Tuesday, December 30, 2014

2015 Backyard Big Year

Let the Games Begin!  2015 Backyard Big Year Location 
In 2015 I'm staging a Backyard Big Year--a gonzo-all-out effort to see how many birds I can find in my yard during the year.  I live on 2.7 acres in Hunterdon County, New Jersey.  We don't have any water on the property, though my neighbors have a tiny farm pond that occasionally gets a duck or heron.  In the 3 years we've lived here, I've seen 140 bird species and I have recorded the flight calls of another 15 species as nocturnal migrants.

OldBird 21c microphone 

In addition to seeing how many birds I can personally see or hear, as part of the Backyard Big Year, I will attempt to photograph 150 yard birds and to sound record 150 species as well.  This will be a machine-assisted effort with an OldBird 21c nocturnal microphone and trail cams to deployed to record birds that might otherwise slip past unobserved.  How many birds will I actually see?  How many birds will I find all together with my bionic birding assistants?  160...180...more?  That remains to be seen! This will be a huge challenge, but a lot of fun, as I try to see birds that are locally common within 2 miles of my home--such as waterfowl and shorebirds--but almost never seen on migration away from water.  Even Rock Pigeon is going to be a tough bird to get next year!

I've been gearing up for this over the past few months--literally buying some new gear such as a 15 foot tripod deer stand to give me better views--and invite you to join me on this birding adventure.  I'll post monthly updates here at Birding is Fun!  but you can also follow my daily exploits and yard birding tips at my Backyard Big Year Blog or on Facebook.

Pileated Woodpecker--one of the 6 (or 7 if I'm lucky) woodpeckers I should see in my yard in 2015

Perhaps this fun game will inspire you to make a greater effort to see more birds from your own yard.  Maybe you will join me and do your own backyard big year.  And if you happen to be passing by on I-78 an hour west of New York, feel free to stop by and bird with me in my yard.  It would be great to have company!  I hope you will enjoy this fun event and that it increase your own birding fun however you plan to bird in 2015!

Monday, December 29, 2014

Your Best birds of 2014

As the year winds down, I've compiled a top ten list of my own best birds of 2014.  I mostly stayed close to home this past year--and ended up in the top 3 listers for my home county for the third year in a row, adding 7 birds to my Hunterdon County (NJ) list.  A also added 12 birds to my yard list.  Close to home I found a new bird for New Jersey.  New birds were few and far between, I got 2 new ABA birds and 11 life birds--mostly on a trip to The Netherlands in October.

Neotropic Cormorant
First NJ record of Neotropic Cormorant, Clinton, Hunterdon, NJ

Whether you just birded in your yard, or you traveled around the globe, everyone has birding favorites from the past year.  What were your own birding highlights and best birds of 2014?

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Seafood Feast at Low Tide

This past November, my husband and I spent some family time in gorgeous Longboat Key, Florida. One of my favorite spots to photograph and view birds is at Quick Point Nature Preserve. This lush hidden treasure is located on the southeast end of Longboat Key. Throughout my holiday visit, I checked the tide charts to see when low tide(s) would occur. A receding tide offers excellent feeding opportunities for the wildlife in the area. Below are a few birds seen taking advantage of the ebbing Sarasota Bay waters.

A Yellow-crowned Night Heron displays intense concentration when hunting for prey

A powerful strike!

Did this stalker succeed in capturing its intended meal?

Success! A tasty crab treat for this skilled fisherman

A light toss of the leggy crustacean and down the hatch it goes

A yellow-slippered Snowy Egret pulls up quite the fin-flapping fish from between the craggy rocks

Not the most attractive creature, but it will certainly satisfy the appetite

A squiggly eel should slide easily down the throat of this Great Egret

... or perhaps not

Meanwhile, the Yellow-crowned Night Heron continues its splashy food search

Will it strike gold with this forceful head plunge?

Ooh, quite the delicacy! Stone Crab will serve as a fabulous entree choice

It's time for some serious crab crunching!

The beautiful Snowy Egret continues to fare well hunting with this neon blue-striped catch

An elegant Great Egret is victorious in its foraging technique

A little fish flipping is necessary ...

for a seamless swallow

A majestic Osprey consumes the remains of its prized catch

If you are ever near the Sarasota area, be sure to visit Quick Point Nature Preserve at low tide. There are plenty of glorious sights to be seen!

