The Bufflehead Birder

January 21, 2010

Blue is Good Color on a Winter Day

Filed under: Digiscoping — admin @ 10:09 pm

One of my philosophical mantras that I say to myself is to finish something to the end even if it feels as if there is nothing to be gained. I say this when I am at gatherings and getting bored and just want to go home and curl up with a book and no people around. But I have found that if I stick around I usually end up with a pleasant surprise; an intriguing conversation that would otherwise have never been heard, a new piece of information that somehow opens a door, or a new friend.

Two weekends ago,  I participated in a late Xmas bird count. We’d had some cold weather and the number of birds sighted was lower than most years.  After about 3.5 hours I was ready to call it quits. But my two companions felt we should do one more stop on the way home. It had been a pretty dull morning so I didn’t expect to see anything new.

Of course, we spotted a red-tailed hawk on a branch almost immediately. And not far into the woods behind the farm where my horse lives, we saw mourning doves, yellow-throated sparrows, a song sparrow or two, tufted titmice, juncos, red-bellied woodpecker, American goldfinches, and a family of eastern bluebirds. What a nice cluster of colors to flash around on a cold brown winter day.


So, it goes to show those philosophical mantras aren’t just platitudinal patter for the mind when things get tiresome.

This past weekend I went back to see if I could spot any of the bluebirds. Sure enough, one was perched in the brush.

Bluebird with berries

I managed a few shots before it flew off and my LCD viewer went on the blink.

I’d had this happen the day before and despite resetting it per instructions from the Nikon tech department, the viewer eventually goes black on me. So now my camera will need to visit the repair shop.

And I’ll simply enjoy those bluebirds with the scope itself.

Bluebird takeoff

March 2, 2009

Barnegat Birds 2009

Filed under: Digiscoping — admin @ 6:23 pm

The inlet at Barnegat Lighthouse in New Jersey is known for its high winds and last year the photography outing with the Delaware Valley Ornithology Club (DVOC) was postponed twice before we landed a day with a wind that allowed you to keep your hat and remain standing. This year we were blessed with a gentle breeze, warm sun, and a dry, slick-free jetty stretching along the shore’s curve out towards the blue water of Barnegat Bay.


Brant Geese relax and preen

Walking on the jetty rocks with my scope was a cinch compared to the slick wet rocks of last year. Harlequins, Surf Scoters, and Longtails swam in small clusters just off the jetty, diving for fish. It was an attractive sight, all these ducks with their sharp white markings on bright blue water. Great lighting. But the high bright sun was also playing havoc with my ability to see through my LCD Viewer. I know it sounds like a repetitive excuse, but really, it’s true. The viewfinder displayed bobbing waterfowl alright, but I still couldn’t be sure of how well-focused they were. Even with my hood draped over my head and the camera.But whine as I might over my LCD viewer, I couldn’t beat having subjects like these ducks and other birds to photograph. Below are stills from a video of a male Harlequin taking a bath.




A fairly cooperative Common Loon spent lots of time above water, preening and enjoying the sun, and that gave me plenty of opportunity for shooting.




Black-bellied Plovers also come down as far as NJ in the winter and I was able to see what one looks like when it’s not in summer breeding plumage.


Black-bellied plover

Shot taken this summer - black belly is obvious here.

An Ipswich Sparrow also made an appearance on the rocks of the jetty. The Ipswich is a race of the Savannah Sparrow found along the East Coast marshes and beaches. These birds love mollusks and insects. In winter they feed mainly on seeds.

I was happy to snag a couple of shots of this little guy who scurried (not hopped) around on the rocks, popping up from the crevices in between groups of birders making their way to the jetty’s end.




The male Surf Scoter has one of the funkiest bills. Beautiful contrast against the black body. Easy to ID from a distance. Behind him are some Long-tails.


I must be spoiled this past fall with my kingfishers and herons from this fall, who either remain still for a long while or have predictable perching spots. The ducks at Barnegat, afloat and riding a current, however, were more troublesome to sight in. I tried finding a stable landmark and aiming off that, but even then I found it difficult to capture my target duck. Guess I’ll need more trips to Barnegat to refine this. Meanwhile, it did help to have the video mount. I would loosen both screws and then at least I could follow birds as they swam both horizontally and vertically.

A flock of Long-tail Ducks were cruising up and down along the inlet. The male has the long tail, which is not so evident as it is held low to the water, only raised when the duck is alarmed. The males also have the pink bill.



An interesting note from Birds of North America Online (Cornell): Long-tails of both sexes have an interesting territorial defense tactic. They drive off the female. The idea is that the intruding male will follow her and high-tail it out of there. Saves energy. No one gets hurt.


