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

Telling the story well

My last post was another of my boring ones on camera gear and my efforts to improve my ability to use what I already have to get better images. In this post, I hope to better explain why it’s so important to me to improve my images.

Nature is full of stories, whether it’s a simple, but beautiful one, of a small bird singing its heart out trying to attract a mate…

Male dickcissel singing

…or a more complicated one of how birds fly.

Green heron in flight

I want to improve my skills as a photographer to better tell the stories that nature presents us if we take the time to observe those stories.

Added to that is my curiosity of how animals learn how to live. By that, I mean such things as how do birds learn where and how to build their nests. Most species of birds build their own distinctive style and size of nest, and how do the young know how to do that when they’ve never seen an adult build a nest? Do they learn by growing up in a nest, seeing how it is built? Or, is building a nest “hardwired” in their brain at birth so that they know what to do when the time comes?

That story is a little problematic for me to tell, as I seldom sit near a nest as it’s being built, nor do I sit and watch the adult birds feeding their young.

In the past, when I’ve seen a bird building a nest out in the open where I can see it easily, I’ve shot a few photos, then moved on to prevent disturbing the bird building the nest. It’s usually the same when I happen upon a nest that has young birds in it, I may shoot a photo or two, then move on so that I don’t disturb the adults.

Adult blue jay feeding its young

As you can see, the blue jay had built its nest in a thick tangle of branches and was well hidden from view. The dense branches surrounding the nest also makes it harder for a larger raptor to find and raid the nest.

The way that I found the nest was by watching the adult, hoping for a clear photo of it. The adult took a circuitous route to the nest, pausing often to look around in a way that made me think that it was foraging for food, not on its way to a nest. After watching the entire event play out, I now know that the blue jay was being careful not to let any potential predators know where its nest and young were hidden.

Blue jays are members of the corvid family of birds, the most intelligent birds that there is. Apparently, their intelligence extends to where they build their nests, and how they come and go as they feed their young.

On the other hand, there are the American robins. I’ve posted photos of them building their nests right out in the open, shown photos of them feeding their young in those nests, and even posted a series of photos last year that showed a hawk taking one of the young robins from such a nest.

It’s easy to find a robin’s nest, find an adult collecting food…

American robin collecting food for its young

….follow it as it moves around…

American robin collecting food for its young

…and eventually, the robin will go straight to its nest.

Unfortunately, many predators have figured that out, and find that young robins are a good meal for themselves or their young.

Red-tailed hawk taking a young robin back to its nest

Corvids, being as intelligent as they are, have also learned to watch adult birds bring food to their young also.

American crow carrying off a baby bird

In some ways, crows are even better predators of young birds, although they may not take as many as raptors do in total. On the day that I shot the last photo, a pair of crows were acting as a team. One crow was distracting the other species of birds in the area by circling low to draw the attention of the other birds…

American crow in flight


American crow being attacked by a Baltimore oriole

…while the crow in the first photo in this series raided one of the other bird’s nest.

Even blown up on my computer, I can’t identify the species of young bird that the crow is carrying away, but I don’t think that it was a Baltimore oriole. There were several other species of birds attacking the crow, including a red-winged blackbird and an eastern kingbird. I chose to use the image of the adult Baltimore oriole chasing the crow as I’ve never captured that in the past, and as a way of showing that many species will defend their young against much larger predators. And, not all the species of birds present at this spot attempted to chase off the crow,  although they probably would have if it had gotten very close to its young.

That’s one of the darker stories that nature has for us if we take the time to observe what’s happening around us. Here’s a much more pleasing story, although I missed the best part.

I was shooting a few portraits of a cedar waxwing…

Cedar waxwing

…because it’s been a while since I’ve posted any photos of them.

Cedar waxwing

A second waxwing landed in the same bush, and it looked to me as if it had food in its bill. Cedar waxwings are social birds that often share food with others in the flock, especially males that are wooing a female. The waxwing that I was photographing moved right next to the one that had just arrived that had the food, but there was a branch full of leaves blowing right in front of the pair as they sat there perched.

