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

I can’t stay away

In many ways, I’ve become bored with my weekly trips to the Muskegon area, however, it’s still the best place relatively close to home for me to shoot photos of a wide variety of subjects. Every weekend, I go through the same routine, check the weather, then run down the list of places that I could go, and end up deciding that the Muskegon area is my best choice, because I have so many options there.

Pickerel Lake is usually towards the top of my list, since there are plenty of birds there, including waterfowl. But, there’s just too many people there on a weekend and I seldom get close to the birds, because the steady stream of people keep the songbirds spooky, and the waterfowl flocked in the middle of the lake and out of camera range.

I could go to P. J. Hoffmaster or Saugatuck State Parks if I wanted to shoot more landscapes and maybe an occasional bird, I should really go back to both of them once in a while. However, my chances of finding a new species to add to my life list is slim at either of those parks.

There are many county parks closer to home, a few of them have looked promising when I did some checking online, but it’s hard for me to cross Muskegon off the top of my list, as I’m sure that my best chances of getting good bird photos is there. Still, I think that this weekend, I’ll devote one day to a new park, just for a change of pace. That is, even though I know that I won’t be shooting a photo like this one…

Male northern shoveler

Male northern shoveler

…or this.

Yet another Duck Lake State Park sunset

Yet another Duck Lake State Park sunset

The root of the problem that I have deciding where to go is that I’m spoiled, for how many people see northern shovelers or tundra swans?

Tundra swan

Tundra swan

By the way, you can tell that’s a tundra swan by the small patch of yellow in front of its eye. Our other native swan, the trumpeter, is larger and lacks that patch of yellow, and the introduced mute swans have a differently shaped head and bill, along with their bills being orange.

And, it wasn’t as if there were just one or two of the swans…

Tundra swans with gulls flying over them

Tundra swans with gulls flying over them

The number of birds to be seen in the Muskegon area is nothing short of astounding to me, although I’m learning that there are other places where even larger numbers of birds congregate over the winter months, like the Chesapeake Bay area, and a few of the southern nature preserves.

Anyway, some one that I talked to counted 102 tundra swans in that flock, I was up over 50 as I tried to count, but I got distracted by something and lost count. Since they just pass through the area during migration, I shot a few more photos of them.

Tundra swan

Tundra swan

Apparently, yawning is a common habit of the swans.

Tundra swans

Tundra swans

A short sidenote, that last photo was shot with the Beast (Sigma 150-500 mm lens) with the Tamron 1.4X tele-converter for a focal length of 700 mm on the 7D Mk II and the image wasn’t cropped at all. It’s not bad. I tried that combination before, but never gave it much of a chance, I may have to rethink that and do some more testing.

Maybe it was because the swans were using the lagoon for safety as they napped on and off that they were yawning so much. The tundra swans behave a little like Sandhill cranes, in that they often feed on dry land, and rest in water where they are safer from predators. The members of this flock would sleep and while they did, the wind would blow them towards shore. They’d wake up, I don’t know what woke them, but they would then swim back closer to the center of the lagoon, and go back to sleep again.

Tundra swans

Tundra swans

I shot a video, but it didn’t turn out well, the wind blowing in the camera’s microphone drowned out the calls of the swans, and it was also a bit over-exposed. But, I couldn’t resist shooting a few stills as a few of the swans would line up as they moved among the other members of the flock. The four in the bottom of the next frame must have been old friends that hadn’t seen each other for a while, as they got together to have a conversation and catch up on what was new.

Tundra swans

Tundra swans

They caught my attention, but I should have composed this next shot differently to have gotten a better image.

Tundra swans

Tundra swans

I wasn’t sure what was going to happen as vocal as those four swans became, I put them in the center of the frame so that I could follow any action if it occurred. I should have moved the focus point of the camera to keep them in the lower left of the frame, with a better view of the other members of the flock in the background. Even though my photo isn’t as good as it could have been, I had a good time sitting there watching a species of bird that I seldom get to see.

