An amazing day: White-tailed Ptarmigan adventure and the last minute Tufted Duck twitch!

February 16, 2015
Today, February 15 2015, was a day which I will never forget. It was one of the best birding days of my life, and was more than just a birding day: it was an adventure!

Around a week ago, I got a text from my friend Melissa, who was helping to organize a hike to the top of Mount Seymour that Ilya P. had planned. The goal was to find a White-tailed Ptarmigan for Ilya's Vancouver big year and for many birders life and year lists (you can follow Ilya's his big year at: http://vanbigyear.blogspot.ca/)

I would place White-tailed Ptarmigan in the top 10 list of most sought after birds in BC. They are super cool birds living in really harsh environments, but the fact that it takes a lot of effort to see them in most of the province also makes them such an amazing bird to see. In the Vancouver checklist area, ptarmigans are pretty much unheard of; most reports are from hikers that snap a photo of chicken-like birds not knowing what they are, and show them to a birder.

As you can see, there are no reports of a Ptarmigan from the Vancouver area on eBird. There are a few reports north of Squamish around Whistler and some from the eastern Fraser Valley, but none in the Metro Vancouver checklist area:

ebird ptarmigan map


The only time I have ever seen a White-tailed Ptarmigan was on Whistler mountain in the Summer of 2011, when while not really birding I almost stepped on a female with chicks. It was an amazing experience, but I didn't realize how lucky I was to see this amazing bird.

White-tailed Ptarmigan (female) - Whistler Mountain (peak), August 21 2011

White-tailed Ptarmigan


Today, Sunday February 15th 2015 was the day of the hike. It was foggy in the morning, but as Mel drove me up the mountain we quickly escaped through the fog. Looking down at the city was amazing, as only a few buildings were sticking up through a sea of fog.

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Soon more birders began to arrive. About 15 of us were coming on the hike.

We would take a trail up to the Mount Seymour peak. It is about an 8 or so kilometer hike, but it is very steep. The terrain is very hard to walk on too. This year there is basically no snow on the mountain, but at the upper elevations we hit snow that was very hard to walk in with hiking shoes.

We began heading up the mountain at around 8:00 AM. We started up a ski run. It was a beautiful day and the scenery was gorgeous!

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There were some ravens flying around, and we heard Golden-crowned Kinglets, Chestnut-backed Chickadees and Pacific Wrens, but other than that it was totally quiet. The views were spectacular.

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The hike got harder and harder. Slippery snow and difficult terrain combined with steep slopes makes for a very difficult hike. There were zero birds expect for one Gray Jay that briefly showed up. As the hours passed hiking got harder, but there was a motivation to keep everyone going: the ptarmigans that we would hopefully eventually find.

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Hiking up I didn't really think we would find any ptarmigans. I have searched for hours in alpine in the past and come up with nothing ptarmigan-like.

About 3/5 of the way up, I began asking hikers coming down if they happened to have seen a white chicken-like bird walking around. The answer was no- that is, until we ran into a group of three hikers who had camped overnight at the peak. They showed us a picture on an iPhone of a bird they thought maybe was a dove (they were from Australia, where there are white coloured, fat doves, so this makes sense). They had taken it the evening before on Mount Seymour's peak. This is when I realized that maybe we would in fact find one of these white chickens!

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The group was quite spread out hiking up, and soon Ilya, Mel, and I arrived at the base of First Pump Peak. The Ptarmigan habitat looked good here, so Ilya wandered around looking for a bird. A few minutes later, i heard a noise off in the distance. Ilya was pretty sure it was someone shouting "I got it!" Could it be? Had someone found a ptarmigan?!?

A minute later Ilya's phone rang (there was cell reception up here). It was John Reynolds, notifying us that they had found a ptarmigan!! We sprinted up that last part of the trail up to the peak (only falling in the snow a few times), where a beautiful White-tailed Ptarmigan was sitting out in the open. Everybody in our group got amazing looks. The bird was a lifer for many, and a Vancouver area lifer for almost everyone.

