Adapting to a Changing Birding Environment

After my wife and I arrived at our resort in Cuba in late January,  the first thing we did after dropping off our bags in our room, was visit the wetland area adjacent to the hotel. During our previous visits to this resort, the area had been a terrific spot for birding and bird photography. During past visits I had typically spent hours every day on the walkway over the water photographing a wide variety of bird species. This year my challenge was adapting to a changing birding environment.

NOTE: Click on images to enlarge.

Olympus TG-5 @ 4.5 mm, efov 25 mm, f/2.8, 1/800, ISO-100

As we strolled from one end of the walkway to the other side I did not see a single bird, compared to the dozens we would have observed in previous years. This was initially very unnerving.

Olympus TG-5 @ 4.5 mm, efov 25 mm, f/2.8, 1/1000, ISO-100

Where there once were mud flats and large stretches of shallow water ideal for feeding shorebirds, egrets and herons, the marsh was now flooded. In spots the water looked to be almost a metre (~3 feet) deeper than our last visit in 2016.

Olympus TG-5 @ 4.5 mm, efov 25 mm, f/5.6, 1/320, ISO-100

Quite a few of the trees had died and were completely void of vegetation. This indicated to me that the area had been flooded for some time.

Olympus TG-5 @ 4.5 mm, efov 25 mm, f/2.8, 1/640, ISO-100

It looked like a water-filled wasteland. Almost all of the water close to the elevated walkway was far too deep to be a good fishing area for birds. I studied the surface of the water… all was not lost!

Nikon 1 V3 + 1 Nikkor CX 70-300 mm f/4.5-5.6 @ 300 mm, efov 810 mm, f/5.6, 1/1600, ISO-280

I was relieved to see plenty of small fish fry in the water. That meant that the bottom of the food chain was healthy. It also indicated that at least some birds were likely feeding somewhere near the marshland. My challenge was to find them… then develop some tactics to photograph them.

Olympus TG-5 @ 9 mm, efov 50 mm, f/4.5, 1/250, ISO-100

As I walked around the perimeter of the wetland I took mental notes of what I observed. The water had infiltrated beyond the treed border of the marshland, reaching out towards the paved sidewalk. In four previous visits to this resort I had never seen so much water in the marshland.

Olympus TG-5 @ 7 mm, efov 38.9 mm, f/2.8, 1/500, ISO-100

It was clear that in some places the grassy scrub areas were also soaked with water and full of thick mud. Since I had not brought any waterproof footwear this appeared to be yet another obstacle.

Olympus TG-5 @ 9.6 mm, efov 53.3 mm, f/3.4, 1/500, ISO-100

There was one stretch of shoreline that looked somewhat promising. It appeared more rocky, with less water intrusion. The area also had some small bushes. I thought these could provide some camouflage and cover for me, should I try to quietly approach birds feeding in the shallow water.

After this initial assessment, we went back to our room so I could grab my camera and continue with my scouting mission. I thought it was quite probable that due to the changing birding environment at least some of the birds had left the area to feed elsewhere. My challenge was to adapt my photographic approach to make the best of the conditions and not let the changing birding environment win out over me. More on that in my next article…

Technical Note:
All photographs in this article were captured hand-held using camera gear as per the EXIF data. All images were produced from RAW files using my standard process of DxO PhotoLab, CS6 and the Nik Collection.

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4 thoughts on “Adapting to a Changing Birding Environment”

  1. Unfortunately, Birders I’ve come across here in the UK seem to have been saying a similar thing over the last several years.

    I hope we’re not too late to realise what is going on and be able to do something about it.

    1. Hi Mark,
      It will take concerted and coordinated action across many layers of government and internationally. Unfortunately we have some thick-headed politicians in Canada that are still in the ‘climate change deny’ camp.
      Tom

  2. Hi Tom,

    I find the post interesting as one of the reasons why I love birding is that it’s easier to educate people about how the presence or absence of birds (and other wildlife) is a good indicator of the habitat health. In the case of the place in Cuba you visited, deeper water levels have prompted the resident birds to probably relocate, most likely further inland. The “plantscape” has also most likely changed, either surviving or dying, hence the effect on wildlife which depends on them either for food or shelter.

    Oggie
    http://www.lagalog.com

    1. Hi Oggie,

      I agree completely! Even as recently as 2016 I would have been able to easily photograph great blue herons in this area. Not only would there have been plenty of them in the shallows feeding, but also numerous birds in flight throughout the day. Fast forward only three years and during this trip I did not see even one great blue heron anywhere during my birding walks over a one week period. Obviously they have moved on to another habitat. The same was largely true of the egrets as well. In 2016 there were multiple species of egrets in the area and dozens of them could be photographed flying throughout the day. This trip I could have counted on two hands the total number of egrets I saw during our visit.

      Many of the bird photographers that I have met over the past few years have all been lamenting about the decline in bird populations and species diversity. Climate change is real and we need to do much, much more about this serious issue.

      Thanks for adding to the discussion Oggie!

      Tom

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