Friday 14 September 2007

From A to B

The time has come.

Both dreaded and longed for, the move back across the Atlantic is imminent. The plane for Germany leaves tomorrow, on Saturday, and I'll be a North American Blogger no more:

I'll move from Ann Arbor back to the Baltic coast of Germany.

Looking back, it's been a great year. Lots of birds. Well, not too many with around 240 species recorded, but then I wasn't chasing them anyway and as so often in life, it is the Quality that matters.

What were the highlights?

Gosh, that's difficult.
Surely the (roughly) 20 lifers I found, but as it is not all about a long list, and going through my blog entries, I'd say the following birding adventures will stick with me for a long time:

Writing my first ever real post on Bell Tower Birding.
Winter birding at the Arb.
Getting prepared for and participating in my first ever CBC.
Gulling through Washtenaw County with Bruce a few times.
My research on Edgar Allen Poe's connection to birding during those long winter nights.
Meeting Laurent and watching a Snowy Owl in a way I am not likely to ever see one again.
A winter trip with my wife to Point Pelee.
Seeing a Barred Owl.
The first warbler of spring with - later - a very unexpected surprise.
Trying so hard and finally succeeding in seeing an Eastern Screech Owl.
Hosting I and the Bird #47.
Finally getting a decent camera again and entering the visual part of the digital age.
The great trips to Crane Creek in May with Bruce and others and the strange birds we saw.
Birding the grasslands of Washtenaw County with Laurent.
My trip to St. Louis about which I wrote here, here, here, here, here, here and here.
Getting a taste of fall migration.

And last but not least chasing after great shorebirds at Michigan's Point Mouillee in July and August, something I never found the time to blog about, and man, these were great trips...

Wow, it really has been quite a ride, I say!!

What will I miss once I am back in Germany? Hmmm, let me think, probably these guy here...

I will also greatly miss the amazing birdwatchers I met here and was lucky to spend a few days birding with, especially Bruce and Laurent.
Thanks a million for everything, it has been a great pleasure. Happy trails and I'll be seeing you again!

But what about my blog?

Well, darn, I am sorry to disappoint, but even back in Germany, I'll just keep on blogging!
Things will very much remain the same here at Bell Tower Birding, it's just going to be another bell tower and different birds I'll be writing about.
Of course the frequency of blog post might slow down for the next few weeks until we have settled down again in Stralsund/Germany, found a new apartment, arranged Internet access etc.
But I'll be around.
And don't worry, as soon as I am back, I'll make my reappearance known to you by flooding your own blog with comments.

Therefore, no need for a good bye here, just a see you later!

And I sure can't wait.

Wednesday 12 September 2007

Downy Woodpecker versus Canon Digital Rebel XTi

I unexpectedly found myself downtown last Saturday with about 1.5 hours of spare time on my hands. Strangely, as soon as I noticed this amount of spare time it was gone as I was immediately headed for the Arb.
Hey, it is September after all, in case someone out there had expected a different use of my 1.5 hours in downtown Ann Arbor.

I had barely entered the Arb when I heard a flock of Chickadees, a dead ringer for migrant warblers and sure enough, just seconds later I found myself surrounded by the most breath-taking assembly of warblers I have ever seen.
During the 1.5 hours spent there on the same spot, I was constantly surrounded by at least 10 individuals and usually got a choice of 3-5 species at any given moment. All in all, I found 13 species of warbler within the flock that I estimated at holding more than 120 individuals.

During this warbling frenzy, to get to the point of this post, I heard a distinctive tapping, neither of an Ivory-billed Woodpecker, nor of a Raven at my door, but of a nearby Downy Woodpecker.

Now here's something I find interesting, as it causes me to be angry at myself time and time again after each birding holiday: I usually have a pile of pictures of rare or unusual species, but always completely forget to photograph the common ones, the Downy Woodpecker being one of them.
This may explain why, in the presence of warblers, I grabbed my camera and went looking for the Downy.
I didn't have to look for a long time as by lucky coincidence, a nice male Downy was just 10 metres away at eye level and very busy taking apart a small log to get to what must surely have been a very worthy maggot.

This was it, the chance, the golden opportunity, but alas, the light was dim and the shutter speed grim: 1/60th at a speed of 800 ISO and no tripod.

