The Bufflehead Birder

November 20, 2008

Waiting for Godot’s Owls

November 8th - Saturday Night

We were waiting for owls. So far none had shown up. But it was only 2 hours after dusk and we were to give it 4 hours because that’s when the owls really get active. That’s what research biologists Nate and Denise told us. So we sat back and opened a couple of more beers and passed the home-made brownies around again. I was with about 15 other members of The Delaware Valley Ornithology Club (DVOC) up in Hidden Valley on one of the highlight field outings of the year—spending the evening with researchers on the Northern Saw-whet Owl Project. The Saw-whet Project is headed by Scott Weidansaul, an author and researcher who works with migratory birds. I wish I could say that the owl photos below were mine but in fact, all the images in this post (including the puzzle afterwards) were taken by Philadelphia bird photographer Jamie Stewart, who was kind enough to let me use them.

SawWhetOwlBanding-1 by jaste1.

 Don’t you just love that face?

The Hidden Valley banding station is one of 3 located along the Pennsylvania Appalachians. The ridge alignment of these mountains, in particular Kittatinny Ridge, creates a corridor of favorable updrafts that comprise part of Atlantic Flyway. Nate was hoping for a low pressure system followed by a cold front because that would give the owls some umph to move south and improve the chance of a good capture rate that night.

From early October to the end of November many Saw-whets move south from Ontario and Northern New England. In winter months these owls may end up as far south as the Carolinas.

SawWhetOwlBanding-4 by jaste1.

The banding station cabin was unheated and there were port-a-potties located conveniently just outside. It was a nice rustic change for me from the Philadelphia suburbs. In a corner of the room was the banding table with a heat lamp, banding equipment, and then a short clothes line set up between two chairs with clothes pins. Nate said that some nights when there is a surplus of owls caught in a the net at the same time the researchers put them in sacks, which keep the little guys gently contained and calm. The sacks are then suspended from the clothes line as they await their turn at the banding table.


This is one of my shots. It’s the only one on this post without an owl in it.

The body of a saw-whet owl is the size of a baseball and the head with feathers is not much bigger than a tennis ball. Take the feathers away, and the saw-whet skull barely weighs more than a ping-pong ball. Saw-whets are the smallest owl on the East Coast. Males, in general, weigh 75 grams while the females get up to a whopping 100 grams. Wee, fluffy, and unbelievably cute and cuddle-liscious, these owls attract dozens of banding volunteers who devote 2-3 evenings per week for 2 months on the project, as well as groups of visitors who want to see and learn something about these enchanting little owls.

SawWhetOwlBanding-7 by jaste1.

Every 40 minutes or so Nate and Denise headed out to check the mist nets again hoping to get that haul of owls they had promised us. The weather was good, the audiolure was playing the sweet and, well…, alluring call of a male Saw-whet to stir the females to get out and about and hopefully into one of the nets. About 80% of the saw-whets that are caught throughout the state tend to be females. So far there is no completely satisfactory answer for that. The best theory is that the males with territories may hunker down to defend them as long as possible while females are freer to travel. Another thought is that perhaps the high capture rate of females reflects the actual demographics of Saw-whet owl populations.

In 15 minutes Nate and Denise return. Too soon. Not a good sign. We jeered as Nate assured us that the 3rd and 2nd to last net checks usually had the best results, and then we handed him and Denise more brownies.

To keep us from pounding the tables, chanting, “We want owls!”, Nate entertained us with more notes of interest about these birds. First of all, there are a lot more of them in PA than was previously thought, especially during migration. They are generally secretive and not as easy to spot as larger and more vocal owls, like the Great Horned or Barred. They are less active on nights with a full moon as their feared predators, Great Horned owls can spot them easier.

In fact, one banding stations had to be closed down as a result of predation. In the same way Coopers and Sharp-shinneds learn that backyard feeders are easy pickings, so Barred owls in that area discovered that this saw-whet banding station was a prime food spot.  Silent and lethal, the Barred owls would follow behind the banders and snag the newly released saw-whets.  “Sneaky” was how Nate described them.

