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!

Monday, 29 June 2009

Swarovski UCA – universal camera adapter for digiscoping

Swarovski Optik recently announced a new digiscoping adapter: the Universal Camera Adapter or simply the Swarovski UCA.

Compact camera set up for digiscoping on the UCA

The first two digiscoping adapters produced by Swarovski Optik suitable for DSLR cameras were the DCA (double ring system attaching to lens’ filter thread) and the TLS800 (scope as telephoto lens). The new UCA takes a slightly different approach in that the idea is to provide a platform on which to support the camera.

The UCA attaches to the scope using a clamping system that fits over the eyepiece, but you still have easy access to the zoom. The new 25-50xW zoom eyepiece comes with a new slimmer eyecup so that the digiscoping adapter slides easily on and off again (btw, it is not that easy to slide on and off of the older eyecup on the 20-60x zoom but – apparently – they will replace your eyecup free of charge for a new one if you buy the UCA adaptor, but you might want to try asking your local dealer to check).

Canon EOS 350D set up for digiscoping on the new UCA adaptor

Okay, so the DSLR screws on to a little connection plate using the camera’s tripod thread. This connection plate can then clip in and out of the UCA’s supporting/mounting platform and locks in place. This means that you can easily slip the camera off of the adapter if you want to take a general photo with the camera (macro, landscape, etc.). When you slide it back on to the adapter again, you do not need to readjust the adaptor setup at all before you are ready to digiscope with it again. This for me has been one of the reasons why I prefer this adaptor over many of the other digiscoping adapters I have used. I like that once I have it set up for a camera, it stays setup and I never need to fiddle with it in the field.

Having said that, I do tend to fiddle with it in the field, through no fault of the fancy black and green toy, but because I tend to want to videoscope and digiscope all at the same time and I don’t always have a second digiscoping adaptor with me. This means that I will often end up videoscoping and then quickly getting the camcorder off of the adaptor and remounting my little compact camera in its place. (I did this recently with the European bee-eaters in Po Delta, the short-eared owl in the steppes, and the pygmy cormorants also in Po Delta, amongst many other occasions).

So I have spoken about how the UCA provides a big platform on which to mount a DSLR, but you can also twist the two main components of the digiscoping adaptor about such that the mounting platform is much shorter. This is how I use it for my little Canon A590IS compact camera and – incidentally – also for the Panasonic HD camcorder I have been using for videoscoping birds.

The video shows the UCA in action in a hide down in the Po Delta of northeastern Italy with some wonderfully cooperative Pygmy Cormorants (Phalacrocorax pygmaeus, Zwergscharbe) showing off for us.

I have been lucky enough to play with one of these adaptors for quite a bit now and would be more than happy to answer specific questions if you have any.

Happy digiscoping
Dale Forbes

Sunday, 28 June 2009

Videoscoping Wallcreepers on nest

So, here it is finally, the video of the wallcreepers (Tichodroma muraria, Mauerläufer) at the nest.

Wallcreeper (Tichodroma muraria, Mauerläufer) pair at nest

This is just a short videoscoping clip, but in some of my video footage, you can actually count four little bills, but there might even be five chicks in the wallcreeper nest. In the video you can see the male (the one with the larger dark patch on the throat) bringing insect food back to the nest. From my various photos of the male wallcreeper, it seems the food destined for the young chicks mostly consists of various Thysanura (wild, rock silverfish), a few species of spiders and at least one cricket. When the female was still on the eggs, the male seemed to be bringing her mainly nice large juicy crickets, but I suspect these were too small for the week old chicks at that stage so the cricket the male brought in was quite probably for the female.

