Tag Archives: wildlife

Shutter Speed – Wildlife Photography Tips #2

Originally published in The Blue Bill, the journal of the Kingston Field Naturalists, Volume 66, No. 4, December 2019

Freezing the Action – Shutter Speed and Shutter Priority Mode

One of the major challenges of wildlife photography (and sports photography for that matter) is the need to choose a sufficiently fast shutter speed. Like all photographers we need to balance available light, depth of field, metering modes and focus points. But unlike, say, landscape or portrait photographers our subject matter tends to move quickly in unpredictable ways.

If our camera’s shutter speed is fast enough we will be able to “freeze” the action of fast-moving subjects and get a crisp image. So in principle the solution is to always use a fast shutter speed. And there are some circumstances where this approach will work. But much more often we will be engaged in a balancing act, adjusting variables such as shutter speed, aperture, and film speed (ISO) to get a correct exposure.

The Basics of Exposure

In very simple terms the image your camera produces is governed by the amount of light that falls on the sensor. A correctly exposed wildlife image will show the creature or plant in natural light with no areas that are too dark (underexposed) or too bright (overexposed), and will be crisp with no motion-induced blurring. Photo 1 shows an American Pipit, and to my eye the exposure is good – all detail is visible and the bird’s foot is frozen in mid-stride.

Photo 1 – American Pipit

Exposure is controlled by three settings: aperture (the amount of light that the lens allows to reach the sensor); shutter speed (the length of time that the sensor is exposed to the light); and film speed or ISO (the sensitivity of the sensor).[1]

Each of these variables has implications that the photographer needs to understand:

Shutter speed

As noted above, the primary way to get a crisp exposure of a moving animal (or a plant blowing in the wind) is to use a fast shutter speed. The downside of fast shutter speeds is that less light reaches your camera’s sensor. Shutter speed is expressed in fractions of a second. Each step up in shutter speed (e.g. from 1/250 to 1/500) halves the amount of light available. So except in very bright, sunny conditions faster shutter speeds can lead to underexposed images. To an extent you may be able to fix underexposure in post-processing, but artificially adjusting the exposure by more than a small amount adversely affects the quality of the image.

For stationary subjects you can use a slower than normal shutter speed and hope for the best, but typically the creature will move just as you snap the shutter. Photo 2 is a Coatimundi seen just after dawn. I had to use a slow shutter speed and a high film speed to get the shot. If you look closely you will see that the face is slightly blurry as it moves its head to the side.

Shutter speed 1/80
Photo 2 – Coatimundi

So if shutter speed isn’t the whole solution, what else can you do to increase your chances of getting a crisp image?


Wide apertures allow more light in, so in the low-light conditions we are often dealing with a wide aperture seems like a good choice. The more light that passes through the lens, the faster your shutter speed can be. But as you might guess there are no easy solutions here. First, telephoto lenses capable of wide apertures are ruinously expensive. For example the Nikon NIKKOR 300MM ƒ2.8G ED lens, a favourite of professional wildlife photographers, will set you back a cool $6899.99 plus HST. So most of us will be using lenses with narrower apertures, and thus will have less light to play with.

Moreover, the wider the aperture, the shallower the depth of field. For the wildlife photographer, this creates a problem: the image may be correctly exposed but parts of the creature are not in focus. Photo 3, a Pearl Crescent, is correctly exposed. But even at ƒ7.1, a middle of the range aperture, the depth of field is shallow enough that the wing closest to the viewer is not in focus. The tails of birds can also fall prey to depth of field issues. In photo 4 the tail of the Canada Jay is a bit soft-edged, as it was beyond the optimal depth of field.

Film Speed (ISO)

Before the advent of digital cameras, photographers adjusted for low-light or fast-moving subjects by using faster film. So instead of ISO 64 or 100 film they might switch in a roll of ISO 200. This involved a big trade-off in image quality, as faster films producing grainer images. ISO 400 was about the maximum usable speed.

Now we have digital cameras capable of ISO equivalents of up to 51,000 so is the problem solved? Yes and no. Good quality digital cameras can produce very good images at higher ISO ratings, but only to a point. Just as fast film was prone to graininess, digital camera sensors can generate “noise” at higher speeds.

If you are interested in learning more about digital noise I recommend this post on the Photography Life site: https://photographylife.com/what-is-noise-in-photography

With my camera I can get excellent images at ISO 800, and very good ones up to ISO 1000. Speeds faster than that can work reasonably well depending on what you want the image for. Photo 2, for example, was shot at ISO 2000. The image is reasonably crisp and good enough for a record shot, but if you look above and to the right of the creature’s haunches you will see that the image becomes fuzzy (“noisy”) with some random colour blobs.

So what does it all mean? Simply that there is no single recipe for achieving crisp, properly exposed images of wildlife. While we are in the field we have to make continuous judgments about shutter speed, aperture and film speed to enable us to get the images we want.

Shutter Priority Mode

If you spend too much time thinking about these variables you may end up missing some of the action you went out to photograph. So most wildlife photographers use their camera’s mode system to automate part of this work.

All DSLRs and most bridge cameras have four basic operating modes: Manual, Shutter Priority, Aperture Priority and Program. I want to explain Shutter Priority mode here because I think it is the most useful option for wildlife photographers.

Your camera will have an easily accessible way of selecting this mode – most often by a rotating dial on the upper right side (Photo 5). For most DSLRs rotating the dial to S puts you in shutter priority mode. Eccentrically, Canon and Pentax call it “Tv” for time value, but the effect is the same.

Photo 5 – Nikon D5300

When you are operating in this mode, you can select the film speed and shutter speed you desire and the camera will automatically adjust the aperture within its limits to ensure a correct exposure. If there is not enough light to get a correct exposure at maximum aperture the camera will warn you somehow, often by inactivating the shutter release. Check your manual to see how your own camera works and what adjustments you can make.

You can actually go a step further and automate your choice of film speed as well. Somewhere in the menu system of your camera there will be an option to select “auto ISO”. This is a tempting option for wildlife photography, as it minimizes the chance of a missed shot. However beware of the fact that cameras left to their own devices tend to bump up the film speed to fairly high levels, so if you use this function check your manual to see if you can set an upper limit on auto ISO.

Recommended Shutter Speeds

So the final piece of the shutter speed puzzle is: how fast is fast enough?

In principle, unless forced to by low light I would recommend a minimum shutter speed of 1/500 for wildlife. Birds and mammals, even if they appear stationary, are often flicking their ears or looking around, so it’s best to err on the safe side. I did a quick check of the wildlife photos I am most proud of and almost all were shot at 1/500 or 1/640. There are exceptions, such as the Chestnut-naped Antpitta at photo 6 (1/00 at ƒ5.6) but I was fortunate that the bird held still for a moment.

