Macro Nature Therapy

If you’ve ever worked with a macro Yellow flower macro - one-tenth of an inch acrosslens on your camera, you know how addictive it can be. It can even change the way you see the world.  Just look at this little  yellow flower, for instance. I found this Black Medic while pulling lawn weeds a couple years ago, and it was something I had often just yanked without a second glance. The whole thing was only about an eighth of an inch across, so you’d normally never even see all these beautiful details. Isn’t it stunning?

So yesterday, after a difficult week that left me wanting to hide from the world, I took my macro lens to the backyard and found the perfect way to distract myself from dwelling on my problems — by focusing on the tiniest details of the natural world.

First up are Locust exoskeleton - head on view (800x533)these cicada exoskeletons I found in my crabapple tree. Here in northwest Ohio we didn’t have any of the 17-year periodical cicadas that emerged in the eastern half of the state earlier this summer, but the annual cicadas are coming out now. These insects have a fascinating life cycle, part of which is spent as nymphs living underground feeding on tree roots. At some point, whether it’s after only a couple of years or 17 years, the nymphs emerge from the ground and climb the nearest vertical structure to begin molting.

Locust exoskeleton back view (800x710)They shed their exoskeletons, or exuviae, and begin the adult phase of their lives. In this photo you can see the split in the back where the adult exited the exuvia.

As winged adults, they live a few weeks, during which time they mate, lay eggs, and die. When their eggs hatch from the tree branches where they were laid, the tiny nymphs drop to the earth and burrow underground, where the whole process is repeated. Isn’t that cool?

Next up, lotus flowers. My friends and I came upon this huge “field” of lotus flowers while kayaking along the Toussaint River the other evening after work. It reminded me of the giant fields of tulips in Holland, stretching as far as you can see.Lotus flowers on Toussaint River (800x446)

Lotus flower seed pod (1) (800x533)Most of the flowers hadn’t opened up yet, but I found some that had already dropped their petals, exposing the pretty seed pods inside. So I took some macro shots of the pod, which I found out is actually called the “carpellary receptacle.” After the flower is pollinated, the petals fall off, exposing the carpellary receptacle full of seeds. It eventually turns brown and the seeds spill out into the water.

Lotus flower seed pod (2) (800x533)
Closer view of the not-yet-ripe lotus seeds.

Cicada exoskeleton on lotus seed head (771x800)And while I was playing with these things, I couldn’t resist the totally unnatural “exoskeleton on the carpellary receptacle” shot. Pretty cool stuff, isn’t it? Yeah, I thought you’d like that.

Speaking of which, I’ve yet to find one of the newly-emerged adult cicadas to photograph, but I’m still looking….

 

 

 

This afternoon I was checking my milkweed plants for Monarch butterfly eggs (none found yet), and decided to take a macro of the dainty pink flowers. First the wider view —

Swamp milkweed flowers from my yard - macro (2) (800x533)

And then a closer look —

Swamp milkweed flowers from my yard - macro (800x711)

Swamp Milkweed (Asclepias incarnata)

I absolutely adore the structure of these dainty little flowers. I took these shots hand-holding the camera, so they’re not as sharp as I’d like. Next time I’m going to use the tripod and hope to get some much better photos of these beauties. And who knows, maybe I’ll still find some caterpillars feeding on the leaves. I had such fun raising Monarch butterflies last year — it would be great to do that again.

Well, that’s all for today. I hope you learned something from this macro nature therapy session. I sure did.

#DistractingMyselfFromHeartache #NatureTherapyReallyWorks

Things That Float & Things That Fly

While millions of my fellow Americans spent their time blowing things up this weekend (Happy Birthday, America!), I spent the first two days of the long holiday weekend indoors getting started with packing for my upcoming move to Ohio. Such drudgery for a beautiful weekend, right? But never fear, I managed to get outside today for some much-needed nature therapy.

