Tag Archive: Birds in flight

Like many, owls are one of my favourite groups of birds to photograph. Early this summer I had an awesome week with 3 different species ranging in size from tiny to tall, endangered to numerous, with all of them having the common theme of putting on a great display of flight for me.

It started off in Grasslands, with the charismatic, endangered burrowing owl that came to hunt insects right next to where I had set up my gear.

Burrowing owl flight forward WMNext stop was Banff and my good owl luck continued with the first animal I came across being an impressive great grey owl. It was conveniently perched right next to a roadside pullout, and didn’t seem bothered at all by the traffic. Despite being so visible, most people didn’t even see it as they drove past! He’s an image as it hunted for a vole in the grass.

GGO flight motion feathers eye WMLater that same day I got a tip about a northern pygmy owl hanging around the area. Sure enough, after a bit of waiting I spotted this tiny little owl. It flew directly into a tree cavity before I could get a picture, so I waited for its exit. I barely had time to prepare. It seemed to almost shoot out of the cavity, and as I held the shutter release button I wasn’t sure if I was quick enough. It wasn’t until I got home and downloaded the images that I found this one.

Northern Pygmy owl flight cropped WMNeedless to say, it was a great week of owl photography and one I won’t soon forget!

Great grey owls are the tallest owls in North America, and yet they weigh about half as much as snowy or great horned owls. They are in essence giant fluff balls and need to always be on the lookout for potential predators. I found this great grey owl on a recent trip through the Rockies. Surprisingly, it was out hunting during the middle of the day, when many of its potential predators were out and about. It was on high alert for large raptors and when it spotted a circling red-tailed hawk, it immediately went into defensive mode. It locked its eyes on the hawk, fluffed itself up and tried to appear as intimidating as possible.

GGO high alert WMDeciding that the intimidation factor wasn’t having the desired results, it made a quick retreat!

GGO launching into flight WM

Heading to the ground allowed the owl to both hide under the bushes and provided camouflage. Any attack from the hawk would allow the owl to roll over on its back and use its talons to fend off the raptor. If you’ve ever come across an injured owl or hawk on the ground, you’ve probably experienced this same strategy first hand.

GGO on ground WMAfter several minutes the hawk soared over to another meadow and the owl relaxed. With the coast clear, it flew off low to the ground.

GGO flight exit WMThis process was repeated a few more times, but with the spring rodent supply being so plentiful the easy prey must have outweighed the hassle of putting up with the pesky hawk.

There are two things that are pretty common in Yellowstone during the spring. Almost everywhere we went we saw herds of bison and large flocks of mountain bluebirds, all of them searching out areas in the park where the snow had either completely disappeared or was just about to. The spring thaw and green-up was in full swing which made for prime feeding grounds. The bison were chomping down on tiny stems of green grass wherever they could find it and when that wasn’t available or was covered over in fresh snow, they resorted to winter-killed, high roughage stalks of grass. Bison have lots of character and this one seemed to want to go for a hillbilly look and I must say, pulled it off better than anyone else I have seen try.

Bison Hillbilly WM

It wasn’t until watching the bluebirds for some time that it became clear they were relying on by-products of bison to help them survive the first few months of spring. In March and early April there aren’t as many insects to feed on. But as it turns out, buried within and under old bison patties are lots of overwintering insect larvae. With their keen eyesight, the bluebirds snatched these insects up as they emerged from the dried-up dung. Other times they would use the piles as perches to get a better vantage point to spot their next meal.

Bluebird on bison patty WM

As the saying goes, one person’s trash is a another person’s treasure!  To some, this might diminish the image of these beautiful birds, but without them we would suffer even more from the torture of biting flies, mosquitoes, ticks and other pesky insects.  So for me it adds another level of appreciation since doing all of this dirty work and still looking good can’t be easy. With that I will end on a high note with one last photo that showcases just how spectacular and stunning these birds really are.

Bluebird flight and perched WM

Angry Birds

Osprey aerial fighting WM

Well not really, more like hungry birds! These two osprey are siblings that successfully fledged this year. They took to the skies to practice their maneuvers and to compete with one another for the best waiting spot. It takes a few more weeks after fledgling before they are proficient at hunting on their own so the parents would return with fresh fish to give to them. It was always first come, first serve and once one had a fish there was no way they were going to share it!

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!

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!