Shutter speed 1/100
Photo 6 – Cjestnut-naped Antpitta

For frogs, turtles, and perched butterflies and odonates you can often get by with a slower speed, as they can sit still for lengthy periods. But the Snapping Turtle at photo 7 was being aggressive so I needed 1/500 to freeze her.

Shutter speed 1/500
Photo 7 – Snapping Turtle

Special Cases

Birds in Flight

There is a simple rule of thumb here: the fastest shutter speed you can manage is the one to choose. But you can cheat to some extent based on the type of bird and its activity. The Trumpeter Swan has fairly slow wingbeats, so in photo 8 even 1/250 was enough to get a crisp image. The gliding Red-tailed Hawk in photo 9 was shot in bright daylight so I was able to go to 1/3200 and ensure that the image was crisp.

The Greater Prairie Chickens at a lek in photo 10 were tricky. We were shooting at dawn so there was very little light available, and the birds were actively jousting. I found through trial and error that a shutter speed of 1/2000 was enough to freeze the action. To make that work I had to bump the ISO up to 8000. The resulting image is reasonably good.

By the way, don’t even think about trying to photograph butterflies in flight. That way lies madness.


Hummingbird wingbeats are so fast that it is difficult to get a crisp image even in optimal light. Shutter speeds of at least 1/3200 will be needed. And because their wings move in strange ways to allow them to hover, even if you do get a crisp image it will often look rather odd. So unless you can find a perched bird, I find the best approach is to intentionally allow a bit of blur in the wings, which gives the impression of movement. The Western Emerald in photo 11 was shot at 1/320 while hovering. This is about right for the wings, but as you can see the tail is a bit blurred, so a slightly faster speed would have resulted in a better image.

Shutter speed 1/320
Photo 11 – Western Emerald

So that’s the bluffers’ guide to shutter speed. if you have mastered the basic operation of your camera and want to dip your toe into more advanced options why not try experimenting with shutter priority?

Previous posts in this series

[1] Almost all cameras now are digital and do not use film, but the term film speed is still widely used to describe this function.

Harris’s Sparrow

After making a maximum effort in 2018 on the birding front, this year I have ratcheted back a bit. The main difference is the amount of effort I devoted to twitching rare birds. Last year I chased or went out of my way to find at least 14 birds, whereas in 2019, until last week anyway, I had only twitched one bird in Ontario.

That bird was a Hermit Warbler, which I thought worth going after because (a) it was a life bird for me, (b) it was less than two hours away, and (c) there was a reasonable probability that it would stay put.

So assuming that those are my 2019 criteria, when I got wind of a Harris’s Sparrow visiting a feeder in The County[1], I was tempted. The day was wintry with snow flurries forecasted so I might have prevaricated a bit, but Jim Thompson was up for a try so off we went.

Harris’s Sparrow

Harris's Sparrow

Harris’s Sparrow is a prairie bird that breeds in northern Manitoba, Nunavut and the Northwest Territories. This makes it Canada’s only endemic breeder – i.e. a bird that only breeds in Canada. So I had to see one. For national pride, y’know. 😊

The beastie winters from South Dakota down to Texas. It is normally seen on migration, sometimes in large numbers, in the Rainy River district but it is a distinctly uncommon visitor to southern Ontario. Perhaps this one took a wrong turn near Albuquerque?

The Chase

On the way down we suffered the usual nameless dread of twitchers, namely that the bird would not be there, or worse, was seen flying off south ten minutes before we arrived. But this time at least it all turned out rather nicely. Fifteen minutes after we arrived we had clocked the blighter, and it then proceeded to hop around obligingly giving what my British friends would call “crippling views”.

Harris's Sparrow

And a smart looking bird it was, in full adult non-breeding plumage. Allowing for the fact that I am particularly partial to sparrows, this was a really nice bird to see.

Harris's Sparrow

And the point is… ?

Nothing really. Just a nice bird so I wanted to put the photos up so my legion of followers could have a chance to appreciate the creature. 😊

Harris's Sparrow
In a more natural setting

[1] Prince Edward County, to the uninitiated.

Exposure compensation: Don’t Blow Up Your Gulls


Originally published in The Blue Bill – the quarterly journal of the Kingston Field Naturalists

I am not an expert photographer and this post is not intended for experts. I became interested in wildlife photography when I was planning a trip to Tanzania in 2015. It was likely to be a once-in-a-lifetime trip and I wanted to come back with some good wildlife photos. So I obtained a decent camera and lens and took a short photography course before we left. The results were encouraging, and I could see that with more knowledge and experience I ought to be able to capture even better images.

In a way photography is like birding: the is an infinite amount of information, so there is always something new to learn. And like birding, photography rewards both study and practice. Through trial and error I have learned a fair amount about the craft of photography over the last few years. This post is intended to share things I have learned on my journey that may be of use to other aspiring photographers.

Understanding Exposure Compensation

In this first installment I want to talk about exposure compensation. It’s a camera function that many amateur nature photographers I have met seem unaware of, but in certain situations it is a really important tool to ensure you get the image you want.

I won’t get into a long explanation of how camera light metering systems work. Suffice it to say that most of the time they work very well. But there are a few situations in wildlife photography where left to its own devices the camera will make the wrong decision. Knowledge of how to compensate for this will help you get the right exposure and avoid disappointment. Those situations are:

  • Backlighting
  • Shadow
  • Wetness and Whiteness


Let’s start with a common situation: birds up in the treetops, or in the case, a bird on a wire. You see a Mourning Dove; your camera sees a mostly light background with one dark object. So it averages out the exposure and you are left with something like the image in photo 1 – a dark blob. After I took the first image I adjusted the exposure compensation two steps to the left (to -0.7) and photo 2 was the result. The bird is correctly exposed and all its plumage details are visible (e.g. the thin blue eye ring).

Of course I could have adjusted the exposure of photo 1 in post-processing, but the best-looking images start with a file that is correctly exposed in the first place. This is particularly important if, like most photographers, you shoot in a lossy format such as JPEG. Each time you edit a JPEG file more data is lost, so the closer you get to correct exposure in the first place, the better your final image will look.[1]


Metering systems also struggle to correctly expose objects in shadow. Photo 3 shows a pair of Hadada Ibis from that trip to Tanzania. The birds are underexposed because they are in shadow and there is bright sunlight on the right side of the image. The metering system tried to average out the exposure, which left the birds in the dark. In this case positive exposure compensation – moving the exposure one or two steps to the right – would have produced a better image (photo 4).

Wetness and Whiteness

Bright spots also cause trouble for the metering system. In wildlife photography this often shows up when photographing in bright sunlight. Anything white or wet can end up being overexposed even if the rest of the exposure is good. So gulls, terns and white pelicans are a problem, and so too are turtles and frogs when the sun is shining on their shells or skin.

