Tuesday, 12 January 2021

Some thoughts on Composition

 Using Negative Space

The use of negative space is often overlooked in bird photography. The technique can be a very powerful storytelling tool, working in subtle ways to draw the viewer into the frame.
 It’s not uncommon when photographing with long lenses to crowd the subject within the frame. What might be appropriate for submissions to a bird guide and magazines etc may not always the best way communicate one's vision.

Below is an example of a close-up used in a popular bird guide of Pacific Northwest birds. 


The Close-up

Least Sandpiper


Telling a Story

 Although a close-up image could be technically perfect, it may often lack context, not all situations call for close-up treatment. Many of my seasoned birding friends (some really well seasoned) tell me they prefer to see at least some background information that gives the subject matter a sense of place that include clues to habitat and other information. Photographs depicting some or all of those criteria can be one of the most difficult forms of bird photography. Most photographs posted on social media lack this important factor. 

How about the image below. The Band-tailed Pigeons are clearly identified and so are ripening Red Elderberries the birds are feeding on. There's the story right there. A close-up may have worked too but it wouldn't have shown a flock feeding. Just as an aside, I also shot a close-up, a horizontal as well a vertical shot for a possible magazine cover.
 Did the image hold your attention for more than three or four seconds, if so then consider the image successful. 
If the photographer can transport the viewer albeit just for a brief moment, that's all the maker of the image can hope for, especially nowadays when thanks to social media and non-stop streaming services we are all on image overload.


Band-tailed Pigeons feeding on Red Elderberry


Using Negative Space

Unlike the painter who begins with a blank canvas, the bird photographer often has to deal the opposite. Messy backgrounds, branches in front of the subject, awkward backgrounds and a host of other challenges. The photographer needs to bring order to the composition. Using negative space is one such technique.

Recently on a visit to Surrey’s Blackie Spit I was drawn to the strange colour to the water. At first I thought it was an algae bloom but on closer inspection it turned out to be a torrent of duckweed that had been released from farmers ditches following days of rain. A flock of thirty plus American Coots were feeding on the floating carpet of weeds. I had never seen so many coots in one place. I alsomade some close-up shots of Common Loons chowing down on crabs. None of those shots really worked out very well.

I then I noticed a Great Blue Heron hunting in the thick carpet of duckweed. I knew from experience that this is something I might never witness again. An opportunity not to be missed. I placed the heron using the Golden Ratio of the frame to act as a visual anchor. The difference in tones draws the eye creating tension with the frame, the heron then becomes the centre of interest.

Using my 24mm-3000mm Nikon P1000 I had the option of many different compositions, something that shooting with a fixed prime 500mm or 600mm lens would have never be been possible. The 200mm-500mm on my D500 could have worked but it would still have been too restrictive compositionally. I could have zoomed in but I already have numerous images of herons flying or feeding and some great shots of their courtship rituals. I decided to use negative space to render my vision. The light was soft, the sun barely penetrating the clouds, the colours muted. I decided to meter off the bright mudflats and underexpose, causing the heron to be silhouetted. I made sure the bird was looking in to the frame from left to right, a ploy to entice the viewer to wander around the image and then back to the heron. The technique works so well because in Western culture we are accustomed to read from left to right, placing the heron in the bottom left encourages the viewer’s eye to naturally roam around the image as if reading a book.

"Its never too late to be composed"
John Gordon
BC, Canada

The Golden Ratio, also sometimes called the Fibonacci Spiral. It is the result of when you do some complex maths on a rectangle to the tune of: a/b = (a+b)/a = 1.61803398875. 

Theres no need to memorize this, you can find the overlays everywhere on the Internet to download and paste over your images, as well as being built in (but very well hidden) in Lightroom. 

To access this spiral, press R to get your cropping function open, then cycle through the available overlays with O until you find the spiral. Turning it around is done by pressing Shift + O. There are eight variations to it.

Saturday, 2 January 2021

Something to Crow About or How not to take oneself seriously.

