Thursday, March 31, 2005

Great Backyard Birding!

Yesterday my backyard was full of DARK-EYED JUNCOS. There must have been 30 or more scolding each other with their "laser gun" tew-tew-tew sounds. Most of the winter there never seemed to be more than 4 to 6 around at a time. Their songs filled the warm spring air!

A YELLOW-BELLIED SAPSUCKER enjoyed the sap running down our maple tree. A BROWN CREEPER made a brief appearance before being chased away by one of our frequent RED-BREASTED NUTHATCHES. A SONG SPARROW perched and sang for a minute or two in the maple. Two gorgeous FOX SPARROWS were kick-scratch foraging underneath our row of pines.

A total of 21 backyard bird species, which also included BROWN-HEADED COWBIRDS.

Dark-eyed Junco
House Sparrow
Fox Sparrow
Song Sparrow
Brown Creeper
Red-breasted Nuthatch
Black-capped Chickadee
Yellow-bellied Sapsucker
Hairy Woodpecker
Downy Woodpecker
American Robin
Northern Cardinal
Blue Jay
American Crow
Common Grackle
Red-winged Blackbird (fly over)
Brown-headed Cowbird
Mourning Dove
House Finch
American Goldfinch
Killdeer (fly over)

Dark-eyed Junco image © 2005 Michael Allen McDowell

Wednesday, March 30, 2005

Noise Reduction for your Digiscoped Images

While post-processing your digiscoped images in the "digital darkroom" adds a creative element to your work, various noise reduction software programs will help to speed up the processes. After years of utilizing a technique of painstakingly separating layers and applying blur filters to background areas, I've recently benefited from utilizing such software. While there are a multitude of options out there, I've found Imagenomic's Noiseware 2.5 (freeware) to be one of the fastest and easiest to use.

Click on the above Killdeer image to get an idea of what Noiseware can do for you. To view the final result that I published on my digiscoping website, click here.

Here's another great Noise Reduction package: Noise Ninja

Killdeer image © 2005 Michael Allen McDowell

Tuesday, March 29, 2005

Homeward Bound - Class of 2004 Whooping Cranes

They are out of there! That’s right. The Class of 2004 Whooping Cranes left their wintering grounds at the Chassahowitzka National Wildlife Refuge on March 25th. Eagle Optics is a proud sponsor of Operation Migration and to read more about the progress of the Whooping Cranes, read the daily entries in the Field Journal. Some of the adult Whooping Cranes have already made the journey back to Wisconsin!

Monday, March 28, 2005

Donor to Match Gifts to Great Gray Owl Fund

While the owl invasion of 2004/2005 has provided many people opportunities to see Great Gray Owls, the birds themselves have taken a bit of a beating (what's new?). Because they fly low to the ground when hunting, they are easily killed by automobile traffic. Over 500 Great Gray Owls have been found dead along the roads of Minnesota and northern Wisconsin. Compare that with an estimated North American population between 30,000 and 100,000 individuals and that’s still a pretty substantial portion.

A number of injured Great Gray Owls (and other northern owls) are being rehabilitated at the Minnesota Raptor Center. They are currently involved in a “challenge grant” to help pay for the costs associated with rehabbing these magnificent birds.

The Katherine B. Andersen Fund of the Saint Paul Foundation has offered The Raptor Center a 1:1 challenge grant of up to $20,000 for a rehabilitation fund for the great gray owls treated at TRC this winter. It’s called the Give a Hoot fund!

Great Gray Owl image © 2005 Michael Allen McDowell

"Wilson" - The Great Gray Owl Killed by Vehicle

Named by local children, Wilson the "Goose Pond" Great Gray Owl was killed by a vehicle along Hwy 51 sometime on Saturday night. He was last seen by Steve Thiessen who reported his observation on Wisbirdn. We were aware that Wilson was first spotted as he sat on a faded sign along this same stretch of Hwy 51 a month or so earlier.

We called Kris Kesselhon, our "owl volunteer" and left a message on her answering machine that gave his Hwy 51 location. She had been searching for him and had not found him that day. We expressed our concern about his safety and thought that if he was found that he should be flushed from the road to get him away from the busy highway.

