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

Archive for December, 2017

Looking for something different

Honestly, I did try to find other species of birds, or other subjects for that matter, before I began this post. However, given the type of day that it was when I had the chance to get out with the camera, and the time of year that it is, I wound up with more eagle and snowy owl photos, with a few northern shovelers thrown in also.

Male northern shoveler

He’s getting close to being in full breeding plumage, although most of the male shovelers are running behind him.

Male northern shoveler

I didn’t want to shoot the second one in the light that I had at the time, but I had to when the shoveler opened its mouth. The light was too harsh and I wasn’t close enough to show the structure of the inside of the shoveler’s mouth so that every one could see how they filter food out of the water. I love the first photo though, it shows how colorful the males are, other than you can’t see its blue and green wing patches as you can when I photograph them in flight.

It could be that the days when one of my posts contains many different species of birds is over. I spent quite a long period of time watching the shovelers. I’d pick out one of the males that looked like it would be a good subject for a photo, then track it the viewfinder, waiting and hoping for a good photo. That’s how I got the one of the shoveler with his mouth open, I was tracking him, but not shooting any photos until I saw him open his mouth. In some ways, all the time that I spent there watching the shovelers seems wasted, since I shot very few photos during that time. But, I did learn more about their behavior and I enjoyed the time that I spent watching them.

Later in the day, I spotted an eagle in the distance that appeared to be hunting. I was headed in that direction to begin with, so I kept an eye on the eagle as I approached the area where it was hunting. Then, the eagle disappeared from view, I didn’t know it had made a kill or if it had just flown out of sight while I was looking for other subjects to photograph as I made my way towards where the eagle had been soaring back and forth across a small area of one of the farm fields there at the wastewater facility.

When I got close to where I had seen the eagle in flight, I found it perched in a tree, still on the look-out for lunch. It’s relatively easy to tell when a raptor is just resting versus seriously looking for a meal. When they are resting, they may be looking around, but they do it slowly, only turning their heads now and then. When they are looking for a meal, their heads never stop moving, and not only do they turn their heads, but they bob their heads up and down, and from side to side almost constantly.

Getting close to the eagle was no problem…

Adult bald eagle

…but getting a clear view of it was. I tried to find an opening in the branches to shoot through, but this was the best that I could do.

Adult bald eagle

Making getting a photo of the perched eagle even tougher, it was a windy day, and the branches on the tree that the eagle was perched in kept blocking my view of its head. So, since I could tell that the eagle was hunting, and with the strong wind blowing, I moved into a position that I hope would yield a good photo of the eagle when it decided to fly in search of food. Although I’ve been fooled more than a few times, large birds generally prefer to take off into the wind, especially a strong wind.

I sat there waiting, and waiting, watching the eagle. I sat there so long that I began to wonder how many calories it was burning as it bobbed its head all around, looking for a meal. Finally, my patience paid off.

Adult bald eagle in flight

That’s full frame, but I missed the composition slightly, the eagle is a bit too low in the frame. I continued shooting…

Adult bald eagle in flight

… until the eagle was flying slightly away from me. I let up on the shutter release, but continued to track the eagle in the viewfinder. When it banked towards me…

Adult bald eagle in flight

…I shot another burst…

Adult bald eagle in flight

…until the eagle filled the frame again.

Adult bald eagle in flight

Just after this next shot, the eagle was so close to me, and moving so fast, that this is my last good photo of it.

Adult bald eagle in flight

Not bad, but you may have been able to tell by the sky behind the eagle that the bright blue sky that I had for my first photo of the eagle perched in the tree was gone. I had been there watching the eagle so long that the sky had clouded over by the time it took flight.

In some ways, it seems silly to sit and watch one bird, or one species of bird, for as long as I did that day, given the limited time that I have available to me to be out with the camera. Although the quality of my photos is improved when I sit and wait for just the right subject, or the right light, I end up shooting very few photos over all. In the case of the eagle, as I sat waiting for it to fly, the quality of light that I had actually got worse instead of better. Still, I was pleased by how well those photos turned out as far as sharpness, and my ability to track the eagle as it flew.

I also spent too much time watching a snowy owl.

Snowy owl

Where the owl was perched, I didn’t really have a clear view of it as I have in my other posts lately. It was down in the rocks and vegetation, and worst of all, the sun was behind the owl when I had the best view of it. Still, I used the occasion to test the 400 mm lens with the 2 X tele-converter on it to shoot this uncropped head shot of the owl.

Snowy owl

Using Lightroom or Photoshop, I could remove the vegetation in the right side of the frame, but it really isn’t worth the effort. I may have gotten a better photo if I had sat there longer watching the owl, but I could tell that it really wanted to take a nap in the warm sunshine of the day. This photo that I shot as I left the owl shows that.

