Wednesday, November 29, 2006

The Bird Must Die!

Have you ever noticed the pessimism some birders express when it comes to the survivability of vagrant or late birds, especially during late fall or winter? There's even almost a prideful sense of knowledge embraced being the bearer of bad news that the bird will probably die. There's a cold front coming in tonight and the Wisconsin Bird Network is abuzz concerning a hummingbird in Kenosha. Invariably, along comes the sentiment that if the bird doesn't leave soon, it will most likely succumb to the cold and perish.

Well...perhaps, but not so fast.

What's wrong with being optimistic about its chances? I am. Of course I know the hardships of migration will eliminate millions of birds each spring and fall, but I think many such vagrants, especially hummingbirds, are heartier and more resilient than we've understood in the past and presently give them credit for. Why is it assumed that the vagrant bird we're watching is the one that's going to die?

I'll not deny that vagrancy can be costly. If studies on mortality rates and vagrancy exist, I would be very interested in learning about them. However, I do know there are records of late vagrant hummingbirds banded in the northeast, recaptured only days later further to the south after a major cold front had moved through. Amazingly, in other cases banded birds were recaptured in subsequent years having endured the "vagrant path" more than once.

What are these birds truly capable of? Take the Ruby-throated Hummingbird and its migration potential. It can cross the Gulf of Mexico in a non-stop 24-hour flight. That's around 600 miles! When survival is at stake, how much distance can other hummingbird species put between them and a storm front? Give them a little credit!

Hummingbirds can also thermoregulate their body temperature to drop almost 50 degrees and go into torpor - a type of nocturnal hibernation or noctivation. Their heartbeat can decrease from 500 beats per minute down to 50, lowering its metabolic rate by as much as 95%. Even its breathing may briefly stop.

Some have said torpid hummingbirds exhibit a slumber that is nearly as deep as death. In 1832, Alexander Wilson first described hummingbird torpor in his book, American Ornithology; "No motion of the lungs could be perceived ... the eyes were shut, and, when touched by the finger, [the bird] gave no signs of life or motion."

Nevertheless, they awake. It takes a hummingbird nearly 20 minutes to come out of torpor and a bird in such a lethargic state is very susceptible to being taken by predators. But that's the give and take of such a survival strategy - good for enduring cold snaps, but potentially dangerous in other ways. That it is an adaptation is a powerful indicator that it works far more often than it fails.

Anyway, I observe this gloomy "bird must die" sentiment over and over again. The lingering Cave Swallows that came through the Midwest last winter all died. The Ash-throated Flycatcher that was seen up until a severe cold snap died. Some birders confessed to me that they thought the Yellow-rumped Warbler in my backyard last year would die the night the temperature dipped to 15 below. Well, it didn't. But they killed it off when another birder told me that a Cooper's Hawk must have eaten it after the warbler hadn't been see for a few days.

Just because such a bird is no longer being seen doesn't necessarily mean it died. Of course it doesn't prove it survived either. Where's the corpse? But if vagrancy means certain death, as some birders on listservs invariably portray it, then why does it exist? I mean, can't a bird just fly away every once in a while?

All images © 2006 Michael McDowell

Monday, November 27, 2006

Vortex Viper - Binocular Review

Recently, I conducted a side-by-side binocular comparison with the Vortex Viper against similarly featured models at various price points, all under $1,000.00. When conducting binocular tests, I don't like to include too many binoculars, so you may opine that some obvious favorites are missing from this review.

Though the Viper is available in three magnifications (8x42, 10x42 and 12x42), I compared only 8x models. All binoculars were tripod mounted against standard resolution charts at 50 feet with indoor lighting. I also brought the binoculars outside for distance, color and brightness tests at different times (including dusk) on an overcast day with good atmospheric conditions.

Binoculars used for this comparison/review:
My Score Card:

(click on image for larger version)

Ranking: 1 = poor, 2 = fair, 3 = good, 4 = above average, 5 = outstanding.

