Friday, January 27, 2012


I have one more post from our Tawas trip from a few weeks ago, a short walk down the banks of the Au Sable River, but I wanted to get this up as I just finished it this afternoon:

"Baltimore", 10x8, colored pencil on Bristol board.

This is a bird that showed up on our balcony several years ago, and I had completely forgotten about it until I was looking through some miscellaneous photos in a folder on my computer.  I really liked the pose, and even though I just did a piece with orioles in it last fall ("The Offering") I decided to go ahead and do this one too.  This size original is my best selling size, and I need to have a boat load of them when the season starts.  I have a long way to go!

Next up I think will be a Dark-eyed Junco.  I have a client whose been asking about one, but until recently I didn't have any poses I was all that excited about.  I do now, though, so hope to get started on it next week.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

The Not-So-Common Common Redpoll

After seeing the Long-tailed Duck--which everyone was excited about--we were pretty satisfied, and not feeling so bad about not seeing a Snowy Owl.  As we walked back down the pier, the girls pointed out some small finch-like birds in the weeds along the shore.  Once again binoculars went up, and I hurried over with my camera.

(Remember, click on an image to see a slide show of full-sized images!  They look much better bigger.)

Well, the day got better still!  There among the milkweed was a small flock of Common Redpolls!

I had only seen this bird once before, during our second winter here in Pinckney.  We had a good sized flock--15 to 20 birds--show up at our feeders for several weeks in January.  This was so much better, seeing them in a more natural habitat.

They were quite intent on eating and didn't pay much attention to us.

The female lacks the purple-ish breast of her male counterpart.

Redpolls are a winter visitor to Michigan, breeding in the sub-arctic regions far to our north.  Food supply determines how far south they venture, and so they are often a highly desired bird of those keeping a list.  I was thrilled to get to see them again.

Redpolls are fairly nondescript it until you see them head on.  I just love their rosy foreheads and yellow bills.

This little lady paused to check me out, her sweet face hidden behind the stem.

Monday, January 23, 2012

Short Walk on a Long Pier: The Long-tailed Duck

On the drive up to the house where we stayed we passed through East Tawas.  U.S. 23 passes very near Tawas Bay here, and we noticed a number of waterfowl dotting the surface. I thought it might be a good place to come back to, so after we left the park we drove back to town and stopped at the East Tawas State Dock.  This is quite an impressive structure, able to dock over 100 boats and offering electric, gas, showers and pump-out services.

Photo courtesy Michigan DNR

There was a lot more ice around the pier than there had been the day before, but as we approached the dock we could see some waterfowl out in the bay. I guessed they were mergansers, but then I noticed a much larger bird closer to shore, diving just beyond the thin ice.  I moved to the railing and waited for it to surface.

I wasn't sure what it was, and for that I was excited, since it probably meant it was not a bird I'd seen before.  When it dove again I walked farther down the pier.  Once again it broke the surface, but dove quickly.  As it dove I caught a glimpse of its tail and I knew what we'd spotted.

A Long-tailed Duck!!

Such a pretty thing, it is not all that common here in Michigan, at least inland.  Sibley's shows its winter range to include the Great Lakes, but it tends to frequent the ocean coasts.  I remembered the conversations of some of the birders I was with at the festival in Tawas last year--one of these birds had been spotted (at great distance) at the Foote Dam Pond on the Au Sable River, and there was much excitement about it.  This is a bird that breeds in the Arctic, and to have one in Michigan in May caused quiet a stir.

We watched it dive, its tail feather last to submerge, and wondered at an animal so suited to a life in frigid waters.


Another "life list" bird, great payment for birding on such a chilly afternoon!

I didn't post many images of this bird because not that many came out very well.  That is entirely my fault, and I learned a good lesson here about shooting wildlife.  I rarely shoot with the camera in full auto mode, knowing the camera isn't going to think like I do.  But that means I actually have to think and pay attention to what is happening. When shooting moving objects with a long lens, shutter speed is of the utmost importance.  A fast shutter speed is needed to stop the motion of the animal you're trying to photograph, and helps stop the effects of camera movement as well.

I have always been more of a landscape photographer, where depth of field is more important than stopping movement, so I have always shot in aperture priority mode (I set the aperture, which determines depth of field, and the camera picks the corresponding shutter speed).  But what happened with the Long-tailed Duck is that the aperture setting I had chosen forced the camera to pick a shutter speed much too slow to stop any movement (usually around 1/40th of a second).  I wasn't paying any attention, too excited about the duck to pay attention to what the camera was doing.  There are other factors that contributed to the blurry photos, but this is the main one.  So from now on, the camera that has the long lens will always be in shutter priority mode, and I will try not to let my excitement ruin my pictures!!

