Spring, where are you?

Here in New Brunswick, I can’t properly describe how much snow we have. Prince Edward Island has it worse however, and many of the pictures & videos my father in-law keeps sending us don’t even seem like they could be real.

Although it has been great to have such a nice variety of winter finches around, I would certainly welcome even just one sign of Spring!

If you find yourself stuck inside, take some time to check out the following links. The first two are for photo contests and the last is a great hawk quiz. I entered both contests and spent some time figuring out the birds of prey in each of the five videos. The photo contests are going to be for photos taken each month and need to be in New Brunswick. There will be a grand prize for the photo of the year and so far, it has been a great way for birders to beat the winter blues!





Here is what I have been seeing around over these past few weeks;



Horned Lark – if you’re driving out in the country, be sure to check the sides of the roads for small flocks of this species. There was a flock of 11 just outside of town (Woodstock) a few weeks ago.





Pine Grosbeaks – I could easily find this species every day in January & February if I really wanted to. There are small flocks in different parts of town (Woodstock) and often six or seven stay in my neighbor’s tree. I finally had a bright adult male after many weeks of females and juveniles.



Bohemian Waxwings – another species that I could see everyday but in much larger numbers. One day this month there were well over one hundred flying over my house.



Pine Siskin – the past few winters I can pick only one or two with the flocks of American Goldfinches or Common Redpolls. This winter I have often had just as many or more Pine Siskins compared to the other two abundant winter finches.



White-throated Sparrow – after every snowstorm I dig out some snow from under my hedge and throw out some millet and nyger seed. For about two straight weeks this month, I had this visitor in my yard.


Not too many species to report for rarities this month. I have found 51 species in Carleton County so far this year. If it would stop snowing and if I had some extra spare time, I probably could find another four or five species but not too many more than that really. Next week I hope to get down to the Bay of Fundy and check another ten or more species of my year list. Some I might never see in this part of the province, but others will come up this way eventually. Hopefully I can find a nice variety and if I do, that will be what my post will be about for next month.


Until next time,

Nathan Staples




Posted in Bird Canada, Winter Birding in Canada | 2 Comments

Pygmy Owls in the Park, Winter 2015

(My blog is a little late this month as I was off enjoying the warmth of the Mexican sun…and chasing all sorts of wondrous tropical birds too!)TH1D2870mask-fb-crop

This winter Calgarian birders, and local wildlife appreciators in general, have been treated to the presence of a pair of Northern Pygmy Owls who appear to have taken up residence (at least for the moment) in Fish Creek Provincial Park, located within the city limits.TH7D7311d&b-fb


Adopting a defensive posture as a raven cruised by.


Emerging from a tree hole after caching a vole


All the voles in these shots are different…a really prolific hunter!

TH1D2810d&b-crop-fb TH1D2477-fb These owls caused quite a stir in the local birding community and Fish Creek was quite the hotspot for birder for several weekends. I went down for two weekends in January and had a great time watching the owls hunt (very successfully, on the local vole population), rest and generally go about their business while at the same time enjoying the company of fellow birders (and park-goers in general) as thrilled as I was to watch the Pygmies in action. The vast majority of the time the owls were high up at the top of tall trees, but occasionally coming down to lower limbs when they wanted to hunt.TH1D3259merge-fb TH1D3136d&b-fb TH1D3210d&b-mask-fb2-final TH1D2347d&bv2-fb

The behaviour of all was very respectful in my humble opinion, and only once did I see someone unknowingly encroach ‘too close’ and that was a passer-by trying to get a close-up with their cell-phone!

The typical size birder & photog crowd I saw over the two weekends.

The typical size birder & photog crowd I saw over the two weekends.

TH1D3795-final-fb TH1D3695-fb TH1D3653crop2-fb TH1D3598-fb TH1D3500-fb TH1D3345d&b-finalv2mask-fb

All in all, it was a wonderful experience for me personally and I hope you enjoy the shots I’m sharing here.TH7D7181d&b-fb



Posted in Bird Canada | 6 Comments

It’s That Time of Year


Downy Woodpecker

It is the time of year when birding on the Island slows down. It seems that most of the birds that we are all looking for have left the province – warblers, song birds and shorebirds. But there are other birds that are here these days garnering our attention. We have had reports of Snowy Owls, Snow Buntings and Bohemian Waxwings. Finches that normally would be found much further north are in the province now. As well, we are getting reports of birds that are not typically found in the province. Recently we have heard of Red-bellied Woodpeckers, a couple of Northern Cardinals, a Field Sparrow and a Pine Warbler. Who knows what we might add to our Winter Bird list.


