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. 🙂

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.

Nature Lovers Are Some of the Best People

Last night I joined some new friends for an evening of watching Bald Eagles and Osprey at Stony Creek park.  Both species have nests with one nestling each right now, and the nests can be seen from the same spot, making it easy to keep an eye on any action at either one.

I’m going to show you a few pics, but I have to say that I didn’t get many great ones, despite using my biggest lens and tripod (400mm with 1.4 extender). I have a lot of difficulty getting my manual focus right with the big lens, so I’m often disappointed with the results, even after sharpening in Photoshop. I guess the conditions were challenging though, with the nests being so far away (200 yards), so maybe I shouldn’t be so hard on my photographer self. The one below was by far my best photo of the evening, one of the adult osprey flying over us on the way back to the nest with some soft bedding material (at least that’s what we presume it would use the grasses for).

Osprey carrying bedding material to nest
Osprey carrying bedding material to nest © Kim C. Smith

That’s pretty neat, isn’t it? At one point the Osprey flew over our heads from the nest, heading directly toward the Bald Eagle nest. We all held our breath as we watched, wondering if the adult eagles would come after him. I grabbed my camera off the tripod just in case there was going to be some drama, but nothing happened. The Osprey continued on to a nearby pond and came back a few minutes later with the grasses trailing from his talons. The Osprey nest is on a cell tower, a common place for large birds of prey to nest in urban areas. It’s always amazing to me that the birds use this particular nest location, because it’s directly adjacent to a busy shooting club with frequent gunshots ringing out. I get more annoyed by the gunshots than they do, apparently.

We were hoping to see the eaglet taking some practice flights, but she stayed firmly perched in the nest all evening, occasionally stretching her wings and giving us renewed hope for a practice flight. One of the parents was in the nest with her at the beginning of the evening, but later moved to a nearby tree to rest. The other parent was in another tree as well. Here’s an article about the eagle nest in a local paper if you’d like to read more about it.

Osprey on cell tower v2
Osprey on cell tower

Of course while we were all chatting during the evening, I was also keeping my eyes and ears open for other birds. We were beside a large pond and marsh, so naturally there were lots of Red-winged Blackbirds around. I was happy to hear the near-constant songs of Marsh Wrens too, although I never managed to see one of them. Here’s the list of species I reported to eBird last night:

15 species +2 other taxa
duck sp.  1
Turkey Vulture  2
Osprey  3
Bald Eagle  3
Sandhill Crane  2
Empidonax sp.  1
Eastern Phoebe  1
Great Crested Flycatcher  1
Marsh Wren  2     (heard them calling in response to each other)
American Robin  1
Gray Catbird  1
Common Yellowthroat  1
Yellow Warbler  4
Indigo Bunting  1
Red-winged Blackbird  X
Baltimore Oriole  1
American Goldfinch  3

It’s unusual for me to go on a nature outing with other people who aren’t birders, so this was a nice change. For once I got to be the person who identified the birds before everyone else! I got to show people Yellow Warblers and a Common Yellowthroat, but most of the other small birds I saw while other people were talking and I didn’t want to interrupt them. I had to keep telling myself that not everyone cares to know the identity of every single bird that flies by like I do. (I think I have OBD — obsessive birding disorder.)

Red-winged Blackbird harassing Sandhill Crane
Red-winged Blackbird harassing Sandhill Crane

One of the most interesting things was a Red-winged Blackbird harassing two Sandhill Cranes on the far side of the pond. At first we could barely see the cranes’ heads poking out of the vegetation, and could see the blackbirds dive-bombing them repeatedly. I imagine the cranes were too close to a nest. I’ve seen quite a few instances of Red-winged Blackbirds violently attacking other birds this spring; they’re extremely protective of their territories and won’t hesitate to buzz a curious human either.

Sandhill Crane with Blackbird on its butt (blurry, again)The cranes slowly worked their way down into the pond, emerging from the vegetation so we got beautiful full-body views of them in the evening sun. And as you can see in the picture here, one of the blackbirds wasn’t finished with guard duty. It was basically riding on the crane’s backside as he walked through the water. The blackbird would flutter up and come back down, and I couldn’t tell if it was actually pecking the crane. But then it just sat down and the crane didn’t seem to mind it hanging on like that. Such an odd behavior. It reminded me of birds that eat insects off of elephants or bison — a tiny bird on a larger animal.

