On Saturday, I hiked in the Houdek Dunes Natural Area, north of Leland, Michigan. One of the interesting features of Houdek Dunes is the presence of very old white birch trees. Birch trees are a transitional tree in the succession of the forest. You generally see them in parts of the dunes where the forest has begun to take hold.
The trails at Houdek Dunes pass through a mature forest of beech and maple trees. But, in the valleys of the dunes are white birches that are over 100 years old. That is extraordinary for a birch tree.
Time, however, catches up with these old birches and more and more you are likely to see them lying on the forest floor.
The innards of a fallen birch tree decay before its bark. Strewn throughout the forest you see the white remains of a once stately tree.
Of course, the rotting tree provides nutrients to the soil and other vegetation in the area.
And, while the forest is now composed primarily of beeches and maples, you will see an occasional young birch tree fighting to establish itself in the understory.
The birch tree below is my favorite along the trail. Clearly past its prime, it shows evidence of the struggle to compete in the forest. Barren of leaves now, a standing skeleton of a tree, its roots once grabbed for the soil and a branch reached out to find the light among the surrounding red pines. I visit this tree each time I return to Houdek Dunes. I suspect that one of these days, I will find that branch lying on the ground, another victim in the story of forest succession.
For an earlier post on the birches at Houdek Dunes click here.
I had another chance to go north this weekend to try my hand at a little night sky photography. The last “Super Moon” of the year arrived on Thursday. As a bonus, mid-August is the peak of the Persied meteor shower. So, I planned a shot of the full moon the following night right between the silos of the D.H. Day Barn at the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore. I used the Photopills app to determine where I needed to stand and the time I needed to be there to shoot the moon in all its glory above the barn. I was able to reserve one of the last available campsites at the D.H. Day campground and headed north.
In the afternoon, I used the augmented reality feature of Photopills at the D.H. Day farm to confirm that the shot would work. The photo below hints at the problem I would encounter. The wispy clouds in the sky are cirrus uncinus clouds. In Latin that means “curly hooks.” The clouds are commonly called “mare’s tails,” and are precursors of rain.
The sky was filled with mare’s tails. Things weren’t looking good, but I had several more hours before sundown and moonrise.
I decided to watch the sunset from Van’s Beach in Leland, Michigan. While waiting for the show, I snapped some photos of the boats in the harbor. The reflection of a sailboat’s mast caught my eye. I watched the reflection as it morphed with each passing boat.
It became clear that there would be no great sunset show and likely no shot of the moon over the D.H. Day barn. The clouds in the west were headed my way, fulfilling the prediction of the mare’s tails. I took a photo of the entrance to the harbor and then set upon my way, hoping the skies would be clear 20 miles to the southwest.
No such luck. At the D.H. Day farm, the sky was thick with clouds. I determined to go with my plan B, a shot of the Point Betsie lighthouse. Point Betsie was another 24 miles to the south. On the way, I stopped by the beach at Empire. There’s a small lighthouse there in the middle of a parking lot. When I got there, the parking lot was full of revelers enjoying the evening. The night was dark but there was a faint reflection on the water. An 11 second exposure looking into the darkness revealed what was barely visible to the naked eye.
Finally, I made it to Point Betsie. My goal was to get a shot of the light house with the lamp lighted. The challenge is that the lamp is so bright compared to the lighthouse itself that if you expose for the lighthouse, the lamp gets blown out and has no detail. But, I had a plan.
Every lighthouse has its own “signature.” Some lights rotate, some are stable. Some flash, while others stay lit constantly. The Coast Guard publishes a list of the signatures of every lighthouse and buoy in the country. I knew from the list that the Point Betsie light flashed white for one second every ten seconds. After much experimentation, I discovered that a 3.5 second exposure allowed for a proper balance between the lighthouse itself and the lamp. But the key was not having the shutter open for the full one second the lamp was on. I learned to open the shutter shortly after the lamp lit so that it was on for probably just a half second or less during my exposure. I was helped in getting a proper balance by the moon, which peaked through the clouds, lighting the side of the building. I augmented the moon’s light with a small light panel.
The photo reminds me of an Edward Hopper painting. Hopper, of course, lived and painted for many years on Cape Cod, an area that resembles the Leelanau Peninsula in many ways. His work has influenced many photographers.
Mission accomplished, I drove back to the campground and crawled into my sleeping bag about 1:30 a.m. I was awakened briefly at 3:00 a.m. by the sound of raindrops hitting my tent fly. Never doubt those mare’s tails!
Earlier in the week, Friday night looked like it would provide a great opportunity to try my hand at nightscape photography. The long-range weather forecast predicted clear skies, and the moon would not rise until long after the galactic center of the Milky Way would reach its highest point in the night sky. As luck would have it, the D.H. Day Campground at Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore had one campsite left for Friday night. So I reserved it and started planning.