Later in the evening we were joined by Scott Weidansaul and several board members of the Hawk Mountain Sanctuary, and it got livelier and warmer with the extra bodies in the cabin. Scott made his rounds greeting us in his friendly and engaging manner.

“Isn’t banding exciting?” He asked one little girl, the youngest member of the group, who had shown absolutely no signs of getting tired as the night went on. “You get to see all this wildlife.”

Everyone laughed because it’s true both ways; as this night attested, you don’t always get to see something, but on the otherhand, sometimes you will experience more than you could ever imagine. Owl or no owl, the being there is good, and whenever I do finally see a Saw-whet it will be that much better appreciated for it’s not having been so available.

SawWhetOwlBanding-6 by jaste1.

Okay. One last net check. It was 11pm and almost time to call it a night and head home. Nate and Denise don their jackets and headlamps and head out again to check the nets. But soon they are back, empty-handed. Guess the owls had better things to do than fly into mist nets.  

So. No owls showed up that night. But I got to hang out in a cabin in the woods with other people who love birds, and be a part of something good. 

And then, there was an excellent bird joke told by our youngest member of the group:

Why don’t seagulls live by the bay?

Because then they would be bagels.


Waiting for Godot*

November 8, 2008

From Wood to Wren

On my kitchen table there stands a small brown Carolina wren. It’s perched on a small pile of lichen and pale green moss. The tail juts straight up like a wren’s should although its wings are a little too short for an adult bird. If you peer closely you might notice that the feather barbs are kind of crooked and chaotic and the bird is missing the first toe of each foot, but nevertheless, it’s definitely a wren.

Not too long ago it looked like a crooked chunk of wood with pencil marks on it. So I’m proud of the fact that it now looks like a little bird, even like a wren.

The last weekend in October saw the transformation of my chunk of wood into a wren when Ernie Muehlmatt hosted one of his bird carving workshops down in Salisbury, Maryland.

Ernie is a 3-time World Class Wildfowl Carving champion and teaches his art throughout the year in a variety of locations. Easy going and gifted with a good sense of humor, Ernie made the atmosphere of the workshop comfortable and inviting for a first-timer like me.

Ernie Muehlmatt

Ernie at work on his own wren.

It was also a blessing that two of Ernie’s long-time bird-carving friends attended this workshop and were willing to guide me along if they happen to glance over and saw that my wren could be on its way to becoming an avian Frankenstein.

We used tupelo wood, which has no definite grain pattern and is soft and easy to work with. We started with a “blank”, a chunk of tupelo with excess wood already taken off.

Dremel and Blank    

Someone in class said that the basic theory of carving is like that joke about how to make an elephant; just take away everything that isn’t part of the elephant. We all laughed because it’s basically true.

We started with a “blank” and beginning with the bill, worked back along the wings to the tail. 

First stage

So far, so good. But I thought of all those bird blanks that are going to get “wasted” if I intend to get into this new hobby. Kind of like all that film and money I blew back in the days before digital cameras while I was learning photography.

While bird blanks can be ordered from bird carvers, they are expensive enough that if you make lots of mistakes it could add up. I can save a little money buy getting my own saw. A band saw is what a lot of carvers use, but I don’t have the room for one, or the desire to donate any fingers to the cause, so I will most likely be getting a jigsaw later on. See, now I’m hooked and am thinking about what I’ll need to get in order to indulge in this hobby. Santa sure is going to be busy this year.

On the Saturday of our workshop weekend we took our lunch at the Ward Museum of Wildfowl Art where Ernie led us on a tour of the galleries. If you are ever in SE Maryland a stop at the museum would be time well spent. It features early decoys carved by the Ward brothers, Lemuel and Steven, who made decoy carving into an art and more or less began the idea of bird carving into the art form that it is today.

