Tuesday, September 30, 2008

The Zeiss PhotoScope

The next thing in digiscoping? We'll see!

"Coinciding with the 2008 photokina, Carl Zeiss is once again demonstrating its innovation leadership in the field of digital imaging with sports optics products and is presenting a completely new product concept with the PhotoScope™ 85 T* FL."

Link: PhotoScope 85 Specifications from Zeiss

Link: PhotoScope Demostration (YouTube)

The Morning

"You get to the morning and the poison leaks away, doesn't it?"

-- David Caravaggio from The English Patient

It was a breezy morning at the prairie. Lincoln's Sparrows, Sedge Wrens, and Common Yellowthroats were hunkered low in the thicket, but the incredible scenic views were worth preserving. For me, landscape photography can be as enjoyable as photographing birds and it's especially rewarding when elements come together to form appealing composition of light, angles, shape, and depth. With everything that's been going on in the news, it can be challenging to stay focused on things that can make a difference in our wellness. I think about those who are in such economic dire straights that getting outside and visiting with nature isn't even an option for them. I guess I should feel lucky. To the wrens, sparrows, and warblers, there's simply no such thing as a $700 billion bailout. On this crisp day of fall migration, they went on about their regular activities as they have for hundreds of generations. Idle before a stand of asters, under a canopy of wispy clouds, the concerned face of a tiny sedge wren popped out from the purple flowers to check me out. Laugh if you like, but if that can't take the poison away, I honestly don't know what can!

© 2008 Mike McDowell

Kirtland's Warbler census sets new record

"Close to extinction two decades ago, the Kirtland's warbler has recovered to the point that the tiny songbird is staking out new territory in the Upper Midwest, biologists said Monday."

Link: Full article from ChicagoTribune.com

Kirtland's Warbler © 2008 Mike McDowell

Sunday, September 28, 2008

Calling an Arachnologist!

Orb weaver? Which species? Closest match I could find on the web is Araneus alsine.

© 2008 Mike McDowell

Saturday, September 27, 2008

I get comments

Duster (a non-registered user) left the following comment on my post "Mike's Digiscoping Secrets - Stitching!":

"It is great to use photoshop as a tool, but how good of digiscoper are you when you do that? The person that can get the great snap shot with no help from the computer is the better digiscoper."

I agree. And some days I'm a better digiscoper than others. However, the point of my article on stitching images was to offer a solution to Ryan's challenge that's unique to digiscoping: What can you do when you're so close to a bird that critical parts of it (like the face) are in the edge of the image where lens curvature causes loss of detail? Fortunately, for smaller songbirds this is rarely a problem, but to illustrate what I'm talking about I displayed a grid on my computer monitor (flatscreen) and digiscoped it:

Two things are revealed: a. The combination of my Nikon Coolpix 8400, Nikon UR-E14 accessory adapter and Swarovski DCA attached to my spotting scope's eyepiece is not perfectly on axis. b. You can see the edge curvature I'm referring to (I've lightened the area with the best uniform sharpness - a veritable "sweet spot"). Such tests will probably vary from one digiscoping configuration to the next, but there's almost always going to be some loss of image sharpness along the edge of the field.

When digiscoping a bird, I try to compose it so that most of it (or it's face) will fall into this sweet spot. With a larger bird that overlaps outside of the boundary of the sweet spot, you might have time to back away from it so that it falls within this zone. However, moving away from the bird will also result in some overall sharpness loss. So, returning to the point of stitching; by quickly taking two exposures of the bird, one of the face in the sweet spot, and one of the lower portion of the bird, you can have a resultant image (if you really want to take the time to use photoshop to stitch them together) that has uniform sharpness across the entire picture. How many photographs in my digiscoping gallery are stitched in this manner? Well, this technique will only work if you have a relatively stationary subject (that rarely ever happens to me!) I think I've employed this process for perhaps 3 or 4 images out of the several hundred on my website.

With digiscoping, there is a loss of contrast and shutter speeds are at a premium. Generally, I use exposure compensation to shoot at -1.0 to obtain a minimum of a 1/125th second shutter speed. This typically means I'll use photoshop to increase the brightness and contrast for nearly every image I shoot. For the past six years, I've been using one of the best spotting scopes on the market along with popular digital cameras for digiscoping and have taken several thousand images under the best lighting conditions. From experience, I can tell who is post-processing and who isn't and the fact is that most of the well-known digiscopers out there use photoshop to enhance their work. In my opinion, using photoshop doesn't take anything away from their talent.

