Wednesday, October 03, 2012

A Sparrow Study

White-throated Sparrow

October is the time of year when the prairies of Pheasant Branch Conservancy become filled with little brown sparrows. That's how they appear at a distance, but the next level of description is attained with the aid of optics, revealing their character and nature. The boreal sparrows migrating through Wisconsin right now are exquisite creatures; I profoundly enjoy them because they're beautiful and entertaining to observe. Actually, I spend more time watching birds when I'm photographing them versus when I'm birding. For me, bird photography is a type of mindful birding. When I'm birding for eBird data, it generally means seeing a bird, identifying it, logging it, and moving on. With bird photography, the level of discipline is broadened – standing still, patiently waiting, watching, and anticipating what the birds are going to do next. This is a time when I'm able to observe subtle details, qualities, and behaviors I might not otherwise notice when walking along a trail. Birding makes me a better bird photographer, and bird photography makes me a better birder.

White-throated Sparrow

With the sun rising and providing warmth on a cool morning, I like to pick a location with plenty of branches where a sparrow or two might perch in the open. Upon arrival, I'm often met with a salvo of alarm calls. Beep beep beep go the White-throated Sparrows. This ruckus settles down after a minute and some birds begin to sing. This time of year their songs are often muted or discordant renditions of their cheerful spring melodies, but occasionally an adult bird will pipe up and demonstrate how the song is supposed to sound. At the risk of anthropomorphizing, I think I'm hearing a veritable conversation. I find their vocalizations charming and sometimes even amusing, especially some of the chatter the White-throated Sparrows are capable of. Is it laughter? Is another bird being scolded? Why? Alas, I have no decoder.

White-crowned Sparrow

Digiscoping a small songbird is pretty difficult. I'm sure it would be a lot easier with a Canon super-telephoto system, but I enjoy the challenge and I know the equipment. A few weeks ago I shared an email conversation with a professional nature photographer. At the end he concluded, “I trust you're getting close to the limits of this optic and really can't expect a 4K lens to compare with a 15k lens.” That's probably true, but I'm pretty happy with the results I get from the digiscoping method. I work within its boundaries, but I continue to push them outward as best I can. Maybe down the road I'll invest in a DSLR with a 100-400mm lens for flight shots – something I've always wanted to try, but I intend to stick with what I have for perched songbirds.

Link: Save our Boreal Birds

All images © 2012 Mike McDowell

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