Snowy owl

So, I spent the entire time that I had to be out and came back with just those few images to show for it. It’s something that I struggle with every time I go out with the camera, should I shoot photos the way that I used to, run and gun style, getting more varied subjects, or should I sit and wait, hoping for the best possible image that I can get that day.

It’s now the middle of December, and I haven’t been out with the camera at all this month. For one thing, I’ve been working eight days straight at a time, then I get one day off. To make things worse, it’s been snowing almost every day since the last time that I was out.

Since I work for a company contracted to carry the mail for the Postal Service, this is the busy time of the year for us. Things should slow down after the first of the year, but I have no idea what my schedule will be then. Right now, I’ve been starting a couple of hours either side of midnight, and completing my shift in the morning. That’s not a great schedule for getting outside to shoot photos, because I don’t want to screw up my sleep schedule when I do have a day off from work. To make things even worse, twice last week the dispatcher called me while I was sleeping to tell me when I was starting work that night. Things are settling down now, I have my full schedule for this week, and I even know what day I have off in advance.

Then, there’s the snow, as I said, it’s been snowing just about every day this month. There haven’t been any big storms, just light snow that never seems to stop falling. We can thank the Great Lakes for that, along with near record cold. As the cold air passes over the Great Lakes, it is warmed and it also picks up moisture from the lakes. As the air gets back over land, it cools, which causes it to lose its ability to hold the moisture that it gained out over the lakes. The results are clouds, and lake effect snow. Grand Rapids has had only 7.3% of possible sunshine over the last 11 days.  We had more minutes of sunshine before solar noon last June 7th than we had in the last 11 days total.

There’s another reason that I haven’t ventured out, since I drive a truck for a living, and I’ve been having to battle the snow and traffic so much this month, I really don’t feel like driving anywhere in the snow when I do get a chance to. I could have gone out yesterday, but it was snowing again, of course, another couple of inches of the white stuff fell. It’s the same today, we’re getting a few more inches of snow today, mostly in the morning, when I could get outside for a change.

One last reason that I’ve stayed inside, I needed the time to unwind and relax from the stress of trying to maintain the Postal Service’s schedules. I won’t go into detail, but it sure has felt good not to have to go anywhere or do anything for a change.

I’m not the only person hibernating, I have checked the reports on eBird to see if any rare species of birds have been seen in the Muskegon area, and there aren’t any. Not only no rare birds, there are very few recent reports of any birds by any one. We’ve had cold spells before, but there were always a few people out reporting their bird sightings to eBird, but not so much this winter.

With all the fresh snow, I’ve thought about trying to shoot a few landscapes, but there’s a problem with that also. Sunshine and blue skies when there’s snow on the ground looks beautiful in a photograph, but we’re under the lake effect clouds all the time. Then, even with freshly fallen snow, the photos that I’d shoot would still look dull and dreary, just as our winter weather here is.

So, as most of you already know, I’ve begun adding new posts to the My Photo Life List project that I’ve been working on. It looks as though I’ll have plenty of time this winter to do those posts, since I’m not shooting any other photos.

Well, I lied. I couldn’t sit in my apartment with the equivalent of two days off and not go out to shoot a few photos. I quickly learned why there are no bird reports coming from the Muskegon area, the lake effect snow has gotten so deep that it’s difficult to get around unless you have a vehicle with 4 wheel or all wheel drive and you’re on one of the main roads. My Subaru Forrester handled the snow well enough, but there were plenty of two-tracks that I’d normally go down that I thought it wiser to avoid on this outing. Besides, both of the lagoons at the wastewater facility are frozen over, and there are few waterfowl of any type remaining there at the wastewater facility, other than mallards.

I arrived well before sunrise, too early in fact. The snow that was falling was down to just flurries by then, after several more inches had fallen over night. I sat and checked out all my camera gear while I was waiting for it to get light enough to shoot any photos, and I also went over my work schedule for the up coming week. I had stopped off at work on my way to Muskegon to see if it had been posted, and it had.

It must be that the Christmas rush is slowing a little, because I did get a schedule for the entire week, including my day off from work, so that was a plus.

Once it became light enough for me to see, I set off in search of birds or a landscape scene to photograph. Of course, the first bird that I saw other than mallards was a snowy owl, one of five that I saw on this day. I didn’t like the set-up if I had approached the owl from where I first spotted it, so I decided to circle around the owl and approach it from the opposite direction. Because of the deep snow, I had to take the long way around, and on my way, I saw a small flock of Canada geese, with one snow goose hanging out with the Canada geese. I went past them, turned around, which wasn’t easy, then waited for more light.

Once I saw that the exposure settings needed could be obtained in the light available, I went back to the geese. At first, my biggest problem was other geese moving between myself and the snow goose.

Snow goose and Canada geese

But eventually, the geese settled down, and I was able to get this photo.

