While I love this blog, I now pretty much only write on my other two blogs: BirdingBlogs.com and 10,000 Birds - I would love to see you there!

Friday, 28 November 2008

Birding Tips 2: Lens Cleaning

Like most birders, I only tend to think about cleaning my dirty binoculars when I am out in the field. The challenge, of course, is then 'how does one clean a binocular or telescope lens in the field with out scratching that seriously expensive glass?'

Using your T-shirt is certainly the most commonly used method but probably not the best of ideas. I would be a telling a filthy lie if I said I had never used a dirty, sweaty T-shirt to clean off my fancy-shmancy Swaros. But I have learnt my lesson. At some stage I realised that it really was not a train-smash if I was caught out in the field without one of those cute little optics manufacturer-designed cleaning kits. mmm, is it bad luck to talk about rail accidents when one is travelling on a train? Hope not.

Nowadays, if I really have to clean my binocular or telescope lenses out in the field then I tend to rely on one of two methods:
1. blow off as much stuff as possible; pour water over the lens to wash off most of the grime; and then use my finger to gently wash the lens; finish by blowing off excess water and then using a MICROFIBRE cloth to give a final clean
2. Blow off; Lick (yes, lick it with your tongue - it is extremely effective!); MICROFIBRE

Not having a microfibre is not the end of the world, either. Just use the first method and try to blow off as much of the water as possible (this will help reduce the water-spots on the lens). This will normally suffice until I can get home to a microfibre cloth or borrow one from a fellow birder.

Birders spend a lot of hard-earned money to have beautiful equipment and I don't think it is that hard to keep them in good nic.

Happy birding

Tuesday, 25 November 2008

Birding Tips 1 - binocular harness

my entire birding life, i have stuck to using a normal carrying strap with my binoculars. when working in costa rica, I had my binoculars with me all day, every day and was always on the lookout for scarlet macaws (the species I was working on at the time). Because of the long hours carrying binoculars, I used to sling them across my shoulder (like a beauty-queen's sash). and I found that this was quite comfortable for me.

but, I have recently started to use a binocular harness (binocular suspender) and have found it incredibly comfortable. It seems that binocular harnesses are rather popular in the United States, but are thought of as completely silly most everywhere else. Well, to be honest, I still think they look silly - as though I have a kiddy/doggie lead attached to my back so that my wife can reel me in when I stray too far. (oh please, no one give that idea to my wife! that will be the end of searches for elusive Ivory-billed Woodpeckers and such like). But, at the end of the day, my neck is really starting to appreciate the binocular harness.

Essentially, in stead of having just one strap that distributes the weight of the binoculars around the neck, the principle behind the harness is that the weight is split and supported by the shoulders. harnesses are generally adjustable so they can be made to fit over just about any clothing, and their elasticated straps tend to allow for a better and more comfortable fit.

At first, I did not really like that there was tension on the elastic holding straps when I was looking through the binocualrs, but as I used it more, I started to appreciate the added stability this system gave me - the slight tension tends to hold the binoculars in place in a suspension tripod-effect.

The binocualrs tend to sit close to the chest with less pendulum than I am accustomed to with a neck strap, and the handy little quick-release clips mean that I can get the binoculars on and off quickly (particularly important when I want to lend my binoculars to someone quickly).

If you tend to carry your binoculars around for hours on end, have a bit of a hand-tremble, or tend to have neck trouble, then I would strongly recommend trying a binocular harness out.

Happy birding

Saturday, 22 November 2008

Swarovski Digiscoper of the Year 2008

1300 digiscoped photos from 40 countries were submitted to this year's Digiscoper of the Year competition and the results are now out. There are some stunning images in the final selection of 20 but my favorite has got to be the Blue-tailed Bee-eaters by Chung Han Wu.

(note: the photos on this post are from screen shots of the official website)

I have just googled Chung Han Wu (吳崇漢) to try find out a little more about him and what his background is. It seems he won Birding in Taiwan's national bird photo campaign 2006 for a beautiful image of a Mikado Pheasant (Syrmaticus mikado) in the snow. More than that seems really hard to find out given my embarrasingly poor knowledge of international writing systems and alphabets. At any rate, it seems he has a good few beautiful images out there but these bee-eaters are stunning!

I also found the image of the Silver-breasted Broadbill (Serilophus lunatus) particularly powerful. But then again I have a weakness for broadbills!

