Monday, February 27, 2017

How to photograph a wildflower for identification

I have spent a lot of time over the past few years on wildflower identification.  I completed "wildflower big years" in both 2014 and 2016.  I also frequently identify wildflowers and other plants for coworkers, friends, and members of the public.

By now, I can identify most of our common local wildflower species by sight.  Many other species I can narrow down to genus before resorting to field guides for a final identification.  I often carry my field guides into the field with me and identify plants on site.  On other occasions I photograph the plant in the field and use the photos to complete my identification later at work or home - maybe I don't have a field guide with me, maybe I have the wrong field guide (such as wildflowers instead of wetland plants) , or I simply lack the time to make a field identification.

When taking taking photos for identification there are several things you can do to make yourself more successful.

First, back up and take a picture of the plant in its environment.  This may seem like a strange first step in identification, but it gives you a couple of pieces of information.  This photo will show the habitat that the plant is growing in and other plants in that habitat.  Knowing the habitat is often important when trying to make an identification.  This is especially true when you are trying to identify a plant within a large family such as Buttercups (Ranunculaceae) or Goldenrods (Soidago) that have lots of similar species.  This picture also important because it helps give a sense of the size of the plant.  In portrait photography an image like this would be referred to as an environmental portrait.

An environmental portrait of Marsh Marigold

Second, take a picture showing the entire plant if possible, or as much of the plant as you can reasonably photograph.  This is like a taking a full body portrait of a person.  It gives you an overall sense of the plant.  It it bushy?  Lanky?  Does it sprawl?  It is upright?

Not the greatest photo of a Yellow Trout Lily, but it shows the entire plant with its distinguishing features

Whitlow Grass is so small it was easiest to pull a sample to get a good image - note tiny flowers and basal leaves

Next, photograph the leaves.  In fact take several photos of the leaves, including at least one that shows the bottom of the leaf.  Note how the leaves are arranged on the plant's stem (alternate, opposite, whorled, clustered at the base of the plant, or a combination).  Are the leaves simple (all one piece) or compound (made up of several smaller pieces).  Try to make sure you have a picture that shows the size of the leaves - I often hold leaves in my hand while photographing them.  Your photo should clearly show the margin of the leaves.  Are the leaves lobed?  Do they have smooth margins or are they toothed.  Make sure your photo shows the arrangement of the veins on the leaf.  Make sure to show how the leaf attaches to the stem of the plant.

This image of Feathery False Solomon's Seal clearly shows leaf arrangement, leaf margins, and vein pattern.

Field Sow-thistle - note prickles on leaf margins and clasping leaf base

Photo of Choke Cherry leaf - clearly shows vein arrangement, leaf margins, and size

Take a picture that shows the plant's stem/stalk.  What color is the stem? What shape is the stem in cross-section - round/square/etc.Is it round?   Is it smooth?  Does it have grooves?  Is it hairy?  Are there thorns or prickers?  If there are thorns/prickers, how long are they and are they straight or curved?  Take pictures of any unique features such as wings and sheaths.

This picture of Purple Loosestrife clearly shows the square stems (and the way the leaves are arranged/attached).

Finally take pictures of the flowers.  Make sure your photos show a frontal view of the flower and a side view.  You want as much detail as you can get.  Take several pictures of several different flowers if possible - there may be variation in number of petals that an individual flower has as well as color.  Get a picture of the base of the flower so you can see the sepals and/or bracts that support and protect the flower petals.  It the plant has prominent pistils and stamen make sure they show up in your picture.  Show how the flowers are arranged on the plant - in a spike, in open clusters, at the leaf axils (place where a leaf crows from the stem), individually at the top of long stems, etc..

This photo of a Chickweed flower clearly shows the size of the plant and important details such as number of petals
A side view of a Spotted Touch-me-not flower

A frontal view of the Spotted Touch-me-not flower. 

Remember, you are not trying to create art here.  The purpose of these photos is to help with identification.  You want to have as much detail as possible in your images. 

Friday, February 24, 2017

What bird signals spring?

People have been telling me about American Robin sightings all week.  Robins are not a reliable sign of spring.  Many robins stay in Mid-Michigan all winter.  I have regularly seen flocks ranging from 10 birds to more than 50.  They are just easier to see now.  During the coldest weather they were keeping to wooded areas where they fed on berries and other fruit.  Now, with no snow cover and most of the ground thawed, they are beginning to appear in lawns and other grassy areas to search for worms and other invertebrates.

If Robins are not a true sign of spring what bird is?

