Sunday, June 4, 2017

Post #106 - Nesting season is here: Collecting nesting data and photographing nesting birds!

Though Coastal California has some of the best birding in the country, summer around here is notoriously slow. Migrant species have returned to more northerly latitudes, species diversity is at its lowest point in the year, the possibility of rarities is painfully low, and good weather and associated summer crowds mean that natural areas are unusually crowded for the next few months. On the surface, it might look like birding might take a backseat to other activities for a few months. However, there are a couple of unique and really wonderful birding and photography opportunities that arise during nesting season irrespective wherever you live.

Northern Fulmars - Fulmaris glacialis
Whitless Bay, Newfoundland, Canada
Canon 500mm f/4 IS + 1.4x III on EOS 1D Mark IV
1/1000 at f/7.1, ISO 400, handheld

The first of these is the chance to view locally nesting species and, with the help of eBird, collect valuable data on those local breeders. While all habitat is important, it would be difficult to argue against breeding habitat as the most valuable to most species. I appreciate the value of Christmas Counts, but I have always though it would be really cool if a similar community-based effort was put into censusing nesting species. I suspect that if the holiday season fell in June we'd be doing exactly that, but as it is people have more time off in December. What this means is that the data that individuals generate with respect to locally nesting species is particularly valuable. So, while species diversity in areas such as Coastal California might be lower in summer, the data contained in eBird checklists from those months still has great value!

Pacific-slope Flycatcher - Empidonax difficilus
Huntington Beach, California
Canon 500mm f/4 IS on EOS 1D Mark IV
1/800 at f/11, ISO 800, bit of flash.

The second fun thing about the summer nesting season is finding actual nests. Once an active nest is located, its a blast to watch the parents go about their daily business as they raise their young. There is constant activity as the adults come and go, and depending on what species is being observed (particularly shorebirds) it quite possible to follow the chicks from hatching through fledging. There is a reason why there are so many of those 'nest-cam' things, right? Who doesn't want to see stuff like this?

American Oystercatcher - Haematopus palliatus
Winthrop, Massachusetts
Canon 500mm f/4 IS + 1.4x III on EOS 7D original
1/160 at f/11, ISO 320, handheld

One last thing about nesting season is that photographing nesting birds is really fun and productive. Nesting birds behave in a very predictable manner, particularly once the chicks hatch, so its possible to just set up shop ad wait for the particular behavior or shot that you want. The bigger the chicks get, the more the parents have to come and go to keep them fed. Setting up shop along the most popular supply routes or flight paths is a great way to get flight shots. That's exactly how I got this shot this weekend. This Cliff Swallow was nesting under a dock here on SF Bay. I watched the colony for an hour and figured out the best strategy. Once I got familiar with what was going on, getting this shot wasn't as difficult as it might seem. Nest photography gives a shooter a great opportunity to plan out and execute shots!

Cliff Swallow - Petrochelidon pyrrhonota
Palo Alto, California
Canon 400mm f/4 IS DO II on EOS 7D2
1/5000 at f/4, ISO 1000, handheld

All that being said, it's really important to respect the space of all birds, but particularly nesting birds. There are all sorts of procedural and ethical considerations, and I would point you to this article from Audubon rather than rehashing points that have already been stated nicely. The biggest thing is that nesting birds are tolerant of humans if humans take the time to establish trust with the birds. Walking straight up to a nest and scaring off the parents is not how to do this. Find a nest, observe it for an hour, and learn the birds' behavior. Let the birds additionally get used to your presence over the course of several hours or even several days. If you don't want to take the time to approach nests respectfully, then please consider not doing it at all. If the birds fly off and don't immediately return or they look agitated, back off! It's really that simple. Think of how you'd want your kids treated and return the favor to the birds.

I'm off to Minnesota for the first time on Friday! Will be fun to bird a new state (#44!). I'll also be spending a few days in South Dakota (#45!), so I'd love to hear from people about birding in those areas! After this trip I'll just be missing Arkansas, Iowa, Montana, North Dakota, and Oklahoma.

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  1. Agree with you entirely, especially with the emphasis on 'respecting the birds space'.
    That said, nests are really vulnerable and predators are quite skillful at mining clues left by other species, including our own. Put a photographer or two near a nest and the nest is in jeopardy.
    Here in NYC, we registered a Ruby throated hummer nest in Central Park for the first time ever, causing much excitement among birders and photographers. The nest was on a branch about 25 feet up, visible from a small nearby bridge. An Oriole was attracted by the sustained presence of observers and emptied the nest. No further such nests have been located in the park. :(

    1. Sad to hear this. Keeping certain sorts of nest quiet is certainly the way to go. At the end of the day its a lot like the use of tapes, people have to use judgement, and while most can do just that, there will always be a few who make bad decisions in these and other regards.

  2. I agree with @netudiant. That is why birding should never be considered a non-consumptive activity.

    1. Yep. Birders like to think they have zero impact. While the impact of birding is generally insignificant compared to most other sorts of outdoor recreation (boating, hunting, loud hiking, off-roading, etc) is is still above zero as you suggest.