Bird Photography with a Mirrorless Camera

Green Heron, Butorides virescens

 

Here’s the issue.  I’m not getting any younger or stronger and my current camera gear seems heavier everyday.  The Canon 7DII camera with the 100-400mm F4.5-5.6 lens is a great DSLR system, but even the wide, cushioned strap is wearing a groove in my shoulder.  We’re soon leaving on a long trip across the pond and the weight and compactness of luggage, including the camera bag, is of concern.

Red-bellied Woodpecker, Melanerpes carolinus

There is an ongoing revolution in photography that bears on this; I’m referring to the mirrorless cameras, lighter and smaller than their DSLR ancestors.  There is also a growing number of petite and sharp interchangeable lenses suitable for these newcomers.  Is it time for a change?  This would be a big deal for me.

White Ibis, Plegadis falcinellus

This post reflects the musings of a conflicted conservative bird photographer, somewhat slow to adapt, but at the same time attracted to new gadgets and innovations.  I’ll sprinkle it with my latest photos taken with the mirrorless technology, all from the last two weeks.  Hope it doesn’t bore.

Blue-headed Vireo, Vireo solitarius

A SLR camera (single lens reflex) has a flipping mirror with the light and image gathered through the lens and reflected by the mirror to an optical viewfinder.  When you press the shutter button the mirror flips, sending the light to the detector and the image is stored.  In our digital age this mechanical flipping mirror seems somewhat primitive.  Indeed your SLR camera only has a lifetime of several hundred thousand flips; this may seem like plenty, but we’re talking bird photography here.

Black Skimmers, Rynchops niger

Mirrorless cameras are not new.  Your point-and-shoot and cell phone camera are all mirrorless.  What is new is the availability of quality interchangeable lenses for these cameras, and the development of advanced image stabilization, auto-focusing protocols, and rapid exposures.  This allow them to rival the best DSLR’s.

Blue Jay, Cyanocitta cristata

The absence of the flipping mirror allows the camera body to be smaller and lighter.  The size of the detachable lens is governed by the detector size in the camera; Olympus and Panasonic have the smallest detectors (the micro four thirds), and hence the smallest and lightest lenses.

Limpkin, Aramus guarauna

After pouring over the internet reviews I decided to take the plunge and buy the Panasonic Lumix G9 and three of their lenses, knowing I could return some or all after a field trial.  Will this system even come close to the image quality of the staid Canon?

Panasonic left, with 50-200mm; Canon right, with 100-400mm lens

Delivery day felt like a childhood Christmas morning, but do they purposely frustrate you by sending uncharged batteries?  Three hours later I was finally ready to take some shots.  Battery life is an issue with these cameras.  You have no optical viewfinder; the image you see in the electronic viewfinder or rear LCD screen are digital images, direct from the detector which is always engaged and burning energy.  I now carry two extra batteries, just in case.

Chipping Sparrow, Spizella passerina

Some of these mirrorless cameras are actually too small, especially for big hands.  The telephoto lenses make them front heavy and awkward to use.  That’s one reason I selected the Lumix, one of the larger models.  I know, I’m already compromising on my goal of smaller and lighter.  Everyone needs one all-purpose “walk around” lens; one can’t bird all the time.  I selected the Panasonic 12-35mm F2.8 II for scenery and people shots.

Barred Owl, Strix varia

The dilemma now became the choice of a birding lens.  There are two reasonably priced possibilities in the Panasonic line-up and I field tested both.  They are the smaller 50-200mm F2.8-4.0, and the larger and heavier 100-400mm F4.0-6.3.  The larger is still significantly lighter and less bulky than my Canon gear.  Both are high quality glass with the smaller having the advantage of better low light performance and the larger having the better telephoto reach.  The acid test would be in the field.

Double-crested Cormorant, Phalacrocorax auritus

It’s as if the birds knew I was coming and headed for cover.  Finally I found a posing immature White Ibis along the Pelican Bay berm.  Big bird posing in bright light–no problem.  A better test was the smaller Blue Jay and Red-bellied Woodpecker that showed up near my bench in Freedom Park.  These initial shots were all encouraging.

