Videos from Yukon and Alaska

I recently returned from a fantastic camping trip from Belleville, Ontario to Yukon, Alaska, and British Columbia. I normally like to write a report for an entire trip, but in this case, there is simply too much to say in a single one. Instead, I will start with the videos I took in Yukon and Alaska.

The first video shows the view from the end of the Sheep Creek Trail in Kluane National Park, Yukon Territory, Canada. The trail is 10 km return and provides 427 metres of elevation gain.

I liked this trail a lot. It provides spectacular views of mountains in every direction and the potential to see grizzly bears and rare Dall Sheep. I was thankful not to encounter any grizzlies but unhappy not to see any sheep while hiking. The best part was the solitude - I started hiking around 10 AM and did not encounter another person until the afternoon when I was within five minutes of the parking lot.

The next video shows the view from the cirque at the end of the King’s Throne Trail in Kluane National Park, Yukon Territory, Canada. The trail is 10 km return and offers 548 metres of elevation gain.

I mention in the video that the trail is “very strenuous”. While it’s true that the trail is strenuous, the most strenuous part for me was when I mistakenly went off trail and was scurrying up scree that at times seemed near vertical. I don’t recommend that you do the same!

The next video shows the view from the Tatshenshini River viewpoint on Haines Road in Yukon Territory, Canada, 162 km (101 miles) north of Haines, Alaska.

The next video shows a flock of surf and white-winged scoters diving as if choreographed in Haines, Alaska. Have you ever seen anything like this?

The final video shows the view from the end of the Salmon Glacier Road in Hyder, Alaska. The Salmon Glacier is the largest glacier in the world that you can drive to.

The sister cities of Hyder, Alaska and Stewart, British Columbia were among my favourites in all of Alaska, Yukon, and British Columbia. Note that you don’t need to pass through United States Customs to get from Stewart to Hyder but you do need to pass through Canada Customs when you return!

Texas Gulf Coast - Birds, Birds, and more Birds!

I have a lot of free time this year and I’m lucky enough to be able to fill it with travel.  (It’s not accurate to call my trips vacations when I’m not really taking a break from anything!)  I tend to shun more popular vacation spots.  I base my travel on nature and try to visit places that allow me to see and photograph natural and beautiful things that I’ve never seen before.  My trip to Texas in April was no different except that it focused on one particular aspect of nature… birds!

I appreciate that birding is not for everyone but the Texas Gulf coast in April is a birder’s paradise.  Several flyways converge as birds migrate north across the Gulf of Mexico.  If weather conditions are right, you can even experience a “fallout”, where birds drop out of the sky due to exhaustion.  We didn’t get to experience a fallout but we still saw lots of birds, many from species not seen close to Ontario.  The trip was a week long and we got up every day before 7 AM and were out looking for birds all day until the sun went down around 8 PM.  It was tiring at times but we survived.  We survived the Rio Grande Valley even when it was 37 degrees Celsius and the Weather Network said it felt like 47.  (Of course, that was the day we smartly decided to do most of our hiking.  Shrewd.).  My camera and big lens survived being dropped (twice!).  And finally, our psyches survived a large cockroach scurrying along the floor of our Houston hotel room.

Texas has tried to capitalize on the increased tourism due to birding.  They have dedicated certain places to be stops on the Great Texas Coastal Birding Trail.  There are three maps, one for the upper coast near Galveston, one for the central coast near Rockport-Fulton, and one for the lower coast near Brownsville.  They were even nice enough to mail me (for free!) all three maps.  However, the maps are old (a couple from when George W. Bush was governor… it was great seeing that mug every day) and many of the birding locations are outdated.

Our first day began with a flight into Houston.  We picked up our rental SUV and headed right for High Island.  We started out at Boy Scout Woods and were underwhelmed.  The best we could do was a Brown Thrasher living up to its name and thrashing about in some dead leaves.

Then we headed to the nearby Rookery at Smith Oaks.  It was much better!  There was a short walk in to a small lake that had dozens of Great Egrets and Roseate Spoonbills nesting in trees right across from the trail.  It was very bright, so at ISO 1600 and f/8, I was able to use very fast shutter speeds of 1/5000s or faster to really freeze the action:

Great Egret, Rookery at Smith Oaks, High Island, Texas, Canon 7D with Canon EF 500mm, 1/8000s @ f/8, ISO 1600

Great Egret, Rookery at Smith Oaks, High Island, Texas, Canon 7D with Canon EF 500mm, 1/8000s @ f/8, ISO 1600

Roseate Spoonbill, Rookery at Smith Oaks, High Island, Texas, Canon 7D with Canon EF 500mm, 1/5000s @ f/8, ISO 1600

Roseate Spoonbill, Rookery at Smith Oaks, High Island, Texas, Canon 7D with Canon EF 500mm, 1/5000s @ f/8, ISO 1600

After High Island, we drove down to the Bolivar Peninsula.  We saw lots of gulls, terns (including Sandwich Terns that are so named because their yellow-tipped bills make it look like they just ate a mustard sandwich), plovers, and sandpipers.

Willet, Bolivar Peninsula, Texas, Canon 7D with Canon EF 500mm, 1/3200s @ f/8, ISO 1600

Willet, Bolivar Peninsula, Texas, Canon 7D with Canon EF 500mm, 1/3200s @ f/8, ISO 1600

Finally, it was back to our hotel in Winnie.  On our second day, we headed back to Boy Scout Woods and had more success.  We saw Inca Doves on the telephone wires as soon as we got out of our vehicle, and some orioles and another thrasher in the woods.  However, the best birds of the day were seen from the tower across the road.  The tower is a rickety three-story wood structure and it didn’t give me much confidence.  There were loose nails sticking out in various places and the railing wasn’t entirely intact.  The walkway was not wide enough to accommodate my tripod so I had to collapse the legs together and use it as a monopod.  Thankfully, the tower held together long enough to get us at eye level with some very colourful birds.  There was a flock of Indigo Buntings, a Painted Bunting, Baltimore Orioles, but the highlight for me was a male Blackburnian Warbler.  It stayed in view at eye level for a brief moment but my first shot had one small problem:

Blackburnian Warbler (obscured), Boy Scout Woods, High Island, Texas, Canon 7D with Canon EF 500mm, 1/3200s @ f/8, ISO 1600

Blackburnian Warbler (obscured), Boy Scout Woods, High Island, Texas, Canon 7D with Canon EF 500mm, 1/3200s @ f/8, ISO 1600

It’s amazing how much one thing can lessen a photo… damn you tree!  Luckily, the bird moved ever so slightly that its head was no longer obscured:

Blackburnian Warbler, Boy Scout Woods, High Island, Texas, Canon 7D with Canon EF 500mm, 1/5000s @ f/8, ISO 1600

Blackburnian Warbler, Boy Scout Woods, High Island, Texas, Canon 7D with Canon EF 500mm, 1/5000s @ f/8, ISO 1600

After Boy Scout Woods, we headed over to the smallest part of the High Island Sanctuary - Hooks Woods.  It’s so small it doesn’t even get mentioned on the High Island website!  Despite that, it proved fruitful for us.  We saw a resting Black-chinned Hummingbird and a Blue Grosbeak on the ground amongst a flock of cowbirds.

Then it was on to Anahuac National Wildlife Refuge.  We drove on the Shoveler Pond Auto-Tour loop and the highlights were an American Bittern, Black-necked Stilts, and Mottled Ducks.  On the drive just outside the refuge we saw our first Crested Caracara.

We decided not to book any hotels beforehand on this trip and that decision hurt us on this day.  We knew that we wanted to start our next day near Rockport.  That was a long drive from Anahuac so we decided to head in the general direction of Rockport and stop when we felt like it.  My old GPS indicated there was a single place to stay in Tivoli but when the helpful voice said “you have reached your destination”, we were on a country road in complete darkness in the middle of nowhere.  Darn.  We had no choice but to continue all the way to Rockport.  We stopped at the first place we could and had a very late dinner at Whataburger.  Very classy.  What’s up with drink sizes in the US?  I know I don’t exactly have the physique of “The Rock”, but I could hardly carry my beverage out of the restaurant!

