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

Bah Humbug!

I began writing this after work on February 11th. A long time ago it seems now as I continue to add more thoughts to it.

It’s been the kind of winter so far where I check out the weather to see what the time frame is going to be for the next winter weather advisory or winter storm warning coming to the area, and if it will be affecting me while I’m working. I think that we had either a warning or advisory every day this past week. Throw in a few wind chill advisories and warnings when it hasn’t been snowing at the same time, and you get an idea of what the weather has been like here in West Michigan this winter.

At the point that I ended the last post I did, I said that I had the day off from work. Sure enough, just about the time that I would have left home to go to Muskegon, the next batch of snow made it onshore from Lake Michigan, and it had begun to snow in Muskegon. I say again, Bah Humbug, I’m sick of winter and the cold and snow.

Just how bad has February been as far as the weather?

Grand Rapids has had measurable snowfall now 11 days in a row, in other words, every day for the month so far. Our average February snowfall is 14.8″ (38 cm) for the entire month, and we are already over 20″ (50 cm) for the month.  Average for an entire winter is 74.9″ (190 cm) and we’re up to 65″ (165 cm) already as of now. February is averaging 7 degrees fahrenheit (14 C) below average, I thought that the thermometer in my Subaru was stuck at 18 degrees (-8 C), but last night it went down to 13 degrees (-10 C). The temperature hasn’t made it above freezing yet this month, and the forecast low temperature the next two days is around 5 degrees (-15 C).

Winters didn’t use to bother me as much as they do now, for one thing, I didn’t drive a truck for a living then. Having to fight the snow and traffic each day is no fun at all. I do get to see how lovely freshly fallen snow can be while I am driving though, it’s not like the old days when I was stuck inside all day and never got to see how it looked outside. Those things take away from my need to get out despite really bad weather conditions.

Then, there’s my passion for photography. In the not too distant past, I used to take a point and shoot camera with me all the time and call it good enough. I could keep the point and shoot camera in a pocket to keep it safe from the weather. However, it was doing just that, always carrying a point and shoot, that rekindled my love for photography. Back in the days of film, I used to shoot a good number of wildlife and nature photographs, but film and the expense of getting the film developed, along with how expensive good camera gear was back then, prevented me from progressing any further along than my old trusty Pentax Spotmatic II camera with a used, low quality 300 mm lens.

It seems like every winter, I look at the point and shoot cameras on the market at the time, and consider purchasing one so that at least I’ll get outside and shoot a few photos from time to time, even if the quality of those photos can’t match what I can do with the “real” cameras and lenses that I currently have. But, then I look at the specs of what the point and shoot cameras are capable of, and see that they don’t come cheap these days for a good one which I would deem worthy enough to carry.

Now that I have quality camera gear, I’m loath to risk it getting damaged by the harsh Michigan winters. That’s even though the camera and lenses that I have now are supposed to be weather sealed and capable of handling snow and cold.

I’ve considered not taking any camera gear with me, and scouting for good locations during the winter months to shoot during the rest of the year, but I know that wildlife uses different habitat in the winter than the rest of the year, so even if I found a great winter spot, it may not be any good at all come spring and summer. And it seems that come this time every year, I start thinking and writing about scouting for places to shoot photos from.

That would be foolishness on my part, the lakes, ponds, and even many streams are frozen over around here this time of year, and I know that birds, and all wildlife for that matter, prefer areas with open water if it’s available. So, it would be much better if I did my scouting during the time of year that I’d plan on being there the most.

It would seem easy enough to find a place in Michigan, which has more public land than other states about the same size, but I’m finding that it isn’t the case. For one thing, most public parks are located on the north shore of the bodies of water that they are on for some reason, I can’t explain it. That would mean shooting into the sun, and poor image quality as a result.

Then, there’s the issue of access, even though it may be public land. Many of the public parks and nature preserves are locked or at least posted as no access before a set time, most often 8 AM. By that time in the summer, the light is already becoming harsh as the sun is getting higher in the sky. And, it isn’t as if I could begin shooting the second that the park opened, it would take some time to get into position and set-up before I could snap the first photo of the day.

Another thing to take into consideration is how crowded the place will be. I’ve found a few good places that I’d like to explore more, but there are so many joggers and cyclists zipping through the area that they scare all the wildlife away.

