Boreal Birding & Digiscoping with an iPhone

I think I had the most fun at Sax Zim Bog last weekend since the great owl irruption of 2004/2005. An informal gathering of birders headed up and we started at Hasty Brook. I've known Lynne for some time and I've always wanted to visit. What a treat to start it off with her deck full of common redpolls. I wish we could have spent more time there, she's so lucky to have such a beautiful view to watch birds and animals go by--and incredibly sweet.  Our group birded the crap out of the little daylight we have up here in winter and when we went back to her place, her husband was heating up a huge kettle of wild rice soup.

As much as I miss the birds who sing in the summer, I truly do appreciate living in Minnesota where a few hours drive north gives me a different set of habitat and birds. Redpolls are in abundance this winter in northern MN, which was actually predicted in the Winter Finch Forecast.

Huge flocks of redpolls would descend onto the roads to chow down on either spilled grain or salt mixed with snow. When they would take off, you could actually hear their woosh of wings.

We had a bonus in the car with us when we went, a guide for the bog by the name of Erik Bruhnke came along with us--for fun. He's a young kid trying to earn a living in birding--it was fun to go out in the field with someone so young and excited about birds. There are a lot of great guides up at the bog but the area is so popular they book up quickly, so if you're ever looking for one, Erik is an enthusiastic and knowledgeable guide. Some in our group had been to the bog several times before and had an idea of where to go, but having someone along who birds the area on a regular basis really helped get all the bog specialties that are being seen.

I used the day to compare digiscoping with my iPhone 4s vs my Nikon D40.  I don't have an adapter yet for the phone so photos like the one above of evening and pine grosbeaks are taken by hand holding the iPhone up to my scope.  Not bad at all!  I've been playing with the camera app that comes with the phone but there's the Camera+ app, I like it because it has image stabilization and the ability to go into burst mode and take a crap ton of pictures all at once.  It's handy if you are doing this without an adapter.

One thing I did learn about my iPhone is that it's not ideal for cold weather digiscoping.  My fingers got so cold that the touch screen function ceased recognizing when something had been touched (it was about 10 degrees Fahrenheit when I took the above photo).  I do have a pair of gloves that is supposed to work with the touch screen, but I have a screen protector and it doesn't work with the gloves.  Also cold fingers can lead to shivering which also doesn't help image stabilization.

Can I say what a treat it was to get some quality time with evening grosbeaks (the above photo was taken with the D40, not the iPhone).  I haven't been around a good sized flock for a few years so it was fun to spend time with these birds who look like like a goldfinch on steroids...though Non Birding Bill thinks they look more like Ed Asner.  We're so lucky that the people who live on Blue Spruce Road just north of 133 in Meadowlands place feeders at the end of their driveway so people can enjoy a bunch of boreal feeder birds.

It's a great little spot to practice digiscoping.  Lots of great colorful winter birds to get shots of like the pine grosbeak.  They seem very used to the traffic.

White-winged crossbills were all over around the bog too.  This one was part of a flock that was in the road.  As we watched it, we picked up a tail of other cars. It's kind of a strange thing to bird around the bog.  You want to get all the specialties and there are plenty of maps to be found of it on the Internet describing where to go, but at the same time if you see someone pulled over, you tend to pull over too to see if they have something you don't.

This is especially true when it's dusk and close to great gray owl time.  One road had a recent report of great grays and around dusk there were almost 2 dozen vehicles slowly cruising back and forth, creeping along and watching, waiting for the elusive giant.  I watched but I'm so spoiled when it comes to great gray owls.  I remember driving and finding 50 in a day.

Fortunately a great gray owl was spotted and the birding paparazzi excitedly moved in to watch it.

It was far, lightly snowing and dusk but thanks to the timer on my Nikon D40 I was able to get an ok shot of it in the low light conditions.

All in all it was a great day of seeing some northern specialties (like the above rough-legged hawk).  If you haven't birded the bog and live within driving distance, grab some friends and head on up.  It's a doable day trip from the Twin Cities.  We left the the northern suburbs at 5:30am and stayed til dusk then stopped for dinner.  I got back to NBB by 9:30pm.

If you'd like to learn more, come to Birds and Beers on Monday.  Lots of people will be happy to share tips (and maybe you'll find a birding buddy to go up).  Also there is a Sax Zim Bog Bird Festival in Feburary which I haven't been to but I know lots of people who have gone and had a great time.  Bird festivals a great way to get to know an area you haven't birded before.