Sunday, December 31, 2006

And that's it for 2006...



Many of my birding experiences from 2006 will be fondly remembered. By far the most exciting was seeing, hearing and photographing Kirtland's Warblers in Wisconsin. The habitat was perfect, the weather was absolutely gorgeous and I was with great birding friends to share in the experience. These birds were kept off the listserv, but they were not a secret.



My Wisconsin year totals have decreased for the second consecutive year. I'm finishing with 263 year birds (down from 271 in 2005). For the first time since I've kept a year list, I missed Olive-sided Flycatcher and Common Redpoll. I joked with Nolan Pope late last spring that if he wanted to see an Olive-sided Flycatcher that he better not bird with me. The following day he went to another birding spot and found one. I figured I still had a good chance of finding one during fall migration, but nope.

My new birds for 2006 were:

Glossy Ibis
Sharp-tailed Grouse
King Rail
Long-tailed Jaeger
Pomarine Jaeger
Little Gull
Kirtland's Warbler



Though I got quite a few nice bird pictures in 2006, I digiscoped far less. The longer I do this photography thing, the easier it is to recognize days I should stay home. One of my favorite photographs from 2006 is this Lark Sparrow from Spring Green Prairie - a perfect stakeout in great light. I figured one of the sparrows would return to a particular fence post, so I used the little shelter at the trailhead as a blind and waited.



My other favorite digiscoped bird image is this male Yellow Warbler taken at Governor Nelson's State Park in May. I walked up Woodland Trail and found the male and a female just to my left. I knelt down on the trail and captured the partially concealed female with the first exposure and the male popped out on a tall perch for the very next shot - two birds, two exposures. Most likely nesting (or nest building) birds, so I left them in a hurry.



This past year I took more time to learn wildflowers and have started a pretty decent collection of photographs of them. Like birding, one of the best ways to learn them is to have an expert along, right Sylvia? Spring isn't so far off and it won't be long and the three of us, Dottie, will be walking the stream corridor of Pheasant Branch looking for that Black-throated Blue and Hooded Warbler.



Souls of Nature

I am eyes fixed upon stars
And know how unattainable they are
I am footsteps in wet leaves
And realize I'm already a part of the heavens
I'm the object that small, dark eyes look upon
I'm that which they fly from
But I'm the hand that reaches out
And would try to save them should they fall
Smiling at the corners from a spring song
I am their unknown hope cheering them on
I am ears filtering out the noise
Listen to dialogue unchanged over a millenium
I am the eyes that gaze upon this landscape
Trying to imagine what has passed
I am a heart the pounds to my explorers gait
And lungs that fill with brisk morning air
I am a body slowly aging
A soul of nature narrating my time
A mind that knows no matter how it ends
It will have been all too brief
Sharing nature's glory with my friends



Happy New Year - see you in 2007!

All images © 2006 Mike McDowell

Friday, December 29, 2006

Great Horned Owl Fight

Harriet Thiele Statz of Waunakee sent this incredible photograph (taken by her husband, Ray) showing a pair of Great Horned Owls engaged in a serious dispute:



Harriet wrote:

"My husband, Ray Statz, took it near our shop in Waunakee on November 29th. The two Great Horned Owls were locked in combat for about half an hour."

Great Horned Owls are very territorial and as Ray’s awesome photograph demonstrates, they’ll even fight one another to protect their home turf.

Thanks for the amazing photo!

Tuesday, December 26, 2006

Purple Sandpipers as Merlin Food


Purple Sandpiper at Sheboygan in 2002

This past Sunday, Seth and Noel Cutright witnessed a Merlin chase and capture what they believed to be a Purple Sandpiper at North Point, Sheboygan. Seth reported the observation to the Wisconsin Birding Network, "It was a good sized bird for a Merlin to take." Yeah, that's what I thought, too.

