Wednesday 28 April 2010

My Scope: Boon and Bane

I have a scope for looking at birds.
My scope and I share some wonderful birding memories and have gone united through the rotten and the glory.
For this I love it dearly, yet it sometimes appears to be one of my most bizarre birding obstacles.

Because it keeps me from digiscoping.

You see, back in the late 1990s, my good old original scope - my first scope ever - broke down and died. I was a birder without a scope and thus as helpless as a fish on dry land without a bicycle.
Luckily, these were my days in Africa, and a friend from Germany came to visit me in Namibia for a little birding trip of 5 weeks, which was to take us from central Namibia (the Brandberg being our northern-most destination) all the way down to the Cape of Good Hope and back.
As we were going in my private, personal, wonderful Toyota Hilux, there was no need and cost for car rental, and to show his gratitude materialistically, he decided to help me out of my scopeless misery by bringing with him and giving me as a gift an old scope he got from a friend who didn't need it anymore, which will bring this awfully long sentence to an end and we can all take a moment to rest.

Okay. So he brought this scope along, which was an old Asiola that had been manufactured in the German Democratic Republic, likely sometime during the 1960s, making it older than even myself.
However, a free scope is a scope and is better than no scope.
I was very happy to receive it.

Here you can see the scope during a recent heavy duty mission, scanning the fields south of Leimen for anything that might (still) live.

Here is the proof of it being from the GDR (in German: DDR), and that means it's old. However, you can also see who made it:

Carl Zeiss Jena.
Yes, folks, I own a Zeiss scope.

And frankly, those lenses made by Carl Zeiss Jena (the East German branch during the times of there being two Germanies) were back then and still are today amazing!

Seriously, they still rival the best modern lenses. I have frequently compared the sharpness of my scope to other, more modern scopes and have found that only the high-end brands like Swarovski, modern Zeiss, and Leica can match the old Carl Zeiss Jena lenses. Other brands found in the middle section of the price and quality range - like Optolyth - don't stand a fraction of a chance.

Sounds good?
Well, it is!
However, my trusty old Asiola has one major disadvantage: its teensy tiny diametre of the eye piece. Look at it, it is pathetic.

Not only does this mean I had to get used to (and train my eyes for) handling and looking through this scope.
[Whenever other birders with modern scopes look through it, they are downright appalled - until I will describe subtle features on a distant bird that they can't even see. I mean the bird, not to mention said features.]
It also means that it is nearly impossible to line up that eye piece with a digital camera for digiscoping. The field of view is just way too small.
This here is a rather fine example of the best I can do at middle range (the starling was around 50 m away). At long range, there is no reason for even bothering to consider digiscoping.

And you see, this is my dilemma, my scope bane:
As a birder, I long for a scope that will allow for digiscoping. I sometimes feel like being stuck and lost in the 20th century and would consider this - apart from a notorious lack of time - to be my biggest birding obstacle.
However, having such a nice and brilliant scope, I would not be able to settle for a medium-priced, medium-quality scope. I would only accept to swap my scope for a modern Swaro.
And as a family man, that's just way beyond my wildest financial dreams.

So I am stuck.
I really need to find next week's winning lottery ticket.
Maybe I'll scope it out?

The cast in alphabetical order

Starling - Sturnus vulgaris - Star [Starling - the German word "star" does not mean what it means in English, with a star as in "star dust" being called "Stern" in German, yet I suspect that possibly the German "Star" could have its origin in the bird's tiny white "stars" on a black, nightly sky (rest of the bird's plumage). However, I don't know.]

Suicidal Kitteh

... thinks life is pain

Monday 26 April 2010

Happy Birthday

Happy Birthday, John James Audubon!

And ... "La Forest"?
Who knew?!

Wednesday 21 April 2010

Mystery Turtles on Birder Hyde

I have found two released (former) pet turtles here in Germany yesterday, and have no idea what species they both belong to (two different species). My guess is that they are from North America, so any herper reading this might be interested in following this link and leaving a comment or two.

