Goose Spit Park, a Bird Photographers Dream – Terry Thormin

Annie’s most recent, beautiful blog on the Gorge Waterway has inspired me to write a similar blog on one of my favorite areas for waterfowl in the Comox Valley. Goose Spit is a spit of land that sticks out into the ocean from Willemar Bluffs, partially enclosing Comox Bay and the Courtenay River Estuary. The base of the spit, extending out for about a third of its length has public access along a road that goes to the military base (HMCS Quadra) and the K’omoks Band property that occupy the outer two thirds of the spit.  The public access area has several parking and pull-off areas as well as public port-a-potties, and is a popular place for local residents. Most days there will be at least a few people using the spit to walk their dogs, get some exercise, or, on nice sunny days, just to enjoy the weather. For those who want more of a walk, it is possible to walk along the outer beach right to the tip of the spit when the tide isn’t high (everything above the high tide mark is either military base or K’omoks Band property). This photo shows part of the spit taken from the bluffs.

Goose Spit from Willemar Bluffs 1a

Because the spit it only a five minute drive from where I live, and because of the opportunities it offers for bird photography, I will often take a drive there just to see what is happening. It is primarily waterbirds and waders that are attracted to this place, and although it is rather devoid of bird life in the summer, in the winter and during migration it can be quite spectacular. At the base of the spit where there is complete public access I find that the bay side of the spit provides the best opportunities for photography. Just as the road comes down of the bluffs and hits the base of the spit there is a mudflat area that is quite extensive at low tide. Here a lot of the dabbling ducks gather, and its not uncommon to see mallards, pintail, green-winged teal, and both American and Eurasian wigeon. There is often a great blue heron here and during migration flocks of shorebirds often use the mud flats.

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The best time to photograph the ducks though is when the tide is fairly high as this pushes them in close to the road. I find that getting out of the car just results in the ducks making a quick exit, either by swimming further out or even flying, so I tend to pull the car up as close to the shore as possible and use it as a blind for getting my shots. This shot of a Eurasian wigeon is typical of the types of photographs I can get doing this.

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Further along the spit, but before the military base, the water drops off more quickly and this area is good for the diving ducks like bufflehead, goldeneye, greater scaup and white-winged and surf scoters. I have spent quite a bit of time over the past three years trying to photograph these birds, particularly the scoters. Here everything has to be just right to get really good photos. I look for days when the tide is quite high to bring the birds in close to shore, but I also want good light, preferably high, thin overcast, plus calm seas. This also has to happen in the morning or very early afternoon otherwise the sun is in the wrong location, and finally, I am always trying to avoid other people as much as possible, as anyone coming too close will push the birds out beyond where I can get good shots.

What I do is wait in the car until the ducks all dive then quickly get out, go down to the shore, set my folding, three-legged stool up and sit and wait until the ducks come back up. If I am not quick enough the birds swim out from shore and I have a long wait until they come back in. I use a folding stool because I have an artificial right knee that doesn’t bend very well making it difficult to get down and back up off the ground. If you can easily sit on the ground, or even lie down, then a piece of carpet would work well instead of the stool. By getting low you are reducing your profile and the ducks are more likely to disregard you. You are also getting down at a much lower angle which makes for a much more pleasing photo. I must admit too, that sitting is much more comfortable than lying down or even standing. At this point it often takes lots of patience as the birds are regularly disturbed by the people walking their dogs or out for exercise, but I generally do come away with at least a few good photos like this one of a white-winged scoter.

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Although the scoters are the most cooperative here, often coming in quite close, occasionally something else like this male bufflehead will come in close enough to allow for a good shot.

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The last time I went out to the spit, conditions at the base of the spit were just not right. The tide was too far out and there were lots of people walking along the beach rather than just on the road. As a result the ducks were well out from shore. With low tide however, a walk out to the tip of the spit was possible. This is about a 2.2 km walk, much of it along a pebble beach, so there generally are not as many people out here as at the base of the spit. There was a fairly heavy cloud cover that day, but the forecast was for it to break, and there were already some breaks in the clouds, so I decided to take a chance. Part way along the beach I found a flock of shorebirds, mostly dunlin with a few black-bellied plovers in amongst them, and most importantly, from my perspective, a single sanderling. This was the first one I had seen this year, so I concentrated on it and managed to get a reasonable photo.

