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!

Tuesday, 27 January 2009

Birding Tips 3 - Digibinning with the Swarovski Optik Snapshot Adaptor

The Alps are mountainous.
Walking here is not always easy.
and dragging a telescope and digiscoping setup with wherever I go is not always an option
(or at least not a preferred option ;-)

Particularly now in winter, I am finding very few good digiscoping moments and so I am tending to take advantage of the snowy winter wonderland that is Tirol to go walking, back-country snowshoe hiking, and skiing and most of the time my great big telescope (a beautiful Swaro ATS80) gets left at home.

But I invariably have a pair of binoculars with me when I go out hiking (well, you never know when you are going to come across a feeding/breeding flock of energetically brightly coloured crossbills). Then, if I do come across something interesting, I can always snap off a few photos through my binoculars.

Taking photos through binoculars (digibinning) can be a lot of fun, but is not always easy and I do a fair amount of digibinning with varying success. Sometimes the pictures are gems. Othertimes, not so much. The most important factors are:
  1. the amount, direction and quality of the light, and
  2. the distance the bird/subject is away
Obviously, the more light, the faster the shutter speed can be, and the greater the chance of getting a sharp photo. Digibinning seems to be particularly sensitive to light direction/angle. Backlit subjects and lighting from in from of the objective tends to give the images a washed-out blue tinge that is really hard to deal with/get rid of and even if there is a fair amount of light about, backlit images (even mildly so) can be very hard to expose correctly without blowing out the background. Getting the right light direction is crucial to taking the shot. As with all photography, the quality of the light also has a great influence on how your digibinning photos turn out. Softer (not uni-directional) light is best, so early morning and late afternoon can give you good light quality, but remember that at these times, the quantitative lack of light may make it difficult to get an adequate shutter speed.

The second point - the distance to the subject/bird - is related to the first. If your subject is relatively distant then you may need to use more of your camera's zoom, which reduces your maximum shutter speed quickly. The other consideration is that our little point and shoot digital cameras often have rather poor optical zoom quality and digibinning photos suffer noticeably (and quickly) when you crank up the zoom. Always use as little camera zoom as possible.

In terms of camera and binocular setup, there are three key considerations:
  1. binocular quality
  2. camera quality
  3. joining or adapting device (snapshot adaptor)
The quality of the binocular you use for digibinning is paramount. I cannot stress this enough. Under the same conditions, a mid-range or cheap binocular will never work as well as something like a Swarovski binocular. At the moment, I tend to pick up my Swarovki EL 8,5x42s first. The optical quality is incredible, they are bright (with a 42mm objective), have a good field of view, have good eye relief (important for digibinning), and are colour neutral. This last point is - for me - rather important for photography through binoculars, and - for example - the Zeiss Victory FL are blue skewed - a killer for digibinning.

Obviously, the quality of your camera will make a difference to your photos. This effect is minimized by keeping the ISO rating as low as possible, and by avoiding using the zoom (optical or digital) as much as possible.

Swarovski Optik have produced a lovely little adaptor that makes taking photos through binoculars incredibly easy - the snapshot adaptor. Below is a video of Clay Taylor (Swarovski Optik North America's resident digiscoping and optics expert) explaining how to use swarovski's snapshot adaptor.

Happy birding

p.s. if this post interested you, you might also want to see this older post.

Tuesday, 20 January 2009

Will shooting 240 raptors really help Lower Austria? - part 2

The story of raptors being shot in Lower Austria has been particularly interesting to me not because I am particulary against hunting, but because I was interested in how the whole process seems to have proceeded. The decree was described as being snuck through just before Christmas time and has lit some pretty intense fires both here in Austria, but also on many online forums around the world. But I struggled to find out anything from anyone other than green activists (who were just reciting what WWF had on their website) and embelishing with opinion. Eventually, I found the original decree of the Lower Austrian Govenment (Niederösterreich Beutegreiferverordnung 6500/14–0 Stammverordnung 95a/08 of 11 December 2008). Well, at least I think I found the right one ;-)

Basically, the decree details the number of Common Buzzards (Buteo buteo, Mäusebussard) and Northern Goshawks (Accipiter gentilis, Habicht) that can be shot in each of the state's 25 municipal districts (Bezirk), totalling 200 buzzards and 40 goshawks.

