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 - Early Spring

Looking for Seeds

Looking for Seeds

Contrary to the weather network or the ground hog, a birders spring begins during the grip of winter with some of the most unlikely of all critters. The lengthening sun in February often ushers in swarms of horned Larks no larger than a football skulking around farmers fields spread out across Southern Ontario to feast on seeds - grass and other sources of food that lie deep beneath the snow. When there is snow on the ground they can be found near Canada Geese which clear the snow to get to the same seeds which attracts the Larks . Thus it is in the depth of winter that spring slowly begins to return.

Calling out

Calling out

Then comes March with Waterfowl, and with waterfowl come the displays and competition. Early spring is as exciting as any other season, and if you look closely you will be given a treat with Wrens, Bluebirds, Kinglets as forests slowly awaken and marshes and swamp lands begin to thaw out. Here in Canada this generally means late March / early April marking the arrival of black birds, grackles followed by meadowlarks, blue birds and then Carolina and Winter Wrens before Golden Crowned furballs, a number of different sparrows and finally the return of the first Warblers before the start of May. The arrival of the Yellow Rumped Warblers marks the end of early spring migration and the beginning of the full wave of summer migrants. 

On an old branch

On an old branch

A wide variety of habitat becomes interesting very quickly as things melt and shift creating a dynamic landscape. Areas that were once barren turn into livable homes for a wide variety of critters. In this time period I find that the transition zones are most plentiful, beginning with areas such as the edge of forests and grasslands. Here meadowlarks, Blue Birds and Kinglets tend to congregate. When photographing Blue Birds / Meadowlarks the best tactic is to use a blind near their nesting area as they tend to be skittish, however when nothing is available one needs to revert to tactics such as using a long lens, and pausing for a long time as they bounce around the ground and perches between singing and looking for food. Generally morning marks the best time for these birds, and I've found that mid morning they begin to tapper off their singing activity, that is unless there are Cardinals or something else that keeps them going! The best time to photograph these birds are the first 2 weeks of April. One caution with Meadowlarks - if they are disturbed during egg season (late April / early May) they tend to abandon their nest which is why I avoid photographing them as the weather begins to warm, they are a declining species in Ontario so it is best to keep their homes as undisturbed as possible!

Wrens are another challenge. These birds often let you know that their presence is near with complex calls, and duets with mating pairs, there is nothing more exhilarating then finding a mating pair in full song, and waiting for the right moment. Best of all these wrens often compete with their smaller and feisty cousins, the Winter wren, and even though larger and aggressive, the small but mighty Winter wren puts up a solid fight with both song and aggressiveness. My best shots of both these wrens came when they were close by in severe competition over territory. The tactic here is to sit still and let them go at it!

Singing Pair

Singing Pair

Finally as the sun begins to usher longer days Kinglets make their return, beginning with the ever challenging Golden Crowned, followed by Ruby and then finally the Yellow Rumped Warblers. Golden Crowned are notoriously difficult and give even the best auto focus systems a major test as they simply do not stay still. Their tendency to bounce around endlessly means you need atleast 1/500 and a good arm to track them. However they often ignore humans when feeding in mid level bush resulting in some excellent opportunities for the lens. The same goes for Ruby Crowned, and they are often more aggressive with other Ruby crowned kinglets which allows one to capture them displaying. Nothing is more special then a shot with the iconic crown up along a clean background. The following is probably my fav shot of the year.

Crown Up!

Crown Up!

Hungry

Hungry

As Yellow Rumped Warblers arrive there is often a sprinkling of other species that join them on the route, Nashville, Pine and Black and White tend to be their normal companions. Warblers are my personal favourite birds to photograph in the spring. Their songs, the challenge of getting a clean shot with a stunning background all make an engaging photography and nature experience. The tactic here is to walk around until you find them, usually by water around key hotspots, and then stay still and allow them to feed around you. They tend to be comfortable with human presence if people are silent and not moving allowing someone to take stunning photos. With their migration early spring comes to an end.




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.

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!