This article contains a lot of technical information about camera settings that will only be of interest to people with relatively modern DSLR and mirrorless cameras. It contains a few amendments from the version published in Volume 69 No. 1 of The Blue Bill, the quarterly journal of the Kingston Field Naturalists.
One of the challenges of working with current DSLR and mirrorless camera bodies is the bewildering variety of options they present. What should one do when faced with the myriad of possibilities embedded in the basic camera controls for ISO, metering, shutter speed, aperture, and autofocus modes, much less the arcane stuff buried in the custom menus (53 options in my particular camera of choice)? Isn’t there a one-size-fits-all choice of settings that will let us get on with the business of photographing birds?
Well, yes and no. Readers of this series will know that I advocate learning how to control the basic functions of the camera, and particularly the big three of ISO, shutter speed, and aperture. In the most recent article I also explored the importance of understanding and applying autofocus modes. These are functions that you may need to adjust multiple times over the course of a day out, and in my experience an ability to understand these and balance between them is one of the keys of creating good images.
So there is no single answer that works in all situations. However a quick scan through the internet will turn up a number of articles proposing the “right” settings for bird photography, by which they mean the recommended baseline settings to use most of the time. This is a good approach, and (needless to say!) I have my own recommendations. This article provides a set of good choices for standard settings, and capsule explanations for why these are recommended.
In order to confirm whether they were good ones I decided to test them during two recent birding trips by sticking as closely as possible to my recommended settings throughout the trip. The captions to the images accompanying this article will note the settings used, including any deviations from the recommended ones. A Nikon D850 camera body and a NIKKOR 500mm f/5.6E PF ED VR lens were used throughout.
This site has been lying fallow for a few months while I have been out chasing birds. I’m going to attempt to catch up, starting with a KFN field trip to Algonquin. Algonquin Provincial Park does not quite make it into my Top Ten Birding Sites, but if there were a category for winter birding sites it would be at or near the top.
And why would one head into the frozen North in the depths of winter? To see birds, of course – it’s the primary reason for ever leaving the house. But the special winter birds don’t often show up in balmy Kingston so an annual expedition is mounted to catch up with these critters in their lairs.
Starting with one of the true stunners of the bird world – the Evening Grosbeak. These large, intensely yellow finches would look right at home in the cloud forests of South America. They are a standard fixture in Algonquin Park in winter, best seen from the deck of the Visitor Centre where they congregate to feast at the well-stocked feeders.
Purple Finches are another Algonquin Park regular. These are on the larger and bulkier side of the finch family, and are regularly seen in ones and twos on migration. Algonquin Park attracts large flocks in the winter, also best seen at the Visitor Centre.
Crossbills are another winter target species. There are two species to be seen in Canada and they are not always easy to find. Their bills with the overlapping tips are adapted to opening the cones of evergreen trees to extract the seeds. This specialized diet means that they roam over very wide distances in search of good cone crops. Rather than having a standard breeding period like most birds, they breed when they find a good supply of cones. So crossbills are never guaranteed, but Algonquin is a good place to try and find them. As it happened we found a few small flocks of White-winged Crossbills but alas no Red Crossbills were forthcoming.
Not very finchy finches
A hoped-for check in the box for a winter trip is the Pine Grosbeak. This is technically a finch species, though it lacks the pointy triangular bill of most finches. But it’s quite a smart-looking bird all the same. These birds can’t be counted upon in any given winter as Algonquin is at the south end of their range. We had consulted the Winter Finch Forecast and conditions looked good, but it was still great to catch sight of these chunky birds doing their thing.
Next in line on the sightings list are Pine Siskins. These tiny, agile finches are quite nomadic, but Algonquin Park is as close to a guaranteed site as you can find. This image shows them basking in the pale sunlight between bouts of seed-eating. As usual they were present in a large chattering flock – up to 40 at a time according to my eBird checklist.
Redpolls are always on the winter birds must-see list, and this trip did not disappoint. Like the Pine Siskin these are small finches mostly seen in packs, but they adopt a somewhat more lively colour palette.
It’s not all about finches. Two other winter specialty species were in our sights. The first would be easy. Canada Jays are regular breeding birds in Algonquin Park, and though they don’t frequent the Visitor Centre feeders, there are several accessible locations where they tend to hang out. And being jays, they are naturally inquisitive and will come in to investigate any invasive bipeds in their territories.
One bird that we always hope to see in Algonquin and rarely do is the elusive Black-backed Woodpecker. These birds are thinly-spread, quiet and reclusive in habits, and so black that light seems to bend around them and make them near-invisible in the deep forests where they abide.
But once in a while…
…and the usual Algonquin suspects
No winter visit would be complete without the ubiquitous Black-capped Chickadee and the Blue Jay – a bird so common we sometimes don’t notice how stunning it is.
This was the first trip where I relied exclusively on my Nikon D850 and the new AF-S NIKKOR 500mm f/5.6E PF ED VR lens. This outstanding combination is now the default set-up for birding trips. The only problem is that I now have no excuses – going forward any flaw in an image will either be down to poor camera handling or operator error. 😊
All cameras manufactured in the last 30 years, with the exception of a few highly-specialized models, are capable of automatic focusing or “autofocus”. Many camera models now include a range of options that can be used to optimize the autofocus effect for specific situations. This article will describe autofocus servo modes and area modes, and recommend the best choices for wildlife photographers.
Note: Different camera manufacturers use different terms to describe what are essentially the same capabilities. Because I am a Nikon user I will use Nikon terminology throughout.
On basic cameras like those in mobile phones, autofocus is always enabled. For bridge cameras, DSLRs and mirrorless cameras there is usually a switch so that users can choose whether to use automated or manual focus. Your lens or camera body should have a switch labelled AF-M or M/A-M. AF stands for autofocus and M for manual focus. Ensure that the AF-M switch is set to AF or M/A.
M/A, by the way, means that the autofocus is activated but you can override it manually. This is a useful option to have when your subject is obscured, for example by foliage. The autofocus system may have a hard time finding the desired point of focus. (Remember that modern autofocus systems are “smart” to a degree, but not smart enough to understand that you want to photograph the bird and not some random twig or leaf). If you have the option to do so I recommend setting the camera to M/A so you can override the autofocus when necessary.
Once autofocus is enabled, you activate the focus system by depressing the shutter release halfway or, if you are using back-button focus, depressing the AF-On “back-button.”
