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

Three years, learning and luck

I know that many people find the posts that I do in the My Photo Life List project that I started three years ago to be boring. On the other hand, some one asked me for an update on my progress, and many people comment on the variety of species of birds that I photograph.

As of right now, I have 224 species of birds photographed from a list of 350 species of birds regularly seen in Michigan, not bad for the amount of time I’ve been working on it. Remember, that’s species of birds that I’ve gotten photo good enough to make a positive identification of the species. That doesn’t count the other species that I’ve seen, but not gotten a good photo of, such as the yellow-billed cuckoo or the least bittern, both of which I missed on the same day.

I’d say that I’ve picked the low hanging fruit, and that now I’ll have to go after the less common species, but in reality, I’ve done very well getting some of the rarer species that are seldom seen in Michigan.

That was made clearer to me when I found a list similar to the one that I got from the Audubon Society to work from on Wikipedia.com. Both lists included some information as to how common sightings of some species are, which I used to whittle down the list somewhat. Here is a list of the categories of sightings of the rarer species of birds to help explain all of this.

(A) Accidental – recorded fewer than four times in the last 10 years
(C) Casual – recorded at least four, but fewer than 30, times in the last 10 years and in fewer than nine of the last 10 years
(E) Extinct – a recent species that no longer exists
(Ex) Extirpated – no longer found in Michigan but continues to exist elsewhere
(I) Introduced – population established solely as result of direct or indirect human intervention; synonymous with non-native and non-indigenous

Of course I’m not going to be able to photograph an extinct species of bird, so I deleted all of the species marked as extinct from the list, as well as the ones marked “Extirpated” and most of those marked as “Accidental” as well, I didn’t want to make the challenge too tough, or I’d lose interest. My goal was to photograph the species of birds seen regularly in Michigan, not go for the rarest of the rare.

As I scanned the list that I found on Wikipedia the other day, the thing that struck me was how many of the species that were marked as “Casual” I have gotten photos of already, and I’ve even gotten two species marked as “Accidental”, so I had to add them back to the list after I had initially deleted them.

That’s just one of many surprises along the way so far, I’m sure that there will be more as I go.

The biggest surprise is that I’m almost two-thirds of the way through the list already. When I started this, I thought that I’d get most of the species after I retired. Not bad for some one who isn’t a serious birder and that doesn’t keep a life list other than the photo one I’m working on, or some one who keeps count of every species seen every year, and so on. Some people take birding to the extreme. Me, I just enjoy birds, and this project was a way for me to learn more about them, their habitats, behaviors, and so on. Also, a way to learn more about photographing them.

I’m not bragging as if I were some super birder or photographer, I’ve had a lot of help so far. For one thing, I use modern technology to alert me when a rare species of bird is seen in the area, either my home county or the Muskegon area. Still, I have to track the bird down and get their photos for it to count. I’ve been lucky there as well, especially with the waterfowl. Often, one of the serious birders would point their spotting scopes at a rare bird and let me take a look so I’d know which bird to go for. However, it was still up to me to get the photo, and I’ve done very well on the songbirds all by myself. Most of the songbirds that I’ve gotten photos of, even the rarer species, have come just from me spending as much time as I can outdoors, and paying attention to all the birds that I see or hear.

That’s where learning on many levels comes into play. Learning what to look for and paying attention to details when I spot a bird that doesn’t quite match any that I’ve seen before. But, before I see the bird, I’ve been learning more than ever about them as I go, which was one of the reason that I began this project as I said earlier.

The amount that I’ve been learning is what keeps me going with this project. I thought that I knew something about birds when I started this, turns out that I didn’t know much at all. I knew that I didn’t know all of the species that spend at least part of the year in Michigan, but I didn’t have a clue as to just how many that there were. Even when it came to species that I had heard of, I knew that I couldn’t tell a lesser yellowlegs…

Lesser yellowlegs

Lesser yellowlegs

…from an American avocet…

American avocet

American avocet

…so learning to be able to identify the various species has required a great deal of time on my part. I had heard that warblers were hard to ID, and that was true when I began, not that they’re easy now, but they’re much easier than some other families of birds. To me, identifying shorebirds is much more difficult than warblers are. Even tougher to identify are the gulls. It seems that almost all the species of gulls are at least somewhat similar looking to all the others, and that it takes several years for gulls to gain their adult plumage. As the gulls mature, they go through several stages of the coloration of their plumage, making it even more difficult to identify them.

