This blog, these photos, and my passion for the wild would most likely not exist had it not been for the influences of my Dad. If we trace our life journey back to the beginning, invariably we find our parents tracks scattered all over the path we may have mistakenly thought was all our own.
My Dad planted numerous influences when we were young that gave rise to my love of the wild, and eventually my pursuit of wildlife photography. There were the family camping trips to Pentwater, Michigan, occasional outings to the Nature Center and Kleinstuck Preserve, and always choosing to live near a little patch of wilderness in the city that became a convenient playground (and perhaps a baby sitter) for me and my brother.
Dad too was a photographer of sorts - not a professional or avid shutterbug, but he was editor of the yearbook at WMU during his college years and a camera was probably hanging around his neck most of the time. He always seemed to have a camera around the house, so the SLR was a familiar tool to me from an early age.
Most significantly, Dad was a life-long birder, and retirement gave him the time to more fully pursue that passion. It suited his shy, unassuming personality as well as his penchant for categorizing, something he did for over 30 years as the head librarian at Kalamazoo Central High School. Birding took him all over North America, including Texas, Arizona, Florida, California, Nova Scotia and of course all over Southwest Michigan. For me, it was the birding trips he and I took to New Mexico and Alaska that really began to secure my fate as a wildlife photographer.
There was one incident though that I believe really etched a love of wildlife and wilderness into my soul.
I was around 12 or 13 and the family went camping up at Wilderness State Park at the northernmost tip of the Lower Peninsula. We camped, in tents, right next to the beach at the main campground, which was in and of itself a primal experience for a wee lad such as myself.
One morning we got up particularly early and began the day with a breakfast I'll never forget. It was at a little roadside joint outside the park where we had homemade, plain doughnuts that were deep-fried right in front of us. Best donuts I've ever had. I'm sure Dad and the adults washed it down with coffee.
We then drove due east to Waugoshance Point, the peninsula that really defines Wilderness State Park. We drove as far as we could and then hiked for a half hour or so, which was a long way for us back then. We knew we'd arrived when we reached the shore and could see the peninsula shooting out into Lake Michigan. It was vast and open, unlike anything I'd seen before. It felt like the edge of the world. My dad began glassing with his binoculars and spotted a bird down the shoreline, way up in the sky. He was excited. He handed us the binoculars but you still couldn't quite make out any details other than it was a big bird soaring high up in the sky. He told us it was a Bald Eagle. It was my very first sighting and I knew it was a big deal.
Not only are Eagles majestic birds, this was during the seventies and Bald Eagles were endangered and rare in Michigan. My dad knew this and understood the import of a sighting, albeit distant and small to the eye. He shared this with us and when I think back on that moment it sums up so much about my love of the wild. That Eagle was just a speck in the sky, but knowing what it was and that it was so rare created a mythological dimension to the wild that has never left. This is the special something about the natural world that is nearly impossible to explain, but easy to understand when you experience it. My photography and video have been the never ending pursuit of that moment and sensation. May it never end.
That sighting was one of my Dad's greatest gifts to us, whether he knew it or not.
Sadly, Dad passed away Monday, December 19th from bladder cancer at Rose Arbor Hospice in Kalamazoo. I am forever grateful for all that he's given me.
My last post was a photo of this same buck, seen through a narrow opening in the woods. He was tending a doe in a muddy lowland area and never presented himself in a clearing. It was a constant struggle against clutter - trying to snap a shot without branches, shadows and treetrunks obstructing his dandy rack.
I snapped the above photo by rattling him in while a doe group was meandering in the area. When he walked on to the gravel road my heart raced because he was not only close--perhaps 15 yards--but was glaringly visible. Not a single obstruction.
What's particularly strange to me is that you can see his hooves, something normally hidden by grass or mud. Not only is this a strange reminder that nimble footed deer are trotting around the wilderness on what look like high heels, it makes this buck appear almost naked, as if a deer normally wears the forest, or the field. This raises the fundamental question: are animals in general "naked"? Or is fur like a kind of "clothing".
These are the things you think about when you're waiting for deer.
My wait for rut action this year ended officially on November 7th.
What's astonishing about this fact is that it began last year on the exact same date in the exact same location.
Last year I discovered the buck below, Don Juan, following a doe in front of WMU's School of Engineering in the early morning of November 7th. Because of his fixation on that doe, I was able to photograph him for a good half hour.
This year I arrived at WMU's Research Park to discover the EXACT same scenario unfolding in front of the school, which led to another half hour photo session with this beautiful buck and his "lady".
One of the reasons I went macro is because waiting for the rut to ripen--affording a priceless shot of a big buck--can be a tiring excercise in patience. So rather than loom over the pot, waiting for it to boil, I've lost myself in the tiny worlds that normally fall under foot.
My own personal superstition also tells me that the bigger the distraction out in the field, the bigger the buck will be when I peer up from obsessing over a blade of grass. This phenomena was beautifully depicted in one of my favorite films, Never Cry Wolf, when the main character has his first, meaningful, wolf encounter after he's completely immersed himself in photographing a wildflower.