It was late Saturday evening when Kris returned home and heard our message and left to look for Wilson (11:00 p.m). It was a warm evening and the full moon provided Kris with the light that she needed to find him and flush him from the highway. However, when arriving she saw Wilson along the road and knew that he was dead. She mentioned to us that something told her to go out and look for him - she felt that it was important for her to go. As things turned out, Kris was glad that she was able to find him and bring him to us at Goose Pond.

Madison Audubon Society has a federal and state permits that allow us to pick up dead animals for the purpose of making study skins and mounts for public education. Wilson may be made into a mount so that we can continue to educate people about the beauty of these special owls. We were very forutnate to have him here in Columbia/Dane Counties.

We put together a Great Gray Owl life history and birding etiquette fact sheet and Kris handed them out to all who came to see Wilson. She also provided owl watchers with a copy of the Great Wisconsin Birding and Nature Trails, Checklist of Wisconsin Birds. Kris spent many hours talking with people about Wilson. Kris also helped band Wilson and was thrilled by the experience. Kris wrote up her observations during her weeks working with Wilson and his public. We thank banders Richard Roberts and Dennis Hassly for banding Wilson.

Wilson had his own photographer, Mike McDowell. Many of us took pictures of Wilson, but his best side was captured by Mike, who came to know Wilson in a personal way. Here is our favorite Wilson shot!

On numerous trips to see Wilson, we would come upon Mike, parked a safe distance away from the owl, with his camera ready for the next prized shot. Mike shared our concern for Wilson's safety and privacy and we talked with Mike about how to educate the public about the special needs of birds and wildlife. Our converstions soon led to the idea of the fact sheet and Checklist of Wisconsin Birds as a way to let people know about observing birds and wildilfe without disturbance.

This past week has been a difficult time for us. On a trip to Siren for Sue's Great WI Birding and Nature Trail work, she found a dead Great Gray on the road. Just after she stopped to take it off the road, a car driving in the other direction hit another Great Gray. Yesterday, a Great Horned Owl was hit and killed near Goose Pond.

When people and wildlife mix, it is usually people who win. But we were all winners when Wilson came to be with us this winter. In an unusual year when thousands of northern owls came south, Wilson came to stay in our community. People came from far and wide to see him, and the local children named him. How nice, this memory of "our Wilson".

Mark and Sue Foote-Martin
Goose Pond Sanctuary
W7468 Prairie Lane
Arlington, WI 53911

Great Gray Owl image © 2005 Michael Allen McDowell

Thursday, March 24, 2005

Eagle Optics Sponsors Optics Drive

"Through the work of WSO, WBCI, Wild Birds Unlimited and Eagle Optics, an impressive collection of 67 binoculars, a spotting scope, 2 tripods, and 12 field guides were gathered. This equipment will find a second life in the hands of researchers working to help “our” birds during their time away from nesting grounds here in North America."

Full Article: Eagle Optics Sponsors Optics Drive


Birders' Exchange
Wisconsin Society for Ornithology
Wisconsin Bird Conservation Initiative
Wild Birds Unlimited

Wednesday, March 23, 2005

Pheasant Branch Conservancy - March 23rd

I spent part of the afternoon going for a walk through sections of the Pheasant Branch stream corridor and also the Dane County Unit - the snow is melting fast now. I noted that the GREAT HORNED OWL pair have abandoned their nest behind Middleton High School. It's been several days since I last checked on them and I have no idea why they have apparently left. I was unable to locate them along the entire stream corridor. Hopefully they've found a less conspicuous nesting location.

On the Dane County Unit of PBC there were a few more spring arrivals: EASTERN MEADOWLARK, TURKEY VULTURE, FOX SPARROW and an increase in the number of SONG SPARROWS. I also found two NORTHERN SHRIKES. I set up my digiscoping gear in order to attempt a photograph, but after waiting for 30 minutes one of the shrikes perched right behind me and sang. That was very cool, but I was in the good lighting for the bird's view and not the other way around. The fields were alive with the songs of RED-WINGED BLACKBIRDS, SONG SPARROWS, EASTERN MEADOWLARKS and SANDHILL CRANES. A total of 28 species were observed during the outing.

Red-winged Blackbird image © 2005 Michael Allen McDowell

Prevent Disease - Clean your Bird Feeders!

From Wisconsin DNR:

"MADISON -- Redpolls, a small red-capped finch that's attracted to finch feeders, have been found dead or dying in some northern Wisconsin counties and state wildlife health officials urge people providing finch feed to bring in their feeders and carefully clean them to prevent disease from spreading among birds."

