Saturday, February 6, 2016

Great Birding Escapes

The Gannets of Bonaventure Island
Bobby Harrison

     The great Appalachia range that rises from the plains of Georgia and extends some fifteen hundred miles north, find its end at the tip Canada’s Gaspe’ Peninsula. There, on the tip of the Gaspe’ the mountaintops wane, and submerge below the deep blue waters of the Gulf of Saint Lawrence.   In what seems to be a last hurrah, the once and mighty range rises once more above the watery surface two miles off the shores of Perce’, Quebec. The emergent mountain is Bonaventure Island, the sight of what many ornithologist claim to be the most impressive wildlife spectacles on the planet.
Bonaventure Island, home to the largest Northern Gannet colony in North America.
(click on image to enlarge)
     By April northern gannets begin to arrive on the island to establish nest, a few at first, but soon they begin to arrive by the thousands.  Gannets, seabirds with a six-and-a-half foot wing span spends eight months of the year on the open sea.  Driven by instinct, the birds seek dry land to nest, and Bonaventure provides the perfect habitat.  The east side of the island rises vertically 250 feet above the water with cliffs riddled with nooks, crannies and ledges that serve as ideal nesting platforms.  By the end of April more than sixty-five thousand pairs of gannets descend upon the island to raise their young, a sight that is hard to comprehend until seen.  For this reason, I arrive on Bonaventure to experience the gannetry and capture the show with my camera.
Seaward side of Bonaventure Island showing Gannets nesting on the clift walls.
(click on image to enlarge)
     The boat trip to the island is short and weather conditions for shooting could not be better. A light cloud cover softens the light making photography conditions just perfect.  As I reach the seaward side of the island birds seem to swirl in a hurricane of flurry as uncountable numbers wing-in from the sea looking for their nest among the many 
Northen Gannet soaring over the cliffs of
Bonaventure Island.  (click on image to enlarge)
thousands that festooned the cliffs.  Soaring over the ocean many gannets flying just above the watery surface soar skyward sixty feet or more then turn and dive into the sea.  Just before impact their wings stretch back along their bodies and like arrows the birds strike the water and disappear below the surface.  Like corks the gannets pop back to the surface and take flight toward Bonaventure.
     Arriving on the leeward side of the island I begin the two-mile trudge toward gannetry.  After an hour into the trek, the uphill climb and forty-five pounds of camera gear begins to wear on me.  More than half way across the island I find a patch of bunchberries nestled against the trunk of a spruce.  The subtle beauty of the flowers called to be photographed, but more than that they provided a good excuse to take a breather from the climb.
Cornus canadensis (Bunchberry) -- Bonaventure Island, Quebec
(click on image to enlarge)
     As soon as I saw the patch of flowers I thought of Eliot Porter, the master of large format, color nature photography. Porter, in my opinion was the best bird photographer that has ever lived, and he himself had made a similar tract as I am making to the Bonaventure gannetry. In fact, if you are a nature photographer you are following in the Porter’s footsteps. He pioneered the use of color nature photography. He is best known for his exquisitely detailed bird, nature close-ups. His book, In Wilderness is the Preservation of the World, was the first oversized coffee table book. Porter’s work inspired a new genre of photography, and future generations of nature photographers.  The Bunchberries beckoned to be photographed.  Though I was in a hurry to get to the gannetry I could not pass this exquisite Lilliputian landscape, and pay homage to this giant of photography.

A small stretch of the gantry on  Bonaventure Island
(click on image to enlarge)
        Soon, I am back on the trail and it is not long until I received my first indication I am close to the rookery.  With each step I take, the screams and cries produced by the immense number of gannets was deafening.   As I walk into the colony the scenery is astonishing, as far as the eye can see gannets line the top of the cliffs.  But, what I see is only part of the colony, the birds line the cliffs for almost a mile.

Northern Gannet, Morus bassanus Bonaventure Island; Perce', Quebec
(click on image to enlarge)
      The gannetry is a menagerie of activity; thousands of gannets sit on nests placed only a beaks reach apart. The air is full of birds zipping over the polka-dotted landscape, each carrying masses of seaweed for nest, or food for its nestling.  Impeccable flyers, gannets are quit clumsy landing and walking on solid ground.  Once a gannet finds its nest it falls from the sky and tumbles onto ground where it’s mate awaits.  