When this phenomena doesn't work, and you miss the shot, it's Murphy's Law.
We're in the northern most range of this exquisite, tropical fruit, and if you look carefully you just might find some growing out in the wild.
The fact that so few people have any idea what a paw paw is, or that it grows natively in our state, makes the paw paw emblematic of the enduring discovery that still greets us right outside our back doors. There are still fruits and plants and animals that have--for what ever reason--flown below our radars of experience. In other words, there's still a lot to discover out there. And the rewards can be great, particularly in the case of the paw paw.
I only came to know the paw paw a few years back and it was a discovery that has sweetened my life. It's safe to say the paw paw is now my favorite fruit. There's nothing quite like it: it's a cross between a mango and a banana. It's especially sweet, almost sugary, and is a custard-like consistency. They're absolutely delicious.
Once I tasted them I was obsessed with finding them in the wild. That's part of the adventure, and also because you won't find them at the store (except for the People's Food Co-op, which, for the first time I believe, had them in their produce section this year). The paw paw isn't especially cooperative though when it comes to mass marketing. It perishes easily and I believe can be difficult to grow. That's why most people have never heard of them: because it's the round fruit that never fit in the square peg of industrial food. That's the converse beauty of our commercial world: it's one page menu can actually deprive us of choice, yet inadvertently creates a cornicopia of discovery once you "go native" with produce.
Just got a nice feature article from Kalamazoo's new online magazine, Second Wave. An alleged "fan" recommended they do an article on me and low and behold, they did. Thanks to Kathy Jennings and Erik Holladay.
Much to my surprise, I'm seeing (and hearing about) some stellar bucks in the woods behind my house.
I thought all the big bucks were poached, or never made it past 8 points because of poachers.
This year is proving that speculation of mine to be all wrong. Sometimes I like being wrong.
This slightly lopsided 10 point was the only one I managed to photograph. Another larger, taller and more symmetrical buck has refused to show himself ever since the evening I was out scouting and we both saw each other. We were both startled, and clearly for different reasons.
And his disappearing act sits well with buck lore that says big bucks don't get to be that big and that old without a certain kind of smarts.
I just pray I'm old and smart enough to snap his picture sometime this season. Then he'll enter into my own personal lore.
Platte River Point - where the river meets the lake and the sun greets the day.
Sleeping Bear Dunes.
I just returned from a week long business trip to the "northern Lower" (translation for non-Michiganders: the norther part of the Lower Peninsula). I was interviewing people for an orientation video for North Country Community Mental Health. I interviewed around 25 patients from East Tawas, Alpena, and Petoskey. What a moving and inspiring experience to hear how people with a mental illness cope and function and thrive and help others. There was a humility and gentleness of spirit that suddenly illuminated Jesus' statement, "the meek shall inherit the Earth". Indeed.
At the tail end of my trip I managed to squeeze in a morning at Sleeping Bear Dunes to photograph the sun rising at Platte River Point. This is of course in the wake of Good Morning America's vote for Sleeping Bear Dunes as our most beautiful National Park. Although it's dear to my heart as a Michigander and has always had my vote, I kept pondering why it was voted America's favorite out of all the spectacular National Parks.
It occurred to me that as a vote, it's possible our economically challenged state flooded the polls with the hopes of attracting tourists. Stranger things have happened. But assuming it was a genuine vote of appeal, I think I know why it stands out as our favorite.
Other parks could easily outrank Sleeping Bear on the grounds of grandeur: Yosemite, Yellowstone, Grand Canyon, Denali all offer a dramatic landscape that gives rise to an awe and humility in the face of the Earth's power and scale. But that same immensity can overwhelm and distance a person from the land, whereas Sleeping Bear, with it's gentle dunes and the warm, clean water of Lake Michigan invite you in. It welcomes you to enter into it's sandy folds. There is a subtle grandeur to the park that brings about a peace of mind or even slumber for a summer vacation. The name itself sums it up with it's sleeping bear. With the spate of recent bear attacks abroad, this is a pleasant thought.
Now with the park in the national spotlight, we can only hope she doesn't become overwhelmed with too many tourists. What a shame it would be if we smothered the very beauty that drew us to her in the first place.
Nothing triggers my imagination for flight more than a fledging bird. Their first "steps" are mine. Watching the juvey osprey test out their wings, actually flapping against the air, or fanning their wings out against a firm breeze, and feeling a brief lift, is a visceral experience. You can feel it. I can vicariously imagine what it would be like myself to be airborne, way more so than observing an experienced flyer like the adults. Their aerial magic is more akin to an olympic gymnast. They're so good they make it look easy, and frankly impossible for a layman like myself. It's simply beyond me. But watching, and feeling, these young osprey pushing against the air and contemplating their power, realizing what their wings are actually capable of, puts me right their in their shoes.
I can also relate to their anxiety of leaping out into the air. Every moment of their life up to their first flight has been earth bound through their nest. Their first leap is my first leap, and suddenly the terror, the rush of that first flight is as palpable as it would be for me jumping out of an airplane for the first time, or maybe hang-gliding off a cliff.
