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!

Thursday, 30 April 2009

Looking for Common Swift and Pallid Swift (and how to identify them)

It is still snowing in the Alps. Yesterday and today, the snow line has dropped down to only about 1000m, that is fairly close to the valley floor and certainly exceptional for this time of year. Winter is really trying its hardest to hang on this year (but Mrs Spring has other ideas!).

But yesterday, with the foul weather, came the Common Swifts. Finally they got here! and as soon as the sun poked out a little bit, they were all over the place. It is incredible how the swifts seem to arrive in their droves when they eventually arrive. On Sunday, I was in Südtirol (the Italian province bordering Austrian Tirol) and saw quite a number of swifts about there, but it took another good few days before they really took the plunge in to the mountains.

One of my aims this year is to find the Pallid Swift. We saw lots of them when we were on the Spanish Costa Brava last year, and I got quite familiar with them. The thing is, they are apparently moving more and more northwards from their traditional summer haunts on the Mediterranean coast, but the thing is that they are so similar to the Common Swift that unless one is actually looking for them, I think that they are bound to be missed most of the time.

Their call is the easiest way to tell the Pallid Swift apart from Common Swift. Listen to the call of the Common Swift here (from garden-birds.co.uk) and then compare it to the call of the Pallid Swift (played from Xeno-canto.org). Now, I am not saying that they are worlds apart, just that with practice, you can tell they are distinguishable. What complicates matters is that they are often in mixed flocks, so what you could try doing is taking some photos of the two, and then trying to ID the two swifts from the photos.

The Common Swift tends to have thinner, more pointed wings, overall a matt, darker colour, and a small, but clear throat bib. The Pallid swift is often browner (somewhat paler), has a heavier build, and more likely to have a larger, diffuse pale patch on the throat. Because of the "heavier" body form, the Pallid Swift can often seem to have a clear waistline where the chunky body reduces down to the thinner tail region. The three top tips for spotting a Pallid Swift in a crowd are probably to look for:
  • the hips
  • paler secondaries on a brown background when seen from above (common swift is uniformly dark), and
  • the "feather scaling". particularly the breast plumage will often appear to be scaled as the dark brown coloured feathers can have a lighter border to them

Common Swift (Mauersegler, Apus apus) by Muchaxo.
notice the matt belly colour, no hips, neat little white throat, no black "Zorro" eye patch, pointy wings, and no scaling.

I found trying to look at the extent of the throat patch and the pointedness of the wings to be very unreliable swift identification features in the field. When first getting used to the pallid swifts and common swifts, I tried as hard as I could to listen carefully (as usual, it helped to have local pro ornithologists and birders about) and took lots and lots of photos. Most of the time, it turned at that there were both pallid swifts and black swifts all mixed up in the same flock. But with a bit of practice, it got easier.

If you live in an area north of the regular breeding area, a good tip is to look out for swifts that are unusually early or unusually late. Because they tend not to migrate as far as the common swifts, the pallid swifts tend to be less keen to migrate back to their "winter" homes down south.

For more info on the Pallid Swift/Common Swift identification debate, you may want to look up some of these links:
Related Birdforum thread on Pallid/Common Swifts
(with some photos and little consensus)
If you understand Italian then try here

For photos of Pallid Swift, please see my follow-up post, here.
For other blog posts on swifts, and Alpine Swift, click on the links.

Happy birding, and good luck finding both swift species!
Dale Forbes

p.s. I am writing this from a hut in the mountains (heading out to look for Rock Partridge, Ptarmigan and Black Grouse in the morning early). When I get a little bit of time with my external hard drive, I will be able to get some Pallid Swift photos up here.

Tuesday, 28 April 2009

Do I even know where the Shetland Islands are?

Thank goodness some bright soul decided to invent google maps. How did I ever find the way to the local supermarket without it?

Anyhow, that is how I managed to find out where Whalsay, Shetland Islands is.

This is how I would get there:

29 glorious hours in a car/ferry and I can twitch a Wood Duck (if I had left 2 weeks ago). This is a wood duck in my local pond:

Swim USA, swim, China is right behind you!

