Winter Survival

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As the NE recovers from the first blizzard of the season, one is again amazed at the survival mechanisms of our feathered friends.  As years go by my toleration of the bitter cold has decreased–I wonder if an aging bird feels the same way. Birds are warm-blooded like us, but have developed some special adaptations.  So how do they survive?

1) Migration.  That’s an obvious solution (and one I personally endorse), but it isn’t without risk.  Heading south actually is quite risky for birds and takes tremendous amounts of energy and luck to make the trek.  Predators take a toll as the long trip often leaves the bird weak and vulnerable. The migrator also leaves its breeding territory to others, possibly never to get it back.  But migration is primarily to follow food sources  rather than to avoid the cold.  Ducks, waders, and shorebirds need open water and head south as far a necessary to find it. Migrating birds that depend on a diet of insects head south to follow the bugs, whereas the non-migrating birds have the ability to digest seeds and can stay north.  Some eat both and change their diet with the season–Yellow-rumped Warbler is an example of that and the only warbler commonly seen here in winter.

2) Behavioral Changes.  Bird survival in cold weather is all about energy management.  Energy comes from food, and to a lesser degree stored fat. Searching for food however burns energy.  They need to eat something, but must find the food quickly and efficiently–no random flying, casual singing, or mating this time of year.  Birds can only store small amounts of fat as too much fat interferes with flight.  Fat birds don’t fly.

Some more sociable birds like chickadees huddle together to share some warmth, similar to the Eskimos and the famous ” Three Dog Night”.  Staying out of the wind at night, and basking in the sunshine by day helps.  Getting food from a feeder is usually not necessary for survival, but on the very cold night when there is a new deep snow cover, it may be life-saving.

3) Insulation.  Feathers are an amazing adaptation for birds, not only light-weight and necessary for flight, but also a great insulation from the cold.  They need to kept dry, hence the oil that sheds water.  On very cold nights you’ll see them fluffing them out to increase the R value.

4) Internal.  Birds are warm-blooded but have a core temperature significantly greater than humans, averaging 106 F.  Some species however have developed a night-time torpor, almost a semi-hibernation, lowering their temperature as much as 20-30 degrees in the case of hummingbirds. Shivering can also generate some additional heat.

But even with all these mechanism, some won’t survive the frigid nights.  Small birds are especially vulnerable since they have relatively greater surface area per weight and therefore lose more heat than larger birds.  We’ll never know for sure, but I’ll bet the bird mortality in New England was high this week.  C’est la vie, c’est la morte.

Black-capped Chickadee

Black-capped Chickadee

Yellow-rumped Warbler

Yellow-rumped Warbler

Dark-eyed Junco

Dark-eyed Junco

Tufted Titmouse

Tufted Titmouse

Northern Cardinal

Northern Cardinal

Purple Finch

Purple Finch

Basic Photo Techniques for Birding

Snowy Egret

Snowy Egret

Before I talk about some of the specific camera settings in a later post, I thought I’d give share some basic concepts.  People have accused be of stating the obvious, so if any of this seems too simplistic, I apologize.  But some of you may be new to the world of bird photography, as I was a few years ago, so this may valuable for you.  For those new to DSLR or contemplating moving from point-and-shoot to DSLR, let me encourage you–it isn’t as hard to learn as you think or have heard.  Remember, you can’t make a mistake.  You’re not paying for film, so relax.  Also, all these cameras have a bail-out automatic mode if you just need that extra reassurance on occasion.  So here are some basic tips:

1) Get as close as possible.  The detail in the bird will be so much better, and your cropping and post-processing will be much more rewarding if there are more pixels in the subject of interest.  I often take an initial shot of a bird, just in case it flies, and then take another set of shots every ten feet or so as I slowly get closer.  The closer shots will be the keepers.  Some locations may have a blind which is often useful.

2) Get low.  A shorebird or other ground bird picture is much more pleasing when you take it from a low angle.  I don’t no why–it just is.  This may mean getting you knees sandy on the beach.  I’ve seen some photos of the really hard core birders lying in the mud for a shot.  We all have our limits.