Finally, there are many digiscopers who are better than I am, but I'm not in competition with them. The point isn't who's the best or worst but whether or not I'm having fun.

© Mike McDowell

Friday, September 26, 2008

Sparrows and Field Trip

White-crowned and White-throated Sparrow numbers are steadily increasing at Pheasant Branch Conservancy; more Lincoln's Sparrows, too! Warblers yesterday and today included Northern Waterthrush, Common Yellowthroat, Palm, Yellow-rumped and Magnolia. I've been busy finding an apartment and working on a few non-birding projects lately, so posts here have been somewhat sparse. I signed a lease yesterday; turns out I'll be living one block away from the conservancy!

In other news, I'll be leading a field trip for Madison Audubon on Saturday, October 11th at the conservancy:

Migrant Songbirds of Pheasant Branch Conservancy

Saturday, Oct. 11th, 2008

The main focus of this field trip will be sparrow species, including White-crowned, White-throated, Lincoln's and many others. We will also be looking for late warblers, flycatchers, thrushes and other fall migrants. Meet at the Dane County Unit of Pheasant Branch Conservancy, which is about a mile-and-a half north of Century Avenue in Middleton on Pheasant Branch Road. This is the third parking lot for the conservancy on the right as you drive north out of Middleton. The field trip will begin at 7:15 a.m. Bring warm clothes for cool early morning fall weather.

All images © 2008 Mike McDowell

Monday, September 22, 2008

Stercorarius parasiticus

© USF&WS Image

Earlier today I was enjoying Chris West's Wisconsin Point photo album and came across a photograph he had taken of a Parasitic Jaeger. He labeled it with the correct scientific name Stercorarius parasiticus. Below it Chris added, "in plain English: The Parasitic Hunter." Well, I know that "jaeger" is German for hunter, but that's not technically part of its scientific name. Its common name translates as Chris indicated, but I became curious and struggled to find a definition for stercorarius. I got a bit of a clue when Google kept returning information on the Dung Beetle – its full species name is Geotrupes stercorarius. There it was again, but I was beginning to think this exercise wasn't going to end well. Anyway, a few more searches revealed an entry from The Latin Sexual Vocabulary under Relating to Bodily Functions:

In the Republic and early Empire stercus was the standard term in technical and formal prose, and it continued to be late antiquity and survives in some Romance languages...These can be compared with the comparable range of derivatives which stercus already had in early Latin (e.g. stercoratio, stercorare, stercilinum, stercorarius in Cato)...Stercus was a very general word, which could indicate the excrement of any animal or of humans.


Poop Parasite? Am I wrong!? Or can stercus also refer to regurgitated items?

Sunday, September 21, 2008

Door County Weekend

My weekend mission was to photograph a friend's wedding in beautiful Door County. Luckily, ceremonial and celebratory events permitted a few excursions to some of the awesome natural areas Door County has to offer the nature photographer.

Early Saturday, my first stop was Newport Beach State Park. Rain was falling while hundreds of Yellow-rumped Warblers and Palm Wablers searched frantically for a place to forage after a night of migration. Watching them descend into the trees dozens at a time, their call notes seemed to be coming from every direction. I caught myself wondering where these particular flocks originated from - Ontario, or Michigan's Upper Peninsula. Perhaps they were already in some other part of northern Wisconsin. Clouds gave way to sunshine and I managed to capture a few images of the active Palm Warblers – busy preening or hunting for insects.

After the birds settled and quieted down, I headed over to Peninsula State Park to scan the water for any interesting seabirds. Scoping off in the distance, I'm certain I spotted a jaeger (probably a parasitic) chasing a gull. Most of the gulls were too far away for photography, but there was at least one cooperative Ring-bulled Gull hanging out on the rocks in front of me.

Trees of Door County are just beginning to turn color. I spent some time exploring The Ridges Sanctuary - one of my favorite natural areas in Wisconsin. Grass of Parnassus dotted the flanks of the boardwalk along Rangelight Trail.

I melted away a few hours by hiking the trails and breathing the fresh air - incredibly relaxing. It was so quiet; I could hear even the most subtle sounds from flight motions of nuthatches, warblers, kinglets, creepers, chickadees, thrushes, and sparrows that flew before me.

Katie and Sim - congrats!

All images © 2008 Mike McDowell

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Bill introduced to help disappearing birds

Henslow's Sparrow: Declining 7.5% annually

From the American Bird Conservancy...

