One year in the backyard
See Part 2
This hub was getting so large it was beginning to slow down. So I've continued the narrative in a hub, One Year in the Backyard, Part II. Check out the latest there.
Thursday, October 22, 2009
A cold, damp day, often dark, we seem unable to enjoy many sunny and warm days this autumn.
It was another of coming and going in the dark before and after the day's work. Luckily I was able to spend a little time home at lunch. I thought I would seek out a scene to show the increasing brownness creeping into the remaining leaves. There are few red maples still hanging onto their leaves. There are many maples, birches, beeches and other trees with yellow- and brown-toned leaves. The scenes make one think of Thanksgiving autumn accents rather than color tour season.
As often happens, I quickly was sidetracked in what I thought was my photographic goal for the day. The loud chattering of blue jays irritated I had left the house and entered the yard stopped me in my tracks. They were feeding beneath the feeders, picking seeds that the chickadees, nuthatches and titmice had spilled as they foraged in the feeders above.
The blue jays proved elusive today. Before the winter is out, all the birds will become more accepting of my presence. In years passed certain chickadees, a very social species, would alight near the feeders and chatter at me as I filled the feeders. It seemed they were either saying what took so long? But there's danger in personification. They might have been bravely telling me to get lost, but it didn't seem so.
The jays quickly skipped out, but every few minutes one would fly to a high branch in a nearby tree and survey the scene. Only once did one come in to feed while I stood beneath an overhanging deck, camera on tripod, trying to photograph their blue bodies against the yellow leaves of a nearby maple. Eventually I made the photograph of one perched in a nearby oak.
As I waited on the blue jays, chipmunks started running between their hole near the back deck and the feeders, where they too, cleaned up after the little birds above.
When standing still, they were difficult to spot amongst the multi-colored leaves that are the same size as they are. I made a few frames of one in a state of frozen motion. Looking at them closely, they're easy to like. And one must admire that for the past two years I've tried various methods of plugging their burrow entrance near the deck and they, each time, reopen it. I've given up. This one seemed to sense that as it was the only one that would remain quiet a few feet from me.
For now, let there be a truce. There are acorns enough for all.
Sigurd Olson books
Wednesday, October 211, 2009
I left for work this morning with my car lights on. I came home this evening with them on again. Granted it was a long day and I didn't make it home until about 6:15, but the light was failing already.
Autumn in low light has its own appeal, its own beauty. It is a time when scenes emerge like what one of the great Impressionists might have painted. There is color, but it isn't crisp. There is mood. There is feeling. There is a hint of somberness. There is a lack of gaiety.
Failing light has that effect, especially coupled with a post-rain mistiness and a hint of fog in the mostly still air.
Photographing so late in the evening, light-wise, presents serious challenges. Most exposures today were at least one-sixth of a second or longer. With the longest -- the one of the ghost leaf strider rider -- being more than a second long. That's why the leaf takes on a surreal blueness. As the light accumulates in the camera sensors a slight color shift occurs. It looks bluer in the image than it did in person, though in person it caught my eye precisely because it had a spooky, ghostly look to it. I walked away with the name "Ghost Leaf" in my head for the composition.
That same blueness had become apparent a few minutes earlier when photographing the drop of water suspended just above the witch hazel leaf in the swamp. The drop caught light making a pinprick of a bright spot I couldn't miss while walking to the creek.
Only after composing and making a couple of exposures did the slow-moving spider appear. It came from beneath leaf. Once on the leaf top along a similar plane as the droplet, it just stopped and sat there. As I lengthened the exposure to try to capture its image, the breeze began to stir. Many exposures were deleted because of the motion of the leaf, as small as it was, rendered the image uselessly unfocused looking due to the movement during the long exposure. But I knew I had the spider and the drop on an image.
The strider rider portion of the ghost leaf photo I didn't even see in the field; it was too dark. When I downloaded photos a few minutes ago I discovered the water strider at rest on the leaf.
As I had set up for that image, I stumbled over the remains of tree branch flotsam from the flood of June, 2008, and that slight motion sent water striders scurrying atop the creek. I made a mental note to keep track of when I no longer see them, but this evening, many were startled by my clumsiness.
Finding the strider riding the leaf a few minutes ago was strangely exhilarating. It was a bonus.
One never knows what one will stumble upon in failing light.
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Tuesday, October 20, 2009
Gray skies robbed the remaining fall color of its brightness and emotional levity. Instead, the leaden gray added gravity to the scenes. The colors suddenly look late fall, rather than just past peak. Still, some flowers remain blooming adding domestic color in splotches. Most trees still have many or most of their leaves, though increasingly bare branches wave in the sky.
Another great transition is under way and moving along steadily.
The chore of clearing leaves starts to weigh on my to do list. There are a lot of them. It's always a big job. Soon it must be tackled.
I didn't get home until nearly dark. I shot the flower picture at noon, but the other two were made in failing light. It's too bad we humans can't accumulate light in the same way as a photo sensor does so that in the dark months ahead we could still get a proper emotional exposure to light through opening our internal shutters longer.
Tonight, despite the gloom, I moseyed about the yard, inspected the new guard rail installed along The Big Ugly. It's now even bigger and uglier. Oh boy. A couple chipmunks startled me shooting out of the downspout pipe from the road. They made way too much noise for two such small creatures.
The equivalent of the camera's time exposure might as simply be still spending time outdoors despite the darkness. I enjoyed the smell of the newly fallen leaves. I didn't care for the trace of the skunk smell that's been lingering by the creek for the past couple days.
The fresh, moist air -- still warm -- felt good. Walking around the yard felt right after a difficult day at the newspaper. After dealing with budgets and contracts and politicians, the yard provided a needed inner recharge.
The week is yet young, after all. It was only Tuesday afternoon.
Day of plenty
Monday, October 19, 2009
Getting home by 5 p.m. makes a real difference in what opportunities there are to shoot in the yard. This afternoon, with moderating temperatures that felt warm, though probably only in the 50s, and sunny, it was a pleasant day for a walk with the promise of light for a while. I explored the south yard, not finding much to shoot. I went to the road and there found a nice vantage point of an old farm implement wheel we purchased at my wife's grandfather's auction nine or 10 years ago. It was from his old farm in southern Michigan, near Adrian and Morenci in Lenawee County. We thought it be nice to keep a bit of that heritage on display in our yard. The way it is framed with color makes it work, though I know I can work it more and find even a better vantage. I may try again tomorrow if lighting is good. It makes for a bucolic scene one that definitely says autumn.
Next I headed to the roadside. I didn't have a plan. I just thought I'd walk along it to the creek for yet a different look at the yard. A shrubby tree caught my eye. It had wild little yellow things standing up like snakes from Medusa's head. The wind was blowing pretty strong so the branch was difficult to shoot. But as I looked through the macro lens I noticed the little yellow buds. At first I was puzzled but this evening, before I hit the field books, the answer struck me: the plant is witch hazel. The field books confirmed.
This little find is one of the rewards of this project. I stumbled on some witch hazel in bloom last winter in the Nordhouse Dunes Wilderness Area north of here while cross-country skiing. It was frigid on the dunes and I was surprised to see a shrub -- it's really a tree but that specimen was small and only had a few blossoms left. Yet, in that arctic environment, they made me smile in wonder that a flower could withstand so much for so long.
So I was pleased to see them today. According to Stan Tekiela's "Trees of Michigan Field Book," the "witch" portion of the name comes from its use by water diviners for witching rods to find underground water. Brenda told me, and the guide concurred, it's also used in astringents. I'll have to keep an eye on it.
Finally today, the turkeys I saw a few days ago surprised me as I turned from the witch hazel. They were crossing the road on the north side of the Big Ugly and the creek. Several were scratching in the dirt left from the construction project. The flock was split with some on each side of the road. Cars scattered them and when they did they took note of me and headed down into the creek bed on the west side of the road. My guess is they'll be around again. I may have to put a blind out after all.
Finally, after shooting my path that leads from the house to the creek, I said enough and put the camera away. I'm sure the more I looked the more I could shoot, but winter is approaching and I have many duties to do to get ready for it in the coming weeks.
No complaints, though, I enjoyed the riches of the day found in my humble yard.
Sunday, October 18, 2009
The morning broke still, cold and with a quiet sound -- leaves fluttering down from the oaks and maples, set free by a hard frost in the canopy and cold enough to ice a bucket of water containing paintbrushes soaking after use.
Puffs of steamy vapor erupted from mouths talking in the early morning chill. And the fluttering of the leaves was loud enough as they bounced off still-attached leaves to be the second-loudest sound of the morning. The loudest sound was reserved for the acorns which hailed down -- and would continue to do so all day. I couldn't believe there were that many still attached to the trees, but there were.
The cold hung on until 11 a.m. Frost could still be seen on my truck in the driveway. As the sun rose higher, though, a new sound joined in. It was that of a light rain shower though no rain clouds were in sight. Instead, it was water dripping out of the trees from the melting frost. It must have been thick on the top, because the water fell in remarkably large quantities when the breath of the late awakening breeze began to stir.
And with the falling melted frost water came more leaves. The frost must have helped break the bond that held the leaves to their branches. The colors peaked only Friday or Saturday. Today the leaves began falling in earnest.
By day's end each tree that was shedding leaves had a blanket of leaves beneath it. The yellows of one maple created a bright circle that reflected light all day. The oaks that shed leaves were encircled in brown. Strangely, the red maples leaves just seemed to blow away, though few fell today.
I tried mightily hard to capture a falling leaf or falling leaves in a way that would tell the story. It just didn't work for me. Leaves seem to fall so slowly. Well, try finding one, getting the lighting right in a woods with greatly varied light and then getting it in focus. I tried presetting all the controls and waiting for the right leaves to fall in the right way in the right place with the camera set smartly on the tripod just right.
But it was all wrong. The leaves seemed to magically miss the focal area. I tried taking it off the tripod and using a zoom. That left me field of vision too small. I tried with a wide angle lens. That left the leaves too small to be of much impact.
Yet I enjoyed the trying. The lighting was gorgeous and the day unique so far this year. It truly marked, in the backyard at least, the start of the major leaf fall.
Saturday, October 17, 2009
In this unusual autumn of cold and wet, the fall colors here are at their peak. In fact, in some areas bare trees are beginning to replace the leaf canvas of color. Still, other plants and trees remain green and my wife's flowers continue to bloom though slowly, like a marathoner at the end of long run under adverse conditions.
The leaves are beginning to accumulate in the creek. The little log jams create a leaf jam with leaves colliding into the mass of blocked leaves, come carom off and go on their way. Others catch and become part of the collective. Still others, like a combination shot in pool stick but push previously caught leaves, off to the side where they're caught by the current and sent downstream.
The woods floor is nature's version of Joseph's many-colored coat. yellows, browns, reds, greens are intermixed and interwoven as wildly as one can imagine. Fallen, rotting birch logs with their still-white bark provide an attractive contrast.
Birds are gathering in flocks. If you see one blue jay, you see a handful. Canada geese continue to be heard honking as they fly to and from the lake.
Last fall two flocks of wild turkeys began visiting the yard. One only returned a few times. The second flock stuck with us all winter, even as the snow piled high and all that was visible at times were their bobbing heads moving along the well-beaten trails they created in what turned out to be one of the five snowiest snowfalls in Ludington's history. Their numbers tailed off with each visit until by winter's end they had disappeared. Had they just moved on? Was the heavy winter killing them off? Were the fox and coyote that are in the neighborhood preying on them? I can't answer those questions with certainty. But by spring they no longer were visiting the bird feeder. Today I saw a small flock crossing Dewey Road heading north into the woods less than a quarter-mile away. Are they about to return? Time will tell.
Friday, Oct. 16, 2009
Two months ago I began this little project. I haven't tired of it or looking and listening in the backyard. Most days that I can spend time meandering around, something new or unique eventually shows itself. Other days, an earlier experience builds upon itself, or shows itself in a new light. Let me know what you think, what you'd like to see more of, less of.
Today's surprise wasn't a surprise at all. If anything the surprise was I hadn't seen a new buck rub yet this year until today.
It seems each year the deer slightly vary the paths they take through or around the yard. But always, they find a way through or around it.
After the subdivision was carved out of the woods to the north across the creek, the deer moved south for awhile. It seemed they abandoned the well-worn trail between the creek and the lower yard. They preferred passing on the south side of the yard between our house and the Gensons. Many an afternoon or morning I'd see them there.
This year, they've been there and they've renewed their use of the creek bottom -- though in truth they never completely abandoned it.
I've been walking the creek along a trail that I now share with the deer. It seemed two months ago when I started walking this area, there was no trail. My travels began to make one and now the deer use it frequently. There's always fresh track over what I've left.
Most years a buck uses the swamp along the creek to polish its antlers. Rarely seen by us, the buck or bucks leave tell-tale rubs on the saplings. I've been looking for new ones in the past couple weeks. Today I looked across the creek into what is really the Sniegowskis' backyard. Their house is much closer to the creek with a grassed yard adjoining falling off at the creek's edge to the swamp. On an island between their yard and ours, three saplings were rubbed with their bark wore off one side. The rub was fresh, in the last day or so.
So now I know among the many track I see entering and criss-crossing creek, at least one is a buck. No guarantee I'll see him during the light, though. Yet for all the problem the whitetail deer herd cause in accidents and by using people's gardens as salad bars, I'm pleased to know there's a buck about. There's also no guarantee it will survive the hunting seasons now open through the end of the year. Several neighbors hunt and most get a deer before the season is over.
That's OK, too. Without hunting, the deer would be so thick the woods couldn't sustain them. Man has to be the predator since the coyotes are their only remaining natural predator other than humans.
But I'd sure like to get my "shot" at the buck first, with my Nikon. Here's hoping it comes to pass.
Slow down, you're moving too fast
Thursday, October 16, 2009
Today was one of those days that made me question the sanity of this project. I couldn't get home until almost 6 p.m. and had to be back in town by 6:30 p.m. for a dinner of the local environmental group AFFEW. Shooting a meaningful photo a day from the three acres of my yard is a tough enough assignment much less adding the element of having to find something in 15 minutes or less.