In the case of bright spots, the issue is that the image may look properly exposed, but on closer examination the highlights are blown out. Blowing out, also known as clipping, happens where the intensity of light in a certain area exceeds the camera’s ability to capture information. So a blown highlight may look white, but if you look closely you will see that there is no detail in that part of the image.

Consider photo 5 – a Ring-billed Gull in sunlight. The image looks properly exposed, but if you zoom in (photo 6) you will see that there is no feather detail – it’s just a blank field of white. Sadly, blown highlights are on thing that cannot be corrected in post-processing, as there is no data to work with.

Here again, exposure compensation comes to the rescue. In photo 7 I deliberately underexposed the image by adjusting exposure compensation two steps to the left (-0.7). In post-processing I was able to increase the exposure so the gull is properly exposed, but as a blow-up shows (photo 8) the plumage details in the white area are fully visible.

Using Exposure Compensation

If you want to experiment with exposure compensation, the first step is to find how to adjust exposures on your camera. I recommend reading the relevant section of the manual, which will show you where the adjustments are made. On most DSLR camera bodies you will find a button that looks like photo 9. On bridge cameras, it is more likely to be a multi-function button. Typically you will need to hold down this button while moving one of the rotating dials or switches to adjust exposure up or down. In either case you will be able to see your adjustments on the exposure compensation slider, which is usually visible in your camera viewfinder.

Photo 9

Three Important Tips

1. The monitor (LCD viewscreen) on the back of your camera allows you to test and adjust. So when you come across your quarry and the lighting may be problematic (backlit, shadow, wet or white) take a photo to start off, then if the bird or beast stays around, look at your monitor to see if the exposure is good. If not, try an adjustment of two steps, reshoot, and check the monitor. Continue testing and adjusting until you either get the perfect exposure, or more likely, the bird of beast absconds.

2. Most cameras have a function that will show blown highlights in the monitor. For Nikon cameras it is cunningly named Highlight Display. Again, check your camera manual to see how to activate this function. When activated, if you take an image and look at the monitor you will see flashing lights (photographers call these “blinkies”) in areas where there are blown highlights. This quick check will let you know whether you need to adjust the exposure. Note that for backlit objects, if the object itself is correctly exposed there will probably be blown highlights in the sky behind it. This is not really a problem other than the fact that the sky tends to end up white rather than blue.

3. In most cases your camera will not automatically default back to the zero position once you have taken an image. I won’t tell you how many times I have forgotten to take account of this and taken a quick snap of a rapidly-departing bird only to find that exposure compensation was set for shadows and the image was mostly blown out. It seems that the rarer the bird, the more likely it is that this happens!  So you will want to keep exposure compensation in mind as part of your mental checklist.

Happy photography!

[1] Wikipedia has a good article on JPEG. See the section entitled Typical Usage at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/JPEG


Effort = Results

In principle the goal of seeing 250 birds in Ontario in a year should be achievable. You just need to expend a lot of effort looking, and make sure you go to the right places at the right times.

I did spend a lot of time looking, and largely in the right places, and lo and behold, hit the magic 250 mark on June 26th with a Least Bittern in the Moscow Marsh.

Having thus set a low standard and achieved it, I could have justifiably hung up my metaphorical skates for the year. But, you will be shocked to hear, I didn’t. The new goal became “how high can I go?”

There are a number of reasons for pushing on. In no particular order:

  • The forward-thinking reason. Someday I will do an official Big Year (300 birds) so all the effort put into finding birds this year and the lessons learned will pay dividends in the future.
  • The practical reason. I will be out birding anyway so why not focus on birds I can add to the list?
  • The nefarious reason. Once I stop birding three or more days a week I might have to do more of the useful but tedious things on my task list.

So, bird on it is!

However, the salient point about passing the 250 mark is that by then I had seen all the readily-seeable birds. Further progress would require not only continued effort, but also greater focus on planning where and when to see the missing birds. So the new equation is:

Effort + Homework + Good Company + Luck = Results

Homework is a key aspect that separates serious birders from people who like to look at birds. The ability to recognize the 291 species that (allegedly)[1] breed in Ontario, in all their various plumages (juvenile, breeding, non-breeding) comes from many hours of studying field guides and websites. Having started later in life and spent most of my birding time in the UK, I had a lot of catching up to do, but I have managed to get a reasonable grip on most species. Let’s say B+ in the more common birds, C+ in scarcities, and C with a Most Improved Student award in non-breeding warblers.

Knowing when and where to look for specific tricky species used to be in the realm of ancient lore, knowledge built up over a lifetime of birding and shared sparingly. The digital world has changed that, and we now have resources like E-bird that can help us narrow down the dates and sites where birds are likely to be seen.

But it also really helps to have additional sets of eyes at that time and place, especially if those eyes belong to better birders. Good company can skew the odds in your favour.

Still, for all the homework and effort you and your companions put in, the bird has to decide to (a) go to the anointed place at the anointed time, (b) be in a part of that place that is accessible to birders, and (c) make itself visible. This is where the perfidiousness of certain species comes into play. Nelson’s Sparrows, for example, typically pass through Southern Ontario in the first week of October. They favour wet, weedy reedbeds, where they skulk like mice and mostly refuse to show themselves. So luck is a key factor in the later parts of the year.

New Additions

How lucky have I been? Herewith an annotated list of birds seen and not seen since bird #250:

251 – Northern Bobwhite. 27 June near the Moscow Dump. Very scarce bird. Sheer luck.

252 – Eastern Whip-poor-will. 3 July, Prince Edward County. The birds had been calling for a few weeks along a remote country road. Homework + effort.

X – Chuck-will’s-widow. Prince Edward County. Calling near the Whip-poor-wills for a few weeks. Last heard the night before I went looking for it. Lack of effort.

253 – Little Blue Heron. The bird had been present for a few days. I was visiting family in the Toronto area so it was only a two-hour drive, and the bird made itself visible. Effort and Luck.

Effort - Little Blue Heron
Little Blue Heron

X – Yellow-crowned Night Heron. Cambridge. Had been seen well in the river for a week or more. The first day that it didn’t show up was the day I visited. Bad luck, but a consolation prize for effort in recognition of the THREE AND A HALF HOURS I spent standing on that bridge. At least I got to practise some birds-in-flight photography.

Effort - Caspian Tern
Caspian Tern

254-255 – Red Knot, Baird’s Sandpiper. 26 August, Presqu’ile. Good shorebird habitat during peak migration. Homework + effort.