"Feeders can be cleaned with a solution of 2 ounces of bleach to a gallon of water. The entire surface of the feeder should be scrubbed or brushed. Additionally, accumulations of discarded seed and droppings under feeders should be removed. Feeders can be put out again after about a week when redpoll numbers have diminished. People cleaning the feeders should carefully wash their hands," Langenberg says.

Full Article - Salmonella outbreak suspected in Redpoll deaths

Common Redpoll image © 2005 Michael Allen McDowell

Digiscoping with Thread-based Adapters

There are so many point-and-shoot digital cameras available on the market for digiscoping - it can be frustrating trying to sort through the options. Also burdensome is figuring out how or if a particular camera can be connected to a certain spotting scope. Both Swarovski and Kowa have comprehensive ring-based adapters that conform to a camera filter thread size. Swarovski includes a set of adapter rings (28mm, 37mm and 43mm) while Kowa provides 28mm, 37mm, 43mm, 52mm and 55mm rings sold individually.

But the question is what thread size does the camera you’re considering have, or does it have threads at all? BugEyeDigital has a helpful “lens compatibility chart” that can help answer these questions. In some cases an additional adapter or step-up/down ring is required to get you there - the chart provides this data. Keep in mind that just because you can get all the pieces connected doesn’t necessarily mean the particular camera will be good for digiscoping. You may need to conduct some experiments on your own.

Cheang Kum Seng of Malaysia is still making custom digiscoping adapters and his work is outstanding. Send him an email for an electronic catalog of digiscoping options. If you have a Swarovski AT/ST model and not the newer ATS/STS, or if you have the Pentax PF80ED scope, then you’ll definitely want to consider Cheang’s adapter.

Other useful links for thead-based digiscoping adapters:

Lens Adapter
LCE Adapters
CKC Power
Nikon Digiscoping

Tuesday, March 22, 2005

Improve your Digiscoping - Lesson (1) Field Craft

Mastering the Equipment

This is pretty straight forward. If you don't know how to under-ride an exposure, change the ISO setting & aperture, change the image resolution setting, etc., then you're going to have a tough time in the field when it's critical. It was the dead of winter when I first got my digiscoping equipment and the best subjects to practice on were backyard birds. There were cardinals, chickadees and juncos that made excellent subjects. Heck, I even practiced on House Sparrows. What does it matter, right? What you're doing is practicing at this point. When you practice enough to nail down how the equipment responds you will reduce unwelcomed miscues occurring in the field. In a moment of excitement, like when a Prothonotary Warbler perches excellent light right in front of you (hey, it can happen!), one can sometimes forget to check a particular setting. But it's the repeated discipline of practicing with the equipment that will make your actions in the field become quick, fluid and successful.

Time & Dedication

This is a huge part of successful digiscoping. Without time and dedication, you're very likely to struggle the few times you're in an opportunity to photograph a candidate bird. It's in repeated attempts that earns the experience, and with the experience comes the familiarity of the process. Once you've "felt" the pattern of success enough times, you begin to recognize it in the field and can settle into that grove. You'll get to the level that you'll sense a successful digiscoping session even before it happens.

Patience & Persistence

Related to time and dedication, but included here I would cite recognizing things that went wrong. Why was there a failure to capture a good image? Reviewing your work and trying to correlate it to the overall progress of your technique is important. What can you improve upon? Are you actually prepared to repeat these exercises to the point that is required to be successful? You have to concede you will have hundreds of missed opportunities. Learn to accept the ones that get away and always recognize through inspiration of the work of others of what is possible to achieve. You can do it too, it's just a matter of persistence. A little discouragement after a failed session can sometimes serve to inspire your next outing. Try not to confuse this type of "failure" with true motivation.

Location Assessment & Appreciation

Quite simply, some places are good for photography and some aren't. You know where to find birds, but just because there are birds there doesn't mean it's a good spot to take pictures of them. UW Picnic Point is often the scene of very interesting reports and warbler fallouts. But how many pictures have you ever seen of mine that were taken there? None. It's too busy. There are too many walkers, hikers, dogs, bicyclists, etc. The mood isn't right, birds are often perched higher in trees and the lighting is generally poor. However, a location like Nine Springs with dikes surrounding settling ponds offers the photographer complete 360 degree access around great water habitat. Location is extremely important. I think many people fail at this particular field skill -- recognizing where it works, and where it won't. Of course, the really great photographers can often take away something creative even in the most challenging locations!

