Photojournal - 14 January 2006

Counting trumpets


Saturday the 14th was the first decent-weather day we'd had in quite a while. Fortunately, it was also on a weekend and so I was able to get out and enjoy it. I'd recently read about a large flock of Trumpeter Swans that had been feeding in a field near some of my usual haunts around Boundary Bay, so I started the day by heading that way. I had just reached the area when I noticed a raptor circling above the road in front of me. I pulled over and trained my camera on him, and he obliged by moving his circling to almost directly above my head. It was a Red-tailed Hawk.  

That shot of the hawk gives you a good view of what is probably the best field mark for recognizing a flying Red-tail: not the reddish tail, which can be difficult to determine the color of, but the dark blotches on the leading edge of the underside of the wings, extending about halfway to a third of the way out the wing. These blotches are called patagial marks, and Red-winged Hawks are the only hawks that have light wings with dark patagial marks. So if you see the dark "headlights," you've got a Red-tailed.

From where I had pulled over, I noticed the Trumpeter Swans that I was looking for, but they were across the highway. I had to double back to get to them. When I pulled onto the side road that was nearest to them, I found that they were on the far side of a field. There was no way to get close to the flock (save perhaps getting close to a few of them by parking on the side of the highway). I took a few shots of them before I decided to pull out my heavy artillery: the telescope. I can get much better views of things through my scope (which is 50x magnification) than I can through my binoculars (10x magnification) or camera viewfinder (effectively 10x when I'm using my long lens). Although I can see cool stuff with my scope, I don't use it that often because I can't share what I'm seeing with it, like I can with the camera.

Anyhow, here's the corner of the flock that was closest to the highway. Those cars in the background are zooming by.

 
I've seen Trumpeters on many occasions before, but there had been reports of a couple of Tundra Swans in this flock, and I'd never seen a Tundra Swan before. Tundra Swans look a whole lot like Trumpeters, and one has to look quite closely to be able to accurately tell the difference. So I scanned through the flock, looking for the distinguishing feature, which is a small bit of yellow plumage on the face of the Tundra. As I scanned, I didn't see any Tundras, but I did come across three Swans wearing very fashionable red collars. The leftmost swan in the following photo (from a little later, when I had my camera out again) has such a collar. It looked to me like each of the collars had a radio built in to it, and so I wondered just what sort of radio station a swan would listen to.  

This was a big flock of Trumpeters. It wasn't near as big as some other flocks I've seen, such as Surf Scoters or Snow Geese or Dunlin, but it was big by Trumpeter standards. A couple of birders had counted this flock, and one had counted 430 a few days before, and another, my pal Carlo, had counted 425 maybe one day before. I scanned the flock a second time, this time counting birds. I stopped counting at 300 but there were clearly at least another 100 that I hadn't counted, so the flock hadn't changed numbers much in the last day or so. I would have kept counting but I was interrupted by a newspaper photographer who had pulled up behind me and came over to talk about the birds.

Now, it turns out that I had done some recent reading about Trumpeter Swans in one of my books, and this book said that around 1990, the population estimate for Trumpeter Swans was 10,000 birds. When Carlo had posted about his 425 birds, that instantly hit my head as 4% of the total population of Trumpeter Swans. Before I fell out of my chair, though, I asked about current population estimates, and Guy (turns out he's more than just a goose guy, he's a swan guy, too) says that the last published estimate, from 2000, is around 25,000 birds. That's still neat, in that Trumpeters are making a recovery (they had a rough go of it in the first half of last century) and that the flock that I had encountered was still around 2% of the 2000 population, or most probably between 1% and 2% of the current population.

To put that in perspective, imagine me standing at the side of the road, looking at 1% to 2% of the entire human population feeding in a muddy field. Or 1% to 2% of the entire horse fly population. I think you'd agree that either of those would be quite a spectacle...and it was that sort of spectacle that I was watching here. It was a bit humbling to know that I could, in one view, see such a big percentage of a species. If something were to happen to this one flock (like the wrong pesticide being used in the farm field they were in), that would have significant impact on the entire species.

So what does 1 to 2% of the world's population of Trumpeter Swans look like? Well, when I was done looking through the scope (I was at it for over an hour), I took some photos so that I could show you. It looks like the following.

 

That may not look like much, and you probably have a hard time seeing any swans there, so go ahead and click on it. That should take you to a larger version of the photo. If that larger photo isn't at least a few times wider than your window, move your cursor to its bottom-right corner and click on the icon that will appear there (if you're using Internet Explorer) to expand it to full size.

Each of the white dots in the photo is at least one swan, except for some in the middle and on the far left side of the photo. In both of those locations, there is a small flock of gulls in front of the swans; the gulls are the small white dots, and the swans are the big white dots.

