Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Celebrating 2 Years

Mike's Birding and Digiscoping Blog turned 2 today!

Prepare for year 3...

Monday, February 26, 2007

Scrub-jays look ahead

Western Scrub-Jay image courtesy of USF&WS

"They might not pay into savings accounts or keep diaries, but western scrub-jays (Aphelocoma californica) can anticipate and plan for the future, research published in Nature this week shows. What the birds do in the evening depends on how they might feel the next morning. They can anticipate, for example, how much food, and of what type, will be available in different locations, and store away the right amount, in the right place, for breakfast."

Link: Full Article from Nature

Have a Leica? Wanna use the Swaro DCA?

Here are images showing the spacer ring Ben Lizdas made from PVC tubing so that he could use the Swarovski Digitial Camera Adapter for his Leica Televid spotting scope and Pentax K100D D-SLR.

According to Ben, the inner diameter of the ring is 2.00", outer is 2.20" and the height is .40". The spacer ring slips over the eyepiece and then the bottom section of the Swarovski DCA fits snug against the ring, rendering a functional and elegant design.

If you're considering a small point-and-shoot digital camera that lacks an accessory thread, it still makes more sense to use Leica's digiscoping adapter.

All images © 2007 Mike McDowell

Saturday, February 24, 2007

Ice eating Nuthatch

This afternoon I observed a White-breasted Nuthatch carry small icicles (1" to 2" in length) to our maple and then break them apart as they typically do with food items by hammering them into bark. It consumed the broken bits of ice, even though I have a heated bird bath with fresh water. I watched carefully with binoculars and there didn't seem to be any frozen morsels in the ice, but I can't be certain. I wasn’t able to locate where it was getting the icicles from but it repeated this behavior a few times. It's always fun observing new and interesting bird behavior!

White-breasted Nuthatch image © 2007 Mike McDowell


Though much of our previous our snow melted over the past week, we got 10" to 12" inches overnight with another 5" to 9" in the forecast for tonight. Let the pre-spring weather mind games begin!

Backyard image © 2007 Mike McDowell

Friday, February 23, 2007

Spring, please...

The weather forecast is a bit gloomy for the weekend – another 7 to 10 inches of snow predicted Saturday through Sunday. February is nearly over and that means some of the first spring migrants will be returning to Wisconsin, like Sandhill Cranes.

No matter how earnestly I try to hold onto those special moments, spring always seems to come and go far too quickly – I consume it with pure intensity and renewal. That’s why I ask fellow birders what’s more exciting, the anticipation of spring migration or spring migration itself?

In The English Patient, Caravaggio said, “You get to the morning and the poison leaks away, doesn't it?” Much of this winter has seemed like one worrisome and continuous black night. The sunrise may serve as a daily catharsis, but spring and the arrival of the colorful sprites is an antidote for all that ails me.

So enjoy this previously unpublished Common Yellowthroat photograph. They’ll soon be on their way back to adorn our woods, marshes and prairies and fill the days of spring with song.

Common Yellowthroat © 2007 Mike McDowell

Monday, February 19, 2007

My GBBC Results

Here are birds I recorded for the Great Backyard Bird count on Sunday morning:

Cooper's Hawk - 1
Mourning Dove - 52
Red-bellied Woodpecker - 1
Downy Woodpecker - 1
Hairy Woodpecker - 2
Blue Jay - 3
American Crow - 2
Black-capped Chickadee - 2
Red-breasted Nuthatch - 1
White-breasted Nuthatch - 2
Brown Creeper - 1
American Robin - 1
European Starling - 2
Cedar Waxwing - 4
Dark-eyed Junco - 8
Northern Cardinal - 6
House Finch - 5
American Goldfinch - 2
House Sparrow - 1

Red-bellied Woodpecker image © 2007 Mike McDowell

Friday, February 16, 2007

My Response to Owlboy

Owlboy's assertion: “Store bought mice are lab raised and are disease free."

