Category: Birds


GGO spruce top horizontal best WM

With its razor sharp talons firmly grasped around the flimsy top of a sapling, a great grey owl intensely scans and listens for any unsuspecting prey.

Rufous hummingbird flight spider fledglings final WM

A round trip migration of over 12000 km, a heart rate of 1200 beats/minute, a wing beat rate of 3000-3700 beats/minute, having to go into torpor every evening to survive the long cold nights. Hummingbirds are about as close to mythical that exists in the bird world. I have held them in my hands, felt the vibrations of their little hearts beating and marveled at how something so small  and fragile can survive, but it’s still hard to believe they can eek out a living  in the harsh environment of the Canadian Rockies. Until this year I had never seen an active nest in the wild. So to say I was ecstatic when, with a bit of help, I came across this one would be a bit of an understatement!

Hummingbird nests, which in themselves are works of art, are constructed with the soft silk of spider webs! Imagine how many spider webs are needed to make a nest like this?  It was placed on a thin drooping branch that wouldn’t support the weight of any potential predators (crows, squirrels, martens, etc.). It was woven around the branches and then lichen and moss were attached to the outside to provide camouflage.  As is typical, 2 eggs the size of small jellybeans were laid and incubated for just over 2 weeks. The chicks grow at an exponential rate and within 19 days they fledge, fly off with mom and never return to the nest again.

When I came across this one, the chicks were already about 1.5 weeks old and had tiny pin feathers. Contrary to what many believe, hummingbirds don’t rely on nectar to feed their young. The rapidly growing chicks need a high protein diet so they are almost exclusively fed insects. This is why in early summer if you have a hummingbird feeder you won’t see females at it. They return to the feeders later in the summer with their fully grown offspring to teach the young about the best feeding spots. This lasts all but a few days at which point the offspring are self-sufficient.

Watching a hummingbird can be dizzying, not to mention painful from all of the mosquito bites, and while I wish I could say I planned to get this photo, simply put, I didn’t nor could I have imagined it possible given the conditions! The light was low, the nest was well hidden, multiple small branches were getting in the way and as you know these birds do everything at warp speed. I knew the only way I was ever going to have a chance at being successful was if the sun’s rays found a break in the trees to penetrate into the forest and if I set my camera up on a tripod and manually focused on the nest. With the settings locked in I stepped back from the camera with my remote in hand to take in the action from a distance so I didn’t disturb them. After a few minutes the sun was low enough to get through the dense canopy and light up the area around the nest. Now all I needed was for the mom to come back and feed her babies.

Luck was on my side. She flew in and started plunging food down the throats of her chicks. After feeding them she would usually zoom off into the surrounding meadows to catch more food, but this time she did something different. She flew up from the nest but remained hovering right next to it in the beautiful soft light of the sun!  I was too far away to see what she was looking at so instead I clicked the remote as fast as possible hoping I would get one good photo of her in flight. The whole sequence lasted less than two seconds but I managed to snap off a few frames that were in focus. It wasn’t until afterwards when I zoomed in on the images that I saw what she was so intent on. Under the watchful eyes of her chicks she had spotted and caught a spider!  If you look at this photo closely you can see one of the legs of the unsuspecting spider in her beak just before she clamped down on it! The spider tried to get away by hiding behind the branch but it was no match for the hummingbird and was quickly snapped up and eaten!

While I have other images of the mom and her chicks, none tells the story of the life of this hummingbird family as well as this one! The background and shadows are a bit distracting but this photo is still to date my favourite photo of the year. I hope you like it as much as I do!

Rufous hummingbird perched WM

Imagine having to eating 2-3 times your body weight in food every day just to survive!  That if you have a bad day of not finding enough food you are going to starve to death! Hummingbirds push the limits and live their lives on the edge. No wonder people rarely see them doing anything but eating.

Their incredibly high metabolic rate means that the only way they can survive the long nights without eating is to go into a form of hibernation, called torpor. Every night they lower their body temperature to prevent wasting energy trying to keep their internal temperature at around 38 degrees Celsius. Their heart rate slows to as low as 50 beats per minute (from over 800-1200) and respiratory rates are not detectable. Simply put they appear to be dead. A few hours before dawn they have an internal alarm clock that goes off that awakens them from this suspended animation. At this point they fluff themselves up, start to shiver and beat their wings. This generates enough heat to increase their body temperature a few degrees a minute. Total time to awaken from torpor takes about 20-60 minutes.  If they have budgeted their energy reserves well, once awake they have just enough energy to fly off and find their first meal of the day. Now try to imagine how much they need to eat to raise 2-3 chicks!

This photo is of a female rufous hummingbird after coming back from a successful feeding trip to feed her two rapidly growing chicks (photos to come down the road). She took a quick break to rest during a chilly morning in the Rockies.

Barn swallow flock flight Waterton landscape WM

I don’t get down to Waterton as much as I would like these days but when I do make the trip it is always special. Having spent lots of time there in the past, I have certain spots I like to revisit to see if the wildlife is still following the same rhythms. Even though much of the park was closed due to the recent flooding I wasn’t disappointed when we came across the huge flock of cliff swallows I have been watching for a few years now. I took this photo with a 12-24mm wide angle lens so that gives you an idea of how close the birds get. It felt like I was in the middle of their flock and they didn’t seem concerned in the least by our presence, often times hovering only a few feet away as the strong winds blew through the mountain passes.

Barn swallow in flight 2 WM

The strong winds were perfect for the swallows to use to hover above the water in search of insects. I used the opportunity to try to get a few close-ups of them in flight. Not an easy feat even when they are close-by and cooperative.

