Finland

Helsinki                                                                                  Photo by F. Widding

 

When Heikki Eriksson emailed me the start time of 0300 for my birding adventure in Helsinki I thought it must be a misprint.  I know we birders like to start early, but 3:00 AM?  No misprint.  I forgot we were in the land of the “white nights”, latitude 60 degrees North, about the same as Anchorage, Alaska.  Heikki was gifted by his ability to bird-by-ear so the dim, predawn light was no problem for us, or at least for him.  The bird calls for me were all foreign, but interesting, none-the-less.

Heikki Eriksson

We arrived in Helsinki by train from Saint Petersburg on May 22, traveling along the northern shore of the Gulf of Finland, through low, boggy terrain, passing Vyborg near the border.  I’ve come to learn of the historic significance of this frontier south of Lake Ladoga, separating the great bear of Russia from Finland.

“Before the Storm” by H Munsterhjelm, 1870                         (at the Ateneum)

From the 13th until the early 19th century present day Finland was part of the powerful Swedish Empire.  Russia replaced Sweden as “empire-in-charge” in 1809, initially granting the Finns considerable local autonomy.  They, in turn, gave their women the right to vote in 1906, I believe the first people to do this.  The Bolsheviks granted Finland its complete independence after the Russian Revolution of 1917, but the subsequent first half of the 20th century was anything but tranquil for the Finns.

Mew Gulls, Larus canus

The nonaggression pact between Germany and the Soviet Union in 1939 allowed Russia to annex the small Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania, while Germany was busy fighting further to the west.  Finland however, also a Baltic state, resisted this Russian intrusion, preferring to fight to maintain their recent independence.  Russia invaded Finland on November 30, 1939, and for over 5 months the Finns heroically fought before succumbing to their superior foe.  They refer to this struggle as the “Winter War”, differentiating it from later events of WWII.

Finland’s eventual defeat by Russia and the reluctance of other western democracies to come to their aid in 1939, partly explains their uneasy alliance with Hitler from 1941 to 1944.  This period is referred to by the Finns as the “Continuation War”.  Caught between the proverbial “rock and a hard place” they had few choices, ultimately distrusting the Stalin more than Hitler.  The Finn’s battlefield support for Germany however, was decidedly lukewarm, until they finally changed sides against a defeated Germany in 1945.  This turbulent and controversial chapter of Finnish history is well chronicled in “Finland’s War of Choice, The Troubled German-Finnish Coalition in World War II” by  Henrik O. Lunde, published in 2011.

A Birder’s Balance Beam somewhere near Helsinki

The weather in Helsinki was exactly the opposite of what we experienced in Russia.  The clear blue skies and unseasonable Russian heat were replaced by a cool, cloudy, drizzle, clearly not a good test for my new mirror-less camera and lens (Panasonic Lumix G9 camera and Leica F2.8-4.0 50-200mm lens).  Heikki picked me up at 3:00 AM sharp and we headed west along the coast to the nearby principalities of Espoo and Kirkkonummi where we birded several fields, tidal wetlands, and scattered woodlots.

Eurasian Blue Tit, Cyanistes caeruleus

Much of the serious birding in Finland is done further north than Helsinki, even above the Arctic Circle.  Visit the website of Finnature, a guiding company, at http://www.finnature.com to fully appreciate what this land has to offer.  They are the people that connected me with my guide.  I only had one birding day to spare during this initial visit, but Heikki certainly made the most of it, even close to the city.  I especially liked seeing the Goldcrest and Eurasian Blue Tit.  Spotting a Ruff in the wetlands and a flyover by an Arctic Tern were also notable.  We saw 76 different species in 9 damp hours, 28 of which were lifers for me.

Common Golden Eye, Bucephala clangula

Soon after sunrise the cold rains began.  The new equipment is weather sealed but even they must have their limits.  As the rain increased I reluctantly retired them to the car after only a few good shots, continuing the outing with just binos, visual memories, and eBird documentation of the sightings.