Snow goose and Canada geese

As you can see, it was still snowing lightly at the time, and the snow goose shook itself to get rid of the snow.

Snow goose and Canada geese

It was interesting, I saw that several of the geese had allowed themselves to be buried in the snow other than their heads, although I wasn’t able to get a photo of that. It makes sense, snow is good insulation from the cold wind, as silly as that sounds. So, I wondered why the geese that had moved were shaking the new snow off from themselves, I can only assume that it was because they were going to move to another location to feed soon. I returned a short time later, and the geese had done just that, flown off somewhere to eat.

Anyway, I went back to the snowy owl I first spotted…

Snowy owl

…and shot a few photos of it.

Snowy owl

It isn’t easy to get the owl to stand out in a white world where the ground is white from snow, and the sky is white from clouds.

In my quest to find other species of birds, I tried to get photos of the snow buntings, of which there were many, but they never sat still long enough for me to get close to any of them. I don’t know how they survive, they form large flocks and they never sit and feed in one location for more than a few seconds. The flock lands, they pick up a few seeds, then the entire flock moves on to the next spot. It seems to me that they are consuming more calories with their constant movements than are able to take in for the few seconds that they are on the ground.

But, I did find an American kestrel to photograph, all puffed out against the cold.

American kestrel

They are about the size of a dove, and very wary. That’s a species of bird that I should use my portable hide in an attempt to get better photos of.

American kestrel

I also found one great blue heron trying to stay out of the snow and cold by hunkering down under a small tree hanging out over the water.

Great blue heron

That brings me to this bird, a dark morph red-tailed hawk.

Dark morph red-tailed hawk in flight

I saw this, or a similar one, several times last spring, and I was never sure what it was. As you can see, it looks completely different as far as markings, than a typical red-tailed hawk, as shown in this earlier photo from last summer.

Red-tailed hawk in flight

The dark morphed hawk in the photo above, also like the one that I saw in the spring, was very wary, and never let me approach close enough for a good photo to aid me in making the right identification. The photo of the dark morph hawk isn’t very good, but at least it allowed me to make the proper identification.

Other than what I’ve shown so far, the only other bird that I was able to get photos of worth posting was yet another of the snowy owls.

Snowy owl

I was going to say that I saw no reason to return to the Muskegon County wastewater facility in the foreseeable future, due to the amount of snow on the ground. Getting around was difficult, and most of the two tracks had snow so deep that I didn’t dare test the limits of my all wheel drive Subaru. But, we’ve had a bit of a warm-up here, that hadn’t been forecast. By the time my next day off from work rolls around, most of the over a foot of snow on the ground should be gone. The warm-up will be short-lived though, it’s forecast to get very cold here next week, with more lake effect snow to go with the cold.

So, I had my day off from work, and most of the snow had indeed melted. However, most of the open water at the wastewater facility was still frozen over, so there were just a few waterfowl left there. I shot this male mallard soon after sunrise.

Male mallard in flight


Male mallard in flight


Male mallard in flight

There were also plenty of Canada geese around, but I didn’t bother shooting any photos of them.

With most of the snow having melted, I was able to get around to more places easier, but I still had a difficult time finding any species of birds other than the mallards, a few northern shovelers, and of course, snowy owls.

Snowy owl

Here’s another one, this one…

Snowy owl

…had been posing for the other photographers that were there to see the owls.

Bird watchers in action

I’m getting bored with the few birds that there are to photograph this time of year, but I’ll throw in one more snowy owl, because this one was shot with the 2 X tele-converter behind the 400 mm prime lens and manually focused.

Snowy owl

My only other photos from this day were a series that I shot of a whitetail doe running, or I should say bounding.

Whitetail doe

They make it look so effortless as they run like that, someday I hope to get a good photo of one in action. Even better would be a video.

Okay, I’ve been trying to think of other subjects to shoot this time of year, and so far, I’m drawing blanks.

A few years ago, I went to the Kalamazoo Air Zoo and shot the planes that they have on exhibit there, because I’m interested in planes. I’ve also gone to the Frederick Meijer Gardens and Sculpture Park to shoot some of the flower shows there over the years as well. I suppose that since the posts that I did when I visited before were so long ago, that most of the people reading my blog wouldn’t remember the earlier posts, but I would. Also, the rules for photographers at both venues make photography very difficult, such as the no tripod rule that both venues have. The other indoor venues that I can think of visiting probably wouldn’t yield a blog post.

I’ve been thinking of shooting the historic buildings in the area, but so far, I’ve only gotten to the point of thinking about which buildings may be interesting enough to include in a blog post.

