January 4, 2013 by Rokman61
Small numbers of Snow Buntings regularly come to visit us in winter. They are easy to find as they forage in very open spaces next to tidewater – most often observed on gravel jetties. This twosome was a pleasant surprise one morning at Blackie Spit.
Photography purists might discount this next image, insisting that the background is too busy and distracts from the bird. For me, just the opposite – the background makes the picture. It provides habitat, it illustrates how the bird’s plumage blends in to its surroundings, and the shell pieces are interesting in themselves.
(Click on any image for a larger view, then click ‘back’ to return to the blog).
Last winter the big excitement for bird photographers was the invasion of Snowy Owls all across the continent. In our area, as many as 20 to 30 could be observed from one spot on Boundary Bay. The owls have returned again, in about the same numbers, but this year they are popping up in many different places, with no concentration equivalent to last year’s spectacular show. Here is a solitary bird that was hunting on the foreshore, perhaps attracted by the novelty of a tree to perch on – something that would not be available where it came from.
But filling in for the Snowies this year, a new batch of characters have taken over. Each winter a few Short-eared Owls are observed hunting the foreshore meadows and fields around the edge of Boundary Bay. These medium-sized owls are diurnal, meaning they are active during daylight. This past month has been one of the best in years, with quite a few owls putting on a show, much to the delight of the photographers who outnumber them. The birds are remarkably agile fliers, swirling and dipping, sparring with their brethren and with Northern Harriers, looking much like giant moths. There have been many stunning photographs taken, unfortunately not by me. It seems that whenever I visited the location, either the weather was exceedingly dark and murky, or the owls were just taking a break. I did manage a few shots, of which I present only one.
It is difficult to resist trying to photograph any owl, even if it is tucked up into the darkest corner it could find. Once again the magic of digital imagery allowed for this Barred Owl to be exposed, albeit not a prize-winning image.
Here is a real oddity – a Sage Thrasher. As its name might suggest, this is a bird of the western American deserts, with a breeding range that barely makes it to Canada in the southern Okanagan and Similkameen Valleys. In winter it retreats to more southern climes, mostly in Mexico. So here is this lost soul on the Boundary Bay dike, in early winter no less, a rather rare occurrence. In its breeding habitat, it is a very difficult bird to observe, staying hidden in the sage except when singing on territory. This individual, in a completely unfamiliar coastal environment, foraged on the open ground alongside the dike, and posed in the adjacent brambles and crab apple bushes whilst the flapperazzi gleefully fired off thousands of photographs.
At times one comes across a really good bird – species that are not often seen. Of course one tries to take its photograph, even under conditions that are much less than ideal, just to prove and/or remember the sighting. We refer to this as a ‘record shot’ or else ‘documentation’, which are both birders’ euphemisms or excuses for presenting sub-standard images. This impressive young Northern Goshawk posed for me at Reifel Refuge. The excuses are that it was way up there at the top of a very tall snag, on a particularly dark and murky day.
More documentation: this image better illustrates the distinguishing features of the bird – the wavy banding on the tail, and the pale supercilium (eyebrow). As you might suspect from its appearance, the photo has been doctored somewhat, which brings out the details, but doesn’t look quite natural.
Whilst several of us were taking photos of the thrasher, someone noticed two waxwings close by the target bird. As luck would have it, one was a Bohemian Waxwing, a very uncommon species, similar to its very common relative the Cedar Waxwing. Not nearly as rare as the thrasher, but still an excellent sighting in its own right. This is another example of a ‘documentation’ photo.
Here for comparison is a photo of the ‘regular’ or Cedar Waxwing, taken on another day. It is a bit smaller than the Bohemian, and doesn’t have quite so much colourful decoration on the folded wing.
Wood Ducks that are truly wild tend to be very wary and never allow close approach. At several of our local parks/refuges they get accustomed to being fed by humans and will pose patiently for photos. This young female was sitting on a bird feeder at Reifel Refuge, allowing for a full-frame portrait. A study of simple elegance.
This is a House Sparrow, often referred to as the ‘English Sparrow’. A handsome critter, but one that is held in lowest regard by birders because it is a foreigner that competes with some of our native birds. Also, in large numbers they are irritatingly noisy and messy. This species has managed to colonize urban areas worldwide, a feat shared with the Starling and Rock Pigeon, which also carry similar reputations. Ironically, House Sparrows are in serious decline in Britain, and maybe we should consider helping out by sending a few back.
When using a telephoto lens, it is quite difficult to get several individuals in focus at the same time, the depth-of-focus being limited by the lens. Typically, only one bird will be sharp in a given exposure. In the photo below, I merged two images, which provided somewhat improved result – but would this be considered as ‘cheating’?
And another owl ‘documentary’ shot. I was walking by this little cedar tree which last winter served as a nightly roost for a Saw-whet Owl for several weeks. I stuck my nose in just to check, and found myself face-to-face with a Long-eared Owl – less than a metre away. It took off immediately, flew down the path, and alighted briefly in plain sight. I managed one quick shot, with a branch right across its face, but before I could re-position it was gone. Long-eareds tend to roost in dense thickets and are very shy, so finding one is a real treat and a rather serendipitous happening.
Among other things, December is the season of CBCs (Christmas Bird Counts). Fun to get out for the day, see some old friends, and look for birds. Counting them is not quite so much fun for me, and I sort of dread coming across something like this. (We could probably spare a few of these Starlings to send back with the sparrows).
The Red-breasted Sapsucker is a common bird of the west coast forests, lots of them in the mountains north of Vancouver. In winter a few come down to the flatlands, but are fairly rare south of Vancouver. What is interesting here is that there is one tiny spot (literally 2 or 3 old apple trees) in Point Roberts Washington that has produced one sapsucker for our CBC in virtually every year for more than a decade. Elsewhere they are hardly ever recorded. Of course the CBC took place on yet another dark murky day, providing yet another ‘documentation’ shot.
Eurasian Collared-Doves present an astonishing story. As their name indicates, they are not native to North America, and got their first foothold in the Bahamas in the 1970s. By ’82 they had reached Florida, and in the next 30 years they spread right across the continent as far as Alaska. They began to show up in the Delta farmlands in about 2004, and are now quite common there. I photographed this one on our CBC count – the first ones I had seen in this corner of our area, indicating that colonization is pretty much complete. These birds are quite wary, and this is the best photo I have managed to date (other than birds on powerline wires, photographed through a car window).
Just in time to end the year, a fortuitous opportunity arose that provided an illustration of exactly what ‘photo documentation’ is all about. I got an urgent call from a birding friend who had come across a rather unusual bird whilst on the CBC for our area – a very pale gull with pure white wingtips. There are two possible species that fit this requirement, one rare for our area and the other exceedingly rare. First indications were that the bird was the smaller and much rarer of the two, an Iceland Gull. Documentation for this would be an absolute necessity to have it included for the count. I took a number of photos and some discussion ensued. In the end, it was determined to be a Glaucous Gull – not quite the rarity hoped for, but still an excellent record. Glaucous is our biggest gull, and usually sticks out like a sore thumb. This particular individual was a relatively small one for the species, which at first threw us off on the identification. The photos enabled us to seal the deal.
A number of subtle field marks are evident in the photos, and this closer view of the head provides a clincher. On a winter adult Glaucous Gull, the base of the bill is often pinkish, whereas on an Iceland it would be greenish-yellow.
So ends another year. Best wishes to all in 2013, and hopes that the sun will be making more regular appearances in the coming months.