R, D & F

R, D & F stands for Rain, Drizzle and Fog. This is an expression used by John Blackmore, a Newfoundlander, whom I met many years ago at a stained glass workshop given by Robert Jekyll.

It is the perfect description for the first two days of my first 3-day workshop on Bonaventure Island. It soaked through my, supposedly, waterproof coat and made my first day up at the colony guite cold and miserable, except for the gannets, that is!

We met at 4:45 am for a 5 am departure in a large zodiac for a trip around Bonaventure Island for images of the cliffs and, hopefully, for flying birds and seals.

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Northern Gannets, Black-legged Kittiwakes, Razorbills and Common Murres make up most of the nesting birds in the many eroded niches along the high cliffs. They look like so many ants in an aquarium colony. Many birds roost along the the cliffs as well as nest making it impossible to estimate the numbers.

After landing at the warf and eating “lunch” we packed up and headed for the colony. About a third of the way up I started to smell the wonderful fresh scent of the balsam trees along the trail. The last third of the trail still smelled of balsam with the added scent of fish. It wasn’t an unpleasant fishy smell, just pervasive.

Bunchberry was just coming into bloom and Spring Beauties were in full bloom making the area about three weeks behind Muskoka for the season.

The view of the colony from the head of the trail is overwhelming! Gannets everywhere! On the ground making their calls and in the air flying in every direction and out over the sea. There is a building where the Parks Officer of the day has an office along with a small hallway where one can get out of the rain. There are picnic tables and benches inside a roped barrier. The colony takes up every other possible space. Sixty-five thousand breeding pairs is an awful lot of birds. That doesn’t take into account the thousands of unmated birds and the thousands of other seabirds that nest along the cliffs.

Chris Dodds’ goal is to help his participants get the best possible images, while maximizing the weather conditions at the colony. Having visited the colony most years over the last twenty years he has a good understanding of the birds’ activity associated with the weather. The fog helps to isolate birds against a foggy background and lots of wind means the birds will be flying. No horizons to worry about. Chris’ suggestion is to use your 70-200 lens, hand-held for flight shots. Even though you may have a new 500 lens you are dying to try out that isn’t the best use of the conditions.

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The gannets fly so close to you that close-ups in flight are more than possible.

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Here at home I attempted to photograph Great-crested Flycatchers at their nest box at my friend, Ed’s, but they had, literally, flown the coop. I was told that the House Wrens I intended to work on this week had done the same thing. I did have the consolation of photographing both Yellow and Showy Lady’s Slippers.

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The Yellow Ladies Slippers were past their best days and this one required a bit of Photoshop Cosmetic Surgery but at least I didn’t have to drive to the Bruce Peninsula to get it!

Day Two at Perce

As I arrived a day early for the gannet workshop I drove around looking for opportunities. The lobster boats pulling their traps added some interest to early-morning views of Perce Rock.

Photographers are supposed to get up at 3:30 am in order to be at the Perce lookout in order to get images of the rising sun through the opening in the rock. You can see that I missed that opportunity by a significant amount of time! I blame it on the 12 hour drive the day before!

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Chris Dodds had a the book “Guide to Birding Sites on the Gaspe Peninsula”, in English and I found out how to get to the Mal Baie Barachois which is back toward the town of Gaspe. A barachois is a salt-water marsh and a number have been made conservation areas around the Gaspe Peninsula.

It would be nice if this guide told you where to find a particular species but it doesn’t. It does give very thorough directions to many sites and the species that could be seen there. It is well worth the $29.95 price. It is available from Club des Ornithologues de la Gaspe which has a form on their website to accompany an order and payment.

The sign and the book mentions that gulls use the barachois as a bathing area and there were both Great Black-backed Gulls and Black-legged Kittiwakes doing just that. Although I have seen kittiwakes on other maritime trips this was the first time I had had a chance to study them more closely. They were all in breeding or alternate plumage.

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The sign mentions Nelson’s Sharp-tailed Sparrows, which I did not see but another species I did see was Cliff Swallows. They were in the process of building about ten nests along the side of a bridge. The light was very bad and so those images were records only.

