Tag Archives: Photography

Camera Settings for Birds – Photography Tips #11

Health warning

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.

Continue reading Camera Settings for Birds – Photography Tips #11

Algonquin Provincial Park – The hunt for winter finches

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.

Large finches

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.

Algonquin Park - Pine Grosbeak
Male Evening Grosbeak in the snow.
Female Evening Grosbeak has her eye on a seed.

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.

Algonquin Park - Purple Finch
Male Purple Finch

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.

Algonquin Park - White-winged Crossbill
Male White-winged Crossbill decides to abscond with the whole cone.
His mate looks bemused.

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.

Male Pine Grosbeak
And his special friend.

Smaller finches

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.

Pine Siskins.

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.

Common Redpoll puffed up to conserve heat.

Non-finches

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.

Algonquin Park - Canada Jay
Canada Jay. Note radio tracking antenna.

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…

Algonquin Park - Black-backed Woodpecker
Female Black-backed Woodpecker, spotted by the eagle-eyed Christine H.

…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.

Black-capped Chickadee
Blue Jay

Equipment notes

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. 😊

Autofocus Modes – Wildlife Photography Tips #10

AUTOFOCUS MODES - WILDLIFE PHOTOGRAPHY TIPS #10

All cameras manufactured in the last 30 years, with the exception of a few highly-specialized models, are capable of automatic focusing or “autofocus”.[1] 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.

AF switch on Nikon 24-70mm lens.

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 MODES - WILDLIFE PHOTOGRAPHY TIPS #10
AF mode button on Nikon D850.

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.

  • Pinpoint
  • Single point
  • Dynamic area modes (x4)
  • 3D tracking
  • Face detection
  • Group
  • Auto-area

Pinpoint

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.

Single point

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.

Camera controls – Nikon D850. Note that the rocker switch is in the locked position.

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.

AUTOFOCUS MODES - WILDLIFE PHOTOGRAPHY TIPS #10

Caveat

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.

3D-tracking

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.

Face detection

This mode is self-explanatory. It is very useful for people photography but not really geared towards wildlife.

Group

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.

Auto-area

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.

Recommendations

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.

AUTOFOCUS MODES - WILDLIFE PHOTOGRAPHY TIPS #10
AF-C, 25-point dynamic area. Ring-billed Gull.

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.



[1] 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. 

Vancouver – British Columbia Birding Part 2

Day 4 – North Vancouver

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.

Vancouver Birding - Song Sparrow
Song Sparrow, Vancouver-style
Vancouver Birding - Short-billed Gull
A key ID feature of Short-billed Gulls is the dark iris on their eye. This one didn’t get the memo.

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.

Vancouver Birding - American Avocet
American Avocet in non-breeding plumage.

… 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.

Vancouver Birding - Pelagic Cormorant
Pelagic Cormorant, as seen through the windows on the ferry dock. Note the gigantic feet!

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.

Vancouver Birding - Spotted Towhee
Spotted Towhee, Maplewood Flats

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.

Vancouver Birding - California Scrub Jay
California Scrub Jay

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.

Sooty Grouse

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 summary

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!

British Columbia Birding – Part 1

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 birds - California Quail
California Quail – a yard bird in the Okanagan Valley!

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.

British Columbia birds - Steller's Jay
Steller’s Jay
British Columbia birds - Dusky Grouse
Dusky Grouse
British Columbia birds - Black-backed Woodpecker
Black-backed Woodpecker
British Columbia birds - Northern Pygmy Owl
Northern Pygmy Owl

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.

British Columbia birds - American Dipper
American Dipper in its element.

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.

British Columbia birds - Canyon Wren
Canyon Wren
Say’s Phoebe

Day total: 5 life birds, 5 new-to-Canada birds

Day 3 – Salmon Arm

It was a good morning in 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.

British Columbia birds - Long-billed Dowitcher
Long-billed Dowitcher
American White Pelican

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.

Belted Kingfisher

Day total: 2 life birds

Last thoughts:

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!

DEPTH OF FIELD – Wildlife Photography Tips #6

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).

Depth of field - Broad-winged Skipper
Broad-winged Skipper. Right antenna out of focus.
Broad-winged Skipper and Virginia ctenucha. One insect out of focus.

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.

Aperture

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).

