Wednesday, October 16, 2019

Female mallard duck with low depth of field.

Wide-open apertures cause out-of-focus backgrounds with long lenses.
If you look at a thumbnail (small image) of this picture, it will look like everything is in focus.  Enlarge it so that it fills a good portion of your screen, however, and you can see that the background is blurry.  This was done for a number of reasons, but the main purpose is to help draw your eye to the subject, which is the duck, and not the surroundings.  The fact that they are present though gives you a sense of the environment the photo was shot in and what the habitat is like.

It is relatively easy to make the background blurry with a sharp foreground.  It is well worth your while to understand the various factors that create depth of field.  Manipulating the camera's controls to obtain the precise shot you want is an important part of creating successful photographs.  It turns out there are five different ways you can alter depth of field.

1.  Aperture changes depth of field by varying the size of the circles of confusion which make up the image.  Wide-open apertures (small f/numbers) give less depth of field than small apertures (large f/numbers).  Shooting in aperture priority mode is a common practice, partly because you pick the aperture you want to use.  In the above photo, I used the lowest aperture value I could muster.

2.  Focal length alters depth of field; long lenses (high mm values) have less depth of field than wide-angle lenses (low mm values), given everything else being the same.  Telephoto lenses are more likely to produce an out-of-focus background than normal or wide-angle lenses.  I used a focal length of 180 mm (relative to a full-frame camera) in the above shot; it helped the background be blurred.  I had to be fairly far away though for the whole thing to work.

3.  Point of focus is where the lens focuses.  As the focal distance increases, there is more depth of field.  The closer your subject is to the camera the less depth of field there is.  This is part of the reason why macro shots have such little depth to them.  I could have been closer to the duck, but then to get the bridge in I would have used a lower focal length.  Also, due to perspective differences, the bridge would have been smaller relative to the duck than it is, and I did not want that as my composition.

4.  Size of sensor plays a role as well.  Large sensors must have longer focal lengths than smaller sensor cameras in order to obtain the same field of view.  I shot the above photo with a 1-inch sensor bridge camera, which has a crop factor of 2.7.  The actual focal length was around 65 mm, whereas I would have used 180 mm to get the same field of view on a full-frame camera.  Smaller sensor cameras have to use wider angle lenses to achieve the same shot, and they get more depth of field because of this.

5.  Amount of enlargement relates to how big you make the image and how far away you view it from.  As mentioned earlier, a thumbnail image may all look in focus, but enlarge it on you can clearly see the difference.  An 8x10 print will look different than a 2x3 print for this reason.

When shooting I think about these factors and try to play with them accordingly.  Usually, I am concerned with the first three as they are the ones I have immediate control over.  Play with these factors and see what happens.  It will make you a better photographer.

Thanks for reading.

Thursday, October 10, 2019

Yellow Headed Blackbird

Yellow-headed blackbird on a cattail perch.
I can remember seeing my first yellow-headed blackbird, now some 40 years ago.  The setting was very much like the scene above with it perched on a cattail on the outside of a pond on the edge of a city.  I haven't seen any since then, and this one was a welcome sight.  In my experience, red-winged blackbirds are much more common than their yellow-headed cousins.  Yellow-headed blackbirds prefer to nest in fresh standing water areas thick with bull rushes.  They stick to the center areas which offer more protection and easier access to insects, their main food source.

I was kayaking in a small pond and saw a flash of yellow.  Although there are many birds in Canada that display significant amounts of yellow, few of them are associated with pond edges and commonly perch on the associated vegetation.  Yellow and Wilson's warblers are often found in forested areas.  American goldfinches are often found in fields, especially if thistles are present.  I was hopeful that my glimpse would prove to be a yellow-head.

I continued paddling around the outside of the pond, keeping close to the reeds and on the watch for another sign.  Sure enough, twenty minutes later I spotted one.  The wind had picked up in the meantime.  It took considerable maneuvering to get the boat in the right position for light and visual access.  The reeds in front of it were thrashing back and forth vigorously; I had to take dozens of shots until everything finally lined up.  I am quite pleased with the end result.

Thanks for reading.

Monday, October 7, 2019

Vignetting with flash - The Royal Albatross.

On-camera flash is a marvelous tool that can be used to shoot in dark areas and fill shadows.  Its ability to light up areas close to the photographer is limited due to its power and inability to alter dispersion patterns.   Since it is so close to the lens two additional issues pop up.  The first is the occurrence of the notorious "red-eye."  The second is what this blog is about, vignetting.