Posted by Julie Gidwitz 

Monday, December 15, 2014

The Warbler Guide App

Scott Whittle and Tom Stephenson have been cooking up some really hot stuff for warbler lovers over the last couple of years. They are releasing a new app for The Warbler Guide, featuring filters that let you combine both audio and visual qualities, 3D models of every warbler, and a complete, playable set of vocalizations.

Be among the first to see this video preview about the song feature in the app only here at BirdingIsFun.com today:

Unique new app-only features:
  • 3D models of birds in all plumages, rotatable and pinch-zoomable to match field experience of a bird
  • Intuitive, visual, and interactive finders with filters for possible species based on audio and visual criteria chosen by the user
  • Playback of all songs and vocalizations with sonograms makes study of vocalizations easy
  • iPhone® and iPad® versions let you take these useful tools into the field
  • Selectable finder sortings grouped by color, alphabetical order, song type, and taxonomic order
  • Interactive song finder using objective vocabulary for fast ID of unknown songs
  • Simultaneous visual and song finders makes identifying an unknown warbler even easier
  • Half-speed song playback allows for easier study of song structure
  • Comparison species with selectable side, 45 degree, and undertail views
  • Features 75 3D images
  • Covers 48 species and 75 plumages
  • Includes 277 vocalizations, 156 songs, 73 contact calls, and 48 flight calls

Continue to follow The Warbler Guide blog tour this week. Tomorrow's stop takes us to the UK's 

Friday, December 5, 2014

Photographing Birds in Flight Tips

Pileated Woodpecker

Roseate Spoonbill

Bald Eagle, larger birds are easier to photograph in flight.

Groups of birds, such as these Black Skimmers, are fun to photograph in flight. When photographing them, increase your depth of field.

American Robin. Zero in on one bird in a flock.

Snow Bunting

Upland Sandpiper flying over Kennebunk Plains WMA, Maine

Tree Sparrow. Focus on your bird feeder and anticipate when a bird will leave.

Red-shouldered Hawk, juv.

Great Shearwater, a pelagic species you need to go out on a boat to see. It's challenging taking flight photos from a moving, rocking boat, so it helps to brace yourself against the boat.

Tree Swallow in flight over our fields. Swallows, with their erratic flight, are a challenge to photograph.

Cedar Waxwing. Pick up a bird when it is quite distant and track it with your camera's auto focus and start shooting as it gets a little closer. If you wait until it's upon you, you will never get the photo.

Roseate Spoonbill, coming in for a landing.

My favorite type of bird photography is photographing birds in flight. Above are a few of my photos and here are some tips.

How do photographers get such photos? Many of you are already excellent at photographing birds in flight and have your own ways of doing so. For those still learning, here are a few tips I have found useful. Here's what you need:

High speed digital SLR cameras like the Canon 7D, or 1D Mark IV or Canon 1D X (which I have). The faster, and the more continuous frames per second your camera will shoot, the better. Get a camera the shoots at least 5 frames per second, preferably more. Know your camera dials and settings very well. For most flight photos you need to have at least 1/500th of a second shutter speed, preferably 1/1000th or more. 

Set the ISO high enough to attain this shutter speed. Set the camera on continuous shooting mode. Most people use auto focus for birds in flight. Set the camera focus mode to AI Servo AF. This allows you to focus and lock on the bird as it moves, by depressing the shutter half-way. Put the camera dial on AV (aperture priority) to give enough depth of field to have the whole birds in focus. Most people use an aperture of f/8 in good light, but may go to an aperture of f/5.6 in duller light. To take the photo, depress the shutter all the way.

- A good telephoto lens that is at least 300mm long, or preferably 400mm or more (some, including me, add a 1.4 teleconverter to a 300mm lens.) Some photographers use longer lenses, such as the Canon 500mm or 600mm IS lenses for flight photos. If you have those, you need a good tripod with a smooth moving head, such as those made by Whimberly, Bogen or Kirk Enterprises. A few strong photographers can actually hand hold the 500mm lens. If you are using a tripod you lack some mobility, so it helps to shoot at a good location, such as that at Ding Darling NWR or other national wildlife refuges, where a lot of birds fly in, in a predictible flight route. Set the lens AF/MF switch to AF (auto focus.) Some recommend setting the minimum focusing distance of the lens to its furthest setting.

