Tony Beck - Photography, Nature and Birding Tours, Local Birding Excursions
On Friday afternoon, twenty enthusiastic birders gathered at Andrew Haydon Park for OFO’s “Dusk Birding along the Ottawa River”. After a spectacular week of stellar birding, mainly east of the Deschenes Rapids, expectations were high that the river would continue to reveal mega-rarities. We stayed mainly along the shores of the western side of Lac Deschenes. However, a cold west wind and high water levels made viewing conditions bitter and challenging resulting in low diversity. Regardless, everyone had an excellent time, often getting close-up views of uncommon species. Those that stayed to the end were treated to an enchanting show of large flocks arriving for their evening roost, their aerobatic flights draped against a clear vermillion sky. Other highlights included a juvenile Brant, a female Northern Shoveler, 2 juvenile Greater Snow Geese, 11 Red-necked Grebes, all three species of scoter, and several individuals & small flocks of Long-tailed Ducks. For photographers, the tame Brant, the accommodating Long-tailed Duck, and the cooperative Wilson’s Snipe, provided some pleasant diversion.
A Special “Thank You” to contributing photographers: Ron Allen, Joshua McCullough, Jariya Rasaputra and Deanna Wright.
American Black Duck
American Tree Sparrow
Great Black-backed Gull
Great Blue Heron
Everyone loves the beach. How can we resist soft sand between our toes, the tranquil sound of rolling waves, beautiful tanned bodies laying on blankets soaking the sun, and cool surf to comfort us from the heat? For us humans, the beach is an extremely popular playground, especially during hot summer days.
But, for the tiny Piping Plover, the beach is a matter of survival. It’s the only place where it can make a nest, raise its young and find food. Without sandy beaches, the Piping Plover can’t exist.
Unfortunately, there are more humans on beaches these days than Piping Plovers. People love the beach so much they use them to walk their dogs, drive their recreational vehicles, play their sports, and have their parties. How can the tiny Piping Plover compete with that?
Fortunately, conservation efforts effectively protect these sweet little birds. Cages are placed over nests to protect them from all types of problems like foxes, gulls, wandering family pets, all-terrain vehicles, dirt-bikes and thoughtless humans while allowing free-passage for the parents to come & go from the nest. A brightly marked barrier of flags and cord is also set up to give the nest further protective space. Although costly, these efforts have proven to be successful. On the Magdalen Islands in the Gulf of St. Lawrence, an extremely busy summer playground lined with perfect beaches, and a stronghold of the Piping Plover, their numbers remain reasonably stable. Breeding pair numbers fluctuate from 35 to 53, with success rates reaching as much as 78%.
The sad news is that funding for these efforts is drying up quickly. Economic struggles continue to place pressure on various funding agents, while our appetite for recreational use of beaches increases. To further aggravate the problem, a significant percentage of the human population couldn’t care less about the future of the tiny little Piping Plover.
Without funding, protection efforts and awareness programs will be significantly minimized.
The future of the beach-loving Piping Plover is becoming increasingly uncertain.
Red-winged Blackbirds, the most common bird in North America, has only been known to reach 15 years of age.
People often ask me how old do birds live. Unfortunately, there’s no simple answer.
The shocking truth is that only a tiny percent of creatures born in the wild survive beyond their first year.
The percentage figure is different depending on the study, the species, the situation or a number of other factors.
Regardless, it’s consistently small – frequently 20% or less.
Nature is harsh and challenging. A young animal must adapt quickly if it wants to live.
It needs to find food & shelter, deal with pressures from competition, and avoid predators.
Once it builds a little strength, and acquires some experience, it’s better equipped to face the challenges of the wilderness.
So, once it passes the one-year mark, it may be on its way to a ripe old age.
But, what is a ripe-old-age for a bird? This is another question without a simple answer.
Bird-banding records provide some data.
Unfortunately, very few bands are ever recovered. And, in the case of long-lived birds like albatross, the bird can easily outlive their metal leg bands.
Regardless, bird-banding is one of the only reliable methods for recording bird longevity.
Some seabirds are known to live beyond 60 years.
Small songbirds are lucky to reach their teens.
Yet, some birds in captivity can live into their 80s.
Some authorities figure that a few larger species can live as long as humans.
But, until data-recording methods improve, a lot of this is simply guesswork.
The Wandering Albatross, the bird with the world’s longest wingspan, is believed to have a life expectancy similar to humans. But, verifying this is extremely difficult since the birds can out-live the bands that indicate their age.
