Fall Birds Along The San Francisco Bay

A bewick's wren perches on a narrow branch, Redwood Shores, CA.

Winter is coming to the SF Bay Area, and so are the wonderful variety of wintering birds. I set out on a recent afternoon to see what the winds have brought in, and to capture some of these winged denizens in beautiful golden light. Looking back through the day’s photos though, I realized that most of what I saw were year-round birds. Oh well, even if I didn’t see a typical winter’s variety, the winter months always tend to be a bit more “birdy” around here.

A european starling perches on the top of an ornamental bush, Redwood Shores, CA.
A european starling perches on the top of an ornamental bush, Redwood Shores, CA.

First up on the list was a young European starling. Yes, I know, some consider this more or less a garbage bird, but if you see a good specimen in nice light, it can make a rather pleasent photo.

A double-crested cormorant swims through still water, Redwood Shores, CA.
A double-crested cormorant swims through still water, Redwood Shores, CA.

The next bird I spent time with is a very popular one along the bay – the double-crested cormorant. I got some nice close-up shots has this one swam back and forth, diving for food.

A double-crested cormorant flies low over the water, Redwood Shores, CA.
A double-crested cormorant flies low over the water, Redwood Shores, CA.

My patience with this commoner was rewarded with some decent take-off and flight shots. Birds in flight are more than a little difficult to shoot with my 800mm beast. So I always give a thank you to those who take off slowly, giving my ample time to track them with autofocus.

A green heron stands in iceplant next to a water channel, Redwood Shores, CA.
A green heron stands in iceplant next to a water channel, Redwood Shores, CA.

Green herons are pretty common around my house, but are usually seen only by the most avid birders. You wouldn’t think it from the photograph, but these guys can really blend into the rocks and vegetation surrounding the water channels. If they aren’t moving, they are very hard to spot, even when scanning a shoreline with a scope. Therefore, it is always a treat when I do see one and can get close enough for decent photographs.

A sooty fox sparrow perches on a small branch, Redwood Shores, CA.
A sooty fox sparrow perches on a small branch, Redwood Shores, CA.

Fox sparrows have a wide range, which includes both breeding and wintering in the Bay Area. However, I’ve seen them more commonly in the winter. These guys are definitely more rare than some of the most common sparrows, and I was happy to catch one on camera as it stopped for a few quick seconds on a branch.

A bewick's wren perches on a narrow branch, Redwood Shores, CA.
A bewick’s wren perches on a narrow branch, Redwood Shores, CA.

I’m always happy to see these wrens flitting about. They are uncommon enough to warrant excitement, and it was nice to capture one in a natural environment. I have a family of Bewick’s wrens that visit my front yard, but photographs of bird feeders are relegated to my stock collection.

A white-crowned sparrow perches on the top of a bush, Redwood Shores, CA.
A white-crowned sparrow perches on the top of a bush, Redwood Shores, CA.

White-crowned sparrows are very common during the winter along the bay, but are not seen here in the summer months. However, they are year round residents just over the hill along the coast. Seeing white-crowned sparrows often reminds me of the diversity of San Mateo county and how you can see an entirely different ecosystem of birds by traveling a few short miles.

A great egret stands next to a water channel, looking for fish, Redwood Shores, CA.
A great egret stands next to a water channel, looking for fish, Redwood Shores, CA.

Finally, I rounded out my afternoon with the big daddy of the marsh, the great egret. They are very common, but also beautiful. Here I found a nice looking specimen so I spent a little time photographing him. Overall, it was a pretty birdy afternoon – I’m looking forward to the influx of wintering waterfowl that will bring great visual variety to the area.

Gear I used to create the photos in this post:

Bird On A Wire – Birds Of Ontario

On a trip to Ontario Canada a while back, I was able to spend some time photographing some of the area’s local birds, knowing that many of what I found there would be new species to me. I quickly found a few local residents, but as my time was short, I wasn’t able to get all of them without man-made elements in the frame.

An eastern kingbird perches on a wire fence, Wolf Island, Ontario, Canada.

The first such local was an eastern kingbird. He was perched right next to a country road, at perfect eye level with my lens, which was resting on a bean bag sitting in an open window. Often bean bags are the best supports from which to shoot from a vehicle, especially if you want the opportunity to shoot out both sides of the car. Often Kerry is kind enough to drive slowly (and as quietly as possible) down country roads while I keep the back seat to myself and move back and forth between the rear windows as required.

I usually try to capture birds in more natural environments, but there were no trees nearby, there was a perfect distant background, and I had no time to wait for a better perch.

