Thursday 4 December 2014

Cold Snap Birding and other Musings

Dec1-2 2014 Reifel/Sumas Prairie/Boundary Bay Sunny -5c.

The Lower Mainland and Vancouver area is/was in the midst of a cold snap with night time temperatures plummeting to minus 5c. It isn't Saskatchewan yet but it's still really cold for us on the coast. During the day the warmth of the sun and cobalt blue skies made it perfect for a birding. It sure beats the grey skies and rain!


Sometimes we see another photographers personal take on the natural world and wonder why on earth we didn't see that ourselves.
That was the case last year when I saw a fantastic image of an American Coot photographed by Jim Martin. Among other photographic projects, Jim supplies most of the excellent images for the Reifel Migratory Bird Sanctuaries quarterly magazine Marsh Notes. I think the coot was on the front page but the image really spoke to me and got me thinking. The picture encouraged me to search out my own version for which I needed a frozen pond and a good stretch of cold weather.
Jim had photographed an American Coot during a similar cold snap. For his shot the Reifel ponds were frozen and there was his amazing shot showing the Coots strange looking webbed feet as it stood on the icy pond. This is something we don't often see as the coot spends most of its time in the water and the feet are often hidden.
Here is my humble take on the subject. Now thanks to Jim I am going to take more attention to what is happening in front of the lens!

American Coot (Fulica americana)

Next up was a trip to windy and bitter cold Sumas Prairie. The goal was to search out some of the numerous raptors which make their home in and around the farmer's fields each winter. The birds are spread out over kilometres of roads and farmland. They can be hard to find. Distances travelled can be high so car pooling lessens the carbon footprint, if only a little. Car pooling is something I encourage others to try as much as possible.
The first bird on the agenda was the Gyrfalcon. What a splendid name for a bird of prey, sounds like something out of a Harry Potter book. Anyway, not only did I see the Gyrfalcon hunting I and others watched in awe as a Peregrine Falcon and a Bald Eagle chased the gyrfalcon, eventually forcing it to drop its catch. Such is life on Sumas Prairie. Below is my humble effort to show two of the fastest birds on the planet in an acrobatic aerial display.
Gyrfalcon (Falco rusticolus) and Peregrine Falcon (Falco peregrinus) clash.
The blue bar on the right of the picture is an irrigation pipe.

Avery distant ID shot of a first year Dark Morph Red-tailed Hawk (Buteo jamaicensis)
Next up was a dark morph Red-tailed Hawk. This picture is taken from quite a distance but shows just enough of the colouring to correctly identify it. Red-tailed Hawks have an incredible amount of variations. Last year I photographed a Harlan's Red-tailed Hawk, a rare sub species on Sumas Prairie.

Below is a flock of two hundred Trumpeter Swans. Hard to imagine that this would have represented the entire worlds population less than fifty years ago. Hunting and lead poising decimated the population. This flock had found a field with plenty of potatoes and were busily chomping way, oblivious of the passing farm machinery.

Trumpter Swan (Cygnus buccinator)
One of the Trumpeter Swans with tag 200K. Anyone where to send this info?

After the Sumas Prairie I decided to take a break from the cold winds and try out Boundary Bay. Having photographed Great-horned and  Barn Owls last week I was lucky enough to stumble on a Long-eared Owl that had drawn the attention of a group of photographers. When I arrived the sun was still strong but a blackberry bush was casting a strong shadow across the bird making it a less than ideal shot. I decided to wait and come back when the light was waning thus softening the shadows. Below is the image just as the sun set. Shot at 3200 ISO on a tripod with the Tamron 150mm-600mm. Why 3200 ISO, a speed I normally never use? I wanted to try out the auto ISO function and that is what I got. I have the images, it looks fine plus I'm not ever going to print it so i'm happy.
Long-eared Owl (Asio otus)

The last three images were taken with the Tamron 150mm-600mm. I did a quick test shooting the same bird at 500mm and 600mm. I couldn't see any discernible difference.
The coot and Sumas Prairie shots are taken with a 500 F4 and D300s or D7100.
Short-eared Owl (Asio flammeus)

While waiting for the Long-eared I walked a few hundreds metres along the dyke. I waited until the Northern Harriers and Short-eared Owls began hunting. The owls usually come out around 3p.m. the harriers hunt all day. Again this is a huge crop of the Short-eared Owl and works well as an ID shot. 
For those thinking about moving up from just scoping to actually photographing birds. The Tamron or the Sigma 150mm-500mm or the Nikon 80mm-400mm are all good low cost options to try out  before deciding to go for one of the "Big Guns" and the associated cost and weight.

Moonrise and Yarrow/ Boundary Bay
It had been an amazing few days of birding, a week of blue skies, the birds and the weather, a real treat those of us on the Pacific Northwest.

                                                    It's never too late to start  birding"

                                                                      John Gordon 


  1. Gorgeous shot of the long-eared owl it is nice to see him out and about again he has been hidden for a few months. He is a beautiful owl! I also love the shortie on the post and the dark morph red tailed hawk. I'm glad you found the Gyr after driving out so far. One day I drove out and found the Gyr the next day Mike tabak and I drove out and found the prairie falcon but never together! Lol

    Ps this is my fave time of year at boundary bay with all the raptors and shrikes!


  2. Oh and I bet there was a tundra or two in your trumpeter flock we saw at least one in that trumpeter flock on Marion in Abbotsford ill send you a link where to report the swan tag to your email.