So why on earth am I blabbing about a little island when I do not know where it is and I know nothing about it. Well, I am going birding in Kazakhstan and my sum knowledge of it is [rather embarrassingly] limited to Borat sketches. Back to Shetland and birds. So, Alpine Birds blog got its very first proper review by another blogger. And Jon lives in the Shetland Islands.

Bitter Bonxie blog is about Jon's wild and bizarre adventures with (and without) birds. And he has a lovely way with words. Rarities, mundanities, Citrine Wagtails and more, all shared with a matter-of-fact frankness and a wonderfully dry sense of humour. This is certainly a blog to have on your blogroll!

If anybody else wants to blog about this blog, or take up any of the themes or ideas I mention, please feel free. And if you do, please let me know, so that I can reciprocate ;-)

Happy birding
Dale Forbes

Here Rock Bunting, here Rock Bunting, come on...

Does not quite roll off the tongue, but I bet you can guess what I am going to write about ;-)

Of the buntings, it is only really the Yellow Hammer (Goldammer) that has any real level of abundance in Tirol. The Ortolan Buntings are hanging on by the skin of their teeth (teeth ?) in the Silz area and I had heard rumours of a few Rock Buntings (Zippammer) about on the "hot", rocky northern slopes of the Inn Valley. So I started to ask about, and it seemed that they had been seen by a few different people right by my house, on the slopes above the winefarm in Zirl.

first Rock Bunting photo - sun playing havoc with my photo success...

Sunday morning I hauled my still sleepy legs out of the house just before sunrise and headed first up to Ehnbachklamm to look for the Wallcreeper on my way to looking for the Rock Buntings [kill two metaphoric birds with one stone]. As I was about to enter the Ehnbachklamm (a very tight little gorge), I heard my first Rock Bunting singing in the trees above me.
To say the least.
I have been here innumerable times and never picked up the Rock Bunting!

Still no wallcreepers. grrrr. they are a figment of photoshop's imagination!

So I headed back down the hill and up the other side of the gorge, towards Martinswand and the Zirler Steinbruch (quarry). It did not take me long to find the next pair to Rock Buntings, doing just what rock buntings do: sitting on a dead tree, right on a cliff, singing. Wonderful.

Racing up the road to try to get a better position, I got to the quarry edge and heard another two Rock Bunting (territory three and counting!), but I carried on up to the little bridge over the rocky channel where I had seen the second pair. Poor photographs ensued, and maniacal climbing of cliffs with telescopes. I still didn't get a great photo, but at least I got to watch the pair feeding on the cliff. As the pair flew up from the cliff, it was interesting to see how the female would fly to the lower branches of an exposed tree, and the male would fly directly to the top of the tree/bush/snag to sing his merry little heart out.

those are the houses of Zirl in the background

The Bonelli's Warblers (Berglaubsänger) were back in full force with at least 20 individuals calling across the mountain slope. Good to have them back!

Heading out towards the Kaiser Max Grotte (a cave overlooking Innsbruck in the Martinswand), I picked up yet another Rock Bunting. It was ridiculous to see how many I was finding of a lifer that has, for all this time, lived just a few minutes walk behind my house. I blame at least part of this on the "I did not expect it so did not find it" psychology. The other part is, quite clearly, my incompetance ;-)
you put your left leg in, you take your left leg out, you do the hokey pokey and turn around...

In terms of habitat preference, it seems the Rock Buntings in Tirol prefer steeper slopes that are: South-facing (warmer), rocky with exposed rock sections/cliff areas, steep but not vertical, low canopy cover (fairly open woodland flanking open rocky areas), and the vegetation is dominated by small/stunted Austrian Black Pine (Pinus nigra, Waldkiefer). Conversations with other local ornithologists have revealed that they occasionally move out on to the valley floor, particularly in areas adjacent to their typical habitat, and will also utilize more closed pine woodland flanking the open rocky areas. These woodlands are typically great for picking up Bonelli's Warbler.
A Black Redstart alit briefly when I was in "hunting" position. the green in the background is from the distant fields.

