Wednesday 26 February 2014

After the Storm/Long Eared Owls

Feb 25 2014 Boundary Bay, Delta British Columbia.  Sunny skies.

I had been looking for some new shots for a AV show I am co-presenting in March. The subject matter is 'Birding in the Lower Mainland"
I like to present photographs from all seasons and this winter has been another brilliant year for birding opportunities in the Lower Mainland. Gyrfalcons, Golden Eagles, Long and Short-eared Owls and many other species have provided new material and hours and hours of enjoyment. This was the case Tuesday evening when this Long-eared Owl put on a show for a number of us photographers and birders.
All these photographs were taken at a respectful distance from the dyke, the 'outed owl baiter' wasn't there and there were no trespassers in the field, had there been, then none of these images would have been possible. All these pictures were taken in the exact spot* where he was seen baiting owls a few weeks ago. Thankfully he hasn't been seen around too much to and ruin what is an amazing display of nature.

*What I meant was the birds were in the same spot as the "owl baiter'
Long-eared Owl (Asio otus)

A Northern Harrier tries to steal a vole from a Long-eared Owl. Note how the owl makes itself large with the spreading of wings and extension of tail making the bird three times the size than when seen perching.

Eventually the owl was able to shake off the Harriers and waited until dark before hunting again.

My first ever Long-eared owl in flight. They take on quite a different appearance when seen flying.

Good Birding
John Gordon

Tuesday 25 February 2014

Some Snowstorm Shots Feb 24/14

A Fox Sparrow (Passerella iliac) Sooty Pacific sub species checks out my new D7100.
  Feb 24/14 Boundary Bay/Blowing Snow. 

The snow kept falling all day. Like a winter wonderland Boundary Bay was transformed, it's inhabitants continuing to go about their everyday business of finding a meal. A quiet descended on the bay as all local air transport ground to a halt, no roaring take-offs or noisy coal trains in the distance. The only sounds were the patter of snow flakes beating on the our Parka hoods. Wonderful how these moments blot out the idle thought process, being in the moment with the birds is enough. I'll take that any day!

A Short-eared Owl (Asio flames) surveys the snow covered fields.

A Short-eared Owl glides through the snow storm looking for any movements that might indicate a meal.

(Happi burdus) A bit of snow didn't deter us from enjoying the day.

Golden-crowned sparrow (Zonotrichia atricapilla)
It would have been easy to look out the window as the snow kept falling but without the effort a golden opportunity to photograph birds in a rare Vancouver snowstorm would have been missed. I'm glad I took the time and was rewarded with these avian portraits.

Good Birding
John Gordon

Saturday 22 February 2014

Langley Field Naturalists Outing Feb 21/14

                                                                                                  Anne Gosse Photo
Looking for the the elusive Golden Eagle.

Feb 21/14 Sumas Prairie Sunny and Cold.

Although much of my birding is done alone the opportunity to go out as a group offers some great benefits. The obvious being more eyes scanning fields, trees and fences and of course, the camaraderie. Secondly there're always a few experienced birders who can help the rest of us who are still on that steep learning curve. As was the case Friday, when a group of Langley Field Naturalists and others drove through Sumas Prairie in search of the elusive Golden Eagle. Alas we could not locate the bird but did find a rare Harlen's Red-tailed Hawk. For many in the group it was their first ever sighting of this magnificent raptor. 

Anne Gosse who organized the trip is on the far left.

                                      Anne Gosse Photo
John shows Monica Pearson the difference between the
 Harlan's Red-tailed Hawk(sub species) and the more common Red-tailed Hawk.

American Kestrel (Falco sparverius)
We saw at least six American Kestrel hunting, this one at the Great Blue Heronry in Chilliwack.

