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  • Todd

Winter? What Winter?

For many years now I have looked forward to our Michigan winters because freezing temperatures mean lake ice and snow. Ice and snow bring with it predictability. By predictability I mean that animals have certain tendencies under these conditions and that makes it more predictable to locate them. Maybe, more than anything, these cold, windy, snowy days mean less people out and about and that is good for the nature photographer!


This year, all the above was garbage. Warmer temperatures, little snow (by normal standards) and no real lake ice to speak of. Nothing was the way it was supposed to be! And people! People everywhere! There is nothing like getting out to a spot before the sunrise, get set up, wait and wait for that subject to work it's way toward you and just when the conditions are perfect...yep, Ma and Pa Kettle are out for a walk dragging a screaming 6 year old and Fido with them. This winter, THAT was predictable! Then, of course, comes the question - "Get any good pictures?" On the outside I'm laughing and shaking my head, on the inside I'm screaming!!! I won't print what I'm screaming. There's always something...


Like the only time this year I wished I had on my bib overalls and didn't. It started out perfect. Chilly, but sunny morning up the river where I had gotten reports of a Greater White-fronted Goose. This area I'm at is the junction of two rivers and there is next to nothing for cover out here. Wide open spaces. I parked near the where the rivers connected, walked over the ridge to look at the smaller of the rivers and lo and behold on a patch of ice in the river is about 150 geese and a few dozen ducks! A quick scan made me think it wasn't there, but when I took a second look with the binoculars, it was there! Pretty dang close to! Sneak back to the car, grab the camera, back to the spot and like on cue the wind picks up and the next thing I know I have snow and sand blowing everywhere! I look back to try and find my car and I can barely see it. I'm leaning over the top of the camera trying to keep it clean and the snow and sand are going down the backside of my jacket. There is one small man-made structure I'm able to get to and use as a wind break. It helps a little but I'm still watching for Dorothy and her farmhouse to come crashing down upon me!! The entire hour this is taking place, the geese just tuck their heads up under a wing and nap. Didn't seem to bothering them one bit. I'm numb. Why didn't I put those bibs on? I may have still froze but it probably would have taken a little longer.


It really did seem like an hour but it was likely more like 30 minutes. The wind began to settle and as I looked back to where I had parked, I notice a big red GMC pickup. Doors open and a couple guys get out. These guys are obviously smarter than I am because they put their bibs on! I figure they are looking for the goose also, but no, wrong. Next thing I know Laurel and Hardy walk past me down to the river's edge with fishing poles. I never knew that geese were scared by fishing poles but as soon as these two got down there, the geese lifted off like an air raid siren went off. Deep breath, count to 10, grab my camera and begin to walk away. As I'm leaving I hear a shout from behind me, "Hey, get any good pictures?" Unprintable words again and "I hope you fall in the river" muttered under my breath. I need a coffee.


Fortunately I know this area fairly well and I had an idea where the geese might go. First though, I needed to back track along the river as something had caught my eye on my drive in.

All white mallard!

This white mallard surprised the heck out of me. It swam, ate and napped with the other mallards and I just have to believe it's a wild bird.


After a quick stop to get that coffee, I headed up river to where I thought those geese may have gone. It was definitely a goose hot spot. Geese were all over and it took a bit of searching but I found my "Specklebelly"!!



Each year we get some Greater White-Fronted Geese passing through Michigan. This was only the 2nd time I've seen one. These geese spend summers up in the Northwest Territories of Canada and parts of western Greenland. In winter, they would tend to be more popular west of the Mississippi River.


As I walked back to the car, I spotted and old winter time friend. Mr. Long-tailed Duck!



These sea ducks are happy to spend winters in the Great Lakes. Once known as Oldsquaw's, the now politically correct Long-tailed Duck is a treat to watch land as they belly-flop and bounce into the water like no other!


Yet a little further up the river is a spot I like for catching ducks in flight. Being the odd winter, not much variety to be seen but I had fun with the Mallards that were there.


Love the darker background on this.

Can you see the grass in the corner of it's mouth?

Reports from this area included a Snow Goose but it was nowhere to be found.


I believe February 2nd was my last trip to the "farm" to see the deer. I was surprised to see many bucks still sporting antlers. Having a mild winter will certainly help these guys stay healthy and, with a little luck, they won't get hit by a car or worse, poached.




A certain owl friend of mine made his usual appearance only this time I spooked him while photographing the deer. As luck would have it, I could follow his flight through the leafless trees. I decided to sneak around to try and get a good picture of him. As I did so, a second owl took flight! He has a mate! Since this happened, I have located the male owl many times but have not been able to locate the nest or the female. I've heard them calling in the early morning hours, but finding her has been a chore. Owlets are now hatching so if they have little ones, it won't be long before the young are big enough to hop out of the nest. With some luck, I'll be able to photograph them in the near future. For now, I'm giving it a rest. I don't want to pressure them.