- Many people are now using the new super zoom point-and-shoot cameras. I use the Canon SX 50 (do not get the SX 60 it is inferior to the SX 50). The Canon SX 50 has a setting called "Sports Mode" which is excellent for birds in flight, just point the camera at the bird and click, the camera does the work for you. Find out more about it here.

- Good situations for photographing birds in flight, such as open areas of water or open sky where you see birds coming from a distance and can get on them early with your auto focus, plus you will have a clear blue background. Keep the sun at your back. Try to shoot with the birds moving along a predictable flight path that is perpendicular to the front of your lens.

- Good eye-hand coordination and fast reflexes. Find the bird by spotting the bird when it is at a distance, and I mean very distant. Do not wait until the bird is close, because by then it will be moving too fast for your to get on it. After you spot it, raise your camera to your eye and lock the auto focus on the bird. Most photographers set the camera's auto focus selection point (AF point) on the center point because it is the most sensitive of the points and allows you to keep focused on the bird. Also your camera will be less likely to lock onto the background as you try and stay on the moving bird.

- A willingness to practice lots and take lots and lots of photos, only some of which will turn out. (At least with digital you are not paying for film.)

- A strong motivation and desire to take flight photos.

- The expertise and programs to process your digital photo to make it look its best. Most photographers use programs like Adobe Photoshop.
My advice is even if you don't have all or some of the above, try anyway. You might find it addictive like I do.

Most importantly, have fun!!!

Lillian Stokes,
Stokes Birding Blog

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Immature Herons

The weather radar indicated that a cold front accompanied by showers was moving slowly down the Florida peninsula, so we did not want to take a chance on being caught by the rain a mile out in our local birding patch. Therefore we decided to walk the 1/4 mile boardwalk at nearby Chapel Trail Nature Preserve in Pembroke Pines. If we saw the rain approaching we would have time to rush back to the parking lot.

Here is the Chapel Trail boardwalk on a mild morning earlier this year:

Chapel Trail boardwalk 20140528

Chapel Trail boardwalk 2-20140528

It was a good move. Minutes after we started walking out, we spied two white herons. One was a Great Egret, and the other, an immature Little Blue Heron which suddenly flew up and roosted on the boardwalk railing. It is distinguished from the egrets by its green legs and dark-tipped bill. Its feathers are also slightly off-white. By the time it is a year old it will molt into the dark adult plumage.

Little Blue Heron immature 2-20141118

The heron scratched an itchy chin:

Little Blue Heron immature 20141118

It was so close that I had to back away to fit the entire bird in the viewfinder of my telephoto lens:

Little Blue Heron immature head 20141118

All herons have an elongated sixth vertebra in their upper neck which is attached to its adjacent vertebrae at right angles and acts like a double hinge. See a drawing of the neck bones in this earlier postThe above photo shows the resulting"Z" shape it creates. This allows herons to strike at prey with sudden force, but also permits them to preen their feathers in areas that would be otherwise inaccessible:

Little Blue Heron immature neck 20141118

An adult Little Blue Heron flew in, still with green legs and dark-tipped bill, but otherwise presenting a markedly different appearance from the immature:

Little Blue Heron adult 20141118

Almost as if providing a second movement to the theme established by the Little Blue Heron, an immature Tricolored Heron arrived and settled down in the Spike Rush:

Tricolored Heron immature in flight 20141118

Also in its first year of life, this bird had mostly rusty brown upperparts:

Tricolored Heron immature 2-20141118

Yes indeed, this really happened-- an adult Tricolored Heron then moved in, as if to show off its contrasting wardrobe:

Tricolored Heron adult in flight 2-20141118

Tricolored Heron adult 2-20141118

The adult now took center stage, flying up to the railing and once more causing me to back down the boardwalk in order to take its photograph:

Tricolored Heron adult 5-20141118

I especially liked this pose, which exhibited its plumes:

Tricolored Heron adult 20141118