Thursday, April 13, 2017

Birds on the Move in St. Catharines

In this instalment of our bird photography blog, we visit some of the best birding sites in St. Catharines for a look at some early spring migrants.

Bird Photography in St. Catharines: Early Spring

Wow, what a whirlwind of weather the last few days here in Niagara. Two solid days of non-stop rain, a full day of snow to start the weekend turning into clear skies, sunshine and a high of 20 degrees on Sunday.

Given the circumstances, we wanted to make sure we took advantage of the nice weather on the weekend, but it was also a great chance to get out birding to see early migration at work.


Watch Our Video Vlog: Bird Photography in Early Spring

Glenridge Quarry Naturalization Site

We started our Saturday morning at Glenridge Naturalization Site, in its current state, is a large, open public space that sustains wildlife, provides habitat while providing opportunities for recreation use, and environmental education.

Prior to the site redevelopment, it operated as a municipal landfill site from 1976 to 2001. In the 1990s it was decided that a naturalization site with a trail system would replace the landfill once it closed on Jan. 1, 2002.

Glenridge Naturalizatrion Site
Ashley and Rudy at the Glenridge Naturalization Site (February 2017)

We make use of the site on a weekly basis, mostly because it is a great place to walk our dog Rudy - it is his favourite place to visit. During our walks, it doubles as a good location to scope out some birds during the spring and fall months. While we were there on Saturday, we were surprised to have not yet heard a Killdeer, as the open fields and short grassland are likely habitats for these Shorebirds.

Birding Tip: Noting the type of habitat you are in can assist you to gauge the types of species you are most likely to see. This can be helpful in situations where you are unable to identify a certain species and can be helpful when looking through your field guide to determine your sighting. This tip can help you to narrow down your choices for identification or species options.

Killdeer in flight
A Killdeer in flight at the Glenridge Naturalization Site

As if on key, we heard the call on the Killdeer and saw him scurry across the gravel path, pausing to bob up and down and size us up. As we continued to scan the open, flat lands we noticed a silhouette on one of the bird boxes perched in the field. As we stared at the box, Trevor made the identification from a distance- Eastern Bluebird. This was big, A) we love Bluebirds (I mean who doesn’t with their beautiful blue colour and their rusty chest) and B) we had never seen one at this location before. Now that we know, come early April we can look for them again.

Eastern Bluebird in St. Catharines
This Eastern Bluebird was photographed on the Port Weller East Trail in April, 2015.  Trevor Jones.

In the late afternoon, we ventured out again, this time without Rudy. The plan was to hit one additional location before heading to the Port Weller East trail. First up,  Green Ribbon Trail, a 529-metre trail that passes through the Barnsdale Marsh (which I didn’t know there was a name until writing this post). The surrounding area is considered an environmentally sensitive - Class 1 wetland.

Green Ribbon Trail, St. Catharines

We love visiting this spot. It typically produces at least a few songbirds to photograph and the usual suspects such as; Great Blue Heron.

Great Blue Heron
A Great blue heron at Green Ribbon Trail in St. Catharines catches a fish

Nerd fact - we had our engagement photos taken here, and yes, they were bird themed.

This time of year, the spot is loaded with Canada geese sitting on their eggs and soon there will be hissing Geese and goslings everywhere. This trip produced the Great Blue Heron, fairly close to the main path and was nicely backlit by the sunlight. Both of us wanted to get some video footage but we were forced to improvise without a tripod. First Trev tried using a tree, I tried sitting on the ground and using my bent knee, mediocre results. Then Trev came over to where I was sitting and put his lens on my shoulder for stability, not bad.

Great Bue Heron
Great Blue Heron in 12 Mile Creek (Green Ribbon Trail)

The Great Blue Heron seems to hunt for fish in the early evening, as we have visited this spot and witnessed the slow wading and curious glances until they stab their bill into the water at top speed. This day was no exception and while Trevor is using my shoulder for stability, I couldn't  help but lift my camera and lens with my other hand, haphazardly looking through the eyepiece to try and get some shots of this activity.

The rest of the walk along the trail was pretty low key, mostly hearing species but seeing little movement.
  •     Black- capped Chickadees
  •     Rid-wing Blackbird
  •     Belted Kingfisher
  •     Turkey Vulture
  •     Mallards
  •     Red-trailed Hawk
  •     Mute Swan


Caspian Terns

We were hoping to see some Caspian Terns, they are typically at this location later in the month so perhaps we were too early. They come to these shallow waters to fish, circling above and plunging into the water, it is a great chance to get some action shots. The challenge is choosing a Tern to follow and anticipating when they are going to plunge into the water. We will have to try again near the end of April.

Casipan Tern in St. Catharines
A Caspian Tern at the Green Ribbon Trail in St. Catharines (April 29, 2015)

Since we were close, we threw in another spot before heading to our main destination, Port Dalhousie.

