Photographing Birds on the Niagara River in Winter

The Niagara River draws a large number of birds during the winter months, mainly waterfowl like swans, ducks and geese. In addition the occasional hawk, blue jay and crow can also be observed. Prime viewing months are from December through mid-March or so, depending on the weather. After this period many of the birds, like tundra swans, begin their migration northward.

NOTE: click on images to enlarge them

Nikon 1 V2 + Nikon 1 CX 70-300 4.5-5.6, f/5.6, 1/1250, ISO-160, 280mm
Nikon 1 V2 + Nikon 1 CX 70-300 f/4.5-5.6, f/5.6, 1/1250, ISO-160, 280mm, efov 756mm

Some of the best birding can be done just west of the town of Fort Erie. As noted in my earlier article Photographing Tundra Swans with Tamron 150-600 the easiest way to reach this area of the Niagara River is to take the QEW Niagara to the Netherby Road cut-off, then head east towards the Niagara Parkway. Once you reach the T-intersection at the river, the best birding opportunities are usually found if you turn right and drive towards the town of Fort Erie. During my three visits I found the highest concentration of birds was between Service Roads 4 and 9.

Nikon 1 V2 + Nikon 1 CX 70-300 f/4.5-5.6, f/5.6, 1/2000, ISO-400, 300mm
Nikon 1 V2 + Nikon 1 CX 70-300 f/4.5-5.6, f/5.6, 1/2000, ISO-400, 300mm, efov 810mm

While ice breakers do keep the centre of the river clear, the shorelines of the river can get a fair amount of ice on them. This makes capturing images of birds challenging from a physical distance standpoint. Even when using my Nikon D800/Tamron 150-600 VC and Nikon 1 V2 with my Nikon 1 CX 70-300 VR combinations I still found that subjects were often quite small in my viewfinder as I was often shooting from distances of approximately 150m (491 feet).

Nikon 1 V2 + Nikon 1 CX 70-300 f/4.5-5.6, f/5.6, 1/2000, ISO-400, 300mm, efov 810mm
Nikon 1 V2 + Nikon 1 CX 70-300 f/4.5-5.6, f/5.6, 1/2000, ISO-400, 300mm, efov 810mm

As a result I often needed to crop files quite aggressively, sometimes at over 90% so I apologize in advance for image quality in this article. The majority of images should be viewed more from a general interest or species identification perspective.

Nikon D800 + TAMRON 150-600 f/5-6.3, f/8, 1/4000, ISO-1000, 600mm
Nikon D800 + TAMRON 150-600 f/5-6.3, f/8, 1/4000, ISO-1000, 600mm, subject distance 63.1m, 207 feet

When visiting this area when the river banks are snow covered I would strongly advise readers to stay in the designated parking areas or to not venture too far from the paved road. The river banks are quite steep in areas and the river has a strong current. Venturing too close to the edge could result in you slipping into the river with deadly consequences.

Nikon D800 + TAMRON 150-600 f/5-6.3, f/8, 1/1600, ISO-1000, 600mm
Nikon D800 + TAMRON 150-600 f/5-6.3, f/8, 1/1600, ISO-1000, 600mm, subject distance 149.6m, 491 feet

For the best lighting I would recommend doing most of your shooting from noon onward as the sun will be at your back. Arriving in the morning will allow you to scout the river and plan your shots. There are a few creeks that drain into the Niagara River and they have small, stone bridges. These can be ideal places from which to take photographs. These waist-high stone structures also can help hide you from the birds.

Nikon 1 V2 + Nikon 1 CX 70-300 f/4.5-5.6, f/5.6, 1/1250, ISO-400, 300mm, efov 810mm
Nikon 1 V2 + Nikon 1 CX 70-300 f/4.5-5.6, f/5.6, 1/1250, ISO-400, 300mm, efov 810mm

You will find large flocks of ducks reasonably close to shore but these birds can be very skittish and will often take flight as you approach on foot. A good strategy is to get your camera ready, pre-focus on that portion of the river, and anticipate that the flock will take flight as you draw closer. It will then be possible to get some nice group shots of the ducks in flight. The most common ducks appear to be canvasbacks.

Nikon 1 V2 + Nikon 1 CX 70-300 f/4.5-5.6, f/5.6, 1/2000, ISO-400, 300mm efov 810mm
Nikon 1 V2 + Nikon 1 CX 70-300 f/4.5-5.6, f/5.6, 1/2000, ISO-400, 300mm, efov 810mm

You will also find a good number of Canada geese and on occasion you can get images of them approaching you in-flight. Most of the waterfowl tend to fly and land parallel to the river, so even though you may not get many images suitable for enlargement purposes because of the distance from the birds, you can have a lot of fun practicing your panning technique.

