The art of the bird - capturing the life of waterfowl

Most people cringe at the thought of an early morning hike in sub zero temperatures  - ones that when you factor the wind can turn the burning fires of hell into a world of ice. The cold winter is a different kind of hell to some people, but to myself and my dog, a venture into winter wonderland reveals a world of wildlife waiting to be explored. Toronto and the surrounding area offers a wide variety of fragmented habitat which allows one many opportunities to catch a glimpse of birds, those that are both thriving as well as those struggling to survive. In the cold of winter very few environments are as plentiful as the partially frozen lakeshore. In Toronto the majority of this habitat consists of a variety of interconnecting parts, broken up by marinas, particularly on the city's west end in Etobicoke. I frequent two major parks in this area, Humber Bay East and Colonel Sam Smith, both have a significant amount of shoreline, pebble beaches that a wide variety of waterfowl call home in the winter. So the first step in getting waterfowl pictures is to go where they are! 

Pond Hunting

Pond Hunting

Quite often when you see average waterfowl photography, it is of a drake mallard, taken from standing - looking down upon a bird, that lets face it, is begging for food. The image that this creates is a busy one - with the subject, the ducks eye, only inches away from the ground or water. Although a shot of a rare bird in this fashion is better than no photograph at all, there is something special about a photograph composed at the eye level of the bird. For one, it isolates the subject from the background even with the a set of rocks nearby, a photo at eye level can completely blow out the background. It also brings the viewer of the photograph to the bird's perspective, painting a picture of how life is like navigating the world only a few inches above the waterline. 

The second key ingredient in waterfowl photography is simply weather, using the term weather to broadly encompass light (sunrise & sunset most pleasant). Getting out there in poor weather one can make a photograph go from good, to excellent. Take the Ring Necked Duck, I was tracking it freezing my stomach while laying flat on a sheet of ice, and even though I took many photographs in the first 30 minutes, they were completely eclipsed when the snow began to fall. The giant flakes obscured the legion of noisy mallards in the background further isolating the subject from the scene. A little duck, on a small pool of water braving the harsh elements of winter. Nothing speaks more to resilience than this bird at this moment. 

Braving the snow

Braving the snow

Pied Billed Grebe

Pied Billed Grebe

Everyone who has taken a walk by a lake or pond has seen a mallard or even been harassed by an overly aggressive Canada goose, but the world is filled with so much more diversity. When you stroll the beach watch for birds bobbing up and down above the water. That usually signals a unique species, atleast more unique than your standard water rat. In Ontario in winter alone you can encounter, Long Tailed Ducks, Lesser & Greater Scoups, Mergansers (Red Breasted, Hooded & Common), Ring Necked Ducks, Buffleheads, Scooters, Grebes and a wide variety of others. With the temperature far below zero the ice continues to lurch forward, creating a dynamic and alwasys changing landscape to photograph these birds by the shore or in small bays and pools. Some will migrate south, others return when the warmth of the sun forces winter to recede (Pintails, etc.). On top of the species unique mating behaviours begin to take place in March, offering even more opportunities to capture that special "spark".

"Great" you must be thinking, "too bad these little ducks scatter away so the only picture I come away with is the back of a duck." Trust me, as you hone your talent, you will get many pictures of ducks fleeing in the process, and although I'm not necessarily opposed to using a blind, I do find that it draws undue attention to yourself in a city bustling with people. And to be honest, there are so many people around that an off leash dog will spook the bird just as they approach to investigate the fake vegetation planted on the beach.

The keys to my wildlife photography are a combination of patience, and understanding the timing and behaviour of the birds in question. Diving ducks allow one to approach and position themselves, and with a little luck, when they breech the surface of the water you will be there waiting with the camera.

For Mergansers I find that they dive for 45 seconds to a minute, and go a distance of 15 meters horizontally along the shore while hunting. Scaups and Long Tailed Ducks less so, and tend to re-emerge from the depths only a few meters away from where they took the plunge. Timing is everything, and if you are close to the ground when they reappear from the hunt, often times they will not be bothered by your temporary presence allowing you to capture a few lasting clicks.