3) Take a lot of shots, a real lot.  I often have 500 to 700 pictures after a half day of birding.  Those moving and flying birds require patient and multiple attempts.  You will quickly discard many shots in your after-birding session at the computer, and others will be deleted later.  Out of the 700 I may have only a dozen great shots that go into my library and are shared with others.  I not sure what they did in the pre-digital era.  Bird photographers must have been wealthy.  Get used to a simple post-processing program (like I-Photo for Apple) that lets you quickly review, crop, delete, and make minor exposure adjustments. It also allows you to create folders of categories shots to be reviewed later.

4) “Chimp” frequently.  I don’t know where the term came from but “chimping” is looking at your shots on the camera screen in the field to check the gross exposure settings. The cameras all have a display mode that quickly shows if your exposure curve is reasonable (doesn’t abut either end of the graph), but don’t get hung up on the exposure details yet. I don’t know how many times I’ve had the great bird in the perfect light and setting, and then found out the pictures all had the wrong or old settings from a previous bird or location.  Chimp frequently but quickly, or you’ll miss the next unexpected flyover.

5) Avoid overexposure; I mean in the picture, not your skin.  Error on the side of underexposure since its possible to correct that with post-processing.  Overexposed pixels are lost for ever.

6) Focus on the bird’s eye. The camera has multiple focus points available, but set it up so that you’re using the center focus only and aim that point on the birds eye whenever possible.  The most pleasing bird photos are the ones that have a glint in the bird’s eye and the eye is sharply focused.  When you’re chimping, zoom into the birds eye and check this.  If its blurry your shutter speed is likely too slow.

Enough for now; more details to follow later.

Yellow Warbler

Yellow Warbler

Peregrine Falcon; I got down in the sand for this shot

Peregrine Falcon; I got down in the sand for this shot

Blue Grosbeak

Blue Grosbeak

Ocean City, Maryland, Inlet

Ocean City Jetty

Ocean City Jetty

I try to make one visit a year to the Ocean City Inlet, preferably after a storm, to see what the wind has blown in.  This year I was especially interested in seeing the Harlequin Ducks, reported at this location by several birders on eBird.  This duck is on my target list for life birds.  Most birders have a list of birds that have somehow eluded detection over the years.  Harlequin Ducks tend to hug the coast in winter from the Jersey Shore northward to Maine, so this was my great opportunity.  As you probably know this duck is often called the “clown duck” due to the male’s bright and garish coloring.  I prefer to think of it as a saltwater Wood Duck. The eastern population breeds in Canada, New Brunswick, Newfoundland, and north. In winter it prefers the rocky coast and surf.  In any case, I left St. Michaels at the crack of dawn Sunday with my fingers crossed, hoping to glimpse this bird at the end of the 80 mile trip to the inlet.

The Ocean City jetty and inlet have been a good site for birders for years.  I have several life birds first seen there including Long-tailed Duck and Purple Sandpiper.  There’s a large parking lot right at the jetty with plenty of free parking this time of year.  Only the birders and a few beach combers are of the disposition to be out there in January.  My initial survey found Surf Scoters, Brant, Common and Red-necked Loons, and plenty of Red-breasted Merganser’s, but no Harlequins.  I usually bird alone, but there were two other birders there with scopes, obviously locals, and I sheepishly let them know that I was looking for the Harlequins as a life bird.  They reported they had seen none today, but pointed me down the inlet 200 yards to where they had been seen other days.  Twenty minutes later I heard yelling and looked back to see the birders waving and gesturing wildly to me.  I hoped and guessed what it was all about and made haste back to their position with my scope, binoculars, and camera in tow.  Sure enough, a small flock of 6 flew in (a male and 5 females), right at foot of the jetty, within 30 feet.  I got more photos than I care to relate, good sun and all, until they flew away. It was my lucky day.

Just an observation about birders.  I think my two friends got almost as much satisfaction in getting me a life bird, as I did.  The Harlequin to them may be as mundane as a Robin, but they made sure I saw my bird.  Birders are like that.

One last note about this trip.  When I filed my observations into eBird later that day I got the automatic nuisance note that 6 Harlequin Ducks is an unusual siting for this location.  I filled in the required field and smugly added that I had pictures, actually several hundred of them, nailing down the ID.  The next day I got a friendly email from the eBird referee saying that my siting was very unusual for MONTEREY BAY, CALIFORNIA.  And by the way, they don’t usually have Herring Gulls at that location either.  Whoops, I had clicked on the wrong location in eBird, and humbly apologized and set the record straight.  Actually these eBird referees are very tactful and supportive and serve a valuable function.  Some of our observations are just plain wrong.