Telling the male wallcreeper from the female wallcreeper is normally very difficult. Most field guides and online references I have read state that the male wallcreeper is largely black underneath in the breeding season and that the female only ever really has either a great throat or mild speckling. The male mostly looses his black belly and throat outside of the breeding season. What was interesting about this pair is that the female also had a fairly large black throat patch (see my first post and photos of the female wallcreeper at the nest). While the female was still incubating, the male had quite a large black throat and breast, but within a week, the male's black breast was fading fast. My last series of photos of the male wallcreeper show it with only the remnants of its black breast. It seems incredible that he was loosing his breeding colours so soon after (during) the breeding season.

The video was videoscoped from what I guess is about 25m with a Swarovski Optik ATM80HD telescope, 25-50xW eyepiece, UCA digiscoping adapter and a Panasonic Full HD SD100 camcorder.

Saturday, 27 June 2009

Digiscoping Today - week 8

It is Saturday again so Welcome to the 8th installment of Digiscoping Today!

[See Digiscoping Today - week 7][
More info here]

The idea behind it is to share my (and probably your) passion for digiscoping and nature. Nature gives us so much joy in so many ways and digiscoping - as with other forms of photography - gives us a reason to be outdoors.

Add your name and web address and tell your friends to join in too.
Write a comment to tell us what you have posted.

Last week we had:
  1. I added a link to a post on digibinning/how to take photos with binoculars (a video made on the steppes of Kazakhstan), and
  2. Corey of 10,000 birds added some great shots of the beautiful pink Mongolian Finches from our recent Swarovski Optik digiscoping trip to Kazakhstan.

Happy digiscoping!
Dale Forbes

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Friday, 26 June 2009

Rovereto and the mountains of Südtirol, Italy

In May, Clay and I spent some time in the famous Delta del Po - about an hour south of Venice - in northeastern Italy. At the end of our time in Italy, I dropped Clay off at the airport and started heading back to Tirol. But instead of taking the [boring] Autostrada back, I decided to go off of the main road at Vicenza (one of the super-famous architect - Palladio's - favorite haunts) and head north through the countryside.

The beauty of the landscape bubbled over as I got to the foothills of the Alps and over in to Südtirol /Trentino Alto Adige. The tightly curving road, great cliffs and luminous "80's green" new spring foliage was stunning and made for an incredible drive.

I am fairly sure that there were birds there. But I must admit that I was so jaw-dropped by the wonderful setting that I did not even really look. Eventually the road came out at Rovereto, a lovely little town.

How breathtaking the world is when we just open our eyes and hearts to it.

Happy birding
Dale Forbes

Wednesday, 24 June 2009

So when is summer exactly?

Summer for me was always pretty clear - it was that really stinking hot, humid time around Christmas and beyond in which we lay in our beds at night with the fans blowing gales and our bodies flushed with heat.

Then I moved to the Costa Rican Pacific coast where for the first couple of months the thermometer in the local open-air restaurant at Tiskita Jungle Lodge read 27°C no matter what time of day it was, day in and day out. A couple of months later we had a bitterly cold spell in which all the locals were irritable and grumpy because of the cold. It was 25°C / 77°F. I kid you not! So there the seasons were either Summer (approx Jan - July) and Winter (Aug - Dec). Otherwise known as the wet and very wet season. But I must admit that over the years it came to annoy me intensely (irrationally so) when people would assume that because Costa Rica is in the northern hemisphere (only just) that Christmas time must be Winter and that July is mid-summer. by definition, the tropics cannot have the four temperate seasons.

Anyhow, so having lived in the southern hemisphere, I always knew of midsummer and midwinter to be coloquial terms for the two soltices (about 21 June and December). It seems that things here in continental Europe are a little different. There is evidently a much greater temperature lag here so that the warm period is a lot longer after the solar peak than in the southern hemisphere. Consequently, the soltice is often thought of as the first day of the summer or winter.

Yes, all this season classification stuff is rather complicated. And it is never without conscious thought that I am able to say whether December is warm or cold. or wet or very wet. or white. or good for birds. or great for migrants. or breeding time. or not. I'm all confused.

