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

Luck

2018 12 26 - Boxing Day

Colonel Sam Smith

Riverwood Conservancy

Temperature: -1 degree C, cloudy, cold and windy

As a father to a new born, as well as a terrible two toddler I rarely get the opportunity to spend a morning, let alone a full day engaged with nature, and wildlife photography. By some miracle, my wife afforded me this privilege on the condition that I travel with my pooch the day after Christmas. After conducting a little bit of research on eBird (a great resource for searching bird locations) I decided to venture to a few familiar locations that I have not had the chance to visit in quite some time.

Golden Crowned Kinglet bouncing from branch to branch grabbing insects as they go

Golden Crowned Kinglet bouncing from branch to branch grabbing insects as they go

For any of your who have visited Colonel Sam Smith, it is a beautiful peninsula park located on the east end of lake Ontario with a wide variety of habitat - from the beaches to shrub land to a small pocket of mature forest. What drew my attention on this cold and windy morning was the sighting of a number of warblers. Common across many southern states, but rare to winter this far north particularly as the Canadian winter tends to be unbearably harsh for passerines, with only a few Kinglets and the odd Yellow Rumped Warbler able to withstand the constant sub zero temperatures and significant snow fall blanketing the insects that can be found beneath the leaf litter. This is why it is surprising that was still an Orange Crowned Warbler, as well as Palm and Nashville Warbler in the park.

A winter lifer - Orange Crowned Warbler - completely out of place at this time of year…

A winter lifer - Orange Crowned Warbler - completely out of place at this time of year…

Looking for a group of migrating warblers is a challenge to begin with, let alone trying to spot a single shy individual in a large park. The task requires a significant amount of patience. It is only with luck that I noticed the high pitched call of a number of Golden Crowned Kinglets foraging in the pines near the edge of the path. One thing I have learned from my time birding to date, is that Kinglets, as challenging as they are to photograph themselves are often an indicator species. Just as I narrowed my focus and turned my camera I caught the glimpse of the bird I came here to see. I credit the impressive speed of the D500 paired with the Sigma 500 F4 Sports for locking onto the Orange Crowned Warbler like a heat seeking missile. Even at 1/250 I was able to get a semi sharp shot, even though, as a result, the bird spotted my sudden movement and turned it's head allowing me to only get the back of the bird in sharp focus. Nevertheless I was lucky to get a snap of a lifer! I just hope this little bird starts the trek south soon, it seemed well fed, benefiting from a relatively warm winter to date. As I managed to find my lifer I packed up and headed across town to my next location: Riverwood Conservancy. Also the lesson from this adventure - always follow the Kinglet call.

My best shot of one ever. Even managed to include the Red Belly in the shot

My best shot of one ever. Even managed to include the Red Belly in the shot

The Riverwood Conservancy is a beautiful park that hugs the snaking Credit River. It's habitats include mature forests as well as shrub land and has a series of well kept bird feeders that attract a number of fairly common species, from white breasted nuthatches, to endless numbers of chickadees as well as the more elusive and skittish Red Bellied Woodpecker. It was for an excellent shot of this Woodpecker that I came to this conservancy even though I don't usually setup perches for birds. As my adventures include a 130 pound Bernese Mountain Dog although docile and friendly also has the unfortunate side effect of deterring interested feeder birds, and frankly I simply prefer a more natural but difficult setting. But armed with a set of peanuts, I decided to try something slightly different this time around. To my luck, the location I selected was fairly primed and once I spotted an adequate perch I soon heard the call of an inpatient hungry woodpecker. As if preordained, the clouds briefly parted and allowed the golden rays of the sun to break through which gave me the best shot I've ever taken of a Red Bellied woodpecker. It was a moment of sheer luck that everything aligned at the right moment.

The Vanquished Carolina Wren

The Vanquished Carolina Wren

If I wasn't lucky enough as I began to pack up I heard the call of a wren across the path. As I followed the noise it turned out to be a pair of Carolina Wrens dueling with a single winter wren for territory. I was surprised at how brave all the parties were during the exchange as well as the length of the challenge between the birds. Even though the earlier light had disappeared, I still managed to snap a number of shots of these stunning birds. Also note to self never %^$ with a Winter Wren, although small, this little guy was absolutely ferocious, and made the pair of larger Carolina Wrens retreat over territory to the other side of the path. Impressive mighty little bird.

Might.

Might.

With these shots and the fact that my wife was on duty for a number of hours I decided to call it a successful day. It's rare to get one 5 star shot of a bird or animal, let alone 3. A lucky day for sure!