In the other direction was the harbour where the fishing and tour boats tie up. The river flowing into that harbour, once again, gives gulls and other birds fresh water in which to bathe.

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That evening Chris gave a slide presentation about what to expect and a look into the image possibilities to the workshop participants. Eldor, from Montreal, was staying over for his second workshop. Bob and Jill, from Waterloo, had been out with Chris several times before.

The weather did not look great but that is supposed to be an advantage when photographing the gannets. The next morning we were to meet for at 4:45 am for a 5 am departure in a zodiac to begin our adventure.

Here at home two Yellow-rumped Warblers have fledged and the parent were around feeding them for one day. They sat together very prettily on a branch outside my window. A White-breasted Nuthatch family, also, feed busily and the Red-breasted Nuthatch adults must be feeding nearly-fledged nestlings as well.

There are still a few buds opening on my wildly pink poppies and my prairie meadow is glorious.

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The image of the fishing boats in front of Perce Rock was taken with a 1DMK2N with a 28-135 lens at 47mm.
The image of the kittiwakes was taken with a the same camera body and 500 f4 IS from my car window.
The Great Black-backed Gull bathing with the Herring Gulls and American Crows was taken with the same combination plus a 2 x converter from my car window.
The poppy was with the same camera body and a 28-135 lens at 135 mm.

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How I Spent My Summer Vacation

Last year I decided to go on a of Christopher Dodds’ “Gannets Galore” workshops which took me, for the first time, to the Gaspe Peninsula, Quebec. I met Chris on one of Artie Moriss’ workshops at Point Pelee several years ago. Always engergetic, hard-working, well organized and enthusiastic, we have photographed together many times and I went on one his Eagles workshop to Alaska last year.

I gave myself three days to drive to Perce and did it in two days even though I stopped a number of times for photography when I got to the peninsula.

A wind farm, gulls feeding on waste from a fish plant, Northern Gannets in a feeding frenzy and many seabirds were some of the reasons for stopping.

Male Common Eider

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Female Common Eider

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The above images were taken along the shoreline at Forillon National Park with my Mk2N, 500 mm + 2x, handheld from vehicle window.

Fortunately, I had taken my Peterson’s Wildflowers Guide to help me identify the flowers along the road. I saw areas of these flowers in many places along the road.

Starry False Solomon’s Seal, Smilacina stellata (crassa)

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Just before arriving in Perce I came to a pull-out where the evening sun set off the sunset colours of my first view of Roche Perce.

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I had arrived with a extra day to drive around and enjoy the wildlife and scenery!

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Quiet Day

It is a rainy, damp day and the “bloodsuckers” are thick and thirsty!

Now that the Pine Siskins have departed it is pretty quiet at the bird feeders. A few chickadees, the odd Purple Finch, Blue Jays, one or two Hairy Woodpeckers, White-breasted and Red-breasted Nuthatches. The pair of Great-crested Flycatchers must have found a territory because I haven’theard them today. One of them did like sitting on the bird-feeder frame to hunt around the warm deck.

Another good sighting yesterday on the backroad was a medium-sized Blandings Turtle. It was 1/3 of the way across so gave it a helping hand.

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It appears to have lost some of its tail. When I picked it up to move it I checked its plastron and it was flat. I think that means it is a female.

One of my favourite spring sights is of Pink Ladyslippers. I don’t have many at my place and so last year when a tree along my road had to be taken down the orchids were carefully protected. Thankfully, there was no harm done.

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I can’t leave for the Gaspe until I watch my grandson, Ian, on City TV Breakfast Television this morning!

Roadside

A drive out one of my favourite roads produced lots of bird song, flowers and insects.

It was nice to hear both Veery and Hermit Thrushes as they have been quiet until the last few days. A couple of Blue-headed Vireos and many Red-eyed Vireos along with the normal warbler species. I did hear a Canada in a new place.

The trilliums are finished and the Fringed Polygola was in bloom. Although Fringed Polygala, Polygala paucifolia, or Gaywings, look like an orchid it is from the Milkwort family. Its habitat is said to be woods and I find it most often at forest roadside edges.

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There were lots of mosquitoes and, thankfully, lots of dragonflies to take care of a few of them. This species, Four-spotted Skimmer, was one.

