Those Incredible Cormorants

I was on vacation in Mexico years many ago when I noticed the tall black seabirds standing on the rocks, their wings held out from their sleek bodies like ballerinas. At the time, I wondered if the pose was unique to some crazy Mexican birds. Years later, waiting in Nanaimo for the ferry to Gabriola, I saw a row of the same birds standing along the pier, although not with their wings extended.

Cormorants at Nanaimo Harbour. Photo by Sharon McInnes.

Cormorants at Nanaimo Harbour. Photo by Sharon McInnes.

By this time, though, I’d begun paying attention, and knew they were cormorants. I still wasn’t sure, though, why they sometimes held out their wings open.

Double-crested Cormorant drying its wings. Photo by Dave Stephens.

Double-crested Cormorant drying its wings. Photo by Dave Stephens.

Now I know that cormorants hold their wings out to dry because their feathers aren’t waterproof. There’s a good reason for this, of course: their wettable feathers, which don’t repel water (they have less preen oil than other birds), allow them to dive down deep for food. This video by the Wildlife Conservation Society shows an Imperial Cormorant in Mexico diving down 150 feet to the ocean floor to hunt for fish, amphibians, and crustaceans.

The cormorant’s unusual wing-drying pose has been a source of fascination for millennia. In medieval times, it decorated vases and shields. Later, it came to symbolize the Christian cross. In Paradise Lost, Milton created a Satan that, in an attempt to deceive and tempt Eve, disguised himself as a cormorant sitting atop The Tree of Life. Even Charlotte Bronté called on the symbolic power of this prehistoric-looking bird when she did a painting depicting the socialite fortune-hunter, Blanche Ingram, of Jane Eyre fame, as a cormorant. But I think Bronté was unfair to the cormorant.

The Double-crested Cormorant (phalacrocorax auritus), relative of frigate birds and boobies, is the most widespread cormorant in North America. British Columbia has two subspecies: the phalacrocorax auritus albociliatus, which breeds in the Strait of Georgia and Juan de Fuca Strait and is resident year round, and the phalacrocorax auritus cincinatus, which breeds in the Alaska and winters along the coast as far south as BC. Here on the Pacific coast the Double-crested Cormorant breeds in colonies of three to a few hundred nests made of sticks, seaweed, twigs and other marine debris. It is this cormorant’s double crest of stringy black or white feathers, which appears only during breeding season, that gives the bird its name.

The cormorant is easy to identify. Although adults of both sexes appear black from a distance, if you get up close enough you’ll see an orange-yellow face and throat, a hooked bill, and bright blue eyes.

Cormorant Comes Up for Air. Photo by Dave Stephens.

Cormorant Comes Up for Air. Photo by Dave Stephens.

If you’re lucky you might even catch a glimpse of the bright blue mouth interior. In flight, the crooked looking neck gives away the bird’s identity. Along the Pacific Coast, Brandt’s and Pelagic Cormorants overlap with the Double-crested. Brandt’s are a little larger and have a shorter tail. The adults have bluish (rather than orange or yellow) facial skin. Pelagic Cormorants are smaller, and have very thin necks and a tiny head.

Once prolific throughout the continent, cormorant populations in North America fell dramatically leading up to the 1960’s, probably due to the use DDT and other pesticides. When pesticides were banned, populations began to recover. By 1987, numbers were way up. Today, in most of North America, Double-crested Cormorant population levels have increased so much that these remarkable seabirds are now considered by some to be nuisance birds that compete with the fishing industry and kill vegetation. In many places, including Ontario, Double-crested Comorant populations have been “managed” by oiling eggs, destroying nests, and killing adult birds.

The situation is different in BC, where cormorant numbers have fallen precipitously since the early 1980s.  In 1983, for example, Mandarte Island was home to 1100 active nests. By 2000, that number had fallen to 215. In 2001 the Double-crested Cormorant was ‘red-listed’ (considered threatened) by the provincial government and deemed ‘a species of concern’ by the federal Committee on the Status of Endangered Species in Canada. Scientists suspect the decline is largely due to ongoing disturbance by ever-growing populations of Bald Eagles and egg depredation by gulls and crows. Cormorants also face, of course, the pervasive problems of all seabirds: oil spills, gill-net entanglement and toxic contamination.