You see, it does help to know what you are looking for in order to find it - pyschologists have been telling us for years, and it finally makes sense.

Happy birding
Dale Forbes

Sunday, 26 April 2009

Pallid Harrier in Innsbruck!

Oh yes, you read it right, a PALLID HARRIER IN INNSBRUCK!
This is a bird that has always occupied my imagination since I was a kid, but the closest I have ever come to seeing one was to pick up a Montagues Harrier near oNgoye in northeastern South Africa (also quite a find, but no Pallid Harrier).

not a great photo, but check out the pure white wings and body, and the black wedge wing tips (with a white leading edge, unlike the Hen Harrier and Montagu's Harrier)

Anyhow, the Pallid Harriers are supposed to migrate from eastern Africa and various parts of Asia, up to their breeding areas in Ukraine and further east in Asia. So why a Pallid Harrier decided to visit the still snowy Alps is something of a mystery to me.

After a morning birding at my local patch (the Inzinger Gaisau), Andreas and I headed across to Ehnbachklamm to quickly look for Wallcreeper (without luck), and then stopped in front of Martinswand (the huge cliff overlooking Innsbruck) to look for the Peregrine pair that I had seen hunting there fairly often lately.

As we soaked in the very welcome sun, we scanned the cliff for anything interesting (Eagle Owls, Wallcreeper...).
Two pairs of Eurasian Kestrel circled laxidasically.
Ooh, "what's that", cries Andreas
I only need a second's look to know that I really wanted to have my camera ready. So, I left the ID stuff to Andreas and frantically tried to find it with my digiscoping setup. But it was just one of those days when nothing photo-wise works...
So I abanoded that as a bad idea so to get a better look through the bins. Andreas got a good look through the scope. It was when it caught something that we got great view of it eating.

A little bit of video of the Pallid Harrier feeding way up high on the Martinswand. The video was taken at 150x magnification as it was sooo far (putting a lot of strain on the silly little lens that comes with the Canon A590IS I use for digiscoping).

It was perched on the cliff, eating, for a good half hour before it headed off to the West. Wolfgang and Silvia joined us the quarry (Steinbruch) in Zirl where we got great views of Alpine Swifts and Crag Martins, but no Pallid Harrier anywhere.
Idle chit chat...

And suddenly it popped up from the field right next to us, circled a few times right over us and then slowly headed back towards the main Martinswand cliff...

Happy birding,

p.s. if I get a few moments over the next couple of days, I will write a blog about the Alpine Swifts and the Rock Buntings I found this morning

Friday, 24 April 2009

Blog banners and different web browsers

Every now and again I get a little creative bee in my bonnet and decide to redisign my blog. It is kinda like spring cleaning. without the requirement for spring. and without anything getting any cleaner. But you [might] know what I mean ;-)

At any rate, a little while ago I bothered Thomas over at Walk the Wilderness Blog (a fabulous site and if you have never seen it, your life is poorer for it). So, I bugged Thomas until he patiently taught me how to adjust my html layout settings so that I could stretch my blog out to make use of the whole screen space.

Quite pleased with the new stretched look, I put together a new banner with - of course - my bird of the moment, the Alpine Accentor. (I rather not start talking of them 'cos I am likely to start bla bla bla-ing on about them...). So I designed the new banner on my macbook and mozilla, hoping that it would display correctly on other computers.

a dissappointingly chopped-off banner on a windows pc...

This afternoon, I was using another laptop at a training course I was on, and on both windows laptops I was using, my blog was displayed with a chopped off banner (something like that above).

How does my banner and blog display on your computer, and are there any other things that look like they have either been designed badly (which is a distinct possibility) or that they are not displaying correctly?

Looks like I am back to the html drawing board...

Happy birding (and thanks for your help).
Dale Forbes

Wednesday, 22 April 2009

Great places to practice digiscoping 2 - local zoo

Zoos can provide a great place to practice your digiscoping techniques as it provides you with countless opportunities to get close to more people-accustomed animals. They tend to sit still for longer, move slower, and not be as far away as in a wild situation. But zoos also provide a number of challenges in getting decent photos.