It was hard to believe. The bird was beautiful, in its white winter plumage. The scenery was just as stunning. The hard hike had taken a few hours. The scenery would have made it worth it ptarmigan or not, but getting looks like the ones we got of the ptarmigan was amazing. It was one of the best birding moments of my life!!

White-tailed Ptarmigan

White-tailed Ptarmigan


The ptarmigan then started to head down a cliff. We adjusted our position and watched it slowly work its way down the cliff, occasionally stopping to feed. If it had been on this cliff when we arrived at the top, we most probably never would have seen it!

Most of these photos are not cropped at all, as I wanted to show the near rocky environment the bird lives in (which should be covered in snow at this time of year).

White-tailed Ptarmigan

White-tailed Ptarmigan

White-tailed Ptarmigan

White-tailed Ptarmigan

White-tailed Ptarmigan

White-tailed Ptarmigan

White-tailed Ptarmigan



As the ptarmigan disappeared from view, we sat down to eat lunch. Everyone was super happy! It had been a successful adventure!

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After eating and mingling for a bit, some decided to began heading down for the mountain, some decided to stay in the area for a while, and some of us decided to continue on hiking to the next peak. I decided to go on to the next peak. There is no real trail there, so it is a very difficult but fairly short hike. The view from the next peak was even more beautiful than the first! We didn't find any more ptarmigan but the scenery still took our breaths away.

Myself at the first peak
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Beginning the hike to the second peak
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Scenery
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Jeremiah and Ian taking in the view 2I6A0250_lr


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Stunning scenery
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Arrival at peak 2, Grouse Mountain in the back (note windmill on the left)
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Ptarmigan habitat on peak 2 overlooking the Lower Mainland
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Myself, peak 2
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Myself, peak 2
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After taking in the view at peak 2 and walking around for a bit, we headed back to peak one. It wasn't easy getting back, and at times we were going down near vertical rock faces!

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After a short rest at back at the first peak, it was time to head down. The way down was very hard as the melting snow and steep slope made for a lot of slipping and he occasional fall, but it was all part of the adventure!

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Down at the bottom we looked for the Gray-crowned Rosy-Finches that have been at the parking lot but had no luck. We decided to meet down at the bottom at a cafe to eat a bit and talk. It was fun! I enjoyed a hot chocolate and a cookie.

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Group photo, taken shortly after finding the ptarmigan.

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After a while of chatting, we headed out to the parking lot and said goodbye. As we were about to leave, Daniele gets out his phone and causally says, "Tufted Duck back at Iona". A Tufted Duck had been seen at Iona in Richmond a couple weeks prior but not since. This was a big deal as Ilya needed it for his big year. So Ilya, Carlo, Andrew took off in their car and Mel and I and Daniele followed. We arrived at Iona and hustled out to the NW inner pond where it had been seen.

On the walk to the pond spotted a Tree Swallow (my first of the year). We arrived at the NW inner pond and Daniele set up his scope. A couple minutes later, we hear "I got it!". Daniele had spotted the bird! We all saw it and made our way to the other side of the pond where we got some pretty good looks. It was awesome!


Tufted Duck



The sun was setting and the light was fading, so we called it a day! It was one of the best birding days of my life, full of adventure and excitement! It was also awesome that I got to share it with some of BC's amazing birders! I'm pretty sure not too many people have seen a White-tailed Ptarmigan and a Tufted Duck in the same day. Certainly not around Vancouver!

Daniele and Ilya
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Sunset at Iona
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Thanks for reading!
 

Pine Grosbeaks and Great Gray Owl

February 9, 2015
I went to Queen Elizabeth Park yesterday morning, hoping to find the Pine Grosbeaks that had been reported. I looked for a whole while where they had been seen but had no luck. I did a big loop of the park and found a few interesting things, but no Pine Grosbeaks. I went back to where the grosbeaks had been reported, and within a couple minutes two Pine Grosbeaks arrived with some Purple Finches! These were only the third Pine Grosbeaks I have ever seen! They posed for photos for about 20 minutes until a Sharp-shinned Hawk (unsuccessfully) dived at them and the Purple Finches they were with. Here are a couple photos of the grosbeaks. These were taken with a Canon 7D Mark II and Canon EF 400mm f/5.6L USM at 1/640, ISO 500, and f5.6.

