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

The money shot

Sometimes I get the shot that I’m hoping for, or at least I come very close. It was a rather slow day of birding at the Muskegon County wastewater facility, I ended up shooting far more macro photos of insects and flowers than I did of birds, as you will see later. It was so slow that I stopped off at the office building where they have a few bird feeders out, hoping that I could catch a few of the birds as they came and went from the feeders.

The feeders are on the north side of the building, and very close to it, so the feeders are in deep shade for most of the day. There are some ornamental trees planted around the office building, and the birds use them as a stopping point as they come and go to the wooded area on the other side of the driveway to the office building. My goal was to catch one of the hummingbirds, since I haven’t been able to get a photo of one this year, but the hummers were too quick for me. By the time that I had located where they had landed in one of the trees and begun to work my way to where I could get a good photo of it, the hummer was already gone.

I did find this juvenile downy woodpecker though.

Juvenile male downy woodpecker

As I was photographing it, I saw its mother feeding it.

Juvenile male downy woodpecker being fed by its mother

I was using the 100-400 mm lens with the 1.4 X tele-converter for the close-ups of the juvenile, so I missed getting mom in the frame. I zoomed out for the next time she fed Junior.

Juvenile male downy woodpecker being fed by its mother

The mother was bringing food from the suet feeder in large chunks, then she would jam the suet into a crack in the bark of the tree, where she could break the chunk up into smaller bits for Junior.

With them behind the branches, the photo above isn’t very good, so between my moving around a bit, and Junior moving to a spot where I had a clear view of him, I was getting a few portraits of him until mom returned, but she came back sooner than I expected.

Juvenile male downy woodpecker being fed by its mother

I couldn’t just yank the camera over to get more of her in the frame though, that’s what I get for zooming in all the way.

Juvenile male downy woodpecker being fed by its mother

You can see Junior using his barbed tongue to pull the tiny bit of suet mom is giving him, so I’m happy with that shot, and also this next one.

Juvenile male downy woodpecker being fed by its mother

You can see that I was easing the camera to the left, but mom took off right after that.

After that, Junior went to the crack in the bark where mom had been putting the suet when she first arrived from the feeder. It turned out that mom had left some of the suet there that Junior found and devoured, but not before showing me that he had found it.

Juvenile male downy woodpecker

Okay, I got some good photos of mom feeding Junior, but in analyzing the entire event, I wonder if mom was also teaching him how to find his own food by putting the suet in the crack of the tree bark, and leaving some of it for him to find. I also wonder if Junior learned how woodpeckers store food for the winter, by putting the food in places like the crack in the tree bark by watching what she was doing.

Just a few more words about how I got the photos. Mom never seemed stressed by my presence, she never sounded her alarm call, nor did she hesitate as she was feeding Junior. If she had, I would have left the area immediately, as I usually do when I see an adult bird feeding one of its young. Of all the species of woodland birds in Michigan, the two that don’t seem to mind my being very close to them are chickadees and downy woodpeckers.

Female downy woodpecker

That was shot a few days earlier here where I live, and that image wasn’t cropped either.

Now for some boring talk about camera gear. I had put a spotting scope and the accessories that would allow me to mount my camera on it on my wish list at B&H photo. However, the manufacturer just boosted their prices by more than 25% for each piece that I would need for what is called digiscoping. That price increase makes that look a lot less attractive to me, and in thinking it over some more, I’m not the kind of person to set-up a spotting scope and check out every one of the thousands of gulls in a flock to find the one rare gull.

After all, I’ve been doing quite well without a spotting scope, although there have been times when another birder nearby has allowed me to look through their scope to find the rare bird that I was looking for. I think that I could do without the scope and get a pair of very good binoculars instead, for a lot less money. As in almost $3,000 less now that the prices of the items that I would need increased as much as they did.

