I got a text from Steve Charbonneau this morning at about the same time that Blake Mann posted on Ontbirds about the presence of a Nelson's Sparrow (NESP) that he (Blake) had found along the dike trail at SCNWA. Now anyone who has gone looking for a NESP knows that these little creatures are incredibly furtive, on the move most of the time, and difficult to see let alone photograph. I have seen several in Ontario over the years, but never photographed one. But today I decided to put other things on hold and scoot out to see.
Blake and Steve were there when I got there, but the bird had not been seen for probably an hour or more. The wind on the exposed trail did not make the likelihood of hearing any distinctive 'chip' notes very possible, at least to my aging ears. So we looked and looked, even as the cold wind made eyes water and looking more challenging. The occasional American Tree Sparrow, Song Sparrow or Swamp Sparrow caught our attention. It was probably 30 minutes or so after I arrived when one of the others definitively saw it scurrying around on the ice at the far edge of the grasses and cattails growing along the side of the trail. We caught very brief glimpses of it, but not the kind of views we wanted. It wasn't until it actually flew across the open stretch of ice when it briefly sat up in a slightly exposed posture that gave us our first relatively clear photo opportunities.
It sat there for a few seconds before dropping down into the cattails. Fortunately it then returned to the grassy/weedy/cattail edge closer to the trail where we were. And for the next 45 minutes or so, we experienced more of the highs and lows of birding and photography. Thus the reference to the bird 'teaser' in the title.
Looking through binoculars gave us our best looks. The human eye can adapt to various pieces of vegetation waving in front of the subject, and keep the subject in focus very quickly and easily.
Not so...the camera.
Any little bit of vegetation moving in front will grab the attention of the auto focus and send things way out of focus. These next two images were all too typical of my photographic attempts.
On other occasions, the focus might not have been thrown off, and a better shot was obtained, but nothing better than these next ones.
But occasionally things would work out, and in spite of the heavy overcast conditions requiring a high ISO and the wind blowing the lens slightly off requiring a higher shutter speed, a reasonable unobscured photo was obtained.
Towards the end of our time, it actually paused in one spot for more than a couple of seconds, allowing several shots to be taken quickly. This next one is one of my final shots.
Not as crystal clear as I would like, but given the high ISO (3200) and having to work with a shutter speed of only about 1/500, it was likely the best one I was going to get. And I had to remind myself that the conditions and actions of this bird was typical of what the species normally puts up with. They aren't there to satisfy the perfect photo opportunities we as photographers hope for. Seeing this furtive little fellow carry on busily in its effort to survive through the vegetation, sometimes scurrying like a mouse, was a real treat to see. Getting a decent record photo was a bonus!
Since this day is the first of the Count Week period for the upcoming SCNWA Christmas Bird Count, this species is now on our list for the first time. Hopefully it will still be around and observed on the day of the count. NESP nests as far north as the subarctic environment of the Hudson Bay Lowland, so hopefully it won't feel too out of place in the weather conditions of the next few days. There certainly is lots of habitat for this species along the thousands of acres of coastal and impounded wetlands along the Lake St. Clair shoreline, and most of that is within our count circle. There could be dozens of them out there!