Our first stop the next day was the Rockport Demo Bird Garden & Wetlands Pond.  Highlights were a Black-crested Titmouse, Black-bellied Whistling-Ducks, and a Carolina Wren loudly singing from the treetops.  Then it was on to Joan & Scott Holt Paradise Pond in Port Aransas.  Paradise Pond has a short boardwalk in an area that usually has water.  The drought has left it completely devoid of water but there were still thrushes, tanagers, grosbeaks, vireos, and Prothonotary Warblers and Black-and-white Warblers present.  We also spotted Yellow-crowned Night-Herons relaxing in the trees on our way out.  And just to prove that the trip wasn’t entirely about the birds, here’s a butterfly that was right beside the parking lot.

Butterfly, Joan & Scott Holt Paradise Pond, Port Aransas, Texas, Canon 7D with Canon EF 500mm, 1/8000s @ f/8, ISO 1600

Butterfly, Joan & Scott Holt Paradise Pond, Port Aransas, Texas, Canon 7D with Canon EF 500mm, 1/8000s @ f/8, ISO 1600

Our last stop in Port Aransas was the Leonabelle Turnbell Birding Center.  The main attraction there is a boardwalk but even before that we saw lots of warblers, vireos, and hummingbirds in the trees and garden.  As a bonus, a Sora walked around and stayed in view for much longer than usual, even allowing me to get some photos.  The boardwalk allowed very close views of American Avocets, Ruddy Ducks, Northern Shovelers, and my favourite, Cinnamon Teals:

Cinnamon Teal, Leonabelle Turnbell Birding Center, Port Aransas, Texas, Canon 7D with Canon EF 500mm, 1/640s @ f/11, ISO 800

Cinnamon Teal, Leonabelle Turnbell Birding Center, Port Aransas, Texas, Canon 7D with Canon EF 500mm, 1/640s @ f/11, ISO 800

After Port Aransas, we were finally on our way to the Rio Grande Valley!  We stopped at Mustang Island State Park (Eared Grebes and Least Terns up close… so cute!), the Packery Channel in Corpus Christi (Gull-billed Tern, Black-bellied Plover, Hooded Warbler, Summer Tanager) and the courthouse in Sarita.  No, we didn’t get caught speeding.  Rather, the courthouse is mentioned on the Great Texas Coastal Birding Trail maps as a place to look for Hooded Orioles.  We initially didn’t see any (although we were entertained by some seemingly devil-eyed Bronzed Cowbirds) but on our way out there they were in the trees:

Hooded Oriole, Sarita Courthouse, Texas, Canon 7D with Canon EF 500mm, 1/3200s @ f/8, ISO 1600

Hooded Oriole, Sarita Courthouse, Texas, Canon 7D with Canon EF 500mm, 1/3200s @ f/8, ISO 1600

We finally got to the Rio Grande Valley later that day and set up shop in the Harlingen hotel that would be our home for the next four days.

The next day we drove to South Padre Island.  Side by side there is the South Padre Island Birding & Nature Center and a convention center.  Which one do you think is preferred by the locals for birding?  Of course, it’s the convention center!  Each has a boardwalk and it’s funny to see the competing boardwalks right beside each other.  You have to pay to use the birding center’s boardwalk but not the one at the convention center.

It was our first time in South Padre Island so we didn’t know the protocol yet.  We started at the birding center and saw lots of rails (including Clapper Rails), dowitchers, herons, egrets, ducks, kingfishers, and my favourite, Black-necked Stilts:

Black-necked Stilt, South Padre Island Birding & Nature Center, Texas, Canon 7D with Canon EF 500mm, 1/6400s @ f/8, ISO 1600

Black-necked Stilt, South Padre Island Birding & Nature Center, Texas, Canon 7D with Canon EF 500mm, 1/6400s @ f/8, ISO 1600

They just look so awkward on their long legs, like they would topple over if a brisk wind picked up.

We went next door to the convention center and were shocked at the size of the woods - they were barely larger than my house!  However, there was a man-made fake creek running through them so the birds congregated.  There were waterthrushes, orioles, tanagers, warblers (Kentucky, Black-and-white, Prothonotary, Nashville, Tennessee, Yellow-rumped, Worm-eating, and Northern Parula), kinglets, doves, and Lincoln’s and Clay-colored Sparrows.  What a two hour stretch of birds!  I like the face pattern on Kentucky Warblers:

Kentucky Warbler, South Padre Island Convention Center, Texas, Canon 7D with Canon EF 500mm, 1/320s @ f/8, ISO 1600

Kentucky Warbler, South Padre Island Convention Center, Texas, Canon 7D with Canon EF 500mm, 1/320s @ f/8, ISO 1600

The next day we aimed for some true Texas specialties.  We were not disappointed!  We started at Estero Llano Grande and nabbed a Clay-coloured Thrush, Great Kiskadee, Least Grebe (so tiny!), and an Altamira Oriole.  The latter was interesting because it fought itself in the rear view mirror of a park vehicle and it wasn’t giving an inch.  It landed on the mirror, aggressively pursued its own reflection and then headed back to a tree.  This process repeated a number of times.  I hope it doesn’t tire itself out!

Altamira Oriole, Estero Llano Grande State Park, Texas, Canon 7D with Canon EF 500mm, 1/250s @ f/8, ISO 1600

Altamira Oriole, Estero Llano Grande State Park, Texas, Canon 7D with Canon EF 500mm, 1/250s @ f/8, ISO 1600

Another location noted for south Texas birds was next - Bentsen-Rio Grande Valley.  Its roads were closed but there were so few people there that we got chauffeured around by park staff in a golf cart.  They dropped us off at a photo blind and came back some time later to pick us up and take us to the next location.  It was pretty sweet!  A photo blind also served as the landing spot for my first camera drop.  I thought my big lens was attached to my tripod, but evidently that was false.  Apparently it was just lightly resting on my tripod.  When I moved my tripod, down came my camera and lens, hitting the wooden floor of the photo blind with a thud.  Not to worry!  I picked it up and all was good.  Let’s blame that one on the heat.

The next day was our final full day in the Rio Grande Valley and we started at Sabal Palm Sanctuary.  They have a live webcam showing the birds at their feeders so we sort of knew what to expect.  They also have had a Crimson-collared Grosbeak showing up at least daily since February.  That species isn’t normally seen in the US or Canada so we were hoping to catch a glimpse.  Before the grosbeak showed up, we saw more Black-crested Titmice, a Buff-bellied Hummingbird, and more Hooded and Altamira Orioles.  Then it was time for the show!  The grosbeak showed up at its customary spot and picked away at the apples put out by staff each morning:

Crimson-collared Grosbeak, Sabal Palm Sanctuary, Texas, Canon 7D with Canon EF 500mm, 1/100s @ f/8, ISO 1600

Crimson-collared Grosbeak, Sabal Palm Sanctuary, Texas, Canon 7D with Canon EF 500mm, 1/100s @ f/8, ISO 1600

I tried to get a photo showing the bird without obvious human interaction but that was not to be.  Note how dark it was - even at ISO 1600 I still needed a shutter speed of 1/100s.

We took Old Port Isabel Road after Sabal Palm as it is noted for sightings of Aplomado Falcon.  We didn’t see a falcon, but we did see disgusting reminders of human activity.  Garbage was everywhere - piles of tires, mattresses, old TVs, and car seats.  If it can be discarded, it was in the ditch on Old Port Isabel Road… an interesting combination of nature and human activity:

Ever heard of a tire fence?, Old Port Isabel Road, north of Brownsville, Texas, Canon 7D with Canon EF 500mm, 1/3200s @ f/8, ISO 1600

Ever heard of a tire fence?, Old Port Isabel Road, north of Brownsville, Texas, Canon 7D with Canon EF 500mm, 1/3200s @ f/8, ISO 1600

Old Port Isabel Road headed us in the direction of Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge so we popped in for a visit.  Laguna Atascosa is probably the only place in the US where one can legitimately see the following sign:

Highly unlikely but possible!, Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge, Texas, iPhone, 1/1100s @ f/2.8, ISO 80

Highly unlikely but possible!, Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge, Texas, iPhone, 1/1100s @ f/2.8, ISO 80

Wild ocelots still exist in the park, but there are few (they have tagged only three females) and they are extremely secretive (only two reported sightings in the last five years).  We went on the 15-mile long auto tour and when we got out to see some shorebirds, we were surprised to see a cat off in the distance.  Were we lucky enough to actually see a wild ocelot?  Um, no:

Bobcat, Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge, Texas, Canon 7D with Canon EF 500mm, 1/2000s @ f/8, ISO 1600

Bobcat, Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge, Texas, Canon 7D with Canon EF 500mm, 1/2000s @ f/8, ISO 1600

It turned out to be a bobcat.  Very cool, but no ocelot.

