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

For the love of nature

My main reason for wanting to improve the quality of the photos that I shoot is to show the beauty of nature in the best light possible (pun intended). However, there are other reasons as well, and there are even times when I’ll shoot bad photos on purpose, knowing that they’ll never be seen by any one but myself.

Greater yellowlegs

Since I began with the image of the greater yellowlegs, I’ll get right to the point here, my photos prove invaluable in helping me identify the birds that I see. I wasn’t able to get as close as I would have liked, but here’s a stilt sandpiper.

Stilt sandpiper

The first time that I attempted to identify shorebirds, it was in the fall when they were all in their eclipse plumage, and I hard a very difficult time making the correct identifications. I even made a few mistakes back then. I chose the photo of the stilt sandpiper above, even though it’s at a bad angle to me, for a reason. It shows that the bird in question has the brown barring on its entire underside, all the way to its tail.

Another mistake that I made in the beginning was trying to isolate each bird in the frame. Sometimes, it’s helpful to compare two birds when they are seen together.

Stilt sandpiper to the left, lesser yellowlegs to the right

Then, other differences between the two birds becomes more apparent. The stilt sandpiper does show more barring on its underside, but that could be the difference between two individuals of the same species as seen in that image, or perhaps the difference between a male and a female. However, the differences in the two bird’s beaks becomes very apparent. The stilt sandpiper has a longer beak in relation to its head, and it is also stouter with a blunter end than the lesser yellowleg’s beak. Those are some of the things that you can see better when looking at a photo than you can when surveying a mixed flock of 20 to 40 shorebirds all moving around as they look for food.

I should say that the differences between those two birds is now obvious to me, I doubt if they are for most people reading this though. I don’t think that the differences seemed as pronounced when I attempted to ID shorebirds the first few times. Like most things, identifying similar birds takes practice.

Shorebirds, warblers, and gulls are notoriously difficult to identify, as so many species look very much alike. I should also add flycatchers to that list, as in some cases, the only difference between two species is the call that they make, and no photo can capture that. That also applies to the differences between eastern and western meadowlarks, the most reliable way to differentiate those two species is by their songs, although there are some visual differences also.

As you know, I started a project that I called My Photo Life List a few years ago, it’s my attempt to photograph every species of bird regularly seen in the State of Michigan. I’ve made better progress than I expected to when I began the project, and it has taught me a great deal about birds along the way.

One thing that I’ve learned when it comes to identifying birds is that every detail in a bird’s plumage helps one make a positive identification. The more of those details that you can capture in a photo or a series of photos, makes it that much easier to make the identification while viewing the photos and checking them against a field guide while sitting at a computer, rather than as a bird flits through the brush. There is the possibility that if I wasn’t trying to shoot photos, I may remember more of the details of a bird than I do now. But, I find it easier to shoot photos and go by them, rather than trying to remember the details as I saw the bird moving around. I do have a pretty good memory for overall color patterns though, so when I see a bird in the viewfinder that doesn’t match the patterns of a species of bird that I see frequently, I do know that it’s time to shoot as many photos of that bird, at as many angles as I can get.

So, last weekend I was at the Muskegon Lake Nature Preserve, and I saw a warbler size bird in the brush.

Female black and white warbler

I wasn’t sure which species it was, but I was sure that it was one that I didn’t see very often, if I had ever seen it before. Because of that, and I’ve learned that in some cases you need to see most of a bird to make a proper ID, I began tracking the bird through the brush. This image will never win an award, but I saw the two white patches under the bird’s tail, and the voice in my head said shoot, they may help me ID the bird.

Female black and white warbler

Normally, I wouldn’t post that photo, but it helps explain how I use my photos to identify the birds that I see. As it turned out, the white patches on the bird’s tail weren’t important to make the ID, but the black spots on the shorter feathers at the base of the tail were.

One of the many things that I’m learning as I try to identify birds is that every section of a bird’s plumage has a name. In this case, the feathers with the black spots under the warbler’s tail are known as the undertail coverts.