Ward Wildfowl Carving Museum

One of the galleries here features a collection of the winning pieces from the previous year’s World Class Championship. These are some amazing works. Every component in the piece–the branches, the leaves, the pine needles, and rocks are carved from wood as well as the main bird. There are birds in mid-wing flap or mid-attack upon another bird who is poised in almost-escape, which are attached to their base by the merest feather or talon toe, giving the illusion of total free flight and movement. Each feather is flared or uplifted in absolute life-like detail, not painted but carved.

The joke about making an elephant popped into my head as I wandered among these carvings. Just remove what doesn’t belong and voila! But remove too much or what does belong, and there’s no slapping back of clay or rubbing out with an eraser. Just one mistake and entire piece that may have been weeks, months of long hours and excruciating concentration are for nothing.

Okay. Back at our workshop my little wren didn’t seem so overwhelming and I felt a bit more inspired.

So, once our birds had their basic shape we then carved the legs and feet and put the eyes in. That’s when I developed an affection for my little guy because now it could look out onto the world. Now it could look back at me.


A little wren looks content as it gets some wings.

Our birds then needed a “habitat” to perch on. So we carved lichens, rocks, and even a little toadstool.


Moss is a common feature of carving habitats and requires endless drilling of holes to accomplish the look. In the photo below I have barely started on my moss but you can see my uneven and crudely carved lichen.


After the carving there are more stages involved. Etching, stoning, and burning of feathes and markings. Then a laquering, application of Gesso, and a series of color washes, which I am still working on. However, below you can see the current stage of my wren as it poses proudly at the edge of my garden.

Almost There

Once the color wash is completed and cleaned up in some areas I will post a finished photo.

And no, sorry, my piece “Wren on Moss” is not for sale, but I’m flattered for the offers.

The puzzle below is of a Great Blue I digiscoped at the pond behind the Ward Museum. More pictures from the workshop are available for viewing at

September 22, 2008

Parulas on Parade

Again, despite my desire to linger over tea and a new book at my favorite coffeeshop, I was glad that I had shown up for a morning bird walk with the Wyncote Audubon Society. It never fails, but to get out into the woods gets my mood up and often ends up with some worthwhile surprises.

Militia Hill, my favorite part of Fort Washington State Park in Whitemarsh, PA is always likely to provide something interesting. Plus, there was the promise of donuts and coffee at the end of the walk. And even if the walk proved to be scanty of sightings, why we could just take our donuts and coffee and go hang out on the grand 2-story hawk watching platform and join in with the birders gathered to help tally migrating raptors for the 2008 Hawk Watch.

Warblers were coming through too, and happened to be actively looking for what insects were still around. We had a few Black-throated Green Warblers, Black-throated Blue Warblers, one Black and White Warbler, and some American Redstarts along with a couple of immature males with yellow on the undersides of their wings and tail (Yellowstarts). I hadn’t ever seen one of those outside of a bird book.

But our most popular warbler of the day were the Parulas, including one stubborn one who was still in breeding plumage. Just about every greenish blur dashing from tree to tree turned out to be a Parula.

They were even cooperative at times by staying in view near the ends of branches, and I did not come away with Warbler-neck, as these birds foraged in the lower branches.

Below I took 2 still frames from a video clip I got of a berry-eating Parula.

Parula in Sumac

Taking photos of warblers is like taking snapshots of accelerated subatomic particles.

Parula with Sumac Berry

Thank you Nikon P5100 video and PhotoShop.


September 13, 2008

Breakfast at The Bathtub

For good eating and great scenery the best place on Nantucket Island is The Bathtub on Eel Point; that is, if you’re a Black-bellied Plover or a Short-billed Dowitcher or some other kind of shorebird. The Bathtub is a tidal cove separated from the open Atlantic by an arc of sandbars. Protected from the wind and with warm shallow water The Tub offers a nice bit of wet sand at low tide where shorebirds can enjoy some fine dining.

View of The Bath Tub on Eel Point

I can remember how alive and noisy it was with birds the last time I was there, looking through my stepdad’s spotting scope. So I was eager to head out there with my own digiscoping set up, and was pleased to find that the Nantucket Maria Mitchell Association had a bird walk planned at The Bathtub.