The lesson I relearn every time I face a similar situation is sometimes photography and the day's lesson, insight or communion with nature as seen in this bit of yard, can't be rushed.
Given 30 to 45 minutes and some reasonable semblance of light, and I slow down enough to see something. That is the core of the Sigurd Olson listening point concept. Slow down and be receptive to the natural world in those places where one can still connect.
But there's no McDonald's fast-food way to meaningfully connect, see, listen and learn the lessons the natural world offers in such a time constraint.
One can get lucky. An unusual bug or animal may present itself quickly, though I've not been that lucky often. Or on some days all the photographic elements align and it's more of a chore to not go crazy and overshoot.
Today, time weighed heavily. Making matters worse, the light was flat, meaning it didn't make objects pop. It was a subtle light that required a quiet and keen eye looking patiently and carefully while "listening" within for what the day's lesson or gift would be.
The woods is yellowing by the day. Browning, too, as more leaves lose their bright fall colors. The beech trees I've been watching looking for a good composition of beech nuts. Alas, many of the trees have seemed to drop their nuts and now it appears buds are forming at the ends of the branches. Is this normal?
More oaks are changing, though plenty still are green.
The chipmunks and squirrels again were making a racket in the early evening. A murder of crows flying high overhead made even more noise. They passed to the west toward Hamlin Lake, but didn't come in close enough to make a meaningful photograph.
And then it was time to go. Like a poorly connecting computer modem, I had made contact with the natural world tonight, but I didn't exchange that much information.
I'll try again tomorrow.
Wednesday, October 14, 2009
Upon arriving home this evening I was greeted by a great clattering coming from several different spots in the yard near the driveway simultaneously.
The chipmunks were out and not happy with my return.
Cute as buttons, destructive as any vandals if they get inside, chipmunks are an easy thing to have a love/hate relationship when so many live so close to you.
Their eyes, like a doe's eyes or a beagle's eyes, can melt even a tough guy's heart. Their chatter is comical at one level, effective as they spread the word of an intruder such as me or my cat entering the yard when they're out, and once in a while you almost feel like yelling "put a lid on it."
Burrowing animals, their holes are strategically placed around the yard and in the woods. I found what could be the grandest of entrances the other day on a hill in the woods. The hole was larger than ordinary, but the pile of cracked acorn shells and meat littering the bare ground in front of it betrayed a chipmunk preparing for winter.
The acorn crop -- the mast -- this fall is extremely heavy in our yard. The acorns are of a good size and most look to be in prime shape. Some years they're small or rotten or few. This appears to be a bumper crop. The chipmunks are loving it and keeping busy. They have favorite spots to sit and crack open the nut. We find piles of shell and meat in several places on our back deck, side porch and garden brick.
Recently, they've been quiet and unseen when I'm around. I'd hear a stray one chattering in the distance, but rarely saw one in the lawn next to the house, though from their holes and messes I knew they were about.
Tonight three were running within a few feet of me as I arrived home. And the yard sounded like a percussion session of the chipmunk marching band there was so much chattering from so many directions.
It was a dry, sunny afternoon and possibly a bit warmer than it's been. Is that all it took to prompt them into action? More squirrels were about, too.
Glenn Dudderar, a well-respected MSU Extension Wildlife Specialist, notes eastern chipmunks and its close kin the least chipmunk and the striped ground squirrel all are about 8 to 10 inches in length and are primarily ground dwellers.
Chipmunks prefer woody areas and burrow often at stumps, logs or walls. Our yard has several chipmunk condo stumps, logs and walls.
The striped ground squirrel, according to Dudderar, prefer grassy areas and their burrows -- up to 30 or more feet in length can often be found in lawns with the opening anywhere in a grassy area. We have signs of those, too, with entrances 30 feet apart at least.
Dudderar also writes that one way to tell the difference is chipmunks run with their tail in an upright position. Today the ones scolding me fit that bill, as well as where their burrow openings were.
He also offers several control methods, two of which I've used on chipmunks that take a liking to our garage where the bird feed is stored. A pellet gun, Dudderar writes, can be an effective control weapon. So can a cat. I at time use both, always feeling bad when I look at the cute little critter that was dispatched. Then I remember why: that cute little critter was trying to take up residence in my abode. That's a no-no. They've chewed through screen doors, plastic containers, and have been known to eat electrical wire at great expense. My pact is, if they stay outside and don't try to get in, they just have to escape the cat. Once one tries to enter the house, it's time to thin the herd. This year it's a large herd, and this evening it was a noisy ones.
Tuesday, October 13, 2009
The light filtering through the maple leaves shortly after noon was as yellow as the leaves dampened by a passing shower a few minutes earlier. It was striking coloring and light. The poplar trunk sticking through the maple leaves provides a strong line that punctures the bath of yellow light. It simply is something not to be ignored in the yard on this day, at this time. The creek, so gorgeous Sunday, is muted today.
So a luxuriate in the light. With only a few exposures I know I have my photo for today, one that will be hard to top.
Later, after work, I check one more time, just in case. Good photos rely on good lighting and good conditions, and these are excellent ones today. Though by the time I'm home and heading out, the sun is so low in the west the light is dimming.
I work the creek and mostly feel like I'm not seeing something. As I walk along the wilder parts of its ban following a deer trail pocketed with shapes of hoofs punched into the black, water-saturated soil, I watch leaves float down. I watch grass drop seeds into the water only to be quickly carried away towards Hamlin Lake.
I focus on a couple leaves bobbing in the current, stuck on some broken branches. That's when I notice a water strider glide across the creek and crawl up on one of the leaves. As I watch another does the same. Soon a third one approaches, but I lose track of it.
I've really come to appreciate these little creatures. All the more so learning that they live in part on mosquito larvae. Well, there's no shortage of those much of the year.
I've not seen them rest on leaves before, but that most likely was just my lack of attention to details. Or maybe, the cold has something to do with it. Most other bugs have disappeared.
How long before the water striders do, too?
Monday, October 12, 2009
The woods are full of color now. The leaf change is settling in. It's not at 100 percent, but even the green leaves are lightening in hinting at yellow.
There are still a few bugs about, though the cold has driven most away. It was 30 degrees this morning in some areas. The high is only in the mid-40s and that's a pattern that's supposed to stick around all week.
This afternoon, the woods was quiet. Another round of light rain was expected and few sprinkles could be heard landing in the canopy, but little water made it to the woods floor below. I searched on the east side of the yard adjoining the woods that goes for about a half-mile to the next road. I found a few new mushrooms growing, some different kinds of maple leaves changing colors. Beech trees were mixed with burnt sienna leaves and green leaves. The woods were moody and brooding in advance of the incoming rain. As I write at 6:30 p.m. it's as dark out now as it was at 7:30 p.m. Sunday.
The reds of the maples can't be contained by the gloom. Nor can some of the yellows. The color shows through and settles in the woods brightening the gloom.
Enough leaves have fallen that the woods floor, too, is now one of shades of browns, yellows, reds and few greens. It has a beauty of its own, not as boisterous as yesterday's wild show, but impressionistic, more subtle, more earthen.
Settling in, that's what fall is doing. Summer? Seems like long ago.
Sunday, October 11, 2009
It's just that simple.
Bright, blue skies.
Brilliant white clouds.
Really red reds.
The scenes today were as cool as the feels-like-winter-out temperatures.
How could anyone not want to be in the north in the fall on a day such as this? Everywhere one looked, a scene of sun-soaked near-psychedelia greeted the eye. A Peter Max poster isn't as colorful or as rich.
So how does one capture such magnificence?
Today I looked to the creek. The black silt on the bottom left by the indignities done to the once, fast-moving, once meandering creek in the back yard when the Big Ugly was installed, has one benefit. It absorbs so much light, reflections on its surface seem painted on a black (velvet?) canvas.
I don't know if I've ever seen the creek reflect scenes so clearly, so accurately.
So today, despite spending time on my side on the downside of a little hill shooting up at the underside of a fall-blooming flower Brenda pointed out to me, most of my shooting was at the creek. It somehow distilled the essence of this colorful fall day into something, that like wine, captures the essence of the raw product and ferments it into something more intoxicating.
So on a day like today, you can have Florida or Texas or California or even the Bahamas. They're all beautiful places, no doubt. But today they all had to stand in line behind a breathtaking fall day in Ludington, Michigan.
And I didn't even have to leave the backyard to get drunk on its glory.
A chill in the air
Saturday, October 10, 2009
The weather is changing. So are the seasons. Autumn is speeding in. Each day the woods adds more fall colors. It's probably close to 50 percent changed overall.
Today there were three distinct weather events. This morning was clear and breezy. As noon approach, it was near 50 degrees and feeling comfortable. By 2 p.m., when I did my photography, it was clouding, threatening rain and still breezy. Rain ensued and then about 5 p.m. a cold front moved in bringing clear skies and dropping the temperature into the 30s. A freeze is expected tonight.
With that forecast, I visited Brenda's front flower garden where the sedum, the mums, and a few other flowers are still blooming. In the end, though, I photographed two wild flowers, common mullein and purple knapweed. Both specimens were smallish and are late in flowering. The mullein, verbascum thapsus, is a member of the snapdragon family and has grown to 6 feet in height or more on the hill. This specimen was short, maybe 18 inches tall, and late in blooming. It's a biennial plant, meaning it flowers only every other year, though this one's in danger of being frozen out before it flowers completely.
The purple knapweed is a member of the aster family and is a common roadside wildflower. Again, this one was spindly and small, perhaps because it's so late in the growing season here. I figure I should enjoy the yellows and purples of the flowers while they last.
The chickadees, tufted titmice and nuthatches made a steady parade to the feeders today. At one point a hawk hunted within sight just above the canopy by the feeder but he didn't try to penetrate the trees to get at the birds below.
Most likely the frost tonight will get through, though.
Color soaking in
Friday, October 9, 2009
The color is starting to change more rapidly. Each day brings an advancing blush of yellows and reds through the woods. There's not many breaks in the clouds. If it weren't for the changing leaves, it would be gloomy. But the fall colors, deepened by seemingly constant moisture, brighten the woods even when it seems unnaturally dark too early.
I worked the area around the creek upon arriving home from work since there was more brightness there than in any other part of the yard. Surprisingly, there aren't many colorful reflections in the widened water of the creek. I had figured that to be perhaps the one benefit to me of the Big Ugly project. I might get more pond-like reflections. So far that hasn't proven true most days. That's a disappointment, but life goes on.
Deer tracks intermingle with my old tracks along the creek, I see no signs yet of buck rubs or scrapes. Most years, at some point in fall, bucks will begin working the trunks of the tag alder. Not yet.
And strangely I haven't scared up any mourning doves along the creek. It's an area that often harbors many doves. I'm not sure what's caused them to take a pass.
Only a few water striders remain active in the creek. The frogs have disappeared. So have most of the mosquitoes.
In anticipation of freezing temperatures this weekend, I rolled up the garden hoses. I took off the nozzles and detached them from the house in case the freeze arrives. It can't be far off.
Thursday, October 8, 2009
It was one of those days where I wasn't home enough to explore the yard. And, for the few minutes I was home and there was light for photography, it rained. So I searched quickly from the back deck of my house. It's clear more leaves are changing color, if slowly.
Throughout the woods, there are more yellows and reds amidst the greens. Birds are active nearby. Jays are often heard. Crows aren't unusual.
The hummingbirds have left. None have been seen in more than a week. The yellow jackets have thinned out to next to nothing, too, with the cold descending.
When it's not windy, it's mostly quiet. Though last night around midnight I stepped out for a look at the night sky. Cassiopeia was visible in the hole in the tree canopy. But what startled me was a flight of Canada geese noisily passing to the east. I couldn't see them. I could only hear their honking and grunting. They're the diesel trucks of migration, I guess. They travel large and loud but get where they need to go. In the farm fields throughout northern Michigan now one can find flights landing for feeding or rest.
By early morning, the light of the moon cast shadows in the yard before sunrise. It's a very white light that cuts the otherwise dark of the woods floor.
But tonight the cloud cover suffocates sound and light. It's quiet and black. And wet.
What will tomorrow bring?
Wind in the night
Wednesday, October 7, 2009
A listening point can sometimes be a subtle, silent spot where one hears the wild in the silence. Or, like last night, it can be a raucous, roaring event or place as subtle as a freight train.
The freight train passed through overnight in the form of winds gusting up to 56 mph at the lakeshore, though probably less here inland. Frequent gusts above 40 mph were recorded at Mason County Airport, which is farther inland than our place, so that's possibly a good measure of what roared through the evening.
It was a sound that couldn't be missed. Inside it sounded like a downpour of hard rain, only it was just the wind in the trees. Outside it was an impressive sound that contained the whooshing of leaves and the clatter of acorns falling at a 60 angle propelled sideways by the wind on their quick trip to earth. I had to wonder what a deer did to avoid being peppered by the acorns screaming by.
We avoided any damage. A few small branches came down. Lots more leaves fell. Will there be any left to turn fall colors before they're blown off?
This morning I searched for a scene to show the wind. The lighting was too dim to do what I wanted. But when I looked to the west I noted the clouds being pushed south by the still strong wind and, between breaks, the soon-to-be-setting moon peeked through. In the foreground, trees branches swayed. It made for a scene suggesting wind.
As the sun poked through color took over the senses. Bright, bold, bodacious. We're still a long way from peak color, but the world is no longer ruled by greens. Yellows, browns, shades of gold and amber and vivid reds are increasingly brightening the landscape. It's time to drink deep of the colors before the grayness of late fall and early winter arrive.
Then, wind in the night, seems a daily occurrence.
Tuesday, October 6, 2009
The rain moved in again just about midnight. I spent the past couple days in the U.P. driving home under a full moon that I thought I could shoot upon arriving home and post for Monday's photo.