Wire as a background

bird is too close to the [unnatural-looking] wire background. northern wheatear/Steinschmäzer

Because one is in an unnatural setting, it is very easy for the image to look like it was taken in an unnatural setting. Despite the natural rocks in the Northern Wheatear image, above, the wire background destroys the image. The trick is to:
  • minimize the distance between you and the bird
  • maximize the amount of space between the bird and the wire fence, and
  • reduce the depth of field by using the largest aperture possible (smallest f number). This will also give you the fastest shutter speed, which is very useful when digiscoping birds.
get more distance between the bird and the fence, reduce depth of field. northern wheatear/Steinschmäzer

If you manage to get the photographic subject in a good position, don't be shy to snap off lots of photos and to play with the settings to create an acceptable image. In the second digiscoped photo of the northern wheatear, above, the bird is far enough away from the wire that the wire falls out of the depth of field and is not visible at all. [I have been really struggling to get photos of northern wheatears in the mountains - it takes a huge amount of walking to get to a good spot and when there, there is no place to hide, so they tend to stay distant. and, at the moment there is just too much snowin the Tirolean Alps to find them on their breeding grounds].

a shadowed/darker wall and reduced depth of field can produce a matt black background. Egyptian vulture/Schmutzgeier Neophron percnopterus

Another possiblitity to deal with wire backgrounds is to take advantage of darker surfaces in the cage. This egyptian vulture's cage was 95% wire and had a lot of light shining on it - making for a very difficult background. By moving about a bit, I managaed to put a shadowed concrete wall behind the vulture. Because of a very short depth of field, the concrete wall came out as black, making for a rather appealing series of photos.

black background effect using a shadowed wall and a short depth of field. Little Bittern/Zwergdommel Ixobrychus minutus

I found a spot to which this Little Bittern kept on returning. There was pleasant side lighting (although a bit burnt out as it was just after mid-day), with some reflection from the pond, and a shadowed concrete wall and log behind the bird. I was only about 5 meters from the little bittern, and the wall was about 1m behind the bird so, using a very short depth of field I managed to replicate the black background effect.

Wire between the camera and the subject

photographing through a sunlit wire fence produces a washed-out grey. Eurasian Lynx/Luchs Lynx lynx

I really wanted a couple of Lynx photos (despite the poor light conditions), more happy-snappy photos than anything else, but there was always a great big wire fence between the camera and the [beautiful] animal. The result was a washed-out grey across the images. This can be ameliorated in a number of ways:
  • try to find a patch of fence on to which the sun is not shining. A shadowed fence poses far fewer problems (the Egyptian vulture shots were taken through shadowed wire)
  • if the wire mesh is fairly large, then adjusting the position of the digiscoping setup slightly may help
  • if you do have washed-out areas then try to keep these off the subject (a washed-out background is less disturbing than a foreground)
  • use a short depth of field with both the camera and the photographic subject far away enough from the fence that the wire is completely out of focus.
adjusting the camera position slightly meant that I could shoot through the wire mesh. Eurasian Lynx/Luchs Lynx lynx

Keep the photos tight around the subject
Simply put, the more space you have around your subject, the more chance something unnatural is going to creep in to your image. This could be a garden hose on the floor you never saw, or even something as subtle as animal tracks and worn logs that look like they are in a cage.

it is hard to get a whole bird shot of a large bird/animal without introducing unnatural elements. Bearded Vulture/Bartgeier Gypaetus barbatus

By keeping the image tight around this Bearded Vulture (Lammergeier), and by restricting the depth of field, I managed to exclude many of the cage elements. Unfortunately, it is very difficult to get a full animal shot of such a large bird when it is in some sort of enclosure as it is almost impossible then to exclude all unnatural elements (without photoshopping, of course).

keep background simple, esp for large birds. Northern Bald Ibis/Waldrapp Geronticus eremita

For larger birds in particular, try to find rather plain, uninteresting background with as few artificial structures as possible. The cliff behind the Northern Bald Ibis looks artificial when in focus, but when it is out of the depth of field, it just becomes a rather natural-looking rock structure.