I’ve been putting a lot of thought into places that I should scout as a place where I could set-up the portable hide that I have and spend time in photographing wildlife at closer range. Generally, I begin to drift off thinking about the larger tracts of near wilderness areas, such as the Pigeon River Country in northern Michigan. But, the thing is, while there’s a great deal of wildlife there, it’s spread out all through the area, the wildlife doesn’t congregate in many places.

On the other hand, when I think of places near where I live, the parcels of land are mere postage stamp size and often surrounded by human activity. There’s the wetlands that I kayaked once a few years ago that often brings reports of rare birds. That wetland area is surrounded by a shopping center, a few hotels, a few industrial buildings, and an expressway. However, there’s no human activity near the water’s edge proper, which is the reason that it draws so many birds in my opinion. It’s the same with the apartment complex where I used to live, there were hundreds of people living there, yet no one but myself ever ventured to the uncleared portion of the land there. And then, there’s the small parcel of land owned by the Michigan Department of Transportation not far from my home, it’s surrounded by farms and a subdivision of houses, yet hardly any one ventures on that land.

It’s taken me a few years to figure this out, but when wildlife has room to spread out without human interference, it does just that, making it more difficult to find places where the wildlife congregates. On the other hand, in areas where there is little suitable habitat for wildlife, the wildlife is forced to make do with what little habitat that they can find, making the density of wildlife in that area greater, especially during spring and fall migration. That’s the reason that these small tracts of land become tiny birding hotspots and so many rare bird reports come from them, there are few other places for the birds to rest during their migration.That even applies to the small park near where I live now, it is a tiny oasis in a sea of suburbia, although suburbia has been encroaching on the park over the past few years, making it less attractive to wildlife in just the few years that I’ve lived near it.

So, I’ve begun to change my thinking as to finding good places to set-up the portable hide, instead of looking for large tracts of undeveloped land. I think that I’d be better off looking for one of the small parcels of land that may be surrounded by development, but where there’s very little human activity within the small parcel of land itself.

By the way, this post many end up being mostly words, with very few photos. I’ve been out with my camera twice since my last post, and both times it was very foggy with poor light, and with so much snow on the ground that it made getting around difficult to say the least. It’s finally beginning to warm up around here, and I’m going to attempt to get a nice day off from work for a change, hoping that I’ll be able to shoot more than a handful of poor photos like this one.

Red-tailed hawk taking flight

The only reason for my posting this photo is to show the subtle colors of the hawk, and the detail in its feathers, despite the poor light.

I have been making what I think is good use of my time though, even if I haven’t been out with the camera much lately. For one thing, I’ve learned how to edit videos from within Lightroom. While there are far more powerful video editing programs on the market, I really don’t want to take the time to learn how to use them effectively, nor do I want to spend a good deal of time editing the videos that I shoot.

Lightroom has limited capabilities, I can trim the videos for length, and also make exposure and white balance corrections to a video, as I’ve done with this one.


Here’s how it looked before my editing.

I was able to cut out the beginning of the video which was wobbly and out of focus, along with improving the exposure, and shifting the white balance to slightly warmer, since the video was shot on a heavily overcast day.

I also watched a video that explained the Canon 5D Mk IV in-depth, and I learned something that made me want that camera more than ever since I watched the video. With my 7D Mk II, I can auto-focus at f/8 as when I use one of my long lenses with the 1.4 X tele-converter, but I can only use the center point at that aperture. That limits my ability to compose exactly the shot that I’d like, or to use the tele-converter when photographing flying birds.

The newer 5D Mk IV will use most or all of the 61 auto-focusing points down to an aperture of f/8, depending on the lens I use, so it will make it easier to get the composition that I want by putting the auto-focus point on a bird’s eye, when the eye may not be in the center of the frame. A couple of months ago, when I was shooting the snowy owls…

Snowy owl

…being able to move the auto-focus point up in the frame would have made that a much better image. The owl’s back is very sharp, but its eyes and face are slightly soft due to being a little out of focus.

I’ve also done some research to quantify just how much of an improvement that I’d see in low-light performance with the 5D MK IV, and it’s around two stops better as far as noise. I can push the 7D Mk II to around 6400 ISO with significant noise reduction and loss of detail that goes with the noise reduction, and still get a usable image for the web. With the 5D Mk IV, the amount of noise that I’d see in an image with the same exposure settings would be similar to what I see when shooting with the 7D at ISO 1600, that would be good enough to print, not just post here in my blog.