Red-winged Blackbird (Agelaius phoeniceus) - photo from March 2016

To me it's the Red-winged Blackbird (Agelaius phoeniceus).  While driving home yesterday (23 February) we saw three of them along US-127.  This is ten days earlier than my first sighting last year.  All of the Blackbirds that we saw males.  They are busy trying to impress each other and jockeying for territory.  It may take a couple of weeks to sort out which bird ends up with the best places in the landscape.  In the meantime, the females should find their way north to Mid-Michigan.

Females will then set about choosing their own territories (within those of a male).  A dominant male bird may have several females living in his territory and will mate with each of them.  The females select a mate based on territory - a male with a good territory will more likely have good genes to pass on to his offspring.  So it doesn't bother them that their mate may have other mates. The females are also likely to mate with more than one male. 

Thursday, February 23, 2017

Logging Images

During the winter, in addition to the science programs that I present at schools, I also spend a couple of months presenting two different programs on Michigan history.  One of these programs focuses on Michigan's logging history.

Logging was one of the first major industries in Michigan and products from Michigan's forests were used to build much of the nation's cities during the period after the American Civil War. For nearly half a century Michigan could lay claim to the title of the logging capital of the world.  While other a few other states may dispute this claim, it is hard to argue with a place where one river system alone produced over 22 Billion board feet of lumber during its run!

Recently I purchased a new lot of logging postcards.  Most of these are from Michigan, but unfortunately some of the photo locations are not documented on the images.

These postcards show vignettes of logging life. Most images are posed, with little action portrayed in the photograph.  One of my favorite images shows a crew of four with a team of horses (used to skid or drag the logs through the woods).  Two of the men lean on cant hooks used for rolling logs.  A third man leans on a double-bit axe.  I especially like the fact that two of the men in the picture have cut off the bottom of their overalls so they don't get soaked with snow.

A crew of men ready and equipped to move logs through the snowy woods. (Unknown location)
This next picture is a later image - it dates to probably the 1950s.  What I like about this picture is that it shows how teams of oxen (or horses) would be used to skid the logs.  A close look at the picture reveals the skidding tongs clamped onto each log.  The two sharp points of the tongs would bite into the log so it could be pulled through the snow.  Oxen were sometimes used in the camps because of their brute strength, but horse were both faster and required less feed so most camps preferred to use horses.

Oxen skidding logs (Newaygo County, MI)

I think this next picture is another later image.  The cleared land and fences give the impression that this photo was not taken during the early days of logging in Michigan.  I like that this image shows how multiple teams of horses would be connected in tandem to pull a load uphill.  When going downhill, a chain was often connected to the back of the sleigh and wrapped around a tree at the top of the hill where a team of horses would be used to help slow the sleigh down.

Three teams pulling a sleigh uphill (Oceana County, MI)

I have several pictures in my collection showing crews loading logging sleighs.  The men who stacked the logs on the sleighs were known as top loaders.  This was one of the most difficult and dangerous jobs in a lumber camp.  A good top loader would receive higher pay than many other members of a crew.

One common feature of many logging postcards is lumber camps showing off by loading the biggest sleigh-load of logs imaginable.  Sleighs loaded were not loaded like this on a daily basis.  Loads of this size are highly impractical.  They take too long to load and are really too large of a burden for the horses.
Loads like this were used to show off - they were not practical. (Wexford County, MI)

Despite the label on the postcard, this is not a "typical lumber scene".  While many lumbering images show full logs that would eventually be cut into boards, another side of logging was the cutting of railroad ties and fence posts.  Men who cut posts and ties were often paid by the piece rather than being paid by the day as they were in camps that cut large logs.

A forgotten part of logging was the cutting of ties and posts (Alpena County, MI)

I think this is another later image (sometime in the 20th Century).  It would have been highly unusual to use a sleigh to haul a single log.

Hauling a single log on a sleigh (Location unknown)

The next photograph shows a crew of "river hogs".  Also known as "river pigs", these men would float down the river during the spring log drives.  Corked boots (boots with spikes on the soles) allowed the to keep their footing as they walked on the floating logs.  They used pike poles (the long-handled tools) and peaveys (the short-handled tools) to keep the logs moving downstream.

River hogs use pike poles and peaveys to control the movement of logs on a river drive (Antrim County, MI)

By the 1880s, railroads became an important part of logging operations.  Trains allowed lumber crews to work far away from rivers.  The first image shows a train loaded with logs.  At the back of the train is a steam jammer.  This steam-powered winch and boom, pivoted on a central axis and allowed crews to lift logs to load them on the train cars.