Something to Crow About 

The Crow is purely a fun endeavour, a challenge open to birders who have the time and inclination to tick at least two-hundred and fifty different species of birds in the Lower Mainland in any one year. There is no winner per se and the trophy is shared equally among all those who crack the two-fifty mark. There is of course one person who will see more birds than any other and to them goes the highest perch. 
More info than you will ever need about the Crow can be found at the end of this blog. A big thanks goes to Carlo Giovanella who came up with the novel idea few years ago. Many of us have enjoyed the chase and made 2020 that more sufferable.

California Scrub Jay/Delta

I had had two unsuccessful flaps at the Crow in 2018 (243) and 2019 (244) and for whatever reasons those last few birds always proved elusive having flown the coop before I arrived. I really wanted to try one last time. One last flutter I suppose, even if I would have to wing it.

 My other 2020 resolution was to create one or more eBird lists every day of 2020. That would prove to be an interesting but much easier endeavour. 

Red-eye Vireo/Campbell Valley Park

When I embarked on the quest in the previous years I had always made it little more challenging by periodically taking off for the UK or Mexico. When 2020 began, little did we know how the rest of the year would turn out. No international travel, birding with masks, social distancing, who could have predicted that.

As mentioned the history of The Crow is to try and tick 250 or more different species of birds in the Lower Mainland in any one calendar year. I say try because it can take a certain amount of dedication, determination and a fair amount of luck. Add to that the cost of gas, the outrageous carbon footprint and  the most important part of the equation, blessings from spouses. The latter being the most delicate to negotiate but that subject deserves a whole column on its own.

Black-billed Magpie/Iona Regional Park

Each and every birder who embarks on this somewhat madcap adventure faces different challenges. An unattached individual who can bird any time may possibly have an edge. A student may have classes, homework or have to rely on an understanding parent or public transport. The retiree may have all the time in the world, each and every birder is different. Sadly, I've even met a couple of female birders who were afraid to bird on their own, something us of the male persuasion never really take into consideration.

House Wren/Aldergrove

These days finding birds has never been easier. Digital networks including eBird, the BC Rare Bird (RBA) alert and regular texts from fellow birders all helped us all find birds. These and other great resources have helped everyone involved. 

That said, a few have tossed around the idea that the benchmark for the Crow should now be 260 which is fine except that wasn't the original intent. Perhaps 260 is the new 250, only another year will tell. This year a dozen birders have reached the 250 mark, more I think than ever before, a number have even surpassed 260. 

Bush Tit/Boundary Bay

Could it be that the every birder was grounded due to Covid-19 or was it just a great year for birds? One experienced birder  thought that some of the birds normally seen only in the Spring returned again in the Fall too, especially fortuitous for those who missed them first time round. That doesn't always happen. 
My Big Year (261) brought me a number of new Metro Vancouver birds which was an added bonus. 

New Year's Day

Bird #1

I began the year on New Year's Day with a 10 min drive to a small pond in the Cloverdale Fairgrounds where a female Redhead (below) had taken up residence. By the end of the day and without too much effort I had ticked forty-eight species. Amazingly one year later the Redhead is back at the same location, perhaps the same bird.

At the end of January I had a tally of one hundred and twenty-one species. 
Great fun ticking new birds everyday. Taking part in a couple of Christmas bird counts helped as they were hardcore eight-hour birding days with expert birders.

Brewers Sparrow/Iona

As the weather warmed and the first seriousness of Covid-19 began to sink in, waves of new species were arriving. Some like the Yellow-rumped Warbler already had young. I saw one adult carry food to the nest. I heard a Cassin's Vireo singing on Burnaby Mountain. I was kind of chuffed to find a bird by its song, I then tracked it to a branch and photographed it.

Cassin's Vireo/Burnaby Mountain

 I managed to get a number of friends on the bird before it moved on. I had John Neville's CD of BC bird songs to thank for that, The CD was a constant companion in my cars sound system.

Townsend's Warbler/Joe Brown Park Surrey

In May I had a Western Tanager in my garden which was species #200 for the year and a new yard bird. I downed a Corona beer to celebrate.

A Western Tanager hawks an insect in my backyard.

See how the bird tucks its wings in as it snatches the insect. Avian aerodynamics in action.

