The Bufflehead Birder

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.

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.


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