Tag Archives: bird photography

A Tale of Two Pretties – Gannets and Sandwich Terns.

‘It was the best of times, it was the worst of times’.

2018-01-21-0017.FIX2.©.SMALL*What the Dickens does that mean?… Well, it was ‘the best of times’ when  I found myself on an Scottish island amongst thousands of nesting gannets totally indifferent to being photographed, allowing a wide angle lens to be placed almost under their beaks and in focus from here to ‘almost’ infinity – taking infinity to be that strange little 8 lying on its side at the far end of the focusing ring, otherwise known as a lemniscate.

‘The worst of times’ had already happened a month and a half earlier, at the opposite end of Britain. I managed to get myself dumped off on a very different sort of island to photograph a colony of sandwich terns; and the process hadn’t been easy, although the birds were at least co-operating by not moving, and this probably wasn’t a big plus for a movie, but worked well for stills – you can’ have everything. Their lack of mobility however could be forgiven – the birds were sitting on eggs. The two main problems at  this location were:  a limited working time – to avoid disturbing the birds; and from a photographic perspective:  a limited depth of field, because I had to work from a distance using a telephoto lens, which made focusing critical.

he focus falls just beyond th bird centre front which is problematic.
In this picture of sandwich terns the focus fell just behind the bird centre front, which was problematic.

The gannets it turned out would get photographed on a sunnier day, against the intensity of a cerulean blue sky that spread expansively over an indigo sea. The gannets were nesting on Bass Rock, spilling in numbers both down and across a huge outcrop that had thrust up to form a volcanic plug sometime during the Carboniferous Period. This plug is all that remains now of the volcano itself, exposed dramatically above the water’s surface it provided a variety of photo opportunities. At the time I might have thought the day arranged specifically for me – but that would be pushing it: by great good fortune and a look at the weather forecast, the light and setting proved spectacular on this particular day – I’d just got lucky. On another day, on the North sea off the East Coast of Scotland the outcome might have been very different.

Just a very small part of the Bass Rock gannet colony.
Just a very small part of the Bass Rock gannet colony.

The sandwich terns on the other hand were photographed nesting on a flat stoney beach which had to be viewed with a very different perspective providing little more than a letter box of a picture – a photo opportunity that would prove very much different from the gannet experience.

At the time, the terns appeared to be sited at the more benign location, set as it was, on a small island in a sheltered environment on the South coast of England. But oddly, it was this colony that faced the greater danger.

2018-01-20-0011.FIX.©.SMALL*The gannet’s nest site was a challenging outcrop exposed to the worst vagaries of The North Sea, but these are tough birds and they cope. The tern colony on the other hand was set on a low lying beach in Langstone Harbour, which seems a far easier proposition, but the reality is that the terns birds can be flooded out by a single high tide. It has happened before: such an event is disastrous for both eggs and chicks, and might even turn out to be problematic for the longterm survival of the whole colony.

My luck seemed to be going the same way as the the terns might in the very near future – they seemed to be only just above the high tide line, and for the first ten minutes I didn’t manage an usable shot. Where do you set focus on birds that are nesting thirty metres away on a slightly raised but essentially flat beach. I was also uncomfortable crouched as I was in the tidal zone with my rear end almost in the water, looking out from a slit in my rapidly erected and  flooding hide. Should I focus the telephoto lens on the tern front row, the second row, or the third?  A logistical nightmare that wouldn’t be a problem when I later worked the gannets close in with a wide angle lens. Here I had no alternative but to use a long lens which afforded minimal depth of field (that’s what can be held in focus from front to back), when attempting close ups of the sitting terns.

A better shot perhaps. The birds a re still and the wind only slight, so I increase my depth of field by stopping the lens aperture down and use a slower speed to get the foreground bird into focus, along with the second row.
This shot is better than the earlier picture. The birds were quite still, the wind slight, so I increased my depth of field by stopping the lens aperture down and compensated by using a slower shutter speed; this essentially brought the foreground bird into focus along with the second row.

And I wouldn’t be thinking about any of this, if I hadn’t opened a couple of boxes of 35mm slides out of curiosity, when tidying my office. These were tiny reminders of adventures from the past – images that had been made almost as an afterthought back in 1993.

The sandwich terns were taken on the afternoon of 27th May when a conservation organisation allowed me 40 minutes on tern island. I had been set down from a small boat , leaving just enough time to put my hide up, film the colony, and get off without bothering the birds. They were sitting on eggs, which is a sensitive phase that usually I avoid, because nesting birds on an open beach are vulnerable, and I was anxious not to put them because there were black-headed gulls just waiting for an opportunity to move in on a tasty warm egg.

The gulls were also a problem because they kept messing up my shot by landing in the foreground, placing themselves between me and the terns.  It was tricky, but I managed enough shots for a film sequence, before grabbing a few stills. The sky was overcast, but fortuitously bright; with very little in the way of wind to vibrate the camera or spook the birds, and they remained largely indifferent to my presence. After a very short time I was clambering back into the boat that had returned to collect me. As the vessel moved steadily away, the birds receded into the distance, and very soon became indistinguishable from the pebbles on the beach.

 Getting a good image gets a little easier perhaps when featuring a single bird. Terns really are supreme in the air and when you notice their legs it looks as if landing was and afterthought - at a distance you migth not easily notice whether they are standing up or sitting down.
Getting an image was easier when featuring a single bird. Terns are supreme in the air, but once on the ground you at once notice that their legs are too short for their bodies – as if landing was afterthought, and at a distance you might not easily recognise whether they were sitting down or standing up.

On the gannet outing there was more time to take pictures, and despite there being a film crew present, our party made very little disturbance. We moved with great care, hugging the slim pathways between colony members, the birds largely ignoring us. None were snappy, which was fortunate because much of the time I was working well within pecking distance and given their density it was impossible to stay beyond the beak range of a great many birds wherever you were on the island.