As summer set in there were fewer and fewer new ticks. One August day I had a Franklin's Gull and Wilson's Phalarope, both in the pouring rain. In late August I dipped on a Chestnut-side Warbler at Colony Farm, twice I dipped on a Stilt Sandpiper at Reifel and then a Northern Waterthrush in Stanley Park. Very little to show for all the driving. Between Aug 10 and Aug 16 I found one of my six target birds. The following week I dipped again on everything. Things started to look up in September and by the end of the month I was at 247 species and everyone was egging me on. Even my old photographer friends who thought I had gone completely mad wanted to know how the list was going.

American Redstart/Catbird Slough

The next bird was to be the most unusual and controversial as it was a first for Vancouver or least as recent records go. Had I been on my own that day I wouldn't have have been able to count it. Raymond Ng and I were chatting at the first bench at Brunswick Point. He was going out to photograph the Ash-throated Flycatcher (246) and I was biking back to my car. Neither of us were birding, just chatting and catching up. Raymond suddenly pointed out a large bird flying close-by, almost over my shoulders. Long-tailed Jaeger (247) Raymond shouted. My camera was in my backpack, the bird too close for Raymond's 800mm. We were stunned, rooted to the spot, the moment was over in seconds. Both of us pride ourselves at being sometime photographers but neither of us could react in time except to see the bird fly off toward the ocean. Really too bad we didn't get pictures but we were able to describe the bird well. Below is what I wrote on eBird.  

Large streamlined white pelagic type bird with black cap and white/cream coloured breast. Solid black underneath the wings, no white whatsoever ruling out PAJA. Trailing long feathers, not sure of exact length. Witnessed by myself and Raymond Ng. Fly-over from 20 metres directly above us. Heading toward the ocean from the farmers fields. Great views, could even see the catchlight in the eye but neither of us could get our cameras on the bird.

Ash-throated Flycatcher/Brunswick Point

My sole contribution to the Metro Vancouver Big Year pool was the Curlew Sandpiper I found on a visit to  Reifel Aug 8 2020. I was a great birthday present, a new Canada bird and another Metro Vancouver tick.                                                    

                                                           See Finding a good bird

Curlew Sandpiper/Reifel

It wasn't until middle of Oct that I ticked a Palm Warbler found by Rob Lyske at Maplewood Flats (248) and the same day a Northern Mockingbird (NOMO) at Iona (249) The secretive NOMO counted, even if it was just a glimpse. A view is all most listers need although a good long look is the preferred outcome. As it turned out there was never any need to rush, the NOMO is still there weeks later, even being trapped in the banding mist nets. One thing I did learn about the listing game was to strike when the iron was hot, as soon as a new bird turned up it was in the car and off on another twitch. Unfortunately no car pooling this year. It became second nature to drop all plans at moment's notice. 

Once my wife was onboard, my disappearing acts became much more accepted, even applauded. The only condition was to bring home a Wendy's Frosty and only if I found a new year bird, that started around the Pectoral Sandpiper bird (214) so you can see, quite a few frozen treats were consumed.

Cassin's Auklet/Stanley Park

After the NOMO it left just one bird to go. I was more than happy that when after three years of trying I eventually saw my #250 bird when I photographed a Clarke's Grebe at the Tsawwassen Ferry Terminal on Oct 14. Like most birders I found the bird from an online source. On reflection and back in September when I was racking up the kilometres and when I still needed ten more birds and I really thought my Big Year might never happen. 

Pine Grosbeak/Maplewood


There wasn't even time for a little celebration when young birder Sage found a Cassin's Auklet in Stanley Park's Cold Harbour. What an amazing find, a pelagic so close to the city. All the regular listers were there, even for many of them it was a first for Vancouver. That was #251 for me. I also had also made sure I had covered two potentially difficult birds to identify in getting a second Sharp-shinned Hawk at Reifel and a second Eared Grebe at Iona. 

 I couldn't have done the big Year it on my own.  A special thanks go out to Mel of the BC Rare Bird Alert for being so diligent in getting out the word out and to all the other birders who have shared their sightings with the rest of us in the birding community.

