TITLE PHOTO - Bohemian Waxwings at Holmes Road, Nanaimo on January 7/17
Bohemian Ė a finely feathered bird of the waxwing family distinguished by exquisite waxy red, yellow, and white wing tips.
Rhapsody Ė an ecstatic expression of feeling or enthusiasm
While half the world and most of Canada regularly have the pleasure of enoying Bohemian Waxwings Vancouver Islanders are generally deprived. Bohemians are common in the Okanagan and interior regions and semi-regular on the lower mainland, but Vancouver Island is a foreign country to them. Perhaps the Salish Sea is too much of an obstacle, or they just arenít aware of the bounty of winter treats that await them. Whatever the reason weíre usually not on their itinerary, and their visits are few and far between.
My first experience with Bohemians was the winter of 2008 after Rich Mooney reported a flock in Port Alberni. I had never seen one, and I was desperate. Putting my head in the noose I sheepishly announced to my family and guests on Christmas Day that I had to go to Port for my Christmas gift.
It was a beautiful sunny morning as I sped along highway 19, but as soon as I crossed the hump I was enshrouded in fog. Was I being punished for skipping out on my family? Or was it an omen that twitching is forbidden on Christmas day? I was feeling guilty, but I was beyond the point of no return.
Port Alberni was a ghost town when I arrived. Not a creature was stirring not even a bird. I located the house with the pyracantha berries and parked. Bundling up in my parka, toque, and gloves I walked the street in both directions then waited in my car for an hour. I never saw a single bird - not even a crow, robin, or gull. Feeling defeated I headed for a gas station for fuel and a bathroom break. When I returned I spotted a few birds high in a distant maple. I was hopeful. I resumed my vigil in the car and waited. A few minutes later a half dozen exquisitely feathered birds landed on the pyracanthas. Their white and red wingtips glistened like Christmas lights. I was so amazed and enthralled that I almost forgot to focus my camera. Fortunately, the Bohemians were enjoying their Christmas treat and in no hurry to leave. It didnít take long to blast off 200 shots. This was the best Christmas gift I've ever had, but I knew there would be consequences when I got home.
Fast forward to 2017. There had been no Bohemian irruptions to the island since 2008, but on January 5th Dave Baird reported a flock of 19 Bohemian Waxwings in Nanaimo. Was it the strong outflow winds that had us locked in the grips of the polar vortex or simply the whimsy of nature? (It was also clear and cold in 2008.) It didnít matter how they got here. It was just another inexplicable wonder of nature for us is to marvel, cogitate, and enjoy.
The next day I drove down to Nanaimo to check out the location on Holmes Street. It was freezing, blowing, and snowing, but Chris Law and Blair Dudek were both on the scene and assured me that the Bohemians were in the area. I optimistically set up my camera and waited around for a half hour. Despite wearing gloves, touque, and a heavy coat, the cold got to me. It was probably minus 15 in the wind chill and my fingers were turning numb. I hated to leave without seeing the Bohemians, but I had to abort and hope for better conditions in the next day or so.
The forecast for the next day was perfect - calm wind and full sun, and that's what I saw when I got up. I was optimistic and ready for the Bohemians. I was back to Holmes Street by 10:15 am. The sunshine, blue sky, and snowy landscape was stunning, and there was no one else around - perfect conditions. Not that Iím antisocial, but sometimes the fewer the better. Just as I was setting up my tripod I looked up and was smittened by 80 Bohemians gently gliding into the alder and cottonwood in front of me. I gazed in amazement and admiration for a moment before jockeying into position for some photos. The birds sat for a few minutes then took turns flying down to a hawthorn tree next to the clearing to pluck berries. I was too far away so I settled in for the tree shots right in front of me. My plan was to get my fill of tree shots before trying to move closer to the hawthorns. I was in seventh heaven for about twenty minutes until one of the locals emerged from the walking trail just beside the trees. The flock disappeared over the forest to the north.