Vignetting, in photography, refers to the darkening of an area.  Most lenses suffer from some degree of vignetting where the image becomes darker as it progresses to the outside edges.  It tends to be most noticeable in corners as they are the farthest away from the center.  Fortunately, this problem is often mitigated with onboard software inside the camera or with a pixel-editing program such as Photoshop.

The second type of vignetting occurs with flash and can be seen in the above photo.  Since the lens sticks out in front of the camera, just underneath the flash, there is a chance that it may block the progression of light in lower aspects of the shot.  This likelihood is compounded in situations where a lens is physically long, a wide-angle focal length is selected, the subject is close to the camera, or a lens hood is mounted on the end of the lens.  Each of these by themselves represents a risk in creating vignetting, but a combination of them increases the probability significantly.

In the above photograph, a Panasonic FZ2500 all-in-one camera was used to capture the photo.  It has a relatively large lens in its own right, even when the widest angle focal length is selected.  Since it projects so far in front of the camera's flash there is a good chance that it will block some of the light from hitting the image, creating a vignette.  Shoot near a subject with a lens hood on and the likelihood becomes a certainty. 

There are several ways to prevent this or reduce the effect.  Photographing a subject farther away with a bit of zoom will help.  Since a flash's ability to illuminate a scene is reduced by distance and decreased aperture size (increased f/number), the camera's ISO may have to be increased to compensate if the shot is coming out underexposed.  Taking off the lens hood also helps. 

Two additional solutions are somewhat costly.  An external flash sits higher atop the camera and vignetting becomes all but moot.  It also addresses power and red-eye issues.  A shorter wide-angle lens, such as a prime 24 or 28 mm, is stubby enough that it won't get in the way of a built-in flash, unlike some of the multipurpose zooms out there which are very long.

Thanks for reading.

Sunday, October 6, 2019

Juvenile Red Breasted Sapsucker

I photographed quite a few birds this summer, and I could figure out what most of them were either from recognition or using one of my many bird identification books.  This bird, however, had me stumped.  It was definitely a type of woodpecker; its size, habits, and body form all attested to that fact.  But what type?  It did not conform to any of the birds in any of my books.

It had a back like a hairy woodpecker, the head of a red-breasted sapsucker, and its underside had a yellowish hue to it.  What really stumped me was the eyering and the yellow cere, which woodpeckers with red heads don't have.  There are 23 species of woodpecker in North America, ranging from the Acorn Woodpecker to the Yellow-bellied sapsucker.  It was none of them.

It wasn't until today that I took time to hunt down which species it belonged to.  I decided that maybe it wasn't an adult, and started looking at websites with lots of woodpecker shots.  I finely came across a juvenile Red-breasted Sapsucker which looked similar to the one in the photo.  It had even less red on its head, but the yellowish cere and eyering were present.  When checking adults to my photo, the body was a close match.

One of the challenges I find with identifying birds is how their plumage changes.  Juveniles often look different from their parents, but the nearby caregivers usually remove any uncertainty.  Some birds take two or more years to come into their adult feathers; some gulls take a full four years.  Then there is the eclipse phase where the winter dress of an adult differs from its summer wear.  Add to that breeding versus non-breeding plumage, variation within a species, and interbreeding between some closely related species and you have a recipe for thorough confusion.

Fortunately, I find the process of identifying birds fairly straight forward most of the time.  Part of it is being familiar with them in general and knowing which birds to look for and which to ignore when checking field guides.  This too becomes an issue when irregular migrants show up, as they are not usually included in the books which only covers the local areas.  Imagine the trouble one would have with all these confounding parameters acting at the same time.  Perhaps then, it is a new species?  Birdus svendsoni.  Cool.

Thanks for reading.

Thursday, October 3, 2019

Juvenile Bald Eagle.

Juvenile Bald Eagle on the bank of the Columbia River, near Golden, BC.
My post from yesterday featured one of the parents of this fledged bird.  Before I left on my small trek, I talked to a canoe instructor who paddled that stretch of river many times.  She mentioned that there was an eagle nest at a certain point along the river and that chick and mom were present the last time she went by.  I always love photographing chicks in a nest, but it was likely that the aerie was not going to be in a favourable position to shoot.  It was with mixed anticipation that I began my journey.

It took me about an hour to get to the spot, as described by the young voyageur.  I saw the nest, high atop a dead tree, but no birds were present.  Then, to my left, I saw the pair.  An adult and a newly fledged juvenile.  There was a modest amount of scrub present and I had to wait until they were reasonably visible.  The paddling I had done gave me some speed, that velocity was increased by the flow of the river.  It only took a moment or two before I was in a better position.

