Saturday, January 20, 2007

Brown Birds and Blue Ice

(Pheasant Branch stream corridor in winter)

This morning I met Sylvia and Dottie for breakfast at the Prairie Café in Middleton, and then for a little winter birding along the Pheasant Branch Conservancy stream corridor. Though they've both birded the corridor during spring and fall migration countless times, neither has spent much time there during the winter.

(Pheasant Branch stream corridor in summer)

I promised much to see and enjoy, even (or especially) when it's covered with snow and ice – it renders an entirely different impression for the senses to take in. There are 30 or more bird species that spend the winter in the conservancy and we saw a good share of them today. The temperature was 14 degrees Fahrenheit, so we had to bundle up!

I brought them to where our familiar pair of Great Horned Owls roost during the day. You can certainly tell how thrilled the owls were about our company (zzzzzzzz!). Enjoy the snooze - busy times are ahead and we've greatly enjoyed watching their efforts years past. Here's one of their progeny from last year:

We found a Hermit Thrush that looked as if it would rather be some place else – fluffing up its feathers to retain warmth. It looked almost exactly like this Hermit Thrush picture I took during the winter of 2005, so I didn't bother to photograph it:

Sylvia had to leave early, so Dottie and I continued to walk to the north side of the stream corridor to look for Barred Owls. Alas, none were found. However, we were pretty excited to find a Winter Wren at the end of trail north from the bridge. I pished to bring it out into the open and was met with a serious scolding from the little wren. Once we got a quick glimpse, we turned away to leave it in peace.

I didn't want to bore Dottie while I photographed some amazing ice formations at the last stream crossing, so she headed up the path toward her car. I love the sunlight's illuminating quality through the frozen structures. So many fascinating shapes, patterns and sounds of water rushing against the rocks - it made for a very relaxing finish to a great morning of appreciating nature during winter.

Pheasant Branch Birds – January 20th, 2007:

Canada Goose
Red-tailed Hawk
American Kestrel
Mourning Dove
Great Horned Owl
Red-bellied Woodpecker
Downy Woodpecker
Hairy Woodpecker
Northern Flicker
Blue Jay
American Crow
Black-capped Chickadee
Tufted Titmouse
Red-breasted Nuthatch
White-breasted Nuthatch
Brown Creeper
Carolina Wren
Winter Wren
Hermit Thrush
American Robin
Cedar Waxwing
American Tree Sparrow
White-throated Sparrow
Dark-eyed Junco
Northern Cardinal
House Finch
American Goldfinch

All images © 2007 Mike McDowell

Friday, January 19, 2007

Birds along the Road

( Snow Bunting searches through the snow)

For the past few mornings on my way into work, I've been making stops to watch mixed flocks of Snow Buntings, Lapland Longspurs and Horned Larks between Waunakee and Middleton. Though I hadn't seen the birds all winter, I knew once we got our first heavy snowfall they would be forced to leave farm fields (where they're almost completely undetectable) and head for roadsides in order to find food...undigested seeds in manure and waste grain - yum yum!

(Horned Lark on the watch)

The first flock (~200 birds) I encountered was along Woodland Drive, just on the outskirts of Waunakee. About a mile further south I came across a smaller flock near the intersection of Meffert and Pheasant Branch. About another two miles south, I was startled to find huge mixed flocks of all three species along Balzer Road – several hundred, perhaps even thousands of birds. They were very active, zooming around the fields and over the roads, but unfortunately some of the birds weren't so lucky with morning rush traffic.

(Horned Lark)

(Lapland Longspur)

As I watched, nobody slowed down for them – not once. Sadly, I had the misfortune of watching one of the birds, a Horned Lark, get smacked by a car. Sadder still, its corpse wasn't the only one along the road. I wonder if drivers even notice these large flocks as they wing it over the road? Do they, but think they're a bird deemed of less value like a House Sparrow? I wonder if they knew what they were, a beautiful Snow Bunting, if perhaps they would slow down for them?

(Snow Bunting Range © BNA)

Perhaps if they knew how far some of them traveled, even beyond the Arctic Circle for some, if they would give them just a little more room and time to do their thing. It's not like we have to slam on the brakes...just slowing down a little would be enough. The snow cover made it easier for me to see them, but life for them was easier before the snow.

