PAUL ROEDDING PHOTOGRAPHY

Wildlife and Nature Photography

3 Simple Ways To Achieve Sharper Images

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Achieving sharper images has far more to do with the person behind the camera than the price of your lens.

One of the biggest misconceptions in photography is that in order to achieve sharp images you need an expensive lens. I often hear people say “if I had this or that lens I could get pictures like that too.” I myself shared this same belief when getting started in photography, but quickly learned that this simply is not true. While expensive glass does have its advantages it certainly does not guarantee results. In reality, several factors are to blame for images that lack sharpness none of which are the fault of the lens.

When reviewing my images after a day of shooting rather than blame my lens for the images that are not sharp (yes there are plenty, but I don’t share them), I always take time to analyze each one and ask myself what I could have done differently in order to have obtained a sharp image. By doing so, I have learned how to adjust my settings and technique and implement those changes the next time I am in the field under similar conditions, which results in sharper images. Learning form my mistakes has helped improve my photography tremendously over the years. 

Not everyone can afford a top of the line super telephoto lens, and even if you can unless a significant portion of your income comes from photography it’s hard to justify spending over $10,000 on a 500 mm or 600 mm prime lens. If you currently own or are thinking about purchasing one of these lenses, you are still unlikely to get sharp images unless you follow these three simple tips.   

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Whether photographing birds in flight or stationary subjects, shutter speed is one of the keys to sharper images.

The Importance of Shutter Speed 

Motion is regularly the biggest reason images are not sharp. Motion can be caused by either camera shake (not holding the camera steady) or the speed of your subject. The general rule in photography to eliminate camera shake when shooting hand held is to make sure your shutter speed is at least 1/focal length of your lens. This is known as the reciprocal rule. For example, with my Canon 100-400mm lens fully zoomed at 400mm I want my shutter speed to be at least 1/400th of a second . If you are shooting with a 250mm kens, make sure you are shooting at 1/250th of a second, 1/300th of a second for a 300mm lens and so on. This is one of the quickest ways to achieve sharper images, so adjust your aperture or ISO accordingly to achieve a faster shutter speed. 

As mentioned, motion can also come from the speed at which your subject is moving and is a huge factor in wildlife photography. Unfortunately the reciprocal rule only applies to stationary subjects. When photographing birds that are constantly flitting or birds in flight, a much faster shutter speed is required. My goal when photographing any type of wildlife stationary or moving is to achieve a shutter speed of at least 1/1000th of a second as this has consistently delivered sharp images for me. I always start every shoot at ISO 800 even on sunny days as this typically gives me my desired shutter speed. 

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Holding your camera steady is paramount to achieving sharper images.

Steady Your Camera And Lens

Holding your camera and lens steady are crucial to sharp images even with a fast shutter speed. Keeping a focus point on your subject becomes more challenging at longer focal lengths and when your subject is farther away. Even with fast shutter speeds, good technique is key to sharp images. When holding your camera, keep your arms bent and your elbows close to your sides. Place on foot in front of the other and bend your knees. The closer your camera is to your centre of gravity the easier it will be to keep a focus point on your subject. 

Most people, especially those using zoom lenses, hold their lenses at the 9 o’clock position while rotating the zoom ring with their thumb, index, and middle fingers. This method may seem the most comfortable, but inevitably is setting you up for increased camera shake. Rotating your wrist in this manner puts it in an unnatural position and increases tightness on the muscles, tendons, and ligaments in your forearm. After a few minutes of holding a lens like this arm fatigue will set in and your hand will start to twitch. This twitching will present a real challenge when trying to hold a focus point on the subject, especially at great distances or with long focal lengths resulting in blurry images. 

If you wish, you can experience the effects of holding a lens like this while reading this post. Hold your arm straight out in front of you with your thumb up. Rotate your wrist 90 degrees clockwise and you will instantly feel tightness in your forearm. Continue to hold your arm outstretched like this with your wrist rotated for several minutes and you will notice your hand start to twitch. Remember this will be amplified while supporting the weight of a camera and lens. To correct this, try supporting your lens from underneath at the 6 o’clock position with the palm of your hand facing up. This technique has helped me tremendously to steady my camera and lens, thus achieving sharper images.

Other helpful techniques for steadying your camera and lens would be to drop down to one knee while using the other to steady your elbow or sit down and use both knees to steady both elbows. Using various objects as supports including trees, fences, park benches, and picnic tables will also lead to sharper images.        

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Stopping down adds depth to an image keeping more of the subject in focus, resulting in sharper images.

Shoot At A Narrower Aperture

All lenses regardless of price point are sharper one stop either side of their widest and narrowest apertures. For this reason I always try to shoot at f/8 whenever possible. This is known as stopping down. Fully zoomed to 400mm, my lens’ widest aperture is f5.6. By stopping down to f/8 my images are noticeably sharper. Not only is my lens sharper at f/8 than at f/5.6, the narrower aperture gives my images more depth. Since getting close enough to my subject to fill the frame is rarely possible, most of my images are cropped at least slightly. This added depth really helps improve the sharpness of my images by keeping more of the subject in focus. 

For those of you shooting with a kit lens in the 250mm to 300mm range, you too will have f/5.6 as your widest aperture when fully zoomed. Stopping down to f/8 will yield sharper images for you as well. If you are using one of the new Sigma or Tamron 150-600mm lenses, your widest aperture at 600mm will be f/6.3, so stopping down a full stop will put you at f/9. Keep in mind stopping down will cost you one stop of light in terms of shutter speed, but in decent light with your ISO at 800 you should still achieve a shutter speed of 1/1000th of a second. 

If you already own a 500mm or 600mm f/4 lens, these same tips apply and will result in sharper images. If you don’t own one of these lenses, give these tips a try before you rush out and drop five figures on a new lens. By doing so, I’m certain you will be impressed by the capabilities of your current lenses. The blame for previously unsharp images will shift from equipment to photographer and the onus of sharp images will be on you.

Getting to know and understand your current gear is the biggest investment any photographer, professional or amateur, can make when it comes to achieving sharper images. Next time you are out in the field give these three tips a try, I think you will be pleased with the results.

Good birding,
Paul

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How To Attract Northern Cardinals To Your Yard In 4 Easy Steps

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The sights and sounds of Northern Cardinals are a welcome addition to any landscape. Follow these four simple steps to attract more of these beautiful songbirds to your yard.

