Content & Photos © Bill Schmoker unless noted otherwise. Thanks for visiting- drop me a comment!

Monday, August 24, 2009

BBQ With The Birds

Hey folks- there's still time to join the Rocky Mountain Bird Observatory at their annual picnic on 29 August (this coming Saturday.) It is held at the historic Old Stone House at Barr Lake State Park just NE of Denver. There are lots of cool birding events, workshops, and exhibits, great food, bluegrass music, and then I give the luncheon talk to boot! You can get more info here, including a link to register for the event. Hope to see you there!

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Nikon Birding ProStaff

Some of you faithful readers may have noticed a new icon on the top of the left banner- the vaunted yellow Nikon logo. I'm very pleased to announce that I've joined the Nikon Birding ProStaff.

I would like to thank Leica and especially their birding market specialist, Jeff Bouton, for years of a rewarding affiliation. I deeply appreciate the connections and friendships that Jeff & Leica helped me forge, and for the great times and great birds we had at events (both officially and unofficially.) I will always be proud of the time I spent using the awesome gear with the red dot!

As you may also know, I've been a Nikon DSLR guy since the very first rig I got for digital bird photography (a D100 with 80-400mm f/5.6 VR.) I'm now shooting mainly a D300 with a 200-400mm f/4 VR lens, a rig that feels like a natural extension of my eye (both in physical and creative aspects.) The same legendary extra-low dispersion (ED) glass found in Nikon lenses is now at the center of their EDG line of sport optics. I've been using the EDG 8x42 binocular and the 65mm EDG Fieldscope for a few weeks now, and I'm blown away by the vivid, crisp images these optics produce. I've got to say it is exciting to be birding at a time when glass this sharp, bright, and comfortable is available!

I've also been playing around with some digiscoping using my new EDG Fieldscope. I'm still using my Panasaonic DMC-G1 (a mirror-less DSLR that I've discussed before.) I await testing the EDG 20/25 X Long Eye Relief eyepiece (LERs are well-known for vignette-free digiscoping) along with a more formal adapter, but for now I'm slamming stuff by hand-holding the G1 to the Fieldscope's zoom, using an improvised but effective centering guide made from a surplus adapter ring that I scavenged from an another digiscoping adapter. I back the scope zoom off to pretty wide and zoom in to approx. 30mm on the G1 kit lens, at the camera's medium-sized file setting (6 megapixels.) I use aperture priority, wide open (typically f/5 or so depending on the zoom setting), commonly at ISO 200 or 400 to maintain good shutter speed. At these settings I get vignette-free images that are sharp edge-to-edge (or should I say EDG to EDG??) The combo is amazingly fast, acquiring and shooting about as fast as my DSLR once scope focus is reasonably close (the camera can then make up the difference even if a bird moves in and out a bit.) All of the shots in this post were digiscoped using the new rig.

Anyway, I want to thank Nikon Sport Optics for the opportunity to promote their optics as a member of their Birding ProStaff. I'm humbled by the quality and reputations of birders I've joined there and am thrilled to have Nikon ED glass in front of me whether I'm photographing, using bins, scoping, or digiscoping.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Island Life

Another must-do trip in Southern California that I was finally able to do was the boat ride out to Santa Cruz Island departing from Ventura. Island Packers runs daily trips on fast catamarans, and I was aboard the 8 am departure on the Island Adventure to make the 1.5 hour (or so) crossing. Conditions were foggy & misty most of the way, but I did see some Sooty and Pink-footed Shearwaters. Closing in on the island, I also saw Common Murres and Pigeon Guillemots. A highlight for everyone during the crossing was a large pod of common dolphins, many of which took turns surfing on the bow wave of the boat. The overhanging configuration of the bow allows you to look straight down on these magnificent cetaceans as they catch a ride. Can't help but smile as they do this no matter how many times you've seen it before!!

Most of the day trippers get off at the first stop, Scorpion Anchorage, for sea kayaking, snorkeling, hiking, or whatever. But most birdy types stay on board to head farther around the island to Prisoner's Harbor, where Island Scrub-Jays are more reliable. Off the boat then goes, and you've got about 6 hours of island birding before the 4 pm pickup.
Approaching Santa Cruz Island

Cavern Point seen from Scorpion Anchorage- you geology types will appreciate the diagonal thrust fault running through the cliff.

Prisoner's Harbor

See 'ya, Island Adventurer!

As many of my faithful readers will know, the Island Scrub-Jay is only found on Santa Cruz Island and is told from the nearby coastal races of Western Scrub-Jay by its darker coloration, larger bill, and overall larger size (in both dimension and weight.) I'm told their bones have been found on other Channel Islands but they were extirpated sometime in the past from all but Santa Cruz Island. Despite the island being in sight of the mainland (at least on clear days), there are no records of Western Scrub-Jays on the island or Island Scrub-Jays on the mainland. Reliable the jays were, calling from the tall Eucalyptus trees as the boat arrived. One eventually came down around the old sheep pens. Still, it took a while to get clear looks, but eventually I found a pair in the brush around a dry stream bed that wanted badly to get photographed. All of the Scrub-Jays I saw there had color bands. Another farther along the creek was curious about my presence, too. In a first for me, I first detected that bird by hearing the silvery jingling of its bands before I turned around and saw it looking out at me from the brush. This small endemic population is closely monitored by color-banding the individuals around the easily-accessed boat landing site.

