Monday, January 31, 2011

On Nest!



Can you see the owl in this photograph? This is the same tree cavity this pair of Great Horned Owls used last year – much nicer accommodations than an exposed stick nest one usually observes these owls on. The male was perched at his usual sentry spot in a nearby conifer, collecting warmth from the sun:



We're getting a lot of snow today and are supposed to have somewhere between 12" and 20" of total accumulation by the end of Wednesday. I'm glad I was able to go birding at the conservancy for several hours yesterday, as it looks like we're going to be snowed in for a few days. Perhaps I'll finally get some snowshoeing in this winter.

Location: Pheasant Branch
Observation date: 1/30/11
Number of species: 25

Cooper's Hawk
Red-tailed Hawk
Rough-legged Hawk
Mourning Dove
Barred Owl
Belted Kingfisher
Red-bellied Woodpecker
Downy Woodpecker
Hairy Woodpecker
Blue Jay
American Crow
Black-capped Chickadee
Tufted Titmouse
White-breasted Nuthatch
Brown Creeper
American Robin
Cedar Waxwing
American Tree Sparrow
White-throated Sparrow
Dark-eyed Junco
Northern Cardinal
House Finch
American Goldfinch
House Sparrow

© 2011 Mike McDowell

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Digiscoping Today


Swarovski 80HD & UCA Adapter

Addendum: Make sure you read this!

It's increasingly difficult for me to recommend a particular camera model for digiscoping. Gone are the days of 'digiscoping simplicity' with with Nikon's Coolpix point & shoot digital cameras like the 990, 995, 4500, 8400, P5100, and P6000. The 900 series (including the 4500) had an internal zoom lens with a convenient 28mm filter thread where a DCA style digiscoping adapter could connect directly to the camera. The 8400, P5100, and P6000 had inexpensive UR-Enn accessory adapters that gave the camera a filter thread to facilitate a DCA connection. There were also digital cameras by Canon and Sony that offered similar configurations. Back in those days it was easy to recommend a camera for digiscoping.

It's a different story today. Point & shoot digital cameras with simple thread-based features are virtually non-existent, rendering DCAs somewhat obsolete for this type of digiscoping. (There might still be an accessory adapter option available for a point & shoot digital camera from BugEyeDigital, but selection is pretty limited.) This doesn't mean you can no longer use a point & shoot digital camera for digiscoping, but your best option at the present time is to go with a spotting scope that has a proprietary bracket adapter like the Swarovski UCA, Kowa's DA-4, or the Zeiss Quick Adapter II – all work extremely well. If you choose to digiscope with a DSLR, either a DCA or photo-adapter can be used; this is the most 'universality' you're likely to obtain in the realm of digiscoping.

While I really can't recommend a particular camera model for digiscoping, I can tell you what basic specifications it should have. For point & shoot digital cameras, make sure the optical zoom is 5x or less to eliminate problems with vignetting. Also, it's beneficial if the camera has a large LCD monitor (most do) so you can comfortably view what you're photographing. For DSLR to DCA configurations, you'll need a short focal length fixed lens like a 35mm, 40mm, or 50mm. Any DSLR will work with a photo-adapter provided you have the correct T-ring to complete the connection.

There is a free on-line forum where you can find what's on the cutting edge in terms of digital cameras for digiscoping, including newer 4/3's format. A few veteran digiscopers are constantly experimenting, especially Neil Fifer and Clay Taylor. So, if you're interested in digiscoping and are unsure of how to go about it, I recommend subscribing to the tech group so you can view their test results and follow the conversation. These are the individuals whose opinions I seek when I'm in the market for a new digiscoping camera.

For now, I'm a retro-digiscoper. I still use the discontinued Nikon Coolpix 8400 and probably won't upgrade to a different camera until it either dies or something better comes along. You can still find the 8400 on Amazon.com, but last time I checked they were priced around $800.00. Do your homework before you buy a scope, adapter, or digital camera. It's a very sad email or phone call when I have to tell someone what they've purchased isn't going to work.