Northern Cardinals are one of the most recognized birds throughout their range and a favourite backyard visitor of many. Cardinals are often the bird homeowners most wish to attract when placing a feeder in their yard. This winter I regularly have a dozen cardinals visiting my feeders at the same time providing an incredible sight. In order to lure all these cardinals to my yard I have implemented a few simple measures to make my landscape more enticing. Attracting cardinals is quite simple if you follow these four easy steps.

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Cedars provide shelter from the elements and predators making them a perfect tree for attracting cardinals.

Provide Adequate Habitat

Northern Cardinals prefer a habitat consisting of dense thickets that provide cover. If your yard is void of this type of vegetation, adding a certain few trees and shrubs is a good place to start. I know what you’re thinking, “Trees take years to grow, and I won’t see cardinals for decades.” By carefully choosing which species to plant the benefits will be reaped much sooner. Fortunately, cardinals tend to hide low to the ground, which means large mature trees are not required for attracting cardinals.

Two of my favourite native species which provide great cover for cardinals are the Red Osier Dogwood and the Eastern White Cedar. Both of these are readily available at area nurseries, are inexpensive to purchase, and as is the case with all plants native to our area are extremely easy to grow even if you lack a green thumb.

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Female Northern Cardinal perched in the safety of a dense thicket.

Fruit from the Red Osier Dogwood is consumed by over 100 bird species in Ontario making it my favourite native shrub. Since introducing this species to my landscape several years ago, I have seen an increase in the variety of birds visiting my yard and an increase in the number of cardinals. This plant is incredibly hardy and does best in full sun to part shade. An incredibly versatile shrub, it can tolerate dry conditions but will also grow in standing water.

Red Osier Dogwoods are fast growing reaching a maximum height and spread of 12 feet in only a few years. Dogwoods are easily pruned if a smaller shrub is more suited to your yard. Comprised of multiple stems, Red Osier Dogwoods provide excellent shelter to a multitude of songbirds including the cardinal. The deep red branches add a beautiful element of colour to any landscape especially during the winter months when colour is absent from most yards.

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Female Northern Cardinal.

When searching for a cedar tree, make sure you in fact purchase an Eastern White Cedar. Emerald Cedars are often sold in mass quantities at every garden centre, home improvement store, and just about any other retailer selling live plants come spring. The reason to avoid these non native trees is their foliage is too dense denying birds access to the inner branches, thus providing no shelter at all. The Eastern White Cedar’s drooping branches and dark green foliage provide protection from the elements and predators not to mention the perfect location to construct a nest.

Tolerant of some shade, the Eastern White Cedar can reach a height of 50 feet and prefers moist soil. These trees can be purchased at area garden centres as 3 to 4 foot specimens, a sufficient size to attract cardinals. Like the Red Osier Dogwood, Eastern White Cedars can be topped and pruned to control their size and are perfect for hedges.   

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Regardless of the weather, a source of fresh water will attract more cardinals.

Add A Water Source 

Fresh water is an excellent way to attract more birds and is an even bigger draw than food as not every yard has a water source. Water can be offered in a variety of ways from a simple dish to an elaborate water feature. Bird baths are one of the most common ways to provide water as birds can both drink and bathe. For the cold winter months consider a heated birdbath to prevent the water from freezing.

Despite frigid temperatures across our region during winter months, birds still need to bathe as feather maintenance is vital to their survival. A heated bird bath will certainly attract more cardinals to your yard as this can be the unique feature that makes your yard more attractive than your neighbour’s.

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After clearing the seed ports on my feeders, cardinals will readily cleanup spilled seed from the ground.

Offer Their Two Favourite Seeds 

Cardinals will consume a wide variety of seed, but they do have two favourties, sunflower and safflower. Black oil sunflower seed is the most economical seed on the market and is consumed by all songbirds that frequent our area. If I could only have one type of seed to offer in my feeders, black oil sunflower would be my choice. If cleaning up shells from beneath your feeder is something you wish to avoid, hulled sunflower seed is the perfect choice. Hulled sunflower is simply black oil sunflower seed out of the shell. This is more of a premium seed and costs a bit more money due to processing costs, but will keep your lawn or patio much cleaner. Keep in mind that when buying a bag of hulled sunflower seed you are only paying for seed and not the shells. A good portion of a 10 pound bag of black oil sunflower seeds is actually shell weight, so once this is factored in paying extra for hulled sunflower is easier to swallow, for you and the birds. 

Safflower seed is another great option for attracting cardinals. This white seed is a favourite of cardinals, but is also consumed by Mourning Doves, House Finches, and Black-capped Chickadees. Another benefit of safflower seed is that it is less desirable to squirrels and blackbirds. If squirrels, Common Grackles, and European Starlings are a problem in your yard, try switching to safflower seed.

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Northern Cardinals prefer to feed on the ground. During the winter months be sure to keep the snow beneath your feeders packed down to provide these birds an added place to feed.

Choose The Right Feeder   

Northern Cardinals are ground feeding birds by nature, so this is important to keep in mind when choosing a feeder. One of the best choices is a ground tray, which is simply an open tray with legs that you place on the ground. The bottoms of these feeders are made of perforated galvanized metal to allow drainage of the exposed seed.

Unfortunately, these feeders are not very popular as they can quickly become a squirrel feeder if the right seed is not chosen. Safflower seed is the best choice for a ground feeder when trying to attract the Northern Cardinal while deterring squirrels. Expect an abundance of Mourning Doves to be attracted to this setup as well. 

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Tray style feeders are perfect for attracting Northern Cardinals.

Another great feeder for attracting cardinals is a hanging or pole mounted tray feeder. This style of feeder is virtually identical to the ground tray except that it can be pole mounted or hung. If placed where squirrels can’t access it, try a mix of sunflower and safflower for best results. 

The only downside to tray feeders is that the seed is exposed to the rain and snow. If using one of these feeders, putting out small amounts of seed will help keep it fresh. For many, these feeders are inconvenient, but in my opinion are two of the best for attracting cardinals. 

Something else to keep in mind when choosing a feeder is that cardinals like to face forward when they feed. This is another reason why tray feeders work so well. If however a tray feeder is not what you are after than other great options exist. 

