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, 27 February 2009

So what is the difference between Birdwatching, Birding and Ornithology anyway?

I was just looking at a website on bird watching in eastern Austria where the author (Janet) spoke of the difference between birdwatching, birding and ornithology. This is how she put it:
Birdwatching was described as a hobby for fun where one is out to see birds in their natural habitats with and without the use of fancy binoculars, scopes and field guides. The term "birding" is more focused on bird finding and study than general watching and more money is spent on optical equipment like binoculars, scopes and birders may travel widely. Ornithology was described as the scientific life-study of birds.
I suppose I would describe the difference as such:

There is a beautiful old wooden bench along a forest trail - high canopy, good undergrowth and a fabulous view peeking out through the trees over an endless ocean.

forest bench photo by swissrolli cc

The birdwatcher sees the bench. Sits. Breathes in the beauty and hopes for some pretty birds to come past, comfortable in the understanding that running around in the forest is likely to scare off most of the best birds anyway.

The birder sees the lovely bench and beautiful view. Appreciates it. for a moment. And then scurries on by, looking for the next cool bird, comfortable in the knowledge that the best birds are in bird parties at this time of year and there are no bird parties here right now, so she might as well go find one.

The twitcher only notices the bench if it is a useful landmark in finding the Turquoise Continga. Once said cotinga has been found, our Twitcher could become either a birdwatcher (read: bench sitter) or a birder (read: bench appreciator). I suspect that after 15 years of twitching, our twicher is most likely to be a bench sitter post-twitch.

The (lazy) ornithologist shifts their sampling sites so that as many point sample sites coincide with the cool benches. That way they can count birds AND have a cool spot to sit. The academic ornithologist wishes he were rather sitting on the bench playing with theories in stead of being cramped behind a computer in a book and journal-filled office.

The bird ringer knows that the bench would make a great field station and sets up their nets a little bit away so that they can make a net-checking run every half an hour / 45mins and bring the birds back to the bench to ring them there (where the great view is ;-)

Tuesday, 24 February 2009

Digibinning snowfinches and the first signs of spring in Tirol

We have had tons of fresh, soft, fluffy snow of late, and I took the opportunity to head out to Kühtai to check up on the white-winged snowfinches (Schneefinken) that congregate there in the winter. It truly is a remarkable spot for snowfinches in winter and this trip was no exception. The weather was ghastly in the Sellraintal (just southwest of Innsbruck, Tirol) but when I got to Kühtai at 8am or so, there were already between 200 and 250 snowfinches hanging out around the base station of the HochAlterBahn chair lift (where they are fed with sunflower seeds).

Initially, I struggled to get close to them and they were very shy. This is the same experience I have had in the past where the snowfinches are incredibly shy and weary initially in the morning, but as more and more people arrive at the lift station, they tend to get more accepting of their presence and will let people approach them within a few meters before flying off. Having said that, they usually reach their limit by about 9:30 10:00 am, at which stage they all but dissappear. I am not sure if it is jus that the majority of the birds have fed enough by that stage, that they move off and are no longer tied to the feeder. Or it might be that the sheer number of skiers bashing about their feeding ground reaches a point beyond which they are no longer prepared to put up with. I suspect that both factors play a role in their feeding behaviour.

Another thing that I have found interesting in their winter feeding behaviour is that they are almost always in flocks (at least where I have seen them). The flock of 250ish birds in Kühtai tends to stick loosely together, sometimes splitting in to smaller flocks, but these smaller flocks also tend to incorporate at least 20 birds.

Having said that, recently I have noticed more and more singles heading off from the flock in to the mountains, and last week I saw a lone white-winged snowfinch up on a peak (Nösslachjoch) near Steinach am Brenner. Being such hardy high altitude birds with only very short (if any) altitudinal migration, and an astonishingly early breeding season given the snowy nature of their preferred habitat, it is not surprising that they may already be thinking about setting up territories and getting ready for the breeding season.

Another piece of evidence for breeding preparation is that about 20-30% of the snowfinches in the Kühtai flock already had darker or black bills - the only minor change that they make in their change to breeding plumage.

It seems like spring is on its way here in the Alps of Austria, even if the meters of snow we are getting is doing its best to deny the fact...