The animals and birds might not be wild, but they are also not going to always be the most cooperative for digiscoping/photographing.

sometimes even loads of patience does not pay off. if that is the case, you might as well just relax and enjoy the pretty animals. Eurasian Lynx/Luchs Lynx lynx

I found this Lynx in a tree in what looked like a stunning position - the green foliage highlighted the soft brown hues of her fur, and the sunlight peeking through the branches would have made a wonderful image. I sat. And I sat. And I sat.
Eventually, I decided that if she were anything like our house cat then she would not be moving that head for quite a while. I never got the shot.

One thing that stood out to me about the other visitors to the zoo on this sunny spring weekend day, was that when they wanted to take a photo, they made all manner of noise to try to attract the animal's attention. "Does that golden eagle over there look like a dog to you?", I wanted to ask.
I am sure our mere presence and smell is disturbing enough, without us actively trying to annoy them.

I am far from a fan of zoos. In fact I really don't like the idea of any animal being kept in a cage (yes, I know I worked for a captive-breeding based reintroduction program of scarlet macaws, but even that was hard). The cages and enclosures always just seem too small. After 18 months in Tirol, I finally made it across to Innsbruck's zoo: the Alpenzoo (which only has native species!). And, as zoos go, it was actually quite nice, and it was apparent that a concerted effort is being put in to improve the conditions for the animals.

So, if you are looking to pique your digiscoping performance, you might want to think about somewhere like a zoo, or the local duck pond.

Happy digiscoping
Dale Forbes

Monday, 20 April 2009

Great places to practice digiscoping 1 - local duck pond

What a grand title! I think I am getting better at this whole title thing. (but correct me if I am wrong ;-)
Taking a photo using a good digiscoping setup is incredibly simple.
Taking a half decent photo with a digiscoping setup is not so easy.
Taking great photos through a digiscoping setup is flippin' hard.
Making the progression from level one to two to three takes lots of time, effort and patience; although a cup full of luck also helps. But then again, Gary Player always said that the more he practiced the luckier he got.
But how can you possibly practice when all the little birds keep flying away?
The trick is to start with larger birds and birds that tend to move in regular ways. Try going down to a local town park and taking photos of the ducks and geese. You will find that the larger birds make good photographic subjects, they tend to move about in a less frantic manner (unless, they are chasing each other about), and are not necessarily as shy as wild birds.

1. choose a large subject that is sitting still

Choose a subject that is still. This sitting Mandarin Duck (at Schloß Ambras, just outside Innsbruck) made a great subject - he was dead still for ages, which meant that I could use a 4sec timer on my camera. This meant that there was little or no camera shake to disturb the image, even though I was forced to use a fairly slow shutter speed (1/50sec) because it was kinda dark in the tree.

2. Try to follow a swimming duck, adjusting the focus as the duck moves.

When you are feeling a little more confident, find a swimming duck and try to track the duck through the water. You will probably find that the ducks move more slowly and calmly when they are just left to themselves. Making a noice to attract their attention, or throwing food, is likely to make them move faster and make your job of digiscoping them so much harder. As you are following the ducks, you will get used to focusing quickly and having your camera ready to take the shot. Try to use as little zoom as possible (particularly from your camera) as this will tend to reduce the amount of light you are able to use (slower photo=more camera shake/blur) and is likely to soften the images (unless you have a great quality lens). Don't be afraid to take lots of photos - you can always throw the poor photos away.

When you are really getting confident, you can start to look up in to the trees around the pond. Try to find a subject that is sitting relatively still and not too high up - eye-level would be great. This Blue Tit came and sat on a bush right in front of me while I was playing with the ducks:

3. find a bird in a bush/tree somewhere near you
(btw, that is what happens to a photo when you sharpen it too much in photoshop ;-)

I have another great spot to practice digiscoping techniques and get ready for spring birding, but I will leave that to my next post.