Any movement by myself or the woodpecker, I knew, would inevitably lead to nothing but a crappy black-and-white blur with a red dot somewhere mixed in.
Which was not what I wanted.
The woodpecker himself - who certainly valued a good meal more than having a good picture taken of himself - did his very best to not cooperate by literally constantly pecking away at the log. In between his vigorous bursts of pecks however, he remained still for quite a bit less than a second to check the surroundings and I had high hopes of catching him on film (as the old folks still call it in the digital age) in that very fraction of a second, crisp and sharp.

Here are the results:

First try:

Second try:

Third try:


Well, you may say these pictures express the dynamics of the woodpecker's movement nicely or that the shades of grey mixed with the sharper areas of black and white are an artistic approach to photographing a woodpecker but honestly, these pictures are just rubbish.

As the warblers were still flowing - now unidentified - through my peripheral field of view and I really didn't have all day for that blinking woodpecker, I decided to give it a massive frontal digital attack: I put my trusty old Canon Digital Rebel XTi into Continuous Shooting at a rate of 7 images per second (I think), aimed, focused and fired!

The poor woodpecker.
It never had a chance now, did it, against the full force of 21st century photography?
But still, it was ugly: 4 seconds of continuous photography, frame after frame, hammering down mercilessly onto the innocent creature.

Of course the outcome was obvious, and scanning through the well over 50 pictures I took of it in total, I found this one:

The Downy was down.

Admittedly, it is still not the sharpest of pictures, but considering it was taken at 1/60th and of a fast moving bird, it is quite a shot I'd say.

I am happy with it, and hope you like it, too.

Returning to the warbler flock, I was exhilarated to see a nice (probably first fall) female Cerulean Warbler.
This was only my fourth visual encounter and it even scares me now, after almost half a week, as this is what it says in the "Peterson Series" guide on Warblers: "This species is very rare in fall in the northern Midwest..."
This was indeed such an unusual observation that someone from the "list" (email-forum) contacted me and asked for details. Well, he asked if it was a male or female, but I guess this was just a polite way of asking if I was sure about what I had seen and minded writing up a short description.
And for the sake of completeness and in case you are also wondering what the hay this German dude thinks he saw, here is the description, copied from my email:

1)typical Cerulean Warbler proportions (small,
short-tailed, a somewhat "chubby" impression, I have
only seen 4 Ceruleans so far in my life but find their
proportions very peculiar and characteristic)
2) blueish-green above without obvious stripes
3) two very conspicuous white wing bars
4) pale yellowish below with a certain "cold" greenish
or grayish touch (though still more yellow than
green!), a few very faint stripes along the flanks
5) white undertail coverts
6) a bold yellow supercilium above a darker eye-line
with greenish auriculars that are connected to the
greenish back (so the supercilium didn't wrap around
the cheeks)

And here, finally, are the estimates of the warblers I saw in that flock, all are minimum numbers and were just written down to establish an idea of relative abundance:

Tennessee (50)
Nashville (15)
Northern Parula (1)
Chestnut-sided (20)
Magnolia (4)
Black-throated Blue (2)
Black-throated Green (2)
Bay-breasted (7)
Blackpoll (1)
Cerulean (1) !!
Black-and-White (20)
American Redstart (5)
Wilson's (1)
A few readers may note - with pity or relief - that I did not see a Cape May Warbler that day, a bitter miss.
I actually have yet to see a fall Cape May Warbler at all, just like I haven't seen a fall Orange-crowned, or Palm, or Kirtland's, and not even a single fall Colima Warbler!
Can you believe it?

Well, I guess I just have to return to North America then, one day soon.

Monday 10 September 2007

Ivory-billed Woodpecker in Michigan!!

This is quite sensational, and even though I might just be too late for world-wide fame, I'm not in it for the glory anyway, just for the truth to be revealed!

The Ivory-billed Woodpecker is out there, I have had an encounter, and its range is more extensive than previously (even historically) realized.

It all happened last Friday, September 7th, at the most remote and inaccessible corner of the famous and extensive wilderness area called Ann Arbor's "Arb".
It is actually called Nichol's Arboretum, but we locals call it the "Arb", which is much more creative than "Chock" for Choctawhatchee.
This area is so remote that few will know where it is, so here goes: it extends over vast areas of Michigan's remote South-East, just west of Detroit Bird City.
To get an idea of just how hard it is to even get there, let alone find your way through the Mosquito infested forests without a native guide, read here or take a look at the picture below.

