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

Friday, October 07, 2011

Snake In The Grass

At the Midwest Birding Symposium, my friend Clay Taylor tuned me on to a great digiscoping lens for Micro Four Thirds Cameras. I knew that I would have to get the Olympus 14-42mm MSC lens to pair with my Panasonic DMC-G1 after he let me try it- on my Nikon EDG Fieldscope I can get vignette-free images at nearly any zoom. The internal focus of the lens prevents any bumping and it seems very sharp on initial perusal. As a nice bonus, I found out that it also makes a really nice macro lens when I came across this Common Garter Snake at Boulder Reservoir last week. With the zoom range (28-84mm equivalent), digiscoping friendliness, and excellent macro capabilities, I think that it will be the ideal companion to tote along as a compliment to my telephoto rig. Here are a few macros taken with this new rig- digiscoping examples will follow eventually...

Thursday, October 06, 2011

How Cool is This? Nikon Announces Stabilized Scopes

I just got word that Nikon will produce an imaged-stabilized version of the vernerable EDG Fieldscope. There will be straight and angled 85mm models, each equipped with Nikon's VR (vibration reduction) technology that has been perfected in their stabilized camera lenses. I swear by the VR in my 200-400mm f/4 VR Nikon camera lens- it makes hand-holding the rig a reality, even with a 1.4X teleconverter. I think the potential for VR in a scope is pretty amazing, particularly for digiscoping. Using stabilized cameras for digiscoping really doesn't help since they can't counter movements in the scope, so this should be a major weapon for getting sharp digiscoped shots. I'm not sure when I'll get to put my hands on one of these but I'll let you know what I think when I do!!

Friday, September 30, 2011

Fall Warbler Workout

I recently had the fabulous opportunity to attend the Midwest Birding Symposium representing Nikon Sport Optics. The event was headquartered in Lakeside, Ohio, and in addition to our booth Nikon sponsored the famous Magee Marsh Boardwalk birding site. This meant that my partner Tom Dunkerton & I had to scout the boardwalk and then head out to help the birders heading there as part of their symposium dance card- a tough job but someone has to do it!!

I especially appreciated the mental workout of identifying migrant fall eastern warblers- as a Colorado birder I don't see many of these. (Most of my experience with eastern warblers is from trips north and east to tally these beauties during the breeding season when their full colors and songs make the sorting much easier.) I think I've sussed the following birds out but please set me straight if you think I've gotten any wrong! Hope you enjoy the non-bird stuff, too. (Click on any image to enlarge.) Enjoy- Bill

Cape May Warbler (thanks, Nate!)

Blackpoll Warblers (note the yellow feet!)

Black-throated Blue Warbler (no mistaking that one!!)

Black-throated Green Warbler

Chestnut-sided Warblers

Baby Eastern Fox Snake (thanks to Tom Dunkerton for the pic of me with the snake)

Philadelphia Vireo (by far the best pic of this species I've gotten so far!)

Sunrise @ Magee Marsh

Rose-breasted Grosbeak

Red-eyed Vireo (young bird- note dark eye.)

Sanderling (on zebra mussel shells.)

Tom Dunkerton photographing a Northern Watersnake

Yours Truly photographing above Sanderling (thanks again, Tom Dunkerton!)

To See the Grebe, Be the Grebe

Sorry about the lack of activity 'round these parts lately- I should mention that for a while now I've been blogging every other week on the ABA Blog. I'll try to remember to post links to my ABA Blog entries here, like my latest about grebe photography from a kayak. I'll also try to have some fresh stuff here on BrdPics- especially photography, perhaps with less commentary (as my ABA posts often are more verbose.) Thanks, faithful readers! -Bill

Tuesday, March 01, 2011

The Crossley ID Guide- Eastern Birds

I was very excited to recently receive a thick envelope from Princeton University Press (THANKS!!), knowing it held The Crossley ID Guide: Eastern Birds. I had discussed the book a few times with the energetic author, Richard Crossley, and knew it would be groundbreaking, unique, & valuable. It didn't disappoint!

The book begins differently from the very onset, with a quick reference guide on the endsheet (yeah, I had to look that up) organized by birds as you see them in the field instead of following the current (& ever changing) AOU taxonomy. There are sample images of birds from each of his 8 groups based on habitat and physical similarities (Swimming Waterbirds, Flying Waterbirds, Walking Waterbirds, Upland Gamebirds, Raptors, Miscellaneous Larger Landbirds, Aerial Landbirds, & Songbirds) with pages listed to get beginners going to the right sections and to let more advanced birders know how to find birds in this guide. The table of contents is also totally different than any other bird book I know of, with simply a small photo typifying each bird (all that share a page to the same scale- sweet!), the 4-letter banding code, and a page number.

I enjoyed Richard's preamble discussing the layout of the book, how to use it, and his thoughts on bird ID. In fact, one thing I enjoy about new bird books is the textual introductions (both to the book and to the various sections), with nuggets of knowledge to be gleaned from each author's expertise and perspective. Richard's species-level notes also have much food for thought and ID tips to apply in the field.