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Flock of Brant heading inland

Red-breasted Merganser

Red-breasted Merganser

Harlequin Ducks

Harlequin Ducks

Harlequin Duck

Harlequin Duck

Common Loon

Common Loon

Photo-birding or Bird Photography

 

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This distinction is more than just semantics.  There are indeed two different uses for your camera when you go birding.  Some use one or the other; I use both.  When I was new birder I marveled at the skill shown by others in making field ID’s, especially for those small, constantly moving birds, often in the high canopy.  I found that, especially when birding alone, taking a picture and deferring the ID until home, when I had the time and ability to zoom and enhance the picture, was very helpful.  These are not great pictures and not kept in my picture library, but merely utilitarian shots to help me learn the field marks and expand my skills.  Sometimes the picture was just inadequate for the task–oh well. This is photo-birding.  The down side to this technique is if you let the process of taking the picture distract you from observing the bird and learning to find field marks quickly.  Sometimes you’ll find that the bird has flown while you’re still reaching for the camera.  Purists may scoff at this technique, but it has worked for me.

Bird photography, on the other hand is the process of making the perfect exposure for a bird–something that you would be proud to post or publish.  It may be a common bird, but you’re striving to catch it feeding, mating, flying, etc. with the perfect composition and exposure.  The possibilities are endless.  Adding this to my birding adventures has created some additional interest for me in this wonderful hobby.  Even when there are no rarities at hand, you can work for that perfect picture.

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Glossy Ibis

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Eastern Bluebird

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Barn Swallow

Christmas Count 2014

Northern Cardinal

Northern Cardinal

The Christmas Count is a yearly bird census conceived by Frank Chapman, an officer of the Audubon Society, in 1900.  In that first year 27 birders participated at 25 locations across the continental U.S.  and saw a total of 18,500 birds and 89 species.  The count now involves tens of thousands of birders at 2300 sites throughout N. America.  The purpose is to roughly assess the health of the various bird populations by sampling at the same time each year–which birds are thriving, and which are struggling; where are the birds increasing, and where are they declining.

Our local count is at Bay Hundred, centered around the town of Saint Michaels, Maryland.  This year our compiler reported we saw at total of 111 species.  His report noted the complete absence of Northern Bobwhites this year, and a relative abundance of Purple Finches.  The compilation is an interesting comparison of recent years, highlighting the population changes.  Some of these may be merely statistical variations, but others likely reflect weather patterns and true variations in a specie’s survival or health.

My experience this year was enhanced by the company of three others, two fellow birders and my wife.  Birding can also be a social event and it surely was this year.  We broke for a lunch with hot soup at a local watering hole.  The morning bird of note was a calling Eastern Towhee in the phragmites near Drum Point. The afternoon revealed some additional species including a Cooper’s Hawk and two Ruby-crowned Kinglets.  Our total count was 36 species including 800 Canada Geese.

White-throated Sparrow

White-throated Sparrow

Red-tailed Hawk

Red-tailed Hawk

Birding Phoenix

Cactus Wren

Cactus Wren

I am fortunate to have hospitable members of my extended family living around the continent near birding hotspots.  One recent visit in November 2014 was to gracious relatives and their beautiful home at the base of Pinnacle Peak in Scottsdale, Maricopa County, Arizona.  As you probably know Arizona is on every birder’s list as a”must visit” location.  The state has the mountains and cooler, higher elevations, primarily in the north (including the Grand Canyon), and the lower, hotter, desert habitats of the central and southern regions.

To me as an eastern birder this second visit to the state allowed a great opportunity to see “new birds”. In addition to the wonderful family Thanksgiving, I chose to visit two different birding sites in the county.  The Riparian Preserve at Gilbert Water Ranch is located about 20 miles east of Phoenix, website htpp://www.riparianinstitute.org.  This is a collection water management holding ponds surrounded by low vegetation, interlaced by trails.  These ponds, directly adjacent to surrounding arid desert, are a beacon to thirsty birds and create a birding hotspot.  I saw 33 different species including 3 life birds:  Cinnamon Teal, Abert’s Towhee, and Great-tailed Grackle.

