Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Clay Taylor on digital cameras for digiscoping

Nikon Coolpix 8400

From Clay Taylor of Swarovski:

When the show (PMA) opens on Thursday, I'll be at our Swarovski booth, but I will make time during the event to see the newest cameras and hopefully test them behind the Swarovski 20-60xS eyepiece. If I have a chance to make the tour with a 20xSW or 30xSW eyepiece, I will, but you all have to realize that we sell VERY FEW fixed-power, wide-angle eyepieces in the course of a year. The average customer will buy a spotting scope (all brands, not just Swarovski) with a zoom eyepiece because the optics generally don't suck and the practical advantages of a zoom eyepiece in the field are undeniable. That's market reality, and I have to view all the new cameras from that angle.

That said, I hope you all realize that we will NEVER see another camera like the CoolPix 8400 again. The Photo Industry is definitely moving all the newest high-tech camera features into the D-SLRs and partly into the ultra-zoom P&S cameras (for now, interesting lenses but crappy sensors). The compact, short-zoom P&S cameras are the ones that work best behind a spotting scope zoom eyepiece, and are what we need to know about. They have all lost many of the features that we desire for digiscoping - accessory adapters, remote releases, articulated screens, manual controls, RAW files, Electronic Viewfinders (although the Nikon P60 is an exception - could there be hope?). The only good trend is that those cameras seem to be getting better at the wide-angle settings, which could help eliminate eyepiece vignetting more quickly.

Clay Taylor
Moodus, CT

Friday, January 25, 2008

Large-scale effort needed to save grassland birds

"Of all of the birds that spend part of their lives in Wisconsin, the group that needs the most help are grassland birds. Their populations, along with their habitat, are in decline. That is one of the reasons why the Department of Natural Resources held a statewide Grassland Bird Symposium last week, bringing together state and federal wildlife managers and researchers, and land managers from non-governmental conservation organizations."

Link: Full article from The Capital Times

Grasshopper Sparrow © 2008 Mike McDowell

Monday, January 21, 2008

Rollers back in the News

Roller Pigeon fanciers are back in the news with a disturbing but illuminating video on CNN revealing the nature of those busted in a recent sting operation. I still receive an occasional cryptic email regarding past blog entries about this particular subject (posts linked below). Some of these fanciers would have you believe accipiters, like the Cooper's Hawk, are responsible for major declines in native songbird populations, which apparently provides enough justification for them to take the law into their own hands. However, the real justification behind their despicable criminal behavior is that they feel they have a right to kill federally protected hawks because their non-native pet pigeons are caught as prey items when released in training or competition flocks.

Back in July, I responded to one fancier's piffle:

"From fossils collected in California, New Mexico and Florida, Cooper's Hawks have existed in North America since at least the late Pleistocene (half a million years ago). Birds that constitute traditional prey items for these and other raptors somehow managed to flourish for tens of thousands of years in their presence, including the Passenger Pigeon."

Bill Schmoker commented:

"If pigeon fanciers supplement this natural feedback system with their easy targets, they really can't blame the hawks for doing what they do. It would be like me training Labrador Retrievers to swim in the Farallon Islands and getting angry at the Great White Sharks for eating them instead of their normal seal diet, and demanding that the government grant me an exception to wildlife protection laws so I could kill them in order to protect my unnatural, un-vital activity."


Birds of Prey and Rollers

Winged Thugs

CNN Video: Pigeon breeders target hawks

Birder's World Magazine: An outrage against hawks and falcons

Cooper's Hawk image © 2008 Mike McDowell

Thursday, January 17, 2008

Whoopers make it to Florida

Photo courtesy of Operation Migration

"The 17 young whooping cranes flapping south from Wisconsin have finally crossed the Florida state line. The ultralight-led flock could make it to their final destination at the Chassahowitzka National Wildlife Refuge by early next week, weather permitting."

Link: Full Article from St. Petersburg Times

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

There are no Super Deals!

Binocular buyers and authorized optics dealers around the United States are being scammed by eBay thieves. I alluded to this on my blog several weeks ago, but thanks to The Binocular Thief Blog appearing on a thread, I now have a clearer understanding of the scam. Various law enforcement agencies are aware, but catching the crooks and getting places like eBay and PayPal to cooperate is difficult due to strict privacy policies. Though protecting their users and communities is certainly one of their top priorities, these groups are inadvertently making it possible for thieves to thrive by giving them adequate cover for their fraudulent operations.