When kayaking I use waterproof bags to protect my equipment.  The advantage of it is obvious, and I have saved my stuff on more than one occasion.  The disadvantage though is that it takes time to access anything and time is often a very limited resource easily squandered.  So, I keep my camera handy in case a subject presents itself unexpectedly.  I lay it atop of the now-empty waterproof bag and place it just below the cockpit opening where water is less likely to find it.  It was in this position when I initially saw my quarry.

The adult fled almost immediately, although I managed to get a few shots off before it departed.  You can see one of those images in yesterday's blog (click here).  The chick, now a rather large bird capable of rending flesh with its talons and beak, stayed.  It either was not capable of flying or did not feel threatened by my presence.  I got a few shots off before I was past it. 

Turning around crossed my mind, but there was a rather formidable unknown.  The adult took up a spot not too far away, and I was concerned about its reaction regarding my intent.  The strong desire for self-preservation tied in with not wanting to disturb or alarm the juvenile led me to continue on my journey.  After all, I got some nice shots and had a memorable experience.  What more could you ask for?

Thanks for reading.

Wednesday, October 2, 2019

Bald Eagle - Continuous versus Single point focus.

Bald Eagle on the bank of the Columbia River, near Golden, BC.
In previous blogs, I had mentioned that I did a solo kayak trip along the upper reaches of the Columbia River, near Golden, BC.  I had an APS-C sensor camera equipped with an 80-400 mm zoom lens, which was used mostly at the 400 mm focal length.  As I rounded a bend in the river I came across a bald eagle and its recently fledged (and now very large) chick.  I got a number of shots off of both, but none with them together. 

Whether a subject is changing its position relative to you, or you are changing your position relative to it, or even both at the same time, there is a problem with focusing.  Most of the time I try to keep still while peering through my viewfinder.  I always prefer my subject to be stationary and compliant, but the truth is there are plenty of exceptions to both situations.  In the case regarding the above photo, I was traveling downstream.  As I moved forward the distance between my subject and I gradually decreased.  This creates a problem for focusing.

The issue is that once focus lock is achieved and you have reframed the camera to get the desired shot, the distance has changed and the subject is no longer in crisp focus.  This is less of an issue with normal and wide-angle lenses, but telephotos have a very narrow depth of field, especially long ones, and it doesn't take much before your subject is blurry.  This is where continuous focus can help.

Continuous focus allows the camera to alter focus continuously as long as your finger is pressed halfway down on the shutter button.  Choosing the correct focus point is important to allow you to capture the image without reframing.  If you attempt to reframe it is likely your subject will snap out of focus as it is no longer in line with the active sensor.  You can get away from this using the AF-L button, but I prefer not to do this.  Instead, I chose a focus spot and keep my subject lined up on it as I am paying attention to the many variables of composition.

This is also a useful procedure when setting the drive mode to obtaining more than one shot at the press of a button.  Using CH (continuous-high) on the drive selector, with the focus mode being set to continuous, and the appropriate focus zone locked in, I can get multiple images, all in focus, of whatever dynamic situation I find myself in. 

A really interesting focus mode is 3-D focus-tracking, which I use in sports and for active wildlife such as flying birds.  That is a discussion for another time though.

Thanks for reading.

Sunday, September 8, 2019

Great blue heron strikes again!

Great blue heron in the act of catching a fish.
You have to admire the great blue heron.  It can be found over much of North America; anywhere water is present.  It is well adapted to hunting in wetlands and will eagerly take fish, frogs, snakes, salamanders, and any other creature it can get down its gullet.  They stoically await the arrival of a meal.  Instead of actively hunting for a morsel they remain motionless until the prey comes within striking range.  Then, in a flash, their hunger is temporarily satiated. 

I shot these images five days ago while hiking at Rocky Point Park.  There were a number of things working in my favour.  First off, the sun was behind me.  This means the subject being photographed will have very little shadow associated with it.  I try to "point my shadow" in the direction of my subject when shooting in full sun.  This always gives me great light and fast shutter speeds.  This was the second factor which helped.  Even at an ISO of  80, I managed to get 1/250th of a second with an aperture of f/6.3. 

The third thing was that the heron was comfortable being around people.  This is one of the reasons I like shooting wildlife in parks and walkways.  You can get within a decent shooting distance of many creatures because they see humans frequently and (generally) are not threatened by them.  Even though my camera was only capable of a relative focal length of 460 mm, it was enough to fill the viewfinder with the bird.