The other desert site I visited twice.  This was the Marcus Landslide Trail in the McDowell Sonoran Conservancy, website htpp://www.mcdowellsonoran.org, about 3 miles east of Scottsdale.  No water or ponds here–remember to bring your own.  This was the quintessential Arizona desert with Saguaro cactus, balanced rocks, and mucho sun and sand.  I saw 12 different birds including 4 life birds:  Canyon Towhee, Brewer’s and Black-throated Sparrows, and Phainopepla.  I also got my best hummingbird shots ever.  My birding companion (not to be named) expressed some skepticism about the technique of calling in birds for photo ops.  His skepticism was rewarded when initially we got no response from my i-phone’s rendition of a Cactus Wren, but 2 minutes later we were surrounded by several of this curious and gorgeous bird.  This technique is somewhat controversial among birders and photographers, but it does work for many species.  I’ll have a future post giving my take on it.  Here are some of the shots from that trip.

Cactus Wrens

Cactus Wrens

Curved-billed Thrashers

Curved-billed Thrashers

Anna's Hummingbird

Anna’s Hummingbird

Verdin

Verdin

Brewer's Sparrow

Brewer’s Sparrow

Phainopepla

Phainopepla

Lenses

Once one makes the major camera choice, generally either Canon or Nikon (Canon for me), you will confront the large world of lenses with varying functions, designs, weights, costs, etc.  The oft repeated question in the bird photography world is which is the best or ultimate birding lens.  I can’t answer this for everyone, but I have come to a conclusion for me.  Here were my criteria:  1) I wanted a lens that I could carry and use without a tripod.  One of the joys of birding for me is mobility; the ability to hike several miles through various habitats.  Remember, in addition to camera and lens one will be carrying binoculars, guidebook, water, etc.  I feel sorry for the birders I see on the trail so heavily burdened the the endless additional gear and large telephotos.  2)  I wanted a lens I could afford.  Yes, you can take out a second mortgage or dip into retirement savings for a lens, and some do, but I did not.  Having said this, I believe the lens quality is the single greatest factor in getting great photos, even more important than the camera.  I recommend the best your budget allows.  3)  How will use the lens–is it soley for birding or will you be using it for travel, landscapes, people, etc.?

My current lens that meets these criteria is the Canon 4oomm F5.6L.  This is a old Canon model that they seemingly cannot terminate due to its popularity.  It, along with their 100-400 zoom lenses, is just about the heaviest and largest lens you can carry and shoot hand-held.  Although it is not cheap its price is at the low end of their L series, available for about $1200.  The quality, (sharpness, build, etc.) is superb.  Various sites can tell you the exact quality testings specs, but you’ll see the resulting shots are great.   Its shortcomings are minor in my experience but include absent zoom function, absent weather sealing, absent image stabilization, and F5.6 aperture.  This lens performs superbly in conditions with good light, but you’ll struggle in poorly lit (deep forest or cloudy) settings to get your exposure speeds fast enough for bird  photography.  In well lit settings, with exposure speeds >1/800 sec., the images will be great.

I came to this lens after first using the Canon 70-200mm F4L, without and with an 1.4 extender.  This also is a sharp, well-constructed lens, but just did not have the “reach” I wanted for birding.  I also have the Canon 70-300mm F4-5.6L.  I bought this lens and took it to Argentina, leaving the 400 home, as a “combo lens” suitable for birding and also general sightseeing, landscapes, and people.  Again Canon makes a superb product in their L glass series and I got some great shots, but there were numerous occasions when I missed the great bird shot due to the reach.  Some have called this lens the best African safari lens, and it may well be, but when I go birding I invariably take the 400.

Canon has just released the new version of its 100-400mm F4.5-5.6L IS II for $2200.  For a reasonable price increase it has addressed and corrected the shortcomings of the 400 prime.  Just when you thought you had it all figured out, they get you again, and “lens envy” again rears its ugly head.  I’ll try to resist for as long as possible, but the handwriting is on the wall,  C’est la vie.