Effort - Baird's Sandpiper
Baird’s Sandpiper

256 – Western Sandpiper. 26 August, Presqu’ile. Rare migrant. Luck (the bird was there) and good management (birding with a guy – Jon Ruddy – that could actually recognize a Western Sandpiper).

Effort - Western Sandpiper
Western Sandpiper

257 – Pectoral Sandpiper. 3 September, Morven. Good shorebird habitat during peak migration. Effort and homework. And a bit of luck as Pectoral is not a typical bird for this site.

Effort - Pectoral Sandpiper
Pectoral Sandpiper – Blenheim Sewage Lagoons

258 – Short-billed Dowitcher. 5 September, Brighton. Effort (it was at the end of a long, hot day) and good company. Bill Gilmour mentioned that the sewage lagoon was worth a look as they had cut back some of the reeds; Jim Thompson identified the bird while my dehydrated brain was still trying to process it.

Effort - Short-billed Dowitcher
Short-billed Dowitcher in the weeds

259 – Great Kiskadee. 15 September, Rondeau Provincial Park. Good company (my friend and birding mentor Paul Mackenzie), gold star for effort (we left Kingston at 0100 hours for the six-hour drive), major luck, as a few minutes after we left the bird disappeared, never to be seen again.

Effort - Great Kiskadee
Great Kiskadee (at long distance)

260 – Snowy Egret. 15 September, Roberta Stewart Wetland. Easiest bird of this list. Seen as we drove into the parking lot. A few marks for effort – after seeing the Kiskadee we took the time to check Ontbirds for any other rare birds in the area.

Effort - Snowy Egret
Snowy Egret

261 – American Pipit. 19 September, Wolfe Island. Out on our weekly trip with the North Leeds Birders. Jim Thompson spotted the well-camouflaged bird. Good company.

Effort - American Pipit
American Pipit

262, 263 – American Golden Plover, Buff-breasted Sandpiper. 23 September, Presqu’ile. I knew that American Golden Plover and (occasionally) Buff-breasted Sandpiper are seen on Gull Island at this time of the year. I picked a non duck-hunting day[2] when the weather looked promising and waded across to the island. Both birds were present – the Buff-breasted Sandpiper being one of only five sightings in the province this year. So gold star to me for homework, effort and luck!

Effort - Buff-breasted Sandpiper
Buff-breasted Sandpiper

264 – Purple Gallinule. 27 September, near Harrow. A long-staying rarity, but very hard to find as it skulked in the reeds. Effort (two and a half hours staring into the reeds) and good company (Paul, plus the young fellow who eventually tracked it down and immediately alerted the other birders on the site).

Effort - Purple Gallinule
Purple Gallinule

265 – Great Horned Owl. 27 September near Kingsville. We stopped to plot a course on the GPS and there it was, sitting on a wire. Sheer luck.

266 – Tufted Titmouse. 29 September, Ojibway Prairie Complex. Seen on a field trip during the Ontario Field Ornithologists Convention. The bird was known to be in the area. The trip leader, Peter Read, managed to point them out and we had decent looks as they flitted by. So effort, for driving to Leamington for the second time in a month, and good company. But also low cunning. They needed to split the group into two but we resolutely stayed with the best birder and it paid off. Pauvre Pauliina and Margaret did the “right” thing, went with the less-skilled guide, and didn’t see the bird.

267 – Red-necked Grebe. 12 October, Barrie. I had already made a plan to travel to Etobicoke in late October, when these birds are known to gather before migrating further south. But we saw several whilst looking for the target bird – Pacific Loon. Luck.

Effort - Red-necked Grebe
Red-necked Grebe

268 – Pacific Loon. 13 October, Barrie. A bird of the West Coast, but for reasons known only to themselves two or three birds show up in Barrie in mid-October every year to join the thousands (!) of Common Loons feasting on Emerald Shiners. So homework and effort, but especially good company – Jon Ruddy and the rest of the Eastern Ontario Birding collective.

269 – Yellow-billed Cuckoo. 13 October, Colonel Sam Smith Park. The bird had been seen by several other birders but managed to elude us for a while. When we noted a suspicious flitting of wings we got all field-crafty and snuck forward. Bruce spotted the bird skulking in a tree, and while we were spying on it it suddenly leapt out, nabbed a Wolly Bear caterpillar on the path and sped off. Luck and good company.

270 – Orange-crowned Warbler. 13 October, Colonel Sam Smith Park. A late-migrating warbler, predictable at this time but often hard to find. Luck and good company.

So all the Effort/Homework/Good Company/Luck factors played their part, with luck perhaps the most important. At this point there are maybe five birds left that I can reasonably hope to see in the last months of the Biggish Year. Let’s hope the luck holds out!

Ontario 2018 Bird Count – 270

2018 Jon Bubb Birding Beer Challenge beer count – 204

Days left to try new beers – 77. New beers needed: n , where n = (270 + further new birds seen) – 204. Hmmm. Greater effort required.

[1] Cinnamon Teal is listed as a breeding bird on the Ontario checklist. E-bird shows a total of one reported bird in Ontario in the last ten years.

[2] And why, one wonders, does Ontario permit duck-hunting in a Provincial Park…?

A Grand Day Out at Presqu’ile

A Grand Day Out  [1]

A bad day birding is better than a good day at work

– Anon

Every day at Presqu’ile is a good day

– Me

Presqu’ile Provincial Park is one of my favourite wildlife spots. It features an incredible range of habitat for such a small place: a sheltered bay loved by migrating ducks, extensive marshes, wet woods, sand dunes and climax forest. And of course, beautiful sand beaches, which attract swimmers and sun-worshippers, but much more importantly, migrating shorebirds.

So when the I saw that Jon Ruddy was leading a trip to Presqu’ile in prime shorebird season, I didn’t need much convincing. And thus it came to pass that on Sunday the 26th we assembled at the Park gates for a spot of birding.

The Beaches

The first step in the Presqu’ile stations of the cross is a visit to the beaches. If shorebirds are present they will be somewhere along the 2.5km of beach, so (quelle surprise!) the best approach is to start scanning at one end and then work one’s way along to the other. We started at Beach 1 with a good look at the gull flock. The usual suspects were around – an assortment of Herring and Ring-billed Gulls and Caspian Terns – with singles of Bonaparte’s Gull and Common Tern. We were admiring Ring-bill youngsters in their juvenile plumages when the first “peeps”[2] came through. Baird’s Sandpipers are normally seen in the autumn in ones and twos, but on this day they were darting about in groups of ten or more.

Presqu'ile - Juvenile Ring-billed Gull (first cycle)
Juvenile Ring-billed Gull (first cycle)

Presqu'ile - The peeps arrive! Baird's Sandpiper.
The peeps arrive! Baird’s Sandpiper.

