Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Backlit, Silhouetted Eagle...Which Species?

Birding skill is built on good looks of species; the language of bird identification is target and study diagnostic field marks incorporating a philosophy of "jizz" (general impression size and shape). Yep, that is accomplished under good conditions (lighting, weather, etc.) and soon the art of bird identification is mastered. Then comes an opportunity to push the envelope.

After work (late afternoon on a winter day) an eagle is perched in a tall cottonwood. At a distance it is all dark, nape reflects lighter color with what appears to be a smallish bill...thinking Golden Eagle. Photos are taken at about 75 yards with a DSLR camera, below are two shots. Though lighting is poor, note: the steep forehead; strongly hooked, dark-tipped bill; the white spotting on the wing coverts; no white tail base; the nape lacks large, solid area of golden hue. Now thinking Bald Eagle, for sure. As President Ronald Reagan said many years ago, "trust, but verify" :-) Find something challenging too!

Monday, December 29, 2014

Another Successful Christmas Bird Count

Had an enjoyable Christmas Bird Count experience; our section (Lee Metcalf NWR) of the Stevensville, MT count circle found 55 species...did not detect a single House Sparrow or Starling! Temperatures were near/at 32 F all day with periods of sunshine, very nice compared to -20 F on North Dakota CBC's some years back. The wind was calm morning long with a definite uptick by early afternoon.

The group was composed of four people, perfect for the Ford Explorer used. The windows were frozen closed for the better part of an hour, however it didn't negatively effect the outcome. As the first person to arrive, I ticked off a hooting Great Horned Owl in the dark without any special effort. Thanks to the mild overnight temps, open water habitat allowed us to quickly add target species Northern Shoveler, Lesser Scaup, Ruddy Duck, Virginia Rail (with assist from smartphone app) and assorted waterbirds within 30 minutes of start. By 9:30 we had reached 36 species, many that no other count circle group will tick off. This touches on strategy, that's right this birding event requires thoughtful planning.

I've previously posted (http://goo.gl/9DZBSc) behaviors for CBC birding success. Like identification much of these behaviors become second nature/intuitive with experience. So it came as no surprise that the Prairie Falcon and Rough-legged Hawk (few around this winter) were atop powerpoles on the route returning to the office for a decided twenty minute lunch break. After which we went into forested habitat for woodpecker, finch and nuthatch species. Did not find much for quite a while when we heard a call note, yep that's how feeding flocks are found. Craning our necks to the upper branches of Ponderosa Pine, there were the Pygmy Nuthatch (25...making their piano wire vocalizations, my interpretation) with a host of other small songbirds-great fun!!

Leaving the forested habitat, we were above 50 species for the day, but had missed Pileated and Hairy Woodpecker. We revisited wetland habitat targeting Snipe. There was a good amount of shallow water areas to look over. One of our group spied a small bird out on a mudflat...very strange! Hurriedly set up the spotting scope and surmised it was a Rusty Blackbird, yowza! Yep, closer looks and photos (header photo above) determined it was really this species. Probably a Refuge CBC first.

Backtracked to previous search area and voila...snipe flushed. By now it was late afternoon and a "mission accomplished" mentality set in. Surpassed our target of 50 species on a winter day in Montana...not bad :-) Hope you had a chance to participate in this fun birding, if not there's still time.

Monday, December 22, 2014

Manfrotto 454 Focus Rail...Greaaaat :-)

I just bought a Manfrotto 454 focus rail (photo below) to replace a more generic one; big difference! Pretty simple device, a focus rail is used to manually focus a macro lens. My macro lens is the 65mm MP-E 1-5x Canon; this is an incredible lens...if you can operate it. Again, focus is all manual; it requires (for me) a tripod and a focus rail. The Manfrotto 454 has a wonderful feature, the "quick release mechanism" which gets the lens close to the subject for fine tuning fast. Once close enough, one turns the worm drive for exacting focus. Ophrys Photography has a great overview on this lens.

So, I went to one of my favorite spots for wildlife, Maclay Flat to use this new tool. Within 50 yards of the parking lot found 30 foot tall Ponderosa Pine loaded with crustose and foliose lichen. The weather was not perfect, overcast with intermittent sprinkles. Lack of natural light is not a deal breaker as I use a Canon MR-14EX macro ring lite. Within minutes I've got my rig assembled and mounted on my Manfrotto 190 tripod with a Junior Geared Head.