Northern Gannet arriving with nesting material.
(click on image to enlarge)
Leaving the nest is bit more difficult.  Gannets must find their way to the edge of the cliff and launch themselves into the air.  Birds further from the edge of the cliff run a gauntlet of pecking from its neighbors before becoming airborne. There seems to be no peace for any birds in the colony as quarrels and persistent pecking by, and at neighbor is the norm.
     There is another side to the birds, a tender side.  Once a gannet finds its nest and the neighboring bullying subsides, 
Pair bonding ritual of mated pair of Northern Gannet.
(click on image to enlarge)
the mated pair performs a choreographed dance.  With beaks pointing skyward the pair rubs their bills together in a jester of recognition and pair bonding.  The affectionate affair takes less than a minute.
      One of the hardest things about shooting in the gannetry is showing the immensity of the colony as well as the individuality of a bird.  It takes time to find my place among the countless number of gannets.  As I find that place, I also find individuals that exhibit behavior that satisfies my curiosity, and I discover that the gannetry of Bonaventure Island truly is one of the most impressive wildlife spectacles on the planet.

For more information on Elliott Porter:

Tourist Information and boat tickets to Bonaventure Island
Tourist Office of Perce' - Tourist Information Center
142 Route 132 West
Perce', QC G0C 2L0
+1 418-782-5448
Closes at 9:00 PM


Hotel Motel Fleu De Lys                           Riotel Perce
248 QC-132                                                261 QC-132
Perce', QC G0C 2L0                                   Perce', QC G0C 2L0
Canada                                                        Canada
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Hotel la Normandie                                 =Hotel Motel Manoir de
221 Rte. 132 Quest, C.P. 129                    132 Route de l'E'glise
Perce', QC G0C 1V0                                 Perce', QC G0C 1A0
Canada                                                        Canada
+ 418-782-2112                                         + 418-782-2022              

The Mirage Hotel                                      Hotel-Motel Rocher Perce
288 Route 132 Quest                                 111 route 132 Quest
Perce', QC G0C 2L0                                  Perce', QC G0C 2L0
Canada                                                       Canada
+1 418-782-5151                                       +1 418-782-2330                                          

Auberge Les Trois Soeurs                         Au Pic del l'Aurore
77 QC-132                                                 C.P. 339
Perce', QC G0C 2L0                                  Perce', QC G0c 2L0
Canada                                                       Canada
+1 418-782-2183                                       (866) 882-2151     

Camping du Village                                   Camping Bale-De-Perce
16 Rue Donohue                                        180 Route 132 Quest
Perce', QC G0C 2L0                                  Perce', QC G0C 2L0
+1 418-782-2020                                       + 418-782-5102           

Camping au Havre de la Nuit Inc.            Camping Cote Surprise
16 Rue Biard                                             335 route 132 Quest
Perce' QC G0C 2L0                                  Perce' QC G0C 2L0
Canada                                                      Canada         

Restaurant Biard Enr                             Le Recif
99 132 Rte W.                                           119 132 Rte W.
Perce', QC G0C 2L0                                 Perce', QC G0C 2L0
Canada                                                      Canada
+1 418-782-2873                                      +1 418-782-5622

Boite A Lunch Les Etes                          Restaurant La Table a' Roland
774 132 Rte W.                                         190 Route 132 Quest
Perce' QC  G0C 2L0                                 Perce' QC G0C 2L0
Canada                                                      Canada
+1 418-782-2937                                      +1 418-782-2606

Restaurant Resto du Village                  Restaurant Le Surcouf Cafe'
162-A route 132 Quest                             168 route 132 Auest
Perce' QC G0C 2L0                                  Perce', QC G0C 2L0
Canada                                                      Canada
+1 418-782-5009                                      +1 418+782-5656

Saturday, January 30, 2016

Pic of the Day

Acorn Woodpecker, Melanerpes formicivorus:  Madera Canyon, Arizona
     Acorn Woodpeckers are very social birds living in large groups, a descent of woodpeckers, in western oak woodlands.  Santa Rita Lodge in Madera Canyon, Arizona is an excellent place to see this magnificent species up-close and personal.  They are regular visitors to the feeders at the lodge and have no fear of humans.  They can also be seen throughout the area forest gathering acorn to stash in the group's larder tree.  There, at the larder tree they drill holes, just large enough to tightly hold a single acorn, which they tap into the hole.  The larder trees provide a supply of food through lean times.  I have seen a few larder trees in the past, but have never photographed one.  Hopefully this year I will find and photograph one with birds at the tree. 

Nikon D300, Nikkor 500mm f/4 with 1.4 converter, 1/50 second @ f/6.3

Sunday, January 24, 2016

Pic of the Day

Red-bellied Woodpecker, Melanerpes carolinus:
Horse Cove; near Gurley, Alabama
     Reminiscing about spring on this warmer winter day and watching Red-bellied Woodpeckers at my suet feeder, I thought I would post a photo from last April.  This handsome fellow, in full breeding plumage, was shot at the suet feeder in my backyard.  I use a special suet, called “Bark Butter.”  Bark Butter is produced by, and sold at Wild Birds Unlimited stores.  It is like a magnet for birds, especially drawing woodpeckers and nuthatches. They love the stuff!  Every morning when I add the Bark Butter to the feeder the woodpeckers around the house begin to call.  Before I finish spreading the suet the woodpeckers are clinging onto nearby trees waiting for me to finish.  No sooner do I turn to walk away the woodpeckers begin swooping to the feeding tree.  On day that I am home I fill the suet tree 2 to 3 times a day.   These birds always provide me with hours of shooting.