I would love to hear your comments, tips and ideas!

Happy birding
Dale Forbes

Patch update - Birding at the Inzinger Gaisau, Tirol

On Saturday morning I popped out to my local patch (the Inzinger Gaisau, western Tirol) for a bit of birding. The sheer number and diversity of birds singing was staggering and completely overwhelming after the long, slow birding winter.

Everywhere I looked, the Fieldfares (Wacholderdrossel) were chirping and whizzing about collecting nesting material and fat, juicy worms. The blackcaps (Mönchsgrasmücke) were singing all over the place, and there were even a few willow warblers chirping (Fitis).

There are 7 ridiculously cute Tufted Ducks about at the moment. Last year one pair bred, successfully raising 3 offspring.

Getting on to the main pond, I picked up a moorhen playing bold - a rather shy (uncommonly seen) breeding bird here. Scanning the pond with my scope I was astonished to see a pair of Goosander (Common Merganser, Gänsesäger) right out in the open on the pond - a patch tick for the Inzinger Gaisau!

I wonder why they are still about so late? (i.e. feel free to comment ;-)

Goosander - a patch tick on the Inzinger Gaisau

The biggest sighting of the day was a single Green Sanpiper (Waldwasserläufer). I had heard one last year at migration time but did not manage to get a glimpse of it. In typical Green Sandpiper fashion, the bird was shy and stayed a long way away, but I managed to digiscope a couple of identification photos.

The light speckling on the back and the olive-green legs suggest either a Green Sandpiper, Wood Sandpiper or Solitary Sandpiper (a rare vagrant from North America and congener of the Green Sandpiper).
The dark bib has a distinct lower margin to it, unlike the Wood Sandpiper which has a more diffuse speckled bib that peters out between the breast and belly. The white eye stripe (supercilium) is clear in front of the eye and very faint behind the eye (unlike Wood Sandpiper), and the Green Sandpiper has much broader tail barring than the Wood Sandpiper.

This is a horrible photo, but it does show a Green Sandpiper in flight.

The dark underwings definitively separate the Green Sandpiper from the Wood Sadpiper, and the white rump patch excludes its very similar North American congener, the Solitary Sandpiper (what a find that would have been!).

Find other posts on the Gaisau here and a description of the site and how to get there here.

Happy birding
Dale Forbes

Thursday, 16 April 2009

All wildlife is precious so I endeavour to enjoy every moment...

Red Deer, originally uploaded by mcapper.

So goes the headline of a blog I found this morning. Frank's Early Birder blog is, as you might have guessed, about birding. and other wildlife. and plants. in the UK. And he gets to spend his days playing with plants (the fancy shmancy name for that is evidently Horticulture).

But what really got me looking in to his blog was the subtitle. Enjoying every moment.
So often we race about looking for new things to point our eyes at. to ogle through binoculars. to occupy the interests of our macro lens. And all of these activities bring us immeasurable joy. But I sometimes get the feeling that following our desires/hobbies/habits about so often misses the reason why we are out there in the first place.

And so sometimes I leave the binoculars at home, hide the camera from myself, lock the telescope in the cellar, and go out birdwatching. This is the peaceful activity of watching and appreciating birds. I try not to name a single bird (not even in my head). I try not to recognize a single call. I just look at the pretty birdies. I take some time to look at the Goldfinches as they hop about. Place my little hinie on the wet floor and look up at the feeding flock above me.

Sometimes a little Marsh Tit (or Long-tailed Hermit, or African Broadbill) or something cool comes and sits on a branch right in front of my nose and I reach for the camera that is not there. Darn. I say. But then again, now I have the chance to really appreciate the living being in front of me, instead of frantically adjusting aperture settings.

A peace comes over me, and I smile.

The other advantage for the birder in me is that one tends to spend more time really noticing and observing birds. Sometimes I will go out and do serious birding without any optical equipment. This really tests one's skill as now one has to rely on subtle behavioural cues, a soft chirp and "gut feel" to identify what is about. Done often enough, when I do go out with pretty Austrian optical equipment and get a gorgeously large view of the bird, I am way more likely to just know what it is even before I have had a chance to look for the pale spot at the base of the bill.