2018-01-21-0016.FIX.©.SMALLI filmed both the gannets and the programme presenter Chris Packham over a morning and an afternoon on 5th July. Working with friends I was given plenty of time to take stills pictures, and during the course of the day shot several hours of video. I suggested that we might hold a cassette back because there was so much material, but our director wouldn’t hear of it. All the tapes will now most likely be in landfill as production and T.V. companies can’t log and shelve everything – the alternatives back then were to either reuse the tapes, or simply dump them.

The only problem with Bass Rock was getting the gear and ourselves on and off the island. The skill of the boatmen who calmly made this possible, can’t be underestimated as there were both currents and a swells to deal with. The real problems start when you want to get off of a rocky island, because you wouldn’t be on it in the first place unless the weather was fair. Once in place there is a tendency to grab the opportunity to stay for as long as possible, but as the day progresses, the weather can turn nasty and decrease your chances of getting off safely. To a lesser extent this happened that day, with the boat rising and dropping several feet as we synchronised handing over the gear and then followed as if we were joining a carnival ride whist it was fully operating  – timing was everything – anything that went into the water now would almost certainly be lost forever. 

2018-01-21-0006.FIX.©.SMALL*During 1993 I was busy working on a variety of projects and usually didn’t have time to look at my stills when they arrived back from processing. The images were in any case usually grabbed at the last moment, as I never worked primarily as a stills photographer. My technique was rather ad hoc, usually I took shots by balancing my stills camera on top of the cine, which was at least set on a tripod and everything was done very quickly. Usually, there was little time to take stills after filming was completed and I didn’t expect to achieve much in the way of usable material, consequently, many of my transparencies were never looked at.

Back in the 1990s, when I wasn’t working, I was playing with my children. Stills photography was essentially a by-product of the job, and to my mind didn’t feature prominently in my life, although I carried a camera as frequently as some people would wear a watch, and would record rather than notice the passage of time. Now, nearly 25 years on, my old transparencies are bringing back happy memories – the idea that you should never look back must always be tempered by whether you can remember doing anything interesting.

Gannet parent with chick.

In the early 1990s, there wasn’t a lot of money in taking stills pictures, unless you really worked hard at it  to the exclusion of everything else. When you did send your originals off to a magazine for publication, they would often dutifully scratch or lose them, usually with great distain, as if it was a publishers duty to be incompetent. Sometimes they would pay a fee for the use of a picture, but usually this barely covered the price of the film stock – it was insulting, and a total waste of time; so I never sent out pictures even when requested to do so, and when ‘the book of the film’ went into production my pictures were, in most cases… never there.

So it was that only a few of my slides made it out of their boxes. I’d hold one up to the light for a squint and check for correct exposure… then put them away again. Were they in focus? How would I ever know without projecting them? It now seems a pity to have waited so long to bring them to light, because even by old film standards the results turned out better than expected.

The gannets were just a small part of a work in progress for the Channel 4 series 'Wildshots'.
The gannets were just a small part of a work in progress for Chris Packham’s  Channel 4 series ‘Wild Shots’.

I must admit to have really enjoyed working on this series. It was the first time I’d used video on a project for television – at the time a great deal was being shot on magnetic tape. Previously I’d always worked with 16mm film, and must acknowledge the delight that comes from filming and editing programmes in this medium, but back then video provided some advantages that are still with us today when utilising digital photography.

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One advantage of video tape and modern digital systems is that they capture more information than film is capable of in low light conditions. The first video shots I took on the series were on a dank miserable day in the New Forest  – there was very little light and it rained almost continuously, so it was a surprise to me that these autumnal scenes and close ups displayed such good exposure and colour saturation. If I had been working on film, I doubt that I would have taken the camera out of its bag because the results would have been so poor. 

On tape and with modern digital cameras, colour saturaltion is often very good even in poor light.
With tape and modern digital cameras, colour saturation is often very good even when the light was poor.

I grew up with film, but am now a great advocate of electronic systems. For years I dragged myself through the dark ages of emulsions carried on celluloid until, with the 21t Century, came improvements in digital photography that continue to the present day. With such advances, only a person with their feet set firmly in concrete, would go back and preferentially use film. Nostalgia is exactly what the word says – it has nothing to do with progress.

Having said that, a film negative might in the end last longer in storage than a digital image – only time will tell. Part of the problem lies in the rapidity with which storage methods are changing rather than the image itself. You might record a really great picture, but with technology now moving so fast, there will in future be limited options to view it. 

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2018-01-23-0006.FIX.©.SMALLThere is then a positive side to old methods, not only can film capture historically significant events and retain them, it can also provide old data to compare how things were in the past with how they are now and by extrapolation, how they will be in the future.

When videoing the gannets on Bass Rock back in 1993, I was told there were 18,000 gannets nesting on the island, but suspect that I ,or somebody else misinterpreted that figure by a factor of ten. The correct number is more likely to have been 180,000, because the number today runs at about 150,000 birds and I can’t imagine squeezing 162,000 more into the available space that I experienced on my first and only visit. Whatever the case this location now has the largest colony of nesting gannets in the Northern Hemisphere and that’s impressive.

This kind of colonial behaviour provides a good opportunity to note any changes in bird numbers over time by comparing old pictures with new; and technology is always improving the possibilities. Drones for example, might now fly directly overhead to provide more carefully standardised comparisons, and should be achievable without causing disturbance to the birds and at very little cost. 

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Animals that we wrongly term ‘from the lower orders’, insects for example, have populations that may fluctuate considerably from one year to another; and the same is true for many amphibians – their populations often rebounding very quickly because individuals can produce large numbers of offspring.