I used an app called Photopills to identify possible locations to shoot. The app allowed me to locate a spot on the map and see where the Milky Way would be in relation to it in the night sky. I checked out several locations, finally deciding on three sites that would be close enough that I could cover each of them in one evening.
On Friday morning, I made the three hour drive to Glen Arbor, Michigan, and visited my intended locations during the afternoon. I used the augmented reality feature of Photopills at each site to confirm the position of the Milky Way at the times I intended to shoot. Now all I needed was clear skies.
I had been using three different sources to predict the weather for Friday evening. Two forecast clear skies and one predicted thunderstorms. Turns out, all three were partially right and partially wrong. As evening approached, so did some foreboding clouds.
Undaunted and certain that “this too shall pass,” I set up at my first location (the old cannery in Glen Haven) around 11 p.m. I could see some breaks in the fast moving clouds, but soon the rain began to fall. I jumped into my car and headed to my next location, hoping that the sky there would be clear. Within a few miles I was in the midst of a thunderstorm, so I pulled over to the side of the road to wait it out. It didn’t take long for the storm to pass. Within 10 minutes I was on my way again.
My second location was the bridge over the Crystal River on Country Road 675. People who have kayaked the Crystal know this bridge as the location where you “shoot the tubes,” the culverts that allow the river to pass under the road. Getting out of the car, I was pleased to see that the sky had cleared. I quickly donned my reflective vest and set some reflective triangles along the road to warn approaching cars that I was standing on the bridge with my camera and tripod.
The biggest challenge of photographing stars is getting them in focus. There are a couple of methods of doing so. The first one failed me completely. That method involves placing the brightest star in the middle of the camera’s LCD screen and magnifying it to allow you to focus. Sounds great, but on my LCD screen all I saw was darkness. On to method two – relying on the “hyperfocal distance.” The hyperfocal distance is a spot at which everything halfway from the camera to infinity will be acceptably in focus. I knew that for the focal length and aperture I was using the hyperfocal distance was 16 feet 6 inches. But how do you focus in the dark? I set my camera 16 feet 6 inches feet from the back of my car, shined my flashlight on my bumper and focused on it. And then I was in business.
There it was, just as Photopills had predicted, the Milky Way!
Having found success on the Crystal River, I moved on to my third location, the Carsten and Elizabeth Burfiend farm in the Port Oneida Rural Historic District. Carsten Burstein bought 275 acres in what became known as Port Oneida in 1852, when the government opened the land up to settlement. I was interested in photographing the farm’s granary, corn crib and shop.
Having met with success at my second and third locations, I headed back to the cannery in Glen Haven, unsure of whether the Milky Way would be positioned well to get the picture I wanted. After all, it had been nearly three hours since I originally had planned to shot there. While it is not the shot I had planned, it still worked out pretty well.
I was pleased with the evening’s success. Several years ago, I had tried my hand at photographing the Milky Way, but my equipment wasn’t up to the task. I recently purchased a “fast” lens that has a much wider aperture. That made a significant difference. The night provided everything I hoped for. . . and more.
Shortly before calling it a night, at 2 a.m., I checked in with a woman I had met earlier in the evening in the parking lot at Glen Haven. She had come north from Saint Joseph, Michigan, when she learned there was a chance to see northern lights. “Any success,” I asked. She said that indeed she had seen them. “In fact,” she said, “they are out there right now.” I looked off to the northwest and all I saw was a faint glow along the horizon. “That’s them,” she said, and she showed me some photos she had taken earlier in the night with her cell phone. So I set up my tripod and aimed it at the horizon, taking a twenty second photo. Sure enough, there was the faint glow of the northern lights.
The color wasn’t visible to my naked eye, but there on the back of my camera was the telltale green glow I have seen before. I switched from a wide angle lens to by telephoto.
I crawled into my tent about 2:15 and was up and out again at 5:30 a.m. to catch a different glow as the sun rose on Sleeping Bear Bay.
We are at the end of February. Meteorological winter ends today in the northern hemisphere. Undoubtedly, we will see more snow and cold weather in March, but according to our local news warmer than normal temperatures are predicted for the next several weeks. For those of us who love winter, this is news is not welcome. But the earth continues to spin and will seasons will continue to change.
I thought I would take this opportunity to post a few photos I took this winter but have not shared on this blog. These images were made at the end of January on the Leelanau Peninsula.
The top row of photos were taken on Loon Lake, where a pair of ice fishers were setting up in the snow. The cherry trees in the second row were farther north on the peninsula as were the grape vines, that are silhouetted against the snow.