I have to admit there were days when I though this day would never come. The fact that the first day of spring technically was on March 20 almost seems like a cruel joke here in central Alberta. Its mid-May and it has not been until the last few days that we saw the first few green leaves bursting out. If white is the colour of winter, then the colour of budding foliage must be the colour of spring. This is not just any colour of green, it is a light, airy, fresh and rejuvenating color. Artist have a name for this particular hue of green – sap green. Some plain-air painters, in particular, prefer sap green for foliage because it is a warm, yellow green that mixes well for sunlight-infused trees.
Sun-infused objects make great subjects for photography. Today was a gorgeous sunny evening and it would have been criminal to spend it indoors. Said and done. After work I went out to Heritage Wetlands in Sherwood Park for some evening birding around the ponds. All in all, it was a great success with 23 species, including 4 lifers (indicated by *). I also managed to get a bunch of decent pictures of many of the species. After 6 weeks with the Nikon P1000 I am finally starting to feel that I am able to tame this beast of a camera.
Sherwood Park–Heritage Wetlands Park, Edmonton, Alberta, CA 13-May-2019 6:13 PM – 8:10 PM Protocol: Traveling 3.389 kilometer(s) 22 species (+1 other taxa)
Canada Goose (Branta canadensis) 2 American Wigeon (Mareca americana) 2 Mallard (Anas platyrhynchos) 10 Redhead (Aythya americana) 4 Ruddy Duck (Oxyura jamaicensis) 10 Red-necked Grebe (Podiceps grisegena) 3 American Coot (Fulica americana) 4 gull sp. (Larinae sp.) 1 Common Tern (Sterna hirundo) 5 * American White Pelican (Pelecanus erythrorhynchos) 2 Northern Flicker (Colaptes auratus) 2 Eastern Phoebe (Sayornis phoebe) 1 American Crow (Corvus brachyrhynchos) 3 Common Raven (Corvus corax) 2 Purple Martin (Progne subis) 4 * Tree Swallow (Tachycineta bicolor) 4 Black-capped Chickadee (Poecile atricapillus) 2 American Robin (Turdus migratorius) 3 White-crowned Sparrow (Zonotrichia leucophrys) 1 * Song Sparrow (Melospiza melodia) 1 Red-winged Blackbird (Agelaius phoeniceus) 30 Common Grackle (Quiscalus quiscula) 1 * House Sparrow (Passer domesticus) 3
The alarm clock went of the next morning in the middle of the night at 3:45. At 4:30am we rolled in at the dimly lit Canadian Tires parking lot to meet up with our tour guide and the rest of the grouse afictionados. We were 8 people and our guide Randy, a local born, raised and well-aged Wainwrightian. Once everyone had arrived the convoy rolled out into the empty streets of Wainwright. A few minutes later we left the last outpost of civilization behind us as we took a narrow road heading dead south across the Canadian Forces Base. We traveled at high speeds down desolated country roads, enveloped by the impenetrable black night. Occasionally an animal scurried across the road. It was like a scene out of a movie – surreal, secretive and very exciting. About half an hour later, as the first rays of light started to creep across the horizon, the lead car slowed down and pulled off on to a non-existing path in the tall brush. We drove slowly a few hundred meters across the field until we were out of sight from the main road. After parking and regrouping Randy gave us the low-down on the viewing protocol: enter the blinds quietly and quickly, stay in the blinds during the entire viewing period, use bathrooms before entering the blind, keep the location to yourself and stay warm. It was definately chilly with the vegetation covered in frost, so that last advice could be a challenge.
It was only a few minutes walk over the crest of a low hill to get to the the blinds. As soon as we had cleared the hill the blinds came into view and we realized that the party already was in full swing. Three small box shaped blinds were lined up on the field. In front of the blinds there were already several dozen grouse moving around and making squeaking and cooing sounds. As we approached most of the grouse flew off, but surprisingly enough not all of them. Perhaps they were used to the drill. The blinds were small and only had sitting room on wooden benches. We crammed ourselves and all our gear into one of the blinds and closed the hatch. The blinds had cutouts on the front for viewing and for poking the camera lenses out. With four adults and camera gear in the blind it was cosy to say the least and the only wiggle room was whatever room your toes head in the boots.
We counted a total of 35 Sharp-tailed Grouse on the field in front of the blinds, some right outside the blind and up a radius of about 30 meters from where we were sitting. The display grounds, called a lek, were covered by short native grass that looked like it had been grazed. The large turds on the dance floor suggested that cattle could be grazing here. The lek was surrounded by taller grass and shrub that could provide cover for the grouse if a predator would show up and crash the party.
As we settled in we soon realized that the there was a definitive rhythm to the display. Periods of display was intermittently punctuated with everyone stopping and freezing. It resembled musical chairs, where individuals get eliminated as the game progresses. Instead of competing for chairs, however, the male grouse are competing for the attention of females. It was not clear which individuals paired up. All the males looked great to us and the females were strolling around with a sort of indifferently dignified coolness. We did not see any mating taking place in the lek so there might be a separate location for the hanky-panky, perhaps in the tall brush surrounding the lek.
Occasionally a dance-off between two males results in a physical altercation where the males lunged towards each other clashing midair. The males are trying to establish dominance of the lek by intimidating other males and I guess sometimes you just got to roll up your sleeves and get the job done.
The males have bushy yellow eyebrows making them look like real macho grouse that mean serious business.