Nikon D800 + TAMRON 150-600 f/5-6.3, f/8, 1/2500, ISO-1000, 600mm
Nikon D800 + TAMRON 150-600 f/5-6.3, f/8, 1/2500, ISO-1000, 600mm, subject distance 149.6m, 491 feet

While I was able to get images with both my D800/Tamron 150-600 and Nikon 2 V2/CX 70-300 combinations, shooting with a DSLR was much easier as focusing was faster and more accurate. In general, I found I needed more panning time to get birds properly framed with my Nikon 1 V2 since the viewfinder is much darker and not nearly as detailed as with my D800. This made locating the birds more difficult.

Nikon D800 + TAMRON 150-600 f/5-6.3, f/8, 1/2000, ISO-1000, 320mm, subject distance 59.6m
Nikon D800 + TAMRON 150-600 f/5-6.3, f/8, 1/2000, ISO-1000, 320mm, subject distance 59.6m, 196 feet

If you shoot with a Nikon 1 V-series camera you are already aware that there is some lag time as the image transfers from the rear screen to the viewfinder. This can cause missed shots if you are not careful. If you are shooting with a Nikon 1 V-series camera I would recommend keeping your thumb over the viewfinder sensor so the image stays in the viewfinder. This will not only eliminate image-transfer time, but also extend your battery life when shooting.

Nikon 1 V2 + Nikon 1 CX 70-300 f/4.5-5.6, f/5.6, 1/1250, 300mm, efov 810mm
Nikon 1 V2 + Nikon 1 CX 70-300 f/4.5-5.6, f/5.6, 1/1250, 300mm, efov 810mm

There are sufficiently wide clear areas at most of the designated parking areas to allow for burst shooting. The stone bridge areas mentioned earlier are well suited to this technique.

For best results you will need a long focal length lens as something like a 70-300mm will often be too short for many of the image opportunities that are typically present. There is one designated parking area where a shorter length lens (i.e. 70-300mm) can be effectively used.

Nikon D800 + Tamron 150-600 f/5-6.3, f/8, 1/3200, ISO-1000, 600mm, subject distance 149.6m
Nikon D800 + Tamron 150-600 f/5-6.3, f/8, 1/3200, ISO-1000, 600mm, subject distance 149.6m, 491 feet

You’ll notice a river front grove of tall trees that are accessed by quite a long driveway sloping down from the Niagara Parkway (this is the only long driveway access so it is easy to spot). Birds often congregate in this area and if you are quiet and patient they will often come close enough for some good shots. This is the area where I captured the tundra swan images contained in my previous article. It is also an area where you may spot the odd hawk.

Nikon 1 V2 + Nikon 1 CX 70-300 f/4.5-5.6, f/5.6, 1/2500, ISO-400, 300mm, efov 810mm
Nikon 1 V2 + Nikon 1 CX 70-300 f/4.5-5.6, f/5.6, 1/2500, ISO-400, 300mm, efov 810mm

When shooting with my D800 I used AF-C with 9-point AF, and took single frames only. I used Aperture priority and shot my D800 at f/8. This also helped to sharpen up the Tamron 150-600 at the long end where the lens tends to be a bit soft.

Nikon D800 + TAMRON 150-600 f/5-6.3, f/8, 1/2000, ISO-1000, 600mm, subject distance 149.6m
Nikon D800 + TAMRON 150-600 f/5-6.3, f/8, 1/2000, ISO-1000, 600mm, subject distance 149.6m, 491 feet

Given the limited dynamic range of my Nikon 1 V2, I played around with settings quite a bit and shot in both AF-S and AF-C, and used single point AF. Matrix metering tended to yield better results than centre-weighted or spot. I shot in Aperture priority at f/5.6 to avoid the effects of diffraction on the Nikon 1 V2’s small CX sensor.

Nikon D800 + TAMRON 150-600 f/5-6.3, f/8, 1/4000, ISO-1000, 600mm, efov 900mm, subject distance 149.6m
Nikon D800 + TAMRON 150-600 f/5-6.3, f/8, 1/4000, ISO-1000, 600mm, efov 900mm, subject distance 149.6m, 491 feet (note: D800 shot in DX crop mode for this image)

As noted earlier, the birds tend to fly and land parallel to the river so you can adjust your focus point accordingly in order to use more of your camera’s sensor. This can be helpful when photographing a group of birds where you’ll want to focus on the lead bird.

This area of the Niagara River has a healthy congregation of birds during the winter months, but at other times of the year the populations of birds is sporadic at best.