Good Birding 
 John Gordon            

 Next Field Trips Langley Field Naturalists. contact information below

Saturday, March 8
Meet time: 8:15am at Douglas Park or 9:30 at Maplewood Park
Start time: 10am
What is for Dinner? Raptors of the Conservation Area at Maplewood Flats, North Vancouver
Leader:  Al Grass
Join us as we search out why are flats critical habitats for wildlife. The walk will focus on the importance of raptors such as eagles, hawks, and owls. Meet 8:15 am Douglas Cres. Langley or 9:30 at Maplewood Park. Phone 604-538-8774 for information.

Saturday, March 22, 2013
Time: 9:00 to 12:00
Aldergrove Regional Park
Leader: Bob Puls

Come join the Langley Field Naturalist to awaken your curiosity and engage your senses while exploring nature and the changing seasons in this beautiful regional park! We will check out the winter bird & water fowl activity around the ponds and look at some of this parks features.  Meeting at Aldergrove Regional Park central parking.  Phone 888-1787 or Bob 856-7534 to let us know if you are coming or to carpool from Douglas Crescent.

Thursday 20 February 2014

Photographing Common Birds

Feb19/14 George C Reifel Migratory Bird Sanctuary. Wind and Sun

I find all birds interesting, even the so called "Dirt Birds" What may be a common bird to one may be a mega rarity to another. In Vancouver we have had a number of rarities or vagrants over the past few years.
The most recent being the Red-flanked Bluetail in New Westminster. It attracted birders from all over the continent. There are countless others, the Citrine Wagtail in Courtenay, Hooded Oriole in Port McNeil, the list is quite extensive.
However those occurrences are so infrequent, much of our birding time is spent with the more common species, many of them splendid in their own way.
Here is a typical days birding in the Vancouver area at two of our most popular locations. It began with a morning at Reifel Bird Sanctuary finishing with a chilly late afternoon session at 72 ave at Boundary Bay.
I have tried to take some time to create some close-ups of common species as well as try some compositions that show the habitat as well as the bird.
Here is' a really common  garden gird, The Dark-eyed Junco (Junco hyemalis). I was drawn to the repeating shapes of the picket fence leading the eye left to right and back to the bird. If it caught your attention for more than a few seconds then composition works.
How about these for common birds. Canada Goose (Branta canadensis) Many birders/photographers/park keepers scorn them but there is something in those eyes that drew my attention in the first place. I like this image and in the end that's all that matters.  It was a good day to practice my bird photography skills so I know how to react when that mega rarity unexpectedly arrives.
Northern Pintail (Anas acuta)
A very common duck in the Vancouver area. Thousands of these elegant dabbling ducks can be seen feeding in winter fields or bobbing about in Boundary Bay. I like the open mouth that gives the bird a little extra character.

Bufflehead (Bucephala albeola)
I really had never photographed Bufflehead so I took the opportunity to find a quiet spot where the birds felt safe enough to approach me.
Bald Eagle (Haliaeetus leucocephalus)
As I was leaving Reifel this pair of Bald Eagles drew quite a few admirers. There are hundreds of Bald Eagles in the Vancouver and Lower Mainland at this time of year.
Short-eared Owl (Asio flammeus)
If you want to see flight and close-up pictures of Short-eared Owls there are plenty in my previous blogs. The inspiration for this image came from a recent presentation by noted ornithologist John Neville, some of you may have his recordings. John is blind so he birds by ear. His presentation was illustrated by the work of Robert Bateman. What struck me about Bateman's work was how he often brakes all the rules of composition but most off all how he leaves plenty of space in his paintings for his subjects and the habitat. Often I have been guilty of cropping too tightly. I hope this image shows an owl in a natural setting.

So there you go. I saw many other species during the day including a pair of Rough-legged Hawks riding thermals, one moment they were in front of my car, the next distant specks in the sky.
Other highlights were a lone Western Meadowlark, a flock of several thousand Snow Geese, a light phase Red-tailed Hawk as well a numerous other "common" birds, too many to list here. 
No, I didn't see a rarity but I had a brilliant day out.

