I recently did a throwback Thursday post on my Facebook page and figured that I should give it another go. Although the images that appear here aren’t from 20+ years ago as my first post, they are from one of my fondest memories as a photographer. Four years ago I flew up to New Jersey to photograph wintering birds (yeah, these birds winter in the winter) on a workshop hosted by world renowned avian photographer and educator Arthur Morris. To this day, he remains as one of the very best in the business. Do take a minute (hour) or two to browse his amazing work here. 95% of what I know as a bird photographer is because of him.
It was completely mind-blowing to witness birds – ducks in particular – coexisting with humans without ending up in a pot. I guess that’s something that’s reserved for us third-worlders. We were able to observe the subtle differences in behaviour across many different species, all just taking some time out to enjoy some warmer weather (it was still averaging flat zero degrees by the way) while their breeding habitat in the far north was encased in ice.
Some species, like the Brant Goose were bold, being larger than most of the other birds there we were able to go in tight. Morning light, check. Falling droplet, pure luck.
Gulls were typically bold-faced, and I got my first (and only) views of the largest gull in the world, the Great Black-backed Gull. Huge and will suffice for now, until I get my lens on an Albatross.
Herring Gulls were everywhere, and I made one of my favourite images at the crack of dawn one morning. Just after I witnessed the green flash at sunrise for the first time, interestingly enough.
In fact, they were so tame that we were able to go right up to them. This juvenile sat, sat and sat, and Artie Morris invited me to use his rig – the fresh (at the time) Canon 1Dx with an 800mm lens plus a 1.4x teleconverter. When he handed me my memory card, I flung it in my camera and zoomed way into this image. It was almost as if I could see this bird’s thoughts, dreams and aspirations. Damn.
There were lots of birds in the water, many of them spending considerable time submerged, only to appear now and again for air. I had only seen Anhingas, Cormorants and Grebes do that sort of thing, but these were all new to me. Common Loons moved more gracefully than any semi-aquatic bird I had ever seen.
Another loon present was a Red-throated Loon – I would’ve never guessed. In its alternate or non-breeding plumage, it lacked the characteristic red throat of its moniker. This was apparently a rare sight, as a couple of the locals seemed rather excited by the fleeting presence of this one bird. Again, as with the others, there was no fear of camera toting humans.
It was also my first time seeing Red-breasted Merganser. I never knew their beaks were serrated, to help them grab their slippery prey.
I saw another merganser, which turned out to be a female Red-breasted.
Anyway, the ducks. They formed part of the reason I decided to attend this workshop. Formerly called Oldsquaw (I prefer this name), Long-tailed Ducks (boring) were everywhere, and provided consistently willing subjects.
After observing them for a while, I was intent on capturing their graceful entry into the underwater world. And this was so much better in monochrome. Beauty and poise. 10/10 dive I’d say.
But the one species of duck I really needed to see was the majestic, incomparable Harlequin Duck. A diving duck just like the Long-tailed, the drakes are one of the most beautiful birds in the world.
Resting on a perfect perch was a female Black Scoter. Didn’t seem very black to me, but she posed nicely for quite some time.
Eventually I did get a glimpse of the male Black Scoter, but he was one of the skittish ones, and stayed far out in the more turbulent water.
Another amazing sight that only cruised by for a couple of minutes was a pair of Common Eider. Pictured here is the male. These otherworldly ducks breed in the high arctic and I had only previously read about them. It was fantastic being able to observe them in the flesh.
While we were watching the ducks, I realized that we too, were being watched – by a curious Harbour Seal. Another first for me!
I also learned that every Cormorant is not the same. Superficially similar to our Neotropic Cormorant, this Double-crested Cormorant is slightly larger, but the differences become more obvious when they are in breeding plumage.
The real reason why I made that trip was to see one of my favourite shorebirds – the Purple Sandpiper. For me, it’s like a Surfbird meeting a Pectoral Sandpiper with the cuteness overload of a Least Sandpiper. Joy comes in many forms, but for me it’s usually in the form of a shorebird.
The Purple Sandpipers were super tame, and everywhere – so we all got ample opportunity to craft the images that we wanted. Can you spot the second bird? Also – can you spot the photographer?
Passerines weren’t on the list, but a co-operative Savannah Sparrow was yet another new bird for me.
I hope you enjoyed this trip down memory lane as much as I did! Which was your favourite image? If you had the opportunity to photograph any of these species, which would you choose?