Here is my (very rough) translation of some of the text. Please do not take it as given that I have translated it accurately, read the original and decide for yourself:

Scope and goal
(1) This decree relates to the following wildlife:
  1. Common Buzzard (Buteo buteo)
  2. Northern Goshawk (Accipiter gentilis)
(2) The goal of this decree is the avoidance of possible risk for the bird species mentioed in (1), above, through the granting of an exception to the hunting/killing ban by regulating how it is carried out and under the following conditions:
  1. the sustainable use of the population in small numbers
  2. excluding the breeding, nesting, and raising periods
  3. making sure that only the species in question are affected
  4. reporting of all hunting
Information and reporting duty
  1. Before attempting to shoot one of the raptors, a registered hunter needs to contact the office of the Lower Austrian Hunting Association (Landesgeschäftsstelle des NÖ Landesjagdverbandes, Wickenburggasse 3, 1080 Wien, Tel. 01/40516360) to check how many (if any) of the raptors have already been shot and if the limit has been reached.
  2. In order for record keeping and scientific interest, each raptor shooting needs to be reported along with information such as the species, where and when it was shot, and any taf or ring information.
  3. Once a year (on 15 May), the hunting association needs to write a report based on the previous year's hunt.
All shot buzzards and goshawks need to be handed in to one of five people/companies from which they will be collected and used for an unnamed accompanying scientific study.
One of the things I found interesting is that much of the talk on the forums and the WWF Österreich website was about the decree and shoot being there to protect endangered species that are threatened by the Common Buzzard and Northern Goshawk. I am just learning this German language (and it is not easy!), but I found nothing that listed that as a reason, or any mention of the 26 endangered species referred to in protest reports/commentary.

Some things that stand out to me in the relevant European law (Council Directive 79/409/EEC of 2 April 1979 on the conservation of wild birds) include:

Article 7 - neither species is in annex II (the list of species that - at the state's own discretion - may be hunted)

Article 9 states:

1. Member States may derogate from the provisions of Articles 5, 6, 7 and 8, where there is no other satisfactory solution, for the following reasons:

(a) - in the interests of public health and safety,

- in the interests of air safety,

- to prevent serious damage to crops, livestock, forests, fisheries and water,

- for the protection of flora and fauna;

(b) for the purposes of research and teaching, of re-population, of re-introduction and for the breeding necessary for these purposes;

(c) to permit, under strictly supervised conditions and on a selective basis, the capture, keeping or other judicious use of certain birds in small numbers.

So, I am not sure whether the Lower Austrian decree was meant to fall under the section "for the protection of flora and fauna" (for which I see no direct evidence in the decree document I read) or "for the purposes of research and teaching" (which also makes little sense).

All and all, this remains a bit of a puzzle to me.

Ode to a wintery day

The snow is really pouring today
the birds are all a-hiding
I wish I were up the berg
instead my moods are tiding

The winter woods
such peace and quiet
Its like the body's
own happiness diet

Sunday, 18 January 2009

Snowshoe tour in Tirol - Schlick 2000/Fulpmes in Stubaiertal

Schlick 2000 is a popular alpine skiing resort just outside of Innsbruck, Tirol, in the Stubaier Valley. The skiing is quite good - particularly in December and January with lots of natural half-pipe things for snowboarders and skiers to play around on. There are also a number of winter walking trails in the area and one trail designed especially for snowshoe walking. Yesterday, I decided to check it out.

Schlick 2000 parking lot in Fulpmes, I took the Gondola up to the middle station. From there, one heads out behind the ski school (to the north) and quickly gets in to the woods. The trail gently makes its way up through the woods and is very well sighnposted; orienteering - even after heavy snows - should be no problem whatsoever. I had thought that the skiers would detract from the walk, but they were far enough away for the trail to be very peaceful and wonderfully enjoyable.

View Larger Map

In the first half of the snowshoe trail, I came across a couple of Common Crossbill flocks, noisily feeding in the Norway Spruces (Picea abies) that dominate the woodland. Their German name - Fichtenkreuzschnabel - refers to their preference for spruce (Fichte) which pretty much sums up where you always tend to find them. The groups I came across were very vocal - I suppose they are probably getting ready to breed now while the spruce have an abundance of seed.

