Thursday, July 13, 2017

For the love of pipits!

After a splendid season of surveying Sprague’s Pipits in Manitoba’s grasslands, I am feeling rather pipit-inspired and have decided to share a series of photos of different species from around the globe. Pipits are not as boldly patterned as their relatives the wagtails but the pack in a lot of mystique and offer a wonderful birding challenged to find and identify.

Sprague’s Pipit (Anthus spragueii), Manitoba, Canada:
One of the highlights of so much surveying in cattle pastures this year was getting some exceptional opportunities to SEE Sprague’s Pipit. I emphasise the word “see” because 9 times out of 10 one hears Sprague’s Pipit but cannot spot the speck in the sky. These grassland birds make their haunting song carry further by singing high in the air over the grasslands. This year though, having spent so much time in grasslands such as cattle pastures for #MBSARPAL ( and on  community pastures, I saw no less than six of them on the ground (more than I have seen on the ground in 15 years of birding in Manitoba). Here is one that shows the bird well (including the white outer rectrices) stitched together with a habitat shot that shows a pipit walking through some beautiful mixed-grass prairie. . 

Buff-bellied Pipit, a.k.a American Pipit (Anthus rubescens), Manitoba, Canada and Wyoming, U.S.A.:
The other pipit we regularly see in North America is known in North America as “American Pipit” but this species also breeds in much of Siberia and northernmost China and winters in Asia as well so most of the world prefers to call the species Buff-bellied Pipit. Different populations breed in Arctic, Subarctic or alpine tundra and can look rather different (some more pink in breeding plumage and some more buff). The first collage shows a bird in the subarctic tundra of northern Manitoba, Canada and a close-up of a bird foraging in the inter-tidal zone of Hudson Bay. The second collage shows a bird in rocky alpine habitat in Wyoming and then a juvenile on a boulder slope.

Yellowish Pipit (Anthus lutescens), Salta Argentina:
The Yellowish Pipit is one of the more widespread and smaller of the South American pipits. This species is found in grasslands and other relatively open habitat types from the dry zone of southern South America to the tropical wet savannas, even as far north as Panama. 

Hellmayr’s Pipit (Anthus hellmayri), Tucumán, Argentina:
The subtly beautiful Hellmay’s Pipit is an enigmatic grassland pipit, found most commonly in the drier grasslands of the Puna (as high as 3700 m ASL) but also in pastures in some contexts. Some populations are resident and some are migratory and there is the possibility that some subspecies may in fact be cryptic species. This composite shows the bird up close on a rock and in the typical Puna habitat it calls home. It reminds me a lot of our Sprague’s Pipit but perhaps with a more speckled face.

Rosy Pipit (Anthus roseatus), Sichuan, China:
There are a few pipits that have soft pink or red in their plumage and the Rosy Pipit is one of my absolute favourites. This collage shows a bird in breeding plumage in the high mountains of Sichuan, China. This species is an altitudinal migrant, breeding in the alpine meadows and grassy slopes of the Himalayas and eastern Asia, even at the snow line, and wintering in the mid elevations plains.

Olive-backed Pipit (Anthus hodgsoni), South Korea and China:
The Olive-backed Pipit is one of the more common and widespread Asian pipits. This species breeds in a diverse mixture of habitat types especially where the taiga meets the tundra and where the montane forest meets the alpine zone, and, at least in the breeding season, seems to spend more time perched in shrubs and trees than many other pipits. You can even find them walking on the forest floor or fallen conifer needles at times. Like the Rosy Pipit, the alpine populations migrate down slope in winter and some go as far south as Borneo. This collage shows a few habitat types and plumages (a bird perched on a shrub in breeding plumage, a bird on a lawn in spring and a bird on the forest floor in autumn). 

Tawny Pipit (Anthus campestris), Rajasthan, India:
The Tawny Pipit is mostly a Western Palearctic breeding species that winters in sub-Saharan Africa (Sahel) and parts of the Middle East and the Indian Subcontinent. The large and fairly plain (i.e. unstreaked) pipit is easier to identify than many other pipits. It is found mostly in dry habitats as shown here in western India on the wintering grounds. Although it can be found in grassland you will also find this species in sand, gravel, semi-desert and shrubland.