A Great-Blue Heron caught my eye late one morning as I was returning to my car. It was a warm day and so I decided to sit a while and hope that maybe the Heron would catch a fish. The half dozen Mallards in the pond provided some entertainment as the Heron just stood there. I sat, waiting, and waiting. The Heron never made a move for a fish.


While I was watching, a Belted Kingfisher came screaming in. The Kingfisher always seems to announce his presence by making the strangest rattling noise. You know it the second you hear it! This bird is a pain for me. I can never get the photograph I want and this day was no different. The slightest movement sends this bird to the next county.

Another visitor to the pond that morning got the Heron's attention as well as mine. It flew in, dove into the brush were it stayed for about 20 minutes, then popped back up on a branch for a quick photo opportunity. Still not sure what kind it is.


It was a rather relaxing morning sitting watching all this in the morning sunshine.


How unusual was this winter? In a typical winter I'm down to Lake Erie probably 10-12 times. This year the count was far lower...1. That's it. December - February, one trip down. The month of March has already tied that, but that will be the next time, don't want to spoil you all.

The trip down was actually for a different reason that did not work out as I had hoped. Such is the way it goes some days. So instead, I decided to set up at a spot I've use for eagles and hope for some action. For years I would photograph eagles here. They were definitely around but just as I got settled in, along came another photographer! A chatty photographer at that! Oh lucky me! In just a matter of 10 short minutes I knew that he was retired, where he retired from, that he lived in Monroe, his son lived in Mt. Clemens, his granddaughter's birthday was February 22nd, he owned a cabin cruiser, but sold it. He wanted to be a professional outdoor photographer, his wife was happy he found a hobby (I'll bet she is happy!)....oh yeah and then the comment, "you should have been here yesterday". I knew I had to get away and once again my empty coffee cup came to my rescue - sort of. "I'm going to run up the road and get a coffee" I said to him. "Oh that reminds me, I left my coffee in the truck" he says. He then proceeds to walk out with me all the way to the parking lot. I'm sure he is a great guy but I was in no mood for chit-chat. I drove down a ways and parked where he would not see me. As I sat there in the car it dawned on me that although he told me a bunch of things, he never once mentioned his name! To top it off, as I sat there laughing about this, an eagle flew over my car not 20' high. Camera looked good sitting there on the passenger seat...

I did manage a couple shots before I left.



Not nearly as close as the one that flew over the car, but better than being skunked!


On my way home I stopped at another spot where I've had some luck now and then for different things. Today was a good stop, Snow Goose!



This is about the spot I was about 5 days ago when suddenly my computer screen flashed and everything I had written was gone. It's supposed to save as I go but obviously it has it's quirks too. Believe me, this was much funnier the first time I wrote it!


While not a barn burning event, I did get a tip on a American Wigeon that was hanging out at a local pond. Not having a ton of time this particular morning, I decided to give it a go. Sure enough, there he was, hanging around with all the mallards. This drake was all dressed up for the upcoming breeding season!



This area looks to me to be the perfect place for predators. A hawk once lived in the woods here for years. Same set of pine trees year after year. A screech owl or two was also known to the area, but I was thinking the furry four-legged kind this day. The tracks I saw in the remaining snow made me think I was right.


I set up near the junction of a river, the state land I was on and the private property next to it. My hunch was that the private property next door, long abandon, would hold a coyote. I set my FoxPro caller up on the edge of a clearing and I moved under some hanging branches of a tree about 30-35 yards away. I played a coyote howl and hit the mute button. A look of puzzlement came over me when I heard the same call back! Was it another person or was that real? Movement from the private property caught me eye and not one but two coyotes came out! Too far for a photo but definitely interested in the call. They paused and looked toward the call. Then they disappeared behind the treeline. I knew they must be headed for an opening in the fence somewhere so I got ready. Just as I was set, I hear snow crunching and someone approaching. I turned to ask them to stop and when I did I was greeted by a long snout and a set of pointed ears just behind the rise, staring at me. BUSTED! The second coyote was moving in the background so I hit the call again. Not 10 seconds later it popped out in the perfect spot, headed right to the call! This one was much more colorful than the grey one that spotted me. I snapped maybe 8 pictures before it realized something was amiss and turned back to the woods. I can not tell you what a rush this was. Everything happened so fast. The moment was every bit as exciting as any hunt I've ever been on. The couple of people that got my text message will confirm that!




What makes me laugh about this entire scenario is that I was dressed in the same camo coat I wear to work each day, blue jeans, my muck boots and a baseball cap! I had about as much cover in front of me as the coyote has in this last picture. Had I been hunting this would not have happened. Sometimes you just have to cross your fingers and hope a little luck comes your way. This was a lucky day.


Until next time, get outdoors (just not where I'm taking pictures!).


-Todd




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