Autumn has come upon southwest Michigan like the mist in the morning. In some places it is thick and defines the scene, in others it is barely present and easy to ignore. If you wanted to pretend it is still summer, you could turn your back on the bright red maple and look down a narrow row of trees and see only green.
More subtle signs are more telling. The insects that fly in the fields are like tick marks on the face of a clock, always pointing towards the true time of the season. And of course, I see nothing but Autumn Meadowhawks, and the occasional Buckeye Butterfly.
I visited the old farmstead to see what had become of this field. The logging has stopped and the huge piles of trees have been cleared out. The little parking area that had been rutted by the constant flow of semi-trucks, coming and going to get the logs, was graded and planed to be almost smooth. I stopped and wandered down to the pond. The field was recently mown so there was no tall grass for the dragons to perch upon. But many joined pairs of Autumn Meadowhawks filled the air over the water. More numerous were they than the single dragons, or so it seemed.
I live in the city and have a small urban yard. It’s not much for attracting wildlife, but it is sometimes surprising to see what can pass through this little space. Over the last few years I’ve been trying to cultivate wildflowers in a strip along the edge of the yard. The project has resulted in a mixture of domestic and wild plants, some native and many not.
Here we have phlox, grey coneflower, day lilies and queen of the prairie alongside peonies, tulips, and spearmint. Some tall grasses pop up here and there. Asters bloom in the spring and autumn, some white, some blue. Each year I mow a little less of the lawn and leave a few inches more to go wild. The grass grows high and in a few weeks the coneflower, asters or phlox appear and get started.
This year I stopped mowing back a bull thistle plant. The plant always managed to send out spiny leaves that were low enough to avoid the mower’s blade, but it was never able to send forth its flowering stems. After several years of being mowed back it finally got its chance to bloom, and it sent out an array of thorny stems and branches that soon bore lots of flower heads.
The flowers weren’t particularly attractive to my eye, but they brought in interesting visitors. I saw several swallowtail butterflies visiting the plant while it was in bloom, but as the first flowers faded a pair of goldfinches showed up regularly to eat the seeds and harvest the silk for their nest.
I first noticed this one day around noon. I had just gotten into my car and glanced over at the thistle to see a female goldfinch with a mouthful of downy thistle seeds. She looked like she had silky white whiskers. Over the next few weeks the pee-weep pee-weep became commonplace, as the pair would land on the thistle to feast on its seeds and gather the down.
In addition to letting the thistle grow, I stopped feeding the birds for the summer. The birdseed that had fallen from the feeders over the winter sprouted and started to grow. Early in the summer we had many stalks of wheat, that turned brown and died up by midsummer. Only after it was dry would the squirrels nip off the seed head and eat the wheat kernels. Lots of sunflowers also rose up, and these too where a favorite of the finches and other birds.
Looking at Stoke’s Guide to Bird Behavior, I see that the goldfinch nests and breeds rather later in the summer, and that nest building starts in July and runs through August. The timing of the bull thistle’s flowers and subsequent seed heads and down is perfect for the finches.
In early September I cut down the now dried up and dead thistle. The finches weren’t visiting it anymore, and the dried up stalks were pretty ugly. I put out a feeder filled with Niger thistle seed, and set the dried husk of the bull thistle onto the top of the compost pile, where the birds could still visit it if they needed any more down.
Next year, if a bull thistle shows up, I think I’ll let it grow.
Here are a few more dragonfly shots from early August. All of these were taken in the Fred McLinden Nature Trails Park. Again - no attempt to identify the red meadowhawks.
Autumn is coiming hard and early this year, and as a result I have no new photos from the last few weeks.
Here are three dragonflies shot in the Fred McLinden nature trails in early August. I never got around to posting the images from that shoot – so here they are. We have two red meadowhawks and a spangled skimmer. I won’t try to ID the meadowhawks – but will comment that they yellow joints on the legs of the second photo look unusual to me.