Logging trains allowed companies to efficiently log far from rivers (Location unknown)

In this image, train cars are being loaded by the simpler method of cross-hauling.  In this process chain attached to a team of horses (or a powered winch) is used to drag logs up a ramp onto the train where they would be chained in place.  If you click on the image, both the chain and team of horses can be seen in the photo.

Crosshauling logs onto a Grand Trunk rail car at the Coopersville Depot (Ottawa County, MI)

After World War One, gasoline powered equipment such as this Holt tractor became available for logging.  These strong engines could pull long trains consisting of ten or more loaded sleighs across the snow.  In this picture, a second tractor with an additional train of sleighs can be seen at the left rear.

Gasoline tractors greatly reduced the need for horses in logging (Location unknown)

The piles of logs waiting for sawing at mills are a common feature of many logging photographs.  Logs would be stockpiled at the mills after the spring river drives and remain there until thy could be cut up into boards and other products such as shingles, barrel staves, etc..

Logs at a mill in Alpena. The ship in the middle ground is probably a lumber schooner. (Alpena County, MI)

The amount of logs could be truly staggering (Charlevoix County, MI)

The development of small steam-powered circular saws allowed portable mills to be set up almost anywhere.  Boards sawn at these mills would often used locally instead of being shipped for use out of state.

Portable mills often sawed lumber for local use (Location unknown)

Information on the back of the next image identifies it as Phipps Mill.  It was sent from Henderson, MI and I assume the image was taken near there.  I like that you can see the steam engine to the left of the photo and the belt drives that would power the mill.  I love seeing how the men are dressed in those old photos - I only wish they were in color.

Portable mill - note the steam engine and belt drives (Shiawassee County, MI)

The next picture shows a group of men outside a mill - a circular saw can be seen in the building at the rear.  I am going to presume that they are sawing wood  to lengths that would later be split into shingles.  The wood could also be used to feed the boiler that would provide steam power to the mill.  I like this image because it shows a clear picture of a two-man bucking saw.  Bucking saws are used to cut logs into lengths.  A man to the left rear holds a single-bit axe over his shoulder, and the man to the far right holds the handle of a cant hook (or peavey) for rolling logs.

A crew processing logs into short lengths probably for shingles (Location unknown)

The final picture shows an area of land after logging.  The stumps, snags, and slash on the ground would do little to hold the sandy soil in place.  Later, during the Great Depression, much of this area would be replanted by members of the Civilian Conservation Corps.

Large areas of the Great Lakes State were completely deforested during the latter half of the 19th Century          (Roscommon County, MI)

For more logging images check out these four posts.

Logging Photos - Getting Logs out of the Woods

More Logging Photographs

Michigan Logging Photos

Days Gone By - Logging Photos

Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Upcoming Events - Quiet Water Symposium (04 March 2017) & Wildflower Association of Michigan Annual Conference (05 & 06 March 2017)

Two of my favorite events of the year are occurring soon in East Lansing - the Quiet Water Symposium and the Wildflower Association of Michigan Annual Conference.  Both of these events take place on the campus of Michigan State University as part of MSU's Agriculture and Natural Resources Week.

The Quiet Water Symposium (QWS) will be happening on Saturday March 4th.  The Quiet Water Symposium is an event that focuses on non-motorized forms of recreation such as canoeing, kayaking, hiking, and cycling.  The event features approximately thirty hour-long presentations  and over 200 vendors/exhibitors.  It takes place at the MSU Pavilion for Agriculture and Livestock Education (4301Farm Lane, East Lansing, MI) from 9:00AM to 5:30PM.  The event costs $10 for adults, $5 for students with identification.  Children under the age of 12 are admitted free.

I will be helping my brother run a booth for his business (LeValley Outdoors) at QWS, but I always find time to wander around the exhibit area.  I enjoy looking at all the old and new canoes and kayaks.  I know quite a few people who are there representing different organizations.  I usually come home with several books from the Michigan Audubon bookstore, other outdoor books, maybe an old woodworking tool (or two), and sometimes even gifts for Shara.

Image may contain: 2 people, outdoor

The other event that I am looking forward to is the Wildflower Association of Michigan annual conference.  This event takes place on Sunday March 4th and Monday May 5th at the Kellogg Hotel and Conference Center (219 S. Harrison St., East Lansing, MI).  Early-bird registration for the WAM conference closes in two days (February 23rd), after that you can do a walk-in registration at the conference.  Walk-in registration is $80 for Sunday or Monday and $150 for both days.  Membership to WAM is required to register and costs $15 for an individual.  A buffet style lunch is included in the registration cost.

