Monday 28 April 2008

Happy Cameraversary to Me!

Exactly one year ago, I took my first pictures with my then new camera set-up, a Canon Eos Digital Rebel XTi and a Sigma Apo 70-300 mm lens.

NICE - view from our bedroom window towards Ann Arbor's Burton Memorial (or Bell) Tower on the evening of April 28th, 2007

The first post containing the flashy output of me using 21st century technology (for the very first time regarding any type of 21st century technology, I may add) was on April 30th, about a day's playing around with my camera and the birds at Ann Arbor's "the Arb" (which happened on the 29th, in case anyone took a deeper interest in the dates I am delivering).

Here (again) the first bird picture ever taken with the lovely camera of mine, one year ago tomorrow, this time very slightly photo-shopped as the times they are a-changin'

It was a great day for me and the camera as well, as the camera soon started to enjoy our little birding days out, especially to Crane Creek in May, and we have developed a deep and ever growing friendship since.

The only regrets I have regarding the camera is that I didn't manage to obtain it 4 silly, short, fricking days earlier!

Friday 25 April 2008

The First Love is the Lightest

Patrick (you sure know who he is and what blog he's on) started this nice little inquiry into his readers' or fellow bloggers' first pair of binoculars.

Surely, an object as vital to our hobby as fins are to a fish has to have a lot of interesting stories and memories attached to it, and so this is a thread I was very happy to pick up.

However, my efforts came to an abrupt halt right at the start: This is such a nice thing to think and write about but, try as hard as I might, I just couldn't remember my first pair of binoculars!

You see, being the son of a forester, I can't remember days of my youth when I did not have a pair of binoculars. Indeed, I was frequently and completely astounded as a kid when friends of mine told me in one of those deep and meaningful sandpit conversations they did not have a pair of bins and neither had anyone in their family. This seemed as strange to me as saying they didn't own any Playmobil or that no one in their family used air for breathing.
Sure enough, my very early pairs of binoculars - and I certainly made use of them so intensively that I had to have my parents give me a new one as often as I needed new shoes growing up - were rather simple 8x30's or 7x50's that didn't cost a lot and were thus of a low quality. I can't even remember how many I had, let alone tell any stories connected to them. These early bins are therefore of no use to me in the context of this post or to satisfy Patrick's curiosity.

Therefore, I have slightly bent the rules like this:
my first pair of binoculars specifically chosen and obtained to look at birds was the 10 x 50 Optolyth alpin. Back in the very early days of birding, those ancient times of youth, Optolyth was a brand very popular and common amongst birders in Germany. They were somewhat intermediate in both price and quality between the cheap no-name-no-use brands and the top notch Svarowski, Leica and Zeiss elite and - in my very honest opinion - had the very best price-performance ratio of all the binoculars in the whole wide world (not that I knew all of them, I was just so fond of my bins). The alpin series was specifically designed to weigh as little as possible for long days out in the field or - as the name implies - for carrying them uphill over prolongued periods of time. And indeed, they were very light in comparison to other bins back in the olden days of the late 1980ies and fully served that purpose to my maximum satisfaction and my neck's most heartfelt gratitude.

Why did I choose them?

- The 10 x magnification because I needed it for bird identification, with the 7 x and 8 x I had used before not giving me the visual satisfaction and close-up views I had desired to get.

- The 50 front lens diameter to allow for use during dusk or dawn expeditions (well, rarely the latter to be honest, I do like to listen to my pillow especially before my morning coffee) when I was after mammals in Germany's forests with my dad.

- The alpin series because I did a lot of my birding on foot and by bike (naturally in the days before I was legally allowed to drive) and these were long days out, so having a light-weight pair of bins instead of a heavy-duty brick around my neck was very comfortable.

- And last but not least Optolyth because Svarowski/Leica/Zeiss was and still is far too expensive for me.

Now, what about that special, charming and funny story connected to them?
In this aspect of Patrick's inquiry, I fail miserably.
I specifically remember these two things about them:

After finishing high school, I went on a 100-days birding trip throughout Scandinavia and after a very memorable midnight tour onto a Swedish fjäll (barren, tundra-like mountain top) where I was guided by locals to a Great Snipe Lek, I drove off with my bins on the roof of my car until I could see them through my rear view mirror falling off and onto the concrete road at 60 km per hour. This was just a few days into the trip and I feared the worst, but happily the bins survived almost unscathed. The optical axes were slightly off afterwards, so I always saw the double amount of birds there really were, but that was solved by conveniently closing one eye looking through the bins, turning them from binoculars to a monocular. I kept on using them like that for a few years and when I got another pair (of the same kind, by the way) it took me quite a while to adapt to using both eyes again.
And to the geeky side of things, I had a handy black leather bag attached to the strap to protect the bins if I got into rain or heavy weather. So whenever I raised my binoculars, this big black leather bag would cover my whole face from my eyes downwards to my chin. Often - especially during summer when my clothes didn't offer many pockets - I would store my notebook in the bag and it would thus swing back and forth like a clock's pendulum banging against my nose each time I used my bins.
Sometimes, having specialized tools might give their bearer a certain gravitas, but that surely wasn't the case here. I most certainly just looked like I was trying to redefine "geek" in a very motivated way.