To go with that, the 5D also delivers two full stops better dynamic range, which means better shadow details with less noise in my images as well. That would mean that an image like this one…

American crow on blown out snow

…would actually turn out much better. As you can see, the details in the snow have been lost since they were blown out by the 7D’s lower dynamic range due to it being a crop sensor camera. With two full stops better dynamic range combined with two full stops better low-light/less noise capabilities, the 5D Mk IV is looking better to me all the time.

I will lose the 1.6 crop factor, on my 7D, the 400 mm lens I use actually performs as a 640 mm lens, while on the 5D, it will be a true 400 mm lens. However, with the 5D’s better sensor, I think that it will mostly make up for that difference. Plus, since the 5D can use more auto-focus points at f/8, I can put my tele-converters to better use as well to make up for the loss of the crop factor. And, I’ll still have the 7D to use at the times when it’s a better choice than the 5D is. The two of them together will be an awesome pairing, one that I’m really looking forward to using in the future.

Oh, and by the way, it isn’t just for wildlife photography that I’ll be able to use the 5D to better effect. It will also be for macros, where both better low-light performance and extended dynamic range will improve my images a good deal. While the low-light performance isn’t a factor in landscape photography, the two stops of additional dynamic range will be a huge improvement. And, if I do any night photography, as I hope to, then the low-light performance of the 5D will make a huge difference as well, whether it’s star trails, stills of the milky way, or city lights at night.

I know that all of my babbling about photography and my gear is boring to many, but it means a lot to me. On that subject, one of the things that I wanted to try on my last two outings was shooting a few images to stitch together into panoramas, but the fog was so dense both days that I didn’t bother. If I had seen something worth shooting on a foggy day, I would have, but I never saw such a scene. However, that is something that I’d like to work on for the future, even if my practice images never get posted here or anywhere else. The last sunrise that I photographed would have been a great time for a panorama, since the entire sky was colorful, but I didn’t think of it at the time. I’ve found that I need to practice techniques in advance, so that they do pop into my head at the right time, and I’m ready to shoot what I see at the time when I see it, not think about after the opportunity has passed.

I could go on at length about the advantages and disadvantages of producing panoramic images, but I’ll leave it at this. It’s another tool that I need to learn so that it becomes second nature to me to shoot images to be stitched into panoramas that turn out well enough to be proud of.

It’s been warming up over the last week, and as it looks right now, I should have an excellent day off from work for my next photographic outing.

It’s now the last day of February as I’m working on this post, and I did have an excellent day off from work yesterday, with warm temperatures, and great light for a change. It was chilly as I left home, so I started the day at the Muskegon County wastewater facility, but there wasn’t much going on there as far as birds. Once it had really begun to warm up, I moved to the Muskegon Lake Nature Preserve, and spent the rest of my day there. I think that because this post is already too long on words, and short of photos, that I’ll end this one with just one photo from the day, then, begin my next post with the rest of the photos that I’ve saved for blogging. I shot over 600 photos for the day, don’t worry, only a handful will appear in the next post. But, here’s a photo from yesterday.

Black-capped chickadee on a bird feeder

I’ll save my thoughts on this image, and the rest of the images that I shot for the next post.

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


15 responses

  1. Interesting to read your thoughts on nature photography, hope your ideas work out for you. Loved the snowy owl in particular among your excellent pictures.

    February 28, 2018 at 10:51 am

    • Thank you very much Susan! My next post will be much shorter as far as words, but with many more photos that you’ll like.

      February 28, 2018 at 11:52 am

  2. That edited video looks awesome and very enjoyable!

    I think you will like the 5D IV as it will give a new height to your photos. I am using it much more than the 7D II, which only gets called upon when extra reach is needed.

    February 28, 2018 at 11:29 am

    • Thank you very much Hien! I thought that you used only a 6D, I didn’t know that you had upgraded or owned a 7D MK II. No wonder your photos are so superb. I’m sure that I’ll love the 5D Mk IV, it’s just what I need for low light situations, and in scenes with too much dynamic range for the 7D.

      February 28, 2018 at 11:54 am

      • I used to have the 6D but gave it to my daughter. It’s a very good camera and over four years it performed very well.

