Friday, November 28, 2008

Flaws in nation's bird counts

"A team of researchers led by Theodore Simons, a biologist at N.C. State, found that trained bird-watchers aren't as good at hearing birds in the wild as previously thought, and their powers of perception drop sharply with even small increases in background noise. Factors such as traffic noise and observers' inaccurate spatial perceptions could inadvertently bias bird counts, they say."

Link: Full article from The News & Observer

American Redstart © 2008 Mike McDowell

Thursday, November 27, 2008

White-winged Crossbill Irruption

"Within the last month, White-winged Crossbills have started to irrupt into the Northeast and Upper Midwest in large numbers. During the four days between the 22nd and 25th of November there were over 75 observations of White-winged Crossbills submitted to eBird. Among these were reports from as far south as Colorado, Illinois, New Jersey and Maryland. While most observations have been of small groups, there have been many sightings of flocks numbering 40-75 birds. The most amazing sighting comes from Dave Tetlow who observed some 1785 White-winged Crossbills while he conducted a stationary count for two and a half hours at Hamlin Beach State Park in Upstate New York. During this time most birds were seen heading east into the 10 mph ESE wind. You may be thinking, 'well, that's just lovely, but how can I find them? Where can I look?'"

Link: Continue reading at

White-winged Crossbill © 2008 Mike McDowell

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Sunday Morning at Devil's Lake

I visited Devil's Lake State Park today to decompress with nature and also get a little exercise by climbing the bluffs. Deer hunters were out en force, so I wore my bright yellow coat as a precaution. The climb up Balanced Rock trail is more difficult when I carry my photography and digiscoping gear, but stunning views make it a worthwhile endeavor.

My plan was to locate either Townsend's Solitaires or photograph Red Squirrels (one of my favorite critters). I like to call them Pine Squirrels, but they're known by other nicknames such as boomer, chatterbox, and chickaree. I spent around three hours hiking the bluffs, but no solitaires were found. On the other hand, the little red chatterboxes were scolding me on just about every path I took. But getting a nice photograph of one? Not so easy.

It wasn't until my way back down the bluff that I was rewarded with an opportunity to photograph a red squirrel. One began scolding me from a perch high up in a tree, but before I could get my spotting scope ready, it scurried down and disappeared beneath some rocks. Inspecting its hideout through my scope, I surmised there probably wasn't a backdoor, so I waited it out. It didn't take long before the 8 ounce furry poked its head out from behind the rocks.

Perhaps I wasn't so terrifying a monster after all, eh? It hopped up on the rock and posed nicely:

In fact, the red squirrel got so comfortable it grabbed a pine cone and went to work. I captured a video of this serious business:

All images © 2008 Mike McDowell

Saturday, November 22, 2008

November Birds

Though overcast and cold, I bundled up and birded with Dottie, Sylvia and Bill this morning along the stream corridor at Pheasant Branch Conservancy. Juncos, chickadees and goldfinches were very plentiful; a Carolina Wren sang just one time. But the biggest treat was when our group silently walked by a resting Great Horned Owl without disturbing it. Further down the west trail, we were somewhat surprised to hear a chattering Belted Kingfisher.

Ice is just beginning to form on rocks at the crossings, but the stream never completely freezes; there is access to fish for the kingfisher. We left the corridor and headed over scope Lake Mendota from Marshall Park. We immediately spotted several Tundra Swans mingled in with hundreds of Canada Geese. A lone Common Loon was preening way out on the lake. Closer in were Common Mergansers, Common Goldeneye, Buffleheads, Gadwall, Mallards, and American Coots. After Marshall Park, we called it a day and went to get some hot soup!

All images © 2008 Mike McDowell

Birds and Cold Viruses

Human Rhinovirus

I was a little skeptical when I saw the story tag "Journal article blames birds for giving us the common cold virus 200 years ago" on this morning. The tag links to an article on Medical News Today "Common Cold Virus Came From Birds." This is a slight technical error between the common cold virus and a common cold virus - there are a multitude of viruses responsible for giving us the common cold.

If you google "common cold virus birds" or something similar, you'll already find hundreds of websites referring to an article published in the December issue of the Journal of General Virology on the subject. Well, it may be true that Human metapneumovirus is closely related to Avian metapneumovirus from an evolutionary standpoint, and is the second most common cause of colds in children, but the primary culprit (possibly up to 70% of all colds) are rhinoviruses.

