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!

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