Monday, December 10, 2018

No hummingbirds?

Female rufous sided humming bird

Imagine a world without hummingbirds.  Many of us take them for granted, although whenever we see one it is a marvel in our eyes.  We have four species in our area, with the rufous sided hummers being the most common.  Anna’s hummingbirds are also very common and have the distinction of being the only ones that spend the whole year in the southwestern BC.  My neighbour keeps a feeder out during the winter and I frequently see one perching on a nearby tree.  The other ones, much less frequent, are the black chinned and the calliope.
We have just spent a month in New Zealand.  They have no hummingbirds there.  Zero; zilch, none.  They have other birds that fill similar niches, with the Tui being very fond of nectar and being an avian pollinator to boot.  But very few people there have experienced the joy of watching a hummingbird flit effortlessly from flower to flower, navigating the air with all the skill of a veteran helicopter pilot.  It is kind of sad, in a way.
Of course, they have their own special birds which are no less amazing in their own special way.  These include unique creatures such as the fantails, whose antics and constant flittings must on some level equal the energy output of our hummers.  I have already mentioned the tuis, but let’s not forget the namesake kiwis.  Now there is a remarkable bird.
The egg of a kiwi is huge, emu sized, yet the adult is a little smaller than a chicken itself.  Think of a chicken laying a two pound egg.  It probably weighs more than that, but I don’t want to go overboard on my comparison.  These flightless birds are endangered because they can’t get out of harms way and the number of predators is increasing.  Fortunately there are a lot of management practices in place which seem to be facilitating a comeback.
I do not suppose we should feel too sorry for New Zealanders who have never seen a humming bird, as there are many of us who have never experienced a fantail, tui, or kiwi.  We each have our own species to be grateful for; to be admired and appreciated.  But just like those environmentally sensitive kiwis, we had better do a good job looking after them, because they could disappear and we might be the ones not to see them in the future.

Wednesday, November 28, 2018

Variegated oyster catcher - New Zealand

Variegated (Pied) Oyster Catcher
If you have read any of my blogs in this section, you have figured out that I was a fan of birds.  There are a few such as chickens and turkeys I like for the obvious reason, but that is not the general nature of the way that I like members of the avian species.  I like them because they are ubiquitous, because they are such important members of the ecosystem, and because they are very photogenic.
We camped at a place called Clark's Beach, about a forty minute drive from the international airport near Auckland.  As we were driving in I saw a gathering of black and white birds on the beach.  I did not know initially what they were, but suspected they were black backed gulls.  After setting up I collected my camera and long lens and wandered off to get some shots.
I was very pleased to discover that the birds were in fact variegated oyster catchers, apparently also called pied oyster catchers due to their black and white nature.  I used my stealthy approach technique involving moving slowly, stopping, feigning interest somewhere else, and repeating until I was reasonably close.  Then I sat down low and began shooting.
Of the images I captures, I liked this one the most.  I often see them individually or in pairs, but have never come across a group of them before.  I spent some time enjoying my proximity to them then headed back to camp to take care of business.
After dinner I headed back to see if anything had changed and was pleased to see they were still there.  There was a person wandering near them, but took no notice of him.  As I was exploring other nooks of the environment I saw a host of black and white birds flying off towards another beach.  I looked over and saw the same fellow wandering right through the middle of the pack.  They scattered, of course, and never came back for the rest of the day or the next either.
My thought on this is to the man who disturbed this asset of nature - why would you take away this amazing spectacle from this place where they were resting?  How did doing such a thing improve your life or make a positive contribution to the world around you?  The short answer is that you did this out of ignorance and out of some base desire to disrupt the universe around you. 
To the rest of you, consider your impact on the world around you.  Your mere presence affects it and you should attempt to exist in harmony with it, showing appreciation and giving nature her due respect.  Just show a little compassion for the life around you.  It really isn't that hard.

Wednesday, November 7, 2018

Fantail - New Zealand

Fantail - photographed in New Zealand
Sometimes a bird's name does not do it justice.  There are names like "catbird" for sound, "swallow"  for the large mouth, and "wood pecker" for a bird's behaviour.  The fantail benefits from a great name, describing the physical show which the male enthusiastically displays when showing off for a female while at the same time telling other males to move along.
Wonderfully active birds, I had seen a couple of them, but was treated to quite the show when this fellow danced all throughout its territory.  I must have taken thirty or forty images, following him about from place to place - staying still for barely moments at a time.  Both the male and female have long tail feathers; unproportionately longer than what you would expect from such a small bird.
Isn't nature's diversity wonderful?

Royal Albatross - New Zealand

This was my first time seeing an albatross, and I was fortunate enough to see these great birds which boast a 3 meter wing span.  I knew they were sizable birds, but was unprepared for their amazing bulk.  Huge is the best way to describe them; I would think their body size is equal to or even greater than a bald eagle.  What is truly amazing is that after they leave the nest they spend upwards of 5 years on open ocean; they don't touch land again until they come into their maturity.
I saw only one albatross nesting; it was still a bit early in the season.  We went to the Royal Albatross Center where we got a chance to see these magnificent birds in flight.  It is the only place in the world where Albatross breeds on the mainland.
I commend the managers of the RAC as they have done an amazing job of keeping predators away from the birds.  They have fences set up to keep dogs and cats out, rat traps set out to capture rats, mice, and stoats, and have managed to facilitate a significant breeding colony.  It is a tragedy about how man has devastated bird populations all over the world.  This is one place where we are taking that trend back.  Well done.