Santa Cruz island also has other interesting endemic birds (not to mention plants, mammals, and insects), but for now at least they don't have full species status like the Scrub-Jay. Perhaps best-known is the endangered Channel Island Loggerhead Shrike, but to see that you have to get up into the interior portions of the island, which I didn't do. Unlike the single-island-dwelling Island Scrub-Jay, this shrike subspecies is found on 7 of the 8 Channel Islands. I also missed the island versions of Hutton's Vireo and Rufous-crowned Sparrow. I did, however, enjoy seeing the resident subspecies of Allen's Hummingbird (sedentarius) along with the "dusky" (sordida) Orange-crowned Warbler, the island-endemic Pacific Slope Flycatcher (insulicola) and the island version of Song Sparrow (clementae).
sedentarius Allen's Hummingbird

sordida ("dusky") Orange-crowned Sparrow

insulicola Pacific-slope Flycatcher

clementae Song Sparrow

I also enjoyed this curious pair of Harbor Seals that came in from their kelp forest to see what I was up to as I strolled a cobble beach. Interesting to see the differences in coloration on these two individuals. Brown Pelicans skimmed back and forth over the kelp with an occasional plunge-dive. After a couple of intense days of mainland birding, I also enjoyed some island time in a grassy pocket, catching some z's before the 4pm boat pickup. Luckily I didn't oversleep- if you miss the boat you're out of luck until the next day.

Anyway, the return of the boat (this time the Islander) signaled an end to my visit. What a great place to go birding- hope to get the chance to do so again!!

Thursday, August 06, 2009

Cookin' on the Condor Express

I wrapped up a very productive trip to Southern California with a 14-hour long pelagic trip into deep waters out of Santa Barbara on 25 July. In order to squeeze in 250+ so miles of ocean birding without going overnight, a very fast boat is needed. Enter the Condor Express, a whale-watching catamaran capable of 30+ mph crusing. While this might not sound impressive in a car-based frame of reference, it is really flying for a big boat to do speeds like this in sizable Pacific swells. We got as far as 107 miles or so from Santa Barbara, in waters up to 2000 fathoms deep (12,000 feet.) The hope on a distant, deepwater pelagic like this is to find some choice birds that rarely approach shallow waters closer to shore. The prevailing sentiment among my friends before the trip was that there may not be many birds out there but any one might be really good. To mangle one of Forrest Gump's lines, pelagics are like a box of chocolates- you never know what you'll get. Well, we got more than our share of treats! A full trip report can be found here, but let me say that we saw lots of birds out beyond the Channel Islands, with a count of 136 Cook's Petrels(!!!) and an adult Red-billed Tropicbird for the cherry on top. These two, along with Xantu's Murrelet (unfortunately not photographed) and Leach's Storm-Petrel were lifers for me.

Here are some photographic highlights of the trip:

Once the boat passes the harbor marker (and its loafing California Sea Lion crew), the four computer controlled 740Hp Detroit Diesel engines propel the Condor Express into warp speed, heading for a gap through the Channel Islands and towards deep water! In open water, sea lions bask by holding their rear flippers and one front flipper in the sunlight.

Sea mammals are always of interest, and we enjoyed several pods of Common Dolphins and this Humpback Whale. I also got my lifer Blue Whale and saw spouting Fin Whales. The Santa Barbara Channel is probably the best place in North America to see these largest of animals to ever live on Earth- next time I'm back in the summer I'll save a day strictly for whale watching.

Closer to shore, the most common seabirds were Pink-footed (here) and Sooty Shearwaters.

One of my 4 lifers on the trip, Leach's Storm-Petrels offered quick, erratic looks throughout the day. These birds range from light-rumped (top) to dark-rumped. The bottom bird is on the dark end of an intermediate bird, I'd say. All I managed were soft shots like these but still, I was thrilled to see 'em!

A bit farther out we encountered a cooperative pair of Black-footed Albatrosses. Even at a distance their wingy jizz is unmistakable, but Wes Fritz coaxed them in close to the boat with his delectable chumming mix of fish oil, ground anchovies, and lovingly hand-cut strips of beef fat.

We also had a pair of really haggard-looking Northern Fulmars in desperate need of molt, which they had just begun. The manky, bleached feathers are the old ones, while the crisp-looking dark ones are newly grown.

We had high hopes of seeing a good gadfly petrel like the Cook's Petrel above. When the first one was called it was a struggle for many of us to get on it- a small, distant, fast-flying pale bird among the swells and whitecaps of the Pacific in overcast conditions. It was like looking for a gray needle in a gray haystack. The picture above is actually of a fairly close bird but it gives you a feeling for how easy they are to get lost in the waves. I finally got so-so looks of the first and was pleased with picking up a lifer, but it was far from a satisfying look. Soon another appeared, offering better looks and lots more cheers and high-fives around the boat as more folks picked up the bird. More chumming and more birds eventually brought really good looks. At times small groups of up to a dozen Cook's were seen together, and several close (but fast) flybys of the boat challenged photographers to keep up.

Pterodroma petrels like Cook's have an unmatched speedy arcing flight style that is a wonder to watch. They can veer up above the horizon and disappear between waves in nearly an instant, all without a wingbeat. They have the perkiest dynamic soaring style that I have seen, and it really must be seen to be fully appreciated. Above is a series of 6 consecutive shots taken at 5 frames per second, so this represents 1.2 seconds in the soaring life of a Cook's Petrel. You can see that their upperwing pattern somewhat resembles the dark "M" on a lighter gray background seen in Buller's Shearwater, but the flight cadence and style is totally different. Their belly and underwings are mostly white- sometimes the way to pick up a distant bird was to see the white flashing as their underside came into view.

One more gratuitous shot of this fabulous bird.

And then, as if the Cook's show wasn't enough, an adult Red-billed Tropicbird flew in to investigate, circling the boat lazily three times before heading back into the open Pacific. Not only a lifer species, but a lifer family (Phaethontidae)- and a really cool bird family at that! Kind of rough photographing a white bird against a bright overcast sky, but as Borat would say,
Is Very Nice!!