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

Muskegon, December 6th, am I spoiled? Part I

This post is about a trip that I made to Muskegon on December 6th, and I have to ask myself, am I getting spoiled by all the somewhat rare birds that I see so often? Maybe the better way to phrase the question is am I getting spoiled by everything that I see in nature that few people get to witness in a lifetime?

Seeing a bald eagle isn’t as rare of an occurrence as it used to be here in Michigan, but how many people ever see seven eagles together squabbling over a kill?

Seven bald eagles together

Seven bald eagles together

Or, as in my last post, get photos of bald eagles, a golden eagle, snowy owl, snow bunting, rough-legged hawk, and a red-tailed hawk all in the same day, no matter how poor the quality of the photos were.

And speaking of my photos, I was thoroughly disappointed in the quality of them in my last post, except for the heron in flight, and most of the photos that will appear in this post.

Warning: One of my long-winded rants is to follow!

As you know, I’m planning to purchase a Canon 7D Mk II early next year, in hopes that it will improve my images. To make sure that I’m making a wise purchase that will actually help me to improve my photos, I have been watching some online video reviews of that camera. That may well lead to another rant, but I’ll stick to just one right now.

One of the videos that I watched was titled something along the lines of “Photographing wildlife using the new Canon 7D Mk II”, so I thought that I would find it helpful, not really.

It turned out that some guy who worked for an online photography magazine, and didn’t seem to know much about photography, joined one of Canon’s paid professional wildlife photographers with pre-production versions of the 7D Mk II.

They didn’t go to some wilderness location to shoot actual wildlife, they went to an animal ranch where they shot semi-tame mountain lions and wolves. They were out at mid-morning, with great lighting, and first a handler brought out a mountain lion and fed it treats to keep it performing for the photographers, who didn’t have to worry about bad lighting or the big cat running off. Next up, another handler brought out two wolves, and fed them treats to perform for the photogs, who were just a few feet away from the “wildlife”. The longest lens the photographers used were 70-200 mm.

I was thinking, that’s not the real world as far as wildlife photography that I know and do, any one can shoot good photos under the conditions that were shown in this video.

That video isn’t the only one that I’ve watched where the “wildlife” photographers were shooting in a controlled environment, another example is that many of the great images of raptors are shot at rehab centers for the raptors. The photographers can use a short lens, stick the camera right in an raptor’s face, and shoot away. They have the bird positioned for the best possible light and background, so of course they get great photos.

In fact, the more that I try to learn how the experts get such great photos, the more that I learn that most of them shoot in at least somewhat controlled circumstances these days. I think that I read or heard of one award-winning wildlife photographer being “busted” for having shot many of his images at zoos.

Well, I really don’t see much difference between shooting at a zoo, a raptor rehab center, or an animal ranch were trained wildlife is trotted out to perform for photographers.

So, the question is, how can I attempt to get photos of equal quality when I’m chasing totally wild critters as they go about their business? I can’t, although I’m always disappointed in that. I suppose that I’ll always be trying, even though logic tells me that it’s a losing battle.

However, that brings up something else, the dichotomy within myself. On one hand, I want to shoot the very best images that I can, on the other, I love watching wildlife in “action” and capturing those moments to share with others who never get the chance to see what I do.

Here’s an example of that, how many people have seen a bald eagle slip and fall on the ice? Watch the eagle on the far right.

Bald eagles one chasing a scrap of food blown in the wind

Bald eagles, one chasing a scrap of food blown in the wind

Bald eagle fall down, go boom

Bald eagle fall down, go boom

(Yes, I know that I used poor grammar in the caption, it’s from the old Tweety Bird cartoons)

Notice all the other eagles watching the one fall.

Bald eagle getting up after falling

Bald eagle getting up after falling

Missing from those still photos are the sounds that the eagles were making, I swear that I heard a few snickers coming from the others as the one crashed on the ice. 😉

Okay, that may be stretching it, but the eagles were very vocal, especially in this next sequence. In the flock, there was one adult, with the rest of the eagles being juveniles of varying ages. I think that the juvenile eagle with the kill was one of the adult’s offspring, and that the adult tried to chase the other juveniles off in this series.

Seven bald eagles over a kill

Seven bald eagles over a kill

Notice the postures of the other eagles.