Continue reading A Grand Day Out at Presqu’ile

Waders, Warblers and Water

Onwards, ever onwards

As you may recall, your intrepid heroes had finished scouring the Carden Alvar, making a decent haul of … alvar birds. On the afternoon of 11 May we headed down to Brighton to check in on Presqu’ile Provincial Park. Presqu’ile is one of my favourite birding haunts. It’s another migrant trap that sticks out into Lake Ontario, but it also has long sand beaches that attract migrating shorebirds. Having arrived during peak migration season we hoped to find a selection of early waders,[1] though we still held out hope for a dose of warbler mania.

Our first stop was the Brighton Constructed Wetland (another sewage lagoon, albeit with a downtown name). This site can be excellent in the right conditions but it’s very much feast or famine. If the water levels are too high the mud flats, a.k.a. smorgasbord for waders, are submerged. Our visit was more on the famine side, with only a few waders sneaking about. Blue-winged Teal, normally a regular visitor, were also absent. The best sightings were our first Marsh Wren of the year – expected at the site – and a Sedge Wren – apparently unexpected at that site, provoking an I-don’t-think-so email from the local EBird[2] coordinator. We saw what we saw. But more about EBird in another post.

Marsh Wren - Biggish Year 2018
Marsh Wren

So basically we “dipped”[3] at the sewage lagoons, but we hoped for a regain when we got to the Park. Almost certainly we would be inundated by warblers and waders, as payback by the Bird Gods for our many hours of driving and birding. Almost certainly we were not.

Not that it was bad, mind you. We had two plover species (Black-bellied and Semipalmated) and two sandpipers (Least and Spotted). Nothing earth-shattering but two of these were new to the trip list. We also added a nice (and early) Olive-sided Flycatcher near the Camp Office and our first Great Egrets lounging about on Gull Island (as they do). Probably our best find was a lone Black Scoter lurking among a small gaggle of Surf Scoters. So… not bad, but not brilliant either. The warbler count consisted of the three most common warblers (Yellow, Yellow-rumped and Tennessee) and no others.

Yellow-rumped Warbler - Biggish Year 2018
Well, at least there were Yellow-rumped Warblers

Poignantly, there is a plaque at the Lighthouse, dedicated by his friends to a now-deceased birder “in memory of many twenty warbler days”. Our three-warbler day seemed a bit sad in comparison. At this point I was starting to doubt whether we would ever get to the 180+ species seen on the two previous Army Ornithological Society expeditions to Ontario. A serious case of mockery seemed likely.[4]

So with tears in our eyes we moped off to Lola’s Coffee House for a restorative tonic and set our course for Algonquin. Continue reading Waders, Warblers and Water

Warbler Mania – The Agony of Defeat

When we last saw our heroes, they were headed East into the sunrise, destination…

Long Point

The Long Point area is another prime birding hotspot in Ontario and we planned to have a good look around for about a day. There are dozens of birding spots in the area but ground zero is a smallish patch of scrub known as The Old Cut. Long Point itself juts well out into Lake Erie so it’s another shortcut for migrating birds. They land at the point and then work their way North, foraging through scrub, reeds and wet boggy copses – the bird equivalent of a breakfast buffet.

Old Cut is the end of the road – the good habitat comes to an end and their next move is a long flight to the next feeding station. So the birds tend to stooge around Old Cut for a while, getting in their pre-flight meal and flinging themselves into mist nets so they can be banded by the diligent workers at the Long Point Bird Observatory.

In my previous May visits the Old Cut has been crawling with birds, particularly of the wood warbler persuasion. Wood warblers, for those not up on their North American birding lore, are a family of tiny, active insectivores that pass through in hordes on their way to breed in the boreal forest. Their claim to fame is that they are improbably gorgeous. Each species has its particular markings and colours, ranging from the pinstriped Black and White Warbler to the madly orange Blackburnian, the sky blue Cerulaean and the dash-of-everything Magnolia Warbler. They are spectacular birds, though their hyperactivity makes them notoriously difficult to photograph.

Black-throated Blue Warbler - Biggish Year 2018
Black-throated Blue Warbler

Golden-winged Warbler- Biggish Year 2018
Golden-winged Warbler

Blackburnian Warbler- Biggish Year 2018
Blackburnian Warbler

Magnolia Warbler- Biggish Year 2018
Magnolia Warbler

Warbler Mania

What we were hoping to experience at Long Point was a “fall” of warblers. When conditions are right (or wrong, from the warblers’ point of view) unfavourable winds and/or rain can force a huge number of migrating birds to seek shelter in the nearest available cover. They then try to load up on food until the time comes to resume the Northward trek.

A big fall is an epic experience. You can find yourself surrounded by hundreds of warblers of twenty or more species, all buzzing about and singing their special songs of love. Birders experiencing a fall often descend into warbler mania, a state of giddiness and mild confusion brought on by being surrounded by fast-moving natural beauty and trying to look at every bird at once.

A similar effect has been observed among tourists visiting Florence. As the author Stendhal[1] observed,

I was in a sort of ecstasy, from the idea of being in Florence, close to the great men whose tombs I had seen. Absorbed in the contemplation of sublime beauty … I reached the point where one encounters celestial sensations … Everything spoke so vividly to my soul. Ah, if I could only forget. I had palpitations of the heart, what in Berlin they call ‘nerves’. Life was drained from me. I walked with the fear of falling.

Yup, that’s about it. Warbler Mania.

However, this time it was not to be. As in our visits to Pelee and Rondeau, there were a good number of birds passing through but nothing like the divine madness we were hoping for. 24 hours at Long Point only added two new birds to our list, though we had a frustrating might-have-seen-for-a-second experience with an exotic yellow-throated warbler. We consoled ourselves in the traditional birder way (application of beer) and then girded ourselves for the longest day of our trip.

Mike, Andy, Me - Biggish Year 2018
Slightly deranged from sun, driving and lack of sleep: Mike, Andy, Me.

The Long March

The next day we set out on a 500km road march, aiming to bypass Toronto, nab a series of scarce birds that hang around in the Carden Alvar, and end up in Brighton poised for a thorough scouring of Presqu’ile Provincial Park.

Alvars are limestone plains partly covered by a thin layer of soil and sparse grassland vegetation.[2] They tend to attract a special set of birds that are difficult or impossible to see elsewhere. The Carden Alvar, North of Kirkfield, is one of the best such spots in Ontario.

We escaped Toronto traffic relatively unscathed, and made it to Kirkfield in time to have a great lunch at the imaginatively-named but nonetheless estimable Kirkfield Restaurant. Thus fortified we headed North to Wylie Road, the heartland of special alvar birds.[3]

Alvar Birding

We first visited my no-fail site for Vesper Sparrow – and failed. But things improved when we got onto Wylie Road. Look for Eastern Bluebird on the fenceposts. Tick.

