Tag Archives: bird migration

PHOTOGRAPHING BIRDS OF PREY ON A BUDGET.

The coastline of the Lower Mainland of British Columbia is a great place to watch birds — particularly ducks, geese and waders. As winter approaches, large numbers migrate through the region on their way south to warmer climes — and who can blame them? The hardiest find the many beaches and inlets of the region mild enough to overwinter, and unless temperatures drop to extremes they appear disinclined to expend their energy by moving further south, . In spring the birds will fly in the opposite direction, returning to their summer breeding grounds, and in doing so will cover enormous distances.

The event reminds me of the Wildebeest migration around the Serengeti Plain in East Africa, but there are obvious differences.

The wildebeest migration during May on the Serengeti Plain

Presently, over a million blue wildebeest and around two hundred thousand zebra travel up to 500 miles on a yearly cycle around the Serengeti in East Africa. Essentially the animals follow the rain; or put another way, they are moving on to fresher grass as it begins to show. I witnessed the migration when numbers were higher than they are today, but the event is still the most impressive migration of mammals on Earth.

The bird migration I can witness closer to home; it involves millions of individuals travelling along the ‘Pacific Flyway‘. Some birds even fly right over my house. These journeys along the western coastline of the Americas are impressive, and not just because I can watch T.V. and look out of the window and witness the event. There’s an advert on television promoting BBC World; to the right of the screen ‘on sky’, there are geese skeining across in great numbers. Three birds have become detached from a V formation and I go outside to watch. It’s getting dark, I can hear the birds plaintively honking and the main group suddenly swings a little to the right and the lonersput on a sprint, cut across the angle and catch up. It’s more dramatic than watching television, but there’s no cut to the close up, the geese just keep going until they are too small to see — I wonder how they keep going, the expenditure of energy must be enormous, but standing out in the cold to consider such things seems pointless… I go back and sit on the sofa.

The migrating birds exhibit similar patterns of behaviour to the wildebeest — both groups are following the food and seeking out better conditions. It would be unfair to say the Serengeti event pales by comparison, but the numbers of birds and the distances they travel are in a different order of magnitude — and as long as their journeys continue, this will remain one of the World’s greatest natural wonders.

American Wigeon are common winter visitors, but they will be somewhere else in May.

If migrating birds are to be successful they must find wild places along their flight paths where they can feed; and just as there are predators waiting for the wildebeest, there will be predators waiting for the birds as they come flying through. Few thing can hunt a bird more successfully than other bird, and during winter, the coastlines of the Pacific Northwest are ideal places to observe these avian hunters as raptors gather in numbers to seize the day. Not all will be feeding on birds flying through, some are looking for rodents living in grassland habitats along the route; and to be able to observe so many birds of prey is quite something, and the opportunity to photograph them is a bonus.

Bald eagles gather along coastal areas and the Fraser River during winter to feed. They are considered fish eaters, but seldom turn down a duck dinner.

When photographing raptors, the usual problem is having an appropriate telephoto-lens to achieve the best results. Few of us can afford to buy the really long lenses — the ones where you need to train in a gym for months just to carry them; and then of course there’s the mortgage that has to be take out to buy one. My longest lens is 400mm and it’s a good one; with a converter I can extend its range to 800mm, but unless conditions are optimal and there is plenty of light, my pictures will be reduced in quality… When you can afford the longest and most expensive lenses what you are really doing is getting closer, is buying extra light.

Bird photographers pay big money to own these expensive lenses with wider apertures that effectively gather more light; with focal lengths that allow them to work at a greater distances they are effectively closer to the birds than the rest of us; and most are disciplined enough not to wander from the paths and disturb the wildlife.

For those who are doing things on the cheap, unable to afford those very long lenses with wider of apertures, it is necessary to think more creatively. Good pictures of birds are still possible, but the less well equipped find themselves out on only the sunniest days, because when you start shooting in lousy light with an inferior lens, your success rate will drop like a stone.

A Different Approach.