If the second waxwing did share its food with the first one, I missed it while moving to a spot where I had a clear view of them.

Cedar waxwings

I hope that I have better luck the next time.

In a way, the My Photo Life List project that I’m working on is a story as well. It’s the story of the diversity of birds that can be seen in Michigan, or most parts of the world for that matter. With that is the behaviors of each species, although I could do a better job at that.

When I first began trying to identify shorebirds, the easiest one for me to ID was the spotted sandpiper, so for a while, I posted quite a few images of them. I’ve since gotten better at identifying the other shorebirds, but I still remember how many photos of the spotted sandpipers that I posted, so I haven’t included any photos of them for a while.

Spotted sandpiper

It’s easy to see how they came by their name, the spots on their bellies. By the way, I had inserted a different photo of a spotted sandpiper here, but then I went out and shot this one, which is much better.

On the other end of the spectrum as far as the number of images of a species of bird that I’ve posted is this one, the red-necked phalarope.

Red-necked phalarope, probably female

These are long distance migrants that only stop in Michigan on their way to their breeding grounds in the Arctic. The females are typically more colorful than the males, which is unusual in the bird world, and I’m not sure if I’ve ever posted photos of this species in its breeding plumage before.

Red-necked phalarope, probably female

Those two species remind me to say a few words about their preferred habitat, and by extension, how to make identifying all birds, but especially shorebirds, a little easier.

You can see that the spotted sandpiper was walking along the rocks along the shore, that’s their preferred habitat, rocky areas from what I’ve seen. They seldom venture out into the water, but instead, they walk around the rocks looking for insects there.

On the other hand, the phalaropes prefer shallow ponds with smooth bottoms, i.e. gravel or sand, and they are typically the shorebirds out in the deepest water when compared to the other species of shorebirds. They will even feed while swimming, although they seem to prefer to wade if they can.

So, when I went looking for the red-necked phalarope after others had reported seeing it, finding it was relatively easy for me now, even though there were hundreds of other shorebirds very close by at the time. The phalarope was the one in the deepest water, while all the others were wading closer to shore. A quick look through the viewfinder of my camera confirmed that it was indeed the phalarope, so I began shooting.

It’s also because of each species of bird’s preferred habitat that makes it easier to photograph some species well, such as the spotted sandpiper, while others, like the phalarope are more difficult to get good images of. The spotted sandpipers stick to land, meaning that I can get closer to them, while the phalaropes are the farthest from shore, so I can’t get as close to them.

Here’s another species of bird that it’s rare to get such a good look at.

Eastern towhee

Towhees are a species of large sparrow. As such, they spend most of their time on the ground in thick brush where they are difficult to see. This spring, I’ve been lucky enough to catch two of the males out in the open singing to attract a mate. When they’re down on the ground foraging through the leaf litter in search of food, they are almost impossible to see.

Here’s another story for you, small birds can often find cover from the rain, but most larger birds can’t. Here’s a miserable looking turkey vulture doing what it can to stay dry during a downpour.

Turkey vulture in the rain

I don’t know why they held their wings out as the rain fell on them, but many of them, although not all, did hold their wings open.

Turkey vultures in the rain

But it didn’t matter if they held their wings open or closed, they were some of the saddest looking birds that I’ve ever seen. After the rain let up, all the vultures opened their wings to dry off.

Turkey vulture drying its wings

On the other end of the emotional scale, tell me that this guy doesn’t look happy and even a bit proud of his catch.

Belted kingfisher with its catch


Belted kingfisher with its catch

At first, I couldn’t think of a reason for this kingfisher to be where it was, since there was no water nearby. Then it dawned on me, it was on its way back to the burrow where its nest was, and the kingfisher was pausing to look around to see that no predators were watching it before it flew into the burrow to feed its young.