The photo was taken by Sataporn Suvitvong in Thailand (another place I have got to visit!). Not only did he get a great photo, but he was only 10m from such an incredibly stunning bird.

I love photography, and digiscoping has opened up a whole new world for me (and lots of other birders and photographers). Suddenly I have the opportunity to take (passable) bird images using the equipment I have with me when birding anyway. I have had countless hours of joy and fun trying to get a decent photo of some shy little passerine, or a rail that insists on only showing itself when the light is disastrous. Digiscoping certainly adds something to our birding experience; we see details we never would have seen, we are forced to study their habits and movements, and we get to take home stories about "the one that got away" and - with a smattering of luck and perseverance - we might even be able to show our loved ones and friends what it was we saw. For a few talented ones out there, they may even be able to turn their hobby in to a business, or even better, a lifestyle.

But one thing I have noticed about photography, is that if we always look at life through a lens then some times we miss part of the joy and beauty of nature. Over the summer, I spent some time on the Spanish Costa Brava. The one afternoon, I met a Dutch birder who told me about a family of Purple Gallinules (Purple Swamphens, Porphyrio porphyrio, Purpurhuhn) at one of the hides. I very excitedly scuttled over to said hide. Hours went by as I rattled off rolls of virtual film. exciting, entertaining, captivating... way better than a Dan Brown novel.
But that evening I realised that I had spent the entire afternoon staring down the lens of a camera and not once had I sat back to enjoy the brilliant beauty of these "ugly purple chickens" (as my wife called them). It was a shame, really.
So the next day I went back again. And sat back to admire them. (but I took some photos too, I couldn't help it ;-)

Happy birding

Wednesday, 19 November 2008

Nature Watch Tirol at the World Travel Market, London

The Nature Watch programme is a partnership between the Tirol State Tourism Board (in the Austrian Alps) and Swarovski Optik (manufacturers of high-quality binoculars, telescopes, etc.) to encourage ecotourism to the Alps. In particular, the programme focusses on combining quality hotels in beautiful areas, with knowledgeable mountain guides. The guides' training involves - amongst other things - mountain safety knowledge and first aid, training on how best to choose and conduct a tour, and has an extensive emphasis on natural history knowledge.

A typical Nature Watch holiday would involve staying in a comfortable hotel/guest house in a beautiful setting, and going out on a Nature Watch tour/walk designed specifically around your group's interests. To enrich your experience, your guide will show you things you might never have found by yourself: a Golden Eagle flying by, a Marmot calling on a rock in the distance, or a beautiful beetle warming itself in the sun. To add to the experience, each participant will have a pair of top-quality Swarovski Optik binoculars to use (free of charge), allowing you to see that eagle really well, and to microscope in on the beautiful insects and flowers.

For more information, check out the Nature Watch website.

Enough dryness.

London was pretty cool. It was my first trip to the place and my initial impression was that I was not wrong in thinking that England was a cold, grey place. Grey is definitely what it was. But the architecture in London was definitely special and so different from the continental architecture I had grown accustomed to. Picadilly Circus left me with the immortal words of Garth (Wayne's World): "What a horrible circus" (although Garth used more flowery language). Not a single trapeez artist anywhere. Although, the golden diving figures a couple of blocks down the road were certainly very cool.

The World Travel Market itself was incredibly large and the stands were surprisingly flashy. At least some of these people had not heard about the global financial crisis and credit crunch. Maybe they had just not been watching CNN and so were not as pessimistic as the rest of their countries.

One of the great things about such a large gathering of international people is that you get to meet so many interesting people from all over the world. Some of my favorite were the guys from the Phillipphines. So incredibly friendly. I loved their bright smiles and relaxed, laid-back way. Oh, and the birding in the Phillippines looks mind-blowing. I was looking at their bird list and it appeared that at least half of the species recorded are endemics. It blew my mind.

Happy birding

Sunday, 16 November 2008

Autumn birding in The Vyne, Basingstoke, England

Last Friday I had a couple of hours in the morning to head out to The Vyne Estate (near Basingstoke and Sherborne St John, just Southwest of London) to see what birds we could pick up in the late Autumn. The woodland paths were beautiful. Calm. With a golden carpet of beech leaves on the floor. Very few birds were about in the forest but the little pond had me cursing not having brought my digiscoping equipment with (to be completely honest it was just because I was too lazy to unpack it all out of my travel bags - poor excuse for a birder visiting a new area, I know).