Plain-backed Pipit (Anthus leucophrys), Cameroon:
The Plain-backed Pipit is one of the African resident pipit species (i.e. does not migrate) and a striking bird with its rich tawny underparts. This species is found in savanna and grassland with scattered shrubs and trees as shown here (photo from Cameroon).

Saturday, July 8, 2017

Dickcissel in Manitoba

The Dickcissel (Spiza americana) may look like a yellowish House Sparrow (and they may even flock together) but it is in the cardinal family (Cardinalidae). This is a fascinating grassland bird, although it likes tall vegetation that includes hay fields and rice paddies. This species migrates to northern South America in massive flocks many thousand strong, and by the time they reach South America the flocks can number in the millions. The Dickcissel is an irruptive species and in most years is rare or absent from Manitoba, which is outside their “core” range. In irruption years, such as 2012 and 2017 though birders look for them across the south of the province. Here are two of eight I photographed near St. Claude.

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

On the impact of owls

I am sharing a different experience in this post to speak to the power that owls have to influence our lives. I do so with permission of the family involved. Normally, when I do educational workshops in schools or for a young audience, the props for teaching include photos, pellets, mounts from the museum’s education collection and other items. Sometimes however, when a child or children show(s) a genuine spark of interest, there can be opportunities for something even more impactful, as long as the proper precautions are taken.

Recently, a close friend, who is a stellar naturalist, and I took his two young nephews to see some Northern Hawk Owls in the flesh. The boys have a fascination for wildlife and it seems their interest and love of owls is particularly ardent. I had been watching a pair of Northern Hawk Owls (with intentionally infrequent visits) and after patiently waiting for over two months for the post-fledging stage (i.e. getting past the times when they are most sensitive to disturbance), we decided the time was right to show the boys this family of owls.

It was a truly amazing experience for them and for me as well. Their fascination with the form and grace of the owls was apparent; for example they were quick to spot the plumage differences between adult and juvenile, but there were also many subtle teaching opportunities. These opportunities were not just about the owls per se. It was a lesson in respect in a few different ways, the obvious ones being keeping still, remaining quiet at all times, staying well back to observe the owls from a distance (with the aid of a spotting scope/long lens) and limiting the time of observation to just a few minutes. There were also more subtle points like sticking together and not trampling vegetation. The boys got to take some photos which will now be printed as a keep-sake of their big experience. I was so impressed with both their enthusiasm and their respect and, above all, with the way they handled one of childhood’s most difficult challenges… balancing enthusiasm with respect!

Any observation of nesting owls requires great care and I never underestimate the challenge of observing with minimal impact. This guides all my actions as an observer and as an ornithologist. However, especially when I think of my own formative experiences, I see immense value in this type of education through direct experience and I believe that with caution and care this can be done with respect.

The two photos are of us observing the owls from a distance and one of a Northern Hawk Owl fledgling (1 of 4) taken by one of the boys (cropped and processed by me).

Saturday, June 17, 2017

Species At Risk Partnership on Agricultural Land

Our Manitoba SARPAL (Species At Risk Partnership on Agricultural Land) surveys on cattle ranching pastures ( are going well. These four Species At Risk were photographed on this year’s surveys – can you identify them?

Tuesday, May 30, 2017

Western Manitoba

I’ve been blown away in the last few days, literally and figuratively, with some truly wonderful sightings and a long list of birds. Filming with the Fou des oiseaux crew ( was a total blast but I guess I probably should wait until their episode on Manitoba comes out before giving too much away on that. So in the meantime, here is one of those moments when a great bird blows in front of two people who have never seen the species before… a Say’s Phoebe (Sayornis saya) from the wondrous Whitewater Lake Important Bird Area, with special thanks to Colin and Gillian, the fantastic IBA caretakers there!

Monday, May 15, 2017

Golden-winged Warbler in Winnipeg

The Golden-winged Warbler is a Threatened species and I am privileged to be part of the monitoring and recovery efforts in Canada. Although, I have surveyed and studied this species on its breeding grounds here in Manitoba, and seen them in their wintering grounds, I rarely see this species in migration. Yesterday morning, however, I first heard and then saw this beautiful male in my very own neighbourhood. He even stuck around long enough for a photo. He was foraging in the buds and young curled up leaves as shown here (this species specialises in feeding on caterpillars and other invertebrates in curled up dead leaves). It was a rare treat on a beautiful Sunday morning of May migration magic.

