Thursday, March 31, 2011

March Ends


Cooperative Wood Ducks!

Shades of brown dominate the woodland scenery, but April's greening will soon begin to render its stirring colors. It's still below freezing most mornings and patches of snow remain in pockets of shadows along the creek corridor trail; warmer weather should be here in another week. Even so, April can whip up an unwelcome snowstorm, so this isn't necessarily the last of wintery weather.

This morning I covered my usual route and got some digiscoped images of Dark-eyed Juncos, American Robins, Tufted Titmouse, and a Song Sparrow. But my favorite was this photograph (above) of Wood Ducks perched in a tree – what a perfect subject to accent the drabness of the early spring forest. I also found my first-of-spring Eastern Phoebe enthusiastically proclaiming its territory with its diminutive song; naturally, right next to a bridge.


Eastern Phoebe returns to Pheasant Branch.

Location: Pheasant Branch
Observation date: 3/31/11
Number of species: 30

Wood Duck
Mallard
Cooper's Hawk
Mourning Dove
Great Horned Owl
Barred Owl
Belted Kingfisher
Red-bellied Woodpecker
Downy Woodpecker
Hairy Woodpecker
Northern Flicker
Eastern Phoebe
Blue Jay
American Crow
Black-capped Chickadee
Tufted Titmouse
White-breasted Nuthatch
Winter Wren
American Robin
European Starling
Cedar Waxwing
Fox Sparrow
Song Sparrow
Dark-eyed Junco
Northern Cardinal
Red-winged Blackbird
Common Grackle
House Finch
American Goldfinch
House Sparrow

All images © 2011 Mike McDowell

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Late March Birding

Combining Saturday and Sunday, I spent over 8 hours birding at Pheasant Branch Conservancy this weekend - 47 bird species were found. Here are a few observation highlights:
  • First daytime American Woodcock I've ever seen at the corridor.
  • First-of-spring Great Blue Herons & Hermit Thrush.
  • Several hop-scratching Fox Sparrows.
  • Singing Winter Wrens.
I spent some time digiscoping Cedar Waxwings feeding on buckthorn berries:









You'll notice the shallow focal depth due to my close proximity to the birds. For over an hour, in groups of 10 to 20 individuals at a time, the waxwings cycled through roosting, eating, drinking, and occasionally bathing. While I was busy with the waxwings, an American Robin flew in and perched on a small stump close by:



On my way home on Saturday, I came across a Sandhill Crane foraging in one of the agricultural fields adjacent to the conservancy. Digiscoping from my car, it kept coming closer, and closer, until I gave up trying to get an image of the entire bird. Actually, I think the body shot shows wonderful texture and color:







Location: Pheasant Branch
Observation date: 3/26/11 & 3/27/11
Number of species: 47

Canada Goose
Wood Duck
Mallard
Northern Shoveler
Lesser Scaup
Bufflehead
Pied-billed Grebe
Great Blue Heron
Turkey Vulture
Cooper's Hawk
Red-tailed Hawk
American Coot
Sandhill Crane
Killdeer
American Woodcock
Ring-billed Gull
Rock Pigeon
Mourning Dove
Great Horned Owl
Belted Kingfisher
Red-bellied Woodpecker
Downy Woodpecker
Hairy Woodpecker
Blue Jay
American Crow
Black-capped Chickadee
Tufted Titmouse
White-breasted Nuthatch
Brown Creeper
Winter Wren
Hermit Thrush
American Robin
European Starling
Cedar Waxwing
American Tree Sparrow
Fox Sparrow
Song Sparrow
White-throated Sparrow
Dark-eyed Junco
Northern Cardinal
Red-winged Blackbird
Eastern Meadowlark
Common Grackle
House Finch
Pine Siskin
American Goldfinch
House Sparrow

All images © 2011 Mike McDowell

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Is this Spring?


Trying to stay warm!

Hey, is it Spring yet? You wouldn't know it from the cold weather we're experiencing in southern Wisconsin today. American Robins were greeted with unpleasant temperatures early this morning. Though I cannot speak robin, their loud squeaks and thurps outside my bedroom window sounded like appropriate complaints. Fewer robins foraged in the frost-covered courtyard grass and sought berries and birdseed instead. Once the sun rose over the apartment building, the robins stopped feeding and took up positions where they could warm themselves for awhile.

