Just ducky

“Tufted duck! Tufted duck!”

The urgent call rings out just as our group had crossed a busy road in Eastern Passage, Nova Scotia, planning to warm up with a cuppa at a nearby Tim Horton’s.

We draw some curious looks from the occupants of passing cars, outfitted as we are with binoculars, cameras and spotting scopes.

We dutifully make our way carefully back to cove shoreline and start scanning  for the unusual specimen. The tufted duck is usually found only  in Europe and Asia but it’s been spotted more frequently in North America (according to my Roger Tory Petersen guide.)

The defining characteristic of this small black and white diving duck is a tuft of feathers that curves downward from its head.

The observer who identified the duck and called us back, Clarence Stevens Jr., tries to narrow down its location among the mass of birds offshore to the rest of the group. An expert birder, he’s the author of the Birding in Metro Halifax.

As for me, I wouldn’t know a tufted duck if it walked up and introduced itself.  But I try to track it down in my 10 by 50 binoculars and yes, maybe that one has the tell-tale crest. Hmm, then again maybe not....

Sewer strolling

I’m taking part in what the Nova Scotia Bird Society calls a “sewer stroll” on a blustery winter day. No, we’re not getting a tour of the municipal sanitation system. The facetious name refers to the fact winter ducks, gulls and alcids (duck-like birds such as razorbills)  often congregate near sewer outflows to grab some dinner.

Sewage, it turns out, is quite the delicacy for fish. And they must come close to the surface to nibble away, making them easy pickings for the water birds.

By the end of the morning, we had spotted many of the duck species that frequent Halifax Harbour, including red-breasted mergansers (with their signature punk hairstyle), common eiders, bufflehead, goldeneye and of course, the ubiquitous mallard.

Besides the tufted duck, some of the more unusual finds were dovekies, a cute little diving bird in the alcid family, snow geese, one very rare Ross’s goose and Eurasian wigeon at Sullivan’s Pond

The expedition included several sightings of unusual land birds, such as a lovely northern mockingbird on a lane in Eastern Passage.

Just ducky

But it was the incredible variety of sea birds that stuck in my mind after the trip. My exploration of the birding universe has mostly involved land birds, particularly the many varieties of warblers that grace our province from spring to fall.

You can get up close and personal with a warbler, if you’re lucky. Not so with sea birds and maybe that’s part of the attraction - they have an aura of mystery has they live out their lives in the watery world offshore.

That also creates some frustration, obviously, for the folks trying to observe them. But when they venture close enough to shore, ducks make much more co-operative photographic subjects than the flitting behaviour of perching birds on land.

Photography has become a big part of my ventures into the natural world, whether it’s the daytime exploration of the bird world or observing the equally varied sights of the nighttime sky.

When it comes to water bird photography, two words sum up the first priority: big lens. Even when sea birds are helpful enough to come closer to shore, you’ll need magnification to capture any kind of detail.

While today’s image stabilized lenses make it much easier to get a decent hand-held shot, the other crucial tool of the bird photographer is a tripod. I’ve found that images taken on a mounted camera, particularly using a “live view” screen for focusing, are much sharper.

My tripod does the job but I’ve found that my 250mm lens doesn’t quite cut it.  So it’s into the bank account I go for a longer lens, something in the 400mm range.

As if my geek factor wasn’t already apparent, I’ll remove all doubt by saying I’m really excited at the prospect of filling the frame with one bird.

Now to find a map of the local sewers....