A large freshwater saltmarsh run parallel to The Tub and attracts birds that might not be seen in other habitats, such as the Saltmarsh Sharp-tailed Sparrow. We did not spot one that morning but now it’s another reason to come back again next year. The open grassy dunes are also home to Northern Harriers (Marsh Hawks) and that morning we were treated to a brief visit from a Merlin. I believe I saw fox tracks in the sand as well.

Below a Black-bellied Plover scouts the shore for food. These birds will see something, hold a poise then scurry forward to grab it, like a cat frozen before the pounce. I have recently learned that it is believed the plovers detect the presence of worms by the outwardly gushing water from wormholes in the sand.

Black-bellied Plover

The wet sand menu consists of bivalves, beetles, an extensive variety of fly larvae, and the all-time favorite Polychaetes (Bristle worms), including those fabu-liscious ziti-thin worms (Notomastus, Scoloplos, etc.) that can be easily yanked from the substrate and gulped down in less than a second.

Below are a couple of stills from a video I took of a Lesser Yellowlegs cruising on a serious foraging mission along the opposite shore.

Lesser Yellowlegs #2       Lesser Yellowlegs and Black-bellied Plover

These birds love just about anything; beetles, fly larvae, small fish, worms, and even fish scales. Yes, according to one 1927 article the stomach contents of 9 Lesser Yellowlegs studied in Puerto Rico consisted of .33% fish scales. (Another interesting fact from Birds of NA Online - worth subscribing to if you’re into birds).

Despite the pleasant offerings and morning atmosphere of The Bathtub, nature is nature and some patrons will eat others. This Peregrine Falcon had killed a gull or tern, and was busy munching it down.

Peregrine with Kill

Other birds seen that morning were Snowy egrets, Cormorants, Herring gulls, a Great Black-backed Gull, American Oystercatchers, and Semipalmated Plovers.

However, I could have spent all day photographing one particular modest flock of Semipalmated Plovers who took time out from foraging to have a bath.

Semi-palmated Plover head dunk

Fluffing Semi-palmated Plover

A vigorous shaking and fluffing completes a refreshing bath.

The ambience of The Bathtub made the experience all the better. There was the eerie howling of Gray Seals coming across from outer sandbars beyond The Tub like wind hooing through the eaves of an old house. There was a gentle breeze rustling dune and saltmarsh grasses. There were birds having a good time, and fun bird folk to enjoy with whom to enjoy it all. The Eel Point Bathtub is a 5-star place to visit for birds and bird people alike.

Black-bellied plover

July 8, 2008

Stepping Out the Door

Just when I think I pretty much know what to expect at certain times and in certain places, I discover that I don’t. It never fails to happen.

This Sunday I got to live that lesson again.

Almost every weekend I look forward to some digiscoping. There is a wetland pond I’ve been going to since May, but the afternoon heat and a general lethargy made me think twice. While lounging in the shade at home, debating about going out into the heat, I had to remind myself that it has always proven to be worth my while to make the effort to put myself into contact with nature. And what the heck, once I got out there with my disiscoping gear I would become immersed into the whole thing, as I always did. Who knows, perhaps I’d get another chance to see a snapping turtle out of the water as I had earlier this year.  


Sure enough, it was plenty hot out. My face was streaming. Every minute or so I had to wipe my eyes, and precipitation gathered in puddles on the lenses of my glasses. A bright sun made it just about impossible to see through the LCD viewer, while through my scope, the birds wavered in the thick humid haze like camels crossing a desert.

There was a male Red-winged Blackbird perched atop a snag and all in a huff, as he flashed his epaulettes and squawked in outrage. Some Robin-sized birds dipped and swooped for bugs over his head like a swarm of mosquitoes, using the dead tree and its snags as a landing and take off station.  There are quite a few Redwings breeding all around the wetland pond area, and while this particular male had been okay with the Tree Swallows that usually fly over the pond, he certainly was not okay with this sudden influx of visitors. 