Yours truly

Every time I hire a guide I’m reminded of how much I have yet to learn.  Heikki displayed exceptional knowledge of birdsong and many of the early birds were “heard but not seen”.  I had no problem ticking them however, since most were seen later after sunrise.  His other skill was long distant ID by GISS (general impression, size, and shape), so helpful on the viewing platform.

Northern Goshawk and Cooper’s Hawks by J.J. Audubon

A memorable surprise for us both was a sudden, swooping, stealth attack by a Northern Goshawk, just feet away, taking a poor unsuspecting dove in broad daylight.  I liken it to the team of pick pockets who surprised me the prior week on Nevsky Prospect in Saint Petersburg.  The only difference was they just got my wallet; the dove lost much more.

When we were not birding or strolling Helsinki we discovered the fabulous Ateneum Art Museum.  Rainy day–not a problem, just head to the gallery resplendent with the works of Finnish artists and other masters.  Or you can relish the great seaside cuisine and take pictures of your plate as my “foodie” companions were apt to do.

Tallinn Estonia

We also took the ferry across the Gulf of Finland 50 miles, to the ancient and historic city of Tallinn, Estonia.  Near the city wall I finally ID’ed that common American Robin-like bird hunting for worms on seemingly all the European lawns.  It’s a Fieldfare; no big deal to the locals, but a life bird for me.

Fieldfare, Turdus pilaris

After 3 short nights in Helsinki it was off to Bergen, Norway by plane.  Just scratching the surface of fascinating Finland has enticed me to return; perhaps to the area above the Arctic Circle.  I knew I was leaving a “birdy” country when I visited the airport toilet before boarding the flight and they were playing birdsong on the public address system.  Heikki would have known the exact bird.

The Advanced Birder

Phainopepla

Phainopepla

 

I’m not one, but I’ve observed enough of them to legitimately list their characteristics in this post.  It’s a given that they know the field marks and have mastered bird identification.  I’m talking about the additional and more subtle traits of these masters.  Most have been birding since childhood and have stories of being introduced to birding by a parent or grandparent, often remembering their personal index bird.  They grew up with binoculars on the window sill and a well-worn bird guidebook, usually Petersen’s, readilly available.

Swamp Sparrow

Swamp Sparrow

They have mastered the difficult families and genera.  I don’t know about you but I break out in a cold sweat when a novice birder asks me about the various gulls, sparrows, terns, or flycatchers.  The advanced birder is not even phased.  Their knowledge of the changing plumages of gulls, for instance belies a lot of fieldwork and careful study.  The sparrows and terns are a piece of cake for them, whereas the flycatchers are difficult for everyone, even them.

Heermann's Gulls

Heermann’s Gulls

The fall warblers offer another challenge.  I was birding at a local warbler haunt on Tilghmann Island, Maryland last fall when I ran across an advanced local birder in the woods.  As you have all experienced, he asked “seen anything good”?  “No, just the routine including a Yellow-rumped Warbler.”  He surprised me by replying, “I hope you didn’t really see a butter butt, as that would mean the fall migration is almost over–they migrate late, you know”.  Big swallow by me, and he continued, “I’ll bet you saw the same Magnolia Warbler I saw earlier–you  know they also have a yellowish rump.”  This was 3 traits of an advanced birder displayed at once:  1) knowledge of the timing of migration for a species, 2)  knowledge of the similar and confusing field marks among birds, 3) the ability to teach and tactfully correct the mistakes of a fellow rising birder.

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Yellow-Romped Warbler

Knowing when each species arrives in your locale and when it departs in the fall adds a whole new dimension to birding.  It speaks to years of careful observation and becomes another of our personal timepieces marking the passage of the seasons.

Black-necked Stilt

Black-necked Stilt

The advanced birder depends on bird behaviors, shapes, and habitats as much as field marks to make an ID.  The nuthatch is running up and down the trunk, the Palm Warbler is near or on the ground, pumping its tail, and the tanager is found high in the canopy.  Birds often have characteristic flight patterns recognized when field marks are not visible.  There’s the alternating rapid flaps and glides of the Accipiters, The jittery soaring of the Turkey Vulture, and the undulating flight of the finches as examples of these patterns.  The advanced hawk watchers bird by silhouette recognition as describe in an earlier post, Hawk Watching.

