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…
…from an 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…
…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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Now then, back to birds for at least a few photos.
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.
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.
I’m learning that crows…
…blink more often than any other species of bird.
You’d think that I’d learn not to have twigs going through a bird’s head by now.
The birds are learning too, neither Bertha or Bruiser will fly as close to me as they used to.
Even if they had been perched in the same tree and flirting with each other…
…before taking off to go hunting alone.
As for the rest of these, they are of common species of birds.
Oops, for got that one was a squirrel.
Back to the birds.
Now it’s time for the other things that I saw while walking last weekend.
I don’t know who, how, or why this cone from an evergreen was cut in half, but I found it very interesting.
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!