I made the trip up to Sheboygan with Kim and Corey Benton on Saturday and we were fortunate to find 3 Purple Sandpipers (as many as 5 were previously reported). I first spotted them flying over the water by the piers, then they came to rest on the rocky point next to the parking lot. The three birds briefly foraged, but soon went airborne again in favor of a spot further down the beach. We walked over and got excellent looks at them (life birds for both Kim and Corey). These were the first Purple Sandpipers I've seen in nearly 3 years.

The shorebirds were pretty skittish compared to the few other Purple Sandpipers I've seen in the past and recall thinking they would make an obvious target for a Peregrine Falcon. I have to admit I first read Seth's post with a bit of skepticism, as I've generally associated Merlin diet with large insects, rodents and small songbirds...but a shorebird as large as a Purple Sandpiper? I turned to Cornell's Birds of North America on-line for the answer:

"Diet on migration and wintering grounds poorly documented. Early studies based on stomach contents of migrating Merlins showed insects a large proportion of diet (Allen and Peterson 1936). Wintering Merlins feed heavily on various species of small shorebirds in areas where they are abundant; e.g., Least Sandpiper (Calidris minutilla) and Dunlin (C. alpina) each made up nearly 40% of the diet of Merlins wintering at Bolinas Lagoon (Page and Whitacre 1975; Buchanan et al. 1988). Urban wintering Merlins mainly feed on House Sparrows (72% of diet) and Bohemian Waxwings (17%; Warkentin and Oliphant 1990, see also Smith 1978, Servheen 1985). In Venezula (Hilty 2003), follows and feeds on large Dickcissel flocks found in some sections of the llanos (seasonally flooded grasslands)."

If a Merlin (10" in length) can take a Dunlin (8.5"), then it can take a Purple Sandpiper (9"). Fitzmier, you better get up to Sheboygan quick time. Those chubby rock-pipers are gonna be eaten!

Purple Sandpiper image © 2006 Mike McDowell

Sunday, December 24, 2006

Cooper's Portraits


(click on image for larger version)

A gorgeous Cooper's Hawk hunted in our backyard this afternoon. It cornered a House Sparrow beneath our garden hose storage compartment for several minutes, but came up empty after the sparrow made an amazing dash for cover under our deck. Still optimistic, the hawk perched on the deck railing for a while and watched, but the sparrow wasn't about to give up its hiding spot. Eventually the Cooper's lost interest and flew to our neighbor's yard. I managed to capture these close-up portraits of the hawk by poking my spotting scope & camera out our patio window.


(click on image for larger version)


(click on image for larger version)

When the Cooper’s Hawk wasn’t around, other birds in our backyard included:

Hairy Woodpecker -1
Downy Woodpecker -1
Dark-eyed Junco - 10+
House Finch - 2
American Goldfinch - 4
Red-breasted Nuthatch - 2
White-breasted Nuthatch - 3
Black-capped Chickadee - 2
Mourning Dove - 1
Northern Cardinal - 2
American Crow - 2
Blue Jay - 5


(click on image for larger version)

Happy Holidays to all!

Cooper's Hawk images © 2006 Mike McDowell

Friday, December 22, 2006

The Context of Ethics

Hi Mike,

I haven't seen/read the article that NG has posted online yet, but I did look at some of the photos. Very stunning images. The reason for my interest in the photos started with a post on a photography forum that I'm a member of.

The post mentioned the article, and the photos, but the main point of the discussion was based on the disclosure in the back of the magazine that told how the images were taken.

The photographer captures wild these birds from the wild, takes them to his mobile photo studio inside his SUV, and released the birds next to some nectar filled flowers, and starts shooting.

As an avid nature/wildlife photographer I find this practice to be a little disturbing. I'm all for getting a great shot of a beautiful subject, but this practice seems to be taking things a little to far. Just wondering what your thoughts are on this subject.

Regards,
Michael Smith

* * *

Hi Michael,

Thanks for the great question. I saw the disclosure referring to the technique employed by Dr. Luis Mazariegos, founder of the Hummingbird Conservancy, whose mission is to "Conserve the species of hummingbirds and their habitat through the integration of research, environmental education and the active participation of the community and the establishment of natural reserves." Let's step through the issue and compare it with bird banding, an endeavor I fully support and believe is ethical and valuable to the science of ornithology.