Thanks to David Stephens for the use of his gorgeous photographs. To see more of his photos, go to: https://www.flickr.com/photos/dcstep/

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Breeding Birds in the Boreal forest

It’s been a busy couple of months in my house since my last post in April. A new job, a new apartment, and plenty of changes for the better in my life have really kept me hopping. Part of my job is doing surveys for breeding birds, and most of that work is done up in the boreal forest, to determine the general health of populations up there, where certain species are present, and to identify impacts on their breeding success. Now that the bulk of that work is done for the year and I’ve finally gotten into the groove of my new role, and thought I’d share some photos of some of the awesome places in the boreal forest that I’ve been for the last six weeks or so.

The boreal forest covers a majority of northern Canada, and in northern Alberta it consists primarily of white and black spruce, with jack pine, balsam poplar, aspen poplar and white (aka paper) birch interspersed throughout.

 

See that dark spot on the left? Yep, that's a bear.

A good example of upland boreal forest.

Within the boreal forest, there’s a significant differentiation between upland and lowland areas. Upland areas look something like the photo above, or the one below, and are much drier. Typical upland birds here are Magnolia Warblers (heard while taking the photo above), Canada Warblers (heard while taking the photo below), Blackburnian Warblers, Blue-headed Vireos, Connecticut Warblers, and Rose-breasted Grosbeaks, just to name a few.

Also, this is one area where we got stuck.

This aspen and birch stand is where I heard my lifer Canada Warbler.

A dense aspen stand, good for Mourning Warblers!

A dense aspen stand, good for Mourning Warblers!

Lowland areas are more typified by what is colloquially known as “muskeg”. Much wetter areas dominated by black spruce, tamarack larch, and mosses. These are further broken down into fens, which are fed by groundwater and springs and are nutrient rich, and bogs, which are primarily fed by rainwater and surface melt, and are nutrient poor.

Also, lots of four-letter words were said while mucking through it.

Lots of Palm Warblers were heard in this particular fen!

Typical marsh habitat

Typical marsh habitat

The typical bird species found in these fens, bogs and marshes are Palm Warbler, Olive-sided Flycatcher, Lincoln’s Sparrow, Greater and Lesser Yellowlegs, Sandhill Crane, and Le Conte’s Sparrow. A few other bird species seem to not particularly have a preference for habitat type, and just breed wherever they can find a good nesting area, such as Yellow-rumped Warbler, Gray Jay, Tennessee Warbler, and Wilson’s Snipe.

While the trees of the boreal forest are often the focus of interest, there are some really interesting understory plants that also tell a tale of their own. Carpets of lichen make for good forage for woodland caribou, and there were some places where the lichen carpets went on for hundreds of meters.

Lots of caribou food here.

Lots of caribou food here.

Small clear cut areas in upland regions would be just full of lichen

Small clear-cut areas in upland regions would be just full of lichen

Okay, maybe I did get a little bit obsessed with lichen.

Okay, maybe I did get a little bit obsessed with lichen.

Other understory plants that I thought were particularly interesting were things like foxtail clubmoss, which gets its name from the seeding body that looks uncannily like a fox’s tail, and Labrador tea, which is a thickly leafed plant associated with black and white spruce in slightly drier areas.

Foxtail Clubmoss is ubiquitous in some upland areas.

Foxtail Clubmoss is ubiquitous in some upland areas.

It can also be hung in clumps to deter moths (and also ghosts, apparently.)

Labrador tea, with which you can actually make an herbal tea, is a type of Rhododendron.

Of course the real reason I was up north was not to look at the plants (though I did learn quite a bit about them, as they’re important indicators of ecological phase of the area), but to conduct breeding bird surveys. While I didn’t get to see a whole lot of birds, there was plenty of evidence of them around, including a couple of nests that I stumbled across completely by accident. By far though, the most fascinating birds of all were the Sandhill Cranes, which were seemingly everywhere. How one could not think that these magnificent creatures are not close descendants of dinosaurs is beyond me.

Yep, that track is about 15 cm across.

Yep, that track is about 15 cm across.

Of course, I would be remiss if I didn’t actually have at least one picture of an actual bird I saw on my trip, so here’s one of a surprising number of Ruffed Grouse I encountered while I was up north.

Occasionally though, I would see some birds, like this Ruffed Grouse.