A hopper feeder that can be hung or pole mounted will definitely entice cardinals to feed. These feeders typically have a ledge where cardinals can sit and feed or a large tray incorporated on the bottom, which makes them a great choice for cardinals. 

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This tube feeder complete with a large perch ring and filled with black oil sunflower seeds is a favourite of the cardinals that visit my backyard.

Tube feeders are also great for attracting Northern Cardinals. Remember that cardinals like to face forward to feed so make sure the tube feeder you choose has large enough perches to accommodate this. Two excellent choices are Brome’s Squirrel Buster Plus or Squirrel Buster Classic. Both of these feeders are squirrel proof with the seed ports closing off under the weight of a squirrel. The Squirrel Buster Plus also comes with a lifetime guarantee so though it may seem pricey, it might just be the last feeder you buy.   

Any of these feeders can be purchased from your local retailer specializing in wild birds. Choose the style that is best suited for your yard and fill with either sunflower, safflower of a mix of both. Remember to keep your feeder clean and the seed ports free of snow and ice during the winter months. 

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Attracting cardinals to your yard is simple by following the above mentioned four easy steps.

At dawn, cardinals are often the first bird to arrive at a backyard feeder and also the last to leave at dusk. Sometimes they can only be identified by their silhouettes and soft calls during these low light conditions. Attracting cardinals to your yard is quite easy if you follow these four steps. If you are lacking cardinals in your yard, recognize which of these elements you are missing and make a point of implementing it. By providing these necessitates, I’m sure you will see and increase in the number of Northern Cardinals frequenting your yard.

Good birding,
Paul

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5 Mistakes To Avoid When Photographing Wildlife

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Wildlife photography can be extremely challenging. Often times we photographers add to these challenges by making critical errors resulting in missed opportunities. In order to put the odds in your favour for capturing an image of a lifetime, avoid making these common mistakes.

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By having my lens cap off and my camera turned on, I was ready to capture this Bald Eagle as it quickly passed by overhead.

1. Not Being Prepared

If you are not ready for the shot before it presents itself, you are going to miss it. Several things fall into the category of not being prepared all of which will cause you to miss potential images. Preparation should always begin at home the night before heading out for a day of shooting. First, make sure your camera’s battery is charged and your memory card has enough room to accommodate plenty of images. I always charge my battery the night before and have at least two empty memory cards for every shoot. Second, when you arrive at your destination turn your camera on and remove your lens cap. Often times I see people walking around with the power off and their lens caps on in fear of draining their battery or damaging the front element of their lens. The fact is if you have to power up your camera and remove your lens cap before taking a shot, in most cases you are going to miss the shot.

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When shooting in automatic mode, your camera calculates exposure based on available light. Unfortunately, your camera does not know your subject and whether or not it is moving often resulting in a shutter speed that is too slow.

2. Shooting In Automatic Mode

Most photographers start out shooting in automatic mode after purchasing their first camera. In this mode the camera chooses the shutter speed, aperture, and ISO resulting in a decent exposure based on the amount of available light. This is a great way to get comfortable with a new camera, but if you want to up your game when it comes quality wildlife photos the faster you get out of automatic mode the better. The reason why automatic mode is not the best choice for quality wildlife images is the camera does not know your subject and whether it is moving or stationary and only calculates the exposure based on light. This often results in a shutter speed that is too slow to freeze wildlife in action. These slow shutter speeds lead to blurry images destined for the recycle bin. Shooting in either aperture priority mode or manual mode gives you more control of your exposure and allows you to factor in both light and subject to achieve a sufficient shutter speed which will result in sharper final images.

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A fast shutter speed is required to capture birds in flight. Increasing your ISO will result in a faster shutter speed.

3. Shooting At Too Low An ISO

Increasing your ISO will consequently lead to a faster shutter speed, something that is crucial for capturing sharp images of fast moving wildlife. Granted a higher ISO will result in more digital noise, but I personally have deleted more images due to a shutter speed that was too slow than I have ones that were too noisy. Digital noise can be removed in post production, but shutter speed can never be increased once you return home. I rarely shoot below ISO 800 even on sunny days when photographing birds and other wildlife because this value gives me the shutter speed I need to freeze fast moving subjects. Many folks are afraid to shoot at an ISO above 400 due the increased noise, but bumping this up to 800 will result in sharper images because of the faster shutter speed while the slight increase in noise can be removed in post.

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Choosing a single focus point and placing it on this chickadee’s eye ensured I achieved focus on the subject and not the surrounding branches.

4. Choosing Too Many Focus Points

Many cameras today have sophisticated auto focus systems with as many as 65 focus points. This can be a benefit in some scenarios but can also be a hindrance in others. In many situations when photographing wildlife in their natural habitat obstructions come into play. Branches, grasses, and even human made objects within the habitat can cause your camera to focus on them rather than the subject if too many focus points are selected. For this reason I almost always choose a single focus point and place it on my subject.

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Focusing on your subject’s eye will result in sharper images.

5. Improper Focus

How many times have you taken a photo and when you got home and opened it up on your computer the subject is out of focus? Unfortunately, this happens to a lot of us for many reasons. Sometimes it has to do with mistake #4 where too many focus points were chosen and the camera locked onto an object in the foreground or background that wasn’t the subject. Other times it may have been a case of not holding the focus point on the subject. Placing a single focus point on the subject’s eye will result in sharper final images, because let’s face it, when the eye is sharp the image is sharp.

Next time you venture out to photograph wildlife avoid these common mistakes. By doing so, your chances of capturing an image of a lifetime will be greatly increased.

Good birding,
Paul

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Good Birding Report: London, Ontario
December 29, 2017 – January 5, 2018

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While birding this past week I was treated to excellent views of my favourite bird, the Red-bellied Woodpecker.

It was another cold week in the Forest City with wind chills hovering around -20 Celsius or colder most days. These frigid conditions are among my favourite to get out birding. As area lakes and ponds freeze, large quantities of waterfowl make their way to the Thames River in search of open water. During these conditions, Bald Eagles are also readily observed along the river, and despite being a species at risk in Ontario, are commonly found within the city during the winter months. 

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Winter months are my favourite time to photograph waterfowl in flight.