For my part, I moved to get into the right position (sun behind me) and moved slowly to avoid startling the heron.  I kept the camera to my eye and waited patiently before snapping the images.  The camera was set to manual exposure mode and I was shooting in RAW format.  Colour balance and exposure tweaks were made in post-processing using Adobe Elements.   I took 28 pictures in all.  This is not unusual for me in that I can easily take one or two hundred images a day when out in nature.  Large memory cards and external drives help with the enormous amount of space the shots take up.

Thanks for reading.

Friday, July 5, 2019

White crowned sparrows – compensating for back lighting.

White crowned sparrow on a favourite perch.
The white crowned sparrow is a common summertime visitor to Western and much of Northern Canada.  I hear its familiar chirping and see its telltale black and white striped crown on many of my travels.  I spotted this one yesterday near the beach in southeast Washington.  They feed on the ground, taking both seeds and insects.  It is amazing to watch them moving leaf litter; with both feet planted on the offending target, they hurl it backward with a synchronized jerk, unlodging any morsels hiding underneath.

They are not terribly shy.  I often find them perching atop tall plants or trees surveying their kingdom.  Photographing them in this position is often problematic because of backlighting.  Backlighting happens when the background is brighter than the light coming off the subject.  This causes the camera to underexpose the image, leading to a flat, gray background with a dark foreground.  The solution is to compensate for this.  There are three quick methods.

1)  Use exposure compensation.  The +/- button is your exposure compensation button.  Most cameras will have access to this feature either directly through a button, or indirectly through a menu option.  When pressing the button and holding onto it, you can add to or subtract from an exposure by rotating the command dial at the same time.  Some cameras may allow you to press and release the exposure compensation button and then change the setting, then press it again to go back into shooting mode.  The challenge is twofold; first, you have to estimate how much you want to compensate the exposure by.  I find many backlit situations benefit from a +1 setting, although I have gone past +2 on some occasions.  The other issue is forgetting to turn it off after using it.

2)  Use exposure lock.  This handy little feature is often found as a button with EL or FL written on it, allows you to lock your exposure at a predetermined value.  In the case of the sparrow above, lowering the camera so there is little backlighting and holding the button will lock the exposure in.  Reframing you then take the picture.  This has the advantage of not having to estimate what value to use, and it turns off automatically.  This sounds marvelously magical, but the issue is finding an area with lighting similar to the one your subject is in.  This can be a bit of a hunt-and-find methodology.  I pay attention to my viewfinder exposure settings when using this and keep in mind how much extra exposure I need.  If you are not familiar with shutter and aperture values, this makes finding the right balance more difficult.

3)  Using manual exposure mode.  Most people are uncomfortable with manual exposure mode.  In fact, many will set their cameras to full auto or intelligent auto and leave it there.  Although intimidating, manual mode will unlock the potential of your camera if you know how to use it.  There is a steep learning curve, as some knowledge of aperture and shutter speed settings is mandatory, and you have to be comfortable working with changing both those settings manually.  I photographed the white crown sparrow above in manual mode.  The light of the day was unvarying; this meant that I could use the same exposure settings for all my shots unless something changed significantly.  With the flat grey cloud cover, the exposures were consistent.  Also, I use RAW files instead of jpegs, which means I have extra latitude for correction if the exposure is off.  Together they allow me to capture my images with relatively few corrections.

Whichever method you use, compensating for backlighting will improve your photos immensely, especially when shooting jpegs instead of RAW.

Monday, July 1, 2019

Yellow bellied sapsucker

Yellow bellied sapsucker near Chehalis, Washington
One of the reasons I encourage photographers to travel is because there is a myriad of new things and experiences to enjoy.  You don't have to go far, but the benefit of greater distance is an increased chance something unfamiliar will appear.  Birding is a good example of this.  Around my house, there are maybe fifty species of birds, but on any one day, I may see only five or six.  Most of those are the same ones I see each day.  Robins, towhees, crows, juncos, chickadees and song sparrows are the most frequent.  If I travel a few miles from home I stand a better chance of seeing something slightly different.  Herons, blackbirds, eagles, kingfishers, ravens, and pigeons are all frequent sightings.

Out of the city towards the more rural areas less familiar birds start to appear.  Yellow rumped warblers, green herons, golden crowned kinglets, varied thrushes, and red breasted sapsuckers start to show up.  I have seen some of these around my house, but rarely.  The chance of seeing one of these on any day is remote.  So, by traveling modest to significant distances from home, there is a good probability that I will come across something unusual.  It may be commonplace for locals, but for me, it is new and exciting.