Occasionally though, I would see some birds, like this Ruffed Grouse.

And even more lucky for me was a chance encounter with a Woodland Caribou, not often seen in the summer months!

And sometimes even a caribou or two.

And sometimes I might see a caribou or two.

It’s good to be back, both blogging, and back home in the city, but I’m always looking forward to my next trip north with my dream job!

Thanks for reading, and good birding!

 

Posted in Bird Canada, Boreal Forest Birds, Canadian Birds | Tagged , , , , , | 7 Comments

Summer Solstice Is Here!

NOFL_resh-UBC-2014-07-15

Happy Summer Solstice to all (I’m a few weeks late, I know, but didn’t want to repeat the previous Bird Canada blogger’s caption). I hope everyone has been or will enjoy the summer.

I am happy to report this picture of a male red-shafted Northern Flicker was taken two days ago (July 15) with my newly repaired Nikon camera, which fell on the sidewalk three weeks ago in lovely Victoria, BC.

I may be able to post something a bit longer next month….

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Happy summer holidays!

I always look forward to summer as it means lots of weekend camping in the great outdoors and I get to spend ‘quality time’ with my family, with the added bonus of getting to see some birds that I wouldn’t normally see. However, that means I have very little time to review & process my images, so this month I’m just going to post this one shot  – a Marsh Wren at Aspen Beach Provincial Park. There is a nice boardwalk that goes across a wetland and this guy seemed to have nested only a few metres from the main lookout  – it’s not often bird photography is as convenient as that!

Have a great summer and I look forward to sharing my shots from summer holidays when I get back!Marsh Wren

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Summer Birding around Vermilion, Alberta

This post is a quick look at what birding looks like on the Canadian prairies in July. For more specifics, here is one of my recent eBird lists for July 2, 2014 .

This Song Sparrow was singing at the Provincial Park,

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The Yellow-headed Blackbirds are all over the sloughs (ponds) near our house,

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Two male Brewer’s Blackbirds on a barbed wire fence,

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A female American Robin on her nest,

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A Killdeer that was feeding along the shore of our slough,

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Female Blue-winged Teal,

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Spotted Sandpiper,

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A female Red-winged Blackbird keeping an eye on her nest,

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Bird Photo Booth Business Challenge in Toronto

Hello Bird Canada readers, from Rob Campbell.

drink, eat breakfast , kiss my Bass

Because this is my first contribution to this cross-Canada blog, I reckon its best to start off by saying hello personally, and lead with a few words about myself. I’m an amateur bird watcher, now in my mid forties and just budding as a Birder. I live in a high rise condo in Toronto, and have binoculars and a lawn chair dedicated to this cause. I started the Toronto Bird Photo Booth Business Challenge because I like the idea of birds taking pictures of themselves. The motion detector-enabled cameras inside the Bird Photo Booth are the latest passive technology that makes compelling stories filled with beautiful and intriguing pictures.

The Toronto Bird Photo Booth Businesses Challenge 2014 is designed to raise awareness of urban birds and bird friendly buildings and businesses; the sponsors make media as they host the challenge, while the images and text are collected at the 2014 Birds of Toronto website.  

The guy seen below is David Suddaby, professional camera man who shoots all manner of rock videos, TV commercials and corporate or industrial productions. He’s a professional videographer who works in the Toronto film industry and is an incurable gadget guy. In the photo below, you can see Dave and I are on the east side of Lamport Stadium in Toronto testing the photo booth rig and that’s him placing the iPhone 5c into the original Bird Photo Booth as sold by Bryson Lovette. The rig we have today is much different than what is pictured here as we have modified it significantly. Dave did most of the testing and modifications and finally selected the HD Camera Motion Detector App for the iPhone 5c as the primary 100% automated, close-up portrait photography solution.

Bird photo booth in Toronto, David Suddaby

birdcamerapro1I also bought a Wingscapes Birdcam Pro which is another category of bird camera altogether, and is employed here as a photo redundancy. It’s a battery operated trail camera and does not have a feeder dish attached. This instrument is made available to provide host business with more photography options. The Wingscapes camera lens is not as nice as Apple; the pictures this machine collects are not as crisp as the ones taken by the iPhone 5C. Yet it’s nice to have a backup and it proved invaluable in Week Two. We found it’s a good idea to set up the bird feeder and then use this rig to point at the dish from a different direction – that way it serves as something of a security camera and potentially photo any thieves who approach and take the iPhone from inside the bird photo booth. Or this unit can be set low to the ground to get the Robins and Thrashers that like to wander across a lawn and scratch at the grass looking for bugs.