Technical Note: All images were shot hand held with either a Nikon D800 with Tamron 150-600 f/5-6.3 or Nikon 1 V2 with Nikon 1 CX 70-300 f/4.5-5.6. RAW files were processed using DxO OpticsPro 10, with a DNG file exported into CS6 and Nik Suite for additional adjustments as required.

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Article and all images Copyright Thomas Stirr. All rights reserved. No use, duplication or adaption allowed without written consent.

10 thoughts on “Photographing Birds on the Niagara River in Winter”

  1. Hi Tom,

    Enjoyed the article. i have had very good experience using the V2 and the Nikon 1 70-300 VR. And I think it is a great combo. I use it a lot for wildlife here and get quality results, even when cropping! And what a great outfit for carrying! i am quite pleased I bought the lens.

    I hope you will use the combo more, perhaps in less adverse conditions. I think you will like the results. I have quite a few posts shot with the lens, one of an osprey in the top of a tree at a diustance. Even though the image has been cropped extensively, it is tack sharp. Of course, that one was shot on a sunny day, something we don’t see a lot of this time of year.

    In sum, I feel the lttle V2/70-300 VR combo is a great wildlife outfit.

    Thanks and keep up the good work.

    Vern Rogers (fotabug)

  2. Hi Thomas – First if all I would like to thank-you for the many fine articles of yours which I have read over the past year or so on Photography Life and now on your blog. The images from your Nikon 1 cameras persuaded me to try out the system and I now have a J4 and V2 and the FT-1 adapter.

    As an FYI – the Sigma 150-500 mm (purchased in later 2014) lenses my wife and I own are recognized by both the J4 and the V2 using the latest firmware versions available from Nikon for the cameras and the adapter.

    Regards

    Ron

    1. Hi Ron,

      Thanks for your comment – I’m glad that you have found that articles helpful!

      I have a good friend who owns that particular Sigma lens and his V2 works well with it too. Unfortunately I borrowed a Sigma 150-500 from another good friend and I could not get any of my V2’s to recognize the lens. I own the Tamron 150-600 VC and after updating the FT-1 software last night I tried all three of my V2’s with it and none will recognize the lens at all. I have no idea why this happens as some other PL readers have been able to shoot with the Tamron 150-600 with their Nikon 1’s and some folks like you can shoot with the Sigma 150-500 with their Nikon 1’s. All I know is that my three V2’s and the J1 my wife used to own, none of them recognized the Tamron 150-600 at all.

      How are you finding shooting with the Nikon1/Sigma combination in terms of handling and image quality?

      Tom

      1. Hi Tom – It is a big lens on a small body and takes a bit of getting used to. More often I find myself using a 70-300mm VR with the adapter for birds in the backyard. That combination is very hand holdable and easier to point at the subject. 500mm on the Sigma is immense on the V2 and maybe too much most of the time for fairly close range (about 10-20m) subjects. In general I have been quite pleased with the image quality from both of these zooms.

        Regards

        Ron

        1. Hi Ron,

          Thanks for the additional insights. I’d love to try my V2’s with my Tamron 150-600 but they won’t recognize it at all. Glad you’re having good luck with your Sigma!

          Tom

  3. Hi Tom

    It seems like a perfect combination of photographic equipment, I do like that big Tamron, but I have blown my budget on the D810, happy processing.

    Mike

  4. Hi Tom

    Lovely photo’s, I am impressed with the Nikon1 shots, it must be a much more lightweight rig compared to the D800 and Tamron combi, do you have a preference?
    I was also interested in your workflow, I am processing via Nikon Transfer2, then I import into LR and do a basic tidy up, open PhotoshopCC and like you use Nik Suite, not quite sure if this the best method, but it seems to work for me.

    Mike

    1. Hi Mike,

      Glad you like the images – thanks for the positive feedback!

      The Nikon 1 V2/CX 70-300 is extremely small and portable. A real joy to use for sure. Probably weighs about 1/3 or less than my D800/Tamron 150-600 combo. The Nikon 1 combo really excels for more static bird shots and is outstanding to use with extension tubes for images of butterflies, flowers etc.

      In terms of photographing birds-in-flight that is actually the biggest challenge using the Nikon 1 set up. The viewfinder of the Nikon 1 V2 isn’t nearly as bright or detailed as my D800. Nikon 1 focus, while competent with birds in flight, does not snap and nail it nearly as quickly as my D800/Tamron combo does.

      I prefer shooting birds in flight with my D800/Tamron. For overall flexibility, portability etc. for other types of telephoto images the Nikon 1 V2/CX 70-300 combo is preferred.

      In terms of post process, I don’t think there is any magic or right/wrong way. If you have something that works well for you then stick with it.

      I use DxO OpticsPro 10 for my initial RAW processing. I then export a DNG file into CS6, then into Nik if required for final tweaks.

      Tom

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