Monday, May 20, 2019

What's for dinner?

Chickadee and pussycat - what could go wrong?
I love birds. 

In fact, I love them so much that I have built a bird garden in my back yard for them.  Three birdhouses are available as nest sites.  Then there is the arbor, the plants, and the numerous bird feeders.  I thought I had made a small habitat where neighbourhood birds could come and enjoy the bounty, beauty, and boxes designed for them.  I didn't know that, unwittingly, I also designed an entertainment and buffet center for cats.

Every year I have at least one or two pair of birds taking up the hospitality offered and begin raising a family in a birdhouse.  This year a have one pair of chickadees for sure, and possibly a second pair, that have begun the process.  We were out in the garden last night marveling at them coming and going from the nest cavity.  As evening fell they nestled down for the night and we took to our own beds as well.

My dogs are early risers.  The older of the two, Rookie, is motivated by food and is often up at the break of dawn.  The younger one, now just over 7 months, is all about playing with his fuzzy, food-orientated buddy.  At 5:15 this morning (45 minutes ago) they were both up plying me for what their hearts yearned for.  "I want food."  "Play with me."  "I won't play with you until I've had food."  "Play with me."  And so goes the first few minutes of each day.

The rule is, and they know it, that their business had to be attended to first.  We go out, they take care of that, we come in, and breakfast ummies are served.  So, I plodded over to the door and let them out.  As I exited my back door, which exits directly upon my bird garden, I made a horrifying discovery.  A black cat, much like the one in the above photo, was perched atop my arbor.  Immediately in front of it was the same next box which we were watching last night.  It was waiting for something, and it didn't take much imagination to figure what that was.

At that moment I felt a bristling up my back and found my neck hairs standing erect.  If I was a dog, I would have looked like a razorback.  A plethora of ideas on how to deal with this intruder came upon me, and I have to admit to favouring the ones which were towards the violent end of the spectrum.  However, such choices are no doubt frowned upon by local SPCA and police authorities; I needed a less pernicious plan of action.

"Scat," I hissed.  Nothing.  Flailing arms.  No effect.  My dogs didn't see it, although the idea of picking Rookie up and pointing her towards the offending target came to mind.  "Too early," I thought; the neighbours would not approve, especially on a holiday Monday.  Then I saw the garden hose.

Perfect.  Cats hate water, I hate cats (at least this one at the moment).  Sounds like a perfect match.  So, I cranked up the pressure and pointed the wet end towards my intended target.  Unfortunately, there was a kink in the hose somewhere and the anticipated rocket of water never materialized.  Instead a pathetically limp smattering of water was brought forth, and I could only hint that the cat was about to take a bath.  It was enough though, and it turned tail and ran.

Last year I had a cat, or perhaps a raccoon, ransack one of my birdhouses and kill off whatever was in there.  I don't want the same thing this year.  I am going to erect something to keep such pests at bay; I wonder if the SPCA would approve of a howitzer?

Wednesday, May 1, 2019

Black headed grosbeak

Left:  Female Black-headed Grosbeak      Right:  Male Black-headed Grosbeak
I just love birds.  So, it would only make sense that I would put up a feeder.  But that whole thing seems a little anemic.  If I wanted to attract birds, I should be able to do a lot more than just hanging a feeder in some random location.  That's why I have my bird garden.

My bird garden, for lack of a better term, is simply an area where birds will find food, shelter, water, and nesting opportunity.  I have an arbor made of 2x4 posts and 1x4 cross beams that hold my bird feeders and two nest boxes.  I have grapes growing up one post and honeysuckle up the other one.  I planted holy in behind - in the spring hungry birds will come and eat the berries.  I have hostas growing in front of them, blueberries, and a patch of salal.  There are food and shelter offered by these plants.

I use sunflower seeds in my two big feeders; many birds will eagerly take them.  I have a smaller feeder that I use for niger seed.  That is a favourite of goldfinches and a number of other species.  All feeders are squirrel-proof to keep the little fuzzy beasts from cleaning out the hoppers.  I have had rats which take seeds that have fallen below, but they were nothing a standard rat trap couldn't handle.  The big concern, literally, are bears, as one could easily destroy my fence and take out everything in only a couple of seconds.  So far though, I have been lucky as no bear has bothered to come for a visit.

I put up suet feeders as well.  The fat in them helps birds overwinter better because of the amount of energy it provides.  Woodpeckers, bushtits, and chickadees are fond of it.  There is also a hummingbird feeder which I fill from time to time, although they are mostly interested in the honeysuckle flowers covering my deck arbor. 

The birds above are black-headed grosbeaks.  A strange name to be sure; the grosbeak term comes from their very thick bills which can crack just about any seed or nut they come across.  They appear occasionally.  I hear them far more often than I see them; their trill echos throughout the nearby wooded areas.  The male is probably the most colourful bird that comes calling, although a male rufous hummingbird will give him a run for his money.

I have seen about 20 species of bird come to my feeders.  They include various sparrows, siskin, bushtits, several blackbird species, hummers, chickadees, robin, and tree swallows; admittedly the last ones were only interested in my birdhouses though.  I have a pair of chickadees using one of my birdhouses this year.  Last year a raccoon got into one and took the chicks.  I made it much harder to access this year.