Ergonomics / Build Quality

All four binoculars felt very comfortable in my hands leaving only minor points to be critical over. The Pentax is slightly bulkier than the other three binoculars. All four are waterproof and nitrogen purged – build quality seems very high and suspect all would be dependable in the field. If pressed to rule one out on perceived build quality, the Minox would be the last of the four I would pick if going on a mountain hike or birding in a damp rainforest.

The Pentax and Viper both have a right-side locking diopter, while the Elite has a center diopter beneath the focus knob that locks. The Minox has a standard right side non-locking diopter ring. The Pentax has tethered objective lens covers attached at the hinge (I don't like those), but that's still better than the separate plastic covers that are easily lost (what the Minox comes with). The Elite and the Viper have looped tethered objective lens covers (my favorite) that are easy to cover and uncover. Each binocular has standard strap eyelets and are also threaded on the central hinge to connect to a standard binocular tripod adapter.

Focus Wheel / Travel

In testing the focus wheels I looked for comfort, focus travel/speed and smoothness. All four binoculars are between 1.25 and 1.75 turns from close-focus to infinity Minox: 1.25; Viper: 1.5; Pentax: 1.5; Elite: 1.75. All were similar in smoothness when turning the focus knob – none were stiff or had noticable play. The Viper and Elite were smoothest and the Pentax seemed to have only slightly more resistance.

Close Focus and Field of View

A super-close focus isn't critical for my applications, so even the Elite with an 8 foot close focus is satisfactory. The Pentax was 6.6 feet and the Minox has a 7 foot close focus. The Viper came in with the best close focus at 5 feet. At 347 feet @ 1,000 yards, the Viper's field of view is generous for its price range and beat the Pentax and the Minox. Naturally, the more expensive Elite topped out in this category with 372 feet @ 1,000 yards.

Brightness, Contrast and Color

The Viper was the clear winner on brightness – a discernible difference over the other three. The Pentax and Minox seemed about the same to my eye. The low mark for the Elite doesn't necessarily mean it's a poor low-light performer, it's just not quite as good as the others in the tests I conducted. I could not detect any negligible difference in contrast between the Pentax and the Viper. The Elite was a close runner-up with the Minox being about average.

The Bushnell Elite topped the other three in correcting chromatic aberration (purple/green color fringing) and I was unable to detect any significant difference between the other three binoculars. In outdoor lighting, whites seemed a little warm on the Pentax and Elite, but the Minox was the warmest. The Viper was the most color-neutral and pleasing to my eye of the four. In indoor lighting, as expected, all of the binoculars appeared to be a little warm but the Elite had more of a greenish tinge when looking at whites. The Minox remained the warmest of the four in indoor and outdoor lighting.

The Pentax and Elite were about even for resolution and ranked highest in my evaluation, but the Viper had a clear advantage over the other binoculars for field flatness. By field flatness, I mean the tendency of vertical objects (like a telephone pole) to remain a straight line when bringing it to the edge of the field. To be fair, the Elite has a larger field of view and I ranked it nearly as high as the Viper. The Pentax had noticeable field curvature among the four binoculars. I was unable to make a distinction on edge sharpness. Naturally, none of the binoculars in this review are going to match the edge sharpness of a Swarovski or Leica. I gave the Pentax and the Minox the highest score with the other two being very close behind it.

The Vortex Viper is about half the price of the Bushnell Elite, making it a strong contender in the mid-priced binocular race. The higher priced Pentax DCF SP is one of my favorite binoculars and the Viper definitely gives it a run for its money. I chose the Minox BL/BR in this review as a standard lightweight 8x42 mid-priced roof prism binocular. Because the Vortex Viper isn't much more expensive than the Minox, I think it's a clear winner in its price class for the quality of glass and optical performance.

Update: Award Winning Vortex Viper!

Sunday, November 26, 2006

Weekend Update...