Dark-eyed Junco


Red Squirrel – Always a feeder attendant.


American Crow


Snow Angel – Created by visiting birds.

Keeping most of us active are those birds that are coming to our feeders. We are seeing some of the regulars, like Blue Jays, American Crows, Dark-eyed Juncos and Black-capped Chickadees. Finches are adding to the interest and providing some colour. Those include American Goldfinch, Common Redpolls and the feisty little Pine Siskins.


American Goldfinch – Male showing the beginning of the spring molt, brighter yellow and the start of the black cap.


Common Redpoll and Pine Siskin

Of course, it is always worthwhile to check our areas of open water for waterfowl. These days it is likely we will see Common Goldeneye, Common Merganser and Greater Scaup but with luck, who knows, you might find Barrow’s Goldeneye, Harlequin Ducks or Purple Sandpiper.





Common Goldeneye and Common Merganser

To keep people interested, we are trying to keep our Winter Bird List up to date. As well we are creating events such Winter Feeder tour of Charlottetown and Area and participating in the Winter Woodlot Tour 2015.










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Birding Resolutions

For me, New Year’s only means one thing, I can reset my totals and try to find more birds than I found the year before. I hope you will take a moment to comment what your goals for 2015 will be in regards to birding. Here are a few of mine.

Last year in New Brunswick, I finished with 164 different species. This was three higher than 2013 so I was pleased. Just in my county, I found 150 species so I didn’t do a lot of traveling around the province in 2014. I was challenged to go for 155 in Carleton County (already at 38) so that will be my main focus this year. Getting 155 here should easily help me get over 164 for the year.

I also hope to find 12 more lifers for New Brunswick as this will bring me up to 200 total. Here are a few I should be able to find; Rough-legged Hawk, Barrow’s Goldeneye, Glaucous Gull, Boreal Chickadee, White-winged Crossbill, Lincoln’s Sparrow, Blackpoll Warbler, Willow Flycatcher, Purple Martin, Purple Sandpiper, Spruce Grouse.

Quite the variety isn’t it? Some I know I can find in my county, but others I’ll need to travel a bit. Over March Break I’m going to do some birding and hope to check a few of my list. I like to travel at least once to the Bay of Fundy as there are species there that I’ll probably never see around Woodstock.

My goals motivate me and my boys like to cheer me on which certainly increases my motivation. As you’ll see in the photo’s, there was a Snowy Owl around Hartland a few weeks ago. I took my two and four year old along and they were excited to be able to see it with me. Every time my two year old talks on the phone, he shares the story of finding a Snowy Owl. A great one to already have if they both choose to start a life list someday!

Here is what I’ve been seeing in January;

Red-bellied Woodpecker

Red-bellied Woodpecker – I enjoyed watching it fend of the starlings a few weeks ago


Carolina WrenCarolina Wren – showed up once a few weeks ago. I shouldn’t be surprised anymore but I still was!


Snowy Owl

Snowy Owl – I cropped this photo to the max. As you can see, it was sleeping and we didn’t want to disturb it just to get a better picture. My boys could make out the white mound in the field and I zoomed in with my camera so they could get a closer look. It came in right at the end of the Hartland Christmas Bird Count count period and helped us end with 44 species!


Bald Eagle

Bald Eagle – I saw this pair keeping each other warm on a chilly day along the St.John River


Pine Grosbeak

Pine Grosbeak – lots of females on my street lately, haven’t been able to get a photo of a male yet though!



Evening Grosbeak – I’ve had flocks fly over a few times this month, but haven’t had one at my feeders yet


Northern Pintail

Northern Pintail – this was a nice surprise and a great addition for the Woodstock Christmas Bird Count. I actually checked this past Sunday and was surprised to see that one was still in the lagoon with the Mallards/Black Ducks.


