Seeing What You Want to See

A few weeks ago I went up to Michigan with my friend Tracy to see the Sandhill Cranes during their annual migration. We spent two days in the Jackson area, roaming the rural roads around Haehnle Sanctuary. Many of the cranes roost in the sanctuary’s marsh each night, but during the day they can be found feeding in agricultural fields nearby.

Sandhill cranes in corn field - blogWe were armed with a map showing where the cranes had been spotted in recent days, and so it wasn’t hard to find them. The first group we found had about 125 birds in it, and we spent some time watching them interact with each other as smaller groups flew in and out. On the second morning we found a large flock of more than 500 cranes, and watched them dancing, feeding, and flying overhead, all with the background noise of their prehistoric, spine-tingling bugle calls. It was fantastic.

It was a cold, blustery weekend with a gray sky, and the scenery was classic farm country:

Red barns in crane country - Jackson Michigan w sig

Crane monkey collage v2
I refer to this as the flying monkey posture, because when they drop out of the sky in groups like this, they remind me of the simian army in the Wizard of Oz.

I’m not posting too many crane photos today because I’ve shared so many of them already in past posts, and I’ve got another story to tell here.

We were hoping to find the single Whooping Crane that had been reported in the area, but that didn’t happen. I was reminding myself that it would be all too easy to trick myself into seeing a Whooping Crane because that’s what I was looking for. In fact, that happens very often among birders; I can’t count the number of times I’ve heard people mistake one warbler for another one that they’re desperately hoping to see. Apparently your brain tries really hard to give you what you want.

And that’s an important preface to this next part of the story. As Tracy drove along one of the rural roads, I noticed two ducks as we approached a farm pond. I quickly pointed them out and as she pulled the car off onto the side of the road I could tell they were beautiful male Wood Ducks.  I rarely get a good view of this shy species, so I was very excited. The pond was on the driver’s side of the car, so I began shooting photos through the car from my position in the passenger seat. At first my view of the ducks was blocked by the angle of the bank, but I kept shooting photos while Tracy took shots from the driver’s seat.

Here are the first two shots I took:

Wood ducks - obstructed first view
It was raining and my view was obstructed…
Wood ducks - slightly better view 2
Starting to get a clearer view here…

Then she drove down the road a bit and turned around so I could be on the side closest to the pond. As I started shooting photos from my better vantage point, I was starting to get the feeling that something wasn’t right about this scene.

Wood duck decoy
Hmm, he looks much too perfect…

First of all, why were these two male ducks in full breeding plumage in October? And why were they sitting there calmly, out in the open, as we watched them from maybe fifty feet away? Usually when I come upon Wood Ducks, they hightail it in the opposite direction — either swimming or flying — before I can even lift the camera. But these two just floated lazily around…slowly spinning in a circle…wait, that’s weird…. Then I realized my mistake: these were decoys!

Wood duck decoy closer crop
How embarrassing — it’s fake!!

I almost died laughing as I understood that my brain had wanted to believe they were real, and that’s why it took me a while to figure out the truth. I mean, they might have been wooden ducks, but they were not Wood Ducks! I still smile when I think about that day. I feel foolish admitting that this happened, but I also remember how excited we both were when we thought we had the perfect view of these gorgeous ducks.  It wasn’t long, but it was fantastic while it lasted. I may not have gotten the shots I’d hoped for, but this story will entertain me for a long time to come.

And as I’m writing this, I’ve just remembered that this is the second time recently that this has happened to me. You may recall a post from June, when I mistook an Eastern Least Clubtail for a Riffle Snaketail in Hell Hollow (those are dragonflies).  In that post I linked to an article in Psychology Today about this phenomenon. I’ll quote a bit of it here, just to back up my assertion that I’m not a total fool:

The tendency to let expectation be our guide can cause even those of us who are intelligent, experienced, and well-trained to overlook some startlingly obvious things. One recent study asked a group of radiologists to examine a series of chest x-rays, just as they would if looking for lung cancer. Unknown to the radiologists, though, the researchers had inserted into the x-rays a picture of something no professional would ever expect to see: a gorilla. The picture of the gorilla wasn’t tiny; it was about 45 times the size of the average cancerous lung nodule – or about the size of a matchbook in your lung.