Next:  Common Redpolls by the pier.

Saturday, January 21, 2012

Snow Buntings!

We walked slowly along the beach at Tawas Point State Park, scanning the peaks and valley and stands of dune grass on this sandy peninsula for any sign of a Snowy Owl.  It is probably only because we were looking so carefully that I noticed the two small birds before I got close enough to scare them away.  I stopped dead in my tracks and got the camera on them.  When I peered through the lens I gasped.


I waved to the girls to get them to stop and pointed the birds out to them.  Binoculars went up, followed by oohs and ahhs.

I don't know why, but this is one of those birds that I have wanted to see for years.  They are not really all that uncommon around here in the winter, and I may have seen a whole flock of them in a field on the side of the road as we were zipping along in the Jeep a few years ago, but I didn't have a chance to actually ID them.  There was no doubt this time!  I am pretty sure these are two females.


The pair moved over the snow covered beach picking seeds off the dried winter weeds and grasses.

They were far enough away that I couldn't focus on them easily, not to mention the stiff breeze that was blowing under my glasses and making my contacts go wanky.  I had to rely on the autofocus, and it was picking up the grasses in front of the birds rather than the birds themselves.  Ah well, I am still thrilled that I got shots of them. 

The snow was soft enough that they often sank down into the snow, and sometimes when they ran it looked like they were scooting along on their bellies.

It was not too long before my fingers and thumb started to ache from the cold.  Fortunately the birds finished their scavenging and moved off farther down the beach.  What a wonderful experience though to finally get to see these beautiful little birds!  (Check out this link for more info on the Snow Bunting from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology.)

Next:  A visit to the East Tawas pier, and another "life list" bird!

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Winter Found at Tawas State Park

Remember a week or so ago I was commenting--NOT complaining--that winter had gone AWOL around here.  Very little snow, very mild temperatures.

Well, we found winter up in East Tawas.

Two to three inches of snow fell early Friday, and we arrived to a town awash in white (on some pretty crappy roads).  After the winds and snow the weather cleared, but the temps also dropped, and Saturday morning saw a frigid 7 degrees.  Well, we had come prepared, and were not about to be deterred in our quest for Snowy Owls.  So we bundled up and drove down to Tawas Point State Park.

Lisa, Lori and me at Tawas Point.  Photo by Karin.

When we got to the park it was about 15 degrees with a wind from the north between five and 10 mph.  That doesn't seem like much but it made for wind chills around zero.  Exposed or poorly covered skin got painfully cold in a hurry.

I was also concerned about my photo equipment.  I'd never had it out in temps that low and didn't know how it would perform.  Turned out it was fine, and the only problems were with the operator.

Before reaching the beach we came upon a pond criss-crossed by fox tracks.  You can see where the animal slipped and slid on the ice after coming off the bank to the right.

It was pretty brutal on the beach but luckily the wind was at our backs, making it tolerable.  The fresh snow made the search for a white bird that much more complicated.  We scoured hummocks and grasses up and down the shore.

While the lake was open here at the point, the frigid temps were evident along the shore.  Even the midday sun was not warm enough to thaw these rocks.

Despite the temperatures it was a beautiful day.

We reached the end of the point and stopped for a few minutes.  We had seen no owls, and with the exception of two birds on the beach (you'll read about them in my next post), we hadn't seen any birds at all.  I'm sure they were hunkered down, keeping warm.

We decided against walking up the other side of the point, which would have put us walking straight into the wind, and instead took the broad path that runs up the middle, a more sheltered option.

We enjoyed the scenery along the path, and did finally see some juncos.

As we neared the parking lot the trail opened up to the lighthouse grounds.  This popular and well-preserved light is reported to be haunted.  Apparently it was too cold even for the ghosts--the place was utterly deserted.

We were happy to get back to the car and out of the wind.  It was early still, so we decided to drive to the pier to see if we could spot any waterfowl.  But first, we'll take a look at who we found on the beach!

Next: The first of two "life list" birds on our Tawas trip!