Ruffed Grouse

Ruffed Grouse – aka “Partridge”. I found two up a tree while trying to find a pair of Great Horned Owls. They are quite easy to find around here unlike Spruce Grouse.



Rarities for January – for this month, these species are more rare for the season instead of for the area

Hoary Redpoll – this would be an exception as it can just be plain hard to find and give a positive ID to although a few have been found this winter. It is one I’d love to see but I’m not getting as many redpolls compared to 2013 so time will tell if I can find one this winter.

Yellow-bellied Sapsucker – found by me actually and the only one around this winter.

Northern Shoveler – also found by me. It was the first time one had ever been around for the Woodstock CBC and it was still there on January 1st (gone now) so I don’t have to worry about trying to find one later in the year.

Vesper Sparrow – one has been in Moncton for quite a few weeks now

Lark Sparrow – one has also been in the Moncton area


Until next time,

Nathan Staples


Posted in Bird Canada | 2 Comments

Celebrating the Birds of Gabriola

Last month 28 Gabriolans participated in the 115th Audobon Christmas Bird Count. Here’s a sampling of the bird species that were counted on the island. Many thanks to the Gabriola Island photographers – Doug Green, Garry Davey, Eileen Kaarsmaker, and Iain Lawrence – who so generously shared their photos with me.

Chestnut-backed Chickadee. Photo by Garry Davey.

Chestnut-backed Chickadee. Photo by Garry Davey.

Again this year, the Chestnut-backed Chickadee was our most numerous bird at 439. This chickadee that inhabits Vancouver Island and the gulf islands off the coast of BC is a cousin of the Black-capped Chickadee, the Bird of the Year for 2015 in Vancouver BC, my hometown. If you’d like to hand-feed a wild bird, a chickadee is usually willing. Just be sure to take down your feeders first.

Red-breasted Sapsucker. Photo by Sharon McInnes.

Red-breasted Sapsucker. Photo by Sharon McInnes.

Red-breasted sapsuckers are an important keystone species. Rufous Hummingbirds drink sap from the shallow holes they dig in the outer bark of trees like this old cedar in our front yard, Red-breasted Nuthatches smear sap from the wells around their own nest cavities, and chickadees, nuthatches, and wrens use their nest cavities when the Sapsucker is finished with them.

Barred Owl. Photo by Sharon McInnes.

Barred Owl. Photo by Sharon McInnes.

In spite of the fact that only 3 Barred Owls were counted on Dec 28, anyone who lives here knows there are lots of these guys around. Their raucous mating calls can be heard far and wide in the spring. And they’re not shy about hanging around garage roofs or fence posts during the day.

Spotted Towhee. Photo by Doug Green.

Spotted Towhee. Photo by Doug Green.

The Spotted Towhee, with its signature red eye, is lovely to look at. Too bad about that incessant squawk! The three pairs that live in our yard right now have taken to grabbing peanuts from right under the jays’ noses. On Dec 28, 126 were counted.

Trumpet Swans. Photo by Eileen Kaarsmaker.

Trumpeter Swans. Photo by Eileen Kaarsmaker.

Although no Trumpeter Swans were seen off the shores of Gabriola during the count, 106 were counted across the strait in Nanaimo. The swans above were visiting Coats Marsh on Gabriola in the spring.

Male Mallard. Photo by Iain Lawrence.

Male Mallard. Photo by Iain Lawrence.

The Mallard is a ‘dabbling’ duck: it either eats from the surface of the water or tips its tail up to dabble just under the surface for aquatic leaves, stems, seeds, and invertebrates. (Happily, it also eats lots of mosquito larvae.) The Mallard also differs from most other ducks in its vociferousness. While many ducks are relatively quiet – except when mating or protecting the nest – the female Mallard (less colourful than the male in the photo) is vocal year-round. When you think of quacking ducks, you’re probably thinking of female Mallards. The male’s vocalizations are deeper and quieter. 93 made the count.

Pileated Woodpecker. Photo by Doug Green.

Pileated Woodpecker. Photo by Doug Green.