Well, I arrived home with time enough to make the photo, but clouds moved in once I hit the Manistee-Mason county line. By the time I got home, the full moon was gone and in its place was a gray sky of unbroken cloud that, about midnight, started raining.
This morning, I searched the swamp along the creek. It's saturated with water. Each step is squishy one, sometimes with the mucky earth sucking at my boots trying to pull them off my feet.
It's a wet world also saturated with color. Greens are very green. Browns are rich and resonant. Reds are vibrant. Yellows are bright. And the darkness in the shaded areas is obsidian in its blackness.
In another era, I might have said it was a Kodakchrome day. Kodak's slide film was noted for how it popped reds richly on such days.
Alas, Kodakchrome is history. Instead, I work the controls on my digital camera trying to accurately record this saturated world of moisture and color that I'm squishing through.
It's quiet in the swamp. A few blue jays can be heard calling. The drip of water falling is often heard. The sway of the tree branches above adds some sound, that accents the quiet.
I spend almost an hour in this little swamp today. It's a great place on the border between ours and our neighbor's property. A quiet area where one can reconnect with an older process of earth. It's what Sigurd Olson would have called a listening point -- though one not sheltered from the non-wild world nearby. Still it's a place where one can steep oneself like a teabag in the quiet of the swamp until one feels that quiet within, saturated in moisture, saturated in colors, and saturated in
Saturday, October 3, 2009
It was one of those mornings after a rain when you go out and hear what sounds like a light rain falling, only different, slower, a bit sporadic. It's not really rain, but the after-effect of Friday night's showers. It's a hangover rain ... releasing water captured the night before or produced as dew point was reached.
In the stillness just after dawn the moisture coalescing on the leaves of the woods canopy forms little droplets of water on leaves. As each droplet enlarges it reaches a point where gravity overcomes its surface tension and the droplet starts to roll or drop down towards the earth below. Sometimes the drip makes it all the way to the wood's floor. Other times, it lands on clump of leaves or a large leaf angled differently where it joins other droplets until ... gravity wins.
I have a simple view that gravity eventually always wins. And so does water. Combined this process carved the Grand Canyon. Last year the two joined forces to wipe out the culvert in the backyard and do millions of dollars in damage to other nearby roads.
Today's exercise in gravity and water had no violence. Just a metronomic dripping sound that could lull one back to sleep. Everything glistens in the woods despite there being little light early.
Birds and a hawk are above me. I hear the call of the hawk hunting, close. But the canopy hides him. I hear the raucous cry of blue jays. The calls of chickadees. Other birds I can't quite identify by broken bits of early morning calls chirp in.
Strangely, none are to be seen except for brief bursts of rocketing wings and feathers moving through the trees.
It's a muted world, seductive in its richness and depth of colors, in its moisture, and in its quietness. Kind of like the eyes of a lover. And on this morning, aside from a few cars screaming by on the road above, and the reports of guns firing by duck hunters on nearby Hamlin Lake marshes, I have it to myself.
Not bad, for a walk in the backyard, eh?
Friday, October 2, 2009
I worked late this evening. By the time I arrived home the afternoon sun had been replaced by chunky gray rain clouds threatening to let loose at any moment. The woods were darkening. A red maple provided a bit of color at the creek. But the last of the garden flowers provided the real brightness.
Mums are a fall plant, domestic, but hardy and a warm sight on cool, damp evening. Droplets of rain puddled on an iris leaf. The rain made the flowers glisten. A drip hung off the mum in the calm.
In the garden at the roadside hill, a lone bee worked on a flower of a sedum with determination. It was if it was frozen to the plant. It didn't move; it just stayed hunkered tight against the flower with its snout down. I made a half-dozen or more exposures, resetting the camera on the tripod and the focal length of the lens until I was working only a few inches from the bee. It never flinched. Had the cold slowed it down that much? Had it found a mother lode of nectar?
I'm not sure. But as I finished with the exposure I could hear a rain shower moving in. The rain was pelting the leaves in the woods to the west and its kind of wire brush on drums sound rapidly moved toward me. When the first drops hit, I ran to the house to avoid getting wet.
I didn't notice if the bee moved.
Thursday, October 1, 2009
October opened clear, calm and very cold. The thermometers here read 33 degrees on the front porch and 32 at the side door about 7:45 a.m. Then it got colder.
When I left for work there was no frost in the yard. Brenda looked out about 8 a.m. and thought her flowers had survived the night without getting frosted. Their leaves were green and clear of frost. A few minutes later she turned back and the leaves of her salvia plant on the deck were glistening with a brand-new coat of frost.
By the time I returned home this afternoon, those once-frosted leaves had shriveled and partially blackened. The damage was done. Its red flowers seemed mostly to escape damage -- perhaps the plant matter in the salvia flower is better insulated because it is thicker and comparatively tightly packed and dense compared to leaves. And not all the leaves died. There's a rambling line along the flowers of how far the frost descended. Above the line, the leaves are dead; below the line, they're alive. Along the line, they're mixed.
I found curious masses on chokeberry in the upper yard. I've not seen these particular ones before. They're colored dark like the bark. Several were scattered about the bush. Are they egg masses? Seems possible. Tonight as I searched for information a hunch was confirmed: they are the egg mass of the Eastern tent caterpillar. We had scads of them this year -- the worst we've seen in our 8 years here. Might have to eliminate these.
I walked the road looking for signs of monarch butterfly or their caterpillars. The fresh batch of milkweed is succulent green, dripping milk in one case from a wound. There's nary a sign of a butterfly. The crop this fall here was miniscule, despite plenty of milkweed to feed upon.
The wolf spider burrow is polished and round from use. I got a good look at the spider the other day before it dashed back into the hole. There are no sign of the copious young I had watched for days. I assume they've fled the nest to find a home of their own.
The acorns are so thick one could be excused for trying to roll a house across the yard on them. I started clearing the yard of sticks from the wind storm. There are hundreds down. The big sticks I place in the wood piles for kindling this winter when kindling can be hard to find if we get snow like last year. The others I rake to the edge of the woods and scatter just into the woods. It's a job that will take some time to complete.
I started to lightly rake the sticks. The leaves and acorns came along for the ride. I'm sure I could fill a five-gallon pail with acorns or more without much trouble.
The creek still worries me. It's mostly the same today. A few more leaves piled up in windrows in the current. But it lacks the charisma it's always had. Man's "improvement" didn't help it any.
Wednesday, September 30, 2009
Frost is in the forecast for tonight. The air is brisk, getting calm. A bright more than half-full moon casts a cool night light over Ludington.
This afternoon, when looking for a photo, the light, the clarity, the crispness all caught the eye. After days of mostly gray, the cool, clear light is welcomed.
The oak skeletonizer worms continue to fall from the trees. Somehow they survived the near-gale winds of recent days. On the ground, in the grass the little cocoons they make spot the blades in a way I've not seen other worm infestations do before. These little rice-sized cocoons are everywhere.
But the cool light calls and I turn my attention up. The sun pierces the canopy of the trees. I know it's been thinned by the wind, but looking up it's not that apparent. I see a leaf that, unlike the ones chewed on by the skeletonizer worms, appears tied. Is it the oak leaf tier, which looks much like the skeletonizer but instead sews both sides of a leaf together with its silk to create a home?
Elsewhere rays of sun x-ray leaves. One oak leaf's underside shows a mass -- eggs or a cocooon -- that looks like the legs of a spider and its dismembered body are stuck to itsoutside. The light makes the leaf glow. Other leaves caught by rays glow in greens, yellows, browns and gold in the cool light of the last day of September in Ludington, Michigan.
What the wind left behind
Tuesday, September 28
Just my luck. I leave for a few days and Mother Nature puts on a notable show, this time bringing in winds that were sustained above 30 mph with gusts as high as 55 mph on the shoreline. Lake Michigan waves pounded the shoreline. Here, a mile or so inland, what is left behind is a yard trashed by fallen leaves, twigs and branches. The little green oak skeletonizer worms -- that's what they've been identified as -- hit the ground in mass and one can see their little cocoons all over blades of grass. They must have been hurrying to attach to something.
The yard is a mess. That leaves fall in autumn isn't new. But these are mostly still-green leaves. The color change in Michigan is mixed up. The UP should have been near peak this past week, but they aren't. The winds here thinned the leaves mightily before many could change. There's still a chance for a good color show, but the ground is already mostly covered with leaves, green leaves.
As for the twigs and branches, I'll be picking them up for days. Acorns also came down and one can hardly take a step without scrunching one underfoot.
Meanwhile the creek is suffering from a look of sameness. It has me worried that the culvert project has zapped it of personality, of changes that reflected precipitation. Has it been improved? My answer would probably differ than that of the road engineers. We'll see in the coming months.
On the road
Monday, September 27.
Arrived home from three days at the cottage in the U.P. Windy, wet and dark drive. No time for photos tonight. Above is a U.P. scene at our cottage from the weekend.
A soft morning
Saturday, September 26
The Irish have an expression for a misty day with light drizzle or passing light showers. They call such days "soft" days.
And it is appropriate. Greenery is velvety. Colors are warm. A bit of mist softens the hard edges.
Such is this morning so far after a night of light rain.
Every thing is shiny with moisture, but not really dripping.
And I learned another lesson, or relearned more accurately, today.
You can't really rush photo taking of this sort.
I put a couple eggs on to boil as I sought a picture. The sun was low but up, peeking through the woods. I thought, with moisture on everything, a picture would be a snap, so to speak.
Nothing is as it seems, sometimes.
First, the light was so low, it wasn't really brightening the scenes and it wasn't strong enough to add drama. In other words, it was a tease of the worst kind for a photographer.
Then birds using the top of a dead birch across the road caught my eye. A jay sat atop the tree for the longest time. I was set up for macro shooting. I changed lenses, changed tripod positions, changed exposures, worked on composition and was ready to make the picture. At that point a loud car came by and the bird took flight as I shot the first and only exposure.
A similar story repeated itself with an orb spider in a web watching for weeks, without having shot one exposure of the spider or its web. I tried this morning and as I finally got everything just right, the spider fled leaving me as empty as its web.
And so it went. The more I hurried, the more I fell behind.
As for the eggs .... all the water boiled out of the pan before I returned and the very hard boiled eggs had two burn spots on their shells.
Rushing towards a change
Friday, September 25, 2009
Another nice day, but by nightfall clouds and drizzle moved in. This front is supposed to stick through until Sunday when a cold front is predicted to bowl in with gale force winds. If that happens, much of what is in the yard for these past few mellow weeks of late summer will change in a hurry.
For instance, the oak worms have left a post-New Year's Eve party mess of hanging silken threads. There everywhere. At least one creature liked their hatch. Spider webs are dotted with the worms, and in some cases you can see where the spider dealt with its guests.
But all the webs, even the large ones of the orb spider, likely will be swept away if the winds this weekend reach predicted levels of 40 or 50 mph.
It could be the signal for a new phase in the woods and yard; the web phase is waning. Wind here, so close to Lake Michigan, can seem a constant companion, especially in fall and winter. Is the season change about to begin in a big way? Check back and find out.
Just dropping in
Thursday, September 24, 2009
Sooner or later in most summers, we have a day or two when our yard gets invaded by little green worms rappelling down from the canopy above on the smallest of silken threads. They float down. Even on what seems a calm day, the motion of air moves them laterally. They sometimes attach to another thread left hanging by a predecessor. So these little green worms are not completely at the mercy of gravity.
Today was one of those days. I've seen a few of the worms in recent weeks -- and their droppings for many weeks. And, for weeks, random leaves would fall, some partially consumed. Looking back, most every time I've been in the yard recently a few worms have been floating about.
Today was different. They were everywhere. In early afternoon, when I came home to change into jeans for a farm tour this evening, the worms were so thick there was no missing them as one walked through the yard. They were latching onto my tripod, my camera, my lens. Probably me, too.
The worst we've seen them, as luck would have it, was 2000 when my eldest daughter, Michelle, graduated from high school and we were hosting an open house in what was then our new backyard. About an hour before the open house, the sky rained worms. They're threads were everywhere. Little nephews had fun taking broom sticks and cutting them out of the air. My daughter, if I recall, wasn't thrilled. But the guests ignored the worms, for the most part. Today was nowhere near as thick, but there was no not seeing them.
They proved difficult to photograph. They can shoot down very quickly by releasing thread. Their swaying moves them in and out of the focus area of the lens faster than you can focus. But eventually, I made some OK photos. Now just picture walking through a yard full of them, mainly noticing them when you feel a thread on your face.
You have to love the outdoors.
By the way, I couldn’t positively identify them, though they might be oak leafrollers. If you have tree worms to identify try the Web sites http://ornamentaldiagnostics.blogspot.com/ or http://www.treehelp.com/trees/oak/species-oak-iandd.asp
Michigan State University Extension also had some interesting information about oak tree pests and diseases. One bulletin can be found at http://agnic.msu.edu/hgpubs/modus/morefile/hg224_78.pdf
Wednesday, September 23, 2009
Worked later than I wanted. By the time I got home what had been really cool lighting was fading fast. It had accompanied a cold front that replaced the low pressure system that earlier had brought rain, humidity and gray skies. The light was piercing, but I feared I had missed it. Mostly I had.
But that just made me look more closely. It was the glow of a ripe red autumn olive berry that first caught my eye. It wasn't just glowing, the light poured through the berry lighting it up like a Christmas bulb.
I worked over the autumn olive, which will serve as food for birds and deer, satisfied I'd nailed at least one decent photo. I saw the treetops awash in light down at the creek. The culvert replacement project removed dozens of trees to the west of where the trees were in light. They might not have been previously.
But I know I didn't want a simple reflection or just a branch of brilliantly colored leaves. There's time enough ahead for those. On the creek one tree was reflecting a myriad of colors. But how to make a photograph? That's when I saw the tell-tale concentric circles of water striders nearby. I made many exposures trying to strike a balance between crispness, good color, stopping motion and capturing the sense of motion. Time was of the essence. I chose the 200 mm f2.8 lens knowing it would allow me to stay back from the water striders and was fast enough to work in the failing light.