While it is a bit pricey, this is the one conference that I make sure to attend every year.  The keynote speakers are usually great and I learn a lot at the concurrent sessions.  It's a great place to pick peoples' brains if you have any questions about wildflowers and wildflower gardening - I make new connections and renew old connections every year.  They also have a room for vendors (books, jewelry, photography, pottery, art prints, etc.) - I always end up spending more than I should on wildflower and gardening books, sometimes art prints, and usually a piece of jewelry for Shara. 

If anyone ends up deciding to attend either of these events let me know.

Thursday, February 16, 2017

A bird in hand

Last week Shara stayed home sick from work one day.  While home, she heard a big thump on one of the windows at the back of our house.  A thump like that usually means that a bird has flown into one of the windows.  She grabbed her camera and went outside expecting to find a dead bird - unfortunately many birds are killed by the impact of flying into a window.

Instead, she found a very dazed, but still alive White-breasted Nuthatch (Sitta carolinensis).

Female White-breasted nuthatch - note frosted black cap, upturned bill, slate blue wings and back, and chestnut flanks.  It's really worth it to click on the picture and see all the details of the feathers.
She picked up the bird and held it for a few minutes while it recovered its senses.  It did not seem to have any permanent damage so once it was alert she placed it atop the rabbit hutch in our backyard and went back inside.  When she checked on it a few minuted later, it had flown away.

This nuthatch appears to be a female, based on the frosted black cap - males have a dark black cap.  Another interesting feature that you don't always notice is the patch chestnut colored feathers on its belly and flank.  An adult White-breasted Nuthatch measures about 5 - 5.5 inches (13 - 14 cm) from beak to tail, with a an 8 - 10.5 inch (20 -27 cm) wingspan.  They weigh between 0.6 and 1.1 ounces (18 - 30 grams) or about as much as 3 to 5 quarters.

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Drip. Drip. Drip. (The sap is running.)

The current warm daytime temperature and cold nights means that the sap is running in maple trees.  Even though it is a little earlier than most years, local syrup producers have begun tapping trees.

Sap buckets hanging on a maple tree

To Anishinaabe people in Michigan the maple sap is known as ziisbaakdwaaboo and the month of March is known as Ziisbaakdoke-Giizis (Sugaring Moon).  March is traditionally when the people would gather at sugar camp.  Today, people usually boil the sap until it becomes a thick syrup, but Anishinaabe people of the past continued boiling the syrup down until it began to granulize as maple sugar.  Sugar was one of the staple foods of the Anishinaabe people as it could packed into birch bark containers and stored for many months.

Sap drips from a spile into a sap bucket

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Luna obscura

Last Friday (10 February) was supposed to be a big night for astronomy.  There was a full moon.  There was also a partial lunar eclipse.  Finally, a comet was supposed to be visible in the eastern sky during the night!

Unfortunately, it was cloudy across Mid-Michigan.  Here was my view of the full moon seen through the trees by our house.  It was pretty, but not nearly as amazing as some of the full moons in recent months

Full moon through clouds and maple trees (10 FEB 2017)

Monday, February 13, 2017

Deer portraits

Last week I went to check one of my trail cameras; I recently purchased a second camera at a big discount.  This camera was placed in approximately the same location as it was for the first set of pictures that I shared.  I did move the camera a little closer to the trail I was photographing, with the goal of getting better pictures of the raccoon and opossum that I photographed the first time around.  The weather, rainy then cold, meant that there was very little animal activity, but one interesting thing happened.

This time the deer discovered the camera.

Here is part of a sequence of one young deer checking out the camera.

There is a lot of speculation about why animals notice game cameras.  Some people say that they see the camera taking photos (there is a tiny red light that goes off - deer do not see red very well).  Others say that the animals hear the camera take the picture.  Many suggest that animals smell the cameras, either human scent on the camera or the electronics themselves.  In reality, deer probably just notice that there is something in the woods that wasn't there before and they check out the camera just like a person would check out something new that suddenly appeared in their home.

Wednesday, February 8, 2017


Yesterday, during a presentation about wetlands, I was trying to explain what a bog is and how they form.  A student asked if I have any pictures of bogs - I didn't have any in my presentation.  I do however have a few pictures that I have taken of bogs.

The first photograph was taken at the Alma College Biological Station near Vestaburg, MI.  This bog shows the typical features of a bog that formed in a kettle lake.  A floating mat of living and dead sphagnum moss rings the bog.  Other plants, including trees, have taken root in the floating moss layer.   

This photo shows a view across the bog early in late April 2010.  In the foreground can be seen plants growing atop the floating mat of sphagnum moss.  The evergreen trees (mostly spruce) in the background are also growing atop the moss.  The leafless deciduous trees beyond the spruce trees are growing in the uplands that surround the bog.