I made the short drive to Goose Pond Sanctuary this morning to see the Tundra Swans. Mark Martin stopped by and said his count was 680 swans. Scoping over the pond revealed a single Snow Goose, a probable Ross's Goose X Snow Goose hybrid, hundreds of Canada Geese, fewer Cackling Geese, many Mallards, Green-winged Teal and several Northern Pintail. Most of the swans were resting but some were forming small flocks and zooming around the perimeter of the pond - they're so beautiful in flight. Their gentle calls were very relaxing and it was good to be out.

Our backyard seems quiet at the feeders, but birds are definitely close by. Twice in the past few weeks I stood below one of the maple trees and pished continuously for a minute or so and watched what came out of the spruce trees. Today this brought out several Dark-eyed Juncos, 2 Red-breasted Nuthatches, 1 White-breasted Nuthatch, 1 White-throated Sparrow, 2 Black-capped Chickadees, a few House Finches and American Goldfinches, a Red-bellied Woodpecker and Downy Woodpecker. About the only birds that are conspicuous when watching the feeders from inside are Northern Cardinals and Blue Jays. There are also a few Hairy Woodpeckers that make regular rounds to suet. Perhaps this is unnecessary harassment (pishing), nevertheless it's interesting knowing the birds are around and not absent. They're just not making conspicuous trips to our feeders. Come snow cover, I'm sure that'll change.

On a personal note, I haven't been able to bird as much lately due to some recurring problems with my feet. I finally went to the doctor on Friday and was advised that my symptoms seem to indicate plantar fasciitis, which like most medical terms sounds worse than it actually is. It's been difficult for me to walk more than a mile or be on my feet for more than an hour at a time, so I'm off to a podiatrist in early January to find out more. For now, I'm keeping off my feet as much as reasonably possible. I'll try to keep blog posts relevant to whatever sort of birding or bird photography I'm up to, but there will probably be less in the short term. Putting a positive spin on being far more sedentary than I enjoy, I've been catching up on a lot of reading!

If you've been reading my blog for the past few years, I think it's pretty safe to assume you possess a keen interest and passion in all things related to birds. I recently picked up a copy of Laura Erickson's "101 Ways to Help Birds" and consider it to be one of the most valuable books about birds in my library. Reading her fine work, I found myself nodding in agreement, "Yeah, I do that. that taken care of," etc. But I did discover and learn things I'm presently not doing that I could easily do, making the book purchase well worth its modest price. Ideas are knowledge that can be put into action or practice and her book is full of excellent ones. Laura's ideas and suggestions can save the lives of birds, so naturally I highly recommend her book!

Tundra Swan and White-breasted Nuthatch © 2006 Mike McDowell

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

NH Fork-tailed Flycatcher

Have a look at these wonderful photographs taken by Lillian Stokes of a Fork-tailed Flycatcher being seen in New Hampshire!

Monday, November 20, 2006

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Gone Looning...

Common Loon

Early this morning I went looning, specifically to chase a Pacific Loon reported on Lake Monona yesterday to the Wisconsin Birding Network. I haven't seen one in Dane County for several years and since I had off work today, I thought I might as well try and hopefully get a decent picture of it.

I was the first birder to arrive at Law Park/Monona Terrace, soon joined by a few birder friends. Numerous Common Loons kept us scanning the water and eventually the smaller loon came into view. Quickly diving and working its way in our direction, the Pacific Loon treated us to a wonderful view from a mere 30 to 40 feet away. What luck! Sadly, I wasn't expecting it to surface so close to the terrace wall and wasn't ready with my camera. A missed photographic opportunity, but what a spectacular view! I'll never forget it. The loon wouldn't get as close again for the duration of the morning.