Vigorate Digital Solutions loyalty programs software developers built the Birds of Toronto website and photo gallery display which will get more complicated as the program matures and they deploy more sophisticated viewing and voting software. These guys (and gals) are pin code geniuses, and they support this unique birdwatching project despite there being little or no connection between bird photography and their specialty commerce software; they just knew this project was golden, and they wanted to help.

Behold this terrific shot of a Common Grackle! This picture is, in my opinion, the best photograph taken in the competition thus far. It was captured by the iphone camera in the Toronto Bird Photo Booth when both devices were set up and ‘rolling’ in the back parking lot behind Standard IP Telecom on Laird Dr. They were positioned by John Conn, the CEO of the company. You can read about this episode, and what happened to John on Week Three of the Toronto Bird Photo Booth.

common grackle bird photobooth

Grackles are large, lanky blackbirds with long legs and long tails. Males are slightly larger than females. They have a strong bill, enabling them to eat acorns and other tree fruits throughout the winter. Their heads are flat and their bills are longer than in most blackbirds, with the hint of a downward curve; Common Grackles fly south to winter, often alongside other birds like cowbirds, starlings and red wings and other blackbirds.

I’ll be honest, the previous birdwatcher upon whom I relied for accurate bird IDs told me this was an American Crow, and so I wrote that in most of the literature published thus far. It was only after consulting with Pat Bumstead at Bird Canada that she set me straight on this being a Grackle.

Businesses compete using the pictures the booth collects when visiting their property. What this unique challenge needs now is to find more ‘drivers’ – CEOs who are birders and who have host businesses looking for exposure. Host companies must have private backyards, rooftops or bird friendly gardens; each host business gets good media attention and their contributions are preserved on the site photo gallery forevermore. History will remember their participation in the 2014 avian audit of the city of Toronto.

Also, and for the same reason, this project needs sponsors, a bird friendly garden equipment merchandiser, a birdseed maker, a bird house contractor, bird bath engineers.. something.. What are your thoughts, ideas, and opinions of this? What advice can you offer?

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Sparrows, sparrows, everywhere . . .

I remember the first time I saw a Dark-eyed Junco. We’d just moved to Gabriola Island, seven years ago, and were still busy unpacking boxes when I stopped for a break, looked out the window, and noticed several black-hooded feathered creatures rummaging in the winter garden. I thought they must be some rare species of bird – since I’d never seen one before.

Dark-eyed Junco in cedar tree

Dark-eyed Junco in cedar tree

Now, of course, I know that the Dark-eyed Junco (junco hyemalis – sub-species Oregon) that is so prolific on Gabriola is also prolific all over North America. According to Cornell’s Project Feeder Watch, it is often one of the most-reported birds at feeders across the continent.

The junco is just one of at least nine species of sparrow (Family emberizidae) that live on or migrate through Gabriola. These birds are sometimes referred to, disparagingly, as ‘little brown jobs’ or “LBJs”. But once you get to know them, as species if not as individuals, you wonder how anyone could lump juncos in with, say, White-crowned Sparrows.

White-crowned Sparrow. These birds nest in our village shopping centre every spring.

White-crowned Sparrow. These birds nest in our village shopping centre every spring.

Next to juncos, the most common sparrow in our yard is the Spotted Towhee (pipilo maculatus).

Cocky Spotted Towhee on tree stump, posing

Cocky Spotted Towhee on tree stump, posing

With their red eyes and incessant squawk, they’re unmistakable! Right now a family of towhees is rummaging around the garden all day long. The juveniles, of course, look different from the adults. A good bird identification book can come in handy in the spring and summer because of all the baby birds around. I recommend the new Sibley’s Guide to Birds, Second Edition. Fantastic!