Even the FBI has a high fraud threshold before they'll launch a full investigation. This is partly due to the fact that credit card fraud is an annual multi-billion dollar problem in the United States and they only have so much time and resources to dedicate to investigations primarily involving super large amounts, like several hundred thousand dollars or more. So, a few thousand here and there is simply too tiny a blip on their radar to take much notice. As a result, these bottom feeders may eventually cross that threshold, but for now they're getting away with it.

What can you do as potential binocular buyers? Avoid purchasing from eBay or any website offering brand new high-end binoculars at suspiciously low prices. There are no deals out there, my friends. All authorized dealers are selling at (or around) the same price. Buy from eBay and there is virtually no way to guarantee that an auctioned binocular isn't ultimately going to end up as stolen merchandise in your hands.

These crooked sellers don't actually have the product in inventory or a warehouse, they merely use authorized optics dealers as drop-ship stores, but pay for product using stolen credit cards with changed identities once an auction is won. Yes, they actually change the identity on the stolen card to match the eBay buyer by taking advantage of super convenient "change of address" on-line forms or voice automated systems offered by many banks and financial institutions - they can do it all behind the scenes. The eBay buyer receives what he or she ordered, but at the expense of a legitimate merchant and a third-party credit card holder who has no idea why their card shows a $1,500.00 charge from an optics dealer. That's the scam.

The growing convenience of Internet commerce over the past decade has certainly been a factor into the how thieves are finding new and clever ways to steal money. Who pays? In the short term the merchants do, but in the long term everybody does. This absorbing effect might make credit card fraud seem like a victimless crime, but I wonder whether or not this contributes to a decline in the overall health of our economy. Merchants may take the initial hit, but ultimately may pass their losses on in the form of higher prices. Who keeps the thieves in business? People who believe in the myth of the "Super Deal."

Sunday, January 13, 2008

Weekend Break

I took this photograph earlier this morning as snowflakes gently glided to the ground. The sun is out now, but I'm going to watch the NFL divisional playoff games that start in another hour or so. Yesterday's game, Green Bay versus Seattle, was a thriller to watch with all that snow coming down and accumulating on the field. What more can you say about Brett Favre, eh? It's all been said. So, this weekend the birds will get a break from me and can go about their routine without the snowman coming after them.

Hey, I heard a good one…

Q: Do you know why Iowa doesn't have a professional NFL football team?

A: Because then Minnesota would want one, too.

Image © 2008 Mike McDowell

Wednesday, January 09, 2008

1,000 birdwatchers after rare sparrow

Every bird is a rarity, somewhere...

"Like paparazzi, they stand with cameras poised awaiting the emergence of their quarry. But their target is nothing so common as a C-list celebrity lurching out of a nightclub. The star in question is a white-crowned sparrow. This tiny visitor from North America has been spotted in these isles only four times before - and never so far from home."

Link: Full article from DailyMail UK

Link: Twitch Documented

White-crowned Sparrow © 2008 Mike McDowell

Tuesday, January 08, 2008

Getting Close to Birds

Least Sandpiper

From this list of 10 resolutions for birders in 2008:

"10 Quit wearing white. Fewer birds will see you, so you'll have a better chance to see them. Birds naturally shy away from bright, reflective objects. There's a reason hunters and wildlife photographers wear camouflage."

Well, it depends. In my experience, camouflage has made very little difference in how birds react to my presence. More significant is how I behave around them. A birder dressed in jungle fatigues walking into an area where birds are present will be noticed just as much as one wearing a white t-shirt. In fact, a stealthy looking camouflaged human figure that appears to be stalking might even pose a greater sense of threat to a particularly leery bird that has no appreciation of how badly you want to photograph it.

Regardless of what color you're wearing, most birds will adjust to your presence so long as you sit or stand still, be silent, and if you have to move, do so with smooth and deliberate motion, akin to the gracefulness of a ballet dancer. If I need to reach for an adapter or fresh camera battery in my backpack, or lift my binoculars to check out what birds are in the area, I try to do so with as little jerkiness as possible. Birds will invariably react to a sudden shift in position or any sharp sound, like sticks breaking from being stepped on

Yellow-rumped Warbler

Will you see fewer birds when wearing white? Probably not. Recall the Northern Shrike experience I had a few weeks ago – the bird that perched mere feet from me. It didn't seem to mind at all that I was wearing all white. Perhaps I was truly and completely camouflaged. The greater need for the shrike at the time was catching a mouse it had spotted just behind me. As I stood perfectly still, I was fortunate to receive the shrike encounter of a lifetime, clad in white.