Depth of field - examples
f/8
Depth of field - examples
f/1.8

Proximity

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.

Canada Jay at f/6.3
Depth of field - f/7.1
Canada Jay at f/7.1

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.

Depth of field - f/8
White Admiral at f/8
White Peacock. f/10

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.

A fairly distant Hooded Mountain Tanager in its environment. f/5.6
Depth of field - Savannah Sparrow
Savannah Sparrow f/5.6

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.

Modes

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.
I am acceptably sharp.

Post-Processing – Wildlife Photography Tips #5

In the previous post of this series I explained what happens in a digital camera – how a batch of photons is converted into a digital file. This post will cover how to use that file to create an image which can be displayed electronically or printed. This activity is called post-processing, because the initial processing of the image is done by software within the camera.

For wildlife photography, I believe the aim of post-processing is to produce a final image that replicates what you saw as closely as possible. And by “what you saw” I mean what you saw with your eyes through your binoculars, and not what the camera thinks you saw. Modern cameras are extremely capable, but their abilities are vastly inferior to those of the eye, especially the eye aided by precision optics. Occasionally the camera will manage to capture an image exactly the way you wanted it, but most of the time, especially in wildlife photography, the raw material produced by the camera will need some help.

The above images show the out-of-the-box version (Dusky Antbird 1) and the final version after post-processing (Dusky Antbird 2). Which would you prefer?

Continue reading Post-Processing – Wildlife Photography Tips #5

The Raw and the Cooked – Choosing an Image File Format – Wildlife Photography Tips #4

This article was also published in The Blue Bill, the Quarterly Journal of the Kingston Field Naturalists, Volume 67, No 2, June 2020.

JPEG vs Raw
Rufous-capped Antthrush at ISO 8000

I started this article intending to talk about post- processing – the business of editing your wildlife images. But I rapidly realized that it is too big a subject to deal with at once, so I’m going to break it into manageable chunks.

How the Camera Creates an Image

The first stage of the journey requires us to look at what happens when you snap the shutter. In the days of film cameras it was relatively straightforward – light passed through the lens and onto a film of celluloid or plastic. Light-sensitive chemicals on the film reacted to the exposure, producing a negative or a slide.

Digital cameras use a different process to capture an image. As photographers we need to have a basic understanding of how this works so we can understand how the different image file formats work.

In very simple terms, in a digital camera the light is focused on a sensor, which is a grid made up of very small photosites. Each photosite contains a diode that converts light into digital information. In simplistic terms the diode counts the number of photons that fall onto it while the shutter is open, and the circuitry in the photosite coverts that information into a numerical value.

In order to provide a digital image that matches the level of detail and colour that the eye can see, a camera sensor needs to contain millions of these photosites. This density of information allows a digital image to be at least as good as an image from a film camera. But it also explains why digital image files tend to be very large. Each of those millions of photosites generates a numerical value expressed as a byte of between 12 and 24 bits. To give you an idea of how that adds up, with my current camera set to the highest resolution the information stored by those photosites totals 62 million bytes of data for a single image.

Image Formats

JPEG vs Raw

The camera’s onboard processors convert those digital values into an image file. There are two main formats for an image file – JPEG and Raw. These formats take very different approaches to the challenge of storing all this data. In simple terms, JPEG transforms data within the camera to produce a finished image, while Raw stores all the information and the user then processes the information at a workstation. Each approach has its the pros and cons. I want to briefly illustrate the difference so you can make an informed choice about which format to use.

JPEG

JPEG (Joint Photographic Experts Group) has emerged as the standard format for most photography tasks. For virtually all digital cameras JPEG is the default format, so if you have not been experimenting with the settings menu you are almost certainly shooting JPEG.

The JPEG format was developed to allow onboard compression of digital images. If you recall that figure of 62 million bytes you will see why for many applications there is a need to compress digital images.

Large files are problematic for several reasons:

  • They demand large storage capacity on your camera’s memory card
  • They take more time to write to the memory card, which can limit the number of images you can take in quick succession
  • They take up a lot of room on the storage drives of your PC, laptop, or mobile device
  • They require a lot of bandwidth to transmit, so websites will be slow to load and sharing is tedious

To avoid these problems the JPEG format compresses the raw information gathered by your camera sensor and then transforms it into a finished image. This image is stored on your camera’s memory card.