The recovery strategy for Golden-winged Warbler in Canada is viewable at:

Monday, May 8, 2017

Celebrating International Migratory Bird Day (#IMBD), Sat 13th May, at Oak Hammock Marsh

This year, to celebrate International Migratory Bird Day on Saturday May 13th in style, there is a series of great activities planned at the Oak Hammock Marsh Interpretive Centre.  There is something for everyone, including young naturalists, and all are welcome to join. If you can’t make it yourself, please also help us spread the word.  Please note that all indoor activities require regular admission to the centre. The full programme is below:

* 8 a.m. – 10 a.m.      BIRDING MARSHWALK:  led by Christian Artuso and Tim Poole from Manitoba's Important Bird Area Program. Pre-registration is required. Cost is $6 per person.

* 10 a.m. – 3 p.m.      CRAFT:  Help to make a colourful flock of birds by painting bird silhouettes that will be displayed in our lobby.

* 11 a.m. – 12 p.m.    WARBLERS OF MANITOBA:  PowerPoint presentation in the Interpretive Centre theatre by Christian Artuso. Learn some interesting facts about Manitoba's Warblers and their identification.

* 12 p.m. – 3 p.m.      BIRD BANDING with Paula Grieef: View songbird banding with Oak Hammock Marsh’s resident  naturalist and see these little birds up close.

*12 p.m. – 1 p.m.       SHOREBIRD IDENTIFICATION WORKSHOP:  Christian Artuso will walk you through identifying shorebirds. This is a follow-up to the Nature Manitoba indoor workshop Christian gave in April (but open to all). We will concentrate on the exposed mud areas near the interpretive centre, where some shorebirds have begun to gather.  If you have a spotting scope, please bring it and also bring the shorebird ID cards we gave out at the indoor workshop. This workshop is free of charge but please pre-register with the centre so we have a handle on numbers.

* 1 p.m. – 2 p.m.        BIRD SURVEY:  Join an interpreter and record the bird species spotted in the marsh.

Hope to see you there. Meanwhile, enjoy the wonders of spring migration!

Wednesday, April 12, 2017

On the Ethics of Photographing Owls (and other wildlife)

This post is in two parts, the first being a guest blog post by Sandra Cote and the second part by me.

THE ETHICS OF OWL PHOTOGRAPHY                                                                                            by Sandra Coté

With the rapid emergence of digital photography and online photo-hosting sites, we notice an alarming trend of harassment and abuse of owls for photography. Social media, being a small world, allows us to quickly hear of disturbing incidents outside of this group. We have even discovered a few photographers who have sought to maintain social licence by vehemently denying baiting, even going so far as to personally attack anyone who inquires, despite unequivocal evidence of their activity. Some disturbing examples are listed below (note the extent of evidence in these cases varies from photographs and videos to posts, reports, and anecdotal comments):

*     people yelling, shaking branches, throwing snow, and poking at a roosting group of Long-eared Owls with a stick, with the intention of obtaining action photos of the owls in flight
*     a Barred Owl being baited by a group of photographers who demanded others pay a fee if they wished to take photos
*     owl calls being played over a loudspeaker during the day to lure locally endangered Short-eared Owls while they were resting at a wildlife refuge
*     a Northern Hawk Owl being distracted from hunting by photographers luring it with a mouse enclosed in a glass jar
*     a Barred Owl being baited at a public park by several people who verbally assaulted the woman who attempted to intervene on behalf of the owl
*     a Great Gray Owl killed in traffic as it was being baited across a road
*     a Northern Saw-whet Owl killed by a Cooper’s Hawk when it was flushed from its protective roost during the day
*     owls roosting or nesting in trees disturbed by people climbing ladders or trimming foliage to gain better photos (leaving human scent trails and exposing vulnerable owls to predators)
*     people nailing the tails of live mice to posts (and in other cases tying them to a stick) with the intent of baiting Snowy Owls
*     a rare sighting of a Northern Hawk Owl posted on social media which resulted in about 80 requests for its location in exchange for money
*     various instances where “celebrity” owls have been killed after becoming habituated to people and vehicles

In response to such incidents and to encourage good ethics, Dr. Christian Artuso, ornithologist and conservationist by profession, has prepared a document on photographing owls which demonstrates how to obtain photos with as little disturbance as possible—something we all need to work towards.