The Fox Sparrow (passerella iliaca) and Song Sparrow (melospiza melodia) are both brown streaky birds. The Fox Sparrow that frequents Gabriola is the “Sooty’ variety and has an almost-chocolate brown back and dark crown. Its breast is streaked with chevron-shaped spots that coalesce into one large brown spot in the centre of the chest. Unfortunately – for a new birder trying to distinguish between these two birds – the Song Sparrow also has a central dark spot on its breast. But in these parts the colouring is quite different, and there’s always the fail-safe ID giveaway: the Fox’s yellow mandible, or lower bill.

West coast Fox Sparrow in winter. Note the yellow mandible.

West coast Fox Sparrow in winter. Note the yellow mandible.

The Song Sparrow’s bill is all dark. You can also recognize a Song Sparrow by its flight pattern (it pumps its tail up and down as it flies) and its gorgeous distinctive song: it begins with 2 high notes, two slightly lower notes, then a complex musical trill. Very memorable.

Song Sparrow in the dogwood bush

Song Sparrow in the dogwood bush

The two crowned sparrows, the White-crowned (zonotrichia leucophrys) and Golden-crowned (zonotrichia atricapilla), are also abundant here some years. The White-crowned frequents the west coast in summer and during migration and is easy to identify by the black stripes on its white crown.

White-crowned Sparrow in spring

White-crowned Sparrow in spring

The Golden-crowned sparrow, abundant on the west coast during spring and fall migration, has a yellow stripe on its dark crown, and is quite tame and curious. Early west coast miners called it “Weary Willie” because its song sounded to them like “I’m so weary.” (Maybe they were weary?!) Others refer to the song as the “Oh dear me” song. But whatever you call it, it is made up of 3 descending mournful-sounding notes.

Golden-crowned Sparrow on lawn. Good camouflage, eh?

Golden-crowned Sparrow on lawn. Good camouflage, eh?

Golden-crowned Sparrow, front view

Golden-crowned Sparrow, front view

According to the ID books, Lincoln’s, Chipping, and Savannah sparrows can also be found on Gabriola at various times of the year. The only one of these species I ever see in our yard is the Chipping Sparrow who lives here in the summer, but winters, like many Gabriolans, in Mexico or the warm southern states. Not a bad idea!

Posted in Bird Canada, Bird Identification, Canadian Birds, Nature Photography, Songbirds | Tagged , , , , , , | 4 Comments

A few photos from the West coast

1. Wood Duck (male)

Wood Duck (male) | Stanley Park, Vancouver, BC | April 13, 2014 | AF-S NIKKOR 300mm f/2.8G ED VR II + x1.7 teleconverter

This month, I thought I would let the pictures do most of the talking, so to speak. There isn’t much logic to my choices, aside from the fact that I hope these photos represent a small, but characteristic sample of birds from Canada’s southern Pacific coast in the spring. All of these pictures were taken this April by the author with a Nikon D5200 and the lens specified in the caption.

Sandhill Crane | Reifel Migratory Bird Sanctuary, Delta, BC | April 18, 2014 | AF-S Nikkor 80-400mm f/4.5-5.6G ED VR

Sandhill Crane | Reifel Migratory Bird Sanctuary, Delta, BC | April 18, 2014 | AF-S Nikkor 80-400mm f/4.5-5.6G ED VR

Orange-crowned Warbler | North Vancouver, BC | April 29, 2014 | AF-S Nikkor 70-300mm f/4.5-5.6G IF-ED VR

Orange-crowned Warbler | North Vancouver, BC | April 29, 2014 | AF-S Nikkor 70-300mm f/4.5-5.6G IF-ED VR

Mourning Dove | Reifel Migratory Bird Sanctuary, Delta, BC | April 18, 2014 | AF-S Nikkor 80-400mm f/4.5-5.6G ED VR

Mourning Dove | Reifel Migratory Bird Sanctuary, Delta, BC | April 18, 2014 | AF-S Nikkor 80-400mm f/4.5-5.6G ED VR

Marsh Wren | Reifel Migratory Bird Sanctuary, Delta, BC | April 18, 2014 | AF-S Nikkor 80-400mm f/4.5-5.6G ED VR

Marsh Wren | Reifel Migratory Bird Sanctuary, Delta, BC | April 18, 2014 | AF-S Nikkor 80-400mm f/4.5-5.6G ED VR

Gadwall (male) | Reifel Migratory Bird Sanctuary, Delta, BC | April 18, 2014 | AF-S Nikkor 80-400mm f/4.5-5.6G ED VR