Courtyard birds 3/24/11:

Canada Goose
Mourning Dove
Downy Woodpecker
Blue Jay
American Crow
Black-capped Chickadee
American Robin
European Starling
Song Sparrow
American Tree Sparrow
Dark-eyed Junco
Northern Cardinal
Red-winged Blackbird
House Finch
American Goldfinch
House Sparrow

American Robin © 2011 Mike McDowell

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Image Sharpening


Original crop (click for larger version)

I always sharpen my digiscoped images for web presentation, and for good reason, as I hope to demonstrate in this blog post. The House Finch image above is an unprocessed crop of the original .JPG file captured with my Nikon Coolpix 8400 and Swarovski 80HD scope. You can see from this particular section how much feather detail the exposure captured. (Digiscoping is impressive, isn't it?)

This next image was resized with no sharpening from its original 2592x1944 pixel resolution down to 950x713, which is a size I often use for my website. Sure, it looks pretty good, but a lot of feather detail was lost in the resize step.


No sharpening (click for larger version)

In this last image, I started with the original image, but did a slight Unsharp Mask, then resized the image down by 50%, applied a Smart Sharpen value of 18, resized one last time down to 950 pixel width, and did one final Smart Sharpen. Now compare this image to the previous one (open them in separate tabs and go back and forth). It makes a pretty noticeable difference, doesn't it?


Sharpened (click for larger version)

In conclusion, the original full resolution capture of the finch contains maximum detail, but it was lost in a single resize step. Try sharpening a little as you resize images; I think you'll like the results. However, be mindful to avoid over-sharpening an image that feather structure looks jagged or smooth areas overly pixilated. Again, I only follow this sharpening technique for web presentation. When I print images, I use the highest resolution image for maximum print dpi.

All images © 2011 Mike McDowell

Monday, March 21, 2011

Super Moon?



As an amateur astronomer, I observe and photograph the moon more than the average person. While some celestial events are indeed rare, I find it a little annoying the way the media spun the so-called 'super moon' as if it was visually exceptional and if you didn't get off your couch you won't see anything like it again in your lifetime.

Perhaps I'm being a bit of a curmudgeon and shouldn't be critical of anything that gets people outdoors away from their big screen televisions, but the 'super moon' hype was just that. Even worse, sensationalizing it brought out the wackadoodles quick to blame the 'super moon' for the earthquake and tsunami in Japan.

If shown images of the moon at apogee and perigee, the lunar disc size differential seems substantial, but this isn't how we experience full moons month to month. I created the above image so you can compare the size of full moons in recent months as well as April. Keep in mind that the disc size of the full moon in the sky is equivalent to holding out a pea at arm's length. Do you really think you could tell them apart? Click on the above image and stand 10 to 12 feet from it.

Years ago, when there was another 'super moon,' I conducted a simple experiment by projecting images of a full moon onto a wall in a dark room. The two images were sized to approximate a 'super moon' and an average sized full moon. None of my participants could tell them apart when projected one at a time. In all likelihood, you'd notice nothing unusual about the 'super moon' of March. If you missed it, have another look in April when the full moon is a mere arc minute smaller.

For amateur astronomers, the moon is always an interesting celestial object to look at!

© 2011 Mike McDowell

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Canon SD4000IS for Digiscoping


Kevin Bolton has been digiscoping with the Canon SD4000IS the past week or so and I’m thinking seriously about buying one based on his results. The SD4000IS will attach to bracket style adapters (Zeiss scopes), but it will also work with a DCA (Swarovski ATM/STM, Kowa Prominar, Vortex Razor scopes) by using the Vortex PS-100 attachment. The camera has a 3.8x optical zoom, 10-megapixel CMOS sensor, 720p HD movie capability, and a large LCD monitor so you can nail the focus. Best of all, you can find this camera brand new for around $220.00.

Spring Equinox



Saturday, March 19, 2011

Eastern Bluebirds!


The male spent a lot of time foraging from posts.