Crooked Lake boat launchWhen I moved out of the house last fall I wasn’t able to take my beloved kayak with me, so when Eric asked if I wanted to go out on the water today it took me about one-half of a second to say yes. So this morning we headed to Independence Oaks County Park and launched our boats into Crooked Lake. This is a great lake because there’s no beach (thus no beach noise), and because there’s always a lot of wildlife to see there. And today was wonderfully quiet. I guess most people were still recuperating from July 4 festivities, because we had the place virtually to ourselves. There were a couple guys fishing from rowboats but nobody else on the entire 68 acres until we passed two other kayaks as we were paddling back to the ramp three hours later. A perfect little slice of heaven on a Sunday morning.

Eric watching a  Great Egret hunting along the banks
Eric watching a Great Egret hunting along the banks
Blue Dasher with water mites
Blue Dasher with water mites

I continued my attempts to get good photos of dragonflies and damselflies, and ended up with a few good ones. This male Blue Dasher (Pachydiplax longipennis) is one of my favorite dragons. Something about the combination of the powdery blue abdomen and the gorgeous blue-green color of the eyes, contrasted with the brown and yellow pattern on the thorax. Just pleasing to my eye, I guess. And when I got the picture up on the computer, I was immediately curious about those little red spots under the thorax. I discovered that they’re water mites, tiny parasites that attach to the dragonfly while it’s still a nymph living under the water. I found a very interesting blog post (by Jim Johnson) that explains more about the relationship between the dragonflies and the mites, so if you want to know more, click over here.

And then there was this lovely Slaty Skimmer (Libellula incesta). I think this is the first time I’ve photographed and identified this species. There were quite a few of them engaged in aerial combat with each other.

Slaty Skimmer
Slaty Skimmer

Did you know that dragonflies can fly at speeds up to 20 miles per hour? They can fly forward, backward, and hover like a helicopter. But despite their speed and acrobatic maneuvering skills, they’re no match for Eastern Kingbirds, who like to eat them. Today I watched the parents of a brood of kingbird fledglings working overtime grabbing dragonflies one after the other in mid-air all around me as I sat in my kayak amidst a floating “meadow” of water lilies.

Kingbird with dragonfly
Kingbird with dragonfly

The picture above was taken by Eric a couple years ago. Here’s a shot from today, minus the meal:

Parent kingbird with two hungry fledglings
Parent kingbird with two hungry fledglings

It might sound strange, but I absolutely love the “snap” and “crunch” sounds when a hungry kingbird or Cedar Waxwing snatches a dragonfly out of the air. When I first started spending a lot of time watching animals, I realized that I was going to have to learn not to get upset about one animal eating another. And most of the time I handle it pretty well. Especially when the death of the prey animal is quick, as is the case with insects eaten by birds. If you’re a prey animal and you have to die, then faster is better, right?

But the times when I’m witness to the less-swift death of an animal are much harder to deal with. As was the case a couple weeks ago when I happened upon a Northern Ribbon Snake chasing a little frog, when I had to listen to the screams of the frog after the snake caught it. I had no idea a frog could make sounds like that. It was very distressing to me at the time, but also exciting to see a part of nature I’d never seen before. I’ll bet you’re glad I didn’t get pictures of that encounter, aren’t you?

Here’s another cool behavior I got to photograph today:

Bluets in mating tandem
Bluets in mating tandem
Another pair of bluets, on my arm!
Another pair of bluets, on my arm!

These are bluets, a very common type of damselfly but one I can’t identify down to any one species. They’re all such similar combinations of blue and black that my eyes just glaze over when I flip through the bluet section of my field guide. But that’s okay with me. What’s interesting in this picture is that the two at the top are locked in a tandem, which means that the male is grasping the female behind the head. This is part of their mating process, but it’s uncertain whether they’ve already mated or are preparing to mate. The male will often continue to hold on to the female after mating to prevent other males from getting to her and removing their sperm (yep, they can do that). And if I’m understanding what I see here, there does appear to be another male very interested in this particular lady. So Bachelor #1 seems to be wise to hold on for a while longer.

Eastern Kingbird parent taking a break
Eastern Kingbird parent taking a break

Today was a lovely, relaxing day–exactly what I needed to energize me for the coming week of packing and attending to the many tedious details of moving. I’m not sure if I’ll be able to write much here until I get settled, but I look forward to showing you the natural beauty that abounds in the marshes of northwest Ohio…very soon!