Vestaburg Bog - Evergreen trees on the far side of the bog are growing on the floating mat of sphagnum moss.

The next two photographs come from the Chippewa Watershed Conservancy's Schaftenaar Preserve at the Hall's Lake Natural Area.  This bog also formed from a small kettle lake.  Unlike the Vestaburg Bog, this bog has filled in almost completely and there is no central area of open water. 

The first photo shows volunteers and staff from the Chippewa Watershed Conservancy crossing an area of this forested bog during a wetland plant survey in 2014.

Hall's Lake Natural Area - traversing a forested bog

This photograph shows a mushroom growing up in the carpet of sphagnum moss.  Sphagnum moss is the characteristic plant of bog.

Sphagnum moss

So how do bogs like these form?

When the glaciers that covered Michigan during the last Ice Age began to retreat northward they did not melt evenly.  In many places large blocks of ice were left behind when the rest of the nearby glacier melted.  These blocks of ice would be surrounded by a thick layer of glacial till.  Glacial till is the name for all of the sediments such as rock, gravel and sand that were transported under and within the glacier as it advanced southward.  When the glaciers retreated, the till was left lying over the landscape.

When the block of ice melted, they left a depression surrounded by hills formed from glacial till.  These depressions are known as kettle lakes.  Many kettle lakes are deep and steep sided.  Most kettle lakes lack input or output from streams.  They drain slowly through the soil surrounding them and are recharged by rainwater.  Because the lakes lack input from streams, they often lack many of the minerals that plants need to thrive.

While the surrounding upland areas are colonized by a wide variety of plants, the mineral-poor water of the kettle lakes restricts the number of species that can grow within them.   One species that does well in this habitat is sphagnum moss.  The moss will begin growing from the shoreline and extend out over the surface of the water as a floating mat.  At this point we can begin to refer to the kettle as a bog.

Over time this floating mat will thicken to the point that other plants will begin to take root within the moss, including trees.  At the same time, organic matter will slowly begin to accumulate on the bottom of the bog.

Over time the mat will continue to thicken and grow toward the center of the bog.  Organic matter will also continue to fill the bottom of the bog.

Eventually the kettle will fill in completely with live and dead moss and other organic matter.  The organic matter will continue to hold large amounts of moisture and may continue to support species that cannot be found in the nearby uplands.

Tuesday, February 7, 2017

To modify or not to modify, that is the question...

With the exception of cropping for size, I almost never modify photos from their original form.  I don't adjust brightness, sharpness, or color.  I don't believe in taking bad photos and "fixing" them later.  The photos that you see on this blog are, unless noted, exactly as they appeared on the camera.  Sometimes that means that something that I though would be cool when I photographed ends up being rather blah when seen on the computer screen.

Why do I take this approach with the photos you see here?

I do it because so many of the nature photographs that I see on the internet or in magazines have been modified far from their original state, often without any acknowledgment that they have been changed in any way.

Some people would argue that photographers have always modified their images.  That is true to some extent, but the photo processing tools available today mean that a mediocre photographer can turn into a "great" photographer with a few clicks of a mouse. 

Do I think I a great photographer?  Absolutely not! Jimmie Chin is a great photographer! Art Wolfe is a great photographer! Galen Rowell was a great photographer!

I just like to take good, honest photographs and am happy when I take a picture that people like.

Now that I am done with that diatribe (to use the little used, archaic meaning - a prolonged discourse), I want to share a picture that I did modify on the computer.

I took this photo of ice crystals on Saturday.  While loading them onto my computer I decided to open one picture in my photo editor and play around.  I didn't like any of the effects until I came to one called "Horror Movie" (or maybe it was "Scary Movie").  I really like the tone that it gave to the picture.

For comparison, here is the original picture without any modification.

I like this picture.  If I want to show the formation of ice crystals on a stream I would happily use this image.  I just like the "look" of the modified picture more.

What do you think?

Monday, February 6, 2017


Part of my day Saturday (04 February) was spent wandering the woods at Mill Pond Park and Mission Creek Park.  The day was kind of dreary, with a dull flat light.  So even though I took over 150 photographs, I was not happy with most of them.  My favorite pictures of the day had a common feature - texture.  Texture is something that I find myself photographing over and over again.  I have even written one post specifically about the subject.

Here are three photos showing some of the textural variety that I encountered on Saturday.

The rings on this wood are decaying at an uneven rate, resulting in the grooves seen here.

 A closer view of a section of ice on Mission Creek

This fallen log is covered with a layer of yellow fungus.