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As it happened, by the time I got to the end of the spit it was obvious that once again the weather would not cooperate and the clouds were, if anything, heavier than when I started. At least there was no indication of rain, and so I figured that I could still potentially get some photos. I generally have two goals when I go out to the tip of the spit. The first is that here the ducks like the scoters will often fly fairly close to the tip of the spit as they round it either going into the bay or back out to sea and in-flight shots are possible. I am still trying to get some killer shots of these birds in flight. On this occasion I did manage to get a photo of a white-winged scoter in flight, but because of the poorer light, it is still not the great shot I am looking for.

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The water drops off quite steeply here and as a result there is almost always a flock of long-tailed ducks in fairly close to shore. I have photographed these ducks many times and have taken some quite good shots of them on the water, but up until this time I had never been able to get an in-flight shot, so this was my second goal. When I am photographing the long-tails, I am actually hoping for human disturbance. Generally the birds are just a little too far out to get great shots of individual birds with my lens. I use an Olympus micro four thirds camera with a 100 to 300 mm lens. Because it is a micro four thirds system this is the equivalent to a 200 to 600 mm lens, but here I would need almost double that as a rule. But when a boat goes by it will often cause the birds to swim in closer to shore and that is when I can get my shots. On this occasion I waited for well over an hour and not a single boat came along, so I occupied my time with shooting the flying scoters, and taking shots of groups of long-tailed ducks like this one.

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Finally it was long past noon and I was getting hungry, so I decided to head back. About 100 meters down the beach I suddenly realized that a boat was coming towards me, close to shore, so I quickly scrambled back to where the long-tails were. I just barely made it before the boat disturbed the ducks, but it was so close to shore that instead of pushing them closer it caused them to take flight. My camera wasn’t set up properly for in-flight shots, but I shot like mad anyway, taking perhaps 20 shots and hoping for the best. As it turned out only one shot was good enough to save, but all things considered it was not a bad shot of a male and female taking off.

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Bird photography takes a lot of time and patience, and I have spent many days in the field without taking a single good photo. On this particular day, for a while I thought it was going to be one of those days, but as I sat there watching the antics of the long-tailed ducks and listening to them constantly calling, I couldn’t help but think that the true value of my efforts wasn’t the photographs, but rather just the pleasure of the experience.

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About annieandterry

This is a blog shared by two friends who have never met in person, Annie Pang and Terry Thormin. We both live on Vancouver Island, Annie in Victoria and Terry in Comox. All communication to date has been either by email or telephone. We are both passionate about nature and conservation and we are both nature photographers. Annie is also a very fine poet and was a concert violinist, while Terry worked as an entomologist for the Royal Alberta Museum until he retired in 2005. We hope you enjoy this joint effort to share our nature musings with anyone who is interested.

Posted on February 13, 2013, in Nature, Photography and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 6 Comments.

  1. Stunning photographs Terry. I’m getting cabin fever sitting at my computer here in Alberta.

  2. Thanks Charles, that is why I finally decided to move to the island.

  3. I see that I am going to have to take a drive up there.. what a beautiful variety of birds.

  4. Wonderful narrative of your adventures and beautiful photos. Your title, though, created all kinds of misimpressions initially. Goose Spit? Was it going to a posting about saliva or a new rotisserie for water fowl? I didn’t even consider the possibility that it was a land feature.

    • Well that just about left me in tears I was laughing so hard. Funny thing is that the thought never even entered my mind when I wrote the title. I am so familiar with the location that the words have only one meaning to me. I must admit that I have been wondering why this post got so few hits, and now I think I know. I will have to watch my titles more carefully from now on. Thanks for the heads-up Mike!

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