A female bobolink perches on a wire fence, Wolf Island, Ontario, Canada.

The second bird I photographed in the same area (and yes, perched on a similar wire fence to the first bird) was a female bobolink. I saw several males in the area as well, but they stayed farther from the road and I didn’t get any worthwhile photos of them. It is always difficult identifying female species as the coloring can be quite different than the males. Since males typically have more differentiating colors, species are usually described using the males’ attributes instead of the females. To identify female birds, I often troll through hundreds of photos after guessing at the species, or at least narrowing down the family of bird.

A mute swan swims through calm water in a wetland, Kingston, Ontario, Canada.

I also got some decent photos of a mute swan, and finally without distracting “hand of man” elements! Mute swans are native to Europe and Asia, but have established sizable populations in the coastal areas of the Great Lakes. I felt lucky to see one in the wild, as I’d never find one on the west coast of the US.

An osprey flies with wings stretched, Wolf Island, Ontario, Canada.

My last bird for the day was not a new species for me, but who can’t marvel at a beautiful osprey in flight? The local area had erected several nesting towers to encourage the birds to raise their young here. This osprey had chicks in the nest, and gave me lots of great flight shots as it flew to and from the nest.

An osprey perches on the edge of a man-made nest tower, Wolf Island, Ontario, Canada.

Here the osprey is perched at the edge of its nesting tower, looking majestic.

It is always fun to travel to new areas for nature photography. While landscape photography dictates that you continually visit new areas, bird and wildlife photography can often be done closer to home. Closer to home, you often have much more time with an animal, but with traveling, nothing beats the thrill of seeing what’s around the next corner.

Gear I used to create the photos in this post:

Brown Pelican, Mexico

A brown pelican flies low over the water, looking for a place to rest, Puerto Vallarta, Mexico
A brown pelican stands in shallow water along the beach, Puerto Vallarta, Mexico
A brown pelican stands in shallow water along the beach, Puerto Vallarta, Mexico

Finding the right place from which to photograph wildlife takes experience and patience. When arriving at a new location with the intention of photographing wildlife, I first scout the area very similar to how I’d scout for a landscape shot. In this case I’m looking for one place to hunker down that is likely to yeild a good variety of animals with great light.

In this instance, I found a low area of sand jutting out into the water, just inches above the high tide. As it was morning, the sun was at my back, and I could shoot birds wading in the water in three directions, all without moving. I kept still and tried to make very slow movements so as not to spook any subjects.

As I was shooting some smaller birds now coming quite close to me, a large brown pelican arrived on the scene, very close to me. I took the opportunity to get some portrait shots of this beautiful specimen while it was preening, and generally not paying me any attention. I don’t believe I would have been able to approach this bird this closely if I had been stalking it. But by remaining in one spot and being still, I created a space that seemed safe for a variety of birds to approach me.

A brown pelican flies low over the water, looking for a place to rest, Puerto Vallarta, Mexico
A brown pelican flies low over the water, looking for a place to rest, Puerto Vallarta, Mexico

Unfortunately, this was not an isolated location, and soon other beach goers wandered by without any thought to disturbing wildlife. My only reaction was to prepare for the pelican’s inevitable takeoff, and make sure I captured it in camera.

Royal Tern

A royal tern flies low over a flock of shorebirds, Puerto Vallarta, Mexico
A royal tern stands among a flock of shorebirds, Puerto Vallarta, Mexico
A royal tern stands among a flock of shorebirds, Puerto Vallarta, Mexico

Whenever I’m at the beach I take a close look at any shorebirds I see, scanning to see if there is an uncommon species in the bunch. On a recent trip to Mexico, I was rewarded with great views (and photographs) of a Royal Tern. This is not necessarily an uncommon species, but one that I don’t get to see often.

When I see a target bird among a larger group, I do my best to isolate it photographically so that it will stand out as a well defined main subject. In this case I wasn’t able to photograph it away from a multitude of sandpipers, but by using the largest aperture I had available, I was able to isolate the tern using depth of field. By focusing on its eye, I made sure it was the only bird it focus, drawing the viewers eye to it.

A royal tern flies low over a flock of shorebirds, Puerto Vallarta, Mexico
A royal tern flies low over a flock of shorebirds, Puerto Vallarta, Mexico

It is also a good idea to be patient, as you never know when you’re going to see action. In this case, I spent some time focused on the tern and was rewarded when it suddenly took flight. I was ready to go, and got several sharp in-flight photos before it disappeared.

The next time you see a large group of shorebirds clustered together, spend a little time picking through the crowd. You might just be surprised what you find!