It’s easy to tell the difference between the males and the females. Females are more plain looking and lack the bushy yellow eye brows and the purple patch on their throat. Also, contrary to most humans, the females do not dance. They just hang out on the lek observing the males. The females are looking for a male that can hold the dominant position within the lek. The male that can pull off that feat is likely going to be a toughest bird in the bunch.
It is obvious where the Sharp-tailed Grouse gets its name from – from the sharp pointy tail that they rattle as they dance.
The males’ lekking behaviour involves spreading out their wings, stomping their feet rapidly and forcefully, and rattling their tail feathers while moving around in circles. Males do this tail-rattling in synchrony with each other in between periods when they stop and pose for the females and size each other up.
After about two hours, around 7am, things had slowed down substantially. Most of the females had left by this time leaving mostly males in the lek area. Perhaps not surprisingly, once the females had left, the males stopped displaying and were just passively sitting on the field. Randy informed us that these are traditional lekking grounds. The grouse return to the same lek location each year. With a radius of only about 20-30 metres we were trying to figure out what made this lek location special. After all, on a big open field, what makes one location any different from another one? From a human perspective, there does not seem to be anything unique about the location the grouse have chosen for their lek. Maybe one has to think like a grouse to fully understand the significance of the location.
After the tour we went to the The Two Old Men at the Wainwright train station for a well-deserved breakfast with Randy. Perhaps not surprisingly, the place was run by…, two old men.
The Sharp-tailed Grouse was Lifer: #150 and AB Big Year: #101. It was an awesome experience and the icing on the cake on our Global Big Day tour the previous day. The grouse lek season is coming to an end in the next few weeks, but we are already planing to go and view them next year again. In the meantime I leave you with this video clip of the action from last Saturday.
I had been bushwhacking along the trails and through the brush at the Whitemud Creek for a few hours and the sun was getting low in the sky. I had just finished checking part of the trail where Pileated Woodpeckers often hang out (with no luck). As I started heading back a quick bout of chirping in the shrubbery along the trail caught my attention. The twilight made it tricky to find the culprit, but there it was – an American Robin sitting in a Mountain Ash just minding its own business. Initially I did not reach for my camera as I already have plenty of pictures of robins and it was getting too dark to take pictures anyway. The robin was, however, sitting completely still, almost like it was posing for me so I figured that I could at least try to get a picture of it. While I did have the camera on a monopod I figured that the chances of the pictures turning our would be quite slim. It was getting dark and there was jumble of twigs and branches between me and the robin. I doubted the camera would be able to focus properly through the shrubbery in the low light. To my surprise the camera nailed the focus immediately. At 1/60s (which is a really long exposure at 705mm zoom) and ISO 500 (which is a sure recipe for grainy images lacking detail) the exposure settings were a bit challenging to say the least. I ended up only taking a few pictures. When I inspected the images back at the car I was astonished. Every single image was razor sharp (by P1000 standards), the exposure was spot on and the the bokeh was awesome. The P1000 really throws me for loops at times. Only a few days earlier I had been shooting Ospreys in transmission towers under, what would be considered, ideal conditions (a backdrop of a bright blue sky, no interfering shrubbery, etc.). Despite this, I had great difficulty coaxing the camera into focusing properly (both with auto focus and manual focus) and the pictures came out unacceptably soft. For a brief moment the robin made me feel like a deadeye, but the truth is that I am still not able to wrap my head around why the camera struggled with the osprey in what should have been ideal conditions but nailed the robin in the twilight.
On a side note. This post is #30 of my Project 366. One month down, eleven to go. Congratulations to…, me! Keep up the great work. 😁
There is an elevated boardwalk across a small creek along the Valley of the Five Lakes trail in Jasper National Park. The creek cannot be more than 2 m (~7 ft) across and is surrounded by lush riparian vegetation. When we visited, we came across a shrub by the creek, still leaf-less, sporting what looked like willow catkins. I am not a plant person so I am going out on a limb here, but the shrub looked like a form of Pussy Willow, one of the smaller species of the genus Salix. The catkins typically appear much earlier than the leaves and are traditionally considered one of the earliest signs of spring. With the light behind the shrubbery I decided to try to do a backlit shot with my Nikon P1000. With the jumble of branches, not surprisingly, the camera did not have any trouble focusing on the shrubbery. A similar scenario occurred a bit further along the trail. Lots of shrubbery in the foreground, but this time a bear family lounging in the understory behind the jumble of branches. Perhaps not surprising, the camera focused on the shrubbery rather than the bear family. This is a common scenario as most of the subjects I photograph are birds in, you guessed in, trees and shrubs. Often with a jumble of branches between me and them. I have only had the P1000 for a few weeks so far. With my lack of previous experience with digital cameras, taming this beast is quite frustrating at times. There is an active P1000 Facebook group that I peruse when things get out of hand, just to remind me that it is actually a quite capable camera able to to take stunning images once you master it. My experience shooting through shrubbery with the P1000 reminds me of Monty Python’s The Knights Who Say Ni, where the Head King demand a shrubbery as a appeasement in return for letting Arthur and his party pass unharmed. Once Arthur brings the shrubbery it turns out that the Knights Who Say Ni are no longer the Knights Who Say Ni, but rather the Knights Who Say Ecky-ecky-ecky-ecky-pikang-zoom-boing-mumble-mumble who now require another shrubbery and also require Arthur to cut down mightiest tree in the forest… with … a herring! Nonsensical, yes, but sometimes my success (or lack thereof) with the P1000 is reminiscent of this farce.