To make matters even worse, gulls are social birds, gathering in flocks that number into the hundreds or even thousands at times. I usually lack the patience to scan a large flock of gulls to pick out any that may be of a different species…

Glaucous gull and friends

Glaucous gull and friends

…but in this case, I was able to do some gull herding and cut the glaucous gull out of the main body of the flock to get this photo of it.

Glaucous gull

Glaucous gull

I’ve been lucky along the way, I’ve run into Brian Johnson, an ornithologist that works in the Muskegon area many times, and have had the chance to talk to him and learn from an expert. One topic that comes up often is the variations within a species. With a common species, such as robins, while there are variations in the coloration of individual birds, the species as a whole is rather distinctive, and we hardly notice that individuals in that species may be lighter or darker than others. But, when you’re first trying to make an identification of a new to you species, the variations within that species and the limited number of photos in a typical field guide can lead to frustrations. I’ve often had to check a number of sources before I was positive of my identification of a bird.

I’m using up some photos that I know aren’t very good, but there was something about each one that prompted me not to discard them, and this post is turning out to be a good place to use them. For example, here’s an oddly colored herring gull.

Herring gull

Herring gull

How the gull managed to dye itself green, I have no idea, but no species of gull shows any green feathers naturally. I’m using the photo to show what I have to deal with as I work on this project. Here’s two more photos that I saved even though they’re not that good from along the same lines.

Northern harrier in flight

Northern harrier in flight

You may not be able to see it in the small size that the images appear here, but this northern harrier is showing some blue on its wings and tail. Maybe you can see that in this one.

Northern harrier in flight

Northern harrier in flight

I don’t know if it was the light that day, or if that individual has more of a bluish cast to some of its feathers than any other northern harrier that I’ve seen. If I hadn’t seen many northern harriers before, this individual may have thrown me off in making an ID, but I’m positive that this was a northern harrier, because of the white band at the base of its tail and for other reasons. However, since I went looking for other photos of norther harriers that I’ve shot, I do notice that some of them do have a bluish cast to them that I never noticed before, but not as much as the one above.

Northern harrier in flight

Northern harrier in flight

I mentioned being lucky in that I’ve been able to have conversations with an expert, a big part of my success so far has been luck. Although I didn’t know it at the time that I began this project, weather has played a large part in my ability to find so many species of birds so quickly.

To begin with, we had a series of mild winters leading up to when I began this project. That allowed some species of birds to move farther to the north than their typical home range was before we had the milder winters. The Carolina Wren is one species that comes to mind. They don’t migrate south in the winter like many other species of birds do, they need milder winters to survive here in West Michigan. Unfortunately, the last two very harsh winters has taken their toll on the Carolina wrens that had moved into the area. I’m afraid that most of them died during our last two severe winters, as I haven’t seen any reports of any one seeing or reporting one of those wrens for some time now.

I recently read an article on this very subject, the same thing has happened in the past. We have a series of mild winters here in Michigan, and some species of birds expand their range into southern lower Michigan. Then, we have a series of much colder winters, and those poor birds are wiped out. The same thing happened with the Carolina wrens in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s, they were expanding their range to become common in Michigan, then the series of severe winters that we had in the late 1970’s killed almost all of them here, and it became very rare to see one.

On the other hand, the two severe winters have brought more species farther south than they normally migrate, which has given me the opportunity to see and photograph them. The past two winters were so cold that most of the water on the Great Lakes was frozen over, which concentrated the flocks of waterfowl into the few remaining areas of open water, making them easier to find and photograph.

So, I was very lucky when I decided to begin this project when I did.

