2017 Birding Photography
2016 was the first year that I worked at getting good photographs of North American birds. I made trips to BC, New Mexico and Arizona and made many forays out from Calgary. My collection pales in comparison to the 700-1000 bird species that will live and breed in North America or stumble in from Asia, Europe or South America. But I did get some good portrait and action type photos in that year. I continued my pursuit into 2017.
Around Calgary (winter, spring)
My first good bird photo of 2017 was on Jan 14 east of Calgary. Rich King and I were in my car in a line of about five cars following the Nature Calgary tour leader as he lead us along meandering range roads looking for Owls, Hawks and whatever else we might see on that sunny cold winter day. Terry Korolyk is a very experienced birder and has a good feeling of where to find our winter birds. We saw and I got pictures of Snowy Owls, Great Horned Owls, Horned Larks, a Short Eared Owl and a few others. I don’t usually get good photos while out with a group but it is always good to learn from someone like Terry and I will often return on my own when I can go at my own pace and try to set up for a good picture. On this day I was quite lucky as our vehicle procession stopped just as my car was in front of a lovely Rough-legged Hawk on a fence post. I dropped my window and whipped up my camera just as he was launching from the fence post. One shot only, all luck, no skill or planning.
Rough-leggeds breed in the arctic and mostly come our way in the winter, kind of occupying the Red-tailed territory who mostly migrate further south. A week later I got a few more shots of a Rough-legged flying up the Elbow River below Owen’s house.This post will touch on some of the bird photos that I took in 2017 that are of new birds for me, or where I improved my collection of an old bird or finally I might just include a shot that I like. At rough count I took over 3000 photos of about 100 kinds of birds in 2017.
During the winter I go out birding in the area around Calgary every couple of weeks mostly just to get out, sometimes searching the habitat of specific birds I might be looking for. Chickadees, overwintering Ducks, Flickers, Waxwings, Nuthatches both red and white breasted are some that I find.
I followed the mother Common Merganser and three of her four chicks up the Bow River along Bowmont Park during the spring melt. Ferrying chicks in this way is common for many water fowl and so it is the behaviour that makes this photo attractive to me. I saw her a few times during my walk, always working hard in the ferocious river current. What could have been so important about getting her brood so far up that dangerous river?
As spring ripens some of the migrating birds add colour to the mix. I found the American Goldfinch in the forest near my son’s house on the Elbow River.
Vancouver (Mar 10-17)
Tracking my progress: I would never have considered keeping track of my bird photography in the film camera days or until I started using Adobe Lightroom. With digital photography (since 2002) all of my photos are pretty well accessible. With Lightroom (since 2012) my photos can be cross-indexed and assigned keywords that identify aspects of that photo.
I drove out to Vancouver, joining my son Owen for the Vancouver Rugby Seven’s Tournament and stayed on for another five days to search for birds in the Vancouver Area. I booked an AirBnB in Tsawwassen and each day visited some of Vancouver’s many birding hot spots. It rained a lot but there were still lots of good birds waiting for me. While there I found an excellent new Birding Guide to Vancouver that helped me find good locations. I spent the whole time south of the Fraser River mostly in the area of Boundary Bay. One nice thing about birding cities is that you find your way to the birds by walking, usually in parks. Much of my bird photography is done from the car on little side roads as the car acts as a pretty good blind. But in Vancouver I got lots of walking in, always a nice bonus for me.
The first thing that hit me in Vancouver was the number of Bald Eagles. It takes four years for a Bald Eagle to fully mature and to develop its iconic feathers. Most that I saw were at some stage along that development and many were seriously moulting as well. I saw as many as a dozen in a single tree; I saw eight or ten young playing above the mud flats of Boundary Bay and there were almost always a few gliding above me in the grey skies. But mostly they were just perched on posts or in trees. At one time they were almost gone from the Vancouver area but protections now in place are working well.
A great site in the Vancouver area is the Reifel Bird Sanctuary, where I took these Wood Duck photos.
The nice things about Ducks is the males are so easily recognized, but often the females are less obvious. I like the pose of this male with a hint of a female in the back and have added a female in the interests of gender equity. I think she is pretty distinctive as well.
Also at Reifel I got Spotted Towhee. They should summer in our area but I have never seen one near Calgary. I got the Bewick’s Wren in a little park east along the Frazer. Its range just touches Canada in Vancouver. Both are new birds for me.
The area around the Fraser Delta is one of the best places in Canada to see raptors, particularly in winter. Much tougher than eagles I did get a few shots of a Coopers Hawk near Boundary Bay. A real prize for me was a Northern Shrike, also found along Boundary Bay. These lovely little songbirds could be classified as raptors if they had stronger talons. They hunt grasshoppers and other insects but also mice and voles like raptors. The Northern come to Calgary in the winter as they come south and we might see Loggerhead Shrikes in the summer, but both while not rare are uncommon.
I was a bit early for the Shorebirds, which is one of the main attractions of the Fraser Delta. I got some shots of Dunlin but nothing worth including. Unfortunately the 2018 Seven’s tournament is also early March. I added some nice birds here to my Lightroom repository.