Apart from shelling out big bucks, perhaps there’s another way to deal with the situation. It is now almost impossible to get a better close up of a bird of prey — they are already out there somewhere; and the most impressive close ups are not always achieved with wild birds… not that it matters — better a tight shot of a captive bird than a disturbance in the wild because some idiot wants to get unreasonably close.

If you have an average to good camera — say an SLR with interchangeable lenses, and can afford one of the shorter telephoto lenses, something between 200 to 400mm, it is possible to take very good pictures of wild birds, providing the photographer is prepared to accept a wider frame than might initially have been hoped for. With the right background and appropriate exposure and framing, it is possible to achieve interesting results, although these might have more in common with landscape than wildlife photography — if we find it necessary to pigeonhole our endeavours. Whatever the label, the addition of a bird somewhere in the frame can raise an image beyond the expectations of a straight forward landscape picture.

I waited an hour for this one, and admittedly it was necessary to take a series of shots to achieve it. I wanted to mirror the curvature of the wings of the bird with the shape of the bare bramble stems in the foreground. It isn’t necessary to identify the bird, ornithology isn’t the priority. The picture is mostly about shape, form and colour — there has been no attempt to manipulate the image which is tonal in nature.

I won’t suggest that a wide of a bird in the landscape is the same as a good close up; they are very different approaches to the same subject; but from a photographic perspective it is sometimes more interesting to see a bird in a natural environment, than a portrait of the creature in all its feathery detail. The important thing is to do the best that we can with the equipment we’ve got, rather than bleat on about all the things we don’t have and can’t do. When I started working as a wildlife film-maker I did so as a macro-photographer because I couldn’t afford the longer lenses, specialising in close-up photography; but when I could afford the longer lenses, it was possible to cover both disciplines. If you find yourself in a box, it’s good to climb out of it, but carrying the extra gear when you do so, is not quite so wonderful.

When I lived in Southern England I would travel from my home on the edge of town into the surrounding countryside to film wildlife. One day while driving to a friend’s house, I saw a barn owl flying low along a hedge line just before sunset, and noted there was enough light for an exposure. I returned the next day, and set up close by the field. The owl made a similar fly past to the previous day, but it did so a little later — this is common to many wild animals that set their internal alarm clocks to times dependent upon where the sun is in the sky. We no longer make such precise measurement in relation to the sun because we have lost contact with nature, but wild birds have not.

This was not the owl I filmed… I never managed a good stills photograph of a barn owl flying in good light when living in Britain;, and nothing changed until I arrived in British Columbia. This bird was happy enough hunting during the day.

But I’m getting ahead of my story, back in the U.K. my ‘just before sunset barn owl’ allowed me only one shot per evening over the course of a week. The owl did its pass and was gone, and just after that, so was the light. Building an atmospheric evening sequence with two shots of an owl using a wide and a closer shot turned into many hours work, because I was attempting to film a barn owl in Britain when numbers were at their lowest ebb.

Living where I do now, I see owls more regularly, and often during daylight hours, which provides a greater opportunity to gain a variety of shots, as each is no longer that once in a blue moon event I had become used to. The point of the story is that being in the right place at the right time is 90% of the battle; and it makes sense to photograph events when they are both close to home and regularly available. Photography is a bit like life — the more chances you get, the easier things become.

Dingle.

This barn owl was hunting at 3.00 p.m. on a sunny winter’s afternoon; and I prepared for the flight behind undergrowth — there was a shot to be had providing I didn’t rely on autofocus… if I had done so, the focus would have shifted to the foreground leaves.

When I was filming wildlife for television. I often used to shoot with something hanging in the foreground — the natural world has clarity, but how we see the natural world is not so clear at all. I would find an interesting piece of vegetation and hang it between the lens and the subject. Ironically, this artifice often makes things more real in our heads.