Good Birding
John Gordon

Sunday 16 February 2014

Birds on the Bay and Beyond Poster

Feb 16/14  Birds on the Bay Poster.

I was honoured when Jude Grass asked me to contribute a photo of a Whimbrel for the current Birds on the Bay programs.
                                                       Birds on the Bay programs link

Some more pictures of Whimbrel migrating through Boundary Bay. The birds rest and feed around Boundary Bay and surrounding farmland, fuelling up before heading northward. Whimbrel breed in the Arctic sub-artic heath and marshland and migrate back to South America following breeding and rearing their young. 

Whimbrel (Numenius phaeopus)

I used a D300 with 500mm F4 and a 1.4 TC converter handheld to snag this flight shot. The poster picture was reversed for compositional considerations with my permission.

Good Birding
John Gordon

Langley Field Naturalists Field Trips

Hi everyone,
As you can see I have been asked to lead the Golden Eagle Quest tour, details are provided below. Sumas Prairie can be very windy and cold so bundle up and hope we are fortunate enough to see one of these magnificent raptors. Depending on the weather we could see American Kestrel, Red-tailed Hawk (various phases) possibly a Gyrfalcon and Rough-legged Hawk. There have also been sightings of flocks of Meadowlark and Snow Buntings.
Everyone welcome especially experienced birders, the more eyes the better! Details below.
Golden Eagle (Aquila chrysaetos) Sumas Prairie 2012

Friday, February 21, 2014
Meet time: 8:00am Douglas Park
Start time: 9:30am
Golden Eagle Quest! Chilliwack Area & Heronry
Leader:  John Gordon
Come join John as he takes us on an exciting search to find one of the largest and most majestic birds of prey that reside in our Fraser Valley - the Golden Eagle!  We plan to look amongst the pretty pastoral farming district of Chilliwack for this large, dark brown raptor. We also plan to drop into the Chilliwack Heronry for a Ring-necked Duck search and to eat lunch. Meet at Douglas Park Rec. Centre at 8:00 for carpooling or at Old Yale Road ESSO - 34515 Old Yale Rd, Abbotsfordjust off  exit no. 109 Yale Rd West, to the right. Phone 604-533-7171 or  604-888-1787 for information.

Saturday, March 8
Meet time: 8:15am at Douglas Park or 9:30 at Maplewood Park
Start time: 10am
What is for Dinner? Raptors of the Conservation Area at Maplewood Flats, North Vancouver
Leader:  Al Grass
Join us as we search out why are flats critical habitats for wildlife. The walk will focus on the importance of raptors such as eagles, hawks, and owls. Meet 8:15 am Douglas Cres. Langley or 9:30 at Maplewood Park. Phone 604-538-8774 for information.

Saturday, March 22, 2013
Time: 9:00 to 12:00
Aldergrove Regional Park
Leader: Bob Puls
Come join the Langley Field Naturalist to awaken your curiosity and engage your senses while exploring nature and the changing seasons in this beautiful regional park! We will check out the winter bird & water fowl activity around the ponds and look at some of this parks features.  Meeting at Aldergrove Regional Park central parking.  Phone 888-1787 or Bob 856-7534 to let us know if you are coming or to carpool from Douglas Crescent.


Saturday 15 February 2014

Tufted Duck/A Needle in a Haystack

Feb 15 2014 Iona Regional Park. Cold, overcast then torrential rain.

I was just about to sit down and watch the F.A. Cup tie between Chelsea and Man City when the news came in of a Tufted Duck at Iona Regional Park. Of course, having never seen one the game was put on PVR for later viewing and off I went.
On arrival many birders and a few photographers were mostly huddled around their cars discussing how wonderful it was to have seen the Tufted Duck. That can be ominous for the late arrivals like myself. Indeed, the bird had just flown a few minutes earlier, it would be another hour of searching before the very rare visitor from Eurasia was again spotted.
Talk about a needle in a haystack. The Tufted Duck resembles its close relative the Lesser Scaup except for a darker back and of course the long dangling tuft. Had it not been for a number of experienced birders armed with scopes I would have had difficulty locating this single bird out of the large flock of Lesser Scaup in the ponds.
Spot the Tufted Duck!