Port Dalhousie Harbour

Port Dalhousie, a historic community known for its waterfront, is a great chance to check out some waterfowl. Most of the time you will find tonnes of Mallards, Rock Pigeons, and Canada geese; however, there can be some pleasant surprises so we like to make a quick stop in to check. This stop proved to be fairly unsuccessful, our only takeaway photo, a Double-crested Cormorant sitting low in the water.

Double-crested Cormorant
Double-crested cormorant at Port Dalhousie

We wrapped things up quickly at Port and we drove to our third and final location, the pond at Port Weller East. 

The pond was featured in our first vlog featuring the Buffalo Ornithological Survey Bird Count, where we saw the Peregrine Falcon. We save this location for last because this location is great in the late evening as the sun is low in the sky and setting in the West, shining the ‘golden light’ on whatever waterfowl might be in that pond.

On the way to the pond, we saw:

  •     Northern Flicker
  •     Northern Cardinal
  •     Song Sparrow
  •     Tree Swallow
  •     European Starling

We had some great photo opportunities on our way to the pond with some Golden-crown Kinglets and a Downy Woodpecker. Check out Adobe Photoshop Image Processing video on the Bird Nerd channel.

Downy Woodpecker
Downy Woodpecker seen at the Port Weller East Trail

View the Bird Photography Image Processing Video

You have the ability to view the pond from either side. When entering from the main trial, it is necessary to sneak, and I mean sneak through the brush ducking down behind the small shrubs along the shore in order for the waterfowl to not see you and fly away. We creep in as quietly as possible, but once you get through the brush and into the open it is harder to remain incognito.

Golden-crowned kinglet
A small Golden-crowed Kinglet at Port Weller East

Part way through, I take a look through my lens to identify what we are seeing. Our hope was to see a Northern Shoveler, as they use this spot as a stop over on their migration route and sure enough, there they were, a male and female Shoveler looking a little leery. After moving to get a clear shot, we were able to fire off a few quick shots, before they decided to leave.

Green-winged teals in flight
A flock of Green-winged teals at the Port Weller East Trail

At this point, all the other waterfowl has moved to the other end of the pond and we have a seat on a few rocks and analyze the pond to see what else is out there: Buffleheads, and Mallards. The trick is to sit somewhat hidden and wait to see if they will think we are gone and come back to our side of the pond. This is a tactic we have used in the past and has proven successful in the past with a Blue-winged Teal.

Green-winged teal
A "Lifer" for us!  A Green-winged teal

As we sit and wait, we notice a flock of birds dipping and gliding through the air, landing to our right. Our line of sight was blocked by branches and at first glance, the green iridescent patch on his head lead us to believe we are looking at an American Wigeon until we get back to the car and look in our ID guide. After matching up the green colouring on his head, the black bill and flank colouring, we Id'd the bird as a Green-winged Teal - a lifer for us.

Again, this group of Teals did not stick around very long. Not even for two minutes and they were off, but wow, it was great to see them.

It is safe to say that migrants are on the move and, overall we had a successful day out birding. It was great to see that this location and pond continue to deliver these early migrants. Perhaps you have a location like this of your own, where the more you visit, the more you begin to understand the species and timing of their visits. 

We hope you are observing some interesting migrating birds in your area - happy birding!

Wednesday, March 8, 2017

Our Birding Trip to Ottawa

In February 2017, we set out to find the Great Grey Owl in Ottawa, Ontario. This Phantom of the North was the subject of our video vlog on the Bird Nerds YouTube Channel.

In search of the Great Grey Owl in Ottawa, Ontario

Travelling to Ottawa for a birding trip was something that we have talked about for a long time. Looking at the recent sightings on eBird only solidified the decision to go and see if we would be lucky enough to see the Great Grey Owl.

Friends of ours have recently moved to Ottawa, so this was a great chance to visit and see the city. What is not surprising is that, as bird photographers, we are always looking to add a birding component to any travelling that we do.

Great grey owl location Ottawa

Hitting the Road...

With the Great grey owl on on minds, we hopped in the car and headed for Ottawa on Friday night.  After a long drive with a few stops for snacks, we eventually arrived at the Best Western Downtown Ottawa by 1:00am.

First thing in the morning, we headed out to the exterior of the Shirley's Bay Area in the suburb of Kanata to March Valley Rd where, according to eBird, the owl was spotted as recent as the previous day.

Shirley's Bay, Ottawa

After a couple wrong turns, we arrived at the Marsh Valley and Klondike Road intersect, where the road was under construction. We detoured around to come down the other side where we saw another birder with his tripod set up - always a good sign.

Our first Great Grey Owl, Ever!

We parked the car, threw our coats on, and grabbed our gear. Of course, the owl was perched in a tree far out in the open field beyond a barbwire fence in a restricted area, but we stood in awe staring at this beautiful creature from afar - just to see him through our lens was exciting.