I’d be more happy with a full frame camera and only one other lens to carry around with me than I would be with a spotting scope. I’m growing tired of trying to increase the dynamic range of my crop sensor 7D Mk II in Lightroom, along with the noise reduction required at times. I know that a full frame sensor camera won’t eliminate all the editing that I’d have to do to my images, but it would help. I’m almost to the point where I’m going to set Lightroom to bring down the highlights 100% and raise the shadows 25% as I import images, since those settings are where many of my images end up. But, part of that is because I do expose to the right of the histogram, meaning slightly over-exposing my images, to cut down on noise in the shadow areas. And, I do that because in most of my images, the subject is the shadow to Lightroom.

The events of this past weekend helped me make that decision concerning the spotting scope versus a full frame camera. On Saturday, it was a slow day for birding as I’ve already said, so I decided to do some macro photography since the wind wasn’t too bad at the time. That idea came from seeing this butterfly.

Unidentified butterfly

I then decided that it was time to get a good macro photo of one of the milkweed flowers there. At first, I was settling for longer shots that I thought that I could crop down, but then I told myself that I was being lazy again. I went back to my car and grabbed the long extension tube from the set of three that I purchased a while back, and that was enough behind the 100 mm macro lens to give me these, which weren’t cropped at all.

Milkweed flower side view

I think that these show the complex structure of the milkweed flowers very well.

Milkweed flower front view

Then, I got really lucky. As I was shooting those, one of the green bees that I’ve tried to shoot a good photo of for years showed up on the milkweed flowers.

Unidentified green bee on a milkweed flower

Isn’t it pretty?

Unidentified green bee on a milkweed flower

I did cheat a little, I flipped those images because the bee was facing down as I shot the photos, and I thought that the images looked better after I flipped them. But, the big thing is that I happened to be ready with the extension tube behind the macro lens when the bee landed. I probably could have spent the day there, shooting macros of the various insects that came along to feed on the nectar of the milkweed. The scent in the air almost convinced me, as I love the smell of the milkweed too.

I’ll have some other macro photos shot shortly after those shortly, but first, more gear talk from the next day, Sunday. It was another slow day for birding, and the wind was whipping up quite strong very early in the day as a cold front pushed through the area, so macros were pretty much out of consideration, since all the flowers were being blown around by the wind.

However, there was a flock of seven mute swans in the small man-made lake just south of the Muskegon County wastewater facility proper. So, since I haven’t used the new gimbal head on my tripod much, I thought that it would be a good idea to set-up the tripod and gimbal head to practice on a species of birds that I wouldn’t care if I messed the photos up or not. I have plenty of good images of mute swans, so I decided to turn the day into a practice day.

My new tripod and gimbal head set-up

The gimbal head was not locked when I shot that, that’s the beauty of it, the camera stays pointed where I want it pointed, even as windy as the day was. The Benro tripod that I got for half price because they discontinued that model has no center post, but does have a substantial hook under it where I can hang my second long set-up to keep it close by and ready, but off the ground or trying to hold it as I use the camera on the tripod. That also helps to steady the set-up, it’s almost as solid as a rock as I move the camera on the gimbal head around to follow the action. Here’s a closer look at the gimbal head.

My gimbal head on the tripod with camera and lens attached

My plan almost worked well, but the swans stayed on the other side of the lake, since that side was sheltered a little from the wind. But, as I was just getting set-up, one of the swans assumed its aggressive posture…

Mute swan getting aggressive

…getting ready to chase one of the other swans away.

Mute swan getting aggressive

With the gimbal head, I was able to track the swan very well.

Mute swan getting aggressive

In the old days, I’d post dozens of images of the swans chasing each other around, but I’ll be able to get much better images at another time, when the swans are closer to me. But, as a test of the tripod and gimbal head, it was a complete success. Well, maybe not a complete success, I did do one thing wrong, I didn’t use the portable hide that I also recently purchased. I didn’t need the hide to get closer to the swans, but to block the light from hitting the LCD display on the back of the camera when I tried live view focusing with the 400 mm lens and 2 X tele-converter.