Laguna Atascosa was also where I experimented with dropping my camera and lens on a new surface - asphalt!  This time a plastic piece of my camera flew off but it was only the door for the battery compartment.  I tell you, I appreciate my camera’s hardiness!

Strong northerly winds and a coming cold front had many predicting a fallout at South Padre Island for our final day.  We started early and got to the convention center before sunrise.  However, we weren’t allowed in the parking lot because it was reserved for attendees of the motorcycle show.  Another interesting combination of nature and human activity!

Nothing says nature like a motorcycle show!, South Padre Island Convention Center, Texas, Canon Xsi with Canon EF 28-300mm @ 60mm, 1/4000s @ f/5.6, ISO 1600

Nothing says nature like a motorcycle show!, South Padre Island Convention Center, Texas, Canon Xsi with Canon EF 28-300mm @ 60mm, 1/4000s @ f/5.6, ISO 1600

Alas, there was no fallout so birds weren’t actually falling from the sky, but there were still a ton of birds kicking around, including my best viewings of a Painted Bunting:

Painted Bunting, South Padre Island Convention Center, Texas, Canon 7D with Canon EF 500mm, 1/400s @ f/8, ISO 1600

Painted Bunting, South Padre Island Convention Center, Texas, Canon 7D with Canon EF 500mm, 1/400s @ f/8, ISO 1600

We had a long drive from South Padre Island to our airport hotel in Houston, so we left around 2:00 and got on the road.  Our only real stop was in Refugio, at Lion’s/Shelly Park.  It proved quite a good stop and, just as advertised in the Great Texas Coastal Birding Trail map, there was a Green Kingfisher:

Green Kingfisher, Lions/Shelley Park, Refugio, Texas, Canon 7D with Canon EF 500mm, 1/400s @ f/8, ISO 1600

Green Kingfisher, Lions/Shelley Park, Refugio, Texas, Canon 7D with Canon EF 500mm, 1/400s @ f/8, ISO 1600

Even better, it was in good light and didn’t move!  I tried to get a shot of it in flight as it took off, but it was too fast.  We also added three more species to our Texas list - Solitary Sandpiper, Blue-Gray Gnatcatcher, and finally, a Carolina Chickadee!  We made it to Houston only to see a giant cockroach on the floor of our hotel room.  Cue the room change (as far away from the infestation as possible, please).  Our whirlwind tour of coastal Texas was over and it was a blast!

Our trip home was more eventful than expected.  Weather was perfect in Houston but our flight to Detroit was delayed so we would have missed our connection.  The earliest they could get us to Syracuse was 10:30 PM via Minneapolis so our final day involved five hours of waiting at the Houston airport, a short flight to Minneapolis, a four-hour wait there for our short flight to Syracuse, and then a three-hour drive home in the dark.  Oh well, it all worked out for the best and the delays actually helped me get some of my photo editing done earlier than it otherwise would have.

California - Beautiful coastlines, gigantic trees, and so many birds!

I’ve always had a fascination with gigantic trees and I finally got the chance to see some of the most gigantic of them all in person.  I went to California at the end of February.  It’s home to giant coast redwood trees, beautiful coastlines, and lots of birds (many of which I don’t get to see in Ontario).  My trip started with a flight from Toronto to San Francisco that was noteworthy for two reasons.  Firstly, I was mistaken for a different person at US Customs.  Secondly, my plane was covered in snow just prior to takeoff so I got to witness the de-icing process in its entirety.

Lester B. Pearson airport in Toronto is large enough that on a flight to the United States, you actually pass through US customs in Toronto.  That sounds like a good idea and it has worked out well for me in the past.  However, this trip was a little different.  As I carried my camera case and laptop bag through US Customs, the gentleman asked what was in my camera case.  I told him it was camera gear and he asked me the value of the contents.  When I answered, he asked if I used it for any commercial purpose (which I don’t; I’m an amateur photographer).  He didn’t seem to believe me so he told me to proceed to secondary inspection through another door.

The second door led to a waiting room that had six desks and room for about 50 people.  There were around a dozen people waiting when I came in.  I approached the first desk and was told to wait until my name was called.  It is not a good feeling to know that your ability to make a scheduled flight is completely out of your control.  I waited for about 20 minutes before my name was called and I got to speak one-on-one with a customs officer.  He asked me how much I sold my photographs for.  I reiterated that I was an amateur and do not sell my photos.  His reply was “I know that you sell your photos.  I’ve already looked at your website.  This is not a commercial port and you will not be able to enter the United States here.”  Um, what?  So many thoughts raced through my head, but I remained calm and said once again that I am an amateur and don’t sell my photos.  “But you’re Bob Blaney, right?  I can see on your website that you sell your photos.”  My legal name is Robert Kyle Blaney, but I eventually convinced the officer that I was actually Kyle and not Bob (who I learned is a professional nature photographer from Sudbury, Ontario) and I was on my way.  Lessons learned!  One - have proof of purchase of expensive gear with you when you cross the border.  (Since this trip I have been to the Canada Border Services Agency office at CFB Trenton to fill out a Y38 form.  It’s a free service where you file the serial numbers of your gear with Canada Customs so that they know when you re-enter Canada that you’re not trying to avoid paying duty.  It was really easy and I recommend it.)  Two - make sure you don’t get confused for someone with a similar name!

The de-icing process was another interesting experience.  I’m a huge fan of the documentary series Mayday, which explains airplane disasters and what is done to ensure that similar accidents don’t happen again.  (The reasons for airplane mishaps are often very similar to the reasons that large software projects fail, but that’s a story for another time and place!)  One safety feature implemented as a result of the crash of Air Ontario flight 1363 is when and where de-icing occurs.  They used to de-ice planes where people get on board, at the terminal.  However, there were cases when a place was de-iced, then delayed on the runway prior to takeoff.  The result was that ice built up on the plane as it waited to take off, making it too heavy and causing it to crash at the end of the runway.  The lesson learned is that you need to de-ice a plane just prior to take off and that’s what I saw.  The de-icing truck came out to our plane on the runway, hammered it with pink and purplish liquids and totally destroyed all the snow and ice on the airplane.  I was in the emergency exit row right over the wing so I had a great seat.  It was a good feeling to know that we probably weren’t going to crash due to a heavy aircraft.

The trip to San Franciso was uneventful and I got my luggage, picked up my rental car (a hybrid Hyandai Sonata… awesome!), and was on my way north towards Novato, California.  I drove across the Golden Gate Bridge (spectacular!) and got to my hotel in Novato.  It was nearing dinner time, so I decided to check out the area around my hotel.  It was very close to the interstate, but also had huge fields behind it that I hoped would yield some new bird species.  I was not disappointed as the first bird I saw was a Say’s Phoebe, something not usually seen east of Manitoba.

Say’s Phoebe, Novato, California, Canon 7D with Canon EF 500mm, 1/2000s @ f/8, ISO 800

Say’s Phoebe, Novato, California, Canon 7D with Canon EF 500mm, 1/2000s @ f/8, ISO 800

There was also a flock of House Finches scurrying around the hotel property:

House Finch, Novato, California, Canon 7D with Canon EF 500mm, 1/2500s @ f/8, ISO 800

House Finch, Novato, California, Canon 7D with Canon EF 500mm, 1/2500s @ f/8, ISO 800

I was hoping to find more new species as I ventured away from the hotel for dinner.  I found a great spot for birds behind the Taco Bell in Novato (obviously… even birds are smart enough to want to be near the sweet aroma emanating from a Taco Bell).  There was a little island in a tiny body of water in the Napa-Sonoma Marshes and it was full of pelicans, geese, gadwalls, gulls, cormorants, and my favourite, black-necked stilts!

