Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Paddling Blue Spring State Park

I'm baa-aaack....!

I am home from my trip to (mostly) sunny Florida and excited to have something to write about!  I have a hard time posting if there hasn't been much going on, and I apologize for the long absences.  But I had a great week in the salty south with my girlfriends and have lots of great photos to share.  But first, a little pre-amble to our trip.

I have been paddling a kayak for about six years.  I grew up with a rowboat and a canoe, so a self-propelled watercraft was right up my alley.  While I enjoy the freedom and ease of paddling in the kayak, I was never entirely comfortable physically.  You are pretty much stuck in one position--there's not much room to re-arrange and you certainly can't stand up in the thing.  My 'yak was only 9.5 feet long and didn't have much room for storage--except behind the seat, where it was nearly impossible to get at anything.  So when I was out shooting, my gear had to go between my knees, making it even more impossible to move.

The storage issue also posed another problem.  If we wanted to backcountry camp with the boats, we were never going to get all of our gear into three 10 foot kayaks.  We had decided our trip to Florida was going to include a night in the Canaveral National Seashore, but we were at a loss as to how to move our gear.  A canoe seemed to be the answer, so I got online one day to see what was for sale and how much we were looking at spending.

What we ended up buying--after selling my 'yak and a bunch of gently-used stuff on Craig's List--is a 12 foot Sportspal canoe, manufactured right here in Adrian, Michigan by Meyer.  We actually drove down to their facility to pick up the boat as we couldn't find a retailer closer than Cleveland who had any in stock.  This boat was designed for hunters and fishermen--at nearly four feet wide it is extremely stable.  In addition, the boat, made out of aircraft-grade aluminum, is lined with 1/2 inch thick foam, and has sponsons on the outside that are two inches thick and perhaps four inches wide.  All of this makes the boat nearly impossible to tip, and it will not sink if it becomes swamped with water--although several reviews I read said that it is very possible to fall out!  I can stand up and move around in it, and it has enough room for our gear.  Also, it weighs only 48 pounds, so I can carry it myself if I need to.

Mine is olive green, but you get the idea. Mine also came with seats and two paddles

So we called ahead and reserved a campsite at Canaveral, but once we got down to Florida I got a little nervous about paddling this canoe for the first time out in the fairly open waters of the Mosquito Lagoon.  We decided then to take our first full day and go up to Blue Spring State Park, one of our favorite places in central Florida, to put the boat in the water so I could get a feel for how it paddles, and to see if I could handle it alone in the wind.

Our course is marked in red.

We put in at the boat launch and paddled across the main river to a little oxbow that seemed a bit more sheltered and away from most of the power boats (see map above).  It was quite breezy, with gusts to 20 mph or better.  Right away I could see I was going to have a lot more trouble with the wind in the canoe than I'd ever had in the kayak.  But for now we were on the lee side of the oxbow, and I puttered around there getting a feel for the boat.

The bow of the canoe, with Lori and Lisa in the background.

Me trying to shoot some coots.  Photo by Lisa with her iPhone.

At the corner of the oxbow we came across a large flock of White Ibis, probably 30 to 40 birds, resting and preening.  I struggled to get shots of them as even the slightest breeze wanted to spin me in circles.

What amazing blue eyes they have!

After flopping around and trying to come at them from a different angle they finally got fed up with me and flew off into the trees.  I felt bad for disturbing them.

With a much higher profile I caught a lot more wind, and as we rounded the bend and paddled into the wind I had to paddle backwards.  With no ballast in the front of the boat I became the fulcrum, and I would spin until I was parallel with the wind.  Going backwards was my only option if I wanted to move against the wind.  I'm glad there was no one else around to watch me struggle.  I could see that this was going to be a great workout!

We paddled around the oxbow then drifted back with the wind.  An Anhinga was perched on a dead branch drying out in the sun, and I managed to get a few photos without scaring it away.  Across the oxbow on the north-facing bank there was a thick mat of floating vegetation and much bird activity.  But there were also some active alligators, and I couldn't keep myself from being blown into it while I was shooting, so I had to pass.  I was beginning to realize that if there was much wind involved, there would not be much shooting, especially if I was alone in the canoe.


Once we reached the main channel of the river we decided to head upstream and check out the lagoon, hoping to find some place where we could park the boats more or less out of the wind and have some lunch.

American Coot

Next: Osprey fish the lagoon

Sunday, February 19, 2012

A Trip South

Another winter, another trip to Florida. I've been so busy getting ready--and dealing with an injured chicken--that I haven't been able to post. Now I'm out of town and while I have the Blogger app (trying it for the first time) I don't anticipate I'll be posting much till I get home.

As I've mentioned before I try to get down here once a year to visit my grandma Andree, who is now 89. While in excellent health she is losing her vision and so doesn't get around on her own any more. The photo is of her at dinner tonight, trying to escape the camera. I know my time with her grows shorter with each passing day, so while we spend time at the wildlife refuges in the area the real reason for the trip is her. She has been one of the biggest influences in my life and I wish I had more time to spend with her.