This intrusion into the frame is known as a ‘dingle’. But more recently, with the event of high definition digital images, the fashion for super-sharp images has caused ‘dingles’ which provide more impressionistic results, to fall out of favour… but not in my world. If the ‘dingle’ is several red berries and they are positioned very close to the camera, they will appear as out of focus orbs in the foreground and with a predator in mind, this adds something to the image. For this picture I waited for the owl to fly behind vegetation that looked colourful enough, and hoped that at some stage the actual event would occur. The risk was that the owl would continue hunting in full view, but never fly into the position required to make the shot; and I’d lost the opportunity to cover a range of other images because I was entirely committed to one event. This is one of the reasons why professional photographers often use captive predatory birds, although it takes a very special arrangement for such a bird to be flown without jesses — if there is a sudden urge to return to the wild, the bird might be lost.

Sometimes a bird comes close and does something interesting, and even with a short telephoto lens you get a good shot, but there are never any guarantees. This owl has come down on prey, most likely a vole. The stalks of grass provide an abstract quality and to me that’s interesting, but this isn’t an image that will appeal to everybody, but at least there is nothing contrived about it.

A short-eared owl provides a free advert for The Nature Trust; this owl sits next to the path, and there are at least 10 other photographers with their cameras trained on the bird which doesn’t appear in any way disturbed. You could take this shot quite easily on a point and shoot camera or a mobile phone, but it is clear from the lenses being used around me that some are taking advantage of the close proximity of the bird for a head and shoulders close-up; but I think that is rather too obvious, but then, one might equally say… so is my picture.

Birds should, of course, should be photographed in flight and I think this short-eared owl makes an interesting image; although I appreciate that with those extraordinary wings a closer shot would have been a lot more than’ just another portrait’.

No Worries!

I like to to playing with framing, and never worry about such things as the golden ratio; there is more nonsense talked about the correct balance of a picture than almost anything else in photography. Sometimes it’s good to feel uncomfortable. Out of kilter is interesting, and sometimes makes for a more dynamic picture. Framing in any case is a matter of opinion. One of the few good things about a short telephoto lens is that the birds being photographed don’t fill the frame unless they fly very close; this has the advantage of giving enough leeway to edit the framing later; and a lot can be done if your camera has plenty of pixels to play with, although pixels are not the answer to everything: the way sensors in the camera collect information and quite a lot else also comes into play.

How we see is also consequential. This century we have come to accept high definition images as standard, but because of the way our minds operate, motion blur seems very natural to us especially when we watch a movie, and if it isn’t there, things don’t feel quite right. This also carries across to still images, when something is moving quickly. Blur is still a major component of ‘looking natural’, with faces, particularly the eyes the preferential point of focus. No wonder we love owls… the birds are so flat-faced it makes focusing easy; but if the bird are in flight it’s nice to have the wingtips in motion, and achieving both at the same time can be a very fine balance.

Maybe our appreciation of sharper images will increase as the high definition capabilities of modern cameras becomes so good that ‘frozen in time’ is the norm. The irony is that to put our images up on the internet we have to downgrade the quality so that up-loading times are reasonable… and also because good H.D. images are likely to be stolen! Then we view the results on tiny phone screens… and just get the gist of what’s in the picture; even computer screens have limited definition. You have to question the logic — we are encouraged to spend small fortunes on regular upgrades to keep pace with technologies that move faster than a peregrine falcon can fall out of the sky, but in the end, don’t gain very much.

Framing a picture is down to personal choice.

If the sky is interesting, why not incorporate more of it into the picture.

A northern harrier — too low in the frame perhaps? Maybe, but I’m not trying to sell product. I’m fond of that little pink cloud and inclined to frame things the way I want.

My fear is that with the rapidly increasing development of natural environments, and the additional problem of climate change, ‘Pacific Skyway’ migration routes might become disrupted. Taking pictures of the birds is a great way to record what is happening along the way and how things change: every time somebody takes a picture and stores it, they inadvertently record events in a manner that, until recently, was impossible. Many cameras have GPS and each photographic event is dated, and this inadvertently provides data for the future.

This short-eared owl was not a difficult subject to capture. Incorporating the log made for an interesting picture and I didn’t need to get too close.