Black-necked Stilts, Novato, California, Canon 7D with Canon EF 500mm, 1/2500s @ f/8, ISO 800

Black-necked Stilts, Novato, California, Canon 7D with Canon EF 500mm, 1/2500s @ f/8, ISO 800

The next day I headed over to Point Reyes National Seashore before sunrise and I was not disappointed.  I liked this place so much that I returned two more times even though I only had four days in California.  You can walk right on the San Andreas fault and see a fence that had one part separated from the other part by 16 feet during the 1989 earthquake!  I spent much of my time wandering around near the Bear Valley Visitor Center, where many birds were easily seen:

Western Bluebird (female and male), Bear Valley Visitor Center, Point Reyes National Seashore, California, Canon 7D with Canon EF 500mm, 1/500s @ f/8, ISO 3200

Western Bluebird (female and male), Bear Valley Visitor Center, Point Reyes National Seashore, California, Canon 7D with Canon EF 500mm, 1/500s @ f/8, ISO 3200

Note that I found the bluebird early in the morning when there was very little light.  Therefore, I had to crank up the ISO to 3200 to get a shutter speed fast enough to freeze the movement of the bird.

Acorn Woodpecker, Bear Valley Visitor Center, Point Reyes National Seashore, California, Canon 7D with Canon EF 500mm, 1/400s @ f/8, ISO 800

Acorn Woodpecker, Bear Valley Visitor Center, Point Reyes National Seashore, California, Canon 7D with Canon EF 500mm, 1/400s @ f/8, ISO 800

White-crowned Sparrow, Bear Valley Visitor Center, Point Reyes National Seashore, California, Canon 7D with Canon EF 500mm, 1/1600s @ f/8, ISO 800

White-crowned Sparrow, Bear Valley Visitor Center, Point Reyes National Seashore, California, Canon 7D with Canon EF 500mm, 1/1600s @ f/8, ISO 800

Black Phoebe, Kule Loklo Trail, Point Reyes National Seashore, California, Canon 7D with Canon EF 500mm, 1/125s @ f/8, ISO 800

Black Phoebe, Kule Loklo Trail, Point Reyes National Seashore, California, Canon 7D with Canon EF 500mm, 1/125s @ f/8, ISO 800

Golden-crowned Sparrow, Bear Valley Visitor Center, Point Reyes National Seashore, California, Canon 7D with Canon EF 500mm, 1/250s @ f/8, ISO 800

Golden-crowned Sparrow, Bear Valley Visitor Center, Point Reyes National Seashore, California, Canon 7D with Canon EF 500mm, 1/250s @ f/8, ISO 800

I also added two new mammals to my life list, a Western Gray Squirrel and this little Black-tailed Jackrabbit:

Black-tailed Jackrabbit, Kule Loklo Trail, Point Reyes National Seashore, California, Canon 7D with Canon EF 500mm, 1/500s @ f/8, ISO 800

Black-tailed Jackrabbit, Kule Loklo Trail, Point Reyes National Seashore, California, Canon 7D with Canon EF 500mm, 1/500s @ f/8, ISO 800

There was also a strange white deer which I initially thought was an albino:

Fallow Deer, Bear Valley Visitor Center, Point Reyes National Seashore, California, Canon 7D with Canon EF 500mm, 1/400s @ f/5.6, ISO 3200

Fallow Deer, Bear Valley Visitor Center, Point Reyes National Seashore, California, Canon 7D with Canon EF 500mm, 1/400s @ f/5.6, ISO 3200

Note that as with the bluebird, I had to crank up the ISO to 3200 to get a shutter speed fast enough to freeze the movement of the deer.

I have since learned that the individual is an introduced Fallow Deer and the park has made them not able to reproduce in the hopes that they are all “eliminated” by 2021.

After my first day at Point Reyes, it was on to the stars of the show… giant redwoods!  I drove north on Highway 1 along the Pacific coast and it was gorgeous!  I spent my second night in Fort Bragg and on the way there I stopped to take some pictures of the coastline:

Coastline from Highway 1 north of Fort Bragg, California, Canon 7D with Canon EF-S 10-22mm @ 22mm, 0.8s @ f/16, ISO 100

Coastline from Highway 1 north of Fort Bragg, California, Canon 7D with Canon EF-S 10-22mm @ 22mm, 0.8s @ f/16, ISO 100

I also stopped at Western Union State Park and was disappointed that it was obviously closed.  I soon found out the reason for the closure:

Western Union State Park - Abalone Point, California, Canon 7D with Canon EF-S 10-22mm @ 15mm, 1.0s @ f/16, ISO 100

Western Union State Park - Abalone Point, California, Canon 7D with Canon EF-S 10-22mm @ 15mm, 1.0s @ f/16, ISO 100

After Fort Bragg, I continued north on Highway 101 and opted for the Avenue of the Giants.  What an amazing road!  Huge redwoods everywhere, some as wide as my car, often on both sides of the road at the same time.  It was spectacular!

Avenue of the Giants - Franklin K. Lane Grove, California, Canon 7D with Canon EF-S 10-22mm @ 10mm, 20s @ f/16, ISO 100

Avenue of the Giants - Franklin K. Lane Grove, California, Canon 7D with Canon EF-S 10-22mm @ 10mm, 20s @ f/16, ISO 100

This shot is poor, but note that I used a shutter speed of twenty seconds.  Can you believe twenty seconds for a daylight photograph?  That’s what was needed to get the depth of field of f/16 at ISO 100 because the area in front of the tree is in extreme shade even in the middle of the day.

Richardson Grove State Park, California, Canon 7D with Canon EF-S 10-22mm @ 10mm, 1/50s @ f/4.5, ISO 3200

Richardson Grove State Park, California, Canon 7D with Canon EF-S 10-22mm @ 10mm, 1/50s @ f/4.5, ISO 3200

Note that I had to change the ISO to 3200 and use an aperture of f/4.5 to get a shutter speed of 1/50 second that was suitable for freezing the action of my jump.

I eventually made my way to my northernmost stop, Eureka.  I waited at the nearby public boat launch as my hotel room was cleaned and a flock of marbled godwits landed right in front of me.  I was happy to see a single godwit earlier in the day so a whole flock was awesome!

Marbled Godwit, Eureka, California, Canon 7D with Canon EF 500mm, 1/2500s @ f/8, ISO 800

Marbled Godwit, Eureka, California, Canon 7D with Canon EF 500mm, 1/2500s @ f/8, ISO 800

Marbled Godwit, Eureka, California, Canon 7D with Canon EF 500mm, 1/2000s @ f/8, ISO 800

Marbled Godwit, Eureka, California, Canon 7D with Canon EF 500mm, 1/2000s @ f/8, ISO 800

Marbled Godwit, Eureka, California, Canon 7D with Canon EF 500mm, 1/5000s @ f/8, ISO 800

Marbled Godwit, Eureka, California, Canon 7D with Canon EF 500mm, 1/5000s @ f/8, ISO 800

The next day I started my southerly trip back to San Francisco.  On the way, I stopped at Humboldt Bay National Wildlife Refuge.  It has a great walking trail through the marshland that yielded several new bird species including Cackling Goose and Orange-crowned Warbler.  There were also many teals, buffleheads, coots, grebes, herons, egrets, swans, gulls, marsh wrens, and northern harriers.

Cackling Geese, Humboldt Bay National Wildlife Refuge, California, Canon 7D with Canon EF 500mm, 1/1000s @ f/8, ISO 800

Cackling Geese, Humboldt Bay National Wildlife Refuge, California, Canon 7D with Canon EF 500mm, 1/1000s @ f/8, ISO 800

Northern Harrier, Humboldt Bay National Wildlife Refuge, California, Canon 7D with Canon EF 500mm, 1/1600s @ f/8, ISO 800

Northern Harrier, Humboldt Bay National Wildlife Refuge, California, Canon 7D with Canon EF 500mm, 1/1600s @ f/8, ISO 800

I spent my last night in San Rafael and made one final stop at Bolinas Lagoon before catching my flight home.  I finally found one of my target species - a long-billed curlew!  There were a couple searching for food in the tidal flats and I watched as two gulls tried unsuccessfully to steal a meal from one:

Long-billed Curlew, Bolinas Lagoon, California, Canon 7D with Canon EF 500mm, 1/6400s @ f/8, ISO 800   

Long-billed Curlew, Bolinas Lagoon, California, Canon 7D with Canon EF 500mm, 1/6400s @ f/8, ISO 800

 

Long-billed Curlew, Bolinas Lagoon, California, Canon 7D with Canon EF 500mm, 1/2500s @ f/8, ISO 800     

Long-billed Curlew, Bolinas Lagoon, California, Canon 7D with Canon EF 500mm, 1/2500s @ f/8, ISO 800

 

Only a few days in California but I was impressed.  I shall return!