Mute swans in action at 800 mm and live view focusing

The camera, lens, and extender seemed to do well enough, but I couldn’t see the white swans in the LCD display well enough to keep them in the frame as they moved. The 7D Mk II will not auto-focus while looking through the viewfinder with the 400 mm f/5.6 lens and 2 X tele-converter due to the loss of 2 stops of light because to the tele-converter. However, I can use live view auto-focusing as I did earlier this spring with the golden eagle, or these swans here. It does work, and I think that the results are more consistent than when I try to manually focus while looking through the viewfinder. It is very slow though, better suited to perched birds than action shots.

I did consider shooting some video of the swans, but I would have gotten too much wind noise if I had shot video. Oh well, some other day when I’m closer to the swans and there’s less wind.

So, what does any of this have to do with whether I purchase a spotting scope or not, it’s this. I’d rather be shooting photos than scoping out a flock of birds for one that’s different, or one hiding somewhere that it takes a spotting scope to find it. And, there’s always something to photograph no matter what the weather or other conditions are at the time. The more time that I put into photography, the better my photos are. If I had spent the day scoping out the gulls, I would have missed Junior being fed by its mother, or the green bee on the milkweed. The time that I spend practicing with the gear that I have will pay dividends down the road as well. While the 800 mm of reach that I get with the 400 mm lens and 2 X extender are less than I’d get with a spotting scope, I do pretty well with it, well enough to get birds for the My Photo Life List project that I’m working on.

I had a lot of fun playing with the new gimbal head, learning what it can and can’t do. As far as what it can’t do, there isn’t much, I’m learning that there’s a reason most serious wildlife photographers use a gimbal head. The one that I purchased is a cheaper off-brand than what most professionals use, but I don’t have the super heavy telephoto lenses that they have either. For my mid-weight lenses, the one that I bought works just fine, better than I had hoped. I am glad that I set-up my camera and lens in the store before I purchased it, even a cheap off-brand isn’t that cheap compared to the other types of tripod heads.

Here’s another example of why I’d rather be shooting photos than scoping out birds, I was following a male yellow warbler around as it flitted from branch to branch looking for insects.

Almost a male yellow warbler in flight

While I didn’t get a clear shot of him in flight, I did catch him as he looked for the insect that was trying to hide from him.

Male yellow warbler searching for food


Male yellow warbler searching for food

Sometimes the story is more important than image quality, and I think that these three images show you exactly how many warblers go about foraging for food. The insect saw the warbler coming, and was doing its best to hide, but the warbler tracked it down.

By the way, I’ve received an inquiry from some one on the staff of the American Bird Conservancy asking if they can use one of my images of a female dickcissel. Of course I said yes, even though I won’t get paid for it. To have one of my photos posted online by such an organization, which is similar to the Audubon Society, is payment enough.

It’s funny in a way though, the image they asked to use is one of my older ones shot with the 60D and the Beast (Sigma 150-500 mm lens) and I have better quality images shot since then, but in the image they asked to use, the dickcissel is holding a grasshopper in her mouth. Here’s the image that they asked to use.

Female dickcissel

Once again, the story trumped image quality.

Still, I prefer to get the best images that I can.

Juvenile tree swallow, classic pose


Juvenile tree swallow, fun pose

I love the way that it’s staring into the lens so intently in that second image. I’ve had chickadees fly into the lens hood of my lenses a couple of times. I don’t know if the birds see their reflection in the front element of the lens, or if they think that there may be insects hiding in there. But no matter the reason, some birds seem to take a great interest in the front of my camera lens, which is lucky for me.

Anyway, I promised more macro photos, so I’d better get back to them.

Butterfly weed


Bumblebee on butterfly weed


Unknown flowering object

I just read something online about how many bees look like flies, and vice versa, so I’m not sure what the insect on top of the flower is. You may have to take a close look, but there’s a beetle with a long snout to the lower left of the image, it looked as if it was using its long snout to feed on nectar. The bee or fly seemed to be gathering pollen, but I could be wrong.