How many of the radiologists spotted the gorilla?

Very few. Some 83 percent of the radiologists missed the gorilla – even though eye-tracking showed that most of them had looked right at it. Just like Hitchcock, they had overlooked what was in front of their eyes. And just like the master, they had deceived themselves.

Source: https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/kidding-ourselves/201404/we-see-what-we-want-see

Humbled by that encounter, I was a bit hesitant a few minutes later when I saw what I thought were two Eastern Meadowlarks fly into a field as we watched another group of cranes. Could I be fooled again so soon? But no, there’s no mistaking that bright yellow breast, and luckily I was able to get some photos as the meadowlarks foraged in the grasses. I discovered as I added these birds to my eBird report that they could have been either Western or Eastern Meadowlarks at that location at that time of year, but either way, they were gorgeous.

Eastern meadowlark in late October - Jackson County Michigan (6)

This whole idea that ‘we see what we expect to see’ can be used in a more positive, intentional way in our lives. I’ve found that I have the power to change my life experience, both positively or negatively, by the way I allow my expectations to develop before a particular event.  If I let myself believe that I’m going to have a bad time — the weather will suck, the food won’t be good, people won’t talk to me, whatever — then there’s an increased likelihood that I will have a bad time. On the other hand, if I intentionally expect to have a good experience — my friends will be there, I’ll see cool bugs, the fresh air will be good for me –– then it’s much more likely to be so.

I encourage you to experiment with this idea too. It has made a huge difference in my life in recent years. And if you ever see a duck that just doesn’t look quite right…take a closer look. 🙂

I’m Exhausted and We’re Just Getting Started

Magnolia Warbler - Magee 2018 (2) w sig
Magnolia Warbler

Where to begin? Spring migration has been in progress for a while, but it got a slow start because we had persistent north winds that kept large numbers of birds stuck south of us. That finally changed early last week and we’ve seen an explosion of migrant songbirds in northwest Ohio.

My friends and I all agree that this is the best birding at Magee Marsh in recent memory. The birds are here in big numbers and they’re down low, giving us wonderful close views. And not only that, but we’ve had a bonanza of species that aren’t common here too, like the boldly-marked Kentucky and Hooded Warblers:

Hooded Warbler - Metzger 2018 (2) w sig
Hooded Warbler
Kentucky Warbler - Magee 2018 w sig
Kentucky Warbler

And the Cerulean Warblers put on quite the show one day, flying back and forth along the boardwalk before the big crowds arrived, allowing us some nice quality time with them. You should have heard the comments from birders as we were all trying to get the best angle for photos or views through the binoculars. “Holy crap! You’ll never get a view of that bird like this again!” or “Are you kidding me?! What a beautiful bird!” It was so much fun to see the birds and to be surrounded by other people who got just as much joy from them as I did.

Cerulean Warbler - Magee 2018 w sig
Cerulean Warbler

At one point during this bird explosion, just after my friend Julie had found this Cerulean, three of us took a selfie to commemorate the moment. We took a couple minutes to stand quietly together and talk about the joy of it all.

The only other time I’ve seen a Cerulean Warbler was in Michigan a few years ago, and it was 40 or 50 feet above me. This is me looking at my first Cerulean Warbler:

Kim and Katie looking for Ceruleans
Getting warbler neck from trying to see Ceruleans in Michigan a few years ago.

Standing beside me in this photo is Katie Fallon, author of Cerulean Blues, a book about the plight of this declining species.

Bay-breasted Warbler - Magee 2018 w sig
Bay-breasted Warbler at Magee Marsh

I always get emotional when I watch warblers on their spring journey, and this year I’ve had some intensely moving experiences. One day I was birding with my friend Pattye at Magee Marsh. We’d been watching a Blue-winged Warbler foraging for insects among the freshly-emerged vegetation, when I suddenly noticed a second Blue-winged Warbler nearby. Blue-winged Warbler - Magee 2018

Seeing two of this species together was really special. And not only were they together, but I saw one of them feed the other one, probably a bit of pair-bonding activity between mates. I was trying to get a photo of them both together but only managed some blurry ones. But as we stood there watching this spectacle, we both just kept saying “Wow…just wow…!” You know the birding is really great when you run out of words to express your feelings.