Pine Grosbeak

Pine Grosbeak



I now headed out to Delta where a Great Gray Owl had been found the day before. The Great Gray Owl is a very rare visitor to the Vancouver area. It is an amazing bird, and one that i have only seen once before! When I arrived I was told it had been seen first thing in the morning but not since. A few hours later it flew in! It was perched really far away, but still awesome to see! I managed a few distant shots.

Canon EF 400mm f/5.6L USM + 1.4x III (560mm) | Canon 7D Mark II | 1/320 | ISO 800 | f/8

Great Gray Owl


It was an awesome day of birding!


Thanks for looking!


 

Gray-crowned Rosy-Finches on Seymour Mountain

February 7, 2015
Yesterday afternoon I decided to go up Seymour Mountain to try for the Gray-crowned Rosy-Finches. Despite the fact that these birds have been around for more than a week, i was in school when they were first seen and was away last weekend, so this afternoon was the first opening I had to go look for them.

Weather conditions seemed fine on the drive, but as soon as we got to about 500 metres above sea level we hit the clouds. The fog became so thick that it was hard to see just a few metres in front of the car. Because we had never been up Seymour before we couldn't even tell if we were in the parking lot at the top until we saw some buildings emerge in the fog. In addition to fog, it began to rain, and at times was bucketing! Despite this, while looking for where to park in the parking lot, I noticed two birds beside the lot from the slow moving car. Gray-crowned Rosy-Finches! They were a lifer, and a bird I have wanted to see for many years! Amazing birds, and super cooperative for photos!

I did not see a single other bird species while up there, but due to thick fog I couldn't even see if there were trees around or anything like that.

The thick fog, bucketing rain and low light made photos tough, but thankfully these birds were very tame, so I managed to get some shots I am very happy with!

Canon 7D Mark II | Canon EF 400mm f/5.6L USM | 1/80 | ISO 2000 | f/5.6

Interior subspecies
Gray-crowned-Rosy-Finch (interior)


Coastal subspecies
Gray-crowned Rosy-Finch (coastal)



Here is a pic I snapped with my phone on the drive down. The fog was much worse than this at other times.

Seymour Mountain fog



Thanks for looking!
 

The night sky...

January 29, 2015
In school right now, my Science teacher. Mr. Procyk, recipient of the Prime Minister's Award for Teaching Excellence, has been teaching us about astronomy. What I have learned is really amazing, and it inspired me to go back and process a couple photos I took of the night sky in Costa Rica in July 2013. These photos were taken in the Cerro De La Muerte region of Costa Rica (Mountain of Death), away from the light polluted sky of the city.

Both these photos were taken with a Canon EOS Rebel T1i, Tokina 16.5-135mm F3.5-56 AT-X DX lens at 30 seconds, ISO 800, and f3.5. The first was at 19mm and second was at 17mm.


Costa Rica night sky


Costa Rica night sky


I have been taught a whole new meaning for big... the milky way where we are is just one of countless galaxies in the universe, all constantly being pushed farther away from each other, making the universe larger and larger. From what we can see most of these stars all have their own set of planets orbiting them, meaning there could be trillions of earth-like, livable planets that are currently well beyond the reach of where we can go. The nearest star to us, Alpha Centauri, is 41,314,127,522,900 KM away, and that is the closest star (according to my calculations of 1 light year being 9.4605284 × 10 to the 12 kilometers multiplied by Alpha Centauri's distance of 4.367 light years from earth). If that is the closest star, the distance to the stars in these pictures is unimaginable. We are looking at worlds so far away that the light that we see left them lifetimes ago.

It is very hard to grasp, so for now I am just going to appreciate how amazing the night sky appears, especially away from the city like in these pictures!


Thanks for looking! I will get back to bird pictures soon...