There are two key sets of choices that you can make to optimize autofocus. Somewhat confusingly Nikon calls them Autofocus modes and Autofocus area modes. For the sake of clarity I will refer to them as Autofocus servo modes and Autofocus area modes.
Autofocus servo modes
There are two basic choices here. You can either lock focus on a single point, or use a tracking capability that automatically refocuses as the subject moves.
AF-S: Single servo AF
… or “One-Shot AF” for Canon cameras: This system is primarily used for stationary or slow-moving subjects. It uses a single point at the centre of the frame. When the focus system is activated – by half-pressing the shutter release or pressing the back-button – the camera will achieve and lock focus on that point.
Key point. If the camera and/or the subject moves, even if you hold the shutter release halfway down, the camera will not refocus. So small movements can lead to out-of-focus or not optimally focused images.
Note that you can customize this function using the camera menu system. There are two main options: (a) the camera will record an image when you press the shutter release (whether it is in focus or not), or (b) the shutter will not release if the image is not in focus.
Cunning photographers (I’m looking at you Phil) have learned that you can use option b to your advantage when photographing small, fast-moving birds. If you track the bird while holding the shutter release down, an image will be recorded at the fleeting moment when the camera has the bird in focus.
AF-C: Continuous servo AF
… or AI Servo in Canon-speak: This mode is optimized for moving subjects, and is the optimal choice for moving targets. While the focus system is activated the camera will continuously refocus until the shutter is released.
Key point. With AF-C activated, when you press the shutter release the camera will attempt to record an image whether it is in focus or not. So you do need to wait a moment for autofocus to find a solution. This wait time ranges from very short (less than a second) with high-end lenses at wide aperture, to several seconds with basic telephoto lenses.
One drawback of AF-C mode is that sometimes it is not as precise as AF-S, so you have to watch carefully to ensure you don’t end up with slightly out-of-focus shots.
AF-A: Hybrid mode
This is a third option often seen on lower-end DSLRs. In this mode the camera switches between AF-S and AF-C depending on whether it thinks the subject is moving or not. AF-A is intended to give a beginner the best chance of getting a good photo. The mode is not present on higher-end camera bodies because the manufacturer assumes that users will not want to cede control of such an important decision to the camera.
So to summarize, AF-S is best for stationary targets, and AF-C for moving targets.
To choose the autofocus servo mode you should consult the manual for your camera. Nikon DSLRs are controlled by depressing the AF button on the front of the camera and then moving a control wheel until the right symbol appears in the viewfinder.
Autofocus area modes
These options allow you to choose how the focus point is selected. In the Nikon world there are up to ten options depending on your camera body. But don’t despair: only a few of these are really useful for wildlife photography.
Dynamic area modes (x4)
This is a unique-to-Nikon mode that allows precise focus on a very specific point of the target. At the moment only the D850 DSLR and the Z6 and Z7 mirrorless cameras have this feature. It is not likely to be useful for wildlife photography in general, particularly since it is relatively slow to achieve focus. But it is worth considering for specific outdoor applications, e.g. macro photography of flowers, mosses and stationary (i.e. dead) insects. Note that it is only available with AF-S mode.
This is one of the most important modes for wildlife. The camera focuses on a single point at the middle of the frame. This is the fastest and most accurate of AF modes, and is particularly good for the following situations:
when you have time to compose a shot (and are using back-button focus activation). This mode allows you to zero in on the most important feature – usually the eye of the subject, and then recompose the shot knowing that the focus will remain on the chosen point. This is ideal for large mammals and birds, frogs, turtles etc that are close to the observer.
when the lighting is poor (explanation later in this article)
when your target is distant and there is a chance that using an area mode (described below) will lead to inadvertently focusing on a nearby twig or stalk of grass instead of the target
9-point Dynamic area
25-point Dynamic area
72-point Dynamic area
153-point Dynamic area
The idea of these dynamic area modes is that you can choose your focus point, and then as the subject moves the camera will “dynamically” keep the subject in focus. This is a very useful capability for photographing birds in flight, as long as you are aware of one limitation. If you wish to choose a specific initial focus point you do so by cycling between available points using a joystick or a rocker wheel on the back of the camera body. Professional photographers apparently perform this juggling act but mere mortals such as myself have enough issues to deal with in tracking a fast-moving bird without trying to manually move the focus point at the same time. Perhaps the professionals are photographing slower birds… 😊
On top of that, in order to use the joystick or rocker switch with my thumb I would have to re-route focus control from the back-button back to the shutter release, and I am unwilling to give up on the advantages of the back-button.
However if you are happy with a random focus point these modes work well. The Sandhill Crane below was taken using 25-point dynamic area mode. These birds were landing in waves at the Lost Mountain wildlife reserve in Saskatchewan and each group passed over very quickly. At my skill level there was no scope for picking a specific focus point but the autofocus mode did a good job selecting a usable one. (FYI I believe it is the left wingtip of the second bird). There is sufficient depth of field at f/8.0 that I’m not sure the image would have been improved if I had chosen a specific focus point.
One thing to note is that the dynamic modes with larger numbers of focus points take slightly longer to achieve focus, and have an increased chance of focusing on something other than your desired subject.
But overall the dynamic modes are useful tools that are worth familiarizing yourself with. In order to use them the autofocus mode needs to be set to AF-C.
BTW the equivalent Canon term for Nikon’s dynamic modes is AF Point Expansion.
This mode is a clever bit of technology. Once you have picked a focus point it analyzes colour differences to determine which object you want to focus on, and then uses as many focus points as necessary to keep that moving object in focus. I have not experimented much with this mode but sources I trust suggest that for birds in flight it works well against a clear background such as the sky, and less well when the background is busy. For large mammals, which are generally slower moving, this mode probably works very well. And another source reports that in a large mass of fast moving birds this mode is very good at picking out one bird and tracking it. 3D tracking mode is also only available in AF-C.
This mode is self-explanatory. It is very useful for people photography but not really geared towards wildlife.
This mode is one that I use frequently. When aimed at a group – e.g. a small flock of birds – it will focus on and track the closest member of the group. It uses only the centre point and the four others that are close to centre so it achieves focus quickly and holds it well.