Monday 19 April 2010

A short Appreciation of the Eurasian Magpie

I recently saw a stunning image of a Eurasian Magpie on the Internet (but sadly forgot to memorize or save the link), and the title of the image was something like

Eurasian Magpie - the Northern Hemisphere's Bird of Paradise

I couldn't agree more.
The Magpie is a common breeder throughout Germany, but is mostly confined to settlements. It is rather unusual to find a breeding pair out in the fields or forest edges, and I actually cannot recall even finding a single nest in the countryside - or rather couldn't recall until recently.
Within the cities, Magpies prefer nesting in high trees and the main factor influencing their breeding sites seems to be the height of the tree (the higher the merrier), not the species, degree of disturbance (by city noise, traffic, etc.), and also not the location (in gardens, alleys, etc.).
In Leimen, all things birds & birding are different, of course.
There are barely any high trees within the city limits (well, legally it's a city, but really it is not), and as a consequence, Magpies are a comparatively scarce sight.
However, and quite surprisingly so, there are quite a few Magpie pairs breeding within the roughly 1 km² of open fields and hedgerows to the south of Leimen (commonly known as the Boredom Flats and faaaamous for being the birding haunts of yours truly), and there it is one of the most conspicuous bird species.
Well, the latter sentence might better be re-phrased: There it is one of the only - few - bird species to occur.
The lack of competition is likely what had me find a whole new appreciation of the Magpie, but this is not undeserving. It is indeed one of the most striking species in Europe (or wherever it roams), and a species often neglected by birders for lack of scarcity. This is a sorry fate it shares with the Eurasian Starling, the Mallard and the House Sparrow, amongst others. But this post is dedicated to the Magpie, and thus without further ado, here are a few images taken during my recent stroller expeditions.

I hope you do enjoy them as much as I enjoy seeing Magpies. I know - I need a better camera.

Mission Accomplished

Two years and four months after the start of the project I can officially and loudly exclaim in pride that the task is achieved, the mission is accomplished and my son is now officially a

Well, I had suspected it for quite a while before the last weekend, and there were hints and hopes in his behaviour - like the intent listening to a Blackbird in song or the pointing out of crows - but the last days finally yielded the definite proof after I conducted a little field experiment.

We had just started out on our usual stroller tour with the aim to squeeze at least some common migrants out of the area known as the Boredom Flats south of Leimen (possibly more my intention than my son's) and to run around as much as possible, throw as many stones in as many puddles as possible with the largest possible splash, and find the steepest slope to negotiate with a training bike - repeatedly (possibly more my son's than my ideals of a good Sunday walk) .
Anyway, whatever our respective intentions might have been, we suddenly spotted these two birds in someone's front yard, both not more than 5 metres away from us:
To the left a fine male Eurasian Blackbird (called "Amsel" = Ouzle in German), and to the right a Wood Pigeon (called Ringeltaube = Ringed Pigeon in German).

This, I decided as I immediately recognized the scientific potential of the situation, was going to be the test set-up to see if he had actually learned by heart any of the bird species's names I had told him over the last few months.

So, here is the course of the experiment:

Father: "Where is the pigeon?"
Son: [points to the right] "There!"

Father: "Where is the Blackbird?"
Son: [points to the left] "There!"

Father: "Where is the pigeon?"
Son: [points to the right] "There!"

Father: "Where is the pigeon?"
Son: [points to the right] "There!"

Father: "Where is the Blackbird?"
Son: [points to the left] "There!"


Notice my cunning approach as I didn't ask alternating but irregularly, and he still got it right each time.

Now, the pigeon is not a specific name, it denominates a whole group of birds. This is something he knew and did for a long time, e. g. duckies, birdies, chickens, etc.
But the Eurasian Blackbird is a specific name for a species and one species only. And by pointing it out correctly time and time again, he identified the bird on a species level, and I would say the first identification of a bird is what clearly marks him as a definite BIRDER.

I should not forget to note that he has been pointing out "Amseln" (Eurasian Blackbirds) for many months now but all these situations included only this one species, so it wasn't clear if he had actually understood that I meant the black hop-arounds or if he just pointed out the next best bird he saw after my asking him. This time, however, the results were clear and definitive.

Can you spell P-R-I-D-E !??

Well ... Nate, and Corey, and Laurent, and Patrick.
Let's see what you've got.

