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

Pushing and learning

With winter here, and no light to work with for good images of birds, no flowers or insects to photograph, and a general feeling that I’m wasting my time going out with a camera this time of year, I’ve decided instead of giving up, I’d work on pushing my equipment to the limits and beyond, and to also learn to tweak my camera settings to get the best possible images that I can, no matter what time of year it is.

But first, I’m going to go back to an idea that I had a long time ago, that having two cameras with me at all times is a good thing despite the weight of carrying them, along with the expense.

I stopped at the beach at Muskegon State Park more or less on a lark, just to see the waves crashing into the breakwater there. I noticed a hole opening in the clouds, so I put the 24-70 mm lens on the 5D body, and I shot a series of images of the magic light that appeared, here’s the best of the series.

Crepuscular rays at Muskegon State Park

It was a raw, windy day, if you look closely, you can see that there’s sand being blown around, which is the reason that they put the snow fencing up along the beach, trying to control the sand.

But, as I was watching the light change, I noticed a bald eagle flying along the beach. So, I grabbed the 7D with the 400 mm prime lens on it to shoot the eagle.

Bald eagle hunting along the beach

I didn’t crop that image much, as it would never be a great image of the eagle itself, I wanted to capture the moment, with the eagle flying above the waves of Lake Michigan as it looked for prey. I was hoping that I’d be able to record it diving down to capture a fish, but that didn’t happen.

I wished that I had a better foreground in the landscape image, but as quickly as the light was changing, I didn’t dare move at that time. Later, when the light had mostly gone over to plain grey skies, I did test the new tires on my vehicle to drive through piles of wind-blown sand to what would have been a better location for the first image.

A few remaining crepuscular rays

You can see that the great light was all but gone, but I did have a better foreground and middle ground in the second landscape.

That location was also better to shoot photos of the eagle as it looked for food.

Bald eagle hunting at the beach in Muskegon SP

I still hoped to capture the eagle catching a fish, but it turned out that the eagle had spotted a dead fish on the beach to eat.

Bald eagle hunting at the beach in Muskegon SP

I could tell what was going on by the gulls and crows nearby waiting for the eagle to eat its fill. As soon as the eagle left, the other scavengers moved in to get their portions of the remains.

Anyway, having two camera with me allowed me to get photos of both events as they occurred, the crepuscular rays over the beach, and the eagle on the prowl.

Two other things come to mind about that time at the beach, one is that the 24-70 mm is an excellent lens, as you can see how sharp the landscape images are from corner to corner. It’s funny though, I still like the 16-35 mm lens more, even though the 24-70 mm lens is its equal. I think that my preference is based on what I use each lens for, rather than image quality though.

The other thing is that the new tires on my Subaru work well, I drove through some drifted sand that many other vehicles would have gotten stuck in. In fact, I had turned around the first time that I saw the sand drifts, as I could see where other vehicles had gotten stuck in the sand.

Okay, my images of birds in flight have improved a great deal over the past few years, and now, some of them are better than my images of stationary birds from the past.

Male northern shoveler in flight

However, back when I was still using the Nikon D50 before it died, I shot a photo of a flock of mallards that I would like to have a do-over on.

Mallards in flight, a blast from the past

There are several things that I really like about that photo, but there’s also plenty that I don’t like about it. I like the facts that the mallards in flight are mostly frozen and sharp, other than some blur in their wings as they flapped. But, the background is blurred because I was following the mallard with the camera, and the blurred background adds to the sense of motion in the photo. I also liked the soft light that allows the colors of the mallards to show without any harsh shadows.

I don’t like the way that the mallards are “clumped together” in several places within the image, nor do I like the horizon being off because I had the camera tilted when I shot that one. I also wish that I had been able to zoom in just a tad more to make the mallards in the frame slightly larger.

That photo was pure luck, it’s one of the few times that the old Nikon performed well. Also, I didn’t have time to zoom in very far with the old 70-300 mm lens that I used at the time, which actually worked to my advantage this one time.

So, one of the things that I’m going to work on this winter is getting better images of flocks of birds in flight. I should add that I’ll be able to spend the time that it takes for this because I no longer have to struggle to come up with any good shots from a day out with a camera. This also goes along with my plans to shoot in the manual mode more often. The settings that I have saved in all of my cameras for birds in flight are all manual mode settings, and I’ve also learned that when I use a flash for extra light in macro photos, switching to manual is a must. I also know that my long lenses, both the 100-400 mm zoom and 400 mm prime, are too long for the image of a flock of birds that I have in mind.