Florida - Birds and a bobcat

I just returned from a short trip to Florida.  It’s the second time I’ve been in a few years and I continue to be surprised by what it has to offer.  It’s more than overcrowded theme parks and snowbird Canadians that hike their pants up to mid-chest and eat buffet dinners at 4:00.  It’s full of parks, conservation areas, and white sand beaches that go on forever.  All in all, a great recipe for nature photography!  The highlight of my trip was seeing a bobcat, but alas, I did not get a photo.

Last time in Florida I stayed south of Orlando but this time I was invited to stay in a condo with friends of mine in St. Augustine Beach, about an hour south of Jacksonville on the Atlantic coast.  The place was literally right on the ocean.  You walked out the door and bam… beach.  Thanks Brad & Andrea - you were great hosts!

St. Augustine Beach, Canon 7D with Canon EF-S 10-22mm @ 10mm, 1.6s @ f/22, ISO 200

St. Augustine Beach, Canon 7D with Canon EF-S 10-22mm @ 10mm, 1.6s @ f/22, ISO 200

Upon arrival, I got right to work and scoured the shore for aptly-named shorebirds.  There were willets, ruddy turnstones that seemed completely oblivious to humans, and sanderlings.  I liked to watch the sanderlings as they fed at the ocean’s edge.  They would feed right where the waves stop and when it looked a big wave would cover them, they would hurriedly scurry away from it.  Their feet go a mile a minute!

Sanderling, Canon 7D with Canon EF 500mm, 1/8000s @ f/8.0, ISO 800

Sanderling, Canon 7D with Canon EF 500mm, 1/8000s @ f/8.0, ISO 800

If you’re ever in Florida and you like nature even a little bit, I strongly recommend that you visit Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge just east of Titusville.  The Black Point Wildlife Drive is magnificent!  It’s a one-way road through perfect bird habitat that’s about seven miles long with stops along the way.  There are so many herons, egrets, ducks, gulls, terns, spoonbills, and other birds that Brad and I took 4.5 hours to drive it.

Reddish Egret, Canon 7D with Canon EF 500mm, 1/2000s @ f/8.0, ISO 800

Reddish Egret, Canon 7D with Canon EF 500mm, 1/2000s @ f/8.0, ISO 800

There’s lot of other cool stuff on the road in addition to birds.

Queen Butterfly, Canon 7D with Canon EF 500mm, 1/2000s @ f/8.0, ISO 800

Queen Butterfly, Canon 7D with Canon EF 500mm, 1/2000s @ f/8.0, ISO 800

American Alligator, Canon 7D with Canon EF 500mm, 1/400s @ f/8.0, ISO 800

American Alligator, Canon 7D with Canon EF 500mm, 1/400s @ f/8.0, ISO 800

The goal of any trip to Florida is obviously to see Florida Scrub-Jays.  That’s what you were thinking, right?  Or maybe you’re not quite as much of a nature geek as me?  That’s okay, you’re still welcome here.  Florida Scrub-Jay is a unique bird species that exists only in central Florida’s scrub habitat.  In fact, it’s the only bird species that exists only in Florida.  Technically speaking, it’s endemic to Florida.  (I admit it.  I didn’t know that beforehand, but Wikipedia can make even a birding neophyte like me appear somewhat knowledgeable.)  Brad and I did not see a scrub jay on our trip through Merritt Island, so I returned alone a couple of days later to try again.

I saw what I thought was a scrub jay beside the highway in Merritt Island, but it turned out to be a mockingbird (interestingly, with a foot deformity).

Northern Mockingbird, Canon 7D with Canon EF 500mm, 1/2500s @ f/8.0, ISO 800

Northern Mockingbird, Canon 7D with Canon EF 500mm, 1/2500s @ f/8.0, ISO 800

Thanks to eBird, I finally found several scrub jays at the south entrance to Canavarel National Seashore.  I watched them move around for about an hour, landing in trees and bracing themselves against the wind.  Note the bands on this one.

Florida Scrub-Jay, Canon 7D with Canon EF 500mm, 1/800s @ f/8.0, ISO 400

Florida Scrub-Jay, Canon 7D with Canon EF 500mm, 1/800s @ f/8.0, ISO 400

Being further north than my last visit to Florida, I ventured into a few new parks.  I saw a tufted titmouse and some butterflies at Washington Oaks Gardens State Park.

Zebra Longwing, Canon 7D with Canon EF 500mm, 1/500s @ f/8.0, ISO 800

Zebra Longwing, Canon 7D with Canon EF 500mm, 1/500s @ f/8.0, ISO 800

I spent quite a while at North Peninsula State Park, a park with more than three kilometres of unspoiled beach.  I bet a talented birder could sit down there and see a ton of species without even moving!

Snowy Egret, Canon 7D with Canon EF 500mm, 1/5000s @ f/8.0, ISO 800

Snowy Egret, Canon 7D with Canon EF 500mm, 1/5000s @ f/8.0, ISO 800

Osprey, Canon 7D with Canon EF 500mm, 1/6400s @ f/8.0, ISO 800

Osprey, Canon 7D with Canon EF 500mm, 1/6400s @ f/8.0, ISO 800

Black-bellied Plover, Canon 7D with Canon EF 500mm, 1/1250s @ f/8.0, ISO 800

Black-bellied Plover, Canon 7D with Canon EF 500mm, 1/1250s @ f/8.0, ISO 800

On my final day in Florida, we all headed to Vaill Point Park in St. Augustine.  Brad and I checked out the nearby woods and stumbled upon this beauty.

Great Horned Owl, Canon 7D with Canon EF 500mm, 1/320s @ f/8.0, ISO 800

Great Horned Owl, Canon 7D with Canon EF 500mm, 1/320s @ f/8.0, ISO 800

It was less than a week, but thank you Florida!

Amazing British Columbia

It’s hard to put my recent trip to British Columbia into words.  I could say that it was a trip of a lifetime, that it reinforced in me a great pride in Canada and its wilderness, that it was the most memorable vacation I’ve ever been on, or that it proved how lucky I am to be able to experience the things I did and meet the people I met (thanks Tom, Barrett, Pitt, Vanessa, Don, Jeanne, Jan, Bev, Lois, and Nicci!).  All are true, but they just don’t seem to fully capture it.  Suffice it to say, British Columbia’s coast is spectacular!

The focus of my vacation was a trip on the Ocean Light II, starting in Shearwater and ending in Hartley Bay and travelling through the Great Bear Rainforest on British Columbia’s northwest coast.  The trip was my first to BC, so I spent time beforehand in Pemberton and afterwards in Prince Rupert.

Pemberton

Pemberton was about a two-hour drive north from the Vancouver airport along the Sea to Sky highway.  The drive was highlighted by some great vistas with views of the ocean and mountains.

I knew I would like Pemberton the moment I arrived.  It is a small town nestled in the mountains, with many nearby nature destinations.  Within 24 hours of my arrival, I had seen three separate black bears, hiked into glacial Lower Joffre Lake, and watched a gorgeous sunset on Pemberton Meadows Road.  That doesn’t even count the family of raccoons I saw enjoying a nutritious garbage lunch in Vancouver’s Stanley Park!

Pemberton Meadows Road, Canon 7D with Canon EF-S 10-22mm @ 22mm, 1/40s @ f/8.0, ISO 400

Pemberton Meadows Road, Canon 7D with Canon EF-S 10-22mm @ 22mm, 1/40s @ f/8.0, ISO 400

The only downside of Pemberton was that I was there prior to my trip through the rainforest.  I was looking forward to it so much that I was very hesitant to do anything the least bit risky.  I went on a few hikes, but I was so careful with my footing that I probably looked even more like a frail senior citizen than I usually do.  My timidity resulted in me starting the Great Bear Rainforest trip in 100% health.

Shearwater

There are a few obstacles to the Great Bear Rainforest trip.  Firstly, you have to book well in advance because space is limited and it’s a very popular trip (helped I’m sure by the word-of-mouth advertising that clients like me provide… I can’t stop thinking or talking about the darn thing!).  Secondly, you have to get yourself to the trip’s starting point.  My trip was south-to-north, starting in Shearwater and ending in Hartley Bay.  Neither is reachable by car.  You can either take a long ferry ride or fly in.  I chose the latter, booking a flight with Pacific Coastal Airlines on a 30-seater Saab 340 aircraft from Vancouver to Bella Bella.