The other flight aid for me and my mind was a photo I snapped of a fledgling with it's wings spread out fully in the nest. I could see more clearly than ever the wing bones extending out from the chest. Suddenly the feathers looked like drapes or a cape, hanging off the birds "arms" (not unlike what you see in photos of bats). Prior to this little aha moment, I always viewed the wings as one big feathery appendage, extending out from the body. This little anatomy lesson was also a keen reminder that we're anatomically pretty similar. One might even say we're related.
In the end though, while the young osprey are twisting, turning and soaring through the air over the river and beyond, I'm still earthbound in my chair, typing this rumination. Fact is: I can't fly. This is where my imagination turns to envy. Oh well.
As of today, Wednesday, August 10th, all three juvy Osprey have officially fledged! After months of living entirely within the confines of a 3 foot wide nest, 40 feet in the air.
Bright and early this windy morning, a friend and I were lucky enough to witness the very first flight of the last fledgling. And the tape was rolling! I was able to tape the pondering, the anxiety, and finally a bold and decisive leap out into mid air. It was spectacular.
And what made it even more breathtaking--in addition to the gusting winds that were blowing her around--was the fact that she just kept flying and flying and flying, circling the nest, the poles, and the vast, vacant lot she's only been able to survey from the nest for the past couple months. Although we didn't see the others fledge, I presume they flew rather quickly and frantically to the safety of the neighboring telephone pole. Not this one. She flew for almost five minutes before flying out of our sight and into the realm of worry in our minds, especially after not seeing her return to either of the poles after nearly fifteen minutes. We thought perhaps the challenge of landing was keeping her indefinitely aloft.
We eventually glassed the entire lot and found her perched on a telephone pole way over on the other side of the property, near Michigan Ave. Maybe an hour later she eventually flew back to her family on the poles.
The whole morning was grand. Check out the birds if you can. The young are flying laps around the lot, testing their wings - and from what I can tell, completely loving their new found freedom in flight.
A young osprey tests it's wings against a firm breeze down at the Old Georgia Pacific lot on the Kalamazoo River.
He also tests the patience of a sibling when he comes down on their head with razor sharp talons.
These guys are precisely why I haven't been blogging as of late. I've been busy documenting the osprey for the past couple weeks, in preparation for a short documentary that will eventually broadcast locally, and eventually makes it's way online. I'll definitely keep you posted.
It's been quite a while since I've captured wildlife with "moving pictures"--not to mention sound--and it's a thrill to be back at it. It's also a magnified challenge compared to photography and the pursuit of a single image. Where as a picture's "worth a thousand words", moving pictures are like novels by comparison. Not that I'm creating a feature length documentary (I suspect this video will be a half hour long) but the complexity in weaving a story, over time, with footage, interviews, sounds, narration, and eventually music, requires way more focus and commitment than capturing single images. Ah, but what a treat.
These birds are in such a unique environment, down there at the intersection of industry, wilderness, traffic, the river, the PCB's, the politics, and of course, the multitudes of people drawn to the front gate to watch the Osprey and their young. And I believe the video will capture this unique milieu - with of course, a great deal of my own perception and flare thrown into the mix.
Perhaps my favorite dimension to this story are the people and their love of the birds. It's amazing how wildlife can bring people together, from so many different backgrounds, and generate so much good will.
There is of course a great measure of hope surrounding their nest, perched atop a telephone pole in the old Georgia Pacific lot. What exactly their presence represents, from an ecological/environmental standpoint, is yet to be determined. That's what I hope to uncover in the documentary.
Time to turn to the scientists and the experts. Sometimes they can tell us what wildlife simply can't.
The good news is in: the Osprey over in the old Georgia Pacific lot are a happy, family unit of five, with three healthy chicks. With rapidly forming wings, they're beginning to test them out in the nest, preparing for their fledge only a couple weeks away. I've been toughing it out in a tiny blind, in this sweltering heat, documenting them for a future video. Believe me, I'll be posting more on these birds soon.
During my many sits I've observed another aerial pair working this quirky little zone or habitat. A male and female Kestrel have been hunting regularly off the wires of the telephone pole that cradles the Osprey nest directly above. Since they target grasshoppers and small rodents, and the Osprey never veer from their diet of fish, they both have their distinct niche and can successfully coexist so close to one another. A nice, micro layering of biodiversity.
Southern Michigan is allegedly home to the southernmost, and second southernmost nesting pair of loons in the world. Quite an honor for our Great Lakes State. This is apparently as far south as these typically northern birds are willing to reside during the hot months of summer. Aren't we lucky to be in their range of tolerance. They are a splendid bird.
This little guy and his parents are the "second" southernmost pair, and they began as a family of two this year. A friend and his wife canoed the little lake and reported the two chicks on the nest mound and only one day later I was out kayaking only to find one chick. In 24 hours the family was down to one progeny.
Perhaps the success rate of a snapping turtle and his family has just increased.