The Deer photo was taken by Mathew, who has dedicated his life to the conservation and appreciating of birds and other living things.

Happy birding
Dale Forbes

Wednesday, 15 April 2009

Blackcaps sing when they are happy

Blackcap, originally uploaded by my flickr friend gwynnrichards.

Yet another silly title. Maybe I should spend more time thinking up something clever, or whitty or - at the very least - somewhat more related to what I wanted to write about.

I wanted to talk about the happy news that I heard my first Blackcap of the year singing in the garden. what a wonderfully welcome sound.

as a critically thinking scientist who relishes in delving in theory and ruthlessly bashing imperfectly designed methodology, statistical approaches and reasoning, I would be the first to throw out wishy washy pseudoscience and be flabbergasted by anthropomorphisms.

But then again, office hours are long passed, and the offices lights are turned off. Consequently, I would like to categorically state that Blackcaps are happy when they sing.

And so am I.

Happy spring
Dale Forbes

Tuesday, 14 April 2009

Goosanders on the Inn

A couple of times a week I check the Inn to see if I can find anything interesting on the river. This is not normally fruitful, but the river is beautiful enough to make the journey always enjoyable. Last weekend I went down to my normal patch (the Inzinger Gaisau) and popped down to the river.

Shockingly, a pair of goosander (aka common merganser, or Gänsesäger in these parts) paddled out from one of the side streams and quickly scampered across the river. Surprise cost me a precious few seconds as I set up the digiscoping setup, but eventually (when they seemed to be miles away already) I managed to snap off a few ghastly photos. But at least you can see the beautiful creatures. But you might need to use some imagination.

A lovely female goosander with the rusty crest and fluffy neck hair

a couple of shots of the male goosander (that white and black fleck). wouldn't it be nice if they bred somewhere near here, hey?

The goosander is rather rare in these parts and I have only really come across them at migration time when they move through the Alpine zone. The german version of wikipedia refers to a breeding area somewhere on the northern rim of the Alps, but I am not sure where that is, maybe Bodensee on the border between Austria (Voralberg), Switzerland and Germany.

I don't suppose the Inn would make the best of fishing grounds for the goosander as the water visibility is usually very low. the water is normally a creamy green colour; beautiful, but unlikely to be very useful for a bird that searches for little fishes visually. but somehow a couple of great cormorants find a way to manage...

There were also a couple of dozen white wagtails (Bachstelzen) about on the river bank. Over the last week, they have spread out more as they found and setup their breeding spots.

I also tried to get a photo of the recently returned Fieldfares. In German they are called Wacholderdrosseln. Literally: Juniper Thrush. Not because they like to eat juniper berries, or because they are somehow associated with this genus in a habitat sense, but because they evidently taste good when eaten with juniper berries. They have a rather interesting, not massively thrush-like call (listen here from garden-birds.co.uk). one of the many sounds I love to hear

Happy birding
Dale Forbes

Sunday, 12 April 2009

Digiscoping; a bit of a personal reflection

Coming from a background of SLR cameras and telephoto lenses, I have found digiscoping rather challenging. It is not always easy to find a bird quickly, and then getting good focus is also not easy. Because one is using such large magnifications (at least 20x), one also needs good light to get a fast enough shutter speed so that the bird looks sharp - and not just a blurred blob in the centre of the image - as much of my early digiscoping results resembled.

Time and practice has meant that I am a little faster at finding subjects accurately through my scope, and getting good focus. But I have also learnt a whole lot more about choosing my subject and positioning myself to get the best possible light. And I have also learnt to take my digiscoping equipment wherever I go so that I have the maximum chance of bumping in to something fortuitously.