At this moment we are camping in Chehalis, Washington.  I go on walks every day; some of them are significant treks.  I have seen a variety of birds, many of them familiar.  Given the fact that I am in the same temperate rainforest with much of the same vegetation as I have at home, I am not too surprised.  However, I came across a yellow bellied sapsucker the other day.  I have never seen that bird at home at all and only ever seen one once before.  The one I came across was a juvenile and did not have its full adult markings.  Still though, it was an exciting moment.

I did not have my DSLR camera with me, as I was shooting insects at the time.  I did, however, have my bridge camera; a Panasonic FZ2500 with a 460 mm (relative) zoom lens.  It actually does a pretty good job given its small sensor, and I managed to capture a dozen or so images before the bird flit off to hunt for a meal elsewhere.  Of those, the best one was the one I chose above.  It required significant cropping and some sharpening before it was useable.  It helped me identify the species, as I was not originally sure what I had just photographed.

I have seen a few other species since then.  I photographed a scrub jay and shot an excellent image of a song sparrow with a beak full of squirming bugs.  We will be leaving in two days, and I hope to come across some other unusual finds before we go.  Better though, we are heading for south Washington's coast where I hope to hit the avian jackpot.  I'll let you know.

Thanks for reading.

Monday, June 24, 2019

The ubiquitous starling.

Sturnus vulgaris:  The European Starling
I was chatting with some young people a few weeks ago about birds, which happens to be a favourite subject of mine.  I brought up the starling in the conversation, and puzzled looks fell upon their faces.  "What's a starling?", they asked.  To me, it was like asking what a robin was, as they are common throughout much of the world.  Here, in Canada, we have loads of them; sometimes they get together in enormous flocks and fill the branches on large deciduous trees.  The sound such a gathering makes can be deafening.

So, here I was, pondering to myself if this was a common occurrence (not the large collection of starlings, but rather the lack of knowledge about them in general).  So, I have taken it on as a mission to inform any readers about this bird.

Starlings were originally native to Europe, including England.  The playwright and poet William Shakespeare (you have heard of him, I hope) included many types of birds in his writings, among them the starling.  Other mentioned species had been released into North America, but all died and none of them became established.  In 1890 a man brought to New York City 60 starlings and released them all.  It was supposed that they too would succumb to the elements as had their other avian friends.  He would be in for a surprise.

Today there are an estimated 200 million of the birds in North America alone.  They have also been introduced to Australia, New Zealand, and can be found in much of the Caribbean.  They have gone as far south as central Texas but no further as they do not do well in the heat.  It is amazing to think that a mere 60 birds have increased to a population of over 200 million in less than 130 years.

Their breeding success has come with numerous consequences.  They are considered an invasive pest because of the harm they cause to other species.  Starlings are cavity dwellers and are very aggressive; they out-compete native species such as the western bluebird for nesting sites resulting in the decline of these and other species.  Further to that is their destructive habits of consuming crops and building nests and defecating in sensitive electronic areas which they can access through fairly small holes.  They travel great distances in search of food and are excellent vectors in the transmission of weeds.

They cause millions of damage to crops every year.  They have wiped out many bird species through competition.  They cause damage to property, increase noise pollution, and leave their droppings in unwelcome places.  What amazes me in all of this was the intention to help others know what a starling in for Shakespeare's sake, and today many have no idea as to what they are.  There is some irony in that thought.

Thanks for reading.

Friday, June 7, 2019

The grey catbird - an oxymoron?

A grey catbird; notice the chestnut coloured undertail feathers.
The grey catbird's name comes from its singular call which, to some, sounds like the meow of a cat.  You can go to this website and click on the songs and calls button to hear it for yourself, but I can't totally agree with the comparison.  However, the joining of two non-related species' names together tends to be a somewhat common practice.  Consider these combinations:  Dogfish, Lionfish, Whaleshark, Grasshopper mouse, Tigershark, Birddog, Batfish, Cowbird, and even the familiar Horsefly.  They are all oxymorons, of a sort, as they combine two common organism names into one moniker.

Some of these seem outrageous.  For example, the grasshopper mouse suggests a small rodent with kangaroo-like legs.  It projects an image of a muscle-bound hurdler which could jump to safety simply with an extension of its hind limbs.  It is, in fact, a small mouse found in Alberta which has a predilection for insects; many of them happen to be grasshoppers.  In fact, much of its diet, over 90%, is carnivorous in nature.  The name, in theory, should give some description of the habits or appearance of its host.

Consider, for a moment, some other possibilities.  What would a woodpecker shark look like or how might it behave?  How about an iguana ant or maybe even something as strange as a penguin worm.  Indeed, you can come up with any combination that you like, and then to really get things going, describe its behaviours and/or appearance based upon the cojoined title.