Ah, Back in the Saddle Again

Well, I should say “Back in the Kayak Again.” I eagerly anticipate our maiden voyage each year, that day when we load our boats on top of the car and head out to one of our local lakes for some relaxation on the water. We took our first trip of 2014 last weekend and — surprisingly — managed to get out again this weekend. I was a bit disappointed last summer that we only got our kayaks wet two or three times, so we’re starting this year off with a renewed burst of enthusiasm.

Kayaking on Big Seven Lake
On Big Seven Lake

When we got our boats a few years ago I added a section in our “outdoor notebook” to record what we liked and didn’t like about each lake we visited. My entries go something like this:

Nice clean lake with interesting marshy coves to explore. No motorboats so very relaxing. Negatives: beach noise (in season) and few shady banks for breaks. Looks like it will be gorgeous in October too.

Sometimes I’ll add notes about the bird species we’ve seen there. These notes come in handy when we’re trying to decide where to go and all the lakes seem to run together in our minds.

One of our favorite smaller lakes is Lake Sixteen in Orion Oaks County Park. It’s only 90 acres, so we can easily explore the entire perimeter in a slow-paced morning. I think we might approach a kayak outing differently than people who aren’t birders though. When I see other people heading out on the lake, it seems they generally head straight for open water. We, on the other hand, tend to stay on the edges so we can scan the trees and shrubs for bird activity. This edge-exploration pattern also makes it easy to take breaks under the shade of overhanging trees when the sun starts to feel too hot.

View of Lake Sixteen from boat launch
View of Lake Sixteen from boat launch

So on our morning on Lake Sixteen we had the lake virtually to ourselves; I think we saw two other kayakers and one guy fishing in a rowboat. There were two pairs of nesting Mute Swans that we made sure to give a wide berth as we headed back into a small hidden cove. A couple years ago I’d seen my first Marsh Wren nests there, and I hoped to see another one. My wish came true a dozen times over as we were surrounded by the songs of the little birds. Over here, over there, behind you, there’s another one!

They can be very hard to see and even harder to photograph because they move so quickly in and out of the vegetation. But being down low in a kayak is a bit of an advantage because you can slowly drift closer as you watch for movement down inside the grasses. I managed to get this short video (47 seconds) showing one of them gathering fluff from a cattail and taking it into the nest. The first part of the video is a wide shot showing the nest on the right side of the screen. Then I zoom in on the bird so you can see him/her singing and plucking fluff from the cattail. You’ll hear quite a few other species of birds singing in this video, but the Marsh Wren is the one that sounds like a little sewing machine…you’ll know it when you hear it:

Yesterday’s outing was on Big Seven Lake at the aptly-named Seven Lakes State Park in Holly, Michigan. This lake is 175 acres, so it’s almost twice the size of Lake Sixteen. There’s a beach on this one though and sometimes it can detract from our enjoyment of the lake. But despite it being a beautiful day, there were only a handful of people at the beach.  When we launched around 9:30 there was nobody else on the lake, the sun was shining, and a light breeze was blowing. As soon as we hit the water I heard the very distinctive song of a Veery from the woods to our right. Here’s a link so you can hear what a Veery sounds like and see some photos. What a special way to start the day!

Kim taking photos in kayak by Eric (800x600)
Eric’s shot of me taking bird photos

After enjoying the Veery’s beautiful song for a few minutes we moved on. Very quickly we found catbirds, kingbirds, and lots of other lovely birds. Eric and I don’t stay together once we get out on a lake, so he went off to do his thing and I spent some time sitting in a cove listening to the various singing birds and trying to see as many as I could. I was thrilled to find a Willow Flycatcher, a bird I’ve only recently learned to identify from its songs and calls. Soon after that I spied a pretty male Rose-breasted Grosbeak and several Blue-Gray Gnatcatchers buzzing around near the water.

