How much would you pay to go glamping for a nigh parrot in Australia?
The California super bloom has been great for birds too. Be sure to check out the video.
Recently, I was in Austria with a bunch of other birders from around the world to check out Swarovski's amazing BTX. One of the things that I love about these trips is that it's a fun birder camp and I get to hang out with colleagues from publications, conservation organizations and tour companies. This trip was a real treat because I got to go birding with Jesse Barrie who is the Program Manager for the Macaulay Library and the Merlin Project Leader as well as Chris Wood Assistant Director at Cornell Lab of Ornithology.
The group consisted of birders all over the world and because the way the prices for flights worked out, all of us who came from the United States for the event got to stay an extra day. For many of us that meant getting a chance to catch up on missed European lifers like black woodpecker and for me--wallcreeper. But Chris Wood planted a delightful idea on our first night in Austria when we were settling into some schnapps:
"You know, there are only a few checklists in eBird in Liechtenstein. If we went in there, we could be the top eBirders there..."
As we know, I'm not much of a lister. There really aren't any birds I could get in Liechtenstein that I haven't already seen in Austria. However, the idea of visiting the tiny principality was too irresistible for me. It's equal parts birding and adventure. And given my tax bracket, I don't see myself living or vacationing in Liechtenstein in the foreseeable future.
Our plan in the morning was to visit a castle in Austria where we had a good shot at wallcreeper and then driving into Liechtenstein after lunch. Yes, we got wallcreeper (another post for another day).
Liechtenstein is a 62 square mile principality right between Austria and Switzerland. It's a popular winter sports destination. Our driver checked in at the border and we were sent through without having to show our passports.
Many in our tiny group needed alpine accentor, snowfinch and alpine chough.
The birders in the vehicle included not only staff from Cornell, but our guide Leander Khil and friends like Jeff Gordon who is the president of the American Birding Association, Clay Taylor from Swarovski, Corey Finger from 10,000 Birds and Bill Thompson from Bird Watcher's Digest. All of us were scanning out the windows to pick up common birds for our lists like European blackbird and great tit--we were going to pad those lists with anything we could find.
The ski town was really cool. It has a few hotels, restaurants and cabins for people to use when they are not on the slopes above. The skiers didn't seem to mind us but we did have to keep watch as we looked for birds and they would frequently be zooming down from the mountains. What was really cool was seeing how many children were playing in the snow, completely unsupervised by parents. Many were on sleds and a couple were building their own snow hill so they could sled down a window from their cabin. We had distant alpine choughs circling overhead but not too much in the way of birds. Then we heard the singing of an alpine accentor!
We didn't get a lot of diversity of species, but that is to be expected in winter in the Alps. As our guide Leander was trying to herd us back to the van so our driver could finish his shift on time, we encountered a fabulous marching band called Wildmandli Guggamusik. According their website they take contemporary songs and make them into marching band music. Here they are doing what I think is Masterpiece:
What a weird and wonderful way to wrap up our day! They also did Hot Fudge and as I was recording that, you can hear Leander in the background really trying to get us to wrap up our day. Poor Leander, herding birders is worse then herding cats.
Our driver really seemed intrigued by our excitement of adding bird sightings to different countries so as a treat, he took us through Switzerland on the way back into Austria! It was all birding by 55 mph but we managed a few new species for the trip like rook and jackdaw. As we crossed back into Austria, I managed to slip one of my Pokemon into a gym on the border and it stayed there for six weeks. Ah, for a month and a half I was international in Pokemon Go.
And so here we have it, proof that for a time I was one of the top eBirders in the Principality of Liechtenstein. And what's great is that even though I didn't get the stamps in my passport for the two other countries we visited, I do have new colors on my eBird map in my profile and that's just as fun as my passport. And this is what I love about life. Saying yes to a weird little adventure leaves me with great memories I'll never forget.
Are you having a hard day? Check out this bubbler type bath with a buttload of Allen's hummingbirds.
Migration needs to hit soon because all North American birders are doing is arguing about owls and baiting.
Good Birders Still Don't Wear White is out and you should buy it!
