The art of the bird - capturing the life of waterfowl

Most people cringe at the thought of an early morning hike in sub zero temperatures  - ones that when you factor the wind can turn the burning fires of hell into a world of ice. The cold winter is a different kind of hell to some people, but to myself and my dog, a venture into winter wonderland reveals a world of wildlife waiting to be explored. Toronto and the surrounding area offers a wide variety of fragmented habitat which allows one many opportunities to catch a glimpse of birds, those that are both thriving as well as those struggling to survive. In the cold of winter very few environments are as plentiful as the partially frozen lakeshore. In Toronto the majority of this habitat consists of a variety of interconnecting parts, broken up by marinas, particularly on the city's west end in Etobicoke. I frequent two major parks in this area, Humber Bay East and Colonel Sam Smith, both have a significant amount of shoreline, pebble beaches that a wide variety of waterfowl call home in the winter. So the first step in getting waterfowl pictures is to go where they are! 

Pond Hunting

Pond Hunting

Quite often when you see average waterfowl photography, it is of a drake mallard, taken from standing - looking down upon a bird, that lets face it, is begging for food. The image that this creates is a busy one - with the subject, the ducks eye, only inches away from the ground or water. Although a shot of a rare bird in this fashion is better than no photograph at all, there is something special about a photograph composed at the eye level of the bird. For one, it isolates the subject from the background even with the a set of rocks nearby, a photo at eye level can completely blow out the background. It also brings the viewer of the photograph to the bird's perspective, painting a picture of how life is like navigating the world only a few inches above the waterline. 

The second key ingredient in waterfowl photography is simply weather, using the term weather to broadly encompass light (sunrise & sunset most pleasant). Getting out there in poor weather one can make a photograph go from good, to excellent. Take the Ring Necked Duck, I was tracking it freezing my stomach while laying flat on a sheet of ice, and even though I took many photographs in the first 30 minutes, they were completely eclipsed when the snow began to fall. The giant flakes obscured the legion of noisy mallards in the background further isolating the subject from the scene. A little duck, on a small pool of water braving the harsh elements of winter. Nothing speaks more to resilience than this bird at this moment. 

Braving the snow

Braving the snow

Pied Billed Grebe

Pied Billed Grebe

Everyone who has taken a walk by a lake or pond has seen a mallard or even been harassed by an overly aggressive Canada goose, but the world is filled with so much more diversity. When you stroll the beach watch for birds bobbing up and down above the water. That usually signals a unique species, atleast more unique than your standard water rat. In Ontario in winter alone you can encounter, Long Tailed Ducks, Lesser & Greater Scoups, Mergansers (Red Breasted, Hooded & Common), Ring Necked Ducks, Buffleheads, Scooters, Grebes and a wide variety of others. With the temperature far below zero the ice continues to lurch forward, creating a dynamic and alwasys changing landscape to photograph these birds by the shore or in small bays and pools. Some will migrate south, others return when the warmth of the sun forces winter to recede (Pintails, etc.). On top of the species unique mating behaviours begin to take place in March, offering even more opportunities to capture that special "spark".

"Great" you must be thinking, "too bad these little ducks scatter away so the only picture I come away with is the back of a duck." Trust me, as you hone your talent, you will get many pictures of ducks fleeing in the process, and although I'm not necessarily opposed to using a blind, I do find that it draws undue attention to yourself in a city bustling with people. And to be honest, there are so many people around that an off leash dog will spook the bird just as they approach to investigate the fake vegetation planted on the beach.

The keys to my wildlife photography are a combination of patience, and understanding the timing and behaviour of the birds in question. Diving ducks allow one to approach and position themselves, and with a little luck, when they breech the surface of the water you will be there waiting with the camera.