For those who are not thinking

about how important recording natural events may prove to be in the future, there is always the simple pleasure of taking wildlife pictures just for the pleasure of it; and for those behaving responsibly there are still great opportunities. Wildlife pictures can be taken without disturbance, even without the most expensive, or the most powerful telephotos lenses.

There is a lot of one-upmanship with photography, partly because picture taking is so easy. Those who are good at it, often consider the process a special skill, but with cameras now doing so much of the work, it has become a fairly simple process that most of us can learn.

  • There’s no point in being precious about it. Almost anybody is capable of taking an interesting picture of the natural world… *when they’ve learnt to stand in the right place!* And that’s encouraging. Rather than finding fault with images that don’t fit the repetitive formulaic approach commonly encouraged by photographic competitions, we should welcome different perspectives. Fresh ideas and new ways of doing things are to be encouraged; and if some people take pictures that do not win prizes, or fit in with the chocolate box school of photography, then maybe that’s no bad thing.

All the pictures of birds in this feature are wild — nothing is staged. No more than two hours was spent in one place at any one time; and apart from the wildebeest, all the pictures were taken during three visits to a single location totalling less than six hours of photography. There was no getting out of bed at the crack of dawn for better results… or any need to step off the path. I mention this only to indicate that ‘locations’ are the key to success, although some might say, ‘Get up earlier, spend more time, and you’d get better results’, but I’ve heard that before! A head of ‘The BBC Natural History Unit’ once told me that wildlife cameramen didn’t get up early enough for the best results. I laughed a lot — there weren’t that many of us doing it when I started — filming wildlife was an obsessive behaviour that teetered at the edge of mental illness, and I knew that most of us were getting up far too early; although almost certainly, I was the only one moaning about it.

Denaturing: The Fast-Track to Economic Growth… and the Snow Geese Bucking the Trend.

When I first moved to the Lower Mainland of British Colombia I wondered what Canadians did for a living; as a child brought up in Britain, I was led to believe that what they mostly did was chop down trees. I remember Monty Python singing a song about it: ‘lumberjacks’ apparently were O.K. — but as the verses progressed a different story emerged — all nonsense for comic effect, but even in the real world things aren’t always what they seem and mostly not quite so funny.

There are very few trees like this on the Lower Mainland.

A couple of hundred years ago the coastal lowlands of British Columbia were covered in unspoiled temperate rainforest; but all of that was gone at least a couple of generations before I was born. I’m a Canadian now, but the tag is presumptuous: in my English imagination, men in red checked shirts still chop down trees somewhere close to home, although I’ve never seen them doing it… But of course, I should have twigged — there are no ‘grand old trees’ still standing in my neighbourhood, and in consequence lumberjacks in tartan shirts, looking to get things done, are few and far between… Come to think of it, I’ve never even seen a mounty ride by on a horse… When you start looking closely, life is full of little disappointments.

Once the trees were felled, people made a living farming the fertile land where the trees once stood, but even that wouldn’t last. These days, there isn’t very much money in farming, unless it comes as a subsidy for not bothering to grow anything. Profits are mostly tied to land values; and it’s no surprise that speculators are buying up blueberry fields, giving the impression they have suddenly become fruit growers, what they are really doing is submitting planning applications to re-zone agricultural land for residential use, and cash in on the current housing boom. There’s a lot of money involved, and a variety of ways to hit the jackpot.

A green belt area in West Sussex. U.K.. Green belts in Britain are not as secure as they once were, but when environmentally sensitive areas are threatened, local opposition often proves successful. Considering the number of people now living in Britain it is surprising how much green there is.

Having lived most of my life in England I am used to green belts that can’t so easily be re-zoned; which makes sense, because in future food will need to be grown closer to where it is consumed. Unfortunately, the chances of doing this where I live now are rapidly decreasing, as much of the arable land across the Lower Mainland has become urban sprawl, and I don’t think there are any plans to discontinue the policy.

The long term future of the area looks bleak, although there are many who don’t see it that way, as few are inclined to stifle an apparently successful economy, even when it’s built on the false premise that we can all live off the back of a housing boom. The Lower Mainland is expansive but continued development between the Pacific Ocean and the mountains is finite, and always at the expense of agriculture and the natural world.