The flight included a stop in Port Hardy and I was informed prior to takeoff that there was so much fog in Bella Bella that the final leg of the flight might be delayed.  Oh no!  Thankfully, the fog lifted after a brief stay in the Port Hardy airport and we were on our way to Bella Bella.  There are no places to stay in Bella Bella, so I had to take a taxi from the airport to the dock and catch a water taxi to Shearwater.  Finally, I was where I needed to be to get to the Great Bear Rainforest!

I explored Shearwater with my camera, hoping to see some west coast bird species that I had never seen before and possibly even get some photos of them.  I wasn’t disappointed when I got to the abandoned fish plant - a flock of black turnstones with a few surfbirds mixed in for good measure!  I thought that all of the birds were turnstones and didn’t realize until I got home that some of the individuals were surfbirds (identified by the black and orange on their bill; turnstones have bills that are solidly black).

Black Turnstone & Surfbird, Shearwater, Canon 7D with Canon EF 500mm, 1/2500s @ f/8.0, ISO 400

Black Turnstone & Surfbird, Shearwater, Canon 7D with Canon EF 500mm, 1/2500s @ f/8.0, ISO 400

Great Bear Rainforest

The day the boat trip started was very exciting.  I met the other people that were to share in my experiences, got assigned my bunk (as the only single guy on the trip, I got lucky and was assigned the largest bed and didn’t have to share my room), and we were on our way!  The first few hours were spent enjoying the scenery as we travelled to our first destination.

In the evening, we got to a protected inlet, put down anchor and headed out in the Zodiac in search of bears.  In no time flat, we saw a momma grizzly with her cub.

Grizzly Bear, Canon 7D with Canon EF 500mm, 1/1600s @ f/8.0, ISO 400

Grizzly Bear, Canon 7D with Canon EF 500mm, 1/1600s @ f/8.0, ISO 400

Grizzly Bear cub, Canon 7D with Canon EF 500mm, 1/640s @ f/8.0, ISO 400

Grizzly Bear cub, Canon 7D with Canon EF 500mm, 1/640s @ f/8.0, ISO 400

As we watched and photographed the first two grizzlies, a male appeared behind us.  We got to watch and listen as it took a large salmon on shore, ripped its skin off to eat it first, and then bit into the head.  You could hear the bones being crushed!  It was awe-inspiring and a sign of things to come.  This was only the first day of the trip and none of us knew of the even more amazing things in store for us.

We went back to the same place the following morning, saw three grizzlies (presumably the same ones as the day before), took up anchor, and headed for our next destination.  The next few days were spent cruising up the coast, seeing the occasional humpback whale, getting up close with some waterfalls, taking in the majestic wilderness, and searching for wildlife.  We eventually arrived at the Great Bear Rainforest, ready to search for Kermode Bears (also called Spirit Bears), a subspecies of the American Black Bear that has a whitish coat due to recessive genes (even though they are not albinos).

Our trip leader, Tom, spotted a Kermode Bear in the river on our first hike in.  How lucky am I?  My stretch of luck reached even higher proportions over the next couple of days as we got to observe Kermode Bears each day.  It was so incredible to be able to see an animal that may have fewer than 1000 individuals, and it made me especially proud to do so in Canada.  What a great country we have!

Kermode Bear, Canon 7D with Canon EF 28-300mm @ 300mm, 1/1000s @ f/7.1, ISO 1600

Kermode Bear, Canon 7D with Canon EF 28-300mm @ 300mm, 1/1000s @ f/7.1, ISO 1600

We even got to watch as the bears hunted for salmon, each with its own technique.  I was really just in awe of the whole situation.  I would have been happy to catch a glimpse of a Kermode Bear, but to be able to watch them up close, photograph them, and take videos while in their home was simply more than I could ever have wished for.  It was truly a humbling experience.

Kermode Bear, Canon 7D with Canon EF 500mm, 1/1000s @ f/8.0, ISO 800

Kermode Bear, Canon 7D with Canon EF 500mm, 1/1000s @ f/8.0, ISO 800

Kermode Bear, Canon 7D with Canon EF 500mm, 1/640s @ f/8.0, ISO 800

Kermode Bear, Canon 7D with Canon EF 500mm, 1/640s @ f/8.0, ISO 800

At times my most pressing issue was deciding whether to take photographs or videos.  It was incredible!

We even got to see a Kermode Bear in the river at the same time as a “regular” American Black Bear.  (I say regular, but that’s not really fair.  Black bears are special in their own right, but, c’mon, we were looking at Spirit Bears!)  Alas, there were no struggles between the two.  It was as if they had already decided to just leave each other alone.  There’s no need to fight other bears when there’s enough salmon to go around I guess.

Kermode Bear & American Black Bear, Canon 7D with Canon EF 28-300mm @ 70mm, 1/1000s @ f/6.3, ISO 1600

Kermode Bear & American Black Bear, Canon 7D with Canon EF 28-300mm @ 70mm, 1/1000s @ f/6.3, ISO 1600

On the final portion of our trip, we continued north towards Hartley Bay.  We had seen a few humpback whales earlier in the week, but nothing like we saw this time.  A humpback breached right in front of us many times.  Yes, you heard me correctly!  A gigantic whale actually jumped completely out of the water, over and over again.  If the bears were memorable, this was downright heaven!

Humpback Whale, Canon 7D with Canon EF 28-300mm @ 70mm, 1/1000s @ f/8.0, ISO 800

Humpback Whale, Canon 7D with Canon EF 28-300mm @ 70mm, 1/1000s @ f/8.0, ISO 800

Humpback Whale, Canon 7D with Canon EF 28-300mm @ 180mm, 1/2000s @ f/8.0, ISO 1600

Humpback Whale, Canon 7D with Canon EF 28-300mm @ 180mm, 1/2000s @ f/8.0, ISO 1600

I don’t want to peak too early in life, but it will be hard to top September 11, 2012 in my personal history books.  Kermode and black bears in the morning and a breaching humpback in the afternoon.  Wow!

After the whale show, we got to Hartley Bay, docked for our final night on the boat and packed for the float plane ride the following morning.  I had never been on a float plane before, but it was a piece of cake.  The landing in Prince Rupert was so soft that the only sign of landing was the sight of the splashes.  We said our goodbyes and ended the most amazing tour I could possibly imagine.  This one was a life changer!

Prince Rupert

Prince Rupert was a time to decompress and wring as much as I could from coastal BC.  I hiked with a couple of other stragglers from the boat trip in a nearby park, searched for birds to photograph, and drove up to Nisga’a Memorial Lava Bed Provincial Park.

Nisga’a Memorial Lava Bed Provincial Park, Canon 7D with Canon EF 28-300mm @ 28mm, 1/160s @ f/14, ISO 800

Nisga’a Memorial Lava Bed Provincial Park, Canon 7D with Canon EF 28-300mm @ 28mm, 1/160s @ f/14, ISO 800

The travel day home was a long one.  I had to return my rental car in Prince Rupert, ride on an Air Canada bus on a ferry to the Prince Rupert airport, fly on Air Canada to Vancouver, fly on WestJet to Toronto, call for the hotel shuttle to take me to my parking spot, and drive back to Belleville.  Whew!

I had a fantastic time in British Columbia and I can’t wait to go back!

Best Photography Gear: Travel!

There is lots of discussion about the best photography gear. This year, I spent less of my hard-earned money on gear and more on learning how to use it and getting to interesting places to use it. It’s one of the best decisions I’ve ever made!

Aside from my usual and frequent jaunts to local nature spots, I went on three trips this year where I focused heavily on photography (pun intended):

All were terrific and I strongly recommend them. I’ll be writing much more about my BC trip soon.

Napanee Springside Park and Amherstview Sewage Lagoon

What did you do today?  I crawled under a barbed wire fence to get into a sewage lagoon.  I bet you can’t beat that!

My friend Brad and I went out right in the middle of the afternoon to try our luck at nature photography in the Greater Napanee area.  We were partly trying to get images to enter in the Napanee Photo Contest, but we were also just looking for something to do on a lazy summer afternoon in which it didn’t look like Tiger Woods would be competing for the PGA Championship.

We started at Napanee’s Springside Park and I was immediately surprised at the number of birds present.  They were mostly Mallards and Ring-billed Gulls, but there was also a Common Merganser that preened virtually nonstop on a rock.  It barely took its bill out of its wings long enough for a few portraits.