   Blackbird3         Blackbird2        Blackbird1

I set my scope up, wiped some persperation from my face, and took a look through the eyepiece. Unlike the Redwing, I was pleased to see these birds were part of a visiting flock of Cedar Waxwings.


A Cedar Waxwing is different from a Bohemian Waxwing (which is the other type of Waxwing found in the U.S.). The easist way to tell them apart is the yellowish belly on the Cedar Waxwing as opposed to The Bohemian’s grayer underside. Also, the Bohemian has more white and yellow wing markings.

Both types of waxwings are nomadic birds that mainly eat fruits and berries. However, in summer bugs make up a good part of their diet.

The Red-winged Blackbird had left the dead tree to the Waxwings, who repeatedly landed on the exposed perches and held a pose for awhile before shooting off for more bugs. But even so, the haze and lack of LCD clarity made focusing a challenge for me. There is a focusing tip on Mike’s Digiscoping Blog that suggests turning off the auto focus of the camera and setting it to infinity, then relying on the scope optics to determine the focus, if I understand it correctly. So far I have haven’t managed to get that to work but I believe I may not have completely turned off my auto focus. I think I may pay a visit to the Nikon Coolpix P5100 section of Bird Forum.

Meanwhile, I was lucky to get a couple of shots that work.


By the next day most of the Waxwings had moved on, and while a few remained, that lively swooping and bug-snatching activity of the day before was gone. I thought about how easily I could have missed all of that.

There is always something taking place somewhere. There is always some moment out there that may never happen again.  Sometimes all it takes is stepping out the door.


June 29, 2008

Green Birding

Filed under: Main Posts — admin @ 9:44 pm

It’s pretty cool what has been done in the name of bird conservation lately.

While green birding has been around, it was the Big Bird Year (BIGBY) that has really put the concept out there in an inspiring way. The Big Bird Year was an incredible cross-country cycling trip for 10th grade birder, Malkolm Christie and his parents, that started in Alaska and ended some 12,000 miles later in Big Bend, Texas. At the end of the year it took them to complete this journey, Malkolm Christie had spotted 548 bird species and raised $20,000 some dollars for bird conservation. (Donations are still being accepted). But even as the Big Bird Year has come to its end, it’s a tradition in the making, I think, with greater journeys to come.

The idea behind green birding is to try and see how many bird species you can but only traveling to birding spots using fossil fuel-free transportation, or at least, more environmentally friendly means.

Many such challenges get sponsored and have raised money for bird conservation efforts. Even deciding on not partaking in a fossil-fueled trip to see a rare bird can be turned into a way to make a gift to conservation. Check out the June 18th post entitled “Sedge Wren” on Mike’s Bird and Digiscope Blog.

Meanwhile, before I even get to my car I’ve been having some close encounters with birds whether I want to or not. A family of Mockingbirds have made a nest in a Juniper right at the top of the steps to the parking area where I live. Even when I use the other stairs so as to avoid walking close to their nest, I’ve still felt the rush of air and the brush of feathers on the side of my head as I am dive-bombed by the Mockingbirds parents. I have been keeping a thick towel in the car for head protection should I need it.

Long View to Nest Secret Entrance

You can see the entrance hole to the nest, where the branches have parted some, in the top part of the yellow-green shrub.

At first, the attacks were limited to agitated vocalizations and I thought I had satisfied the parents by using the other stairway. But when the eggs hatched and both parents were non-stop bringing food to the babies the air attacks got worse. Hence, the towel.

Mockingbird with something yummy for the kids

And I had thought Brussel sprouts were bad.

Meanwhile, I now subscribe to Cornell’s Birds of North America online and have easy access to more information on Mockingbirds and how long I can expect to be under threat of dive bombing. What sold me on this resource as opposed to a field guide or wikipedia, is that the material is from the most current ornithology articles written by specialists of whatever species is searched.

I now know that it was most likely the male that was attacking me and that Mockingbirds recognize those individuals who are repeated intruders, and concentrate their attacks on those lucky folks. Actually, I find this interesting and wonder if using a different colored towel would make the birds think I’m someone else. Much as I can appreciate their protectiveness, I do have to get into my own nest and there are only 2 pathways that go from my car to my door.