It’s rumoured that a Pileated Woodpecker was the inspiration for Woody the Woodpecker. But this guy’s no cartoon character. He makes almost perfectly rectangular holes in trees with his long chisel-like bill to get at carpenter ants and other insects.

Fox Sparrow. Photo by Sharon McInnes.

Fox Sparrow. Photo by Sharon McInnes.

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. New birders often have trouble distinguishing between the Song Sparrow and Fox Sparrow. One reliable way to differentiate the two is to look for the Fox’s yellow mandible, or lower bill. For this, of course, you may need a good pair of binoculars.

Male Belted Kingfisher. Creative Commons photo. Thank you!

Male Belted Kingfisher. Creative Commons photo. Thank you!

The Belted Kingfisher is one of the few species where the female is more colourful than the male. This female may have just received this fish from a wooing male. Gifts of fish are the male kingfisher’s version of taking a girlfriend out to dinner. If you ever visit Gabriola in spring, check out their nests along the sandstone cliff as the ferry pulls into dock!

California Quail. Photo by Doug Green.

California Quail. Photo by Doug Green.

There are several flocks of California Quail on the island but only 3 individuals showed up for the count. That topknot looks like one feather but is really a cluster of six.

Black Oystercatcher. Photo by Sharon McInnes.

Black Oystercatcher. Photo by Sharon McInnes.

It’s true the Black Oystercatcher wears mostly black, but that bright orange eye and long orange bill and those rosey-pink legs are striking accessories! 

Red-shafted Northern Flicker. Photo by Sharon McInnes.

Red-shafted Northern Flicker. Photo by Sharon McInnes.

In addition to suet, Northern Flickers eat a lot of ants; one scientist apparently found 2000 in a flicker’s stomach. They also use ants in preening. During this process, called ‘anting’, flickers rub the insects on their feathers, and the ants secrete liquids containing formic acid and other chemicals that help protect them from parasites. Two pairs regularly dine in our yard. Counted – 28.

Great Blue Heron. Photo by Sharon McInnes.

Great Blue Heron. Photo by Sharon McInnes.

The elegant Great Blue Heron lives around fresh water and salt water. They may also visit backyard fish ponds, as our neighbour recently found out. But the Cornell Lab’s All About Birds site has a solution: lay a piece of pipe in the pond for the fish to hide in.

Canada Goose. Photo by Sharon McInnes.

Canada Goose. Photo by Sharon McInnes.

During the count, 103 Canada Geese were seen on Gabriola. But I took this photo of a Canada Goose at the Reifel Bird Sanctuary in Delta a few years ago. He’s probably sleeping but I like to pretend he’s doing yoga.

Varied Thrush. Photo by Sharon McInnes.

Varied Thrush. Photo by Sharon McInnes.

The lovely-to-look-at Varied Thrush has a most unusual song. It’s been described as  “A slow whistled mysterious-sounding caroling melody followed by fast prolonged warbling, first high, then low, and fading at the end.” (Smithsonian Handbooks’ Birds of North America: Western Region, by Fred Alsop III) and as a “fairly long, ethereal, trilled whistle, repeated at different pitches after long pauses” (Birds of Southwestern British Columbia by Richard Cannings, Tom Aversa, and Hal Opperman). John Neville and Mel Coulson (Beginner’s Guide to BC Bird Song) refer to the bird as a “tone deaf thrush” and to its song as “plaintive and most unmusical” and “sounding something like a referee’s whistle.” I guess it’s all in the ears of the listener.

Male Barrow's Goldeneye. Photo by Doug Green.

Male Barrow’s Goldeneye. Photo by Doug Green.

The stunning Barrow’s Goldeneye (note the golden eye!) is a true ‘diving duck’. It will dive down as far as five metres to grab insects, mollusks, crustaceans, and fish eggs. 22 showed up on count day.

Hairy Woodpecker. Photo by Sharon McInnes.

Hairy Woodpecker. Photo by Sharon McInnes.

The Hairy Woodpecker and the Downy Woodpecker, two of the most common woodpeckers on the island, look remarkably alike. You can tell this one’s a Hairy because its bill is almost as long as the depth of its head. The Downy has a shorter, stubbier bill.