It is owlboy who is misinformed. Had he done his homework and conducted just a simple internet search on pet store rodents and diseases, he would have found a myriad of information and articles on the subject, including ones from the scientifically peer-reviewed Journal of of the American Medical Association and also the CDC:

Outbreak of Multidrug-Resistant Salmonella Typhimurium Associated With Rodents Purchased at Retail Pet Stores—United States, December 2003–October 2004

His premise is wrong, therefore his conclusion that pet store rodents are a safer bait for owls is advanced to a category of strong doubt. Obviously, rodents in the wild carry diseases. However, releasing a diseased pet store rodent increases a probability of introducing a bacterial or viral variant. Wild owls may have a hard time dealing with it due to a lack of natural resistance to a bug that is not typically found in its natural ecological foraging niche.

The needs of the bird outweigh my need for a photograph. Again, in my opinion, erring on the side of caution is the most ethical position to take regarding the baiting of owls. I have never lured an owl and I will not bait them. I believe my rationale is sound and based on reasonable evidence.

Link: CDC: Pet Rodents Can Carry Salmonella

Link: Ectoparasites of House Mice from Pet Stores in South Carolina

Link: The Case of the Suspicious Hamsters

Great Gray Owl © 2007 Mike McDowell

Thursday, February 15, 2007

Great Backyard Bird Count this weekend!

Don't forget! The Great Backyard Bird Count begins tomorrow and runs through Monday (February 16th-19th). I've been seeing most of the usual wintering bird species in recent days, but no Yellow-rumped Warbler like last year (pictured above). As you can see at the GBBC results section, this was the only Yellow-rumped Warbler reported in Wisconsin during the 2006 count.

Yellow-rumped Warbler image © 2007 Mike McDowell

Kowa's TSN-DA4 Universal Adapter

Kowa TSN-DA4 shown with the TSN-DA10 (for new 77/88 scopes)

While the Kowa TSN-DA4 Universal Digiscoping adapter will work with virtually any Kowa spotting scope, it will not mount on any other manufacturer's scope. It's designed to be used with small point-and-shoot digital cameras, specifically ones lacking an accessory/filter thread (else you would use the TSN-DA10 or TSN-DA1 with a Kowa adapter ring for greater simplicity).

Naturally, point-and-shoot digital cameras that effectively reduce vignetting are those with a 4x optical zoom or less. The DA4 works in conjunction with either the DA10 (for the brand new 77/88 scopes) or the DA1 (all other Kowa scopes [820s, older 77s, TSN 2s & 4s, etc.]). Note: the DA4 will not support a D-SLR.

At first glance, the number of parts required may look a little daunting, but it's actually pretty easy to assemble once you set aside the instructions provided by Kowa (kidding). The base isn't too difficult to figure out, but the cable release and peep sight parts make it seem more complicated that it really is. This image shows an eyepiece and DA10 in the shaded area, all other parts are included with the DA4. The allen wrench in the lower right is used to tighten the cable release screw.

Through proprietary to their scopes, I have to give Kowa for credit for creating comprehensive digiscoping solutions that will function with a variety of digital cameras. In theory, any point-and-shoot digital camera should work with the DA4, provided it has a 4x optical zoom or less and a 1/4” x 20mm tripod thread.

The kit version of the DA4 sells for just under $400.00, but only includes the DA1, so it is not for the new 77 and 88 Kowa scopes. Sold separately, the price of the DA4 combined with the DA10 is nearly $500.00 and DA1 around $450.00. Hand-holding a point-and-shoot digital camera or building a custom digiscoping adapter is looking better all the time!

All images © 2007 Mike McDowell / Eagle Optics

Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Ben's first Quiz Bird!

(click on image for larger version)

Ben returned from the San Diego Birding Festival today and that means his Pentax K100D is back, too. Hopefully I'll get some more time to tinker around with it. Ben is a relatively new digiscoper and this was the only bird picture he was able to capture combining the Pentax with his Leica APO spotting scope. In a future post, I'll show the plastic ring Ben constructed to allow the Swarovski DCA to connect to his Leica scope. Anyway, since Ben was unable to get the entire bird in the frame, I guess we'll have to settle for a quiz. Can you identify the bird carrying away half a rodent?