A multi-use trail runs along the front of the terrace and through the adjacent park. Pedestrians, joggers and bikers were noticing us and naturally curious about people with binoculars and spotting scopes looking out over the water. Regardless of the birding situation, if a non-birder approaches me and asks what I'm doing or looking at, I'll always offer generosity and patience by answering all their questions and provide as much information as they care to listen to. And if they have an observation to share, I'll listen and acknowledge them by saying how cool I think it is.

"Hey, are you looking at the loons?" someone asked while riding past me, which at a minimum necessitates only a moment to politely reply, "Yes, aren't they great?" Eager to help, other non-birders might add, "I saw more of them further back that way!" Those who stopped and inquired were met with my open Sibley Guide and given the added knowledge that we were looking for a very special bird called a Pacific Loon. But heck, offer them a look through your binoculars or spotting scope. I almost always take the time to teach, showing winter plumage versus breeding illustrations, explain a little about migration patterns and the rarity of the bird - as much detail as they care to listen to.

So, here's the point I'm working up to. There was one birder who showed up later that was really beginning to annoy me regarding his conduct toward non-birders. In one instance, a smiling and friendly young woman rode by on her bike and innocently asked, "Did you see the four loons by the parking lot?" This particular birder blurted back in a rather condescending tone, "We're looking for a Pacific Loon," wiping her good morning cheer and smile right off her face. I cringed. I'm sure she was, like, "Oh yeah, duh...these guys are way too serious to be looking at only Common Loons."

It's a safe bet that any and all non-birders one encounters during a rare bird chase at a public park will have no inkling or idea regarding the bird you're after. But that's what the fuss is about, as a dozen birders really wouldn't converge upon a city park at the crack of dawn to watch Common Loons. But they (non-birders) don't know that. This particular woman will probably only remember a quip that had about as much warmth as, "Don't bother us, you don't know what we're looking for."

I think it's important to be a good ambassador for the hobby of bird watching, even if it's a chase and a rare bird you've never seen before. Seeing a Pacific Loon on Lake Monona isn't as important as being friendly to your fellow non-birding citizens and making the most of such interactions by taking the opportunity to inform and educate in a courteous manner.

Common Loon image © 2006 Mike McDowell

Saturday, November 11, 2006

Wisconsin's Wacky Weather

Pheasant Branch Conservancy - 11/11/06 @ 9:30am:

Pheasant Branch Conservancy - 11/11/06 @ 2:30pm:

Three days ago the high temperature was 68 degrees F.

Low tonight will be 20 degrees F.

Lots of American Tree Northern Shrikes (yet).

All images © 2006 Mike McDowell

Friday, November 10, 2006

Direct Autumn Release

"Direct autumn release is a reintroduction technique that is in addition to the primary technique using ultralight aircraft. The direct autumn release technique that will be used in the eastern migratory whooping crane reintroduction will consist of rearing whooping crane chicks according to a strict costume/isolation-rearing protocol and then releasing them with older whooping cranes that have successfully migrated in the past or into wild sandhill flocks with which these older whooping cranes are likely to associate. Chicks for direct autumn release will be reared from an early age in the field and then released after fledging. These released juveniles will then learn a fall migration route from the older, wild birds. This method of reintroduction has been extensively tested and proven previously successful with sandhill cranes."

Link: Full Article from

Whooping Crane image © 2006 Mike McDowell

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

Operation Migration!

© Joe Duff

Yesterday I received an email from Operation Migration that they are short $100,000 for the "Class of 2006" Whooping Crane migration effort. If you're not familiar with what Operation Migration is all about, you can learn more at their website:

You can donate on-line via PayPal here:

Yes - I want to help the Whooping Cranes!

Or you can donate by calling: (800) 675-2618

The Necedah Whooping Crane population is up to 60 birds (since 2001). Each Whooping Crane represents an investment of about $100,000 - almost entirely paid for through donations. No donation amount is too small - every dollar goes to helping save these beautiful birds. I sincerely hope you'll consider participating in a program that I feel is making a difference for a species we almost wiped out.

Video Link: Nat. Geo reporter flies with the Whoopers

Sunday, November 05, 2006

More late Birds...