Senate Bill Introduced to Conserve
Rapidly Disappearing Migratory Birds

Senators Ben Cardin (D-MD), George Voinovich (R-OH), Susan Collins (R-ME), Patrick Leahy (D-VT), Joseph Lieberman (I-CT), Robert Menendez (D-NJ) and Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI) have introduced bipartisan legislation to boost funding for the conservation of migratory birds. The Senate bill, S. 3490, reauthorizes the existing Neotropical Migratory Bird Conservation Act (NMBCA), but at significantly higher levels, to meet the growing needs of our migrants, many of which are in rapid decline. Representatives Ron Kind (D-WI) and Wayne Gilchrest (R-MD) have introduced similar bipartisan legislation, H.R. 5756, in the House of Representatives.


Of the 178 continental bird species included on the American Bird Conservancy/Audubon WatchList of birds of highest conservation concern, over one-third, 71 species, are Neotropical migrants. The populations of an estimated 127 species of migratory birds are in persistent decline, and 60 species have experienced significant population declines greater than 45% over the last 40 years. Several species, the Cerulean Warbler and Olive-sided Flycatcher, have declined as much as 70% since surveys began in the 1960s.

Link: Full article at the American Bird Conservancy

Henslow's Sparrow © 2008 Mike McDowell

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

The Ride and the View

Writing creative narrative for my nature photography can often represent a greater challenge than actually capturing the images. Sometimes it's easy to tell a story with them, other times it isn't as clear what I should write. I guess this particular photo essay is about morning sights, but that's not very original. As a kind of pilot, I suppose I might imagine you as a passenger on an airplane, looking out the window as I fly us above the clouds. To you, these photographs might appear like views of the countryside below:
  • The moon is in the bluest part of the morning sky.
  • Ruby-throated Hummingbird preens through dense tangle.
  • Black-throated Green Warbler searches a pinecone for insects.
  • Monarch Butterfly warms itself in the morning sun.
But what's actually going on in the cockpit? Tripod adjustments, white-balance check, light angle, compose, focus-lock, release, re-focus, adjust, move, check, shutter speed, exposure, exposure, exposure, post-processing, uploading, etc. Steps have been repeated thousands of times; the ride for me is a little different from yours.

It was a thought.

Anyway, enjoy the view!

All images © 2008 Mike McDowell

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Quiet after Migration

Palm Warbler

I saw my first Palm Warbler of fall migration a few days ago. Though NexRad lit up like fireworks last night, Pheasant Branch was extremely quiet this morning. I noticed that other birders from southern Wisconsin reported similar findings. What migrated last night? Around 8:30 a.m., Dottie and I saw several southbound Killdeer flocks over the prairie. I wonder if they moved en masse last night? Well, something migrated! Alas, NexRad cannot reveal the species.

NexRad - 9/15/2008

© 2008 Mike McDowell

Thursday, September 11, 2008

The Leaf

Here's a leaf for inspiration
I picked up off the ground
Was there for the song
Of phoebe and the vireo
Green all summer long
But soon found its place
The leaf on the ground
Why should I pick it up?
Did paws ever touch it?
Was it covered with raindrops?
Under the morning sun
Held to the light
And I left the leaf
There on the ground
Where it will fade
Gently and peacefully

© 2008 Mike McDowell


Birdpost.com? Yet another list to feed! So, what's it got that eBird hasn’t?

From the Crunchbase.com entry on the website:

Birdpost is poised to lead a burgeoning "citizen science" movement as a usable, innovative, and potent framework aimed at connecting nature and people in ways never before possible. Birdpost combines satellite mapping technology with the popular sport of birdwatching, dramatically modernizing, improving, and altering the hobby by solving birders’ most vexing problem: where to find new bird species. Birdpost gives the estimated 18 million serious U.S. birders an online platform to chronicle, organize, map, and share their collective birding activities.

The cumulative data gathered by Birdpost’s users will produce "natural histories" of local habitats and give conservationists, educators, and other nature enthusiasts the tools they need to better protect, understand, and the enjoy the environment. Ultimately, Birdpost’s proprietary vehicle for grass-roots nature reporting will scale beyond birds to include other nature verticals such as wildlife, insects, reptiles, plants, fish, and trees, becoming a human-generated nature search engine.

Who is going to confirm rare-bird or record early/late sightings at this website? Is the intent really for citizen science, like eBird? As more people use it, will useful sightings data be diverted away from eBird? Will any on-line reporting tool ever replace the simplicity and usefulness of the listservs? The "Friend Connector" on Birdpost.com makes it seem like a brand of FaceBook - social networking for birders. I appreciate that eBird is sponsored by Audubon, Cornell Lab of Ornithology and the National Science Foundation and see no such sponsorship or affiliation for Birdpost.com. Naturally, I think anything that gets people interested in birds, birding, and general nature observation can have positive educational merit, but hasn’t this website merely reinvented the wheel relative to eBird? Why would birders want to spend even more time at the keyboard entering sightings into yet another database?