When things were in focus the bright sun supplied enough light to get sharp shots and some sharp action too, like the long-tail diving. I used my sports setting at times and shot off a bunch of frames while the birds were swimming.

A trip to the shore is not complete without a gull shot. Low tide provided an all-you-can-eat mollusk bar for the Herring Gull below.



January 4, 2009

Digiscoping Serendipity

Filed under: Digiscoping — Tags: , , , , — admin @ 12:55 am

 Before I begin my little tale about the garter snake, I want to say thanks for all  the kind comments that were sitting in my comments section of Wordpress, waiting for me to notice them. For some reason they weren’t being announced in my email and I was unaware that anyone had written anything. Finally, after one friend insisted that she had commented on my blog, I went into the comments section and found a lovely surprise; quite a few comments were there, even dating back to October! Yikes! Beginner blogger strikes again. However, I approved all the comments with great haste and they are now posted.


About a year ago I was with a friend in a park off the Wissahickon River at Valley Green. We came upon a frog halfway down the hatch of a garter snake. The frog was still alive, of course, and a look of resignment in its eyes. Garter snake jaws have small teeth that angle backwards so that prey cannot slip out while the snake works on swallowing its meal. So the frog couldn’t even struggle to escape without hurting itself. It also made us wonder how we would retrieve the frog from the snake’s mouth without hurting it.

 Snake and Frog

 Matt had his cell phone and took this shot

There was no way that I could walk on and not help the frog. I appreciate that snakes have to eat and it may have taken that snake some time and effort to capture that frog, but still….

There is the belief among wildlife biologists and other scientists that we should not interfere with animals in the wild or interrupt their interactions. Sort of like the Prime Directive from Star Trek. To a point, I agree. But not in this case. So in the choice between saving the frog from an ugly death or depriving a snake of a hardwon meal we chose in favor of the frog.

After some discussion, my friend placed his toe at the spot on the snake just behind where the frog’s partially swallowed body ended and gently pushed down. Amazingly, the snake’s jaws opened and let the frog squirt free. After an apology to the snake we took the frog down to the water and lay it on a partially submerged rock.

Then this last fall I was given a chance to make it up to garter snakes when I went over to help my mother unpack some boxes and brought my digiscoping gear with me. She and my stepfather have recently moved to a retirement village. Their place has a manmade pond behind their yard and woods beyond that. They often get some good birds in the area.

After helping Mom, I thought about taking my digiscope gear to the woods behind the pond. I will admit that I was feeling that lethargy I sometimes get and even the prospect of getting some bird shots wasn’t having its usual butt-moving effect. Yes, I know. I yap a lot on my blog about how digiscoping is The Way to Happiness. It is, actually, but sometimes I need to remind myself of that.

While I didn’t reach photo Nirvana that day, the act of going digiscoping brought about an even higher level of happiness.

The birds weren’t active, the sun was hot, and I wasn’t getting the usual digi-high I get when peering at Bird World through the Swarovski, so when I reached the halfway point around the pond, instead of continuing the loop, I turned back and retraced my path.

When there are no birds around, I then look at the ground. I’m a wannabee tracker and love to just look down and see what I see.

And see something I did. Something I hadn’t noticed when I’d first come down that path.


A green and black snake with an orange dorsal stripe lay under some leaves and forest litter. It looked dead and I went to take a closer look. I was thinking it was a garter snake of some type and gently nudged it with a stick. It moved. Barely.

I was puzzled at first, as to why it wouldn’t scoot off like snakes do, but instead lay there in a lazy ‘S’ pattern. Then it made sense when I noticed pale green netting that landscapers use to hinder erosion. It had been put down to hold the edging all around the pond, and some of the litter that covered it had washed away, exposing the mesh.

This snake had been crawling along, going its happy way then entered through one or more of the mesh openings until the snake became so tangled that it could no longer move at all without the mesh filament tightening to the point of cutting sharply into the snake’s soft body at the slightest wiggle. I don’t know how long the snake had been imprisoned like that but it would have been a bad way to go; vulnerable to any predator that happened by, unable to drink, or to capture and eat frogs.


There was no question of snapping the filament with my hands without cutting into the little snake. But it wasn’t far to run back to borrow Mom’s tiny Swiss army knife scissors which were the main tool of operation in opening boxes.

As soon as I was able to cut the snake free of all the mesh lines twisted around its torso, it was gone, so there are no photos of that happy occasion.