Seattle is an interesting mix of old style and modern.

In the Pacific North West, Vancouver and Seattle are maritime cities that have evolved historically as ports exporting locally felled timber. But with the old growth forests long gone, both have taken on new roles that include thriving film industries and tourism. Vancouver is especially well placed as it is possible to be on a beach in the morning, then lunch in the city and get over to the North Shore mountains for an afternoon ski, or a walk on the wild side, depending on the season.

Vancouver is scruffier than it once was, it has a homeless problem, and like many places on the Lower Mainland has an abundance of rats, but the overall impression to visitors is of a vibrant city.
When I came to the area 10 years ago Surrey had 3 high rise buildings, but high density living has become a feature — a year ago these towers didn’t exist.

I live on the Canadian side of the border between the two impressive cities, and every day the natural world moves a little further away. My nearest city is Surrey which hasn’t a lot going for it — landlocked, and developing rapidly, it remains uninspiring.

The land that surrounds the city has been utilised principally for the purpose of building houses, fuelled by a never ending influx of people from elsewhere (myself included): there is a plan to have more people living in the area than live in Vancouver within 10 years. One might think the urban sprawl is driven by quick money rather than any sustainable plan for a long term future. Presently, little is produced other than housing, which has resulted in a service industry — but what will happen when the available land runs out? Not everybody will be able to make a living working in a shop or driving a taxi.

In only one respect does the city follow in the footsteps of Vancouver — increasingly, as more people flood in, local people are priced out of the housing market; or at least have to live in far less space. When more people are crammed in, there is inevitably less natural space, which is detrimental to health, but probably still good for council coffers. I remember a time when people lived in places they actually liked, but now the priority is to simply find affordable accommodation… and if you don’t like high density living, then that’s just too bad — your loss will always be somebody else’s gain.

There are of course many houses that are not crammed in, but such benefits are reflected in price. This development was completed in 2015 — a year earlier it had been woodland adjoining a nature reserve, providing an important natural buffer.

Early in 2020, experts predicted that house prices in Canada would drop as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic, but this turned out to be about as reliable as the predictions that our computers would crash when 1999 turned to 2000; and more recently there were those who told us that Donald Trump was unelectable; then came Brexit with warnings of dire consequences if Britain left the European Union — and we’re still waiting on that one. Not surprisingly, in April 2021, when it was predicted that Canadians house prices would fall dramatically, they did exactly the opposite and rose at the fastest rate on record. Unfortunately, we don’t remember those who gave us all the duff information, if we did we’d never listen to them again… Instead we just keep getting fooled… In the worlds of Homer Simpson… ‘Dooh!

Predicting the future is never easy, but there’s little need for pundits to get mouthy about what my local city does best — it orchestrates the urban sprawl that surrounds it; and with more vehicles come traffic jams and a decline in air quality, while infrastructure barely keeps pace with the rapidly increasing population: predictions are unnecessary because ‘progress’ (if you can call it that), is moving at break-neck speed.

A local corner plot developed for town housing during late summer 2016, which led to higher density living and fewer trees.

A few designated areas provide wildlife respite, but most are quite small and do little more than service the burgeoning dog population’s pooing requirements. There are only a few links between ‘natural’ spaces; but in my area this means little more than weaving between dog doos under a buzz of electric pylons — pointless really, because the nature route is low priority and incomplete. All of this is unfortunate, but for reasons that are puzzling, Canadians are reticent to complain as things around them get steadily worse.

Despite the dismal outlook, there is something to be grateful for: despite the extensive and rapid development across the Lower Mainland, local coastlines provide important habitats for large numbers of migrating birds, with many remaining quite natural along route. Move away from the city towards the mountains or the sea, and the human population often drops away, especially in low lying coastal areas where the possibility of rising sea levels dissuades many from attempting to live there.

Wherever the land touches the sea, the tidal zone offers one of the most difficult and expensive areas for humans to conquer, with the result that long strips of mostly undisturbed natural habit are still intact. We don’t always appreciate the large numbers of plants and small invertebrates that live in such places, but the waders, ducks and geese that come flying in to feed on them certainly do.