I could go on at length, even longer than what I have so far, but I’ll try to cut this short.I know, too late to cut it short now. 😉

My goal for the upcoming year is to get ten more species added to what I have already. That will put me up to two-thirds of the way through the list. It may not be that easy to get them, but I’m going to try. If I am ever going to complete the list, sooner or later, I’m going to have to spend time in other parts of Michigan. The two main regions that I’m going to have to spend time in are the far southeastern corner of Michigan near the Ohio State line. There are some species of birds that are seen there and nowhere else in Michigan, for several reasons that I won’t go into now. The same holds true of Michigan’s upper peninsula, there are species there that are never seen in the lower peninsula.

This spring, I’m going to spend the week of my vacation in my favorite part of the lower peninsula, the northeastern quadrant. I’ll spend part of the week in the Pigeon River Country, the closest thing to wilderness in the lower peninsula. I’ll also spend part of the week near Alpena, where I’ve gone in search of birds for several years up till last year. So, that will use up my vacation time this year. It may not be until I do retire that I’ll be able to spend much time in the upper peninsula, since it’s such a long drive up there.

I really don’t want to spend much time in the southeastern corner of the state, that’s the area between Detroit and Toledo, Ohio. It’s not very scenic, but it is marshy with large expanses of mud flats. I’ll have to spend time there to get more of the wading birds, such as more of the species of herons, egrets, and rails that seldom, if ever, visit west Michigan.

Even if I do make it two-thirds of the way through the list this year, it may be a year or two before I catch up posting the species that I have photos of. For most of the year, I don’t have the time to do the posts in that series, I’m too busy with other things. Posting to that series over the winter months works out well for me, I’ll probably continue that schedule for the foreseeable future. That does work out well though, it gives me a chance to get better photos of the birds before I do a post on them. You may have noticed that I recently began adding some information about where and when I shot the photos that I use for the posts in the series, I plan to continue doing that since I don’t post species immediately when I find them.

To change the subject for a moment, here’s a pretty flower.

Aster

Aster

I threw that in to remind me that spring still hasn’t fully arrived here, in fact, it retreated this past week. Yesterday was the coldest day of the season, and today won’t be much warmer, so I’m hibernating this weekend. Starting on Monday, we in for a warming trend, with spring-like temperatures next weekend. Yeah!

I’d better throw this one in as well for the same reason.

Honeybee

Honeybee

Now then, back to birds for at least a few photos.

American tree sparrow

American tree sparrow

I included these because the American tree sparrow is one of the species that started me on the My Photo Life List project. They look very much like chipping sparrows, which are very common here in the summer. It was several winters ago that I saw a flock of American tree sparrows and dismissed them at first, thinking that they were chipping sparrows, until I remembered that chipping sparrows migrate south in the winter, and aren’t seen here in Michigan in January. So, I did some checking and learned that the American tree sparrows migrate here to Michigan in the winter, and more or less replace the chipping sparrows that go south.

American tree sparrow

American tree sparrow

I know that I’ve told that story repeatedly, but I’m repeating it again for newer readers. But, that event got me to thinking about how many species of birds could be seen in Michigan.

I soon learned that it was easy to make mistakes when identifying birds, which led me to decide to only list birds that I could positively ID from my photos.

Even then, I made a mistake or two when identifying shorebirds the first year, and I’ve corrected those mistakes since as I’ve gotten better photos, and gotten better at identifying shorebirds.

Okay, enough of that. Here are my photos from last weekend that I didn’t get around to posting yet. I learned that the cones of white pines open when it’s warm, and close when the temperature falls.

Pine cone opening in warmer temps.

Pine cone opening in warmer temps.

I’m learning that crows…

American crow in flight

American crow in flight

…blink more often than any other species of bird.

American crow blinking in flight

American crow blinking in flight

You’d think that I’d learn not to have twigs going through a bird’s head by now.

House finch

House finch

The birds are learning too, neither Bertha or Bruiser will fly as close to me as they used to.

Red-tailed hawk in flight

Red-tailed hawk in flight

Even if they had been perched in the same tree and flirting with each other…

Red-tailed hawks

Red-tailed hawks

…before taking off to go hunting alone.

Red-tailed hawk in flight

Red-tailed hawk in flight

As for the rest of these, they are of common species of birds.

House finch

House finch

 

Female downy woodpecker

Female downy woodpecker

 

Mourning dove

Mourning dove

Oops, for got that one was a squirrel.

