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Bruce Mactavish: Hunting birds with a camera

The rare chestnut-sided warbler exposes itself just long enough to be shot with a digital camera.
The rare chestnut-sided warbler exposes itself just long enough to be shot with a digital camera.

The duck-hunting season opened this past weekend. I noticed the extra trucks parked on the side of the road while driving the Irish Loop on the Avalon Peninsula.

I was on a hunting trip of my own. I was hunting for rare birds with a camera. The bird season is always open when you shoot with a camera.

It was a beautiful Saturday morning as I drove down the Salmonier Line with mist rising off the glassy ponds at first light. I had my sights set on a new place untested by birders. It was a forested slope of mixed alder and balsam fir by Peters River. This southward facing coastal habitat is an island of trees in a largely barren terrain. It should be strategically located for picking up stray birds coming in off the ocean on a southwest winds. During the summer I had noticed an ATV trail traversing the hillside. This is where I stopped the car. I started at the top of the hill with the low morning sun at my back.

I could hear swamp and fox sparrows calling in the alders as I swung my camera bag around my neck and grabbed my binoculars. It was a good morning for bird activity. A group of six blue jays in migration flew past. Savannah sparrows were flying up from the side of the trail as I found a likely looking spot to call in some birds. Pishing is the sound birders make by blowing air through their teeth. The sound reminds birds of a general alarm call. Curious birds come in to see what the fuss is all about. It does not always work. This time it did. The first bird to come in was a good one — a chestnut-sided warbler. They are common in neighbouring Nova Scotia and the rest of Eastern Canada with a very few straying east to Newfoundland in spring and fall. This was the first I had seen for three years in the province so it was a personally satisfying bird to see.

After a few seconds of admiring the pearly gey underparts and vivid green back I reached into the camera bag and hauled out the camera. I kept up the pishing while trying to get clear shots of the warbler. It disappeared and reappeared as it constantly moved in the dense alders. It was a challenge to keep the central focus point of the camera on the bird.

It was all over in less than two minutes. The chestnut-sided warbler had lost interest in my sounds and faded back in the vegetation. It was only then could I review the shots that I had taken. As it turned out the bird was over exposed in most of the pictures. A bird reflects light differently than the alder leaves, from which the camera was taking the light readings. Right at the end of the photo session when the bird was in the shade of the alder the exposure was better. While it was not magazine quality, the images certainly confirmed the identity. It is good feeling when you have captured the bird digitally. You can prove your rare bird sighting to your birding friends.

I shoot with a Canon DSLR as do many of my friends but Nikon is equally as good. Attached to the camera my weapon of choice in the alders is a 300 mm lens with a 1.4 x teleconverter. This equals the strength of a 420 mm lens. Another lens commonly used by birders across the land is a 100-400 mm. While it is expensive to start out — being close to $3,000 for a half decent camera and lens —  consider it as a toy. It is cheaper than owning an ATV, a snowmobile or a boat.

I was back into the alders at Trepassey. A Canada warbler appeared. This is of similar rarity status as the chestnut-sided warbler. The brilliant yellow breast with a sharply defined necklace of ebony with a steely blue back make this a favourite of birders even where it is common. Warblers are like little sprites wired on stimulants. They hardly stop moving. It was so close. I almost had the bird in focus through the tangle of branches a couple times but it was just too fast for even the quickest top-rated autofocus system camera. I missed my chance. I never even got a shot off. You win some and lose some in bird photography but nobody gets hurt.

The day’s hunt was OK. I came home with pictures of the rare chestnut-sided warbler, a small trophy I could share with my birding buddies. I got some more tac-sharp portraits of the semipalmated plover and other common shorebirds at St. Shotts beach. I took some interesting photographs of a merlin and sharp-shinned hawk tussling in the air. It was another successful Saturday out in the field.

Bruce Mactavish is an environmental consultant and avid birdwatcher. He can be reached at

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