Strawberry Merganser

Strawberry Merganser

The shoreline in recent years has seen a return of a number of other critters. Minks, Coyotes, etc. That you are bound to encounter some other wildlife brazing the frost and cold. This is one thing I enjoy most about wildlife photography, you never know what you will encounter when you venture out of your door. The world is your subject, go on and explore it!

Fall has begun

Saturday September 1st 2018

Guelph Lake Conservation Area - 24 degrees and fog patches

In order to shoot shorebirds, you need to find a shore. My one attempt the previous weekend at Ashbridge's Bay was very much unsuccessful - even though there is ample habitat, there were no birds to be found other than a handful of warblers bouncing around near the tops of trees so after a little bit of research on eBird, I decided give a new location - Guelph Lake Conservation area a college try the next chance I got.

That chance rolled around the following Saturday morning. It was hot & humid, above 23 degrees at 8:00AM with very unpredictable weather, upon getting into the car and driving northwest from Halton Hills, dense patches of fog began to roll through. I was barely able to hold my excitement as we approached the first turn to circle the lake and upon a quick glance noticed the characteristic bopping head of a sandpiper standing along the shore. As we approached the end of the drive my excitement turned to horror as I began to see orange pine cones placed along the road. Great - of all days I pick to visit this Conservation Area, it is the day with a triathlon! Luckily after a quick conversation with the entrance officer, he suggested a few areas that would be "quiet" and away from all the commotion of a major sporting event. After weaving through some traffic we finally arrived at a quiet shore - only a few fisherman and a long stretch of beach appeared before us - filled with mud, sand, and some small weeds - perfect habitat to support a wide variety of transient and breeding species!

I recently purchased and began watching a Creative Live class entitled The Art of Wildlife Photography by Tom Mangelsen, and even though my review is somewhat mixed there are always a few things you can learn by watching these videos. The key point from a recent video I watched was around using the elements to create an atmosphere. Indeed since expanding my photography I have begun to really enjoying shooting in the elements, and other than in the early morning or late evening, I try to avoid shooting during the bright sun of the day. 

Lesser Yellowlegs with a fantastic fish find

Lesser Yellowlegs with a fantastic fish find

The fog of the morning was still thick, with the other bank of the lake still heavily shrouded in cloud I spotted my subject - a small group of four Lesser Yellowlegs scanning the weeded shoreline picking small insects out of the grass and mud. Any noise or disturbance and this small flock won't hesitate to leap over to the other shore to continue their search for grubs. As I approach the edge of the lake the mud gets thicker and thicker - to the point where my entire boot is swallowed up by brown goo, and I loose my traction with each step I take. A change of strategy was needed. Given how skittish the birds are and how much I strongly prefer to shoot at eye POV level I decide to trudge my way through the mud to a large section of weeds and setup a few feet from the shore and wait. Without making a sound I increasingly get excited as the birds approach me. Turning the Sony A7rII to silent mode the small flock of birds spent a good 15 minutes within easy reach of my 100-400MM lens. Given the low light and thick fog I needed to shoot at a higher ISO (1000) in order to keep my shutter speed between 1/500 & 1/1000 /sec but it was well worth it. Modern cameras are fantastic, and the shots I did manage to get were incredibly sharp. My wife joked and called me the shorebird whisperer - it's not every day that these little birds get so close to you that you need to switch the camera out of APSc mode! Although the auto focus is a persistent challenge with the A7rII I was incredibly happy with the results.

Along the bank

Along the bank

After the birds were spooked by a passing fisherman, I continued going up and down the shoreline - trying to avoid distributing any feeding birds while getting a shot here and there. As the sun burned through the remaining fog, the Lesser Yellow Leg group landed again nearby and graced my camera with a few more shots - but the light was starting to get quite harsh so I made the decision to bid these incredibly industries shorebirds goodbye.

A great morning for shorebirds - and I was very pleased that one of my shots even earned a spot on Explore on Flickr!