On the record ... with Debbie Miller
Debbie Miller, who writes a blog for Shabbona Lake State Park, is hoping people will see the popular park in a new way.
“When people think of Shabbona Lake State Park, they think of fishing, but there’s so much more to the park,” the DeKalb woman said. “When I do my blog, I’m trying to bring attention and hopefully possible interest to some of the other aspects of the park: bird watching, hiking, anything on the trails. Like the flowers. There are so many dragonflies to identify. There are just so many different, interesting things.”
Raised in Oak Lawn, Miller moved to DeKalb more than 25 years ago. An assistant at Littlejohn School in DeKalb, she became interested in photography with the birth of her children, which eventually led to her discovery and love of nature, which she explores year-round. One of the beauties of nature, she said, is that it’s always changing so there’s always something new to discover.
“Enjoy nature’s little treasures,” she writes on her blog with a beautiful picture of a goldfinch. “Inhale and take in the moment whenever you get the chance.”
Miller includes a description and a little history with each of her pictures.
“Whatever nature is unfolding” at the park, be it a bird, flower or even a bug, can be found on her blog at www.shabbonalake.com under the nature tab.
Surrounded by framed pictures and two aquariums of turtles and fish, Miller sat down in her home with MidWeek reporter Doug Oleson last week to discuss the blog, Shabbona Lake State Park, nature and photography.
MidWeek: How long have you been interested in photography?
Debbie Miller: Ever since my kids were babies, I’d take pictures of the family. Once they decided I was in their face too much, I started working on other things. I started out in my backyard with nature pictures. I started out with bees and flowers. I was just enthralled with all of them. Then I moved on to birds. Once I did, that was my passion.
The first scene I remember was watching a male cardinal feed a house sparrow baby. I didn’t know that cardinals fed other birds. Once you start paying attention to things, you realize how much there really is to learn about. So I would sit in my yard for hours. I’m sure my neighbors thought I was crazy.
MW: Then where did you go?
DM: Once I moved outside the yard, I started photographing the lagoon, the owls. They pick the same nests every year. It is very interesting to watch them. I spent one spring photographing owl after owl after owl. I sent a few of them into WildBird Magazine and I ended up winning second prize and got in the magazine. That really excited me. I won a pair of binoculars.
MW: When did you start going to Shabbona Lake State Park?
DM: We’ve been taking our kids there fishing for years. As they started fishing, I would just walk around and start taking pictures. I put them on my Flickr account and one day one of the people from Shabbona found one of my pictures online and contacted me and asked me if they could use one of my pictures on their website. I said they could and showed them my blog and told them I’m at the park a lot and I’d be happy to share my pictures with them. It just started from there.
I go there at least twice a month and I just explore. I start walking the trails and I look for anything that intrigues me, whether it’s a plant or a bird. The scene is ever changing. You can go two days in a row and see two totally different things.
I just take pictures of whatever I see and I write about it and put it on the blog.
MW: How often do you do this?
DM: From May through September. They’re interested in a posting each month.
MW: What are some of the things you write about?
DM: Last month, I wrote about the spring flowers that were growing along the forest, and some of the migrating birds that were going through. Right now, the warblers are migrating through. These are birds you only see in the spring or the fall. They are especially beautiful in the spring because their mating colors are more brilliant.
So I go for walks and look for the birds and try to identify them and try to learn something new. I am especially interested in different behaviors.
MW: Do you take the same paths or different ones?
DM: There is a path that goes all the way around the lake, and then there are different paths that I just walk sections of. I get there in the morning. I take my time. If I find an area that is especially interesting that might just stop me dead in my tracks, I’ll just root myself and watch. Most of the time, it’s a creature. Last year, I was amazed by all the groundhogs. One time you’ll go and not see one groundhog; another time, I saw five in one day. One was in a tree. I never thought I’d ever see one in a tree. I was looking in this tree for birds and I saw this groundhog just sitting there.
The other day I saw three nesting birds. You try to back away and be as respectful as possible and watch as they’re either building the nest or bringing food to the nest. Right now, there are nesting bluebirds and vireo and robins.
MW: What are some of the more unusual animals or birds you’ve seen?
DM: In the winter months, a lot of bird watchers will go and see what American pelicans have been there. Not the regular swans, but the tundra swans and trumpeter swans go through there. They are especially fun to watch. The eagles are also there.
I just saw a black-throated green warbler the last time I was there, which is a fun bird to see. It just stopped on a branch next to us, ate a few bugs and off he went.
MW: Have you always been interested in nature?
DM: I got interested about the same time I got my digital camera. The first time you take a picture of a bird, you don’t know what it is. It leads into investigating and a lot more learning. Sometimes you’re learning just what the bird is and sometimes you’re investigating more about the bird. If you’re interested about a certain bird, read about that bird and then go out into nature.
Like the killdeer, for instance. One of the behaviors the killdeer does is it will quickly move away from its nest and kind of act like its wing is broken. It’s an attempt to get you away from the nest because you’re supposed to think it’s injured and easy prey. Then when the predator gets too close, off he goes and he or she has successfully moved the predator from the nest. I read about this behavior and while I was out hiking, I saw a killdeer doing this. That let me know there was a nest over there.
Most often I am learning something new every time. Like a flower I was taking a picture of one time: oh, what is this beautiful flower with a bee on it? I learned it was a blood root. The reason is was called blood root is that it has this reddish color to it that the Indians would use for their dyes.
MW: When you go to the park, do you look for something specific or whatever catches your eye?
DM: It’s different every time. There are different plants and bugs all the time. There are always different dragonflies. And different birds. It’s a different day, a different behavior... Even the different seasons, the bird can look different. Just enjoy what is there at the time.
MW: Is the park open year-round or just in the warm months?
DM: All year. We go all year.