I remember years ago in my twenties working at a wild bird feeding store and reading Kingbird Highway by Kenn Kaufman on a slow day and thinking, "Man, I'm wasting my life by playing it safe with a steady job. I need to be out traveling and bird watching, living hand to mouth." Then I'd read something Kenn wrote in Bird Watchers Digest and it would mention being someplace with editor Bill Thompson and I'd think, "How cool would it be to travel around with other birders? Get to see new birding products and what the latest."
Cut to 15 years later and doodly doodly doodly: here I am doing just that. Life has taken me to many strange and wonderful places. Recently, it sent me to Austria to take a look at some new products Swarovski has been working on for the last few years. They've taken their modular ATX spotting scope line which already allowed you to customize your objective lenses to another level. Now you can truly personalize a Swarovski scope to suit your particular needs.
Are you ready to see the weirdest, yet coolest spotting scope that's coming down the pike?
The new BTX allows you to use both eyes with the spotting scope. Not only does this scope work naturally with the way our vision, it also gives you an almost 3D image of a bird. Like a pair of binoculars you can adjust it for your face with the eye cups and the barrels. There's even a diopter to balance out the lenses to your vision. An adjustable forehead rest allows you to comfortably watch birds through the scope for hours by resting your head against the scope. This is the perfect tool for sea watching, hawk counting or bird surveys. I wish I had this back when I was doing my eagle surveys and I had to stake out a bald eagle nest for four hours at a time. Doing that with one eye gets a bit exhausting on the muscles.
I already have the ATX scope and it is a fantastic piece of equipment. When I came along on this trip, I brought it too and was able to do side by side comparisons while watching waterfowl. What surprised me was that going from using both eyes on the BTX scope to only one eye on my ATX scope was difficult. The BTX was so comfortable visually that it felt like I was going from a high end scope to a low end scope--which is ridiculous because the ATX is a quality piece of equipment. But most of us were meant to use both our eyeballs to see well and that's what the BTX was designed for.
Of course I had to see if I could digiscope with the BTX. I didn't have an adapter for it so held my iPhone 7 up to one of the eyepieces and after some zooming on the phone to take out the vignetting I got the above shot of a whooper swan. However, digiscoping doesn't really capture the 3D view of birds and wildlife you will get with this scope.
The BTX magnification is 30 power with a 65mm and 85mm objective lens and 35 power with the 95mm objective lens. But if you want more magnification, you have have another option. Swarovski has also created a magnification extender which can be used with the BTX and the ATX and STX as well. If you attach it to the 65 or 85mm BTX you'll go from 30 power magnification to 50. If you use with the 95mm objective lens you'll go from 35 power magnification to 60.
Because of the design for comfort, the BTX only comes as an angled scope. It is a bit on the heavier side of things for a Swarovski scope. For example, an ATX 85mm is roughly 4.2 pounds and the BTX 85mm is roughly 5.5 pounds. Since it is a bit heavier, it's best to use it with a balance rail. There's even a new tripod head to accommodate the new set up.
If weight is a concern, Clay Taylor and I played around with the BTX and the 65mm objective lens which comes out to about 4.8 pounds. A smaller objective lens makes the scope lighter but won't have as much light gathering ability as an 85 or 95mm. Even so, it still works very well. But this set up is really the dream set up for hawk watching platforms and those who dig scanning for gulls and jaegers on sea watches.
If you see a BTX at a bird festival this spring, take it out side, really adjust for your eyes and marvel at the view. You wouldn't think there could be any more major advances in the world of quality scopes, but this is really quite something.
One of the most common questions I get in my Tech Birding classes is, “Why is there no Shazam-type app that will allow me to use my phone to identify bird calls?"
1. Birds have accents. Generally, when you hear Adele singing “Hello” over a speaker in a Target in Minnesota and then a few months later hear Adele sing "Hello" over a speaker in a Walmart in Florida, it's the same song. However, a cardinal in Minnesota is going to sound different than a cardinal in Florida.
2. Also when a song is playing, there’s usually only one song going on at a time. How many times is there just one species of bird singing at a time?
That said, there's a new app called Song Sleuth that wants to help you out!
Developers at Wildlife Acoustics have released the Song Sleuth app available for iPhone (an Android version should be coming in a few months). Wildlife Acoustics actually came out with an app before there were smart phones. It was in the form of a blue box you would wear around your neck that would record calls and try to id them. It wasn’t all that user friendly and was a bit cost prohibitive. I can’t remember the exact cost, but it was over $100.