Steller's Jay. Photo by Sharon McInnes.

Steller’s Jay. Photo by Sharon McInnes.

“Greybeard” is one of the nine Steller’s Jays that call our backyard home. Although only 35 were counted during the Christmas Bird Count, I’m sure there are lots more on the island! You may have seen the little experiment we did with them in the summer of 2013. If not, you can check it out here: http://www.birdcanada.com/just-how-smart-are-those-jays/

Feral Turkeys on North Road. Photo by Sharon McInnes.

Feral Turkeys on North Road. Photo by Sharon McInnes.

The infamous Gabriola feral turkeys, which  didn’t get counted this year, continue to entertain me.  I especially enjoy watching the Bertha Road flock of 10 roosting on the power lines at night. How they manage to balance up there remains a mystery!

Posted in Bird Canada, Bird Identification, Nature Photography, Woodpeckers | Tagged | 1 Comment

Photo essay from the West Coast

After a two month absence, which I can only blame on my busy family life and poor memory, I thought I would share a few photos taken in Vancouver and Whistler this month (January 2015).

In order to save time and space, I should mention that all of these photos were taken with a handheld Nikon D5200 and AF-S VR Zoom-Nikkor 70-300mm f/4.5-5.6G IF-ED. The birds in question were not called in, set-up or baited.

American Dipper, Whistler, BC:


Black Oystercatchers, Stanley Park Seawall, Vancouver, BC:


Glaucous-winged Gull, 1st year, Wreck Beach (near UBC), Vancouver, BC:


Hooded Merganser (male), Lost Lagoon, Stanley Park, Vancouver, BC:


Mew Gull (winter plumage), Wreck Beach (near UBC), Vancouver, BC:


Pacific Wren, UBC (Point-Grey Campus), Vancouver, BC:


Ring-billed Gull (winter plumage), Wreck Beach (near UBC), Vancouver, BC:



Posted in Bird Canada, Canadian Birds, Shorebirds | Tagged , , , , , , , | 6 Comments

Winter Birding, Calgary-style – a Photo Essay

Well winter is well and truly upon us, but thankfully in Calgary it has been fairly mild (at least compared to the record snowfalls last year) and the we’ve had some great winter bird visitors within the city limits already.

Firstly, it was fantastic to see the return of some of the winter finches, after being almost entirely absent last season. Among my favourites would have to be the Pine Grosbeaks for their gorgeous colours and their love of fruits which make for luscious backgrounds in the depths of freezing winter:

I believe this is an immature male Pine Grosbeak

I believe this is an immature male Pine Grosbeak


A female Pine Grosbeak


Another female Pine Grosbeak getting stuck into the frozen berries!


A male Pine Grosbeak in its striking scarlet plumage

A male Pine Grosbeak in its striking scarlet plumage

Redpolls have not been around in great numbers yet, but I have at least seen a few:Redpoll

The Cedar Waxwings of summer have departed, while their cousins the Bohemians have taken up residence in their massive flocks:Bohemian_Waxwing (by Tim Hopwood)

But of course, we shouldn’t forget the hardy birds that call Calgary home from the always-cheerful Black-capped Chickadees:Chickadee

to the ever-challenging-to-photograph Brown Creepers:BrCreeper

and the Pileated Woodpeckers which are a treat for the eyes no matter what the season:Pileated_Woodpecker#2 (by Tim Hopwood) Pileated_Woodpecker#3 (by Tim Hopwood)

A couple of personal highlights this winter has been seeing not one, but two of the smallest owls in the province – the Northern Saw-whet Owl:NSW1

and a pair of diminutive Northern Pygmy Owls that have gained celebrity status in the local birding community:NPO1 NPO2 NPO3


Check out those eyes! This Snowy was just on the outskirts of Calgary.

And last, but by absolutely in no way least, it wouldn’t be a proper winter in Alberta without the arrival of the majestic Snowy Owls which birders and non-birders alike seem to be enchanted by:

I look forward to sharing more winter bird photography in my next monthly blog!

Posted in Bird Canada | 6 Comments

January Birds

With winter upon us, most of our activities during December focused on the provincial Christmas Bird Counts. We had fine weather during most of the month so they mostly went off without a hitch.