Goldeneye are winter residents; arriving during the fall they leave in the spring.

On the Lower Mainland as winter approaches, it is difficult not to notice the steadily increasing numbers of migrating ducks and geese flying in, but their arrival is not considered consequential: the local economy will always take precedence with the birds considered only for their amenity value. Unfortunately, as our economies become more globalised the natural world hardly features at all.

Getting the best of nature has become second nature to us. When a site is designated for a new airport in places where birds have been flying along migratory routes for thousand of years, the natural aviators become a sudden inconvenience and efforts are made to ground them. In dealing with the natural world, our hypocrisy can be breath-taking, especially when there’s a dollars to be made.

At some stage, we will be forced to re-evaluate our absurdly homocentric views towards every natural environment we come into contact with: presently we consider such places as just waiting for us to repurpose them. We start by asking what benefits conserving them will have for us, and if there is uncertainty, fall back on that old favourite: ‘You can’t get in the way of progress’. So locked are we into following the money, that on coming up against wilderness, habitually, our first impulse is to destroy it — the natural world gets a reprieve only when we can find no immediate economic reason to exploit it.

Fortunately, large numbers of birds continue to migrate through many of our coastal regions. In the Northern Hemisphere the birds usually travel along migratory routes that run from north to south in the fall, and in the opposite direction during the spring; the resultant spectacle is one of the great natural wonders of the world. I consider myself lucky to live close to a major migratory route — ‘The Pacific Flyway’ involving a great many species and an enormous number of birds: everything from hummingbirds to songbirds and waders, are making their journeys, but it is the swans, ducks and geese as they skein above us in orderly patterns that we are most likely to hear, see and notice.

American Wigeon are common winter residents on the Lower Mainland.

At the approach of winter many birds are looking to move away from the harsh weather conditions they are experiencing to the north. The solution is obvious: fly south to where things are easier and return to traditional breeding grounds as spring arrives. Many birds will come all the way from the Arctic but not all will move on to warmer climes; indeed, some will not go much further south than the Lower Mainland where temperate coastal conditions provide a manageable climate for overwintering. It is essential to protect the traditional feeding grounds annually visited by birds arriving in the fall — because if these are lost, the repercussions for the natural world, inevitably, will extend far beyond local areas.

Large numbers of waders moving along a local coastline in winter.

The coastal regions of the Pacific North West have extensive inlets and large numbers of islands providing almost endless opportunities for migrating birds to feed. However, not every species can exist exclusively in the tidal zone: many wildfowl also require grasslands for their survival, and if extensive reserves are not available then winter farmland lying fallow remains their only alternative.

In years when winter birds show up in numbers, food supplies can sometimes become limited by extensive grazing and this can prove destructive to agriculture; although on the upside, bird droppings usually increases soil fertility. When bird numbers stay within certain limits, the relationship between migrating birds and local farmers can be a good one, especially if farmers are compensated adequately for the losses caused by visiting grazers. In fairness to the birds, it should be remembered that their ancestors were utilising local habitats long before these were repurposed for agriculture; an argument that hasn’t worked well for native people in the past, and is unlikely to prove more successful in the conservation of native birds.

Trumpeter Swans feeding on open grassland in winter. When their heads are up and bobbing, the photographer is probably too close; and when the birds start honking, most likely they will take flight. Managing energy expenditure is a feature of life for many birds especially those that migrate — because unlike most of us, none of them will be going back to warmer conditions for a hot meal at the end of the day.

Because I lived much of my life outside British Columbia, the birds I didn’t get to see in the wild before coming to live in Western Canada hold a certain novelty value, with snow geese amongst my favourites.

Snow Geese are a spectacle as they arrive on the Lower Mainland in numbers — it is always a privilege to spend time with them.

