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A Unique Father’s Day Present

Neil Gray 2014 Lake Dalrymple loon

My children, Sarah and Cameron, never know what to get the “old man” for Father’s Day.  This year they purchased the “Photography Safari on Lake Dalrymple” offered at the silent auction hosted at the Carden Nature Festival.  It was an exceptional gift.  The safari is hosted by David Homer and Arni Stinnissen, two well respected local bird photographers.

The original goal was to get pictures of loons with chicks.  With his usual insight and knowledge David informed me that the best time to go out on the lake would be before the end of June, as the young loons would have hatched and we might be able to get some photos with the young riding on a parent’s back.  Even though the weather forecast did not look that great we agreed to go out in the last week of June; if the weather was bad or we did not get the expected shots, David offered to repeat the excursion at a later date.   If we missed this window of nature, it would have to be the following year or a different photographic subject.

When I left Oakville, early in the morning on June 24th, it was raining off and on, going up Hwy 400; it was still looking pretty dismal when I was going through Orillia, but by the time I reached Lake Dalrymple, the sun’s rays were starting to poke their way through the clouds.    At David’s we sat around and had a tea/coffee, and then listened to the weather forecasts coming fast and furious from David and Arni, who were using different apps to determine and monitor the weather; this lead to the conclusion that in about two hour’s time the sun should be completely out and that there was a minimal chance of rain for the next few hours.   What to do until then?  With the Carden Plains just down the road, we loaded up the gear and we were off to Wylie’s Road.   Using the car as a blind, we saw or heard a number of species, including: upland sandpiper, killdeer, eastern kingbirds, a black-billed cuckoo, red breasted grosbeak, brown thrasher and of course a shrike.   During this period, Arni demonstrated the value of a flash unit even with a 500 or 600mm lens at a distance of 50 feet; I borrowed his unit and noted the difference with my own lens; it really does bring out the feather detail!  With the weather starting to get brighter, we quickly departed for the boat.

Photography Safari - David Homer, Arni Stinnissen, Neil Gray

Photography Safari – David Homer, Arni Stinnissen, Neil Gray

David had already prepared his pontoon boat, and we loaded the photography gear.  The day before David located where the pairs of loons at his end of the lake were located.   In the open water, near one nesting site, an adult loon was patrolling the area.  With stealth maneuvers  David piloted the pontoon boat past the patrolling adult, towards the nest.  It was amazing to see the acceptance that the birds had for our presence.  Without using a blind, we were able to shoot some incredible pictures of these birds; granted we were fairly quiet, but we were not very stealthy on the boat with the cameras clicking away and the occasional raised voice (OK, mine) from seeing and getting photographs this close (at another site, we were so close that Arni was complaining that he had to find a lower telephoto lens!).   We were able to obtain some great shots of adults, off and on the nest, however, it appeared that the chicks had not hatched at this time.

In order to ensure that we don’t bother the adults, we backed off from the area and proceeded to an island in the Lake, where David had seen a pair of loons with young the day before.  We didn’t find them and no sign of the nest.

As David has been talking pictures of loons on this lake for a number of years (many of which were used in his book, The Loons of Lake Dalrymple) he knows of the different sites that have been used by the loons in the past.  However, this year the lake levels were considerably higher than the past couple of years, possibly waterlogging some of the sites.  Off we went, exploring the different areas of the lake; occasionally we would see an adult loon (probably a male, but they are very hard to tell apart) by itself in the open water.  Back and forth we went until we came back to the original island; still didn’t see the loons.   Did catch the glimpse of a lone loon in the open water, which was quickly followed by a call closer to the mainland.  On closer inspection (Arni’s sharp eyes) the loon family was found; the call was from an adult family member telling the lone adult “to move along”.   I am so glad that we have digital photos otherwise the expense of the photographs being taken would have been horrendous (overall for the day we shot over 10,000 frames).

As we left the area, we noted a number of Caspian Terns sitting on a rocky sliver of an island; these birds were a bit more excitable than the loons, but we were still able to get a number of shots before they took off.

We then headed back to David’s for lunch; the delicious meal, prepared by David, included different salads, deviled eggs, ham, rolls etc.  It was during lunch that David announced that he had an additional surprise for us, but he wouldn’t say what it was.  Once lunch was over, we packed up our gear and got back into David’s vehicle for an unknown destination.   We drove around Lake Dalrymple until we got to an osprey’s nest.  As you have probably seen photos by many photographers you can envision the standard photo of the bird in the nest being shot from the ground, at least 20 feet below the nest.  Not so, for us.  David had the keys to the nearby gate, which permitted us to get to an elevated spot so that we were shooting at par with the nest.   Of course, the shot we wanted was with an adult osprey returning to the nest with a large fish in its talon’s ready to place it by the young.  We waited for 45 min or so, but did not see the mate return to the nest.  However, we did get some great shots of an adult on the nest looking straight down the lenses.

As we were packing up, I mentioned that I had noted a small Great Blue Heron rookery just down the street the week before.  Off we went again.  We could see the rookery and the adults with chicks, but the distance was too far, and on the other side of a swamp.   Even with the telephotos the best we could do (before Photoshop magic or equivalent) was identification shots.  And then it started to rain, right on schedule!  Time to call it a day.

It was a great excursion with two of the greatest and most knowledgeable birders/photographers I know.  If this type of experience comes up again, I would highly recommend it to anybody.  But please note, now that I have participated in this event, you can bet to have a greater element of competition in future bidding wars!

Written by Neil Gray.