I also came across the occasional treecreeper (Baumläufer), some Coal and Great Tits and Nuthatches in the lower, denser forest. Well, maybe dense is not the best word to describe the forest there. In the lower sections of the trail, the canopy is fairly closed, but the heavy snow meant that the under-story was rather open and made it very easy to explore a bit off trail.

Further up the trail, the forest canopy thinned and eventually the forest petered out. Nearing the top of the trail, one is rewarded with great, big expansive views over the Stubaier and Wipp Valleys and their surrounding peaks. Taking a tea-break, I scanned the cliffs and peaks for Alpine Ibex and Golden Eagles without success. A pair of Spotted Nutcracker surveyed their lands from treetops at the edge of the tree line.

Reaching Schlicker Alm (1645m asl), you can enjoy some traditional Tirolean mountain food (and a beer ;-) before heading back down again. The return could be done back alone the trail you came up, but if you packed a Rutschblattl then getting down the sledding track is much faster and a whole lot of fun. I have no idea what I would call a Rutschblattl in English but it is this little plastic plate that you sit on, and a handle that comes up between your legs. It kinda looks like a miny, flimsy plastic shovel and is mainly a kids toy for sliding down little slopes. Anyhow, they cost almost nothing and weigh even less so are perfect for taking on snowshoe tours. Getting back down slopes (or sledding tracks) with a Rutschblattl is a whole lot easier than walking back down with snowshoes on! I have to say that maintaining complete control of the thing is probably never going to happen for me; your bum tends to take a few knocks; and they were not designed for high-speed toboganning but they are a whole lot of fun.

Happy birding (and snowshoe walking)

Thursday, 15 January 2009

Will shooting 250 raptors really help Lower Austria?

It seems the Lower Austrian (Niederösterreich) government - in their infinite wisdom - has decided that 250 raptors need to be shot in order to protect endangered species in the state. As far as I can tell, the official line is that there are 26 small animal species in the region that need protection and that 200 Common Buzzards (Mäusebussards) and 50 Northern Goshawks (Habicht) need to be shot by the end of January 2009 in order to protect these endangered species.

So much of this story just gets to me. I try to be calm and rational. But this just blows my top!

The WWF Austria page on the raptor shooting decree states, "There is no scientific evidence that either Common Buzzard or Northern Goshawks are a threat to any of the 26 [endangered] species mentioned in the decree. In fact, there is no evidence of either of the raptor species even preying on 16 of the cited species." (my rough translation)

This - to me - strongly suggests that there is some other interest at play that is not driven by conservation of endangered species. At the very least, this flies in the face of what conservation thought has said for at least 60 years - killing predators does not help conservation! and is the type of thinking that dominated hunting circles in the 19th century and before. Hunters were - undoubtedly - at the forefront of conservation and we have visionary hunters like ex-US President Theodore Roosevelt to thank for national parks, conservation action and protected wilderness areas. But ever since Aldo Leopold and his contemporaries, conservation thought has been led by the idea of thinking in terms of ecosystems. Aldo Leopolds "Thinking like a Mountain" writings are so beautiful and insightful, that I posted a piece of his writing in my earlier blog (it should be just below this one). In this article, Aldo Leopold speaks of the predator-killing mentality of previous times; when hunters (and park rangers) would always shoot at predators because they were seen as vermin that threaten the deer and so threaten the beauty and naturalness of the area. They were - in short - unwanted pests that should, in a perfect world, not be there. But, it was a close encounter with a dying wolf that opened Aldo's heart and helped him see how the wolves were an integral and crucial part of the ecosystem.

In the article "Wolves and Deforestation - Thinking like a Mountain", Aldo Leopold stresses how too many deer eventually harm the ecosystem. Hunters here will tell you that they shoot enough deer here so that their numbers do not get too large and, consequently, we do not need wolves or bears or lynx in the Austrian / Tirolean forests. That these predators are dangerous and life without them is better.
This makes me want to cry.
For we cannot know the intricacies of how predators affect change on deer populations and entire ecosystems. But more importantly, there is a power, beauty and majesty that great animals bring to open spaces. (but, at least we still have the Golden Eagles! ;-)

Shooting Buzzards and Goshawks to protect endangered species they do not eat is as ludicrous as shooting Alpine Brown Bears to protect the Ibex!