A back-yard favourite, the record life-span of the Black-capped Chickadee is only 12 years.
Most birds, like this Herring Gull, don’t reach the end of their first year. But, if they survive beyond the one-year threshold, they’re likely experienced and healthy enough to live a long life.
I’ve been living in my condominium beside the Ottawa River for a year now. I’ve watched the seasons pass, and observed an abundance of life, both human as well as other animals. I’ve tallied more than 100 species of birds, some abundant, others only a single time. One thing for certain, the view is spectacular. But, it also reveals how much has changed over the course of my life as a birder.
Back in the early 80’s, many species that were rare or unusual are now common, in some cases even abundant.
Unfortunately, the success of these species has to be at the expense of others.
Looking down from the 23rd floor over the Britannia Conservation Area and Deschenes Rapids, its blatantly obvious how a few species have flourished. Ring-billed Gull, Canada Goose, Double-crested Cormorant, Turkey Vulture and Common Raven are ever-present during the breeding season. Less obvious, but equally as dramatic are the increase of such rare birds as Lesser Black-backed Gull, Great Egret, Peregrine Falcon, Bald Eagle and Black-crowned Night-Heron. Although seeing these birds is always exciting, I have to reflect which birds are missing. I used to see more diversity on Mud Lake – various ducks, large numbers of swallows and Common Nighthawk. Although these birds are still observed occasionally, their numbers have dropped significantly.
At night, the illuminated colours of the city contrast to the stark black woodlands, the river reflecting the moon, stars and city lights. The occasional bark of a night-heron, or the honk of an agitated goose, mix with the roar of road traffic and sirens. There is a precarious balance between nature and humans.
I can only speculate what changes will come with the increasing pressures of the city on greenspace.
For now, life of various kinds flourishes in proximity to my balcony.
As adventurers, we tend to seek unusual travel destinations. We need to satisfy an insatiable appetite for discovering remote parts of the world. Inevitably, these isolated destinations come with extreme conditions – rugged landscape, unpredictable wildlife, inhospitable environments and harsh weather. Yet the wilderness calls us. And, we answer.
Fortunately, thanks to advances in digital photography, it’s never been easier to document such adventures. Even tiny cameras can produce high-quality images with just the push of a button.
But, extreme conditions come with challenges. Polar regions in particular will test the limits of any modern electronic gadget. Beware of ice, snow, wind, salt, moisture and extreme light.
Here are a few simple recommendations:
1) Cold temperatures eat battery power. Battery life is much shorter in the cold. Keep spare batteries handy – ALWAYS! If possible, keep them warm in a pocket close to your body. When you replace batteries, return the used ones to your warm pocket. There may still be some juice there.
2) Keep things dry / protect your equipment. I use a large, padded, weather-resistant backpack with an additional rain-cover that folds out from the lining. I sometimes also use a solid waterproof Pelican Case. There’s a lot of protective gear available on the market. Search for the right products that match your needs and equipment. At the very least, carry a large plastic garbage bag or heavy-duty zip-lock bag. It will keep your equipment dry for short periods, or during less severe situations.
3) Watch your exposure, especially with black or white subjects – both ends of the visible colour spectrum. In Polar Regions, you can expect a lot of highly reflective snow cover. Camera meters are calibrated to read mid-range colours, and have trouble dealing with extremes like snow scenes. Black & White subjects, like an Adelie Penguin or Thick-billed Murre, can pose severe exposure challenges. I deal with exposure issues later, while viewing my images on a computer. I fix imperfections with a photo editor like Photoshop, Elements or Nikon Capture. However, learning to use the editors takes time. Fortunately with digital cameras, we have the advantage of reviewing the image immediately after exposure. Look at your results right away, and compensate your exposure with your camera’s exposure controls. Try using several different exposure settings (bracketing), take lots of pictures, and review your results as you go. At least one of the images is bound to work. Many new digital cameras have auto-braketing functions.
4) Bring two of everything. You never know when something will fail, break, or even disappear. Although doubling your camera inventory isn’t always practical, if you have the capacity, it might save you in time of need. I always travel with two cameras, and several lenses. But, even a little compact camera will work as a spare. It may not replace your DSLR. But, it’s better than nothing if your good camera expires.
5) Memorize your owner’s manual. At least, bring your manual with you when you travel. Most digital cameras have a myriad of functions and features. Your manual will familiarize you with them. It should also inform you how to deal with extremes such as snow and cold.