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The brambles were blooming where rock heats the plants and lots of beas were taking advantage of the flowers, leaving me with thoughts of the blackberries to be found later.

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This could be my last blog for awhile as I am leaving to join one of Chris Dodds’, “Gannets Galore” photography trips from Perce, Quebec. Lots of Northern Gannets, other seabirds, and hopefully, whales! Although I am looking forward to driving the Gaspe Peninsula and visiting with friends I will be missing the rest of spring in Muskoka and the best of our nesting season for turtles and birds. Dare I wish for cool weather here while I’m gone so that, just maybe, I will get to see my poppies in bloom!

What a Difference a Day Makes!

This was my third morning in a row out in my kayak. Three mornings with no frost and into the mid-teens during the afternoon.

Usually the Pumpkinseed Sunfish are nesting by now. Yesterday morning there were no nests around the suspended walkway out to my pipe dock but today there were eight nests. They nest in colonies and likely, there will be many more nests made. They use their fins to brush away the silt to makes a depression.

My first encounter was with one of the beavers.

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The loon pair was out on the lake and by the calls I heard last night, they had been there since last evening. They were fishing up and down the lake and just after they went to the southerly end I was surprised to hear and see a chase. Apparently another single loon had been down there and it was chased by one of the pair all the way up to my end and back. Eventually the single loon flew out and each of the pair departed some time later.

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Lots of the Bullhead Lilies are in full bloom now and they brighton up the dark corners of the wetland areas.

A male Rose-breasted Grosbeak sang from the very top of a tall dead snag and a Black-throated Green Warbler was singing close to my dock.

Just before 9 am one loon took-off at my end of the lake. The other one started a take-off but aborted. It was quite an experience to be almost in the path and to see just what it looked like.

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All images with the Canon 40D with 100-400, ISO 400-640, Spot Metered, handheld. It is always a challenge to photograph from a boat. Trying to get the light, wind and the subject in the right place is a constant.

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Morning Kayak, June 4th

Out on the lake by 7 am today. Cool and misty meant the bugs weren’t too bad but I was well covered with rubber boots, bug jacket, rain pants and vinyl gloves. They buzzed around my head the whole time!

First on my list was to scan for loons. I didn’t see them and then two flew in near my dock when I was halfway down the lake. They spent most of 2 1/2 hours checking out every inch of the shoreline. Maybe this means they are ready to nest!

I stationed myself behind the beaver lodge hoping for another opportunity to catch a tail slap. It paid no attention to me at all. A small Muskrat was quite startled when it saw me, though. As I paddled away I thought the beaver was back but it turned out to be a River Otter. After a few looks it disappeared.

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The young crows aren’t quite as noisy as they were a week ago.

I have identified a Song Sparrow singing perch. Not so easy to get close to it but I did get a few.

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I heard Black-throated Blue Warbler, Common Yellow-throat, Black & White, Chestnut-sided, Ovenbird and several Red-eyed Vireos.

The Bullhead Lilies are coming along.

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I tried to wait out the loons to get more of their take-offs but breakfast called.

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All images taken with Canon 40D, 100-400 lens, Spot Metered and handheld from kayak.

Morning Kayak

The air was calm this morning and there was mist on the lake. The weather has been so bad that I just had to get out and take advantage of it. I was out by 6:45 am. Up and down I paddled looking for a loon to photograph in the mist. I found lots of other things to look at but no loon until later.

There are lots more Pitcher Plants with buds. A few are close to full bloom.

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One of the beaver lodges looked good in the morning light so worked on that for awhile and then one of the beavers announced that it had found me. It appeared that I was just where it wanted to go and it paraded back and forth and slapping its tail every once in awhile.

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This was a first for me! They do it so quickly that I have never seen the splash of the head going under seperate from the tail smack.

A male Wood Duck flew to the back of one of the wetlands. Nice to know there are some around even though I haven’t been feeding them this year because the Canada Geese just ate everything for the last two years.

As I was in one of the side wetlands a fox came poking around some bushes. I squeaked into my hand and it turned and sat watching me. That was another first sighting from my kayak.

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Not great light but a first for me!