The Tufted Duck in the foreground  (Aythya fuligula)
Note the dark back  compared to the Lesser Scaup behind.

The long dangling tuft is not always visible so careful scanning of the flock is essential.

 As a group of us watched from a respectable distances as not to spook the birds our patience was rewarded when the group of birds containing the rarity drifted close and closer. We couldn't believe our luck. A few moments later and for some unknown reason a few of the birds including our quarry flew off to another pond and then a West Coast monsoon arrived driving all but the hardiest of us back to our cars and in my case, back to the football game.

The final score
Chelsea 0 Man City 2
Lesser Scaup 345 Tufted Duck 1

Good Birding (I'm going to dry off)
John Gordon

Thursday 13 February 2014

Free as a Bird/That Can't be Bad!

Feb 6-11 Blackie Spit-Richmond and Tynehead Regional Park.  Sunny and Showers.

My day planner for the week was blank, I was free as a bird. No dentist, no anything, nothing! So with a packed lunch and a full tank of gas it was time to the take advantage of the good weather.
Prior and in-between the Great Gray Owl twitch I headed down to Blackie Spit to photograph the Snow Bunting that had been recently sighted. As I searched I happened upon a flock of Dunlin busily feeding on the exposed mudbanks at the end of the spit. At first the birds were far way, amongst them were few Black-bellied Plovers.
I lay on the gravel and sand hoping the Dunlins would come closer and sure enough they did. The Dunlin seemed fearless while the Plovers scuttled off at the slightest movement. Five minutes later my patience paid off when one of the birds quite oblivious of my presence came so close I couldn't close focus. I just enjoyed the moment which was a pleasant distraction from the howling wind around my ears.
Dunlin (Calidris alpina)

The Plover (below) kept its distance so I decided to use selective focus and use the foreground to frame the picture. The bright earth tones I think brightens up a somewhat drab image.
Black-bellied Plover (Pluvialis squatarola)

I eventually found the Snow Bunting with the help of one Canada's best birders Roger Foxall, who had, after a trip to Mexico just celebrated his 5000th species worldwide. Congratulations on an amazing achievement.
Snow Bunting (Plectrophenax nivalis)

Varied Thrush (Ixoreus naevius)

 As this is a round-up for the week the next bird up is a Varied Thrush which I photographed while looking for the Great Gray Owl at Tynehead Regional Park earlier in the week. Some think the Varied Thrush should have been B.C.'s official bird rather than the Stella's Jay, either way they are both beautiful in their own right.


Finally the week rounded out with a few shots of a Townsend's Solitaire that had been reported in Richmond. I changed my position to create different backgrounds.

Pic #1 Townsend's Solitaire (Myadestes townsendi)
  (Above) Pic #1 The green backdrop is foliage  about twenty feet behind the bird. Just by moving the tripod, the mood of a picture can be changed especially with a greyish coloured bird like the Townsend's Solitaire.
The Townsend Solitaire which normally migrates to warmer climes has survived the B.C. winter by staying close a ready source of ornamental berries. A few warm days have also produced insect hatches giving the bird a high protein diet and good chance of survival. The Townsend's Solitaire normally winters in Oregon, California and Mexico.

Pic #3 the blue background is a restaurant window.

and pic #4 the background is a yellow ornamental bush which creates a warmer look than pic #3.

                                                    More on the Townsend's Solitaire

Good Bird
John Gordon

Tuesday 11 February 2014

The Great Gray Owl Twitch

Feb 10 2014 Tynehead Regional Park Surrey B.C. Rain and more rain.