6) Take lots of pictures. Bring plenty of memory cards. And, don’t ever hesitate to press the shutter release. You can always delete the bad pics if necessary.
You’re about to travel on the trip of a lifetime, a place where few have dared to venture. Be prepared, and you’ll capture all the beauty, drama and joy to share later with the world.
Yup… It’s been a hectic winter.
From the dusty deserts and scorching coast of Kenya to the icy grip of Canada and Antarctica in January, topped off with the salt-spray of the turbulent Drake Passage, in just a few months, I’ve dragged my new Nikon gear through countless extremes. At home in Ottawa, Ontario, I cram my equipment into the tiny trunk of my compact car, drive down bumpy back-roads full of pot holes, then stop abruptly at the first sign of wildlife. I often rush to the trunk, frantically pull my equipment out as something like an Osprey flies overhead. Add to this the stress of going through endless security checks at airports, getting squeezed into tight overhead compartments, and occasionally doubling as a pillow between connecting flights. Let’s face it, I’m hard on my camera and optical gear.
In order to capture the images I want, I need to work fast and respond quickly to the opportunities as they present themselves. To identify wildlife at a distance, or under low light, I need precision optics that give me comfort and optimum clarity under the worst of conditions. Although I’m hard on my gear, I demand equipment that’s high performance, and reliable, regardless of what the planet throws at me.
I’m delighted to report that the latest equipment I have from Nikon lives up to their reputation of being rugged under the extremes I’ve put them through. Back home in the comfort and safety of Canada’s spring, my Nikon equipment is performing flawlessly.
My Nikon EDG 10 X 42 binoculars are the best optics I’ve ever had the pleasure of owning. And, the Nikon D3s is simply the best camera I’ve ever worked with. Best of all, they don’t complain when I push them to the limits.
Life is good.
It’s a three-day journey sailing across the Drake Passage from Tierra del Fuego to the Antarctic Peninsula. These legendary waters have earned the reputation of being the roughest in the world. Southern currents squeezed between two continents cause even the largest of vessels to rock and roll. Crew and passengers reluctantly prepare for the long haul. They “drake-proof” their cabin, securing all loose items to prevent them from being tossed around from the relentless swells.
I on the other hand, see great opportunity – a chance to study graceful seabirds effortlessly riding the wind. The strategy is simple – find a dry place on the bow or the stern and wait. Eventually, they come. At first they appear as small specs on the horizon. Tiny shapes with long slender wings, growing larger as they approach. Closer and closer, like an airliner coming in for a landing. Yet, they twist and turn in the wind, their eyes always level with the horizon, never beating a wing, their tails steering them towards you. The perfect moment comes when they glide overhead, occasionally close enough to touch. As suddenly as they appear, they’re gone. With luck, they return out of the mist for a few more passes. Many of these long-winged birds are large – Giant Petrel, Black-browed Albatross, Grey-headed Albatross, Royal Albatross, and the bird with the world’s longest wingspan (4 metres) – The Wandering Albatross. Perfectly adapted to a life over open ocean, they endlessly search the surface for small invertebrates.
Rarely are they alone. I’m equally as excited when their smaller cousins show up. Petrels, shearwaters, prions and skuas can come out of nowhere, occasionally in large numbers. One of my favourites is the Pintado Petrel, an energetic seabird with an odd plumage that looks like a chunky bowl-full of Oreo Cookie ice cream. At first there is only one, low on the water, repeatedly circling the ship. It’s then joined by another, then several more until the flock grows to about forty or more. They follow us for hours, dipping, diving and dancing in an aerial ballet, almost always together as a unified group.
Antarctic Waters can be unforgiving. But, in the bleak emptiness of the endless ocean, seabirds sparkle like gems in the wind.
Blue skies to the north, mirror-like waters reflecting the landscape, numerous glaciers pushing towards shore, and all around us, jagged mountains cloaked with thick cakes of ancient ice.
The Antractic Peninsula – a land of extremes, full of life, and endless photo opportunities.
With a plethora of visual stimulation, and my camera’s meter showing considerably more light than I’ve ever experienced anywhere on this planet, powerful photo compositions were everywhere, and easy to capture. If that isn’t enough, there were plenty more distractions – the occasional Snow Petrel flying over a family of Humback Whales, calving glaciers abruptly crashing into silent waters, a cliffside dotted with Antarctic Shags, small blue floating bergie-bits, some with resting Crabeater Seals, and dancing Wilson’s Storm-Petrels darting around our zodiac.