And now that I’m typing out my thoughts on this subject, I remember that this spring, I shot a number of images of gulls in flight with the 16-35 mm lens that I really liked.

Gulls flying in formation

With all of this in mind, last week I set out to begin playing with my lens selection and camera settings to learn how to get better images of flocks of birds in flight. Wouldn’t you know, as always, the best laid plans of mice and men seldom work out as their plan was laid out. Typically, the mallards at the Muskegon wastewater facility prefer to hang out in the flooded fields of the rapid filtration cells rather than the large storage lagoons. In fact, I should mention that mallards and many other puddle ducks love freshly flooded land, even if the flooded area is just a large puddle. I don’t know what it is that they find to eat in these flooded areas, but it has to be something that puddle ducks love, because they can be found in such places more often than not.

I got my equipment set-up in advance, using the 70-200 mm lens on the 7D, choosing that lens to prevent myself from zooming in too far as I do most of the time. Usually, I can drive to next to one of the rapid filtration cells and I have to wait until the mallards become nervous by my presence before they take flight, and this is where my plan failed.

For some reason, long before I approached the cell that the mallards were in, the entire flock took flight, so this was my best shot in this attempt.

Many mallards in flight

At least you get an idea how many mallards were there, although that’s just a small portion of the flock. And, I learned a little from the camera settings that I used for that image as well, so it wasn’t a total waste of time.

Just as the mallards all took flight long before I got into the position that I wanted to be in, you can never predict what’s going to happen when attempting to photograph nature. Earlier on that day, I had been parked where I could look out over mixed flocks of ducks to see if there were any species in the flock worth trying to photograph. Suddenly, wave after wave of northern shovelers came flying towards me to join the flock that was already there. Each wave consisted of about a dozen to about twenty ducks, but I had my long lenses on both cameras, and this is what happens most of the time in that situation.

Female northern shoveler photo bombing my attempt

In all, I’d say that well over 100 northern shovelers came flying towards me, but as in that photo above, there was an out of focus duck in the foreground to ruin the photos. I did better when a lone male approached from the other direction a bit later.

Male northern shoveler landing

I love it when I catch the moment of touchdown, if only the light had been a little better. From all the photos of waterfowl landing on water I shoot, you may have noticed that northern shovelers lower their bodies into the water so that their butts and spread-out tail feathers slow them down much more quickly than some other species of waterfowl. Mallards and Canada geese in particular seem to enjoy skating across the top pf the water on only their feet for extended distances as if they were waterskiing. That may have something to do with the way that shovelers feed, I don’t know. Shovelers strain the surface water for their food, so maybe they prefer not to disturb the water any more than necessary. That’s just a thought of mine, it’s not based on any scientific study.

In some ways, having fewer subjects to photograph during the winter is a good thing, for it allows me to slow down while watching a flock of birds since I’m not in a race with myself to try to photograph everything that there is to see in nature in one day. Then, when I see a northern shoveler in a flock taking a bath and at about the best distance from me as possible…

Male northern shoveler taking a bath

…I know that it will dry its wings when finished, so I can be prepared…

Male northern shoveler drying its wings

…and capture the entire sequence…

Male northern shoveler drying its wings

…from start to finish…

Male northern shoveler drying its wings

…and show his beautiful coloration while he’s doing his thing…

Male northern shoveler drying its wings

…and the best part was that I was able to keep him in the frame…

Male northern shoveler drying its wings

…because I’ve practiced shooting this sequence so many times in the past.

Male northern shoveler drying its wings

Slowing down and paying more attention to the background also pays dividends.

Oriental bittersweet

I also tried to shoot a few snow scenes this past week, nothing great though.

Cloudy, snowy morning 1

These would have been better with a little sun and blue skies…

Cloudy, snowy morning 2

…something that I may actually see this week.

Cloudy, snowy morning 3

I have some ideas about some other things to try this winter, one is shooting snow scenes at night under a full moon. However, that’s so dependent on the weather that I’m not sure if I’ll ever see the right conditions on any of my days off. I do stand a better chance of that than a sunny day though, because the wind usually drops off at night, which allows the lake effect clouds to break up until sunrise. As soon as the wind picks up, the clouds soon follow. At least I now have a camera and lenses for such photos if the weather does ever cooperate.

Switching gears, there has been a northern shrike that has spent the winter months at the Muskegon County wastewater facility for several years, until last year. I never saw it, and I never saw one reported there on eBird when I’d check what species were being seen in Muskegon County. I don’t know if the shrike that had been seen there for years died of old age, or if it had chosen a new area to spend the winter. But last week, I saw this one there.

