Tuesday, December 22, 2009

That's all for 2009!

Keeping it relatively green, I kept close to home for the majority of my birding excursions in 2009. In terms of numbers, I had my best year ever at Pheasant Branch Conservancy with 167 bird species in 75 visits. (eBird's total for the conservancy is up to 209 species.) My Wisconsin 2009 year list stands at 207, my lowest on record (a good thing). My longest drive to watch birds was Horicon NWR to attend the annual festival as a volunteer field trip leader. I also led several field trips for Madison Audubon and one for The Nature Conservancy. Birding locations outside of Dane County included Baxter's Hollow, Spring Green Preserve, and Cook Arboretum. I donated to several conservation groups, including Operation Migration, Raptor Education Group, Inc., and The Nature Conservancy. While the overall output of my digiscoping was down, I was fortunate to experience one of my most productive years in terms of quality. Here's a sampling of 2009's beautiful bird memories:

All of these birds were photographed in their natural environment. No playback devices were used to attract them. Songbirds were not provided with birdseed or any other food items to lure them into the open. Birds of prey were not baited with living animals.

See you in 2010!

© 2009 Mike McDowell

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Digiscoper of the Year!

A Winning Shot!

"Jersey Digiscoper" Kevin Bolton notified me this morning via email that I'm one of ten winners of Swarovski's 2009 Digiscoper of the Year Contest! The 1st place prize went to Steve Berliner for his fabulous shot of a Pileated Woodpecker sipping from a pool of water with a nice reflection. Of the images I submitted, I thought my Eastern Towhee shot was the best, but I'm also very fond of the Sedge Wren (above) the judges selected.

Check out all the contest winners at the Digiscoper of the Year website!

Link: More Winners! (Birdchick's)

© 2009 Mike McDowell

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Record Year for Fledged Bluebirds!

"A record-breaking 28,814 fledging bluebirds were reported by BRAW monitors in 2009. This is 7,435 more fledglings than last year and slightly better than the previous all-time record two years ago when 28,244 fledglings were reported."

Link: Bluebird Restoration Association of WI

Link: 2009 Report (Adobe .PDF)

© 2009 Mike McDowell

Monday, December 14, 2009

Barrow's Goldeneye in Madison!

While birding Madison area lakes yesterday, Aaron Stutz found a Barrow's Goldeneye on University Bay, probably the first Dane County record for the species. Jesse Peterson stopped by to pick me up on his way to see the bird. Knowing it was going to be too far from shore for a close-up, I went along to at least try for a documentation photograph.

© 2009 Mike McDowell

Thursday, December 10, 2009

After the Blizzard

So, what do you do when Mother Nature drops 18 inches of snow on you? Go snowshoeing! Madison, and the entire state of Wisconsin, was pretty much shut down Wednesday. After doing a few chores around my apartment, I began to get restless. I needed to get out and do some exploring and photography.

I managed muster up enough courage and energy to go for a 3 mile snow hike before the winds picked up and temperature dropped. It's Thursday morning as I write, and the wind chill is a bitter -16 degrees Fahrenheit. Now the temperature matches the forlornness of woods under a fresh blanket of snow with a grey canopy. Snow is pretty for a little while, but by early January I'm ready for spring.

Birds were fairly scarce, but I managed to find a Red-tailed Hawk, American Crow, Brown Creeper, White-breasted Nuthatch, Black-capped Chickadee, Northern Cardinal, and a few Dark-eyed Juncos. Scanning carefully through the few conifers dotted along the creek corridor, I found a roosting Great Horned Owl.

All images © 2009 Mike McDowell

Tuesday, December 08, 2009

2010 Phenology Calendar

This year's calendar includes images from local photographers Mike McDowell, Elizabeth Thompson, Eric Peyrot and Colette Kolker Wagner. Eric Peyrot's wetland scene is featured on the cover. You can see more from Mike McDowell in his digiscoping blog on birds and nature, and Colette Kolker Wagner's photos are on exhibit in Elegance in Nature at the University of Wisconsin Library December 3, 2009 through January 21, 2010.

  • Full color photos by local photographers
  • Checklists of animal and plant events
  • Climate and sunrise/sunset data
  • Monthly nature notes

Great gift for nature enthusiasts!

