A Red-winged Blackbird (Agelaius phoeniceus) rests between calls in a bramble of willow catkins.
In front of the patio to the front door of my house there is a stump where the previous owners had cut down what must have been a large tree. Aside from the occasional decoration, this trunk remains largely unused by us. However, we all like it so there it stays. Now, I understand why… today a pair of Boreal Chickadees started to dig out their hollow to make their nest. They carried out small clumps of wood pulp clawed out on every trip. I hope they choose to stay here.
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.
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The small ponds that dot the Prairies at this time of the year each hold the chance of a surprise with regards to birds. With the migrations back to the north starting to pass through, swans, cranes and geese can be found at any bog, pool of meltwater or more stable body of water. The waterfowl which will summer here are returning as well so ducks of all stripes and sizes are looking for water to nest alongside.
It was in one of these shallow ponds in between Bragg Creek and Calgary that I found a paddle of ducks comprised of Mallards, several Barrow’s Goldeneye and one lone Hooded Merganser. It has been a while since I have seen one of these ducks and with this one, I was reminded how interesting they are. The fan-shaped crest with its white patch is very conspicuous. With his crest extended, this Hooded Merganser (Lophodytes cucullatus) seemed to strut around the pond as it swum between two female Goldeneyes.
When some Canada geese landed in the water nearby and started a racket with their honking, most of the ducks took flight, as seen below and in the lead photograph, for a less active spot.
It’s a great time of the year as spring starts to win its fight with winter and the birds come back to the Prairies. I really enjoyed spending time with these ducks.
I have always loved the crazy colours and patterns displayed by the male Wood duck (Aix sponsa). They have been somewhat elusive in the areas I am typically out photographing wildlife. When I was at the George C. Reifel Migratory Bird Sanctuary a couple of weeks ago, I came across a raft of them paddling around a chain of small ponds sheltered by overhanging branches above and reeds behind.
The ripples in the water and the distorted reflections served as a chaotic yet still suitable background to photograph these beautiful birds. I stopped and enjoyed almost an hour of watching these fellows swim, waddle and chase one another as well as their better halves. The weather picked a great time to cloud over and the diffused, even light allowed those colours and the textures in the feathers to own the stage in several of the images.
One of the last ones I photographed before moving on caught my eye as it hopped out of the water onto a log jutting out of the water. After shaking himself off, he cocked his head and fixed me with this one-eyed stare. The stare, his body posture along with the tail feathers slightly askew suggested a bit of a character and he was a fitting model to finish this duck encounter with.
There were a trio of Sandhill cranes along the trail north of the main gate of the George C. Reifel Migratory Bird Sanctuary. They were jostling with mallards and pigeons for the bird seed that is available at the entrance and purchased by some visitors. This seems to be a good spot for them and it was a great place to photograph these cranes. The Sandhill crane has an interesting story in Western Canada, it was really wonderful to see them up close.
Boundary Bay is lovely throughout the year. Early spring along the levee that runs parallel to the tidal flats, driftwood piles and grassy fields is not an exception. When we were there last weekend, the rain rolled in as we were watching Snowy owls scattered across the grassland which did contribute to a beautiful scene a couple of hours later. At the time, it set the owls in their poses as they hunkered down through the showers.
Jack and I waited for the weather to change so that the owls may take to the air. Dusk was quickly approaching and we had hopes that these raptors would start hunting. The rain increased and we walked back along the dyke towards the parking lot a couple of kilometers away. As the car came into view, the rain lessened and when I was at the trailhead, the sun had even hazarded a couple looks under the clouds. The evening light was beautiful though very soft as it was filtered by the clouds and water vapour in the sky. A rainbow over the water drew my attention out over the flats and that’s where I first saw a distant bird flying low over the marshes.
I followed it through the gloom and as it moved closer and into the sunlight, I was able to identify it as a Barn owl (Tyto alba). This was my first sight of one of these owls in the wild and I fell in love immediately.
They have a chaotic flight pattern where they swoop along and then dive with great conviction downwards at crazy angles when they find a target. It crisscrossed a large area for about half an hour and all I could have wished for was a bit more light.
Dusk was well entrenched by this time and I was pushing the camera’s ISO and autofocus hard. The owl was curious too and swooped by on two separate occasions. The whole time spent watching this bird was a great experience and I’m looking forward to my next encounter with one of these beautiful owls.
I could still make out the silhouette as it flew further away but my attention was pulled in a new direction by a Short-eared owl that circled by for a couple of minutes and then a Snowy which, freed from its perch by the calm weather, landed on a pile of waterlogged wood less than a stone’s throw away. I hope to share some of those photographs soon.
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.
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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It was a sunny morning today so I spent some time photographing the Black-capped chickadees that live in our backyard. There are several of them that share the bird seed we put out with a large flock of Common redpolls and a few Red-breasted nuthatch through the winter.
As from a couple of weeks ago with their redpoll cousins, the chickadees were elusive to capture nicely in flight. But it was a very nice time with my backyard neighbours.
A couple from the morning.
I like my backyard, it’s a cool place.
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.
A female Mallard duck stretches out of the water to shake the water off of her wings. My friend Jeff (his photography website) and I were down at the Inglewood Bird Sanctuary that is in the middle of Calgary on one side of the Bow River to photograph the birds that overwinter there. There are hundreds of Canada Geese and Mallards on the water at any time. The Sanctuary is a great place to watch their natural behaviour with very few disturbances.
I photographed a pair of Pacific Golden Plover, called Kolea in Hawaiian, in the grasses near our hotel this morning. They scuttled about the grass in the same fashion as I had observed them skip over rocks along the shoreline last year on a beach further north here in Kaua’i. In the photograph above, I panned the camera while one of the birds ran nearby.
A cold snap has taken hold of the prairies around Calgary for the past few days. I saw this eagle picking away at some bones out in a field in Springbank and stopped to photograph it for a few minutes. After a few minutes, it took to the air to find the next meal. Given the damp cold, I would suggest it carry on the migration that brought it our way last week and head for somewhere more temperate. That said, I will be very happy if I have the chance to photograph it a few more times before then.