Bayou de Heathdaleview

Anyway, so there I was braving nature's deadliest and working my way through one impenetrable green curtain after the other when all of a sudden, I heard the distinct kent call of the Ivory-billed Woodpecker.
Many people will have you believe it can be mistaken for a Red-breasted Nuthatch.
Utter nonsense by skeptical pseudo-academic pretenders.
My goodness, just look up the call of the Red-breasted Nuthatch in your Sibley guide:

"eeen eeen eeen".

Do you see "kent kent kent"?

I don't see "kent kent kent".

So there you have it, clear proof I wasn't hearing Red-breasted Nuthatches.

Furthermore, the calls differed slightly from the recordings obtained at the "Chock", they were more hoarse, like from an Ivory-billed Woodpecker with a sore throat. This too was a very important and intriguing piece to the puzzle of identifying the calls as belonging to an IBWO, as the Choc recordings differ from the ones obtained in Arkansas and these differ from Tanner's recordings. So all was well.
Of course I immediately lowered my camera and switched it off not to be distracted in case the bird made an appearance and I started to stare in the direction the calls were coming from.

Then, all of a sudden, I saw something big with a white trailing edge to the wing swoop up behind a dead tree and a split-second later, this Blue Jay landed on top of it, seen below.

I presume the woodpecker had mobbed it off the trunk and was now hanging on to the other side just out of view (clear proof of it being an Ivory-bill) while pushing the Jay onto the top perch of the tree as a decoy for naive skeptics.
This has worked quite well in Arkansas and Florida as now the myth has spread that Blue Jays can produce calls identical to Ivory-billed Woodpeckers and this is used as a firm argument of some naive skeptics against the recordings, and the Ivory-billeds are left in peace.
So the appearance of a Blue Jay directly connected to hearing Ivory-billed calls is yet another clear and irrefutable argument for the existence of at least a few pairs of Ivory-billed Woodpeckers along the Huron river in South-East Michigan.

News you can trust, courtesy of yours truly.

Okay, "fun aside" as the saying goes in Germany, here are the facts:

Ever since I started to enjoy watching the Ivory-billed Sitcom about two years ago, I was intrigued by the argument that Blue Jays can utter calls very similar/identical to the kent calls described for the Ivory-billed Woodpecker.
I therefore payed a lot of attention to the calls of the Blue Jays I encountered during the last 10 months in the US and Canada to see if I could hear those calls, but it was not until last Friday that this eventually happened!
As I said, the calls were different from Tanner's recordings, more hoarse and drawn out, but if I was searching some river down South for Ivory-billed Woodpeckers, I would have been slightly excited.

But then again, I might just be a sucker for more hits, and writing about another sexy Redhead would have been quite flat and obvious...

"Perils of Posting Poor Pics", a short comment

Corey over at 10,000 birds recently posted a nice piece on a mystery Calidris sandpiper he saw in August here.
The identification problem he encountered received a lot of attention and even made it onto David Sibley's new blog, as can be seen here.
Corey's main problem was not that he was quite understandably puzzled by the bird out in the field and wasn't able to put an ID on it (like food on his family), but that he reacted to this situation like everyone else today: he digiscoped the bird and tried to identify it later, at home surrounded by all the resources available through today's identification literature and the Internet.
This approach however backfired because many important field marks are not visible on the pictures and it isn't even possible to agree upon the bird's size, a rather crucial first step in the identification of quite a few species.

I found this discussion so interesting as the very same thing happened to me a few years back.
I was out visiting the salt marshes of Karrendorf on the German Baltic sea coast when I chanced upon a strange small Calidris sandpiper amongst a flock of Little Stints and Dunlins. It looked very much like a Little Stint only very much paler and greyer with pale tertials. As I didn't consider the bird to be within the normal range of Littles and as it also was not a Temminck's stint, it had to be a very, very unusual guest that needed to be documented thoroughly.
As time was limited and I had a scope and digital camera with me, I took a few pictures and thought these would be enough to later come to a certain identification.

Well, if Corey thought his images were poor, I hope he does me the favour of NOT commenting on mine, seen below.