The problem is, as I've recently observed in other stories published on the Internet, many us are headline and bold-print readers when it comes to digesting our daily quota of news. Whether jokingly or serious, I just know members of the birding community are going to hear other people vilify birds for giving us colds. Already, here's a comment I found at the end of one article on this story:

I am beginning to wonder if the migrating crows brought something with them. There are so many people coming down with a bad cold followed by a hacking cough that just lingers for over two weeks. Yes, I know how viruses travel, and that there are a bunch of new colds every season, but this time it seemed to coincide with their arrival in this area.

Coincidence! Rhinoviruses are with us throughout the year and mutate very quickly. So, you can get a common cold any time of the year, but they're more prevalent from September to April because we're spending more time indoors in close quarters with other people - transmission opportunities increase dramatically. True, birds migrate in the fall and spring, but an adequate explanation is no guarantee it is the correct one. The point is, birds are not presently transmitting a pandemic virus to people that causes common cold symptoms; the two forms of metapneumovirus are genetically related. That's the story!

Friday, November 21, 2008

Minox Digital Camera Module

Minox DCM attached to a Zeiss 85 Diascope

I had an opportunity to test the Minox Digital Camera Module 5.0 for the Zeiss spotting scope under good lighting conditions today. The module conveniently replaces a spotting scope's eyepiece, facilitating digital photography (3.2 megapixels, 5.0 interpolated) through the scope. It's available for Minox, Leica, Swarovski, Kowa, and Zeiss. Unfortunately, if you have a Kowa 82mm spotting, you're out of luck unless you already own the discontinued TSE-EC eyepiece converter. Depending on the spotting scope it's attached to, the DCM renders magnification from 32x to 45x. I conducted my tests using a Zeiss 85 diascope, which is 45x.

Control panel of the Minox DCM

Compact and user-friendly, I found the DCM easy to configure and use. Using the control panel on the DCM, you can adjust image quality (low, medium, and high), white balance, (auto, daylight, cloudy, and lamp), and adjust an exposure level (-1.8/+1.8). There's a video mode, self-timer and a remote shutter release as well. Unfortunately, there isn't as much control over settings as there is when digiscoping with a point-and-shoot digital camera coupled to the eyepiece of a spotting scope. When you're finished capturing images, the DCM connects via USB to your computer. The unit comes with a belt-looped carry case so you have a place to store it when using a standard viewing eyepiece.

Easy results with the Minox DCM

There were several Mourning Doves that served as cooperative test subjects. The 45x magnification is higher than what I would normally digiscope with, so I didn't have to be as close to the birds – perhaps this will be a nice feature for new digiscopers. However, my sense is the distance factor will likely result in a loss of image detail.

Though the EXIF data indicated ISO 100 (for the above dove exposure) and I had selected "high" for image quality, the original captures had pretty noticeable noise. Once I uploaded the images to the computer, I ran a noise reduction filter using Adobe Photoshop CS2 and was fairly pleased with the final post-processed results. A quick "auto color level" mostly corrected what I thought was too much red in contrast areas, but I didn't play around with the DCM's white balance and left it set to auto.

I can definitely appreciate the attraction the DCM will offer new spotting scope users who desire a convenient method of taking digital pictures through their setup. However, if you're already digiscoping with a point-and-shoot camera and are happy with the results you get, then there probably isn't much incentive for going with the Minox DCM.

© 2008 Mike McDowell

2008 Digiscoper of the Year Contest Winners

Swarovski Optik published winners of the 2008 Digiscoper of the Year contest! Yours truly did not submit any images. (Actually, I don't think I'm eligible). If I had, I probably would have sent in this female Common Yellowthroat - a personal favorite among my 2008 digiscoping efforts. I like how the weight of the little warbler is just enough to slightly bend its perch.

My runner-up for 2008 would probably have been this Dickcissel:

I would see this bird most summer mornings I rode my bike to work.

Admiring all the beautiful digiscoped photography featured on the winners website, I'm reminded an excerpt from a message I recently found on a photography forum. Now where was that...oh, here it is:

"...the images in the above galleries are quite good but not up to the quality of images captured with a DSLR and camera lens. When you view them at a larger size many of them are rather soft. Considering the equipment used and the shooting conditions they are excellent captures but not on par with the work of many photographers I know."

This was in reference to my stuff, Ann Cook's, Gerd Rossen's, and the work of a few other world-class digiscopers out there. Well, we digiscopers will always be regarded as second-class photographers by the photography community. Meh! Eat your heart out!

Anyway, congratulations to all the contest winners! Perhaps I'll give them a little competition in 2009.