Our first Count was at East Point, starting with our meeting at the Lighthouse at the crack of dawn to view the sea ducks. We were rewarded with 2 large rafts of ducks including Common Eider, Black and White-winged Scoter, Long-tailed Duck and a group of 13 Harlequin. Also noted were Black Guillemot, Black-legged Kittiwake and a Razerbill. Other count highlights were Bohemian Waxwings, American Tree Sparrows, a Great Horned Owl and a late Blue-gray Gnatcatcher.


Birding East Point


Bohemian Waxwings

Our next Count was in the area of Prince Edward Island National Park. Nothing too unusual came to light on this count but what was interesting was the lack of sparrows and finches. Finally, coming across a few Pine Grosbeak saved the day for us.


Pair of Eagles on the Causeway to Robinson’s Island.

Red-tailed Hawk

Red-tailed Hawk – PEI National Park

The final two Count Circles were Hillsborough and Montague. One of the first birds to come to light in the Hillsborough Count was a Snowy Owl located on the old bridge piers. The following day, birders looking to see that owl came to find two more for a total of three Snowy Owls located in and around the Bridge. Since those birds were seen we have also had other sightings reported in Charlottetown, in the National Park and in other areas across the province. Of the two counts, nothing unusual has been reported other than the owls but they fit nicely into the Echo Year that others have contended.


Snowy Owl on the old bridge piers in Charlottetown reported during the Hillsborough Christmas Bird Count.

With January, and the new year, we are getting into the planning for 2015. This will get us into activities such as the PEI Winter Woodlot Tour 2015 (January 31) and generating interest in the Great Backyard Bird Count (February 13-16) . After that we will be looking forward to Spring. Bring on the birds!




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Christmas Bird Count & New Brunswick Winter Bird List

Birding during the winter months in New Brunswick is quite different compared to the other three seasons. The following chart was posted on a birding site one time and sums up what a lot of birders feel throughout the year.

Birders here get quite enthusiastic about the Christmas Bird Count, but if I could, I would also add the Winter Bird List to the chart above.

Since 1996, Gilles Bellieveau has maintained a list of species that are found in New Brunswick during the winter specifically from December 1st to the last day in February. Each list can be found here; http://nbwinter.gbnature.com/

To date there have been 154 species found so far this year and 254 overall since 1996. These totals will go up one species by the end of today however as a Northern Lapwing was found this past week in St.Martins but was just positively ID’ today. This is the third major rarity this winter in NB, the other two being a Barn Owl and a Long-billed Curlew. I posted links below that have a picture of each of the three rarities. I found a rarity on my own a few weeks ago right here in Woodstock. A Canvasback was in the lagoon and stayed just long enough to be included for the Winter Bird List (link to my blog also below). I often get the itch to check more species off my life list so it was nice to find a lifer without even having to leave!



The Christmas Bird Count website for NB can be found here; http://users.xplornet.com/~maryspt/CBC/CBC.html and is maintained by David Christie. If you were to look under Compilers, you would see my name beside the community of Hartland. For the past few years there hasn’t been one there (it is 15 minutes north of Woodstock) so I convinced three other birders that we should go for it. We decided December 20th would be the main day and you can also keep track of different species found within the count period of December 14th to January 5th.

After seven plus hours of driving, the four of us found 29 different species within a 24 km radius. Before and since the count, another 10 species have been found so we were quite pleased that this brings us up to 39. I have some of the previous data for Hartland and the high was 36 for the day and another 4 found during the period. There are a few species that we could realistically still find and we still have a good week and a half to do so (ex. Ruffed Grouse, Sharp-shinned Hawk, Purple Finch).

The number of different species found and total overall number of individual species vary greatly from every county in the province. Some communities don’t have a count at all and others really could use more volunteers. Ideally for Hartland, I would have split the area up with another two groups of two and put more time into walking some trails. We were pretty tired near the end of the day too because we had a lot of ground to cover with just two vehicles. Hopefully next year we can do some more recruiting!


Here are photo’s of some of the species that I have found in December;

Red-tailed Hawk

Red-tailed Hawk – I found two last week!

