Tuesday, December 17, 2013

An Expensive Twitch & Finding Treasure

Boasting never profits. I don't believe in karma, nor do I believe in a God who is just waiting to put me in my place when I fail in some way.  But looking back, I think this was a case of lapse followed by lesson.  Let me explain...

A week ago this past Friday, the week of the Snowy Owl irruption was winding down.  I had seen a snowy posting and picture of a Snowy Owl in Dundas which was only a short detour on my way to work.  I headed in early, all bundled up against the colder weather, anticipating a bit of a walk to try and re-find the bird.  Driving along York Road, I spotted a Red-tailed Hawk in a scrubby tree top and shot a couple pictures through the window before trying to "roll" it down for a clearer view.  The expected result occurred and the wary bird flew away once it got a better view of what was actually inside the inanimate object with four wheels.

Red-tailed Hawk

Just as I parked to look for the owl, another car stopped behind me the driver asked if I was trying to locate the Snowy.  She asked if she could use my binoculars to check out what she thought might be the Snowy Owl up in a tree on the opposite side of the road we were on.  I gladly obliged but we were disappointed to find it was nothing resembling an owl.  Once we introduced ourselves, we discovered we'd met before at Grass Lake. (You can see Dianna Ouellette's photos here.)

As we walked, cautiously approaching blind spots behind small knolls and scrub, we discussed some of the interesting characters in the birding community we've met and know.  To be fair, there are actually three categories in what I just broadly labelled as "birders".  There are the pure birders who only come equipped with the binoculars and enjoy just the find and view of the birds they find.  Then there are really just photographers types who have chosen to make birds the victims of their large pieces of glass and shutters and Flikr accounts boasting their great shots. (I may be being a little ungracious here?)

I like to think I fall into a third category which is a combination of the two.  I enjoy wildlife including birds.  My enjoyment from this hobby is not strictly for the birds.  I do enjoy finding and learning about birds characteristics, habits, and habitats, and trying to predict where and when to find them.  But I also enjoy photography.  But in wildlife photography, there is an added challenge with a live subject and lots of different factors.  Birds or animals don't exactly pose in perfect light, with an optimal background, and certainly do not just stay put while you approach for the better, closer setup.  I make the comparison to hunters who, despite some people's view being critical of the end result, undertake similar challenges with needing to learn the animal's habits, movements, and gain the skill of anticipating movements and trying to out wit them to get a great shot.  I've had more than one occasion where I've worked my way around a bird or animal trying to anticipate either their movement or trying to get a better vantage, and as I approached felt my heart rate quicken and noticed I can't quite hold the camera as still as I'd like with the excitement of getting close. A lot of enjoyment is added with the challenge of getting a good picture! (I'm still learning so lots of disappointments get mixed in with a few successes.)

So, Dianna and I were discussing how some of the birders are less than friendly.  I've come to locations and conscientiously approached other birds being aware not to scare off whatever they're enjoying, but was made to feel like I'd just stepped into their living room right off the street, uninvited and with dirty boots still on.  I was priding myself on my own attitude being the opposite, mentioning to Dianna that I gladly try to share my good birding spots (even posting them on the link up top of my page) and sharing my binoculars with other birders even though that might mean I'm sharing the same photo opportunity.

The conversation also crossed to the topic of "twitching.".  Twitching is what birders do when they hear of a bird they really want to see, often dropping what they're doing and frequently, driving a good distance to see it.  We discussed this as well, and I mentioned, I generally don't do this, both because I don't have the time, but also, I stated (possibly with a bit of aloofness?) that I'm not after the numbers and lists, though I do keep a general life list.

Well, a long story with a lack luster ending - we didn't find the Owl.  However, the story doesn't end there. Since my visit was short, I made it into work for a regular start.  There had been another post over the last couple days about a rather rare bird find out at Fifty Point - a relatively cooperative female Common Eider. Once lunch rolled around, I decided I'd do what I had just said I didn't generally do, and head out to find the Eider.  I justified that it was not a distant twitch, and besides, I hadn't gotten to see what I'd hoped for on my drive in this morning - a consolation visit hopefully.

I drove out and headed to the Marina side of Fifty Point Conservation Area.  There was no one around on that side, and I could see a few photographers on the east side milling about, so I assumed they hadn't found the bird yet.  I walked out and clambered on the large blocks of armour stone shore protection breaks.  As I leaned over to steady myself just as I got to the water's edge, my binocular strap slipped through the plastic "foldback" and bounced off the rock, into the water.  The air inside kept it floating with the strap just beneath the water level.  I was on an angled rock which was wet and covered with moss and I struggled to quickly put down my camera without losing it to the water too.  Out of the corner of my eye, I saw a set of bubbles pop out and the strap moved down a foot and stayed.  Could I still get it?  I was still trying to find a place for the camera so it wouldn't add to the disaster.  More bubbles, and the strap disappeared from sight.  Drat!  Contrary to my dear wife's questioning later, no I was not going to roll up my pants in -5 deg C weather and freezing cold water and try and find them.  Not at that point and not on a return trip with scuba mask!

Well, I tried to put that behind me and headed out to the other side and soon was told by another lady with evidence on her camera screen the Eider was further along the bluffs on the along the water's edge with the two Long-tailed Ducks it had been keeping company with the last two days. I headed out, with hopes of a consolation find.  But nothing, anywhere was to be seen.  How could I have missed it.  The Common Eider is the biggest duck species in our area and so it shouldn't have been hard to see.  By that point I was feeling frustrated and trotted back with my tripod hanging off my camera case backpack banging against my leg.  I've got to figure out a better fastening method some day!

A female Common Merganser stayed uncharacteristically close to the shore of the small beach I was crossing and I tried unsuccessfully to steady my breathing from my trot and capture a wing stretch.

female Common Merganser
(notice the just barely visible white chin patch
differentiating from the Red-breasted Merganser)

Once the merganser had had its pictures taken, it flew away and drew my eye with it out into Lake Ontario and there, definitely larger than the rest of the birds, was a bird that was surely the Eider. Resorting to alternative ways to look at birds in the distance without binoculars, I took a fully zoomed in picture and checked the closeup preview.  Sure enough... the twitch subject.

female Common Eider

I climbed up the big rocks of the marina inlet wall and just as I looked over, the Eider turned around and headed out of the channel and back towards where it had come (and I had missed seeing it).  I caught one picture before it slipped out of view. With a quick scramble to the light marker at the end I was able to get a few more pictures as it paddled out to the deeper waters.

a parting "word"

Well, I got home that day and shared my woes about the lost binoculars, but also discovered that a loose leg of my tripod had let go during my travels that day. This day was going to prove expensive!  I put out a quick appeal on the Hamilton Birders group that night and thankfully Barry Cherriere saw both my post and the leg and grabbed it for me.  He was kind enough to meet me a couple days later to return it cutting my potential losses in half for that Friday past. (Thanks you Barry!) So if you see any good deals on binoculars or have an old pair you'd like to sell, shoot me an email.  Maybe this will teach me though, that lifting your nose about others habits and then following them yourself on the same day... well, more humility is in need.

This post made me think of something else too that is some what related.... chasing things, seeking big finds, accomplishments.  We're all wired to enjoy particular hobbies, interests, or specific things that bring us joy and excitement.  And sometimes we'll go to great lengths to find and get them. The twitch phenomenon... we're all looking for great finds, for things outside of ourselves that we wonder at and admire and give us a purpose outside of ourselves.  Ever wonder why?  Well, I believe that is because we were created with that built in to our very being.  We can't help it!  People everywhere are drawn to admire something or someone that is seen as greater than we are.  Heroes, people of amazing accomplishments, athletes, motivational leaders, etc, etc.  Why?  Why as humanity do we all tend to want to put someone else on a pedestal to look up to? Again, it's built right into our nature... we innately know we're not "it."  So is there anything wrong with chasing after the rare bird, the next enjoyable experience, the big career accomplishment, the satisfying achievement?  Nope, but there's a funny thing about these pursuits - they never seem to satisfy or last.  We always need to find the next "lifer" or the next great photograph!  It never seems to end.

There is one treasure who doesn't disappoint - He created us with that desire to pursue and find and worship with the focus being Himself.  And even though we are quite good at turning away, ignoring Him and actually earning His anger, He pursues us like a treasure and pays an ultimate price to save us from our mess.  He cleans off the mess of our sin and cleans us and restores us to the way He originally created us to be - created in His image, bearing limited portions of His character.

Someday He'll return again, and dead or alive, we'll all see Him and find out what we were really "twitching" for but never really knew it.  Some will realize that what they were seeking after was better than they could have imagined.  But others I'm afraid, will be terribly disappointed to find they were sorely deceived with what this temporary world had to give. Again, not that hobbies, careers, or even family are bad - far from it.  But the ultimate treasure that lasts for eternity is not found in these things, but in finding our Creator as our Saviour the knowing the joy because of the grace He has given for the debt we owe.

"But because of His great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in our sins—it is by grace you have been saved." Ephesians 2:4-5

Till next time...
Keep enjoying HIS handiwork!

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

2013 - Another Snowy Owl Irruption Year?

Based on the number of Snowy Owls seen at this point in the season, it would appear we are seeing an irruption here in the western area of Lake Ontario's shores.  As of today, at least five Snowy Owls have been seen (I saw the one off of LaSalle beach today as well).  Unfortunately one has been hit and killed by a vehicle on Eastport Drive in Hamilton.  Peter Thoem posted pictures yesterday of his four finds around the Hamilton area.

On Thursday last week, I followed up on a Hamilton Birders Group report that there were Snowy Owls at Tollgate Pond and Windemere Basin.  My first stop at the man-made, enclosed, "pond" portion of Hamilton Harbour resulted in no bird, so I headed to Windemere where the owl was immediately spotted on the first island.  First, did not mean close, especially for zooming in with the rather blustery, sustained winds of the day.  The camera was in a constant state of vibration, so semi-crisp pictures were hoped for only when there was a slight respite in the wind speeds.

Likely a female Snowy Owl on a Windemere Basin island.

Snowy Owl - just slits of eyes showing

Snowy Owl

I didn't notice till editing the pictures that there seems to be a few feathers of what appears to be a wing sticking up from behind the rock just above where my watermark is on the right side.  If you click to enlarge the photo, you'll see at least three feathers.  I didn't think Snowy Owls predated on winged creatures but on rodents and such.  That is there typical menu up north, but my reading shows they will capture winged birds including ducks and the like.  Impossible to tell what very likely was a previously completed meal. Typically, Snowy Owls sit and wait and watch for prey with their amazing eye sight.  They are heavy birds, weighed down with all their weather protective feathers and down, and it takes more energy for them to pursue and capture food on wing.

Snowy Owl and evidence of prey just showing.

From the southern most part of their summer breeding range, its over 2,500km.  For a bird that is not built for migration, that's a long trip.  Some of the birds end up dying of starvation as they don't end up finding suitable hunting grounds, or become victims of dodging abnormal vehicle traffic compareed to elk and caribou in the tundra.

Snowy Owl - eyes partially open

Till next time...
Keep enjoying HIS handiwork!

Monday, December 9, 2013

A Case of Misidentification

A couple weeks ago I headed out to LaSalle to see what the early shows of migrating water birds would be at this perennial hot spot over the cooler and colder months of the year.  As I arrived, I made my usual, eager first check of the open knot whole of the tree by the parking lot for the Eastern Screech Owl I have yet to see with the same results as all the other times - nothing. 

But my excitement was soon to be returned when I passed an older gentleman who had the look and confidence in his delivery which made me eagerly believe that there were apparently a pair of bitterns down by the boardwalk, on the water side.  Bitterns are quite secretive birds, and the stretch of trees between the boardwalk and the sandy shore of the lake is not very wide.  I was somewhat confused, but quickened my pace none the less.  I was looking in the brush as I approached, and kept casting glances to the opposite side where there is more long grass which is more typical of how it likes to  conceal itself. The time of year also seemed suspicious, but who knows, maybe a pair that were slow breeders and are in a mad rush to migrate south?

Bumping into another set of men with cameras, I mentioned the previous gentleman's note to me, and they pointed up, into the trees.  Sure enough, there were two, streaky, brown birds perched in the tree branches over our heads ahead of us.  However, they were not bitterns, but Juvenile Black-Crowned Night Herons.  Who knows, maybe the gentleman was having a good chuckle somewhere, or he simply had the bird names mixed up. I'll never know as I never saw him again. Unfortunately, I had to give the other two men that bad news as they had in fact thought they were looking at bitterns.  But, they were just as excited with the correct ID as they'd not seen this bird before either.  My own look at a Bittern still goes unsuccessful so far though.

juvenile Black-crowned Night Heron
posing as a bittern.

The rest of my visit wasn't filled with anything else new in the bird department, but I did get some nice pictures of a pair of Carolina Wrens (only one of them really).  They were busy chirping at each other as they foraged on the forest floor and around fallen logs.  They were quite preoccupied and I was able to creep up quite close to them.  In fact, I should have counted on my stealth more, as I took opportunity of one of the birds turning the corner around and behind a log.  When I came on it, we both stopped and looked at each other, hardly more than five or six meters apart.  I hadn't gotten my camera ready.  When I moved slowly, it only partially moved away and allowed a few moments for a couple shots.

Carolina Wren foraging for bugs.

Carolina Wren

Carolina Wren

As I walked back to the car, one of the White-breasted Nuthatches must have been jealous of all the attention its neighbour had gotten, and posed right in front of me.

White-breasted Nuthatch

I'll have to get back to this location again soon, I'm sure the various diving birds have increased in numbers.  I saw my Uncle John this past weekend, a birder as well, and he recently had gotten a nice set of pictures he showed me of the selection that's building there.

Until then...
Keep enjoying HIS handiwork.