And when the light is not good, I just look through the scope at the pretty birdy.
Well, I do have a scope with me anyway ;-)

My regular digiscoping setup includes a swarovski 80mm angled scope, either a 30x wide angle ocular or a zoom, and my point and shoot Canon A590IS. I must admit that I am not completely satisfied with the Canon A590IS. I continue to struggle to get really sharp images even without the a huge big telescope strapped to the front of the camera. The weak lens (or whatever the issue is) is particularly evident when you use the zoom. I learnt the hard way; when digiscoping or digibinning, don't use the zoom on this camera, it is just not worth it.

Digiscoping birds in flight has been particularly challenging. Using an angled telescope has the added challenge of not having the viewing and photographing angles the same, that added to the fact that compact digital cameras have rather slow shutter response and repeat times, and losing the subject bird from the screen once a photo is taken, even for a split second - enough to lose a flying bird from view.

One method I found for photographing birds in flight was to maximise shutter speed by using the largest aperture available (smallest number), focus on an area through which the birds frequently fly (a flight path) and blast the shutter off whenever the birds are anywhere near. If you try enough times, you are bound to end up with something eventually.

For the Black Kite series, I was using a different setup that made following and photographing flying birds a whole lot easier...

I was using a Canon EOS 350D attached directly to a Swarovski 80HD straight telescope using Swarovski's TLS800 digiscoping adaptor. I still had to focus by hand, but it felt a whole lot more like a telephoto lens in the hand than anything else I have used for digiscoping. Because of the large focal length, it can be difficult to get enough light, so I tend to pump the ISO up a little bit to get a better shutter speed. With a shutter speed of 1/200sec I am usually confident enough to swing the setup about hand-held and see what I can get. Makes for lots of fun.

The thing I am still struggling with is getting good focus as the focus is entirely manual, putting a lot of pressure on the photographer. But it is getting better, the more I use it. I don't think I will switch over to this digiscoping method - as I still prefer the ability to get the camera out of the way and use the spotting scope for viewing - but it is nice to play with, and I am sure that those who are less focused on bird viewing love it.

here are a couple more black kite photos that I digiscoped yesterday. they are not great, but I kinda like them. And, I have a real thing for the Milvus kites, so please excuse my harping on...

Happy birding
Dale Forbes

Saturday, 11 April 2009

The Black Kites are feeling all frisky...

I went out to the Inzinger Gaisau this afternoon to see what was about (and to enjoy the lovely warm spring day). Packed the digiscoping toys in the backpack and headed out there on the bicycle.

After hanging out for a little bit at a side pond (finding a little grass snake and a rather shy moorhen), we went for a walk further back to the westernmost edge of the marshland area. It was the beautiful call - a sound that reminds me of my childhood - that drew my attention to the pair of Black Kites (Schwarzmilan) the was circling and heading in to the flooded woodland. I managed to snap off a couple of okay digiscoping photos. Not great, but at least you can see they are black kites ;-)

I was trying to get the Black Kites with the snowy Alps in the background, but I could not find a way to effectively digiscope them without getting that annoying telephone line through the image. Does anyone have any idea how I can post-process the image?

Happy birding
Dale Forbes

Thursday, 9 April 2009

Some more photos from MoonWatch

Here are some more images from my first three nights doing the MoonWatch night time bird migration surveys.

Up at the beautiful Hungerburgbahn train station - our first night out doing the night bird migration study.

Sunset up at Hoadl Haus (Axamer Lizum, 2350m asl)

Sunset and our MoonWatch setup, also Hoadl Haus (Axamer Lizum). Almost no birds migrating over the mountain top, but what a stunning location to be at full moon!

The moon rising at Axamer Lizum.

A rather frienly Alpine Accentor up at Seegrube (North Park Ski Arena, overlooking Innsbruck). We saw alpine accentors in the late afternoon at Seegrube, as well as up at Axamer Lizum that morning. Lovely birds.

Seegrube and North Park have got to be one of the most reliable and best spots in the Innsbruck area to see and photograph Alpine Choughs. Between the Alpine Accentors, Alpine Choughs and Black Redstarts, I have lots of birds to play with my digiscoping setup.

I need to leave now to go back up the mountain - another sleepless night staring at the full moon (it really is a fascinating object!)

Happy birding