Back home I noticed just how excessively lousy my images were, but they still showed the unusual field characters of the bird to a degree I deemed enough to forward them to wader/shorebird specialists, and they even made it all the way to the computer screen of Kilian Mullarney.
Yes, THE Kilian Mullarney of Kilian Mullarney birding fame.

I won't tell you here what he thought of the pic's quality but after a few email exchanges, it turned out that I may have very well seen a juvenile Red-necked Stint, a bird just about as rare in Germany as wild Andean Condors are in Nunavut.
But of course, these pictures were so extremely lousy that there was no way of knowing for sure what the bird's identity was (might have been a strange Little Stint after all), and there was no way of even dreaming to report it as a Red-necked Stint.

Had I not entirely relied on the pics but also taken a pile of field notes with the pictures only as supportive material, who knows, it might have been enough.
But just the pictures?

No way.

So where is the problem with taking pictures and why doesn't it seem to work in so many situations to just take a few pictures and identify the bird later?

There is a very interesting post on the Birdchaser blog here that addresses this problem by discussing the "Birding photo quiz".

I find the comment by Jeff Gyr (he's got a blog as well, here), the first one to Rob Fergus' post, very accurate, and I have taken the freedom of copying one of his sentences here word by word (hope he or Rob won't mind):
"You have to learn how to interpret photographs before you understand how they correspond to reality, just the way you have to learn the way words correspond to things, whether in Spanish or Kiswahili or English."

Pictures don't lie, they always tell the truth: the truth of that particular fraction of a second they were taken in.
But to translate this moment's snapshot into a broader, more generalized truth takes much more because - and this may sound like a simple or childish saying- things are not always the way they seem. They need to be put into a wider context than that which is shown on the picture alone.

Here is an example, a few pictures of a bird taken last May at Ohio's Crane Creek.

The situation is this: we see a somewhat strange warbler hopping through the branches ahead of us, aren't quite sure what it is and just manage a quick snapshot of it taking off.

At home, we analyze the image and note the following field marks:

The tail shows a white centre and a black rim.
The undertail coverts are pale, probably whitish.
The belly appears pale greyish/yellow with a few stripes.
The underwing coverts are dark greyish, leaning towards black, as can be seen clearly by comparing them to the white/pale undertail coverts.

It is a tough bird and we scan through our field guides vigorously and repeatedly but after a while get to the conclusion that the field marks (especially the greyish dark underwing according to the Sibley guide) fit nicely if this bird is called a first spring female Cape May Warbler. A few things don't feel right, but hey, we have the proof right there, don't we?
So this is what we do, we call it a Cape May Warbler, nice bird, we are satisfied and everything is fine.

Well, in this case I was able to take a few more pictures and the next one shows the very same bird a few seconds later:

Oh oh, we were fooled by the light! The underwing sure looked dark under the particular light conditions when the first picture was taken, but this was only how they appeared in that split-second. The true colour is actually a bright white, and by this field character and a few more, we come to a completely different identity: a female Cerulean Warbler.

This is - to most, and my apologies to Patrick - an even more special bird than a Cape May Warbler and a heck of a miss had we stuck with our initial identification as a Cape May.
But as it is such a nice bird, a few photos from last May, also at Crane Creek:

Today's birding community has raised the bar of expectations to prove a rare or unusual sighting quite high by almost demanding photographic evidence. This surely is a good thing and I am certainly not an old-fashioned fart who condemns the possibilities of digiscoping.
In the last few years however, with the possibility to digiscope, I had quite a few potentially "large fish" hooked but then did not manage to pull them onto land (we use that expression in German, not sure if it works in English but presume you know what I am trying to say).

And why?

Because I put more faith in the images I took than in my ability to write a protocol out in the field of what I was seeing.
Or quite possibly, I was just being too lazy... and got punished.

Friday 7 September 2007

A Change In Plans

I had this one nice post planned, the one with Yellow-breasted Chats, but somehow due to lots of things to do and a few - gasp - birding adventures, my inspiration to this particular post has somehow left me.
But of course a promise is a promise and here we go, I'll write up a short version of what I had planned:

The Ways We Appreciate Birds

May 2005, my birding trip to Ontario and Michigan, was a decadent warbler fest. Indeed the decadence was so profound that I managed to make contact with 36 species of warblers, either seeing or only hearing (two: Prairie and Worm-eating) all of the Eastern warblers except for Yellow-throated (darn, almost got it, missed by a few hours) and Swainson's, the latter a miss easily excused by the scarcity of records north of southern West Virginia.
Wait, that's a cool sentence:
Most Eastern Warblers were seen North of Southern West Virginia.