I’ve gone on at length about how I’m working to improve my photos, working towards having great images to tell the story of what I saw happen. In a way, that’s a two-edged sword. I’ve not posted some photos of interesting happenings that I’ve seen because the image quality was so poor. I’ve forgotten that there are times when the story is more important than the quality of the images that I post here, especially since I’ve already surpassed the quality threshold of how my images will appear in my blog. Let me show you what I mean with these two sets of images.

I came upon a family of sandhill cranes at the Muskegon County wastewater facility, and of course, the red-winged blackbirds were making the crane’s lives miserable.

Female red-winged blackbird attacking sandhill cranes

You can see that the crane in front has ducked to avoid the blackbird, which is something that I wanted to capture. That image was shot with the 100-400 mm lens with a 1.4 X tele-converter behind it, and cropped slightly, because of how far away the cranes were. I was also using my bird portrait settings, so my shutter speed was relatively low, and the camera is set to tick off 4 frames per second maximum, which is as fast as I can get for the best quality images. In reality, it seldom manages the 4 frames per second due to the slow shutter speeds.

Anyway, the second crane didn’t duck, and the blackbird slapped it in the face with its wing as it flew past. I missed that shooting at the slow frame rate I was using, but I did capture this as the next frame.

Female red-winged blackbird attacking sandhill cranes

You can see that the blackbird is already landing in the weeds, but the best part of that image is the look on the second crane’s face. Unfortunately, you can’t really see the look on the crane’s face the way that the image is presented here. So, I thought about that overnight, and I decided the absolute image quality wasn’t as important as the story and the look on the crane’s face. I went back into Lightroom and created a virtual copy of both images, then cropped the copies severely, even though I knew that the images would suffer as far as sharpness.

Female red-winged blackbird attacking sandhill cranes

Of course I couldn’t create the missed image of the blackbird slapping the crane in the face, but you can now see the look of innocent terror on the crane’s face, as if it were asking what just happened, and why me?

Female red-winged blackbird attacking sandhill cranes

Yes, action happens fast in the wild, too fast for me to always be able to capture the precise moment that it happens.

Anyway, that little exercise has taught me a great deal, that for my blog, cropping an image that much works fine, even though I’d never print the cropped images. I wouldn’t have to, blown up on my computer or if I printed the images to a large size, I don’t need to crop the images for people to see what I want them to see, but in the small size that images appear in my blog, then I should make virtual copies and crop the copies much more than the originals. In the future, I’ll skip the normal size images, and only post the severely cropped images in an instance such as this one. I should have thought about this before.

But, it’s only because the quality of the images that I copied and cropped so severely was so good to begin with that I was able get away with cropping as much as I did. The severely cropped images look as good or better than my best older images from a few years ago. So, all the work that I’ve put into learning photography is paying dividends now.

Anyway, if you’ve read my blog for any length of time, you’ll know that I use gulls as practice subjects for birds in flight because they’re so common, and easy to photograph well. I still practice on gulls to stay sharp, the problem is that there are times when I get an image so good that I just have to share it, despite how my images of gulls in flight that I’ve posted here.

Ring-billed gull in flight

If only I could get lighting like that when I’m trying to shoot these guys.

Cliff swallow in flight

There’s too much noise in these images for them to be considered good ones, but as quick as the swallows are, almost any image of them in flight is a keeper.

Cliff swallow in flight

I was surprised that the 7D Mk II with the 400 mm prime lens could keep up with one flying directly at me in the low-light at the time.

Cliff swallow in flight


Cliff swallow in flight

It seems like whenever all the other conditions are good for me to try photographing the swallows in flight, the light is poor. On this morning, there was an insect hatch taking place close to shore, which brought in a large number of the swallows. Believe me, trying to photograph one or even a few swallows close to me is a tough proposition, I need many of them in the area to get one or two good shots of them. For the few images that I did get, I shot quite a few more with the swallow out of focus, or even out of the frame as they darted about picking off the insects.