A few more from McLinden will be posted later this week.
The autumn equinox is just over two days away, that makes this the last weekend of summer 2010. Like recent weekends, it has been cool, cloudy and wet. The trees that were just pale a week ago have leapt forward in bright autumn colors and fallen leaves scurry and scuttle along the sidewalks – swept along by autumnal breezes.
No visit to the Allegan forest this week. Yesterday’s drizzle was not inviting. I left to go there this morning but halfway out I realized that I had left the flash and bracket sitting in another camera bag. And so I turned around.
I did get to the Fred McLinden nature trails, located just outside of Kalamazoo. I wasn’t there 45 minutes. It was a little slice of time spent wandering the brown and gray fields. It was like a little slice of rhubarb pie – delicious and special.
I didn’t see many odonates during this short walk. I think back to an October day a few years ago when I ran into a very late Widow Skimmer, well past its time and season. That recollection fuels hope – maybe a late Blue Dasher, or White Faced Meadowhawk, or other species made exotic by time if not place, will show up.
No luck with that. A few yellow legged meadowhawks flew around, always going high into the honeysuckle when they saw me. But I did see this American Rubyspot Damselfly, show below. I don’t recall ever seeing one before, and while its pose is awkward I was glad to capture it in a photograph. That’s something to remember, in an otherwise unmemorable weekend.
My visit to Grand Marais, Michigan almost three months ago feels like ancient history to me now. But I have one more set of snapshots to post before the trip fades from my mind forever.
Here are a few shots of the pictured rock national lakeshore. This first one was taken from the top of the cliff, looking down on Miners Point:
Here are a couple more shots, taken from the pictured rocks boat tour. The boat tour offers a great opportunity to get photos of the rocks, and we took the tour on our last night up north. It was a beautiful, sunny late afternoon with warm temps.
I packed a the Pentax K-7 and 17 – 48 mm lens. I also brought a polarizer and plenty of memory cards. Well, I got most of that right – the polarizer cut the glare of water on the rocks and I wound up shooting tons of images – 20 gigabytes worth – so the memory cards came in handy.
However, I wish I had brought a longer lens – something in the 100 – 200 mm range would have been ideal at times. I thought that the rocks were big and we’d be close to them in the boat, and they were and we were. But there were plenty of times when the light just looked better on a distant feature of the rocks, or the boat was just a bit too far off for the long end of my general purpose zoom. So my advice would be to bring a longer lens.
I was also shooting with the Pentax K-7 with in body shake reduction. That probably helped a lot – I didn’t do any tests – but when you consider that you are in a boat that is bobbing or bouncing on the waves and the whole boat is vibrating with the pulse of the engines, you realize that you need either a fast shutter speed or some form of shake reduction to minimize motion blur. In my case I had both and sharp images were the norm.
Here is a final snap shot of pictured rocks – a several image composite taken as the boat was head back to port. The images were run through Photoshop’s photo merge utility. Click on it for a larger view.
Autumn slinks into the season by stealth and strategy. Even though it will be summer for another week yet, the signs of autumn abound. Some are obvious – an isolated tree with a red shock at the tips of its branches, the tree gone over to October already and blazing orange in the warm sun. But most signs are more subtle – greens more pale, foliage more thin, a subtle adjustment to the hues of nature as if the world were ripening, reaching the peak, and then preparing to spoil and rot in fall and winter…
And of course the Autumn Meadowhawks are everywhere, joyous harbingers of fall. They dance in the still strong sunlight of early September, as they will dance in the hollow and weak rays of late November or even early December…
Today I saw nothing but Autumn Meadowhawks, and though their arrival stirs a bit of sorrow in my heart – knowing that the summer is fading – they are still beautiful creatures and just as wonderful as the dragons of spring and high summer.