I assume Dr. Mazariegos possesses the necessary credentials and licenses for netting hummingbirds and holding them in brief captivity, just as any bander. Banders frequently photograph birds in the hand for documentation purposes, such as Powdermill Avian Research Center. So one difference may be is he places birds in a cage with food in order to capture a photograph. I've observed banders placing birds in pouches and tubes, but I don't know if they ever use cages to queue birds to be banded. [Katie Fitzmier, a colleague, birder and licensed bird bander, just informed me they do employ Potter traps.]

The disclosure in National Geographic also states that his intent is to "...photograph every known species - some 300 in all - of hummingbird." Is Dr. Mazariegos doing this strictly for his own personal pleasure or gain, or is he using his photographs to advance his conservation goals and efforts? His photographs adorn the Hummingbird Conservancy's website and they do have a banding/monitoring program. He has a book out as well.

Though not positive, my guess is he wouldn't waste a captured bird by not banding it once he has photographed it. I could be wrong - perhaps he releases them unbanded. There's no doubt that capturing a wild bird, under any circumstance, will cause it to stress. There are extensions to ABA's birding ethics specifically calling on nature photographers to minimize their impact on birds while photographing them. To my way of thinking, the boundaries of ethics are somewhat flexible under a banner of advancing our knowledge and appreciation of the world's hummingbird species, versus willy-nilly photographic listing of species. I don't think an equal set of ethical standards necessarily applies.

I think I can make that distinction, so in the case of Dr. Mazariegos, I believe his cause is noble and justifies his technique. Some of the hummingbird images he has captured are the only ones that exist for that species. I'd like to think my photographic goals are in some way similar to his, in that by showing the public the astonishing beauty of birds, people will discover an appreciation and learn to love and protect them - people will protect what they love. I'm not a scientific researcher and don't hold any credentials to net and capture birds. But if I did, would I (for photography)? I'm not sure - probably not, though. I think the context and intent of why such photographs are being taken must be considered. At least from his group's website, his message comes with a warning - the habitat these birds depend on is being degraded and lost at an alarming rate. He's showing the world some of what we risk losing.*

The question of whether or not you think the technique employed by Dr. Mazariegos is ethical probably hinges on whether or not you believe his intent justifies it. In this case, I think it does. This begs the obvious question where to draw the line. I'm not sure. It's pretty easy to come up with hypothetical situations a majority of nature photographers would be mortified by, but there are probably shades of gray where we'll continue to have disagreement.

* Also appearing in the January 2007 issue of National Geographic is a sobering article on the Amazon, including this interactive map showing the basin's continued decline.

Thursday, December 21, 2006

Flight of Fancy



I was pleased to find spectacular hummingbird photographs in the January 2007 issue of National Geographic. Many of the photographs are available on-line at NG's website, along with a multimedia presentation, map and other information about the amazing little birds.

Link: Flight of Fancy (National Geographic)

Ruby-throated Hummingbird © 2006 Mike McDowell

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Cranes Reach Finish Line


© Joe Duff

"On Tuesday, a group of endangered whooping cranes led by ultralight planes completed their 1,234-mile winged migration from Wisconsin to central Florida. This is the sixth year that captive-reared whooping cranes have learned their migration route with the help of pilots and ground crew."

Link: Full Article from National Geographic Society

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Endangering the Endangered



Despicable...

"A 'high-end luxury resort' threatens one of the last remaining refuges for the Grenada Dove, a Critically Endangered species with a global population of just 180 birds. In an unprecedented move the Government of Grenada looks set to sell the whole of the Mount Hartman National Park to make space for a Four Seasons Resort, on the basis of its biodiverse location and 'sea-view.'"