The biggest difference of this publication is its treatment of each species, which consists of a background image selected to represent a typical habitat for the bird and multiple (dozens in many cases) of bird images composited into the plate to represent various plumages and poses, nearly always including flight shots. I can't imagine the effort that went into getting flight shots for the little guys! The idea is that as birders we see birds near and far, in different plumages, at various angles and in flight and the book aims to replicate that. Richard is an intense, high-energy guy and his plates are a reflection of his personality- pedal to the metal birding that could border on information overload! He isn't afraid to show birds that aren't always pretty, such as a House Finch with conjunctivitis, little guys lurking among branches, or nocturnal birds with eye glow. Richard includes people and human structures in many of the backgrounds- again, reality supersedes always going for beauty which I feel is appropriate. It is essentially a massive photo library of reference shots for the 640 species represented.

The book is large, something I'd leave at home or in my vehicle for reference instead of toting around in the field (it is even bigger than the "big" Sibley Guide.) Some images may be too small in the background to be entirely helpful, though I suppose even those could supply helpful gestalt for the species. Some of the plates are also a bit dark to my eye. Admittedly, we see distant, small birds and we find ourselves in dim conditions so reality rules here, too, though in a book one might wish for brighter more detailed images throughout.

Richard's web site ( promises upcoming Western US & UK
versions, both of which I'm very anxious to see as well (especially the Western version as I hail from the Mountain Time Zone.) I congratulate Richard on this monumental effort and for coming up with a bird guide concept so new and yet so potentially helpful to birders across the spectrum of ability and experience.

From the publisher:

This stunningly illustrated book from acclaimed birder and photographer Richard Crossley revolutionizes field guide design by providing the first real-life approach to identification. Whether you are a beginner, expert, or anywhere in between, The Crossley ID Guide will vastly improve your ability to identify birds.

Unlike other guides, which provide isolated individual photographs or illustrations, this is the first book to feature large, lifelike scenes for each species. These scenes--640 in all--are composed from more than 10,000 of the author's images showing birds in a wide range of views--near and far, from different angles, in various plumages and behaviors, including flight, and in the habitat in which they live. These beautiful compositions show how a bird's appearance changes with distance, and give equal emphasis to characteristics experts use to identify birds: size, structure and shape, behavior, probability, and color. This is the first book to convey all of these features visually--in a single image--and to reinforce them with accurate, concise text. Each scene provides a wealth of detailed visual information that invites and rewards careful study, but the most important identification features can be grasped instantly by anyone.

By making identification easier, more accurate, and more fun than ever before, The Crossley ID Guide will completely redefine how its users look at birds. Essential for all birders, it also promises to make new birders of many people who have despaired of using traditional guides.

  • Revolutionary. This book changes field guide design to make you a better birder
  • A picture says a thousand words. The most comprehensive guide: 640 stunning scenes created from 10,000 of the author's photographs
  • Reality birding. Lifelike in-focus scenes show birds in their habitats, from near and far, and in all plumages and behaviors
  • Teaching and reference. The first book to accurately portray all the key identification characteristics: size, shape, behavior, probability, and color
  • Practice makes perfect. An interactive learning experience to sharpen and test field identification skills
  • Bird like the experts. The first book to simplify birding and help you understand how to bird like the best
  • An interactive expanded captions for the plates and species updates

Tuesday, February 01, 2011

Roughing It

Here in the Boulder, Colorado area we've been enjoying an Arctic bird to go along with the Arctic weather we're having (got to about 0° F today for the high and supposed to get near -20° tonight with worse wind chill...) On Thursday my buddy Christian Nunes reported a juvenile Rough-legged Hawk that was along the road leading to his office in South Boulder. While an unusual species around here, what made the bird special was its unwariness- he found out about the bird when a co-worker showed him a picture of it on her iPhone! Another friend of mine got some killer shots of the bird on Friday so I thought I'd better see if it was still there on Saturday. It was, and I was treated to watching it hunt along the road for a couple of hours. Even when it dropped down to fence posts along the road it would stay put as joggers, bicyclists, and motorcycles went by. It only seemed to fly to get to another hunting perch or to pounce down on prey. This is in pretty serious contrast to my prior experiences with the species. Seems like most roughies blast off if you get within 100 meters. They often won't even tolerate a car stopping nearby. It was a pleasure to have such a cooperative subject, and I got an encore today as I went back for another hour or so this afternoon (courtesy of a snow day at work.) At one point today it flew right at me and dropped to the shoulder of the road about 10 meters away. Unfortunately it came up empty on that attempt, but I did see it successfully grab some rodents. Before the snow covered them them many vole tunnels were visible in the grass on the shoulder of the road and adjacent ditch- I'll bet the hawk is slashing its way through a strong colony of them. In a couple of shots below the bird is seen eating one such critter- I consulted my mammal pro buddy Chris Wemmer (AKA The Camera Trap Codger) and here's what he said about the afternoon snack:
Hi Bill,

It looks like it may be a prairie vole (Microtus ochrogaster) which has a gray belly ("or washed with whitish or pale cinnamon"). Esp if it was in open country. It occurs in the eastern half of the state. so seems to be within the range.