Monday 21 April 2008

On problems you never knew existed

[Slightly updated April 25th, mostly pictures though...]

You surely know who Frank Abagnale is and if not, you might remember having seen a movie called "Catch me if you can" about the life of said Frank Abagnale. Then again, you may have seen the movie but can't recall it now, as it wasn't all that very exciting in my opinion, but the life of - again - Frank Abagnale is truly very much so. Exciting, that is. Of course in a bad, bad way.

Anyway, on a compleeeetely unrelated note, I got asked (! can you believe it) to join the panel of the miraculous 10,000Birds Clinic:

Got a question about bird ID, birding best practices, or hotspots across six continents? Ask 10,000 Birds!

Good idea in general if only the whole concept wasn't doomed due to a single weakness in the performance of the clinic's human resources department, but incredibly, this is what Charlie had to say about me joining, and please, my name is Roeder, Doctor Roeder:

"...Jochen extremely knowledgeable and well-travelled birder..."

Well, I spent all weekend googling "Jochen Roeder extremely knowledgeable" but couldn't find anything that made sense, so I presume Charlie's sentence does pertain to my humble ability of holding a pair of binoculars steady for more than 15 seconds.

That qualifies me to solve (or was that dissolve?) other birder's identification issues? Feel the pressure.

Thriving to live up to my newly acquainted reputation as an "extremely knowledgeable" birder, I have decided to dedicate this blog posting of mine to providing insights into one of the fundamental yet largely overlooked problems of bird identification:

Ageing Black-headed Gulls in Spring

Possibly this post is not due to there being a serious problem but to the fact that this is a) just about the only bird species I got to see lately and b) take decent pictures of, but then again, maybe there is a problem and this post may come in handy.
Okay, picture yourself amongst the seals on the beaches of Cape May on a stormy spring day, returning towards the lighthouse after having grown tired of all the Red-throated Loons around the famous concrete ship. Yes, these situations happen now and then. You have heard there's an immature Black-headed Gull around and of course, that's on your wish list before enjoying some hot tea and possibly a lobster or two in the evening.
Suddenly, you spot this strange-looking gull standing amongst the Ring-billeds on the beach in front of you, raise your binoculars steady for more than 15 seconds and sure enough, a Black-headed Gull. Great and congratulations, with the only problem being that this bird shows a completely dark brown hood, a dark bill, no brown feathers on the wing coverts and the tail clearly is all-white with no traces of a black terminal band. Ooh, nice, an adult, can't be any clearer than that, so there must be two birds around and we are talking about a major influx to the area!
Well, this may be the case but then again, it also may not and aren't you glad you read Belltower Birding before you walked amongst the seals on the beaches of Cape May on one stormy spring day?
The following pictures were taken around Stralsund in the last couple of days (except the first one which is from a while back now) and demonstrate clearly that sometimes, ageing this two-year gull can indeed be not completely straight forward.

Here we see an adult winter Black-headed Gull: largely white head with only a few darkish spots and stripes, red legs, and a red bill with a blackish tip:

Truly nice.
By early April, most adults will have completed their moult into breeding plumage and show the nice and crisp blackish-brown hood we can see here, together with almost blackish legs and an equally blackish, uniformely coloured bill:

The majority, roughly 75% I'd say, of the second calendar year gulls (those that are nearing their very first birthday) look completely different, with their head pattern reminiscent of adult winter birds, large portions of their wing coverts and tertials still patterned in various shades of brown and a black terminal band to the tail. Legs and bill are comparable to winter adults but more orange.

Also not a bird whose looks you'd call shabby, but also not a bird you'd call difficult to age, so where is the problem, Doctor Roeder?
You want problem? You need problem?
Here, I give you problem:

Some precocious immature Black-headed Gulls, and certainly not just a few, show a far more advanced plumage, although being exactly the same age as those immatures depicted above.
Here are a few examples of these advanced immatures:

Looking at the classic ageing criteria

a) blackish hood
b) uniformly dark bill and legs
c) brown juvenile feathers on the wing coverts
d) brown juvenile tertials
e) black terminal band to the tail

the amount of individual variation only leaves us with d) and e) to reliably age our gulls.

But to our utter amazemend, we may even find that some - though admittedly relatively few - individuals even moult part of their tertials as seen below, rendering d) at least slightly unreliable as a dead ringer for ageing second calendar year birds.

And e) the black terminal band to the tail?
Well, e) isn't all that reliable either!

