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.




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.