After a while I went to the far side of the lake and watched a muskrat swimming around and lots of huge carp splashing as they spawned in the shallow water at the edges of the lake. Then I heard a Red-tailed Hawk calling and looked up to see him soaring in big circles over the woods, with a very persistent Red-winged Blackbird repeatedly dive-bombing him. These photos show the size difference in the two birds — those blackbirds have no fear though. (I should say that I think this is an immature Red-tailed Hawk, but I’d love to be corrected if you know I’ve got it wrong.)Red-winged blackbird attacking RTHA v3 (800x732)

Red-winged Blackbird attacking RTHA (800x699)
Red-winged blackbird attacking RTHA (2) (800x739) Red-winged BL attacking RTHA v4 (800x725)

My best photo opportunity of the day happened just as I was getting ready to put my camera away and paddle back to the boat launch. A Great Blue Heron suddenly appeared around a bend and flew at eye-level beside me. I grabbed the camera and started shooting as he passed and went behind me. Considering that I didn’t have time to check my camera settings, I’m pretty happy with this one. The photo might not be perfect, but the memory of that special moment is!

Grace in motion!
Grace in motion!
Heading home after a day on the water
Heading home after a day on the water

Kayaks, Nesting Birds, and…Trash

Even my kayak has a birding bumper sticker!
Even my kayak has a birding bumper sticker!

We finally got our kayaks in the water this weekend, and it was looong overdue. This spring has been so full of birding and travel that we had let our beloved kayaks sit neglected in the garage. When I realized last week that it was almost July and we hadn’t been on the water yet, that was all the motivation I needed to plan an immediate outing.

When we first got our kayaks three years ago I started a notebook where I write about each lake we kayak on — how big it is, how busy it is, if there are motorboats there, if there’s a beach, if it’s noisy, if there are shady banks for taking refuge from the sun, if the birding is good there…stuff like that. That might sound like a weird thing to do, but when you go to so many different lakes you start to forget the details of each one. I also look back through photos I’ve taken on each outing to help refresh my memory when we’re trying to decide where we want to go that day. My notes for Bald Mountain’s Trout Lake said: “70-acre lake with great birds, few other boats, lots of dragonflies, small beach. Water at boat launch sort of slimy.” (That last bit matters because with kayaks you have to walk them into the water, so if the water is gross it can be unpleasant.)

We knew the day was going to be very hot, so we headed out as early as we could manage; we were on the water at Trout Lake by 9:30. Luckily the water at the boat launch was much clearer this time. And there was nobody at the beach either, so it was nice and quiet. Well, except for the constant rifle shots from the nearby shooting range…sigh. I’ve noticed a theme in Michigan state and county parks: Wherever there’s a nice nature area, there seems to be a shooting range nearby. I think there should be a law that shooting ranges have to be indoors so they don’t disturb the peace. I don’t see why they have to be open-air shooting ranges, do you? But I digress….

There was one other couple launching kayaks right behind us, but aside from them there was only one other boat on the lake. Very nice. As we started to paddle out, I immediately saw the resident pair of Mute Swans with their two adorable cygnets. We gave them a wide berth and headed to the far shore.

Mute Swan with cygnets. The other parent is just out of the photo frame.
Mute Swan with cygnets. The other parent is just out of the photo frame.

I remembered a little cove where I’d gotten lots of good dragonfly photos last year, so that’s where I went. As I rounded the bend into the cove, the first thing I saw was this:

Helium-filled balloon with ribbons tangled in the lake
Helium-filled balloon with ribbons tangled in the lake

Yes, that’s one of those horrible mylar balloons floating in the water. Just in case you don’t know about the dangers of these balloons, you might want to take a look at BalloonsBlow, an organization dedicated to making people aware of the harm these balloons do to the environment and to wildlife. I’ve seen some very sad photos of birds and other animals who died after getting tangled up in the ribbons or after eating pieces of the balloons. It just shouldn’t happen.  I doubt that anyone who’s aware of this issue would plan a balloon release, no matter what the occasion. There are always environmentally-friendly options for celebrations that don’t involve litter and unnecessary death; you just have to care.