Blackburnian Warbler - Magee 2018 w sig
Blackburnian Warbler (not the one from this story because he was too close for a photo!)

And just a short time later we were talking quietly at the edge of the boardwalk, looking down at the ground as we chatted. I raised my head at one point to see a Blackburnian Warbler about a foot away from my head. I whispered, “Pattye, look up, right in front of your face!” She raised her head and saw exactly what I was seeing, this tiny little orange ball of life, staring right at us as if he was as curious about us as we were about him. And I started crying from the intense joy I felt welling up in my heart. I think Pattye might have shed a few tears too.

I get a lot of satisfaction from watching birds all year long, but the phenomenon of the massive spring migration is overwhelming. I’ve run out of superlatives to describe all the special moments and birds I’ve seen this week, and I’ve had to force myself to take time off from the birds twice already, just to allow my body to process the intensity of these experiences.  There’s physical exhaustion from the long days of walking in the heat, but the emotional impact of seeing so many wonderful birds in such close proximity is just as tiring. I find that instead of feeling frustrated when a rainy day prevents birding, I’m actually grateful for a reason to rest at home.

I’m so thankful that I discovered birds —  the added dimension they bring to my life is almost indescribable.  There’s something spiritual about it — I think it’s because they remind me of my place in the universe. My human problems are put into perspective when I consider the lives of these tiny beautiful creatures. So, in a way, they help heal me when I find the human world overwhelming. And that, my friends, is the definition of nature therapy. 🙂

Red-eyed vireo - Magee 2018 w sig
Red-eyed Vireo (yep, it’s not just warblers we’re watching!)

Making Hay While the Sun…Doesn’t Shine

Last weekend’s trip to Indiana’s Jasper-Pulaski Wildlife Area for crane-viewing didn’t turn out exactly as hoped for due to some extreme weather conditions. Of course I knew the weather forecast in advance, and even made a half-hearted attempt to back out of the trip, but Jim responded with an admonition about not being a sissy.  That was just the kick in the pants I needed, because one of my primary goals in life is to not be a sissy.

So once we got there we were determined to make the best of the situation, and persisted through rain and cold north winds to find the best photo subjects we could. Since the largest numbers of cranes are found near dawn and dusk, the lighting was also a challenge. And since I’m still learning to use my new camera, there were some times I couldn’t change settings quickly enough to get certain shots. But enough with the excuses. Despite all of that, I do have a few things to show you.

Crane viewing platform at Jasper-Pulaski

This is the viewing platform that overlooks the area where the sandhill cranes congregate each morning and evening. Unfortunately, this lovely photo isn’t representative of the rest of my results from the trip, which were all taken in less-than-optimal conditions.

I really like this 30-second video I shot in the pre-dawn light one morning. It shows lots of the birds practicing their courtship dancing moves. And although the lighting is poor, it still gives you a taste of what it’s like to see and hear large numbers of cranes at their daily social gathering.

And although I have many in-flight shots of these birds already, I couldn’t resist trying to get some more. In particular, Jim and I both love the moments when the birds are making the transition from flight to solid ground, dropping their gangly landing gear legs while still hanging in the air. We noticed that some birds would lower their landing gear while still fairly high in the sky, while others would wait until much closer to the ground. That difference could be something to do with age and experience, perhaps.

Sandhill cranes with legs down for landing w sig
Flying monkeys dropping from the sky (poorly focused but still awesome)

In my past writing about this I’ve described them as looking like giant marionettes falling from the sky, but this time I was struck by a new image: the Wicked Witch’s flying monkeys from the Wizard of Oz.  You know the scene when she sends them all out to attack Dorothy and her friends in the woods, right?  This mental image was triggered not only by the visual spectacle, but also the cacophony that accompanied their descent from the cold November sky. I can’t stop smiling when I think of it that way now.