Although I didn't get great focus on that photo, I was quite happy with it, because it's a panorama. I made it by having Photoshop assemble five photos into one. Shooting a panorama entails getting the same exposure and focus settings on all of the photos that you're going to put together, and not overexposing or underexposing the whole lot. This is the first time I've been able to successfully do that, even though my camera has a control to help with it. Maybe more panoramas are in my future.

While I had my scope out, I had gotten a call from my friends Marcia and Grant. They were calling me from the other side of the highway, where I had first seen the Red-tailed Hawk. They had just encountered Ilya on his bike, and the three of them were looking across the highway at the same flock of swans that I was looking at. They wanted to check to see if I had found any Tundra Swans in there. I hadn't, and it turns out the three of them had looked over the flock and hadn't found one either. So maybe the tundras had moved on.

Anyhow, Marcia had said that the three of them were going down to the bay and look for a Gyrfalcon that Ilya had seen earlier. So when I finished up with the swans, I headed that way to see if I could maybe hook up with them; those three are always pretty good company.

The red-tail was still around when I made it back across the highway. Maybe it was a different red-tail, but I think it's the same one, 'cuz he really seemed to be working the area. Here I caught him in a small tree directly across the highway.

 
I got distracted when some of the trumpeters took off and flew by. I think they're quite elegant in flight and try never to miss a chance to watch or photograph them flying by. This was a pretty asynchronous and disorganized flight for trumpeters, though.  

When I looked back at the hawk, he was flying over to my side of the highway. There he sat on a tree for just a few seconds, before gliding over to the roadside and pouncing on something. It was a small rodent, and he took it to a post on the far side of the highway and scarfed it down in just a few bites. I didn't get any really good photos of him with his prey, as the cars on the highway were continually passing between him and me, causing my camera's focus and exposure to go haywire. It was all over before I got to manual mode on the camera.

After the quick snack, the hawk flew back over to my side again, eventually settling on a power pole. I got a few shots of him as he flew over. Here's one that I liked. I could've cropped this photo much closer to the bird, but the detail held well at this size, and I liked the clouds as a background.

 

I drove down a few of the roads towards the dyke, but didn't find Grant and Marcia's truck on any of them.

I could really tell that it was January, as there were a lot of Bald Eagles in the area. You couldn't hardly walk a city block without stumbling over one. Since eagles are so common right now, I try not to take too many photos of them, but eventually the temptation proved too much and I pulled up my car to take some shots of this adult on a power pole.

 

I say "pulled up" rather than "pulled over" because I executed one of my favorite maneuvers. If you see a bird on a pole on your side of the road, or circling the road in front of you, and you pull over to the side of the road, then you have three bad options. Since you must point your camera relatively straight ahead at the bird, then either (1) you're shooting through the car windshield, (2) you've got your side window down and you're up out of your seat, leaning halfway out the window, or (3) you're completely out of the car. Option (1) is bad because the car window is reflective, is curved (distorting the image), and, in my case, is most often dirty. Option (2) is bad, because it's difficult physically and it makes holding the (heavy) camera and lens still near impossible. Option (3) is also bad, because many birds will just fly away when you open the car door or when you get out.

My solution to this is to move my car one lane left of normal (on a typical two-lane road, this means pulling onto the wrong side of the road), and then angling the car rightward across the road at about a 45-degree angle. This way, I can shoot out the side window from a comfortably seated position, typically without scaring the bird away. As an added bonus, rather than blocking no traffic, as I would if I pulled over, I get to block two lanes of traffic. I only do this on straight sections of little-used roads, when the road is clear, of course, but once someone drove up behind me while I was concentrating on a bird and encouraged me to move along with a honk and a friendly gesture or two.

Anyhow, if there are any kids out there, don't try that until you're a very experienced driver. I don't want to be a bad influence on y'all.

Just down the road from the eagle was what I call the one-llama farm; it's a place with a small flock of sheep and a llama. Some sheep were out grazing, and I took a few shots of them. This time I only blocked one lane of traffic.

This sheep with black legs and face turned out to be my technically toughest shot of the day, and I'm afraid I didn't quite rise to the taaaask. The tough part is getting detail on the shadow side of the face without overexposing the white coat. If I was closer, I could've used flash, but I was using my long birding lens and was pretty far from him. As it turned out, I lost the facial detail. It probably would have been better to overexpose a little and get more face, but I don't like the look that that gives a photo.

 
This sheep was much more photo-friendly, with white face and legs. The clump of dirt and vegetation hanging off her belly was better, too.  