So I made haste to the waste and grabbed that balloon out of the water, stashing it behind my seat for disposal at shore. And not 10 feet away I saw a fishing lure dangling from a tree snag (you can actually see it in the photo above). I started to wonder if my entire morning would be devoted to picking trash from the lake instead of birding and enjoying nature. So I untangled the fishing line and stashed it behind my seat too.

By this time Eric had continued on exploring the lake, no doubt wondering what the heck I was doing back in that little cove. I caught up with him and he had just spotted an Eastern Kingbird sitting on its nest overhanging the water. My photos didn’t turn out, but he got some good ones with his new Canon SX50 — this is his pic. What an amazing thing to see! I wonder about the survival possibilities for any eggs laid in a nest exposed to the hot sun like that; it doesn’t seem the best place to build a nest. I hope they manage to fledge some babies there.Nesting Kingbird bald mountain 01 by Eric (800x600)

I always feel so privileged to get such an intimate glimpse into a bird’s life that it’s hard to restrain myself from getting too close or staying too long. But I forced myself to move along  after less than 30 seconds, afraid that I might scare her off the nest.

The beach started to see some activity around 10:30 or so, but it still wasn’t too noisy. We paddled the full perimeter of the lake and saw more great birds: more kingbirds, some Baltimore Orioles, Blue-Gray Gnatcatchers, a gorgeous Red-tailed Hawk, a Gray Catbird singing boisterously, and even an Eastern Bluebird. I also watched a male Red-winged Blackbird feeding his recently-fledged young in the grass along the shore. I couldn’t get a photo of that but did manage to shoot a pic of the second youngster waiting up in the trees.

Fledgling Red-winged Blackbird waiting to be fed
Fledgling Red-winged Blackbird waiting to be fed

We headed for shore around 11:30 as it started to get uncomfortably hot out on the lake. We got another look at the cygnets as we passed, but didn’t dare get too close to those ferocious swan parents.

Trash I pulled from the lake
Trash I pulled from the lake

This is a photo of all the trash I collected from the lake: the orange mylar balloon, the fishing lure, a green inner tube floating toy, and a soda can. As sad as it was to see all this junk in the water, it felt really good to pull it all out of there. Next time maybe I’ll leave the binoculars at home and just take a trash bag….

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A Week in the North Woods, Part Two

Ok, here’s the rest of the story about our vacation in Michigan’ s U.P.  I’m going to share more about our bird sightings here and show you pictures, most of which are blurry and/or distant shots, but exciting nontheless. (That reminds me, time to get that 400mm lens….)

Our last hike of the week was the Au Train Songbird Trail. It’s a 3-mile loop through heavy woods south of Au Train. We heard lots of birds but honestly, every time I stopped to look through my binoculars or try to take a picture, the mosquitoes absolutely mobbed me. That was frustrating because we really wanted to find out what those birds were! We were able to identify the waxwings and chickadees by their calls, but not much else.

This first picture has a great story to go with it. One evening I was sitting in my kayak on our little lake, concentrating on taking pictures of a beaver. It was so quiet. And suddenly there was a screeching overhead. Startled, I looked up just in time to see this Sandhill Crane fly over me, barely 10-15 feet above! (That’s why the pic isn’t in focus — it was focused for the beaver!) The other of the pair remained on the near side of the lake, and they called back and forth to each other for about a minute, so loudly that my husband came out of the cabin to see what was going on. Their calls remind me of those velociraptors in Jurassic Park –– very prehistoric-sounding. It was so freakin’ awesome! Ok, so here’s the resulting picture:

Sandhill Crane

This experience was so great that we’ve decided to go to Crane Fest in October. They say they counted over 6,000 cranes there during last year’s migration. That’s got to be a fabulous thing to see.

We also saw our first ever Red-breasted Nuthatch on this trip. Very nice surprise.

Here’s a gallery of some dragonflies and more birds from the week. (Click on pix to enlarge.) Enjoy!

Green-eyed damselfly, species unknown
Green-eyed dragonfly — almost in focus!
Cedar Waxwing, aka Batman Bird
Belted Kingfisher
Solitary Sandpiper

And finally, one of the gorgeous sunsets we had at Cranberry Lake.

Sunset on Cranberry Lake