There were 20 to 25 swallows there at the time, flying in a circular pattern of sorts, and for once, the wind was right for me to try to shoot the swallows. They would fly at full speed very close to shore for a ways picking off the bugs as they hatched. Then, they would turn out over the water farther as they turned around to get back to where they had started. I would try to get a focus lock on them as they came back to where they started down the shoreline, and attempt to keep them in the viewfinder as they came towards me, then turned to go along the shore. I only sat there for about half an hour, but my arms were growing weary from trying to track the swallows as quick as they are. But, I learned that my equipment is up to the task, now all I need is better light and stronger arms. 🙂

I have one more short story consisting of four images to share before I end this post. Another thing that I’ve been doing lately is shooting a lot of images of any subject that will pose nicely for me. I used to stop when I thought that I had a good image, to try to find another subject to shoot. Now, I’ll keep shooting until I grow tired of it, or the subject takes off. The first image is of this whitetail doe.

Whitetail doe

I shot about twenty images of her before I got that one with both of her ears turned towards me as she listened to the shutter clicking away and no shadows in her ears or on her face. This may be my best ever portrait of a doe, as you can really see her beautiful long eyelashes, although if she would have turned her head slightly, the eyelashes would have shown up even more.

The other example of shooting a lot of images of the same subject is this grasshopper sparrow. This first image shows it shaking itself like a dog.

Grasshopper sparrow

I think that it shook itself so much that it became a little dizzy from its expression and body language in this image.

Grasshopper sparrow

After a few moments, it went back to singing again, and I was able to get this shot.

Grasshopper sparrow

It may be just a grasshopper sparrow, but I think that they are pretty birds in their own way, and I hope that it shows in the images of it that I’ve posted here.

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


19 responses

  1. You use your excellent images to tell a most interesting story or stories. You take such care to get each picture right.

    June 20, 2017 at 2:58 am

    • Thank you very much Susan! I try to get every image right, but in most instances, there isn’t enough time for me to get exactly what I’d like.

      June 20, 2017 at 8:00 am

  2. Jerry, your post really started my day off in a pleasant direction, starting with your superb opening photo of the dickcissel (what a fun name to say).

    The satisfied-looking belted kingfisher is beautiful. Probably my favorite photos were the turkey vultures. All I could think of in the shot with the three together, was that they reminded me of some of the grumpy Senators I watched in a recent intelligence committee hearing. All grumpy and posturing. Couldn’t get that image out of my mind.

    In my eye though, your best capture was the shaking grasshopper sparrow, and the shot immediately after. What a treat.

    You’re on a roll. Keep up the good work.

    June 20, 2017 at 8:07 am

    • Thank you very much Judy! I love it when I get images like the dickcissel singing, with its neck feathers all fluffed out from the effort that it’s putting into its song.

      Getting photos of the kingfisher like those also made me very happy, as they are so very hard to get that close to most of the time.

      I almost didn’t shoot the photos of the vultures in the rain, because vultures aren’t most people’s favorite birds. But the photos do tell the story of how tough wildlife has it, when we take going inside to stay dry for granted, forgetting that there are critters just doing their best to stay alive.

      The grasshopper sparrow photos are one of the times when I forgot what the experts say make a great image, and shot the behavior of the bird instead. The photo of him singing is a classic pose that the experts would love, but I do think that the first two are more interesting in most ways. They do tell a story, something that I’m going to work on doing more often.

      June 20, 2017 at 8:37 am

  3. Beautiful portraits of these birds, Jerry! I think my favorites in the set are the Cedar Waxwings. Turkey vultures we have here too. I saw one circling and coming in for a landing, and went to investigate. Something got one of the neighbors chickens, and I found three turkey vultures on what was left, back out in the hazelnut grove.

    I have seen blue jays rob the swallow nests here. We usually have swallows nesting in our shed. Only one fledged one yearafter the jays came through.