Link: Full Article from BirdLife International

Sunday, December 17, 2006

Birds and Tools II



The Green Heron's amazing bait-fishing behavior provides yet another glimpse into the realm of tool-using birds. I've blogged about this in the past, but it's worth retelling. I've not personally observed them fishing in this manner, but I've photographed a lot of Green Herons over the years and hope to witness this fascinating behavior someday. They're always a joy to watch and take pictures of.



The "tackle box" of the Green Heron includes variety of lures, such as crusts of bread, popcorn, even bits of plastic foam or feathers. Some herons have been observed breaking off small pieces of sticks to use for fish bait. The stalking bird purposefully sets its bait in the water and waits. When fish swim over to check out what they think might be a meal, instead they risk becoming one. Green Herons will even dig up earthworms or use mayflies as live bait, which often proves more successful for enticing fish.



While it isn't known if this behavior is innate, learned or a combination, juvenile herons seem to lack the fishing skill and success that adults exhibit at the pond - so, they must improve over time. I can speculate how such an adaptation might have arisen. Imagine a hunting heron's bill over the water and tiny bits from a prior meal drop into the water. Fish are naturally attracted - quick ones get away with a nibble while slow ones aren't as lucky. What may have begun as sloppy eating habits were refined over time into a consistent way of earning meals.

Green Heron images © 2006 Mike McDowell

Friday, December 15, 2006

December Birding

This morning I walked the entire length of the Pheasant Branch stream corridor and also the prairie at the north end of the conservancy. I found 30 bird species. The biggest surprise was a Great Blue Heron just south of the big springs. I have found over-wintering Great Blue Herons in Dane County before, but this is the first one I’ve seen at the conservancy in December. Luckily for the heron the springs doesn’t freeze and there are plenty of fish, so I’m not worried for it.


I found 3 Great Horned Owls but no Barred Owls. Two owls were together and most likely the same pair that’s been present at the south stream corridor for the past several years. I was able to get some nice pictures of their young from last spring. I hit the jackpot for songbirds at the dead-end path on the north stream corridor...there were White-throated Sparrows, Song Sparrows, Swamp Sparrows, Winter Wren, juncos, nuthatches, cardinals and more:

Canada Goose
Mallard
American Black Duck
Great Blue Heron
Red-tailed Hawk
Ring-billed Gull
Rock Pigeon
Mourning Dove
Great Horned Owl
Red-bellied Woodpecker
Downy Woodpecker
Hairy Woodpecker
Blue Jay
American Crow
Black-capped Chickadee
Tufted Titmouse
White-breasted Nuthatch
Brown Creeper
Winter Wren
American Robin
European Starling
American Tree Sparrow
Song Sparrow
Swamp Sparrow
White-throated Sparrow
Dark-eyed Junco
Northern Cardinal
House Finch
American Goldfinch
House Sparrow

Great Horned Owl image © 2006 Mike McDowell

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Super Whooping Crane News!



Noel Cutright posted this great news on the Wisconsin Birding Network today...

The Whooping Crane Eastern Partnership (WCEP) has wonderful news to share! The first wild Whooping Crane chick to hatch in Wisconsin in over a century has successfully completed its historical fall migration, arriving in Pasco County, FL with its parents on December 9! Its sibling was lost to predation in September at the Necedah NWR. This young bird represents an important benchmark toward establishing a self-sustaining, breeding migratory population of Whooping Cranes in eastern US.

In other great news, all 4 Direct Autumn Release (DAR) Whooping Cranes from this year have successfully completed their migrations to FL, arriving on December 8. These 4 cranes had been reared in captivity by
costume-clad bird handlers through the summer and released into the wild at the Necedah NWR this fall. The young birds successfully followed wild adult whoopers and sandhills on their migrations south. This is great news for the DAR project!

The 18 juvenile cranes following the ultralights of Operation Migration are within 250-mi of their FL destination and should arrive soon. They are on Day 69 of their migration. All of the wild adult Whooping Cranes have left WI and are spread among several states. Many of the adult whoopers have arrived in FL. The wild population now numbers 65 birds plus the 18 following ultralight aircraft.

Noel Cutright, Ozaukee County

* * *

Eagle Optics is a proud corporate sponsor of the Whooping Crane Eastern Partnership!