First year northern shrike

That’s one of last summer’s young, you can tell from the way that its chest is brownish, with bits of white to go with the brown.

First year northern shrike

Its chest will eventually turn all white as it grows its adult feathers.

I was much closer to the shrike when I first spotted it, but it was mostly hidden by a few remaining leaves along with branches of the bush it was perched in. As I followed it with my camera, I caught this.

Northern shrike hacking up a pellet

Owls are known for regurgitating the indigestible parts of critters that they eat in the form of pellets, but it turns out that most, or all raptors do the same thing, even the smallest ones such as the shrike. As I’ve sat watching eagles and several species of hawks, I’ve seen them regurgitate pellets, but I’ve never been able to photograph it. This photo of the shrike doing so was mostly luck, I was just shooting away hoping for a good pose with a clean foreground. I was able to see the pellet drop right after that photo was recorded, but I was hooting in slow continuous rather than high-speed, so the pellet was out of the frame before the camera fired again.

Thanksgiving Day was another cold, dreary day here, and the majority of the photos that I shot were almost identical to those that I’ve already put in this post, so I’ve decided not to use most of them. I did catch a juvenile bald eagle flying overhead early in the day.

Juvenile bald eagle in flight

And, I caught yet another northern shoveler drying its wings…

Male northern shoveler drying its wings

…and I’m including this one to show how birds “blast a hole in the water” as they bathe…

Male northern shoveler taking a bath

…along with two different versions of how shovelers form tightly knit rafts as they feed…

Northern shoveler feeding frenzy

…as I can’t decide which of these two I like the best.

Northern shoveler feeding frenzy

We have more species of birds moving into the area to spend the winter, I’m not sure if I shot a photo of a rough-legged hawk at all last winter…

Rough-legged hawk in flight

…so it was good to see one this early this winter.

Also, the snow buntings have returned…

Male snow bunting

…but for some reason, neither of my cameras seem to be able to produce a sharp image of one, these were shot with the 5D…

Male snow bunting

…and this one was shot with the 7D.

Female snow bunting

This species is going to be a challenge for me this winter, to get an excellent image of one. They are very flighty birds, that form large flocks. Just when you think that you’re close enough to one to get a good image, one of the other members of the flock will take flight, and away they all go. They seem to expend far too much energy as they fly from place to place, and in the way that they feed. Many small birds are always in motion, no species more than snow buntings, they’re always moving.

Well, the good news is that there were a few hours of sunshine last Friday, the bad news is that by noon, the clouds rolled back in and have been here ever since. I’ll save those images for my next post, as I’m up to my limit for this post already.

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

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32 responses

  1. Jerry, I truly enjoyed viewing all of these photos! They are all so good, and I especially like your shots of the Bald Eagle, Snow Bunting, Northern Shoveler taking a bath, and that glorious Oriental Bittersweet.

    By the way, I also carry my two cameras with me when I go out, even if it is cumbersome to switch from one to the other, let alone changing lenses on either of them. But then I remember watching a TV movie showing a National Geographic photographer sleeping under the snow overnight in Yellowstone …

    November 26, 2018 at 5:48 pm

    • Thanks Hien! Another reason for carrying two cameras is so that I don’t have to change lenses as often. I have a Manfrotto pro holster bag that will hold the second body with either a wide-angle or macro lens on it, and one other lens. I carry the other body in my hands with the long lens on it so that I’m always ready for wildlife and birds. That works well for me as you can see from my photos. BTW, I have an even better photo of the oriental bittersweet coming in my next post, shot when the sun was out. It may be a very invasive and harmful plant here, but it’s so colorful that it still deserves to be photographed well.

      November 27, 2018 at 3:55 pm

  2. I loved the images of the Northern shoveler feeding frenzy but there were many of the mallard shots which were just as rewarding. I look forward to your pictures of birds in flight.

    November 26, 2018 at 5:57 pm

    • Thank you Tom! I’ve tried to rest shooting many photos of mallards lately, but that will change this winter as they’ll be one of the few species of ducks remaining here for the winter. It’s something to see so many shovelers crowded together as they do, I’m just happy to have finally figured out how to show that well in a single photo.

      November 27, 2018 at 3:59 pm

  3. each season brings new challenges with the light. I like the 3rd photo of the landscape the best of all the photos in this post, yet even though you say you do like this time of the year, I feel you presented a good collection. i also like the first photo of the mallard in flight and I think the shot of the mallards in flight that you shot with the nikon might be improved with a little cropping. I also like the last 3 photos.
    i usually take only 2 cameras with me and one of them is my phone. but i have taken all 3, my nikon d300s, my nikon J5 and my phone but the d300s can be a bit heavy so i end up just taking the nikon J5 and my phone so i understand about taking multiple cameras.