There are two species of warblers with close to the same color pattern, black and white warblers, and blackpoll warblers. Unfortunately, I don’t have a photo of a blackpoll warbler to show you the difference, but they are both black and white overall.

I didn’t know it at the time, but the two photos that I’ve already shown you were enough to make a positive ID as to the species, and neither shows the bird very well. I continued shooting and came up with this one.

Female black and white warbler

That’s my best photo of the warbler, and although I didn’t know it at the time, it gave me enough clues to make the correct identification as to its species. Still, I was missing the top of the bird’s head, which often provides clues as to the bird’s species. I kept shooting, and got this one just as she turned to fly away.

Female black and white warbler

Because she was turning her head, it’s a bit blurry, but you can see that the top of her head is streaked black and white, and not solid black.

If it had been a blackpoll warbler, the top of the bird’s head would have been solid black, and the undertail coverts would have been all white, with no black spots. There are other slight differences between the two species, but I had gotten photos that showed the major differences between them. I have shot photos of black and white warblers in the past, but they’ve always been males of the species. The males have a slightly different appearance, they have a black mask on their face that the females lack. I could go back to the archives to show you, but I have too many recent photos to share, so you’ll have to take my word of it. 😉

The diversity of birds found in nature is one of the things that I love about nature. That brings me to my main point, the thing that motivates me the most concerning nature is that there’s so much to learn. There’s no way that any one person could ever hope to learn it all. I should do a better job of identifying the flowers that I see…

Unidentified lily

…and the insects…

Unidentified butterfly

…but it’s tough enough trying to do just birds.

Some times I luck out, and some one else will ID a flower or insect that they see in one of my posts, and I can go back into Lightroom and add the species in the keywords within Lightroom. Or, I’ll see the same flower or insect in some one else’s blog, and I can make an identification of something that I’ve seen that way.

I find it easier to remember things if I can add keywords in Lightroom, although I don’t know why that is. Maybe it’s putting a name with a photo that helps. Also, since many flowers only bloom for a short time, I can go back to the same time in previous years to see if I was able to identify a flower then. The same is true of insects to some degree, many of them have very short life spans as adults, so they are only seen for a short time in their adult form.

I do need to get better at identifying flowers and insects, but I’ve been so busy the past few years working on improving my abilities as a photographer and bird identification, that I haven’t had the time to put into other types of subjects. I hope to change that, along with getting better photos of the things that I see in nature.

Adult mute swan

I haven’t posted many photos of mute swans lately, as they are quite common here and I used to go overboard with the number of photos of them that I did post.

Mute swan cygnet

But the cygnets are too cute not to post a few images of them.

Mute swan cygnet

It’s unusual to be able to get that close to a cygnet without one of its parents attacking you, but I guess that the parents had gotten used to people nearby for some reason.

Mute swan cygnet

I wanted a photo showing one of the cygnets flexing its tiny little down covered wings, but I wasn’t able to get that shot.

I had gone to the Muskegon Lake Nature Preserve in search of a least bittern that had been seen there, because that’s a species that I need photos of for the My Photo Life List project. I did hear it calling, and saw it in flight once, but I was too slow with the camera to get any photos as it flew past me. I was able to shoot a few images of a marsh wren though.

Marsh wren

They’re hard to see, but not hear, as they’re always singing, or so it seems when you’re around them. They exude attitude in the jaunty way that they hold their tails straight up and give you the stink eye when they know that you’ve spotted them.

Marsh wren

Several people commented that they liked the indigo bunting from a recent post. I shot a series of images of it as it shook itself…

Male indigo bunting

…took a look around…

Male indigo bunting

…and began singing again.

Male indigo bunting

To me, there’s no better time of the year than when the birds are singing…

Male common yellowthroat


Male common yellowthroat


Male common yellowthroat

…and there are flowers blooming all around…

Grey coneflower


Purple prairie clover


Unidentified lily


Unidentified lily


Purple coneflower


Purple coneflower


Bee balm

…as I watch the birds.