Seven bald eagles over a kill

Seven bald eagles over a kill

Seven bald eagles over a kill

Seven bald eagles over a kill

The adult was using the wind to provide most of the lift to keep it airborne, it hardly flapped its wings at all.

Seven bald eagles over a kill

Seven bald eagles over a kill

It then let the wind take it backwards…

Seven bald eagles over a kill

Seven bald eagles over a kill

…where it made a very graceful landing on the ice.

Seven bald eagles over a kill

Seven bald eagles over a kill

Seven bald eagles over a kill

Seven bald eagles over a kill

I also had photos of the adult skating across the ice by spreading its wings and letting the wind blow it across the ice, and a series of one of the other juveniles attempting to chase the one with the kill away from the food. But, the question is, how interesting would people who read my blog find those photos, when there are so many of the same flock of eagles?

Another question is, how could I improve those photos? Well, I could have gotten the white balance correct for the conditions at the time. Those were shot just as daylight was providing just enough light to let me shoot those with the Beast (Sigma 150-500 mm lens), and the images were not cropped at all. I suppose that I could have cropped a little, but the main point was all the eagles together on the ice.

At least I got the white balance better on those than my first shot of the morning, an eagle flying over a flock of several thousand Canada geese.

Canada geese with bald eagle flying overhead

Canada geese with bald eagle flying overhead

In my defense, I had anticipated a sunny morning, so I had my cameras set to sunny for white balance, and didn’t have time to switch the setting in time to capture the eagle over the geese. All that ice didn’t help either, turning everything blue, I suppose that I may have been able to fix that with software, we’ll see in a few months. This is one time when setting the white balance to auto may have been the best choice, as I tried both the cloudy and shade settings, and everything still looks too blue because of the early morning light on the ice. And, since it was daybreak as I shot the flock of eagles, the light was changing rapidly, as you’ll see.

This is one of those bad photos that I love, the eagle with the kill decided that it had enough of the other eagles trying to take its food away from it, and took off hoping to find some peace and quiet. As all the other eagles were taking off, one was left standing on the ice watching the others as if asking “Hey, where is everybody going?”.

Bald eagles taking off

Bald eagles taking off

The eagle with the food was soon followed by two other eagles…

Bald eagles in flight

Bald eagles in flight

…then three…

Bald eagles in flight

Bald eagles in flight

…and eventually, the entire flock.

Bald eagles in flight

Bald eagles in flight

The one with the food landed, and the squabbling began all over again.

Bald eagles fighting over food

Bald eagles fighting over food

These next two images, while very poor, show how brave, or foolhardy, a crow can be.

American crow walking past an eagle

American crow walking past an eagle

I’m not sure, but I think that the eagle is the golden eagle, but the light was too poor for me to be able to make a positive ID. It doesn’t matter, either species of eagle could have had the crow for breakfast if it were a mind to. So, how did the crow know that it was safe to walk that close to the eagle?

American crow walking past an eagle

American crow walking past an eagle

I drove over to the Swanson/Laketon fields in hopes of finding some snow geese, no luck there, but there were four more eagles there as this poor photo shows.

Four bald eagles in a field

Four bald eagles in a field

I know that these four can not be part of the flock on the ice, there’s no way that they could have flown past me without my having seen them. Besides, I shot poor photos of one of those four flying past me, coming from the opposite direction of where I had left the flock of seven just a few minutes before. So, that’s thirteen eagle seen so far, the seven fighting for food, the eighth on the ice, out of the frame, the eagle with the crow walking past it, now these four. But still, no photos that I would consider to be very good at all.

While at the Swanson/Laketon fields, I shot my favorite silo to capture the mood of the morning in a HDR image.

Sunrise near Muskegon

Sunrise near Muskegon

The 14th eagle of the morning let me shoot a few better photos, this is the same eagle on the same fence post as in my last post.

Bald eagle

Bald eagle

Bald eagle

Bald eagle

Bald eagle

Bald eagle

You may be able to tell that I had to shoot with the eagle between myself and the early morning sun, and that I moved around, trying to get the best light and background. You may also be able to tell that it was a bit windy.

Bald eagle

Bald eagle

As I was shooting the eagle, a huge flock of starlings flew past, resulting in this horrible photo.