    November 26, 2018 at 6:52 pm

    • Thank you very much for taking the time to comment! I know now that I should have risked getting my vehicle stuck in the sand so that I could have gotten the light from the first photo with the foreground in the image that you liked the most. Live and learn.

      Since my phone is a ten year old flip phone, I can’t use it as a back up to my other cameras, but that’s okay with me. I’m willing to tote more weight for the better image quality of a DSLR, even though there are times when I wish that I still carried a Canon Powershot with me as when I began my blog.

      November 27, 2018 at 4:58 pm

      • Thank you for responding to my comment. I wouldn’t want you to risk getting stuck anywhere just to get the shot. I’ve been using my smartphone cameras for many years and have taking some awesome photos with them and even had some published in magazine. Having a lightweight point and shoot camera is a plus in my opinion as long as it is a pro quality camera. Keep taking photos you’re doing a great job.

        November 27, 2018 at 6:50 pm

      • Thanks again! I do plan on continuing to shoot photos, I’ve rediscovered my passion for photography and have no plans of giving it up in the future.

        November 28, 2018 at 6:51 am

      • 🙂

        November 28, 2018 at 1:44 pm

  4. Jerry, I don’t think I have ever seen such beautiful captures of the Northern Shoveler as you’ve showcased here, just stunning! Nor ever so many, WOW, what a raft capture! I also loved the Snow Buntings; I’m still in search of capturing one, and I hear they’ve arrived in Maryland. 😊

    November 26, 2018 at 10:07 pm

    • Thank you Donna! I’m afraid that they will be quite a few shoveler photos in my next post as well, since I had much better light for a few hours. In some ways, I feel like I wasted the light by shooting so many photos of them, but they’re one of the few species still around. Good luck with the buntings, I hear that it’s going to be a very good year as far as bird irruptions this winter, we’ve had huge flocks of the snow buntings, common redpolls, and hoary redpolls already, and snowy owls are showing up here as well.

      November 27, 2018 at 4:04 pm

  5. Your opening picture was a beautiful one, very artistic.

    November 27, 2018 at 3:36 am

    • Thank you very much Susan! In reality, I had little to do with the artistry of that photo, it was there for the taking and all I had to do was push the shutter button.

      November 27, 2018 at 4:05 pm

  6. Crepuscular is a new word for me – thanks for that. Those two images are great, they really capture the mood of the winter shoreline.

    The feeding frenzy photos of the shovelers are amazing. You’ve mentioned how many you see, but this huge mass was quite a surprise to me. I love the flocks of gulls and mallards as well. You take a lot of this for granted, but I venture to say that most of your readers never see birds in the great flocks that you do.

    I’m kind of blase about having snow on the ground – it was a super effort to shovel yesterday (did all the sidewalks within about three houses of mine). Man, that stuff was heavy! But, at least it’s a bit brighter for now. So, let’s bring out some sunshine, or I’m going to have to load up on antidepressants.

    On Mon, Nov 26, 2018, 5:19 PM Quiet Solo Pursuits quietsolopursuits posted: “With winter here, and no light to work with for > good images of birds, no flowers or insects to photograph, and a general > feeling that I’m wasting my time going out with a camera this time of year, > I’ve decided instead of giving up, I’d work on pushing my ” >

    November 27, 2018 at 8:06 am

    • Thanks Judy! Crepuscular are often called God rays, but I wanted to show off my vocabulary for a change. 😉 My regret when shooting those are that I didn’t risk getting stuck in the sand drifts sooner, and that I settled for the boring foreground in the first image. Oh well, next time I’ll know better.

      I hate to disagree with you, but I never take the huge flocks of birds that I see for granted. For example, last week, the largest flock of Canada geese that I’ve ever seen filled a quarter of the sky, there were thousands of them in the flock. I so wanted to shoot a photo of that to show it, but I couldn’t figure out how to shoot it so that the geese weren’t just black specks against the gray clouds. It’s the same when I see several thousand ducks of various species at the wastewater facility, I am amazed every time I see it, but again, I don’t know how to photograph the scene. So, I’m trying various things that will convey how large the flocks of birds that I see are. It’s even harder with smaller species, like the snow buntings. I saw a flock of 100 to 150 of them fly past me, but they’re so small and fast that I never got a shot off of them. But, I will keep trying.