Link: 2010 Phenology Calendar now available

Monday, December 07, 2009

Calm before the Storm

American Goldfinch

From now until early March, Pheasant Branch Conservancy will be home to around 30 bird species. These are the birds able to endure the brunt and bitter cold of Wisconsin's harsh winters. To find them all, one must bird the stream corridor and the prairie parcel, taking 3 to 4 hours to accomplish on foot. However, notably absent on Saturday was Tufted Titmouse and Carolina Wren (no owls or shrikes, either), but there were American Tree Sparrows, Dark-eyed Juncos, White-breasted Nuthatches, Brown Creeper, Black-capped Chickadees, Downy, Hairy, and Red-bellied Woodpeckers, etc. A highlight was discovering a lone Fox Sparrow, a good find and a charming bird to admire.

American Tree Sparrow

While the expected species were present, I felt overall numbers were a little lower than usual. A different day and weather can vary the abundances of birds; some go on a feeding frenzy right before a storm front moves in. Saturday's weather was very tranquil and calm, but we have a significant snowfall event (up to 12”) forecast for early this week. I'm anticipating this will change the present lack of activity at my bird feeders due to the scarcity and inaccessibility of food buried beneath deep snow.

© 2009 Mike McDowell

Thursday, December 03, 2009

Aperture and Digiscoping

60, 65, 77, 80, or 88mm?

Though digiscoping has opened the doors of nature photography for thousands of birders and other outdoor enthusiasts, it's still not a "silver bullet" when it comes to obtaining great results. This can be somewhat subjective, as people aren't necessarily seeking a particular level quality when it comes to digiscoping. However, I do feel it's a compliment to digiscoping whenever it is compared, albeit somewhat skeptically and critically, to high-end super-telephoto setups that cost thousands of dollars more. A common question is what effect will a smaller aperture scope have versus a large one when it comes to digiscoping.

Due to a typically large focal ratio (between aperture and focal length), spotting scopes are inherently optically slow even before you attach a camera. Light gathering is crucial when digiscoping. A small aperture spotting scope lets in less light, which directly results in slower shutter speeds, so if you're unable to achieve a shutter speed of at least 1/125th of a second, it will be very difficult to freeze subtle movements of even a perched bird. Low shutter speeds often result in blurry images, one of the most common pitfalls facing both novice and seasoned digiscopers.

Less light being gathered also means an overall decrease in color, contrast, and resolution (nearly 20% when going from a 80mm to a 65mm scope). Post-processing your work with image editing software and tweaking contrast levels, brightness, and sharpness can restore some aspects of this loss. While I've seen exceptional results taken with some of the high-end APO, HD, and ED 60mm to 66mm spotting scopes, I personally recommend 80 millimeters or greater for the best possible digiscoping results.

Smaller aperture spotting scopes are made for a good reason; they're smaller and lighter in weight. Lugging around a large spotting scope and tripod can become burdensome on long hikes, and the relatively nominal lighter weight scopes do seem to make a difference for many individuals, especially those with neck or back problems. It essentially comes down to a question of priorities: are you going to place an emphasis on photography, or would carrying a lighter weight spotting scope benefit your outdoor excursions? It's ultimately up to you, but now you know what the tradeoffs are to make a more informed decision before purchasing a scope.

Read more: Will the smaller 65mm scope fit my needs?

© 2009 Mike McDowell

Wednesday, December 02, 2009

Atlas Optics Sky King 8x42

Apart from its lack of name recognition, the Atlas Optics Sky King 8x42 at $199.99 is one of the best binocular deals on the market right now. Its optical quality compares very favorably, and sometimes exceeds, binoculars that cost nearly twice the price. When I bought my 8x42 EO Rangers nearly ten years ago, I would have loved to have had the Sky King as an available option. A view through the Sky King makes it obvious that improvements in optical engineering and technology have come a long way since that time. Compared to other binoculars in its price class, the Sky King topped out on features like contrast, edge-to-edge sharpness, and center resolution. Other specifications, like Eye Relief (17mm), Close Focus (6 feet), and a Field of View of 365 feet at 1,000 yards are well within the ranges that qualify it as a winner. The Sky King’s only negative characteristic is its 26.7-ounce weight, but this is still lighter than a typical high-end binocular.

Link: Atlas Optics Sky King 8x42