It has been just about ten months since my last encounter with a Great Gray Owl (Strix nebulosa) in one special area I frequently visit in Bragg Creek. Last year, there was a two month stretch where I would regularly see one or more of four owls in the forest and fields there. The long absence could be for any number of reasons but most likely it was me not seeing them or them not wanting to be seen. I know from talking with people in Bragg Creek that owls remain year round but I think some rotate around different spots throughout the year and some migrate away for at least a few months.
Last night I went for a drive with my daughter to see what animals were out and about. When I first spied this owl it was perched on a sapling standing in the middle of one of the meadows. It was a couple of hundred metres away so we watched for a minute and then carried on. About a half an hour later we returned and found the owl in a tree along the fenceline. It was watching over the grassland and soon dove successfully on a field mouse. It carried that back to a fencepost, had its snack and then went for another one. Given the place it was, the way it hunted and its markings I think it was one of the four from last year. She looked hungry so I imagine there are owlets back at her nest. Over a fifteen minute period of watching her, three rodents fell victim to her aerial strikes.
It was special to be there with my daughter for this encounter. However she fell asleep as it was close to her bedtime so I will show her the pictures and we will have to return – maybe tonight. Last year I had almost daily encounters with the Great Grays in this area. I can only hope for a repeat this spring.
The past weekend I was able to devote much of my time photographing along the grassy marshes that line the edges of Frank Lake near High River. This lake is a major stopover in Alberta for migrating birds and I was there to check which birds might be there in early spring. One of the open ponds was popular with a few different ducks which drew my attention. I worked my way over near the water edge but then soon forgot about the ducks.
There were a few American Avocets (Recurvirostra americana) fishing in the shallow water. These shorebirds stole the show for me and I spent that evening and came back again on Sunday to enjoy watching and photographing them.
Curious, beautiful and agile the Avocet is a great bird to photograph. I had not been around them before so it was a lot of fun learning some of their habits. I’m excited to get back down there as they start their courtships.
Mark Garbutt, a fellow photographer who I met on the weekend, said their dance is elaborate and wonderful to watch. I hope to be able to see some of these performances in the next couple of weeks.
Over the weekend I was in Vancouver for some photography work. With my friend Jack we visited the wonderful birds preparing for spring in the Lower Mainland. We spent time in the George C. Reifel Migratory Bird Sanctuary with Wood ducks and Sandhill cranes, the owls along Boundary Bay, Great blue herons (Ardea herodias) around the marinas and waterways in Ladner, and a few other great spots. Although I lived in Vancouver for university, I had not visited any of these locations for wildlife before. I was amazed by the birds and their numbers at almost every location. I am looking forward to sharing some of the images soon.
This Great blue heron was a highly proficient hunter and it collected fish steadily for the hour that we watched it from a bank in Ladner off of River Road. The heron moved along the shoreline as the tide was going out and kept up its hunting pace the whole time. Great opportunities to watch the heron’s behaviour and its technique. I learned a few tells of when it is readying to strike that yielded some really nice images. I’m having fun working through the collection.
Following a beautiful sunrise down on the Vermilion Lakes, my friend and I drove up towards Lake Minnewanka to see if there was any wildlife that wanted to be seen.
We spied this bull elk along the edge of the canal where the lake drains out grazing on the patches of snow-free grass.
He spent a little time in the water and the climbed out and moved towards us along the tree line. I loved the way the reflection cast by the elk and the trees onto the water shimmered and blurred.
Just after walking behind the stand of trees that hung over the water, the elk walked into the trees to graze. Returning to the car, we found the elk had moved to the edge of the trees by the road and that allowed us to watch him stripping bark of fallen tree branches.