"It's never too late to attempt a Big Year"
John Gordon
B.C. Canada

Sunday, 8 November 2020

Red-backed Shrike Mega Twitch

Rare Bird Alert. A Red-backed Shrike had turned up on BC's Sunshine Coast. A MEGA find if there ever was one. 
The shrike normally breeds in Europe and Western Asia and winters in tropical Africa. Twitchers began frantically checking ferry schedules and booking hotel rooms. I wasn't so quick to react. I thought about it for a full three days before I got my act together and decided to make the six hour, two ferry trip up the Sunshine Coast and beyond to the bustling metropolis of Powell River. It would be a 12-14 hour day trip. Prior to leaving I decided to hedge my bets and stay overnight. That would give a me a better chance in case I dipped on my arrival. I am glad I did.

Twitchers wait for some action.

Arriving at midday I arrived in Powell River and headed for the stakeout (see above) where a number of other birders had been patiently waiting for several hours. There was a bitter cold with blowing off the Salish Sea. I wore three layers and I was still shivering. Eventually three hours later and as the light began to fail the shrike finally appeared. I quickly captured some so-so video footage on my Nikon P1000 bridge camera. 

The camera has excellent 4K video qualities and has a 24mm-3000mm which proved ideal for this particular twitch where we couldn't approach too closely.

Nikon P1000 

The P1000 is not a replacement for a DSLR or a quality mirrorless but not everybody wants to go that route. I then switched to my D500 and 200mm-500mm F5.6 Nikon zoom for some crisper shots by which time the light had dropped and I forced me to shoot at ISO 1000 to get enough shutter speed. The light was terrible but photographers have to work with whatever is available. Thankfully the rain held off.


The shrike flew to the ground

and picked up an earthworm

then scolded me.
Nikon D500 and 200mm-500mm

I stayed at the historic The Old Courthouse Inn which is unique in every way and well worth visiting 
even if it's only for breakfast. I had a restful stay after my long day's drive and headed out next morning 
to try my luck for the shrike again. There were already birders from Nanaimo when I arrived. It wasn't long before I had to peel off two of my three layers, a complete change in weather from the day before. This time the bird was in the same garden where it had taken up residence. The owners of the house were very gracious allowing an ever growing numbers of birders to keep watching the bird, one twitcher flew in from the Okanagan another from Ontario.
This time I managed to get a few frames off without flushing the bird while the newly arriving birders eagerly searched for the bird. By noon there were no more sightings which meant more than a few returned home without seeing the bird. Those who stayed were luckier next morning.

A few days later I procrastinated again and missed the the Prairie Warbler in Kelowna so I may have to get my act together or just not worry about chasing every bird that's reported. 

Very rare birds are termed Mega


  "It's never a good idea to procrastinate"
                  John Gordon
                           BC Canada 


Tuesday, 3 November 2020

Nature Walk & Forest Bathing (Shinrin Yoku)

 Nature Walk & Forest Bathing

In September a few DRBIPA members, supporters, and volunteers headed out on a socially-distanced guided nature walk at Derby Reach - with John Gordon, professional photographer, author, and Langley Field Naturalist. We learned about letting ourselves be encompassed by our surroundings and how this can help nature photographers. John also shared some of his best tips and tricks for getting good nature shots. It was a great morning out in the park surrounded by trees, even in the rain! 

Osoberry or Indian Plum

Forest bathing is simply spending time outdoors under the canopy of trees and immersing oneself in the forest and soaking in the atmosphere through the senses. John taught us about his approach to forest bathing, about being still and silent until the quiet forest becomes alive with sounds and sights you didn't know were there. A perfect activity for nature photographers and all nature lovers!

Sunset with a 50mm lens shot
 wide open at F1.4

According to Dr. Qing Li, author of Forest Bathing: How Trees Can Help You Find Health & Happiness, the key to unlocking the power of the forest is in the five senses. He advises to let nature enter through your ears, eyes, nose, mouth, hands and feet. A two-hour forest bath will help you to unplug from technology and slow down. It will bring you into the present moment and de-stress and relax you.

