The Art of The Bird - Warblers.

Vibrant, boisterous, and constantly in motion picking insects from any potential alcove formed by branches and flowering trees, warblers are the harbingers of spring ushering warmer weather with their arrival in early May. As winter finally melts away and the rain storms of April begin to bring the Northern Hemisphere back to life with budding flowers, trees and insects these little birds enter the final phase of their journey with their arrival to the shores of the great lakes. With well over 50 different species that migrate from South and Central America up to the breeding grounds across North America these small birds, no larger than 27 grams (or 1 ounce for my American brethren) add an irreplaceable and unmistakable pop to spring time. Just think of it, it took us a millennia to discover science and break free of gravity and travel the world, these little birds have been flying thousands of miles on a yearly basis for millions of years. Even though many species are in decline driven by habitat loss both in their wintering grounds (please buy rain-forest or shade grown coffee) as well as in their breeding territories, year after year these birds struggle their way up the coasts of North America and find their way up to the Arctic and Boreal forest to breed.

Female Redstart

Female Redstart

Always a striking bitd - a Black Throated Blue Warbler

Always a striking bitd - a Black Throated Blue Warbler

For many birders these species represent the ultimate challenge, even more so for a photographer. They are quick, often are found in dense vegetation where they search for their preferred meal resulting in an extremely challenging shot. For a wildlife photographer, a clean shot with a pleasant pose and background is nearly impossible, particularly when combined with poor lighting conditions in dense foliage that occurs in any time other than early spring. This is what makes the springtime so special from a photography perspective. To get one of those shots requires a unique combination of luck, perseverance and understanding bird behaviour. Often times the shots I get of these birds is of their underbelly as they continue to bounce in the tree canopy oblivious to my presence on the ground. Their song taunting us photographers, as if they understand that they are the jewel in a bird photographers eye, and one that will not be given up easily, not without a significant exertion of effort. It is for these birds in particular that the requirements for a large telephoto lens along with an excellent auto focus system become absolutely necessary. They single handily drive the cost of photography equipment, and are responsible for creating the wildlife photographer "look" - hat, dull to camouflage clothing with a massive piece of glass on a camera body walking around local parks or hotspots. 

Defense

Defense

The best conditions for shooting these birds are either in the early morning / late evening with the weakest sun, or in overcast conditions. A cloudy sky often encourages their prey to stay close to the ground, and with little wind it means that these birds can be tracked and photographed at or near eye level - the prize position of a warbler. Overcast conditions also prevent harsh over blown highlights, and although may push a camera's ISO level upwards, means that the entire image presents a soft display. This offers a true representation of the warbler particularly when in a forest setting where wayward branches beginning to burst with flowers cast unwanted shadows on the subject and exacerbate the highlight / shadow divide on the subject. My best warbler shots are either in the shade of a tree, or taken on an overcast day, most often shot between 1/250 and 1/500 per second capturing a bird perched for a moment's rest. You can imagine then that with such fast paced and fidgety birds that the keeper rate is a disappointment. In fact in no other place other than warbler photography that the phrase "pixels are free" applies so well. Burst mode is a necessity, with 7-10 FPS preferred along with in-body stabilization firmly set to the on position. On a good day I will shoot nearly 1,000 shots, which results in 5 - 10 "keepers" where the bird is razor sharp, with a good composition requiring minimum edits (stray branch removal) and a pleasing pose. Yes, branch removal is a fairly frequent requirement with these birds. It is rare to find one in the open, and frankly as I treat my photography as a combination of art and natural scene I am not opposed to some basic to mid level editing. Although I will never add anything to an image, I will often add basic edits (sharpening, contrast, clarity) and take a stray branch out. But even all the equipment and editing in the world will not help if one does not research where and when these birds travel, and how they behave in the wild.

Under the Forest Canopy

Under the Forest Canopy

eBird is probably one of the most useful tools in a bird photographer's arsenal. Also submitting your observations supports citizen science projects as well. In breeding season habitat research is crucial, during the abundance of spring migration it allows a photographer or birder to be a little more "lazy" essentially visiting key hotspots will often result in a variety of species to grace the front of a lens or a pair of binoculars. Even so understanding their movements, how they’re behavour shifts in response to rain, wind, sun, bugs, different species of trees, etc. allows one to help predict their location and then their direction of travel. Often times these birds go where the bugs are. Which means water, and trees that offer ample insect habitat where they climb and eat birds. Finally there is also the topic of getting the birds attention. I have used recorded calls and phishing to see if I can get a bird out of it 's habitat. However, particularly when migrating I find that such actions result in the bird changing their behaviour from feeding to actively engaging in calling in the high canopy in search of mates or the aggressor or disturber so I tend to avoid such behaviour. In breeding situations if the nest has been established this may mean the bird leaves it's nest abandoned as it searches for the would be competitor. All in all I discourage this behaviour, and find that most of my best shots have come while observing natural behaviour. staying perfectly still and quiet as these birds continue to feast on their prey along the branches, while occasionally dueling each other. This way I become a part of the environment, and have had a few occasions where these birds have nearly landed on me or my gear! 