This mode takes control of the focusing process and guesses what you wish to focus on. It seems to be intended for neophyte users who want to automate the whole photography process, so that their only responsibility is to point the camera in the general direction and hope for the best. I have not tried this mode but I understand that it is fairly good at finding faces. Otherwise it tends to focus on the nearest object. This mode is not really relevant to the wildlife photographer.
My first recommendation is that if you want to take full advantage of the capabilities of your camera you should learn how to change AF modes and AF area modes quickly and efficiently.
In my view the most useful AF combinations for wildlife are:
For stationary targets , especially if they are distant and/or the light is poor, use AF-S/single servo mode and a single (centre) focus point. Focus on the key feature (usually the closest eye). If you are using back-button focus you can then recompose without refocusing.
For all moving targets, use AF-C mode and one of the autofocus area modes.
Of these, I would experiment with 3D tracking for slow-moving targets (large mammals, e.g.).
For faster-moving targets, use either Group or one of the dynamic area modes. Of these I would stick to 9 or 25 point for most situations.
When I am out birding I will normally have the camera set at AF-C and 25-point area mode as this gives me the best chance of getting onto a fast-moving bird.
A note on low-light photography
Autofocus systems use areas of contrast to judge focus. If there is not enough detail (clearly defined edges) in the subject then the autofocus system will “hunt” – that is, cycle back and forth trying to establish a focus point. This explains why autofocus doesn’t work well in low light conditions – there is not enough contrast to achieve focus. So though your high-end DSLR can capture an image at astonishing ISO values, you will probably have to focus manually or accept blurry images. Or check your manual to see if your camera has an AF-Assist function that can help out.
The Blue Bill
This article originally appeared in the Blue Bill, the journal of the Kingston Field Naturalists, Volume 68, Number 4, December 2021.
 The term is a bit of a misnomer because it’s not really automatic – you still have to activate the autofocus system, or at least ensure that it is focusing on what you want it to.
The next point of call in the BC adventure was the Maplewood Flats Conservation Area in North Vancouver. By reputation this is a great place to see birds but it was rather quiet while I was there. The usual suspects – which in BC means Black-capped Chickadees, Song Sparrows, Spotted Towhees, Juncos and Red-shafted Northern Flickers – were active but there were no visible shorebirds on the mud flats and not much in the way of warbler action. I did manage to dig up a Black-throated Grey Warbler though – a very smart-looking bird that I had seen once before in Arizona – and also an aberrant Short-billed Gull. Aside from that the main interest was observing the BC subspecies of Song Sparrow (morphna) , which is much darker than the melodia subspecies we see in Ontario.
I then took a jaunt up to Mount Seymour Provincial park but that turned out to be rather uneventful. It was cloudy and foggy and rather bird-free up at the top of the road, and a short walk down one of the trails revealed that I was seriously underdressed for the weather. So a tactical withdrawal to a coffee shop was in order.
Being somewhat at loose ends I decided to chase an American Avocet that had been hanging around a small parkette near Granville Island. My navigator, Mrs Google, took the opportunity to show me some of the seedier parts of Vancouver but the bird was eventually found and photographed.
… and an unforeseen excursion
At that point, lacking a better plan, I decided to head down to the Tsawwassen ferry terminal in hopes of catching up with the mega-rarity Short-tailed Shearwater that had been seen that morning. A Vancouver native would probably have balked at a cross-town journey on a Saturday afternoon but fools rush in where angels fear to tread.
I arrived at the terminal without a clear idea of where the bird was likely to be, other than the fact that some people had seen it from the ferry to someplace called Duke Point. In the mad rush to find a parking spot, purchase a ticket, get to the gate, find out that a ticket back might be hard to get, rush back to the ticket office to find out that they don’t sell return tickets, and dash back to the gate I had not time to work out two key factoids: that the bird had been seen by looking backwards just after the ferry left the dock; and that Duke Point was in fact (as “everyone” knows) the codeword for a dock about 10km away from Nanaimo – two and a half hours sailing time from Tsawwassen.
So there I was, up on the foredeck in a stiff. cold breeze, staring off into a bird-free channel with a shearwater laughing in my wake. It was only after an hour of fruitless searching that I came in to warm up (note earlier remarks about underdressed for the cold), checked the rare bird reports and realized my error.
This could have ended very badly, with me searching on foot for a motel in Nanaimo, but fortunately it emerged that foot passengers can buy return tickets on the ferry, and even more fortunately I was in the right place to get a brief glance of a Short-tailed Shearwater as we pulled in and darkness settled around us.
Day total: 2 life birds (Short-tailed Shearwater and Pelagic Cormorant), 1 new-to-Canada bird
Day 5 – Retrenchment
By now the fatigue from many miles of driving, many early mornings and a rather harrowing experience was becoming a factor. I decided to recharge with a lie-in and a proper breakfast before continuing the chase. My original plan was to head over to Stanley Park, which by rights was a 13 minute drive away. Except that this was Vancouver and a bridge was involved, and when I got into position 13 minutes had turned into 47. I decided that Stanley Park would have to wait. Good thing as it turns out – I later learned that a coyote cull was being conducted and the park was closed for the week. So lacking a better alternative I went back to Maplewood Flats where I knew that I would at least have a nice walk in the woods.
Day total: no life birds, 1 new-to-Canada bird (Anna’s Hummingbird)
Day 6 – Boundary Bay
The next day held greater promise. I met Melissa at 0800 in Delta and the plan was to hit all the key hotspots in the area. The first stop was Brunswick Point, which turned out to be a sparrow-fest. In short order we had seen two of my most-wanted targets, Golden-crowned Sparrow and Sooty Fox Sparrow, and got my best-ever shot of a Lincoln’s Sparrow.
Then it was back to the scene of the crime – the Tsawwassen Ferry Terminal – for a feast of waterfowl and shorebirds. Two more key targets went down as we spotted Black Oystercatchers close in and Black Turnstones on a far away island (within scope range but not camera distance). Lots of other good birds were present – Harlequin Ducks, all three scoter species, Horned and Western Grebes and Brandt’s Cormorant. All in all a highly successful stop that justified a proper morning coffee break.
Next on the programme was the mudflats of Boundary Bay. The high tide that day wasn’t very high so again it was telescope time but we were able to identify no less than 12 species of shorebirds, ranging from a pair of Marbled Godwits to 2000 Western Sandpipers. 44 species of bird at that stop and the day was still young!
