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.

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