Although for some reason, in the last couple of days the parents aren’t right there waiting for me when I get out of my car. One of them may sit and make some aggressive raspy sounds from the trees, but I haven’t been attacked all weekend. So I guess a towel switch or facial reconstruction won’t be needed.

I think, I hope, by the end of this week there should be some fledglings taking refuge in the shrubbery. There is something absolutely precious about young birds that haven’t quite learned to fly but hop around and perch on low branches. According to Cornell’s Bird of North America (BNA), the youngsters will hang out as fledglings for about another week before flying off.

Also, BNA tells me that while Mockingbirds often build more than one nest,in a breeding season (sometimes up to 6) they do not reuse the same one. So, we’ll see if next year I’m running a 3-week gauntlet with a towel and sunglasses.


Early digiscope image of a Mockingbird from last March in Peace Valley, PA

May 24, 2008

Honk if You Love Harlequins

Filed under: Main Posts — Tags: , , , , — admin @ 11:20 am

I wish there were a bumper sticker that shouted “honk if you love Harlequins”. I’d buy it and actually put it on my car. Had we seen such a bumper sticker one Saturday last March my brother and I would have been leaning on the horn all the way up Long Beach Island Blvd up to Barnegat Light and back. It’s not hard to see why.

Adult male Harlequin ducks have striking white slashes and facial patches that give their plumage a Mardi Gras look. In overcast light the colors appear to be poured on.


Harlequins spend the summer in arctic regions, but these cool diving ducks hang out on the Atlantic coast in the winter as far south as New Jersey. They like rocky shorelines and that’s good for us because that make the jetty off the Barnegat Lighthouse a popular hang out for the ducks.

The Barnegat jetty is notorious for the winds that cut across the bay, but last March there was one Saturday when the wind was mild and we were able to join up with folks from the Delaware Valley Ornithology Club (DVOC) on a bird photography outing led by Steve Kacir.


The jetty was deceptively slick and the careful foot placement involved in walking out gave a workout to the quads that surpassed lunges. There were a couple of places where I could just stand and let my feet slide sideways on the slick rock surface. Reminded me of skiing in Vermont with its blue ice. Only in this situation it was more than a bruised hind end if I fell; like a mother with her children, I had to think of my beloved scope and camera.

Clusters of Harlequins were found on the mossy wet rocks where they would take a breather from diving for fish. The female Harlequin has brown plumage but still has little white cheek patches and it looks as if the male next to her has not fully come out of his first winter plumage.


An ocean idyll

I could have spent all day no problem just photographing harlequins. But there were other birds - Longtail Ducks (Oldsquaws), Eiders, Common Loons, a Northern Gannet, Purple Sandpipers, mergansers, Herring and Black-backed Gulls. One of my favorite birds is the Oyster Catcher. I think it’s the brilliant red bill and orange eyes.

oyster-catcher.JPG gull.JPG

The above photos are of an American Oystercatcher and a Herring Gull. I can’t tell if the oystercatcher was in resting mode or truly did have only one leg. My attention was soon distracted by some Dunlins that were clumped together on the other side of the jetty, along with some Purple Sandpipers that wouldn’t stay still for a shot.


It was fairly windy out. By this time I has already purchased the video mount for my tripod which gave my scope more stability than the previous ballhead mount I had. But there was still some camera/scope shake.

Although that little droplet of precipitation on the end of the one bird’s bill and the way they are huddled with feathers fluffed makes the little bunch appear cold, they are summer breeding arctic birds and the New Jersey shore is their balmy Florida. If you want to see more photos of the Harlequins and other birds go to my photo gallery. I hope to have it ready in a week or so.

The first Barnegat Lighthouse was built in 1834 and by 1857 was falling into the sea as a result of sandbank erosion. The second one was finished in 1859 and is now the 2nd tallest lighthouse in the U.S.