But it seems like whatever way I look at it, we in the Alps should be in summer. Certainly the days are long enough. 10pm and it is still lightish out. Bizarre.

But then again, it really should not be snowing outside!
The peaks are all beautifully sugar sprinkled and there are photos in the local paper of people building great big snowmen in Nordpark, just above Innsbruck.

Snowman in midsummer. photo by VOL_Live/Dominik Heinzle

The great news is that Stubaier Glacier has just gotten 35cm of snow! and more likely to fall over the next few days. This is great news for our fast disappearing glaciers - the spectacular wonders of nature soon destined [?] to be the fillers of boring high school textbooks and tragic fairy tales.

Monday, 22 June 2009

How Austrian Wallcreepers construct their nests...

Dear friends, this blog post was never meant to be taken in all seriousness. I was feeling kooky at the time. If it sounds too bizarre to be true, don't believe it ;-)

Last Wednesday I headed back out to check on the Wallcreeper nest. This time I was a little bit more prepared. I had a full HD videoscoping setup (Swaro ATM80HD, 25-50xWide eyepiece, UCA digiscoping adapter, Pana SD100 HD camcorder) and a digiscoping rig (Swaro STM80HD, TLS800 digiscoping adapter, Canon EOS 350D). So I lugged all this stuff up the gorge with me, along with a local university student (Silvia Pramstaller) who is also very keen on birds.

It is often very difficult to get decent shutter speeds in such tight, dark gorges, but I did manage to get some decent digiscoped photos of the wallcreepers that I am rather happy with. Even better than the photography, was just the opportunity to be able to spend so much time with such a unique and enigmatic bird. Alpine birdwatching at its finest!

Male Wallcreeper (Tichodroma muraria, Mauerläufer) with food for female and nestlings.

Hey, whacha doin there?

Male Wallcreeper (Tichodroma muraria, Mauerläufer) on approach to nest

Male Wallcreeper (Tichodroma muraria, Mauerläufer) flicking wings at nest entrance

Female Wallcreeper (Tichodroma muraria, Mauerläufer) on nest with at least four (maybe five) chicks in nest. Male wallcreeper is in the foreground at the nest tunnel entrance.

A little known fact is that wallcreepers excavate their own cavities in the rock face. The male and female scrutinize the cliffs of an appropriate gorge - some times for years - searching for an appropriate crack in the rock face with just the right chemical, geological and geographical elements. After having selected a site, they begin with the hard work of clearing out a nest. In much the same way as the bee-eaters of the old world, and jacomars of the new world, these surprisingly robust little creatures hammer away at the chosen crevice one grain of rock at a time. This lengthy process can take a pair up to seven years to complet, but once finished, they can rest assured that their home bears all the hallmarks of great German engineering, Swiss precision and an Austrian's obsession with quality and "doing things the right way".

In the final photo, you can clearly see where the birds have scraped and scoured away at the roof of the nest cavity to create just the perfect dome shape. A cunning mixture of various locally-available clays, lichens and a specific ant species make for a perfect [mildly explosive] mixture that helps to quickly enlargen the entrance and the small stones littering the entrance have been carried in specifically for that function. The larger boulder guarding the right entrance to the nest must have taking them months to carry in. Incredibly industrious little birds are these Wallcreepers.

Happy birding
Dale Forbes

p.s. I did make a little video of the wallcreepers in action around the nest but my internet connection is upset with me today so I will have to post it another day.

Sunday, 21 June 2009

Digiscoping Today - week 7

It is Saturday again so Welcome to the 7th installment of Digiscoping Today!

[See Digiscoping Today - week 6][
More info here]

The idea behind it is to share my (and probably your) passion for digiscoping and nature. Nature gives us so much joy in so many ways and digiscoping - as with other forms of photography - gives us a reason to be outdoors.

Add your name and web address and tell your friends to join in too.
Write a comment to tell us what you have posted.