The Pathway/Brydon 

DRBOBA Newsletter

"It's never too late to take up the art of forest bathing"

John Gordon


BC Canada

Bird Watching During a Pandemic


A few weeks ago Black Press contacted me about an article they were putting together about birding for seniors. Birding has seen a huge spike in popularity in recent years among all age groups but particularly seniors. Despite the current situation with Covid-19 many groups and clubs are still offering opportunities for seniors and others to get out in a responsible manner. One example is the Langley Field Naturalists, other groups are also offering walks that follow strict social distancing and health protocols. We have had numerous walks around the Lower Mainland and we even have some new faces attending. I've met many who are despondent and are having a tough time with the isolation. To those I  I urge you to get out on your own, with your family unit or in a safe group and take walk in the forest, listen to the birds, take a very deep breath, relax and try to put everything into perspective. Nature is perfect and it will see us all  through these uncertain times.

*Note: Since the article was published just a few weeks ago cases of Covid-19 have begun to rise and the health authorities are asking everything to take even more precautions. Please keep this in mind when you read the article.

Follow the link below to read the whole story. 

John with Canada Jay/Photo Carlo Giovanella

Link to Birdwatching during a Pandemic

                                                              Birding for Seniors/Covid19


   Langley Field Naturalists

"Its never too late to get out birding"

John Gordon


BC Canada


Sunday, 27 September 2020

Finding A Good Bird

 Sept 22 2020

A few months ago, fellow birder Colin Classen and I were chatting about finding rarities, the ones that turn up once or twice a year or in extreme cases once in a decade. As it turned out a few weeks later, Colin found and photographed an Ash-throated Flycatcher (ATFL) while on one of his regular walks at Colony Farm. He couldn't have been happier to share his find with others in the birding community. I and others tried for Colin's bird but we all dipped. I wouldn't be the first bird I would miss but that's just one of the many aspects that makes birding so fascinating.

In birding parlance the ATFL was a "really, really good bird" occurring in the Lower Mainland perhaps once or twice every couple of years. Over the last ten years I have only seen two myself including one a few nights ago at Brunswick Point. That bird was found by Grant Edwards who shared his find via the BC Rare Bird Alert allowing numerous other birders to get on the bird. For many, the Brunswick Point ATFL was a lifer. It's still there as I write a week later.

Most often when a rare species is found word spreads quickly. That's what happened to me a few weeks ago during a visit to Reifel Migratory Bird Sanctuary in Delta. Due to Covid19 I and others had to book  visits beforehand. Prior to mid-March one could just turn up at the sanctuary and bird away. Fortunately  I just happened to be booked in Tuesday September 8. I chose that date as the migration of shorebirds would be in full swing and the tides high enough to force the flocks off the foreshore into Reifel's ponds. That's the theory anyway.

I found myself at the West Field where many of the smaller sandpipers find suitable habitat in the shallows. Other sandpipers present included Long-billed Dowitchers, Lesser and Greater Yellowlegs, a few Pectoral and the flock of Western Sandpipers. The longer-legged birds can feed in deeper water. The diminutive westerns however prefers the shallows where they are continuously on the move, probing for food, re-fuelling for the next leg of an epic southern migration.

 It was time to scan the flock again. Flushed earlier by a Merlin the small flock of westerns were agitated and rarely stayed in one spot. Eventually they settled down to feed. Birders are always hoping for something different, scanning the flock over and over in the hope of finding the proverbial diamond in the rough. Perhaps there would be an early Sharp-tailed or even a Stilt Sandpiper. The westerns were on the move again, now barely visible even with a scope. Once again they flew closer which gave excellent views. Scanning through the flock of 30 or so was one bird which looked quite different in size, somewhat larger and with a long decurved bill. What I needed was a picture to help identify the bird. If it flew off what proof would there be, believe me I been stung before with an odd looking hummingbird a few years back, no picture, no proof, no kudos. This time I shot off a few frames with my Nikon P1000 but the distance and reeds blocking the view made it difficult to get a clear image. Finally I managed  three frames but being nervous and shot at 3000mm handheld, the results were far from perfect, in fact they were terrible, but proof nevertheless. Looking at the images I came to the conclusion that it was a Curlew Sandpiper, a bird I had photographed in the UK but never in Canada. I needed back-up confirmation but no-one close-by could help. I sent a picture via text to Mel who does an invaluable job running the BC Rare Bird Alert, the fuzzy picture impressed her enough have her immediately make her way to Reifel to confirm the sighting. Once she had put the word out other birders began to converge on Reifel.