Eastern Bluebird - Biggish Year 2018
Eastern Bluebird. Not on a fencepost. Not on Wylie Road for that matter. Fake News.

Bobolink in the grassy field. Tick. Stop at the bird hide and look for Loggerhead Shrike. Tick. As we left the bird hide we were treated to, in quick succession, excellent views of Field Sparrow and Grasshopper Sparrow. Tick, tick. Down to the marsh for Swamp Sparrow. Tick. About the only target bird we missed out on was Upland Sandpiper, but for consolation we had extraordinarily close views of the normally shy and retiring Wilson’s Snipe.

Wilson's Snipe - Biggish Year 2018
Wilson’s Snipe

By 1730 our work there was done, and we headed south for Brighton and a few hours of sleep, punctuated by feverish visions of multicoloured warblers flitting just out of sight.

Would we get our fall of warblers? Would we finally experience warbler mania? Stay tuned…


[1] Marie-Henri Beyle 1783-1842, best known for his novels The Red and the Black, and The Charterhouse of Parma.

[2] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alvar

[3] …and nutbar people. “The environmental theme is being challenged politically by a significant group of landowners, both local and away, who call themselves alternatively the Rural Revolution or the Ontario Landowners Association (OLA) They reject any government planned use of their private land (i.e. zoning) especially if it interferes with what they can do on it and who they can sell it to. They have posted signs throughout the City reading “THIS IS OUR LAND, GOVERNMENT BACK OFF!”. Seven local landowners, on the Carden Plain, went further in the summer of 2006 and posted signs prohibiting birders from looking for birds in their fields from the road. One local landowner even began stopping birders, walking on public roads, telling them to stop bird watching. He ceased this activity after being confronted by the police.” http://www.cardenplainimportantbirdarea.com/news.htm

The Vortex – Biggish Year 2018

American White Pelican - Biggish Year 2018
American White Pelican

After six weeks of virtually non-stop birding (and other events) I am trying to catch up on reporting. Hopefully my memories are not too blurred…

The Road Trip, Part 1

In pursuit of the Biggish Year I planned a two-week road trip to hit most of the major birding hotspots in Southern Ontario. Executing this plan would involve thousands of kilometres on the road, late nights, early mornings, breakfast at Tim’s, and long marches in all kinds of weather conditions. Travelling companions were needed to share the driving load and bear witness to the mayhem of Spring migration, but they needed to be stout-hearted types able to endure the conditions without whingeing. So naturally I turned to my colleagues in the (British) Army Ornithological Society and on 5 May Andrew Harrison and Mike Williams arrived at YYZ eager to pad their Canada lists. Mike’s was at zero when he arrived, so he was at that happy stage where every bird was potentially a lifer.

AOS Birders
If it ain’t rainin’ it ain’t birdin.

After the obligatory touristy stuff (a visit to the wildly-overpriced CN Tower, a somewhat adequate meal at Wayne Gretzky’s) we sped off down the highway bound for the vortex that is Point Pelee.[1]

The Vortex

Point Pelee National Park is justly renowned as one of the premier birding spots in North America. As the southernmost point in mainland Canada and the shortest way across Lake Erie it acts a superhighway for migratory birds. The masses of inbound birds that flow through in May are only matched by the thousands of birders and photographers who descend upon the park in droves.

Pelee - The Vortex
Anyone seen any birds?

Birding can be a peaceful, contemplative way of enjoying nature, but birding in Pelee in May is… not. The hordes rush madly between trails and viewing areas, hot on the heels of any rarish bird that peeks its head out of the bushes. Photographers with massive lenses and tripods elbow their way to the front, demanding to know which bird is the “good” one. Birders compare notes on what is being seen, often ending with the dreaded phrase “you should have been here ten minutes ago.” Lists-services and the park sightings book (a.k.a. The Book of Lies) taunt you with tales of extreme rarities seen briefly at the other end of the park, which might still be there but might also cause you to lose your precious parking spot to see where they once had been.

Are you getting the impression that I didn’t love Pelee? Perhaps, though it can’t be denied that we were seeing a lot of birds in a very short time. We arrived late on the 6th and “only” added 13 species in the pouring rain. Another 22 showed up the next day, including White-eyed Vireo (a lifer for me).

White-eyed Vireo - Biggish Year 2018
White-eyed Vireo


And Point Pelee is not the only hotspot in the bird-blessed Southwest of Ontario. Rondeau Provincial Park is about an hour away and a much more pleasant experience. The variety of birds on view was excellent but for some reason Rondeau does not attract the mobs. We birded the park on the 8th and added several good species including the much-desired Prothonotary Warbler. And just when spirits were dangerously flagging the Visitor Centre came up with cups of good coffee, and all was well again.

Prothonotary Warbler - Biggish Year 2018
Prothonotary Warbler

On the way back from Rondeau the word went out that American Avocets were being seen at Hillman Marsh. Of course we had to check it out, so we and a couple hundred of our closest friends descended on this conservation area for a look. The small, one-lane parking area was completely overwhelmed so we parked in a nearby churchyard, tabbed in,[2] saw the birds and moved back out in the space of about 15 minutes – much to the surprise of the lady collecting money at the gate.

Avocet Twitch - Hillman Marsh
Avocet Twitch – Hillman Marsh

American Avocets - Biggish Year 2018
American Avocets in the distance, apparently unconcerned

Then back to the vortex on the 9th for one last round of crowd-birding, netting a further nine species.

The Tally

For all its oversubscribed charms, the Pelee area was an excellent place to run up the year list. I started the excursion with 152 species on my year list, and added 66 species over three and a half days. We missed the enigmatic Worm-eating Warbler, but added a few semi-rarities and hard-to-see birds including Kentucky, Hooded and Cerulean Warblers, American White Pelican, Surf Scoter, Willet, the Avocets and a Red-headed Woodpecker.

Horned Grebe - Biggish Year 2018
Horned Grebe

Yellow-throated Vireo
Yellow-throated Vireo

We also had an excellent meal of ribs at Ray’s Ribhouse in Leamington, albeit on the third attempt: on Sunday evening the extraction fans broke down and the place was filled with smoke, and of course as everyone knows (!) all restaurants in Leamington are closed on Mondays. But Tuesday all was well and it was worth the wait.

The morning of the 10th saw us headed East. A short side trip to the Blenheim sewage lagoons on the way netted Wilson’s Phalarope, which was a great start to the next phase of the adventure: Long Point and The Long March.

Northern Yellow Warbler - Biggish Year 2018
Northern Yellow Warbler

Ontario Year List: 208

[1] For reasons unknown there is no accent on the first e.

[2] Another virtue of Army birders – we/they are not afraid of rapid-pace forced marches in pursuit of our quarry.