That technology didn’t go over well in the consumer market but it did go over well in the biological survey field. When I used to do bird surveys for wind farms, I’d have to work with bat audio equipment from time to time and it was always Wildlife Acoustics software. The microphones would be set on timers to record sounds at night and then software was used to ID all the spectrograms of the different bat calls. It’s really the only way to monitor bats and get a handle on the species that may be in an area.
This is not as user friendly as a Shazam app, but it is indeed a useful tool to help you learn your bird songs. And I hate to use all caps here but I feel this is really important:
THIS IS NOT AN APP YOU CAN BLUNDER YOUR WAY THROUGH. YOU MUST READ THE DIRECTIONS OR WATCH THE YOUTUBE TUTORIAL before you start to truly understand how it works and how to use it in the field.
This app is very cool for recording calls. When you have the app open in recording mode, the mic is always on and recording, but not saving everything. If you suddenly hear a bird start to sing that you want to identify and hit the record button, it will automatically default the start of the recording to the three seconds before you hit the record button. As you record, you’ll se the spectrogram of sounds from the song you are trying to id as well as your own noises from walking or coughing and ambient noise like planes.
After you have captured the recording, the app will generate three possible species that made the sound. It's best to try and trim the recording down to the actual song you want to id. If you use the whole recording and there are other birds singing, chances are good that you'll get a misidentification.
When Song Sleuth brings up the list of possibilities you can either agree or disagree with it. If you aren't sure, you can listen to the preloaded calls to compare to your recording. You can even compare spectrograms of the prerecorded calls to the ones you captured. If the app brings up the incorrect identification, you can go into the full list of birds in the app to try and find it.
I played around with this app with sounds from the All About Birds site and with bird calls in my local patch. Let me tell ya, trying to find singing birds in a Minnesota winter is not that easy. I had mixed results with the app. I would say about 60% of the time it nailed the id, especially if I trimmed down the recording and try to filter out wind. But 40% of the time the bird I was trying to id wasn't on the list. Part of it was disagreement with the app about what birds occur in Minnesota in winter. We have an influx of tufted titmice in the Twin Cities this year and the app didn't think they should be here so never considered the bird a possibility. I had to go in and manually include in the list of possible birds.
But I do love that this app gets you into a habit of visualizing bird sounds on a spectrogram. I think that visual clues are very handy for someone just starting out and you'll be surprised to see the distinct vocal patterns birds can have, even with an accent. I also love that this app lets you record calls and even if it doesn't get the correct id right away, you have something you can take home and compare with bird sounds online. I played with this on an iPhone 7 and was able to pick up bird and squirrel sounds from far away. Ideally, you want to be as close as possible to get the call, but considering the size of the microphone on an iPhone it does a decent job.
I also think that over time the app will improve as more people start to use it. To get an idea of how it works, check out the video on how to use the app. It's not a perfect app, but if you are struggling to learn your bird calls, I do think it's worthwhile to download.
We're having our third straight weird winter in Minnesota. A third winter of unpredictable weather patters. February used to be my guaranteed snow shoe hike month and for the past three winters I've had to just call them hikes or cancel them because thaw cycles of turned the trails to ice. This past week like the rest of the country we experienced insane highs in the 50s - 60.
I'm not going to panic about it, but I am going to take advantage of a weird spring like day to go bike riding, it's one of the things I enjoy almost as much as birding. And it's a perfect combo when I can combine them both. I often listen to movie soundtracks while biking to make my ride more fun.
The other day I was biking and listening to The Force Awakens, specifically the Jedi Steps part at the end of the movie. As I biked along, something suddenly got my attention. "Wow, that's a lot of poop."
Because it was a thick clump of cedars I immediately assumed it was a saw-whet owl roost. I noticed about four spots where the bird had spent lots of time and dropped lots of pellets. I gingerly walked around to try and look up in hopes of not flushing the bird (with that ruddy mysterious music playing through my headphones). The first two spots had no owl above, then I got to the spot in the above photo. I looked up and less than two feet from my head was an old robin's nest with a gray phase eastern screech-owl perched on it (just as the music swelled when it revealed Luke Skywalker in the movie). I immediately said, "Holy shit," crouched low to put as much space between us and backed away, hoping against hope that I wouldn't accidentally flush it. I was not expecting that bird to be that low...or in a robin's nest. It stayed in its spot and I wondered if felt a little bad ass, "Well, I showed that human!"