Choose your battles wisely!

Eastern Meadowlark image © 2005 Michael Allen McDowell

Monday, March 21, 2005

Eagle Optics News Flash

This year Eagle Optics is sponsoring a team at the World Series of Birding in Cape May NJ. Our team is the Holy Order of Loggerhead Shrikes. They are raising funds for a wildlife advocacy and conservation group in Mexico, Pronatura Veracruz. Eagle Optics has provided optics support for Pronatura in the past.

Sunday, March 20, 2005

New Binocular for Spring Migration

After four years and who knows how many thousands of birds, I’m retiring my Eagle Optics Platinum Class Ranger 8x42 binocular. I recently purchased a new pair, the Vortex Stokes DLS 8x42. While the Ranger has performed very well in dim light, I’ve often birded with a Swarovski 8x30 SLC because it has a much sharper and wider field of view. However, because of the smaller aperture, it never really performed very well at dawn and dusk or in poorly lit woodlands. With the DLS I have the best of both worlds – great sharpness and 42mm aperture for those dense canopies and early morning excursions into Pheasant Branch Conservancy.

You can read more about the new Stokes DLS binoculars by visiting the Vortex website:

Saturday, March 19, 2005

Saving Shorebird Breeding Grounds

One of the many things I enjoy about working for Eagle Optics is having the opportunity to be a part of the solution for protecting critical habitat for birds.

"Manomet Center for Conservation Sciences appreciates the generous support of Eagle Optics as Lead Corporate Sponsor of our shorebird study project in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Eagle Optics, based in Middleton, Wisconsin, is a supplier of Binoculars, Spotting Scopes, Telescopes, and Outdoor Gear from all major manufacturers. This company is committed to maintaining and improving the quality of our natural world."

Learn more about Manomet's shorebird website here:

It's a great way to give back to the birds I photograph!

Solitary Sandpiper image © 2005 Michael Allen McDowell

The Incredible Journey

Though sad seeing a dozen or so Sandhill Cranes standing forlornly in the snow this morning, spring is just around the corner. Soon enough, our backyards and local birding haunts will be filled with our favorite colorful sprites - the warblers and other neotropical birds. Learn more about their incredible journey from an article (below) by Scott Weidensaul, published last year by The Nature Conservancy magazine. Scott talks about the challenges and hardships of what a small neotropical migrant bird may experience during migration, as well as the importance of stop-over habitats that are, unfortunately, shrinking each year. The Nature Conservancy is one of the finest environmental organizations out there for taking the issue head-on and saving the habitat these birds need to survive. Even if you've seen this article before, read it again. It always creates an element of inspiration in my imagination, knowing that the incredible journey is already underway.

Article: Across the Gulf on a Wing and a Prayer.

Blackburnian Warbler image © 2005 Michael Allen McDowell

Friday, March 18, 2005

Meek Road Great Gray Owl Banded

The Meek Road Great Gray Owl was recently banded by Dennis Haessly and Richard Smallwood-Roberts. Kris Kesselhon was also on hand (seen holding owl below).

Richard writes: "More than likely male, wing chord (unflattened) of 410mm, tail 270mm and very abraded, three generations of primaries - some very old, several with fault bars, 1.5 years old, or in banding terms a Third Year bird (TY) (spring/summer of 2003)

2003 = HY (1st Year)
January 1st, 2004 = SY (he did a partial molt of flight feathers in 2004)
January 1st, 2005 = TY

The owl is very healthy and has been eating well (MAPS scale 3 for fat, not bad), including the snack I gave him afterwards which he gulped down in about a minute."

Here are some photographs of owl taken during the banding process:

Above images © 2005 Richard Smallwood-Roberts.

Tuesday, March 15, 2005

Sandhill Cranes! Welcome back!

On my way home from a Great Gray Owl visit at Meek Road, I was driving down HWY 113 just north of Waunakee and spotted a Sandhill Crane preening in nice evening light:

Kim, one of my colleagues at Eagle Optics, is presently attending the Rivers and Wildlife Conference at Rowe Sanctuary in Nebraska. I attended last year and what an amazing spectacle of nature to see several hundred thousand Sandhill Cranes taking off in the morning light! I highly recommend this experience to anyone!

Sandhill Crane image © 2005 Michael Allen McDowell