Monday, December 11, 2006

A closer look at Binoculars – advice from a birder.



I don't think Consumer Reports could have been more out of optical alignment when it comes to recommending binoculars for birdwatching. Whether you're a birder, hunter, or general nature enthusiast looking for a pair of binoculars, here is where I think Consumer Reports' "A Close Look at Binoculars" (Jan 2007) ought to be filed:



While they're entitled to their opinion, those of us who are intimately familiar with binoculars and use them for birding were quite bewildered by their top picks. I've used most of the binoculars on their list and some of them are fine compact binoculars – but that's precisely the problem. When birding is the pursuit, I generally expect to see a lineup of 8x42 bins topping the list and perhaps a few 10x42 bins for those specialized birder needs; hawk watching and shorebirds. Naturally, there will be exceptions. A person I regularly bird with swears by her 10x42 for warbler watching.

The reason most birders go with an 8x42 is because they represent the best combination of magnification, aperture and physical size to deliver a bright image at a moderate power with a decent field of view that can be held steady. It's that simple! Oddly enough, there wasn't a single 8x42 out of 16 binoculars from a total of 36 they looked at. To illustrate the trouble with compact binoculars, take a look at the following Exit Pupil diagrams (exit pupil is the diameter of the shaft of light exiting the eyepiece of a binocular):



Exit Pupil is calculated from aperture divided by magnification (42 / 8) = 5.25mm. In bright light your pupil may narrow down to 2mm and some of the 5.25mm shaft of light will hit your iris (above left). But at dawn or dusk when your pupil is dilated to 5mm or more, an 8x42 will deliver about as much light as your pupil will take (above right).



Consider that Consumer Reports recommend a 10x21 with an exit pupil slightly over 2mm – such a binocular is worthless in early morning under a wooded canopy. You'll hate it!

Consumer Reports graded the binoculars on best sharpness, brightness, focus, grip and durability. They subjected them to temperature extremes over several hours and even "swung them against a hard surface." Perhaps that explains why so few full-size binoculars made their list – the bigger they are, the harder they fall. I wonder if they saved that particular test for last?

Addendum:

Here are my personal favorite binoculars across various price ranges. These are the same ones I would recommend to birders over the phone.

Under $100

1. Bushnell Natureview 8x42 Porro
2. Leupold Yosemite 6x30

Quick points: Both binoculars offer excellent optical quality for the price. The Yosemite is a great choice for young birders. While the Natureview isn't waterproof, the Yosemite is. Neither binocular is fog proof, though.

Under $200

1. Vortex Sidewinder 8x42
2. Bushnell Excursion 8x42

Quick points: Both have a super wide field of view. Great close-focus on the Sidewinder.

Under $300

1. Eagle Optics Ranger SRT 8x42
2. Nikon Monarch ATB 8x42
3. Audubon Equinox HP 8x42

Quick points: The Ranger and Monarch are the lightest weight full-size roof prism binoculars around. Both binoculars have received glowing reviews over the years. The Audubon HP is a terrific runner-up (I own a set).

Under $500

1. Vortex Viper 8x42
2. Celestron Regal LX 8x42

Quick points: The Viper is super bright in low-light...I would like one!

Under $800

1. Vortex Razor 8x42
2. Minox HG 8.5x43
3. Nikon Premier SE 8x32

Quick points: The Razor has excellent resolution at distance. The Nikon SE is simply one of the all-time best views through a binocular you'll get (I own one).

Under $1000

1. Zeiss Conquest 8x40
2. Vortex Stokes DLS 8x42

Quick points: The Conquest has good sharpness, but color fringes quite a bit. The DLS is very bright and extremely durable. My DLS is two years old, has held true alignment even after being dropped and has been rained on many times without a problem.

Under $1500

1. Leica Trinovid 8x42
2. Nikon Premier LXL 8x42

Quick points: Super-premium optical quality for those unwilling to spend at the next level.