As a break from all the shore action we dipped into Paulik Park in Richmond, looking fruitlessly for two of my targets: Bushtit and Hutton’s Vireo. The on to the last stop of the day, the near-legendary Iona Island. This is a fancy name for a set of sewage lagoons, but like many such installations there were birds galore, including shorebirds that were somewhat more camera-friendly. We worked the place over thoroughly before I left for the tedious drive back across town to North Vancouver.
Day total: 5 life birds
Day 7 – Vancouver Peregrinations
Melissa was determined that I would not leave without Bushtits and Hutton’s Vireos, so we met the next morning at Queen Elizabeth Park and had both in short order.
By this time I had seen most of my sea and shore targets, but it would not have done to miss out on the Reifel Bird Sanctuary so off we went. An hour’s visit netted 50 species including Black-necked Stilt, a welcome addition to my Canada list. Then, acting on a hot tip, we returned to the ferry terminal and ticked a Brown Pelican – another new Canada bird.
Now in full twitching mode, we headed into suburban Delta to see if a rumoured California Scrub Jay was still lurking around. These jays are not normally in the area but individual wanderers show up fairly regularly to hang out with the Steller’s Jays. Luck was on our side and a rather damp example was added to the day’s tally.
The final port of call was Cypress Provincial Park, where we went looking for some of the higher-altitude forest birds. It went as these things go – half an hour of bird-free hiking and then the Chestnut-backed Chickadees arrived just as we were ogling a Red-breasted Sapsucker. Victory was declared and we went our separate ways, but not before Melissa filled me in on where to look for some of my last remaining targets.
With an hour or so of daylight remaining I decided to try a rocky outcrop near Horseshoe Bay where Surfbirds were rumoured to congregate. No Surfbirds presented themselves, but I got the scope on a large, long-winged shorebird winging its way across the bay. Based on shape, size, bill length and markings I was able to ID it as a Wandering Tattler – a very scarce bird in the Vancouver area. So score one for persistence!
Day total: 4 life birds, 4 new-to-Canada birds
Day 8 – A road trip East
Having booked an evening flight home, the dilemma I faced was: stay local and try to get better pictures of birds seen in the previous days?, or get up at 0315, pack up and drive three hours east so as to be at E.C. Manning park by sunrise, where one might see a Sooty Grouse? The obvious answer is (b), and despite the perfidiousness of the local Tim’s for not opening until 0400 I made it to the “right” place in time to see the desired bird.
There were two other potential targets on the way back. I was able to connect with Lewis’s Woodpecker at the Hope Airport for decent views and horrible photos, but despite a valiant effort the Black Phoebe near Chilliwack eluded me.
So it was off to the airport and homewards.
Day total: 2 life birds
Trip Total: 35 life birds, 15 new-to-Canada birds
One might observe that 35 life birds equals a good day out in Colombia, Peru or Ecuador, but those places were not open to me and it’s 35 more than I would have had by haunting my local spots in Kingston. Plus it has whetted my appetite to see more of the native birds that Canada has to offer.
So all in all I was most pleased with this trip. And a shout out once again to Chris Charlesworth and Melissa Hafting for helping me to see so many great birds!
After a range-restricted spring migration season and the second cancellation of a birding trip to Argentina I was beginning to feel somewhat disenchanted with this whole Covid business. Yes, it’s true that not having died from a nasty virus is an agreeable outcome, but these lockdowns and travel restrictions were seriously cutting into my birding time. Action was required! I needed to see some new birds in a country that has good public health care, one that I could get to without risking being trapped by a sudden change to border regulations. Someplace with a whole different range of birds available. Someplace like… British Columbia.
A quick scan on the interweb revealed that ridiculously low airfares were available, and so, N95 mask at hand, I set off in early September for YVR.
The airport experience was suboptimal – if you are travelling these days you should expect the same rude and suspicious treatment as usual with an extra measure of Covid-related bullying and bureaucracy. But par contre once onboard I experienced the unusual feeling that the Air Canada cabin crew wanted to make my trip a pleasant one. Perhaps their normal hostility towards their passengers had been dulled by months of layoffs? Hard to say, but not wanting to look a gift horse in the eye I simply enjoyed the flight.
British Columbia – the plan of attack
The plan was to spend three days in the Okanagan Valley, then return to Vancouver and bird the lower mainland for a few days. At first I thought I would go self-guided, using the great site guides that are available. But upon further thought I decided that the logic was no different from travelling to South America – if you want to maximize the value of the overhead investment in airfare, accommodation and a rental car, hiring a guide just makes sense.
Working my contacts led me to Melissa Hafting, a.k.a. BCBirderGirl, and we agreed to link up for a few days in the greater Vancouver area. She suggested I contact Chris Charlesworth of Avocet Tours for the Okanagan portion and this turned out to be great advice. But enough intro – on to the birds!
Day 1 – Okanagan Valley
The trip was based out of Kelowna, so on the first morning we hit a couple of local parks to pick up a few of the British Columbia versions of standard, everyday birds: Western Tanager, Pygmy Nuthatch, California Quail and Western Wood Pewee for example (all lifers for me).
We then headed up for a long walk/drive up Beaver Lake Road, adding such goodies as Mountain Chickadee, Cassin’s Finch, Townsend’s Solitaire and Dusky Grouse. I was also able to reacquaint myself (and get better photos of) Steller’s Jay and the Red-naped Sapsucker. Side trips from the main road led us to Pacific Wren and Hammond’s Flycatcher.
Further peregrinations in the afternoon allowed us to nab a Western Screech Owl and a Northern Pygmy Owl, and get some killer shots of the elusive Black-backed Woodpecker. A final diversion on the way home ticked a Short-billed Gull, a bird that was just split this year from the Common Gull I had seen many times in the UK.
Day total: 15 life birds, 4 new-to-Canada birds
Day 2 – South to Osoyoos
An early morning visit to the Kelowna waterfront proved worthwhile, as I was able to see two more birds from my wish list – California and Glaucous-winged Gulls, as well as some good shorebirds. Then we headed south, diverting briefly into Peachland for amazing views of an American Dipper and its chick.
An hour or so on Twin Lakes Road, southeast of Penticton, netted us only 19 species, but they included brief views of the very scarce Sage Thrasher and my first sighting of Burrowing Owls in Canada. Violet-green Swallow also moved from the Needs list to the Need a Better Photo list (where is sits with just about every other bird I have seen!).