Update: 02/14/07

Turns out Ben did capture another image of this bird: ANSWER

Quiz images © 2007 Ben Lizdas

Monday, February 12, 2007

Piping plover making a comeback

(Piping Plover image courtesy of USF&WS)

"The piping plover, a bird about the size of a robin, has been making a comeback on beaches of the Great Lakes thanks to legal protection under the federal Endangered Species Act and partnerships between state and federal agencies and the public."

Link: Full article from The Daily Item

Saturday, February 10, 2007

Little eyes all around me

Sometimes when walking through the woods...

I can't help but feel...

there are little eyes all around me...

watching my every move.

Long-eared Owl images © 2007 Mike McDowell

Friday, February 09, 2007

Using a Photo Adapter

(click on image for larger version)

Another method of connecting a D-SLR to a spotting scope has been around for many years, but film SLR cameras were used prior to digital. In this configuration, the eyepiece is removed from the spotting scope and the lens is removed from the D-SLR. Using a T-ring that's specific to the camera body, the scope manufacturer's photo adapter is connected to the D-SLR. The opposite end of the photo adapter is connected to the spotting scope.

(click on image for larger version)
An advantage to this setup is its simplicity and universality – just about any SLR/D-SLR can be used. Though the focal length rendered is 800mm, it's optically slow at f/10 (from 800mm / 80mm). However, in good light this method will deliver very nice results. A notable disadvantage is that it's much more cumbersome to convert the scope from observing to photographing (and back) while in the field.

(click on image for larger version)
This method is available in all major spotting scope models; Leica, Kowa, Zeiss, Nikon (only Nikon's D-SLRs will work), Swarovski and more. Though I have a photo adapter for my Swarovski scope, I've only used it with my Yashica film SLR. When I eventually buy a D-SLR, I'll probably revisit this method but I want to make sure the camera I choose will also a-focally couple to the eyepiece, like the Pentax K100D does, for slightly longer focal length.

Here's why:

Because the eyepiece is attached, the Swarovski 80mm scope at 20x starts with a focal length of 1,000mm (from 20x times 50). The sensor size on the K100D is 23.5mm, so there is a crop factor of 1.48 (35mm/23.5mm). This factor is multiplied by the 40mm lens (40mm x 1.48) for 59.2. Next, we convert back to 35mm equivalency (59.2 / 50) and get 1.184. This is multiplied by 1,000mm for a final effective focal length of 1,184mm. This is pretty close to the digiscoping magnification when I use my Nikon Coolpix 995.

All images © 2007 Mike McDowell

February Barred Owl

I left work a little early yesterday to walk the entire stream corridor trail of Pheasant Branch Conservancy in search of Barred Owls. I like to do this each year about this time because they're much easier to find compared to when the leaves are out, plus it's just sort of nice to know they're still there guarding their home.

The low angle of the setting sun created long, eerie shadows across the snow and only a few birds remained active. Perhaps they were preparing to join others already at roost, in search of a bit of food before enduring yet another bitterly cold night. You can't see them, but you're surrounded by birds. I like to imagine cardinals, jays, juncos, nuthatches, chickadees and titmice all tucked in for the night, perhaps in various tree cavities and other nooks and crannies.

After an hour, I finally found a Barred Owl perched on a branch next to a tree trunk about 25 feet up. Out of the corner of my eye, I caught its lighter color against the darker tree. I didn't stay long. There was still enough light to look with my binoculars – the owl blinked a few times, looking right at me, and then I walked the long mile back to my car. It had been about a year since the last time I saw a Barred Owl at the conservancy – April, I think. And April is a very warm thought.

All images © Mike McDowell

Wintering Robins

(enjoying a snack in January at the UW Arboretum)

A reader sent in the following observation/question:

We had about 6-8 Robins in the backyard this a.m.? Appeared they were mostly interested in the water... But what are Robins doing around here in this cold weather?