JPEG Advantages

For many uses JPEG format is ideal:

  • JPEG images are small enough to be easily viewable and shareable.*
  • Virtually all devices and software are compatible with JPEG files.
  • The simple image editing software available on your cell phone, tablet or computer is designed to use JPEG images.
  • JPEG is supported by HTML, the language used in creating web pages.

*Note: JPEG files can be created using different compression levels. Lower compression levels lead to better quality but also larger file size. JPEG Fine files are the least compressed (4:1) but therefore the largest. At about 10MB each in the Large size they are not easily shareable.

JPEG Disadvantages

However, there are limitations to JPEG that you should consider. Most of these limitations result from the way the JPEG algorithm compresses the image file size.

The process by which JPEG compresses a file is highly technical bordering on incomprehensible, but in the simplest possible terms it reduces the size of the file by calculating average values for 8×8 blocks of photosites (thus each block replaces 64 sets of information with one). It then reduces the level of information about colour. Based on the understanding that humans have difficulty discerning small variations of colour, JPEG looks for areas that have similar hues and replaces these small variations with a single average colour.

This process can result in a much smaller image file, but the key thing to remember about the JPEG conversion process is that once the image is created any information that the conversion algorithm considered unnecessary is lost and unrecoverable.

This is why JPEG is classified as a “lossy” format. As noted, a certain amount of information is discarded when the image is originally created. Moreover, each time you recompress the image, by making a change and then re-saving it, some additional information is irrecoverably lost. And if you crop an image – for example to provide a close-up view – the parts of the image that you cropped out are lost forever.

A further implication of JPEG is that, because it produces a final image, the camera settings in use when the image was taken are “baked in”. If you realize afterwards that you had the wrong white balance or picture control settings for example it may not be possible to correct the image.

Raw

Raw is a generic term for a file that saves all of the information from an image, with only minimal processing. This information needs to be converted and edited at a workstation before an image is produced.

Raw format is not available on all cameras. All modern digital single lens reflex cameras (DSLRs) and mirrorless cameras can shoot Raw, but only a minority of bridge cameras have the capability and point-and-shoot cameras generally do not.

Raw Disadvantages

There are several disadvantages to shooting in Raw:

  • Raw files are big. With the camera set-up I currently use, each image file is about 29MB. So a 64GB card will hold about 1,300 Raw files instead of 13,000 JPEGs.
  • You need to process your Raw files at home in order to generate finished images. This is time-consuming compared to the instant image generated by JPEG.
  • To process the files you need specialized image editing software (though note that you can download free editing software from your camera manufacturer – all the major camera brands provide this).
  • Each camera manufacturer has its own a proprietary standard, so a for example a CRW file from a Canon camera is not compatible with a NEF file a Nikon generates.
  • For Raw files to be printed, shared on a mobile device or posted on the internet you need to create and export a JPEG image.

So why do most professional wildlife photographers shoot in Raw?

Raw Advantages

Lossless. Raw files are lossless. All the information your camera gathered is available to you. Nothing is averaged out or approximated. As an example, an 8-bit JPEG image is limited to about 16.8 million colours, whereas a 12-bit Raw image can show up to 68.7 billion. What this means in the real world is that you will get more even transition between colours, without the possibility of the pixilation that sometime happens with JPEG (remember that JPEG averages out colours into larger blocks).

Non-destructive. The adjustments you make in post-processing do not change the original file. All changes are saved in a separate hidden file called a sidecar. So regardless of how much you crop and adjust an image, you always have the original file available. With JPEG every significant change degrades the image, and things that are cropped out cannot be recovered.

Settings are not baked in. With Raw you have complete ability to adjust most of the camera settings during post-processing, including exposure, white balance, sharpening, colour gamut, picture control, and contrast.

Greater dynamic range. Raw files are typically created in 12 or 14-bit format, compared to 8-bit for JPEG. This may not seem like a big numerical difference, but remember we are looking at a file made up of millions of bytes. The math is somewhat beyond my ken, but the impact is that in each stop of a camera’s dynamic range there is far more information space available in a Raw file. At the bottom end of the dynamic range – areas of deep shadow in a photograph – there are 65 times as many gradations in a Raw file as in a JPEG.

