I’ve always loved birds. Although, to clarify, I should say that I have always loved the LOOK of wild birds. Captive birds, however stunning in plumage, have never been of much interest to me. Oddly, I have also never really been drawn to the hobby of bird watching itself.
Over the last few days, however, I think this is starting to change.
While taking a couple of weeks to relax and visit family on southern Vancouver Island (in preparation for our major move from Canada to Mexico), I was overcome by the sheer volume of song birds in the region. On my walks through the trails among the tall timber, without much effort, I spotted several species I had never seen before. I heard bird calls I had never noticed in the past.
How was this possible? I had been raised in a small seaside town on the west coast where there must have been an abundance of songbirds of every variety. How could it be that I was only now began to notice such things?
During our stay on Vancouver Island, I hiked through some forest trails to a large pond that lies in the shadow of Mount Aerosmith, hoping to spot some species I had not yet photographed on this trip.
The fine rain falling from the sullen grey sky landed on the pond surface with a
liquid hiss. Violet-green swallows darted and wheeled above the flat surface, snatching insects. Their high speed and erratic turns made for very difficult shooting, but their luminescent green and purple colours were well worth the effort.
Nearby, the plaintiff mewing call of a woodpecker drew my attention, and after carefully closing range, I was able to get some reasonable shots of a red-breasted sapsucker as he checked a tree for insect snacks. He proved somewhat camera shy, and was quick to move around the far side of his selected tree, but by shifting position carefully to avoid alarm, I got the shots I was looking for.
Shortly before 7 AM another morning on the trip, I took a stroll through the neighborhoods up the road and soaked in the ambiance of a west coast spring morning. Songbirds filled the cool air with music; complex overlapping songs that carried so clearly in the damp, chilly air. The fog created a hemmed-in atmosphere, providing charming aerial perspective, with the more distant timber looming like ghostly sentinels.
For the first time in memory, I began to wonder what all of these abundant bird species were called and where their spent their year. As I tramped through muddy trails waist deep in sword ferns and forded creeks that weaved through the timber, I found I was starting to keep an eye out for different species, even listening for what I was beginning to make out as the distinct calls of different ones.
Later, when I was sitting in the kitchen drinking coffee and drafting this article, three varied thrushes appeared abruptly to hop around the lawn beyond the patio, picking juicy grubs and worms from the dew-laden grass. In just a matter of minutes the same garden hosted an american robin, a spotted towhee and many varied thrushes.
Over the two week island visit, birds I’ve spotted and identified included:
- Spotted towhee
- American robin
- Red-breasted sapsucker
- Violet-green swallow
- Varied thrush
- Mourning dove
- Bald eagle
Knowing little about birds or how to identify them, I discovered a very useful online resource called WhatBird. This site allows you to use identifying characteristics of a bird you’ve spotted in order to narrow down the possible species. Once you’ve narrowed your search, you can browse images of the named species until you find the one that you are looking for. In almost every case, I was able to identify all the species I’ve been shooting this week by using this site. The website “All About Birds” hosted by the Cornell University Lab of Ornithology was also very helpful in verifying the identity of birds I spotted.
On a technical photography note:
These days I am shooting a Canon EOS 7D MkII as my primary camera, which seems to be well suited to the task of wildlife photography. However, I am quickly discovering that my longest lens (Canon 70-200mm F/2.8) just doesn’t provide the magnification necessary for this kind of work. Even with the ability to crop into the 20 megapixel RAW image (and the magnification provided by the APS-C sensor), results aren’t very satisfying. Even at the absolute closest range that seems likely when stalking twitchy, winged subjects, the bird itself often only occupies five percent of the frame area.
If I am going to be able to pursue this type of photography properly, I’m going to have to look for a better option for a lens. The limiting factor, of course, is cost. Getting into something like the Canon 400mm f/5.6 lens (which I think would solve the problem) would cost $1,200, as this gets into ‘super telephoto’ territory. I might also consider using the Canon 2x extender on my 200mm zoom, and take the resulting two-stop reduction in light. I’ve noticed that Yongnuo has also produced a competing 2x lens doubler that is reviewing very well. Either way, if I decide to move forward with something to solve this problem, I’ll be sure to review the hardware!