Another short sidenote, I was a bit frustrated this past weekend, other than the tundra swans, it was more of the same species that I probably post too many photos of already. On top of that , many of my images weren’t as sharp as I’ve come to expect them to be. Well, I had been watching a video from The Canon learning center about setting up the very complicated auto-focusing system of the 7D Mk II, and had changed a setting while watching the video last week. I didn’t realize until today (Tuesday) why my camera wasn’t behaving the way that it always had in the past, and it was then that I remembered the setting that I had changed, and changed it back.

I am so spoiled! I had four bald eagles in sight at one time, with three of them perched on the ground in a spot where there were thousands of geese and ducks in the background, and the fourth eagle circling overhead, and I’m complaining about being bored, because there was no way for me to get a good photo of that scene due to the light and how far away from me that the eagles were. I saw several northern harriers, including one that made a pass at a crow as if it were attempting to capture the crow for lunch, which of course failed. I saw a rough-legged hawk out of camera range, along with several red-tailed hawks. Then, there were a half a dozen or more species of ducks which totaled into the thousands if you combine them all together. There were flocks of snow buntings flying from spot to spot, along with several thousand gulls, but I found few subjects for really good photos. Two years ago, I would have come home with close to a thousand images over two days, most of the photos would have been so poor that I’d end up deleting them, but I’ve learned not to bother shooting things when I know that the photo won’t turn out well enough to use here.

There is an upside to that, I spent less time shooting poor photos, and more time just watching the behavior of the birds, and learning more about them. I never did figure out how the swans that were sleeping as they drifted with the wind across the lagoon knew when to wake up, and swim back to the center of the lagoon to repeat the process again, as one example.

Okay, I’ve been complaining about the same old, same old species of birds, but I’m going to use mallards as an example of how intelligent birds really are. A few years ago, I did a post entitled “The Mighty Mallard” about how I use them as practice subjects for my efforts in learning photography, but more importantly, why they’re able to survive and multiply, when many other species of waterfowl are declining in numbers due to overhunting and habitat loss. One reason is that they are able to learn when and where they are safe, and where they’re not.

A little more background, the Muskegon Wastewater facility is located within the Muskegon State Game Area, an area that is open to hunting. Since it is hunting season in Michigan, hunters aren’t dumb either, and they surround the wastewater facility in hopes of bagging a few geese or ducks as the waterfowl come and go. There, the mallards are extremely wary, and are often the first species of waterfowl to take flight as some one approaches.

Male mallard flying past a common goldeneye

Male mallard flying past a common goldeneye

While this goldeneye, which may not have ever seen a human, wondered what I was.

Juvenile common goldeneye duck

Juvenile common goldeneye duck

However, the Bear Lake channel, where Bear Lake empties into Muskegon Lake, is surrounded by homes on land, and marinas on the water’s edge, and there’s no hunting. Here, the mallards know that they’re safe, and I can photograph them with my 100 mm macro lens, and get photos like these.

Mallards

Mallards

 

Male mallard

Male mallard

 

Female mallard

Female mallard

The photography sidenote to this is for the best images, get closer and use a shorter lens. If the light had been better, I would have put the macro lens on the 7D, but those three were shot with the 60D camera, which had a hard time keeping up with the mallards as they moved around. Still, I can see a great deal of promise in those three images, as good as the 300 mm L series lens is, it still can’t match the 100 mm L series macro lens for either sharpness or color rendition.

Another one of the other ducks that has learned that the Bear Lake channel is a safe haven from hunters is this wood duck…

Male wood duck and female mallard

Male wood duck and female mallard

…who hangs out with the mallards…

Male wood duck and female mallard

Male wood duck and female mallard

…and the Pekin ducks.

Pekin duck

Pekin duck

 

Pekin duck

Pekin duck

 

Pekin duck

Pekin duck

By the way, have I mentioned how much I love using a polarizing filter when shooting waterfowl on the water?

More Pekin ducks

More Pekin ducks

I found out that it works well when there’s ice in the frame as well.