Last week we had:
  1. I have added a link to some digiscoped wallcreeper photos, and
  2. Corey of 10,000 birds has some wonderful Himalayan Rubythroat images from our recent Swarovski Optik digiscoping trip to Kazakhstan.

Happy digiscoping!
Dale Forbes

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Friday, 19 June 2009

White-crowned Penduline-Tit at nest

On our final day in Kazakhstan, we headed out of Almaty towards China and in to the deserts and semi-deserts of the region. After a couple hours' drive (which does not get you very far in Kazakhstan), we stopped at a little stream through some recently ploughed fields.

Strolling about, I ducked off in to the riparian woodland to see if I could get closer to a Lesser Grey Shrike when a tiny little White-crowned Penduline Tit popped up in to the bush above me. It didnt take me long before I found the nest. So we moved off a little and let the adults move in to the nest while we sat at the ready with our digiscoping gear.

White-crowned Penduline Tit (Remiz coronatus coronatus, Kronenbeutelmeise)

I managed to get a few nice digiscoped photos of this gorgeous little bird, but as the others left back for the car, a penduline tit came back and sat up beautifully for me. At which point the dinky compact camera got turned on to video move - the videoscoper in me coming out ;-)

One of the fascinating thing about Penduline Tits is that they have such huge nests because the top portion of the nest is a fake nest and the real nest is on the bottom story hidden below a trap door. In the video, you can see the penduline tit lift up the trap door flap with its bill just before entering the nest.

Lesser Grey Shrike (Lanius minor, Schwarzstirnwürger). Enjoying the mosquitos as much as we were? I wonder...

Singing Red-headed Bunting (Emberiza bruniceps, Braunkopfammer).

Happy birding
Dale Forbes

Thursday, 18 June 2009

Digiscoping Skylarks

Yesterday afternoon I took a friend out to go check up on the Wallcreepers and on our way home we decided to stop in to check out the Ortolan Buntings in Silz. We found a good number of Ortolans singing and feeding on the ground in the potatoes, but I didn't get any great photos of them.

There were lots and lots of Skylarks (Alauda arvensis, Feldlerche), however - something rather unusual for Tirol (our skylarks are disappearing fast).

These Skylark photos were taken hand-held using a Swarovski Optik STM80HD scope, a TLS800 adapter and a Nikon 350D - the same setup I used for the Black Kites.

I just love their little crests - it makes them look so serious. And hearing dozens of them singing/displaying is absolutely wonderful. Listen to the Skylark song and then imagine a whole pile of them singing together! (the song was recorded by Niels Crabbe in Oulu, Finland)

Happy birding
Dale Forbes

Tuesday, 16 June 2009

How to successfully take photos through your binoculars - the digibinning technique

Digibinning shot of a Steppe Marmot taken in the steppes of Kazakhstan. completely unedited.

So a lot of people have asked me about taking photos through binoculars, and I tend to write about digibinning fairly often. But the thing is, I still don't think that very many people ever do digibinning even though I am convinced it is a fantastic tool/resource for the average birder and field naturalist (butterflies, dragonflies, giraffe eyes). So while I was in Kazakhstan, I made a short YouTube video introducing digibinning and showing how easy it is to do in the field.

I use the Swarovski Snapshot Adapter with whatever pair of binoculars I have with me at the time (at the moment it is normally the Swaro EL 8x32). The procedure for using the snapshot adapter is as follows:
  1. Slide the snapshot adapter on to the eyecup of the binoculars until it is firmly in place.
  2. Screw the eyecup back in as far as it will go
  3. Switch your compact camera on so that the lens extends out of the camera body
  4. Now if you play with the swarovski snapshot adapter, you will see that it is made of two plastic rings. if you twist these two rings, the three plastic feet on the inside of the snapshot adapter will extend and retract. you want to retract these as far as possible by rotating the top ring anticlockwise. you now have a great big opening to insert your camera's zoom lens
  5. Insert your camera's zoom lens in to the opening. If it does not fit in to the hole, then the snapshot adapter will not work for your camera (but I have only seen this with very few standard compact cameras)
  6. Slowly rotate the upper ring of the snapshot adapter clockwise so that the holding feet come out to grip lightly against the camera's lens (you will have to holding the camera in place on the binoculars while you do this)
  7. You camera should now be semi-fixed to the binoculars to form one fairly stable unit. Note: be careful that the snapshot adapter is not very tight against the zoom lens and that your camera does not turn itself off and try to retract the lens. I tend to have the connection firm but not too tight, and I usually turn off my "lens retract" automatic power off.
  8. With one stable unit, you can now hold the binoculars in a vertical position, and adjust the focus on the binoculars until the subject is clear
  9. Let your camera autofocus to fine-tune the image (macro mode is invariably best for both digiscoping and for digibinning), and
  10. Take the photo!
Because I tend to expend most of my bird photographic energies digiscoping with a regular telescope, I only tend to use digibinning through my binoculars when I do not have my birding scope with me. This is especially so when I am out hiking or birding in areas where I know the going will be tough (long, long hours; climbing/scrambling; thugs about; trudging through deep snow; torrential rain...). But at these times, it is really great to have a means to get some nice bird photos.

A rather confiding steppe marmot. Digiscoped using a Swarovski ATM80, 25-50x wide-angle zoom eyepiece, the DCB digiscoping adaptor, and my little Canon A590IS

I would love to see YOUR DIGIBINNING PHOTOS, so if you have some, send me a link or write a comment...

Happy birding
Dale Forbes

Saturday, 13 June 2009

Digiscoping Today - week 6

It is Saturday again so Welcome to the 6th installment of Digiscoping Today!

[See Digiscoping Today - week 5][
More info here]

The idea behind it is to share my (and probably your) passion for digiscoping and nature. Nature gives us so much joy in so many ways and digiscoping - as with other forms of photography - gives us a reason to be outdoors.

Add your name and web address and tell your friends to join in too.
Write a comment to tell us what you have posted.

So far this week:
  1. I have added a link to some digiscoped wallcreeper photos, and
  2. Corey of 10,000 birds has some wonderful Himalayan Rubythroat images from our recent Swarovski Optik digiscoping trip to Kazakhstan.

Last week we had a great selection of various Yellow Wagtail races by Corey (10,000birds.com),
and some in-flight photos of a Montagues Harrier.

Happy digiscoping!
Dale Forbes

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Friday, 12 June 2009

Epic birding in the high alps - 2

it's that time again - spring breeding bird surveys are happening all over the northern hemisphere and the alps are no different. except that they need to happen a little later in the high mountains. last year we risked life and limb to do a survey at the beginning of june, which - in hindsight - was probably a very silly thing to do given the meters of snow still covering the mountains in the bird survey region.

So this year we did the survey a little later and were greeted by surprisingly little snow up high. The different conditions also made a dramatic difference to our bird survey results - lots more northern wheatears (Oenanthe oenanthe, Gewöhnliche Steinschmätzer) and markedly fewer Water Pipits calling (Anthus spinoletta, Bergpieper).

Stunning scenery up in the high alps. the weather looked like it was going to turn nasty any minute. it never did. the big mountain is Acherkogel (3008m asl) overlooking Oetz / Oetztal on the other side of the mountain. Notice the faint trace of watermelon alga red in the snow.

My personal birding highlight of the trip was a wonderful male Rock Ptarmigan that showed for us (Lagopus muta, Schneehuhn). I have only ever seen them at a distance and found them to be quite flighty, but evidently spring is the best time to "stumble upon" them like this. And so we did.

Digibinning shots of Rock Ptarmigan on our hike through my Swarovski 8x32 binoculars. Learn more about digibinning here.

We came across alpine marmots fairly often during the day - normally given away by their high pitched "there's a golden eagle overhead" whistle.
Alpine marmot track in the snow

An earwig in the snow at 2500m. No idea how something this small and this exothermic could be active up at these levels right now.

The view from the top of a feather-thin ridge, looking down towards Oetz, Piburgersee and the Inn valley in the background.

Now just at about the tree line, the rocks stop looking rock-coloured and start looking green. This means that entire hillsides are green with these lichen-covered rocks. The photos may not look that stunning, but the in-person views are stunning.

A green lichen-covered rock up close and personal.

A hillside with green lichen-covered boulders.

Thursday, 11 June 2009

Birding in Kazakhstan 2 - the mountains and Big Almaty Lake

So the first part of our Kazakhstan trip with Swarovski Optik took us to the wide open steppes of northern Kazakhstan, west of Astana (Birding in Kazakhstan 1 - the northern steppes; related posts on birding in Kazakhstan). After two days of birding in the steppes, we took a flight down to Almaty, the largest city in Kazakhstan with just over a million inhabitants. The following morning, we set out early for the nearby mountains, and Big Almaty Lake.

Big Almaty Lake sounds impressive. It is rather small. And it is not really a lake, more of a dam. But it is in a stunning setting, encircled by peaks of over 4000m and one website describes it as "certainly the biggest & the most beautiful mountain lake of the Tien-Shan".

360° view from up near the Tien Shan Observatory 2800m asl. Many of the surrounding peaks are over 4000m asl (13,000+ft).

The absolute highlight of the day (and probably the trip) was seeing the Brown Dipper (Cinclus pallasii, Flusswasseramsel). I was so excited my digiscoping setup was not only shivering, but shuddering. Like the Wallcreeper of this last week, but worse. I managed to get a few shots in which the spectacular brown dipper is visible. I must admit, I do have a thing for dippers, though.

Brown Dipper - my personal best bird of the trip

Up around big almaty lake itself, we picked up some displaying Himalayan Snowcocks way up on a 4000m peak, and I got a close flyby of a pair of Himalayan Snowcocks a little later on, near the Tien Shan observatory.

A displaying Himalayan Snowcock (Tetraogallus himalayensis), digiscoped.

The Himalayan Snowcock is on top of the highest peak in the background. Corey is looking understandably smiley!

No sleep and lots of people around all the time meant that at some stage I really needed to take some time to myself. So over lunch I found a nice spot on a boulder well away from everybody else, and just relaxed in the sun (where I took the great panorama photo). What a stunning spot to meditate! After a good half hour there, a redstart popped up right in front of me. And I had no idea what it was. I had never seen anything like it. And it certainly wasn't in either of my bird books (which were conveniently in the car and not with me anyway). So I called over a couple of other birders, including Tim Appleton and Mike Weedon, to help out. Turns out it was an Eversmann's Redstart aka Rufous-backed Redstart (Phoenicurus erythronotus, Sprosserrotschwanz). What a wonderful find. Mike has a photo of me grinning from ear to ear after picking this gem up.

Eversmann's Redstart on a Schrenk's Spruce Picea schrenkiana subsp. schrenkiana

A rather confiding White-winged Grosbeak (Mycerobas carnipes) who let me take lots of photos of him.

A Red-fronted Serin (Serinus pusillus) further down the hill on our way back to Almaty.

Some of the other great birds we got on that day included Blue Whistling Thrush, Himalayan Rubythroat (got some video of them singing), Azure Tits, Blue-capped Redstarts, Black-throated Accentors, Rosemantled Rosefinch, tons of Hume's Leaf Warblers, Songar Tit, and Ruddy Shelducks.

I found it incredibly interesting how familiar the mountains were but how different and energy they had. In many respects, one could say that the mountains themselves appeared to be the same, but what was inside and on top of them was very different.

The next big post on Kazakhstan will be on our final day's visit to the desert, semi-desert and canyon-land regions of southern Kazakhstan (heading towards China).

Happy birding
Dale Forbes