A loon put in an appearance and it caught a very large catfish – well, large for my lake! Probably 10-12 inches. It took the loon at least 15 minutes to swallow it including dropping it in the water 4-5 times and diving under for it. I was hoping for some good take-off shots and an attempt was made to fly out which was aborted and then it took off again. I would say it wasn’t one of the regular pair as they never have to abort a take-off.

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All the above images were taken with my Canon 40D and my 100-400 lens, Spot metered, handheld.

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Wings over Muskoka Festival

Friday, May 29, 2009 was the first evening of the first annual “Wings over Muskoka Festival” at Red Leaves Resort, Lake Rosseau, Ontario. Dwayne Harty was the speaker and he gave a very interesting presentation outlining his fine art background and those painters who most influenced his work. He emphasized how his style of plein air painting, painting outdoors, rather than from photographs results in his use of light. He has done dioramas for many museums including the Algonquin Park Visitor Centre, Ontario, the Glenbow Museum, Calgary, and the Museum of Nature in Ottawa. His wildlife paintings hang in many private and public collections.

Saturday was cool and windy which kept down the bugs. Bob Bowles, Al Sinclair and Robin Tapley took people out on various walks. All three people are extremely knowlegeable in every aspect of nature and wildlife and they love to share it from bird calls, to ferns, trees, moss, lichen, moths, butterflies and dragonflies.

The keynote speaker for Saturday evening was Dr. Bridget Stutchbury who outlined how many songbirds are being lost to us, the reasons, and some of the things we can do to help such as buying “shade grown” coffee and using recycled paper products. Her book, “Silence of the Songbirds” gives the details of these losses and how her work and that of others has discovered vital information about the lives of many of these neo-tropical species.

One of the most interesting parts of this presentation was the slides showing movements of songbirds during spring migration using Doppler radar.

Robin Tapley and I did a “Loons in Morning Light” pontoon boat tour at 7 am on Sunday morning. It was quite cool and frost had to be scraped of the seats before we embarked from Wallace Marina which is now part of the Red Leaves Resort. Robin had been watching for the loons for an hour before we gathered and just as we were departing the dock they came around a point and joined us to say hello. We had close-up views as they swam in toward us and around the boat. It was one of those once-in-a lifetime experiences as they dove, wing-flapped and bill-dipped right around us.

During mating season loons keep their beaks turned away from their mate or hold it pointed down. It is presumed this is to show lack of aggression. They dip their beaks in the water frequently and flick the water off.

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Canon 40D, 100-400 IS lens, 1/320 @ f5.6, ISO 400, handheld.

One of the participants asked about the meaning of loon calls and I will quote from Judith McIntyre’s book, “The Common Loon: Spirit of Northern Lakes”. There are four basic types of Common Loon calls. Hoots, Wails, Tremolo and the Yodel. The hoot is a fairly quiet call that is given as a contact call between loons that are fairly close together. The wail can be one, two or three notes. Judith McIntyre wonders if the wails that initiate nocturnal choruses might be given as a loon seeks its mate. When we heard the three note wail my Dad and I always said the loon was saying “Where are you”. The Tremolo is given by both males and females and raises or lowers in pitch according to the length of the “laughter”. Another author describes these as alarm calls given during threatening situations such as people approaching too closely. A version of this call can be given during flight. Apparently this is the call that is said to be the one that most people describe as the one they identify with loons.

The fellow who asked me about this call wasn’t satisfied with my answer because, for me, the Yodel call is the most iconic.

The yodel is given only by the male and each individual has a different call. This call reverberates around our lakes at night and seems to be coming from different directions. The reason for this is that the male flattens itself on the water and swings it body around bouncing the sound from the rocky shores and the sound echoes everywhere.

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This image shows this action. Although I consider this Photographic Art it was taken from one of my slides many years ago that wasn’t quite in focus and I have never had to opportunity to do another one.

It was fun to meet people known through Simcoe Nature Board and to have a chance to get together with people I haven’t seen for several years!

I sold my 2010 Bird Calendars to support “Kids for Turtles” and the exhibit of my photography was well received.

It was a successful, if under-attended, festival with superior trip leaders. It promises to grow quickly into a right-of-spring here in Muskoka.

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