Let's examine the behaviours of the world famous Snapperclam.  The term snapper relates to a marine fish found on the continental shelves throughout the world.  However, the term refers, in this case, more to the snapping action of the clam when disturbed.  Equipped with tremendously strong abductor muscles that would make scallops blush, the snapperclam lies quietly in tidepools worldwide, with its shell open awaiting incoming prey.  Most clams are filter feeders, but not the snapper, which has developed a vicious feeding behaviour unique to its order.  Unfortunately, beachgoers without protective footwear (preferably steel toed boots) run the risk of having their toes amputated.  Large snapperclams have been seen detaching the entire foot off of dogs which were harmlessly at play.

Here is a real one:  The mantis shrimp.

This, of course, is all fiction.  However; it is easy enough to get carried away with similar animal names.  Consider the sawfish, carpenter ant, and hammerhead shark for example ...

Thanks for reading.

Saturday, June 1, 2019

Shooting birds in low light – Swainson’s Thrush

Photographing birds in the shadowlands of the forest has its challenges.  They are numerous because of the vegetative behemoths which dwell there.  Even on a cloud-free sunny day, light has a hard time penetrating the canopy.  White balance tends to be on the cool side.  Then there is the distance problem.

The forest is, in a way, like a high rise apartment building.  Its tenants have preferences for which floor they reside on.  This is especially true for birds, which are not limited to the forest floor, as are many of the building’s inhabitants.  Grouse and towhees are ground dwellers.  They forage on or near the bottom.  Chickadees and woodpeckers require cavities in trees to nest and are typically found mid-level.  Some, like the Swainson’s thrush and Nashville warbler, prefer the upper reaches.

During spring and summer, the Swainson’s thrush can be heard plying its distinctive song throughout its range.  It makes an escalating series of warbling notes, each bar of its melody increasing in pitch while decreasing in volume.  It is quite somber and pleasant at the same time.  You will notice that it always comes from the top of the forest hotel.  The mysterious songster is plainly heard, but not seen.

I have photographed a great many birds over the years, but have never obtained a Swainson’s thrush picture.  Early on a summer’s day, a hike through a woodland will be accompanied by this denizen’s song.  Yet the musician is rarely seen.  Yesterday I was hiking at a park along the shores of Cultus Lake, an area about two hours east of Vancouver.  A thrush-like bird had perched on a branch close to the path I was on.  It was time to bring my camera to bear.  Could this be the elusive bird I have heard so often but never photographed?

The light was abhorrent.  Even at an ISO of 400, I was only getting a shutter speed of 1/20th of a second.  I had brought my Panasonic FZ2500 along, a bridge camera with a one-inch sensor which allows me to zoom to a relative focal length of 460 mm.  If I had a full frame camera with me I would have chosen a much higher ISO, but the noise generated by the smaller sensor camera at those values becomes quickly untenable.  The camera’s vibration mitigation system was very good though, and I had nothing to lose by trying.

I shot six or seven images.  Even at 1/20th of a second, the bird was underexposed because of the backlighting.  However, I was shooting in RAW format and I knew there would be some latitude there.  I could also post correct the white balance easily.  The bird cooperated and hardly moved, apparently as interested in me as I was in it.  Our symbiotic fascination served me well.

When I got back to my computer I processed the photos.  I knew I would not have any great images, but as a birder, I love getting a shot good enough to facilitate identification.  And I did, the elusive Swainson’s thrush was my subject.  Most of the images suffered from camera motion blur, but there was one that was quite useable.  Again, it was not something I would print and frame, but I had finally got a shot of this amazing singer.  It was the achievement of a lifetime.

Thursday, May 23, 2019

Eastern kingbird feeding chicks

This is one of my favouite photos from last year.
I photographed this last year at the start of our summer holiday.  We were visiting Creston, BC and had gone to visit the bird sanctuary west of the town.  There were lots of birds, but the thing that really caught my attention was the number of nests I found.  The one that stood out the most, in my mind, was the nesting site of the western kingbird pair.  I accidentally discovered the nest by paying attention to a pair of kingbirds.  I noticed that they did not stray far from a certain tree and only later saw the nest.

The nest was empty of chicks; eggs were the only inhabitants.  I got a couple of shots of the mating couple and returned to my explorations.  I came back a few days later and discovered that the nestlings had emerged.  They were very small and vulnerable, hardly able to raise their heads.  No shots of any value were captured on that day.  My next visit was going to produce dramatic results.