Infamous Skulker

Infamous Skulker

But most important of all the biggest prerequisite to getting bird shots, is to get outside and into the natural environment. I find the biggest benefit of my photos isn't the shot I captured on my camera, but the feeling I get after spending a few hours in a natural environment. It builds a stronger appreciation for the world that we live in, and allows me to witness the miracle of biodiversity in all of it's glory often times only a few steps away from my home along a trail. This combined with the rush of getting that shot, makes warbler photography the ultimate, and most worthwhile challenge.

The Art of The Bird - Early Spring

Looking for Seeds

Looking for Seeds

Contrary to the weather network or the ground hog, a birders spring begins during the grip of winter with some of the most unlikely of all critters. The lengthening sun in February often ushers in swarms of horned Larks no larger than a football skulking around farmers fields spread out across Southern Ontario to feast on seeds - grass and other sources of food that lie deep beneath the snow. When there is snow on the ground they can be found near Canada Geese which clear the snow to get to the same seeds which attracts the Larks . Thus it is in the depth of winter that spring slowly begins to return.

Calling out

Calling out

Then comes March with Waterfowl, and with waterfowl come the displays and competition. Early spring is as exciting as any other season, and if you look closely you will be given a treat with Wrens, Bluebirds, Kinglets as forests slowly awaken and marshes and swamp lands begin to thaw out. Here in Canada this generally means late March / early April marking the arrival of black birds, grackles followed by meadowlarks, blue birds and then Carolina and Winter Wrens before Golden Crowned furballs, a number of different sparrows and finally the return of the first Warblers before the start of May. The arrival of the Yellow Rumped Warblers marks the end of early spring migration and the beginning of the full wave of summer migrants. 

On an old branch

On an old branch

A wide variety of habitat becomes interesting very quickly as things melt and shift creating a dynamic landscape. Areas that were once barren turn into livable homes for a wide variety of critters. In this time period I find that the transition zones are most plentiful, beginning with areas such as the edge of forests and grasslands. Here meadowlarks, Blue Birds and Kinglets tend to congregate. When photographing Blue Birds / Meadowlarks the best tactic is to use a blind near their nesting area as they tend to be skittish, however when nothing is available one needs to revert to tactics such as using a long lens, and pausing for a long time as they bounce around the ground and perches between singing and looking for food. Generally morning marks the best time for these birds, and I've found that mid morning they begin to tapper off their singing activity, that is unless there are Cardinals or something else that keeps them going! The best time to photograph these birds are the first 2 weeks of April. One caution with Meadowlarks - if they are disturbed during egg season (late April / early May) they tend to abandon their nest which is why I avoid photographing them as the weather begins to warm, they are a declining species in Ontario so it is best to keep their homes as undisturbed as possible!

Wrens are another challenge. These birds often let you know that their presence is near with complex calls, and duets with mating pairs, there is nothing more exhilarating then finding a mating pair in full song, and waiting for the right moment. Best of all these wrens often compete with their smaller and feisty cousins, the Winter wren, and even though larger and aggressive, the small but mighty Winter wren puts up a solid fight with both song and aggressiveness. My best shots of both these wrens came when they were close by in severe competition over territory. The tactic here is to sit still and let them go at it!

Singing Pair

Singing Pair

Finally as the sun begins to usher longer days Kinglets make their return, beginning with the ever challenging Golden Crowned, followed by Ruby and then finally the Yellow Rumped Warblers. Golden Crowned are notoriously difficult and give even the best auto focus systems a major test as they simply do not stay still. Their tendency to bounce around endlessly means you need atleast 1/500 and a good arm to track them. However they often ignore humans when feeding in mid level bush resulting in some excellent opportunities for the lens. The same goes for Ruby Crowned, and they are often more aggressive with other Ruby crowned kinglets which allows one to capture them displaying. Nothing is more special then a shot with the iconic crown up along a clean background. The following is probably my fav shot of the year.

Crown Up!

Crown Up!