I am looking forward to another year of back yard birding.  And the great thing is, I can do it in the comfort of my own home.

Monday, April 29, 2019

The Royal Albatross

Royal Albatross - the sky is its home.
The epitome of flight is probably best illustrated in the albatross.  An amazing bird on just so many levels, it spends more time aloft than it does on the ground and sea combined.  The royal albatross does not quite have the longest wingspan out there, but it is close at over 3 meters in length.  Fully stretched out it could cover the distance between the floor and the rim of a standard basketball net.

It takes 6 or more years for a royal albatross to mature.  Its first year is spent being looked after by its parents.  When ready to fly, the fledgling will spread its great wings and soar out to open sea; it will not touch land again for up to five years.  During that time it feeds on surface creatures, whatever they may be.  When sexually mature the albatross returns to its nesting site.  The royal albatross only breeds in a few places; numbers had been greatly reduced because of introduced pests and man's fondness for usurping the land for his own purposes.

Albatross are unique in that they have not established evasion or defensive techniques regarding predators.  Having bred in the same location, devoid of any predators, for centuries, they do not avoid creatures which would harm them, their eggs, or their young.  You would think that mice would be of no concern to an albatross, which outweighs them 1000 to 1.  Yet mice will strip a bird of its flesh without it putting up a fight or concern.  Have a look at this article, done by National Geographic.

The albatross takes a mate and remains with that individual for life.  That being said, breeding is not completely monogamous.  However, partners stick together to raise the chicks regardless of who the father is.  I guess they are more concerned about the well being of the young than about who copulated with mom.  Maybe having a "bird brain" is not such a bad thing.  A single egg is laid.  After rearing the young the couple takes a year off.  They travel the world, covering tens if not hundreds of thousands of miles in the time away.  They do not necessarily stay together.  The always return to the same place with the idea of raising a new family.

Most albatross live in the southern hemisphere where there is more ocean than land.  They also tend towards the cooler climates, so seeing one in the mid-latitudes is unlikely.  We were fortunate to see them in their natural element on New Zealand's south island.  It's the only place in the world where they nest on a mainland site.  Most are found way offshore on tiny rocky islands.  Even though they breed in such isolation, their numbers are still being reduced by our carelessness and lack of awareness.  Reading this will help you be more aware - let's care for our Earth.  It's the only planet we have.

Wednesday, April 24, 2019

Tree swallows mating.

A pair of tree swallows preparing to raise a family.

A little privacy, please! 

The young couple did not seem to mind we watching, especially with the long lens poking out of my camera.  Intimacy with seclusion was not a high priority for this mating pair of tree swallows.  Furthermore, the male mounted the female, left, and returned numerous times during the process of copulation.  She presented herself by lowering her head to the surface and raising her hind end.  He clearly seemed to understand the signal and was only too glad to oblige her. 

What I loved about this moment was the opportunity to observe natural behaviour which is seldom witnessed.  The fact that the nest boxes were near a popular walking trail helped in that the birds were acclimated to the presence of humans.  They clearly trusted me and did not see me as a threat.  I have witnessed this kind of behaviour before in other bird species, but this was wonderful in that I have never been this close.

I took about 20 or so images, this one being the best.  What you don’t see though are the ones I took where the male has used his beak to grab onto the female’s neck feathers.  You can just barely get a glimpse of the method from this shot, although it is very clear in others.  I am sure it is part of the technique; a strategy to help maintain position, but I wonder if there wasn’t some passion in there too.  Birds are very intelligent and I think we often forget the fact that they must have emotions which run deeper than just instinct alone. 

Consider how many birds defend their nest and young.  Think about the fact that many avian species mate for life.  If it was a mindless endeavor, I would think it wouldn’t matter.  I am reminded of the story of a hunter shooting a pair of Canada Geese.  One fell dead and the other mortally wounded beside its mate.  Crawling over, it died with its wing outstretched over its partner.  That was it for the huntsman; he never shot again.  Clearly, these creatures knew what love was.

I am so thankful that I had this great opportunity to witness the beginning of new life.  I don’t think it could be called, “The joy of sex.”  I think it should be called, “The joy of love.”  I think we understand this well, and I suppose we are not the only organisms on the planet that appreciate the emotional bond which such behaviours produce.  After all, it is spring, and love is in the air.  Literally in this case.

Panning: How to capture a moving target.

Panning - it can be done with many different subjects.

When something is moving across your field of view, you have two options in terms of capturing its image.  You can use a high enough shutter speed to freeze the thing in place as a moment in time, or you can follow it with a panning technique.  Of the two, I much prefer the panning method.

Panning is relatively simple, but you have to address a few issues if you want to do it properly.  The first, and main point, is that you must turn off any vibration mitigation mode which may happen to be running.  The reason is pretty straight forward; this technology is designed to prevent the camera from moving and you want it to move.