Our family went for a drive along the Grand Valley Road northwest of Cochrane a few days ago in search of raptors of any description. This road is nice drive that is rarely busy and can often yield sightings of owls, hawks or eagles. In a hilly farmland area we noticed a number of ravens circling around a stand of trees in a field a couple of hundred metres off the road. When we pulled over to see what the focus of their attention was two coyotes bolted out from under a large cedar and sprinted across the open into the thicker forest on the far side of the field. Looking back to the spot where they started running we could see a carcass that had been mostly picked clean of what, judging by one of the horns that was sticking up, appeared to be a bison. As it was on farm land it seems likely there were bison being raised here but there were no other farm animals within sight to confirm that theory. With coyotes, ravens, magpies and probably a number of other predators drawn to this unfortunate beast, its herd was likely as far away from this spot as the fences would allow. So, we were watching the ravens which were squawking and pestering the smaller birds picking at the scraps when Bobbi noticed a Golden eagle (Aquila chrysaetos) approaching from down the valley.
We already had the long lenses out so we were able to photograph the bird as it flew overhead towards the other birds. Two ravens also saw the eagle inbound and flew up to harass this new attendee. The three looped around the trees for a minute before the eagle landed in one of the high branches and the black birds returned to ground.
During this chase, the overcast skies took on a more threatening tone and soon a soft snowfall turned into a blizzard. I thought the Golden eagle would wait out the height of the storm from the perch so I kept looking around to see if the coyotes, or anything else, came back.
Out of the sheets of snow a Bald eagle (Haliaeetus leucocephalus) swooped in and took up a spot on a tree near to the Golden. This had turned out to be a great encounter and when a couple more Bald eagles flew in and around over the next half an hour, it continued to get better and better. The snow did finally ease up and there were opportunities for nice flight images.
The lighter skies appeared to spur one of the Bald eagles to say goodbye to a raven it had been sharing a tree with across the field and glide over to the bison skeleton.
This eagle brought a good amount of conviction to its scavenging intent and it chased off all of the passerine that had been crowding on the ground.
When we moved on, this eagle was alone on the ground having successfully landed and taken ownership of what remained.
The Golden eagle had disappeared and two Bald eagles were perched where they could keep an eye on the bones. The collection of black birds were scattered in singles and small groups around the scene though none strayed close to the eagle holding dominion on the ground. The last wildlife we saw as we drove away were the coyotes trotting along the hill towards the farm-house keeping their distance while still keeping an eye on the bison.
We have two types of woodpeckers that visit the trees in our backyard. The Downy is the smaller of the two but they are very similar looking otherwise. The Hairy woodpecker is a beautiful bird and I watched one of them as it pecked at tree trunks for insects under the bark. They like to hammer one spot for several seconds and then move around the tree or off to another trunk.
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Actually the Red squirrels that I was photographing a couple of different times over the weekend weren’t getting up to too much trouble so the title is a little bit misleading. However, when I watch them tearing up and down trees, leaping between branches, grabbing seeds, etc. they seem mischievous. We had one, in the image below, that found a way into our attic from the outside last year, that crossed from mischief into nuisance but a live trap and rodent proofing measures allowed us to remove it and for it to return to the backyard
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This same squirrel is drawn to the bird feeders I have put out over the years. It successfully pilfered from or destroyed each of them! That has been stopped with the current, rather ugly, feeder which the squirrel can neither knock down nor draw seeds from. Some of the birds that visit, nuthatches in particular, are very picky about the seeds they eat so many seeds drop to the ground which birds and squirrels alike enjoy snacking on.
Nevertheless the squirrel still takes a crack at this feeder every couple of days as seen above. Below, he is perched on the top of the metalwork that holds the feeder as well as flowers in the summer.
Even with seeds scattered on the deck, when I observe the squirrels eating they prefer stripping cones from the tall conifers they run around in all day to get at the seeds within. We seem to have an equilibrium with the squirrels, rabbits, chipmunks, birds and voles in the backyard. May it continue to last.
When I was on a catamaran sailing along the Na Pali Coast we had a close encounter with a small pod of dolphins where they swam alongside for several minutes. I loved watching the deceptive power in their movements. The cat was under full sail and the dolphins seemed to expend little effort to speed past the bow and slip in and out of the waves.
On the return trip to the harbour, close to the first visit, a couple more dolphins (different I think as they seemed to be gray coloured versus the blue bodies of the first ones – although that could be a change in the light) came by and this time had a couple of humpback whales with them. The dolphins get very excited when the whales return for the winter and the two species are often found playing together and generally hanging out together until the whales head off around the globe again. The whales did not make any spectacular breaches but I felt no disappointment as just seeing them in their waters was magical.