All images © 2008 Mike McDowell

Thursday, November 20, 2008

99 Things Meme

I saw this list on Bootstrap Analysis Blog this morning. Things I have done are in bold text.

1. Started your own blog

2. Slept under the stars
3. Played in a band
4. Visited Hawaii
5. Watched a meteor shower
6. Given more than you can afford to charity
7. Been to Disneyland/world
8. Climbed a mountain
9. Held a praying mantis
10. Sang a solo
11. Bungee jumped
12. Visited Paris
13. Watched a lightning storm at sea
14. Taught yourself an art from scratch
15. Adopted a child
16. Had food poisoning
17. Walked to the top of the Statue of Liberty
18. Grown your own vegetables
19. Seen the Mona Lisa in France
20. Slept on an overnight train
21. Had a pillow fight
22. Hitch hiked
23. Taken a sick day when you’re not ill
24. Built a snow fort
25. Held a lamb
26. Gone skinny dipping
27. Run a Marathon
28. Ridden in a gondola in Venice
29. Seen a total eclipse
30. Watched a sunrise or sunset
31. Hit a home run
32. Been on a cruise
33. Seen Niagara Falls in person
34. Visited the birthplace of your ancestors
35. Seen an Amish community
36. Taught yourself a new language
37. Had enough money to be truly satisfied
38. Seen the Leaning Tower of Pisa in person
39. Gone rock climbing
40. Seen Michelangelo’s David
41. Sung karaoke
42. Seen Old Faithful geyser erupt
43. Bought a stranger a meal at a restaurant
44. Visited Africa
45. Walked on a beach by moonlight
46. Been transported in an ambulance
47. Had your portrait painted
48. Gone deep sea fishing
49. Seen the Sistine Chapel in person
50. Been to the top of the Eiffel Tower in Paris
51. Gone scuba diving or snorkeling
52. Kissed in the rain
53. Played in the mud
54. Gone to a drive-in theater
55. Been in a movie
56. Visited the Great Wall of China
57. Started a business
58. Taken a martial arts class
59. Visited Russia
60. Served at a soup kitchen
61. Sold Girl Scout Cookies
62. Gone whale watching
63. Got flowers for no reason
64. Donated blood, platelets or plasma
65. Gone sky diving
66. Visited a Nazi Concentration Camp
67. Bounced a check
68. Flown in a helicopter
69. Saved a favorite childhood toy
70. Visited the Lincoln Memorial
71. Eaten Caviar
72. Pieced a quilt
73. Stood in Times Square
74. Toured the Everglades
75. Been fired from a job
76. Seen the Changing of the Guards in London
77. Broken a bone
78. Been on a speeding motorcycle
79. Seen the Grand Canyon in person
80. Published a book
81. Visited the Vatican
82. Bought a brand new car
83. Walked in Jerusalem
84. Had your picture in the newspaper
85. Read the entire Bible
86. Visited the White House
87. Killed and prepared an animal for eating
88. Had chickenpox
89. Saved someone’s life
90. Sat on a jury
91. Met someone famous
92. Joined a book club
93. Lost a loved one
94. Had a baby
95. Seen the Alamo in person
96. Swam in the Great Salt Lake
97. Been involved in a law suit
98. Owned a cell phone
99. Been stung by a bee

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Nikon Coolpix P6000

New Jersey digiscoper Kevin Bolton recently started testing the Nikon Coolpix P6000 with his Kowa 883 spotting scope. Given his preliminary result, it looks like the camera will make a fine successor to the P5100. The Nikon UR-E21 accessory adapter will bring P6000 out to a 43mm thread. This works fine with both Kowa DCA adapters, but the 43mm adapter ring included with the Swarovski DCA may require a modification. I'll try to report on this if I ever get my hands on a P6000.

Link: Kevin's comments on the P6000.

Link: His first result.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Handsome Junco

Favorable light for digiscoping was very brief this weekend; only a few hours Sunday morning. Overcast skies have been the rule for the past week, which has decreased photographic output and content to my blog. With the azure exception beckoning through my skylight window, I got dressed, grabbed my gear and headed to the prairie. It didn't take long before finding a mixed flock of sparrows consisting of Fox, White-crowned, Song, Swamp, American Tree Sparrows, and Dark-eyed Juncos; the latter being the only bird delivering a great pose. Sadly, the fun didn't last long enough. Shortly after taking its picture, the clouds rolled in and swallowed up the sunlight for the remainder of the day.

Junco Factoid: Though their population is estimated to be around 630 million, Dark-eyed Juncos are declining around 1% annually.

© 2008 Mike McDowell

They just want to kill them...