Phantom of the North

It is important to know the area and the habits of the bird species you are looking for. Checking open fields in the surrounding area in Kanata proved to be important considering the species we were looking for - which is often found perched on hydro poles, fence posts, in coniferous trees or wide open fields.

Watch the Video:


These were often our best chances to see the owl as it's changed position brought him a little closer to us each day. When spotted back in the open field on day one, it was clear that the owl was being mobbed by crows that forced him from his perch to in behind tree cover.

This was when we decided it was time to move to our next destination to see some other species within our short birding window.

We headed to an area that we had passed on our detour to find the owl which was near the Connaught Range and Primary Training Facility of the National Defence. It was a small crescent road with several bird feeders set up, referred to as Hilda Feeders.

American Tree Sparrow at Hilda Feeders
This area was very comparable to Dufferin Islands, in Niagara Falls in terms of the types of bird species, you will find there. With the sunlight at your back, and the birds flocking to the feeders, it is a great chance to get some shots of them perched on the surrounding branches.

The variety of bird species found included:

  • Black Capped chickadee
  • White-breasted nuthatch
  • American goldfinch
  • American tree sparrow
  • Downy woodpecker
  • Blue jay

After an afternoon touring the city with friends, we returned to the owl location the following day. A balmy 12 degrees - the sun was shining and there wasn’t a cloud to be seen in the sky, it was a beautiful day to be birding. Another indicator that a popular bird is close by or in the area is seeing cars pulled over to the side of the road.

Another chance to photograph the Owl

As we drove down March Valley Road,  cars were pulled off to the side and birders were intently focused and armed with cameras. This time, he was a little bit closer.

Great grey owl in Ottawa
Great grey owl captured with a Canon 7D Mk 1 and 300mm F/4L lens

Nestled in an evergreen tree, he wasn’t out in the open but he was positioned on the south side of the tree, and as photographers, we were able to take advantage of the sunlight lighting up those mysteriously beautiful yellow eyes when he would turn his head to look at us.

Bird Photography Tip:

The camera setting I like to use in tense situations when the bird may leave, is Av mode.  This will allow the camera to choose the correct exposure length based on the lighting situations.  Of course, this will result in a blurry bird if your ISO is not high enough.  Because it was a sunny morning, I was able to shoot using ISO 500, and be confident that my shots would land in the 1/500" range or faster. 

These camera settings worked well with my Canon 7D Mk I, Canon 300mm F/4L lens and 1.4X Canon teleconverter.

We enjoyed this opportunity for quite some time until he decided that he wanted a change of scenery and flew a ways back behind the trees until he wasn't visible again.

We returned to Hilda feeders, with the same usual suspects seen on day 1. After spending some time there, we travelled back into the city to look for a Harlequin Duck that was described to us from a local birder and logged on eBird.

The Rideau Canal
We followed the travel instructions and ended up along the Rideau River, looking for a bridge where the duck had been seen for several days, maybe even weeks - it was supposed to be a sure thing.

Common Goldeneye

We found the closest bridge, the Adawe crossing and walked along the bank for any signs of waterfowl. We did come across some Common Goldeneyes, both male and female but no sign of the Harlequin.

We headed back to the car and looked at a map, we realized that we were likely looking in the wrong spot, but it was late and we needed to meet up with our friends.

Common Goldeneyes
Common Goldeneyes in the Rideau River, Ottawa

One last chance before returning home... 


Before leaving the next morning, we returned to the owl spot one last time to see if there were any other photo opportunities. He was even closer this day, perched on a fence post about 50 metres away.

We got some decent ID shots, but nothing spectacular. It was difficult having to shoot through or over the barbwire fence and I found it easier to stand on hardened snow piles in order to avoid the obstructions.

When we pulled up, we noticed how close he was and I rushed out of the car before getting appropriately bundled up. I figured I had some time so I returned to the car to grab my toque. When I was coming back to my spot, I noticed that the owl was finishing its flight away from us back to the fence post, I had missed a chance for a flight shot.

Trevor said he heard a shutter going off like crazy, and figured it was mine but when told him I went back to the car, we were both pretty disappointed that I missed that chance. In hindsight, I should have just let my ears freeze off for the shot - next time. Shortly after, an authorized truck driving on the restricted side pulled up near the owl and he flew away.

Unfortunately, we didn’t have any more time to wait around to see if he would return, we needed to start our 6 hours drive back to Niagara, and it was time to say goodbye. We left behind the mountains of melting snow and the warm sunny weather.   

The thrill of bird photography

This trip really reminded us how much we enjoy the spontaneity and fun element of birding. You can plan your trip and your day as much as you want, but in the end, you never really know what you are going to find or capture. We love heading out with this premise in mind and we love sharing that aspect with others who enjoy the hunt.