Throughout winter the majority of my birding is done along the Thames River in both Greenway and Springbank Park. The moving water in this section of river remains ice free regardless of how cold it gets attracting a variety of birds. I made several trips to the river this past week hoping to observe and photograph the multitude of birds on the river itself and along its banks. As a result, I was delighted by my observations and the images I was able to capture. 

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American Black Duck

To enjoy birding in these conditions being properly dressed is paramount. I have tried a lot of different clothing over the years and consequently wasted a considerable amount of money on garments claiming to be warm that in fact are not. If you are curious as to what I wear in order to be able to spend half a day or more outside during these conditions, please visit this blog post I wrote a few years ago titled Enjoy Winter Birding By Dressing For The Weather

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Bald Eagles, including several juveniles, were observed this past week in both Springbank and Greenway Park.

One observation I am happy to report is the number Bald Eagles observed daily along the Thames River. Along the north bank across from the pollution plant in Greenway Park is the best place to observe these majestic raptors. One morning just after 9 a.m., I observed seven Bald eagles, mostly juveniles, perched in the large poplars. Despite their immense size, juvenile eagles can be challenging to locate when perched, so watching for movement along the bank will assist in locating these birds. Birding in Springbank Park also revealed a number of Bald Eagles, again mostly juveniles, with at least one of these birds observed on each of my visits. 

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Buffleheads are among the many diving ducks that overwinter on the Thames River.

As mentioned previously, waterfowl numbers were quite impressive this past week. With the extended period of cold weather, both dabbling and diving duck numbers increased substantially. Easily found were: Common Goldeneye, Common Merganser, Hoodeded Merganser, and Bufflehead. Again this week, I located a male Northern PIntail in Springbank Park. Also found within the park were my first Red-breasted Mergansers of the year with two females and one male observed. These birds only show up on the river during particularly cold winters and are more of a rarity in our immediate area. Reports on eBird indicate a female Long-tailed Duck and Pied-billed Grebe were present in Greennway Park on New Year’s Day.  While birding in Greenway Park, I observed  a male Lesser Scaup, presumable the same bird I first observed in mid-December, downstream from outflow at the pollution plant. This bird is extremely challenging to locate as it tends to stick close to the near bank often obstructed by the tree cover. 

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It is not uncommon to observe Great Blue Herons along the Thames River during the winter months.

Each winter Great Blue Herons can be found along the Thames River. The section of river near the pollution plant often yields the best results. Open water provides a food source for these birds which sustains them throughout the harsh winter months. As a result, many of these birds remain in the area all winter. Last week I observed six Great Blue Herons in this small section of river. Look for herons on the leeward bank seeking shelter from the cold wind.

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Northern Cardinals and other songbirds can be found in the dense thickets that line the banks of the Thames River.

Birding along the Thames River during the winter months is not limited to water birds and raptors as many songbirds are also abundant. The forested areas throughout the aforementioned parks as well as the shrubby, tree-lined banks provide the perfect habitat for a variety of species. Black-capped Chickadees are perhaps the most numerous, but Northern Cardinals, Blue Jays, Nuthatches, and Woodpeckers are also readily present. Paying attention to wind direction and finding sheltered areas will increase the number of birds observed.     

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Blue Jays are anther common songbird found in the wooded areas within Greenway and Springbank Park.

If you have not made it out to either of these parks yet this winter, you truly are missing out on some great birding opportunities. Observing many of these species does not require hours spent searching in the cold. Many of these species can be observed within minutes of arriving at the park and only a short walk from any of the designated parking areas. 

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Mature trees along the river are perfect for locating many songbirds including the Red-breasted Nuthatch.

I was never a big fan of outdoor winter activities until I got serious into birding and photography. With the abundance of birds at these two beautiful  parks, I find myself looking forward to winter each year and aside from spring migration, it is my favourite time to bird. If you get the chance, layer up and try birding at one or both of these great parks in the coming weeks. By doing so I think you will agree there are certainly many fantastic birds present and will be rewarded with great views for your efforts.  

Good birding,
Paul 

 

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Inaugural Photo Walk Reveals A Nice Mix Of Birds

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Black-capped Chickadees were among the first songbirds observed and photographed during the first photo walk in a series I have planned for area photo enthusiasts.

Thursday December 28, 2017, marked the first in my series of photo walks taking place at several of my favourite birding locations. During these two hours walks, participants are guided through the area while I offer birding and photography tips as we stop along the way to photograph birds and wildlife in their natural environment. To make sure everyone receives personal attention and instruction, group size is limited to six participants.

The inaugural photo walk took place in London’s Spingbank Park. This location was chosen due to the abundance of birds and wildlife found here throughout the winter months and the close proximity at which these species can be observed and photographed. The walk began at 10 a.m. as by this time the sun is high enough in the sky to clear the treetops providing excellent light on our subjects. Between 10 a.m. and noon also happens to be a time of day that I find birds quite active, often feeding, which makes for more successful birding and photography.

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Northern Cardinals were a favourite bird among the group. Several pairs of these birds were located along our chosen route.

This past week we experienced the first real cold snap of winter with wind chills between -20 and -30 Celsius every day. Fortunately on this day winds were quite light, and we were treated to the warmest day of the week so far. 

Heading west, we observed a variety of waterfowl on the Thames River including Common Goldeneye, Common Mergansers, and Hooded Mergansers. These three species regularly overwinter on the river each year and with more cold weather in the forecast expect their numbers to increase as the Thames will be the only open water available in the area.

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Male Northern Cardinal.

Making our way through a stand of cedar trees, Black-capped Chickadees were the first songbird to be observed. Hearing the high pitched calls of the Golden-crowned Kinglet we looked up and saw several of these birds feeding on the seeds high up in the cedars. Even higher up, among the tops of the cedars, a flock of Pine Siskins were observed feeding.   

As we continued west past the defunct Springbank Dam, Blue Jays, Northern Cardinals and American Goldfinches were seen and heard. Out on the river, hundreds of Canada Geese and Mallards were observed. This particular section of the park is typically best for waterfowl, so our observations were quite typical.

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Despite being a species in decline, several American Black Ducks were observed during the photo walk.

In my last blog post, A Proven Hot Spot For Winter Waterfowl, I mentioned the small pond adjacent to Storybook Gardens and the wide variety of waterfowl I have observed here over the years during winter. This was our next stop to see if any unusual ducks were present. As we combed through all the Mallards a few American Black Ducks were observed.