Barn swallow in flight 1 WM

This one is my favourite of the close-ups. It clearly shows the aerodynamic profile of the wings and how the birds use their tail feathers to help stabilize and steer themselves through the air.

Barn swallow in flight 3 WM

I’m in the danger zone taking this picture but thankfully none of the swallows took issue with me and I made it out no worse for wear!

Mergansers on a log watermark

Great Blue Heron WM

Seemingly oblivious to our presence, a great blue heron stalks prey next to a marsh. It slowly moved in for the strike but came up empty on this attempt.

Pelican in flight WM

Hard to beat eating the best locally caught, grilled Mahi Mahi steak I have ever tasted, while sipping on a gin and tonic and watching brown pelicans and Atlantic bottlenose dolphins fishing in the inlet next to our table at the Dolphin View restaurant near New Smyrna, Florida.

There are few sounds in nature that signify wilderness and pristine waters than that of the song of a loon.  They are one of my favourite signs of spring in the mountains and it’s always a thrill to see them! I lucked out with this one as it actually approached me when I noticed it along the river’s edge.

Loon PS WM

The loon swam closer and closer before it stopped a short distance away. I’m not sure if it saw its reflection in my lens or if he was displaying for some other reason, but whatever the cause he proceeded to give me a wonderful territorial display by stretching out his neck and legs and lifting his wings. After getting a few photos of this interesting behaviour I packed up my gear and left him be as he resumed his fishing nearby.

Loon territorial display PS WM

 

Red necked grebe PS WMI had hiked in to a spot beside a river to look for wildlife but nothing was around at the time. Instead of leaving, I decided to lay down and have a nap in a spot that if something did show up I would be a in a good spot to get photos. I quickly drifted off for a light sleep for about an hour. When I woke up I scanned the area before I sat up, but again I didn’t see anything. Figuring I should move on I sat up and almost immediately this grebe popped up in the water about 20 feet away. I waited until it dove back under the water before I moved back into position and waited. My wait wasn’t very long. It surfaced right in front of me and stayed there just long enough for me to get a few photos.

 

Stacked mountains and ducks BW PS WMThree green winged teal stack themselves like the three mountain peaks as they fly along the Rocky Mountain migratory route to their summer retreat.

Ptarmigan takeoff 3 WM

A willow ptarmigan kicks up snow as it bursts into flight to rejoin the rest of the nearby flock.

 

Ptarmigan willows horizontal WM One of the other hardy species I came across on a daily basis in Denali where the willow ptarmigan. With their almost all white feathers apart from the red upper eyelashes and their black tails, they are sometimes hard to find. Fittingly, this one made its way through some willow bushes to browse on the freeze-dried leaves.  These birds are quiet adaptable. When storms blow in or when predators are around they will fly into the snow and bury themselves beneath it to either wait out the storm or avoid being seen.

Snow Geese Migration

Snow geese massive flock WM

One of the most remarkable wildlife sights I have ever seen happened by chance on the drive back from Yellowstone last month. Initially it started off with a relatively small flock of about 50 snow geese passing overhead.  Soon I noticed another flock and then another, but it wasn’t until I glanced west to take in the Rockies on a clear, beautiful day that I saw almost the entire western horizon dotted with these geese! I had heard about the snow geese migration, but I had never witnessed it before. To see hundreds of thousands of birds in the sky at once was so amazing I had a hard time keeping my eyes on the road. As luck would have it, a large majority of them were headed in our direction. No more than a few kilometers up the road, thousands of these birds starting landing in a farmer’s field. This must have been a cue for the rest of the massive flock to land for the night, because within minutes there were thousands upon thousands of snow geese fluttering to the ground while making their distinctive calls along the way. I found a side road to turn off onto and started firing off photos.  In the below photo a small fraction of the goose flock flew overhead. See if you can spot another species of bird in with the geese.

Snow geese and mallards WM

A few minutes later, about a 1 kilometer stretch of the field was covered with these geese. They continued to honk as they gobbled up grain, which prompted the geese still in the sky to circle around and start landing as well. Within 10 minutes there were hundreds of thousands of birds on the ground!

There are a few examples of animals that have adapted to living with the billions of us! Snow geese are one of these. Their population has grown to over 5 million breeding birds, a 300 fold increase since the 1970’s! Much of this has been attributed to the rapid agricultural expansion that has occurred in the west, creating a smorgasbord of food for these birds as they make their way to and from the Arctic every Spring and Fall.  Other possible factors include rising Arctic temperatures. However, that only partly explains their population expansion. A lot of it also has to do with their behavioural adaptation to a changing environment.  Historically they fed in marshes but a few of the smart ones or maybe by chance some stumbled across the fact that people leave tonnes of uneaten food in the fields every year.  With the flat rolling prairies it’s also easier to see predators approaching from a distance or from the sky. This new-found migration strategy must have been passed along to the point that almost all the geese stop over in these fields to fuel up before continuing their journey.

Below is a photo of the organized goose chaos.  Multiply this photo hundreds of times and you will get an idea of what it was like to be next to this massive flock. It’s remarkable that they manage to coordinate their movements enough that they are able to land, take off and feed without colliding into each other and plummet  to the ground. It certainly is an experience I will never forget.

Snow geese standing and flight WM

Northern flicker PS SS WM

While enjoying a picnic near the Yellowstone river, this Northern flicker flew past and landed on a  nearby dead tree. Flickers never stick around for more than a few seconds, so I knew I had to be quick if I wanted to get any photos of it. Thankfully, I had left me camera right beside me so as I grabbed it I rolled onto my stomach, propped the camera against my camera bag and fired off a few frames before it was gone. I find flickers one of the hardest birds to get decent photographs of, so I was pleased that this on turned out OK.

 

Goldeneyes in flight WM