Yet, many of us were eager for the main attraction – A Gentoo Penguin colony. We saw them even from a distance, the low exposed outcroppings jutting into the bay, krill-pink from layers of Penguin guano, and thousands of dark-&-white birds standing or marching to/from the frigid water.
Getting to land was a process in itself – a well choreographed dance of tiny zodiacs, executed with military precision, from the gangway to a beach full of curious fur seals. Once on land, we usually had options – go for an energetic hike, meander through the colony while trying to avoid disrupting active penguin nests, or just wait for the wildlife to come to you – all difficult choices, each with their advantages.
Then there is the luxury of just wandering around the bay, amongst the icebergs, on a zodiac cruise… a scenic drive through an ever-changing exhibition of natural sculptures, lines and patterns, endless and unimaginable beauty in the form of deep blue ice. Occasionally, these “bergie bits” provide refuge to life forms such as Adelie Penguins, Gentoo Penguins, South Polar Skuas, Giant Petrels, immaculate white Snow Petrels or even a Leopard Seal. With luck, the wildlife will even come close. On one occasion, we were graced by an Adelie Penguin jumping onto the pontoon of our zodiac. Imagine the thrill of a Humpback Whale swimming below, its features clearly visible in the crystal clear waters. And, you just never know what lies around the corner. Each moment was a new chapter into an icy blue wilderness.
Warm amber halos skirt the mountains to our east. Golden beams break through the peaks, cascading down to a dark gravel beach. Deep trails in the emerald moss carry troops of trumpeting King Penguins, waddling their way to the shore. Processions cautiously sidestep feisty Antarctic Fur Seal pups, aggressive and annoying obstacles blocking a clear path to the ocean. In the icy waters, waiting to come ashore, hundreds of penguins splash through the shallows, shiny and colourful as the sun enhances their contrasting orange, black, and silvery-blue plumage. Marauding Brown Skuas persistently circle overhead, quarrelsome and opportunistic, ready to scavenge any innocent casualty. The piercing aroma of ammonia cuts sharply through the morning mist – a stark reminder that you’re walking beside a colony of King Penguins, hundreds of thousands strong.
Such is the dawn on the Salisbury Plains of South Georgia.
This remote location in the Scotia Sea of the South Atlantic, north of the Weddell Sea and Antarctic Peninsula, is relatively untouched. It’s a sanctuary for an abundance of sea life, mainly penguins, albatross, petrels, Southern Elephant Seals and Antarctic Fur Seals. Recent estimates tell of 30 million individual birds breeding here.
For the photographer, it’s a gold mine, revealing dramatic and beautiful images around every corner.
For the birder, the island provides glimpses into the lives of rarely seen creatures, some breeding in enormous rookeries, plus two endemic species to the archipelago.
Most encouraging was to learn of conservation efforts. The South Georgia Heritage Trust is involved in a massive project to eradicate the invasive Brown Rat – stow-aways arriving here on old whaling ships. The rats have since dramatically reduced native bird species by ruthlessly preying on chicks and eggs.
The endemic South Georgia Pipit, a tiny streaked songbird that has vanished from most of it’s limited range, is expected to be one of the first indicators revealing the success of this project.
For more information about South Georgia, and conservation efforts, visit this site: http://www.sght.org/
The abundance of life, the rugged scenery, the unrelenting weather, the tenacity of fearless creatures, the warmth of courting birds, and the effortless grace of gliding albatross – South Georgia is a wilderness spectacle unparalleled in this world.
Gray leafless trees glisten under a clear northern sky. Rising above the southeastern horizon, a big yellow sun transmits an amber glow across delicately textured snow cover. Our trailing footprints circle each shrub, our steps crunching through a thin layer of icy crust – We’re looking and listening for signs of wildlife. From a thick clump of young conifers comes the chatter of angry chickadees. I recognize the sound as one of alarm – the chickadees unleashing their fury upon a potential threat. And, there it is, tucked away inside the cover of dark Jack Pine needles – a Boreal Owl. Casting your eyes on a bird like this can make your day. For some birders, it’s better than winning a lottery. Yes, we’re very lucky here in Eastern Ontario. We’re blessed with a great selection of natural wonders. Some, like the rare Boreal Owl, attract birders here from all around the world.