Sanderlings, Calidris alba

When you change cameras, the biggest obstacle to overcome is with the user, not the equipment.  Knobs, buttons, dials, and screens that you previously controlled by instinct are all relocated.  They say changes like these are helpful in maintaining a nimble mind.  We’ll see.

Red-shouldered Hawk, Buteo lineatus

One intriguing new feature of the Panasonic is its “Pre-Burst Mode”.  So often we focus on a bird, waiting for the instant of flight, but end up with a beautiful shot of an empty branch.  With this new mode you focus on the bird with the shutter depressed half-way.  The camera starts saving multiple frames per second in a temporary buffer.  When the bird finally flies you depress the shutter button fully and the camera saves the shots seconds before, during, and after flight.  I’m still experimenting with this, but it does have promise.

Point Ybel Lighthouse

One day before leaving Florida for the season, I was astonished to see the long bird list for April sightings at Point Ybel on Sanibel Island.  Previously, when visiting the island I had proceeded directly to the famous Ding Darling Preserve, but this small park at the point is apparently a migration trap.  Warblers in particular were reported in large numbers there.  So I left the packing behind and headed to Sanibel with Andy and the new gear, for one last Florida birding hurrah.

Cape May Warbler, Dendroica tigrina

We were not disappointed.  Birds and birders galore intermingled with sun bathers near the base of the lighthouse.  I got to try out my system on these difficult flitting passerines.  The Cape May and Chestnut-sided Warblers stole the show with the Vireos, close behind.  We thought we also had a Nashville Warbler, but birding ID by consensus decided on a female Common Yellowthroat instead.  I’ve been fooled by that bird before.

Common Yellowthroat, Geothlypis trichas

Life is jam packed with compromises.  You can’t know it all, see, hear, read, or afford it all, and your time is short.  So you make choices.  Granted, the choice of a travel camera and lens is not monumental, but for a birder it is important.  I’ve decided to stick to my original goal of lightness, compactness, and versatility, knowing that I’d be sacrificing some reach.  I bought the Panasonic 50-200mm lens and head to Europe this week with it, leaving my Canon behind.

Our Passage to India: Birding the Subcontinent

Taj Mahal

 

Even in the predawn light with Venus shining low in the East, we knew it was going to be another hot day.  I was still getting used to the sights, sounds, and smells of India as we waited near the front of the line at the massive sandstone wall and wooden doors.  A chorus of uniformed schoolgirls passed by as a poor man hawked water bottles.  A stray riderless horse galloped by.  We just looked at each other and shrugged.  This was a different world.

Indian Peafowl, Pavo cristatus

Three companions and I were at the gate of the Taj Mahal in Agra, patiently waiting for the doors to swing open and begin the race to the monument.  It has been described as “a teardrop on the cheek of humanity” and “the embodiment of all things pure” and was built by Emperor Shah Jahan in 1632 in memory of his beloved third wife, Mumtaz Mahal who died in childbirth.  Our task was to see and photograph this beauty at dawn, unencumbered by the horde of tourists that would flood the site later.

Jungle Babbler, Turdoides striata

Somehow a young Indian boy latched onto us as the doors parted and led our charge to all the prime photography spots.  He pointed out exactly where to stand for each shot and urged us onward to beat the rush of the other photographers.  I was breathing hard and sweating, but stunned by the beauty of it all.  There was no time to stop, that is until someone yelled, “White-throated Kingfisher in the reflecting pool.”  The boy couldn’t believe we were taking precious moments to stop and photograph a bird.  He didn’t realize that this is what birders do.

Red-whiskered Bulbul, Pycnonotus jocosus

Why India?  This question has been asked by many of my friends, some of whom are world travelers but have never been drawn to the “Jewel in the Crown”.  It all started with three couples sitting around a table in Naples, Florida eight months ago.  One wanted to return to her homeland after an absence of 47 years, and her husband, my friend and colleague for many years, supported her wish.  Her brother and his wife, also of Indian heritage, live in the U.S. but have a home in India.  They were our invaluable planners and gracious hosts for the adventure.  My wife and I, with no Indian roots, were just along for the ride.