Link: Birdpost - Watch the video

Slick marketing! Presently advertised to be free (sign-up), it's ultimately a for-profit service that will cost $50.00 for an annual subscription - they're going to sell your data. No thanks!

Tuesday, September 09, 2008

Evidence for Splitting Winter Wren

"A new paper by David Toews and Darren Irwin (2008) finds evidence that there are at least two species of Winter Wren in North America rather than the one we previously assumed. Before you groan and say 'oh not another split', you should know that they didn’t split the Winter Wren based on a reading of phylogenetic trees – they split them based on their discovery of a contact zone where the two species don’t hybridize, thus qualifying as species under the strictest Biological Species Concept."

Link: Full article from Biological Ramblings

Winter Wren © 2008 Mike McDowell

Sunday, September 07, 2008

How to spend a Late Summer day

Today was the kind of day I wish could have gone on forever. Before heading to Pheasant Branch, I stopped by a boat landing to watch the sunrise over Lake Mendota. Sitting on the pier, camera in hand, I reflected on my life's recent changes – my marriage is finally ending and I no longer live in Waunakee; it's Middleton once again. Though deep down I know this has been coming for years, somehow I thought this day would never come. I'm sure there are going to be difficult days ahead, but I already feel as if a weight has been lifted off my shoulders. Today was all about me, my friends and how much the bunch of us love nature. I snapped a few more sunrise photos and headed off for the conservancy.

We were victims of comfort
Got no one else to blame,
I'm just a victim of comfort,
Cryin' shame.

-Keb' Mo'

New England Asture


Like most fall migration mornings, I met up with several of my birding friends at the stream corridor trail entrance; Jesse, Dottie, Sylvia, and Bill. There were others, too. Our adventure started with a comparatively subdued warbler status. We struggled to find a Wilson's Warbler, Tennessee Warbler, Magnolia Warbler, American Redstart, Black-and-White Warbler, and a very skulky Mourning Warbler – migrant birds were pretty scarce. Dang it all! And I was totally in the mood to digiscope! We eventually gave up on the corridor and moved to explore the prairie and oak savanna parcel on the north side of Pheasant Branch. This turned out to be a great decision because we were soon rewarded with a Red-headed Woodpecker – a species I haven't seen for almost two years:

It was entertaining to admire the woodpecker's incredible flycatching skills (I'm pretty sure it was grabbing cicadas on the wing) as well as cracking open acorns into the tree branch. Unfortunately, there just aren't as many of these amazingly beautiful woodpeckers as there once were (50% decline since 1966 according to Audubon's Watchlist). At one time, over a decade ago, they actually nested at the conservancy, but no more. These days I'm lucky if I see one Red-headed Woodpecker per year during spring or fall migration. Perhaps this particular bird is a member of the Necedah NWR colony to the north and on its way south for the winter.

Though not everybody in our group could stay, I spent nearly the entire day at the conservancy observing and photographing; listening to Sylvia identify wildflowers and insects. Her knowledge of nature is encyclopedic and never ceases to amaze me with her ability to recite even the Latin names of wildflowers and plants. Recent rains made everything seem fresh and new, and yet more change is in the air; falling leaves. There may not have been as many birds today at the stream corridor, but the flora and fauna we saw at the prairie and oak savanna were special. We finished the day with 60 bird species.

Bottle Gentian

Canada Goose
Ring-necked Pheasant
Turkey Vulture
Cooper's Hawk
Sandhill Crane
Ring-billed Gull
Mourning Dove
Common Nighthawk
Ruby-throated Hummingbird
Red-headed Woodpecker
Red-bellied Woodpecker
Downy Woodpecker
Hairy Woodpecker
Northern Flicker
Olive-sided Flycatcher
Eastern Wood-Pewee
Yellow-bellied Flycatcher
Great Crested Flycatcher
Red-eyed Vireo
Blue Jay
American Crow
Tree Swallow
Barn Swallow
Black-capped Chickadee
Tufted Titmouse
White-breasted Nuthatch
House Wren
Sedge Wren
Blue-gray Gnatcatcher
Eastern Bluebird
Swainson's Thrush
Wood Thrush
American Robin
Gray Catbird
European Starling
Cedar Waxwing
Tennessee Warbler
Magnolia Warbler
Black-and-white Warbler
American Redstart
Northern Waterthrush
Mourning Warbler
Common Yellowthroat
Wilson's Warbler
Clay-colored Sparrow
Field Sparrow
Song Sparrow
Lincoln's Sparrow
Northern Cardinal
Rose-breasted Grosbeak
Indigo Bunting
Common Grackle
Baltimore Oriole
House Finch
American Goldfinch

All image © 2008 Mike McDowell

Friday, September 05, 2008

Will Ben get the Cuckoo?