All events and decisions have a consequence even if you never see it. If I had not come to help with boxes, or had not brought my digiscoping gear along, or had not heaved myself from a comfy chair and gone out to digiscope there would have been a consequence. If I had continued all the way around the pond, or the birds had been active that day and distracted me from looking closely at the ground there would have been a consequence. There would have been the death of a snake and I would have never known.

But it was lucky that things worked out. I’m glad that I was able to repay a small debt to the garter snakes of the world and that digiscoping played a part in putting me in the right place at the right time.

Somewhere out there is a little snake that will agree.

December 14, 2008

Announcing the 2008 Xmas Tree Bird Count


I’m sure many of you are taking part in the 2008 Audubon Xmas Bird Count, as am I, but what about the 2008 Xmas Tree Bird Ornament Count?

The rules are simple:

Photograph any holiday ornament bird that could attach to an evergreen tree via wire, string, hooks, or clips. It is okay to have the hook or whatever visible in shot.

You do not need to be a birder or even a photographer to submit.

It does NOT have to be in a Xmas tree. You may photograph it by a feeder, in a tree, in a mist net, being banded, basically any place a bird might be found.

Any type of photography equipment is acceptable, even a disposable camera.

It is not mandatory, but it is fun to include a name, life history facts, and type of camera and lens used to capture its image.

Also, let me know what name (if any) and hometown / state to put with the photo submission/s, and if you have a blog or website link you would like included.

Since this is the first year of this count, there is no limit to number of submissions per person. I’m entering all 9 of my bird ornaments.

Then submit your image/s to You may also send any other questions to this email as well and I’ll be glad to answer them.

This is not a competition, just some fun with our photography equipment.

All submissions will be posted December 25th.

Beaded Tanager.jpg

Beaded Tanager

Great Blues and a Kingfisher

Filed under: Digiscoping — Tags: , , , — admin @ 1:54 am

Just a few shots of a some Great Blue Herons I saw at my favorite pond today.


Not so cold as last Sunday but cold enough to keep most people away. So it was just me, the herons, 3 Red-tails circling and crying above, and yes, another kingfisher–the female this time.

Enjoy the photos.


The yellow eyes of the herons were easier to see in order to determine if I was in focus, whereas, it was harder to pick up the highlight in the kingfisher’s eyes though my LCD viewer. Sometimes I used the jagged edge of her crest as a focus target.


I can’t tell if her bill is scarred or just peeling in places. Can this happen from banging fish against rocks or tree limbs? My other thought is that these could be fish scales still stuck after her meal but not too sure about that. If anyone knows please leave a comment.


For more kingfisher and heron photos go to my Flickr account.


December 12, 2008

The Kingfisher and I

Just a quick post to show that the author of this blog is still alive and alert. I have other posts in the works but I am a slow writer. Last Sunday I had planned a trip up to Hawk Mountain Sanctuary, which lies in the Pennsylvania Appalachians northwest of Allentown. But it was blustery and cold and I didn’t think it would be much fun on a mountain top.


So I took my digiscoping gear to my favorite pond to see who might be around. Wind whipped at my hair, snapping it around, and my body was still settling itself into a thermo-regulatory comfort zone as I headed over. The pond certainly looked dead. Who was I kidding? Everyone’s going to be hunkered down. However, no place is ever really dead. Just because birds weren’t screeching and hopping up and down for my attention doesn’t mean nothing’s there. So, I repeated my mantra: you never know.

I circled around to my favorite end, where in the warmer months turtles bask on the fallen logs. We’d had snow the night before and while most of it had melted, there was still a thin crust of ice on the pond and snow patches tucked in depressions and coating some of the bigger logs. Usually I spend some time getting shots of the turtles. Not today, though.

Kept walking. Nice to get out, get some exercise. A person can’t expect birds to be there waiting just because she happens to have her scope along, and sometimes, the quiet is nice. I set the tripod and scope down and recalled how wild the pond gets in summer with all the Tree Swallows, Red-winged Blackbirds, flickers, and the transient Cedar Waxwings.


But even on this cold and windy day I knew something would come by or peep out, as did a little wren later on, although it disappeared before I could get a shot of it. And sure enough, a familiar cry echoed from the woods along the stream that runs behind the pond. A chunk of blue tore out from the trees across to a nice open perch on the limb of a dying Red Oak, and even before it landed I knew it was one of the Belted Kingfishers that have been hanging out here all fall.


Great. They love this pond and will sit nicely on any one of their 4 favorite perches for long periods of time. Today it was the male that had come to fish. You can see how he has a plain white belly unlike the female with her wide rusty belt.