After days of blue sky and sun, the rains normally associated with winter have returned to British Columbia. Initially I had hoped to catch up with a few chores but when the news of a Great Gray Owl sighting surfaced those plans were suddenly scuttled. As I had never seen one before, I decided to make my way over to the park. Despite it being only fifteen minutes away from home it was a location I had never visited.
I spent the morning walking the trails peering at every branch and bush but to no avail. Perhaps twenty or so photographers and birders were also looking. At noon I went home cold, hungry and wet and without a sighting. No sooner had I arrived home my phone rang with the news that the owl had been spotted. With no time to eat I headed back to the park by which time the rain was coming down in buckets and the light was failing.
Thanks to the generosity of other birders I was able to capture these images. Just to see the bird sitting up in the Alders was breathtaking, such a magnificent  creature and a 'lifer' to boot!

Great Gray Owl (Strix nebulosa)

From the pathway and from a respectable distance a group of us watched the owl for over an hour. Due to the heavy rain the bird was quite wet and occasionally would shake its head sending spray everywhere.
The owl was perched above a small glade or opening. Surrounded by alders large fir trees and some Himilayan blackberry bushes made up the perfect hunting environment for rodents, rabbits and other prey.
Finally it was time for the bird to hunt and off it went to a nearby branch but being partially hidden and with the light failing it was time to head back to the car and home.

The Great Gray Owl in flight.

As I mentioned before on the way back to the car  we came across the owl perched in a tree just by the pathway. It had obviously taken a short-cut and had beaten us back to the car park. The car park is situated at the north end of the dog park close the Trans Canada.

We came across this bird close to the pathway.
 Numerous people with their dogs stopped to view the owl  before it flew off.

The owl was perched about fifteen feet above the ground. From where we stood the background was plain sky or if we moved a few feet we could compose a different image with fir trees behind the owl. We tried both but no sooner had we done that a number of rambunctious dogs began to play too close and the bird flew off a few yards to another perch.

On the way to the car park and with failing light the bird was only a few feet from the pathway.

By now the light was dim so with a ISO 1250-2500 and VR enabled the above shots were captured.
A far cry from the days of birding with Kodachrome 64 at $20 for 36 shots.
What is most interesting about this bird was its lack of concern for walkers, joggers and dogs, never mind the birders and photographers.

My only concern for the bird is that we never saw it catch anything and as far a I know it didn't show the following day so it may have moved to another part of the 270 hectare park, hopefully the bird will find enough to eat and provide the kind of special moment I enjoyed.

Good Birding 
John Gordon

Sunday 9 February 2014

Further Adventures with the Canon SX50hs

Feb 9 2014 Langley B.C. Below freezing

Sometimes when I am looking for new locations to photograph I often throw my Canon SX50hs super zoom over my shoulder. I have already written about the $300 camera in previous blogs so rather than repeat myself I will post this picture of my favourite bird, the Varied Thrush. With frozen ponds everywhere in the Lower I searched for some running water where I found a flock of four Varied Thrush.
Before I started birding seriously in 2011 I was never able to get close enough to this beautiful bird to get a decent photo, in fact my attempts were dismal. Since then I have some much better shots but not the definitive image I am happy with. Most often the Varied Thrush are seen on the ground, scratching away leaves looking for food, when I saw this one on a partially frozen waterfall I couldn't pass up the opportunity to shoot a few frames on the SCENE mode.
The shot was taken handheld at the full zoom of 1200 mm. The camera has a 28-1200mm zoom with image stabilization. I recommend this type of camera for those on a budget or if carrying lots of equipment is a problem. Panasonic has similar model with a 600mm F2.8 lens but lacks the reach of the Canon. It is also twice the price but lets but in three times more light (useful in the morning and evening) and MAY have a sharper lens. I haven't used myself but have seen many in the field and everyone I spoke to likes the Panasonic.
At my workshops and presentations I often get asked by birders what type of camera to choose. It really all it depends on what results are expected. Obviously a $10,000 kit is going to more flexible albeit much heavier. For many birders if an ID shot is all that is required then either of the above cameras will do just fine.
The next level outfit is a Nikon or Canon DSLR and 300mm F4 or Sigma 150-500mm lens which you'll need to spend around $2500. Recently Tamron just released a 150-600mm lens for $1300.
Here is the picture from the Canon SX50hs from yesterday photographed on a cloudy afternoon at 3.30 p.m. I think most birders would be happy with this quality.
Varied Thrush (Ixoreus naevius)
Good Birding
John Gordon