Common Merganser - Canon 7D with Canon EF 500mm, 1/5000s @ f/8, ISO 400

Common Merganser - Canon 7D with Canon EF 500mm, 1/5000s @ f/8, ISO 400

There were also a few juvenile Wood Ducks and let me just say that I love Wood Ducks, not in a Carrie Underwood kind of way (that’s not how I roll), but still, they’re spectacular!  We were hoping to see an adult male in full plumage, but the juveniles were still stunning:

Wood Duck - Canon 7D with Canon EF 500mm, 1/100s @ f/8, ISO 400

Wood Duck - Canon 7D with Canon EF 500mm, 1/100s @ f/8, ISO 400

Wood Duck - Canon 7D with Canon EF 500mm, 1/640s @ f/8, ISO 400

Wood Duck - Canon 7D with Canon EF 500mm, 1/640s @ f/8, ISO 400

Note the slow shutter speed of 1/100s on the first shot.  A tripod was essential in order to get a sharp photo at that speed with a 500mm lens.

Brad also spotted a green heron along the shoreline and even when you knew where it was, it was still hard to see.

Green Heron, Canon 7D with Canon EF 500mm, 1/4000s @ f/8, ISO 800

Green Heron, Canon 7D with Canon EF 500mm, 1/4000s @ f/8, ISO 800

In addition to the birds, I also lucked into a Widow Skimmer that happened to land in one of the only locations that would have resulted in a decent photo:

Widow Skimmer, Canon 7D with Canon EF 500mm, 1/1600s @ f/8, ISO 800

Widow Skimmer, Canon 7D with Canon EF 500mm, 1/1600s @ f/8, ISO 800

After the park, we opted to leave the Greater Napanee area and do what every good Canadian should do on a Sunday afternoon.  We headed for a sewage lagoon!  We struggled to find the Amherstview sewage lagoon and even stumbled onto Parrott’s Bay Conservation Area en route.  We walked through the conservation area and we’ll probably head there again, but we had sewage lagoons to get to so our stay was brief.

It’s a short walk to the sewage lagoons and all that separates you from the sweet discharge areas of the water treatment plant is a barbed wire fence.  Thankfully, someone had already pulled up the fence, so we just walked underneath it and got to the lagoons.  There were birds everywhere!  There was a large flock of gulls (mostly Bonaparte’s Gulls with some Ring-billed Gulls), Caspian Terns, shorebirds that we couldn’t identify given our limited abilities, ducks, and swallows.

The most exciting event was when we heard a strange bird song from very close by.  It turned out that I must have hit the play button on the iBird app on my iPhone by mistake because my pants were emanating the song of an Audubon’s Oriole.  Alas, my pants were not able to conjure up an actual Audubon’s Oriole and I hit the mute button to avoid future confusion.

However, I did get some shots of a Lesser Yellowlegs that was in perfect light:

Lesser Yellowlegs - Canon 7D with Canon EF 500mm, 1/3200s @ f/8, ISO 800

Lesser Yellowlegs - Canon 7D with Canon EF 500mm, 1/3200s @ f/8, ISO 800

Lesser Yellowlegs - Canon 7D with Canon EF 500mm, 1/5000s @ f/8, ISO 800

Lesser Yellowlegs - Canon 7D with Canon EF 500mm, 1/5000s @ f/8, ISO 800

All in all, it was a great afternoon of photography and not very far from home.  Thanks Brad!

Lessons on a Hot Sunny Day

Even when hot summer weather makes birding difficult, there are still opportunities to practice your technique and reinforce key concepts.  For example, I was at Presqu’ile Provincial Park on the weekend, not expecting to see much. Those expectations were met!  However, there was a larger than normal flock of caspian terns at Owen Point:

Caspian Terns, Canon 7D with Canon EF 500mm, 1/500s @ f/22, ISO 400

Caspian Terns, Canon 7D with Canon EF 500mm, 1/500s @ f/22, ISO 400

My initial tern photos were taken at f/8, but with that aperture only the front group of birds was in focus.  I had to set a really small aperture of f/22 to get the back group somewhat in focus.

With other photogenic birds nowhere to be found (except for a pair of pileated woodpeckers at Calf Pasture Point), I focused my attention on butterflies.  There was a black swallowtail:

Black Swallowtail, Canon 7D with Canon EF 500mm, 1/800s @ f/8, ISO 400

Black Swallowtail, Canon 7D with Canon EF 500mm, 1/800s @ f/8, ISO 400

The black swallowtail was shot at f/8 and a shutter speed of 1/800s, but that shutter speed wasn’t fast enough to stop the motion of small cabbage white butterflies.  They fly around like crazy!  I would normally just step down (say to f/5.6) to get a faster shutter speed, but in this case I was pretty close so I wanted the depth of field to be at least f/8.  The only other alternative was to crank up the ISO, so I set mine to ISO 1600.  It seems odd to intentionally use such a large ISO on a perfectly sunny day, but it’s the only way to stop the motion of butterflies while also getting the depth of field you need:

Small Cabbage White Butterfly on Purple Loosestrife, Canon 7D with Canon EF 500mm, 1/3200s @ f/8, ISO 1600

Small Cabbage White Butterfly on Purple Loosestrife, Canon 7D with Canon EF 500mm, 1/3200s @ f/8, ISO 1600

The same settings worked for a Monarch Buttefly:

Monarch Butterfly, Canon 7D with Canon EF 500mm, 1/2500s @ f/8, ISO 1600

Monarch Butterfly, Canon 7D with Canon EF 500mm, 1/2500s @ f/8, ISO 1600

Charleston Lake: Photographic Bliss!

Charleston Lake, Canon 7D with Canon EF 28-300mm @ 28mm, 1/250s, f/8, ISO 800

Charleston Lake, Canon 7D with Canon EF 28-300mm @ 28mm, 1/250s, f/8, ISO 800

It never ceases to amaze me how many photographic opportunities there are at Charleston Lake Provincial Park.  I was only there for about 48 hours this weekend, but I was able to get pictures of osprey, green and great blue herons, butterflies, and dragonflies.

There is a man-made osprey nest opposite the main beach and it’s low enough to the ground that I was able to get closer to osprey than ever before.  There were two juveniles in the nest, but it looks like they are almost ready to leave.  Here’s one perching just outside the nest:

Osprey, Canon 7D with Canon EF 28-300mm @ 300mm, 1/1600s, f/8, ISO 800

Osprey, Canon 7D with Canon EF 28-300mm @ 300mm, 1/1600s, f/8, ISO 800

I like the photo above except for the obvious man-made structure.  I was pleased to get some photos of an adult away from the nest.  Any nature photo without man-made structures is better.

Osprey, Canon 7D with Canon EF 28-300mm @ 300mm, 1/3200s, f/8, ISO 800

Osprey, Canon 7D with Canon EF 28-300mm @ 300mm, 1/3200s, f/8, ISO 800

Note the difference in eye color; adult osprey have yellow eyes while juveniles have red eyes.

The marsh opposite the campground is a great place for herons.  I was able to get pretty close to a great blue heron:

Great Blue Heron, Canon 7D with Canon EF 28-300mm @ 300mm, 1/1250s, f/8, ISO 800

Great Blue Heron, Canon 7D with Canon EF 28-300mm @ 300mm, 1/1250s, f/8, ISO 800

Great Blue Heron, Canon 7D with Canon EF 28-300mm @ 300mm, 1/1250s, f/8, ISO 800

Great Blue Heron, Canon 7D with Canon EF 28-300mm @ 300mm, 1/1250s, f/8, ISO 800

I also found a green heron in a tree and was able to capture my first ever images of that species:

Green Heron, Canon 7D with Canon EF 28-300mm @ 300mm, 1/500s, f/8, ISO 800

Green Heron, Canon 7D with Canon EF 28-300mm @ 300mm, 1/500s, f/8, ISO 800

I’m not really pleased with the sharpness of the heron photos, but maybe that’s all I can expect when hand-holding a 300mm lens while in a kayak!

The boardwalk at the start of the Quiddity and Tallow Rock Bay trails is a great place to see butterflies and dragonflies.  I used a high ISO and fast shutter speed to freeze the action of a giant swallowtail:

Giant Swallowtail on Swamp Milkweed, Canon 7D with Canon EF 500mm, 1/5000s, f/8, ISO 1600

Giant Swallowtail on Swamp Milkweed, Canon 7D with Canon EF 500mm, 1/5000s, f/8, ISO 1600

Photographing dragonflies is always a challenge.  I find that they often go out and return to the same perch (like some birds), so I tried pre-focusing on a perch and waiting.  In a few cases, it actually worked!