Fox squirrel

Fox squirrel

Back to the birds.

Blue jay

Blue jay

 

Northern flicker

Northern flicker

Now it’s time for the other things that I saw while walking last weekend.

Unidentified seed pod

Clammy Ground Cherry seed pod

 

Cattail seeds

Cattail seeds

I don’t know who, how, or why this cone from an evergreen was cut in half, but I found it very interesting.

Pine cone cut in half

Pine cone cut in half

 

Frosty green

Frosty green

 

Frosty goldenrod

Frosty goldenrod

Well, that wraps up another one, I hope that I didn’t bore every one with the update on my progress as I attempt to photograph every species of bird regularly seen in Michigan. I could have prattled on much longer, as I am learning so much by having undertaken this challenge.

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

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29 responses

  1. Good luck with your bird hunt and thanks for the squirrel, you know I love them.

    February 15, 2016 at 3:28 am

    • Thank you very much Susan! I’ve been forgetting the squirrels lately, haven’t I?

      February 15, 2016 at 6:39 am

  2. I get very excited when I see a new bird and thrilled if I manage to get a half-way decent picture, so I can understand your interest in completing this list. I used to find binoculars heavy and difficult to use when I was younger so it put me off birding a bit but I’m finding that now I have the new Canon with it’s good zoom my enthusiasm has increased. I’m now able to see birds that were just a blur in the past. Even if my pics aren’t clear, it’s great to get home and have enough shots to make an ID – much easier than using my memory or carrying around a field guide. I also love watching their behaviour. There is a lot to be learned that isn’t in field guide information that’s for sure! Well done on your impressive list so far and good luck with capturing more this year, Jerry. I look forward to updates when you have the time. 🙂

    February 15, 2016 at 5:13 am

    • Thank you very much Jane! It’s so much easier to ID birds working from photos than it is in any other way that I’ve found. It will get even better when Cornel University perfects their software for IDing birds from your photos for you. There’s so much to learn about birds, their behavior, and the way that they interact with other animals that birding is a great hobby.

      February 15, 2016 at 6:43 am

  3. Very informative update! Jerry, you are an inspiration to me who is just beginning to photograph birds, and I must confess, who is not as determined as you are in finding the birds that are not so common.

    February 15, 2016 at 8:35 am

    • Thank you very much! I was already seeing and photographing a few rare birds before I started the project, so one thing led to another. That’s when I decided to make a list with photos of every species of bird that I saw, and from there, every species that I could find in Michigan.

      February 15, 2016 at 10:35 am

  4. I don’t think the bird list entries are boring at all! Please keep going!!! PS, that poor gull. It looks like he got into something he shouldn’t have. Hope it was an accident. I read a terrible story in the LA Times this week about someone attacking wild birds with darts. The pictures were so sad!

    February 15, 2016 at 9:34 am

    • Thank you very much Lori! Since the gulls feed at the landfill not far away, I assume that the gull had gotten the green on itself while at the landfill.

      February 15, 2016 at 10:37 am

  5. I look forward to following your project to the last bird standing. I enjoyed the three shots of the harrier – only on the last one did I really appreciate its huge wingspan.

    So happy to have stumbled across your blog a couple of years ago. You’ve taught me many things about birds and bird behavior. Funny how often I think of you when I see something photo worthy….what would Jerry do?? 😉

    February 15, 2016 at 10:02 am

    • Thank you for the encouragement Judy! There are times that I wonder why birds come in so many shapes, sizes, and colors, but as soon as one is in camera range, I forget those questions. I had rejected that last harrier image initially because of poor lighting, but I’ve learned to use Lightroom more effectively since then.

      I have the easy answer to your question of what would I do. I’d blow the photo, then blame it on my gear, and go shopping for more. 🙂

      February 15, 2016 at 10:42 am

  6. The green-stained gull looks like he got into something like a packet of Miracle-Gro. It’s on the bill, too, and doesn’t quite look like paint. He may have been feeding at a dump somewhere else.

    The photos are beautiful, as always, Jerry.

    February 15, 2016 at 11:22 am

    • Thank you very much Lavinia! You may be right about the green on the gull, where I saw it was close to the county landfill.