It could also be the long-tailed vole (M. longicaudus), but this species occurs in woody coniferous or brushy habitats and doesn't do the vole tunnel thing. It doesn't seem to be this however from what you say about the tunnels.

You also have the meadow vole there (M. pennsylvanicus), which is dull brown above with a gray belly. Can't rule this out.

Boulder is out of the range of the sagebrush vole (Lemmiscus curtatus).

The prairie vole seems most likely to me -- the tail is strongly bicolored in the 2nd picture, which also fits.

Thanks for the input, Chris, and for the head's up, Christian! Here are some of my favs of the bird- amazing that many times it was too close to fit in the frame as it flew by me while I stood on the shoulder of the road. The snowy shots are from today, others from last Saturday. Enjoy- Bill

Monday, January 17, 2011

Right Place at the Right Time

It's been a long time since I got a life bird 10 minutes from home, but that's what happened today! I was dutifully entering the Boulder CBC data online this morning, aiming to wrap up the long task of compiling the count, when my phone rang. Seeing it was my birding buddy Larry Semo I of course picked up. He was letting me know that he and another friend, Steve Mlodinow, had what was probably a young male Tufted Duck at Golden Ponds in Longmont just a hop, skip & jump away from my casa. I checked with the boss and she graciously cut me free of family duties to make the short-distance twitch. Arriving a bit later, I was treated to a sleeping Aythya duck showing one heck of a crest- almost cardinal-like when its head was tucked back. Soon the bird woke up, giving looks at its tuft and other field marks like the bill pattern and wing markings when it stretched. All looked good for a first-winter male Tufted Duck- cha-ching! The great thing about a lifer so close to home is that it ticks almost all of the lists I care most about (ABA, State, County, Photo)- just missing my yard list.

Here are some shots of the bird- hope it sticks around for others to enjoy!

Saturday, January 01, 2011

More Snow Light

> Raptors appeal to a wide spectrum of birders and nature loves like few other groups of birds. But their habit of perching high in trees or power poles and flying overhead can make photographing them challenging- they often have bright skies behind them that contribute to very dark images of the birds. Your eye & brain combination is much more forgiving than a digital camera sensor, which is why the bird that looked fine in your bins may look like a dark silhouette in your photos. You can play with exposure compensation or waiting for the right light (sunrise and sunset light from behind is quite nice) but if you live in northern latitudes, get out on a sunny day when there is snow on the ground. The snow acts like a big reflector, bouncing light up from underneath the birds. This helps illuminate raptors from below, showing features otherwise lost to underexposure on birds against bright skies. Portrait photographers sometimes use basically the same technique using portable reflectors to bounce sunlight at their models as an alternative to electronic flashes. This is especially helpful on dark raptors like eagles or dark-morph buteos, but works with about any raptor you find on a sunny day with snow on the ground. As a word of caution, light-morph raptors can look really pale in snow light- I've seen light Red-tailed Hawks mistakenly ID'd as Ferruginous Hawks in these conditions, for example, because they look so bright underneath in the bounced light.

We've had a notably dry, warm winter up to this week in Colorado's Northern Front Range where I reside. But we finally got significant snow a couple of days ago, followed by a sunny cold day today. Having the day off, I headed out to drive a nearby route I know can be productive for wintering raptors. One bird I was happy to find was this light-morph adult Harlan's Red-tailed Hawk. It is back for its 4th winter in the same wintering territory, showing the site fidelity of these birds. More amazingly, Jerry Liguori (author of Hawks From Every Angle: How To Identify Raptors in Flight and the upcoming Hawks at a Distance: Identification of Migrant Raptors) photographed the same bird in migration to its Alaskan breeding grounds in the spring of 2009. Feather-by-feather analysis of flight photos from Colorado & Alaska clearly established it was the same bird and we co-authored an article documenting the long distance photo-recovery in Colorado Birds Vol. 44 No. 1, Jan. 2010 (PDF here). It was great seeing this old friend again today and snapping it in the great snow light!

Nearby was another adult Harlan's Hawk- this one more typically dark (perhaps a dark-intermediate morph per Brian Wheeler's Raptors of Western North America.) It was perched nearly over the road and I photographed it leaning out my vehicle window. The snow light really brings out the feather detail in the dark body!

I finished my tour with a raptor that took my breath away- an adult male rufous-morph Ferruginous Hawk. (Rufous individuals with gray heads are likely males vs. females with brown heads per Brian Wheeler's Raptors of Western North America.) This bird wasn't as cooperative as the above Harlan's- it perched in a twiggy cottonwood tree and then flew between me and the sun. On a normal day the flight images would probably have been unsalvageable, but with the snow light and a bit of shadow highlighting in post-processing I could bring up the amazingly rich dark rufous tones of this bird. Look at the gape- that guy is made to gulp large prey like prairie dogs & jack rabbits with a minimum of shredding! I hope you enjoy the images and get the chance to try birding & photographing raptors with snow light sometime this winter.