Lincoln's Sparrow

Getting close to birds is an art that requires dedication and patience. As Arthur Morris said, "If you persevere, good photographic opportunities will eventually present themselves." My photographic goal is to walk off the field with portraiture that shows a bird at its best and minimize whatever impact my presence has on it. Birds will almost always exhibit a certain amount of concern when I first enter an area, but I give them a chance to adjust. Usually within 5 to 10 minutes, they will go about their routine activities once they've decided I'm not a threat.

I know this may sound a little counterintuitive, but when I'm super close to a bird, I avoid making eye contact with it as I photograph – I'll act as if I have no interest whatsoever in it. You can try this during your approach, too. However, when a bird has a problem with my presence, I slowly back away, leave the area and try a different location. Few people have observed me digiscoping and the reason is that it requires silence and a minimum number of objects (potential threats) for the bird to assess and concern itself with. I've photographed around 180 bird species and the color of my field clothing has made very little difference in the quality of my work. What has mattered more is how I've behaved around them.

All images © 2008 Mike McDowell

Thursday, January 03, 2008

Whooping Crane record broken in Texas


Here's some good news:

"So far 257 Whooping Cranes have reached the Coastal Bend area of Texas, breaking the previous count of 237 in winter 2006/07. National Whooping Crane Coordinator, Tom Stehn, said: "I estimate that more than 97 per cent of the flock has completed the migration so far. We know of four birds that are still in migration, so that raises the estimated flock size to 261.'"

Link: Full article from BirdLife International

Wednesday, January 02, 2008


"Emerson says that 'The day does not seem wholly profane in which we have given heed to some natural object.' If Emerson had stopped to qualify his remark, he would have added, if we give heed to it in the right spirit, if we give heed to it as a nature-lover and truth-seeker. Nature-love as Emerson knew it, and as Wordsworth knew it, and as any of the choicer spirits of our time have known it, has distinctly a religious value. It does not come to a man or a woman who is wholly absorbed in selfish or worldly or material ends. Except ye become in a measure as little children, ye cannot enter the kingdom of Nature - as Audubon entered it, as Thoreau entered it, as Bryant and Amiel entered it, and as all those enter it who make it a resource in their lives and an instrument of their culture. The forms and creeds of religion change, but the sentiment of religion - the wonder and reverence and love we feel in the presence of inscrutable universe - persist. Indeed, these seem to be renewing their life today in this growing love for all natural objects and in this increasing tenderness toward all forms of life. If we do not go to church as much as did our fathers, we go to the woods much more, and are much more inclined to make a temple of them than they were."

- John Burroughs, The Gospel of Nature

In 2008, I will not record a year list of bird species. However, I will still collect eBird data for Pheasant Branch Conservancy and that's where I will continue to focus my nature quests. I will also continue to increase my understanding of non-avian flora and fauna, especially native plants and wildflowers. I will endeavor to do as much as I can to limit the squandering of communal resources in pursuit of these interests by staying close to home. Provided with the means to do so, I will help people and organizations whose goals are the same as mine; to protect nature's creatures and the habitats they depend upon. Make every bird a life bird.

Woods image © 2008 Mike McDowell

Tuesday, January 01, 2008

No Way Home

"Their migrations speak to us in some unfathomably deep way. Birders flock to stopover sites like Cape May, N.J., to watch birds on their journeys to the far north in the spring and back to the tropics in the fall. Eco-tourists head for the Serengeti to train binoculars on herds of wildebeest that stretch to the horizon. American schoolchildren watch monarch butterflies hatch from chrysalises in their classrooms and then see them off on their trip to Mexico. But in his new book 'No Way Home,' David Wilcove, a Princeton biologist, warns that 'the phenomenon of migration is disappearing around the world.'"

Link: Book Review

Link: 'No Way Home' at

Monarch Butterfly © 2008 Mike McDowell