A few other arguments I have come across against the shoot include:
  1. the shoot is likely to be uncontrolled (or uncontrollable) and so many other raptor species (Saker Falcon, Imperial Eagles, White-tailed Eagles, Hen Harrier/Northern Harrier, Peregrine Falcon, Rough-legged Buzzard...) are likely to be "erroneously" shot.
  2. a Winter shoot would include many birds that are just over-wintering in the area and have joined us from elsewhere
  3. many of the endangered species in question are - at the moment - either on holiday in the tropics or hibernating
(Jos Stratford makes some good points on birdforum here)

If you are interested in seeing WWF Austria's English summary, click here, and feel free to sign their petition.

Happy birding
Dale Forbes

Wolves and Deforestation - thinking like a mountain by Aldo Leopold

A deep chesty bawl echoes from rimrock to rimrock, rolls down the mountain, and fades into the far blackness of the night. It is an outburst of wild defiant sorrow, and of contempt for all the adversities of the world. Every living thing (and perhaps many a dead one as well) pays heed to that call. To the deer it is a reminder of the way of all flesh, to the pine a fimage of deer: 14korecast of midnight scuffles and of blood upon the snow, to the coyote a promise of gleanings to come, to the cowman a threat of red ink at the bank, to the hunter a challenge of fang against bullet. Yet behind these obvious and immediate hopes and fears there lies a deeper meaning, known only to the mountain itself. Only the mountain has lived long enough to listen objectively to the howl of a wolf. Those unable to decipher the hidden meaning know nevertheless that it is there, for it is felt in all wolf country, and distinguishes that country from all other land. It tingles in the spine of all who hear wolves by night, or who scan their tracks by day. Even without sight or sound of wolf, it is implicit in a hundred small events: the midnight whinny of a pack horse, the rattle of rolling rocks, the bound of a fleeing deer, the way shadows lie under the spruces. Only the ineducable tyro can fail to sense the presence or absence of wolves, or the fact that mountains have a secret opinion about them.

My own conviction on this score dates from the day I saw a wolf die. We were eating lunch on a high rimrock, at the foot of which a turbulent river elbowed its way. We saw what we thought was a doe fording the torrent, her breast awash in white water. When she climbed the bank toward us and shook out her tail, we realized our error: it was a wolf. A half-dozen others, evidently grown pups, sprang from the willows and all joined in a welcoming melee of wagging tails and playful maulings. What was literally a pile of wolves writhed and tumbled in the center of an open flat at the foot of our rimrock.

In those days we had never heard of passing up a chance to kill a wolf. In a second we were pumping lead into the pack, but with more excitement than accuracy: how to aim a steep downhill shot is always confusing. When our rifles were empty, the old wolf was down, and a pup was dragging a leg into impassable slide-rocks.

We reached the old wolf in time to watch a fierce green fire dying in her eyes. I realized then, and have known ever since, that there was something new to me in those eyes - something known only to her and to the mountain. I was young then, and full of trigger-itch; I thought that because fewer wolves meant more deer, that no wolves would mean hunters' paradise. But after seeing the green fire die, I sensed that neither the wolf nor the mountain agreed with such a view.

Since then I have lived to see state after state extirpate its wolves. I have watched the face of many a newly wolfless mountain, and seen the south-facing slopes wrinkle with a maze of new deer trails. I have seen every edible bush and seedling browsed, first to anaemic desuetude, and then to death. I have seen every edible tree defoliated to the height of a saddlehorn. Such a mountain looks as if someone had given God a new pruning shears, and forbidden Him all other exercise. In the end the starved bones of the hoped-for deer herd, dead of its own too-much, bleach with the bones of the dead sage, or molder under the high-lined junipers.