ETHICAL PHOTOGRAPHY OF OWLS                                                                                          by Christian Artuso

As wildlife photography goes, owls make easy photographic subjects! They are creatures of habit, they sit still for long periods and they fly low and slow. In temperate climates at least, there are seasonal opportunities to photograph these primarily nocturnal birds during daylight. In today’s world of listservs and multiple sources of immediate information sharing, the burden of finding these mysterious creatures is greatly reduced—most photographers no longer find owls, they simply go to see them at known locations! At the same time, their mystique and enigma has not been lost, their elusive reputation being matched by their personality and character, perhaps especially because of their large, human-like, forward-facing eyes and rounded heads. Their enormous popularity as photographic subjects is thus hardly surprising. This offers opportunities for awareness and conservation but it also poses problems for the owls themselves. This article discusses ways to minimise disturbance so that the sheer joy of watching owls can be shared while minimising the risk of harming the beautiful subjects we love.

The best owl photos come from those who invest the time (years) to learn about their subject. Owls are not all the same and there are different ways to find different species and different places to look at different times of the year. There are seasons and occasions when certain species can be found in daylight, which simplifies the photographic challenge enormously (some species are more crepuscular or even diurnal). It pays to take your time and treat photography as a learning tool. It may be easy to rush around, following others, and then “point and shoot” but that will not distinguish your photography from the crowd. It also pays to back away whenever you can and observe from a distance. This is really the only way to see the amazing adaptations of owls in action. I will discuss various different contexts below but in each case you will find reference to three main principles:

·         Precautionary Principle (don’t risk disturbance, i.e. when in doubt, leave it out)
·         Respectful Distance
·         Respectful Duration (length of time observing or photographing an owl)

Roosting Owls
Photographing an owl on a day roost is the easiest way to photograph those species that are secretive and nocturnal but there are some key pointers to keep in mind. Above all, don’t fall victim to the biggest fallacy in birding and wildlife photography, the near omnipresent owl-not-bothered fallacy. Many birders and photographers believe a roosting owl that does not flush is undisturbed, but nothing could be further from the truth! I have seen far too many photos where the photographer commented that the owl was “tolerant” or that the owl did not notice the human observer when there was clear evidence to the contrary (to better understand what to look for, see this article on signs of stress in owls: Owls, especially small owls, do not flush for a good reason, viz. it is very dangerous for them to leave their day roost! Nocturnal owls may be fierce predators but in the daytime their nocturnal adaptations (including slow flight) make them vulnerable to other predators. Small owls like Northern Saw-whet Owl would not normally hunt during daylight hours (unless food deprived) because it puts them at enormous risk. When you find an owl roosting, make no mistake that the owl is almost invariably aware of your presence. The owl will wait until the last minute to flush and may sometimes be “frozen in indecision”, i.e. unable to move while caught in the difficult decision of fleeing (with all its inherent risks) or sitting tight and trusting camouflage (which can go horribly wrong at close quarters). Don’t mistake closed eyes for sleeping either, as owls will frequently squint to be able to watch you but hide their most visible feature (their eyes). When you photograph a roosting owl, know that the owl is constantly assessing the threat you may pose and that this is energetically costly. For this reason, it is imperative that you limit your observation time of a roosting owl to just a few minutes. If you do spot an owl at close quarters, back away very slowly to maximise the distance from where you can observe any visible signs of stress subside, such as the tall-thin posture, erect ear-tufts or squinting. As always, remember the don’t-be-a-jerk rule, i.e. no sudden or brusque movements—back up very slowly and raise your camera slowly! Your photos will be much improved by backing off and the owl will thank you for it! 