Black Vulture

Black Vulture

The skill most impressive to me is the advanced birder’s knowledge of birdsong, even to the extent of knowing several calls for many birds.  One may be for staking out a territory and another for warning of danger from an approaching hawk.  Before I even get my binoculars and camera around my neck in the parking lot my advanced birder friends have ID’ed a dozen birds by sound alone.  I had more to say about this in a prior post, Birding By Ear.

Eastern Meadowlark

Eastern Meadowlark

Advanced birders have recognized that you can’t cut corners on your choice of binoculars.  You usually see them with Zeiss, Leica, Swarovski, or other high end glass, often with the well-worn look of years in the field.  Not everyone with high-end binos is an expert, but all experts know the value of the sharp, bright image in a large field-of-view glass.

Peregrine Falcon

Peregrine Falcon

Advanced birders are teachers.  You come away from every birding session with them acquiring new pearls, even about the common birds.  For instance:  1) the Least Sandpiper is the only peep typically found inland–look for its yellow legs, 2)  the Tree Swallow arrive first in the spring since it’s the only swallow that eats berries and seeds in addition to insects, or 3) a Blue Jay can do a remarkably good imitation of a Red-shouldered Hawk.  These and many more bird facts make your day in the field with them even more rewarding.  Have you ever noticed that they rarely carry a field guide, except perhaps to demonstrate a new bird to others?  I’ll bet it’s been committed to memory.

Golden-crowned Kinglet

Golden-crowned Kinglet

The signature of an advanced birder is not the length of their life-list or the number of birding trips abroad, but rather their joy in even the routine outing where they always seem to find something new or interesting, and happy to share it with others.

Birding Paraphernalia; the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

Too Much Stuff

Too Much Stuff

A few years ago there was a popular song by Delbert McClinton called Too Much Stuff, which describes the trap most of us fall into as we go through life.  Birders are no different as we accumulate various birding gadgets, aids, clothes, etc. over the years.  I thought it may be helpful to the rising birder to describe what has worked and what has not worked for me.  I perfectly understand that one man’s albatross, (no offense to albatrosses), may be another’s favorite tool, so take these ideas as personal opinion only.

Eastern Meadowlark

Eastern Meadowlark

The Good

1) After years of toting around my favorite, well-worn, and dog-earred bird guide, it barely fitting in my pocket and weighing down my trousers on one side, I finally listened to a friend and went digital.  It was a good move.  I now have two bird guide apps on my smart phone, iBird PRO, and Sibley Birds, which have all the same info as the book, and more.  The bird calls are now available and I frequently play them in the field to refresh my memory and use this valuable ID tool.  The phone is also a safety link to civilization when I bird alone, and has a GPS if I get hopelessly lost.  It has a decent camera to take those vista shots that my birding lens can’t get.  Also my trousers no longer droop on the right.

2) Cornell’s program eBird (www.ebird.org) has been one of the greatest breakthroughs in birding.  Its not just the tracking of your lists, but the access it gives you to others’ observations.  Now when I travel to a new birding destination I go to eBird first and see exactly what people are seeing at that spot, at that time of year. If its a new bird for me I can review what to look and listen for before heading out.

3) Traipsing around for hours with things hanging around your neck gets old and leads to headaches.  Get a “figure 8” shoulder strap for your binoculars to take the weight off.  Speaking of straps, try a UPstrap (www.upstrap-pro.com) for your camera.  I find that the manufacturer’s shoulder straps tend to slip off, but the UPstrap is wider and has a rubber/friction surface that makes it much more secure and comfortable.

4) Invest in an extra camera battery. You know why.

5) Last, but most important is the glass.  I’ve gone through a slew of binoculars; big and small, cheap and expensive.  For a while I thought small and light was good, but they just don’t have the light-gathering capability and field-of-view you need for birding. Then I went large to 10X, 50mm, and even tried the impressive image-stabilized binoculars. They’re just too heavy for the field. For me the sweet spot is 7-8X and about 40mm.  And I’ve tried cheap (less than $100), medium $100-$1000, and expensive >$2000 glass. One of my greatest eureka moments in birding was when one of the birding pros at Cape May took pity on me and my cheap, small binoculars and let me borrow his extra high-end Zeiss glass for the day.  What a difference!  The field-of-view even seemed brighter than real life and birding was easier and much more fun.  The lesson is to spring for the best glass you can afford.