Further explorations in the area of Oliver and Vaseaux Lake yielded a very confiding Canyon Wren, a skulking and non-confiding Bewick’s Wren, Grey Flycatcher and Western Bluebird, as well as good looks at Say’s Phoebe and other western specialties. After a long hot day a proper coffee break was required before we headed North to dinner and my temporary home.
Day total: 5 life birds, 5 new-to-Canada birds
Day 3 – Salmon Arm
Having gotten almost all of the target birds in the area, we had time to make a long excursion to Salmon Arm in hopes of finding the Western Grebe (high probability) and Clark’s Grebe (low probability). There was a profusion of waterfowl to be seen, mostly fairly far out, but sure enough, among them were 100 or so Western Grebes. Even better, Chris’s eagle eyes, knowledge and persistence revealed a lone Clark’s Grebe in the pack, a bird I would not have found on my own. We also had stunning views of a small pack of Long-billed Dowitchers, a normally wary species that seemed unaware that it could be spotted from the pier above.
We tried a few stops on the way back to Kelowna. Though we had just about tapped out the new British Columbia species to be seen, I did get a number of excellent year birds. There were also some good photographic opportunities, including my best by far image of a Belted Kingfisher. Then, sadly, it was time to say goodbye to the valley and make the long drive to North Vancouver.
Day total: 2 life birds
The takeaways from this portion of the trip, in no particular order, are:
Yes, bird guides are just as valuable in Canada as they are in foreign lands!
British Columbia is unfairly hoarding chickadee species that the ROC doesn’t get to see
I need to get back to the Okanagan in the springtime to pick up some really great birds that can be seen then (Rufous, Calliope and Black-chinned Hummingbirds, Common Poorwill, Vaux’s Swift and Flammulated Owl, to name just a few)
When I next go to the Okanagan I will be planning to work with Chris Charlesworth. And I recommend you do the same!
British Colombia – Part 2
I will cover the rest of the British Columbia trip in a separate post – stay tuned to see the goodies I found on the coastline!
How to adjust depth of field to improve your images. This article was originally published in The Blue Bill, the journal of the Kingston Field Naturalists.
In my early days as a wildlife photographer I was happy just to get a shot of the birds, beasts and insects I came across. But it wasn’t long before I started wanting to take better photographs. Looking back critically at images from a few years ago I found that some of my photos, particularly of birds and butterflies, were not as fully in focus as I wanted them to be. It was time to get a better handle on depth of field.
Depth of field is a relatively simple concept. Basically, it’s the area in a photograph where objects are acceptably sharp. Aside from exotic specialist equipment, cameras can only focus on one point. That point, and anything else at the same distance from the camera, can be precisely in focus, but anything nearer or farther will be less than optimally focused.
That’s where “acceptably sharp” comes in. Because the reduction in sharpness happens gradually, there is a range within which objects are sharp enough that they appear to be in focus. The range between the nearest and farthest objects that are acceptably sharp is called the depth of field (DOF). So as long as your subject is within that range all will be well.
(Note that apparent sharpness changes when an image is printed in a larger format, or when the observer is closer to the image, so an image that is acceptable sharp in 5×7” format may not be when blown up to 16×20”).
Why should I care about depth of field?
Landscape photographers obsess about getting maximum depth of field, and they use highly technical concepts such calculating hyperfocal distance to work out the optimal DOF. Depth of field preview functions, available on some camera models, are also used primarily in landscape photography. Fortunately we as wildlife photographers don’t need or have time to delve into those issues because our targets are constantly moving.
For us there are two main reasons to consider depth of field: to ensure that the whole target bird, turtle or butterfly is in focus, and to make an artistic choice about how much of the background should be in focus.
So back to the challenge of getting better images. I noticed that some of my photos of birds and butterflies had insufficient depth of field: typically in images of birds taken at close range the tails would be out of focus, and for butterflies one antenna was in focus but the other one was not. (See examples below).
To address this issue, we need to understand the two main factors that influence depth of field: aperture size and proximity to the subject. Larger apertures reduce depth of field, as does moving closer to the subject.
If you are interested in the technical explanation for why this is so, a search of the internet will bring up multiple sources. I recommend you start with Wikipedia or Cambridge in Colour. But I believe it is not necessary to understand the physics as long as you understand the effect.
Before we begin this section let’s refresh our memories about apertures. The aperture governs the amount of light passing through the lens. Larger apertures (bigger openings) are expressed by smaller numbers. Thus f/2.8 is a large aperture, and f/11 is a small aperture. Again, you can read up on the technical reasons for this or you can just remember the differences and move on.
The images below show the differences in depth of field as aperture size changes. Notice that the point of focus (the cocktail glass) remains constant, but the objects behind it start to become fuzzy as the aperture increases (i.e. the aperture number becomes smaller).
While increasing the aperture (changing to a lower f stop) reduces DOF in a linear manner; increasing your proximity to the subject reduces DOF as an inverse square law. So as you get closer to your subject DOF decreases radically – a major challenge for macro photography.
Butterflies and odonates present a special challenge. Because they are small the temptation is to get as close as possible. But that is where the inverse square law comes into play – get too close and your DOF will be so shallow that parts of the insect will be outside the acceptably sharp range.
So how do I fix this?
The Canada Jay photos below show DOF in action. The birds were close (the images are uncropped) and there was not a lot of light available. Image 8 is taken at an aperture of f/6.3 and the tail is not acceptably sharp. Image 9, taken one half stop up at f/7.1 is noticeably better. So in principle, when taking photos of close-in subjects a higher than normal f stop (i.e. a smaller than normal aperture) is recommended. For more distant subjects a mid-range aperture should suffice.
As a rule of thumb if there is enough good light available, apertures in the f/7.1 to f/8 level should give you a good chance of capturing all the details of a bird that is relatively close.
For butterflies and odonates, a search through my files shows that in general I got better images from remaining bit farther away, using a smaller aperture and letting my telephoto lens do its job.
If your subject is cooperative, remember that a key advantage of digital cameras is that you can check your images on the camera’s monitor and see immediately whether the depth of field is correct.