The Tui - New Zealand

The tui is quite a peculiar bird, certainly from my limited north western North American perspective.  I was first struck by their white waddles which the male displays underneath its chin.  Then I saw another one with fairly amazing colours adorning it.  Finally, if that didn't top them all, I got a shot of this one with these amazing white neck feathers.
I am writing this from my motel which I am staying in at the moment in New Zealand.  I took this photo yesterday while visiting a city in the middle east coast of the country.  Over the last few days we have seen a number of these birds, but none were as clearly marked as this one.
You can see the waddles on the image above, although they are a little hard to see because of the light area around them.  Follow the neck curvature around from the beak and, as the neck becomes the chest you can see one of them.  I have other better shots of them, but this is by far my best shot overall.
My bird book tells me they are omnivorous feeding on insects; here it is going after seeds.  They seem to be quite a gregarious bird and are not shy around humans.

Thursday, September 27, 2018

Lesser Goldfinch

Lesser goldfinch eating seeds
There are a lot of birds that are yellow in colour.  In our area there are Wilson's and yellow warblers, gold finches and the occasional evening grosbeak.  I have also seen yellow rumped warblers, common yellow throats, and Townsend's warblers.  I have gotten to know all these birds by sight, so I was taken aback, and thrilled, when I came across this fine feathered fellow.

As always, I uphold the tradition of the west, which is to shoot first and ask questions later (the questions being, "What kind of bird was that?")  If I was to attempt to identify first before photographing it I would more likely have an identity but not any photos.  I could be accused of being trigger happy, especially with my drive mode set to high - an uzi setting for cameras, capturing a myriad of images in the blink of an eye.  Then, when I have time, I can put my feet up and check the critter that I photographed.  Sometimes I get enough of the bird to warrant an identity, other times not.

I did that today, even though I took this picture some time ago (March 11, 2015).  If you are wondering what this bird was doing here at that time of year, understand that it was shot in Palm Springs.  I don't always get to my images right away, especially if I don't have my bird books with me.  I went onto one of my favourite birding websites,, and used the search function.  Black cap, perching bird, yellow breast, throat, and stomach with a solid pattern.  There were over 100 matches at first and then it got narrowed down to eight; that was when I started clicking on potential subjects.  The third click landed me on the lesser goldfinch - I had finally identified the culprit.

I find their behaviour very similar to the American goldfinches that we have around here; they flit from plant to plant looking for seeds to plunder.  I don't know the particular type of plant, but in this area they are really fond of thistles that have gone to seed.  I have also seen them taking apart fennel plants with a lot of gusto. 

And so now I have another yellowish bird to add to my mental list, so when out and about and I happen to come across some golden bird with a predilection for larger plants with small seeds, I will more likely know what it is.  If not, I can always bring out the guides, after I shoot it first that is.

Tuesday, September 25, 2018

Red necked grebe with chick

Red necked grebe and chick
They say a photo is worth a thousand words; I think sometimes it can be worth more.  Have a look at the photo above and consider what is going on in it.  I like the picture aesthetically for a number of reasons.  The shallow depth of field isolates the subject relative to its surroundings to draw your eye, but the background betrays the environment the scene is taking place in.  The three birds line up nicely, guiding your vision to the sparkling yellow horizon at the top of the frame.  Nice bokeh, and the detail on the parent and chick is excellent in the original image (this one is significantly reduced for this blog).  But there is a deeper connection which belies the events taking place that the observer will decipher something critical which is easily overlooked.

Family.  A parent spending quality time with their young.  I can imagine things the fledgling might be saying in this shot.  "Let's go around again, mom." or "I love going for a ride with you."  Likewise, the adult is enjoying the moment too, giving its offspring a shoulder ride, as it were.  But it goes deeper than this, because in the background is the other parent.  Watching, enjoying, looking for danger, waiting to take their turn with junior.  Out for a beautiful day in the park, the family is basking in the sun and being rewarded with a memory that will stick with them forever. 

The chick grows quickly, in only weeks it will be diving for fish on its own without having to rely on mom or dad for food.  But even then, the folks are not far away.  Danger always lurks in the wild and it is up to them to be sure their progeny grows to adulthood.  Summer will wane and the infant will grow up to become an adult in its own right.  A mate will be found and another feathered miracle will enter the world.  And just think, a small chick will ride on their back and he or she will look back and remember how it was with them.  Family.

Saturday, September 22, 2018

Photography for birders

There are a number of things which I  just love to do, but four of them I can compact into a single activity; experience nature, take pictures, write, and teach.  Having just retired from a career in teaching which has spanned nearly 30 years, one of my first goals was to write a book on photographing birds.  I have written other books before which I use in my home business of teaching photography, but this project would be different. 

The plan was to do a book in colour, where as my previous creations have been done in black and white so they were photocopy friendly.  It had to be interesting, informative, and above all, fun to write.  It had to convey the four passions and present them in a combined effort.  The result is the book which I titled, "Photography for Birders (and other wildlife enthusiasts)."

The book is self published.    It is available through my website,  There are 76 pages with 115 photographs and six chapters.  I also will be teaching a new course of the same title starting in the winter session here at a local college.  Its purpose, as with that of the book, is to help those with a passion for nature and photography to combine the two successfully. 

The photo of the book cover above is of an eastern kingbird feeding its chicks; I shot this while hiking at a wildlife conservation area in Creston, BC. early in the summer this year.  What I love about the image is that everything came together very nicely.  The parent is nicely squared to the camera and not at some obscure angle.  A dragonfly which was plucked from the air is clearly visible in its beak.  The chicks are engaged, extended, and attentive.  The sun, to my back, illuminated the scene well allowing good shutter speeds.  There was no clutter in front of the camera and the nest was actually about eye level so that I could see everything quite clearly.  It was an awesome moment.