Compared to the focus rail I had, the 454 focus rail is a Ferrari. Easy to use, smooth, precise and fast. I took a series of photos with the intent of "focus stacking" through Photoshop. I've never done this before; followed directions given by The Nature Photography Co. The bottom photo is my first focus stacked product; it is Hypogymnia physodes or Hooded Tube Lichen. Not the greatest, but a great beginning. Hope you enjoy and see you in the field photographing/watching your favorite wildlife :-)

Manfrotto 454 focus rail

Hooded Tube Lichen

Sunday, December 21, 2014

Bohemian Waxwing Recorded...in Low Numbers

I did my fruit-tree circuit again (previous blog post), initiated about December 8. Did record Bohemian Waxwing (Bombycilla garrulus) perched high in a cottonwood once over the 4 mile route. The twelve birds stayed put just long enough for a couple backlit (dark) photos. Even in the dark photo below you can faintly see the white spots on the wings (Cedars do not have these markings). Also identified by the harsher, slower trill.

Perhaps, the normal/above normal temperatures account for the lack of waxwing presence/activity. Today we had spotty rain and about 42 F, 12 degrees above normal. Tomorrow is predicted to be partly cloudy and close to normal temps.

Bohemian Waxwing

Saturday, December 13, 2014

Close to Home Birding Adventure...Fruit Trees

Accent plantings around homes should not be discounted for birding, especially when trees of the Prunus (Cherry, assorted cultivars) or Sorbus (Rowan, non-native planting) genus are involved. Here in Lolo, MT (probably most urban areas of the west) both types of tree have been planted extensively in yards. I did a little survey five days ago. I counted 46 Mountain Ash (Rowan) and 22 Cherry trees over a circuit of about 4.5 miles, loaded with fruit. In my immediate neighborhood trees averaged about 215 feet apart. If you check the photos below you can see how loaded the trees are with food. Abundant food is definitely a formula for finding birds, so concentrated the birds come to you! Well almost, but they will be in earshot.

Amazingly, I detected nary a waxwing or grosbeak during the survey. However, it was just a matter of time with this food resource...Yep, heard several waxwing perched in our yard coming home early on Wednesday (2 days after survey). All turned out to be Cedar Waxwing (Bombycilla cedorum). The photo at bottom shows diagnostic characters of this bird: yellow belly, brown mantle, red tipped secondaries, white at bill base.
Drooping form of Mountain Ash (Sorbus aucuparia)

Mountain Ash berry

Cherry cultivar with small crop of berries

Cedar Waxwing (Bombycilla cedorum)

Sunday, December 7, 2014

Use a Camera Wildlife Watching

In my Google Plus feed this morning, I encountered a Ted Talk by Elizabeth Loftus: The Fiction of Memory. Since wildlife watching is all about memory, think "what do you see today?", I watched the video. It turns out our memory is "constructive in nature". "False memories" and misinformation can be planted into your remembrances. Yikes on many fronts.

Applying this information to wildlife watching/rare bird sightings, etc, could make the data/observation unreliable...unless independent corroboration is foundational to the work/report. This corroboration could be in the form of multiple persons independently reporting or documenting a bird sighting. This has been in place for some time in the birding community as a Rare Bird Report form. Still, if my memory is correct, a sighting by a single person even with descriptive text/drawings is not considered a "record" by most rare bird committees. This issue can be rendered moot just by capturing/supplying a photo (given a "good" photo) as documentation in the case of a wildlife observation.

A recent model camera (had "box" camera back then) may have made the difference in a rare bird report submitted to the California Rare Bird committee regarding a seabird sighting some nine years ago. I was aboard the Searcher for a five-day pelagic birding trip off of San Diego in 2005. On the early morning of September 8 came the call of "bird", most of us were in the galley having breakfast. Like everyone ran for the rear of the boat with binoculars. Saw a dark grey seabird over chum, made mental notes...bird did not stay long. Back in cabin many of us referred immediately to field guides...what was that? Many felt it was a Flesh-footed Shearwater, others had other opinions, me included. Never proved either way :-(

I only started using a DSLR camera consistently and regularly about five years ago, well into the digital camera age that started late 90's. I believe I did not adopt camera usage early on because of cost. Now that has changed, high quality point and shoot superzooms can now be had for ~$450. Usage of a DSLR has been the best thing I've ever done with my wildlife watching activities. Photography has been a catalyst for expanding into butterfly, dragonfly, wildflower, lichen, etc. watching. With this tool documenting and learning new plant and animal life has become easier, straightforward. Plus I get the added benefit of a visual product to inspire/motivate people about wildlife. Maybe you can ask Santa for a camera for Christmas...it will exponentially increase your learning, appreciation, citizen science efforts at sharing, recording and understanding wildlife. Here's a photo of juvenile Snow Goose I saw yesterday:
Snow Goose juvenile