With freshly charged camera batteries, today after work I headed over to Pope Farm Park to see if any Eastern Bluebirds were there. With reports of bluebirds from other parts of the state, I figured this particular bluebird trail would have some activity by now. I'm pretty happy with the results; the late afternoon lighting was effective for capturing pleasing portraiture.


He also kept a close watch on the house.


Nice pose!


Show us those lovely bluebird colors!


The contemplative bluebird.


The female just prior to preening.

Eastern Bluebirds © 2011 Mike McDowell

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Meadowlarks Return!



I recall seeing (and hearing) my first Eastern Meadowlarks at my grandmother's farm in central Wisconsin during the early 70's. Decades later, it remains one of my favorite grassland birds to return to Pheasant Branch Conservancy, and it's nice to have such a neat bird come back as early as mid March. There's a fairly respectable population of meadowlarks in the fallow fields just west of the confluence ponds at the end of the creek corridor trail. I've been checking for their arrival each morning since last week and finally spotted four of them on Tuesday, singing sweeping notes at the top of their lungs. The meadowlark's powerful voice compliments the morning prairie choir like no other grassland bird. I think most of us are familiar with it, especially if you've spent any amount of time on a farm here in the Midwest. They're not super shy birds and are easy to spot perched atop a short tree, fence post, or similar structure. Whether at Pheasant Branch, Spring Green Prairie, or Pope Farm Park, the melodious whistles of meadowlarks will be a part of nature I cherish throughout spring and summer.

Eastern Meadowlark © 2011 Mike McDowell

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Sound Digiscoping Advice!

From Stephen Ingraham of Zeiss:

Q: Should I buy a scope and camera or a long lens?

You don't buy a scope to take pictures of birds. You buy a scope to look at birds. That is what it was made for. You carry it the field while birding to look at birds. If you have an interest in photography as well, you can attach a camera to the scope to take pictures of birds. It is a lot of fun, will produce some amazingly satisfying images, and adds very little weight or expense beyond what you are already carrying. And, you can take photos of the birds you see from fairly long distances, casually, without much special effort beyond attaching the camera. That's digiscoping.

You don't buy a lens to look at birds. You buy a lens to take pictures of birds. That is what was made for. You carry it in the field while photographing birds. That involves a whole set of skills, mostly centered on getting close enough to the bird to fill the frame. If you want to also look at birds, you carry binoculars and use them when you get close enough (because you certainly are NOT carrying both a spotting scope and a long lens, and you are not getting very satisfying looks at birds through your long lens). With experience and skill your images of birds will be beyond satisfying...they will be stunningly detailed studies of the living creature. That's bird photography.

There are three reasons a photographer might buy a spotting scope and small camera instead of a lens, if he or she is willing to accept the level of image quality possible with digiscoping. Working from a distance, image quality with digiscoping will be as good as and generally considerably better than a long lens working much beyond frame filling distance (arguably, but that is my experience), but it will never equal the quality of a frame filling bird taken at 12 feet with 600mm lens, or even at 24 feet with a 2X extender. The three reasons: 1) indeed, to work from greater distances than a long lens allows, 2) to limit the weight and bulk of the equipment carried (a scope and camera is always going to be lighter and easier to carry than a long lens), and 3) to control expense (Even the best digiscoping rig will cost half what a 600mm IS lens does).

There are no reasons why a birder would buy long lens instead of a spotting scope. :)

Where you see yourself and your desires and needs in all that will answer your question.


Sunday, March 13, 2011

March Birdsong


Song Sparrow

Over the past several days, more spring vocalists have returned to the prairie parcel of Pheasant Branch Conservancy. Last weekend I didn't hear a single Song Sparrow, but today their delightful voices were all around me during my walk. I know their songs aren't meant for me, but I can't help but appreciate them in that sense at times. However, in their minds it's all part of the very serious business of establishing and defending territory.


Singing Song Sparrow

Though not at all challenging for a seasoned birder, the cacophony of March birdsong is still fun to sort through. Included were White-throated Sparrow, American Tree Sparrow, Northern Cardinal, House Finch, American Goldfinch, Black-capped Chickadee, Red-winged Blackbird, and various woodpecker species. In the distance I heard Canada Geese honking and Sandhill Cranes bugling every time another pair arrived at the marsh.