Digibinning techinque

Taking digital photos through binoculars can be rather difficult, particularly if the light is poor. The two hardest things about digibinning the snowfinches was that the light was low (because of the heavy snow and fog), and blown out (lots of matt, bright white and dark areas too dark for detail). These are tough lighting conditions even for the best dSLR cameras, let alone a small point-and-shoot like the Canon A590IS I use for digibinning and digiscoping. With a little bit of patience, I found that I could get some okay shots through my binoculars (well, they are swarovski EL's after all ;-)

The trick to taking photos through binoculars is to:
  1. get good light
  2. get close enough to not have to use the camera's zoom (a real image-killer as the lenses on the small point and shoot digital cameras are rather poor, in general)
  3. get good light
  4. hold the binoculars vertical in your left hand, having access to the focus knob with your left hand's fingers, and freeing up your right hand to handle the camera
  5. use a good pair of binoculars - high quality lenses are likely to give you much more light (faster shutter speeds = sharper images) and a better quality of image.
  6. if you are lucky, your camera's lens will fit snuggly in to the eye-cup of your binoculars. If this is not the case, you will either need to use something like the swarovski snapshot adaptor, or try your luck with holding the camera lens at the right angle and in the right position (no easy feat, but I have done it for some decent video and photos of leopards and black rhino as well as an African Fish Eagle - beautiful!)
  7. With the binoculars rested on your lower hand, lower fingers focussing, and right hand free to operate the camera, you are all set to find subjects.
  8. Backlight is a real photo-killer for digibinning, so you will want to position yourself with the light shining on the subject.
If you look at the three snowfinch images above, you will immediately notice a few things:
  1. Vignetting can be an issue. This can be avoided by zooming the camer a little bit, but this has two major side effects: 1. you put more strain on the camera lens which tends to produce softer/blurred images, and 2. you reduce the maximum possible shutter speed
  2. Because the lighting was harsh, the image resutls tend to have blown out whites, and feature-less darks. this can be corrected to some extent by post-processing (see the first snowfinch image with the one snowfinch flying towards the feeder). In this image I reduced the intensity of the highlights and brightened the darks. The result is that one can now see more details, but - unfortunately - the image looks photoshopped and artificial.
  3. Even under tough conditions, digibinning can help you get a few photos to take home with you! (even if they are not always national geographic-ready)

For more info on digibinning, see some other posts here.

Happy birding
Dale Forbes

Thursday, 12 February 2009

Bohemian Waxwings and Snowfinches in Tirol

I had just been wondering when things here would start looking up again. Sure, some of the birds are starting to sing and that is lovely. but not much is really happening here in the mountains on the bird front.

Then, this morning, I saw a single White-winged Snowfinch [see BirdPost map] in what only can be described as blizzard-like conditions, at the top of a mountain (Nößlachjoch above Steinach am Brenner). I found this rather strange as they tend to collect in larger flocks in wintertime. Maybe this guy was just wandering about by himself, or the rest of the flock was out of sight (this would not surprise me). Or, maybe these guys have started thinking about returning to their high alpine haunts to start setting up territories as they tend to be early breeders. If you are interested in White-winged Snowfinches, you might want to check out some of my other snowfinch posts.

Heading off of the Autobahn this afternoon, I saw a flock of birds fly over the traffic circle I was approaching.
Their shape and flight was not familiar.
I craned my head out of the window.
narrowly avoided a blue car.
starlings? thrushes?
red car hoots.
was that a crest?
no, can't be.
hard jolt as car bounces off sidewalk
pretty sure that was a crest.
hand brakes were invented for a reason.

I found a spot to park. Cursed for having taken my swaros out of the boot this morning.
Definately 14 lovely Bohemian Waxwings in the tree above me.
Cursed again for not having my camera.

If you use your imagination, you can see the Bohemian Waxwings there in the top of the tree. Don't blame me for the chromatic aberration. My cell phone is only just good enough to make phone calls and asking it to take bird ID photos is always going to be a challenge (but see my digiphoned Black Tern here, which I was rather proud of).

For those of you interested in the details, there were 14 waxwings in all, and had flown from the Völser Innau, landing in the trees at the large traffic circle outside Cyta Shopping Center, Völs (about 5km West of Innsbruck). The sighting map is here.

Wednesday, 11 February 2009

Carnival time in the Alps

Carnival time has come and the villages throughout Tirol are celebrating the lengthening of the days, waning of winter and the approaching spring. Every year, four of the MARTA villages (just east of Innsbruck - Artl, Rum, Thaur, Absam) get together for a combined parade, alternating venue each year.

I missed out on the masks last year and really enjoy discovering the cultures wherever I live, so I was not going to miss out on it this year again. So, Sunday I was right there in the [light] snow to check it out.

The carnival (Fasching) parade is called different things in the various villages. In Absam, it is called Matschgerer, but in Thaur it is called the Mullerlauf (or Müllerlauf).

The witches (Hexen) were pretty cool and symbolize the winter.

They pick people out of the crowd, sweep their shoes with a broom, ruffle their hair, and give them a light slap on the back (after which they are offered a sip of schnaps).

Another group - the Klötzler - have lots of little wooden strips on them. they dance and shuffle about, making lots of noise.

"Miss Thaur" - not going to Miss World

A Tschaggeler with bright coloured balls all over the outfit (also handing out Schnaps).

A typical Tuxer representing the "normal" folk.

A ring of Tuxern with two Spiegeltuxern doing a shoe-slapping dance (Schuhplatteln).

It was lovely to see this spectacle and a great chance to experience a little more of the culture I am blessed to live in.