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.




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!