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This male Northern Northern Pintail was the most notable dabbling duck observed.

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Male Northern Pintail preening.

As I scanned the far bank, a patch of white caught my eye. This easily could have been dismissed as snow on a fallen log, but as I looked closer I could see that this was in fact the breast and neck of a male Northern Pintail. This duck was sleeping comfortably with its head under its wing not presenting well for photos. We decided to leave this bird and look again on our way back in hopes that it may be awake and more acitve. Fortunately, we did later relocate the male Northern Pintail as it provided better views and images of its beautiful plumage. 

Northern Cardinals were a favourite bird of the group and several pairs were located on this day. At various locations, the light through the clouds illuminated these birds beautifully as we made our way through the park. Several questions were asked regarding proper exposure and I was happy to provide advice on this with participants quite satisfied with the images they were able to capture. 

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As is the case most times when walking through Springbank Park during the winter months, a Bald Eagle was observed. This juvenile provided great views as it passed by at close range.

Continuing along, a juvenile Bald Eagle made a close pass providing great views. Later in the walk, this bird was observed again soaring high overhead. A lone Belted Kingfisher was located perched high above the river on a wire and observed trying to capture food as it dove repeatedly into the water.

As we made our way back through the park in the direction of our vehicles, more songbirds were encountered. Dark-eyed Juncos were observed low to the ground feeding on the various seeds from this year’s wildflowers. White and Red-breasted Nuthatches were seen foraging along tree trunks while the calls of two Brown Creepers alerted us to their location. 

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Dark-eyed Junco feeding on the seeds of one of the park’s many wildflowers.

All in all it was a great day birding with several species observed, many of which presented great opportunities for photographs. Participants were happy with the birds encountered and the images they captured, while I was grateful to share my passion for birding and photography with the group. If you would like to be among the first to register for upcoming photo walks, please contact me and I will notify you once they have been scheduled. 

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The white feathers around this female Northern Cardinal’s eye indicate leucism, a condition where there is a partial loss of pigmentation.

I would like to express my appreciation for those who braved the cold weather and made this day such a success. With another photo walk scheduled next week at another location, I look forward to seeing more familiar faces while meeting a few new ones. London, Ontario truly has some excellent birding opportunities and sharing my knowledge of local areas is something I am really looking forward to in the new year. 

Good birding,
Paul 

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A Proven Hot Spot For Winter Waterfowl

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A wide variety of waterfowl including this female Northern Pintail were recently observed in Springbank Park

In my last post, Fresh Snow Provides The Perfect Backdrop For Photographing Birds, I shared some of my recent observations and images from Springbank Park, one of my favourite winter birding locations. One of the reasons I love this park so much is the abundance of waterfowl within it. Those of you that have followed my blog for a while will know that I absolutely love waterfowl and often target these birds specifically during the winter months. 

Throughout winter, Springpark Park is home to a wide variety of waterfowl with hundreds of ducks and geese present on any given day, albeit Mallards and Canada Geese are the most prevalent species. When it comes to ducks, a good population of divers can be found within the park from December to March each year. Mixed in with the large flocks of Mallards other dabblers are often present, but locating them requires a keen eye to recognize the subtle differences between the species.   

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Recognizing the cinnamon coloured head and dark bill helped me quickly pick this female Northern Pintail out of a large flock of Mallards.

I will be the first to admit that bird identification is extremely challenging and has taken me a significant number of years to confidently identify the number of birds I can. Referencing a quality field guide is something I still do to be 100% positive if required. One thing that has helped me incredibly over the years to assist in proper identification is to look for the subtle differences that separate similar species. 

When it comes to waterfowl, the Northern Pintail is my favourite. I find the male’s plumage absolutely stunning while the females, as is the case with most birds, appear more drab but equally beautiful just the same. 

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Each winter I seem to locate at least one Northern Pintail within Springbank Park. In January 2016, I found this pair resting in small pond adjacent to Storybook Gardens. Note the subtle differences between the female Pintail and the female Mallard.

On my visit to Springbank Park last week, I spent a significant amount of time scanning the 100s of Mallards searching for other dabblers that may be mixed in. American Black Ducks were easily picked out by their contrasting dark plumage. While I observed plenty of divers on the river including Common Goldeneye, Common Mergansers, and Hooded Mergansers; Mallards and American Black Ducks appeared to be the only dabblers present. As I made my way past the small duck pond adjacent to Storybook Gardens, a cinnamon head and dark bill caught my eye. As I moved closer to the fence, I could see that this duck was in fact a female Northern Pintail. For me, these two subtle differences helped quickly separate this bird from large flock of female Mallards. 

This particular sighting was the highlight of my day as not only is the Northern Pintail my favourite duck, these birds are typically much further south at this time of year overwintering in the southern United States. That being said, I always seem to locate at least one Northern Pintail within Springbank Park at some point during the winter each year. 

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In 2013, I found this male Wood Duck resting on the same fallen log as the pair of Northern Pintails located in 2016.

Over the years, I have found a number of interesting dabblers and divers within this small pond beside Stroybook Gardens during the winter months. Northern Pintail, Amercan Black Duck, Wood Duck, American Wigeon, Green-winged Teal, Redhead, and Common Goldeneye have all been observed.

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 Last winter, this male Redhead spent several days in this same small pond providing excellent views.

If you happen to visit Springbank Park throughout the winter months, try not to dismiss all the ducks present as Mallards. Look for subtle differences in colour to differentiate between species. If you are unsure what the species is, make note of these variations whether it’s feather colour or bill colour and look the bird up later in your field guide or favourite bird identification app. By taking the time to look for and recognize these characteristics, you may just add a few new birds to your year or life list. 

Good birding,
Paul   

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Fresh Snow Provides The Perfect Backdrop For Photographing Birds

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Belted Kingfisher photographed against a background of falling snow.

As our seasons change, we experience a variety of beautiful conditions for photographing birds. From budding trees in the spring to vibrant leaves in the fall, beautiful backdrops seem almost endless. For me, my favourite backdrop for photographing birds is snow, and I always eagerly await the first significant snowfall of the season. After three snow squall warnings for my area back in November that didn’t materialize, I was happy to see over twelve inches of fresh snow fall last week, presenting the exact setting I had been waiting so patiently for.  