One of the few daylight photos I could salvage was this one. I took a series of rapid shots as one crane dropped down into this small gathering in a grassy field, and got many images of his wings in various positions. This one is my favorite because the wings are fully extended, giving an excellent impression of the enormous size of this bird.

Sandhill crane landing with wings spread fully

In-flight silhouette shots were the easiest to create in low-light conditions, and I really like these two.

Sandhill cranes in flight against dawn sky
Cranes flying into the golden light of the sunrise sky
Moon and ducks at dawn
Duck side of the Moon (my Pink Floyd tribute)

One morning I was tracking the flight of these ducks across the pre-dawn sky and was ready when they crossed in front of the moon. This is one of my favorite shots from the weekend.

When we weren’t at Jasper-Pulaski, we spent time driving around surrounding areas shooting trees and other nature scenes. The rain had provided us with lots of opportunities to use the moody fog in our compositions.

Fog and lone tree with reflection in water

Fog and two big oak trees

I’ve been enchanted with the photographic possibilities of trees for many years. I usually seek out isolated trees, as in the first photo above. But this scene was great too, with the structural interest of the big oaks, the curving country road, and the fog in the air. This one was edited using a NIK filter, thanks to Jim’s excellent suggestion. I could (and quite likely will) spend hours playing with these filters on my photos.

Algae-covered creek and beaver dam w sig

The bright green of the algae in this scene was a welcome and cheerful display of color on a rainy day. Notice the beaver dam crossing the waterway just behind the algae.

Finally, here’s a scene we shot under threat of lightning and pouring rain.  I think it was worth it.

Woods with color and fog resized w sig

I’m glad to find out I’m not a sissy after all. 😉 I had a great time and learned a lot on this trip, and will be better prepared for my next challenging photography outing.

Sky-High Anticipation

Sandhill Crane family vocalizing - grainy dusk pic
Family of Sandhill Cranes vocalizing as they meet in the marsh at dusk

I’ve had a love affair with Sandhill Cranes since the moment I heard their prehistoric-sounding bugling calls.  It’s hard to believe I only saw my first of this species in July of 2011, just two individuals walking around on the lawn at a metropark. Those first birds were silent though, and I had no idea what a thrill was still in store for me. But I found out later that summer, when I had a dramatic encounter with a pair of these statuesque birds on a remote lake in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula.

It was near dusk and I was in a kayak on a small private lake, trying to sneak up on a beaver so I could take some photos of it. I was floating quietly near the tall vegetation at the water’s edge…waiting…when suddenly there was a commotion just a few yards away. Before I knew what was happening, a crane burst out of the phragmites and flew right over my head, only 15 feet above me, belting out some of the most spine-tingling sounds I had ever heard.  Click below to hear a sample audio of Sandhill Cranes from the National Park Service.

Sandhill Crane flyover BEST
This photo isn’t from the day I’m describing here, but it illustrates what I saw from my kayak.

My reaction was swift and automatic: I swung my camera up and snapped a couple blurry shots of it before it dropped down on the other side of the small lake. As it did so, I realized its mate had been hidden over there, probably also warily watching my movements around the water. They both continued calling for a couple minutes before eventually settling down for the night. It took a long while before my heart rate settled down that evening, and I can feel it again now as I recall this story.

Why am I talking about Sandhill Cranes now? Because in less than two weeks I’m going to see more of them than I’ve ever seen before, and I just cannot wait! I have to stop letting myself listen to audio and video of them because it’s just making me too excited.

In 2012 I attended Michigan Audubon’s Crane Fest and got a taste of what a mass migration spectacle is like. The number of cranes in the marsh at Baker Sanctuary that year was several thousand. I loved the experience, and got some distant photos of the birds in the water as well as some flyover shots. I went back to Baker Sanctuary with my friend Tracy a couple weeks ago, but the cranes were very distant and not present in large numbers. Although we found a few hundred of them during the day, foraging in farm fields in the surrounding area.

