Failure

January 4th 2019

Dundas Valley Conservation Area

6 degrees C and Sunny

With nature photography, for every day filled with success there is one teeming with failure. This past Friday given the sunny conditions (finally here in Ontario) I decided to take the day off to try to find some unique birds with the specific goal of capturing an Eastern Blue Bird. I know these little guys tend to be fairly common during the winter in other places, however where I live there are none to be found once the temperatures drop. They do however live in the northern most edge of the Carolina Forest which just so happens to be in Dundas Ontario a 45 minute drive south from where I live.

For those who have not been to Dundas Valley, it is truly a beautiful conservation area, particularly in the fall and winter where streams wind through the valleys carved out by thousands of years of ice sheet melt. These streams are but lazy remnants of the torrents of water that originally shaped the landscape and as a result provide unique habitat to a wide variety of birds, reptiles, etc. in the valley. Beyond the Blue Birds which are found in a clearing entitled "Merrick Orchard" the forest is filled with Brown Creepers, Chicladees, Carolina Wrens, etc. Winter birding in Dundas valley reveals a plethora of bird species that are difficult to find more north. Therefore I decided to invest the morning into the visit knowing that there is a always a chance that I won’t be able to spot and photograph these little balls of blue.

Arriving in the conservation area early in the morning revealed a beautiful landscape. Still frozen from the night's frost and the dusting of snow from the day before, this winter wonderland was quickly giving way to the warmth of the sunlight that began to flood through the branches. I quickly unloaded my gear, a massive but sharp Sigma 500MM F4 & D500, along with my 130 pound Berner and quickly hit the trails.

House Finch Enjoying a Moment’s pause on a branch

House Finch Enjoying a Moment’s pause on a branch

The scenic little orchard is a distant remnant of an earlier farming settlement that occurred long before my visit. It has long been abandoned with a few remaining apple trees dotting a shrubbery field loaded with berries and other foods required to sustain a wide variety of House Finches, Northern Cardinals, Juncos, etc. When I first arrived the area was absolutely silent, although I could not see my facial expression, I'm sure it was one of slight disappointment, so instead of setting up beside one of the slumbering trees I decided to try walking up and down a path hemmed in on both sides with a variety of berries. There I found a very pleasant House Finch before my dog (too excitedly still) pulled me ahead and startled the flock into the deeper recesses of the bushes.

Just off a little on the pose…

Just off a little on the pose…

Shortly afterwards however I quickly overheard a familiar call. The weather was warming, the frost melting revealing a ground ready to be scavenged for worms and other grubs. I quickly took my setup down the hill and noticed a small flock of Bluebirds accompanied by another mixed group of house finches and pine siskin. After failing to get close enough for a half decent shot I decided to use a small abandoned farm house as a blind, and managed to get the closest I've ever been to one of these magnificent little critters. However disappointingly, due to the branch and the position of the sun, the bird was in shade and direct light, creating a very challenging photograph. Unfortunately although the D500 is fantastic when it comes to auto focus, it's sensor does not match the dynamic range of the A7r II, and I find especially in tougher conditions. Editing the dark areas reveals "grey" no real feather detail and any additional processing destroys the image quality overall. Therefore I tried to shoot a few more poses as the birds were perched and flying away but was never able to get close enough to reveal the true beauty of these birds. Finally a group of hikers with off leash dogs came running by and seeing my pooch tied up to a pole, decided to spook the birds that promptly flew away. That is a constant challenge in these kinds of conservation areas, off leash dogs are a pain in the ass, please keep your dog on leash or take them to a dog park.

In the golden light - I just wish I was a little closer!

In the golden light - I just wish I was a little closer!

And a little surprise at the end! Red Bellied Woodpecker making an appearance

And a little surprise at the end! Red Bellied Woodpecker making an appearance

So I ended the morning in failure, I did not get the shot I had imagined (a Bluebird perched with a golden background) to the level of detail I was hoping for but managed to improve on my previous shots. Not every adventure leads to success or failure, but even though I failed to grab a five star image, I still enjoyed the beauty of the scenery and would highly recommend the area to anyone.

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!