Birch bark trapped in ice

Birch bark trapped in ice

Anyway, back to the point I was making. Mallards move around from places where they’re safe to places where they’re not, and back again, changing their behavior to suit where they are. So far, just the one male wood duck has learned this at the Bear Lake channel, although I have heard that they can also become quite tame under the right conditions in other places.

You would think that other species of ducks would learn that Muskegon Lake is safer for them than the wastewater facility, but other than a few smaller flocks, few of them do. Muskegon Lake is one of the finest fishing lakes in the entire state of Michigan, so there’s plenty for the fish and also for the ducks to eat, including fish for the diving ducks.

Maybe the ducks aren’t so dumb after all, most of the species of puddle ducks such as mallards, northern shovelers, and so on, congregate at the wastewater facility, while the diving ducks, such as long-tailed ducks, mergansers, etc., use Muskegon Lake as stopping places as they migrate south. During mild winters, like as this one so far, all of the ducks will hang around until there’s no open water left for them.

It may seem as though I’m way off the topic of why I keep going to the Muskegon area every weekend, but I take all of that into consideration when I’m deciding where to go each weekend. It isn’t just the birds that drives me to go there at least once a weekend, it’s also the possibility of shooting more landscapes.

Lake Michigan beach 1

Lake Michigan beach 1

 

Lake Michigan beach 2

Lake Michigan beach 2

I shot many more than that, but those are the only two that I’ll bore you with for now, as far as straight up landscapes. The nice thing about landscapes is that the scenery doesn’t really change much, only the lighting does, so you can always go back and shoot the same scene again, once you’ve identified the mistakes that you made the first time. I shot a good many other landscape photos that afternoon, but the light wasn’t that great, and I also made quite a few errors in how I shot the scenes that I did. I’m learning though, that’s what counts.

However, no two sunsets are ever the same. On Saturday, I thought that we’d have a fantastic sunset, due to the nature of the clouds late in the afternoon.

Late afternoon cloudscape

Late afternoon cloudscape

But, as the sun set, the high clouds dissipated, and the sunset was a bit of a bust. However, I shot these two to not only capture the sunset, but to also work on my overall landscape skills, although it may not appear that way to you.

Saturday sunset 1

Saturday sunset 1

 

Saturday sunset 2

Saturday sunset 2

On the other hand, Sunday’s sunset looked like it was going to be a bust, with a layer of low clouds present.

Sunday afternoon cloudscape

Sunday afternoon cloudscape

I gutted out the cold, as the temperature was right about at the freezing point that evening, and something magical happened. A layer of high clouds above the low clouds lit up by the setting sun cast that color down on the low clouds for the photo towards the top of this post, and for this one.

Sunday evening's sunset at Duck Lake State Park

Sunday evening’s sunset at Duck Lake State Park

Now then, going back to what I said about the scenery not changing, only the light. Over a month ago, my original plan for the sunset was to shoot it over the Muskegon Lake channel, but the sun would have set in the wrong place in relation to the channel for me to get the shot that I wanted. I can tell from having been shooting sunsets at Duck Lake State Park since then, that the sun is setting farther towards the south now, and that the shot that I want of the channel is now possible, when we get another good sunset.

It’s a bit ironic, I’ve been birding around Muskegon, then going to Duck Lake for the sunsets. This past weekend, I found out that there’s a system of trails in Duck Lake State Park now, and that it would be a good place for birding. At the same time, I can tell that I may be better off shooting sunsets from Muskegon, so this weekend, I’ll probably reverse what I have been doing. I’ll go to Duck Lake to hike and bird, then go to Muskegon for the sunset.

Anyway, here are a few of the other photos from this past weekend, when the days began frosty…

Frosty morning

Frosty morning

…and I tried an artsy shot of the frosty grass.

Artsy frosty morning

Artsy frosty morning

Earlier, I said that I watched a northern harrier make a pass at a crow, here, a crow harasses a red-tailed hawk.