However, for animals that reproduce more slowly, the story is different: birds and mammals do not usually show such rapid fluctuations, although it is important to note that there are times when populations might rapidly change in line with predator prey relationships and strategies. It is nevertheless ironic that we have now hit upon photographic techniques that in future might record some animal populations more accurately at a time when so many of them are in rapid decline; this is almost exclusively down to our insatiable desire to utilise more of the Planet’s surface, whilst increasing human populations beyond reason.

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The good news is that despite declining fish stocks the gannets on Bass Rock appear to be holding their own; which runs contrary to much that is happening in the natural world. Perhaps the best way to deal with present events is, at ‘the worst of times’, to react quickly to remedy a bad situation, whilst viewing more positively ‘the best of times’ fully celebrating the ups when they occur.

The success of a single colony of seabirds is certainly cause for celebration, and I consider myself fortunate to have witnessed this impressive natural wonder, moving as it is in the right direction against a general tide of bad environmental news to become the world’s largest gannet colony.

 

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Hummingbirds – They’re Almost as ‘Big’ as Africa!

I was out in the garden yesterday

trying to convince plants to grow when I was buzzed by a drone – an exceedingly stealthy one. I didn’t see it, but certainly I heard it, hovering behind my head before making off at speed.

My wife sitting in a nearby lounger was able to make a more realistic observation – I was standing on the flight path of a rufous hummingbird, a creature weighing no more than a spoonful of sugar… it was attempting to visit a bee balm flower. Not quite a drone then, but even the most technically advanced machinery can’t come close to the manouvreability of a hummingbird – this the only bird that can fly backwards due to some fairly unique muscle structures that control the wings… wings that can quickly carry them from a standing start to a top speed of 30 m.p.h.. Right now the brain of a tiny bird easily outstrips anything human technology can achieve, but who knows, maybe one day?

The odd thing about rufous hummingbirds is just how noisy they can be as they fly past you, their wing feathers thrumming loudly as air rushes through them and usually the first indication that the birds are around. They can also be quite vociferous with their repetitive vocal clicking – usually directed at other birds but also sometimes at me, when I’m standing in the wrong place! 

The Cinnamon Hummingbird, Amazilia rutila - hummingbirds are at their most spectacular in flight, but if they just sat around all day, you'd still be thinking 'wow'!
The Cinnamon Hummingbird, Amazilia rutila – hummingbirds are at their most spectacular in flight, but if they just sat around all day, you’d still be thinking ‘wow’!

My most recent hummingbird encounter is one of many; thinking back to earlier wildlife filming trips when I first started coming out to the Americas,  there was hardly a visit when I didn’t see one. Living as I now do in the Vancouver area doesn’t provide a huge hummingbird species count, but I’m just happy to be seeing them right through the year. If I had to make a list of my favourite things, only Africa would get a higher rating, and yes, I do get how odd it is to make a comparison between a large continent and a small bird.

Hummingbirds are a New World species that most likely originated in South America; these ever resourceful birds can now be found as far north as central Alaska, and as far south as the tip of Tierra del Fuego.

A native Zuni hummingbird on yucca flower - New Mexico. Their is a belief amongst Zuni people that hummingbird are bringers of water and a stoppers of time and if you've ever watched a hummingbird feed in flight, that's how it seemss - for a moment time is standing still - the bird stationary in flight with only the wings a blur.
A native Zuni hummingbird on a yucca flower – New Mexico. There is a belief amongst Zuni people that hummingbirds are bringers of water and stoppers of time and if you’ve ever watched a hummingbird feed in flight, there are moments when time appears to stand still – the bird stationary with wings ablur.

When my family and I first arrived in Canada we had only a balcony to attract wildlife and so we put up a bird feeder – a big cedar provided an agreeable background which like so many trees in Canadian gardens was attempting to take over the whole plot. My bird photography was going well, then one day to my surprise a hummingbird showed up and started licking at the peanuts and we responded by putting a hummingbird feeder in place. Soon after a family of Anna’s hummingbirds were regular visitors – there was an adult male, a female and three youngsters… each sibling completely intolerant of the others, aggressively buzzing their brothers or sisters whenever they started to feed. They seemed to have a real attitude problem, but that’s a very human response – all they are really doing is ‘grabbing’ at their best chance of survival.

A young Anna's hummingbird making use of the feeder.
A young Anna’s hummingbird making use of our feeder with red Christmas ribbon getting a second outing tied around the feeder as a visual cue for the birds.

The next year, I’m guessing it was the same pair of adults that showed up again and things went much the same way as they had done the previous year. The fall came and the rufous hummingbirds I had seen feeding in the park moved on, but I left the feeder out for stragglers… and then something interesting happened, the Anna’s hummingbird just kept coming and continued to do so right through the winter and this surprised me.

An immature male Anna's Hummingbird with developing irridescent throat feathers.
An immature male Anna’s Hummingbird with developing irridescent throat feathers.

This never got old –

you’d be washing up on another desperately miserable day, and this beautiful bird would suddenly appear and hover just a few feet infront of your face – eliciting a feel good factor much appreciated in the middle of winter – these seemingly delicate creatures just the other side of a kitchen window in conditions that a human would not so easily deal with if they gave up on the chores and walked out of the back door.

A more recent picture of a female Anna's hummingbird on our garden feeder on 4th. February 2017 when around 14  inches of snow had fallen.
A recent picture of a female Anna’s hummingbird on our garden feeder on the 4th. February 2017 when around 14 inches of snow had fallen.

Early one frosty morning I noticed a hummingbird working the nectar feeder at a really odd angle, and I soon realized that it was cold enough (at about -7ºC) for the sugar water in the container to freeze and make feeding a problem. From then on I would check every morning before doing anything else and thaw out the enegy drink whenever it was necessary. We were soon to move house and my first thought was that we couldn’t leave during the winter because the local hummingbirds had become reliant on the high energy food we were providing.