 

More Bald Eagle shots from late November, plus a Golden Eagle from Sunday

January 28, 2015
On a weekend in late November I rented a Canon EF 600mm f/4L IS II USM to go photograph Bald Eagles feeding on spawning salmon in BC's Fraser Valley. Unfortunately, high water levels covered the mudflats where dead fish usually get washed up. Despite this, there were still hundreds of eagles around and I got some shots I am very happy with. I still have many more to go through, but here are some shots I have not yet posted on my blog:

Canon 7D Mark II | Canon EF 600mm f/4L IS II USM | 1/3200 | ISO 200 | f/4

Bald Eagle in flight



Other than making this black and white, very little processing was done. I was shooting into the sun which gave a neat effect.

Canon 7D Mark II | Canon EF 600mm f/4L IS II USM | 1/2500 | ISO 200 | f/4
Bald eagle with salmon



Canon 7D Mark II | Canon EF 600mm f/4L IS II USM | 1/2500 | ISO 200 | f/4
Bald Eagle



Lit by the late afternoon sun, a juvenile Bald Eagle flies by a shaded, misty mountain slope in Harrison Mills, BC, in late November 2014.

Canon 7D Mark II | Canon EF 600mm f/4L IS II USM + 1.4x III (840mm) | 1/1000 | ISO 1600 | f/5.6
Juvenile Bald Eagle in flight




Canon 7D Mark II | Canon EF 600mm f/4L IS II USM | 1/2000 | ISO 1600 | f/4
Bald Eagle in flight




While I have closer photos of this bird with no branches in the frame, I liked the way the branches and the wider view display slightly more of a setting.

Canon 7D Mark II | Canon EF 600mm f/4L IS II USM | 1/1000 | ISO 500 | f/4Bald Eagle



I photographed another species of eagle on this past Sunday. A Golden Eagle has been at Boundary Bay in Delta, BC, for many weeks now. It has become a bit of a celebrity, and even was featured in the Vancouver Sun newspaper. Despite it's popularity, while at Boundary Bay today I spotted it sitting beside the road in a tree with some Bald Eagles when no other people were around. A really neat bird! When it was first found I was in Mexico. When I tried for it a week ago it did not show, so seeing it on Sunday was awesome!


Canon 7D Mark II | Canon EF 400mm f/5.6L USM + 1.4x III (560mm) | 1/320 | ISO 500 | f/8

Golden Eagle




Thanks for looking! I hope to post more eagle shots and more photos from Mexico soon!


 

A couple photos from late November....

January 23, 2015
I still have photos to go through from my Bald Eagle photography trip to Harrison Mills, in the Fraser Valley of BC, Canada. Here is one I recently processed, not of a Bald Eagle but still I shot I really liked!

While walking around at sunset near Harrison Mills, I noticed that the sky was being lit up beautifully by the setting sun. While I did capture some images with my wide angle lens, I found shots like these of birds flying with the beautiful sunset colours taken with a telephoto lens to be even better.

Canon 7D Mark II | Canon EF 600mm f/4L IS II USM | 1/500 | ISO 320 | f/4

Ducks flying at sunset



Here's another shot from in late November 2013 of A young Bald Eagle perched in a tree in Harrison Mills, BC, Canada

This beautiful young Bald Eagle was posing in a tree next to the river. In this shot he is nibbling at something on the bark.

Canon 7D Mark II | Canon EF 600mm f/4L IS II USM | 1/320 | ISO 500 | f/4

Bald Eagle (juvenile)



Thanks for looking!


 

A couple more photos from Mexico - Russet-crowned Motmot and Black Skimmer

January 14, 2015
Here's another shot from Mexico of a beautiful Russet-crowned Motmot. I photographed this bird at El Tuito, a famous birding destination and little town located up in the mountains about an hour from Puerto Vallarta. These birds are among the many beautiful species that can be encountered at this destination.