I was happy with my shots, but I there was much to be desired. Most of the shots were frontal views from below without revealing the remarkable red and white waxy wingtips. I had visions of close-ups with the birds plucking and eating berries. The birds I had seen were skittish, and I wondered if it were even possible to get close-up shots. My fears were allayed the next day when I heard of birders and photographers standing next to the Bohemians bathing in roadside ditches. (The birds were bathing, not the photographers.) Unfortunately, I was in Comox at the time visiting the elusive Red-flanked Bluetail.
It was an amazing sight to see the large flock of Bohemians gliding into the alder and cottonwood trees in front of me. I conservatively estimated 80 birds but I'm pretty sure it was closer to 100.
I tried to find pairs or groups that weren't obscured by branches, but it wasn't easy. This is one of the few shots that was reasonable.
I didn't want to take a chance on flushing the birds too soon so I settled for a couple of distant shots to capture the activity at the hawthorn tree.
I was about 25 meters from the hawthorn, but before I could approach any closer the Bohemians were inadvertently flushed by one of the locals using the walking trail.
The alder tree was right in front of me, but I had to look up at the birds. I enjoyed the shots I had, but was hoping for a chance at some eye-level activity.
It had snowed during the night, and I awoke to find a beautiful snow-covered, sunny, and calm, winter day. It was another perfect day for photography with the added dimensions of snow and ice. During breakfast my wife didnít have to ask what I was going to do. I was off and back to Holmes Road by 10 am. Right away I spotted the Bohemians in a distant maple, but they werenít coming down to the hawthorns next to the clearing. I could see why. There were two photographers standing in the clearing close to the hawthorns. Recognizing Steve Large I wandered over for an update on the Bohemians. He mentioned that they were in the hawthorns earlier but retreated when the second photographer arrived. He then recounted how the Bohemians landed in the roadside ditch next to him the day before. (I checked his website and admired his excellent full-frame shots of the birds splashing in the water.) A few minutes later, the Bohemians retreated even further down the field to another large maple north of us. The field was in fenced private property next to a thick coniferous forest and there seemed no way of getting close to the birds. I was debating whether to pack up and look elsewhere when I decided to check the trail along the top edge of the field. It continued west straight through the forest. I stopped at the top corner of the field and looked north into the forest where it followed the fence line down the field. I was surprised to see that the forest was like a park with no underbrush. I decided to see if it would take me close to the tree in the field. As I quietly made my way north I was excited to see a flurry of activity right in front of me. When my eyes adjusted to the shade I could see a feeding frenzy of Bohemians flying in and out of a snow-covered hawthorn tree about 8 meters away. I was incredulous. This was the opportunity I was waiting for. I set up my camera and shot, and shot, and shot. It was tricky as the setting was a variety of shade, sun, and backlighting, but it didnít take long to blast off 300 photos. After an hour I reluctantly decided to leave to tend to a few commitments. I could have stayed and shot more, but I rationalized that even if only a handful of pictures were reasonable, it would have been a successful morning
It was exciting to find the Bohemians in their own element of snow and ice. They took to the frozen berries just like a kid taking to ice cream.
Notice the lack of red and yellow on the wingtips. This is indicative of a younger bird. The red and yellow is most prominent on older birds or more mature birds.
The Bohemians were very acrobatic. They plucked berries from every position from straight up to upside down.
Colour is a very important part of bird biology especially in mating and reproduction. Males with the brightest colours are more attractive to females because brighter colours indicate stronger genes and that would produce the stronger offspring.
The Bohemian activity was frantic. It was a challenge trying to decide what bird to target. Whether they detected my presence of not they weren't distracted and showed no fear.
I tried several times to get pictures with two birds in the photo. Unless both birds were in the same plane, one of them would be out of focus. This was the best of the bunch.
This was the closest I got to the ideal shot. If it were at eye-level, it would have been better. However, you only get what you see, and it's still one of my favorites.