While nearly all American Robins head southward during fall migration, there are many to be found throughout winter in Wisconsin. The UW Arboretum has a small population of robins that overwinter. At Pheasant Branch Conservancy in Middleton, I routinely find American Robins throughout winter near sources of food (fruit berries) and natural springs. Are these birds non-migratory? Probably not. Robins we see this time of year most likely migrated from the northernmost portions of the breeding range in Canada, thus Wisconsin may be the furthest south they'll travel.

American Robin range map © BNA

Their survival here gives them the advantage of not having to fly north as far come spring. Nevertheless, populations of robins will move around throughout winter in search of food. Robins further south begin their northward migration early February, reaching the mid southern states by March. Of course, it's also possible that some robins seen around Wisconsin are non-migratory. It's hard to know for sure where the robins you're seeing are from, but they're probably not the same birds you see in your backyard in June. One thing is for sure, American Robin migration is much more complex than I've attempted to describe here.

Link: Where are American Robins now?

American Robin image © 2007 Mike McDowell

Tuesday, February 06, 2007

Pentax K100D

Check out Ben's first digiscoping results with the Pentax K100D!

(click on image for larger version)

Digiscoping with point-and-shoot digital cameras (what I do) may become a thing of the past. As the evolution of point-and-shoot digital cameras seems to render them increasingly less digiscoping friendly, I have fewer cameras to suggest to people who email me requesting a recommendation. In fact, I can't actually recommend a single "in production" point-and-shoot digital camera for digiscoping. It's pathetic that digital camera manufacturers have not embraced the digiscoping technique, and they probably never will because it's not where the money is.

(click on image for larger version)

Lately I've been reading the Yahoo digiscopingbirds group with great interest by those coupling DSLRs directly to the eyepiece of their spotting scope. Some digiscopers, including Clay Taylor of Swarovski, have been getting pretty respectable results employing this method. My co-worker Ben Lizdas recently attended the Space Coast Birding Festival and was so impressed with seeing Clay's setup and results firsthand, he purchased a Pentax K100D DSLR to use with his Leica spotting scope.

(click on image for larger version)

Ben's new Pentax camera arrived today and I had only a few minutes to tinker around with it before he leaves for another birding festival tomorrow morning. When Ben returns, I should have more time to run the setup through more rigorous testing, however I was also impressed with how easy it was to setup and use on a Swarovski spotting scope.

Most of you know I use either a Nikon Coolpix 995, 4500 or 8400, all of which are discontinued. These are the only digital cameras I've used extensively for digiscoping birds. This makes it difficult for me to recommend anything else. Rather than make a blanket recommendation, I'm merely going to state that this new setup works pretty well.

I took the Swarovski/Pentax setup outside and took three quick pictures of an amazing chance encounter of a Tundra Wood Knot (from about 35 feet away). I used a complete manual focus (camera on manual focus, focusing exclusively with the spotting scope's focuser). It's still bitterly cold here and I didn't allow any time for the scope to acclimate to the outside temperature, so the focus looks a little soft. This picture was resized, unsharpmasked (120:1.1:1), slight level increase and made the colors just a tad warmer:

(click on image for larger version)

The Pentax K100D DSLR is combined with a Pentax 40mm f/2.8 lens. This lens has a 49mm accessory/filter thread. A 49mm-52mm stepup ring is required to connect to Swarovski DCA (digital camera adapter) configured with the 52mm adapter ring. This should work similarly with either Kowa's DA1 or DA10 digiscoping adapter and a 52mm adapter ring. If you're not going to go with a Swarovski or Kowa spotting scope, then whatever digiscoping adapter you get needs to come out to a 52mm thread (using the step ring).

(click on image for larger version)

I'll preface my so-called recommendation like this: If all my present digiscoping gear suddenly vanished (all three cameras), I would probably replace it with this setup. But for now I intend to keep on using my Nikon Coolpix 995 until it dies. Perhaps I'll switch over to my Nikon Coolpix 8400, but I still haven't figured out how to get its white-balance to render accurate color.

