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 - 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.