I shot today in the fields north of the river, in the Allegan Forest, of course. After that, I made my way to some fields off 44th street, just south of the river. In most places, the dull thud-thud-thud of hunters shooting off shotguns was a constant backdrop. The seasons turn…
I made my way down a narrow two track to a nice spot, a place where the lupine blooms in the spring and one of the few places where you can reliably find Karner Blue Butterflies. Everywhere I went the Autumn Meadowhawks were there, and I saw no black legged meadowhawks or skimmers or cruisers, though the common green darners were, of course, abundant. In the little clearing at the end of this two track I snapped this photo of an autumn meadowhawk using the infrared camera. I am disappointed to find no secret messages encoded in infrared ink on the wings of these dragons. In fact, the infrared shots are rather banal. Well, other uses for that camera, and here is an infrared shot of an Autumn Meadowhawk:
I haven’t had much time to experiment with the infrared converted Pentax K10D, but did manage to take a few snapshots while in central Indiana earlier this week. Here’s a semi driving by a row of trees, as seen from the far end of a soybean field:
Labor Day weekend – the unofficial end of summer - is greeted with a very autumnal shift in the weather in SW Michigan. In the days just before the holiday the temperatures drop into the mid 40’s in the evening and daytime highs stay well in the 60’s. I decided however to take advantage of the fair weather and experiment a bit with the new IR converted camera.
I drive into the Allegan forest from the south, and pull over at a spot off 44th street. The place seems to be little visited – the vestiges of an old two track are faint, with just two gravel bands snaking out into the field. Tall grasses have gown up before the old road and in the center section. They are indeed tall – in some places cane like grass reaches up 7 or 8 feet into the air.
A few yards in and the air is teeming with dragonflies. It’s about 9:30 in the morning – earlier in terms of sunrise than a few months ago . The night before also had been fairly cool. Perhaps I was rousting a horde of sleeping dragons as I wandered into the tall grasses. At any rate, I switched over to the standard camera and started pursuing the dragonflies.
The day was breezy and the sky was full of small fair weather clouds. This resulted in difficult shooting situations – targets swaying in the breeze under changing light – and I missed many shots that day.
Walking through the tall grasses lots of large darners and many smaller meadowhawks took to the air. There were dozens if not hundreds of the dragonflies, and looking around in the dewy grass it was easy to spot lots of the large darners in the vegetation.
Most of the meadowhawks that surfaced appeared to be Autumn Meadowhawks, with their distinctive yellow legs. Other of the red and brown meadowhawks were harder to identify. In addition to the meadowhawks, I encountered a few brown saddle bags.
I ultimately made my way along the two track and into a large field bordered by trees. The field is beautiful this time of year, with acres of golden rod, dried knapweed, and wild strawberries turning red. Here were more meadowhawks, posing on the dried knapweed blooms. Here also were some monarch butterflies, flitting on the golden rod and other sparse flowers.
A great new tool arrived in the mail yesterday – an infrared converted Pentax K10D! This is a digital SLR which has had the infrared blocking filter removed from the sensor and a 720 nm IR filter (blocking most visible light) installed in its place.
I did a lot of work with my standard K10D (and still have it as a backup for the K7). It’s a competent camera with excellent anti-shake and great ergonomics. It is not as full featured as the K7, but it is fast and the missing features are not essential.
So… home in the early evening I fired up the new camera with a standard zoom and stepped outside to take a snap shot of the tulip poplar in my side yard. I set the white balance manually off the green grass. I didn’t expect much in terms of the photo since it was cloudy, rainy, and overcast. But it was late in the day and IR light is a bit more pronounced at twilight. So here’s the first snapshot – I swapped the red and blue channels in Photoshop to enhance the colors:
Today remained cloudy, though a little bit of sun poked through the clouds now and then. With temps only reaching in to the low 60’s, fall certainly is in the air. I ran off to the McLinden trails to see if I could snag a dragonfly or two with the IR camera. With the clouds, gusty winds, and cool temps the dragons tended to keep low to the ground, but there were plenty of autumn meadowhawks out and about. Here’s one IR shot I managed – the bright red dragon takes on a slightly different hue here:
I’m really impressed by how sensitive this camera is to light, which means how great the shutter speeds can be. Just an initial observation – but my impression is that the altered camera is two to three stops more sensitive than a standard camera. I will do some comparisons when we have a sunny day and stable lighting.