For Mergansers I find that they dive for 45 seconds to a minute, and go a distance of 15 meters horizontally along the shore while hunting. Scaups and Long Tailed Ducks less so, and tend to re-emerge from the depths only a few meters away from where they took the plunge. Timing is everything, and if you are close to the ground when they reappear from the hunt, often times they will not be bothered by your temporary presence allowing you to capture a few lasting clicks.

Strawberry Merganser

Strawberry Merganser

The shoreline in recent years has seen a return of a number of other critters. Minks, Coyotes, etc. That you are bound to encounter some other wildlife brazing the frost and cold. This is one thing I enjoy most about wildlife photography, you never know what you will encounter when you venture out of your door. The world is your subject, go on and explore it!

Challenge

Saturday Oct 20th - 13 C

Friday Oct 26th - 5 C

Mountsberg Conservation Area

Golden Crowned Kinglet Pausing for a brief moment

Golden Crowned Kinglet Pausing for a brief moment

One thing that has drawn me to wildlife photography in particular is the challenge involved in documenting an unpredictable subject and turning it into something unique, a small piece of art. Wildlife photography doesn't sell really well, and bird shots even less, but I'm doing this as a passion project. In the spectrum of challenging birds to photograph, I generally find three bird species more challenging than all others - warblers, kinglets and finally shorebirds. During migration time frame it is easiest to shoot these species as they travel en mass through Southern Ontario, with spring generally being slightly easier than fall given the foliage that conceals the migrants during the September and October time period. But as the leaves start to change and colours appear the challenge in the October time period is worth the effort.

Kinglet with some beautiful fall colours peaking through

Kinglet with some beautiful fall colours peaking through

In Southern Ontario there are several great stop over locations by the lake - Tommy Thompson, High Park, Colonel Samuel Smith, but as my wife and I moved away from the downtown to accommodate our expanding family I found myself in a new environment - Oak Ridges Moraine forest, which offered new challenges to find warblers, Kinglets, and other species. It was only via ebird that I discovered that Mountsberg hosted a significant shorebird migration!

Ruby Kinglet

This post covers two separate trips to the area - the first to the forest and wildlife walkway south of the raptor centre which was filled with woodland migrants. Every few steps and there were more and more of these little kinglets dancing in the trees - Golden Crowned in the branches above - Ruby Crowned in the weeds below. In addition to these birds - a significant number of sparrows could be heard calling among the tall grasses and shrubs towards the duck blind built to observe an Osprey nesting site built above the lake's waters. As you walk along the walkway opposite the horse pen and bison ranch you flank a small forest of trees which is where these legions of migrants can be found.

Pectoral Sandpiper Looking for Grubs

Pectoral Sandpiper Looking for Grubs

The real challenge however is found on the opposite side of the train tracks that cut through the southern end of the conservation area. For many visits and raptors in focus sessions I was not at all aware that this side of the park existed. To my delight the opposite side of the park reveals a variety of habitat - marsh lands, dense old growth forest, and shoreline, particularly in the fall. This is where after cutting through tall weeds by following a deer path to the lake I found the other surprise - shorebirds!

Along the shoreline and the lake in general were hundreds of waterfowl, and a number of species of shorebirds - patient pectoral sandpipers, lesser yellow legs, scores of skittish dun (~90 or so) and finally the bane of my adventure - greater yellow legs. Anytime the Dunlin approached me sitting patiently along the shoreline a greater yellow leg would land close by and send out their warning call. Spoiling any opportunity for a decent shot of the approaching horde of little shore sweepers. 

Although several shots were spoiled, it was the Pectoral Sandpipers that made my day. These birds were fairly patient with me and as long as I didn’t approach too close and let them come to me, they were more than happy with being photographed. I also switched the Sony A7rII to silent mode to keep them comfortable and as a result I came away with a number of five star photographs!