Common Myna, Acridotheres tristis

Four of our six are photographers and birders, anxious to see some of the 1300 bird species found in India.  Most of these would be life birds for us.  But we had non-birders on board and all of us wanted to learn about the history, culture, geography, people, and cuisine of this fascinating land.  With that in mind we decided to join a 12-day tour of the major sites of North India, followed by a 5-day respite at the home of our hosts in Central India, and finish with 5 days of hard-core birding in the foothills of the Himalayas and northern jungle.  The non-birder’s only stipulations were, “no tents or outhouses”.  It was agreed to.

White-breasted Waterhen, Amaurornis phoenicurus

I learned from Phoebe Snetsinger’s book, “Birding on Borrowed Time”, the value of doing your homework before birding a new land.  E-bird made that easy allowing me to download a list of all the birds seen in October at our numerous destinations.  These 350 birds became my study list and target birds for the trip.  I used the Princeton Field Guide, “Birds of India” by Grimmett et-al as my state-side reference.  This book is also available as a smartphone AP called, “Indian Birds”.  This was invaluable in the field and allowed me to leave the heavy book at home.  The program has a good listing feature which sorts your bird sightings by date and location.

House Crow, Corvus splendens

Birders and photographers always wrestle with what to bring on an overseas trip.  This was especially an issue in India where our internal flights had a 35# weight restriction on checked bags.  My camera bag included one body, the Canon 7DII, and two lenses, the Canon 100-400mm 1.4-5.6L IS II and the Canon wide angle EFS 10-22mm for scenery shots.  The I-phone 6 camera proved more than adequate for scenery and portraits when I didn’t have the time or energy to change lenses.  I avoided a mistake of a prior trip abroad when I packed only the Canon 70-300mm 1.4-5.6L IS lens; a sharp lens but clearly a compromise for both scenery and birds.  It just does not have the reach for bird photography.  I left the scope and tripod home and didn’t miss them.  Extra batteries and memory cards filled out the bag.

Indian Pond Heron, Ardeola grayii

India is a mystifying land and will never be understood fully in a single month’s visit.  There is extreme poverty alongside obvious wealth.  There are modern high-rises right next to tin hovels, and shopping malls adjacent to open-air markets.  Unconstrained cows, dogs, goats, and monkeys are everywhere, city and country alike.  There is air and water pollution in the teeming cities, but majestic mountain ranges and dense jungles to the north.  The Indians seem to be a spiritual people with Hindu, Moslems, and Buddhists apparently interacting and living peacefully together.

Rose-ringed Parakeet, Psittacula krameri

In the blog postings to follow I hope to convey more of these impressions as we birded each step of the way across the subcontinent.  For my Indian readers, forgive my naive impressions of your land and my pictures of your common and mundane birds.  Just remember for me, it is all, land, people, and birds, new and exciting.

Confessions Of An Amateur Bird Photographer

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Double-crested Cormorant (Phalacrocorax auritus)

 

You and I have read all of the “right way” articles instructing us how to photograph birds, post-process the images, and store the files.  These have given me some valuable tips, maybe even from your blog, but in the end I must make my own way, experiment, and go with what works for me.  When this deviates from accepted practices there is some hesitation, or even embarrassment in mentioning it.  Despite this I’m offering my bird photography confessions; please don’t laugh or ridicule.

Sandhill Crane

Sandhill Crane (Grus canadensis)            click on any photo to zoom

On the input side I’m pretty conventional and follow consensus.  Use good equipment, the best that budget allows, take a lot of pictures (a day of birding typically results in 500+ shots), use aperture priority trying to keep exposure times to 1/800 seconds and faster.  Get close and stay low for ground birds.  Frequently check and adjust brightness compensation as conditions change, and if anything slightly under expose the bird.

Ring-necked Duck

Ring-necked Duck (Aythya collaris)

Here comes confession #1, I don’t like RAW.  If I was a professional and trying to make a living with bird photography I would use RAW, but I’m not and I don’t.  The RAW files are simply too large and the post-processing too time consuming.  JPEG suits me just fine.  Remember, I have 500 photos to sort through when I get home, even before post-processing begins.