Nikon D800, Nikkor 500mm f/4, 1/100 second @ f/8

Tuesday, January 19, 2016

Pic of the Day

Hairy Woodpecker,  Picoides villosus:
Horse Cove; near Gurley, Alabama

Downy Woodpecker, Picoides pubescens:
Horse Cove; near Gurley, Alabama
      Many Hairy vs Downy Woodpecker identification sites mention that Hairy Woodpeckers have all-white outer tail feathers (rectrices), as compared to Downy Woodpeckers whose outer tail feathers have black bars.  What is not mentioned, is that Hairy Woodpeckers may have a few black marks on the outer rectrices[1].  Around my house, all of the Hairy Woodpeckers I have seen, have a few black spots on the outer rectrices also, as shown in this photo. (top)
     Also note that the Hairy Woodpecker's bill length is almost as long as the width of its head, while the length of the Downy Woodpecker's bill length is less than half the width of its head.
I often have to look twice when I see either of these birds at my feeder, and look very carefully at the bird's bill length.  You can't always rely on dark spots on the outer rectrices to separate the two species.

[1] Identification Guide to North American Birds, Part 1 Columbidae to Ploceidae; Peter Pyle; Slate Creek Press, Bolinas, California; 1997, p189

Top (Hairy Woodpecker):  Nikon D800, Nikkor 500mm f/4, 1/80 second @ f/7.1
Bottom (Downy Woodpecker): Nikon D800, Nikkor 500mm f/4, 1/160 second @ f/7.1

Saturday, January 16, 2016

Pic of the Day

Lewis's Woodpecker, Melanerpes lewis:
Larry Creek Loop; North of Stevensville, Montana
     This is a bird that I had longed to photograph and finally got the chance in 2012.  I began my search in Montana’s Glacier National Park.  After talking with a Park Ranger I was directed to Polebridge, a small, out of the way tourist destination on western outskirts of the park.  I drove many miles around the area which was very good Lewis’s Woodpecker habitat, but after a full day of searching I had no luck.  I spent a few more days in Glacier then decided to head south and look elsewhere. 
     It wasn’t long till I found myself in Metcalf National Wildlife Refuge near Stevensville, Montana.  On my third day of shooting at Metcalf I came across another photographer who told me about seeing a Lewis’s Woodpecker.  Within the hour I saw my first Lewis’s.  It was a lone bird flying from telephone pole to telephone pole along a dirt road. 
     I followed the woodpecker for a quarter of mile when it joined a couple of more birds in a wooded ravine.  After watching the group for a few minutes I saw one of the birds fly to a snag with insects in its beak.  I had found a nest right beside the road.
    I spent three mornings observing and photographing Lewis’s Woodpecker at the nest tree.  Though the young were too young to be seen, the adults but on a great show as they brought food to their nestlings.  This bird was photographed after it delivered its insect morsels and hitched up the nest tree to pose for the camera.

Nikon D7000, Nikkor 500mm f/4, 1/1000 second @ f/7.1

Saturday, January 9, 2016

Pic of the Day

Pygmy Nuthatch, Sitta pygmaea:  Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado
      It was my second visit to Rocky Mountain National Park that I overnighted at the Moraine Park Campground.  During the night a fierce storm raged through the campground, a driving rain poured in such torrents that I began to wonder if my van was going to float away.  Not having weather information available I wasn’t sure if I would see a sunrise the next morning or not, but by dawn the storm had passed and the clouds began to breakup shortly after dawn.  
     On my way out of the campground that morning I noticed some small birds flying between pine trees near the campground entrance.  By the jizz of the birds I suspected them to be Pygmy Nuthatches, and as soon as I got my bins on the birds, my suspicions were confirmed.  I quickly pulled off the road, grabbed my camera and headed toward the birds.  No sooner had I reached the nuthatches I discovered that the birds had a nest in an old pine snag.   The birds were busy feeding and among the pinecones and making trips to and from the nest cavity.  I took this shot as one of the birds poked its head from the cavity and stopped briefly before launching itself into the air.  By the look on its face, it doesn’t appear too happy to have its picture taken. 

This picture appeared on the back cover of the Autumn, 2013 issue of Living Bird Magazine.

Nikon D800, Nikkor 500mm f/4, 1/200 second @ f/6.3