Hunting Owls
For obvious reasons, observing animal behaviour is best done from a blind (or “hide” if you prefer the British term). A great paradox is that watching wildlife impacts wildlife, necessitating care and compromise in all recreational activities. Even the most skilled of observer can almost never achieve fly-on-the-wall status (something that birdwatchers forget too readily). Using a blind, greatly helps to minimise your influence on your subject and hence to observe natural behaviour. For many people, their vehicle is their most useful portable blind and this is especially true for owl photography. Especially in winter, there are numerous opportunities to observe day hunting owls and the best way to do this is at large distances from within a vehicle (or other blind). If you can see an owl from within your vehicle, then DON’T get out! If you absolutely need to get out, stay behind the vehicle and don’t slam doors. In this way you can sit and wait long enough for an owl to make a plunge. However, even in a vehicle at a distance, you still need to be mindful of the owl’s reaction to your presence and limit the amount of time you spend with any individual animal. Even in a vehicle, it is still not acceptable to spend multiple hours with one owl. In addition to the owl itself, be aware that you impact other things in the environment. Getting out of your car and walking over towards a ditch where an owl is hunting is likely to produce a change in the activity of small mammals like voles that are sensitive to ground vibrations. You can indirectly reduce an owl’s chances of hunting success in this way. 

Urban Owls
Some of the best opportunities to photograph owls come in urban settings. Some species can benefit from proximity to humans in certain ways, as Fred Gehlbach called it, the “suburban advantage”.  In a suburban environment, people can provide something of a shield from larger predators for small owls and they provide concentrations of food (for example under rodent-attracting bird feeders) and other advantages such as the urban heat island. Even in these circumstances though, never assume that the owls will tolerate too much intrusion. Excessive pedestrian activity after dark will deter the owls and hence the same precautions apply in cities. One of the best observation opportunities comes when you can use a building as a blind.      

Celebrity Owls
Many owl locations become so publicised or shared that some owls achieve celebrity status. Fame, however, comes at a cost. In all the time and distance considerations discussed above and below, you must remember the cumulative effects of multiple observers and reduce your time of observation accordingly. In most cases, the best thing to do is to resist the urge to visit a celebrity owl and leave it to those for whom it would be a species they rarely encounter. Without wishing to go into horrendous details, I have had the deaths of celebrity owls reported to me too many times over the past decade. The crowds may not be the cause of death but they certainly do not help. For this reason, also be considerate of how you share information about owls. Sharing with a trusted friend is one thing but never post precise locations for owls in public fora and delay data entry and/or buffer locations for sensitive species when using databases such as eBird (don’t forget that eBird and listservs have become a tool for trolls and, in some parts of the world, poachers too). Always remember that with a group of people, even a small group, the risks of disturbance are exponentially greater.

Nesting Owls
The most exciting period to observe owls is when they are feeding young but photographing owls around their nest is the MOST dangerous time, when your presence can have undesired consequences. The general principle to be aware of when observing adults and their offspring is that the closer any animal is to success, the less likely that animal is to abandon its reproductive effort. For owls, in the early stages such as when setting up territory or incubating, the risk of abandonment from small disturbances is high, whereas in the later stages such as when the nestlings are capable of thermoregulating or when fledglings are getting close to achieving independence, the risk of abandonment is much lower. For this reason, I almost never photograph owls during incubation or early brooding. When I find a nest, I note the stage and plan to come back when the young are large. Even in the late stages I maximise distance and minimise time of observation just to be sure.          

When observing nesting owls always be cognisant of the following:
·         You are being watched!
This is not just by the owls themselves but also the likes of crows and ravens that are savvy at following humans to places of interest. I have seen photographers lead crows to an owl nest (or roosting family party) on several occasions and there were consequences for the owlets. Watch your back and watch the skies and make sure you are not being followed.
·         You are being sniffed!
Raccoons, ringtails, opossums, black bears and others know how to follow your scent trail and if you lead them right to a nest tree you may find the nest depredated upon your return. Be extra careful, never trample a trail, never walk directly towards a nest, always use a circular approach leading away from the nest, never leave anything behind, never use flagging tape or physical memory aides, and visit infrequently.
·         Find the right window.
The principal is simple—don’t move so much as a leaf! You can find a window through vegetation that keeps you as concealed as possible. Never cut or tie back branches, never trim or tie any vegetation, and never leave any clue of your presence. Even with fledglings moving from day to day, they are still vulnerable and there are still many risks to observing them. In their first month or so outside the nest, they are especially vulnerable. Don’t be fooled by the cute appearance of curiosity either, these youngsters are processing a lot of new information and that is a survival adaptation not to be trifled with. Redouble all efforts to keep distance and minimise time of observation. If a natural barrier presents itself, such as photographing the owl family from across a small lake or creek, then use it to minimise risks.