Under $2000

1. Swarovski EL 8.5x42
2. Swarovski EL 8x32
3. Zeiss FL 8x42

Quick points: Naturally, the 8.5 for best low-light performance, but have you ever looked through the EL 8x32? Phenomenal binocular. The Zeiss FL has the best color correction I've seen, but it's a little soft on the edge.

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

Nuthatches and Tools



Among birds, corvids (ravens, crows and jays) seem to get all the good press when it comes to social structure, intelligent behavior and tool use. Sure, they're pretty darn smart and probably deserve the limelight they get, but I'm going to stand behind nuthatches as birds that also behave in remarkable but little known ways.

For example, in response to squirrels climbing up nest trees toward a nest, incubating female Red-breasted Nuthatches will exit the cavity, perch near the entrance and begin a curious anti-predator display. They'll face downward at the squirrel, spread their wings, hold their body in a fixed position and begin swaying slowly in a rhythmic movement from side to side. In response to this hypnotic display, squirrels become motionless, fixate on the bird for several seconds and eventually retreat.

Occasionally following such encounters, both parent nuthatches will collect and smear conifer resin at the cavity entrance - up to one hour in one observation – to deter further confrontations with squirrels. Similarly, the White-breasted Nuthatch has been observed using a crushed beetle held in its bill, sweeping it around the outside of its nest cavity entrance. The beetles they use exude pungent oils that effectively deter squirrels from entering the cavity.



Other instances of veritable nuthatch tool use have been observed in the wild. In Arizona's Chiricahua Mountains, a Pygmy Nuthatch held a small twig in its bill and used it to pry up loose bark while working along a thick branch. Eventually it dropped the twig-probe and pecked at what it found. Also, Brown-headed Nuthatches are reported to use flakes of pine bark to pry up bark while searching for arthropods. Even a White-breasted Nuthatch was seen catching small invertebrates after using a bark flake to pry away loose bark. Once it had thoroughly worked the area, it dropped its bark tool and began exploring the dislodged fragments.



What about cooperative behavior? In defending a nesting site, a group of four nuthatches chased a Red-bellied Woodpecker and knocked it to the ground from a nearby snag. I recall a birder's humorous impression that Red-breasted Nuthatches reminded him of little fighter jets. Imagine a whole squadron of them coming after you with yenk-yenk-yenk-yenk!

All images © 2006 Mike McDowell

Cerulean Warbler not Endangered


(click on image for more artwork by Robin Street-Morris)

"The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service today announced that while populations of the cerulean warbler are declining, listing the species as threatened under the Endangered Species Act is not warranted. The Service will pursue cooperative conservation initiatives designed to reverse population declines and prevent the need to list this migratory songbird."

Link: Full Report from USF&WS

Link: "Tragedy" for Cerulean Warbler

Cerulean Warbler drawing © Robin Street-Morris used with permission.

Monday, December 04, 2006

Rainforest gets protected status



"The segments of land in the northern Para state together cover 16.4 million hectares (63,320 sq miles), an area of land that is bigger than England. Thousands of wildlife species inhabit the pristine forest, including jaguars, anteaters and colourful macaws. Campaigners say the decision made by Para Governor Simao Jatene is one of the most important conservation initiatives of recent years."

Link: Full article from BBC News

Link: Forest creatures - in Pictures (BBC News)

Sunday, December 03, 2006

Birding in a Winter Wonderland


Getting ready to call it a day

The snowstorm that moved through southeastern Wisconsin on Friday decorated the landscape to a winter wonderland. Katie Fitzmier, Jesse Peterson and I planned to bird Lake Michigan from Sheboygan to Milwaukee on Saturday, so we were glad the storm was a day earlier. I love the way a fresh snowfall leaves trees and fields so beautifully decorated. While nothing compares to spring birding, there is something fun about bundling up for cold weather and finding neat birds to watch in December.