This has important implications for wildlife photographers. We often find ourselves trying to capture images in areas where there is both bright light and deep shadow. Using JPEG, those shadows will tend to be featureless dark blobs, whereas with Raw we will be able to see the same details that our eyes would see.

Moreover, the greater ability of Raw to capture detail in shadow allows us to apply shadow reduction – a very useful capability that I will talk about in future articles on post-processing.

Exposure Correction

But perhaps the most striking advantage comes when we shoot images at incorrect exposures. The perfect photographer would never do this, but for the rest of us there will be numerous situations were we have the camera set up for bright daylight only to have a momentary glimpse of a bird – and typically it’s a good one – peeping out of a dark corner.

The higher dynamic range of the Raw format means we can correct a badly underexposed shot in post-processing and end up with a good image.

Consider this example. I deliberately underexposed this shot of an American Goldfinch in my garden.  I did this as an experiment, so please ignore the uninteresting composition. The camera took two simultaneous images – one in Raw and one in JPEG Fine.

Original image

The images were very dark – I had to increase exposure by about four stops. But the results are clear. The quality of the Raw image is pretty good: there is full feather detail and the colours look right . The JPEG image on the other hand is dreadful. The colour is over-saturated, green blobs have appeared in the breast and belly plumage, and the whole bird looks flat and dull.

Recommendations

If you have read this far, you have probably realized that I am a fan of the Raw format. I believe that in wildlife photography the aim is should be to produce an image that replicates as closely as possible how the creature (bird/animal/plant/butterfly/reptile) looked in the wild. I have found that using Raw format and carefully post-processing the image gives me the best chance of doing that. And there is an element of craftsmanship involved that I find appealing – I prefer to make my own choices rather than having the camera make decisions on my behalf. I am also not worried about file size given that hard drive storage capacity has become increasingly inexpensive.

So is there an argument for using JPEG? The fact remains that some very good images have been created using JPEG. You may well decide that you prefer the simplicity and efficiency of JPEG. If so, I would recommend that you use the lowest compression setting: JPEG Fine. This setting creates a 4:1 compression, so the files are still fairly large, but at 4:1 you will not see any of the artifacts or errors that can creep in at higher compression ratios.

Other topics in this series

Wildlife Photography Tips #1 – Exposure Compensation

Wildlife Photography Tips #2 – Shutter Speed

Wildlife Photography Tips #3 – Back-Button Focus

Birding Colombia’s Llanos – The Approach March

After thoroughly sampling the full Amazonia experience, our next key target in the 2020 Colombia expedition was the Llanos – a huge grassland plain that stretches over eastern Colombia and Venezuela. About 500km of driving lay ahead of us from Bogotá. Obviously we had to look for Eastern Andes endemic birds along the way, so several days were to pass before we reached our jumping-off point in Paz de Ariporo.

We spent some time working the forests near Santa María, Boyacá, and then another couple of days climbing up into the foothills near Monterrey. I will just mention a few highlights from these stops before we get to the main event.

Fasciated Tiger-Heron (juvenile) on the road to Santa María

Santa María

This is a small town (less than 5,000 inhabitants) in an out-of-the-way corner of the Andes. It had a short period of growth during the construction of the La Esmaralda dam and power plant, but has now lapsed back into small-scale agriculture and torpor, enlivened by a bit of eco-tourism. It seems that Santa María is a hotbed for arachnid species, though we did not encounter any spider tourism groups during our stay.

Development is not permitted in the forested hills surrounding the reservoir, so they are home to a large variety of birds. We managed to add three new entries to the birds-whose-names-start-with ant category, the smart-looking Golden-headed Manakin, Rufous-and-White Wren, Crested Spinetail and the enigmatic and highly prized Spotted Nightingale-Thrush. A evening of owling was quite productive. And I also saw more Cerulean Warblers in three days than I have seen in ten years in their breeding range. Photos of the more cooperative species are below.

Continue reading Birding Colombia’s Llanos – The Approach March

Mitú – Birding Colombia’s Amazon Basin – Part 2

This is the second part of a trip report on our recent visit to Mitú. Part 1 is here.

Note: if are reading this on a cell phone you are getting the light version, and the images and video may be a bit wonky. If you are connected to WiFi or have a robust data plan I suggest you click on the title, which should connect you to the actual website.