On the pond, we found a good number of Greylag Goose (Anser anser, Graugans), a single Canada Goose (Branta canadensis, Kanadagans), at least five Northern Shoveler (Anas clypeata, Löffelente), Eurasian Wigeon (Anas penelope, Pfeifente), Common Teal (Anas crecca, Krickente) and one Common Snipe (Gallinago gallinago, Bekassine). A few Grey Herons (Ardea cinerea, Graureiher) and Moorhens (Gallinura chloropus, Teichralle) were mucking about in the shallows and a flock of Eurasian Jackdaws kept on circling overhead (Corvus monedula, Dohle).

As mentioned before, somebody decided not to bring the pretty swaro digiscoping setup with me to the forest so photos were not really on the card. That, and the weather was grey, cold and rather unpleasant anyway. As it was, I did manage to get a couple of digibinned photos, including a couple of the Canada Goose taken through my Swaro ELs with the Snapshot adapter. The photos might not be anything to write home about, but they were good enough for a few ID shots, and they certainly would never have been possible without a great set of binoculars. Gotta love that little snapshot adapter too.

It was great to see some different birds from those we normally have here in Tirol, and it was also fun to hang out with some old friends, but I must say that however lovely the landscape, it has very little on the stunning breath-taking beauty of the Tirolean Alps.

(but I may be more than a little biased ;-)

Happy birding (especially if you are in England and have to put up with all that grey weather)

Definately heading in to Winter

Birding here is proving a little tough. I got back from the World Travel Market (London's huge travel trade fair) on Friday and headed out in to the mountains this afternoon to see what we could see. The birds were quiet. So quiet. Not a peep.

But the mountains were stunning in the stillness.

My father-in-law and I went for a walk up the Vomperloch towards Gan-Alm, just North of Schwaz. The beauty of this spot is that it very quickly gets one in to the Karwendel park and away from the development and people of the Inn River Valley. Within a few minutes of walking, one is surrounded by peaceful mixed coniferous woodland and beautiful mountain peaks.

The European Beech (Fagus sylvatica, Rotbuche) and the European Larch (Larix decidua, Europäische Lärche) have already lost their leaves and added a red/brown hue to the forest floor and a sharp chill in the air would not let us forget that Winter was well on its way. The few birds we did see included Common Buzzards (Buteo buteo, Mäusebussard), Carrion Crow (Corvus corone corone, Rabenkrähe), Coal Tit (Periparus ater, Tannenmeisen), and a single Nutcracker (Nucifraga caryocatactes, Tanenhäher). Not even a single woodpecker called.

Late in the evening we saw a group of five Chamois (Rupicapra rupicapra rupicapra, Gämse).

So, the birds were not that spectacular, but the beauty of the landscape and the refreshing Alpine air certainly make a walk in Tirol's mountains worthwhile.

Happy birding

Saturday, 8 November 2008

World Travel Market, London

I am off to the World Travel Market in London ExCel center for next week. ought to be lots of fun. i will be at the Tirol Werbung stand (part of the Austrian National Tourism Board's stand) so if you happen to be visiting the fair, come along and say hi. we will have lots of pretty pictures of Tirol, and be telling people about how cool our new NatureWatch program is. and I might even get to do a spot of birding out at the Vyne on Friday morning.

Happy birding

Thursday, 6 November 2008

Central Europe's biggest Winter bird fair

Hi all, the annual Tata bird fair is almost here - thousands of birders from all over central europe descending on the city of Tata, Hungary for a weekend of birding, goose watching, and general nonsense talking. Sorry, I meant to say: ... and lots of serious bird-related discussion.

As far as I can tell, this year's Tata fair will involve lectures/talks/workshops in the evenings with lots of cool and interesting things going on and piles of fascinating people to meet. The day time will, as you probably would have guessed, involve hours of looking through binoculars and telescopes. A bird race of small teams competing to see as many species as possible will probably be the focus of most people's day, but I dare say that there will also be a good number of people who take it a little more tranquilo and just follow the crazy-enthusiastic birders around, feeding off their buzz.