Many joggers who pass by are wired with an iPod or some other type of music player. I find this a little sad because they're missing out on such an incredible natural soundtrack. I like having the ability to hear even the faintest chrip or seep call that immediately signals the presence of a Winter Wren or Brown Creeper. It would never occur to me to drown all that out for the sake of physical exercise. What about the art of listening to what's all around you? Shouldn't that be a recurrent form of exercise for all of us as well?

"When did I abandon the rich soundscape that called to me in childhood, the quack, chirp, whinny, bark, whine, bleat, hoot, honk, and warble of birds, the whisper howl of the winds, the splash and swoosh of water? When was the last time I fell asleep listening intently to the lullaby of cicadas or the sound of soft rain on the tin roof? And why did I cease listening?"

~ Sam Keen


Red-winged Blackbird

Location: Pheasant Branch
Observation date: 3/13/11
Number of species: 31

Canada Goose
Mallard
Red-tailed Hawk
American Kestrel
Sandhill Crane
Rock Pigeon
Mourning Dove
Great Horned Owl
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
Eastern Bluebird
American Robin
European Starling
Cedar Waxwing
American Tree Sparrow
Song Sparrow
White-throated Sparrow
Dark-eyed Junco
Northern Cardinal
Red-winged Blackbird
Purple/House Finch
American Goldfinch
House Sparrow

All images © 2011 Mike McDowell


Wednesday, March 09, 2011

Spring Field Trips!



Here's my spring field trip schedule:

March 17th - Early Migrants at Pheasant Branch
April 21st - Warbler walk at Pheasant Branch
April 28th - Warbler Walk at Pheasant Branch
May 5th - Warbler Walk at Pheasant Branch
May 12th - Warbler Walk at Pheasant Branch
May 26th - Evening at Pheasant Branch
June 11th - Grassland Birds at Middleton Airport

All field trips are free and open to the general public!

Black-capped Chickadee © 2011 Mike McDowell

Thursday, March 03, 2011

Early March Migrants



Though I've observed American Robins all winter at Pheasant Branch Conservancy, this morning I spotted one in the courtyard outside my apartment. It seemed not to miss a spot where it might discover a juicy earthworm as it foraged in the small grass islands surrounded by snow. We needn't worry for robins if we're slammed with another blizzard as they eat fruits and berries when open ground is unavailable.

At work we're beginning to see Red-winged Blackbirds and Common Grackles coming to our feeders. I've also heard reports of Sandhill Cranes returning to Wisconsin. Many of the birds that return in early March are short-distance migrants. While some robins do not migrate at all, the majority of those that over-winter in southern Wisconsin breed further to our north. Winds are favorable for migration. I just checked NexRad and birds to our south and southeast are on the move tonight!

American Robin © 2011 Mike McDowell

Migratory bird clocks up 27,000 km journey

Amazing!



"AFTER TWICE COMPLETING a 27,000 km journey around the world twice, one ruddy turnstone has well and truly earned a lifetime of frequent-flyer points. Researchers from the not-for-profit Victorian Wader Study Group and Deakin University tracked the migration of four ruddy turnstones (Arenaria interpres) from Australia to their breeding grounds in Siberia."

Link: Full article from Australian Geographic

Ruddy Turnstone © 2011 Mike McDowell

Tuesday, March 01, 2011

It's March!


A Dark-eyed Junco prepares to sing!

Spring no longer seems like some unattainable time and place opposite months of snow and cold. Spring's sights, sounds, and smells render sensory reminiscence. Melting snow releases remnants of decay and emergent growth; it's a distinct olfactory sensation that feels like time travel to me. By what ever biological processes are at work, birds have taken notice to the changing season, too. Pheasant Branch Conservancy is presently filled with their songs. Most members of the forest choir are House Finches, American Tree Sparrows, Northern Cardinals, and Dark-eyed Juncos, but I've also heard the cheerful phrases of American Robins. Junco flocks begin to increase in size as winter fades. Their repertoire of trilly songs is a precursor to their journey north, but I'll continue to enjoy their company for another month or so. As their departure grows closer, their songs reach a climactic volume that's even a little humorous. It's nice to get a little chuckle out of their antics despite the fact they'll be preparing to leave.

Dark-eyed Junco © 2011 Mike McDowell