A wet cold winters day and two hummers shelter under the eave of the roof.
On our balcony the Anna’s hummingbirds that hung out with us through winter would perch under the eaves on and old seed block container to sit out a downpour.

Our winter feeding Anna’s hummingbirds would get a jump start on  potential nesting sites when they moved further north the following spring, and some might travel as far north as Alaska – a neighbour told me that it was proven that hummingbirds hitch a ride on the backs of geese, although I’m not quite sure which nursery rhyme she got that one from! 

A rufous hummingbird.
The record distance travelled by a hummer during migration is presently held by a rufous hummingbird at a little over 3,500 miles. 

Living on the Edge.

A hummingbird can metabolise sugars very quickly making an early morning intake of nectar avaibale as useful energy within about 20 minutes of feeding which is absolutely essential to survival.

It was a surprise to see hummingbirds waiting out winter in difficult conditions at the back of our house and I began to wonder how these little birds managed to survive so many cold nights when it was clear their feathers provided very little insulation.

The answer to this question sounds more like science fiction than science fact: each cold night the birds endure a near death experience; an evolutionary adaptation of their metabolic system which provides them with an extreme solution to an almost insurmountable problem.

They are able to survive falling temperatures by going into a form of suspended animation which parallels the Zuni claim that hummingbirds can slow down time. For the birds it is as if life is standing still; their existence hanging on a thread as they become hypothermic and go into torpor, with body temperatures dropping well below their active daytime body temperatures which are usually maintained at over 100˚ F.

After a cold night, it takes a while for hummingbirds to come back from the dead, and  they do so by vibrating muscles in a similar manner to a moth or bumblebee generating heat before taking off from a cold start. Then it’s a race to find food; there are no lazy hummingbirds, individuals get busy as soon as their flight muscles will allow and quickly begin searching for food just to stay alive. 

Spectacular in hovering flight a rufous hummingbird.
A rufous hummingbird – spectacular in hovering flight.

Small warm blooded animals have a large surface area in relation to their body mass, which means they lose heat far more quickly than do larger animals; in consequence hummingbirds are continually seeking out  food, living fast food lifestyles without the downside of obesity.  

Hummingbirds are exceptional in many ways:

they can achieve the highest heartbeat of any animal when fully active – at about 500 beats per second; and have the ability to convert sugar into energy far more quickly than any other warm blooded animal with adaptations to the digestive system that allow for rapid absorption of liquid sugars. The gizzard/stomach is comparatively large in relation to the bird’s size and the solution can pass quickly into the hummingbird’s intestine facilitating the generation of energy in a very short space of time. Hummingbirds however cannot survive entirely on the sugary juices provided by flowers and bird feeders, they require proteins gained from searching out invertebrates such as insects and spiders; this is necessary for growth and essential metabolic functions, and especially important during the rearing of offspring.

A hummingbird can metabolise sugars very quickly making an early morning intake of nectar avaibale as useful energy within about 20 minutes of feeding which is absolutely essential to survival.
Hummingbirds can metabolise sugars very quickly converting an early morning intake of nectar into useful energy within about 20 minutes which is essential for their survival.

A Bit Flash

The skin, hair and feathers of most animals are usually made up of pigmented surfaces that absorb some light wavelengths and reflect others which we see as colour.  Hummingbirds also have the advantage of irridescent plumage which is made all the more noticeable with sudden flashes of bright colour. 

At a particular angle or in poor light the irridescent throat of this male Anna's hummingbird is not clearly differentiated.
At a particular angle, or in poor light, the irridescent throat of this male Anna’s hummingbird is not so clearly differentiated.

Irridescent feathers have a different structure from non-iridescent feathers which allows light to be refracted rather than reflected back; the process occurs at different levels in the feather and the light combination results in irridescence – some wavelengths combine and cancel one another out, while others combine and intensify the colours we see. The angle that light hits the feathers and our view point results in us seeing bright flashes of intense colour as the bird moves.

At the correct angle the irridescent feathers produce an intensity of colour around the birds throat which most likely attacts the attention of their partner or a potential mate.
At the correct angle the irridescent feathers produce an intensity of colour around the birds throat that might attact the attention of a partner, or confuse a potential predator.

The great thing about hummingbirds is that you don’t have to go far to see them.

In the summer of 2014 I spent a week photographing rufous hummingbirds coming to feed on bee balm flowers in our local public gardens not far from the house. It was clear that when we had a garden of our own we might easily plant appropriate flowers to attract the birds in, and anybody living in the Americas can do the same.  I noticed the birds had feeding patterns – early in the morning was best if the light was good, because they were eager to get started and the flowers were brimming with nectar. Young birds had recently come off the nest and I had to be quick to get shots of them because the siblings were very competitive over this small patch of food scrapping and chasing one another relentlessly. 

A rufous hummingbird feeding on bee-balm flowers.
A rufous hummingbird feeding on bee balm flowers during the spring of 2014.

Hummingbirds do well feeding in small gardens, but sadly they have to run the gauntlet of urban cats. This isn’t a favourite subject for some cat owners who are in denial about what their cats really get up to once out of doors. Domestic cats kill more hummingbirds in North America than any other predator, and by a large margin so it makes sense for those who wish to attract wild birds into their gardens not to keep one.

Flying between low flowering plants presents a danger to hummingbirds from predators such as cats which are out of all proportion to predator numbers in a natural environment.
Flying between low flowering garden plants, hummingbirds are in danger of predation by cats and they are killed in numbers out of all proportion to predators in a natural environment.