DOF and artistic composition
Having made the case that ensuring adequate depth of field is important, let’s now look at a situation where you may want to limit DOF. Many sports and wildlife photographers subscribe to a fetish that background detail is to be avoided at all costs as they claim it detracts from the subject. In general I believe that wildlife is best depicted in its environment, and that means there should be background detail – an animal is not an icon to be shown detached from the ecosystem it inhabits.
However there are situations where the background detail would not add any value – perhaps it’s too far away to be sharp regardless of the aperture setting, or perhaps the background is an unattractive pile of random scrub. In those cases choosing a field deep enough to just cover the subject can create an attractive effect. The Savannah Sparrow in the image below was perched on a fence with nothing behind it but long grass. In this case an aperture of f/5.6 was enough to ensure that the bird, the wire and the one leaf below it are sharp, while the background is a sea of formless colour.
Camera management for depth of field
So… let’s imagine that I have convinced you that depth of field is a thing you should consider. How should you go about controlling it?
The first step is to confirm how your camera displays the critical information: aperture, shutter speed and film speed. This information is probably displayed in your viewfinder and/or on an information panel. Check your manual to be sure, and then make a habit of keeping an eye on the aperture setting.
If you use the Programme or Automatic mode it suggests that you are relatively new to photography and need some help from the camera so you can concentrate on the subject. There is no shame here – everyone starts out using an automatic mode and those who aren’t intent on getting the best possible images can happily stay in those modes. Just be aware that by leaving all the decisions to the camera you will have no control over depth of field.
Many of the more experienced photographers use one of the semi-automatic modes: Aperture Priority (shown on the mode selector as A for Nikon cameras and Av for Canons), or Shutter Priority (S for Nikon, Tv for Canon).
In Aperture Priority mode you control the aperture setting manually. The camera will make what it thinks are necessary adjustments by changing shutter speed and (if you enable Auto ISO) film speed. If you use this mode keep a close eye on the shutter speed. For wildlife (or plants if there is a breeze) you should use shutter speeds below 1/500 sec with extreme caution. Motion blur will ruin any image regardless of how well you have judged the depth of field. If you are in Aperture Priority mode and need more shutter speed you can select higher film speeds (ISO) until you reach a point where the camera boosts shutter speed to compensate.
In Shutter Priority mode you essentially give up control of the aperture setting. If there is not enough available light your camera will default to a wide open aperture setting regardless of what you might want to see from a depth of field perspective, though in fairness most of the affordable telephoto lenses have base apertures of f/5.6 or more so even wide open there will still be some depth to the image. Again, increasing film speed will eventually cause the camera to compensate by stopping down the aperture.
There is a way to balance all elements of the light triangle – aperture, shutter speed and ISO – yourself to ensure that you can make the best decision under the circumstances. It involves taking the plunge into Manual mode – a topic for a future post.
Some random final notes
If macro photography is your thing, one way to get around the issue of very shallow depth of field is to invest in a camera that allows focus stacking. This process involves taking a large number of images of the subject with the focus point moved slightly between each image. These images are then “stacked” using software to yield a single image that is in crisp focus from one end to the other. I have seen some amazing insect and flower images taken using focus stacking. One consideration, though, is that the subject has to remain completely immobile (which usually means it needs to be dead).
Smaller apertures lead to greater depth of field, but only up to a point. Using apertures of f/11 and above can bring diffraction into play. Without delving into the technical explanation, the bottom line is that diffraction can seriously degrade the sharpness of your image. So more isn’t always better.
The notion that telephoto lenses have inherently shallow depth of field is a common myth that is repeated by many supposedly expert sites. A more accurate statement is that telephoto lenses appear to have a shallow depth of field because of the distribution of sharpness. Telephoto lenses tend to have an even distribution of acceptable sharpness in front of and behind the focus point, whereas for wide angle lenses the bias is tilted to the areas behind the focus point. In landscape photography this is an advantage because it creates a more gradual fading away of sharpness towards the horizon. But the bottom line is that a given aperture (e.g. f/5.6) will give the same depth of field with any focal length of lens.
Finally, it is a fact that the size of the sensor on your camera affects DOF. Counterintuitively, the large sensor of a full frame camera will develop a shallower depth of field at a given f stop than a camera with a cropped sensor. This is an interesting factoid, but one that’s not particularly relevant to wildlife photography. If I were in the market for a new camera body I can think of a lot of factors that I would consider before I got down to that one.
or How I beat the blues by sharing bird information on Wikipedia.
I made the claim some time ago that I was going to post about some of the good birding things that happened in a bad birding year – 2020. Little did I know when I wrote those words that we what we were experiencing was not the end of the road but a brief lull before another wave and another lockdown. The April to June third wave of 2021 – in Canada at least – was not the worst in terms of mortality rates and overstretched hospital capacity. But for many of us it was the most challenging of all. It was becoming harder to maintain morale – we were languishing.
Now here we are again climbing out of the pit and hoping that we are on an upward trajectory. For the first time in almost a year I stopped by my local for a socially-distanced pint at an outdoor patio. It felt like a bit of a victory.
So to pick up the thread of good things in a lockdown year… I spent a couple of hours this morning on my new working-from-home pastime: adding bird content to Wikipedia.
I admit to being a major fan of Wikipedia. It’s what we early net enthusiasts thought cyberspace would be: people all over the world sharing information, with no paywalls or ads. Most of the worldwide web went, as they say, in a different direction, but Wikipedia has stayed true to its purpose.
And despite the cries of the Cassandras, it is a very useful tool indeed. It’s a living encyclopedia, replacing the biases of an expert author with the collected wisdom of the world, all carefully annotated so you can check the source documents yourself. Yes, it is true that you can replace a carefully-written page with stories about your cat, but virtually every page has someone watching it who will rapidly correct your vandalism.
The true beauty of the tool, and one that may not have been foreseen by its creators, is that it gave enthusiasts (nerds, if you must) a place to share and refine their enthusiasms. Star Trek is a prime example. Prior to web 2.0 there were lots of Trekker fan newsletters but each one only reached a small audience. Wikipedia gave them a forum to share and contribute on a global scale. So if you want to know anything about any episode from the Star Trek universe there is a page for it – and the same is true for any significant TV series, book, or movie, not to mention highly detailed pages on every aspect of hundreds of other interests.
And that finally leads us to birds.