Through the lens the small area I was shooting in was awash in colors -- reds, oranges, yellows, greens, blues and black. The water strider sent ripples careening this and that way.
After about 15 minutes, I pulled up stakes, believing I had captured a magic moment in a little humble creek that most people wouldn't look at twice. That's their loss.
Tuesday, September 22, 2009
Rain, fog, muggy and warm. Not your typical first day of autumn in central west Michigan, the doorway to the north. But there it is. It's rained off and on, including some heavy showers. Humidity must be near 100 percent. Not a cool, crisp and clear start to autumn.
Mostly the vegetation still says its summer. There are plenty of freshly growing milkweed, grasses and other stuff, not to be too technical, growing along the edge of the road. A variety of asters and goldenrod are freshly blooming there.
As I searched for something different I came upon a viny, grapy looking plant mixed in with maples growing below the road edge where the road is built up higher than our yard. I haven't paid much attention to this plant and it's too late tonight to research it or the little green bug and its siblings that obviously find it the food source of choice. The green bug with large antennae, a brown stripe on its body of less than a half-inch looks like something out of a 1960s black light poster. Its tiny red eyes are particularly cool. Several of them were scattered about on different leaves of the vine. Once I got too close with the macro lens, they in their own deliberate way scampered to the underside of the leaves they were on to get out of sight. This, too, will take research that tonight it's too late to do.
Being autumn, I had to find a leaf changing colors to represent the change of the season. The real transformation is probably 10 to 15 days away. Until then shades of green still dominate.
Fog rolled in this afternoon. There will likely be more foggy days in the weeks ahead before the cold winter air dries out the atmosphere. It was difficult to photograph today because its relative thickness changed rather quickly. Tonight it's settled in much more thickly.
Finally, the spiders are eating better and growing. The garden spiders can be found all over. This one I include tonight was working on its latest meal. It didn't offer to share.
So, summer is really over. I like each season in its own time, so I won't complain. I'll look forward to the color show about to begin -- and sneak out in my kayak every chance I can get before I pull out the x-country skies. Some years I've skied here by Nov. 15. That's only about six weeks away. Wow.
Monday, September 21
Tuesday marks the first day of summer. Today, after a long stretch of sunny, mild weather -- the best we've had all summer -- it was dreary, drippy and gray.
But the plants welcomed the overnight rain. Their colors, bright these past weeks, were rich and resonant with a sheen of moisture. The moss was rich, Irish green. The reds of Brenda's impatiens on the porch glowed in the gloom. Everywhere one looked at noon, where there was moisture, light was pooling in its droplets.
For some reason the creatures are not visiting the yard during daylight. The deer leave their sigh -- tracks right through the garden by the drive on the hill. One track just inches from the wolf spider burrow.
The birds emptied the feeder while I was gone last week. I can hear the chickadees in the trees at the edge of the woods all but chiding me on not refilling the feeders yet. The empty plastic suet container in the lower yard is proof either the squirrels or the crows found there was again feed. Both like to work the suet container out of its holder and spirit the feed within it away.
With no animals, I was captured by the glow of the glistening plants. There won't be many more days of a yard dominated by greens with the red flowers sticking out. Soon the maples will be a mass of yellow and reds. The birch will turn yellow. The stubborn oak will dry and brown but some will hang on all winter. The green grass and moss will disappear under a blizzard of blowing leaves, little pieces of color floating, tumbling and finally rotting on the ground.
So I shot the greens and the reds and the purple little aster. Primary colors won't be around much longer. Drink deep for the muted days of late fall and winter are not far away. Today was the last full day of summer. In Michigan, saying that means something.
Sunday, September 20, 2009
This evening clouds moved in en masse. Is rain ahead? The air is warmish, still. Feels like it could rain. It's been awhile. The clouds moved in just before sunset. I had just arrived home after spending the week at a friends cottage nearby on Upper Hamlin Lake. I've been running home once a day to make photos for this project. Tonight I thought I'd have 20 to 30 minutes of good light to work with. Ha! I had to work fast. The first stop at some dinky flowers mixed in with what I fear was poison ivy didn't pan out. I found some fresh shelf mushrooms on a fallen tag alder in the swamp next to the creek. It was OK. Then I saw the scene that always seems like a bonus: A fat, ruffled feather that has seen better days hanging upside down caught on a thread of a plant. The feather slowly twisted in the wind. I can't tell you what kind of bird it came from, but it's definitely a bird larger than a song bird. It doesn't look like a seagull feather. I've seen thousands of those. This seems to short and squat. Owls sometimes fly low through the creek bottom. Or maybe its just a feather that fell from geese or swan or a hawk passing over. I can't tell you tonight.
But it was cool. Brenda said it looked like a natural windcatcher that Native Americans make. There is a resemblance. On this day a few miles away over the upper lake we watched a pair of eagles soaring in the wind high above the lake. For awhile an osprey seemed to join them, but in truth it probably was just an intersection of separate flight paths because after the moment when all three were sharing air space, the bald eagles moved off to the south shore and the osprey to the north shore.
The creek we live on feeds the lower lake and is part of the same Sable River/Hamlin Lake watershed. Eagles and osprey come up the middle bayou from time to time. I've followed eagles, part way the creek toward our property. All types of waterfowl will at times fly over, but few land in the creek. We're not far as the crow flies from the lake -- less than a quarter mile, but sometimes it seems we're a hundred miles away when it comes to the differences in what happens on the lakeshore and here, not that far away.
Saturday, September 19
I spent the morning fishing for panfish on Upper Hamlin Lake. Brought home a dozen for dinner, filleted them and headed home to the yard for today's photos. I was putting my little fishing boat back by the shed, I moved an old railroad tie to use as a lift to keep the tongue of the trailer off the ground. When I moved it a small, shiny thing wiggled and gyrated -- a salamander. I've thought about looking for one in recent weeks, but as is often the case, they show up when you're not thinking about it.
This little creature was sharing its small space with a nightcrawler that didn't move when flipped the wood over. I covered it back up and grabbed the camera. I rightly guessed I'd have no time to pick an exposure, compose and do all the niceties I like to do when photographing. So I set the Nikon N-90 on auto, knowing it would flash, knowing there'd be a usable exposure, and put it on autofocus so the camera could do the work quickly. With the railroad tie tipped over again the salamander wasted no time in skedaddling -- 23 skidoo it was gone into leaf litter.
The web site Michigan Herps, michiganherps.webs.com/michiganssalamanders.htm, helped me identify my guest as a redback salamander, Plethodon cinereus, the most common in Michigan and denizen of the woods. It likes leaf litter. Well, we've got a Paradise for it since there's leaf litter a plenty in these woods.
Here's how the site says to identify the red-backed salamander: A very thin salamander which is often dark brown or gray in color with a lighter colored stripe down its back. This strip may either be red or orange in color, or it could be a gray or lead coloration. The belly is covered in white and blacks specks, often called a "salt and pepper" coloration. A medium sized species, adult size is 2-5 inches.
Down at the creek I was taken how swamp oil -- the result of decomposition -- filled the tracks left by a small deer in the muck. Only one track had a clear deer hoof shape, but the sheen didn't show well. I'll keep working on this. Deer are numerous and the swamp kicks out the oil all the time.
Finally, sometimes looking down one encounters a scene all would say is at least pretty. Thus the image of the lone tree reflecting in the water with a red maple leaf floating by.
Friday, September 18, 2009
It's another fine day, breezy, warm with the thermometer in the sun reading plus-80. I walked the roadside today to see what I could find. Before the culvert construction project we had fine stands of red sumac that should be blazing soon. Alas, all are gone for now. In the areas seeded in grass by the road commission, the grasses are growing but so too are the natural survivors, ferns and milkweed are popping up, late in the season, but welcome anyway. It shouldn't turn out to be a sterile grassed shoulder. Maybe the sumac will return.
I shot some wild asters and a dead blue jay, probably a casualty of a collision with a vehicle. It's resting right above the shoulder in what is a wildlife highway along the creek. Deer signs abound.
Back on the top of the rise at the west side of the yard overlooking the road, the meadowhawks are in flight. There are at least three, maybe more, two red males and a brownish female that is, I believe, the same one I've been shooting for several weeks. She lands on the same places I've photographed her before, but is a bit more skittish today. The red males, which until now, have been elusive, are about and are at times flying by her perches, or even using them themselves. But they won't tolerate me trying to get close for a photo today. They take flight whenever I try to set up the camera.
The female's body is changing. What was once a translucent exoskeleton now has small hairs. She's getting a bit of wilder hair look.
The meadowhawks rest on twigs and on branches of nearby beech try, sometimes going for rides on the branches in the wind.
I hope they hang around. I can usually spot them on a sunny afternoon on the hill.
Meanwhile, the wolf spider burrow is still in use, but the spider is more skittish than ever. Perhaps its young are grown and now she's free to move more quickly. It seems I only catch a glimpse of hairy legs being withdrawn into the burrow with sides that are almost polished.
Thursday, September 17, 2009
My time in the yard today was extremely limited. The lighting was very cool this evening, but I was too rushed to photograph. I shot today about 1:30 p.m. between a lunch meeting and my return to work. It was a beat-the-clock moment that is contrary to how I like to work. Generally I wander the yard looking, searching, sometimes with a goal in mind, sometimes just looking for a combination of lighting, composition and an interesting subject.
The bees were out in force today so I figured shoot them while I can. The sedum in the front garden is blooming. Curiously, the bees really were all over the sedum that hadn’t quite bloomed. Sure, there were bees on the blooms of the broccoli-like plant, but there were several at a time over the just-about-to-bloom heads. Hmm.
As I was shooting this late bloomer, I noticed a curiously browning yellow flower. It struck me as a perfect example of the fading summer season. Next week fall officially arrives. Summer has wonderfully been hanging around with day-after-day being sunny and in the 70s with cool nights. But the flowers, like the spiders and the bees, are reacting to the changing season no matter what the weather.
This partially, yellow, partially brown flower is a perfect example of where we are at in summer: Close to the end.
The webbed world
Wednesday, September 16, 2009
A cold front moved in overnight dropping temperatures to a more seasonal low 70s. Fluffy clouds dot the blue sky in a manner that says fall, not summer.
Again, walking through the woods it's impossible not to encounter spiders. Their webs are everywhere, sometimes as many as five or six attached to a small sapling .
In the open areas they are mostly of two types: a garden spider and the tiny one I show in the photo today. It's webs are very fine and flap in the wind like untrimmed sails. It must be quite a ride for the little spider resting in the center.
High noon isn't the best time to photograph such natural stuff, but alas for the rest of the week that's what's available. Still, the lighting proved interesting in what it brings out in the webs. One must walk around the web to find at which angle it best catches the light. Light is the source of energy for plants, one base of life. And its the source of energy for photos and imagination. The delicate strands capture the light and refracts it, sometimes with a hint of color. Dewy webs, of course, make the prettiest web photos, but this high-noon, dry webs show a different aspect -- less jewel-like and more like a piece of reflective thread.
On the way into the house I noticed just how difficult it was to avoid the webs: A spider was riding along hanging from a thread attached to my tripod. I set him free. Spiders outside are fine; no need to bring them indoors.
Of baneberry and my bad luck
Tuesday, September 15,2009
I was stumped. Yet another beautiful day. Same stuff happening in the yard as has happened for the past week. I'm shooting at high noon, my least favorite time, but all my schedule allows for this week. There are splotches of brightness that attract me, but either I've photographed them once, or I couldn't see a composition in my mind.
I walked to the creek. Pretty, but nothing grabbed me. I walked by the compost pile and realized the small area behind there I haven't studied yet.
A few steps further toward the road, which is built up 8 feet or so above the yard level at this spot, and voila!
There in front of me was a stalk of striking white berries on red stem gleaming in the low, shaded light. I've seen them before, but couldn't remember their name. There were three bunches or heads with the bright white berry with a dark splotch at its center.
I went to move a broken stick from in front of the fullest, most photogenic one. Swoosh! The stick broke and, as my luck would have it, the end swung around and smashed the full head of berries shaking them to the ground.
Plan B. Shoot the lesser heads.
And so I present today the white baneberry, Actaea pachypoda, a member of the buttercup family.
There's also a red baneberry, both are native plants. Both are about one-to two-feet tall.
They're considered poisonous. The white baneberry, with its black dot on the fruit, also has the common name of "doll eyes" because they resemble eyes in a doll.
As I double-checked my guide book against resources on the Internet, I came across a resource plant fans might like. The Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center has a collection of 23,917 plant images. You can search and explore plants.
It also has information about land restoration, fire ecology and carbon footprints as well as details about the center located at the University of Texas at Austin. It's Web site is http://www.wildflower.org
Bright and beautiful
Monday, September 14, 2009
Fog enshrouds the harbor of Ludington this morning. Warm air over cooler water of Lake Michigan caused the cloud of fog to form and roll over the town, a cool, damp enveloping grayness that muted colors and warmth.
Here, a few miles away from the lake, we continue to enjoy sunny and warm weather. Domestic flowers have jumped to life finally feeling warmth.
In the woods the hawthorn berries have ripened and hardened. The hawthorn's leaves remain a rich green. The ferns on the woods floor are increasingly turning yellow as the chlorophyll powered process of life that gives the plants its greenness gives way to approaching autumn. Many leaves are tinged in yellows and browns or the coming season, a reminder that the warmth we are experiencing probably won't last a whole lot longer.
But today the petunias in a flower bed are a brilliant red and white, gleaming in the sunshine. Celebrate the brightness, for the dark months are but weeks away.
Webs in the woods
Sunday, September 13, 2009
Again the chance to photograph in the morning light diverted me from fishing plans. Light streams in through the woods and is hard to ignore, especially since most mornings I'm at work and cannot enjoy and engage with it.