Pied-billed Grebe

Pied-billed Grebe (Podilymbus podiceps)

A quick run through the 500 shots eliminates 400 due to motion, poor exposure, bad composition, or simply too many pictures of the same bird and pose; it’s easy to get carried away when the light and bird are perfect.  This brings me to confession #2, I do not use a sophisticated photo-processing program such as Photoshop or Light Room.  I’ve tried them and found that they are overkill for my needs.  The guiding principle here is KISS (keep it simple stupid).  Don’t laugh; I use Mac Photos 1.5.  It’s free and came with the computer.

Belted Kingfisher

Belted Kingfisher (Ceryle alcyon)

My post-processing goal is to take the remaining 100 shots and with reasonably little effort reduce that to 10 or 15 “keepers” suitable for long-term storage.  I crop most of my shots, stopping just before graininess becomes apparent and often realign the photo keeping the “rule of thirds” in mind.  A few quick tweaks to the exposure, brightness, and shadow controls and I’m done.  I almost never change tint and color.  If the shot doesn’t look great after these simple steps it goes into the trash.

Red-breasted Nuthatch

Red-breasted Nuthatch (Sitta canadensis)

Confession #3 is my methods for file organization and storage.  For a while a used Light Room’s rather complicated system entering tags and species identifiers to facilitate sorting.  When newer versions forced me into the Cloud I left LR and looked for a simpler solution.  I’m a little paranoid about the Cloud and the Russians–what if Vladimir Putin steals my warbler pictures?  Mac Photos 1.5 suits me well with periodic back-ups to a second computer and also to a free-standing hard drive stored in a fire-proof safe.  By the way, Photos 1.5 even handles RAW images if you must.

American White Pelican

American White Pelican (Pelecanus erythrorhynchos)

I’ve used multiple filing systems for bird photos and have switched to the scientific bird classifications.  In Photos I’ve created a separate album for each Order of birds, and a subfolder for each Family in the Order.  The Order names end with “…formes” and the Family names with “…idae”.  For instance a pelican photo is placed in a subfolder called Pelecanidae which is located in the folder called Pelecaniformes, and a nuthatch photo is placed in a subfolder named Sittidae which is in the folder Passeriformes.  This system has the value reenforcing my knowledge of bird classification as well as reminding me of the various birds’ anatomical and behavioral traits that place them into a specific Order and Family.

White-eyed Vireo

White-eyed Vireo (Vireo griseus)

On a few occasions a photo may be placed into an additional album.  For instance, bird photos from a trip abroad are placed in a country-specific album in addition to the entry in the bird classification file.  I also have a separate album for interesting flight shots.  Lastly I name the photo by common name and genus and species while the camera attaches a number, date, and now with the Canon 7DII, a GPS location.

Black and White Warbler

Black and White Warbler (Mniotilta varia)

So I confess to KISS, but am always open to suggestions and experimentation.  I apologize to the non-photography readers for the shop talk in this post but hope it triggers some conversation or comments from my fellow shutterbug friends.  It’s always fun to see how others handle their photos and files and is just another factor contributing to the many pleasure of this hobby.

Great Horned Owls

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It was unseasonably cold for early May and had been raining all week when cabin fever set in.  I just had to get out and do some birding.  I chose a small woodlot on the Eastern Shore of the Chesapeake Bay which is known locally as a Warbler trap, hoping some early migrators had arrived.  I decided to “go bare” with just the binos and leave the camera home and dry–always a bad move.

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San Domingo Creek with first hint of blue sky in a week

The birding was sparse and the warblers few.  But do you know the eerie feeling that you’re being watched?  I felt that just before I looked up into two pairs of yellow eyes 20 feet above my head.  Great Horned Owls are formidable birds.  I slowly backed off while snapping a few poor shots with my cell phone to prove to my skeptical birding friends that I had actually seen them.  That night, despite dreaming that I had been attacked by owls, I resolved to take a real camera back to the site and look for the birds again.