Medicine Hat (April 29-May1)
My interest in Bird Photography arose in South Africa in 1985 while on safari equipped to capture the Big Five mammals. Riding around in land rovers looking for wildlife I found the birds much more active and challenging to photograph than the animals. Two other trips to the region in the 1990s consolidated that interest, which began to stimulate an interest in learning more about birds and how to get good photos of them. I have been in search of birds and taking photos of them in fits and starts ever since.
I have been reading Trevor Herriot lately. He is a Saskatchewan naturalist and writes wonderfully about the prairies and the threats it faces. I was born on the prairie but have spent my life in Calgary fixated on the mountains. While I don’t regret that, Herriot has heightened my interest in seeing more of the prairies while I can. You can read that to mean that either I or the prairies don’t have much time left.
In either event I headed down to Medicine Hat to see what I could find.I drove the back roads both on the way down and on the way back. The day I spent in the region I drove up into Cypress Hills Provincial Park. I saw lots of hawks mostly Red-tailed and many ducks on the small ponds that were still pretty full. When about 50 km east of Calgary Western Meadowlarks began to appear usually in full song. They are a delightful draw for me and are possibly the definitive prairie bird and indicator of prairie health. I also take videos so that I can get their song.
The best new species of this trip was the Ferruginous Hawk. I got many good shots on my drive near Pakowski Lake, south of Medicine Hat. It is our largest Buteo, is exclusively a prairie bird in Canada and as such has suffered from insecticides, poisoning of gophers and other habitat loss.
Near Cypress Hills I got a nice series of shots of a pelican dropping into a little lake, catching and swallowing a fish.
Creston Valley Birdfest (May 12-15)
Taking good bird photos is difficult. It helps to have a good camera and high quality long lens. Given those, it is still tough. Birds don’t often sit and wait for you to set up your shot. So you have to be ready in advance and able to focus on the bird in an instant. But above all, as Ansel Adams would say; “You have to be there!” Good bird photographers know when and where to go, they will be there before dawn for many days before they get the shot they are after, if then. I have so much to learn and improve…but that also is fun.
Heading away from the prairies for a while I returned for the second time to Creston’s bird migration festival. I had enjoyed it and learned a lot in 2016 and wanted to support them again. The Bird Photographer and presenter that I have appreciated most at the few festivals I have been to is Monte Comeau and I went to his seminar again, gaining more motivation.
As I have said before, I don’t usually get good photos when out with a group, but I went early and stayed over one more day. In part I was also experimenting with getting out in an inflatable kayak, a Monte Comeau practice. This is a bit laughable as I can’t swim and I am the least flexible old man among those of us whose heart still pumps. I went out on one of the many quiet Kootenay River channels when there was no one around to humiliate myself in front of. I launched well enough and it was lovely on the water but back at shore, struggling to get back out of the tight kayak cockpit I managed to flip over. The one smart thing I did was to put my camera in a dry-bag before trying to get out. I got a bit better and did manage to get some shots from the kayak but did change the boat for one I could manage better when I got back to Calgary.
I always get pictures of distant eagles and osprey and many ducks at Creston. No new birds this year from Creston as I have been there a number of times. The Osprey is from my kayak and I like the Great Horned Owl because he is really staring me down.
Bowdoin National Wildlife Reserve (May 17,18)
So what birds do I already have?: As I have hinted, I have taken bird photos going back over thirty years, but most are not included in Lightroom, my management system. I made a big photographic step in 2013 when Rich King and I went on a self-drive wildlife safari in Southern Africa for two months. I bought a pretty good long lens before this trip and I returned with many good birds. A similar trip that we made to Australia in 2015 was also very productive. My birds from those trips have been cross-indexed in Lightroom. Birds from earlier trips to India, South and Central America and New Zealand and others have not yet been indexed. I have 50,000 digital photos and 13,000 slides but possibly not enough “round-to-its” to index all of the birds that I have captured. Optimistically I might have photos of 600 of the world’s 10,400 birds.
I had planned on heading from Creston straight back into the prairie. My goal was Grasslands National Park in Saskatchewan but I did not want to drive through Southern Alberta again. So I headed down into Montana and drove to the North East corner heading for Bowdoin NWR, east of Havre. Lake Bowdoin is one of the many lakes that attract migrating and breeding birds in the prairie. A rough gravel road, about 50 km long meanders around the wetland reserve and a car acting as a blind is a good way to observe the birds. I did the drive in the evening and then again early the next morning.
Ducks and Shorebirds were the prime attraction. A couple of the really showy ones are the American Avocet and the Black-necked Stilt. Avocets in particular are very accommodating for photographers as they will run along the road in front of you and then fly back and forth giving lots of opportunity to catch their flight.
I added a Wilsons Phalarope here because I love their name and they are a little different. This shot is of a female showing breeding colours. The male is non-descript as he broods and raises the young while his mate heads south early in the summer.
