Thursday, 18 February 2021

Snow Goose/Blue Goose


Sumas Prairie

Tuesday Feb 16 2021

A large flock of Snow Geese have spent the winter on Abbotsford's Sumas Prairie. A rare occurrence local birders tell me. The winter rye planted by farmers and other left over crops are a good food source for swans, geese and ducks. There are also plenty of fallow fields for the birds to turn over, if the pickings are that good why haven't the Geese been regular visitors in the past? A mystery indeed, if they return next year there may be factors at work that are not yet fully understood. Normally Snow Geese spend their winters in the Skagit Valley and places further south to California. Lesser but increasing numbers winter on the coast around Boundary Bay. 

*Since I published this blog 30 minutes ago it has been brought to my attention by someone who knows more about the subject that there have been a few Snow Geese on the prairie since around 2000 but not in the large numbers seen this year. I stand corrected.



On Tuesday I came across a large flock of perhaps 800-1000 birds. At first they were out of reach for photographs so I just stayed in my car and used my bins to see if there was anything interesting in the flock. The first series of images all turned out as if they had been shot through a mirage. Later I read that it was due due to the heat emanating from the car itself, something I didn't realize until I began editing. Fortunately pictures taken twenty minutes later were sharper as the car had had time to cool down. 
 Eventually as the flock munched their way toward me (a car is the perfect blind) the flock suddenly lifted off the ground and came even closer, close enough to take a few pictures. Had I got out of the car I'm sure I would have flushed the whole flock.

They soon landed back on the same field. 


They were now close enough to study and soon two darker birds stood out, One very dark overall and one an intermediate morph. What a treat to see those birds, it made my day.
 

 "Blue Goose" 

I believe this an intermediate dark morph. I might be proven wrong..let me know.


Dark morph "Blue Goose" #2



It's hard to believe that a century ago only three thousand Snow Geese were left in North American. They almost followed the Passenger Pigeon on the path to extinction. Like the Trumpeter Swan Snow Geese have made a remarkable comeback. The Passenger Pigeon weren't so fortunate. see the link for the whole sordid story.

More on the Passenger Pigeon


These days, so great are Snow Goose numbers that their breeding grounds in the arctic have become threatened, not only from climate change but from the birds themselves. At least they are tolerated on Sumas Prairie, unlike parts of the US and Canada where hunting up to forty-thousand birds a year is permitted. Meanwhile, enjoy the spectacle, soon they embark on their migratory journey up north.


"It's never too late to morph into something better"
John Gordon
Langley/Cloverdale 
BC Canada












Saturday, 13 February 2021

Valley Birds



 Jan 2021

Valley Birding

Where to bird in 2021? Just one of the many question I posed myself as I polished off the last of the turkey, mince pies and Christmas pudding. I suppose freezing ones bits off during the Christmas bird count a few days later was a kind of penance for eating the gravy bird. 
After birding the Metro Vancouver region for 364 days in 2020 I decided to try something a little different for 2021. After much deliberation I hatched a cunning plan to bird the Fraser Valley region. I am fortunate to live on or quite close to the border of two ebird regions. For those not familiar with ebird, the app splits regions, provinces, countries and world into portions and birds recorded in each region are assigned to an online database for all to use. The app makes it easier to find good birding spots or at least get a start.
See

Red-tailed Hawk/Sumas Prairie

 The Fraser Valley region for the purposes of ebird includes Abbotsford, Chilliwack, Hope and into the Coast Mountains. There's the Skagit Valley, Sunshine Valley, Manning Park and many areas to be explored. As travel is restricted this will act as a perfect substitute. Distances are the only downside and some heed will have to be taken so as not to pile on too many kilometres. Even so, Aldergrove Regional Park and Glen Valley are just fifteen minutes away. I've already seen some good birds there..

Glen Valley

Glen Valley from the Bradner Rd looking west over to the Fraser River,


 All that said I still plan to bird the Metro Vancouver area as I can do so from my kitchen window and I'm only minutes from Brydon Lagoon and a number of close-by locations. Even Boundary Bay, White Rock and the farmlands around Delta are within easy reach. Although I won't bump into my birding friends as much I won't miss the traffic and crowds. Birding in the Fraser Valley however offers certain challenges. There are not as many birders to pass on tips, the region is larger and of course it takes time to learn about those special spots where one might find a particular target species. That's where ebird comes in handy up but only to a certain point. Local knowledge is paramount. Yesterday for example I met up with two well seasoned Fraser Valley birders John Vooys and Ed Klassen who kindly offered to show me around the Columbia Valley, a rural area south of Cultus Lake. A small valley that looks like a a great migrant trap come the springtime. It was bitter cold minus 4 and a wind chill made it feel even colder. The two showed me around some of their favourite spots including two feeders. I think we ended up with 17 or 18 species which was very good considering the dipping temperatures brought on by a rare arctic front. I didn't take any pictures as there weren't really any opportunities and besides it was too bloody cold.