Acorn Woodpecker © USF&WS


"On the outer edges of Rossmoor, the retirement community nestled between Lafayette and Walnut Creek, a war has been waged for seven years pitting man against woodpecker. The woodpeckers are winning. But now, the battle is about to go to a whole new level. Homeowners in Rossmoor received a yearlong permit in June from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to kill up to 50 of the pesky birds in an attempt to shoo away the others. Under the terms of the permit, the homeowners must continue to seek nonlethal methods of ridding the homes of the birds, said service spokesman Al Donner."

Link: Full article from

The "Get the hell out of my way!" approach is practically tradition with us. One person posted the following comment to the story:

"We live in acorn woodpecker territory too. You can deter these comical creatures by lining the eaves with metal sheeting. The birds hang on the edges and swing under to bore holes for their acorn caches. The metal will protect your wood. The problem you have is with the inappropriate design of your soft wood houses and not the woodpeckers who are only following instinctive caching behavior..."

Be sure to read some of the other comments and leave some, too!

Friday, November 14, 2008

What camera should I get?

I receive a lot of email from people asking me what digital camera they should use for digiscoping - more than I can respond to in a timely manner. The Nikon Coolpix 995 and Coolpix 8400 (both discontinued) are the only point-and-shoot digital cameras I've used for digiscoping with my Swarovski 80mm HD spotting scope. Yahoo's digiscopingbirds tech group is a useful resource to learn what "in-production" digital cameras are being tested by some of the best digiscopers around. To provide a meaningful recommendation for digiscoping, one needs to have access to a multitude of digital cameras or have hands-on experience with particular models. I'm presently only recommending the Nikon Coolpix P5100 based on results others (not me) have achieved with it. I also know the P5100 can be conveniently connected to Kowa and Swarovski spotting scopes via Nikon's UR-E20 accessory adapter. I do not closely monitor the message threads on digiscopingbirds, so if you're looking for a digital camera for digiscoping, the tech group is a great place to begin your research.

Link: Kevin Bolton's Kowa 883/Coolpix P5100 Digiscoping

© 2008 Mike McDowell

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Taking a Blog Break!

© Mike McDowell

Thursday, November 06, 2008

Snowy Owl Irruption

Snowy Owls are already being reported across Wisconsin; Ashland, Appleton, Horicon, Milwaukee, and Oshkosh. It looks like a veritable irruption is underway. This phenomenon is often correlated to a crash in northern rodent populations, driving these supremely beautiful Arctic visitors further south in pursuit of better hunting prospects. Be mindful that some of the owls that make it this far south can be in poor shape. In the spirit of good birding ethics, err on the side of caution by giving them plenty of room when viewing or photographing them.

Do not closely approach or flush a snowy owl that's roosting during the day. Resting up after such an arduous journey along with a few meals can make the difference between life and death for these birds. Sadly, by the time they show obvious signs of failing health, it's probably too late to save them. Keep in mind that these owls are creatures of habit and will often roost in the same spot during the day from one day to the next. What may appear to be a sick owl is most likely one that's simply resting. If you're unsure, contact a wildlife rehabber.

© 2008 Mike McDowell

Monday, November 03, 2008

Shrike Strikes Twice!

Nearly a year ago I had one of the coolest encounters with a Northern Shrike I've ever experienced. Unbelievably, it happened again today and this time with another birder in exactly the same spot as last year! Dottie Johnson and I were checking the back edge of Pheasant Branch prairie adjacent to the agricultural field for sparrows. We were hoping to find a Harris's Sparrow in the mix of White-crowned, Fox, American Tree, Song and Swamp Sparrows. Without warning, the group of sparrows we were sorting through dashed frantically for cover. My first instinct was an incoming accipiter but was quickly proven wrong. From behind the brush, a gorgeous Northern Shrike perched just above our heads not more than 20 feet from where we were standing on the trail. But did I have my camera with me? Nooooooo! Drat. Still, the shrike gave us quite a show by remaining perched before us for nearly half a minute. Filling the field of view of our binoculars, we silently admired the sleak hunter - the detail was amazing. The shrike scanned around in a frenzied sort of way as it zeroed in on potential meals. We stood perfectly still and didn't say a word. Eventually the shrike resumed hunting further along the trail. I told Dottie we should leave the area so as not to prevent the shrike from catching a meal, or inadvertently make it too easy by unnecessarily flushing sparrows its direction. So, we left! Dottie told me it was the closest she had ever been to a Northern Shrike.

© 2008 Mike McDowell