(Lapland Longspur and Snow Bunting)

All bird images © 2007 Mike McDowell

Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Whooping cranes are making a comeback!

"Between 1850 and 1941, the whooping crane population dropped from an estimated 1500 birds to a low of perhaps 20. Today, thanks to cooperative, international conservation efforts, more than 415 whoopers thrive in North America. While these numbers are still low, scientists believe that if habitat conservation, species protection and reintroduction efforts continue, whooping cranes will be able to maintain viable populations and continue moving away from the brink of extinction."

Link: Full Article from The Nature Conservancy

Eagle Optics is a proud sponsor of Operation Migration and the Whooping Crane Eastern Partnership.

Whooping Crane image © 2007 Mike McDowell

Tuesday, January 16, 2007

Debate continues over future of "bird jewel"

"Concerns are being raised by Audubon (BirdLife in the US) over the future of California's Salton Sea, an Important Bird Area that is home to one in five species found in North America. The State of California have been tasked to come up with a plan for restoring the Sea, but so far none of the proposals outlined by the state in its Draft Environmental Impact Report include actions to 'adequately' maintain the site as a habitat for wildlife, conservationists argue."

Link: Read more at BirdLife International

Black-necked Stilt image © 2007 Mike McDowell

Sunday, January 14, 2007

Tourism and the Galápagos

"Not since Hamelin has the discovery of a rat provoked so much alarm. It was only a single creature, but it had no business being on the island of Santa Fe in the isolated Galápagos archipelago, where conservationists now strive to keep foreign wildlife at bay as effectively as hundreds of miles of open ocean did for millions of years."

Link: Full Article from the Guardian

Tortoise image © 2007 Mike McDowell

Tuesday, January 09, 2007

Having a Fender Moment...

All images © 2007 Mike McDowell

A Snowy Owl creates a stir in Madison

"It started with the Findorff construction crew at University Square spotting the owl atop the cranes towering over the mixed-use redevelopment project located between Johnson Street and University Avenue at Lake Street. "It's been around for the last three weeks," says project superintendent Jim Kalscheur, and has taken to perching atop the crane located nearest Lake Street, particularly when it is in motion."

Link: Full Article from The Isthmus

(be sure to open up the photograph of the Snowy Owl sitting on the crane!)

Snowy Owl image © 2007 Mike McDOwell

Monday, January 08, 2007

Non-bird Digiscoping

A reader emailed and asked if digiscoping can be used for photographing critters and things other than birds. This may seem intuitively obvious to photographers, but it's difficult to find anything other than digiscoped bird images on the Internet. Here are a few examples of non-bird images I've taken through my Swarovski spotting scope and Nikon digital camera:

All images © 2007 Mike McDowell

Saturday, January 06, 2007

Weekend Friends

Here's a lovely group picture of some of the friends I'm hanging out with over the weekend. It's sunny and unseasonably warm outside, as per usual, but I'm tired and fairly unmotivated to do much of anything. I have been watching activity in the backyard and the usual birds are present:

Black-capped Chickadee
Red-breasted Nuthatch
White-breasted Nuthatch
Black-capped Chickadee
Dark-eyed Junco
Red-bellied Woodpecker
Downy Woodpecker
Hairy Woodpecker
Blue Jay
Northern Cardinal
Cedar Waxwing
American Goldfinch
House Finch
Morning Dove
House Sparrow

I don't feel like reading or watching television, but listening to music works. Beethoven's Triple Concerto is presently playing and I imagine it a theme for my immune system to initiate an all-out assault against whatever bug is responsible. The first wave of the attack by this virus began with a bang so loud that I lost nearly all my hearing in my left ear for over 2 weeks, but it's going out via the classic sneezing, coughing and disgusting snotty mess.

Thankfully, my hearing has returned but I have permanent tinnitus - a constant ringing in both ears I've had for over 15 years (too many rock concerts during my rebellious youth). The amazing thing is that it actually seems to help me hear birds. There's something about the tonal frequency of birds that cancels the ringing, in effect, amplifying their songs. In a group of birders, I'm usually the first person to pick up and identify a particular song, even at considerable distances.'s a common affliction of musicians. Heck, even Beethoven had it.