The common redpolls (Carduelis flammea) are, as the name implies, common across Canada’s lower latitudes in the winter. However, they are new to my backyard. We have had scores of Black-capped chickadees since we put out a winter bird feeder several years ago but not redpolls. This year, there is a flock of about ten that spend much of the day in the trees behind our house flitting back and forth to the feeder. They are joined now and then by a larger mob of about thirty more redpolls. All of them seem to play nice with the incumbent chickadees so they have been a great, and colourful, addition to the forest that edges my backyard.
The morning I spent with them this weekend was cold so all of the birds were eating a lot and flying around. My fingers didn’t like the -20˚C but it was a lot of fun standing in the middle of activity.
I set up early so the light was decidedly bluish. When it came up, the sun went in and out of the clouds so I had a lot of different moods to work with. It was a very fun morning at home.
In 2012, I had some wonderful encounters with wild animals. Most were in Alberta near my home either on the prairies or in the mountains. I am constantly reminded how fortunate I am to have an abundance of wildlife living in my literal backyard and in any direction I choose to walk, ride or drive. Kananaskis Country mesmerized me more this year than ever before and I enjoyed time with coyotes, bears, sheep, moose and hawks there.
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I started the year with a goal to put significant time and energy into improving my wildlife photography. My priorities to accomplish this were to improve my approaches to wildlife (to minimize disruption and increase the chance to observe natural behaviour), improve my technique (better sharpness and quicker response to animal movement) and create images that tell a more complete story about the animals (more engaging and interesting). I moved forward on all fronts though I know where I want to get to and so I will be keeping the same goals to start this new year.
As spring took hold, I wanted to photograph bears. In previous years, I hadn’t put in the time to learn their habits, locations and behaviours. I put in time reading books and talking with people who know a lot about Black Bears and Grizzly (Brown) Bears. There is much (much) more to learn but the effort was rewarded with some good images from the Kootenay National Park and the Banff National Park. A decent start to the images that I have in mind.
The cubs above and below were Grizzly Bear #64′s and I found them on a couple of occasions along the Vermilion Lakes Road near Banff. So beautiful and very photogenic. The park’s wildlife officers did a good job working with visitors and there seemed to be a level of respect and restraint better than I have observed other years.
The meadows of dandelions blooming in the spring draw the bears to the roadsides along Highway 93 in the Kootenay National Park and I made a couple of trips there to photograph the black bears. This bear had picked the flowers clean on the rocky slope. The wet fur and the posture made for a nice moment to photograph.
In the summer, I visited Jasper National Park for a solid week of photography. The absolute highlight was this black bear cub sprinting up two different tree trunks. Momma kept grazing while junior seemed to be playing. It was amazing how fast this young animal climbed and almost more impressive when it slid down twice as fast.
I love photographing birds. Left unchecked I would fill this collection with way too many avian photographs. Trying to rein myself in here but it was a good year for birding and bird photography. Along the way I saw the movie “The Big Year” and that got me thinking… not yet but probably one day. Here then are a few from the year that stood out for me.
Great Gray Owls dominated my local outings to West Bragg Creek in April and May. I had a connection with one owl in particular (or at least I felt one and hope the owl did on some level too) and spent many days with it flying around me, landing beside me and generally spoiling with opportunities to photograph this most magical of animals. This was a favourite among many special images of this owl.
The last part of the year I had a great wildlife trip to the Jasper National Park with my friend Jeff Rhude on a workshop with John Marriott. John is one of Canada’s pre-eminent wildlife photographers and it was really fun to spend a week focused on wildlife photography. I worked for the images there and the results were pretty satisfying.
The rams were assembling ahead of the rut in groups around the park. We did not have any head butting to photograph but there was time to really work with the opportunities available. This post was a favourite of mine from the year.
An encounter with a pair of very approachable ravens at a pullout along the Icefields Parkway and family of juvenile bald eagles along the river just outside of Jasper were two other highlights from a very good trip.
At the end of the year my family went to Kaua’i and the wildlife fortunes were with us. We had amazing encounters with Hawaiian Monk Seals, Green Sea Turtles and birds of many feathers.