Gadwall (male) | Reifel Migratory Bird Sanctuary, Delta, BC | April 18, 2014 | AF-S Nikkor 80-400mm f/4.5-5.6G ED VR

 

Common Goldeneye (female) | Stanley Park, Vancouver, BC | April 13, 2014 | AF-S Nikkor 300mm f/2.8G ED VR II + x1.4 teleconverter

Common Goldeneye (female) | Stanley Park, Vancouver, BC | April 13, 2014 | AF-S Nikkor 300mm f/2.8G ED VR II + x1.7 teleconverter

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Roll on, Spring! – a birding photo essay

Gadwall taking off from a glass-like pond surface...

Gadwall taking off from a glass-like pond surface…

Roll on, spring!  This really is a great season for birding – lots of activity, especially in the courtship arena and all that entails – such as defending territory and chasing away rivals, through to courtship and nesting and, hopefully, the successful delivery and raising of offspring. And all of this makes for great photographic opportunities…A25K1356d&b-fb

I’ve spent a fair chunk of time this past month continuing to check out various ponds and sloughs around Calgary, and I’ve not been disappointed. At one particular pond I was entertained by the frenetic territorial actions of American Coots. An abundant bird locally & somewhat ‘unspectacular’ in terms of plumage and behavior (for the most part), I find most folks pay them little attention. However, with the use of fast, action-freezing shutter-speeds we can open a window on the daily life of these birds and show that they can be quite dramatic when they want to be. If you watch a pond in spring that has more than a couple of coots on it, you will frequently see bursts of actions as individual birds chase away other birds from their territory. To the human eye, you typically see a bit of splashing & scooting across the water that lasts maybe 1-2 seconds…but when you slow this down via fast shutter-speeds (1/3200th of a second or faster) and fast frame rates, you can really see some aggressive & dramatic actions being played out:A25K0976d&b-crop2-fb A25K0975d&b-v3-fb A25K0961-fb2 A25K0951-fb

And when the birds are not chasing each other or trying to court, they can present quite a peaceful scene….indeed, waterfowl on a still pond on wind-less days can present a very tranquil scene, as these Red-necked Grebe images attest to:A25K0669-crop-fb A25K0648-fb A25K0607-fb

Not to be outdone by their cousins, I find Horned Grebes to be quite a striking bird – especially with their vivid, scarlet eyes:A25K1502mask-fb A25K1374-fb A25K1309d-fb

The end result of all this spring ‘action’…in this case, some Mallard ducklings:A25K2675-fb A25K2492d&b-fb

Of course, it would be remiss of me not to check out the spring action taking place away from the water so I headed out towards the foothills and finally got some decent shots of Mountain Bluebirds (birds who are much more brightly coloured on sunny days, which I believe is to do with the structure of their feathers and how it affects light). I watched this pair for about an hour, and my favourite moment was when the female emerged from their nesting box and the male promptly brought her a juicy caterpillar – what a great husband!A25K0009v3-fb A25K9857-fb

Finally, I’d like to end this post with a quite different shot from those above and one that has been popular with viewers – a portrait of a male Merlin in it’s gorgeous blue-grey plumage:A25K9768-fb

(All shots taken with Canon 1Dx DSLR with Canon 600mm f4L IS II lens + Canon 1.4x III teleconverter)

Cheers,

Tim.

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Get Involved Today with Canada’s IBA Program!

caretakerbutnA new video showcases Canada’s Important Bird and Biodiversity Areas Programhighlighting some of Canada’s cherished bird species, the special places they call home, and the dedicated volunteers – or IBA Caretakers – who are working to help safeguard Canada’s Important Bird Areas (IBAs). 
  
Canada’s IBA Program is a global BirdLife International initiative to identify, monitor, and conserve the world’s most critical sites for birds and biodiversity. There are nearly 600 IBAs in Canada. BirdLife co-partners Bird Studies Canada and Nature Canada jointly manage the country’s national IBA Program, in collaboration with regional partners across the country and with the support of hundreds of volunteers nationwide.    

There are many ways to get involved! To support Canada’s Important Bird Areas Program, join the network of Canadian IBA volunteers, participate in a Citizen Science monitoring program at an IBA, connect with IBA Canada on Facebook, or donate to the national or regional program partners.

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