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Dawn on Lake Huron

We have made it an annual thing now, to spend a weekend somewhere in Michigan in the winter, just for fun. The original plan was to go up to Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore on Lake Michigan, but after getting a newsletter from Michigan Audubon that six Snowy Owls had been spotted at Tawas Point State Park on Lake Huron, we decided to head there instead.  Tawas is where the birding festival I attended last year was held, where I added 12? birds to my "life list".  We found a three bedroom house for rent right on the water for a great price (winter rates), called up our friend Karin from Traverse City, and we all met there Friday night.

By the time we got settled it was dark so we had to wait till morning to really see the place.  Dawn brought a glorious sunrise, spreading across a frigid Lake Huron (the air temperature was seven degrees).

I grew up on a lake (not as big as this one!) and I miss it horribly.  I could spend hours on the shore, just watching and listening to the nuances of the water.  The cold had brought ice to the surface of the great lake, and it crinkled across the small swells.

Each moment is different, every place you look a new texture, color.

The horizon is ill-defined, seemingly infinite. Waves and swells break the line between water and sky.

Winds from the west spread out across the surface, winding between the ice sheets.

Just as I was finishing up Lori spotted a dark shape moving down the coast.  "Eagle!" she cried.  Sure enough, gliding south down the shore was this magnificent Bald Eagle.  No time for adjusting the exposure, I got a couple shots before the bird moved out of sight.

It was going to be a good day!

Next:  Tawas Point

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Where's Winter?

Winter has gone AWOL.

Not that I'm complaining, mind you.  We've had some rough winters here the last few years and I am perfectly happy with a mild winter.  We are getting out more, our chickens are getting out more (and as a result producing more eggs) and our heating bill is much lower.  I even saw an American Robin in our crab apple tree this morning, the earliest I've ever seen one here.

We've been taking advantage of the warm weather to start getting in shape for some backpacking this summer.  I've been in the backcountry on a few occasions (see my posts about Pictured Rocks) but Lisa and Lori have not.  We've done plenty of camping and have lots of gear for car camping (plus the old RV we use for shows) but have needed to outfit ourselves for the backcountry, which calls for completely different gear--and completely different conditioning.  So we've been walking a few miles every other day or so, working up to greater lengths until we add packs and gradually increase their weight.
Hiking in winter is really very pleasant.  No bugs, no crowds, and if you dress right you stay warm but don't overheat.  The light at this time of year is gorgeous with a warm, yellow cast that angles through the trees and lights them top to bottom.

We searched for signs of winter but they were few and far between.  Temps in the 40's made for happy mosses, whose spore casings quivered in the breeze.

Some of the small ponds had a thin layer of ice, but that was it.  No snow anywhere.

We hiked out to a marsh to hear some running water and see what was happening.  We found some coyote scat and tracks along with some colorful plants, like red osier dogwood.

Some fluffy thimbleberries stood tall along the trail, their seeds dispersed.

Winterberry competed with the dogwood for most colorful.  These berries ripen late in the season and therefore aren't usually eaten until late winter.  A holly that's native to Eastern North America, it's a welcome sight in depths of winter.

The walk back to the car brought us along the shore of Chenango Lake, where we sometimes go fishing in summer.  The sun lit the far shore.

The line between new and old ice made interesting patterns across the surface of the lake.  It's been so warm I was surprised to see any ice at all.

It looks like the weather is going to change tonight, with a cold front moving through and bringing cold, wind and, yes, snow. 

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Squirrel Wars

There seems to be a lot of violence around here lately.  First woodpeckers fighting over suet, now red squirrels fighting over seeds.  Guess they've seen too many GOP primary attack ads.

But like battles waged over the air, these local wars rarely lead to any actual harm for the participants.  Usually there's just a lot of noise and gesturing and puffing up to make oneself look bigger than their opponent. 

I have a terrible habit of not taking my camera with me when I go out to the studio to work.  I've missed deer, fox and rabbit, and many a grand show put on by posturing birds squabbling over seed.  But on this day, back in November, I had my camera ready when two red squirrels quarreled over a feeder stocked with black oilers and peanuts.
My feeders are pretty squirrel proof, so when I am out in the studio I put a half cup of seed in the "squirrel feeder", this old tin-roofed model nailed to an old barn beam.  The squirrels know the sound of seed in the feeder and are usually there within a minute or two.  On this occasion, however, two showed up in quick succession.  A brief battle ensued.

I'm pretty sure I heard the food bucket.

Oh crap, it's occupied.

Oops, he saw me.

I'll make a quick pass to the other side.

Can he see me under here?

Guess so.

I'll try the front again. Uh oh....

Pow! Bam! Bitch slap!!

The interloper finally defeated, the king of the feeder can finish his lunch.