April Showers – Biggish Year 2018


April showers supposedly bring May flowers. So standby for Southern Ontario to be the garden capital of the world. April was – not to mince words – bleak. “Colder than normal temperatures predominated”, which is weatherperson speak for “there was no Spring this year”. By mid-April there was still significant ice cover on lakes Great and small. A significant dump of snow and freezing rain on the 16th didn’t help:  inter alia it caused the Blue Jays game to be cancelled when large chunks of ice plummeting from the CN Tower put a big hole in the roof of Skydome.

Mid-April in Sunny Kingston - April Showers
Mid-April in Sunny Kingston – Sheesh!

The birds, sensibly, opted to stay put in sunnier climes, proving once again that Sibley’s, Peterson’s and the National Geographic so-called bird guides do not actually guide birds.

Carrying On

Nonetheless the quest for 250 continued. With a fair amount of hard graft and a dollop of luck here and there I added a few more specimens to my year list. Of course, it wouldn’t be proper birding without the odd bootless quest involving a zero-dark thirty wakeup, a long drive and hours of staring into the cold wind to no avail. In this case it was a Ruff and a Snowy Egret in some nameless wet field near Arnprior, both of whom evaded my grasp. And I got to hear the words all birders dread: “You should have been here half an hour ago.”

Which leads to the first Rule of Bird Acquisition for a future Big Year, should I be masochistic enough to try for 300:

  • When a real rarity shows up (or two real rarities in this case), go now. Do not wait for tomorrow morning.
  • And the corollary: If you have to get up at an ungodly hour, the difference between 0500 and 0400 is marginal. The additional pain is transitory; the pain of missing a mega rarity is a lasting wound.

So… on to the

April highlights

Spruce Grouse - April Showers
Spruce Grouse

White-winged Crossbill - April Showers
White-winged Crossbill

Algonquin Park with Paul, Richard and Dianne yielded epic views of Spruce Grouse and a re-look at the winter finches. Once again the accursed Black-backed Woodpecker made itself scarce.

Surf Scoter - April Showers
Surf Scoter – Trust me!

At Prince Edward Point with the same gang plus Erwin we managed to see a Surf Scoter about a kilometre offshore. Good bird, not rare but hard to find.

Fox Sparrow - April Showers
Fox Sparrow in the murk.

At Marshlands Conservation Area I not only saw the scarce Fox Sparrow, but managed to get some decent pictures.

Under the Life’s Like That rubric I drove to Oshawa and stood for a couple of hours grilling[1] gulls way offshore before I had a confirmed Little Gull. Some days later at Kaiser Crossroads I had at least 17 Little Gulls at close range.

White-winged Dove - April Showers
White-winged Dove

And I did add one real rarity – a White-winged Dove has decided to take up residence in Sandhurst Shores, a wee community half an hour from home.

Slow Motion Showers

For Bird Nerds, the day-by-day line scores for additions to the list:


  • 11 Apr – Leeds County: Red-shouldered Hawk, Eastern Phoebe, Eastern Bluebird, White-throated Sparrow, Rusty Blackbird, Tree Swallow
  • 11 Apr – Amherstview Sewage Lagoons: Northern Shoveler
  • 12 Apr – Whitney: Sandhill Crane
  • 12 Apr – Algonquin Provincial Park: Spruce Grouse
  • 17 Apr – Doug Fluhrer Park, Kingston: Bonaparte’s Gull, Caspian Tern, Pied-billed Grebe
  • 20 Apr – Prince Edward Point: Surf Scoter, Wilson’s Snipe, Yellow-bellied Sapsucker
  • 21 Apr – Helen Quilliam Sanctuary, Frontenac County: Winter Wren
  • 22 Apr – Lennox Generating Station: Blue-winged Teal
  • 22 Apr – Lennox & Addington County: Greater Yellowlegs
  • 23 Apr – Marshlands CA, Kingston: Virginia Rail, Ruby-crowned Kinglet, Hermit Thrush, Fox Sparrow, Lincoln’s Sparrow
  • 24 Apr – Oshawa Harbour: Little Gull, Barn Swallow
  • 24 Apr – Second Marsh, Oshawa: Swamp Sparrow
  • 24 Apr – Cranberry Marsh, Whitby: Dunlin, Lesser Yellowlegs, Common Tern
  • 28 Apr – Lanark County: Broad-winged Hawk, Upland Sandpiper, Brown Thrasher, Pine Warbler, Yellow-rumped Warbler, Field Sparrow, Savannah Sparrow


  • 3 May – Prince Edward Point: Cliff Swallow, House Wren, Veery, Yellow Warbler, Palm Warbler, Chipping Sparrow, Bobolink, Black-crowned Night-heron
  • 3 May – Lennox & Addington County: White-crowned Sparrow, Rose-breasted Grosbeak, White-winged Dove
  • 4 May – Downtown Kingston: Chimney Swift (Ontario bird #150 for 2018)
  • 4 May – Lemoine Point CA, Kingston: Northern Rough-winged Swallow

E-Bird Checklist hits 150 - April Showers
E-Bird Checklist hits 150

So that’s it for April’s update. The May Showers – when the skies darken with migrating warblers – are upon us. Stay tuned for the next episode, when Andy, Mike and I go Into the Vortex.

[1] i.e. staring at them one by one through a telescope, looking for infinitesimal differences.

Costa Rica

Why Costa Rica?

Well, that’s not really a question people ask. More like “when are you going to Costa Rica?” We went for a look around in March, just the latest in a long line of tourists lured in by Costa Rica’s rare combination of a warm climate, huge amounts of biodiversity, friendly people and – almost unique in Central America – stable, democratic government. No wonder they are the Happiest People on Earth![1]

It’s a popular destination for beach vacations, adventure travel and surfing, but the variety and density of wildlife makes it a very compelling destination for nature trips. For the record: Costa Rica accounts for 0.03 percent of the earth’s surface (51,100km2), but contains nearly 6 percent of the world’s biodiversity.[2],[3] Costa Rica was also an early adopter of the notion of eco-tourism, and has made major efforts to ensure that all that biodiversity is protected and made accessible to nature-lovers, both foreign and domestic.

White-faced Capuchin - Costa Rica
White-faced Capuchin


During the 1960s the growing demand for agricultural land, mainly cattle pasture, was leading to widespread deforestation.  The resulting pastureland was not particularly productive, and the usual results of deforestation – flooding, erosion, loss of wildlife – were becoming increasingly evident. Unlike many developing countries, it seems that Costa Ricans, or Ticos as they call themselves, were unwilling to sacrifice their natural resources for short-term economic gain. Starting in the 1980s, programmes were established to protect large areas of the different ecosystems. The National Parks and Reserves now cover 12 % of Costa Rica’s land area, with another 16% protected by various refuges, indigenous Indian reserves, and nature reserves. So Costa Rica stands proudly with Colombia and Tanzania in the select group of countries that have preserved significant parts of their natural environment against the depredations of developers.

