The art of the bird - Making the most of a short trip

90 Minutes. 

Although Common Annoyingly Difficult to shoot!

Although Common Annoyingly Difficult to shoot!

That's all the time you are given to fit in a quick hike on your own time on Vancouver island in BC in the midst of a work trip. With so little time available choosing a suitable location is absolutely critical. Having never photographed wildlife on Vancouver island this was a unique opportunity that I simply could not let slip by. What makes a good location in this situation? Anything close to a major road that maximizes sighting and photographic opportunities. A wide variety of habitat is crucial, allowing one to explore a series of common species as well uncommon and rare birds. All this meant is that the plan was as critical as the execution to make the most of the short window!

Plan.

Through the bushes - a Spotted Towhee

Through the bushes - a Spotted Towhee

For any location scouting research for birds, eBird is an invaluable tool. The website provides vital information around which species have been spotted near a "hotspot" - on a map. From there you can use google maps to figure out trails, distance, tree cover, and with a quick check at the weather network you can determine sunlight and other conditions that will dictate light.  Based on the unique situations of the visit, selecting the location (such as Beaver Lake Regional Park) was based on recent observations, easily accessible trails close to a parking lot and a wide variety of different habitat - dense forest, lakeside, brush / grassland to maximize the species available. 

Finally the birds themselves. This involved researching calls, descriptions, etc. and building a list of what you were hoping to see. Right off the bat the number one priority for me in this situation was the Anna's Hummingbird. Although fairly common in BC, I have never had the opportunity to photograph them. Other key species on the list were the Varied Thrush, Spotted Towhee, a variety of wrens and of course, the Chestnut Backed Chickadee. Learning their habitats, calls, appearance, etc. and spending a little bit of time with google helped fill in some of the blanks. 

Execute.

Pause & Rest - Anna’s Hummingbird on a branch

Pause & Rest - Anna’s Hummingbird on a branch

Finally the most important part of the excursion, is to actually go and explore. Beginning with picking one trail with the best chance of what you are looking for and going out and enjoying the environment you are in. In this case I left a snowy world of ice behind to find one relatively lush and green. Immediately down the first path with heavy bushes along both sides seemingly holding back the lake was a pair of wrens - one Berwicks wren (a lifer) and a pacific wren. Along the sumac bushes and other berry producing vegetation were Anna Hummingbirds, Spotted Towhees, Chestnut Backed Chickadees. Within the span of 30 minutes I came across a wide variety of species, which allowed me to get some excellent (and explore worthy) photos of the Anna's Hummingbird resting on a branch.

Not my best shot, but I’ll take any of a lifer!

Not my best shot, but I’ll take any of a lifer!

Turning towards a path that led deeper forest I quickly made out the characteristic call of a Varied Thrush, high in the tree canopy. Slowly but surely I took the trail that appeared to be the shortest route to these magnificent birds only to be disappointed that I only found it mid level, and too far away for a decent shot. Having said that, when shooting birds such as these I'll take any picture of a lifer over no picture at all.

Perched & Defending Territory

Perched & Defending Territory

As I turned back down the path towards the parking lot in the fading light I could spot something small singing and bouncing around the mossy undergrowth. As I positioned myself near a perch the little bird became more clear - a Pacific Wren, looking for a mate and actively reviewing his territorial possessions! Very rarely does everything line up, but I noticed a logical perch for this little wren to sing away on and positioned myself accordingly - and bang - my favourite shot of the trip.

Surprised Visitor

Surprised Visitor

Finally as I neared the parking lot with the rental car I heard a familiar sound. A deep thumping on a nearby tree. To my absolute joy a Pileated Woodpecker was working away on a nearby stump. And what a wonderful and friendly woodpecker. It is rare that I can deploy the full frame sensor on the A7rIII but when I can it produces some absolutely stunning images, and even heavily backlit, with a dark bird I was still able to pull out the details to create a wonderful shot.

110 minutes (I stretched the light with the Pileated!) 6 species.

A rewarding hike.

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!

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!