The Curlew Sandpiper was much larger than the Western Sandpipers it was associating with.
Nikon P1000

The buzz of finding a rare bird is something only a birder can fully appreciate. It's not that a common experience but when it happens it's gratifying. Being Johnny on the spot means waiting for others to arrive to get them on the bird but better still there is no need to battle traffic, drive like a bat out of hell or slip away from work for a fictitious doctor's appointment. 

The large decurved bill was a giveaway toward identification.
Nikon P1000

Thirty minutes later an out of breath Mel arrived but the curlew had taken off. Every birder knows that sinking feeling, it's not nice. Mel decided to stay put in case the birds flew back and l went to scout the other end of the pond. Five minutes later I was on the bird again by which time other twitchers were arriving. I texted Mel who joined us, there were smiles all around. For many the bird was lifer. 

The Curlew Sandpiper is a rare visitor from Eurasia.

More birders arrived and there was much back slapping and high fives which reminded me of my conversation with Colin a few weeks earlier.



"It's never too late to find a 

good bird"

John Gordon


BC Canada

Monday, 15 June 2020

Changing the Way I Photograph

Changing the way I photograph or how I became a Cotton Carrier fan

I've always enjoyed photography. Back in the day I even made a good living from it. Apart from a few days here and there I have been making and creating images for fifty years.
 Bird photography is by far the most challenging yet most enjoyable I have ever tackled. 
Photographing a tree creeper or a warbler flitting from branch to branch demands somewhat the same skillset as photographing Wayne Gretzky flipping a puck past Richard Brodeur or David Beckham scoring a goal. I should know, I've done both.
Often I would use 300mm F2.8 or 500mm F4 lenses. I would carry one or the other around all day. On numerous occasions even walking out to the end of the Iona south jetty and back. 
During my press days (1983-2011) I can't remember how many times I visited the chiropractor with sore shoulders and stiff neck. Finding a perfect way to carry gear was a never ending quest.  

A long lens was useful to get this shot at the PNE.
Afterwards I got to meet the Dalai Lama shake his hand and exchange a few words. 

Even so, carrying one of the new lightweight 200mm-600mm super zooms and camera attached has a combined weight of 8.5 lbs which can weigh heavy on the shoulders. So after years of trying various carrying systems I have now found the perfect solution, namely the Cotton Carrier system. 

 I recently tumbled over a rock and landed awkwardly. While I and my camera came out of the situation unscathed my Cotton Carrier suffered from the impact. It was a freak accident with the vest taking the brunt of the fall. These things happen and I suppose the designers made the vest to carry a lens and not to break the fall of a doddering senior.
I continued to bird but I missed the vest. I lasted a week before contacting Cotton explaining what had happened and asked it they could repair the damage. After sending some pix I received an email from Brook Parker at Cotton's Vancouver headquarters explaining they would replace the harness free of charge. I was gobsmacked. As much as I offered to pay for postage and repairs and even an upgrade I became clear they weren't going to have any of it. A few days later I received a brand new vest in the mail. That's what I call amazing customer service. Talk to anyone you see wearing one, I'm sure they'll all agree that it has changed the way they bird, it sure has for me.

Khutzeymateen Grizzly bears play fight.

The ability to bird, cover long distance and be ready to catch a fleeting moment has changed the way I photograph. I am having more fun, getting better results and photographing way more birds than I ever did lugging around a tripod and super-telephoto lens. I can now keep up with birders on organized hikes, better still, I don't mss a beat when I go abroad and I take exactly the same set-up that I use when birding around Vancouver. It's a win win situation.
That said, the Cotton Carrier system can be used to carry large prime lenses although most photographers would need a tripod for best results. Attachments are also available to attach multiple cameras, tripods and bins. 
In conclusion, go forth, don't take life too seriously and enjoy your photography. I am.

A bed of flowers or a Flower Bed

John Gordon