Mitú Day 4 – Pueblo Nuevo

Even by birding standards it was a painfully early start, but we had a long, bumpy road to traverse on our way to Pueblo Nuevo. So after a quick coffee we were on the road at 0500. The sun came up as we rolled into the village and linked up with Florencio, a native guide from the local area. Like Miguel he is a crack bird-finder, and with the two of them working in tandem we were looking for an epic day.

Pueblo Nuevo, BTW, is remote enough to make Mitú appear cosmopolitan. Landlines and cellular signals are non-existent, though electrical power is available courtesy of a nearby hydro power plant . But between their gardens, free-range chickens and small agricultural plots cleared in the forest the people seemed to be well fed and healthy.

Mitú – Rain forest Birding in Colombia
Pueblo Nuevo

So we plunged off down a narrow forest trail and immediately started clocking new birds. The area is rich in ant specialists and over the course of a long morning we found four species of antshrike, two of antwrens and nine(!) antbird species. And Black Bushbird, a close relative which for some reason doesn’t have a name starting with ant.

More Antbird Photos!

A rather dodgy image of a Dot-backed Antbird
Mitú – Rain forest Birding in Colombia
Black-throated Antbird (female) with victim
Mitú – Rain forest Birding in Colombia
Dusky Antbird
Silvered Antbird

On the non-ant side of the ledger, we startled a pair of Marbled Wood-Quail – a very tough bird to spot but we clocked them as they sped off at high speed. We also managed a quick glimpse of a skulking Pectoral Sparrow. A good assortment of toucans, jacamars, parakeets and woodpeckers were spotted, with a background soundtrack provided by the aptly-named Screaming Piha. So with 72 species in the bag it had to rate as a great morning of rain forest birding.

I found the mattress a bit firm…

It was after 1330 when we got back to the village so lunch and a snooze were in order. We crashed in the village hall for an hour and then headed back out. Did I mention that Pueblo Nuevo does not have a Starbucks? At that point it seemed like a serious oversight. So we forged on, coffeeless.

It was a sultry afternoon – one of the hottest of the trip. The birds were a bit sluggish and so were we. We did end up tracking down a few new species for the trip list, including a nice male Blue-crowned Manakin, but we eventually called off the hunt and bumped our way back to Mitú, arriving late and hungry but happy.

Mitú – Rain forest Birding in Colombia
Blue-crowned Manakin, in the dark, at long range.

Day 4 life birds: 26

Day 5 – The Jungle has its Revenge

Our fifth day started very early again as we needed to go beyond Pueblo Nuevo to the end of the road. We picked up Florencio enroute and arrived at the right bridge at the right time.

Fiery Topaz is a highly desirable and hard-to-find hummingbird, but those in the know knew that they often rested below a certain bridge at dawn before zipping off for the day. So there we were and there, eventually, it was too. But the idea that we might get a decent shot of a perched bird was not to be. The male spent ten minutes or so swooping around in the gloom before speeding away.

Photographing fast-moving birds in the half-light is… something other than fun. Even with good equipment there is always a trade-off involved. Set a wide-open aperture, engage super-high ISO, choose the slowest shutter speed you can get away with, and then try to achieve and hold focus. It’s a recipe for frustration.

Mitú – Rain forest Birding in Colombia

However in a highly improbable combination of good luck and good camera management I did manage to snap the bird at the moment when it stopped to hover. The resulting photo has not resulted in a call from the National Geographic, but I am somewhat pleased all the same.

We then set off down a narrow forest trail. Interesting birds were calling and needed to be tracked down. But other winged denizens of the forest were also out foraging…

Bugs

It had crossed our minds that the Amazon rain forest might have a few pesky insects, so we came prepared with the full arsenal of chemical defences. However the effect of tropical temperatures and high humidity was that even the best bug repellent was rapidly sweated off. And birding involves a lot of standing motionless. Not a good combination. There had been some mosquito and sweat fly action on the previous days, but on Day 5 we paid the full price. Our tormentors were:

  • Mosquitoes. There seemed to be at least two sizes: small nimble ones that left a typical somewhat itchy bite, and a larger type – perhaps an African killer mosquito or a mutant developed by the CIA – that left a large, very itchy and long-lasting welt. This type was our constant companion that morning.
  • No-see-ums. These were not exactly like the scarce Ontario bug of the same name, but more akin to small Black Flies. Their bite is like a needle stick, but doesn’t do any lasting damage.
  • Sweat flies. A variety of small flies that swarm around your face trying to drink your sweat. Harmless, but their persistence makes them supremely irritating.
  • Horse fly relatives. I have been unable to identify these beasts, but picture an extra large, red fly with the malevolent intent and near-indestructability of a Tsetse Fly. Whack these things and they just shake their heads and resume trying to bite. The locals hate them so much they catch them out of the air, pull off one wing and drop them on the ground. Harsh, but understandable.
  • Chiggers. The worst of all. I was emotionally scarred by my first, 400-bite experience of chiggers. If I had known they were in the area I would have taken extreme precautions. At the time of writing all but two of my 14 or so chigger bites have stopped itching. The bites were two months ago. Grrr.

So anyway we got bitten pretty thoroughly that day. But the birding was good, so it was a fair trade-off.

… and Birds

In the murky and bug-infested forest we spotted a couple of highly desirable skulkers. Musician Wren is one of those heard-but-not-seen birds that proliferate in the rain forest but after half an hour of standing motionless like a mosquito smorgasbord we spotted the beast peering out of the darkest tangle of scrub available. Photography was not an option but we had decent views .

The same patch of woods also housed a lovely Rufous-capped Antthrush. This particular individual’s superpower was ensuring that there was always a branch or leaf between camera and bird, but eventually it showed itself briefly and deigned to be photographed.

Mitú – Rain forest Birding in Colombia
Rufous-capped Antthrush

A few woodcreepers, our first Green Oropendola, Curve-billed Scythebill and some White-fronted Nunbirds rounded out the list, and we left the trail of insect perdition and headed for our lunch spot.

Mitú – Rain forest Birding in Colombia
White-fronted Nunbird

The road to nowhere actually ends at a good-sized hydro power plant on the Vaupés River. We had lunch at the cafeteria for the plant workers, and then while my compañeros snoozed I wandered down to the river and spied on a large roost of herons and egrets.

Stalking the Cock-of-the-Rock

Our mission for the afternoon was to try and find a Guianan Cock of the Rock. These beasts are one of the most colourful and bizarre of neotropical birds, close cousins of the Andean Cock-of-the-Rock we saw in Jardin last year. They are mostly found in Venezuela, Guyana and Suriname but extreme western end of their range overlaps the Colombian border. So it was a necessary bird to see.

One male bird had been observed recently along a forest path, but we square-searched the area to no avail. So the remaining option was a long, hot scramble up a rock massif.

Mitú – Rain forest Birding in Colombia
Guianan Cock of the Rock

After checking every crevasse and valley we eventually found the charismatic orange bird in its lurking area. Then we rested on our laurels for a while at the top of the rock, with a view towards the hills that mark the border with Brazil.

Birding Guides
Anthony, Miguel, Ken and Florencio, with Brazil in the the distance. Photo by Daniel Uribe Restrepo

A good variety of avians passed by, including a couple of needed-for-the-trip birds like Red-fan Parrot and Lemon-throated Barbet and our best view of a Scarlet Macaw. Eventually and with some regret we clambered down, bade farewell to Florencio, and headed back to town for our last night in Mitú.

Scarlet Macaws. Such a dowdy bird. 🙂

Day 5 life birds: 16

Day 6 – Adiós Mitú

We had a plane to catch in the afternoon, but an excruciatingly early start allowed us to get another five hours of birding in. At that point we had seen most of our target birds but we did manage to find a couple of new additions , as well as practice some birds-in-flight photography on low-flying vultures. Then back to town for lunch, the usual excess formalities at the airport and we were on our way back to Bogotá.

Greater Yellow-headed Vulture

So that’s the story of our great Amazon adventure. Five days and a bit, 133 life birds, a bit of beautiful scenery and a look into a remote and fascinating part of the world. If you’re interested in neotropical birds you may someday find yourself drawn to Mitú, so I hope this has given you a flavour of what’s in store.

Good birding!

Mitú – Rain forest Birding in Colombia
Lunch in the forest: Daniel and Ken

If you would like to see more (and better!) images of the birds mentioned here, you can enter the species name under the Explore Species tab in E-Bird. But note that this is an American site so they use American spelling rules. So for “grey” you have to use the inelegant spelling “gray”. 😉