The encounters continued below the surface and I fear I’m hooked on this fascinating branch of photography now – we’ll see where that takes me in 2013.
The year finished with the discovery of Snowy Owls very close to my home. There are a pair, and possibly a quartet, of Snowies currently hunting in the Springbank Airport area. I spent some time with them before the end of the year and have continued regular evening appointments with them in the first few days of this new year. These owls have not been seen in this area before and my first photographs of Snowies made in February and March last year required driving a couple of hours east. The first image in this post was from a range road near Gleichen an hour east of Calgary during one of these longer drives. It is very special to me that I have been end the year with Snowy owls very close to my home as they have become a favourite animal of mine.
I went on a sailing trip up the Na Pali coast yesterday. The morning was clear and we had a great trip with visits from a couple of separate pods of dolphins and a few humpback whales. After turning around at the Kalalau Valley, the captain found us a calm cove and we had an hour to snorkel. Halfway through the swim, I found a Green sea turtle fishing down in the coral.
I was about 30′ above it and just floated along watching it swim and explore. After a few minutes, it surfaced and when it turned to me, I had a second to photograph it swimming. Soon after with lungs full of fresh air, it descended again and soon disappeared into the blue.
This Manini (Acanthurus triostegus) was one of many swimming in the sheltered cove at the Lydgate Beach Park when I was snorkelling there yesterday. The fish has a great nickname, the Convict Tang, owing to the stripes resembling those of a prisoner’s uniform of old. When this one moved into an area of the rocks and coral where rainbows were shimmering, I swung my camera that way.
A good friend loaned me a waterproof casing for one of my cameras and it has been fun to play around with during time on the water. It’s a different game shooting underwater and I am really having fun learning a bit of the how tos required to get a good image. A very (very) long ways to go to approach the likes of Brian Skerry though!
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Ilio-holo-i-ka-uaua – that’s what the Hawaiian Monk Seal (Monachus schauinslandi) is called in the Hawaiian language. Literally, it means dog that runs in rough water. We were watching a sea turtle that had pulled up on a beach in Po’ipu when a friendly fellow who was chatting with Bobbi, told her about a Monk seal he had just seen on a nearby, although fairly remote, beach a little while earlier. So, we packed up, drove down an old dirt road, hiked over forested sand dune and about half an hour later, we were watching a seal that had hauled itself well up onto the beach.
The kids had fallen asleep between beaches, so Bobbi and I alternated a couple of visits to the seal. The ropes had been set up so passersby did not stray (or walk intently) too close to these critically endangered animals. Most people respected the boundaries. When the seal slid out of the area that had been cordoned off to provide some space, it rubbed up against one of the poles which was curious – maybe just an opportunity for a scratch or it was checking out the scent left behind by the person who placed it.
A few minutes afterwards, the seal had settled a couple of yards above the water line. It remained there for almost an hour. People continued to stay back even without an updated perimeter with only two exceptions – nothing that seemed to impact the seal but a local fellow nearby set the clueless observers straight. The image below was not one of the too close encounters.
I had the benefit of my long lenses and was able to keep well away from the seal and its path back to the ocean. It dozed for most of the time we were there and not much interrupted its rest. When it was back down at the surf, even waves that reached up and covered its face, most only a little, rarely even opened an eye.
Kian and Kezia woke up after an hour and made the trek down to the beach with us. It was great to watch the seal together and they were really interested in this beautiful animal, how big it was (7′ long I would guess) and why it was sleeping so much!
Nearing sunset and following one good wave in the face, the eyes opened and the seal made short work of the rest of the beach between it and the open water. It undulated forward, sliding across the sand and slipped into the water.
There it was transformed from the ungainly land mammal to a graceful sea creature. It was great to watch it swim for the first hundred yards or so before it went underwater.
This was the last glimpse I had as it headed out to sea. We lingered for another hour as there was some family sand castle building required. One of the best days we’ve had in Hawai’i.
These two moose crossed a farm field moving towards the heavier woods of Kananaskis, west of Bragg Creek. The mother kept up a brisk trot but the calf seemed untroubled by the pace. She came towards me across the field and then joined a path that crossed a low point in the fence a hundred feet in front of me. On the road they paused for a second and then hiked up into the forest.