All images © 2007 Mike McDowell

Sunday, February 04, 2007

Wintering Ruby-crowned Kinglet

(Ruby-crowned Kinglet during fall migration)

Roy Lukes of Door County shares his amazing story of a Ruby-crowned Kinglet that's wintering in Wisconsin. The tiny bird is enduring 14 below today.

"Perhaps it was the sweeping aerial activity of the goldfinches, mourning doves and house finches that was responsible for attracting a rare visitor to our yard: a male ruby-crowned kinglet, who has been here since Jan. 8. Chances are that there seldom are nesting kinglets, both golden-crowned and ruby-crowned, in Door County. Those few that have been known to successfully nest have done so in the coniferous woods, especially black spruce and tamarack bogs."

Link: The rest of Roy's kinglet story...

Ruby-crowned Kinglet image © 2007 Mike McDowell

Saturday, February 03, 2007

Storms kill flock of whooping cranes

"All 18 endangered young whooping cranes that were led south from Wisconsin last fall as part of a project to create a second migratory flock of the birds were killed in storms in Florida, a spokesman said."

Link: Full Article from the DailyComet

Link: More at Feb. 3rd Update from Operation Migration

Update #1: Whooper # 615 is missing - 17 confirmed.

Update #2: # 615 is found alive!

Thursday, February 01, 2007

Vortex Razor 8x42 Review

Yesterday I purchased a pair of Vortex Razor 8x42 binoculars to add to my optics "collection" (the correct classification for my heap of glass, as advised by a colleague). Technically, I really didn't need another binocular because I have a Nikon Premier SE 8x32 and a Vortex Stokes DLS 8x42 for my two primary birding binoculars (sometimes I use a Swarovski 8x30 SLC). Lately, though, I've been admiring the Razor's distance resolution, which is observably better than my Stokes DLS. Ya know, it's not easy working around so many great optics (sigh). I'll probably donate a few of my less expensive binoculars to Birder's Exchange.

Last evening after work, I stopped to look for the Short-eared Owl at Middleton's Municipal Airport and to try out my new optics. The owl must have hunted elsewhere, but I did get to test out the Razor's super-sharp resolution when a Red-tailed Hawk pounced on prey on a hill about a mile away. I was amazed by the clarity and crispness – pretty close to my Superior E. Even at distance and in dim light, the hawk's form was perfect and I could make out three distinct colors - dark top, light underside and copper tail. The Razor delivered very usable views almost 40 minutes past sunset, though my DLSs were marginally brighter. However, I prefer the winner with distance resolution over a slight edge on brightness.

Oh joy - look what's in store for the weekend...

Low: -3
High: 6; (Wind Chills: -15 to -25)

Low: -8
High: 4; (Wind Chills: -15 to -25)

Low: -10
High: 5; (Wind Chills: -15 to -30)

Yikes! When it gets this cold, I'd rather stay inside and watch backyard birds or read a good book. While modestly warmer temperatures endured this morning, I decided to go birding at Pheasant Branch Conservancy with my Razors to provide additional observations for this short review. Looking around the snow covered fields, the Razor's optics are slightly warm under overcast skies, but not distractingly so. Once the sun came out from behind the clouds, the binoculars were color neutral. I found a small flock of American Tree Sparrows near the fence line and enjoyed watching them forage in phenomenal detail.

The Razors have exceptional contrast and virtually no chromatic aberration in the center of the field. You can get some color fringing to appear near the edge of the field, but every binocular in the world will show a little near the edge. The field is discernibly flat and very wide at 410' @ 1,000 yards, making scanning an awesome experience. Ergonomically the binoculars are slightly heavier (29.4 ounces) than I normally like, but the “European” open-hinge design balances it out pretty well. I use the slide-and-flex bino harness on all my binoculars so the weight is never on my neck and doesn't create a problem.

