Tuesday, November 30, 2010

In which I find out that bird photography is really hard.

A Great Blue Heron flying into the storm.
It's a slow day on the hawk watch, the weather is nice and a stalled front just south of me has stopped migrating birds in their tracks as they were headed south, leaving them tired, confused and searching for food. The result is what's called a fallout, albeit a weak one, in which migrating birds hit bad weather, grow tired and seek whatever food and shelter they can find, often on the ground and without fear of people. 

A few seconds away from being a first prize winner, really!
So it seemed as good a time as any to try my hand at digiscoping. Simply put, it's taking a picture with a digital camera through the lens of a spotting scope. Sounds simple. Focus scope. Hold camera to eyepiece. Take picture. Hope the bird hasn't moved. It's that last one I had problems with. Since there were yellow-rumps everywhere, it should have been a cinch to get a great shot of one. They were flitting all around the platform, landing practically at our feet. And they never sat still more than a few seconds. No problem focusing my binos on them in that time. I could even get the scope on the bird and focused. And by the time I got the camera to the scope, it flew. Re-find, re-focus, and it flys again. I got dozens of empty branches and blurred flashes of bird for every good shot.

Almost perfect..
And then, even when everything lined up, the light was good, the sun at the right angle, the bird chose an opportune spot to perch, fully exposed and with an excellent background, the optimum camera settings (accidentally) achieved... It's never quite what I saw. The spark of life, the little animated movements of the bird, slip through the lens, not quite leaving an imprint. All my pictures look flat, dull, and hazy compared to real life. Imperfections in the glass? A bit too much glare on the lens? Or maybe, just maybe, you had to be there to truly appreciate the bird.

Monday, October 4, 2010

Nemesis Birds

Every serious birder has them. The ones that got away. Feathered ghosts that just seem to slip through your fingers (binoculars?) when you try to grasp them. You drive 5 hours on a moments notice, only to find out your quarry has eluded you by mere moments. A friend swears he knows a place where you can't fail to see one, and in doing so, ensures that you will strike out.

I'm talking about those most desired birds that you just can't seem to find. I've got some rare ones and some more common ones that have just fallen through the cracks. I've haven't really tried many good spots for Jaegers, so they don't really count, though one of these days I'd like to see one, but Thayer's Gull, on the other hand, is a true nemesis. It's not that Thayer's Gull is a very striking bird. It's just the opposite; even experts have trouble telling them apart from Herring Gulls, of which I've seen thousands. It's that, despite many hours of study and fruitless search, I've never seen one. Or more accurately, I've never identified one. I even had a chance in Washington, when a friend offered to try to point one out, but I was more concerned with the Black-tailed Gull in the flock, an asian mega-rarity, figuring I could find the relatively common Thayer's Gulls at my leisure. One of these days....

Two more western birds that will forever haunt me until I see them are Rock Sandpiper and Black-capped Gnatcatcher. Rock Sandpiper was almost a given on my 11 day long, 1,000+ mile roadtrip from the Olympic Peninsula to Ventura, CA. After all, with hundreds of miles of rocky coastline for them to inhabit, how could I miss them. At the first few prospective spots, I didn't worry, I just figured I'd see them at the next stop. After about 10 tries, including some stops just to scan rocky coastlines for shorebirds, I was getting desperate. There was one last hope, a slightly out of range bird spotted in Santa Cruz. I couldn't get exact directions to the bird, though, so I didn't have high hopes, and since it was a few days away, I just forgot about it. Until I happened to be driving by Santa Cruz and decided to stop and watch the sunset from the first beach I could find. Which I did, and ended up seeing the fabled "green flash" as the last ray of sun disappears into the Pacific. At which time I realized where I was, and frantically started searching the rocks for suspicious looking sandpipers. No Rock Sandpipers, but I did manage to see my Life Wandering Tattler, so I guess it wasn't a total wash.

Black-capped Gnatchaters are another story. When planning my epic SE Arizona roadtrip, they weren't really high on my list of must-see birds. They look almost exactly like Blue-gray Gnatcatchers, with only slight variations in bill size, tail and voice. Only the breeding males have the namesake black caps, and they don't necessarily have those the time of year I was going to be there. On top of which, they're quite rare, only breeding in a few locations in Arizona. So I figured I'd leave them be in favor of easier quarry. Until I ran into another traveling birder who offered to show me around some of the best birding spots, and helped me identify some of the harder Arizonan specialties. Turns out, one of his target birds for the trip was Black-capped Gnatcatcher. We'd heard of a few spots they'd been seen, and I'd planned on visiting those spots anyway, so I figured it was a win-win situation, after all, 2 sets of eyes are better than one. First try, we produced about a dozen Blue-gray Gnatcatchers and 0 black-caps. Next try, we upped it to about 2 dozen blue-gray and still 0 black-caps. Oh well, they are quite rare, so maybe we were just in the wrong spot. We made plans to try again tomorrow, and went back to more leisurely birding. That night we learned that 2 black-caps had been reported at the exact location we scoured, less than an hour after we were there. The next day, we spent 3 hours strafing a large patch of mesquite they were known to breed in, and at which they had been reported just the day before, with no luck. We saw dozens of Blue-gray Gnatcatchers, a few Black-tailed Gnatcatchers, but no Black-capped Gnatcatchers. At which point we concluded that Black-capped Gnatcatchers didn't exist, and all other birders claiming to see them were just in on the practical joke.