Bee? and beetle on a Black-eyed Susan


Bee? on a Black-eyed Susan

Then, a honeybee came along, and the smaller insect and the honeybee took turns chasing one another away.

Honeybee on a Black-eyed Susan

Finally, they struck an uneasy peace and decided to share.

Honeybee and friend on a Black-eyed Susan

I had to find one of the flower buds just beginning to open to find one without an insect on it.

Black-eyed Susan flower bud opening

For being shot outside on a somewhat windy day, those aren’t bad. I just watched another how-to video on macro photography, and once again, most of the images were shot inside using several light sources for each image. I’ve done that before, and it is the best way to get the eye-popping macro images that you see, but I prefer to wonder around outside and shoot what I see when I see it. My images may not be as good, but it’s more fun to me.

One last image for this post before I publish it.

Male Green-winged teal

I thought that both days of the weekend were slow for birding, yet I’ve got more than enough photos left over for another post. I’m spoiled.

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


21 responses

  1. You take such good pictures, I loved the woodpecker shots. Your camera gear looks fearsome!

    June 28, 2017 at 3:35 pm

    • Thank you very much Susan! I hope that my camera gear doesn’t look too fearsome, I don’t want to frighten the birds and other critters away if they see it. 😉

      June 28, 2017 at 10:57 pm

  2. Fine shots one and all but as you know I’m a sucker for a good macro shot, and those are good macro shots. That metallic bee is amazing!
    I think your mystery flower might be a purple prairie clover (Dalea purpurea.) I’ve never seen one but I just looked it up.
    That’s quite a set up. I do like that head on your tripod. I looked at one once and decided it was just too pricy for someone who really doesn’t even want to be a photographer. Maybe after I retire when I have more free time.
    I think my favorite shots are of the swan, which I never see here. Not sure I’d want to get too close to it though!

    June 28, 2017 at 5:53 pm

    • Thank you very much Allen! I wasn’t going to make this post public for a few days, but I saw your most recent post with the milkweed macros. I didn’t want you to think that I had seen your post and was copying your photos or thoughts on the milkweed, since we shot almost identical photos and posted at the same time. Great minds do think alike.

      Yes, that bee is something, I’ve been trying for years to get a good clear, sharp image of one, and I lucked into it by shooting the milkweed flowers the right way for a change.

      I just looked up Purple prairie-clover also, and you’re right again. It grows in one of the sandy fields at the wastewater facility which are conditions exactly like that plant seems to like.

      That gimbal head is great for birds and wildlife, not so good for macros or landscapes. I don’t think that it would work well for you at all given what you photograph. I much prefer my other tripod with the three way head for those subjects.

      You never want to get close to a swan with its young nearby. They bite at the same time they beat you with their wings. It’s one of the hazards involved in kayaking or canoeing, but I hope that you never experience it first hand.

      June 28, 2017 at 11:15 pm

      • I wouldn’t have worried about you copying me. It’s the time of year for milkweeds and everyone wants photos of them.

        The purple prairie clover is a beauty. You’re lucky to have it!

        I’m even happier now that I din’t buy that tripod head. I’ll have to try some different ones out.

        I’m not sure why swans don’t come here but I’ve never seen one so I doubt I’ll ever stumble into a nesting site. I wish I could say the same for red winged blackbird nesting sites!

        June 29, 2017 at 4:55 am

  3. Another`excellent set of pictures and interesting thoughts to go with them. I am impressed by your tripod set up. I should use mine much more even though it is nowhere near as sophisticated as yours.

    June 28, 2017 at 6:24 pm

    • Thank you very much Tom! I now have two very good tripods, and I don’t use mine as often as I should. I think that’s going to change though. I already use a tripod 95% of the time for landscapes, and the new tripod and head make shooting wildlife easier rather than more difficult, so I think that it will get a lot of use.