Going South

When we lived in New Zealand I created a native wildlife garden from scratch and it didn’t take long to realise that the key to success in attracting native birds was improved pest control, available nesting sites, and the provision of appropriate food plants. Coming from Europe, nectar feeding birds were a novelty and so we were especially keen to attract in the honeyeaters – these members of the Meliphagidae family which includes tuis and bellbirds, species that were almost non-existent in our garden when we arrived in 2002, but prolific by the time we left in 2010.

This feeding on flax flowers in our New Zealand garden in 2009. Only a few years earlier this had been sheep pasture.
Young tuis feeding on flax flowers in our New Zealand garden in 2009 on what only a few years earlier had been sheep pasture.
Tuis are nectar feeders, great birds, but they don't quite have the aerial majesty of hummingbirds.
Nectar feeding tuis are  great birds, but they don’t quite have the aerial majesty of hummingbirds.

Today, our New Zealand neighbours are woken by a dawn chorus of native birds, something that would have been unthinkable on our bird silent property when we arrived. The native garden not only provides an important energy source in the form of nectar for birds, it also feeds many insects which provide the honeyeaters with their essential proteins – and the same is true for hummingbirds in the Americas.

Planting a rich nectar source in a garden is a no brainer, but it must be done withouth the use of toxic insecticides, which in any case shouldn’t be necessary if a garden is busy with insectivorous birds.

See ‘So Long New Zealand and Thanks for All the Sheep.’

Mexico

Getting going in the morning isn't such a problem if you live in Mexico!
Getting going in the morning isn’t such a problem if you live in a tropical region of Mexico!

 A recent trip to Mexico provided us with a chance to see a variety of hummingbirds that we never get in Canada, and at the start of the rainy season there was no shortage of opportunities to observe them. With that intention we spent several days in Vallarta Botanical Gardens, a place so packed with flowers, it fulfils an important secondary purpose supplying energy to nectar feeders.

A cinnamon Hummingbird getting angry about someting or other.
A cinnamon hummingbird getting angry with just about anything that came close to him.

Outside of the gardens in the surrounding environment it was possible to see the occasional hummingbird, but in the gardens where there was a super-source of food, there were dozens to be observed through the course of a day with very little effort.

Plain-capped star throat hummingbird Heliomaster constantii photographed in western Mexico.
Plain-capped star throat hummingbird Heliomaster constantii photographed in western Mexico.

 If the loss of natural habitats continues at the present rate, gardens and reserves may provide the best chance of survival for many species of plants and small animals. Certainly hummingbird nesting habitat is rapidly disappearing and although a great garden surrounded by protected woodland and scrub isn’t a longterm solution, until we wake up to the problems of habitat loss and instigate a more harmonious relationship with nature, it is the sort of place that will help and, in the end, may prove essential. 

Vallarta Botanical Gardens - seldom have I felt more comfortable - it was the the beginning of the rainy season busy with my favourite birds - this a broad-billed hummingbird Cynanthus latirostris.
A broad-billed hummingbird, Cynanthus latirostris feeding. 

Seldom have I felt more comfortable than in Vallarta Botanical Gardens at the beginning of the rainy season when it is busy hummingbirds.

A restaurant on the top floor of the visitors centre provides great margaritas and fine Mexican food; it also offers stunning views, not just over the river and surrounding forest, but closer to the balcony rail there are hummingbird feeders that are constantly busy.

One of the hummingbird feeders that never seemed to be short of visitors.
One of the Vallarta Botanical Garden busy hummingbird feeders – this one with perches for lazy hummers – but why fly if you can sit!?
A waiter in the restaurant hand feeds a hummingbird while the bird feeder gets refilled with 'liquid energy'.
A waiter in the restaurant hand feeds a hummingbird while the bird feeder is being refilled with ‘liquid energy’.

One thing I saw in the garden I’d never seen before was hummingbirds feeding on bromeliads. the botanic garden has an extensive collection and it is difficult to know which plant will be getting the next visit. My wife Jen acted as a spotter, which is very considerate with afternoon temperatures pushing past 100ºF.

A cinnamon hummingbird visiting a bromeliad flowering in the garden.
A cinnamon hummingbird visiting a bromeliad flowering in the botanic garden.

On returning to B.C. we quickly discover that there is little change in our local weather since we left, but despite less than ideal conditions, hummingbirds were still visiting our garden flowers.

We moved to our new house in the spring of 2015 and almost before I did anything else I was putting in  plants with flowers attractive to the hummers and it didn’t taken long for rufous hummingbirds to find them – this year the flower count is higher and the rufous are now here feeding on a daily basis. Maybe we will get to stage where we don’t stop whatever we are doing to marvel at their extrordinary beauty and stunning aerial ability… but so far, there seems to be no chance of that happening.

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I will continue to take pictures of hummingbirds wherever I see them. If you have local birds that are easily captured on camera then please do the same – keeping a pictorial record of species whenever possible is essential because we can never be certain how much longer they will be with us; even if it were true that every time a hummingbird arrives – time stands still.

With thanks to Vallarta Botanical Gardens. www.vbgardens.org

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Into the Woods – Wildlife Photography as a Surrealist Nightmare.

In Search of the Varied Thrush.

The varied thrush is not a rare bird where I live on the Lower Mainland. B.C.. Usually it overwinters in lowland forest and scrubland, but with ever increasing urbanisation many of its natural habitats are disappearing. Worldwide, woodland birds are under pressure as our numbers continue to rise and many natural areas are given over to agriculture, industry and housing.

Once, when a student, I went for a jog in Central London. Setting out from my hall of residence in South Kensington at 5.00 p.m. on a Friday afternoon I ran diagonally across Hyde Park to Marble Arch and back. It took a while, and on returning I lay on my bed for several hours wondering if I might be dying… I was 21 and my condition wasn’t down to over exertion, it was carbon monoxide poising, along with an unhealthy cocktail of other exhaust pollutants which then included lead. In those days, running in a town or city was a death wish… and probably, it still is.