Image © 2007 Mike McDowell

Thursday, January 04, 2007

Zeiss DC4 Review

Zeiss DC4 Review - by Ben Lizdas of Eagle Optics

This past November while attending the Rio Grande Valley Birding festival in Harlingen, TX, I had the opportunity to try out the new DC4 digital spotting scope eyepiece from Zeiss. Having used other sport optic and digital camera systems before, Zeiss has produced the best integration I've seen yet.

Zeiss describes the eyepiece on their website:

The Camera-Eyepiece DC4 for all Zeiss Diascope spotting scopes unites both features in one device and defines "Digiscoping" - digital photography through a spotting scope - in a new, fascinatingly easy manner:

  • Observe and capture digital images - simultaneously!
  • No additional camera and adapter needed.
  • No time lost aligning camera and eyepiece.

The result is a high-grade 40x (when used on the 85mm Diascope) eyepiece with an integrated digital imaging system. The concept has crossed almost every digiscoper's mind - imagine being able to take photos of what you're seeing with no extraneous equipment to carry around. There's no set up time - just the simple press of a button when you're ready to snap a picture.

How it works:

From the spotting scope, the DC4 brings light into focus on two sensors. One sensor is your eye and the other is the camera sensor. The two sensors must be calibrated to match exactly (similar to using a diopter on center focus binoculars to match each eye). Because everyone's eyes have different focus characteristics, the calibration needs to be adjusted with each user to insure that their eye is in "focal harmony" with the camera sensor.

Calibrating the focus system of the scope, to the user's eye, and to the camera in the eyepiece was the most challenging aspect of using the DC4 for me. Since the time that I had spent with this DC4 prototype, I'm told that Zeiss has modified the DC4 to include a built in reticle with a focus aid that makes this task of setting the diopter compensation both simple and precise. This is critical to obtain the high quality photos that the Diascope and DC4 are capable of.

Like a digital camera, the DC4 has an external storage device. In this case, the camera uses an SD-Card. This provides a great deal of flexibility to store and transfer images via a conventional media.

What I Liked:

The most successful aspect of the DC4 is how easy it makes digiscoping. Like most novice digiscopers, I tend to struggle with equipment (getting my camera out, attaching an adapter, connecting it to the scope, refocusing, composing the image via the tiny LCD, etc.) and this comparatively minimal setup made digiscoping much more fun for an amateur like me. Once the bird is in focus through the DC4, simply press a button on the remote control.

Being able to look through the scope eyepiece to get a crisp view of the bird was another great advantage of the DC4. I find that when I'm digiscoping with a conventional camera, it's challenging and sometimes almost impossible to determine how finely focused the system is when I need to rely on the camera LCD screen for feedback. Sometimes it's the sun, other times just the tiny size of the screen that makes me think I've got a sharp image, only to get it on my computer and realize that the photo could have been sharper. It's particularly frustrating when you've got a $2500 spotting scope that you know can yield stunning shots and the less than perfect photo is a result of your own misjudgment.

A point that seems obvious to me given the Zeiss name, but is still worth mentioning is that the optical performance of the DC4 is superb. By no means did Zeiss skimp on optics of this piece in order to bring us the technology. I found the image through the eyepiece to be everything I would expect from a high-end optical outfit like Zeiss.

What I Didn't Like:

Naturally, in the realm of cameras and optics, Zeiss had to make a few trade-offs in order to make the DC4 a reality, though many of these drawbacks apply to most conventional digital cameras as well. Compared to your typical scope eyepiece, the DC4 is big and heavy (28 oz), though it didn't feel any more cumbersome than a typical scope eyepiece with an adapter and camera mounted on to it. Overall, the DC4 was pleasantly compact.

Inherent with any electronic device, there are aspects of longevity, reliability and durability that are going to be somewhat of drawback relative to what we expect out of a purely mechanical lens system typical of a standard spotting scope eyepiece. The DC4 is dependent on a power source (AA batteries for the camera/eyepiece, AAA batteries for the remote control) in order for the camera to function, but this is the case with any digital camera used for digiscoping. One critical point, however, is that the DC4 cannot function without the remote control. Having the remote control is a great benefit for reducing image blur, but if it gets misplaced there is no option to operate the DC4 independently. Likewise, if the batteries on the remote die, your digiscoping system is down.