After two satisfying sessions with the Bohemians I was prepared to spend the next day at home, but received a pleasant surprise when my wife announced that she would like to see the Bohemians. She didnít have to say it twice. I grabbed my camera and was ready to go. Although I was content with the images I had, most of them were in the shade and lacked the vibrancy of full sun. I couldnít resist another opportunity, and it was another spectacular, sunny, calm day that was meant for birding and photography. We started looking on East Wellington where they had previously been reported then proceeded to Holmes where we waited for about twenty minutes. Sensing that the birds were avoiding the area we headed along Mills to Arbot then back to Ashlee, Jinglepot, and Holland with no success. Undeterred we backtracked on East Wellington to Moxey, exited left on Durnin back to East Wellington. We were ready to throw in the towel when decided to turn down Stobart. It was a short dead-end street that didn't look promising, but when we were turning around when my wife shouted, ďWaxwings.Ē I looked to my right and spotted two Bohemians in the shadows of a large maple, and they were harvesting hawthorn berries from a low bush.
We pulled over and surveyed the scene. There were about two dozen Bohemians in the small flock in the maple tree and the small hawthorn tree was right in front of us. I set up my camera and waited. Most of the bush was in the shade behind the large maple, but patience was rewarded when a few Bohemians finally decided to go for the few berries in front of the tree. The scene was repeated several times over the next hour until all the berries were gone. I had the camera set at burst, and it didnít take long to blast another 300 shots.
One of the benefits of shooting burst is the action captured when the bird moves.
Colours vary with the shooting conditions. This photo was in the light shade producing a soft bluish tinge to the photo.
I like to think that the colours in full sun are the truest.
Have you noticed how the birds like to manipulate the berries in their bills then flipping it before it's down the hatch?
Ever wonder what those red, white, and yellow spots look like when the wing is spread. This shot is courtesy of burst.
Including three different shooting situations I had taken over 800 shots. About 600 were absolute discards. Of the remaining 200 many were acceptable and a few were good, but there is always room for improvement. I don't know if I will get another opportunity. It all depends on whether the Bohemians stay, whether we get some more weather that is conducive to photography, or whether I get the chores under control. Today's chore was another (GOK) unexpected variety - the laundry dryer died and I took had to take it apart and replace the burned out element. Regardless of whether I get another opportunity isn't critical. It was a blast seeing and photographing them on three different occasions and for that, I am grateful. With my diminished auditory ability Bohemian rhapsody was a delightful visual feast.
With all the Bohemian attention I almost forgot about the quiet and diminutive Red-flanked Bluetail. It was the first ever seen on Vancouver Island, only the second in Canada, and definitely a bird that I wanted to see. On Jan. 10 it was snowing lightly in Nanoose, but the forecast called for sun in Comox. Placing my faith in the weatherman we headed to Sandpines Nature Park in Comox. We got there at 10:30 but there was no sign of the sun nor the bluetail. In fact, it was bitter cold - too cold for man and bird. The only good news was the presence of George Bowron who had successfully photographed the bluetail several times in the past week. He was able to gave us directions on where and what to look for. After a half hour my wife finally spotted the bird, and I eventually saw it popping down and back from various trees like a yoyo. It definitely wasn't a bird that wanted to be photographed, and it probably wished it were somewhere in Taiwan or Indochina instead of Canada. I decided to give the bird a break while we checked for the golden plover at Kye Bay. Unfortunately, Kye Bay was a blowout with high tide and a bitter, freezing headwind cutting like a knife. There were hundreds of scoters and gulls but no rocky reef for the shorebirds.
It was back to Sandpines where the sun was finally showing and so was the bluetail. George had it in his sights under the last group of trees when we arrived. For the next hour we watched for it hoping to find it in the sun. My wife had the only clear sun shot but still wasn't used to her Sony camera. I had my chance a little later, but the bird was behind a branch. George also had a behind a branch shot.
It was fun to see the bluetail even if we didn't get quality photos. The best I got were a couple in the shade. Another benefit was we had enjoyed a day of pleasant sunshine and fine companionship with George and a few other birders while the light snow in Nanoose turned into a blizzard and dumped three inches of snow at our home.
My poster is on display at: Victoria - Swan Lake Nature House. (Note: This poster has been produced in a more manageable size and is now available for $20 unlaminated and $32 laminated.)