When I get back from a birding trip I have a workflow for identifying photos and adding the new birds to my list that involves checking field guides, eBird, Avibase and Wikipedia so that I am sure of the identification, ideally down to subspecies level. It’s a somewhat baroque process but I’m not aiming for efficiency – I’m trying to consolidate the new birds in my memory.
When I started seeing birds in the neotropics I ran into an information vacuum. A large number of the South American bird species have only a line or two of text on their Wikipedia pages – information which I later learned was generated by a clever bot that a Wiki contributor had invented.
So with time on my hands I set about learning how to flesh out these entries. The obvious place to begin – for me anyway – was with the endemic birds of Colombia.
It was a bit of an adventure getting started but there is a full set of tutorials under Learn to Edit, and an online forum where you can ask for advice from fellow editors. A bit of browsing around took me to the WikiProject_Birds page , which includes ideas for information on sources, a set of guidelines for editing articles and links to highly-rated bird pages.
Coding for non-coders
The process of editing is relatively straightforward. I won’t try to give a precis of the tutorials – if you want to try your hand that is the place to start. But it’s worth highlighting one key feature: you do not have to learn hypertext markup language (html). Wikipedia uses behind-the-scenes coding to make it easier for the average punter to make their edits without blowing up the system. For example, this phrase from Alice in Wonderland:
“Take some more tea,” the March Hare said to Alice, very earnestly.
In html you would need to enter the following code:
<p>”Take some more <a href=”/wiki/Tea” title=”Tea”>tea</a>,” the March Hare said to Alice, very earnestly.</p>
Whereas in Wikipedia you simply write:
“Take some more [[tea]],” the March Hare said to Alice, very earnestly.
Wikipedia and research
The challenge is finding sources. Wikipedia wants information referenced to sources that other people can check, so the preference is for books, journal articles and websites that have permanent URLs (permalinks). A certain amount can be gleaned from field guides and websites, but to achieve the goal of a good quality article I needed to sharpen up the research skills I used to get my MA.
After some prospecting and some good tips from Wikiproject Birds I was able to build a list of reliable sources. The best ones are listed at the end of this article… in case you might be interested. 😊
Referencing is straightforward – it looks complicated on the screen but the actual input of data is relatively simple (though it is a bit tedious).
Alas even the best references can’t totally fix the issue that a lot of South American birds are under-studied. Sometimes there is just not enough information available to fill out a species page. If reincarnation is a thing I wish to come back as a field researcher.
And of course if the page lacks photos you can add your own through Wikimedia Commons.
So what’s the point?, you ask…
This was an idea for an activity that would occupy my mind during the lockdown(s), the alternative being endless doomscrolling. And I think this one has stuck – I intend to keep editing pages until all my beloved neotropical birds are properly described. This may require more years than I have left but it’s a worthy pursuit.
If you seek internet fame and fortune this is not the way to go. Even if someone wanted to see what I was working on they would have to know my username, which is purposefully opaque. (It’s not a good idea to use a recognizable name).
But I find it very satisfying to complete a project and increase the bird information available to everyone. So it’s definitely a good birding thing that came out of a bad birding year.
In case you’re interested in what one of my “finished” pages looks like, check out this one: the Gold-ringed Tanager.
The University of New Mexico’s Searchable Ornithological Research Archive – SORA – applies your search term to a large collection of publications. https://sora.unm.edu/
Google Scholar – often turns up good journal articles, and they are generally available as free downloads. (Search by the scientific name of the species).
Avibase – for general information, but particularly for the Synonyms section, which provides good clues on who first identified and named the species.
The Biodoversity Heritage Library – an online archive of historical journals. If you have a date and the name of the publication you can usually find the original journal here.
The publication archives of the American Ornithological Society. You need to be a member to access these publications, and it’s a bit pricy. But one of the add-ins is a subscription to the Birds of the World website, which contains much of the content of the very expensive Handbook of the Birds of the World (17 volumes at €140 each!!!).
Searches by these methods typically lead to English-language sources, which leaves out a wealth of information in Spanish-language ornithological journals. I started to pay attention to the bibliographical references in the papers and journal articles I unearthed, and these led to good sources like Conservación Colombiana and Caldasia, as well as regional journals. I usually run the key paragraphs through Google Translate, which has become very good, though you still need enough Spanish to work out what is going on when the magic doesn’t work.
And in the course of my research I discovered some rather abstruse books that really deserve a place on anyone’s coffee table, including the Helm Dictionary of Scientific Bird Names, the Eponym Dictionary of Birds, and the trusty IOC World Bird List.
In January I like to put together a post about the birding highlights of the previous year. This time around it has been a bit slow in coming. Somehow it’s hard to get excited about a year spent mostly at home under the spectre of a pandemic.
With trips lined up to Colombia and Argentina, and with a cottage booked for two weeks next to Point Pelee, I had been harbouring wild thoughts that if all went well I might see 1000 species of birds in 2020. And it started out so well…
However, the point of this blog is to focus on the positive, and when I thought about it in those terms I started to see that there had been a few good things amidst the bad. (Spoiler alert – I had to set the bar fairly low. Not everything here would make the cut in a normal year 😊). Here’s the first installment.
A new year means a new year list. For birders, that is the incentive that gets us out on the land when the days are short and the weather is less than optimal. If you have been in this game for a while you probably keep lists, and the advantage of a year list is that it starts at zero. So while new birds for my Ontario life list are very hard to come by, starting another year list means that even the humble Starling and House Sparrow become new sightings.
In a normal year I would expect to see about 50 or 60 bird species in January – 50 or so in the local area and another 6-8 from the annual winter pilgrimage to Algonquin Park. However in 2020 a combination of good luck, persistence and a few extended twitches bumped that number upwards.
Early in the month I heard some intriguing reports on the grapevine of a covey of Grey Partridge near Ottawa. I had seen this species a few times in the UK but it would make a nice addition to my Ontario list. So the first twitch of the year was a round trip through Nepean, Carleton Place and Ault Island near Morrisburg. This pleasant drive in the country netted the partridges as well as a Northern Hawk Owl and a Harris’s Sparrow. So far, so good.
Twitch #2 followed rapidly, as Erwin and I hunted down a Mountain Bluebird near Pickering and a Purple Sandpiper at Presqu’ile, with an incidental find of Iceland Gull enroute.