For some interesting history on this lighthouse go to

dscn1567.JPG dscn1568.JPG

Barnegat Lighthouse is no longer a working lighthouse. But it was open to the public and I did my workout for the day going to the top. I love the surprises when things are seen from a completely different perspective.

I am in the process of learning how to edit my video clips and will soon have more of them uploaded into the Nature Video Clip category. Meanwhile, I did post one of my video clips of the harlequins.

And after that is a fun puzzle of one of the friendliest mailboxes I’ve ever seen. It makes up, I’m sure, for all the attack dogs postal delivery folks have to face.





Harlequin Ducks - barnegat light

Filed under: Main Posts — admin @ 11:19 am

May 22, 2008

Where the Birds Should Be

Filed under: Main Posts — admin @ 10:08 pm

Please take heart.

The next few images you will see on this post are confined to this post only because this post tells about my first attempt at digiscoping, which did not have shining results, of course. The point of this post is the story, so have fun and when you get to the end there is a surprise.


When you first go out to try your new digiscope set up, there are two rules to follow:

1. Do not read the manual. Take it with you, but do not read it ahead of time - this may give the idea you might have a clue or two about setting up your gear.

2. Pick a bone-chilling day with high winds to try out your digiscope gear - obstacles and challenges make us better learners.

Although I had actually read my Nikon Coolpix manual and had gotten comfortable with my point and shoot, I did adhere to the above two rules admirably. The first weekend after my scope arrived back in February, I went to a nearby preserve called Prophecy Creek where there is a pond with plenty of cooperative Canada geese and ducks for me to practice on.

I set up my scope on my tripod and attached the camera to the adapter. Ok, I lied a bit. I had read my spotting scope instructions a bit during my break at work the day before, but somehow missed the part about how the adapter is supposed to have one piece permanently attached to the scope just below the eyepiece, which unscrews, and then the other piece of the adapter attaches to the camera lens (after you remove the lens ring). The idea is to be able to slip the camera right over the eyepiece and screw in the ONE adapter screw. Meanwhile, I have both pieces of the adapter nicely attached to my camera and while it will still fit over the eyepiece, it’s clumsy and wiggly, and I had to tighten two screws to secure it. Frankly, I thought it was a bizarre set up, but decided Swarovski knows what’s it’s doing.

So, then I scanned the pond with the big ol’ Canada geese floating all around. How hard could it be to sight in on a couple and snap off a few shots?

But it didn’t work quite that smoothly. First off, the geese were swimming or being swept by the wind along the water’s surface and did not stay in the scope’s sight. I was new to attaching the camera with adapter onto the scope eyepiece, and there was a delay in the point and shoot’s shutter release, and I could hardly tell what I was seeing through the LCD screen on my camera. Oh, and there was some severe camera shake and wiggly scope syndrome.

The results were lots of goose hind ends or empty space, although I did get a nice abstract of a Mallard. But even that Mallard was a stroke of luck.


Lucky shot aside, I needed a break from the drifting subjects. I caught sight of some starlings high in an American Plane tree (similar to a Sycamore) and wondered if maybe they might not be easier because at least, they were sitting. I sighted them in easily enough and even managed to attach the camera without too much trouble. However, I still couldn’t see much in the LCD viewing screen, so forget focusing; it wasn’t even a factor here. But I snapped off a shot anyway.

It was a great shot. Nice blue sky, seed balls sort of in focus on the branches. But the shot would have been even better if there had been some birds in it. I looked up again to see if the starlings had flown, but they hadn’t. They were still sitting on the branch, a nice composition of 3 birds. I removed the camera from the scope and started over. Somehow I had tapped the scope while attaching the camera and adapter, so that the scope moved just enough to accurately frame the vacant branch next to the subject. This happened several times after. Apparently, I was jarring the scope to the right of the target.

By now my hands were frozen and I took a break to warm my fingers. I gazed around at the pines and thick woods, and thought about all those small fast-flitting woodland birds that were supposed to someday be the subject of future images. It would never happen. I was doomed to digiscoping only comatose birds.