Some cameras / lenses come equipped with a modified vibration mitigation option which allows horizontal movement but reduces vertical changes in position.  This is the best of both worlds, as it allows movements to the left and right with no impact but compensates for any vertical displacement.  This doesn’t work, of course, if you are using a portrait format (shooting with the long axis vertically instead of horizontally), or if you are panning vertically as you may for a rocket launch.

The second thing to consider is the shutter speed to do this with.  There is a diminishing rate of return for quality inversely proportionally to shutter speed.  In English, this means that as the shutter speed decreases it is harder to get a clear image of your transversing subject.  That is because slight changes in position of the subject within your viewfinder will vary more and more, resulting in a blurry image.  Active vibration mitigation will help with this, but its use is somewhat limited.

In short, I like to use shutter speeds between 1/100th and 1/160th of a second.  The problem with this is linked to the fleeing speed of what you are photographing.  Shooting a slow flying bird, a slower shutter speed of 1/30th of a second may be perfect.  A jet airplane taking off, on the other hand, may benefit from a shutter speed of 1/250th of a second, or even faster.

When you are actually panning, it is important to proceed with a solid grip and with complete smoothness.  I like to pay attention to where the subject is in my viewfinder and follow it through its path.  I usually shoot multiple images, knowing that some will be better than others.  I also may turn focus tracking on or at least use continuous focusing to ensure that focus is sharp for the beginning of the exposure.

You will notice I have three images in my photo; you can use the exact same technique whether you are following bird, animal, fish, car, plane, or bicycle.  The method is identical. 

Keep on shooting.

Sunday, April 21, 2019

California quail - persistence pays off.

California Quail photographed early in the morning in Nanaimo, BC.
Two days ago I hiked the trail around Buttertub's Marsh in Nanaimo, BC.  I got a few good shots; the photo I posted previous to this one on the red-winged blackbird was one of them.  As I neared the end of the trail I saw two partridge-like birds.  They were much larger than a robin and were definitely rotund looking.  I saw them briefly and then only from the rear.  There was one feature which stood out, and that was two parallel white lines that started mid back and proceeded towards the tail.  They ducked into some bush as I approached and disappeared completely.  I searched for a few minutes to no avail.  I gave up and moved on.

Back where I was staying I logged onto and placed the parameters I knew into my query.  I was given twelve or so possible suspects.  None of them really did it for me though, and the two parallel lines I saw did not reveal who the culprits were.  Discouraged, but not beaten, I decided I would need to return to the metaphoric crime scene and try to find them again.  This morning I had that chance.

Up at sunrise and loaded for bear (or even a partridge-like bird) I headed out to Buttertub's with the hope of discovering what the elusive bird was.  It was early dawn and the light was modest at best, so I had my camera's ISO pumped up to 3200.  The 600 mm focal length (900 mm relative) would do the job if the subject would cooperate.  A manual shutter speed of 1/125 of a second was the best I could muster, the vibration mitigation system would have to come through in a big way.  And so I retraced my steps from my previous jaunt.

Many of the birds were still tucked away in their roosts when I arrived.  There were not as many visible species or calls as I saw before.  Perhaps my ambitions were premature.  However, I continued the trek and eventually came to the scene where it all took place.  I was not disappointed.  There, on the trail ahead of me, were two birds - the two white lines betraying their identity.  I knew this time what my quarry was, as the bobble atop their heads was clearly visible now.  I got some shots off and managed to capture some decent images, given the dim conditions.

Persistence had paid off.  I am not always so fortunate with such endeavors but am thankful when it does. 

Saturday, April 20, 2019

Red-winged blackbird – a harbinger of spring.

The familiar red-winged blackbird.

Yesterday morning I was treated to the symphony of choruses and warblings so common at this time of year.  Some were unfamiliar to me and I marveled at their beauty.  There were those that I instantly recognized too.  The one which stands out most in my mind is the trill call of the red-winged blackbird.

Winter tends to be much quieter in nature, especially if snow is present.  In the same way that insulation dampens sound through a wall, snow softens sound.  Then there is the fact that many of the choirmasters are absent, away south where warmth and food are both present in abundance. 

With spring also comes its welcome sounds.  Red-winged blackbirds are always warmly regarded by me.  Their song, although somewhat harsh and raspy, is a reminder of a place and time I love.  Ponds, marshes, and lakeshores teem with life.  The males are announcing their presence to nearby females and establishing barriers to neighbours.  Mating, brooding, and raising young are all to come.

Last year I witnessed a remarkable sight.  A large flock of red-winged blackbirds was feeding on the edge of a granary when something disturbed them.  They rose as one, each bird making minute adjustments to its flight based upon what its neighbour was doing.  They were all males, or so it seemed, the red epaulets clearly displayed on each black wing.  Then it happened.

As they lifted and turned the light from the sun caught that brilliant patch of colour and reflected it back to my eyes.  Just a moment in time, but each one was at exactly the right angle at the same instant.  A flash of red, from hundreds of birds in synchronous flight, struck me.  That was something a photo or video could never reproduce with the same vigor.  It was a sight which has been engrained in my mind.

So, now when I see this harbinger of spring and hear it iconic call, I am taken back to that moment.  Another reason why I find this time of year so wonderful.