The problem with the black terminal band on the tail is that quite a few immature gulls moult part of their tail feathers and exchange them for purely white adult-like ones by early spring (I once saw a bird that had one side of the tail completely white and the other one with a nice and pristine black band, quite a sight for sure) and the black tips also tend to break off through wear easily and often. Here are a few examples, and even though none show a completely white tail this would be well within the range of possibilities.

Rather unexpectedly, we are left with no reliable criterion whatsoever to age a Black-headed Gull in spring.
So what now, Mr. Extremely Knowledgeable?

Ha, I wasn't being completely honest before in that I concealed the f)-criterion from you: the flight feathers.

The flight feathers of adult and immature Black-headed Gulls differ quite obviously from one another and when seen clearly will always - as far as I know - allow you to age any Black-headed Gull. The primaries might look similar in some birds, although immatures tend to have the neat white pattern broken up into "windows" and broader stripes, but the pattern of the secondaries is always obvious:
The secondaries of adult Black-headed Gulls are always the colour of the wing coverts, forming a uniformly coloured upper wing. The secondaries of immature birds are very much darker grey than the wing coverts, providing the birds with a neat dark trailing edge to the wing.
Look for yourself how obvious that difference is:

Okay, okay, seriously:

99.9999...% of the immatures you'll encounter will be rather easy to age without the pattern of the secondaries. There will always be some brown somewhere on the folded wing, the tail will either look obviously shabby/worn or have at least traces of the black band and the tertials will always be easy enough to see.
But then again, you could encounter such an extreme bird, and returning to our Cape Cross scenario, you, wait, the other guy ... could potentially mistake an immature bird for an adult at long distance with the whole burden of proof that there really is only one bird present resting solely on your shoulder.
And I hope I was able to provide that bird ID shoulder of yours with a bit of a work-out opportunity here.

Bird ID physiotherapy - just one of the many ways we use to fix your birding ailments at the 10,000Birds Clinic.

Yours truly,
Dr. Roeder

P.S.: Unless you already knew, this may be shocking news for all you gullers out there. You might be a birder and still believe in the existence of Sea Gulls!

Tuesday 1 April 2008

Arctic Bay hits the Baltic Coast

Sometimes, the world is full of surprises even when we are not specifically looking at or for birds.
It sure is the nature of a surprise to come unexpectedly, but this surprise was so much of a surprise that I can truly state here that it was an unexpected surprise and that this is not an exaggeration.
This surprise also gave me an insight into the effectiveness of global bird blogging and how it enlarges our view of the world by turning it into a smaller place.

Last Saturday, I bought the weekend edition of our local newspaper, the "Ostseezeitung" (Baltic Sea Newspaper) at my local bakery. Of course my son LBJ - though only approaching his fourth month - is incredibly cunning and effective when it comes to spotting and eliminating any spare time spent with anything different than attending to him, but nevertheless, I bought the newspaper in good hope of finding a few minutes to read parts of it.
And when - surprise, surprise, but not the surprise I am talking about here - I actually did find a few minutes to read it, I rushed to the "Travel Pages" that are - to me - a vital and the most interesting part of the weekend edition.

And now, finally, we get to the surprise that was the inspiration to this post:
The picture of an Inuit lady caught my attention, I checked the article and there it was, the mentioning of Arctic Bay!

Can you believe it?

Here's the story in short:

"Visiting the Inuit in the Arctic by Ship"
The story starts by telling how Emily Emudluk and her friend Mae Ningiuruvik entertain some guests on board the cruise ship "MV Lyubov Orlova" by performing a Katajjaq. They belong to an Inuit-run company called Cruise North Expeditions that specializes in introducing tourists to Inuit culture. Then, the author Ole Helmhausen goes on by describing the route between Kuujjuaq and Resolute and finally gets to the most significant part:

"At Arctic Bay, a settlement on the northern shores of Baffin Island rarely visited by ships, half the village gathers at the beach to take a look at the Hallunaq - the White Men. And the tourists get to see the problems of the Arctic, unemployment, population growth, global warming. The glacier in the recently proclaimed Sermilik National Park on Bylot Island for example retreated by 10 metres within the last three years. Joseph, the ranger, doesn't hide his worries: "Back then, the bay was full of Icebergs"."

Here is a photo of the article for those few readers who understand German (anyone?). Heck, I know I am touching a few copy right issues here, but come on, this is a non-commercial site, I couldn't find the article on the home page of the Ostseezeitung and I have linked to both the author - a freelance journalist - and the newspaper, so have mercy on my soul.

Anyway, I was only able to spot a single but significant flaw in the whole article: no mentioning of Clare's blog or his bed & breakfast! And - for crying out loud - not a single raven is featured in the article!
Surely, Ole Helmhausen is not a birder (although he does mention the bird colony on Akpatok Island) and I am sure Clare has a few things to say about that, but possibly Anna, the Inuit lady depicted in the article, will feel flattered when she learns that roughly 160,000 readers along the Baltic coast of Germany have seen her picture while having their Sunday breakfast.