I had agreed to lead a KFN field trip to Algonquin Park in mid-January and that worked out very well. We nabbed all the winter finches including both species of crossbill, plus the obligatory Canada Jays, and by virtue of a slight detour picked up the long-staying Varied Thrush at Bark Lake – a lifer for most of the party.
2020 Part 1
So the upshot is that by the time I left for Colombia on the 25th I had already set a personal best for January in Ontario with 77 species. That 1000 species goal was well on its way. Or so it seemed…
If you live in Southern Ontario, be on the lookout for today’s bird – the Common Redpoll. They are not usually seen in the south end of the province but this year has produced fair to poor crops of birch seeds in the boreal forest so they are on the move.
Common Redpolls will visit bird feeders, often in fairly large flocks. We can distinguish them from the finches we normally see (House Finches, Goldfinches) by their red caps and their sharp but stubby yellow bills.
This is a holarctic species that breeds in Northern Canada, Alaska and Russia. In the winter it is found further south in Asia and North America, and also shows up in Ireland, the UK and Scandinavia.
The taxonomic status of redpolls is much-debated. In North America we recognize two species: Common Redpoll and, and Arctic (also known as Hoary) Redpoll. Each of those species has recognizable subspecies. The nominate subspecies of Common Redpoll – Acanthis flammea flammea – is the most-often seen in these parts (it’s the bird in the photo). The subspecies rostrata breeds in Greenland and Baffin Island but occasionally strays farther south. A third subspecies, islandica, is found in Iceland.
A fourth subspecies, A.f. cabaret, is deemed by the British Ornithologists’ Union to be a separate species called Lesser Redpoll.
The great fear among list-oriented birders (such as me) is that the powers-that-be will eventually throw up their hands and decide that there is just one species of Redpoll with six subspecies. This would be a tragic outcome.
And now, to catch up on some previous posts…
Bird of the Day #205 – Band-bellied Owl
Originally posted 31 October 2020
Your scary Halloween bird of the day is the Band-bellied Owl.
It’s a large owl that haunts the tropical forests of Bolivia, Colombia, Ecuador and Peru, dealing silent death to any unsuspecting creature that wanders into its AOR.
This one was not amused at being outed. But apparently we were a bit too big to be slain, so he settled for glaring at us.
Sector Cachipay, Santa Mariá, Boyacá District, Colombia, February 2020.
Bird of the Day #206 – Blue Jay
Originally posted 1 November 2020
I have posted lots of exotic multicoloured birds over the past few months, but to my eye the humble dime-a-dozen Blue Jay is about as attractive as a bird can be. Not to mention that jays are Corvids, so they are much more clever than other birds. And feisty as well!
The subspecies we see in Canada is the Northern Blue Jay, Cyanocitta cristata bromia. Apparently it is the subspecies with the dullest plumage! So I’m looking forward to seeing the Coastal Blue Jay, who isn’t so plain and dull. 😲
Algonquin Provincial Park, January 2018. (and -30C as I recall…)
Bird of the Day #207 – White-rumped Sandpiper
Originally posted 2 November 2020
Apologies for the late delivery of today’s bird. I had a mission to perform which took me out of town and I have just now returned to our lair.
On the plus side I was able to stop near Trenton on the way home to (a) add a new sewage lagoon to my collection, and (b) nab some White-rumped Sandpipers, Ontario bird species #233 for 2020.
So obviously, the bird of the day is the White-rumped Sandpiper.
The extended wings on this bird are a clue that it is one of the two long-distance migrant sandpiper species that grace our shores each year. (The other being Baird’s Sandpiper, which will be a BOTD in due course).
The annual migration of this species is a dazzling feat of endurance. They breed in the Arctic islands and along the northern coast of Canada and Alaska. They then move south at a great rate of knots, arriving within a month at their wintering grounds in Patagonia and as far as the South Shetland Islands. In the spring they repeat the route, only faster, with non-stop jumps of up to 4,200km between refueling stations.
So opportunities to see these birds are fleeting. But the really good news is that, having spotted four of them today, I can delete tomorrow’s planned White-rumped Sandpiper hunt, which involved wading out to Gull Island with freezing Lake Ontario waves caressing my nether regions. So it’s all good.
Presqu’ile Provincial Park, September 2018.
And finally, one from the archives…
Bird of the Day #10 – African Grass Owl
Originally posted 17 April 2020
Today’s bird is the African Grass Owl, a close relative of the Barn Owls that can be seen in Europe and the US.
It was previously believed that these owls were only present in central and southern Africa with relict populations in Kenya, Uganda and Cameroon. But then along came eBird, a project of Cornell University that is building a worldwide database of birds based on the observations of citizen-scientists. So now we know that there are active populations in Tanzania’s Arusha, Tarangire and Serengeti National Parks. This beastie greeted us as we passed through the main gate of the Serengeti park.
This medium-sized hummingbird lives at middle altitudes (1500-2400m) in Colombia, Ecuador and Venezuela. It inhabits cloud forest and elfin forest, as can also be found in páramo, the unusual vegetation that occurs above the treeline in the Andes.
From a photographic standpoint the Buff-tailed Coronet has an admirable habit of holding its wings outstretched for a moment after they land.
And yes, the underside of their tail is buff.
Cerro Montezuma, Risaralda District, Colombia, March 2019.
Bird of the Day #203 – Evening Grosbeak
I failed to post this one yesterday. So sue me! 😊
The 29th of October’s bird was the Evening Grosbeak.
This is a big, bulky and highly colourful finch that inhabits our northern forests. Evening Grosbeaks are situational migrants. They do not have a programmed annual migration. Many of them stay in the boreal forest throughout the year, whereas others move in the winter, travelling just far enough south to find a good food supply.
This year their favourite foods are in short supply, so there has been an unusually large number of Evening Grosbeaks spotted in Southern Ontario. Everyone seems to be seeing them. Everyone but me, at least.
Our friends Rick and Sandra had a nice flock in their yard this week but they (the birds, that is) have now moved on. Sigh.
Algonquin Provincial Park, Ontario, January 2018.
Recap Bird of the Day – #9 – White-necked Jacobin
Originally posted to Facebook 16 April 2020.
Back to the neotropics for today’s bird. This is a White-necked Jacobin, a large hummingbird that can be found from southern Mexico to Bolivia.
This one was making himself look big to ward off harassment from a Rufous-tailed Hummingbird, a small but highly aggressive species that fearlessly bullies hummingbirds of all sizes.