    June 20, 2017 at 10:42 am

    • Thank you very much Lavinia! Vultures are known as scavengers, but they are raptors that sometimes make their own kills. It could be that one of the vultures thought that a chicken dinner sounded good.

      From what I’ve read, blue jays are more likely to steal other bird’s eggs than their young, but they do sometimes take the young. Either way, it’s a shame that the jays went after swallows, as swallows are one of my favorite families of birds.

      June 20, 2017 at 10:35 pm

  4. I agree with you absolutely that sometimes the story told by a photograph is more important than the quality of the picture so I hope that you will continue to tell us your good stories as well as showing us your beautiful shots.

    June 20, 2017 at 5:00 pm

    • Thank you very much Tom! I will do my best to follow your advice from now on.

      June 20, 2017 at 10:38 pm

      • If only everyone else would too. 🙂

        It is very impertinent of me to give you any advice so I apologise.

        June 21, 2017 at 4:29 pm

      • No need to apologize, it was good sound advice.

        June 21, 2017 at 11:07 pm

  5. I’ve always thought you told a good story Jerry, and there have been times I’ve had tears in my eyes from laughing so hard!
    I’m glad you showed the red winged blackbirds slapping the cranes around. They’ve never hit me but they’ve sure come close.
    Now if only you could show drunken cedar waxwings. I’ll never forget that one that was drunk on fermented silky dogwood berries flying right at my face at high speed and pulling up just a second or two before he hit me. I got that message; stay away from my berries!
    Nice shot of the kingfisher. I know where one lives but I’ve never been able to get a useable shot of it.
    That’s a great shot of the doe too!
    I’m glad you’ve been able to get out more. I hope you’ve found a solution to the insect / bug spray problem.

    June 21, 2017 at 5:48 pm

    • Thank you very much Allen! Actually, things in nature tell the story, I’m just there to translate it. I’ve seen the drunken waxwings, but it’s hard to show how drunk that they are in photos, I’ll try again when I get the chance.

      Kingfishers are always hard to get close to,I lucked out for once with those photos. The deer was easy, she stood there listening to the camera, when I quit shooting, she went back to eating again.

      I’ve tried many things in the past, this isn’t the first time that I’ve tried to avoid the repellents that contain DEET. But, between the park close to home and the wastewater facility where there are no mosquitos, I can get enough photos to fill my blog posts.

      June 21, 2017 at 11:13 pm

  6. Thanks for this latest post. By all means, if you have to crop an image, even severely, to get your point across, do so. Animals–particularly birds (and even more particularly, birds in flight) aren’t always cooperative about filling the frame.

    Anyway, good stuff.

    June 23, 2017 at 5:31 pm

    • Thank you very much Kerry! I usually crop most of my images to some degree, the less the better of course. I’ve gotten so good at sneaking up on birds that there are times when the bird more than fills the frame.

      June 23, 2017 at 10:56 pm

  7. More outstanding photos, whether cropped a lot or not. You even make those crows look good, even though I don’t like crows: They ate a rare baby ploving piper at Barnegat a couple of weeks ago, and every year they completely destroy my crop of Asian pears.

    June 24, 2017 at 8:44 am

    • Thanks again Hien! I understand that crows aren’t every obeys favorite birds and that they can be very destructive. The gulls are just as bad, but we won’t go into that now.

      June 24, 2017 at 9:23 pm

  8. Wow, Jerry! I so enjoyed your stories and the shots are wonderful. Animal and bird behaviour really interests me and so these shots with your observations absolutely made my day! That doe is so beautiful!

    June 24, 2017 at 12:50 pm

    • Thank you very much Clare! It was seeing how beautiful a doe was up close that caused me to give up hunting forever, I knew that I’d never be able to pull the trigger again.

      June 24, 2017 at 9:25 pm

      • I can understand that.

        June 25, 2017 at 6:47 pm