The third trip to the sanctuary was awesome.  I arrived early in the morning while the light was still very good.  Approaching the nest with the sun at my back, I had an excellent view of the now stronger chicks.  The bonus was the lack of shadows on my subjects.  I stayed still for quite a while and the birds became acclimated to my presence.  Patience paid off and I got the above photo.  It is the same shot that I use on the cover of my book, Photography for Birders (and other wildlife enthusiasts).  Go to this website to see it. 

I wrote this blog today because I heard faint cheeping noises coming from the nest box in my bird garden.  The breeding pair of chickadees successfully hatched their young in spite of the annoying behaviour of local cats.  I am going to put some chicken wire behind the birdhouse to keep the predators at bay.  As the young get larger I hope to have a few photos of them poking their hungry heads out of the hole to be the first ones to devour whatever delicacies are brought to them.

Thanks for reading.

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.

Saturday, April 6, 2019

Buttertub Bird Santuary, Nanaimo

Male Yellow Rumped Warbler, photographed at Buttertub Bird Santuary, Nanaimo
Bird sanctuaries are more than just safe places for birds; they are habitats for nature.  Given the fact that birds need to eat, it only makes sense that a place that would attract them would have plenty of natural food.  The diet of birds varies widely with the species, but invertebrates, seeds, nuts, berries, and fruits of all descriptions generally works well.  Then there are the more predatory birds that take fish, amphibians, reptiles, small mammals, and even other birds.  You will usually find a source of fresh water as well.  Not just for drinking, but also because a great many things live in the water which birds eat directly or indirectly.

The thing I appreciate about bird sanctuaries is they are often designed in such a way as to give people access to the more distant reaches of them.  Walking paths, beaches, and even boat launches allow you and I to wander at will.  The only thing you are asked to do is to show respect to the environment.  Don't litter, disturb the wildlife, or remove anything.  Keep dogs on a leash and pick up after them.  Take lots of pictures and leave with lots of memories.  It is really rather simple.

What is really amazing about such places though is how they end up being a benefit to us.  Most people do not even recognize this.  Consider the benefits listed below:

  - increased vegetation helps clean the air, remove carbon dioxide, and add oxygen
  - natural water systems like ponds, marshes, and bogs serve as reservoirs that help prevent flooding and removes sediments
  - many of the plants present take up toxins like cadmium and prevent them from getting into our water or food supply
  - communities with natural areas tend to be healthier because they promote activity like walking and gives children a place to explore and run around
  - diversity increases which is extremely valuable in terms of disease resistance.  A small population or a population made of genetically identical organisms are at risk of being decimated in the event of an outbreak of some kind
  - people are given an opportunity to interact with nature experientially rather than through media alone and helps produce environmentally aware citizens

I encourage you to go to a bird sanctuary and enjoy all that it has to offer.  You may be amazed.

Tuesday, April 2, 2019

A nasty eye injury.

Blue and gold Macaw
I chose this image because of the remarkable colour around the eye of the blue and gold macaw.  Certainly the image of this beautiful bird would not have the same allure if its eye was closed, or unfortunately damaged somehow.  Eye damage in any organism living in the wild is often a death sentence.  Anyone who has ever had an eye injury can attest to the concern about reduced or lost vision.  Although the photo is that of a bird, the story I am about to unravel is about me.  To be specific, it is about an eye injury I received two days ago.

The sun has been out in all its glory this last week.  The garden, having been ignored over the winter, was beckoning for attention.  Although all areas required some degree of maintenance, it was the raspberries at the back which were calling the loudest.  Their demands for pruning and securing rose above the silent din of neighbouring herbage.  And so, I got out the pruning sheers and string and began in earnest to placate their prickly cries.

I was wearing my hat and glasses, as is my custom when working outside.  This is especially true on a hot day in full sun as I turn beet-red when left unprotected.  Clipping dead raspberry canes and transferring them to the growing pile was simple enough.  Green shoots protruding from branches clearly allowed me to distinguish the living from the dead.  It was the towering branches and their myriad of prickles which gave me pause.  Each cane, a malevolent arsenal of barbs waiting to take a toll on the offending intruder.

I was about three-quarters done when it happened.  One of my garden sheer strokes caused a branch to thrust towards me.  I find hat and glasses are usually enough, but this stick had eyes of its own and threaded the obstacle course protecting my face.  Not only did it breech the initial security, it managed to thrust its angry member onto my open right eyeball.  My reaction was immediate.

I knew right away I had done something terrible.  I am a bit of a klutz and have poked myself in the eye on multiple occasions.  Usually a few stars followed by some tears occurs and then, after a short reprieve, it is back into action.  Not this time.  My eye was streaming water, not unlike the local mountain creeks channeling the snow melt under the hot sun.  Then there was the pain - wowza!  An impressive crescendo of groans with eye-clutching made an impressive display to the neighbours.

