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.

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.