Wisconsin birders have been reporting rather unusual finds for this time of year over the course of the past few days. Posts to the Wisconsin Birding Network are a bit more reminiscent of spring, so what the heck is going on? There have been sightings of Blue-gray Gnatcatchers, Northern Parula, Magnolia Warbler, Black-and-white Warbler, Prairie Warbler, Hooded Warbler, Blackpoll Warbler and the Townsend's Warbler that many birders have trekked to see in Milwaukee. There's also one other report of a Blue-winged Warbler after my mid-October sighting.

Other late sightings include a Clay-colored Sparrow in Ashland and a Baltimore Oriole eating from a suet feeder in McFarland. There's a November 1st report of an American Avocet and a November 3rd report of Willets! Nearly all of these are record-late observations and many of them are being found in the southeast part of the state near Lake Michigan.

Birds in our Waunakee backyard are pretty typical, though. Daily regulars include Red-breasted Nuthatches, White-breasted Nuthatches, Black-capped Chickadees, House Finches, American Goldfinches, Hairy Woodpecker, Downy Woodpecker, Red-bellied Woodpecker, Dark-eyed Juncos, Mourning Doves, Northern Cardinals and Blue Jays. We still have some lingering Chipping Sparrows and White-throated Sparrows, but they'll probably not stay for much longer.

Friday, November 03, 2006

FCC could protect millions of Migratory Birds

"(Washington, D.C.) - The Federal Communication Commission (FCC) announced today it will propose a rulemaking that could help prevent the killing of millions of migratory birds at nearly ninety thousand communications towers throughout the United States."

Link: Full Article from the American Bird Conservancy

Kentucky Warbler image © 2006 Mike McDowell

Thursday, November 02, 2006

Birder Survey Meme

Sanderlings strolling by at Wisconsin Point

Following Nuthatch...

What state (or country) do you live in?: WI, USA
How long have you been birding?: Since about 1998.
Are you a "lister"?: Casual lister.
ABA Life List: 440 (WI 315).
Overall Life List: Same.
3 Favorite Birding Spots: Pheasant Branch Conservancy (Middleton, WI), Baxter's Hollow in the Baraboo Hills (WI) and Wisconsin Point WSO annual field trip (always a thrill).
Favorite birding spot outside your home country: Sadly, trips to Europe predate birding. Did have a "National Geographic" experience at Bird Islands in Nova Scotia.
Farthest you've traveled to chase a rare bird: Within Wisconsin only - probably about 300 miles. Wiffed on an 11 hour round-trip drive for Burrowing Owl.
Nemesis bird: Yellow-crowned Night Heron.
"Best" bird sighting: Late December swallows (WI) - probably Northern Rough-winged.
Most wanted trip: Galapagos Islands or New Zealand.
Most wanted bird: Barn Owl.
What model and brand of bins do you use?: Swarovski 8x30 SLC, Nikon Superior E 8x32, Vortex DLS 8x42.
What model and brand of scope do you use?: Swarovski AT80 HD.
What was the last lifer you added to your list?: Sharp-tailed Grouse.
Where did you see your last lifer?: Near Solon Springs, WI.
What's the last bird you saw today?: Canada Goose (last night).
Best bird song you've heard ever: Winter Wren or Fox Sparrow.
Favorite birding moment: Leading a field trip, finding a great bird and having all the participants see it. Teaching others.
Least favorite thing about birding: Listening to "bird-offs" when someone tells a birding story (or sighting) and another tries to better it for the sake of bragging - on and on it goes.
Favorite thing about birding: Near or far, every outing is an adventure.
Favorite field guide for the US: Sibley Guide.
Favorite non-field guide bird book: Donald Kroodsma's "The Singing Life of Birds"
Who is your birder icon?: None.
Do you have a bird feeder(s)?: Yes.
Favorite feeder bird?: Red-breasted Nuthatch.