Saturday 8 February 2014

I went Birding Thursday

       Feb 6 2014 New Brighton Park Vancouver B.C -5 Sunny and very, very cold for B.C.

Vancouver is experiencing some wonderful sunny weather albeit unusually cold. As long as one wears plenty of clothing (I can hear those in the rest of Canada laughing) it is a pleasure to be outdoors.
The assignment for Thursday was to photograph a Gyrfalcon that has returned to New Brighton Park  in Vancouver. The speedy falcon has been feasting on pigeons which are attracted to a nearby granary crammed full of delicious Canadian wheat. Yummy for the pigeons and doubly yummy for the gyrfalcon which is dining on tasty grain fed pigeon several times a day.

A Gyrfalcon (Falco rusticolus) heads toward a unsuspecting flock of pigeons.

Unfortunately the best place to stand with a clear view of the Viterra Granary is in the shade which meant a very cold wait. I spent two hours waiting patiently for the Gyrfalcon to launch itself off the conveyer belt which itself is about two hundred feet off the ground. 

A Gyrfalcon scatters a flock of pigeons. Several attacks were made without success. On one occasion a pigeon was snagged but got away. I missed the shot.
After dropping the prey the Gyrfalcon looks below but it had plunged into the water.

What can I say, the wait was well worth it despite the cold. I not only secured my first ever photographs of a gyrfalcon I was blessed to witnesses one of Nature's most powerful and beautiful performers go about its daily ritual.

The Gyrfalcon heads back to its perch ready for another foray.

Good Birding
John Gordon

Monday 3 February 2014

I Went Birding Monday

Monday Feb3 2014 
 Reifel Migratory Bird Sanctuary/Ladner River Rd, 64th Ave and 72nd Ave.
As promised there was not a cloud in the sky Monday morning which meant below average daytime temperatures of just above freezing, perfect for spending a day outside.
The day began with a check on the Prairie Falcon which may have moved on as a Pergrine Falcon was now occupying the favoured perch. A quick drive along River Road turned up the Red-tailed Hawk with the big beak syndrome but not much else.
A walk around Reifel didn't produce too much photographically but I had a number of interesting conversations and had a wonderful packed lunch while overlooking the marsh and Fraser Delta. As I was leaving a Bald Eagle flew over head offering me the chance to a head-on shot.
Bald Eagle (Haliaeetus leucocephalus)

Moving on to 64th Ave two long-eared owls slept in a bush while being very patient with all the passersby including dogs and horses. There were only a few Dark-eyed Juncos where sometimes eight or nine species could be counted on a good day.
As 72nd Ave is on my way home I thought I might drop in and wait for the Short-eared Owls to begin their hunting. On my arrival at about 2.30 p.m the Northern Harriers were already hunting, a few were sparring with Bald Eagles or squabbling among themselves over Townsend's Voles, a favourite prey in the fields and foreshore.
A number of Bald Eagles were circling above the dyke when suddenly an immature bird landed right in front of me.
Immature Bald Eagle
The mature eagles were pairing up and in the distance could be seen swooping down on mixed flocks of American Wigeon, Mallard and Green-winged Teal.
Mixed flocks of duck disturbed by eagles.

As the sun began to fade and the 'sweet light' bathed the fields the Short-eared Owls began the hunt.
Short-eared Owl (Asio flammeus)