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.

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!