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Hairy Woodpecker Pays a Visit

We have a number of regular visitors to our feeders--cardinals and chickadees, downy and red-bellied woodpeckers, titmice, nuthatches, doves and jays.  A somewhat less common visitor is the Hairy Woodpecker.  

Very similar in appearance to the downy, the hairy is larger (about 2.5 inches longer) and more boldly marked.  I like to say the downy looks like an un-made bed, at least compared to the hairy.

While the downy is seemingly fearless (I had one eat seeds from my hand a few weeks ago at a local park) the hairy is much more cautious and skittish.  This handsome fellow hopped around the cherry tree outside the studio for several minutes before approaching the feeders.

Finally he flew up to the post and snacked on some suet.  Click on this image to see the subtle color and detail around this fellow's beak.

Pretty bird!

Sunday, February 5, 2012


After my disappointing photographic experience in East Tawas, where I had an opportunity to get some great shots of some fairly uncommon birds and blew it because I am not used to shooting small, moving objects, I decided to spend some time experimenting with my camera.  So I took my equipment out to the studio and set the long lens up on a tripod and played around with exposures.

What I determined is that to get birds with no blur, the shutter speed needs to be at least 1/500 of a second, preferably 1/1000 or greater.  That means it has to be a pretty bright day, and that one has to have really good equipment.  A long (telephoto) lens by its nature lets in less light than a shorter lens--the light has to travel farther to reach the camera.  So a good telephoto lens has to have a much wider diameter to allow sufficient light to stop action, like birds.  But a larger diameter means bigger glass and that raises the cost significantly.  A 600mm f4.0 (meaning a large opening to allow lots of light) lens can run you--I kid you not--$10,000.  Those of us of modest means simply can't afford that, so we make do with what we've got, and will be limited to getting the best results only under the best conditions.

At any rate, I was having fun shooting the birds through the studio windows (kind of like a huge blind).  I was focused on some birds in a large red pine when movement on the cherry tree to my left caught my eye.  I looked and OH MY GOSH a Brown Creeper!  I swung the camera around just in time to get this shot of him.

This is one of those birds who I just thrill to see.  They are not all that common, although I've had one hanging around the studio in winter for the past couple years.  I had seen this bird a week or so before so knew he'd returned, but this was my first chance to catch him with the camera.

It didn't take long before he started creeping up and around the tree.

I am fascinated with his coloring.  I thought at first that these shots were really blurry but I went back and looked at the first one and realized that his coloring is like that naturally.  Whereas so many birds' markings are bold and well defined, this little guy's colors are soft and blend into one another.

What perfect camouflage--no wonder they're so hard to spot!

Brown Creepers are in the family of chickadees and nuthatches.  They cling to the trunks of trees and glean insects.  They tend to move up the tree, whereas nuthatches tend to move down--a subtle difference but one worth noting.  I've never seen him on a feeder, so I wonder if he's coming around looking for bits of seeds the other birds may have left behind in the trees.  Both the nuthatches and the woodpeckers take peanuts to the trees, cram them in a crevasse and bash them to bits.  Perhaps the creeper is picking up the pieces.

After this last photo he flew off to another tree where the light was not so good, so I gave up.  I was happy to have gotten a few shots of this elusive little bird!

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Au Sable River Walk

Our last day in East Tawas dawned a fiery red.  The warmth of the sunrise belied the frigid temperatures outside.

The bright dawn didn't last long, however.  A strong southerly wind pressed the clouds northward and closed off the sun.  It also pushed to shore the ice that had been far out on the lake, and as far as we could see ice like shards of glass undulated with the waves.

With the change in weather we decided there would be even less to see out at Tawas Point, so we drove up to the Au Sable River instead to take a leisurely walk in the woods were we'd be more protected from the wind.  A few miles down River Road from Oscoda is Eagle Run, a network of trails maintained primarily for cross country skiing.  It's a nice place to hike, too, and with so little snow we didn't think we'd be in the way of any skiers.

We parked at the boat launch and walked out to a fishing dock along the southern bank of the river.  Here we heard the park's namesake eagle, calling from somewhere up river, but they never showed themselves.

Walking back up the road we picked up one of the trails and passed through a stand of red pine.  Karin's sharp eye spotted this Roughed Grouse perched high in a tree.  I had my short lens so couldn't get much of a photo, but at least it's proof!

We didn't walk far, just enough to loosen up and work up an appetite.   One more look at the river and we turned around a headed back to the car.  We stopped at Los Quatro Amigos for lunch (very good Mexican food!) and hit the road.

We never did see a Snowy Owl, but as just about everyone knows (NBC Nightly News will have a segment tonight about them) they have migrated quite far south this year, spotted in places like Oklahoma and Missouri.  Lori and I will be driving over to Saint Joseph and Lake Michigan this Friday to visit a bookstore and to watch a live art show jury (which I hope will be very educational!) so maybe we'll get lucky yet and spot one along the water there.  Still it was nice to get away for a weekend and especially nice to add two more birds to my "life list".