Today's digital camera market sets the bar pretty high in affordable prices and image resolution capability. The DC4 uses a 4 megapixel camera sensor, which is on the low end of what digiscopers expect today for digital imaging. This may not be a significant limitation for the popularity of capturing images of rare birds and documentation shots, but it may hinder publishing opportunities. Perhaps the most significant drawback is its price. Once available, you can expect to pay $1900 for the DC4 digital eyepiece. Zeiss will be introducing a package which will include the DC4 with an 85mm Diascope for a ballpark price of $3500. Compared to a conventional digiscoping setup, the price tag is a bit steep. On the other hand, if you look at some of the large focal length camera lenses out there, it's a bargain.

The Zeiss DC4 is ushering in a new era of digital imaging technology which should make digiscoping easier and more enjoyable. To many would-be-digiscopers, the ease of use, convenience and simplicity of the DC4's design will be attractive enough to justify any of the potential downsides, particularly the cost. For those who have already mastered the art and technique of digiscoping, some of the DC4's conveniences may hold less appeal.

Sample images taken through a Zeiss Diascope 85 & DC4 digital eyepiece:

Check out the zbirding website for additional DC4 images.

All images © 2007 Zeiss & Steve Ingraham

Some thoughts on Digiscoping...

Sanderlings I chose to watch and not photograph!

Ernie Mastroianni wrote an excellent article on the basics of digiscoping, appearing in the current issue of Birder's World magazine. Here are a few additional thoughts on my approach to the balance of birding and digiscoping in the context of a comment in Laura Erickson's blog post on the same article.

After going crazy-nutzo with digiscoping the first year or two, I've nestled into a pattern of deliberate digiscoping runs during the second half of May for spring warblers, flycatchers and other songbirds, and then again late September and the first half of October for sparrows, fall warblers and sometimes shorebirds. Digiscoping on sunny days greatly increases chances for success, saving more time for studying birds on overcast days, or times I simply don't want to digiscope (it happens a lot!). Naturally, there will be exceptions as they come long, but most of the time I don't haul my digiscoping setup to the field because I dislike carrying it around so much!

The more experiences accumulated watching and appreciating birds, I feel the better photographer I've become in anticipating their behavior, where they're going to be and when. It's no wonder (to me) that some of the best bird photographers in the world are also avid birders. While exploring the landscape and habitat in various lighting, I'll consider spots for potential natural outdoor studios (though I often never get back to them and keep returning to old favorites). As mentioned in the article, there's a small point on a habitat edge in Pheasant Branch where I've recorded over 90 bird species, mostly during spring and fall migration. A surprising number of birds in my gallery were photographed at that spot, especially sparrows. I've found my greatest successes come from returning to such productive spots during spring and fall migration.

Digiscoping is only one dimension of my interest in birds, and is generally an avocation of solitude. If it is in any sense a competition, it's only with myself as personal escapism. But I also enjoy the social aspect of birding – organized field trips or a spontaneous gathering of birders, friends and colleagues, meeting at Pheasant Branch or Nine Springs before or after work sharing a glimpse at a Hooded Warbler or a spinning Wilson's Phalarope. Generally, it's not practical to digiscope when in a group, plus there's much to learn from birders who have been at it longer - I would hate to miss out on a tip or bit of wisdom.

Thinking back to the Black-throated Blue Warbler that Dottie Johnson found last fall, if I would have tried to sprint back to my car to fetch my digiscoping equipment, in all likelihood would have missed one of the most amazing displays of warbler foraging behavior I've ever observed. If I've said it once I've said it a thousand times, “Gee, if only I had my digiscoping gear along!” Watching birds and sharing those experience with other birders has always been just as fun and interesting than photographing them, sometimes more so. There is memory, which is sometimes even better than a high quality photograph.