I believe these two birds are juveniles, likely hatched in February making them about 3 months old.  You can still see some of their fuzzy down but they are nearly full-sized.  The juveniles leave the nest and climb onto nearby branches at 5 weeks and can fly by 9-10 weeks.  They won’t acquire the full adult plumage until next October.

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Bubo virginianus

When I returned the next morning with a real camera and lens, the Canon 7D II and 100-400mm 4.5-5.6L IS II, the birds were gone or at least not where I had left them.  This was a big disappointment as I had never taken a good photo of a Great Horned Owl in daylight.  Making the best of it and birding the remainder of the woodlot I saw nothing more exciting than a Ruby-crowned Kinglet, Common Yellowthroat, and a small flock of Cowbirds making that weird clunking sound.  That is until I saw the owls again about 75 yards away from their initial perch, hunched together and staring me down.  Their leery gaze followed me wherever I moved as I tried to get the best angle for a shot while still keeping a prudent distance away.

Getting a reasonable photo in the dark woods on an overcast day is a real challenge.  I cranked the ISO up to 6400 which explains the slight lack of sharpness of these shots.  I was still able to keep exposure speeds of 1/320 to 1/640 seconds.  Normally one wants exposures faster than that while shooting moving birds, but these were motionless.  I only saw one adjust his foot position once. These speeds along with the image stabilization gave a reasonable result.

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Click on any photo to zoom

The juveniles were obviously capable of some flight, having moved to another tree.  I haven’t mentioned that on the first day I found a third owl. This one was an adult about 100 yards away in the same woods.  Since this is Mother’s Day I will venture to say that it was the mother keeping a close eye on her adolescents.  She was still helping with the feeding and protecting them from any birder that got too close.  I can just hear my mother telling me and my brother to sit there and don’t move until I return with your lunch.  Mother owl likely did the same.  I’ll bet she’s also encouraging some independence for her owlets and looking forward to the day when her offspring are finally mature, on their own, and her maternal mission accomplished.

The Saga of the New Lens

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Every bird photographer has experienced “lens envy” and I’m no exception.  I was the happy owner of the Canon 400mm f/5.6L for many years.  This extremely sharp lens was introduced in 1993 and is still available at a reasonable price.  I have taken many exquisite photos with it and have recommended it to others.  It’s about the largest and heaviest telephoto one can carry comfortably while birding.  I’m no fan of the huge lenses one sees on tripods being transported through the woods and across sandy beaches in baby carriages.

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America Bittern (click on any photo to zoom)

Then along came the new Canon 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS II.  I reluctantly read the reviews, as I didn’t want to be tempted.  They were all stellar.  I stiffened my resolve and refused to upgrade and spend more money–“if it isn’t broke, don’t fix it”.  Then one of my birder/photographer friend bought it and began applying subtle pressure.  I saw that it was quite good, albeit slightly heavier than my old standby.  His photos were beautiful and sharp, but not really that much better than mine.  I carried on with my 400mm for another 6 months, but slowly came to recognize the capabilities of this new lens.

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American Bittern, at Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary in Florida

The zoom feature is a big plus.  With the fixed 400mm I would often miss a great shot if the bird was too close.  By the time I backed up to get it in focus, the bird would be gone.  The ability to shoot down to 100mm with the zoom feature also makes the lens much more versatile. You can actually take some people and landscape shots while birding without changing lenses.

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Blue-headed Vireo

Also the old lens did not have image stabilization (IS).  I learned to compensate for this by keeping the exposures fast, 1/000 or faster but that, in turn, often required grainy high ISO settings, especially when shooting in low light.  IS allows slower shutter speeds and lower ISO settings, if the bird is still, resulting in sharper pictures. It also lets you to see the bird more clearly through the viewfinder facilitating a difficult ID. Additionally it allows you to place the point focus exactly where you want it on the bird.