Starlings in flight

Starlings in flight

My only reasons for including it is to show what I saw, and when I returned to photographing the eagle, I could tell that it was unhappy about being upstaged by a flock of starlings.

Bald eagle

Bald eagle

Then, it gave me my best photo ever of a bald eagle in flight, sort of. These two have not been cropped at all.

Bald eagle in flight

Bald eagle in flight

Bald eagle in flight

Bald eagle in flight

Just my luck! This eagle has chosen a fence post that borders the county landfill as one of its favorite places to perch, and when I catch the eagle in flight, it’s with the landfill in the background, sigh.

That gets back to how I began this post. On one hand, I had eagles up the wazoo, up to fourteen at this point, and I saw plenty more over the course of the day. But, as the day went on, it was too difficult to keep track of which ones I had already seen, and which ones were “new”, so I stopped counting.

On the other hand, I saw fourteen eagles and got only fair shots of one of them, with bad lighting and background. I could have easily gone to the Blandford Nature Center, where they rehab raptors, and shot great images there without having to work for the photos.

I also tend to forget that most people never see fourteen (or more) eagles in a year, let alone one day, but that’s Muskegon for you. There are several breeding pairs of eagles in the Muskegon area to begin with, then, as the inland lakes begin to freeze over, the eagles that reside in those areas migrate out to the Lake Michigan shoreline so as to be able to find fish, their favorite food.

Some of you may remember a post I did a few years ago in the spring, when another photographer and I watched nearly three dozen eagles in action, fishing a small patch of open water on Mona Lake. I try not to become jaded, but after a while it becomes “Oh, another eagle, I want to see something new”. That’s probably a bad thing, but it does say a lot about the comeback that the eagles have made here in Michigan. It’s no longer a surprise to see one anywhere, anytime. It’s not even unusual to see several of them together any longer.

Still, the photographer in me wants far better photos than any that I have gotten to this point, and I tend to forget that it was just over a month ago that I shot some really good photos of two eagles.

Juvenile bald eagle

Juvenile bald eagle

Sorry, I had to throw that one in to remind myself that I do shoot good photos from time to time.

I know that I’ve done several posts along the same lines as this one, bemoaning the fact that the critters and weather don’t often cooperate in ways that would enable me to shoot better images more often. It’s also something that I struggle with as I’m choosing which photos to save and put into my blog posts.

I could put more emphasis on just posting very few, but higher quality images….

Snowy owl watching a bald eagle flying overhead

Snowy owl watching a bald eagle flying overhead

…for how many people have seen a snowy owl, let alone one watching a bald eagle soaring overhead. I deleted the photo of the eagle, as I’ve posted enough of them already, and it wasn’t very good.

I did shoot a few videos on this trip, the “goose explosion” in my last post was one of them, here’s another, of the snowy owl.

I removed the 1.4 X tele-converter from behind the 300 mm prime lens for that video.

Here’s the flock of eagles from earlier, as shot with the Beast.

All my videos seem to share three common elements, the wind, the sounds of geese honking, and the need for improvement on my part in shooting video. 😉 Add a fourth thing to that list, most of my videos have been rather boring. All the owl did was turn its head back and forth, and the eagles were taking a break from their fighting while I shot the video of them.

However, that ties into my rant about wildlife photographers that shoot under controlled conditions, there wasn’t an animal handler just out of view tossing treats to either the eagles or the owl to keep them within range of my camera. I never know what’s going to happen, or when it’s going to happen.

Snowy owl yawning

Snowy owl yawning

And, when it does happen, the critter may be moving at the time, resulting in a slightly blurred image.

Snowy owl yawning

Snowy owl yawning

By the way, that was the second snowy owl of the day, here’s the first, shot at very long-range and cropped as much as I dared to.

Snowy owl on ice

Snowy owl on ice

So, am I spoiled? Yes I am! I live 45 miles from a place where I can watch over a dozen bald eagles, see at least two snowy owls, and all the other wildlife that I’ve posted photos of over the past few years. I’m not as spoiled as the “wildlife” photographers who shoot captive critters though, and I’ll probably never be able to match the quality of their photos.

However, I still have a long way to go in improving my photography skills. I try to analyze things that I did right, and things that I did wrong after every photo outing that I make, even my daily walks around home.