Monday, January 17, 2011

Pine Siskin!



I spent Saturday and Sunday watching divisional football games and doing apartment chores: dishes, laundry, vacuuming, etc., but kept a watchful eye on my bird feeders – there was especially a lot of activity on Sunday. It's like they knew a snowstorm was coming early Monday morning. Actually, birds have a middle-ear receptor called the vitali organ that can sense minute barometric pressure changes. Birds use it to help them avoid bad weather during migration, so it seems plausible it could also serve to signal when to stock up on more energy because food may be out of reach during an indeterminate period of harsh weather.

One of the first birds I notice in the morning is a cawing American Crow that perches atop the same tree every day at the end of the parking lot. He's a sneaky bird, though, and has thus far evaded my attempts to photograph him. Every time I open my patio door to point my lens out, he flies off. Most of the time I put out fresh birdseed first thing in the morning, but sometimes I do it the evening. When there isn't any birdseed left, I'll often find several Mourning Doves perched on my patio chairs and table, as if they're waiting for me to serve them! There were a few White-breasted Nuthatches, Black-capped Chickadees, Northern Cardinals, Blue Jays, Dark-eyed Juncos, American Tree Sparrows and other usual winter birds. Yesterday I had my first Pine Siskin at my apartment feeders - that's number 62!

© 2011 Mike McDowell

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Oh! It's Ley Lines!

Smug and self-assured, she replied ley lines were responsible for the recent mysterious spate of bird and fish deaths around the world, including the Arkansas blackbird incident. What are ley lines? I didn't know at the time, but I was reasonably certain it had to be nonsense after listening to her. You can read about them in detail on Wikipedia, but here's a short definition from the Skeptic's Dictionary:

"Ley lines are alleged alignments of ancient sites or holy places, such as stone circles, standing stones, cairns, and churches."



Wackadoodle alert!

From Archaeological Theory: An Introduction - Matthew Johnson (2010):

"Ley lines do not exist. This was shown by Tom Williamson and Liz Bellamy in Ley Lines in Question (1983), which analyzed such lines statistically and showed that the density of archaeological sites in the British landscape is so great that a line drawn through virtually anywhere will 'clip' a number of sites. It took Williamson and Bellamy a book's worth of effort and statistical sophistication to prove this, however."

Originally 'discovered' by Alfred Watkins in 1920, psychics, new age spiritualists, and other charlatans claim an energy complex re-discovered with divining rods proved ley lines exist and began ascribing mystical powers to them. Naturally, no modern scientific instrument can detect these asserted energy fields. This is both troubling and annoying because wildlife pathologists and biology technicians are diligently working with limited funds on finding real causes behind animal mortality events and population declines.

Claims without evidence that attempt to explain animal mortality events with mystical causes fail to offer any practical solutions. What would psychics and new agers have us do? Should we walk around with divining rods and point them at birds or something? Should we sprinkle pixie dust in our yards? Or maybe we can just think positively and the law of attraction will make bird populations rebound because we merely want them to. How insipidly moronic and arrogant! These non-experts think they know more about the nature of things than people who have been studying biology and ecology for most of their adult lives.

Bunk like this devalues the efforts of our professional scientists at a time when nature's critters need our help more than ever. By embracing this nonsense, why would such an individual feel inclined to back scientists with their money or vote? After all, they must believe scientists are simply wasting time on something futile because they know they're on wrong track. So, what's killing bats? Ley lines! It's ley lines, all the way down, and not geomyces destructans! Damn you and your science! I dare these wackaloons to call the Madison lab and tell them that.

People who attribute ley lines to animal deaths are so fail because they're counting hits but ignoring misses (confirmation bias). Why are there mass animal mortality events where there aren't any ley lines? Why are animals thriving where there are? They also fail to understand that a correlation is not necessarily causation. They probably believe ley lines explain other things, too, like car accidents, birth defects, mental illness, crop failures, etc. What can be asserted without evidence can be dismissed without evidence. Fortunately for the reality-based community, there's plenty of empirical evidence to help us explain what's going on with these unrelated animal mortality incidents. It just takes time and effort to get to the truth.