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Carolina Wren

So as the title suggests, I finally succumbed and made the purchase.  Non-birders may not understand this, but waiting for the UPS truck to deliver a new lens brings to mind “visions of sugar plums” dancing in children’s heads on Christmas Eve.  You can even track the delivery across the country on the internet right to your front door.  I was ready and waiting when “Brown” arrived. I carefully unpacked the new baby, screwed on the new UV filter, and attached it to the camera–in my case the Canon 7D Mark II.  Remember to always save the packing.

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Yellow-bellied Sapsucker

The first shots taken around the house seemed OK on the camera LCD, but the acid test would be bird photos.  A trek to the mangrove swamp yielded numerous shots of wading herons and egrets.   My anticipation grew while the images loaded into the computer.  Disappointment.  These were not sharp and crisp images.  When you zoom to maximum on a bird’s eye, the glint of light should be perfectly sharp with a good lens and camera.  It was not.  I rechecked my exposure factors and they all seemed OK.  Maybe it was just a cloudy day.  I decided to try again the next day in better light but began to wonder if I should have been content with the old lens.

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Red-bellied Woodpecker

The next day in bright sunshine things were no better.  I took hundreds of shots and there wasn’t a sharp one in the bunch.  More doubt crept in.  Was it me, the camera, or just a bad copy of this lens?  I knew it wasn’t the camera since it produced great photos with the old lens. That left me and the lens.  I explained my issues to B&H Photos in New York.  They tactfully told me a bad lens would be highly unusual, but asked if I had checked the focus micro adjustments?  Dead silence from me as I wondered what he was talking about.  Again, tactfully they explained that camera setting and how to check it.

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Ovenbird

There is a great You-Tube video available describing how to check and make micro adjustments on your camera.  Sometimes a lens focus plane can be slightly in front of or behind the autofocus point you see in the viewfinder, leading to unsharp images.  This is tested by placing the camera on a tripod and aiming at a precise spot on a grid or ruler from a 45 degree angle.  Use a delayed shutter release to eliminate camera shake.  When you review the picture the best focus point should be exactly where you aimed.  If it is not spot on, you can adjust the camera.  I did this many times and got very inconsistent results–some focused behind the point and others too far forward.  It must be a bad lens.  With another call to B&H, they immediately agreed to replace the lens.

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Prairie Warbler

This time I awaited “Brown’s” arrival with apprehension.  Bad news.  It was deja vu all over again–the pictures were still not sharp.  I couldn’t possibly have received two lemons of this revered lens and I can’t call B&H again–they’ll think I’m crazy.  My friend with the identical camera and lens made a sympathetic house call to calm me down and compare our settings.  They all matched. So we headed out into the field for some birding shots, swapping cameras and interchanging lenses.  Finally, he suggested I remove the lens filter and shoot “naked”.  I have always used a UV filter primarily to protect the lens from dust and scratches.  EUREKA!  Problem solved!  The pictures were tack sharp. There is order in the universe!  It was always the filter.

Palm Warbler

Palm Warbler

So what have I learned from all this?  First, Canon makes great products and B&H gives exceptional customer service.  Second, do not cover your great lens with a cheap filter and always listen to the advice of a friend who knows more about photography than you.  Next, be aware of the camera micro adjustments even though you’ll probably never have to use them.  And finally, always save the packing material, even for the UV filter.

Most of the photos in this post were taken with the new lens minus the troublesome filter.  The Canon 100-400mm f4.5-5.6L II is truly a great lens.

Birding Buenos Aires

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Those crazy European explorers of the 15th and 16th century, thinking they could find the spice islands and land of Marco Polo by sailing west.  The pesky New World continents kept getting in the way and all the probing of the promising bays and rivers failed to reveal a passage to the East.  In the north they tried the St. Lawrence and Hudson Rivers and the Hudson and the Chesapeake Bays, and further south the Orinoco and Amazon Rivers, Gulf of Mexico, and Caribbean, all of which had only deceiving potential.

Rio de la Plata

Rio de la Plata

In 1516 Spaniard Juan Diaz de Solis was the first European to sail into the Rio de la Plata, a 150 mile wide bay pointing to the west, but it too eventually narrowed to a river and the water rapidly became less salty and more silty–wrong again. Early settlements were repulsed by the understandably cautious natives, but the first permanent settlement was finally established by Juan de Garay in 1580.