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Black-capped Chickadees at the local park are quite tame and will even accept food from your hand. These small songbirds are perfect subjects if you are shooting with a shorter lens.

With a fresh layer of snow already covering the ground and more flurries in the forecast, I grabbed my camera and headed to one of my favourite winter birding locations, Springbank Park in west London. This popular park boasts a variety of habitat including deciduous and coniferous trees providing the birds with plenty of food and shelter. The Thames River flowing through the park provides a dependable water source throughout the year as the river’s moving water prevents a complete freeze up even during the coldest weather. With the three necessitates of life: food, water, and shelter provided, Springbank Park is home to an abundance of birds. Songbirds, birds of prey, and waterfowl are all readily observed within the park’s boundaries. 

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Using the weather to my advantage allows me to observe more birds when I am out birding. Wind can make the location of Northern Cardinals and other songbirds extremely predictable.

When birding during harsh winter conditions, I like to put the odds in my favour by paying attention to the weather. Finding areas out of the wind with a food source greatly improves my success. During periods of high wind and snow, birds will seek shelter from the elements but must also feed regularly in order to keep warm. On this day, I searched for birds using a tree line and the near riverbank as a wind break. Songbirds were observed feeding on a variety of fruits and seeds including sumac, birch, alder, various evergreens, and goldenrod. 

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This Song Sparrow was one of the many birds I found feeding on the seeds of goldenrod and other native wildflowers.

After locating an abundance of birds in this food rich, protected area, it was just a matter of fine tuning my camera settings to achieve the proper exposure based on available light and snow cover. I always take a few test shots of the scene I am shooting even if there are no birds present. Doing so and checking my camera’s histogram ensures I have the correct exposure. This way when a shot does present itself I am ready. All I have to do is obtain focus (I always focus on the bird’s eye, because when the eye is sharp the image is sharp) and press the shutter. Taking these test shots and adjusting my settings before photographing the birds has been one of the biggest things I have done to improve my photography and consistently get better images. Before this, my images were almost always over or underexposed and by the time I adjusted my settings the bird was gone. 

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Blue Jays and other songbirds were located in protected areas during last week’s high winds and snowy conditions.

Given the conditions, I needed to overexpose my images to compensate for the white snow in most of the scenes I was shooting. If you find that your winter images appear too grey or underexposed it is because all cameras, regardless of price point, are made to believe a properly exposed image is mid-grey. Consequently your camera will automatically underexpose images not recognizing that snow is supposed to be white. Therefore, adjusting your camera’s settings so that the snow appears white is paramount.

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Mourning Doves were among the 27 species I observed while birding at Springbank Park during last week’s snow squalls.

Adjusting for snowy conditions to achieve the proper exposure is easier than you may think. I like to work in aperture priority mode as this allows me to fine-tune my settings quickly and adjust on the fly as the light conditions change. Once in aperture priority mode, I can over or underexpose my images by simply turning the large wheel on the back of my Canon 7D. Each click of the wheel changes my exposure by 1/3 of a stop of light. Rotating the wheel clockwise will overexpose or brighten my exposure while rotating the wheel counter clockwise will underexpose or darken my exposure. This is known as exposure compensation and is something every photographer should learn in order to achieve proper exposure in a variety of situations regardless of your subject. If your camera does not have a wheel on the back, most cameras whether a Canon, Nikon, or other brand will allow you to adjust the exposure compensation by holding down the AV +/- button (usually located on the back or top of the camera) while turning the camera’s dial simultaneously. How and when to use exposure compensation is one of the many aspects of nature photography I teach during my Nature Photography Workshops

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In my opinion, Brown Creepers are one of the best camouflaged birds found in our area. The patterning on their backs blends in perfectly with most tree bark.

In snowy conditions, overexposing by 1-1/3 to 2 stops of light (4 to 6 clicks of the dial clockwise) is often required to achieve proper exposure. This will ensure that the snow appears white and not grey in your final images. One question I always get asked is “can’t I just fix this later in Photoshop?” My answer to that question is this. You can change your exposure later in Photoshop; however, “fix” is not necessarily the correct word to use. Anytime you increase your exposure in Photoshop or any other post processing program you will increase the amount of noise in the image, drastically negating image quality. Getting the exposure correct in camera is one of the easiest ways to quickly improve your overall image quality. 

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Carolina Wrens can be a challenging bird to photograph due to their tendency to inhabit thick cover. I was happy to see this one emerge briefly providing me with an unobstructed view.

With my camera settings dialed in to achieve a fast shutter speed and proper exposure, I was ready to photograph the plethora of birds within the sheltered, food abundant area in which they were associating. By using the weather to my advantage and choosing the correct camera settings, I managed to locate 27 species and capture sharp, properly exposed images of almost all of them.

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Northern Cardinals are one of my favourite birds to photograph in the snow.

Next time you are out searching for birds in winter remember to use the wind and weather to your advantage. Successful birding has far more to do with formulating a plan based on conditions than it does with luck. When photographing birds, focus on the bird’s eye for sharper images and learn how to use exposure compensation to achieve proper exposure based on light conditions. If you are not getting the results you are hoping for from your camera and lens, consider joining me at one of my upcoming Nature Photography Workshops. During these two hour workshops I will show you everything you need to know to greatly improve your overall images. Group size is limited during these workshops for individual attention, and a few spaces still remain for early in the new year. Why not make it your resolution to become better with your camera and get the results you are hoping for? 

Good birding,
Paul   

 

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Birding By Car: An Excellent Winter Option

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This Snowy Owl was observed perched high above a county road while birding from my car.

In my last blog post The Best Gloves For Winter Birding and Photography, I shared which gloves I wear to keep my hands warm while birding during cooler weather. If despite being properly dressed you still don’t enjoy getting outdoors for winter birding there is another option. Birding from the comfort of a warm car can be incredibly rewarding.

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Horned Larks are regularly observed feeding in open fields and on spilled grain along area roads and highways.

With the vast majority of county rounds surrounded by open farmland and woodlots, expect to find birds specific to these types of habitats when birding by car. Birds of prey, Wild Turkeys, and songbirds including Horned Larks and Snow Buntings are all readily observed when birding by car.

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Rough-legged Hawks breed across the arctic tundra, but return to Southwestern Ontario each year to spend the winter months.

When birding by car, it is generally the larger birds that I search for, those that are more easily observed from a distance. Birds of prey can be easily located and viewed from a vehicle simply by driving down area roads. During the winter months, Red-tailed Hawks, American Kestrels, Rough-legged Hawks, and Snowy Owls are all readily observed along county roads and highways throughout Southwestern Ontario,  Whether perched on a wire, in a large tree adjacent to a farmer’s field, or sitting on the ground, these birds are easily found. 

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Red-tailed Hawks are regularly observed while birding by car. Look for these raptors perched along forest edges adjacent to open fields.

While many of these birds can be found just about anywhere based on the abundance of suitable habitat throughout the area, there are a few resources available to improve your success. The Middlesex/Elgin/Oxford Observation Group is great for keeping up to date with recent sightings from within these three counties. Another great option for following recent observations is the eBird Species Map. Simply type in the species you wish to observe and the area in which you intend to look, and all reported sightings will appear on the map. You can narrow your search further by choosing a custom date range. Having a quick look at these websites before heading out will greatly increase your success. 

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Travelling area back roads in the comfort of a warm car often reveals an abundance Red-tailed Hawks.

There are a couple of things to be mindful of when birding by car. First and foremost, be safe. Pay attention to other vehicles including snowplows sharing the roads with you. I constantly check my mirrors for faster moving vehicles approaching from behind, and if safe to do so, pull over to let them pass. Choosing some of the less traveled roads is a great way to avoid traffic and increase your safety. Be aware of the weather and road conditions and drive accordingly. When pulling over to let other cars pass, make sure there is room for your vehicle and not a deep ditch waiting to engulf your car. Snow covered shoulders can be deceiving and having to call a tow truck will result in a long wait and an expensive bill. 

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Eastern Coyotes and other mammals are often bonus finds when birding by car.

Another thing to keep in mind is to be respectful. This applies to both landowners and the birds. Most of the land surrounding these roads and highways is privately owned, so observe the birds from the shoulder only without wandering across lawns and fields.  In the case of Snowy Owls, these birds have traveled hundreds if not thousands of kilometers from their breeding grounds in search of food. In many cases owls are exhausted, hungry, and already stressed. Chasing them from their perch only adds to that stress. If you cannot get close enough for a decent view or photograph remember the area and return another day.

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Despite a large number of Snowy Owl sightings around the Great Lakes already this season, it is important to remember this species is now listed as vulnerable suffering a 64% population decline since 1970. Giving these birds space and not causing them added stress is of utmost importance.

Snowy Owls will remain in an area all winter if not repeatedly disturbed and often return to the same area each winter. With a little patience and multiple visits to the same area, great views and images will be obtained without stressing the birds. I have said this before in previous blog posts, but will say it again, stay in your car. Snowy Owls are far less likely to flush from their perch if you observe and photograph them from within your vehicle. Approaching on foot for a closer look will only cause the bird to fly resulting in lost views and unnecessary stress. 

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The American Kestrel is North America’s smallest falcon. These birds can be easily found perched on wires throughout our area.

If heading outdoors in the cold and snow is not your cup of tea, but you would still like your fill of birding this winter, give birding by car a try. Southwestern Ontario’s back roads are surrounded by an abundance of ideal habitat to attract and sustain a variety of birds and wildlife. Grab your camera, binoculars, a warm drink, and hit the road. Remember to be safe while driving during winter conditions and to respect the birds. If you have never tried birding by car, give this method a try. I think you will find it incredibly gratifying and you may just record a new species or two along the way.

Good birding,
Paul  

    

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The Best Gloves For Winter Birding and Photography

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Northern Cardinals are a favourite bird of many, myself included. Each winter I head out in search of these birds under snowy conditions hoping to capture an image to use in future cards or calendars. Having the right gloves makes this experience much more enjoyable.

Before becoming such an avid birder and taking up photography, I disliked winter. The cold and snow were two things I had little appreciation for, but now that birding and photography have become such passions of mine, I absolutely love and look forward to winter.

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My favourite time to search for American Robins is after a fresh snow or ice storm, as their colour really pops against a snow covered background. Despite what many believe, these birds are regularly found throughout our area during winter months if you know where to look. 

The snow provides a beautiful setting in which to photograph birds. In addition, several species also migrate to our area from the north to overwinter, bringing an influx of new birds, many of which have been absent for many months. Waterfowl, songbirds, and birds of prey are among the many species that begin to arrive in our area in late fall and stay throughout the winter months. 

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The Northern Shrike is a predatory songbird that feeds on small birds and mammals. Shrikes are one of the many birds only found in our area during the winter months.

The key to enjoying winter birding is staying warm. My hands are one area of my body that I struggled for many years to keep warm. Over the years, I’ve tried a wide variety of gloves in an effort to keep my hands warm while birding and photographing birds throughout the winter months. 

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Common Mergansers are one of the many varieties of waterfowl found on the Thames River throughout the winter.

Thick, bulky gloves were plenty warm enough, but limited the dexterity in my fingers. As such, these gloves made it extremely difficult for me to operate the switches and buttons on my camera required to adjust my settings to the constantly changing light conditions. These same thick, bulky gloves also made it virtually impossible to rotate the focus ring or adjust the eye cups on my binoculars, resulting in having to take them off to perform these tasks. Taking the gloves off meant my skin was exposed, which caused my hands to get cold rather quickly. Once cold, it is nearly impossible for your hands to warm up without going indoors – which takes the outdoors out of enjoying the great outdoors! 

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A warm pair of properly fitting gloves allows me to quickly adjust my camera settings and achieve the correct exposure of birds like this Downy Woodpecker against a snowy backdrop.  

Conversely, I tried several pairs of thin gloves that made operating the controls on my camera and binoculars easy, but lacked the key component of a good winter glove – warmth. As a result of this trial and error method of searching for the perfect glove, I have amassed a large collection of gloves while spending a lot of money in the process.

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Cedar Waxwing feasting on holly berries during a snow squall.

Finally after years of searching I have found the perfect glove for winter biding and photography. A glove that not only provides plenty of warmth, but is thin enough to allow me to operate all the buttons and switches on my camera and lens and rotate the focus ring on my binoculars without taking them off.   

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Common Goldenyes overwinter on the Thames River each year. These diving ducks should begin to appear on the river within the next week or two.