If recent weeks were the mushroom weeks of September and perhaps the yellowjacket weeks, this is spider weeks. A walk through the woods in this early morning light shows webs everywhere. They hang from leaves overhead, they cling to ferns at knee-height, they stretch from branch to branch from the ground all the way as far as one can see into the canopy.
Mostly they're tiny little spiders that we'd not notice except for their webs. Some of the webs are patterned and pretty. Others are just a mish-mash of gossamer, a maze to trap a meal.
The fleeting light filtering through the woods and ferns highlights different webs briefly. Then the light moves on, but always in the woods if one looks in the morning, there's a web near at hand.
A friend, Ed Dennison, said he and his wife Alice for a year when they moved into the woods a few miles away had a contract with the spiders around their house. They catch bugs, Ed and Alice would leave them alone. Well, Ed said, it turns out they weren't all that efficient at catching bugs and they left a mess. Ed and Alice now have the perimeter of their house sprayed to prevent spiders from leaving their mess of old webs and droppings.
A look around the woods at these nests proves how inefficient spider webs are. Most are empty. Many won't make it through the day and will have to be rebuilt partially or completely.
But they are everywhere, unseen but felt as one walks through them.
The light also makes the moss that passes as our "grass" glow an emerald green that is pleasing. I knelt to photograph some green acorns resting on it. If only church kneelers had been so soft and comfortable.
Down at the creek, tracks of deer and raccoon give away that these neighbors had passed through overnight. A creature scampers away from the edge of the creek in one of my neighbors yards, but it's so fleeting: Was it a mink? Or just a black squirrel? Probably the latter, though the former is possible as they are in the area. Otters have at times made a home at the creek's mouth into the middle bayou of Hamlin Lake. But I've not seen sign of them this far upstream.
I photograph some leaves resting in a reflective pool of verdant green. Over the year I will continue to shoot many quiet scenes of the creek though we are coming upon its most colorful season. Even now one can see splotches of red, yellow, white and green mixing with the sandy and black sedimented colors of the creek's bottom. It's a humble creek, but it will be boisterous in beauty for the next few weeks.
Saturday, September 12, 2009
I was planning on heading out early to fish for perch of the Ludington North Breakwater in Lake Michigan. It was my first chance to do so since they came in a week or so ago. But I looked to the east in the woods and saw some nice light rays slanting through highlighting branches and ferns.
In setting off with my camera into the woods instead of my fishing rod to the lake I had high hopes of capturing a different image.
One today just shows what the woods looked like. In and of itself the image is nothing special, but it hints at the promise of light interplaying with the ground, flora and fauna for something intriguing.
Photography has elements of light, color, composition, emotion and sometimes surprise.
The other reality of photographing in this woods, in this yard at its edge, is the fickle nature of light.
Often, because of the thick canopy of leaves, a scene's lighting lasts less than a moment. The more macro as in lens one approaches a scene -- more closely in a narrowly defined area -- the light changes can be fast and fleeting.
I never realized that before this project. I knew it, but I didn't truly understand -- grok it for any Robert Heinlein “Stranger in a Strange Land” fans out there -- until I tried to photograph these small miracles of the merging of light, composition and living flora, fauna or earth.
So often, by the time I get the tripod place right, the lens and camera in position, compose the frame and determine the proper exposure for what I'm seeing (which can be different than what the camera sees), the light changes before I can fire off a shot much less one that captures what I see and that I like.
And sometimes, the world through the lens of the camera is a different world than one notices with the bare eye.
And that is the point of the somewhat abstract photo of a spider's web caught in the glare of a ray of light this morning. The entire web didn't capture rim light, just certain vertical strands around the web. Because I was so close, other light sources kind of turned into formless blobs. A good photo or one I should have deleted? There could be differing opinions, but I liked that in this case the tool I was using, the camera captures a scene in a way that I never would have noticed if I wasn't using it.
Filing the feeder
Sept. 11, 2009
Another summery day. This could be the nicest stretch of weather all year. Warm, but not hot or muggy, sunny and with light breeze.
Flowers are reaching for the sky. Bees and flies are feasting on the flowers. There's moisture enough in the ground mushrooms continue to fruit.
I partially filled two birdfeeders Wednesday morning. By Thursday birds were returning to the yard.
Today, there's a steady procession of chickadees and nuthatches. A woodpecker stopped at the suet
And this morning our resident pair of cardinals were back.
Considering how quickly they birds found the food, I think they have regularly checked the empty feeders all summer just waiting for the buffet to resume.
It's enjoyable to see them flitting about, hear their chattering and chirping. I know that feeding the birds benefits me more than them. They're healthy, so they didn't need the black oil sunflower seed , cracked corn and suet in the feeders.
But they sure like it. Having a feeder makes it far easier to see and interact with the birds.
The show is under way. I'm glad to have them back.
Hey, is that me?
September 10, 2009
We're getting spoiled in west Michigan this week. Another gorgeous, warm, sunny day with light breezes that stop by evening. For the third straight night I was able to head to nearby Lake Michigan for salmon fishing, the past two nights in my kayak off the mouth of the Big Sable River at Ludington State Park. Very pleasant, but for the third straight night I lost the salmon I hooked into. Sometimes no luck is the only luck one has, though arguably in each case my lack of proper preparation caused the fish to be lost.
The salmon are large this year and there's a connection to my backyard in this. A retired DNR fisheries biologist last year following the storm that wiped out the culvert crossing in our backyard, predicted that all the sediment from that and other storms along Lake Michigan could promote a spike in forage fish, which in turn could mean bigger Lake Michigan salmon. A probable world record brown trout -- 41 pounds, 7 1/4 ounces -- was caught Wednesday in nearby Manistee in the Manistee River, one river north of the Big Sable. Nature has a way of reacting to unusual events and the storms and influx of sediments washed from the adjoining watersheds, as terrible as it was, now is helping produce a fine fall fishery.
Of course, in the yard the effects are less pronounced. The swamp has been boggy since the storm, and now with the return of warm weather has brought yet another unwelcome hatch of mosquitoes. Not hordes of them, mind you, but shooting photos for this little project has meant I've been donating blood to the hungry pests.
As I considered what to shoot today, I looked at the salvia Brenda planted in a planter under the hummingbird feeders. The hummingbirds in recent weeks, attracted by the feeders and the rich red of the flowers, bounce between the feeders and the flowers feeding. I've not been successful at photographing them near the flowers. It's a challenge. But the evening sun lit up the salvia in a way that I couldn't ignore. It's a domestic annual, but it does attract hummingbirds and insects and a photographer's eye.
Off in the yard, the autumn olive is ripening. Once planted for windrows to control soil erosion, the plant is now overrunning much of the area. Increasing numbers of landowners are doing battle with the shrubby bush whose fragrance in spring is sometimes so thick it's impossible to not notice even driving south out of Ludington on the freeway. Yet the fruit feeds birds, which then spread the plant through the seeds in their droppings, and whitetail will sometimes feed upon the plant, too. There's enough of it all the deer should be overweight and sated. They're not, though.
As I shot around a garden area, a caterpillar I've been watching for a few days once again was moping about the closed flower of a Queen Ann's Lace. It made for a surrealistic photo akin to some atomic element or celestial body.
I'm increasingly surprised by how many insects actually stay pretty much in place. A point in case is the dragonfly I photographed a couple weeks ago. On most sunny days, I can encounter it up on the hill overlooking the road. Now, it could be a different one, but I don't think so. It lands on the same set of twigs and allows me to approach it every time. It seems curious about my macro camera lens. This evening, it cocked its head this way and that looking directly into the lens which was maybe 2 inches or less from it. I wonder if it, being in good light, is seeing a reflection of itself in the lens which is shaded and thus would serve as a mirror. I can't prove it, but I really think that is what is happening. Sometimes it opens and shuts its mouth. Sometimes it flies away for a few seconds, but then lands again on the twig. Sometimes I have to refocus, on occasion I didn't.
Brenda wants to name him -- if it's a him. I'm just getting totally engaged in the beauty of its cartoonish face.
And while I want to find new and different things every day to share here, it's clear that while life changes every day, it sometimes is a slow change. In a month I doubt if my little flying friend will be around to see.
So I'll enjoy his curiosity now. You have to take what is offered.
Another beautiful day and evening. I headed into the upper yard to see what I could find. Again, I tried photographing leaves in highlight against a variety of backgrounds, liking several compositions. And I kept a close look on the trees and the undergrowth for something new, or unusual.
I found a hawthorn bearing leaves, imperfect due to blotches and tooth-like structures rising pyramid-like from their surface. I would presume they are shelter of some sort for a small bug larvae or egg.
The woods were pretty, dappled with light, but perfect leaves are difficult to find. All, at close look had some imperfection.
As I walked from east to west, i stumbled on the web of a spider. The spider was in its center working on a small victim. At first it was in the shadows, but for a moment the sun dropped in the sky to a position that bathed the spider in light.
It's a cross orbweaver spider, Araneus diadematrus, a garden spider. It was intent on its victim and let me get quite close to it. At one point I thought it was looking at me through the lens -- it was the eye of the victim, it turns out, staring in toward the lens.
I generally leave spiders alone in the wild. They prey on other insects, and we have plenty of them to share.
Eventually the spider scurried off, leaving the hapless and dead victim in the middle of its nest.
Little dramas play out in the world all around us every day -- do you take the time to notice?
Of leaf litter and robins
Back home after a few days in Michigan's Upper Peninsula where we have acquired an old cottage on Whitefish Bay of Lake Superior. I thought of adding thoughts and pictures I haven't used to fill in while gone, but for now I'll share a picture of a pair of eagles on Whitefish Bay a few miles from our cottage. It's a definitely more postcard setting than our house in the woods here, but they share certain similarities: sandy soil, ferns, oaks, maples, birch, cedar and pine.
Today when walking through the yard I noticed little had changed after three days away, only everything is drier and a subtle color shift is in the works. The dark greens of the leaves last week are brightening, turning a slightly more yellow-green in hue. A few small maples in the swamp are completely red in color. The ferns are increasingly turning shades of yellow and brown. Colored leaves are piling up in the creek. Where a week ago one would only see a leaf or two, now windrows of fallen, colored maple leaves are forming behind obstructions.
And the robins returned. They moved with stealth. There were 10 or more of them, I estimate. They worked their way through the lower yard, frequently flitting to the safety of the woods at the edge of the yard I or my cat moved too close. On average, a wild robin only has a two-year lifespan and only a quarter of a year's young survive the summer in which they were born, according to the University of Michigan, http://animaldiversity.ummz.umich.edu/site/accounts/information/Turdus_migratorius.html.
According to the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, http://wdfw.wa.gov/wlm/living/robins.htm, robins typically form small flocks in fall and winter. They have a funny Latin name, Turdus migratorius, and mostly eat insects, though switching to berries if insects become difficult to find. There are no shortage of bugs here, so I welcome their dining here. They prefer areas of open ground or short grass for foraging, with woodland or a few scattered trees and shrubs nearby for nesting and roosting.
Our yard should be perfect for them since leaf litter is a plus. We have leaf litter.
Males only sing during breeding season, though both male and females will sound alarm calls throughout the year.
This flock was quiet, not singing nor calling. The only sound was that of the wind in the trees as they moved through.
Robins are a thrush. Get smart, eh?
With the start of September, I'll post each new day at the start of the journal. I'm almost a month in my journey to make at least one photo a day in my yard of something that connects me with the natural world. The exercise is forcing me to look closely at the three-acres of woods I call home. Its causing me to learn its rhythm, listen to its lesson, look closely and be patient. There's a surprise every day, and I've already come to appreciate creatures that also call the land home: the wolf spider, the meadowhawk dragonfly that on sunny days seems to pose for me, and the other kind of hawk I hear hunting above the canopy -- but have yet to photograph.
So let the journey continue. Welcome to my yard.
By Steve Begnoche, Ludington, Michigan
September 4, 2009
The wild blackberries in the yard are ripening. Today the red ones glistened brightly in the high noon sunlight while the black ones were a study in contrast — deep dark color with bright light glinting off the individual “drupelets” that make up the raspberry.
I learned they’re an aggregate fruit because the drupelets --- what a funny and long name for the little round seed-bearing pods -- are assembled around a hollow core.
That they’re hollow anyone who has picked one knows, because they can collapse when pressed too firmly.
The wild blackberries in our yard are rather tart. Yet, to pick a fruit that just grows with no effort is sweet. Gotta love it.
Did you know they’re a member of the rose family? They’re supposedly high in antioxidants. A particular plant “cane” bears fruit only every other year.
Also, the lilies of valley are now bearing red berries. They look good, but all parts of the plant are poisonous. Just look. Don’t eat them.
Hopping to it
The fine weather continues. A week ago it seemed like we'd never see the sun again, and today one couldn't find a cloud if needed. Just a gorgeous day. The air is fresh, crisp, clear and mostly calm. It's warmed a bit into the low 70s and away from the threat of frost. Fantastic twilights that just hang the past two nights. As the twilight clings on the moon rose in the east, tonight full. It's hard not to look up.
Unless your searching your yard for a different photo for the day. Looking up brought views of more highlighted leaves. I could hear hawks and crows above the canopy, but I couldn't see them.
So I looked to the bushes and quickly noticed little spider webs everywhere. Spider webs always have an element of delicacy to them, but these ones in the woods today were the most delicate of delicate, tiny webs with microscopic threads, many of which didn't even catch the sun. Tiny spiders were in them. What bug is so small as to be caught in such a web and become the prey of such a pinhead of a spider?
Fruit flies? Maybe. Aphids? Don't know, but the size seemed more appropriate. I tried to photograph the webs, but every time I tried to position the camera just so I set off a chain reaction of motion domino-like that ended in the web tearing before I made an image.
As I scurried about looking for a topic, I noticed something hopping. It was a small toad and it's desire to maintain a distance from me meant we or cat-and-mouse hop scotching in a manner on the hill as I tried to get in shooting position and it tried to avoid me.