      June 28, 2017 at 11:00 pm

  4. Like Susan, I love those shots of the woodpeckers! I think it is just as satisfying to decide NOT to buy something as it is to buy – and you can save the money and use it on something else.

    June 28, 2017 at 9:42 pm

    • Thank you very much Clare! You’re right, deciding not to buy something is satisfying, in this case, maybe more satisfying than the thought of purchasing it was in the first place.

      June 28, 2017 at 11:03 pm

  5. Great post, perhaps my favourite of yours to-date! I envy your gear!

    June 29, 2017 at 10:22 am

    • Thank you very much! Talk about gear envy, I met a guy using Canon’s 1DX with both their 500 mm and 800 mm lenses, and he had a 7D Mk II as his playtoy. It must be nice to have money.

      June 29, 2017 at 11:38 pm

  6. Holy cow, Jerry! What a great bunch of photos in this post. I think my faves are the milkweed shots, but I love the woodpecker with the accompanying narrative. Really nice work to define what may be happening with the mom teaching the juvenile how to find food.

    My first thought on the ‘unidentified butterfly’ photo is that it seemed like you somehow managed to capture the entire color spectrum in one photo. Crazy.

    You sure do make the best out of repeat trips to a familiar location. Finding a new post from you in my email is always a welcome morning sight.

    June 29, 2017 at 10:53 am

    • Thank you very much Judy! Overtime that I’m around the “lowly” milkweed, I’m amazed at how complex the flowers are, and their wonderful scent. I really could have stayed in the one spot all day shooting macros, but then I would have missed the woodpeckers. I’m not sure that the mother was teaching the youngster, but it seems logical. She leaves food for him and he finds it, he’s obviously learning something, even if the basic instincts are hardwired into his brain at birth.

      I was a little disappointed in the unidentified butterfly image, I didn’t think that the colors popped as much in the image as what I saw while shooting it. Maybe next time.

      In a way, I hate to keep going to the Muskegon County wastewater facility, but it’s the best place for birds on this side of the state. I’m also finding more native prairie flowers all the time that they have planted to attract the birds, and insects, which attract more birds.

      June 29, 2017 at 11:47 pm

  7. These are outstanding photos, Jerry! They just keep on getting better and better. 🙂

    June 29, 2017 at 12:08 pm

    • Thank you very much Lavinia! Continuing to improve is my main goal, so I’m happy that people notice that.

      June 29, 2017 at 11:35 pm

  8. Your post isso enjoyable to read and to view the photos in it. You seem to have mastered all that you need to take perfect nature photos. I especially like the lovely woodpecker shots with the mother feeding her child. A question: were the macro shots taken with the 100-400 lens or with a dedicated macro lens?

    June 29, 2017 at 8:08 pm

    • Thank you very much Hien! I wouldn’t say that I’ve mastered anything yet, and my photos are far from perfect, but I am improving, which is my main goal. The macro photos were shot with Canon’s 100 mm macro lens, some on a 60D body, and a few on the 7D body. I also used the longest of the set of three Kenco extension tube set that I have, I just checked, it’s 36 mm long. That was used for the milkweed flowers and the green bee. The rest were just the macro lens.

      June 29, 2017 at 11:17 pm

  9. Enjoyed your shots of the juvenile woodpecker being fed. Your macro shots are beautiful.

    July 3, 2017 at 7:22 am

    • Thank you very much Bob!

      July 4, 2017 at 9:55 am

  10. Very interesting.
    It is for the first time when I see photos of a juvenile woodpecker being fed by its mother.

    July 6, 2017 at 4:54 am

    • Thank you very much Cornell! I lucked out with the woodpeckers, but a little luck never hurts. I didn’t know that you could brew tea from motherwort, I should try it even if it is bitter.

      July 6, 2017 at 8:04 am