The Vortex Razors' price is another of its attractive qualities. In fact, I can't think of a binocular with better optics in its price range. But enough about what I think – you can read a recent customer review on the Razor at this BirdForum.net thread.

All images © 2007 Mike McDowell

More about Baiting Wild Owls

The following comment was received...

"People should be educated, not criticized. Feeding the owl is not the dangerous thing on its own feeding it near the road is very dangerous. Boreal owls are very friendly by nature, just like the great gray owls. They have a tendency to get closer to humans since they are not afraid of people. If it was a bad thing for them to be fed mice from people, this would be illegal. Since it is not illegal, one can assume that it is not what's dangerous on its own. People say they can find their own food. oh sure, but the simple fact that they are there just show that they had to move because they could NOT find their food and had to move south. If they can find their own food so well..when why do they come rushing to catch the mice that people offer them? They like to hide their food and store them for harsh time. It's in their nature and there must be a good reason for that. Maybe their survival rely on plenty of food source stored and if that's the case, having more mice is a blessing. People just have to learn to do it the right way and keep the owl away from the dangerous road. Here in Quebec when people feed the snowy and yes we do have northern hawk owls too, we do it far from the roads. Here too it is not illegal to feed the birds, just like it is not illegal to give seeds to birds."

The argument I see most often employed in justifying the baiting of owls with live rodents for photography is to point out that feeding backyard birds is ethical, therefore the practice of baiting for all birds, regardless of species, habitat or type of bait, must also be ethically permissible. A related argument used is that baiting them isn't illegal, so it must be okay - otherwise it would be against the law, right?

Part of the problem with the former argument is it assumes that boreal owls can be treated in the same manner as birds like Northern Cardinals or House Finches - species that have habituated around people for over a hundred years and have most likely benefited (numbers-wise) from backyard bird feeding. If they really are the same (boreal owls and certain songbirds), then what we can say about one, we should be able to say about the other with nothing left over, so I encourage you to stand out in the middle of a field with a feeder full of safflower to lure in those owls. Just make sure there are no rules, laws or ordinances using birdseed in an ecologically sensitive natural area that might disrupt native flora.

Going along with providing backyard birds food to eat is the responsibility of offering them fresh seed in clean feeders. Since there are many diseases birds can die from by eating moldy birdseed or taking food from feeders that aren't routinely cleaned, a question of ethics can also be regarded and respected. The same can be true of using rodents acquired from a pet store and subsequently fed to owls. In one sad case I'm aware of, a rehabilitation center unwittingly provided a bad batch of live rodents to their clinic birds and an education Bald Eagle. The rodents were diseased and several rehab birds perished, including the eagle. This particular center now removes the intestines from prey food to prevent diseases like salmonella. Can you personally guarantee that rodents offered to a bird of prey, just to lure it in for a photograph, are free of diseases that may harm or kill it?

While on the subject of treating things as equals, how about the ethics of releasing a pet store rodent into the wild? Is it ethically permissible to release an exotic gerbil or hamster into the wild, just because they're rodents or perhaps a ferret or chinchilla just because they've come from a pet store? Depending on laws in your area, it may actually be illegal (without proper credentials) to release or relocate any mammal, wild or exotic. When releasing live rodent bait, there's a possibility the critter will escape its intended "photo-op" purpose and subsequently have to deal with an environment it's genetically unsuited for, and again, create the potential of introducing harmful diseases or parasites to native fauna.

The risk isn't worth the reward.

Rather than spend time and energy defending the practice of baiting wild owls with live rodents, I recommend rising to a greater challenge in nature photography – see if you can do it without the extra help...hone your field craft and study the birds. By becoming an expert on bird behavior, you'll discover you won't need to bait owls in order to get a nice picture. Sure, I occasionally take photographs of birds in my backyard, but it never matches the sense of accomplishment I feel when coming off the field with a great shot of an unbaited, wild bird.

Great Gray Owl image © 2007 Mike McDowell