I'd never noticed a sheep with a skunk-like white line down the back before, so that was interesting, too.

I didn't spot the llama until I was back on Ladner Trunk Road, which is a busy main road where it's not easy to pull off to take photos. So I passed on llama photos for the day.

I was still looking for Grant, Marcia, and Ilya, and I went down two more side roads towards the dyke to try to find them. I didn't, but when I got out of my car at the 72nd Street parking lot, I did find a perched Short-eared Owl in a nearby field. He was fairly distant, but I took a few photos anyhow. My friend Oliver had alerted me to Short-ears perching in this area; I seen a few flying around before but hadn't ever considered looking for them perched.

 

Not seeing the truck I was looking for, I didn't even go up onto the dyke and check out the Snowy Owls at 72nd. I'd seen the snowies a lot on my more recent trips, and was hoping to find different birds.

I had checked the obvious places and missed seeing my friends, so at this point I gave up on finding them and drove over to Ladner for lunch. After that, I headed out to the Reifel Bird Sanctuary on Westham Island. Reifel is always a good spot and I hadn't been there in a while. Also, I vaguely recalled that people had been occasionally seeing a Swamp Sparrow there, and that's still a bird that I've never seen.

On the drive to Reifel, in the last field on the right before it, I saw a Ring-necked Pheasant running across the field away from the road. I managed get one or two partially-obscured shots of it before it completely disappeared into the grass, as pheasant are wont to do.

 
Right past the gate to Reifel, I saw some white-bodied ducks in the slough on the right of the road. They were male Common Mergansers, a species that I hadn't seen for a while. I stopped the car, powered down the passenger window, and got a few shots before they swam off. Here's one of them.  
I then went on down to the parking lot and parked. I chatted a bit with Varri, the woman who runs the ticket booth and gift shop, and then went in and read the logbook. Often, birders will write down interesting sightings in the logbook, but no-one had seen anything noteworthy that day. I checked the ducks in the pond near the warming hut, as I often do, and found little but Mallards and American Wigeon. When I turned back to the path, I spotted a very light-colored female Mallard. I like this particular plumage, so I took a few photos of her.  

Down at Fuller's Slough, there were three Black-crowned Night-herons in the bushes along the banks: two juveniles and one adult. This is the only place that I've ever seen this species, and it's quite reliable there. Anyhow, I was happy that there were juveniles about because that meant that the night herons were breeding there and maybe in the future there'd be a whole bunch of them.

Anyhow, they were fairly far away, and this is the only one that was relatively out in the open. He spent most of his time resting, with his bill tucked under his wing, and I had to wait for maybe ten minutes to get a shot with his head up. Although it's tough to tell in this shot, his feet were a greenish color.

 
A few folks stopped by the wooden fence looking out over the slough and asked me what the night-heron was. They thought that it was a heron, and in talking with them I figured out that they meant Great Blue Heron. Conveniently, there was a Great Blue out there as well, resting on a log a little closer to us than the night-herons, so I was able to point out the size and color differences to them.  

That thing hanging out with the Great Blue Heron is probably a Glaucous-winged Gull, but with gulls, there's always the possibility that it's some sort of hybrid.

Varri had told me about a Northern Saw-whet Owl in the park, and so when I left Fuller's Slough I headed towards where the owl was supposed to be. As I was thinking I was about at the right spot, someone came along the other way and pointed out the owl to the folks behind me. Unfortunately, the little fellow had found a perch that was behind a lot of branches. From the easiest viewpoint, there were lots of branches hiding his face, so I hunted around a little until I found a way to see his face but not his body. I then managed to get my camera into that position, and here's what I got.

 

It's not a decent photo, by any means, but you can tell who the little guy is, at least. I had to paint some of the glare from the nearby branches away to even make the photo tolerable to look at.

I was on the east dyke in the refuge, and soon came upon a feeder where many chickadees and a few sparrows were having a feast. Down on the ground, I spotted a fine-looking Dark-eyed Junco, and patiently waited for him to hop out into the light. This took a while, because he would go into hiding for a minute or two each time someone passed, and there were a lot of people there that day. But I finally got my bird.

 
A little further along, on the north edge of the refuge, I hung around another feeder, because that was the area that the Swamp Sparrow had most often been seen in. To pass some of the time waiting for a possible swamp, I took a few shots of the Black-capped Chickadees at the feeder. Here's one of 'em.  

After that, I sat down and waited for 15 minutes or so, but I had no swamp luck, and I decided to move along. I passed the observation tower and headed down the middle dyke. As I was walking I sensed a bird come in to the tree just ahead of me to my left. I looked up and knew it was a hawk of some sort. The size and color had me thinking it was a Sharp-shinned Hawk, although it could've been a Cooper's. (The photo isn't conclusive...even Ilya, who is much better with hawks than I am, couldn't say for sure which one I had.)