For some reason, even though I could see the bird in my LCD viewfinder, I couldn’t tell if it was in focus. I took a zillion shots and tweaked the focal ring now and then on the scope to increase the chance of some shots being clear. I am picking up new glasses next week with stronger bifocals on them. Let’s hope that helps.

About every 20 minutes the kingfisher, a male would plunge down for a fish. He sometimes flew behind a bush to eat his catch, the stinker, but I did get some shots when he deigned to eat in full view on a wood duck box.


The next 2 images are stills from a movie clip taken with the handy-dandy video on my Nikon P5100 point and shoot.

              eating.jpg         withfish1.jpg

I could have taken pictures of that kingfisher all day, and not just because I wanted to secure at least one focused shot, but because these birds have great photogenic qualities; that crest and bill, for one thing.


Although the photo quality is horrid and shameful, the shot (which is not a still from a video) does capture our friend in mid-squirt. It is a fine example of what photographers call the “decisive moment”. Kingfishers do this a lot. I’ve got videos to prove it. Must be that diet of fish.


While I was taking a breather from the kingfisher, another bird graced me with its presence. My first thought before I could see it through the scope was that it was a kestrel. It was about that size, maybe a tad bigger. But through the scope I could tell something was different. I don’t know my raptors as well as I should, although I’m learning, so it took me awhile to wonder if this might not be a merlin.


When I got home I checked it in my Birds of North America (National Geographic) and turns out I was right. No obvious white cheek patch as on a kestrel. I’m going to say that this was my first “conciously aware” sighting of a merlin. I probably saw them in Colorado when I was living out there, but as I never was sharp with raptor ID, who knows?

When the merlin left, I focused back on the kingfisher. Although I thought I heard another kingfisher call from the woods at one point, I only saw the male that day. Below is a shot of the female from one of my earlier visits to the pond. Note her rusty belt.


Two hours had passed and I was beginning to get chilled and my 2nd camera battery was giving me a warning that it was pooped. On the way home I made a stop at the farm where my horse lives. After giving him a nice brushing and some treats, I found another fun bird to digiscope. Maybe you’ll recognize the feet from the puzzle that you did before reading this post. You did do the puzzle, right, and not just glance at the little picture on the left? Good for you.


Guinea Fowl

You can look forward to more of these guys in future posts.

October 4, 2008

Afternoon with Wood Ducks

Filed under: Digiscoping — Tags: , , , — admin @ 10:18 am

This past Sunday saw me at my favorite wetland pond where a couple of Wood Duck broods spent a successful summer surviving the snapping turtles that dwell in the pond. A high growth of vegetation along the pond’s edge let me set up my scope and camera without disturbing the ducks.


By this time in the year the pond has slimed up with algae yet these ducks keep their vivid colors.

Snapping Turtle

An ugly surprise lurks in the pond. Snapping Turtles are one of the big perils young waterfowl have to avoid. Plenty of these things dwell in this pond. A snapper can pull a full grown Canada Goose down and devour it. They also have amazingly long, longer than you would imagine, necks that can stretch and strike out over their backs.

Meanwhile, I put my fixed 30x eyepiece on my scope. I did so upon some advice given in Mike’s Birding and Digiscoping Blog. Previously, I used my 20-60x zoom. Most of the time I kept it wide open, but on occasion, just as many intermediate photographers do, I would zoom in just to see if I could get away with a closer shot. Sure, I got much closer compositions but I paid for it with poor light and blurry shots.

I am not sure why a fixed lens of the same magnification would be better than the zoom on that power setting, but I thought I might give it a try. Below is a shot of a brood from earlier this summer when I still had the 20-60x zoom in use.

Wood Duck Family

I am still experimenting and will have to do a better comparison, but I feel there is a bit more brightness with the fixed eyepiece as seen in the below shot.

Wood Ducks Getting the Kinks Out

The young ducks spent a good deal of time preening (again, all that algae), stretching, flapping their wings and hissing at each other, before finally tucking their heads into their back feathers to nap.

Then a family came down to the pond yelling and excited, and nap time for the Wood Ducks came to an end. The ducks headed for the other side of the pond and I headed for my car.



June 19, 2008

Blustery Day in Heaven

Filed under: Digiscoping — admin @ 12:22 am

This may be hard to do, especially if you were in the Philly area during the last sweltering heat wave, but let’s try for the sake of this week’s post.

Picture a whipping wind shoving gray clouds across a pale mid-morning sky. This is how it was for me one Saturday last February when I took my new digiscoping equipment out for a real drive, not the 30-minute test drive at the nearby pond I spoke about in an earlier post.

Andorra Nature Center is located along the Wissahickon River. Not only is it located in a quiet part of the woods just off the walking trail along the river, but it also offers a complex of feeders, which is a boon to beginner digiscoper. Anywhere birds congregate is an excellent place to practice.


Firstly, there are lots of birds coming and going.

Secondly, there are always certain perches in the path of approach to a feeder that are used over and over by incoming birds. When these perches are noted, they make a handy place to focus your scope or camera while you settle in and wait. That’s the idea anyway.

However, keep in mind Hunter’s First Perch Principle:

If, the following is true:
X = likelihood of target bird using given perch
Y = frequency of scope or camera focused on given perch
Then, X will decrease in direct proportion to the increase of Y.

I stared at a lot of vacant perches until I got a few worthwhile shots.

Luckily, this principle did not apply to the path of approach used by the White-breasted Nuthatches. They liked to hop down the along the side of a nearby tree, stopping from time to time, and remaining still long enough for me to actually attempt a focus, before making the short flight to the feeder of choice.


White-breasted Nuthatch

Very cooperative, those Nuthatches, unlike a favorite friend pictured below.

Tufted Titmouse

Tufted Titmouse

The wind set my scope to vibrating, and although the low light conditions actually allowed me to see through my LCD viewer, it forced me to set my Coolpix P5100 to an ISO of 400 and to use the widest aperture possible. That made for grainier images but, at least they stood a better chance than the proverbial ice cube, of being in focus.

Wren Hairy Woodpecker

Carolina Wren and Downy Woodpecker

I stood huddled against the wind, clicking shots of Nuthatches, Downy Woodpeckers, Juncos, White-throated Sparrows, sometimes Tufted Titmice or Chickadees but more often of vacant perches. The wind was so high that trees bowed back and forth, and vicious gusts swept birds en masse off of the feeders and into the trees.


Chickadee with Seed

(Either Black-capped or Carolina. Black-caps have the more distinct white stripes on the wings. I couldn’t quite tell from my viewpoint.)

But the digiscoping thrill was on and I couldn’t stop. Just one more shot of the Nuthatch, or hey, now that Titmouse is finally on its perch, or what about a few more shots of those Juncos with their cheeks full of seeds?

And then there was a Red-bellied Woodpecker spinning around on the suet feeder while Titmice, Chickadees, and a Carolina Wren joined in. No chance here of a sharply focused shot, so I applied one of Mike’s digiscoping tips and took a video of the twirling feeder so that I could snatch a couple of in-focus stills from that later.
It was absolute Heaven.
Finally, 5 hours later, my fingers were too numb to shift the exposure dial, and the snow was starting to come down in a serious slant. It was time to beam back to the Home Planet and go get a hot coffee.





Andorra Bench

May 21, 2008

The Now Moment

Filed under: Bird SLR Photography, Digiscoping — admin @ 10:05 pm

I am not one of those people who love to shop around. When I want something, I want it, and I want it NOW.

I had been thinking for several months about getting a bird spotting scope and a point and shoot camera to do some digiscoping. So when a Red-bellied woodpecker crawled around on a tree not 30 feet from me one day as I was wandering along a stream bed, I got a sudden hankering to bite the bullet and get the digiscope gear.

So first thing, I called my brother to ask what kind of spotting scope I should get if I want to get into digiscoping. My brother has been a bird photographer for a long time and knows about things like computers, cameras, scopes, GPS units, whatever. Why waste time looking online, reading stuff I won’t understand when a sibling is a phone call away, let alone just 2 miles down the road?

“You should really go online and check what’s out there,” he said.

I wasn’t happy about that because I had a bad case of the ‘nows’ and if I could just be advised of what to get now, then I could go get it now, and come back in a week to try and get a shot of that woodpecker before it grew old and died.

“Well, should I get a 65mm or an 80mm?” I asked into my cell phone. (No, I don’t normally chat on cell phones while in the woods. Please don’t think I do. I use it as a watch and it happened to be handy.)

“It depends what you like.”

How did I know what I like? He’s supposed to tell me. I groaned because it was now most likely to be yet another few months before I would figure out what I wanted and trust myself to make a good decision.

However, believe it or not, when I went online to research I really got into reading up on scopes and checking birding blogs to see what people use and what kind of shots they can get.

About a month after that woodpecker had given me that peck in the pants, my Swarovski 80mm ATS HD spotting scope arrived at my doorstep from Eagle Optics. A yippee moment for sure.

Swarovski 80 ATS HD Scope

If you want to read more about my digiscope equipment please click on My Digiscope Set Up page. If not, you can enjoy the puzzle of the week coming up next.

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