Crow harassing a red-tailed hawk

Crow harassing a red-tailed hawk

You didn’t think that I’d catch a northern shoveler close and in good light and only shoot one photo of it, did you?

Male northern shoveler

Male northern shoveler

I also got three good photos of a bird that’s hard to photograph well, a crow.

American crow

American crow

Of course, they can’t keep their mouths shut for long…

American crow

American crow

…so I learned that their mouths are red inside.

American crow

American crow

I am trying more artistic photos, here’s one that works.

Cattails in the twilight

Cattail in the twilight

I also use gulls as practice subjects for bird in flight photos.

gull in flight

Ring-billed gull in flight

For people who aren’t familiar with the Great Lakes, I shot these next two to show that they are more like freshwater seas than lakes.

Tug and barge on Lake Michigan

Tug and barge on Lake Michigan

Besides, this way I’ll remember that the shipping season is still open towards the end of November.

Lake Michigan freighter

Lake Michigan freighter

Here’s another one of my attempts at being more artistic. This is of the sand along the beach at Duck Lake as the light from the setting sun hit it.

Sand in the sunset

Sand in the sunset

What sunset would be complete without a few gulls in the warm light of sunset, with a splashing wave thrown in for good measure?

Bonaparte's gulls in the sunset

Bonaparte’s gulls in the sunset

One last note, it’s still hunting season here in Michigan, which limits my options as far where I go on the weekends. I’d rather not get shot, and I’d prefer not to mess up any one else’s hunt if possible. But, I’m still researching my options for next spring, and I think that I’m finding a few more good places to check out.

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

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24 responses

  1. I loved all those mallards especially the one in flight. What splendid evening colours you photographed, I enjoyed them all.

    December 2, 2015 at 3:55 pm

    • Thank you very much Susan!

      December 3, 2015 at 5:19 am

  2. You managed to take such beautiful photos! these are amazing to stare at! keep going

    December 2, 2015 at 4:02 pm

    • Thank you very much!

      December 3, 2015 at 5:19 am

  3. The Tundra Swan is not one we see a lot of in central Ohio.

    December 2, 2015 at 4:27 pm

    • Thanks Bob! We only see tundra swans during migrations, the best news is that there are more every year.

      December 3, 2015 at 5:20 am

  4. selah

    your landscape photos are beautiful. I’ve only ever seen one wood duck pair where I live, we have Trumpeter swans in the winter and Mute swans but I’ve never seen a Tundra swan.

    December 2, 2015 at 4:43 pm

    • Thank you very much Selah! Wood ducks are usually very wary and hide long before they can be seen. I am fortunate in that so many species of birds either live here, or at least migrate through in the spring and fall.

      December 3, 2015 at 5:22 am

  5. I certainly think that not getting shot is a very good idea so take care.

    I liked your final sunset a lot and your thoughts about looking and shooting and learning about both were very interesting.

    December 2, 2015 at 6:08 pm

    • Thank you very much Tom! I think that I’ve made good progress in the looking, shooting, and learning, but I still have much more to learn. I could wear what we call blaze orange clothing as the hunters are required to do so that they are seen by other hunters, but that makes it much harder to sneak up on birds.

      December 3, 2015 at 5:26 am

      • I should think it would.

        December 3, 2015 at 6:28 pm

  6. I like the shots of the sunsets and the frosty grass, and I think the beach scenes are good. I like the one with the rocks best. I think you should revisit that spot and do some more.

    I don’t blame you for wanting to go back to the same place if you know you’ll see birds there. I go back to the same places all the time and I see something different almost every time, and I’m not even looking for birds!

    Nice shots of the crow and northern shoveler too but my favorites are the smiling mallards!

    December 2, 2015 at 6:19 pm

    • Thanks Allen! It’s hard not to go back to a place where you can see 15,000 birds surrounding you at one time. 😉 Well, unless you’ve watched Alfred Hitchcock’s “The Birds” one too many times. 😉

      I shot half a dozen other landscapes there at Duck Lake, they showed lots of potential, but I missed the composition in those, and I know how to shoot them again, better next time. The weather forecast for this weekend is looking good, I may spend an entire day at Duck Lake shooting landscapes and walking the trails that I found for birds. The next time that I’m at Bear Lake, I will put the macro lens on the 7D and get some real close-ups of the smiling mallards.