If a birder glances at a map of North America, Eastern Ontario seems insignificant – a small triangle of land lost in a vast continent, featureless, boring, and ordinary. But, nothing could be further from the truth. Time, geography and the workings of our planet, have created a unique area, full of diverse habitats. We experience four distinct seasons each causing dynamic changes to our rich environment. Primarily flat and productive agricultural land, the St. Lawrence lowlands are covered with ten thousand year old sediment left behind by the ancient Champlain Sea. The region is flanked by the Ottawa and St. Lawrence Rivers, and surrounded by primordial hills and lakes – the Canadian Shield and the Appalachians. Sprinkled throughout are various wetlands, forests, grassland, barrens and urbanized settings. Our waters drain into the Atlantic. However, for many birds traveling between Hudson Bay and the Atlantic, the Ottawa River, and connected lowlands, act like a migratory corridor.
For the birder, this makes for great entertainment, and throughout the entire year. Each season and each habitat comes with a parade of different characters. This blog briefly describes birding trends during Eastern Ontario & West Quebec’s seasons. Look for future blogs describing our best birding hotspots.
WINTER: The Ottawa area can be among the most bitterly cold places in the world. Yet, wildlife is well adapted to our extreme conditions. Several hardy northern birds, at the southern edge of their wintering range, make Eastern Ontario their home for part of the year. Although each winter is different, we consistently find creatures like Iceland Gull, Snowy Owl, Northern Hawk Owl, Bohemian Waxwing, Hoary Redpoll, Pine Grosbeak, and other northern birds. What gives Ottawa an edge is that it provides birders with relatively easy access to view these species.
SPRING: My favourite time of year, this is when our hills, fields and gardens erupt with life. Spring happens gradually, and in two general stages. The first migrants appear around the end of February with the arrival of Horned Larks to our farm fields. Shortly after, typically with warm weather systems, come adult Ring-billed Gulls, various blackbirds and a trickle of waterfowl. By April, we have large numbers migrating through. They pass by quickly, determined to reach their breeding grounds. From late April right through May, we see the next wave of migrants. These include shorebirds, warblers, flycatchers, other insect-eating songbirds and high-Arctic nesters. The last spring migrants are observed during the first week of June. Besides the large flocks of waterfowl, gulls and blackbirds, some of the star attractions include male wood-warblers in breeding plumage, often on territory singing their hearts out. Among them we often see Rose-breasted Grosbeak, Scarlet Tanager and Indigo Bunting. Late spring is very exciting in the Ottawa area. This is the time when birds like Yellow-bellied Flycatcher, Olive-sided Flycatcher, Blackpoll Warbler, Arctic Tern and Brant pass through. With luck, we sometimes find shorebirds along the river or in lagoons.
SUMMER: The most active season for observing behaviour, summer is when most birds have established territories, and breeding activity peaks. For the determined birder, a full morning starts before dawn, sometimes as early as 3:00 or 4:00am. The dawn chorus, especially in extensive, undisturbed areas, rings with an abundance of vocalizations – symphonic, ethereal, and sometimes frantic. Our many wetlands, forests and barrens often reveal wonderful birds. Some of the highlights include Blackburnian Warbler, Cape May Warbler, Northern Parula, Cerulean Warbler, Mourning Warbler, Scarlet Tanager, Grasshopper Sparrow, Clay-coloured Sparrow, Bobolink, Upland Sandpiper, Wilson’s Phalarope, and Least Bittern.
FALL: Fall migration is virtually the reverse of spring. The last to arrive in spring are often the first to leave in fall. Unlike spring migration, many fall migrants are less determined to reach their destination. Some linger for days or weeks. Generally, it is less intense. Regardless, fall migration can be very complex, and produce some extremely intense birding. The entire process of southward bird-movement can last from June through to the end of December. The first fall migrants appear on the shores of rivers & lagoons at the end of June. Typically, these are adult shorebirds finished with the breeding process – Least Sandpiper, Lesser Yellowlegs, Solitary Sandpiper, Semipalmated Plover and others. Throughout July, we see shorebirds, warblers, swallows and flycatchers moving through in small numbers. In August, we see young and adults moving together, sometimes in large flocks. Shorebirds and insect-eating songbirds constitute the bulk of these. The peak of fall migration occurs around the end of August through to the beginning of September. This is also the onset of the next wave of migration – waterfowl, raptors, sparrows, kinglets and Myrtle Warblers. By the end of September, almost all of the insect-eating birds will have passed through. In October, the forests transform from green to red, and bird diversity decreases each day. However, staging waterbird numbers increase, and by the end of November, the first of the over-wintering birds trickle in. By December, most lakes and ponds are frozen, and several over-wintering species become prevalent. Although there are always a few birds just passing through, by the end of December, birders can see a clear pattern for the upcoming winter season.