Cactus Wren

Cactus Wren

The Bad  

1) There are some situations when you need a good scope and stable tripod, but not many.  I have one ready in the car as I drive along the dikes at Blackwater Refuge in Maryland, or Bombay Hook in Delaware, or occasionally when on a bluff or wide beach, but for general birding they’re just “too much stuff”.

2) I feel sorry for the birders pushing the carts filled with the huge telephoto lenses, multiple cameras, etc.  It reminds me of the young parents in airports with car seats, strollers, diapers, etc. trying to board a plane.  For me those days are over.  Only take what you can easily carry.  For me that is binoculars and camera with a small telephoto lens.  I’ve gradually gone from 200mm to 300mm, and now to Canon’s 400mm F5.6L.  That’s turned out to be a great portable birding lens, used by many for years, and for me the largest lens one can comfortably carry.

3)RAW vs. JPEG photos.  This is where I’ll get some push back.  Keeping with my philosophy of K.I.S.S. (keep it simple stupid) I have returned to JPEG.  RAW is great and necessary if you plan to sell or publish your pictures, but for me the data storage requirements and post-processing time were more than I bargained for.  For now, at least I’m a JPEG man.

Loggerhead Shrike

Loggerhead Shrike

The Ugly

“Ugly” may be a little strong, but I’m not telling you anything you don’t already know when I say that birders are not slaves to fashion.  We are practical folks who wear what works.  Just look around on your next group birding trip.

1) I’ve learned the hard way that sun protection is key, both with material defense and chemical warfare.  Long sleeve sun shirts and caps with earflaps are now standard garb for me–life is not a fashion show.

2) For a while I thought you could not have too many pockets.  The long baggy cargo shorts with large pockets (perfect for guide books), and fly fishermen vests with 17+ small pockets were standard.  Since I’ve gone to a smart phone and have lost too many things in all the pockets, I’ve scaled back. (K.I.S.S.)

3)  If you’ve ever had Chiggers you know why many birders wear long pants tucked into socks with bands around their pant legs, or wear tall boots, even in the hot weather.  I had 3 or 4 infestations and itchy, sleepless nights before I learned that they were the barely visible larval forms of a mite which lurk in the grasses waiting for unsuspecting birders to walk by.  They get inside your pant legs and borrow into the skin.  Luckily they are not a vector of disease like the deer tick, but just do their damage by causing local irritation, inflammation, and cellular chaos.  You’ll survive, but you’ll think twice about your next trip into the grasslands.

The Ugly

The Ugly?

So for what its worth, that’s one birder’s opinion of our paraphernalia.  Good luck and good birding.

Birding 101

 

IMG_0106

For any new or potential birders out there I thought I would do a brief review of some things I wish I had known when I began this fascinating hobby.

1) Bird Alone.  At first glance this may seem antisocial and incompatible with #’s 2 and 3 below, but let me explain.  A new birder needs time and space to learn and practice some basic skills.  Just seeing a bird and then finding it with binoculars is not easy at first.  With practice you’ll keep your eye on the bird and slowly raise the binoculars and find it in the eyepiece, but not having this skill frustrates the new birder when everyone else is enjoying the bird.  Birdwatching is all about watching.  In addition to the obvious field marks, watch the bird’s behavior, and hear its sounds.  Some birds are always on or near the ground (White-throated Sparrow).  Some are constantly pumping their tail (Palm Warbler). You’ll see eventually that advanced birders are making their ID’s by the birds “JISS” (taken from G.I.S.S.–general impression, size, and shape), as much as from the field marks.  Learn the common “back yard” birds first and then the “rarities” or birds not usually seen around your feeder or porch will become more obvious.