      I have to admit that this recent snow looked pretty, but it was no fun driving through it for work, and I’m also glad that I didn’t have to shovel it. I’m with you on the constant cloud cover though, it makes me miss the days when I drove over the road and was able to escape to the sun now and then.

      November 27, 2018 at 4:24 pm

  7. A very beautiful gallery of photos, wonderful ducks and other birds as well as very nice landscapes. Thanks for sharing.

    November 27, 2018 at 12:05 pm

    • Thank you very much! Just a weekend of my shooting photos of the things that I see in southern Michigan.

      November 27, 2018 at 4:26 pm

  8. A bevy of beautiful birds to enjoy and learn about their feeding and landing habits. One of my favourite photos is the 3rd one in showing the lighthouse, sea, sand and wind breakers and of course the crepuscular rays! New word for me and I shall somehow try to fit it in to my next conversation! I also love the photos of the gulls flying and that ‘bandit’ shrike and the cute snow bunting…such a variety of different birds..they are amazing photos! Thank you.

    November 27, 2018 at 12:06 pm

    • Thank you Marianne! Crepuscular rays are a term that I picked up by following a meteorologist’s blog, many people call them God rays. That’s a good description of the appearance of the shrike, it fits them very well. It could be a good winter for seeing new species of birds for me, word is that it’s so cold already north of me that many species are moving farther south, and in greater numbers than during a typical winter.

      November 27, 2018 at 4:48 pm

      • Look forward to seeing lots more interesting and new birds!

        November 28, 2018 at 2:37 pm

  9. I saw the sand blowing as soon as I looked at the photo and that’s my favorite part of it but I do like the sky as well. I wish we had beaches like that one closer than 2 hours away.
    Nice shots of the eagle, mallards and gulls in flight. I think I’ve gotten about 3 bird in flight photos and they were all accidental.
    My favorite shots though, are of the northern shovelers and their feeding frenzy. I don’t think I’ve ever seen so many birds of any kind at once. There must be hundreds!
    Good luck shooting by moonlight. That’s something I’ve always wanted to try too, so I’ll be interested in seeing how it goes. Bring a tripod!

    November 27, 2018 at 6:19 pm

    • Thanks Allen! One thing that we do have here in Michigan is sandy beaches, so no place in the state is far from one. It’s quite a sight to see thousands of ducks or geese in flocks as large as they are, I have to get better at shooting them, the photos you liked are a start.

      I have the tripod thing covered for the night shots. I have two regular tripods, one with a traditional head and one with a gimbal head in my vehicle all the time. I also have a small ball head that clamps to the window of my vehicle when needed.

      November 28, 2018 at 6:49 am

  10. Brilliant photos! Thank you for sharing!

    November 29, 2018 at 1:25 pm

    • Thank you very much! It was my pleasure to share them.

      November 29, 2018 at 10:26 pm

  11. Love the shrike and shoveler shots and also the snow bunting!

    December 3, 2018 at 6:25 am

    • Thank you very much Bob!

      December 3, 2018 at 4:08 pm

  12. Despite not having any wildlife to capture this time of year, you’ve continued to gift us with photos of them, which is a treat. From this series the fiery yellow and red of the bittersweet captivated me, as it’s such a burst of holiday color in the wintry darkness.

    December 3, 2018 at 4:48 pm

    • Thank you very much! It’s shaping up to be another long, cold winter here here in Michigan, so I have to look for small bits of color here and there where I can find it.

      December 3, 2018 at 5:07 pm

  13. I loved the first shot with the beautiful sun’s rays and also the third, when you had found a better location. The shot of the shoveler taking a bath with the drops of water on his back and dripping from his beak is fantastic, though I also enjoyed the wing-drying sequence. The snow scenes are so full of detail; I liked them very much. I hope you get plenty of good photography weather this winter and that you manage to develop your amazing skills to your satisfaction.

    December 3, 2018 at 6:41 pm

    • Thank you Clare! I know that I’ve been shooting too many photos of the shovelers lately, but they’ll soon be gone for the winter, and they’re the most colorful birds that I can find at this time. I’ll probably never be completely satisfied with the photos that I shoot, but I think that I’ve turned a corner, and that I get what I’m after far more often than I fail.

      December 4, 2018 at 4:22 pm

      • I love looking at shovelers!

        December 8, 2018 at 5:56 pm

      • I do too, but they’re gone now as the water has frozen over completely, and they won’t be back unless we have a significant thaw, or spring arrives.

        December 9, 2018 at 7:25 am