Russet-crowned Motmot
Canon 7D Mark II | Canon EF 400mm f/5.6L USM | 1/800 | ISO 320 | f/5.6

Russet-crowned Motmot




During my previous trips to the Banderas Bay area of Mexico in 2011 and 2012, I found an area of beach that was amazing for waterbirds like shorebirds, gulls, terns, and more. This spot was located right near the mouth of a river, and while I got some great birds on my side of the river close enough to photograph, there were often birds on the other side of the river too far away for photos. This trip (December 2014) was the first time I got species like Black Skimmers and Wilson's Plover on my side of the river. Here is a shot of a Black Skimmer than landed on the ground with lots of other simmers and Royal and Caspian Terns one day.

Black Skimmer
Canon 7D Mark II | Canon EF 400mm f/5.6L USM | 1/1000 | ISO 1000 | f/5.6

Black Skimmer


Thanks for looking, more pictures coming in a few days!


 

Mexico!

January 11, 2015
Those of you who have seen my Facebook or Flickr pages will know that I spent time recently in Mexico, throughout almost two weeks in December and a few days in January. While not a birding trip, I managed tons of birding and photography every day and ended up getting 168 species and 19 lifers! Here are just a couple photos to start.

Great Kiskadee
A Great Kiskadee dives at an enemy kiskadee, its rarely seen crest flared during a sunny morning in Nuevo Vallarta, Nayarit, Mexico in December 2014.

Shots like this would not have been possible without the 10 fps on the new 7D Mark II.

Canon 7D Mark II | Canon EF 400mm f/5.6L USM | 1/2000 | ISO 320 | f/5.6

Great Kiskadee


Sinaloa Crow

Here is a shot of a Sinaloa Crow landing by a river in Sayulita, Nayarit, in December 2014. More Crows are behind and Great-tailed Grackles are in front of the landing bird.

The Sinaloa Crow was a bird I really wanted to see during my recent trip to the Banderas Bay area of Mexico. This would not be easy however, as we were staying right in the middle of the Banderas Bay, which is just south of the crow's range; to see them, you have to go north of Banderas Bay. While there are a few records of crows in Banderas Bay, few are actually confirmed and I an easily see how one could mistake a Great-tailed Grackle for a Sinaloa Crow, as people coming from the much of the US and Canada are used to crows being the most common bird, not Great-tailed Grackles. While on a birding tour with Gerardo Hernández Vázquez of naturevallarta.com, he said he knew a spot were these crows were guaranteed. It was located just north of Banderas Bay, not actually in the bay. We drove there, and as we looked for parking in this bustling little town, Sayulita, a flock of 45+ crows flew over. Wow! Once we found a spot to park we went looking for more crows and immediately found some in trees. We then went down to the beach to see if any crows were on the ground there. None were, but my lifer Elegant Tern was flying around, and offshore hundreds of Brown and Blue-footed Booby were diving! We went back to where the crows had been in the trees, and found that a flock of them had joined some Great-tailed Grackles on the ground and were bathing in a river. It was amazing to see these birds so well!

What is so special about the Sinaloa Crow? Firstly, it is a Mexican endemic. This means that in the entire world, it is only found in Mexico. The Sinaloa Crow is actually only found along the northern portion of Mexico's pacific coast. Secondly, it is also a very under-photographed bird species. If you look up Sinaloa Crow on google images, you will see there are not many pictures actually of Sinaloa Crows, and few really good images. Thirdly, unlike our Northwestern Crows in coastal BC and American Crows in the rest of the US and Canada, these birds are quite small, basically Grackle-sized, and have a blackbird-like blue and purple sheen on them. Their call is much less harsh, but still a "caw".

Sinaloa Crow was my 5th crow species on my life list. In order of when they were added, I have seen Northwestern, American, Hooded, House, and now Sinaloa Crow. It was awesome seeing this neat bird!

Canon 7D Mark II | Canon EF 400mm f/5.6L USM | 1/2500 | ISO 800 | f/5.6

Sinaloa Crow


Thanks for looking, lots more photos coming soon!