A moment later, after I had turned to get a different lens, something hopped nearer to me and with more brightness. Different creature, same game, but eventually this one came to rest where I could study it and photograph it.
I noticed a mask on its eyes, a golden eye that matched the golden hues in the late afternoon light. This was more froglike, with a shinier, smoother skin. Later I was to learn at the Michigan Department of Natural Resources frog and toad site, http://www.michigan.gov/dnr/0,1607,7-153-10370_12143_12194-35089--,00.html#Frogs and Toads, that this was a common wood frog, (Rana sylvatica), "A brown or tan frog with a dark band ('robber's mask') through the eye and a white stripe on the upper lip. Small to medium - 2 to 21/2 inches long," the site described it as matching what I had seen. It supposedly has a duck-like quack but this individual was mum.
I determined the toad is a Fowler's Toad. It most closely resembled that and the habitat was correct: woodlands with sandy soil. The hill is pure beach sand, undoubtedly an ancient sand dune. It hopped whereas the frog leaped, and that dear readers, is one way to distinguish frogs from toads. Frogs leap, toads hop. Both eat insects. And in this case their environment overlaps. The things you find when looking down, eh?
Taken by the light
September 2, 2009
Photography simply put is recording light. This evening, as I hunted around the yard for a photo I was drawn to the vividness of the light passing through the leaves of the beeches, elms and some of the shrubs on the hill overlooking the road. There seemed to be little insect life about. I haven't a clue why. But little was stirring other than ants, and they were very active but didn't appeal to me today as a subject. My guess is before the year is out I'll try to capture them in a photo, but not today.
The keen light of a September evening is hard to ignore and carries with it a hint of a suggestion to imbibe now, for the season or light prohibition isn't far away.
So I stumbled around looking at the underside of the canopy of leaves, seeking a composition I found appealing. Recording light is the essential role of photography, but it is through composition one tries to shape the story.
I enjoyed some beech leaves, though the sun was almost too bright and singed the eye with shots of almost pain. Finally it was a shrubby bush with maple-like leaves and bearing fruit that cast a shadow on the leaves that won me over. I'm having difficulty identifying the shrub. It's one that's escaped our notice until now. There are several of them growing amidst autumn olive and young trees and ferns in an area the power cooperative cleared more than seven years ago to try to keep branches off the service line running to our house. It's an area I mainly use in winter as a cross-country ski trail (mini-version). I've never paid it much mind, which is part of the purpose of this project: to make me really look at what's happening on the little chunk of land I call mind. I could call it shadowlife or lightbush, but I'm sure it has another name. I'll keep studying.
Meanwhile, nearby the salmon are entering Ludington harbor from Lake Michigan readying for their spawning run up the Pere Marquette River. I left the yard tonight to fish for the giant beauties off the breakwater wall. I didn't catch a thing -- except a beautiful sunset and twilight, a great moonrise and a big view, something my tree-cloistered yard doesn't offer.
Just another day ...
Another sunny, clear crisp day. Colors remain vibrant as the air is cool. We set another record low for this morning, officially just under 39 degrees at the measuring site, but here closer to the warmth of Lake Michigan, we probably didn't drop below 40.
But the high pressure keeps the air clean and clear. The trees look good. The moss looks good. The creek is running clear and its ripples reflect the bright light.
Again, yellowjackets are quite active. Several worked over the hood of my truck. Others visited the flower garden. And, when walking by them, one always seems to peel off to check out if the human has anything to offer. I try to ignore them and they mostly leave me alone if I keep moving.
On the hill, the dragonfly I've been photographing off and on this week, alights on a tree branch. I shoot several frames. I'm taking by an apparent color shift on its body. It's reddening like a ripening apple.
There's an all red dragonfly I've seen twice, but it definitely doesn't like to pose as my friend does.
In the eastern portion of the yard, I see a strange plant -- like Indian pipe, but different. From what I can tell it is a variety of pinesap, a member of the heath family, according to Harry C. Lund's Michigan Wildflowers. These red varieties are popping up throughout the oak woods, pushing through the remainder of last year's rotting leaves. I hadn't seen them recently. The rains of last week must have prompted their growth. Like Indian pipe, they derive their food from wood humus and are considered a saprophytic plant.
Down in the swamp, the ferns are still a deep green. The ones on the hill overlooking the road are yellowing and dying already. The swamp ferns still seem in their prime making the red maple leaf all the more striking. It's still oozy in many areas from the rain, but its drying. There are few mosquitoes. That's a plus.
The moon is near full.
Nature in a Ludington, Michigan yard
By Steve Begnoche
It is a sunny, warm August morning. I intended to either take my small boat out to fish for salmon in nearby Pere Marquette Lake or kayak and fish on Hamlin Lake a few blocks away.
I love the water.
But, as also is my wont on a Sunday morning, I slept in until about 8 a.m. missing the prime time for salmon fishing. I intended still to take out the kayak, but first I poured a cup of coffee and sat on the deck to drink it.
My wife Brenda and I own a small, 3-acre parcel in the woods of northern Mason County, Michigan, north of the lake port and tourist town of Ludington. It's a summer Mecca of recreation with miles of public Lake Michigan beaches, the top-notch, 5,000 acre Ludington State Park, the renowned and beautiful Pere Marquette River which empties into Lake Michigan through the harbor of Ludington, and its close to the Manistee National Forest with its Nordhouse Dunes Wilderness Area, many more thousands of acres of woods, meadows, and lake and river accesses. This is an area, simply rich in accessible natural resources. One cannot in a year's time really experience all there is to experience in the area.
On this Sunday morning, as I sat on the deck sipping coffee and looking out over our back yard, I got lazy.
I'm not sure whether it was the hummingbirds that started flitting around the feeder, or just the mellowness created by wind rustling the leaves of the oaks and maples that make our yard a park-like place. I chose to stay there and do a bit of cleanup. Fourteen months ago, about 11 inches of rain fell in one night in the Big Sable River watershed where we live. A little creek that is the north property line of our place, swelled into a river that destroyed several road crossings on it course to the Middle Bayou of Hamlin Lake. The local road commission is finishing reconstruction of a new culvert --I call it The Big Ugly. It's a poorly designed, overbuilt monstrosity that took the narrow, meandering coldwater creek in our backyard and harmfully widened and straightened it into a shallow, slow and straight ditch of a waterway near the road. What was once a two-or-three-foot wide gurgling creek, up to 18 inches deep, is now about 20 feet across and far shallower. The culvert, filled with ugly, out-of-place white limestone, serves as a low-head dam ponding the water behind it, making the creek upstream, slower and its bottom more covered with black sediments. I fear the change will subtly warm the water feeding Hamlin Lake -- a lake that doesn't need warmer water.
That it has changed the creek is borne out by a simple biological fact. The creek, which much to my surprise, in my backyard didn't have frogs in it before, now does. I presumed it was moving too fast for frogs to call it home. Almost as soon as the road commission blocked the creek for its construction project, frogs moved in. Slower water, a more pond-like environment, I presume. It will be interesting to see what other changes take place over time.
Time. There's a concept. Though I sometimes view myself as a young kid, the graying and thinning hair, the bulge that's appeared around my once skinny waist all attest to the fact time is progressing.
As I worked around the yard Sunday, I thought why not try to create a photo journal, accompanied by thoughts, gleaned from life in my yard? I've read several nature journals and know this is a well-mined genre. I thought of photographer Jim Brandenburg's year-long photo project of taking one image a day.
I'm not that good of a photographer, but I liked the idea of sharing an image a day from this yard that I find so captivating and rich in natural diversity.
So with that premise, and a thought to naturalist Sigurd Olson's concept of "listening points," places where one can reconnect with the natural world, I thought I'd share my yard as such a listening point.
In the coming year I will attempt to share a photograph a day from the yard, with some thoughts -- probably far shorter than this introduction.
I know some days I'll miss -- after all, sometimes I do go out of town. Other days there may be many images.
At any rate, let's give it a whirl. I hope you enjoy and maybe find a way in your own life to reconnect with the natural world we too often treat like the road commission did our little joy of a creek: as an "improvement project" that diminishes what nature has created.
Aug. 16 2009
As I picked up sticks in the front yard -- a constant chore when one lives in such a wooded spot -- I came across a patch of Indian pipe. This fungus-like plant is named because as it matures it takes on the shape of what looks like a traditional Indian pipe with a long stem with a bowl at the end.
Much of our yard is cleaned woods floor. Instead of grass, large areas of it are covered with a verdant blanket of moss. I love it. It doesn't need to be fertilized. I don't water it. It rarely needs to be mowed --- and then it's mainly to clear twigs, leaves and assorted pieces of dead vegetation from it. Nature takes care of it.
The indian pipe were sticking through the carpet of moss, fresh, just emerging. Usually I see them in our lower yard. Our yard, being on a creek valley, is segmented into four distinct and terraced zones climbing up from the creekside wetland to the highest, wooded area near the semi-tended area of the front yard. That's where I found these Indian pipe.
Also on the ground this day are many small acorns. The oaks began shedding their fruit about a week ago. Now, when the wind blows acorns are beginning to rain down. Even when it's calm, the sound of their trip through the canopy and clunking on the ground or pinging off a parked car, can be heard throughout the yard. They're a promise of food for the resident chipmunks, squirrels and visiting deer. And they're a promise for me of a fall chore to move them off the mossy areas of the cared-for yard to the edge where the woods takes over in its totally natural state.
Down at the creek I watched as a single, small red maple leaf floated atop the water, amidst ripples caused by the water striders flitting about the surface like skaters on an ice rink, towards the culvert. It's a sure sign summer, at its peak, is also on the wane. Throughout the yard, partially or completely colored maple leaves litter it in a most beautiful way. They're just the harbinger of the avalanche of leaves to come in October. These leaves from stressed trees remind me to enjoy the green in the woods, the blue in the sky and the warmth of the water in the nearby lakes, for the seasonal change isn't far away.
As I lay on the ground trying to make the picture I want of the indian pipe, I can't help but notice the ants, spiders, and other bugs going about their business on the moss carpet. An ant carries a chunk of something back to its nest. A daddy long legs momentarily alights on one pipe stem plant, then turns and heads for me. Our cat, curious as to why I'm lying on my belly on the ground, comes up and nuzzles me and my camera.
The dappled light filtered through the trees, moves about, sometimes alighting on the scene I'm photographing, more often not. Patience, I remind myself. Patience.
There's a lesson I need to learn.
August 17, 6:15 p.m.
Dank. Damp. Dark. Dreary.
A storm front moved through today bringing rain. A crop of fungi that was starting to emerge around the yard today exploded. There's brown fungi, dun-colored fungi, fluorescent orange fungi, white fungi and fungi that's already being consumed as quickly as it fruits.
For it is the fruit of the fungi we see, and our yard is a smorgasbord of fungi types. I don't know the names of most. But on a day like today, one must be careful where walking or one's step squishes and slips to a stop.
One specimen encountered was completely consumed already except for a three-or-so-inch tall milk white stem, narrow and tapering to the top that was gone with no sign of it nearby. Apparently it was a delicacy to something.
On the path down to the creek where today the road commission installed four drain pipes to siphon water from the road to rush it to the edge of the creek -- I'm betting the way it is built that there will be much erosion before grass is established unless they have more to do to complete the structures -- I came upon a sunburst colored mushroom in the pathway. An advertising designer couldn't have created a more eye-catching structure amidst the greens of dripping grasses, ferns and brush and the earthen brown of the beaten path. (According to Americanmushrooms.com it is a Yellow Patches mushroom (Amanita flavoconia).)
And it had attracted a visitor other than myself. A slug --- we have many of them in our yard -- was eating on the fruit, exposing the filament and gill structure beneath the meaty top. It, for a slug, quickly moved down to the stem where it stopped for a few minutes while I photographed the culinary experience.
For weeks it had been dry around here. Now, with the second good rain in a week, the woods which had slipped into dormancy and even stress, has come back alive. The fungi and the slug, loathed by many, attest to the power of water to revive. Relatively simple organisms, they laid low awaiting the infusion of water.
Steamy. Slippery. Even slimy.
In the heat and humidity life renews itself due to water.
Call it the miracle of the Sea Monkey.
Sunny, clearer and cooler most of the day. The recent rain has brightened all the plants and colors of the yard.
We have a little flower garden plot on a small hill at the road end of our driveway. Brenda has tried to create a mix of wild and domestic flowers to add some color and cheer to passersby.
She also has left alone the milkweeds and Queen Anne's Lace that voluntarily grow there.
A truly domestic gardener would pull these "weeds." Other "weeds" such as mullein and some yellow flowering plant, maybe a mustard which could be an invasive species, have been left alone to blossom, attract bees and other bugs and then die or be pulled after blooming.
Noble or nutty?
I've come to think of it as practical and sensible.
Queen Anne's Lace -- aka wild carrot (daucus carota) -- produces a fine looking and intricate flower, thus the lace name. In the center of the white flowers is a cluster of black flowers. Bugs were alighting on the flower which is known to be a food source for everything from bees to the caterpillars of Eastern swallowtail butterflies. http://www.fcps.edu/islandcreekes/ecology/queen_annes_lace.htm
The taproot -- the carrot -- is edible and reportedly best when young. Some day I'll have to taste one. For now, I enjoy their looks, especially in a field or ditch whitened by clusters of the non-native plant. (Note, the plant also can be an irritant and a look-alike, the water chestnut, is poisonous.)
In a walk down to the creek to check up on the process of the Big Ugly project, I revisited the Yellow Patches mushroom I photographed the day earlier.
The fruit has spread out and flattened. The hole left by the dining slug looks bigger as the membrane swelled and flattened. Quite a change in 24 hours.
August 19, 2009
I intended to write about the upper yard today. I made an OK shot of maple leaf shadows on the trunk of an oak tree. Kind or interesting and tells the tale of the mixed forest that our yard is in.
But things happen.