Male American goldfinch


Male American goldfinch

Why I never thought of this before, I don’t know. I love getting head shots of larger birds, such as this great blue heron.

Great blue heron

Occasionally, I luck out and get an image of a smaller bird where it fills the frame…

Male dickcissel

…but I seldom think to crop such an image down to give me a head shot of a small songbird.

Male dickcissel

I suppose that it’s because I’m so pleased to fill the frame with a smaller bird in the first place that doing a head shot of them doesn’t occur to me.

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


14 responses

  1. Excellent.

    July 19, 2017 at 8:33 am

    • Thank you very much!

      July 19, 2017 at 8:39 am

  2. I liked that lily with it’s matching insect, well spotted. Wonderful bird photographs as always.

    July 19, 2017 at 9:08 am

    • Thank you very much Susan! The insect was a bonus of sorts, I was looking for the best lily flower and the insect just happened to be there.

      July 19, 2017 at 9:20 am

  3. SunFreeStar

    Thank you for such excellent photos as always and your experiences! I have also been trying to identify all the flowers I take pictures of and it’ s so difficult. But I think birds are even more difficult and you are doing such a great job!

    July 19, 2017 at 1:27 pm

    • Thank you very much! Neither flowers or birds are easy to ID, but I find birds are much easier.

      July 19, 2017 at 9:35 pm

  4. Wonderful photos with such vibrant colours and 3D detail. Very interesting to read how you identify the birds. It looks very difficult and needs your trained eye. I love the water droplets on the swan but the little dickcissel clinging on to the branch with his ‘big feet and singing his heart out is rather special.

    July 19, 2017 at 3:55 pm

    • Thank you very much Marianne! It does take practice to identify birds well, but with a good field guide and photos, any one can do it.

      July 19, 2017 at 9:06 pm

  5. I love seeing the birds in these posts but I always come away feeling very thankful that I don’t do birds!
    When I shoot flowers I also take a lot of photos that nobody ever sees, and for exactly the same reason you do with birds. Some flowers have taken me years to identify, so the more information I have the better.
    I think your unidentified lily might be a Turk’s cap lily (Lilium superbum.) It looks right with those strongly recurved petals and the spots.
    It’s nice to see so many birds singing. I hear a huge number of birds when I’m outside all day but I never know what they look like.
    Great shots of the dickcissel!

    July 19, 2017 at 5:46 pm

    • Thank you very much Allen! I do birds because I find them much easier than flowers or insects.

      I forget to shoot the foliage that goes with the flowers, until it’s too late and I can’t ID the flower by itself.

      I think that you’re right about the Turk’s cap lily, I think that I’ve seen it before.

      I go out and photograph birds while they’re singing and admire the flowers, you do the opposite more or less.

      July 19, 2017 at 9:16 pm

  6. Often when I come home and look at the photos I took of birds and other animals, I suddenly see things I wasn’t aware were there. You are so right about using photos to help in identification, or, in my case as a novice bird watcher, discovery. 🙂

    July 20, 2017 at 7:13 pm

    • Thank you very much Hien! I do okay identifying birds in person, but it’s much easier from photos. I’d say that you do quite well for a self described novice.

      July 20, 2017 at 9:04 pm

  7. This is another great post with so many gorgeous shots of birds and flowers. Those cygnets are really cute and I’m amazed that you managed to get so close! I try to shoot as many photos as possible of the things I photograph as just like you I find that even a really poor capture can give a clue as to the identity of the object. I can’t compare my poor efforts with yours though, Jerry. I won’t take the time to learn how to use my camera properly!

    July 21, 2017 at 6:29 pm

    • Thank you very much Clare! It’s always a trade-off as to whether to just shoot photos of things as you see them or spend all your free time learning the camera. I chose the later, but for most people, the former is the correct choice.

      July 22, 2017 at 8:01 am