Bald Eagle on bare branchAs the sun got closer to the horizon I started to get chilly, so left the remaining three people in our group and and headed back to my car. On the way back I looked back toward the eagle nest from another vantage point and spotted the other adult sitting on a branch out in the open. I think a Bald Eagle looks majestic no matter how blurry the photo….

I’m really glad I went on this outing despite not knowing anyone beforehand.  Everyone was so nice and it was very low-key, just a group of nature lovers sharing time together at the end of the day. The scenery was beautiful, everyone had something interesting to contribute to the conversation, and the birds were singing and flying all around.  We talked about bugs. We talked about wildflowers. We talked about photography. Now that’s my idea of a great night out!

Cranes to my Left, Cranes to my Right

Sandhill Crane in flightWe’ve all seen those wildlife documentaries where they show thousands of animals gathered in one spot; the one most people think of is the incredible migration of the wildebeests in Africa, right? Thousands and thousands of them running across the plains…it’s hard to imagine what it would be like to be there to see something like that in person, but we just know it would be amazing.

Well, last Friday night, we got to experience something every bit as amazing as that, and only two hours from home. It was the annual gathering of the Sandhill Cranes in southwestern Michigan as they prepare for their southward migration. We’d been watching the daily count tallies from Baker Sanctuary in anticipation of our trip, and when the number hit 3,800 cranes a few days earlier, I started to get very excited. Heck, look how excited I got about our close encounter with just two of them last summer.

We had tickets to a special dinner event that night (more about that shortly), so we decided to go to the sanctuary beforehand to watch the evening fly-in. (Cranes come in to the marsh each evening before dusk to roost, then leave again in the morning.) We got there at 5 pm and I was very surprised to see at least a thousand cranes already populating the marsh. I couldn’t even begin to count all of them, but I’m sure there were more than a couple thousand by the time we left around 6:30. They were a hundred yards away from the closest viewing areas, so I was disappointed not to be able to get close-up photos. But I took a few shots of the large groupings anyway, and shot the smaller groups as they flew over our heads on their way down into the marsh.

The beauty of these large and majestic birds is part of the reason this is fun to watch, but the sounds are even better, in my opinion. The cranes call while flying and after landing, and the entire marsh resonated with their prehistoric-sounding trumpets. If I had to choose only to see or to hear these birds, I’d definitely choose to hear them! Here’s a link where you can listen to their calls. Doesn’t that send shivers down your spine? It does for me. Just imagine a bunch of birds with a wingspan of 5 to 7 feet flying overhead and making that gurgling sound…it’s one of the most entertaining bird spectacles I’ve ever seen. I tried to take some video to share with you, but the audio was cluttered with some irritating people talking loudly about what they had for dinner, or something equally distracting. (And don’t even get me started on the people who came out to a nature sanctuary and smoked cigarettes the whole time….omg!) Luckily there are plenty of videos on YouTube already — just search for Sandhill Cranes and you’ll get a bunch of choices to watch.

Cranes in formation

I’m so glad we watched the cranes on Friday night, because Saturday turned out to be such a cold and rainy day that we decided not to spend the day waiting for the evening fly-in the second time.

Just a small portion of the crowded marsh as the sun started to lower in the sky
Landing gear down….

Just about the only time these birds don’t seem majestic is when they prepare for landing, letting those long, gangly legs droop down below them. It always makes me laugh.

Bald Eagle (click to enlarge)
Pileated Woodpecker! (click to enlarge)

And lest I forget, there were other great birds in the area that night too. We watched two Bald Eagles soaring around a few times, and got to witness a beautiful Northern Harrier soaring low over the marsh hunting for his dinner. There were bunches of Robins, of course, and a few small songbirds that we didn’t pay much attention to. But I kept taking pictures of anything that flew past, even if I didn’t know what it was at the time. Imagine my surprise when I got the photos uploaded and discovered that I’d shot a Pileated Woodpecker flying past! This is a great bird that I don’t get to see often enough. And I also found a life bird in one of the photos — a Ring-necked Pheasant was perched on a dead tree way back in the marsh. I’ve become used to using the computer to zoom in on trees looking for little birds, but this one was so obvious I wondered how I hadn’t noticed it when I was scanning the marsh with my binoculars. What a fun 24 hours this was!

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