctly. I’ve sent my lenses in to get cleaned and calibrated and wow, what a huge difference! Bet that is what you ran into with the other 70-200mm lens.
    Also remember, part of the sharpness you’re looking for is attributed to the 60D body. The L lenses really shine through with the full-format bodies.

    April 24, 2013 at 7:30 pm

    • Well, that could be, the first 70-200 wasn’t off by much, but it was off, and that shouldn’t be with a lens right out of the box.

      I now have three lenses, the Sigma, the 70-200 mm L, and the EF S 15-85mm, and of the three, the L series 70-200 is the least sharp of the three. That may be because I’m using it on a crop sensor body, I don’t know. The replacement is fine, but from what every one told me, I expected more from an L series.

      April 25, 2013 at 1:24 am

      • I’m sure it’s because of the zoom feature of the lens. Interesting about what you’re finding with the sharpness. Is it the 2.8 or the f/4? I think people rave most about the 2.8. I have an old one without IS, but don’t use it as I really need IS. I wobble so much!

        April 25, 2013 at 8:25 am

      • I have the f/4 without IS, and I am almost wishing that had saved until I could have purchased the IS model, or made you an offer on the 2.8. I’m not sure if that’s the problem or not, as I used to shoot with the 70-300 mm Nikon with no trouble and no IS. Having done a lot of target shooting with rifles, I’m pretty good at holding a camera steady.

        I think that part of it is that I have not found a situation well suited for the 70-200 yet. That’s one of the reasons I bought the non-IS version, as it will be the least used of the three lenses that I have. The Sigma is for birding and wildlife, the 15-85 mm for landscapes and close-ups, and I don’t shoot much in between.

        I will end up buying one more lens, I’m not sure what focal length yet, but it will be an “L” series lens, I’m leaning towards one of the 400 mm prime models. It was going to be the 500 mm, but using the Sigma, I think that 500 mm is too long when trying to follow small birds in the brush. But, I still want something longer than the 300 mm I’m used to using. It will be a long time before I make that purchase, my bank account needs some recovery time.

        April 25, 2013 at 8:57 am

      • OH…that’s it then ! the lack of IS! The more you zoom, the more sensitive the lens is to movement. I mostly use a tripod now for my bird shots. Makes a huge difference. Especially with the 500mm. If you change your mind on the 2.8, let me know, it’ll be super cheap.

        April 25, 2013 at 1:42 pm

      • Well, a teeny, tiny part of the problem may be lack of IS, but I doubt it. I have shot with a 300 mm lens and tripler (900 mm) handheld and gotten good photos, in sunlight. I have accidently turned the IS off on the Sigma and gotten sharp photos in sunlight. I used to have a 10 power scope on my target rifle, at 100 yards, we didn’t shoot at the bullseye of the target, that was too large and no challenge, we shot the thumbtacks holding the target. BTW, 100 yards is the length of a football field, and we could hit 1/4 inch thumbtacks the majority of the time. At 400 yards, just short of 1/4 mile, we would bust 4 inch clay pigeons for practice. So, I do know a little about holding very steady and squeezing off a shot.

        I really wish I had known about the 2.8, but I have no use for it since I have the f/4 version. I would have taken it off your hands for a reasonable price. Now, if you have a 400 mm prime that you want to unload, let me know please.

        April 25, 2013 at 2:49 pm

  7. Also love the flying mallard shot (naturally!) Re: the ??? bird. I agree with you that it does look like a female cowbird. Not seeing it in person, a little hard to tell size but that was my first thought, too. Re: black squirrels. Didn’t realize either that they change color through the year (if they would only wear name tags, I could keep better track!) In this part of NY, we get a range of squirrels from black to brown to gray, too. Never saw them in PA or CA but there was an article in our local paper a while back that said there are even a few white squirrels around here, too!

    April 25, 2013 at 6:03 pm

    • Thanks, I think that the question bird was a cowbird, but it didn’t act like one. Oh well. It would be nice if everything in nature wore nametags, as regional differences in colors make most field guides only a starting point for identification.

      April 26, 2013 at 2:00 am

  8. The quality of your photos has indeed gone up with your new equipment! It’s always a blast to get new stuff and go out to test it out. The Merganser pictures were superb. I too can’t stop photographing Mallards, glad I’m not alone!

    April 25, 2013 at 10:33 pm

    • Thanks, when the Nikon died, I had no choice but to upgrade, I’m loving this new stuff.

      April 26, 2013 at 2:06 am

  9. Ina Shepard

    vbutch wrote: I bought the new Sigma 17-70 OS version and was quite disappointed in the edge sharpness at 17mm. I took a few side by side shots with the 18-55IS and the the Canon performed much better. This was a deal killer for me because I use 17mm often for landscape. Maybe I got a bad lens, don’t know, but I just decided to go with the 15-85IS instead. Should be in in a few days, can’t wait to try it out. I’m a bit confused, did you compare it to the 15-85 or the 18-55? I’ll be interested to hear what you think of the 15-85 once you get it… particularly if you think it’s worth $3-$400 more than the Sigma offering!

    April 30, 2013 at 6:39 pm

    • Based on recommendations by others, and looking at photos posted online, I chose the Canon EF S 15-85 mm almost right away, and didn’t check any of the offerings from Sigma or Tamron in the wide-angle range. I love that lens! It is the best of the three that I have. The Sigma lens I have is the 150-500 mm, and it’s a great lens as well. For the wide-angle 15-85 mm, I would rate it as good as the much higher priced EF 24-105mm f/4L IS USM as far as photo quality.

      May 1, 2013 at 1:56 am

  10. Pros: – very useful focal lenght range (24 – 136mm) – fast and silent focus – image stabilisation (mostly sharp images with 0,5s exposure) – 7 diaphragm blades (14 pointed star at night photos) – sharp especially at f/8 Cons: – lens hood not included (price over 30EUR~40USD) – vignetting at 15mm – CA (15mm & 85mm) – filter size 72mm (only few lens with this filter size) – price for EF-S lens, not copmatible with full frame body (550EUR ~ 748USD)One of the best Canon all-purpose lens for APS-C sensor. Could be better with constant aperature 2.8 :-)Highly recommended for user with no plan to future upgrade to full frame body.

    May 3, 2013 at 8:59 am