I was cleaning the garage around 10 p.m. It got dark by 9 tonight as storm clouds moved in off nearby Lake Michigan. The garage door was open and the light inside always attracts bugs. Mostly I ignore them. But suddenly a large winged creature zoomed in and out of my view and towards a light hanging from the ceiling.
My first thought was a BAT! Once before in the years living here a bat entered the garage at night. Often I can see bats circling in the late evening. Bat was a logical, if incorrect, conclusion.
Quickly I recognized it as a giant moth of a type that had visited a couple weeks earlier.
The moth dove into cover and I lost track of it for a while.
Eventually I went over to this table covered with too much stuff to check on a paper stashed in a box. There, at the edge of the table, was the moth. With wings folded it was a little larger than a power tool's electric plug that sat next to it.
The moth just sat there as I photographed it using the camera's flash since the scene was dark and ugly anyways.
Brenda found a moth identification book and we searched through it finally settling on a hog sphinx moth as the closest thing to what we were looking at. Well, we were close but not quite right.
It turns out it's a big poplar sphinx moth. Like the hog sphinx, it's a hawk moth. Large, with a bit of color, it's an energy burner that flies akin to a bumble bee or a hummingbird sipping nectar like those creatures. Its also in the same family as the hummingbird moth, which as the name implies, acts like a hummingbird but in truth is a moth. We have seen one at our front driveway garden once.
The big poplar sphinx is often associated as a creature of the Western U.S. and some guide sites won't show any sightings west of the Mississippi.
But Great Lakes researchers list the large, grayish Pachysphinx modesta as common in the region. (Insects of the Great Lakes Region, by Gary Dunn, page 219.) The purplish red area is a distinctive feature of the moth.
After photographing it inside, I lifted it by a wing -- it went nuts trying to fly away -- and began to carry it outside. It escaped. For the next few minutes we were treated to a show of the moth soaring and diving and cavorting about the light. When it came near Brenda it was greeted with a scream. But the moth is harmless. I caught in a hat and carried it outside where I set it free, photographed it again, and turned to go inside. It beat me in. We repeated the chase and capture scene again. This time I kept the cap over it until the garage door was closed. Whether it knew it or not, it's better off outside.
By the way, the science of butterfly and moths is called Lepidoptera
Want to learn more about it in Michigan try this site, http://www.lepalert.org
A lot of rain fell today, followed by a brief period of blue sky, sunshine and wind. As I drove home from work, I decided I would try to illustrate the wind. The obvious way was to somehow capture the tall limbs of the many oak trees swaying in the breeze.
I started by placing my camera next to a tree trunk for stability and to offer some contrast to the swaying breeze. It just didn't work. Next I included a bit of the roofline of the house in a picture to show that the camera was steady; it was the branches that were moving. It worked, but was blah.
I walked down to the creek thinking maybe I'd find flower swaying a breeze and could try capturing the motion.
But as is often the case, the moving water caught my attention. The trunks of birch trees reflected white on the creek's surface rippled by the wind. Even the concentric circles of the water striders were slightly distorted by the wind. That's the picture I chose to share today. The wind in the trees as reflected by the disturbed surface of the creek. It's an impressionist scene, all soft and wavy. Hope you enjoy it.
I'll also include a few more snails on mushrooms shots. The snails are having a feast on the myriad of mushrooms cropping up throughout the yard.
The rain is working its magic.
Later in the evening, on the way to Manistee we encountered a downpour followed by a rainbow over Canburn Lake and later over the Manistee River. One problem with selecting the yard as my realm, is it is limited in size, scope and lacks the wide open vistas needed to capture rainbows, northern lights and other celestial phenomenon. In the coming months I'll try to share some of those scenes here, but it will be a challenge.
Also, today I include a photo of a hummingbird at rest on a plant hanger on our deck. The hummingbird is a frequent visitor to the plants and feeder on the deck. Increasingly, we see the bird at rest. Is it getting more comfortable with us? Sometimes another hummingbird comes in and dive-bombs it, mostly when one is feeding. It's great theater -- and startling when it starts out of nowhere.
August 21, 2009
Friday, August 21
By the time I got home from work clouds and a cold front had sucked most of the color out of the outside world. The woods looked darker than they had for months. With the chill in the air -- it was only in the mid-60s -- a definite autumnal feel was in the air.
When I looked at the woods from the edge of my driveway I couldn't get past the darkness. Then I saw a red zinnia my wife had planted in a garden area we created between the driveway and the backyard several years ago. It's tough place for a lot of domestic flowers due to the heavy canopy of trees shading the area so much. And to add to the woes, the whitetail deer sometimes come through and graze their way across the domestic flower beds no matter how close they are to the house.
This was the sole flower of the several zinnias planted that was blooming. It's burst of red caught my eye against the darkness of the woods. It became the subject of today's photo, composed to show how a splotch of domestic color can brighten a natural woods.
The yard, after all, isn't a wilderness. Parts of it are cared for, parts are mostly left to nature's course. It's this intersection where Brenda and I live, close to the wild, but definitely in a domestic setting, that is intriguing. We have a sense of space, a place with enough wildness to surprise is in many ways, yet it is our home, our piece of borrowed ground on this planet. We own it for now. That means we are responsible for caring for it. That doesn't mean we must turn it into a green-lawned mono-culture so popular today.
I do have the area closest to the back of the house planted in grass which I fertilize a bit, water a bit and mow. The hill next to the house I've also established grass on both to create a park-like feel and reduce the erosion that was taking place when more of it was ungrassed. It's taken several years, but on both counts I've gained.
Aside from the darkness, the acorns continue to rain down. And the mushrooms are popping up all over the yard where the slugs and, from a trail of mushroom crumbs leading to a tree, the squirrels I presume are dining on some varieties.
This evening the rain started again. The moss is turning a deep green. The night is turning a dark black.
Life in the woods goes on.
Saturday, August 22
August 22, 2009, Saturday
Rain continued over night and off and on all day. The calendar says August; it feels like October. At 2 p.m. the temperature was a brisk 58 degrees.
I opened the screen door to the deck and back yard about 8 a.m. and heard the blare of a car horn on the road. Seconds later two young deer and a doe crashed through the underbrush next to the road and scooted down the bank into the creek gulley and were lost from sight.
A short while later, the sun broke out so I headed out with camera to see what I could find.
Well, it was wet and not much other than the female ruby throated hummingbird was about. The deer had vanished. I photographed a daddy long legs spider on a banister. We have so many of them, they're unremarkable to me but to some squeamish guests they're worth a momentary fright. I toyed with some water spotted leaves. OK, but nothing special. I photographed insect poop seemingly growing on the hood of the truck in the wetness. Like sponges, the tiny block droppings from the caterpillars eating oak leaves grow large when infused with rain. And, yes, insects, like all creatures that eat, expel waste. At this time of the year I rinse of the vehicles parked outside every few days to flush the insect droppings away. This week, the yellowjackets have taken an interest in the insect droppings or sweat from the trees. They spend much time inspecting and foraging on the vehicles. I wouldn't have believed it if I hadn't been watching it for the past week.
Down at the creek, the rain has saturated the mucky gulley bottom. I shoot a few images of the remains of an old wooden sluiceway used to divert creek water into an adjoining pond where for years local resorts raised bait minnows to sell to anglers. Only a few boards remain, most have long ago rotted or washed away. I discover a little tangle of the boards at one meander. It's a scene reminiscent of a shipwreck, but it's nothing so spectacular.
The rain starts again ....
On wing, and under the ground
August 23, Sunday
Under clearing, crisp skies I take coffee on the deck setting the camera on a tripod aimed at the hummingbird feeder. I'm hoping the light will be enough to make a photo of the hummingbird hovering near the feeder. The female doesn't disappoint me and flits about for 20 minutes, however she mostly avoids the small area I have focused on. Is the camera too close? Digital cameras don't make much noise when being fired, but it's enough to make the hummingbird a bit nervous and tentative in the area I'm focused on. She'll fly back and sit on the plant hanger 7 inches away, or visit another feeder a foot away. But she's hesitant to hover in the area I thought she'd be hovering. After much waiting she finally goes where I'd hope she would. I hustle off a few bursts of shots. The question will be how much light is there?
From the photo included you can tell there was enough light to make an image, but because I had to shoot at a slow -- for a hummingbird in motion -- shutter speed, here wings seem to disappear with speed.
The male hasn't been around much and I don't see him this morning. He's the one with the ruby throat and the more spectacular, showy color. We humans tend to think women don brighter clothes than men. In the animal world, the males tend to be the showboats attired in colors that Elton John would like while the females take on more drab hues.
I thought I was done for the day, but in the afternoon while planting some perennials in a garden at the edge of the road, I again notice this perfectly round hole. It's smaller than a penny or a dime, bigger than a pencil. It's perfectly round, with clean smooth walls. Something is living in there. I assume it is something like an ant lion, an insect that eats other insects that fall in the hole.
Brenda first notices the "red ants" inside. I couldn't see them and I was certain it wasn't an ant hole, but I couldn't see them.
Eventually I saw the little red insects and realize they're not ants, they're tiny spiders. It seemed a big hole for such tiny smaller-than-a-rice-grain-sized spider.
Then what looked like broken sticks filled the hole and I realized they were legs. A head with pepper-colored eyes stared at me as the legs completely filled the hole. The creature that owned the legs moved easily up and down the tube. I realized I'd met the occupant and the little creatures were its offspring. We played a cat-and-mouse game, but the creature never came all the way out of the tube so I could get a look at it in its complete glory.
To a creature it was to dine upon, it would have to be has harrowing as the hobbits meeting of the creature Shelob in the J.R.R Tolkien epic, "Lord of the Rings." This seemed a perfect Shelob, only insect sized.
My research leads me to the conclusion the burrow is that of a wolf spider. It has the two large eyes on its front orb. And, apparently, wolf spiders carry their eggs in a sac that the mother tears open when the time is ready and then for a week or so carry around her young on her back.
At times I could see the young ones clinging to her -- I guess it's a her. Several seemed interested in leaving the burrow, but didn't At about a week's age, apparently they set out for life on their own.
According to a Michigan State University Extension posting, wolf spiders get their name because they hunt other large insects much like a wolf does -- by roaming in a territory. Some burrow builders, ambush prey that walks by the burrow. Wolf spiders don't build webs. They generally hunt at night. Though they look scary, they're not considered dangerous to humans, according to MSU.
I'll keep a watch on the burrow. Why not?
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It's a bird, it's a ...
Monday, August 24, 2009
I've spent much of the week looking down at the ground, at the creek, at mushrooms. It's bright, blue and beautiful today .At lunch I heard a hawk in the backyard. It was sitting in a tree. I could hear it but I couldn't spot it.
Later, home again after work, I went outside thinking the sound of the wind was wonderful and I should look up today. A flock of robins were in the yard. That's unusual in that generally we have a resident pair that mostly ignores us and we mostly enjoy but ignore them. They hop around, robin-lake, eating insects and doing robin things.
This evening was different. There were many robins, though mostly heard, flitting about the woods around the house. The few that were on the ground when I arrived hastened off. I sat on the hammock and watched them in the canopy of trees. They were noicy and unsettled and within a few moments moved en masse off into the woods. Was our resident pair among them? I couldn't be sure, but they left the yard quiet. I decided to wait them out and study the tree limbs swaying in the breeze, the interplay of the slanting light flashing through the canopy and, for a few minutes the inside of my eyelids as the tranquil scene carried me off to the world of sleep.
After just a few minutes napping -- there's not a lot better than napping in a hammock strung between two tall oaks in a well-leaved woods on a late summer evening. The sound of the trees is hypnotic. The air fresh and clear. Even the play of light and shadows aid in putting one a restful state.
I awoke to the noise of the robins nearer. But they never quite came back into the yard. they stayed in the canopy in the woods. I found that kind of strange behavior.
After 30 minutes of such pursuits I decided the photo action was on the ground. The mushroom crop continues to expand in varieties and grow. The squirels and slugs are feasting. There are bits of mushroom all over the yard. Hardly any haven’t been nibbled at by something.
At the creek the water striders were out in force. I really like these bugs. They literally walk on water. You can see where their legs rest on the water, dimpling ever so slightly. But due to their lightness, how their weight is spread out over their long legs, the surface tension of the water is enough to hold them on the surface. As they move about, they send circles of ripples off and around the creek. In the dark parts of the creek, these white, highlighted ripples dance about like some sort of 1960s lightshow, only they’re totally natural. When the water is calm and the water striders are at rest, one can see their shadow offset a bit due to refraction of light passing through the water. They scoot about, rarely, it seems sitting still for long. They’re a joy to watch.
Today, there were more of them gathered near the old dam than I can remember as typical. Kind of a navy of water striders and the creek is their domain.
Of milkweed and monarchs
Tuesday, August 25, 2009
Trying to beat the rain expected this afternoon, I set out at lunch to see if I could find a monarch butterfly caterpillar feeding on any of the many milkweed plants we have at the top of the hill adjacent to the road.
There are fewer milkweed than normal because of the road work on the creek below this year. Thousands of yard of sand from the road project were piled on the right of way in our yard at the edge of the road.
This is usually an area rich in wildflowers and weeds, especially milkweed. Some years we have found many monarch caterpillars feeding along the edge of the yard and the road.
This year so far we had found none. Until today.
My hunch paid off. At the top of the hill, 15 or so feet from where the dirt had been piled and removed, in the process taking the top 6-10 inches of topsoil and vegetation with it, there were a few milkweed plants that avoided the earthmover. One plant was dying from too much sun. Next to it was a healthier plant and there, in all its tiger-striped glory, was a monarch caterpillar exploring a leaf of the milkweed and hanging on as gusts of wind whipped the leaf to and fro. In the short time I had, I didn't really see it eating -- though a couple holes in the leaf attest to it having munched at some point.