        March 2, 2018 at 11:35 am

  3. Good to read that there have been a few chinks in your wild winter weather to give you time to get out and take lots of photos. Look forward to seeing them all in your next post! Loved the video with all that noisy quacking from the large flock…hope you take more videos as they really set the scene and you can pick out different things of interest and then go back and view it again! As you know I just point and click a camera but I still find it very interesting to read all about your camera thoughts and wishes. Love the little chickadee with his ring but still favourite is that brilliant snowy owl.

    February 28, 2018 at 3:18 pm

    • Thank you very much Marianne! It’s been feeling like spring the past few days, it has put every one in a good mood for a change. It’s been a rough winter, and there’s still more to come, but this reprieve has been most welcome.

      I do plan to shoot more videos in the future, sounds do add a great deal of context to go with what I’m able to capture in still photos. Today, I took delivery of two small items that will make shooting videos easier in the future.

      I was raised to be proud of anything that I did, and to feel pride in what you’ve done, you have to do it well. That’s why I’m putting so much work (and money) into improving both my photos and videos.

      March 1, 2018 at 7:24 am

  4. You make an interesting point about where to look for birds. I hope that your thinking pays off.

    February 28, 2018 at 6:03 pm

    • Thank you very much Tom! I hope that I’m right as well, and that I don’t spend hours looking for a place that doesn’t exist.

      March 1, 2018 at 7:05 am

  5. You might not have gotten many shots but what you did get were fine, I thought.
    I didn’t know you were getting that much snow. You’ve certainly beaten us. February has been relatively mild and snow free, except for a few nuisance storms. I hope it changes for you soon!
    I didn’t know you could do videos in Lightroom either. Interesting.
    Since I’ve been hearing the mating calls of the male black capped chickadees quite a lot lately, that has to be my favorite this time!

    February 28, 2018 at 6:14 pm

    • Thank you very much Allen! We average around 6 feet of snow during the winter, the majority is lake effect snow. It’s nothing for it to snow every day for a week straight, as long as the wind is blowing over Lake Michigan, it’s usually snowing here.

      Actually, it’s quite easy to edit videos in Lightroom, you can set the start and end point by dragging a slider from one side or the other. To make exposure changes, you have to capture a still frame from within Lightroom. Once you have the still frame to how you want it, you select the rest of the frames in the video and then synch them all to the still frame. You have to remember to export the video from Lightroom once you’re done, or the changes won’t appear.

      I only heard one chickadee sing yesterday while I was out, but there were a few other birds singing, so it seemed like spring for the first time this year.

      March 1, 2018 at 7:13 am

  6. It was a relief to see the big blue background in your chickadee photo. I was worried that you might not find that at all in February.

    I understand the grind of a cold, snowy, gray month. It eats away at your well-being. It’s good that February is a short month, because March at least bring the promise of spring.

    We had reports of sightings of the elegant trogan just a mile from our rental cabin in Madera Canyon Tuesday. We were gone for the morning, or I probably would have joined what was probably a huge crush of birders crammed into the picnic area where the sighting occurred. Maybe next time…

    Hope your weather clears out. It’s time for that to happen!

    March 1, 2018 at 10:10 am

    • Thank you very much Judy! I have to laugh though, the blue behind the chickadee isn’t the sky, it’s a storage building at the Muskegon Lake Nature Preserve. I may have had to wait until the very end of February, but at least I had one sunny day.

      You’ve probably heard of the near record flooding here again this year, once the snow began to melt, the rain started in place of snow. So sunny days were few and far between, and I worked most of them.

      You should join the hoard looking for the brogan, it’s a hoot to watch the competitive birders in action. People come not just from the area, but from all the surrounding states as well. When the sharp tailed sandpiper appeared in Muskegon, there were people from Iowa and Kentucky there trying to spot it.

      March 1, 2018 at 1:46 pm

  7. It was interesting reading your thoughts about where to find birds in your area and all the techniques you want to try when eventually you get some good weather. I loved the busy video and all your other shots. I do miss your regular posts, Gerry! I hope you are keeping well. 🙂

    March 1, 2018 at 12:52 pm

    • Thank you very much Clare! I should be posting more of my regular posts as the weather improves here. There’s still close to a month to go before nice weather is the rule, rather than the exception though. And, a lot has to do with my work schedule. I think that as I get used to this new job, I’ll have more time to be outside, and maybe I’ll even discover the photography Nirvana that I’m looking for. 😉

      March 1, 2018 at 1:50 pm