      December 3, 2015 at 5:43 am

  7. We are always going back to the same places especially in the winter! There is often something new or different so it’s always worth it. I loved these shots especially the northern shoveler and the artsy ones!

    December 2, 2015 at 7:31 pm

    • Thank you very much Clare! There’s a lot to be said for becoming very familiar with an area, for one thing, you do notice any changes of any kind, which often is worth exploring why the change occurred.

      December 3, 2015 at 5:37 am

      • That is so true.

        December 3, 2015 at 6:11 pm

  8. The Muskegon is beautiful, and never tiresome to see though your lens. We all have our favorite places that mean something to us. Keep the photos coming!

    Our nutria returned the other night, and brought company. I have a photo with three of them, caught via flashlight.

    December 2, 2015 at 9:38 pm

    • Thank you very much Lavinia! The weather forecast for this next weekend is looking great, so I’m sure that there will be more landscapes and sunsets soon.

      December 3, 2015 at 5:26 am

  9. I liked all the shots in this batch. It’s amazing at the variety of colors that the ducks exhibit. I don’t think I’ve even seen a swan around here, though Eric spotted one when he was kayaking one of our rivers (the weather was too wild for me to attempt it). You’re catching some marvelous sunsets. It’s really hard to predict what the skies will do when it comes to a good sunset. You just take your chances.

    December 2, 2015 at 11:07 pm

    • Thank you very much Gunta! The coloration of waterfowl is amazing, which is why I love shooting them so much. It is hard to predict sunrises and sunsets, but one thing that I’ve learned is to get set-up just in case, since you can never be sure how the light is going to change.

      December 3, 2015 at 5:29 am

  10. Wow, I am amazed by the flock of tundra swans, Jerry. Such beautiful birds. As I’ve told you before, I think we only have one native swan here…the black swan, and an introduced white swan that I rarely see. Thank you for all the interesting observations about the birdlife you watched. I think Muskegon is a very special spot. You are right. You are a bit spoilt with seeing so many birds, especially birds of prey! But I’m glad you are as it means we get to see them as well in your beautiful pictures. Loved the landscapes too and that sand photo is awesome. What great colours and sheen. 🙂

    December 3, 2015 at 11:09 pm

    • Thank you very much Jane! Yes, it’s great to see so many of the tundra swans when they had been hunted to the brink of extinction. They are social birds, whereas the introduced mute swans are very territorial and while they may be in the same area as other, they do not form flocks. I’m glad that you mentioned the sand photo, as that was one of my favs from this post, and no one else had. The weather forecast for this weekend is for even better weather than last, so I’m sure that you’ll be seeing more photos from the Muskegon area soon.

      December 4, 2015 at 10:27 am

  11. Love the thought of the sleeping swans getting blown into shore, waking up, swimming back out, and starting all over again.

    It’s easy to understand being bored with going to the same spot each week. But your excellent portraits of the northern shoveler and those plump pekin ducks must make up for a bit of that.

    Did you see the video of the bird flock that formed Putin’s face? Thought of you when I saw this…http://nypost.com/2015/08/17/flock-of-birds-form-vladimir-putins-face-over-nyc/

    Ah well. Crazy stuff. Hang in there.

    December 4, 2015 at 8:52 am

    • Thank you very much Judy! Yes, the good portraits of the birds you mentioned does make the trip worthwhile, but I’d like every one of my photos to be that good. In a way, Muskegon is frustrating, I’ll be watching a flock of birds that numbers in the hundreds, and every single one of them will be just out of good camera range. It’s as if they know what’s going on at times. 😉

      Thanks for the link, I hadn’t seen that. Just what we need, birds making portraits of Vlad’s face, at least it was over NYC and not closer to home.

      December 4, 2015 at 10:33 am