In Jasper we revisited the same herd of Bighorn sheep on Edith’s Knoll each day in the hopes of catching the rams smashing their horns together. There was an element of disappointment as we were early in the rut and the males did not seem to be ramped up yet. However, with several hours spent less than twenty yards from these majestic beasts, it proved to be a great experience watching their interactions and their mannerisms. Spending that kind of time with wildlife on their terms is pretty special. These are a few of the interesting moments from the time spent up on the hill.
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When the light is really soft and even, the patterns and subtle colours in their feathers, the scratches that tell stories in their beaks and their intelligent eyes provide great material to work with. These images are from a little shoot with a curious couple who spend their time at one viewpoint pullout along the Icefields Parkway in the Jasper National Park. On this day, the clouds were hanging low in the valley and heavily diffused the sunlight so that even the darkest shadows were only a muted grey. Perfect conditions to photograph these birds around their hangout. I posted one portrait of these birds a couple of days ago and with a little more time now, I enjoyed putting together a few more images for this entry.
The snow fell intermittently and provided another element to work with. What had already fallen to the ground over the past week created clean backgrounds and when coupled with wide apertures allowed the ravens to stand out with a nice dimensionality.
The camera I photographed with here, the Canon 5D Mark III has a slight bluish colour cast at higher ISO settings. These are easily removed in any photo editing software but I really liked the iridescent quality in the image above.
Drawing closer in, the lines drawn by the feathers around the face and neck create really great patterns that go unseen when ravens are usually seen given the dark colours.
The ram resting in the deep snow while still early morning had distracted us away from the herd. While photographing the massive leader, his flock had sidled up to the vehicles and were licking the vehicles in hopes of finding salt. The roads in the park are only sanded as far as I know but there may have been salt still on some the cars that were from further afield. Either way even the ram eventually rose and joined in. He can be seen under the neck of sheep licking the back tire. The body position of the sheep on the left defines this image and provided the name for the photograph and this post.
Stopping at a viewpoint along the Icefields Parkway on Sunday to photograph a pair of friendly ravens during the second day of John Marriott’s Jasper Fall Wildlife Workshop. This raven lived up to advance billing and was a pleasure to photograph. This portrait was one of my favourite images from a wonderful wintry day that saw us photographing mountain goats, bighorn sheep rams and bull elks in Jasper National Park.
The white mountain goats (Oreamnos americanus) that are sparsely peppered along the Canadian Rockies are a favourite animal of mine. Yesterday we (okay, John Marriott) spied a large male grazing on an almost vertical cliff a couple hundred feet up from the valley floor west of the Columbia Icefields. A beautiful scene to photograph one of these most beautiful of creatures.
Today was a great first day for the workshop I’m up in Jasper for. The workshop is led by John Marriott and it has been great picking up some of his vast knowledge of animal behaviour, tracking and anticipating a better moment. Over the 11 hours we were hiking, driving and scouting in the Greater Jasper area, we tracked several moose and wolf trails. That was really great – it didn’t deliver us onto either of these animals but such a good opportunity to learn. We did find many (many, many) groups of bighorns scattered around, a couple of elk encounters (one herd and a couple of individuals) as well as a few deer here and there. It was the Bighorn sheep that captured most of our attention and we spent a couple of hours on a slope where roughly twenty rams had assembled as we enter the front side of the rut. We waited for the head butting but they weren’t in the mood. It proved to be a wonderful opportunity to watch their behaviour and photograph subtle behaviours. This male typified the braggadocio of some of the larger rams. It was a really good day.
The horse that ended up posing for me before padding away led the small herd up the hill towards me. During one of their pauses on the way up I took the opportunity to frame them as part of the larger scene of dawn on the prairie. As I said before, I wish I had brought some horse-friendly snacks.
This morning I hiked up a hill for the sunrise. As the light started to brush the clouds stacked above the eastern flank of the Kananaskis mountains, a horse came up close to where I was set up. She nuzzled around for a bit but I didn’t have any carrots with me. Just after turning back towards her colt, she paused for a few seconds and I framed her against the bright horizon.