The Art of The Bird - Shorebirds

Mosquitoes, scores of them. Not only that, but black flys, midges, and other biting insects will swarm you as you either kneel or lay prone along the shoreline of a lake. If you are lucky and the water levels are low the shoreline is revealed with a combination of sand and mud that offer up a banquet of insects for these birds to devour. This habitat which the last few years around Southern Ontario has been rare in the spring and frequent in the fall offers the very best opportunities to photograph these little birds.. No other birds take as much of a toll on your gear and overall body as shorebirds. Getting a low POV shot of one of these birds involves getting into mud, sand, and often some water. The strain of going prone - to standing - to kneeling, inching forward in "groucho" walk fashion is significant on anyone's joints and muscles to begin with and you quickly realize why some self care is needed after attempting these shots.

But it is worth it.

Dunlin Reflection

Dunlin Reflection

My best shot and one currently prominently displayed in my home is of this Dunlin wading through the tide water along the beach at Ashbridge's Bay park. It was a warm cloudy late May day and I kneeled in a low position for over 60 minutes to allow these little birds to approach and get used to my presence.

Semipalmated Sandpiper searching the beach for grubs

Semipalmated Sandpiper searching the beach for grubs

During the springtime beaches are the best place to be. As these little birds migrate towards the end of the migration window (late May) I find that in most cases unless you are out there early enough you'll be competing with the beach goers - volleyball players, dog walkers and worse of all offleash dogs for space. Dunlin, sandpipers and sanderlings often congregate together around pools formed by the spring rain and changing tides. Although more common along the plentiful sandy beaches that line the east coast, in the central great lakes region, sandy shoreline is hard to come by. That generally means picking only one or two specific hotspots and visiting them as early as possible. Similar to warbler photography, cloudy weather works best in the case of shorebirds particularly as a sunny day not only means harsh light, but also heat bouncing off the sand. This heat creates a shimmer effect which makes it all but impossible to get a sharp shot. Haze or high overcast therefore works best and allows one to take advantage of a longer time window. It also noticeably alters the behaviour of the little birds. Dunlin are among my favourite to shoot at this time period - particularly given their distinct breeding colours.

The most difficult to shoot - skittish, rocks and ponds near the tide

The most difficult to shoot - skittish, rocks and ponds near the tide

With a good hotspot, a high overcast sky, the next major challenge is getting close enough to these little birds for a shot. Far easier said then done. I have spent hours kneeling or sitting on my arse waiting for these birds to approach only for at the last second loosing my patience and having then slip away. From my observation it is best for these birds to come to you, and not the other way around. This only occurs with a logical spot along the shoreline where there is plenty of food and either going under a blind or being fairly still. Seeing as I do t own a blind or a full camoflauge outfit (nor would i wear one at about public beach as it only draws more attention to me from onlookers) i tend to wait. Eventually the birds get used to your presence. This tactic has worked on a number of occasions with a wide variety of species, although i acknowledge it won't work for everyone. Just a note on calls - in my experience completely ineffective and useless with these birds - and by fiddling with a phone your hand movement often achieves the opposite effect - scaring them away.

The fall species that migrate through the great lakes region tend to be different than the spring. A number of birds make the grueling flight back to their wintering grounds in a single attempt or choose not to stop over unless inclement weather blocks their path. That is why i felt incredibly lucky to find and photograph the next bird. These Pectoral sandpipers winter along the coast of Chile and breed in the high arctic. Thousands of KMs of flight for a bird smaller than an american football. The fall usually means heading to lake sides and mud - from a time standpoint it usually begins in early September to mid October until slightly after Canadian Thanksgiving. But the rewards are plenty, particularly if you can get a nice background or reflection of autumn colours on a still morning.

Enjoying a stroll

Enjoying a stroll

Shorebirds continues to be an area where I hope to expand my photography, and the number of species I come across. Sadly there are few groups of birds experiencing such a sudden decline as these shorebirds. Although not 100% confirmed the suspicion is that a combination of climate change and habitat loss around migration points is contributing to a significant decline in shorebird numbers, and all but one of these species is in significant decline. Although climate change is a significant man made problem that no one is likely to do anything about soon (given politics) habitat protection and conservation areas are something local communities can and need to protect. Finally regular people can have a tremendous impact on these little birds as well. For dog owners that means keeping your four legged companions on leash, particularly near known nesting or stopping over spots. That gives these little birds the best chance of completing their long journey south.

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.