If you Jog across Hyde Park, it is difficult to miss the George Frederic Watts sculpture 'Physical Energy'. Whatever the rider is looking at, he's been doing it since 1907 and won't have seen great changes apart from the trees growing. It is then odd and a little worrying that the wilder the surroundings I have lived in the greater the changes to my surroundings I have seen during my lifetime.
Crossing Hyde Park, it is difficult to miss the George Frederic Watts sculpture ‘Physical Energy’. Whatever the rider is looking at, he’s been doing it since 1907 and won’t have noticed a lot of change over the years, apart from trees growing. It is disconcerting that outside of city parks so many natural areas have disappeared in my lifetime.

I remember a time when only sporty people in training went for a jog. Ask my father when he last voluntarily ran and he’d look at you as if you were crazy. Working a sedentary office job for most of his life he didn’t even do walking for exercise, unless there was a ’99’ at the end of it –  that, if I remember correctly is a cone of soft ice-cream with a chocolate flake shoved into it.

My father is now 93, has always been active, but has never ‘run for fun’, and remains in reasonable health for his age. Without the hook of an exercise induced endorphin rush, he’s managed to hang onto his own hips and knees, which is more than can be said for a great many of old joggers.

And that’s what I’m seeing today – lots of joggers of all ages, shapes and sizes as I walk through the urban reserve in search of varied thrushes, for no better reason than they are beautiful. I’d prefer to do this in wilderness, but that’s a good hour away. I live in suburbia now, and visiting a local reserve is altogether more practical. Nevertheless, this will be my worst day photographing wildlife for a very long time – it appears a group of people have met up in the car park to organize a major surrealist experience for me… but I don’t know that yet.

I watch a woman jog by; she’s wearing the sort of clothes that others sport if they want to look smart when out shopping, except few will wheeze like she does even walking through a mall let alone running. Well, I say running…  if I left the camera I could walk three times faster, and possibly backwards. Like the frog that halves it’s distance with every jump across the path, logic suggests that given infinite time, this woman will never make it back to the car park.

I’m not complaining you understand, this is after all a public place – so what can you expect…More importantly, what might you hope for – fewer dogs perhaps. I think back to my childhood, to a time when dogs jumped over garden gates to exercise themselves, usually inappropriately, as without supervision they invariably get into mischief. It is of course much better now that they are on leashes and accompanied by responsible owners. But when did this mass dog walking thing start? I’ve never seen so many. It’s two in the afternoon and suddenly finals day at Crufts.

Usually I wouldn’t mind, but after a long search I’ve found a small group of varied thrushes coming down from the trees to feed; they are on the opposite side of the path working around the base of a stump and sometimes feeding on top of it. I’m trying to get a few shots, but with the constant procession of people and pets, my chances have been fleeting.

There is for a moment a lull and it looks as if I might get something, then suddenly a coyote dashes though in the back of frame. Perhaps it’s the big one I saw this morning crossing a wetland on the boardwalk, the one that eyed me with complete indifference. But this ‘Wile E.’ is the wrong colour, and I soon recognize it as a big brown dog crashing through the undergrowth with considerable force. There is a flurry of activity as two squirrels dash past, and the back ends of three thrushes rapidly diminish in size as they missile away. Seconds later, the dog flashes past me as well, and he’s having the time of his life. Then his owner comes into view around a curve in the path.

‘Is that your dog? I ask, sounding indignant, which I do really well.

‘Yea it is, and he just loves those squirrels!’

I’m guessing he means in the same way that I love a prawn curry. As quickly as the dog and his man arrived they disappear and after a few minutes things settle down again – just like one of those few happy scenes in ‘Bambi’, the animals return to the space in front of where I am sitting.

Birds working for insects in the trees above like this chestnut-backed chickadee, are less bothered by all the fuss below them.
Birds working for insects in the trees above, like this chestnut-backed chickadee, seem less bothered by all the commotion going on below.

Just as I’m thinking that all is not lost… I realise I am mistaken… Another dog, this time a grey one, comes dashing around the corner and it looks like a pointer – the sort of dog that has most of its brain connected to its nose with not a lot left over for everything else; he’s moving at speed and co-ordination appears to be a problem; there’s never a time when this creature doesn’t look as if he is going to crash into something. Miraculously, the dog stays on its feet as he passes me, and fortunately there are no small children around to take out. Then, as quickly as his arrival, the creature has gone and the madness over… But no… he’s back and passing me again, this time in the opposite direction, and at breakneck speed only just re-takes the corner.

Thank goodness, it’s finally over… But hang on, it’s not… Like a bad case of deja vu, this doggy nightmare has returned to do it all over again, but now with a  seven foot chunk of tree in his mouth. The strength of this animal’s neck is incredible – the branch is held at one end, with the rest barely touching the ground – and he’s still coming – which is troublesome.

The path is about five feet wide and if Muttley stays on course, both the tripod and camera will be toast. I can either grab the tripod or my camera bag… I opt for the tripod because most my money is on top of that. At the very last moment, as I prepare to jump into the undergrowth, the dog veers across to my left and into the woodland, sything everything in his path. It has been freezing cold for days, and up until now, the ferns have managed to withstand the onslaught of permanent frost, but they are no match for this new threat. Fern fronds and frost flakes flash and fall in the sharp light of a sun now dropping ever lower into the trees.

A winter visitor the varied thrush is the bird I have really come to photograph.
A winter visitor in lowland forest, the varied thrush is a real treat to see.

Not long after, as things quieten down again, a young woman rounds the bend.

‘Is that your dog?’… my words of indignation are now well practiced.