One thing that stands out about this trip is that I need to think ahead more, and be better prepared. I have two camera bodies, and two fairly long lenses, but up to this point, I’ve been using both set-ups the same way to account for the differences in performance between the Beast and the 300 mm prime lens as far as how sharp that each lens is at different distances.

One thing that I did right, when I first saw the second snowy owl, was that I shot a few photos in jpeg using each camera set-up. Then, since the owl wasn’t going anywhere soon, I switched over and shot RAW using the Beast for all the rest of the images, in anticipation of being able to edit my images in the future. What I should have also done was to set-up the second camera body to shoot action photos in case the owl had decided to fly away, which you know that it did eventually. But silly me, I still had both set-ups dialed in for portraits, so when the owl did fly away, I only was able to get one fair shot of it.

Snowy owl in flight

Snowy owl in flight

I was sitting there in my vehicle watching the owl as it looked around…

Snowy owl

Snowy owl

…fluffed itself against the cold wind…

Snowy owl

Snowy owl

…and did some preening…

Snowy owl

Snowy owl

..and I sat there just watching it, rather than getting ready for what I should have known was going to happen, leaving me with photos like this one.

Snowy owl in flight

Snowy owl in flight

If I had set-up the second body to shoot the owl when it flew off, I could have gotten a much better image, as I did here.

Northern shovelers landing

Northern shovelers landing

To be continued…..

That this is it for this one, thanks for stopping by!

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24 responses

  1. Another fascinating post. This is a blog of your adventures in search of that elusive picture and the steps you take to achieve that end. Forget the glossy coffee table books, your pictures are real life and all the more impressive for that. I don’t think you are spoiled either;you are lucky to have such a broad range of wildlife fairly close to your neighbourhood, but you work hard to see and photograph it. How many people are out at dawn with camera in hand?

    December 12, 2014 at 1:38 pm

    • Thank you for the very kind words Brandy! I am lucky to live where I do, with so much wildlife around, but I still wish that I could shoot better photos of them. 😉

      December 13, 2014 at 8:24 am

  2. I totally agree with Brandybutter. I would put up with the less than perfect shots (though these are usually much better than you think they are) to see animals and birds in their natural surroundings. The same goes for the videos. I don’t find them boring – they show me what you see and I can hear what you hear. I really enjoyed this post and laughed out loud many times while reading it.

    December 12, 2014 at 2:20 pm

    • Thank you Clare! I realize now that some of the photos are better than my first impressions of them were when I saved them for this post, but I still wish that I had done better. One thing that I’m going to look into is a better microphone to use when shooting the videos, so that I can get better sound.

      December 13, 2014 at 8:29 am

  3. I’d much rather see birds and animals in their natural surroundings than sitting behind a fence yawning. That’s why I don’t go to zoos.
    There’s no question that poor lighting is the bane of all photographers but look what you got to see. I’ve never seen a snowy owl and I’ve never seen an eagle that I could positively identify, though I’m fairly sure that I’ve seen a couple at a distance. You see these critters every day but many don’t, and that’s why they read blogs like this one. The story is often as important as the photos, and sometimes even more so.

    December 12, 2014 at 4:48 pm

    • Thank you Allen! That’s funny, I thought that my best photos of the owl were the ones where I caught it yawning. 😉 At least it wasn’t behind a fence.

      You’re right, I get to see wildlife that many people never see, and catch that wildlife in action. However, I’m driven to get the best images that I can, and because of that, I don’t see how much my photos have been improving the last few years. Three years ago, the eagles on the ice would have been nothing more than black blobs in the distance, at least in these latest images, you can see that they are eagles, and what they are doing.

      December 13, 2014 at 8:52 am

  4. I’m confidant that with all that inspiring material your shots will continue to get better!

    December 13, 2014 at 7:57 am

    • Thank you Bob!

      December 13, 2014 at 8:40 am

  5. I just read your “rant ” about wildlife photographers using confined animals and passing them off as natural. I agree with your remarks and think that these photos should be labeled for what they are. I do a lot of photography and always label my shots for what they are.Here’s my web page and the rehab animals are labeled. Everything else is “natural”
    http://jeguy.smugmug.com Keep up the good work. I’m jealous of the eagle and snowy owl photos.

    December 13, 2014 at 3:47 pm

    • Thank you very much! I’m jealous of your photos of the loon and bucks fighting!