The next day I took Non Birding Bill with me to see the bird and try to digiscope it. The branch it chose is perfect for hiding. It's on the lowest and thickest branch and the branch curves, creating a tent over the owl. I flattened my tripod as low as it would go, crawling on the ground to get a view as far away from the owl as I could. I found one window through the needles to get a glimpse and snapped a few photos for my own documentation.
I've never found a screech-owl roosting in cedars in winter. I've mostly seen them in natural cavities or nest boxes. And as always when I find an owl, I wonder how many I've passed because I assumed they wouldn't hide in a particular spot.
And for now this owl will be left alone. If it stays warm I'll bike past but I won't stop except to collect a pellet or two. I'm going to have try and hit that area in March at dusk to see if I can hear any screech-owl trilling.
The owl drama is intense this month on social media. You can follow the hashtag #owlmasterbaiters on Facebook to following along.
Lawsuit in New York to protect threatened piping plovers from non native feral cats.
Oh hey, it's a great blue heron eating an alligator.
Have you ever been out birding with your digiscoping kit or traditional camera equipment and wondered if there was an easier and more comfortable way to carry your camera and binoculars at the same time? Did you ever hope you'd look like a total bad ass while doing it? Well, I have three words for you: Tactical Birding Harness.
Actually the real name is the CCS Binocular & Camera Harness and as soon as you put it on, you feel ready for what my friend Ben Douglas would call "beast mode birding."
Initially, I was skeptical about this harness on two fronts. First, I'm female and I'm a well endowed. Though I enjoy using binoculars harnesses for comfort, it can be a challenge to get those to work around a curvy chest. Many of these products are built for guys and well, the products get weird when applied to a woman's body.
The second concern is that I had is that I have a low center of gravity and I wondered if having this stuff hanging on me was really going to be anymore comfortable than my usual set up of a traditional binocular harness with my camera slung over my shoulder while carrying my scope on a tripod.
To my surprise, the tactical harness can be quite comfortable. As soon as I put it on, I felt a bit like Bruce Wayne suiting up for a night with the Joker. Being short, I had to do a lot of cinching of the shoulder straps, but once I got the harness snug against me, it wasn't bad at all. The fitting of this harness is really key (and gents, you may want to skip to the next paragraph as I'm going to get into some serious boob talk here). Ladies, if you leave it slightly loose, the harness shifts a bit as you move and then you're left with that look many of us dread: one of your breasts is randomly hanging out on the side. Don't make it so tight it hurts to breath, but have someone help you tighten it on the shoulders and the waist to keep in in place.
Once fitted well, it doesn't move as much as a traditional binocular harness. Many women tell me that they find the traditional binocular harnesses uncomfortable. I think one reason is that people don't pay attention to where the leather patch is in the back. Sometimes it has a tendency to ride up just below your neck, when really it should be squarely between your shoulder blades and depending on how active you are in the field, you periodically have to pull it down. This harness stays in place for the post part when snug.
The harness has an adapter and velcro strap to attach to the barrel of your binoculars and a tripod adaptor for your camera. These have large washers that will lock your optics in place on the front of the harness, and off to the side (you can adjust whether you have the second piece on your right or left to favor which side you use most). I did notice that after awhile the velcro strap on my Swarovski ELs would come loose and slide a little bit and I'd have to retighten it to keep it aligned with the harness.
I also had to get used to my binoculars and camera in a new area. If you've had your digiscopign set up for awhile, using them has become second nature. This is a bit of a different configuration and it takes some getting used to the different way you have to holster holster and reholster your bins, especially if you're excitedly looking at a bird. Here's a demo of the binoculars being holstered:
A small pocket in the belt holds a cover to put over camera to keep them dry if it's raining while you're out in the field. There's even a holder just inside the front of the harness in case you have an umbrella with a thin rod that you want to put over yourself to stay dry. Just wearing the whole set up around for an hour was not bad and the best part was that my binoculars and camera felt secure and not like they were bouncing all over the place. This is something I might use while at a birding festival or birding remote areas. I wish I had this back when I was doing bird surveys. I'm not sure if I would wear this set up in an urban park, it might be a bit much and cause neighbors to question you. But if you are going to wear it in an urban park, go big or go home: