Thursday, October 21, 2010

Valid excuses

I see the first statement of my last post turns out to be a lie. But with good reason. I've been struggling against a real lack of energy for some time and I now know why. I'm severely anemic.

What that means is that I'm lacking oxygen because I don't have enough iron in my red blood cells to efficiently transport that life-giving element. Anemia causes fatigue and mental confusion. Yep, that's been me for, jeez, I'm not even sure how long.

Good to have a diagnosis, even better to practice patience while my body renews itself. Doc says a couple of months before I feel significantly better. Everybody better watch out come early December.

Until then, I'll be gentle with myself. Do what I can do and see about keeping dear readers with some new material from here on the Island.

Like this view from Galiano Island. This would be one of the Gulf Islands, on the Canadian side of the water border. I visited at the end of June to interview a team of hummingbird banders and photograph rufous hummingbirds at the tail end of migration season.

I loved this long, narrow island. This view comes from the top of Mount Galiano. The trees that frame the other Gulf islands in the background are Garry oaks, unique to this region and so endangered that even private land owners need permission to cut any down.

I could go on and on about Garry oak ecosystems, but I've reached my energy expenditure limit for today. Here's a link if you want to learn more.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Sitting pretty

Summer has passed and it's time to get back to business. That means being more faithful about my blogging. When the weather is nice, I want to be anywhere but the computer, but it's good to return and share some captures from my wanderings.

I've been wanting to catch this bird for some time.

The red-breasted nuthatch makes a good noise for a little bird. If you hear a nasally ank, ank, ank in the forest you can be sure there's a small bird spiralling down a tree trunk, head first, somewhere nearby.

That sharp beak pries under bark for insects to eat and also gets used to bang a hole into the tree to live in, the same as a woodpecker.

Nuthatches eat seeds too and will come to feeders, but don't usually perch for long.

Both males and females have an unexplained habit of carrying tree sap to the nest and smearing it around the entrance. Like I said, it's unexplained.

Females lay five to six eggs and the chicks emerge after only 12 days of incubation. They don't stay long in the crowded nest before they fly out on their own. Their main predators are hawks and this bird lives on a property in the North Okanagan where a red-tailed hawk also nests and a smaller unidentified hawk was seen darting about the ponderosa pine and Douglas fir trees.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Holding back

I'd like to tell you the whole story of the osprey, up above the shipyard. The female giving me glaring looks. But I have to withhold while I seek a market for the tale.

I can share some photos. I've had two sessions now and anticipate a third.

And I can tell you this. This osprey pair had three chicks in spring – small, medium and large. Fledging three chicks is rare in raptors. Siblicide is common and it seems quite likely that medium and large kicked their weaker nest mate out some time in July. At the very least their greater size allowed them to keep the fish away from small, so the bird may have simply faded away.

That's life. In this case it's a two-for-one deal. And before you cast human judgements at the adult birds who turn a beak to this. Reproductive investment for a bird that lives a long time and has few offspring comes close some years to costing them their lives. In terms of survival of the fittest and passing on their genes, their best bet is to back the winners.

Saturday, July 24, 2010

Sitting on gold

Me and this female osprey nesting at the Esquimalt Graving Dock, a federal ship building and repair facility near Victoria, B.C.

Like the UVic osprey, this pair has chosen a busy place to arrange some sticks on a light standard. They live on an industrial dock where large vessels like cruise ships and ferries get hauled out of the water for welding, painting – you name it, it's happening while this female defends and feeds her young and the male delivers fish and hangs out on a nearby tower.

What struck me immediately about the graving dock, is just how clean it is. The Environmental Services Department takes its work seriously. They keep an eye on all the wildlife that transit through or live on the site. Measures are taken to keep green corridors open for the movement of deer, raccoon and otters. Great care is taken with the many hazardous substances used around the ships, to keep it from poisoning the water or land.

Everyone there seems pretty keen about the osprey and keep tabs on the nest with a security camera. Activities on the nest, used intermittently since 2006, are logged and staff want to do whatever they can keep the site suitable for osprey generations to come.

Meanwhile, I've got a boatload of pictures that I have to sit on until I have a market for them. But I can't resist sharing a few now.

Thanks to the Public Works and Government Service Canada people for putting me up in the air with the osprey.

Saturday, June 26, 2010

Living in paradise

One sight from my recent boat trip to the San Juans.

This is the view looking south east from the mouth of Reid Harbour (good name huh?) on Stuart Island.

I grew up in northern Manitoba, and like every landscape, it has its own beauty, but I never get over the combination here of ocean and snow-peaked mountain.

Or the forests that range from temperate rain to dry Mediterranean.

Here's some prickly pear cactus growing on Patos Island where we spent the first night. Cactus. Just a few metres above the Pacific Ocean.

Patos marks the northern limit of the American portion of an archipelago divided by the Canada-U.S. border (drawn in the water). On the Canadian side the chain continues and we call them the Gulf Islands. On the American side they are the San Juans.

The Spanish explorers Galiano and Valdez named this little island Isla de Patos in 1792. It means island of ducks. Coincidentally, I'm posting this in a hurry as I'm off to the Gulf Island Galiano. You can probably guess who that's named for.

But the most breath taking of all. Orcas leaping in the air just outside the marina at Point Roberts, Wash. You know when you see a killer whale breach within the first 20 minutes of the trip, it's going to be a good one.

Saturday, June 19, 2010

Campus sweethearts

To say I'm happy with my new camera outfit would be a bit of an understatement. I resisted as long as I could, in loyalty to my old 20D, but I have to admit that five years in digital technology time makes a noticeable difference.

Once my 70 to 200mm lens arrived I practically ran up to the University of Victoria to snap the pair I've been following up there.

These two have opted to nest on a light standard stuck between the soccer pitch and the track and field facility. That means it's a busy place, not only home to the uni athletes, but also the site of competitive sports between people much younger and older than that.

And the funny thing is that the osprey kind of squawk through the commotion. Like they didn't choose to nest in a busy urban environment, for at least the second year running.

The good thing about osprey is that they can fledge chicks just as well from a nest in a grocery parking lot as they can from one over a remote boreal river. In fact maybe the squawking isn't even a complaint (as it sounds to my human ears) but a greeting.

On this day, the fields were empty. Here, the male delivers a fish to his mate, whose posture suggests she's dealing with chicks. Right on schedule.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Birds of a sort

Still waiting on a long lens, I took my new set up out to the navy fleet review on Saturday.
The Canadian Navy celebrates 100 years of service in 2010 and CFB Esquimalt hosted an international fleet review as one of the events.

Fleet reviews are pretty rare and used to be a way of showing one's marine military might. Now it's more of a bragging contest. Victoria hasn't seen a review in more than 50 years.

Coast Guard and navy ships attended from Japan, Australia, New Zealand and the U.S. Canada's Governor General Michaelle Jean inspected and the Snowbirds air demonstration squadron paid a visit.

Many of the eight thousand sailors (hello) from those ships took to the streets of Victoria making for an eventful weekend.

Throw in a couple of cruise ships, Buccaneer Days and the Naked Bike Ride and, well, there was plenty to point a camera at.

I even resisted the temptation to post the much racier picture of the fellow on the right.

Really, the long lens I'm waiting for would have been more suitable for that assignment.

In all other ways my new photography kit performed wonderfully.

Friday, June 11, 2010

Fonder heart

If you're wondering about my absence in the heart of both osprey and hummingbird season, it's because my camera gear was stolen.

This has caused enough hurt to silence me.

Thanks to a system I've always distrusted – thank you insurance – I have a replacement. A bright, shiny, newer, faster model. I have had very little interest in testing it.

Also, I'm still waiting for my big lens to arrive. Then this summer's osprey stories will continue.

And my grief will go away.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Conflict of interest

With several osprey nests on my radar, I'm torn away to band hummingbirds. At long last I've joined in on my first session of the year and so glad I did.

I've banded the last two years outside of Port Alberni in some pretty nice settings, but this year I'm helping south island crews and my first site was at a charming bed and breakfast on Salt Spring Island. 

We sat on a deck with a multi-million dollar view (really it's for sale) and tortured small birds. 

Usually banding starts at first light but we caught the 11 a.m. ferry for a noonish start and took tea around three with home made brownies. 

Very civilized.

The feeder was humming and we gathered data on nearly 40 birds, I believe. I learned many new techniques and feel like a more competent bander for it. 

I have felt conflicted in the past, but with the latest state of the birds report saying that the rufous hummingbird (the only species we catch) populations have declined significantly, I think the information gathered justifies the chance of stressing a few birds.

So that was Saturday. Which, of course, leaves only Sunday for the osprey. But never fear, I believe some fantastical osprey adventures are to come and I may even be able to call them work.

Saturday, May 15, 2010

Lock up your gold fish

Doesn't this osprey look demonic?

I haven't done any digital manipulating of his eyes (this is the male of the UVic nest). It may be that he's got the old third membrane drawn.

In osprey, and other birds that dive head first into the water, a special nictating membrane protects the eye from those high impacts.

Also called the haw, this slider moves across the eye horizontally unlike human eyelids. It can be clear or transluscent. Some animals, like camels, use it to remove debris from the eye. Polar bears get protection from snow blindness from the nictating membrane.

I heard a story about the UVic osprey grabbing overgrown goldfish from garden ponds. Probably didn't need the old eye protector on that dive.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Last photo tip

If it's a picture of osprey it doesn't matter how crappy it is. Everything else you need to know about photography you can learn from people much more qualified than I.

Oh, wait, there is one more tip that this photo demonstrates. It was actually the last thing I was going to say before I recommended reading good books on the subject or taking a photography course.

See in the bottom left part of the frame where all those wires and things lead the eye out of the picture? You don't want that. When composing, take time to really look at what is in the viewfinder and where your eye travels within that rectangle. If the eye is running out of the frame, that's not good. Sometimes squinting reveals the overall impression of form and line and the path the eyes take.

I didn't do that in this case because these are the first osprey of the season and the first nest I've found in Victoria, so I was freaking out. Wildly snapping away without any thought at all.

That's it for photo tips. We will now resume our regular osprey programming.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Photo tip #2: The Rule of Thirds

Okay, some people will hate this. How can you be creative following a bunch of rules you may ask.
Well, I love rules (as long as they suit me) so I can't relate to that, but you better believe that even Da Vinci learned the rules before he threw them out the window and did his own thing.

The rule of thirds relates to the Golden Mean, the magic ratio that turns up again and again in nature and human design. Why? Because it works. Most people think symmetry is where it's at (okay, I believed that for a long time) when in fact the brain and the eye like things that are a little off. Things that move the eye around instead of just letting it plonk on a subject and sit there, doing nothing.

Here's what I mean.

This photo places the subject smack dab in the middle. Very nice job of centering that man and ensuring nearly perfect symmetry with the boats. Problem is, that's boring. Your eye gets stuck on his bum.

Now, here's an image that lets the mind do a little travelling.

This is what you want in a photo, a little trip inside the viewer's mind.
Never mind that the boats are overexposed. That's not relevant to this discussion.

It's very simple. Imagine a grid in your view finder that divides the rectangle into nine equal segments, like the red lines in the photos above.

What you want to do is place the subject at one of the four intersections, or put a horizontal feature (like the horizon) on either the lower third or upper third of the frame.

On some cameras you can impose a grid on your viewfinder. Check through your features and manual to see if you can. After a while you won't need the guide.

And by all means, if the subject is perfectly symmetrical and that's just what you want to show, do it. But try playing with the rule of thirds to see if it makes some photos more dynamic.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Photo tips

I read somewhere recently that a good blogger offers readers something.
With that in mind I'd thought I'd do a little series of tips for people who want to take better pictures. Everyone has a camera right? And we've all been there, sorting through dozens, sometimes hundreds of disappointing photos.

I'm not going to get into hard-core technical stuff, just a few of the first things that I learned that improved my pictures almost right away.

Here goes.

Tip #1: Get closer to your subject

Yep, sometimes you're photographing the big picture and you've intentionally made the people really small, standing next to the Pyramids or what have you. But most of the time, when you're photographing people get that lens right in their face (probably better to zoom if you don't want Aunt Ethel to give you a good whack upside the head. And if you don't have a zoom, and there's no threat of violence, use your built in feet).

Since I don't take pictures of people (unless I have to) I'll use bird photos to illustrate.

Here we have two female red-winged black birds in a winter scene. Wow wee. Pretty drab.

I have done nothing to this photo, it is exactly as shot. At the time I liked the two birds facing in different directions and thought I might be able to do something with that once I got home to the digital darkroom (computer).

And here we have the much-manipulated final version that I decided was too poor quality to be of use, but still illustrates the point that the close up of the bird is far more eye-catching than the picture of the bird where it's about the same size as a pencil eraser.

There you go. Photo tip #1 is get closer to your subject. And this is for you folks, it's not just a way for me to make use of photos that I would otherwise deem too grainy and unfocussed to show. Really.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Common species

Been thinking again about the way I take some species for granted.

I mean really, what isn't gorgeous and fascinating about this creature?

In some places, if there were no robins, there would be no bird life at all. You can reliably count on meeting them daily, wherever you go in this part of the world.

Look at that clear eye, the orange breast.
It's that flash of colour that reminded English settlers in North America of their dear little robins from home. This bird is really a thrush, though.

The song of the robin provides the background sound in cities and on farms from first light into the dark of night.

Cool fact. The American robin can stretch its esophagus to store food overnight. Very useful for getting through a cold Canadian winter with a light feather coat.

Common species like robins are often the first wild life children discover. Because they can be observed so conveniently and reliably they also make good species for study. Given the right question, a person of limited mobility could complete a master's or Ph.d from their kitchen window.

Thank you robin, just for being there.

Friday, March 26, 2010

Hooded merganser

How many times have I seen these ducks without bothering to learn more?
Well, I have rectified that situation. After meeting this hooded merganser on Blenkinsop Lake in Saanich, B.C. I dove into my Birder's Handbook to read that this dramatically crowned creature does some pretty interesting things.

Exhibit A: females will lay eggs in each other's nests and this can result in a dump nest with dozens of eggs from many layers. Considering the high cost of raising young, this is a pretty good strategy as long as you're not the female sitting on the dump nest. Don't try this at home, ladies, no one's going to sit on your kids for you while you paddle around in the pool.

Exhibit B: Hooded mergansers will share incubation duties with wood ducks or golden eye females in a little bit of inter-species co-operation. Well, that's more like human moms who will do another harried parent a favour regardless of how little else they may have in common.

I'm recklessly anthropomorphizing because I got permission from a biologist at UVic this week. I called this smart man with regard to an article I was writing about eagle nest webcams. He was my expert, and I was not prepared for him to condone the chat on the website that goes on about ma and pa and the babies. He said that scientists need to remain objective when studying animals, as much as possible, but for the general public, making connections to their own experiences is how people do just that – connect – with wildlife.

I feel much freer to translate the thoughts of animals in cartoonish voices for other humans. Thanks Dr. Starzomski.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Rookie mistakes

Feeling like a newbie at many things these days.

Since I’ve returned to Victoria, I’ve visited new trails and lookouts I somehow missed in the years I lived here before. Those unexpected newcomer experiences are great.

Venturing out for a long bike ride on the first Sunday of spring, I got five so-so photos before my battery died. Rookie mistake.

After kicking myself, and glaring at my now nothing-more-than-dead-weight-on-my-back camera, I put the brakes on that thought and chalked it up to a lesson. 

Same goes for the ups and downs of my new freelancing life. There’s always room to learn, and in some cases relearn things I thought I already knew.

Always said I wanted to be an eternal student.

Friday, February 26, 2010

Game on

I've been indifferent to the Olympics coming to Vancouver since the talk started so many years ago. Not for it, not against. 

I was surprised then, to find myself getting excited as the opening ceremonies approached. I've been following closely since the start in a way I've not since the 1984 summer games in Los Angeles.

Last weekend I decided I couldn't sit so near in Victoria and not go check it out. As soon as I reached the ferry terminal I realized Olympic fever was everywhere.

Venues are cowded, people wait in long lines, but there's a lot of consideration and patience. Those long lines move more quickly and efficiently than I thought west coasters capable of.

Last Saturday I ambled around downtown Vancouver. It reminded me of being in Asia where there's always lots happening on the streets.

The vibe was fantastic. People seem to be loving the packed streets. I was party to many little exchanges where people from various nations attempted to trump each other with compliments about their respective homelands. 

At times in the past few weeks, Canada's sudden nationalism has made me uncomfortable. At times I think about how many other ways the billions could have been spent. But most of the time, I've enjoyed these games more than I have any others I've watched since I was a kid.

Monday, February 22, 2010

Dallas Road sunset

At the end of some days I feel like I haven't accomplished a lot, despite having kept my bum in the chair for the prescribed number of hours.

Then I take a stroll to the water where I drink in a view like this and I'm recharged.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

How could something so pretty be bad?

On Valentine's Day I had a date with the birds at Esquimalt Lagoon.

The swans didn't stand me up. Nor did the northern pintails or American widgeons (always sung to the tune of American Woman, it's this kind of stuff that makes bird watching cool).

I'll admit it, I'm finding it a little harder to access my feathered friends here in Victoria than I did up Island in Port Alberni.

It's easier to catch container ships passing through the Juan de Fuca Strait than it is to capture birds.

Still, I'm loving feeling closer to the ocean and appreciating encounters with urban wild life, like these mute swans. I don't know about mute, but they are quiet.

They are escapees from parks. Introduced for decoration from Asia, they haven't yet taken hold outside of park-like settings. That's good news for the native, and rarer, trumpeter swans.

More to come on this species. Like what is up with that big bulb on the beak?

Tuesday, February 02, 2010

On the hunt for beached birds

I've settled nicely in Victoria and volunteered on another bird project.
Bird Studies Canada, and a team of citizen scientists, comb beaches on the West Coast looking for any birds that have washed up. The intent is to get a baseline on the number of birds killed by oil spills, but of course all kinds of information can be gathered from this effort.
I did my first survey at Whiffen Spit in Sooke last Sunday. 

I had never visited this park before and lucked out with a sunny, 11 degrees Celsius last day of January.
Of course that meant everyone, and their dog (literally), also visited the spit for an afternoon stroll.

I didn't find any birds, which is good news, but I missed the best light for photographing the harlequin ducks that were paddling around while I poked through beach debris looking for bodies.

Hmmm, must get the best light to agree with the tides to get both jobs done satisfactorily.
All the same, it was good to get away from the desk and I expect good things to come from my new project in the future.

Oh, but I got this nice parting shot of a golden-crowned sparrow as I headed for home at the end of the day.

Friday, January 15, 2010

Nesting in Victoria

I've landed, I've settled, I've started a business.
I dove into work and haven't taken a walk about with my camera — yet.
Don't despair dear readers, I've signed up for some birding activities that are sure to produce some interesting tales and images.
In the meantime, here's a view from my desk where I toil away, which isn't really so bad because sometimes I see the sun.