      December 13, 2014 at 10:53 pm

  6. If you want the perfect shot in ‘real’ conditions, you may have to go down the road of a portable hide and several visits to the same spot to catch the same bird. It might be too boring for me but you are a perfectionist.

    December 13, 2014 at 4:26 pm

    • Thanks Tom! I’ve been thinking of going down that road, and I’ll address it in my next post.

      December 13, 2014 at 10:22 pm

  7. Love that snowy owl all fluffed up and hunkered down in the wind. And being bored enough to yawn? Get outta here! You have the patience to sit and wait for things to happen, which is why you get so many wonderful, unexpected photo sequences.

    Thanks for bringing this all to life. Gotta make the trek out to Muskegon one day myself to see this – everytime you post from there, it reminds me that it’s a trip that needs to be made.

    December 14, 2014 at 8:43 am

    • Thanks Judy! The snowy owls yawn often when it’s sunny outside. But, I don’t have the patience to get the great shots. I would have left the owl long before I did if I had been able to after getting several poses and yawns. I missed getting the owl taking off, because I was busy looking for other things to photograph.

      December 14, 2014 at 3:32 pm

      • Oh, and in answer to your question? Yes, you ARE spoiled. Good for all of your readers that you are!

        Merry Christmas

        December 14, 2014 at 6:02 pm

      • And a Merry Christmas to you, John, and Jezzy

        December 15, 2014 at 2:34 pm

  8. I love sitting here watching and reading how you’re improving as you go along. It’s inspiring. Then again I was very glad to hear that you actually shot some RAW that you’ll be able to play with when you have the software to work with. The whole point is to keep striving to improve and you do that so well. Sounds like you DO need to look back now and then to realize just how far you’ve come.

    December 14, 2014 at 1:21 pm

    • Thanks Gunta! I have come a long way, but there are times when it seems as if I’m treading water. Yes, I did shoot dome RAW images, so when I get a new computer and Lightroom, I will be able to edit my photos.

      December 14, 2014 at 3:34 pm

  9. An interesting post. wish I could have heard the other eagles snickering too! (Even if it was heard only in your own mind…)

    December 15, 2014 at 7:46 pm

    • Thank you Cynthia!

      December 16, 2014 at 3:15 pm

  10. I much prefer the shots you take of wildlife in natural habitats, as compared to those “stellar” shots taken in controlled settings. While those controlled environments can give you some great close-up shot opportunities, seeing wildlife interacting, hunting, searching for food, (or slipping on the ice) etc., is much more interesting in my humble opinion, even if nature throws you a curve ball in lighting or weather. Sometimes it’s not all about the perfection of the shot. Usually it’s the beauty (or humor) of the experience, and being able to capture it as best as we can, and as well as the equipment we have will allow.

    December 15, 2014 at 8:24 pm

    • Thanks Jan! I know that you’re right, but there’s still part of me that wants to shoot at least an occasional “stellar” shot.

      December 16, 2014 at 3:57 pm

  11. I don’t know how I missed this post, but it’s wonderful as usual. I can’t talk about all the technical camera terms as I just don’t know them but these pictures give me enjoyment and yes, I do think you are spoilt. 😉 So many beautiful birds and scenery. I wish I could visit the area. I must say I am a bit in love with those snowy owls. I much prefer photos of birds in natural settings, wild and free than photos taken in captivity. I’m a wild kind of person really. My garden is not perfectly manicured and organised. It’s more overgrown and natural than my neighbours yards (they must curse me). I prefer pics like yours, but being a perfectionist about some things in my own life I can understand your desire to aim for better and better shots. It gives me pleasure though to look at your pics. Thanks you.

    December 17, 2014 at 4:44 am

    • Thank you very much Jane! I prefer to photograph wildlife in natural settings, but I wish that I were able to shoot better photos, as I know that there are others who are able to do so. Australia has some beautiful birds to my mind, but that goes along with something that I learned being involved in an online woodworking group. Some one from another part of the world would post photos of their woodwork, and those of us in the US would go nuts over the beautiful “exotic” woods from other parts of the world. In the meantime, woodworkers from other parts of the world would have the same reaction to our common species of wood here. What’s exotic to one part of the world is commonplace in others, and we tend to cherish what is rare and overlook the beauty that surrounds us.

      December 17, 2014 at 2:29 pm