White-throated Sparrow

White-throated Sparrow

Palm Warbler

Palm Warbler

2) Bird With Others.  Once you’re looking into the correct end of the binoculars you’ll find endless pleasure and see more birds when you bird with others.  There always seems to be someone in the group with a special gift of seeing birds high in the canopy or deep in the shrub. Others will point out birds you are not acquainted with yet, or tell you about a new birding hotspot.  You can see what binoculars and guidebooks others are using and pick up unexpected pearls. I learn something every time I bird with others and just plain have more fun.

Yellow-crowned Night-Heron

Yellow-crowned Night-Heron

3) Bird With Experts.  Most counties have a birding club that sponsor frequent trips to the local hotspots, and these clubs usually have several world-class birders.  Talbot County, Maryland, where I live, is especially fortunate to have a club with many.  These are birders with years of experience; some seem to bird almost daily and their vast knowledge and eBird year lists are impressive.  You quickly marvel at their expertise in birding by ear–hearing the bird long before or in-lieu of seeing it, or recognizing a bird with only a fleeting glance of its shape or behavior.  They know when its time in spring to expect a given bird in the region, and when the bird will nest or migrate in the fall.  Most enjoy sharing all this with an interested novice.

A trip to birding hot-spots in your region will introduce you to experts.  For those in the North East I recommend a week-end in Cape May, New Jersey.  I doubt that there is a place that has more birding experts per square foot and organized bird walks, especially during the spring and fall migrations.  The hawk-watch platform at the Cape May State Park always seems to be staffed with experts.  Check out the Cape May Bird Observatory website for schedules and maps.

Great Blue Heron

Great Blue Heron

4) Binoculars.  My experience with binoculars is typical, but not ideal for new birders.  I first started by using an old pair family binoculars acquired in the 1950’s.  Later I started using a pair of 10X50’s I bought for astronomy.  When I started serious birding I upgraded stepwise to several pairs in the “mid-price” range, never believing I wanted to spend the big bucks ($2000 or more) that the high end glass required.  One day I was birding with a group in Cape May and the expert guide must have noticed my binoculars and generously lent me a pair of Zeiss binoculars for the walk.  The difference was amazing!  The image was so much brighter, sharper, and clearer and the field of few much larger.  Birding was easier with these and much more fun.  I was convinced that the price for great binoculars is money well spent and a good pair will give you a lifetime of pleasure.  The old glass did not go to waste.  There’s one in the truck, one in the car, one at the windowsill near the feeder, and one at the bathroom window.  You never know when you’ll need them.

Pileated Woodpecker

Pileated Woodpecker

5) Guide Book.  You need a good birding guide book–one that you will use frequently and become very familiar with in the field. There are many on the market and the choice can be difficult.  Let me go out on a limb and recommend one.  I have used many and believe the Ken Kaufman “Field Guide to Birds of North America” is the most user-friendly book available.  It is relatively small and light, fitting easily into a big pocket.  It is well-indexed, nicely arranged, and covers all the birds of North America.  The other heavier guides I keep at home for those especially difficult ID’s.

Reddish Egret

Reddish Egret

6) Publications.  I foolishly get more birding magazines and newsletters than I can possibly read.  Be smarter than me and get one and study it well.  Again let me go out on another limb and recommend the “Bird Watcher’s Digest”, a small bimonthly magazine edited by William H. Thompson III, is packed with birding pearls, sitings, equipment and book reviews, meeting announcements, etc.

Northern Mockingbird

Northern Mockingbird

7) Use http://www.eBird.org   This Cornell website is amazing.  Not only does it allow you to tabulate, manage, and track your observations, but shows you who else is seeing what, where, and when in your neighborhood, or anywhere in the world you care to visit.  Its also loaded with helpful birding tips.  And it is FREE!  When I recently travelled to Japan and Italy I first went to eBird to learn what to expect at each location and created a target list of birds for the area.  Similarly your observations will help other birders and the people at Cornell tracking bird populations globally.  I find much pleasure in comparing what I saw this year, or month, to the prior.  Check it out.

I hope this helps you get started.  Good luck and happy birding.

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.

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.