Our target birds included pretty much anything unusual along the lake, but I was really hoping for a Purple Sandpiper, having not seen one in three years. Our stops included Sheboygan's beaches, Andre-Kohler State Park, Harrington Beach State Park, Port Washington, Doctors Park and Milwaukee's Lake Park. Though we had to save Purple Sandpiper for another time, we found some incredible birds. Katie got 5 life birds: Glaucous Gull, Long-tailed Duck, Barrow's Goldeneye, Black Scoter and Red-throated Loon. She's presently at 505 on her ABA list and her 500th bird was the Pacific Loon on Lake Monona in Madison.

Here are all the bird species we found yesterday:

Canada Goose
Gadwall
American Wigeon
American Black Duck
Mallard
Canvas Back
Scaup (we didn't distinguish)
Black Scoter
Long-tailed Duck
Bufflehead
Common Goldeneye
Barrow's Goldeneye
Common Merganser
Red-breasted Merganser
Red-throated Loon
Common Loon
Horned Grebe
Red-necked Grebe
Double-crested Cormorant
Red-tailed Hawk
Cooper's Hawk
American Coot
Killdeer
Ring-billed Gull
Herring Gull
Glaucous Gull
Great Black-backed Gull
Rock Pigeon
American Crow
Black-capped Chickadee
White-breasted Nuthatch
Hermit Thrush
European Starling
American Pipit
Dark-eyed Junco
Northern Cardinal
American Goldfinch

I'm not planning on making any more birding trips for the remainder of the year, so it looks like I'll finish 2006 with 262 species - down from last year's 271. I did bump up my Wisconsin state list from 308 to 315 and added a few life birds as well. Still, the year isn't over! On separate note, I highly recommend Spenco RX series insole inserts. They really saved my feet yesterday!

All images © 2006 Mike McDowell

Friday, December 01, 2006

Approaching the Birds



Have you ever observed bird behavior relative to how they respond differentially to to the presence of people who are not paying any attention to them, versus those who do? Why is it that dozens of walkers and joggers on a trail can pass under a Northern Shrike perched on a telephone wire and it stays, but when you try to sneak up on it to take a picture, it flies away? Anecdotally, from years of photographing birds, I believe it's instinctual that they recognize types of stalking behavior, regardless of what's doing it. Perhaps this is a case of counting the hits and ignoring the misses, but I've witnessed this too many times for it to be a coincidence.

One late afternoon at Harrington Beach State Park, I was walking along the beach toward a rocky point and noticed half a dozen Sanderlings on the rocks ahead of me. Unfortunately, I was on the wrong side of the light but couldn't help imagining the nice pictures of Sanderlings I might capture if I could only get to other side of the point. I wanted to make the most of this opportunity – everything was right except for the angle I had on them. To capture exceptional detail, I needed them to be comfortable with my presence, be on the right side of the light and also be a fairly close distance to them.



This diagram that recreates the scene - you can see I had to walk toward them to get around the point to have good lighting. Watching the birds from (1), I knew they would become nervous the closer I got to the rocky point. I quietly but casually approached. When I got to (2) I could see they were beginning to hop across rocks a little further out to the tip of the point. From then on, I turned my face to the right, continued walking (3) and avoided eye contact with them until I made it all the way to (4). Once there, I meandered a bit and then sat down in the sand. Walking that far beyond them was intentional - I think it reinforces to the birds that you're not interested in them.



Optimistically, I glanced over my shoulder - the Sanderlings remained. I looked back to my right and pretended to be content just sitting there in the sand. Carefully watching them out of the corner of my eye, the Sanderlings slowly made their way back toward the middle of the rocks. I continued to pretend I had no interest in them whatsoever, but occasionally sidled toward them a foot or two at a time.



It took several minutes but I finally made my way up to the rocks. Avoiding sudden moves and eye contact, I entered the water (yep, sometimes ya gotta get wet) in a crouched position until I found a nice rock to sit on and went to work. I must have taken over 200 images of the Sanderlings and these ones are a few favorites from the session. They knew I was there, but...they didn't seem to mind. Perhaps the most amazing part of this story is that I was wearing a bright yellow winter coat!

All images © 2006 Mike McDowell