Hungry

Hungry

As Yellow Rumped Warblers arrive there is often a sprinkling of other species that join them on the route, Nashville, Pine and Black and White tend to be their normal companions. Warblers are my personal favourite birds to photograph in the spring. Their songs, the challenge of getting a clean shot with a stunning background all make an engaging photography and nature experience. The tactic here is to walk around until you find them, usually by water around key hotspots, and then stay still and allow them to feed around you. They tend to be comfortable with human presence if people are silent and not moving allowing someone to take stunning photos. With their migration early spring comes to an end.




The art of the bird - Making the most of a short trip

90 Minutes. 

Although Common Annoyingly Difficult to shoot!

Although Common Annoyingly Difficult to shoot!

That's all the time you are given to fit in a quick hike on your own time on Vancouver island in BC in the midst of a work trip. With so little time available choosing a suitable location is absolutely critical. Having never photographed wildlife on Vancouver island this was a unique opportunity that I simply could not let slip by. What makes a good location in this situation? Anything close to a major road that maximizes sighting and photographic opportunities. A wide variety of habitat is crucial, allowing one to explore a series of common species as well uncommon and rare birds. All this meant is that the plan was as critical as the execution to make the most of the short window!

Plan.

Through the bushes - a Spotted Towhee

Through the bushes - a Spotted Towhee

For any location scouting research for birds, eBird is an invaluable tool. The website provides vital information around which species have been spotted near a "hotspot" - on a map. From there you can use google maps to figure out trails, distance, tree cover, and with a quick check at the weather network you can determine sunlight and other conditions that will dictate light.  Based on the unique situations of the visit, selecting the location (such as Beaver Lake Regional Park) was based on recent observations, easily accessible trails close to a parking lot and a wide variety of different habitat - dense forest, lakeside, brush / grassland to maximize the species available. 

Finally the birds themselves. This involved researching calls, descriptions, etc. and building a list of what you were hoping to see. Right off the bat the number one priority for me in this situation was the Anna's Hummingbird. Although fairly common in BC, I have never had the opportunity to photograph them. Other key species on the list were the Varied Thrush, Spotted Towhee, a variety of wrens and of course, the Chestnut Backed Chickadee. Learning their habitats, calls, appearance, etc. and spending a little bit of time with google helped fill in some of the blanks. 

Execute.

Pause & Rest - Anna’s Hummingbird on a branch

Pause & Rest - Anna’s Hummingbird on a branch

Finally the most important part of the excursion, is to actually go and explore. Beginning with picking one trail with the best chance of what you are looking for and going out and enjoying the environment you are in. In this case I left a snowy world of ice behind to find one relatively lush and green. Immediately down the first path with heavy bushes along both sides seemingly holding back the lake was a pair of wrens - one Berwicks wren (a lifer) and a pacific wren. Along the sumac bushes and other berry producing vegetation were Anna Hummingbirds, Spotted Towhees, Chestnut Backed Chickadees. Within the span of 30 minutes I came across a wide variety of species, which allowed me to get some excellent (and explore worthy) photos of the Anna's Hummingbird resting on a branch.

Not my best shot, but I’ll take any of a lifer!

Not my best shot, but I’ll take any of a lifer!

Turning towards a path that led deeper forest I quickly made out the characteristic call of a Varied Thrush, high in the tree canopy. Slowly but surely I took the trail that appeared to be the shortest route to these magnificent birds only to be disappointed that I only found it mid level, and too far away for a decent shot. Having said that, when shooting birds such as these I'll take any picture of a lifer over no picture at all.

Perched & Defending Territory

Perched & Defending Territory

As I turned back down the path towards the parking lot in the fading light I could spot something small singing and bouncing around the mossy undergrowth. As I positioned myself near a perch the little bird became more clear - a Pacific Wren, looking for a mate and actively reviewing his territorial possessions! Very rarely does everything line up, but I noticed a logical perch for this little wren to sing away on and positioned myself accordingly - and bang - my favourite shot of the trip.

Surprised Visitor

Surprised Visitor

Finally as I neared the parking lot with the rental car I heard a familiar sound. A deep thumping on a nearby tree. To my absolute joy a Pileated Woodpecker was working away on a nearby stump. And what a wonderful and friendly woodpecker. It is rare that I can deploy the full frame sensor on the A7rIII but when I can it produces some absolutely stunning images, and even heavily backlit, with a dark bird I was still able to pull out the details to create a wonderful shot.

110 minutes (I stretched the light with the Pileated!) 6 species.

A rewarding hike.

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.