I took this one shot, and right after that, my memory card decided that it was time to be full. Those are the breaks, I guess; I try to notice when my card is near full and switch it out when there's a lull in the action, but this one got full without me suspecting it.

 

By the time I got my memory card case out, changed cards, and got the camera back on, my hawk had already taken a lazy dive at an American Wigeon, perched in a tree across a little water channel from me, taken another lazy dive at the same duck, flew onto the path in front of me and made his way straight down it. I lost sight of him at about the time I was ready to take another shot, and didn't find him again.

However, as I was walking down the path where I had just seen the hawk go, I looked to the side and saw a grebe in the water with all of the ducks. A quick look was all that was necessary to see that it was a Pied-billed Grebe, and that he was presenting me with a great image. I quickly got what I rate as my prettiest photo of the day, the little Grebe in some very brown water. The colors and textures just all seem to work together right in this photo.

 

That's one of the great things about being out and about with a camera: not only are you more apt to notice those special moments when light and colors and events all come together to form a beautiful mood, but sometimes you get to take all that home with you, and to relive and share it. Now if I could only bring you the woodsy smell of the refuge and the little nibble of the chill air...

The grebe was only in place and presenting a good angle for a few seconds, though, and so I was soon back on my way, heading for the exit. I stopped to take a few photos of Red-winged Blackbirds in the top of an interesting tree in the now-turning-very-yellow light of the almost-setting sun.

 
When I reached Fuller's Slough, I stopped and took some more photos of the Black-crowned Night-herons. Here's the one adult that was out. If you compare this with the juvenile above, you'll see although they have the same shape, their colors are completely different. This adult has the black crown (top of the head), a white body, greyish wings, and orange legs and feet. The juvenile was brown and grey, patterned, and had green legs and feet.  

That ended my photography at Reifel. It was near sunset and I decided to head over to a park in Tsawassen to look for the Great Horned Owls that live there. I also knew that my friends Grant and Marcia, whom I had missed earlier in the day, often end their birding days there watching the owls. Maybe I would find them there.

I got to the park and heard the owls hooting. I looked around, but didn't see my friends' truck, so I headed in to look for the owls. The owls had become quiet, but I knew which tree is their favorite roost so I headed over to it and stood near it, watching for a while.

I saw no owls and heard no owls. I was starting to think about heading back to the car when a dog came down the path I was on, followed by a fellow. The fellow asked if I had seen the owl, and I said I hadn't, and then he asked if I was with the other people up the path who were owl-watching. As he left I headed down the trail to find these other owl-watchers, and quite expectedly found Grant and Marcia there talking with some passersby about the owls. Sadly, Ilya had left a few minutes before and I hadn't gotten to see him.

My friends pointed out one of the owls to me; it was just discernable in the shadows under a branch of the roost tree. We talked for a while, and meanwhile the light sank to levels where we almost couldn't see anything. That's about the right time for these owls to become active, and sure enough, they both flew out of their roosts and ended up on branches on two trees back where I had first looked for them. One of them, the male, was in fairly deep shadow, but one of them was out on an open limb, and I got my tripod set and camera pointed at him. The light levels were very low, but with a slow shutter speed I was able to get photos of him. I took a whole bunch of photos, because any movement on the owl's part meant a blurry photo (and he was fairly animated...he and the female were having quite the conversation). I ended up with a couple of non-blurry photos of him; this is the best one, a 1-second exposure.

 

In normal light, I often take photos with 1/200th of a second exposure, so that would mean that this is about 1/200th of normal light. Basically, what we saw out there was a dark blob on the branch, with the dark blob being a little bit brighter where his white bib is. We could also see his outline (mainly, the outline of his ears) fairly well.

Well, the male and female hooted back and forth at one another for a short while. The male had a slightly deeper voice. Grant and Marcia seem to be able to tell them apart by their hoots, but I'm not that skilled yet. After a little bit of hooting, and lots of head-bobbing, the male flew over to the female and, in the gloom, mounted her. She made a squeal and in a couple of seconds it was over, with the male flying off 30 meters or so to another tree, presumably, as Grant commented, to have a cigarette.

It slowly dawned on me how privileged I was to have just seen and heard that—owl mating rituals. There's wild stuff happenin' out in the parks, folks. Awesome!

As we weren't going to top that birdwatching experience anytime soon, we pulled up stakes and headed off to dinner together before Grant and Marcia drove back home to Squamish.

More fun than the Playboy Channel,
Tom

 

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