I just want to see a Lesser White-fronted Goose (Anser erythropus, Zwerggans). Talking about LWfG, the other day I found a really cool website on them by the Fennoscandian L White-fronted Goose Project and an awesome LWfG photo by the Italian photographer Juza, here. It seems like the Fennoscandian guys are really doing a huge amount to try to reestablish and save this species from extinction and they are faced with an incredibly complex task. As far as I can tell, sport hunting is their biggest threat. Not unexpect, hey? But the absurdity of the situation is that the species is threatened because it looks so similar to the White-fronted Goose - the most hunted waterfowl species in Europe (Anser albifrons, Blässgans). Evidently, sport hunters are generally unable to tell the difference between the two and unwhittingly blast the poor little endangered ones along with their more common congener. But I can't really blame them. That little yellow eyering and the difference in size may not be apparent if one is not actively looking for the features.

Here is another fascinating web site showing the migration paths of LWfG with satelite telemetry packs. These little guys migrated all the way from the the Putorana Plateau in Russia through Kazakhstan and down to Iraq. If you click on the map, it will take you to GIS-lab's website with a series of google map images that show the exact routes of the various geese.

The photo of the Lesser White-fronted Goose above is by Neil Phillips who writes a blog about UK Wildlife - worth checking out.

Okay, back to the Tata bird fair - their website is only in Hungarian (go figure), but, at the very least, it is worth checking it out for its pretty pictures. Just click on the flying goose logo above. If you understand German, then you could also check out a translation of the 2006 programme on bird.at here. And if you follow that last link, it will allow you to download the "English version 2005 online".

If you do decide to come, keep an eye out for Martin and I. We are easily recognisable. We will be wearing brownish clothing, brownish baseball caps, will have Swarovski binoculars dangling from our necks and never, ever more than an arm's length away, and great big ATS telescopes/digiscoping setups over our shoulders (or attached to one or other of our eyes). Well, come to think of it, I am not sure that we will stand out from the crowd if we look like that. Then again, I dont think it will be hard to track us down ;-)

Until then, happy birding

Saturday, 1 November 2008

Birding and the value of meeting with other birders

some friends and colleagues of mine are teaching a rather interesting MSc course at the local university at the moment about online branding. it sounded interesting so i joined in yesterday's class. one of the things we touched on was LAN Parties. For the uninformed, a LAN party is where a whole bunch of people get together - all with their own computers - and play games with each other. they sit right next to each other, play with each other, but only through the semi-isolated realm of their computers.

Why, might I ask would groups of people drag large, cumbersome computer equipment around so that they can be in the same room when the same could be done quite adequately using a high-speed internet connection? Something of a mystery.

But it did get me thinking, that even though many of our hobbies are well practiced alone (and might even be more productive and enjoyable alone), there is a collective enthusiasm and - dare I say - acceptance that comes from meeting with other like-minded and equally weird enthusiasts.

I was reminded of this last weekend when I got the opportunity to spend some time with some international birders (incl the super-digiscoper Clay Taylor). To put it in to context, birding in Tirol in not such a popular past-time. Granted, there are a good number of ornithologists about, and the locals love spending time in the mountains, but birding (and to a lesser extent, its more laid-back sibling, birdwatching) is rather unknown here. So, I tend to wander the mountains, forests and streams, all kitted out with tons of optical equipment, books, cameras (and sometimes the wife) with only a smattering of company from other bird enthusiasts. And it is sooo much harder to learn about the local avifauna alone than if one is surrounded by other crazed birders (my lovely wife is reading over my shoulder and told me that she can tell me where all the birds are. if ever I want to see a sparrow, she can help me out).

Birders: that group of mildly deranged individuals that will ignore a broken leg and infected wounds if they know that a new twitch has - some time in the possibly distant past - been seen in the area. Who of us would not swim across a crocodile infested river for a rare Pitta?
(and we tell ourselves things like: well, the only ones I've seen are less than 3m long and the locals say that it is only the bigger ones that eat people).

And so we all went out to a beautiful valley off of the Sellraintal (behind Haggen) to look for late Autumn Alpine remnants ... and saw almost nothing. But how great it was to go out with enthusiasts again - I left the weekend with tons of creative birding energy and an enthusiasm that is likely to stay with me well in to Winter. A couple of things that we did happen to see were: Alpine Chough (Alpendohle), Golden Eagle (Steinadler), Nutcracker (Tannenhäher) common here, but something interesting for the British and Dutch guys) and lots of very fat Chamoix (Gamsbok).

So, I guess my take home message is that being alone in the wilderness is awesome, but the enthusiasm and shared experiences and learning make trips with other birders priceless.

btw, the beautiful pitta image is of a Blue-winged Pitta taken by the talented photographer Myron Tay. Click on the image to link to his Flickr photostream.

Happy birding