Twelve-Spotted Skimmer , Canon 7D with Canon EF 500mm, 1/4000s, f/8, ISO 800

Twelve-Spotted Skimmer, Canon 7D with Canon EF 500mm, 1/4000s, f/8, ISO 800

Widow Skimmer , Canon 7D with Canon EF 500mm, 1/1600s, f/8, ISO 800

Widow Skimmer, Canon 7D with Canon EF 500mm, 1/1600s, f/8, ISO 800

Canon 7D with Canon EF 500mm, 1/640s, f/13, ISO 800

Canon 7D with Canon EF 500mm, 1/640s, f/13, ISO 800

Halloween Pennant, Grasshopper Sparrow, and Merlin

It was hot today, so it was nice to spend most of the afternoon in an air-conditioned vehicle driving around Prince Edward County with my parents.  We weren't expecting to see much, but I was pleasantly surprised to get images of two birds I've never photographed before - a grasshopper sparrow and merlin.  I was able to use my new Puffin Pad to take pictures from inside the car while using the door and Puffin Pad as support.  It worked well.  Before the birds, we saw lots of dragonflies and butterflies.  The most common dragonfly were Halloween Pennants - they seemed to be everywhere at times!

Halloween Pennant, Canon 7D with Canon 500mm, 1/8000s, f/5.6, ISO 400

Halloween Pennant, Canon 7D with Canon 500mm, 1/8000s, f/5.6, ISO 400

Halloween Pennant, Canon 7D with Canon 500mm, 1/500s, f/10, ISO 400

Halloween Pennant, Canon 7D with Canon 500mm, 1/500s, f/10, ISO 400

Grasshopper Sparrow, Canon 7D with Canon 500mm, 1/5000s, f/8, ISO 400

Grasshopper Sparrow, Canon 7D with Canon 500mm, 1/5000s, f/8, ISO 400

Merlin, Canon 7D with Canon 500mm, 1/2000s, f/8, ISO 400

Merlin, Canon 7D with Canon 500mm, 1/2000s, f/8, ISO 400

Savannah Sparrow and Eastern Meadowlark

I returned to the site of the Upland Sandpipers tonight, this time with my 500mm lens.  The sandpipers were present, but not in the numbers I saw on Monday.  Alas, they were not as photographically cooperative either.  I was only able to get a few shots of adults sneaking through the grass.  Not once did they pose for me on a fence post (how dare they!).  What a difference a few days makes!

The trip was still enjoyable.  I got some images of a Savannah Sparrow and Eastern Meadowlark and saw a milk snake and lots of rabbits and fireflies.  It's nice to have seemingly wild spots so close to home.

Savannah Sparrow, Canon 7D with Canon EF 500mm, f/8, 1/400s, ISO 400

Savannah Sparrow, Canon 7D with Canon EF 500mm, f/8, 1/400s, ISO 400

Eastern Meadowlark, Canon 7D with Canon EF 500mm, f/8, 1/80s, ISO 400

Eastern Meadowlark, Canon 7D with Canon EF 500mm, f/8, 1/80s, ISO 400

Upland Sandpipers Galore!

Upland Sandpiper, Canon 7D with Canon EF 28-300mm @ 300mm, f/8, 1/400s, ISO 400

Upland Sandpiper, Canon 7D with Canon EF 28-300mm @ 300mm, f/8, 1/400s, ISO 400

My friend and I were out for a Canada Day drive when we lucked upon a great photographic surprise... a cooperative Upland Sandpiper.  This species is known for perching on fence posts and this individual lived up to the billing.  It stayed on its perch while we slowly approached in my car.  Normally, I would have my 500mm lens with me while out driving, but on this day I packed lighter and opted for my 28-300mm instead.  Not to worry though.  300mm was more than enough to capture nearly full-frame images.  The lighting was perfect and things got even better when we noticed that there were more Upland Sandpipers in the area.  We noticed a second adult, and then a third, and then some young ones, and then some more young ones... it was crazy!  What a great Canada Day present!

Upland Sandpiper, Canon 7D with Canon EF 28-300mm @ 300mm, f/8, 1/1000s, ISO 400

Upland Sandpiper, Canon 7D with Canon EF 28-300mm @ 300mm, f/8, 1/1000s, ISO 400

Upland Sandpiper, Canon 7D with Canon EF 28-300mm @ 300mm, f/8, 1/500s, ISO 400

Upland Sandpiper, Canon 7D with Canon EF 28-300mm @ 300mm, f/8, 1/500s, ISO 400

There were several opportunities to capture an image with the wings open, but this was the best I could manage.  It's not quite as sharp as I'd like it to be.

Upland Sandpiper, Canon 7D with Canon EF 28-300mm @ 300mm, f/8, 1/400s, ISO 400

Upland Sandpiper, Canon 7D with Canon EF 28-300mm @ 300mm, f/8, 1/400s, ISO 400

Image processing workflow

My image processing workflow is pretty simple. I prefer to minimize post-processing by capturing images as close to their final result in-camera. For example, I use neutral density filters for most of my landscape photos rather than a software gradient. I don't use any complicated post-processing software such as PhotoShop, Lightroom, or Aperture. I have nothing against those programs; I just haven't learned how to use them yet.

I only use the following free tools for my post-processing:

  • Canon Photo Professional (CPP) - This is the free software that came with the camera. I periodically check for software updates on Canon's website. (For example, you can find out about the latest software available for the Canon 7D in Canada here.) I have configured Canon Photo Professional to only show raw images when there is a JPEG image with the same filename (using the checkbox at Tools->Preferences...->Display only CR2 images for CR2 and JPEG files of the same name).
  • Google Picasa - I have configured Picasa not to show raw images (using the checkbox at Tools->Options->File Types->RAW formats).

With Canon Photo Professional and Picasa in place, my workflow is as follows:

  1. Capture raw images in camera.
  2. Copy raw images to computer.
  3. Edit raw images using Canon Photo Professional. I almost always change each image's white balance and sharpness. I occasionally edit color saturation, shadow, and highlight and rarely use noise reduction.
  4. Convert raw images to JPEG images. I resize images to 1920x1280 to save a little space and because that's the maximal resolution supported by my Apple TV.
  5. Add captions using Google Picasa. I caption each wildlife photo with the species name so that I can easily find photos of that species later using Picasa's search bar.
  6. Upload JPEG images to SmugMug.

Apple TV for photo slideshows

I use Apple TV for photo slide shows in my home and I love it! Photos from any modern digital SLR look great on a big screen. Here are the steps I use to create a photo slide show:

  1. Put the JPEG photos you want in the slide show in a separate folder on your computer. (I use Google Picasa's export feature for this step. When a folder contains both a raw image and a JPEG, Apple TV displays both and I don't want that because the raw images don't show up on Apple TV with my edits. I only want the JPEG photos to appear in the slide show.)
  2. Using Apple iTunes:
    1. Enable home sharing (using Advanced->Turn on home sharing).
    2. Configure the photos to share (using Advanced->Choose Photos to Share...).

That's it! Turn on your Apple TV and the display it's connected to and blow your audience away!

Photo backup workflow

I admit it. I'm paranoid about data loss. I want to be sure that my photos are safe even if my house burns down. They say that the first step is admitting the problem, so how do I deal with my paranoia?

I use two online services for backup. One backs up my raw files and another backs up my JPEG files:

  • Mozy is an online backup service that I have configured to back up all of my important data, including my raw image files. I have configured it to run nightly (at 3:00 AM) and, unless I have put a very large number of files on my computer that day, all of my files are safely stored on the cloud by morning. The only problem with Mozy is that their largest plan only covers up to 125 GB of data and I am quickly exhausting that limit. You can buy more storage but it's more expensive than for their pre-packaged plans.
  • SmugMug is specifically designed for photos. I use it to back up all of my JPEG images and to publish galleries I want to be public. For example, I make a collection for each calendar year, add my favourite photos to it, and make it public. Other galleries, such as those with photos of my family and friends, are kept private and shared via URLs. Only someone with the URL can view the gallery.

With these two services in place, all of my raw and JPEG images are online and safe, even if my house burns down. What a relief! Now I can turn my paranoia towards something else...