Grasslands National Park (May 18-20)
Early settlers ploughed away much of the native short and long grass prairie habitat, but lots of grassland remained to provide feed for cattle and horses. The cattle and horses in effect replaced the functions that the Plains Bison had provided in creating a healthy natural environment. But as time went on the use of insecticides, poisons, excessive hunting, elimination of natural fires changed the environment once again. And then as mixed family farms were merged to form larger grain farms cattle and horses were eliminated. Without the need to contain livestock fences and the little strips of grass along road allowances could be ploughed and seeded. Now, possibly half of the prairie bird species are endangered or extirpated from the Canadian prairies. Yearly bird counts show prairie birds are declining for all prairie birds and at a higher rate than birds of other regions. Will efforts like Grasslands stop the downward spiral?
This was my major new destination for the year and I was anxious to get there. It is not far from Bowdoin across the border to Grasslands NP in Saskatchewan. I was a bit late getting there as I had torn a tire on the rough roads around Lake Bowdoin which meant buying four new ones in Havre. I spent the first night at Val Marie in a little hotel with a Chinese food restaurant. I was off at sunrise to do the 80 km gravel drive through the park. I immediately had some successes with a Sharp-tailed Grouse warming on a fence post in the early morning sun.
This was followed by Lark Buntings and Horned Larks running along the gravel road in front of the car and then flying up to perch on fence posts or rocks. Initially they appeared to me to be meadowlarks which were also plentiful. About the same size and lots of black and white. I was thrilled to find these iconic prairie birds so quickly.
At the first Black-tailed Prairie Dog town I spent a long time scanning all of the mounds, hoping that one of the countless little brown prairie dogs might actually be a Burrowing Owl. No luck. At the visitor centre I was told that when the young owls are being fed you can sometimes see the parents flying in and out of the burrows they have usurped for their nest. It was too early for that, but they weren’t optimistic about finding them at the best of times. I did also see some big old single male Plains Bison. Acting as an oxpecker a Brown-headed Cowbird was riding a big old male. Perhaps they would have been called Bisonbirds if the bison had lasted longer. I was hoping to see a Bison herd, but the mothers have taken the calves into the remote parts of the park away from the males and voyeuristic photographers. I think about loading up a pack with tent and supplies and walking out for a few days into this park.
I spent the night in a campground in the middle of the park to experience the prairie evening. I also walked many of the trails emanating from the car parks along the drive. I got quite close to some young Great Horned Owls, and Bobolinks. I only saw Bobolinks while walking. These strange little birds, like Swanson’s Hawks migrate back and forth between the prairies here and those in Argentina.
A strange bird to find here is the Marbled Godwit. It is one of the shorebirds like the rare Upland Sandpiper that are at home on the prairie far away from large wetlands. It also feeds along the gravel roads. I also saw a Loggerhead Shrike but my pictures of it are from too far away.
I always try to get photos of the sparrows I see and then try to identify them from the photos. Some of my shots here had me thinking that I had a Baird’s Sparrow, one of the prairie rarities. It had what I thought might have been two key little black spots on its cheeks, but further examination of my pictures revealed it to be a Vesper Sparrow, or at least I think so. Sparrows are a great identification challenge and without proper knowledge of their songs it is really tough. I really need to learn the differentiating songs better.
The hunting Northern Harrier was taken above the marsh along Frenchman River moments before he dove into the grass. As he didn’t come out I assume he caught what he was after. The less official name of Marsh Hawk helps me identify these lovely hawks.
I didn’t see any of the real rare prairie birds on my prairie trips but I was happy to find the birds that I did. Hopefully by the time I get back I will be better at finding them and birds like the Bairds, Spragues Pipits, and Chestnut-collared Longspurs to name a few will still be with us.
Edmonton Area, Elk Island Park (June 4-6)
Driving north to visit friends I stopped at birding sites near Red Deer and Camrose and then I spent a night camped at Elk Island Park where I used my new and better for me kayak. Heading up here puts me into the mixed forest area we call Parkland and so might reveal a few new birds.
Once again I saw and shot many ducks, some pelicans, a cormorant, flickers, a house wren and as always a few sparrows.
Getting out in my kayak as the sun came up cast a lovely hue on the birds that posed for me. Most common here were Red-necked Grebes. The neatest shots of the morning were coming around a corner amidst the bull-rushes I caught a Great-blue heron having his breakfast. He didn’t offer to share.
Much of my birding effort happens while at the family cabin in Kananaskis. In 2017 I spent quite a bit of time out on various lakes working on my kayaking skills, often with my big lens in my lap. I added to my extensive Loon library. Who will not be thrilled by a Loon call echoing across a dark mountain lake as the sun disappears. The little Spotted Sandpipers are always fun. it was a treat to find one sitting on her eggs on the gravel beach. I get lots of common birds in K-country, from Bald Eagles to White-crowned Sparrows. A new one for me this year was the Audubon Warbler.
I got some adequate photos in Europe and then back here as part of the Calgary Christmas bird count I found for the first time some Red Crossbills. My last bird pictures of 2017 were on Jan 30 in Kananaskis. Last year while walking on the cabin road without a camera I stumbled on a male Spruce Grouse with four females. I missed a good opportunity then but did find a lone male this year.
My photo collection did not expand as much as in 2016 but my knowledge improved and I really enjoyed the chase.
All for now.