I now suspect that just as a deer herd lives in mortal fear of its wolves, so does a mountain live in mortal fear of its deer. And perhaps with better cause, for while a buck pulled down by wolves can be replaced in two or three years, a range pulled down by too many deer may fail of replacement in as many decades. So also with cows. The cowman who cleans his range of wolves does not realize that he is taking over the wolf's job of trimming the herd to fit the range. He has not learned to think like a mountain. Hence we have dustbowls, and rivers washing the future into the sea.

image of deer skull: 5kWe all strive for safety, prosperity, comfort, long life, and dullness. The deer strives with his supple legs, the cowman with trap and poison, the statesman with pen, the most of us with machines, votes, and dollars, but it all comes to the same thing: peace in our time. A measure of success in this is all well enough, and perhaps is a requisite to objective thinking, but too much safety seems to yield only danger in the long run. Perhaps this is behind Thoreau's dictum: In wildness is the salvation of the world. Perhaps this is the hidden meaning in the howl of the wolf, long known among mountains, but seldom perceived among men.

Note: the text and pictures were taken from the website www.eco-action.org - they have lots of interesting articles (including many classics) on conservation and conservation thought.

Happy birding

Wednesday, 14 January 2009

Snow shoe birding in the Alps / Tirol

Christmas time saw great weather in the mountains - we had had fresh snow just before Christmas and lots of blue skies since. I tried to play in the snow every day - skiing, sledding, walking and - thanks to Father Chistmas - show shoe hiking.

It really is wonderful to spend hours of quiet and solitude in the tranquil mountains. There is something about the woods in winter - there is a stillness that the snow brings that I can't quite describe. It is as though everything is holding its breath, waiting for something.

Just before New Year's, I took a hike from Axams to Axamerkogel. The forest down near Axams was alive with life. Well, maybe not dripping with life, but pretty cool for winter birding at least. What I have noticed is that one can walk for long periods of time without hearing one little peep from a bird and not seeing anything anywhere, and then suddenly you stumble upon a mixed-species bird party. It seems that the birds form the roaving groups that can have as many as a dozen bird species in them, all feeding together. Common winter party-goers include Coal Tits, Great Tits, groups of Firecrests, Eurasian and Short-toed Treecreepers, and Eurasian Nuthatches (Tannenmeisen, Kohlmeisen, Wintergoldhänchen, Waldbaumläufer, Gartenbaumläufer, Kleiber). Sometimes one of the other tit species will join - Crested Tits, Blue Tits (Habenmeisen, Blaumeisen). The Long-tailed Tits seem to join these mixed-species feeding parties occassionally, but their association seems to be a lot more loose: groups of five/six Long-tailed Tits will move around foraging together, join a foraging party for a while, and then slowly drift off in their own direction...

Heading out of Axams in the morning, I saw a flash of a raptor (looking very Accipiter-like) through the trees but did not get a good enough look to make an ID. Later on, coming down the mountain, a beautiful, big female Northern Goshawk rushed through the trees overhead (Habicht). So the other, smaller Accipiter was probably the male.

I have seen a few Northern Goshawks lately - always deep in the forests and always rather shy. But lovely to see nonetheless.

The raptor life here is - at the moment - dominated by tons of Common Buzzards (Mäusebussards). Everywhere we go, we see them circling overhead, sitting in the fields and peering out from their telephone-pole lookouts. The Common Kestrels continue to pester the pigeons in town.

I have seen very few Golden Eagles recently. Their daily range is much increased in Winter and this may have something to do with it. But, a couple of times I have seen them right down low in the valleys - and on one occassion we even saw a pair circling over the Inn between Kematen and Zirl. It is very unusual to see them so low down. I wonder what they were doing...?

Winter might not be the most exciting time for birding in the Alps, but the beauty of the forest and mountains certain keep one entertained between birds!

Happy birding
Dale Forbes

Thursday, 8 January 2009

winter birding and Christmas time in Tirol

I know, I know, I haven't written anything about birds or birding in ages. I have actually been doing quite a lot of birding recently - quiet walks in the forests, and snowshoe tours in the mountains. There are very few birds about, but the stillness and beauty of the forests makes for a lovely time.

Hopefully, I'll get back in to it in the next few days - there is plenty to talk about (always is when you are interested in birds...).

Had a Golden Eagle pair circling between Zirl and Kematen, over the River Inn the other day - spectacular sighting with the pair soaring tightly together (and dwarfing the Common Buzzards that were about). It was really special to see them just a few hundred meters from our house, and all the more because they were right in the middle of the Inntal.

The Eagle Owls (Uhus) should start displaying soon, so I will probably spend some bitterly cold evenings up in the mountains nearby looking for them.

bis bald