"That which is lacking in the present world is a profound knowledge of the nature of things; the fundamental truths are always there, but they do not impose themselves because they cannot impose themselves on those unwilling to listen."

~ Frithjof Schuon

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

It's a Winner!



Though it wasn't my personal favorite digiscoped image of 2010, my Pope Farm Park Sedge Wren placed 8th in Swarovski's International Digiscoper of the Year 2010 contest. Still, there's something special about a Sedge Wren perched atop some flowers like this. How often do you see that? Plus, it was a 3-hour field effort on my part to get the image just the way I saw it in my imagination. The competition was very tough; there were many outstanding images and only 3 US digiscopers placed in this year's top 20 winners. Congratulations to all!

Link: Digiscoper of the Year 2010 Winners!

© 2011 Mike McDowell

Monday, January 10, 2011

Winter Woods


American Tree Sparrow

On Sunday I made my first birding excursion to Pheasant Branch Conservancy for 2011. Temperatures were in the single digits as I headed out the door, but the forecast called for highs in the low twenties. Despite the cold and crisp air, I felt sublimely chipper beginning another year of birding at a location I feel a deep connection with nature.

A typical winter outing to the conservancy yields around 30 common bird species, but I'm always prepared for the occasional surprise. This time it turned out to be a lone Killdeer foraging along the edges of the big springs located at the prairie parcel. How incredibly weird to find a Killdeer in early January! There's plenty of edge habitat surrounding the water, which remains open throughout winter, and the bird seemed healthy and content with its wintery situation. The water at the springs maintains a constant temperature of 51 degrees Fahrenheit throughout the year, so the bird, being closer to the water than me, was probably considerably warmer!


Barred Owl

From the prairie, I headed south into the woods and walked along the creek corridor trail where I came upon a roosting Barred Owl. Actually, I'm familiar with where most of the owls roost at Pheasant Branch, including this one, so I was merely checking up on it. I took a few photos of the owl, watching it open its eyes slightly whenever another person walked or jogged by. Only one couple stopped to ask what I was looking at; they were awed at the splendor of the large white and brown bird through my spotting scope. To me, sharing will always be an exhilarating and big part of my birding.


American Robin

Content with my owl images, I made my way across the bridge to where there is a small springs. Once there, I found several American Robins picking through leaves, watercress, and mud for whatever they could find to eat. This is a good spot to find a wide variety of wintering songbirds because there's food, water, and ample cover from predators. Also in the area were a few White-throated Sparrows, a Swamp Sparrow, lots of American Tree Sparrows and Dark-eyed Juncos. Further down the corridor trail I was happy to find a Winter Wren darting and chirping “dip-di-di-dip-dip” through the understory.

After spending four hours hiking and searching, I was satisfied I probably wasn't going to find more than 29 species. What did I miss? I was surprised not to see a single Cooper's Hawk. There were lots of Pine Siskins during the CBC week, but I didn't see or hear a single one during my outing. Also, I miss not having a Northern Shrike hunting at the prairie this winter. I wonder if clearing out the thicket and small trees along the northern edge made it less inviting for shrikes? All the better for the sparrows, I suppose!

Location: Pheasant Branch
Observation date: 1/9/11
Number of species: 29

Canada Goose
Mallard
Red-tailed Hawk
Killdeer
Rock Pigeon
Mourning Dove
Great Horned Owl
Barred Owl
Red-bellied Woodpecker
Downy Woodpecker
Hairy Woodpecker
Northern Flicker
Blue Jay
American Crow
Black-capped Chickadee
Tufted Titmouse
White-breasted Nuthatch
Brown Creeper
Winter Wren
American Robin
Cedar Waxwing
American Tree Sparrow
Swamp Sparrow
White-throated Sparrow
Dark-eyed Junco
Northern Cardinal
House Finch
American Goldfinch
House Sparrow

All images © 2011 Mike McDowell

Friday, January 07, 2011

Thanks Birders!