A birder I know asked me why I lack images of bird rarities reported around Wisconsin over past five years. My response was a bit tautological, “The bird in front of my lens is the one I photograph.” By the end of 2007 there will be new bird images added to my gallery – I wonder which ones they'll be? I can predict more images of Yellow-rumped Warblers, Palm Warblers, Lincoln's Sparrows and White-throated Sparrows - ones that come relatively easy because they're common during migration. Since I started digiscoping in 2002, there have always been opportunities that I've either encountered by chance, or helped to create, but always striving to minimize my impact on birds.

Now to the point: Posting a link to Ernie's article on her blog, Laura Erickson of wrote a nice compliment regarding my work, but one comment sort of perplexed me. Laura wrote, "I try to make my pictures as good as I can, but I'm much more interested in experiencing birds than in setting up photo ops, which is why you'll see a lot more professional photos by the more serious experts than you will by me."

When you see a lot more professional photos by more serious experts, then I suppose her comment implies such photographers are less interested in having more bird experiences, or at least missing out on something. I'll not deny digiscoping can be time consuming, but that's why I bring my binoculars along - there's always something else to watch while waiting for something to happen.

Nobody can deny Laura's passion and love of birds – she's the only one who knows what she feels and experiences, but I disagree spending time to photograph birds must decrease or diminish experiences with them. If anything, watching a few birds or one, for a long time in hopes of getting a good picture has provided me ample opportunity to closely study and experience bird behavior. She's digiscoped more bird species than I have, so it isn't for lack of getting out there and trying! I don't know about you, but I think her work is excellent.

As I mentioned before, I digiscoped far less in 2006 than in any previous year, and yet I think the quality of my digiscoping continues to improve. So, why is that? Indeed, regardless of your level of commitment to birding or digiscoping, you can have it both ways.

Tuesday, January 02, 2007

And then there was one...

(click on image for larger version)

Tom Prestby took advantage of the great lighting today and got some excellent shots of a Purple Sandpiper (Calidris maritima) at Sheboygan. Of 5 birds previously reported, this appears to be the last one remaining. It's unknown what happened to the others - they may have become falcon food, or perhaps they moved further south. There was a Purple Sandpiper reported at Racine a few days ago, but somehow I doubt it was a member of the Sheboygan flock. Tom uses a Swarovski 80HD spotting scope and a Nikon Coolpix 4500. Great shot, Tom!

Link: Tom Prestby's digiscoping Gallery

Purple Sandpiper image © 2007 Tom Prestby

Beginner's Luck?

(click on image for larger version)

Using his Sony Cyber-shot DSC-W5 and Swarovski 80HD spotting scope, first-time digiscoper, Charles Henrikson, captured this super Red-tailed Hawk image at the UW Arboretum on Monday.

Charles tells his story...

Well, today, the first day of 2007, is the first time I have been able to get out and use the camera, scope and backpack. I went to the UW Arboretum. I walked all over carrying everything, except the tripod, in the backpack. I didn't see one bird. It was absolutely dead. After an hour I decided to set up the whole apparatus and take a photo of something. I took a couple photos of sumac seed heads. Not very exciting but at least I got some practice setting up and taking the photos. I decided to pick up the whole apparatus and go to the boardwalk over the bog with cattails. As I walked onto the boardwalk some teenagers told me that there was a large bird in the tree near the end of the boardwalk. They thought it was an owl. I walked quietly the length of the boardwalk. There it was sitting in a tree facing into the sun. It was a hawk. I positioned my tripod, focused my scope and camera and snapped a couple photos. Unfortunately there were a couple branches across its head and repositioning didn't help. All of sudden it took off and I thought that that was the end of it. Instead it moved to another branch closer to me and completely in the open, no branches in the way. I was able to take about 30 shots before it flew off. As it soared above I could see its red tail so feel fairly sure it was a Red-tailed Hawk. For my first bird photos I feel extremely fortunate. All the stars were in perfect alignment. The light was right, it was about 3:30 in the afternoon, and the hawk was facing the sun and I was in the right position on the boardwalk. The hawk was close enough that I could fill the entire field. The hawk perched there for 10-15 minutes sometimes just looking around, other times preening itself. It truly was a spectacle for which I feel so privileged to have observed and photographed. I can't get rid of the smile on my face. It was a great beginning to the New Year. Thank you for your digiscoping tips.

Red-tailed Hawk image © 2007 Charles Henrikson