‘Yes, he’s mine’, she says with pride.

‘He should be on a lead. This is a conservation area.’

Is it? I didn’t know that.’

Shortly after, as she passes by, the young woman becomes embroiled in conversation with an older lady who is walking a dog in the opposite direction – the pointer is long gone, and the older lady offers friendly advice.

‘It is as well to have your dog on a leash’ here. she suggests, ‘The wardens were around yesterday and they take a dim view of dogs away from their owners.’

‘Missed it by a day’, I’m thinking. The irritation hasn’t subsided yet, and feel obliged to say,

‘I don’t mind your dog off of the lead so much as it being totally out of control’.

There’s no response to this, which at the very least, saves a lot of time.

Not all bad - a Christmas tree decorated in the forest is certainly in keeping with this odd afternoon
Not all bad – a decorated Christmas tree in the forest is in keeping with the oddness of the afternoon.

Earlier in the day I heard somebody ask a dog walker to put his dog on a lead because there were young children about. The request was accompanied by a please and the dog owner immediately complied. Not the sort of response I would get when living in Britain, where asking a dog owner to leash their dog was frequently greeted with a hostility more in keeping with an assault on their mother.

But this is Canada and most Canadians are relentlessly reasonable – in fact, they can wear you down with their reasonableness – but you can’t help but like them, although often, when out in the nature some will speak very loudly and you hear them coming a mile away, but I’m guessing that’s to scare the bears away, because it scares away just about everything else. When the voicesters eventually pass, invariably they apologise, presumably for being alive and too close to you, even though they have every right to be. I always feel bad about this, because nobody should be expected to have to deal with such nice people.

I really am running out of light now – as the sun drops things get increasingly cooler. I’ve been out all day, and can no longer touch the camera without shaking it. There’s still a little time though, so I take the obvious course and attach a flexible cable release.

The frost has been around for days - nothing thaws and the birds are suitably fluffed up - this song sparrow is't singing now - but if he makes it through to spring he will be.
The frost has been around for days – nothing thaws and the birds remain suitably fluffed up. This song sparrow isn’t singing now, but if he makes it through to the spring – he will do so then.

The thing is, the joggers, the dog walkers and me… we will all get to go home for our evening meal. But right now, the birds are on the brink of roosting and if they haven’t fuelled up adequately during the day, some will not see tomorrow’s sunrise. When you live in a centrally heated condo and have totally lost contact with the outside world, understanding the most obvious things about nature is a big ask. We simply lose awareness. It all looks so beautiful; the birds are all in fantastic condition, and that’s because, those that aren’t… are already dead.

I begin to feel as if this is my last chance with the thrushes. It seems odd that I should feel this so repeatedly. A nun goes by and she smiles as she says hello, and I’m thinking – now I’m in a ‘Monty Python’ sketch, but this is no man dressed up as a woman, she’s authentically normal and quietly reading something. I really want to know what it is, and strain my neck to see. I’m guessing it is a religious text, but hoping that it might be ‘Catcher in the Rye’. an altogether more appropriate read for this particular afternoon. Sadly, I will never know.

The Douglas Squirrel is a true native to the area and one of my favourites
The Douglas Squirrel is a true native of the area and a favourite of mine.

Then the reason I am here shows up. Or rather the husband of the reason I am here shows up; soon to be followed by the reason I am here. Just as I’m getting a good shot of the thrushes, a voice behind me says. It’s a tui isn’t it? because whatever I am doing appears totally inconsequential to the voice owner.

‘No!’ I say, but nothing follows, because I’m thinking that a tui is a bird that isn’t even on this continent. Much later I realise that he must be saying ‘Towee’, but not before my wife has worked this out and explained it to me.

Then his wife and I  say in unison: ‘It’s a thrush’.

Which is quite something, because as yet I still haven’t seen her.

A New Zealand Tui. A Brit. might consider a Southern Hemisphere more appropriately upside down, but in this case it's just coincidence. appropriate upside downto be a
The New Zealand Tui. A Brit. might consider a Southern Hemisphere bird more appropriate upside down, but in this case it really is coincidental. 

  

This is the local Southern B.C. spotted towee.
This is the local Southern B.C. spotted towhee.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A tall man of some age moves past me and what is most striking about him is that attached to his front is a harness and pulling at the harness is a dog. In this ‘Alice in Wonderland’ world I am now living in I begin to wonder if this is the way that old people get around now. I’ve seen plenty of people dragged along by their dogs, but this is the most novel method of increasing mobility for the aged I’ve come across and wonder if it will catch on. I hope so, because presently the old gentleman is standing right in front of the camera.

Then his wife passes by and moves ahead of him, scattering peanuts and seed to either side of the track as she goes, which immediately reminds me of ‘The Sower’ – a picture by Jean Everett Millais. An artist who was born in the same place as I was – Southampton, England. Although at the time of writing I’m around 124 years younger than he is, which doesn’t seem unusual on a day when anything seems possible.

Sower and Seed by Millet reminds me of the woman casting peanuts and seeds as she walks along the path.
‘The Sower’ (a theme often repeated in art) by Jean Everett Millais, comes at once to mind. This wood engraving is sometimes confused with ‘The Sower’ by Jean Francois Millet which might be a more appropriate surname under the circumstances.

Once the couple have gone, the birds return and begin to feed more unpredictably in all of the places the woman has cast her nuts and seeds. I have been picking off shots through the afternoon as birds and squirrels come and go, essentially because they are finishing up the remains of her previous food drop, but now she has provided too many options for me to cover.