 

Top 3 Bird Photos of 2014 from British Columbia

January 4, 2015
This was one heck of a year for me birding-wise. I did the most birding I have ever done in one year in BC. This year I birded the Okanagan Valley (133 species on a big day), Metro Vancouver area, Fraser Valley, Coastal Mountains and Manning Park, Southern Vancouver Island (Victoria area), Northern Vancouver Island (Port McNeil area and Malcolm Island), the Southern Gulf Islands, and I spent a total of nearly two weeks of the year cruising in BC waters in the Straight of Georgia, Johnston Straight, Hecate Straight, open ocean around Triangle Island (northern tip of Vancouver Island), open ocean around Haida Gwaii and more! I got 271 species in BC this year, by far a record for me.

On the photography side, this was also one heck of a year. I have never had such a hard to choosing a top three before, but I have settled on these:

Western Sandpiper
During the Summer when I was off school, I frequently visited Boundary Bay to photograph shorebirds. I had an absolute blast doing this, and these trips formed some of my best birding and photography experiences to date! By the later part of the shorebird season I had even begun leading shorebird photography workshops out there. I would bus out to Delta from Vancouver and bike to Boundary Bay and cover the area on bike and on foot, often multiple times a week. During this years shorebird migration I spent nearly 100 hours at the bay and walked and biked at least 290 kilometers during those visits. This shot was one of my favorite shots that I got during the shorebird migration. While common, Western Sandpipers like all almost the shorebirds at the bay are ridiculously hard to photograph and getting close to them takes tons of patience, which is one reason why I wanted to include at least one shorebird shot in my top three.

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Pileated Woodpecker nest
I had a real thrill spending time with these birds in June. When I arrived at the location of the nest there were some other people there who said the adults had not come in for nearly an hour, so they were due any minute! Sure enough they came in in a few minutes. Unfortunately the light was horrible, and a couple hours later even though I had seen the parents come in a couple more times the light still was not good. Soon however, the sun went behind a large branch. The light was prefect now, but it would only be for 10 or so minutes. To our luck, both the male and female came in to feed the two baby woodpeckers during this time and we all got great shots! It was an awesome experience watching and photographing these birds.

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Sooty Shearwater
During April, I organized a pelagic birding trip to Triangle Island, and Island off the tip of Vancouver Island. This island is a breeding location for literally millions of alcids including 90% of the worlds Cassin's Auklets, more than half a million Tufted Puffins, Common Murres, Storm-petrels, Rhinocerous Auklets, Pigeon Guillemots and BC's only Horned Puffins. It was risky booking this trip becuase the waters around the island are so rough and fog builds so often that less than 1 in 4 birding trips trying to go to Triangle Island have made it there. The group of us on board became some of the few people ever to see this amazing island, as we had a beautiful clear day with only 3 metre swells offshore (the week before they were up to 9 metres!). One of the most numerous birds offshore was the Sooty Shearwater, and I really liked this artistic shot I got of a bird and its reflection. Also, this picture was auctioned off for $500 to raise money for my school! For these reasons this photo is in my top three of 2014.

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As I said it was nearly impossible choosing a top three. I narrowed it down to these images with the Bald Eagle in 4th place:
https://www.flickr.com/photos/lirons-nature-photography/sets/72157649652161168/


Thanks for looking and I hope we have some great birding in 2015! :)

 

American Dipper

December 16, 2014
Here are three shots from a few weekends ago, when I was using the rental 600mm in the Fraser Valley. This American Dipper was one of the most cooperative I've ever photographed! I never managed a clear shot at one from a good angle of a dipper just sitting on the side of the water, but the birds cooperated really well for swimming shots and I am very happy with the results!


Canon 7D Mark II | Canon EF 600mm f/4L IS II USM | 1/1000 | ISO 1250 | f/4

American Dipper



Canon 7D Mark II | Canon EF 600mm f/4L IS II USM + 1.4x III (840mm) | 1/1640 | ISO 1600 | f/5.6

American Dipper



Canon 7D Mark II | Canon EF 600mm f/4L IS II USM | 1/1000 | ISO 1250 | f/4

American Dipper


Thanks for looking!
 
 
 

 

 

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