For the past five winters I have been using the Manzella Bruin glove that I purchased from my local TSC Store. Not only are these gloves incredibly warm, they are also waterproof and breathable making them very comfortable to wear. These gloves are so thin and comfortable, I often do not even realize I am wearing gloves at all. 

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During the winter of 2014, rarities like the White-winged Scoter moved inland to the Thames River in search of open water as over 90% of the Great Lakes were ice covered.

Southwestern Ontario experienced two incredibly cold winters in 2014 and 2015. Daytime high temperatures only reached -20 Celsius, with wind chills making it feel like -30 to -40 Celsius most days. Ice coverage on the Great Lakes exceeded 90% and large quantities of waterfowl moved inland to the Thames River in search of open water. These were not only two of the coldest winters I can remember, they were also two of my favourites for birding. Bird’s eye views of so many incredible waterfowl species were achieved, including rarities for our area like White-winged Scoters, Harlequin Ducks, and Red-throated Loons. In fact, the Red-thoated Loons I observed on the Thames River on February 14, 2014 were the first reported winter sightings in Middlesex County since 1898. 

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The Coves in south London is an excellent location to find Great Blue Herons all winter long. Only a little open water is required to attract these large wading birds.

During these frigid winters I would spend hours down at the river every day observing and photographing these beautiful birds and can honestly say my hands never once were cold. These gloves may seem a bit pricey, but I have just replaced my first pair after five seasons of near daily winter use, a pretty good value in my opinion. 

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Male Wood Duck navigating his way around the ice flows as he makes his way up the Thames River.

If you enjoy winter birding, but struggle to keep your hands warm, grab a pair of Manzella Bruin gloves and give them a try. I think you will soon agree that these are not only incredibly warm, waterproof gloves, they are thin enough to make camera and binocular operation possible without having to take them off. With warm, dry hands, embracing winter and appreciating all the wonderful birds that come with it will be something that you too will come to look forward to each year.

For the record, I am in no way affiliated with Manzella, or TSC Stores (although I would graciously accept a free pair of gloves if they read this). I know what a challenge finding the best gloves for me was and wanted to share my experience so you too can keep your hands warm while enjoying winter birding. 

Good birding,
Paul    

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Good Birding Report: London, Ontario
November 10 – 17, 2017

waxwing - Good Birding Report: London, Ontario <br>November 10 - 17, 2017

The movements of Cedar Waxwings can be incredibly predictable during the month of November. I often find flocks of these birds each year in the same fruit trees.

I have always enjoyed birding in November. Sure the big push of migrants has already moved through and the weather can be fickle at best, but great birding opportunities exist for a variety of species. It is at this time of year that I have some of the best views of Cedar Waxwings as their movements can be extremely predictable.

With seasonal temperatures not conducive to insect activity, waxwings are easily located feeding on fruit. Find fruit trees and you will most likely find waxwings. That being said, be extra observant when searching for Cedar Waxwings in November. During spring and summer months waxwings will regularly give away their location with their high-pitched whistles, but at this time of year they tend to remain almost silent as they gorge themselves on berries. 

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With most of the leaves now gone from the trees, locating birds is less challenging and one of the many things I like about birding in November.

This week I decided to check one of my favourite locations for finding Cedar Waxwings and in particular a few specific trees. Sure enough, as in previous Novembers, waxwings were present. Also observed among the sizable flock of Cedar Waxwings were large numbers of American Robins also enjoying the bounty of fruit.

As I watched this feeding frenzy I heard the occasional soft call of a robin and the odd whistle from a waxwing, but otherwise this group of hundreds of birds was silent. Cedar Waxwings will not remain in one area long at this time of year though, as once the berries are gone so too will the birds. Finding more fruit trees in areas that are close by and following the flock is key to achieving continued views over the course of the month. 

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This Bald Eagle was observed along the Thames River in Springbank Park. This is one of my favourite sections of river for observing these majestic raptors all winter long.

November is also when Bald Eagle activity along the Thames River in London, Ontario begins to increase. Eagles that have migrated from our north are often attracted to the river due the fact many sections remain open year round, offering a sustainable food supply throughout the winter months. Combine this with the local population consisting of many first year birds from several nest sites in the area and chances of spotting a Bald Eagle along the river are pretty good. This week I had great views of a mature eagle as it flew downstream in Springbank Park. 

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This Blue Jay added a touch of colour to an otherwise grey day.

Other plentiful birds around the Forest City in the past seven days were Blue Jays. These birds are often quite vocal revealing their whereabouts making them an easy bird to locate. Speaking of vocal birds, I was treated to great views of a male Red-bellied Woodpecker as it called from high up in a dead tree. Northern Cardinals were yet another songbird heard long before they were seen. 

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A male Red-bellied Woodpecker takes a break from trying to extract a meal from beneath the bark of a dead tree.

Waterfowl numbers on the Thames River really seemed to increase this week, with mostly Canada Geese and Mallards observed. I always look closely at these large flocks for any ducks that look slightly different as November is when I often find the odd Gadwall or other dabbler mixed in with all the Mallards. This week I did locate an American Black Duck/Mallard hybrid while birding along the river. Within the next month, good numbers of overwintering waterfowl including mergansers and Common Goldeneye will appear on the river for another season. 

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This male Northern Cardinal was busy foraging on cedar seeds that had fallen to the ground.

If you are not convinced that great birding opportunities are available throughout the month of November, I encourage you to get out and give it a try. Resident birds are always abundant and overwintering species will continue to arrive in the area as the weeks progress. Dress accordingly to the day’s predicted forecast and always be prepared for rain or wet snow as weather in November can change at a moment’s notice. Be extra observant as sometimes birds can be right in front of you while not making a sound, as evidenced by the Cedar Waxwings.

cw2 - Good Birding Report: London, Ontario <br>November 10 - 17, 2017

Cedar Waxwings are just one of the many songbirds I target at this time of year.

Birding in November has always been rewarding for me and is why I look forward to the change in weather so much. I think if you visit your favourite natural area this month you too will agree November birding is incredibly rewarding. 

Good birding,
Paul 

*If you were unable to attend one of my November workshops, I have added more dates in January. If you were able to participate, I have added a couple of new workshops that might interest you as well. Please view my upcoming events for more details.*