In past winters, I have done some testing of my photo gear inside, under controlled conditions, to see what works and what doesn’t, but I think that I have a firm handle on that now, and I’ve also learned that what works under controlled conditions doesn’t always work in the field. There are a few things that I’ll test this winter, one will be a test of ways which I can get the 400 mm prime lens to focus closer than it’s designed 11 feet minimum focusing distance. That distance is all right when I’m shooting larger birds like the snowy owls or eagles, when I can fill the frame with birds that size, but 11 feet is too far away from small birds, and I’d love to use a lens as sharp as that when photographing small birds just to see how sharp that lens really is.

It’s funny in a way, the 100-400 mm lens is almost as sharp as the 400 mm prime lens is, there’s much less of a difference in sharpness between those two lenses and those lenses and the other long lenses that I used to use for birding. In fact, if I didn’t have the 400 mm prime lens, I’d be astounded by the sharpness of the 100-400 mm lens. Yet, I still want to use the 400 mm prime lens whenever I can for that little bit extra in sharpness. That’s even though when I reduce my RAW files to JPEG for my blog, the slight difference all but disappears when you see the photos in my blog.

What I should do is take the 100-400 mm lens to the Muskegon Lake Nature Preserve, fill the feeders there with seed, and sit and shoot our winter resident species of birds until the cold overcomes me. I’ve been thinking of doing just that, but it would be nice to have good light if I did. Sunny winter days in West Michigan are as rare as hen’s teeth though. But, that applies to anything that I’d like to photograph this time of year, without light, photography becomes difficult.

In the meantime, I’ve been watching more how to videos online, and I’m also working on goals and plans for the coming year. Also, I’ll be adding more posts to the My Photo Life List over the winter as well.

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


Bobolink, Dolichonyx oryzivorus

Note: this post, while published, is a work in progress, as are all posts in this series, My Photo Life List. My goal is to photograph every species of bird that is seen on a regular basis here in Michigan, working from a list compiled by the Michigan chapter of the Audubon Society. This will be a lifelong project, that I began in January of 2013, and as I shoot better photos of this, or any other species, I will update the post for that species with better photos when I can. While this series is not intended to be a field guide per se, my minimum standard for the photos in this series is that one has to be able to make a positive identification of the species in my photos. The information posted here is from either my observations or the Wikipedia, the online free encyclopedia, however, I have personally shot all the photos appearing in this series.

Bobolink, Dolichonyx oryzivorus

The bobolink (Dolichonyx oryzivorus) is a small New World blackbird and the only member of the genus Dolichonyx.

Adults are 16–18 cm (6.3–7.1 in) long with short finch-like bills. They weigh about 1 oz (28 g). Adult males are mostly black with creamy napes and white scapulars, lower backs, and rumps. Adult females are mostly light brown, although their coloring includes black streaks on the back and flanks, and dark stripes on the head; their wings and tails are darker. The collective name for a group of bobolinks is a chain.

The bobolink breeds in the summer in North America across much of southern Canada and the northern United States. It migrates long distances, wintering in southern South America in Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil and Paraguay. One bird was tracked migrating 12,000 mi (19,000 km) over the course of the year, often flying long distances up to 1,100 mi (1,800 km) in a single day, then stopping to recuperate for days or weeks.

They often migrate in flocks, feeding on cultivated grains and rice, which leads to them being considered a pest by farmers in some areas. Although bobolinks migrate long distances, they have rarely been sighted in Europe—like many vagrants from the Americas, the overwhelming majority of records are from the British Isles.

The species has been known in the southern United States as the “reedbird,” or the “ricebird” from their consumption of large amounts of the grain from rice fields in South Carolina and the Gulf States during their southward migration in the fall. One of the species’ main migration routes is through Jamaica, where they’re called “butter-birds” and at least historically were collected as food, having fattened up on the aforementioned rice.

Their breeding habitats are open grassy fields, especially hay fields, across North America. In high-quality habitats, males are often polygynous. Females lay five to six eggs in a cup-shaped nest, which is always situated on the ground and is usually well-hidden in dense vegetation. Both parents feed the young.

Bobolinks forage on or near the ground, and mainly eat seeds and insects.

Males sing bright, bubbly songs in flight.

The numbers of these birds are declining due to loss of habitat. Bobolinks are a species at risk in Nova Scotia, and throughout Canada. In Vermont, a 75% decline was noted between 1966 and 2007. Originally, they were found in tall grass prairie and other open areas with dense grass. Although hay fields are suitable nesting habitat, fields which are harvested early, or at multiple times, in a season may not allow sufficient time for young birds to fledge. Delaying hay harvests by just 1.5 weeks can improve bobolink survival by 20%. This species increased in numbers when horses were the primary mode of transportation, requiring larger supplies of hay.

On to my photos:

These photos were shot at the Muskegon County wastewater facility, the first two in July of 2017, and the other one, a few years earlier as I tried to get close to one.

Male bobolink in full breeding plumage


Male bobolink in full breeding plumage


Male bobolink

This is number 203 in my photo life list, only 147 to go!

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