Pine SiskinPine Siskin – I don’t see a lot around here but we did find two on Saturday

Pine Grosbeak

Pine Grosbeak –  we were pleased to find two flocks in two different areas (18 in total) for the Hartland CBC


Gadwall – it was out of the ordinary for this duck to still be in Florenceville last week

Northern Shoveler

Northern Shoveler – from the data I do have related to the Woodstock CBC, this is the first time one has been found at any time during the count period for this area

Red-bellied Woodpecker

Red-bellied Woodpecker – I’ve had one in my yard three times this month!

Song Sparrow

Song Sparrow – this is the latest I’ve had one in my yard. It has been a mild December here. I had three one day last week.

American Robin

American Robin – also the latest I’ve seen a robin in the county

Carolina Wren

Carolina Wren – still here! It stuck around long enough for the count period and just might be around on the 28th, we’ll see!

Common Redpoll

Common Redpoll – they’re back! A flock of 60 or so was in my neighbor’s tree last week

Snow Bunting

Snow Buntings – found my first flock of the winter on the 20th for the Hartland count

Rarities for December

Canvasback – found by me! http://natethebirder.blogspot.com/2014/11/canvasback.html

Northern Lapwing – https://www.facebook.com/photo.php?fbid=10152609011985028&set=pcb.766507430110903&type=1&relevant_count=4

Long-billed Curlew –  http://birdingnewbrunswick.ca/photo/long-billed-curlew-courlis?context=featured

Barn Owl – http://birdingnewbrunswick.ca/forum/topics/barn-owl

Tufted Titmouse – http://birdingnewbrunswick.ca/forum/topics/tufted-titmouse-1


Until next time,

Nathan Staples


Posted in Bird Canada, Birdwatching Events, Canadian Birds, Citizen Science, Winter Birding in Canada | 4 Comments

Shorebirding – A Week at Weed Lake (Part 2)

Cover - Willet1As I mentioned in last month’s post, in 2014 I made a concerted effort to see and photograph shorebirds  on their fall migration as the birds headed south and stopped over at Weed Lake, just east of Calgary.

An immature Black-necked Stilt

An immature Black-necked Stilt

While last month’s post focused on the sandpiper family, Part 2 of that post – this post – shows a sample of some of the plovers, stilts, avocets and other shorebirds I photographed at Weed Lake over the last weekend in July and first weekend in August.

American Avocets sweep across the shoreline.

American Avocets sweep across the shoreline.

American Avocets have always been a favourite species of mine and I think it has something to do with their delicate features – the slender upturned bill, long blue legs and attractive plumage. As it was fall, some of the avocets were molting into basic plumage, but they were still nonetheless a very photogenic bird.

American Avocet - up close and personal.

American Avocet – up close and personal.

Black-necked Stilts were also present in good numbers, with a notable number of immature birds  – positive signs of a successful breeding season. Indeed, apparently breeding Stilts in the Calgary area were quite rare up until the last 20 years.

An immature Black-necked Stilt.

An immature Black-necked Stilt.

I find that stilts are like the ‘guard dogs’ of shorebirds – once they see you, they will yap away incessantly until you leave and this can go on for five minutes or more and almost always it’s me who quits the area first just to get a break!

Marbled Godwits were also busy puncturing the mudflats in their quest for a meal and were quite happy to plunge their whole head under the water to find a tasty snack.

A pair of Marbled Godwits feeding on the mudflats.

A pair of Marbled Godwits feeding on the mudflats.

Another group of shorebirds that were plying the shallow waters just offshore were Short-billed Dowitchers still largely retaining their rusty orange alternate breeding plumage. I still haven’t quite nailed down how to tell Short-billed from Long-billed Dowitchers, so please feel free to correct me if my ID is not correct!

A flock of feeding Short-billed Dowitchers.

A flock of feeding Short-billed Dowitchers.

Willets are also fairly common and about the size of an avocet and in my experience also they tend to share some that ‘guard dog’ habits of stilts – once they see you they’ll let you know!

A Willet - a fairly common sight at Weed Lake in late July.

A Willet – a fairly common sight at Weed Lake in late July.