My current nemesis is the Connecticut Warbler. A shy, uncommon warbler of dense bogs, fall migration is just about the only time you can hope to see one in the Northeast. So it's become my goal this fall to hunt one down. So far, no luck, and time isn't on my side. Maybe next year, my elusive quarry. That's what makes birding so enticing, the constant thrill of the hunt.

Monday, September 27, 2010

Summer slips away

Its officially fall, and not just because the leaves are changing or because of an arbitrary date on the calendar. No, for myself and thousands of other bird minded people, it's the birds that tipped the balance from summer to fall.

Since mid August, millions of birds great and small have been winging there way south, unnoticed by most, moving under cover of darkness, tirelessly aiming for some remembered wintering grounds or following and instinctual pull to go a specific direction for a specific distance. As they fly by they proclaim the ending of summer not with song and vigor as they welcomed spring but with silence broken only by a few faint call notes, heard overhead on nights with good winds, or the morning after as they frantically seek to replace lost energy.

But now at ling last the guard is changing. Still the neotropical migrants slip south, but they decrease as the vanguard of the fall birds increase. White-throated sparrows sing all year long as they move down from the boreal swamps, kinglets and red-breasted nuthatches annuounce their presence, oft heard but hard to see in the spruce and pines they prefer. Purple finches start to mingle with the house finches and goldfinches.

More obvious to everyone else is the clarion call of Canada Geese overhead, long sinuous V shapes lines winging high overhead. Soon great kettles of turkey vultures will be visible as the more northerly breeders head towards South America, leaving behind the brave resident vultures to subsist on roadkill and winterkill. All across the country, the birds of summer are heading south, back to their real homes, some biologists would say, as they may spend more time in the tropics then they do in the states.

And we are left with the brave birds of fall and winter, who view the chilling winds and snows that lay but a few months off as mild compared to what they flee from, and whom will keep is company as the days grow shorter and lives frantic pace slows. They give us something to look forward to as the mercury plunges, for the colder it gets, the better the chance of those denizens of the high arctic gracing us; goshawks and gyrfalcons, ross's and ivory gulls, hoary redpolls and boreal owls.

Actually to be honest, it's not the cold they flee but starvation. With adequate food supplies, any one of those birds would be at home in the fiercest of winters. But when the temperatures drop, they need more and more food just to survive, and if they can't find it they make venture down to comparatively warmer and hopefully more plentiful lands. And we'll be waiting, for by then the birds of fall will be commonplace, and the birds of winter will dance in our minds.

Sunday, September 12, 2010


I suppose my first post should include a bit of an explanation into the name of my blog. The word comes from German, and is a combination of Zug (move, migration) and Unruhe (anxiety, restlessness). It describes the instinctive restlessness that migratory birds experience before the onset of migration. It's often characterized by restlessness, changes in sleep pattern and practice flights in the direction of intended migration.

It seems a particularly apt title to the blog of a seasonal field biologist, though I suppose I'd fall more under the category of nomadic rather than truly migratory, since I don't return to the same area. My wanderings are largely tied to changing of the season, as when the birds I'm studying leave it's time for me to move on and find a new job.

My current employment has me gathering data on what has been described as the greatest migration of carnivores in the world; fall hawk migration. Working with the New Jersey Audubon Society, I am carrying on a long-standing tradition of recording migrating raptors, this being the 54th year of the Montclair Hawk Watch. The 2nd oldest hawk watch in the country, and indeed, the world, Montclair, NJ is an unlikely location for a hawk watch. Surrounded by million dollar homes and suburban development in all directions sits the NJAS's smallest sanctuary, a gravel covered platform barely an acre in size is all that's needed to view the over 10,000 hawks recorded here on average.

This week is a special time in hawk watching, the big Broad-winged Hawk push. Soon, with the next big cold front, thousands of Broad-wings will simultaneously feel the urge to migrate culminate when the right conditions are present. Good winds out of the north to push them on their journey south, a sunny day to heat the land and create those rising pockets of warm air called thermals that will drastically reduce the effort needed to gain lift. Indeed, on a good day, the hawks barely need to flap to stay aloft, instead rely on that rising air to push them upwards, then sailing down towards the next thermal with only a few flaps to steady them. On a good day, several thousand Broad-wings will be seen from the ridge moving by in groups called kettles, ranging in size from dozens to hundreds. As the first birds to reach the top of the column of rising air peal off and head south, the appearance is of a kettle boiling over and spilling out, a river of raptors being carried along on currents of air.

It's a spectacular sight that one has to see to appreciate, occurring every year right over our heads, unnoticed and unremarked by all but a few.