Sandhill Cranes in flightBut now I’m preparing for my first experience at Jasper-Pulaski Fish & Wildlife Area in northern Indiana. I’m told it’ll be possible to see maybe 8,000 cranes this time, and in much closer viewing conditions. I’ve watched some videos from Jasper-Pulaski on YouTube, and I can tell it’s going to be one of the highlights of my year.

And, to make it even more exciting, I’ll have a brand new camera in tow!  My trusty Canon 60D has become a bit outdated and I think my newer Canon will give me more options.  I’m very close to springing for a new telephoto lens too, but can’t get myself to put that money out just yet. But anyway, I hope the camera arrives as expected so I can have several days to familiarize myself with it before the trip. Since many of these crane photos were taken in low light conditions, I’ve pushed the ISO setting on my camera too high, resulting in a lot of graininess. I’m hoping to get better results with my new camera and my slowly-improving photography skills. 🙂

Crane silhouette v1
Silhouette of a crane dropping from the sky with landing gear down

Along with their statuesque beauty and that fantastic trumpeting call, Sandhill Cranes are known for the “dancing” they perform as part of their mating and bonding rituals. I’ve seen this many times, and it never gets old. Imagine, if you will, hundreds or thousands of 4-foot-tall birds dropping from the sky into a marsh. Don’t forget to imagine those raucous calls too. And now picture many small family groups gathering within the large group, jumping up and down with enormous wings raised in greeting. It’s hard not to get choked up with emotion when you see and hear this joyous and life-affirming spectacle. (Here’s a video I found on YouTube.)

Chains of origami cranes
Me with origami cranes at a shrine in Tokyo, 1985

Cranes have been important symbols in many cultures around the world, including in Japan, where I spent five years of my life (a looong time ago). One quality they are believed to embody is longevity. They were said to live for 1,000 years; in reality they can live for more than 30 years, so perhaps they deserve this one. Because they mate for life, they are also used to represent fidelity. It’s also believed that if you make an origami chain of 1,000 cranes and leave it at a shrine, your prayer will be answered.  As you can see from the photo above, people really do make huge numbers of those tiny folded paper cranes.

Two cranes in formation

It’s surprising how often my photos show cranes in synchronized poses like this one. They’re mesmerizing no matter what they’re doing, but I particularly enjoy the transition from the sky to the ground, when they drop those long dangly legs below them.

Cranes landing with legs hanging down

I think they look like giant marionettes, with someone above working their strings, frantically trying to get those lanky legs positioned properly below them before they hit the ground. I really hope I’ll be back here in a couple weeks showing you even better pictures of these incredible birds.

 

Sandhill Cranes in marsh at Baker Sanctuary 2012
Cranes in the marsh at Baker Sanctuary in Michigan

Resources for further reading about Sandhill Cranes:

Birds of North America, by Cornell Lab of Ornithology

Michigan Audubon’s Crane Fest, held each October as birds are heading south for the winter.

Audubon Nebraska’s Crane Festival, held in March as the birds are heading north for the summer breeding season.

No Words, Just Birds (#3)

Scarlet Tanager - Metzger Marsh - May 3 2017 with sig
Scarlet Tanager male (Metzger Marsh, Ohio)
Black-throated Green Warbler cute w sig
Black-throated Green Warbler (Magee Marsh, Ohio)
Eastern screech-owl at Pearson Metropark w sig
Eastern Screech-owl roosting at Pearson Metropark in Oregon, Ohio
Northern Rough-winged Swallon on cable with chain reduced w sig
Northern Rough-winged Swallow at Metzger Marsh
Great Blue Heron best in flight over Metzger pier reduced w sig
Great Blue Heron soaring over Metzger Marsh on Lake Erie’s south shore

Note: The winds have remained mostly northerly, but some new birds did manage to get here last night.  We’re still waiting (a bit impatiently) for the big wave of warblers to arrive.

No Words, Just Birds

(Well, maybe a few words…. For the next month or so, I’ll be too busy birding and editing photos to write much, so I’ll just post a selection of pictures a couple times a week to show you what I’ve been seeing. Thus “No Words, Just Birds” — I hope you enjoy these!)