Eyes closed with millisecond bursts of vision, I went inside and plied my story to anyone who would listen.  I rinsed my eye out with water and attempted to open it; the pain was as bad as ever.  My daughter took me to the hospital.  No seats were available.  I sat on the floor.  More good news.  There I waited for six hours, eyes closed the whole time.  Let me tell you, suffering the acute pain in darkness with no ability to access phone or book left me with lots of time to ponder possible outcomes.  Finally my name was called and I walked, left eye barely open, down to where a doctor would see me.

Thankfully I got a prescription for antibiotic drops and the first good news that, although I ripped my cornea, it would heal and not affect my vision.  I eventually got home, went to bed, and found that I was actually doing OK the next morning.  Now, two and a half days after the damage, I barely notice the injury.  I guess I will be fine.  A close call to be sure.

Thursday, March 28, 2019

Albino Canada Goose.

A pair of Canada Geese; one albino and one not.
It is not every day that you see something like this.  Out on a hike in the spring, a favourite time to be photographing wildlife, I came across an unusual sight.  A pair of Canada geese, but something was very different.  One was mostly all white.  My first reaction was to think it was some species of bird I was unfamiliar with.  Perhaps it was a domestic goose, the same way you find white ducks sometimes on a farm.  As I pondered on what it was, the only real solution was to take a few photos of it and check it out later.

This is something I do frequently when coming across some creature I do not know.  A photo gives me clear information on an organism's size, colours, and important field marks.  I usually take several images which help me to see more aspects of important features.  Once I have gotten home I go through the images and select ones that help with the process of identification.  First, I go through my field guides.  I have a lot of them, mostly of birds, but also of insects, reptiles, amphibians, mammals and even rocks.  If that doesn't do the trick I go online.

This was a special case though, and as I eliminated the plausible the unlikely started to become more probable.  Could this be an albino?  You see albino mice and rats in pet stores; their red eyes glowing back at you.  There are albino snakes and even albino humans.  This creature did not have red eyes, but albinos in nature tend not to.  I typed in "albino Canada goose" in Google and hit the images button.  There before me was a number of pictures of this unusual creature.

Melanin is the pigment in the skin which gives it colour.  Albinism is a condition where the gene responsible for making the protein is defective.  It is a recessive disorder, meaning that an individual has to have both genes, one from mom and one from dad, coding for that trait.  An organism can have one gene for albinism and one unaffected gene; they would appear normal but be a carrier.  If two such creatures mated and produced offspring, there is a 1 in 4 chance that each of them would be an albino.

In all of the thousands of Canada geese I have seen, only one of them was an albino.  A wonderful example of diversity in nature.  I wonder how many other fascinating traits there are which tend to go unnoticed?

Tuesday, March 19, 2019

Common Loon at Camp Nakamun, Alberta.

A mating pair of Common Loons.
I have had the pleasure of going to Camp Nakamun four times now.  Both my kids, Josh and Leanne, have worked there.  My son found his love there and was married there.  Besides all that, it just happens to be a great place to visit.

Wherever I am, I always have my camera in hand and look for an opportunity to get some photos.  One of my visits there was in early summer.  There is an abundance of water birds present at this time.  This includes an assortment of ducks, grebes, sandpipers, and at least one breeding pair of common loons.  Many of the birds seem somewhat acclimatized to people as they let me approach closer than what would otherwise be possible. 

I have photographed loons in a number of places, but have never had the opportunity to get as close as I did here.  What was great was that, as I approached, they seemed to be without concern as they paddled along in front of my kayak.  Once at a decent distance, I just waited.  They eventually swam right in front of me. 

The photo you see above is not cropped to facilitate an enlargement.  It was pretty much that way in my viewfinder.  Keep in mind though I used an APS-C sensor sized DSLR with a 150-600 mm lens on zoomed all the way out.  So the relative focal length was 900 mm, which is approximately equivalent to a magnification of 18x.  I made a 16x20 inch print of it and donated it to the camp.

 I love to sit quietly and watch when nature shows up.  Sometimes you have to go out of your way to find it, other times it just happens in front of you.  Loons are remarkable birds.  They are one of the few species of flying birds that have solid bones instead of hollow ones.  This makes them denser than their relatives and gives them the ability to dive to remarkable depths.  Loons also have their feet set farther back than most other waterfowl, a fact which further facilitates their swimming prowess.  It also explains why you usually don't see them on land; for them, walking is for the [other] birds.