The monarch (Danaus plexippus) caterpillar feeds almost exclusively on milkweed (Asclepias syriaca)
which has toxins that make the butterfly taste unpalatable to potential predators. It is thought it and its monarch caterpillar's bright, striped coloration is a warning to predators that they won't like what they taste if they eat it.
As I researched the relationship between monarchs and milkweed today, I came across the Web site (http://www.michigangardenclubs.org/public/preserving_the_monarch_butterfly) of the Michigan Garden Clubs, Inc., and learned preserving the monarch through stopping roadside mowing and other destruction of milkweed that is important to the monarchs, is a 2009 goal of the club. More power to them and their president who is credited with the goal. More people need to understand that roadside “weeds” are typically native plants that host an ecology of their own. Furthermore, the club even tells gardeners “we need this plant in our gardens.” Isn’t that cool? There’s hope yet.
Over the weekend we saw on monarch caterpillar in a large, luscious stand of milkweed at nearby Ludington State Park. But only one, and little was eaten.
We experienced a cold spring, a cool summer in this part of Michigan and much of the seasonal world from fruits and flowers to fawns and other wildlife seem late in their normal cycles. Brenda and I figured the monarchs are, too.
The season of their caterpillars is just beginning.
More, most likely, in the coming days about monarchs and milkweed. If you can’t wait, try this Web site, http://www.monarchbutterflyusa.com/
I also spent some time watching the wolf spider hole. The spider is quite spooky and easily spooked. Its young are bigger and less red than they were Sunday. An ant walked by shortly after I inadvertently spooked the spider back into the depths of its tunnel. My goal is to have enough patience to see it go after some bug before it goes away. The drivers in the cars passing on Lincoln Road probably wonder what I'm doing. Let them wonder.
The wolf spider is more interesting.
(A planned evening of kayaking had to be set aside as the rain started falling on my way home. Now, four hours later, it's still raining. )
Encounter with an Anthropod
August 26, 2009
One of the beautiful realizations in doing this project is how much variety and diversity there is in the natural world. That also means one could spend a lifetime studying the natural world and learn something new daily.
Today was such a day. It was a clear, bright day with Kodachrome colors (even though Kodak quit making Kodachrome earlier this summer). As I pondered what to make my photo of, I realized all the rain left the ferns, trees, grasses and brush as green as I've seen since spring. And the greens days are numbered. Ferns are beginning to show tinges of browns. Some plants are turning yellow. The season is advancing. I made a few shots of ferns highlighted by the sun. They made for a striking scene. I figured I had my photo for the day and anything else would be a bonus.
Brenda and I climbed the little adjacent to the road to check on the monarch caterpillar. It was still on the same milkweed, which today had two leaves less than it had yesterday at noon. The caterpillar was clinging to the underside of a leaf perhaps seeking shade.
A dragonfly buzzed by and landed on some tall grass. I put on a long lens with a 2X converter and started making images expecting the little dragonfly to zip off. It didn't, though. It sat there letting my move in closer and closer paying me no mind. I went back to the house and grabbed a macro lens. The house is a couple hundred feet away, and on the way back, I shot a spider on a fern that seemed an improvement over my first photo of the day.
Back at the top of the hill, I was pleasantly surprised the dragonfly was still on the grass. It would fly off now and then, but immediately return. Using the macro lens, I moved as close as I dared to make a few photos. My focusing hand cast a shadow over the dragonfly causing it to fly off. Before I could berate myself, it alighted a foot away on a branch of a beech tree suspended at about shoulder height to me -- perfect for shooting off a tripod. I moved the camera and tripod into place among the hanging branches and for the next 15 minutes made photos at will. The dragonfly seemed to pose for me, moving every now and then for a different vantage. I moved the tripod and camera all around it, and it rarely seemed to notice. It was a very accommodating model.
As I watched, it at times would open its mouth wide and snap it shot. It was kind of comical. Its wings gleamed in the sunshine. Its bulging eye caught the sunlight too.
As I packed up the gear and left the dragonfly in place, I realized I knew next to nothing about these creatures.
Tonight, I learned at a University of Michigan Odonata site, that they are an anthropod family. The site,
http://insects.ummz.lsa.umich.edu/Images/Odonata/Odo_picts.html, has a lot of cool pictures of dozens of dragonflies in Michigan.
I came to the conclusion comparing my photos to those on the U-M site, on the Bug Guide site, http://bugguide.net/ and others, that this is a sympetrum costiferum, a meadowhawk. Indeed the area on the top of the hill is about the only part of our yard that could be classified as a meadow. It's an open area with small trees and brush, but mostly grasses and wildflowers.
Anthropods, according to the Bug Guide, are composed of 17 classes of creatures numbering more than 1 million varieties. I haven't memorized the list yet.
Anthropods are defined as having,
"Three or more pairs of jointed legs, segmented body, bilaterally symmetrical, and possessing an exoskeleton, usually tough, composed in part of chitin, a derivative of glucose.
But I learned that tonight. Looking at the little bug I was impressed with its translucent exoskeleton, its jointed legs with little barbs, its interesting eyes, delicate wings with light markings at the tip of the front wings, and its long dragonlike tail.
Quite a fun find on a day I set out to shoot things green.
Of flat light and color
This afternoon the lighting was flat. Kind of a gray day that kept colors from having vibrancy. They were soft, muted but not in a particularly inspiring way. It was a day that had I not said at least one photo a day, I would have put away the camera and went on to do something else.
There will be many days like this in late autumn and winter, days when the sun seems to have not paid its power bill and the light it will provide will be adequate for living, but not inspiring for photography. In its most basic sense, photography is the craft of recording light. So blah lighting creates a challenge.
I was glad when I found the little purple flowers with the yellow center near the road. I didn't have a clue what they were called, but that's the other part of this project: make the photo then learn about what I recorded in pixels. Mostly, however, on this evening as I shot I was fretting over equipment -- images weren't as sharp as I'd like. Was it me? Was it the camera? the lens? how I was focusing?
I was fretting about the flat light. It was like sipping on a flat beer or soda.
I was fretting about not really knowing what I would shoot.
The delicate purple flower didn't scream out "Me!" Rather, it bashfully whispered, "is it my turn?"
Even as I shot it and checked images on the viewfinder -- what a luxury after decades of shooting and developing film before seeing the image -- I wasn't fully falling for its allure.
It was pretty -- and pretty small. Could it carry the load for the day?
I revisited the wolf spider and shot a nice photo of her mostly out of her nest with some young on her back, but it seemed to repetitive too soon to use today. The wolf spider probably is wondering why I lurk around its hole for 10 minutes a day -- if it has thoughts beyond "is it safe?" "Is it edible?"
I checked on the monarch caterpillar. Another couple of leaves of the milkweed plant it was on were eaten and it had left a line of monarch caterpillar poop pellets stacked on the leaf below what it feasted on, but the caterpillar was nowhere to be found by me this evening.
Down in the lower yard, the mushroom smorgasbord continues to grow in variety, color, size and condition. Many are mostly eaten. Some have rotted back into a fibrous mess of fungi, and new specimens keep popping up. It's quite a crop, many of which I don't know. I couldn't help but photograph the orange mushroom that had a glowing, toasted aura to it amidst some grass, dead leaves and moss.
As a precaution, the mucky pond that once was the baitfish pond was dappled with green, oval leaves from weeds. It's a common thing on still water. A red maple leaf from a nearby tree that has dropped about half its leaves already, added contrast to the scene.
As I surveyed the old pond, I realized I have decision to make: remove the trees that fell in storms this year and restore its open water look, or let it become choked with fallen timber. That's nature's way of reclaiming the spot, but I'm not sure I'm ready for it to be reclaimed.
That's something to think about in the coming weeks.
By the way, Brenda helped identify the plant. She rightly guessed it was an aster of some sort. In looking through her various books, we matched it up with the smooth purple aster identified by Harry Lund in Michigan Wildflowers. A couple sites on the Web confirmed the choice. Can I remember that?
Time will tell.
Water on water
August 28, 2009
More rain. We've reached the saturation point. The swamp adjacent to the creek is squishy wet. I dug out rubber boots unused since last spring to tromp around in search of photos.
Along the way I shot the ripening wild blackberries along one side of a terrace near where our birdfeeders are. This summer we left them empty. Michigan wildlife biologists had expressed concern the past two summers birdfeeders were spreading diseases that in part led to massive songbird die-offs in the region. I clean mine and disinfect them from time-to-time, but decided this summer the birds would have to fend for themselves. We've had a lot less birds, though a few finches and other still regularly stop by to see if the fast food smorgasbord is open. Maybe after Labor Day.
The upside of not feeding the birds, is the blackberries near the bird feeder are ripening and I've been able to eat a few already. So often the birds attracted to the feeder also eat the berries. Not this year - yet.
Down at the creek, a sparkling object caught my eye. It was a leaf covered in drops of water floating atop the creek, but caught in a small obstruction. I waded into the creek, set my tripod into the quicksand-like bottom, got it steady and worked over the leaf -- but never quite capturing the sparkle I saw from above. Perhaps the lighting changed, or I couldn't quite duplicate the angle that close. Still it struck me, that a small leaf was carrying a cargo of water as it floated toward Hamlin Lake a half mile away. Will it make it? Did it make it? I don't know. At one point, the leaf was freed by the small waves caused by me walking in the creek it floated along, hanging up for a moment on a piece of birch log. There it swayed in the current before entering the Big Ugly -- the new road culvert. It truly was jewel like in appearance. And it carried a precious cargo -- fresh water -- of which we've been blessed with here.
Birds of a feather
It's still morning as I write this. No photo yet, though when I looked out at the sodden scene out my window, I saw something we only see occasionally: a flock of grackles had swept into the yard. I'm not talking a couple dozen. There were scores of them, probably hundreds, maybe thousands.
This stream of birds overran the yard, all the way to the creek more than 200 feet away. Look to the east and you could see this mass of blue-headed, black birds swarming to the west. Look to the west and you could see the front of the living stream flowing along the edge of the road. Our yard is about 400 feet wide and for well over an acre, everywhere you looked were grackles.
Some stopped momentarily on the lawn next to the house, others on the forest floor, a terrace below. More stayed in the bushes and tree canopy. They made quite a racket and the really, as a group never stopped moving. I tried to photograph them without disturbing them, but the light was low and the birds were moving too fast to make a good photo. For about 5-10 minutes this living stream of avian foragers passed through, eventually flowing to the road and the creek before leaving.
As suddenly as they appeared, they were gone. Not a sign of them so far the rest of the morning. They're visit en masse is probably as close as we get in Michigan to the big migrations of the African continent. Our soggy yard, however, is no Sahara.
Return of the sun
August 30, 2009
The rain has stopped. A bit of light entered the bedroom window this morning rousing me before 8. Powered by a couple quick cups of coffee, I headed out wanting to make some photos in case the clouds -- still thick -- would blot out the few small patches of clear, blue sky. Boy, did those patches look good.
They also held the promise of some strong lighting on a wet world that can make colors vibrant.
I never intended this to be a parade of mushrooms, but you have to go with what's happening. And, again, overnight, the mushroom numbers increased. White ones, grey ones, fluorescent orange ones, flat ones, round ones, tiny ones, large ones, fresh ones, rotten ones, half-eaten ones.
Some cling tightly to the ground, some erupt through the earth sideways looking like a crashed 1950s flying saucer. Some are spindly. I ran into a friend last night versed in mushrooms and invited him over. Hopefully this afternoon he can tell me what some of these fungi are.
After making a few more pictures of mushrooms, I headed down to the Big Ugly. Well, even the Big Ugly has a pretty side if one looks for it. I found it -- looking out from the inside. The oval opening makes a large frame for the woods on either end of the tube. The broad expanse of shallow water makes a good reflecting pond. I'm sure I'll shoot from this vantage point often in the coming months.
Meanwhile, I thought I found the bullfrog I heard weeks ago. A large frog was hunkered down in a boggy area adjacent to the creek. I was shooting a wildflower of a type Brenda and I so far haven't been able to identify. I heard it plop into the creek, where it promptly turned around and stared at me. More pictures. It turns out it’s a leopard frog, though.
Everywhere today, colors are crisp, the air is fresh, the wind is blowing lightly. Our neighborhood hawk could be heard hunting.
The return of the sun brings more than light to the woods -- it can return a smile to one's face.
Seeking the sun
With frost advisories issued for both last night and tonight, one need not look at the calendar to know summer is fading fast. Today was a beautiful, if cool, day. A cloudless sky, only light breezes and everything still fresh and bright from all the recent rain.
It seemed wherever there was sunshine, there was insect life today. Everything seemed to crave solar energy. Bees, flies, ants, dragonflies, yellowjackets all seemed to crave the sunshine.
Time is short, so I might be able to truly identify some of what I saw today, other than to say I feel like a total illiterate when it comes to identifying insects and plants.
There's an astounding variety out there. For instance, the one creature we've determined likely is a wasp. We generally figure if we can get to the family of an insect or a plant, it should be easy.
We studied dozens of pictures of wasps of so many different types.
It's baffling, befuddling and truly amazing.
We are mostly taught by society that bugs are bad, and many of them can inconvenience us, harm us and harm our foodstuff and plants we like and love. Yet they also have a roll to play, be it in pollination, as a food source for a bird we might like, perhaps one bug preys upon another. They're fascinating to observe through a close-up lens. Some seem to pose. Others seem skittish and uncomfortable, wishing to flee.
Then there are the yellowjackets that in these parts descend in August to foray at every picnic, every meal on the deck. Today as I walked through the yard, one kept bumping me. Not aggressively, but rather as if it was sampling me to see if I had something it could use. I haven't been much of a sweet thing for many years, and I didn't want to start again today, so I carefully shushed it away and walked more briskly.
Many flowers had several insects -- flies, bees, ants, beetles -- on them simultaneously. Did the cold and shorter daylight trigger a rush to feed while there' food to be had?
With the sun warming them and the world, the insects were active.
And there are so many of them living right under my nose that I had never paid any mind to. There's a wild, wild world out there, if we only look.
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