Birding in Tokyo

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Azure-winged Magpie

I have never made a foreign trip solely for birding, but try to find time for some birding, along with the standard itinerary of museums, dining, photography, etc., on every overseas trip.  It helps to book a hotel near a birding hotspot, and that is what I did for my first trip to Tokyo.  A little preliminary research revealed Hibiya Park in Central Tokyo, near the Imperial Gardens and Palace, as a good urban destination, with the outstanding Imperial Hotel just across the street. This large park contains two ponds, a fountain, and various urban habitats that allow good urban birding. This gave me some time for early morning birding (sunrise is very early here in April) while my wife slept in, meeting later for breakfast.

Several early outings in the park revealed 13 birds, including several lifers.  Even the “common” birds are exciting sitings in your first trip to any location.  These were Great Egret, Rock Pigeon, Large-billed Crow, Barn Swallow, Brown-eared Bulbul, Oriental Turtle Dove, Oriental Green Finch, Azure-winged Magpie, Japanese Tit, White-cheeked Starling, Dusky Thrush, Eurasian Tree Sparrow, and Brambling, with some photos of these below.

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Oriental Turtle Dove

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Large-billed Crow

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Eurasian Tree Sparrow

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White-eared Starling

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Oriental Green Finch

Listing

This topic seems to create controversy among birders; either you are, or are not a lister, and adamant about your choice.  I am a lister, and let me tell you why.  One of the joys of birding for me is making observations, and then recording your observation for future reference.  The observation is what you saw, and when and where you saw it.  It may be my science background, but this tabulation or listing just seems like a natural outcome of birding.  When I first started birding I kept no list, then  it evolved into random scraps of paper and notebooks, and finally into a computer program organizing the observations.  Today it has reached the ultimate of ease and utility via the Cornell web-site http://www.ebird.org.  If you don’t use this site I would strongly encourage you to investigate it.

When I return from a birding outing I take a few moments to enter ebird and list my observations.  They make it easy.  You enter the birding site on a map (or click on a previously entered site), tell them the time, date, and number of what you saw by using their birding list specifically tailored to your place and season of observation, and click enter.  The program saves your observations and places them in your personal lists sorted by year, month, location (yard, neighborhood, county, state, country, etc.).  It also places your data in a growing world-wide data base, accessible by you, and shows you what others are seeing in your area.  When I travel to a new birding site, foreign or domestic, I first go to ebird and see what birds to expect at that site at that time of year.  You can access migration data, rarities, and even get alerts when rarities show up in your state.  In summary, in a small way you have added to the science of ornithology, and at the same time kept your personal list.

I’m not one to brag about my list–its pretty small, less than 1000.  But listing for me adds this additional organizing enjoyment to an already rewarding pastime.

Cameras

I was a birder before I was a photographer.  I introduced birding to a friend who was a photographer and eventually he convinced me to combine the two.  He also became a birder.  The photography helped my birding.  “Photo-birding” allows one to examine the pictures later, in the warmth and comfort of home, in confirming ID’s.  But it can also distract you from the techniques of visual field observation if you’re not careful.  When you see a new bird do you reach for your binoculars or camera?  It can get confusing.  You’re also faced with the challenge of becoming a pack horse–equipment can get heavy. My camera choices have evolved and improved over the years.  Initially I had a Canon SX10, a good point and shot, but not a DSLR and without interchangeable lens.  I did get some good shots, and it served to whet my appetite, but was clearly not up to the quality I sought.  My first upgrade was a Canon T2i which served me well for years.  The Canon Rebel series are a great way to enter the world of DSLR. This upgrade opened the world of interchangeable lenses (and more $), but was a great improvement.  I’ll talk about lenses in a later post.  My last upgrade was to the new Canon 7D II, with me still evaluating this in the field. My first impressions are great and others have posted raving reviews, calling this perhaps the ultimate birding and wildlife camera–that’s until the next upgrade.  I also own a Canon 6D, bought to have a full field option. One needs to make the initial choice, Nikon vs. Canon, when getting into photography since the lenses are not interchangeable.  Both have quality cameras and lenses.  I chose Canon, under the influence of a friend, and don’t regret the choice.  My impression is that most birders and bloggers go the Canon route.  In a later post I’ll list my techniques and camera settings for bird photography.