Shooting the dragonfly reminds me of a shot that has been languishing on my hard drive for some years now. Here is a Twelve Spotted Skimmer, shot with my old *ist-D and a Hoya RM90 filter for IR work. At ISO 1600 it was a three second shot. Getting the shot was a challenge – I had to set up a tripod close to it, manually focus without the IR filter, put the filter on and shoot. Well, it came out, more of a curiosity than anything else. But it will no longer languish as the sole infrared dragonfly image in the vault.
Summer moves along at its appointed pace. A couple weeks without rain the fields begin to ripen and are tinged with brown. The tall grass quickly turns from green to yellow to brown. Wild strawberry goes red and brown, prickly leaves wilting close to the soil. Looking through the finder of my camera I see red dragonflies with brown backgrounds, where just a few short weeks ago I saw gold or blue dragons with a green backdrop.
I drove into the Allegan Forest with every intent of visiting the logged fields, but on this morning I decide to take an alternative route, and instead of travelling through Otsego and Allegan, I instead headed through Alamo, Gobles, and d Bloomington, to come upon the game area from the south. This route takes you along the back roads (in an area where all of the roads are more or less back roads). Going north on 48th Street I see a little field that I have visited a few times in the past, and realize that it has more or less escaped being logged.
I pulled into the little parking area. Lots of new tree stumps, branches, and piles of wood chips block the parking are off from the rest of the field – new evidence of some logging activity. As I walk into the field I see some deep ruts in the sandy soil, a few bare patches and piles of wood chips, and one rather small pile of branches – maybe about the size of a typical two car garage – that is on top of much older pile of branches left years ago. Overall, the area is still relatively undisturbed.
And so, let’s see what dragonflies are here…
The autumn meadowhawks are making themselves known, but the red meadowhawks of high summer are still the most abundant. Here’s a red Meadowhawk sitting on a dried knapweed bloom, which seems to be lit up before him:
And here is another red Meadowhawk, on another knapweed bloom, with the olive green / brownish fields making a backdrop:
Of course, dragonflies aren’t the only insects of in the late summer field. As always, the American Copper Butterflies – tiny things about the size of a dime – are especially abundant. Here’s one perched on a dried leaf, guarding its tiny kingdom.
Butterflies are not rare in the game area, but I honestly see few monarchs or giant swallowtails in any one place. From time to time, I’ll see spicebush swallowtails in a few numbers, but here in this field this morning I saw many monarchs and quite a few giant swallowtails. The giants managed to elude me, but here are a few shots of the monarchs:
It was a nice Saturday morning in the fields. I never got out of that first field I visited, and never made it to the logged field. I used up my allotted time in this one small field – something I have no complaint about – and drove back south in the early afternoon to retrace my route back home. I thought I had some nice shots of the monarchs and dragons but, meh, a few images that are at best competent is all I found when I downloaded the memory cards. Oh well – it was a nice morning in the wilds.
Here is a parting shot of an autumn Meadowhawk sitting on a pale plant whose name I either do not know or cannot remember, though it is quite popular with the butterflies.
Here we are, in late August. Summer is ripening and beginning to turn. Can the Autumn Meadowhawks be far off?
Not at all – and they greeted me in the forest today, announcing the turn of the seasons as the days march along. Here is the first one I saw, posed elegantly on a thorny branch, showing off it’s yellow legs:
I think the old name for these dragonflies – Yellow Legged Meadowhawks – was more accurate than the new common name – Autumn Meadowhawk. I mean, autumn is over a month away and here they are. And their legs are yellow.
Here’s the second one I saw today – on a dried seed head, quite appropriate: