Eared Grebes are a very cool bird. They look fantastic (especially the red eyes), are great divers and really show their personalities. I watched a group of eight that swam alone and in pairs on the marsh.
There were a couple of characters who squawked or bickered a little but mostly they all meandered around grabbing insects off the water, diving for things under it and paddling around.
I was watching these birds from the Ducks Unlimited blind on Frank Lake. They swam within a few yards many times and gave me a wonderful opportunity to observe them in good detail for over three hours.
It was a beautiful afternoon on the water and along with the Eared Grebes, I watched Western Grebes, Black-crowned Night Herons, White-faced Ibis, American Avocets, Yellow-headed Blackbirds, Ruddy Ducks and Canada Geese. It was a great afternoon on a beautiful Prairie lake.
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.
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.
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.
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.
(please click on any image if you want to open a new page with a higher resolution version)
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.
The Inglewood Bird Sanctuary is well-known for living up to its name and being one of Calgary’s finest locations for birding. I consider the paths through the forest that connect the viewpoints along the Bow River to be just as exciting as the shoreline. There are Great-horned owls in the trees, a couple have been spotted recently but I could not find them, as well as deer, coyotes, woodpeckers, magpies and the list of animals grows considerably in the warmer months. Easily the most interactive members of the community are the Black-capped chickadees. Easily seen along the pathways, they are curious and like to come very close. One precocious little bird perched on my camera and the day before another one had landed on my friend’s head. It is great fun watching them flit through the brambles and chirp at one another.
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 small lake in Wild Rose, west of Bragg Creek, has been a great place to enjoy photographing birds this summer. I have spent a number of mornings along the strip of land that divides the pond. Several of these mornings have been spent with a few different Common loons. These are a few of my favourites from these times.
Lac des Arcs is a stopover for swans returning to the north. This year they have just started arriving.
I identified Tundra and Trumpeter swans. For most of the morning I was watching Tundra swans flying from one open pond in the ice to another.
It was a beautiful day in the Rockies with blue skies and a little fresh snow on the ground. I went to the western shore in the hopes that I would find some fliers that I could shoot into the sun as well as in shadow – the best of both worlds.
It was fun and I was pretty happy with the images.
I’m looking forward to heading out there again soon.
They are fantastic fliers, very fast and graceful. Their takeoff takes a few long strides while they get the wings going.
After photographing sunrise on Namaka Lake in the Siksika Reserve east of Calgary, I toured the nearby back roads for wildlife. I found a few mule deer standing in tall grass and a couple of charismatic old barns but my subject of desire was the snowy owl (Bubo scandiacus). There is a healthy population of these owls between Calgary and Brooks. Photographing these wonderful raptors has been on my list for a couple of winters now but yesterday was the first trip into the prairie east of Calgary dedicated to the purpose. The first owl I found was a telephone pole hopper so we traveled together from pole to pole for half an hour before it flew up into a stand of trees (as above) and then on to the open fields.
I saw two more snowy owls while working my way back home on Highway 22X. The first was flighty and I only photographed it flying away from me over the fields.
The last owl of the day I saw just before 11 am. It stared me down from its perch on a fence post and then took off, flying low along the ditch before disappearing behind a small hill. I will be back in the next couple of weeks and try to get one of these beautiful birds to fly towards me.
I spent a couple of hours on the banks of the Bow River at the Inglewood Bird Sanctuary in Calgary last night. There are hundreds of ducks, geese and shorebirds that bed down on the rocky fingers in the middle of the river. The light faltered quickly making sharp images an increasingly challenging, and ultimately impossible, endeavour.
I switched to working with the abstract forms possible with longer shutter speeds and panning the camera with the subjects. I loved watching the large and the small flocks as they returned from the fields or other places further along the river. It is a great spot to enjoy the wildlife in the middle of the city.
Yesterday, while driving along the backroads between Bragg Creek and Cochrane, my wife and I noticed two fluffy balls popping up from a huge nest that I thought was still abandoned. We could see from the edge of the road that they were Great Horned Owl (Bubo virginianus) owlets so we waited a few minutes to get a sense of that stand of trees and whether the parents were nearby. I walked to the fence dividing the ditch from the forest and with a long lens coupled to an extender was able to get some nice images without getting these adolescents worked up.
Below is the view of the nest from the road
I have watched this nest for a couple of years and this is the first time I have seen chicks being raised in it. I hope this pair make this a summer home and return every year. Now, to see about photographs of the family together…
Over the last couple of weeks the North American Robins have begun to arrive and there are now good numbers flitting about the receding snow and the newly exposed grass. In this part of the world, they are one of the most promising signs that spring has successfully beaten back winter. I’m very happy to see them making that case both here in Bragg Creek and in Banff.