With this weary thought in mind, I then noticed that some of the geese had wandered onto the far shore and were waddling up onto the green lawn. On dry land the birds didn’t blow out of the frame, which was promising, and despite the glare of sun on the LCD viewer, I could see vague shadows that I knew were heads and necks and even entire geese in the frame. Ok, now I was rolling.

I had faith.

And while I might not walk away with anything I’d keep later, I began to get excited and hopeful and I thought, “It can be done.”

Three Geese

Turns out that there are two categories of images for first time digiscoping that I would like to lay claim to:

The Once Upon a Time Category and the Wish You Were Here Category. The difference is this:

If the subject has either partially or completely moved out of the frame, the resulting image falls into the Once Upon a Time Category.

If the subject has not been captured in the frame due to movement of the scope itself, then the resulting image is of the Wish You Were Here Variety.

Can you guess which belongs in which group? See answers below.

A Duck Says Goodbye a Starlings b There Once Was a Duck c Stage Right d

a. Once Upon a Time b. Wish You Were Here

c. Wish You Were Here / Once Upon a Time d. Once Upon a Time


If you found that quiz fun, there’s a lot more where it came from. Please feel free to request more.

Meanwhile, here is a puzzle of a much improved image for you to enjoy.

May 21, 2008

The Rabbit Hole

I didn’t know what I was getting into when I made the decision to purchase digiscoping equipment. I had no idea. And now, I feel like I’ve fallen into an extraordinary rabbit hole and I don’t want to stop falling.


But, before I spent the money on a spotting scope (a good one) and a point and shoot camera, I thought about it long and hard. I was keen to try digiscoping but had to consider the fact that I might really stink at it, and then what? Was it worth getting a scope and point and shoot, or would it be better to just get a bigger SLR lens?
I decided that having a spotting scope was helpful if I wanted to learn my shorebirds better, especially now that I had moved back east with such excellent shorebird hotspots within a few hours drive. I also decided that a point and shoot was something I needed anyway for trips and outings with friends. It would be much easier to take a pocket camera along rather than a big ol’ SLR Canon D20.

And so, I gave Eagle Optics ( .) a call and bought a ticket to a place of excitement and intimacy with nature that I did not expect.

I did know that taking images through a scope is much harder than with a regular lens because you cannot track birds or sight them in as quickly with a scope. I also knew that for many birds, it would require a lot of patience and tenacity on my part to get shots of them. But I welcomed that and looked forward to what I might see and learn in the process. Much as I love hanging out in wild, I don’t always get myself out there as much as I would like.

However, the first time out with the scope and camera was rough and I wondered if Eagle Optics shouldn’t have included tranquilizers as part of the deal. For more on that experience please read the post after this one, entitled “Where the Birds Should Be”.

After only 3 and a half months of digiscoping, I haven’t fallen as deep into the Rabbit Hole as I will have in 5 years from now, or 15 years. But it’s been a swell journey so far. It’s more than just seeing birds close up with a 80mm scope, or the getting outside to look for birds that makes digiscoping so much fun. I am finding that I will spend much more time with them than I would with just a spotting scope. I get to witness things I most likely would not have stuck around long enough to see if I weren’t trying to get a good shot.

I love to photograph and have no problem spending 5 hours or more in a place working things. So I may stay in a good birding spot for a long time. The difficulty with focus (more on that in future posts) has actually forced me to stick around to get a decent shot. And having the camera with me has not hindered my observation of bird behavior as I had been afraid it might. I had been concerned that I would spend to much time on the photography and not on the observation and learning. In fact, the opposite is true.

I’ve discovered active nesting cavities, seen birds fight and flee from one another, watched the mating of Killdeer and White-tailed deer, witnessed a pair of Tree swallows fighting with one bird being pinned in the mud for a moment, and two hours later a pair of House sparrows going at it with one of them being pinned to the sidewalk, and last weekend spent an hour watching a killdeer chick pulling and stretching worms out from the muddy shores of a pond. And that’s just what’s on the top of my head.

I’ve more than gotten my money’s worth and can hardly believe it can get any better.

But how can it not?

My digiscope set-up at work


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