Feeding wild animals can be a problem. Knock up the grey squirrel population and they’ll be eating young birds in the nest come spring. It’s difficult to know what best to do. For much of the year feeding is unnecessary anyway, but without doubt, this activity gets more birds through the winter, especially in this very cold weather with all the human disturbance they have to endure, and with so little natural habitat left in the surrounding area. Present regulations no longer provide a completely sustainable environments for wildlife in suburban areas and how we conserve what remains is open to question. With well meaning people out feeding local ferrel cats, it is apparent that bird conservation is not top of the list for everybody. Some just have other priorities.

O.K. So I'm getting a few shots of the bird I came to photograph - this, with the more delicate plumage colours is a female varied thrush.
It hasn’t been easy, but to be fair I am getting a few shots of this lovely thrush –  a more delicate plumage colouration, indicates that this is a female.

There are now birds and squirrels all around me picking off the food that has been scattered – a last chance to feed before nightfall. With only a few minutes before the light goes altogether I set to my task with renewed enthusiasm – I just want to get a little more, but a group arrives and stands right in front of me as if they haven’t noticed my existence, even though I’m crouched almost at their feet. They have chosen to have a meeting, which they are perfectly entitled to do, but it’s a dog poo moment for me. Clearly this isn’t my afternoon.

‘Sorry,’  a girl has already said as she passed me on the path, at just about the same time as a lady from the approaching group of five recognised her. What are the chances of that eh? My lucky day!

‘Hey there! I know you. You’re Wendy… I nearly didn’t recognize you. You’ve really grown. Where are you now?’

I think I know the answer to this one, because it is written in big letters across her chest, but all I can see from my position is the end of a word and that spells GINA, which sets alarm bells ringing.

I’m at Regina’, says the girl.’

A university! Thank goodness for that, because people put the oddest things on t-shirts these days.

‘And what are you doing now.’

‘Running, I’m soccer training.’

I’ve lost interest in the birds by now and am thinking, ‘Wake up girl! … she doesn’t mean ‘RIGHT’ this minute’. ‘University education isn’t what it used to be’, thinks one of the older people – the old one that was me.

The conversation continues for two or three minutes, mostly at cross purposes and I’m still getting colder – which I didn’t think possible. I’ve lost the feeling in several of my fingers. Then everybody moves on and the birds return once again, but just as they do, a couple of lads come around the bend. One is swishing a stick at the fern fronds ahead of him (as if they haven’t had enough trouble today). The other boy is not so erratic in his movements, and seems calmed by something on a wooden support by the path – he’s completely transfixed by it, and kneels down to undertake the improbable task of unscrewing the object using only the palm of his left hand. What has happened is clear. I have been bombed by a group of special needs teenagers.

Am I allowed to say that this is really inconvenient? Even if really it isn’t. The circumstances just provide the impetus for me to say what my brain needs to hear. ‘I’m out of here’. It’s beyond cold now, the boys have done me a favour. It is almost dark as I pack up my gear. The lad with the stick has apparently dropped it and as I leave, is looking at something in the sky that doesn’t appear to be there. A bit like my whole afternoon to be honest.

As I wander off, the other boy is joined by a helper who is clearly trying to think of the best way to tell his care that trying to unscrew whatever it  is, is futile, but words fail him; instead he stands waiting for the boy to discover the inevitable for himself. There is something rather soothing about this – the carer smiles philosophically as I walk by – there is a lot to be said for waiting for things to take their natural course, but I for one, never seem to have the time. ‘Happy New Year’, I say as we pass.

Perhaps the nicest picture I managed of the varied thrush before I lost the light, but nevertheless a third leg appears to have fallen onto the ground beneath the bird, which is entirely in keeping with this surrealist afternoon
This is perhaps the nicest picture of a varied thrush that I manage before losing the light, but nevertheless a third leg appears to have fallen onto the ground beneath the bird, which is entirely in keeping with a surrealist afternoon.

I’ve spent the best part of a day and a half,  frozen to the bone,  looking for thrushes, followed by an afternoon photographing them, and my success has been fleeting, but I’ve enjoyed being out there – any time with nature makes you feel more alive, even when you’re cold.

On this interesting afternoon all the ingredients were available for a perfect shot – the light was for a time quite beautiful and the birds were present. But in the end, fate conspired against me, although that’s an egocentric viewpoint that probably has no basis in reality.

In retrospect, this, the last day of 2015 has been the most surreal and interesting afternoon of the year for me, but when 2016 arrives… please… not another one quite like this.

N.B. Species diversity is the best measure of the health of our Planet and inevitably, that has consequences for us all. Human populations continue to expand in almost all inhabitable lowland areas of the world and nature reserves have an essential role to play in supporting wildlife, but increasingly, as our numbers increase, reserves are under pressure and it may be necessary to reconsider how much land we put aside to make the word ‘conserve’, meaningful. Presently, we do little more than congratulate ourselves for having reserves at all – in many cases these are multi-purpose and are sold to the public as amenity areas. In truth there are few politicians who have grasped the reality that sometimes you can’t conserve wildlife successfully in areas where people have other priorities – it only works if everybody understands what is required and behaves accordingly – a situation that politicians either can’t comprehend or simply don’t chose to. It would of course be different if birds had the vote – and in my parallel alternative surrealist world… they would.

The preservation of our lowland forests is essential to our well being.
The preservation of our lowland forests is essential to our well being, but we need to look beyond that and ask whether we should do more than simply manage these areas for our own needs.

The truth is, we can do more or less whatever we like, providing we don’t reduce species diversity. In the end, whether a single species of bird continues to overwinter at a local reserve, wherever that might be, has far-reaching effects, because what happens radiates out in a three dimensional ball of environmental consequences. If wildlife is decreasing (and we know, broadly speaking, that it is) we must either provide more reserves, or limit our own longterm expansion. If we fail even common birds like the varied thrush, the results could be far reaching and make my surrealist nightmare of a day look like…  Well…  Just another walk in the park. 

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