Snowy Egret at Magee Marsh (800x504)
Snowy Egret (Magee Marsh Wildlife Area)
Green Heron at Woodlawn (800x590)
Green Heron (Woodlawn Cemetery in Toledo, Ohio)
Green Heron at Maumee Bay (800x666)
Green Heron (Maumee Bay State Park in Oregon, Ohio)
Cedar Waxwing in crabapple tree (790x800)
Cedar Waxwing (Woodlawn Cemetery in Toledo, Ohio)
Cedar Waxwing eating crapapple blossoms (800x636)
Cedar Waxwing eating crabapple blossoms (Woodlawn Cemetery in Toledo, Ohio)

Here They Come…

April and May are so exciting here in Ohio! Every walk brings the possibility of finding new flowers and trees blooming, and new birds arriving.  And now that I have so many new places to explore after my move, it’s even more exciting than usual.

Ruby-crowned Kinglet yard bird - better shot
Ruby-crowned Kinglet

I’ve been spending a lot of time walking in the beautiful Toledo Metroparks, getting to know the various trails and learning the bird habitats so I’ll be prepared when the birds start arriving en masse. We’ve seen some of the early species starting to show up, but the frenzy of “so many birds I don’t know where to look first” hasn’t begun yet.

Every spring, the various species come through in waves, with the timing of their arrivals somewhat impacted by wind and precipitation systems. What we hope for are winds from the south, because that gives the birds a bit of help on their journey up here. Northerly winds can delay them in getting here, or keep them here longer while they wait for more favorable conditions to continue northward.  To know when to expect the birds, I rely on the weekly BirdCast migration forecasts from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. Those forecasts help me plan my birding schedule and locations to try to maximize the new species I can find each time I go out. (Yes, despite saying that I’d lost all motivation for the sporting aspect of birding, somehow I got myself into a competition with a friend to see who can get the most species in our county this year. He knows I can’t beat him, but it’ll be fun anyway.)

GCKI cropped
Golden-crowned Kinglet

I’m feeling so happy with my decision to move to Toledo. After enduring such struggles for the past couple of years, I’ve finally turned a corner. My attitude is more one of openness to new people and experiences. I absolutely love my house, my yard, and this wonderful city. It’s small enough that I can get across town in 20 minutes, but big enough to have great restaurants, the Toledo Museum of Art, the gorgeous Toledo Botanical Garden, and of course, those metroparks I can’t stop raving about. (And the museum, the botanical garden and all of the metroparks have free admission…can you believe that?) The population of the city is racially and ethnically diverse, much like the metro Detroit area I’ve been accustomed to. You can find almost any kind of food you want here — Lebanese, Greek, Indian, Chinese, Japanese, and Hungarian (Tony Packo’s, anyone?), just to name a few.

Brown Creeper
Brown Creeper

And my efforts to meet new friends are starting to pay off too. I’ve been pushing myself out of my comfort zone constantly, joining everything from book groups to hiking groups. Sometimes it’s scary to walk into a group of people where you don’t know a single person, but I’ve been doing it. I admit to chickening out a couple of times, but most of the time I’m able to do it.  That’s the hardest part, because once I get myself to an event, I always have a great time and everyone is friendly and fun.

I try to be grateful every day that I was strong enough to make yet another huge change in my life. I’m emotionally stronger and happier than I’ve been in a long time. I guess if there’s any benefit to going through hard times, it’s that they make you more appreciative of the good times. They have a motto here that’s posted on signs around town, and I’ve adopted it as my own:

You will do better in Toledo sign.jpg

Why yes, I do believe I will. 🙂

Okay, enough of that sappy stuff. Let’s show you some more birds:

American Coot eating
American Coot – it’s hard to get a good photo of a black bird with red eyes, but I got lucky this time.
Pied-billed Grebes at Metzger 4-10-17
Pied-billed Grebes – such cuties!
Yellow-bellied Sapsucker - Magee Marsh 4-10-17
Yellow-bellied Sapsucker – this bird is usually hard for me to find, but this one flew right in front of me as I was searching for an owl
Red-breasted Mergansers - Metzger Marsh
Red-breasted Mergansers – I just love their long head feathers

Okay, stay tuned for some beautiful warblers coming very soon!