Guira Cockoo

Guira Cockoo, Guira guira

Today Buenos Aires, “Good Winds”, the “Paris of South America”, is a teeming subtropical metropolis on the shore of Rio de la Plata, with 15.5 million inhabitants. It’s the most visited city on the continent.  Having a few days off and faced with losing my LAN airfare from a previously cancelled trip to Patagonia, I chose this city for my first trip to South America.  Mind you, this was not a birding trip, although one is always birding, but rather a hastily arranged spring respite, (fall by their calendar) in a new continent for us.  Buenos Aires was a leading destination for European immigrants from 1880 to 1930, mainly Italian, German, and Spanish, and that is very apparent in the architecture visible between the gigantic billboards.  The passions of its people are football and Tango, with reminders of both on all the street corners and in the parks.

Turquoise-front Parrot and Monk Parakeet

Turquoise-fronted Parrot and Monk Parakeet, Amazona aestiva and Myiopsitta monachus

We took several opportunities to rest our tired sight-seer legs, get a cold drink, and watch Tango up close.  Apparently there are multiple styles.  What I saw was a slow, sensual dance, arms held high, head back, and legs wrapping and un-wraping around your partner.  To a birder it looked like the dance of a Reddish Egret, strutting and fishing in the shallows, but the bird is all alone.  I did not observe any solo Tango.

Ruffescent Tiger-heron

Ruffescent Tiger-heron, Tigrisoma lineatum

Our hotel was a small affair in the Recoleta neighborhood, described in tour books as upscale, with abundant parks, museums, embassies, shopping, and restaurants.  What’s not to like.  Heading to a new world as a birder and photographer there are important choices to make.  “What’s in your bag?” is the common inquiry among birders.

Green-barred Woodpecker, Colaptes melanochloros

Green-barred Woodpecker, Colaptes melanochloros

For this trip I decided to travel light and leave the Canon 400mm F5.6L birding lens home, trying out the newly purchased, more versatile, and smaller Canon 70-300 F1:4-5.6L zoom.  The theory being to have the 70mm end for everyday walk-around sight-seeing, but also be constantly vigilant and ready to zoom to 300mm when that unexpected bird lands on the Tango dancer’s shoulder.  Remember, when on a continent for the first time, almost everything, including the birds are brand new.

Red Gartered Coot

Red Gartered Coot, Fulica armillata

This compromise lens is sturdy, well constructed, and sharp, but the operative word is compromise.  When birding I really missed the extra length, and when sightseeing I wished I had more field-of-view to capture the wonderful urban landscapes of Buenos Aires.

Chalked-brown Mockingbird

Chalked-browed Mockingbird, Mimus saturninus

One good decision I made was to hire a birding guide for a day.  I’ve urban birded alone in Tokyo and in stateside cities, but you just see much more with an expert guide.  I found Diego Gallegos from his website, www.buenosairesbirding.com, and convinced my non-birder wife to dust off her rarely used binoculars and join us.  It was a success.  He picked us up at the hotel and we visited three urban/suburban sites, a wetlands near Universidad de Buenos Aires, a golf course park and pond called Lago del Golf, and a park on the shore of the Rio de la Plata, Reserva Municipal de Vincente Lopez. Diego was pleasant and patient.  In addition to birding, and to the relief of my wife, he taught us much about his culture and life in Argentina.

Diego Gallegos

Diego Gallegos

Additional early morning strolls through the various parks in Recoleta, including the beautiful Jardin Japones yielded more new birds and by the end of the trip I had added 40 life birds, but who’s counting.  This is a relatively meagre list, given the phenomenal avian diversity of South and Central America, but served to stimulate me to plan future excursions below the equator.  Heading south, rather than east and west, also has the great advantage of avoiding jet-lag since you are crossing few or no time zones.  The Galapagos, Costa Rica, Panama, Ecuador, Peru, and the Amazon all beckon.

Canary-winged and Monk Parakeets

Canary-winged and Monk Parakeets, Brotogeris versicolurus

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.