Bird Photography in Ottawa: Challenge or Opportunity?

Tips & Techniques

Ottawa, Canada may not be the easiest place to see birds, or the best place to be a photographer, or even the warmest place… wait, why am I writing about Ottawa? Because I live here, and I’ve photographed birds and wildlife here for more hours than anywhere else. Ottawa has taught me that the most crucial element of wildlife photography is persistence – which sometimes means spending endless hours waiting for the right moment.

Table of Contents

Challenges

I’ve photographed birds in quite a few places, including several cities in Australia, Canada, and the United States. From this, I’ve realized that Ottawa is a bit more challenging than some other areas. The biggest challenge is probably the cold, snowy weather that graces us almost half the year. I remember once trying to photograph Goldeneye Ducks downtown. Because I was so excited while looking through the viewfinder, I lost track of time and got frostbite on my right hand! (It recovered after a week.)

Common_Goldeneye_In_Cold_River_jpolak
Common Goldeneye. Nikon D500 + 500PF @ 500mm, ISO 800, 1/3200, f/5.6

Ottawa is also surrounded by large forests, and in general has a fairly homogeneous ecology with many tall trees. Unlike in Australia – where I could go to the only body of water in a dry environment and find endless birds and mammals drinking – the animals in Ottawa are widely dispersed. There is simply less low-hanging fruit for photography.

However, the differences between locations around Ottawa can be charming, too. Due to the huge variety of animal habits and habitats, it is almost impossible to find two areas that will generate exactly the same types of photos. Thus, what seems like a challenge at first glance could in fact turn out to be an opportunity!

Opportunities

How can you make an opportunity out of a difficult environment in bird photography? With time and patience! Even in hotspots with birds practically flying into your face, experienced wildlife photographers know that it takes time and patience to find the best moment and conditions.

Part of the process is simply putting in some time and going out as often as possible. The more time I spend searching for photo opportunities, the more I’ve found, even when the birds are playing hard-to-get. Simply spending enough time outdoors will eventually yield results.

Mallard_Duck_Swimming_jpolak
Mallard. Nikon D500 + 500PF @ 500mm, ISO 800, 1/640, f/5.6

For instance, one very cold winter morning, I had gone for a walk to take macro shots of dead plants with my Panasonic G9 and Laowa 50mm f/2.8 Macro. Perhaps the struggling sumac plant against the desolate snow would give me a shot worth keeping? Yes, I was indeed desperate.

But for some strange reason, I brought along my Nikon D500 and 500mm PF lens anyway. There were very few opportunities for animal photography of any kind, but perhaps I was in was denial. Yet, as I was trying to capture some sad-looking plants with my cold fingers, two women walked by and asked me if I had seen the owl. (People invariably talk to me when I carry a big lens.)

What owl?! They didn’t know what species it was, but I suspected it was a rarity. They gave me vague directions akin to a crayon on a napkin, prompting me to walk off into the right (?) direction.

After some aimless wandering and wondering if I would be lost to the snow forever, I glimpsed a few intrepid souls carrying long lenses. And indeed, not long after, I spotted the Northern Hawk Owl – normally a very difficult owl to see. I even managed a few shots that I like, showing the Hawk Owl posed atop a tree.

Northern_Hawk_Owl_jpolak
Northern Hawk Owl. Nikon D500 + 500PF @ 500mm, ISO 180, 1/640, f/5.6

Photographing birds in Ottawa has shown me two things. First, you can really do interesting photography anywhere, even if it’s not a known world-class area for any particular type of photography. And second, endless persistence will usually reward you with something. Even if there’s just a small chance, keep at it, and the small chances will add up.

Home Field Advantage

No matter where I am, I’ve found that visiting a spot at least 6-7 times is when I start to have enough information to maximize my photographic opportunities. That’s part of what I consider the “home field advantage” in photography – you can easily visit locations that are close to home and learn their characteristics very well over time.

Ring_Billed_Gull_In_Sunlight_jpolak
Ring-billed Gull. Nikon D500 + 500PF @ 500mm, ISO 450, 1/800, f/5.6

For example, I used to visit the nearby Carleton University for bird photography. I suspect I’ve been there over fifty times in every season. Doing so has given me a very good idea of which species arrive at which times, what spots they prefer, and what their behavior is like.

During one of my visits to this university, I saw a distant tree with some birds flying around it. I hadn’t noticed it on my first several visits, but I started to walk in that direction to explore the situation. I realized that the tree was next to a small stream, and the birds flying around were colorful songbirds.

Small birds often love small streams because larger bodies of water are too tricky for them to bathe in and drink from. This particular stream had a great branch above the river where birds would perch – perfect for photography.

Little spots like this are gems, and they take time and patience to find. But once you do, they can be very rewarding. Just under an hour sitting here was enough for me to get several photos I liked, including this shot of a House Finch.

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Nikon D500 + Tamron 150-600 G2 @ 400mm, ISO 3600, 1/250, f/7.1

In general, photography in your home town can be very peaceful and fruitful. Around Ottawa, I’ve learned which spots draw large crowds – I can avoid these – and which spots are quieter and just as beautiful.

Personally, being in a peaceful moment and just observing animals is the most significant inspiration for my photography. It’s certainly easier to find those spots right at home than anywhere else.

Conclusion

I love bird photography because it’s something I can do anywhere, and I have been very lucky to shoot around the world. But I would be remiss not to credit Ottawa – not only for the countless photographic opportunities but also for the peaceful moments that I can spend observing and learning about nature.

Have you explored the surrounding areas where you live? If so, I’d love to hear about your experiences in the comments!

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