Nevertheless, a few of these warblers proved to be quite difficult to find and it was only after a bunch of death marches through Pelee and Rondeau (sometimes on the trails from 5:30 am to 9 pm with no break at all, not even to eat or drink) that royalties like Connecticut Warbler, Kentucky Warbler and Golden-winged Warbler were tucked safely under my belt.

Another one that went down only after putting up a fierce and long fight was the Yellow-breasted Chat.

That was a tough one, indeed.

At Point Pelee it is readily encountered in the thickets around the old cemetery, and scanning these for the Chat was thus the subject of many bird walks through Pelee National Park. Actually, I went there each day during my stay, which adds up to just about a whole week. On some of these walks, I was fortunate to go birding with no one less than John Haselmeyer himself, and it was due to his expertize that on one of the trips we actually heard the Chat. Being the humble and honest man I am (seriously) I have to admit that John heard the Chat, pointed it out and I heard what he meant, but back then couldn't have told it from a Northern Cardinal or an ordinary Texan Fan-tailed Warbler.
So even though John did his best - which is a whole lot of lots - I wasn't really happy about myself and the Chat.

I gave up.

A few days later I went to Ontario's Rondeau Provincial Park. And there, when I was least expecting it (being more ready for Western Tanagers and Fish Crows), I pointed my bins towards a movement low in the trees, saw something big, yellow below, brown above, black-and-white lores, heavy bill, thought "Wow, the Chat!!" and it was gone.
A few moments later, a large brown songbird with round wings and a long tail quickly flew out of a bush and into the same bush again: my second Yellow-breasted Chat.

Man, that felt good, like the first mouthful of cold beer after a summer day's birding.

What a bird, highly appreciated after such a long search.

But isn't it strange though?
Every bird is a fabulous bird and this is especially true for a warbler. So why did I appreciate this one particular warbler so much more than many others that frankly can easily match a Chat in many aspects, like a Blackburnian or a Black-throated Blue?
Because the Chat made me work hard, it played tricks on me, avoided me successfully and finally seeing it was thus much more than just seeing a new bird species, it was a major success!
I had overcome my own incapability and the Chat's wits and seen it. I win!

This seems to be one of the most dominant ways why we appreciate some birds more than others: by the amount of sweat and tears we have to muster to see them.

Two years later, on a foggy May morning at Ohio's Crane Creek. We had just gotten out of the car at the beginning of the boardwalk when the word spread all the way to us that a Chat was currently being seen about 100 metres away. Well, of course we went there immediately, joined the crowd and after maybe a minute's waiting, the Chat hopped by, as seen below in the two snap shots I managed before its disappearance into the thick bush beyond the parking lot.

And then something strange happened: surely I was happy about having seen it so well, but basically I wasn't too excited! Or at least not more excited than about any other scarce bird around the Great Lakes.


Because I had seen it before, so there was no victory to achieve, and the looks I had were good but short, so not extraordinary. It was - to sum it up - a nice yet rather normal warbler encounter that left me a happy but not overly excited birder.

Then came the next episode of my Chat encounters, the trip to St. Louis.

This was great: in the course of a single day, I saw a total of 6 Yellow-breasted Chats (in words: six, that's more than 5 and one less than 7, so it is clearly 6 which may not be much when it comes to the flock size of Mosquitoes but is a lot when you're talking Chat).

And by "saw" I don't mean "saw a quick movement in bush" or "caught a glimpse" or "an intriguing and interesting split-second encounter of what was likely..." but I saw them right there, out in the open, sitting on top of bushes, singing away like there was no tomorrow and not minding or avoiding my presence in any way.
Here are a few photos to prove it - and to show I was not bullshipping my readers when I said the mystery bird of the last post was a Chat - and they might still be crappy but they do show a Chat in a small tree out in the open singing along as if there was no ... well, you've read it before, you got the picture, so here are the pics:

And then all of a sudden, those Chats were very special again, and - looking back now - possibly amongst my most memorable sightings in Missouri.

Yet another reason why we appreciate certain birds more than others:
Getting a decent look at what was so secretive before and finally being able to appreciate the bird for what it is and not for how difficult is was finding it.