At this very moment, Ben Lizdas is searching for this particular Black-billed Cuckoo at Pheasant Branch Conservancy – it'd be a lifer for him! I managed to capture a digiscoped photograph of the cuckoo just before heading into work. Once there, I showed the photo to Ben and he mentioned never having seen this species before.

Our little group of birders enjoyed another fantastic morning of watching beautiful migratory birds. We had close-up views of a female Black-throated Blue Warbler, Golden-winged Warbler, Blackburnian Warbler, even a Connecticut Warbler! I also saw my first Northern Parula of fall migration. The "pwip"" calls of Swainson's Thrushes were heard up and down the length of the stream corridor trail.


Oh well! Fortunately for Ben, he found a Connecticut Warbler which was also a life bird for him! Congratuatlions, Ben! How many until 600 now?

Black-billed Cuckoo © 2008 Mike McDowell

Thursday, September 04, 2008

Good Warbler Day

We had a pretty darn good day of warbler watching yesterday at Pheasant Branch Conservancy. NexRad showed an impressive migratory movement of birds overnight and a small morning rain shower was moving out of our area. Some of the best birding I've experienced has been during or just after a rain shower. I often tell birders to try and get out there because the bird activity can be super intense under such conditions. Luckily for our group, things were perfect for rendering yesterday as such a day. Shortly after a light shower subsided, large numbers of hungry warblers descended into the stream corridor. We observed nearly a dozen warbler species within a few minutes – I don't think I've ever seen so many Tenneseee Warblers and American Redstarts. In fact, there were so many birds it was difficult to know where to look or feel like you should stay on any one bird for too long - ya might miss something else! As I said to my birding companions yesterday, I felt like “a one-eyed cat in a fish market!”

From my eBird report:

Location: Pheasant Branch
Observation date: 9/3/08
Number of species: 42

Blue-winged Warbler
Golden-winged Warbler
Tennessee Warbler
Chestnut-sided Warbler
Magnolia Warbler
Cape May Warbler
Black-throated Blue Warbler
Black-throated Green Warbler
Blackburnian Warbler
Bay-breasted Warbler
Blackpoll Warbler
Black-and-white Warbler
American Redstart
Northern Waterthrush
Common Yellowthroat
Wilson's Warbler
Canada Warbler

American Redstart © 2008 Mike McDowell

Tuesday, September 02, 2008

Warbler Watcher

We had an especially good weekend at Pheasant Branch Conservancy - 12 warbler species for Saturday and Sunday. We found a Nashville Warbler, Blue-winged Warbler, Golden-winged Warbler, Blackpoll Warbler, Canada warbler, and more. Given all these fun sightings, someone asked a good question in comments: why I haven't posted any new bird photographs? Well, this time of year isn't so good for digiscoping warblers – the foliage is still pretty dense and the warblers are super hyper as they forage for insects, generally in the upper story. I spare myself the humiliation!

Generally, I'll wait wait until late spring or mid fall for digiscoping – it's exceedingly easier. Plus, I really don't like lugging the spotting scope and tripod around when I'm trying to admire birds and observe their behavior. Waiting later in the fall means warbler candidate subjects will be Nashvilles, Tennessees, Yellowrumps and Palms. However, in late September and early October I'll have over a dozen different sparrow species that I can digiscope – again, far easier birds to photograph.

I've made it a point to be a bird watcher first and a bird photographer second. I get a lot of personal enjoyment helping my birding friends find birds – probably even more so than obtaining nice portraiture of a warbler. But don't worry! There will be more bird photographs!

Nashville Warbler © 2008 Mike McDowell

Thriving bluebirds have less reason to feel blue

"Wisconsin has been at center stage for the successful restoration of many treasured bird species in North America for the past several decades, including the bald eagle, trumpeter swan, wood duck, sandhill crane, whooping crane and, of course, the eastern bluebird."

Link: Full article from The Post-Crescent

Eastern Bluebird © 2008 Mike McDowell