I would like to thank all the birders (and non-birders) who came to Eagle Optics to see the Golden-crowned Sparrow! I know it was a special experience for everyone involved. Over 200 people visited us to see the vagrant sparrow coming to our feeders since I discovered it on December 20th. It was ‘life bird’ or ’state bird’ for many, myself included (ABA # 442). Those who came to see the sparrow were excited, courteous, and patient as they waited to get a glimpse of it. On average, people had to wait awhile for the sparrow to show up, but others were luckier and saw it within a few minutes of arriving to our store. Some of my non-birding colleagues were unused to the excitement a bird like this generates within the birding community. Overwhelmingly, though, it was a positive experience for everyone.

I haven’t seen the sparrow since the evening of December 30th – nearly all of our ground cover snow melted during warmer temperatures and rain that night. With habitat opening up in the fields adjacent to our building, I anticipated the sparrow might now show up. Sure enough, it hasn’t been back, and neither have the American Tree Sparrows it was often seen with in the grassy area behind our building. Perhaps the sparrow will return with another deep snowfall. Or perhaps, as some have speculated, the sparrow became a meal for one of the Cooper’s Hawks. It’s a possibility, but we’ll probably never know.

The Golden-crowned Sparrow was the 73rd bird species for our store list. We’ve had feeders for a number of years and I often take a few minutes to inspect the birds coming to them every time I put out fresh birdseed - this is how I happened to discover the sparrow in the first place. It does seem ironic that such a rare avian occurrence would take place at birding optics store, but there really are coincidences and pleasant surprises. To make it a celebrity, all the sparrow needed was for someone to recognize it. Who knows what else is out there at bird feeders around Wisconsin?

© 2011 Mike McDowell

Thursday, January 06, 2011

Blackbirds Deaths and Reality



While the Arkansas blackbird tragedy is an unusual and sad story, what isn't unusual is that blackbirds and other songbirds die from a wide array of human activities. Reading comments on several websites, many people seem to actually want the blackbird deaths to be some kind of wackadoodle government conspiracy, but this draws attention away from real and serious threats that imperil our native songbirds; they perish by the hundreds of millions each year, primarily due to habitat loss. Window collisions account for over 500 million songbird deaths annually, but there are many other causes.

"But they're being found dead out in the open!" Birds do not always instantly die from injuries caused from flight collisions. A bone fracture might prove to be fatal minutes after impact, which is not uncommon when birds hit a window. Birds also fatally collide with power and telephone lines, which is why you might find them in the road. After an impact, an injured bird might have just enough strength left to fly for cover in nearby shrubs, hidden from view, only to die later from internal injuries. Because of this, you might find a dead songbird in the middle of your yard or in the street where there isn't an obvious structure it might have collided with.

The 5,000 or so dead Arkansas blackbirds were likely a small percentage of the roosting flock. During spring migration, it’s not uncommon to find tens of thousands of blackbirds in large flocks at Nine Springs in Madison. One birder I know once reported observing over 100,000 blackbirds there a few years ago. Imagine if that many birds panicked during the night and took off all at once. Would 5,000 impact deaths seem so implausible? Sad, but not serious: 5,000 Red-winged Blackbird deaths (about .0025% of their North American Population). Sad, and serious: 3 Whooping Crane deaths (about 3% of the Eastern Migratory Population).

That people were initially worried is probably justified, provided their concern was for the safety and health of our nation's wildlife and ecosystems. On the other hand, I can't help but feel that other individuals, behind their accusations of government conspiracies and apocalyptic plagues, are more worried about themselves.



Link: Why are birds falling from the skies?

Red-winged Blackbird © 2011 Mike McDowell