Migrating in from Arctic regions, the snow goose journey is epic in nature: most of the birds that overwinter on the Lower Mainland migrate from summer breeding grounds as far away as Wrangel Island, Siberia. They fly across The Bering Sea and North Pacific before moving down the west coast of North America. Many bird species will continue further south on their extraordinary journeys, but the snow geese arriving during November will stay for a while, then move a little further south to graze on grasslands in Washington State before flying North again as spring approaches.

Photographing wild geese can be a bit hit and miss, but in years when adults have been particularly successful in rearing young, the large number of arrivals makes doing so easier.

Snow geese provide the best opportunities for photography when they are feeding; and are most easily approached along footpaths where people regularly walk fence lines. Providing nobody attempts to enter the field the birds remain calm unless they have been recently shot at. It is however natural for the birds to move away from you as they graze but if too many heads are raised and stay up, and the geese get agitated and noisy, as with the Trumpeter swans mentioned earlier, it is best to move away before the birds take flight.

Better in the sky than the china ‘ducks’ I remember seeing on a living room wall when I was a child. For a while they were naff; they moved on to being kitsch, but now they are ironic.

There is no excuse for disturbing wild birds even when there are so many it doesn’t seem to matter. Sometimes wild geese will feed on local parks and golf courses; and just because we might walk in these places, there’s no reason to put them up for fun, or for a picture. Birds that are forced to keep moving on deplete their energy reserves rapidly, and this may prove consequential on colder nights. The fewer unnecessary flights they have to make the easier life becomes. Developing a sensitivity to wildlife should be encouraged, although such behaviour doesn’t come naturally to everybody. It’s never too late to learn though — and if it costs us nothing, why not behave appropriately? When I was young I’d have been in trouble for chasing the ducks, but many people think it cute when their child or dog chases a wild animal; and perhaps therein lies the problem to ‘wild goose chasing’… and quite a lot else.

In a world where positive stories about wildlife are increasingly difficult to find, snow geese are running against the trend, with their numbers increasing dramatically in recent years, in part because over the last half century, more arable land has become available across their winter feeding grounds — the general view is that there are now too many birds to support. In Arctic regions, summer temperatures are increasing and as so many young birds are being reared successfully, grasslands across Arctic feeding grounds are also becoming overgrazed and this is now a major concern. In consequence, there has been a relaxation of the number of birds that may be shot annually to allow habitats to recover.

The only shooting I’ll ever do is with a camera, but appreciate the potential for a snow goose problem. Nevertheless I remain an admirer of any bird that can fly at high altitude over great distances to achieve hard won success. A snow goose may live for 16 years and if you can imagine following the progress of a single bird over the course of a lifetime, you’d likely feel upset if your bird ‘got the bullet’. It is however necessary to maintain a realistic attitude as to how nature is balanced: predation and culls seem shocking, but they are often better options than birds eating themselves out of their available food source, with disease and loss of condition inevitably causing birds to suffer as they starve to death.

Watching a flock of white birds at sunset communicating vocally with one another is a wonderful experience.

The migratory cycle appears to be a successful and never ending process, but as migrating birds rely on so many habitats during their passage, they could easily disappear as quickly as the native forests of the Lower Mainland already have. For millennia birds have utilised large numbers of individual feeding grounds as they make these journeys, and if our actions destroysjust a few essential places, the viability of many bird species could be thrown into question. There are no mystical guiding forces; the longterm future of the natural world is entirely at our disposal — disposal being the operative word.

We can open small nature reserves as easily as we create zoos in an attempt to maintain species, but in the longterm it is the conservation of natural ecosystems that is most important; and in future we will need to develop more effective ways to live alongside nature. Extending our reach to every region of the globe to support ever expanding economies is unsustainable; ecosystems are finite and complex beyond our wildest imaginations and once gone cannot be recreated. There can be no doubt that presently, we are disrupting many natural environments beyond repair.

Birds are part of the many complex ecological systems that surround us, and are not simply flying around for our amusement — but if we can’t get past that notion, it is as well to consider that migratory routes are defined entirely by the ecosystems they pass through, their success or failure an indicator as to how sustainable and healthy is our world — and if we choose to disrupt them… we do so at our peril.