Sardis Park

Sardis Park

Not to be outdone I stopped off at Sardis Park on the way home to search for and hopefully photograph the well documented resident leucistic Northwestern Crow. The bird which is a bit of a local celebrity lacks the pigment to give it the black colour normally associated with crows. According to a local resident I spoke with the bird has been resident at the park for at least five years. Luckily, it was the first bird I saw as I entered the park.

Leucistic Northwestern Crow



Unlike the burgeoning Metro Vancouver birding community  I spent January birding in the valley and  met just one birder and one photographer. I did however meet up with an old acquaintance and excellent birder Gord Gadsden who passed on some great tips. Eventually he re-located a super nice Glaucous Gull that I had found a few days earlier but couldn't get a photograph of. I had run my camera battery down and slipped in the replacement only to find that was dead too. I had forgotten to charge it. 

Glaucous Gull


Lapland Longspur


Another tip resulted in an American Pipit and a Lapland Longspur. I was lucky, on my first attempt. I have returned three times to the same location looking for Horned Larks but have never seen the flock again.

Sumas Prairie


Rough-legged Hawk/Sumas Prairie


One thing the valley does have are large tracts of agricultural land that once supported the mighty Sumas Lake. Each time I bird Sumas Prairie I imagine the old lake bed I'm driving on and a great expanse of water stretching for the US border to Sumas Mountain and up toward Chilliwack. It must have been a stunning sight, that is apart from the legendary swarms of vicious mosquitos. A hundred year ago plans to drain the lake began. It took millions of dollars and years of political machinations to make it a reality. Indigenous peoples had lived there for millennia. They were eventually shafted by white settlers, greedy businessmen, federal, provincial and municipal governments. One of the most prolific lakes in the region was completely gone. Lost were the sturgeon, millions of migrating waterfowl, salmon rearing beds and the livelihood of the Semath, Nooksack and Sto:lo people. A compelling account of how the lake was lost can be found in Chad Reimer's book, Before we Lost the Lake 

see link




A couple of iPhone shots of Sumas Prairie looking east toward Chilliwack.


(Below) some of the undulating farmland and former lake bed is low enough to trap water during the winter. Originally the spring freshet would inundate the lake raising levels which reduced flooding downstream. Today dykes divert local rivers and streams into the Fraser River while  keeping freshet water at bay. Pumps move any water around. There still remains a few thousand ducks, some wintering raptors but nothing to compare with what was lost. 



A flooded field on Sumas Prairie conjures up what Sumas Lake may have looked like.


Mountain Bluebird.
Lickman Rd, Chilliwack



White-throated Sparrow.
Great Blue Heron Reserve

My first visit to Brown Creek Wetlands was quite eventful. The wetlands are just past Yarrow and before the turn-off to Cultus Lake.

Brown Creek Wetlands


 From the parking lot to the river is only a few hundred metres. Half-way along the trail I stumbled upon mixed flock of Black-capped Chickadees, Ruby and Golden-crowned Kinglets, Brown Creepers and a Hairy Woodpecker. Soon a flock of junco's joined in and they brought along an Anna's Hummingbird. Needless to say I never made it to the river to look for a dipper. As I was leaving a Belted Kingfisher plunged into the creek and came up with a nice juicy salmonoid, a testament to how important the wetlands are as a nursery for fish and other creatures. Across the river is the Rotary Trail that I am told has excellent year round birding, somewhere I'll be exploring during migration time. At a recent Christmas bird count the trail turned up an American Dipper and a Glaucous Gull. 

Belted Kingfisher






Brown Creeper


At Harrison I was able to photograph a couple of male Redheads that had spent the winter in the lagoon. Out on Harrison Lake whitecaps rules the waves, several Horned Grebes and flock of Common Mergansers were  busy feeding. At the mouth of the oddly named Miami River was a single American Dipper doing what dippers do. Three year birds just like that. I had a pleasant lunch and birded my way home. Later in the year i'll be going back and maybe camp up at Sasquatch Provincial Park, a good spot for forest and marsh birds.
Redhead

So the first thirty or so days in the Fraser Valley have been a refreshing change, almost like a holiday and as the migration begins and spring slowly takes hold i'll be eager to see what shows up. Meanwhile I'm hunkered down, reading books and waiting out the cold snap. Apparently for only the third time in a hundred years every province in Canada is below freezing at the same time. 




"It's never too late to bird the valley"

John Gordon
Langley/Cloverdale
BC Canada
























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
Langley/Cloverdale 
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
Langley/Cloverdale
B.C. Canada