Flash Photography and Lights
There are numerous misconceptions about flash photography but the empirical evidence strongly suggests that owl eyes react to lights in much the same way as our eyes do.  In many contexts, especially in the tropics, owls seek out artificial lights because they attract moths and other invertebrate prey. Like us, owls must adjust to changes in the amount of light and this adjustment takes time. Strong steady-beam lights directed at an owl are more problematic than flash itself (though they may be used in concert) and create a longer lag in adjustment time for the owl. If you must use lights therefore, always use indirect lighting (bounce the flash or shine the light on foliage and underexpose any light source, compensating with high ISO). A single person with a flash may well be less disturbing than a crowd of observers; however, great care is still needed when using flash. The first thing to remember is that there is no way to be an unobtrusive observer (trying to be hidden or camouflaged doesn’t work when you are using flash!). For this reason, it is imperative to limit flash use and time even more so than in other types of photography. I would recommend no more than five minutes use of artificial lights and always indirect lighting. If an owl is hunting in moonlight or near artificial light, you may be able to turn off the flash altogether. For more discussion on flash photography and references, see: Note: the pros and cons of the use of camera traps around nests is a more complicated topic that is beyond the scope of this article. 

Call Playback
There is no doubt that song/call playback can change the behaviour of birds. Much has been written on this subject so I will not go into the details here. Playback can be used responsibly and can be an aid in finding secretive animals but it should be minimised and never used in frequently visited locales, never to a celebrity owl, never on a known nesting territory and never used repeatedly in the same owl territory regardless of season and even if visits are weeks apart. If you are using playback for a nocturnal owl survey or to determine the identification of an owl, use it only as the protocol demands and as sparingly as possible to confirm detection or identification.

Although formerly considered to be “just feeding”, there is mounting evidence of harm and mortality caused by baiting owls. Owls react very differently (in terms of habituation and consequences) to feeding as compared to songbirds. Although all forms of feeding wildlife come with risks, baiting owls and other predators is especially problematic. Much has been written on this subject as well so I would encourage further reading from reputable sources. Due to increasing awareness of the magnitude of the problem, and to the body of evidence of harm, education campaigns and regulation changes have been recently enacted in some jurisdictions to address this issue. To trained eyes, baited photos are obvious and will be rejected because they are not natural and because they pose an unacceptable level of risk.

Final Notes
As always, remember the issues surrounding private property and people’s privacy too. Don’t be one of the few inconsiderate people who give the naturalists’ community a black eye.

Even after the photos are taken, when it comes time to share, there are things to consider. When posting and labelling photos, providing good contextual information (but not precise location) makes all the difference. A close-up of an owl in the tall-thin posture without any context will set off alarm bells to the educated viewer but the very same photo with an explanation that the photographer only noticed the owl at close quarters and then immediately backed away to minimise disturbance (cropping later for effect) is perfectly understandable and legitimate. Precisely because there are so many risks and because there are so many people looking at owl photos, posting any close-up of an owl these days requires a strong contextual explanation.

Whenever I seek photos for an article or other publication, or when I judge photo contests, I am not looking for how close you got or how long you observed an owl (those things are more likely to set off alarm bells). I am looking for your photographic contribution, i.e. documenting natural behaviour, unusual aspects, how owls use their adaptations in their natural habitat. The pinnacle of owl photography is not a close-up but rather a photo that “paints a thousand words” about the owl and the owl’s world.  Documenting natural animal behaviour (in photos, videos or in sound recordings) provides enormous satisfaction but, in order to keep it natural, remember to keep your distance, limit your time, and exercise the precautionary principle.
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