One of the personal highlights of these shorebirding weekends was the opportunity to shoot two members of the plover family – the Black-bellied and Semi-palmated:

A Black-bellied Plover at rest amongst a flock of phalaropes.

A Black-bellied Plover at rest amongst a flock of phalaropes.

A Semi-palmated Plover sprinting a long the shoreline.

A Semi-palmated Plover sprinting a long the shoreline.

The larger of the two, the Black-bellied Plover, tended to be a fairly solitary bird and would patrol up and down a stretch of lakeshore, moving in fits and spurts and pausing in between to keep a wary eye on its surroundings.

A Black-bellied Plover keeps a close eye on things.

A Black-bellied Plover keeps a close eye on things.

The much smaller Semi-palmated Plover is like a smaller version of its cousin, the Killdeer. I saw these little plovers at various time, both as flocks and individuals. In each case, they were very skittish and would depart the area at the slightest alarm.

Semi-palmated Plover - I think I may have been spotted!

Semi-palmated Plover – I think I may have been spotted!

Semi-palmated Plover yanking a worm from the mud.

Semi-palmated Plover yanking a worm from the mud.

Which brings me to my few key tips for shorebird photography – all shorebirds are fairly wary, although it varies between species. Some will tolerate you at a distance you can get decent shots from (e.g. avocets) while others are unlikely to let you get near them if they know you are there – such as the aforementioned Semi-palmated Plover. So, I find it always pays to firstly scope out the general area with a pair of binoculars and determine what shorebirds are in the area, then slowly approach a spot where the birds will be in shooting range. This might take a few minutes, and it pays to pause – to let the birds get used to you – before advancing a little closer. Patience is key!

A Short-billed Dowitcher - shot from almost ground level, hence a completely out-of-focus background.

A Short-billed Dowitcher – shot from almost ground level, hence a completely out-of-focus background.

Some birds just will not let you get close if they know you’re there, so this is when a blind or otherwise concealed shooting position helps. This technique relies on finding a spot which you think will be attractive to shorebirds (a good spot is where you saw them feeding just before they saw you & flew off!), setting up & waiting for them to come to you. I’ve stayed in the same spot for 60-90 minutes and have seen all sorts of shorebirds come and go – half the fun is waiting to see what will turn up! Personally, I prefer to lie down behind some shoreline vegetation for concealment and wait. This achieves two things: one, I’m somewhat camouflaged so the birds hopefully won’t detect my presence; and two: shooting at ground level you can achieve nice out-of-focus backgrounds that draw the viewer’s eyes to your subject – the shorebird.

As for gear, I recommend the longest lens you have. Personally, when shooting birds I use a full-frame Canon 1Dx DSLR couple with a Canon f4L ISII 600mm lens with a 1.4x teleconverter 90% of the time. But when it comes to shorebirds and their inherent skittishness, I will use a 2x teleconverter (which gets me a focal length of 2 x 600mm = 1200mm) more than half the time. With all that glass you need good light and high ISO to get sharp shots, and I’ve found my sharpest shots are when I stop down to f11 or f13 (I normally shoot at f5.6 for any other birds).

Shooting at ground level also works great for ducks, such as this young Northern Shoveller.

Shooting at ground level also works great for ducks, such as this young Northern Shoveller.

But be warned: shooting lying down for extended periods is definitely not for everyone. Be prepared for a stick neck/upper body afterwards, to literally ‘get down and dirty’ in the mud, and to also meet all sorts of creepy-crawlies (flies, midges, mosquitoes, spiders, hairy caterpillars, etc) in an up close and personal environment! To prepare myself, I try & do a little neck stretching in advance, wear a water-proof coat and pants and spray a bit of repellent on my cap. But at the end of the day, to get a quality shot it’s usually going to be a case of ‘no pain, no gain’! That said, when you land a killer image all the mud, bugs and pain seem to just disappear from your mind replaced by the satisfaction of nailing a great shot. And that’s the feeling that keeps me coming back for more!

Not a shorebird, but this Bald Eagle certainly made them scatter when it paid a brief visit to the lake!

Not a shorebird, but this Bald Eagle certainly made them scatter when it paid a brief visit to the lake!


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