      February 15, 2016 at 11:42 am

  7. Not only beautiful photos of birds, but also good portraits of honeybee!!
    Can’t wait to see more.
    🙂

    February 15, 2016 at 1:13 pm

    • Thank you very much Cornell! I’ll be posting another in a few days.

      February 15, 2016 at 1:53 pm

  8. I find your posts fascinating and the photos you include to be very uplifting. One of the things I’ve learned in five years of posting is that you have to write for yourself and on those occasions that someone is positive about what you are creating you enjoy that moment without evaluating their motive and then you move on.

    February 15, 2016 at 3:25 pm

    • Thank you very much Charlie! I’ve also learned to write what I’m interested in and let the chips fall where they may.

      February 15, 2016 at 11:36 pm

  9. I wish that I had your drive and perseverance. Good luck with the list.

    February 15, 2016 at 4:04 pm

    • Thank you very much Tom! I think the same thing about you when I read that you’ve cycled 40 miles, did some gardening, and then gone for a walk.

      February 15, 2016 at 11:37 pm

      • But I am old and have nothing but time. You have a job to do as well.

        February 16, 2016 at 2:59 pm

      • I’m a truck driver, I sit for a living.

        February 16, 2016 at 3:13 pm

  10. I never knew that pine cones opened and closed, but it makes sense that heat would have an effect on them. I’ll have to find one low to the ground and keep an eye on it. Whoever sawed that one in half had his work cut out for him! I’ve never thought of doing that.
    I hope you’ll be able to add a lot of birds to your list this coming summer. I heard some male black capped chickadees singing their mating call a few days ago, so spring is on the way!
    I hope you’ll also take time to shoot some landscapes. Those white trilliums and the picture rocks come to mind. Both are things you’d never see here.

    February 15, 2016 at 4:57 pm

    • Thank you very much Allen! I guess that in the back of my head I knew that pine cones opened and closed, but that photo brought it to the forefront. I went looking for that same cone the next day, after it had cooled off here, and couldn’t find it as it had closed completely. I did find the cone that had been cut in half, it had really been cut into quarters, I don’t know who or how they would have done that. My thought is that it was done by accident by a lawn mower.

      I’ve been hearing a few more birds starting to sing, including the chickadees, hopefully the weather will warm up here so that I’ll get out more this week.

      I’m sure that you’ll see trillium this spring here on my blog, but unfortunately, the Pictured Rocks will have to wait. It’s about a 10 hour drive to them, each way, which means I can’t make it there and back on a weekend. The area is jammed with people all summer long, so I’ll have to plan a fall vacation there one year.

      February 15, 2016 at 11:49 pm

  11. I am always interested in the birds you have been able to add to your Life List; I hope you manage to get the ten more you want! I just love that shot of the lesser yellowlegs!

    February 15, 2016 at 6:00 pm

    • Thank you very much Clare! I’ll keep my eyes open for at least ten more species, you can be sure of that. 😉

      February 15, 2016 at 11:38 pm

      • 🙂

        February 16, 2016 at 4:38 pm

  12. Nice job on the list. Keep posting.

    February 15, 2016 at 9:22 pm

    • Thank you very much!

      February 15, 2016 at 11:37 pm

  13. First, I want to say, awesome post, Jerry! I’m like you, a bird got me started (remember the Osprey?!) and now I know more about birds than I could have ever imagined. I also started talking to a local expert on birds for some assistance. Like you, it’s a personal challenge and a hobby. As to the number of Michigan species you’ve gotten to date, WOW! I’m no where near that number. But I do enjoy the fun and excitement of obtaining a new bird for my life list. Another thing too, birding has taught me patience!!! Who knew I could stand for hours to photograph birds, waiting for that “Kodak moment”. 🙂 On today’s photos, your bee macro is awesome and I love the Northern Flicker!

    February 17, 2016 at 11:34 pm

    • Thank you very much Donna! Yes, birding can become an obsession in some ways, it has for me. I never knew that there were so many species to be found in my home state to begin with, and it went from there. Yes, patience is the key to getting good photos, something that I need to work on more.

      February 18, 2016 at 12:11 am