Key Sites

I’m not going to bore you with a minute-by-minute account, instead focus on a few sites that were highlights of the trip.

Butterfly Ranch

On Day One, enroute from San Jose to Arenal, one of our stops was the Pierella Ecological Garden – a butterfly ranch. Twenty years ago the proprietor of the garden was seized with the notion that he could make a business out of selling butterflies in chrysalis stage to zoos and butterfly sanctuaries (such as the Butterfly Conservatory in Cambridge, Ontario). He acquired some marginal pastureland and began planting the native trees and shrubs favoured by different butterfly species.

William, the butterfly rancher - Costa Rica
William, the butterfly rancher

Of course as the garden grew into a forest lots of other wildlife recolonized it, so in addition to seeing the whole process of raising butterflies we had great opportunities to see birds, poison dart frogs, exotic insects, a caiman, and a sloth. We were completely entranced by a clutch of Honduran White Bats – tiny creatures that make a tent to roost in by clipping a seam in a heliconia leaf so it forms an inverted V. After our nature walk we had an excellent lunch while enjoying close-up views of birds gorging themselves on fruit at the nearby feeders. The proprietress also demonstrated the laborious process by which cocoa beans are turned into chocolate – with appropriate samples at each stage.

Honduran White Bats in their tent. Costa Rica
Honduran White Bats in their tent. (Dodgy cell phone photo)


Sunset on the deck - Arenal Observatory Lodge. Costa Rica
Sunset on the deck – Arenal Observatory Lodge

Our first two nights were at the Arenal Observatory Lodge and Spa, which sits at the foot of an active volcano. Fortunately it has not had a major eruption since 1998, and it continued to behave during our visit. The lodge is extremely comfortable, and well equipped with a swimming pool, a large whirlpool bath/hot tub, and a good restaurant. The large viewing platform next to the restaurant provided an excellent observation point where we could watch masses of birds in the trees and on the feeders and coatimundis patrolling below, all whilst sipping a refreshing Guaro Sour.

Arenal, venting a little steam. Costa Rica
Arenal, venting a little steam.

We spent two days exploring the network of nature trails that emanate out from the lodge and provide access to the rain forest. We also took a night walk to investigate the frog pond and were rewarded with good views of the iconic red-eyed tree frog.

Red-eyed Tree Frog, Costa Rica
Red-eyed Tree Frog and friend.

The highlight of our time in Arenal was seeing a Margay (aka Tree Ocelot)– a rare and secretive jungle cat not much larger than a house cat. I had wanted to see one since I saw a photo when I was about 12, but never really expected to realize that dream. ¡Me quedé con la boca abierta! Fabulous.

Margay - Costa Rica
Margay, trying not to be seen.

Mangrove Boat Tour

On the southern end of Costa Rica’s Pacific coast lies the Osa Peninsula, a thinly-populated area mostly comprised of mangrove swamps. We took a small boat out of Sierte for a cruise of about two hours.[4] Our skipper, Eagle-Eye José, was adept both at spotting wildlife and at manoeuvring the boat for close-in views. In addition to some highly sought-after birds, we also saw all three species of Costa Rican monkeys along with a selection of bats, lizards, a river turtle and the only snake of the trip. José’s ability to bring the boat in close meant that everyone was able to see all the wildlife without having to struggle with binoculars, and to take good photos even if they didn’t have a long telephoto lens. Being “all in the same boat” we moved at the same pace, and could all see the wildlife at the same time. It was hot and steamy on the river but the boat had a canopy and cold drinks were available so it made for a very pleasant excursion.

Central American Squirrel Monkey, Costa Rica
Central American Squirrel Monkey, chilling.

Eagle-Eye José, Costa Rica
Eagle-Eye José

Scarlet Macaw, Costa Rica
Scarlet Macaw

Bosque del Tolomuco

Bosque del Tolomuco, Costa Rica
Bosque del Tolomuco

Up in the cloud forest near San Isidro is a scenic nature reserve and lodge owned by two ex-pat Canadians. Over the years they have planted a wide variety of native plants that are favoured by butterflies and hummingbirds, and the results have been spectacular. We stopped at Bosque del Tolomuco for about an hour and had close views of 14 species of hummingbird including the scarce White-crested Coquette and the stunning Violet Sabrewing. Silver-throated and Flame-coloured Tanagers and pair of Red-headed Barbet were features among the non-humming birds. Parrots and parakeets are apparently regular visitors as well. Sadly we were only passing through, but I have a strong desire to go back, rent one of their peaceful cottages and just hang out for a week or so.

Violet Sabrewing, Costa Rica
Violet Sabrewing

The Trip

Our trip was organized by Worldwide Quest, a Toronto-based firm that specializes in trips that combine excellent wildlife experiences with relatively luxurious accommodation. We had been to Tanzania on a Worldwide Quest tour so we knew that we could expect to be coddled … and we were not disappointed. However there are numerous other travel companies that can offer the same level of wildlife viewing and perfectly acceptable accommodation at a lower price. And it would be entirely possible to rent a car and do a self-guided trip. Once outside of San Jose the traffic is reasonable and most of the roads are in good condition. It is also possible to hire a vehicle and driver, and firms such as Tico Rides will help you plan your itinerary to make best use of your available time.

The List

“It’s all about the list” – The Birdfinder General

My species list for the tour includes:

Birds: 262 species. Click here for a photo gallery.


– Monkeys: White-faced Capuchin, Mantled Howler Monkey, Central American Squirrel Monkey

– Sloths: Brown-throated Three-toed and Hoffman’s Two-toed

– Central American Agouti

– Variegated Squirrel

– White-nosed Coati

– Alston’s Mouse Possum

– Margay

– Bats: Long-nosed, Honduran White

Frogs: 7 species

Lizards: 7 species

Snakes: Rainbow Boa

Turtles: Black River Turtle

Crocodilians: Spectacled Caiman, American Crocodile

Butterflies: 21 species

So… only about 600 bird species to go!Costa Rica

[1] The happiest country in the world according the Happy Planet Index, though merely the 13th happiest according to the UN’s World Happiness Report.

[2] Biodiversity can be defined as the totality of genes, species and ecosystems of a region. – Young, Anthony. “Global Environmental Outlook 3 (GEO-3): Past, Present and Future Perspectives.” The Geographical Journal, vol. 169, 2003, p. 120, from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Biodiversity

[3] For comparison purposes, New Brunswick is 72,908 km2.

[4] Not the dreaded three-hour cruise.