Nicely framed

Side profile of a Pectoral Sandpiper

Failure

January 4th 2019

Dundas Valley Conservation Area

6 degrees C and Sunny

With nature photography, for every day filled with success there is one teeming with failure. This past Friday given the sunny conditions (finally here in Ontario) I decided to take the day off to try to find some unique birds with the specific goal of capturing an Eastern Blue Bird. I know these little guys tend to be fairly common during the winter in other places, however where I live there are none to be found once the temperatures drop. They do however live in the northern most edge of the Carolina Forest which just so happens to be in Dundas Ontario a 45 minute drive south from where I live.

For those who have not been to Dundas Valley, it is truly a beautiful conservation area, particularly in the fall and winter where streams wind through the valleys carved out by thousands of years of ice sheet melt. These streams are but lazy remnants of the torrents of water that originally shaped the landscape and as a result provide unique habitat to a wide variety of birds, reptiles, etc. in the valley. Beyond the Blue Birds which are found in a clearing entitled "Merrick Orchard" the forest is filled with Brown Creepers, Chicladees, Carolina Wrens, etc. Winter birding in Dundas valley reveals a plethora of bird species that are difficult to find more north. Therefore I decided to invest the morning into the visit knowing that there is a always a chance that I won’t be able to spot and photograph these little balls of blue.

Arriving in the conservation area early in the morning revealed a beautiful landscape. Still frozen from the night's frost and the dusting of snow from the day before, this winter wonderland was quickly giving way to the warmth of the sunlight that began to flood through the branches. I quickly unloaded my gear, a massive but sharp Sigma 500MM F4 & D500, along with my 130 pound Berner and quickly hit the trails.

House Finch Enjoying a Moment’s pause on a branch

House Finch Enjoying a Moment’s pause on a branch

The scenic little orchard is a distant remnant of an earlier farming settlement that occurred long before my visit. It has long been abandoned with a few remaining apple trees dotting a shrubbery field loaded with berries and other foods required to sustain a wide variety of House Finches, Northern Cardinals, Juncos, etc. When I first arrived the area was absolutely silent, although I could not see my facial expression, I'm sure it was one of slight disappointment, so instead of setting up beside one of the slumbering trees I decided to try walking up and down a path hemmed in on both sides with a variety of berries. There I found a very pleasant House Finch before my dog (too excitedly still) pulled me ahead and startled the flock into the deeper recesses of the bushes.

Just off a little on the pose…

Just off a little on the pose…

Shortly afterwards however I quickly overheard a familiar call. The weather was warming, the frost melting revealing a ground ready to be scavenged for worms and other grubs. I quickly took my setup down the hill and noticed a small flock of Bluebirds accompanied by another mixed group of house finches and pine siskin. After failing to get close enough for a half decent shot I decided to use a small abandoned farm house as a blind, and managed to get the closest I've ever been to one of these magnificent little critters. However disappointingly, due to the branch and the position of the sun, the bird was in shade and direct light, creating a very challenging photograph. Unfortunately although the D500 is fantastic when it comes to auto focus, it's sensor does not match the dynamic range of the A7r II, and I find especially in tougher conditions. Editing the dark areas reveals "grey" no real feather detail and any additional processing destroys the image quality overall. Therefore I tried to shoot a few more poses as the birds were perched and flying away but was never able to get close enough to reveal the true beauty of these birds. Finally a group of hikers with off leash dogs came running by and seeing my pooch tied up to a pole, decided to spook the birds that promptly flew away. That is a constant challenge in these kinds of conservation areas, off leash dogs are a pain in the ass, please keep your dog on leash or take them to a dog park.

In the golden light - I just wish I was a little closer!

In the golden light - I just wish I was a little closer!

And a little surprise at the end! Red Bellied Woodpecker making an appearance

And a little surprise at the end! Red Bellied Woodpecker making an appearance

So I ended the morning in failure, I did not get the shot I had imagined (a Bluebird perched with a golden background) to the level of detail I was hoping for but managed to improve on my previous shots. Not every adventure leads to success or failure, but even though I failed to grab a five star image, I still enjoyed the beauty of the scenery and would highly recommend the area to anyone.