The cast in alphabetical order
Eurasian Blackbird - Turdus merula - Amsel [Ouzle]
Wood Pigeon - Columba palumbus - Ringeltaube [Ringed Dove]

Monday 12 April 2010

Springtime - Flingtime

Yes, I have done it, I can't deny: I have betrayed you.
I have blogged away from my blog, strayed away from familiar ground built on trust and loyalty, and gone to the meadows on the other side of the fence (where the grass is invariably greener).

Go here to see what I have done and had to say.

Friday 9 April 2010

Wheatear methadone

Someone recently wrote that seeing a wheatear in spring was better than something entirely different. Of course I completely disagree - at least that's not the case as far as my private personal experiences go - but then I read on and found the following passages:

"...local patch-watchers have been out all weekend straining to find themselves the only passage migrant they're likely to see all spring on their dismal inland beats."


"Tom Logan, a patch-watcher from Croydon said 'I found a male Wheatear yesterday morning on the area of miserable industrial wasteland I like to think of as semi-arid upland habitat'."

This is when the shocking truth unveiled its crimson deathly cloak and looked me right in the eye:

That post's author is right - entirely and fully completely so!

At the Baltic coast, wheatears were the sorry passerine bunch on the barren fields that I only glanced over or nonchalantly looked at with pity after a full force day filled with 25+ species of waders (the shorebirds of North America), a multitude of huge raptors, and waterfowl in their bazillions. I guess I sometimes forgot to even write them down in my note book.

Then came the move to Leimen, a dismal inland location.

I have been here for two years now.
This translates to 2 spring and 2 fall migration periods.
I am not entirely sure, but I can only recall one or maybe two wheatears.
Not for each migration period, no.
In total.

This strikes me as sad.

However, I do get to see a species of passerine that will regularly roost and hop around on ploughed fields and ... you know ... semi-arid upland habitat, thus stepping in to fill the gap left by the lack of wheatears.

This is the Black Redstart, a species I have come to love dearly for its graciousness, and have therefore dubbed "Wheatear methadone".

Here are a few pictures from last weekend.

Vast expanses of semi-arid upland habitat (red arrow in case you missed it)

Female demonstrating cunning habitat use

Female surveying vastness of habitat on the wing
Male searching nearby prime rocky outcrop habitat for arthropods

The cast in alphabetical order

Black Redstart - Phoenicurus ochruros - Hausrotschwanz [House Redtail]
Northern Wheatear - Oenanthe oenanthe - Steinschmätzer [Stone chatterer ... sort of]

Tuesday 6 April 2010

Spring - sprang - sproing, and what the f...lower?

Spring is upon us here in Heidelberg and that can only mean one thing: more activity of yours truly on his alter ego blog, "Birder Hyde".

More specifically, I have another mystery bird for your valued entertainment, a danged Phyllo.

So if you feel the masochistic need for a bit of Phylloscopus ID, jump over to Birder Hyde and leave a comment.

Thursday 1 April 2010

Scream Treason !

We have a traitor amongst our ranks, a person who has put his personal benefit above the Greater Good of bird and birder's welfare. He clearly must think that his act of severe treason will elevate him to the rank of an internationally well-known birder, as his field knowledge will obviously never suffice to achieve this aim of his.

I am talking about Corey F., of 10,000Birds.

You see, I had trusted him, and have done so once too often, which I regret severely now. He misused my trust and went public with one of the best-kept secrets of ornithological history, the European Treecreeper mystery.

When I learned about his intentions, I tried to convince him to abandon his endeavor in an email I wrote to him. It was of no use. He didn't even have the guts to cite me correctly, stating my "comment" was too long.

This, Corey F., is pure and sheer cowardice.

And as the secret is out now and the web is abuzz, I - as one of the Treecreeper Secret Keepers - may as well come forward with the entire story behind what is commonly referred to now as a "prank".
Here is the email I wrote to Corey F., in full length, uncensored and unaltered.
May your birding career rest in peace, Corey.

"Corey, I am not entirely sure you are fully aware of what you have done! My only hope is that 10,000Birds is too small a platform to make this go public any further than it already has, and I sincerely urge you to back out of this before more damage is done.

This "prank" has a very long and honorable history, and I think this needs to be respected. To emphasize my points, I'll give you a quick summary of the events.
You see, the "prank" (let's call it prank for now, even though it deserves a more respectable naming) started in Germany in 1820, which is 190 years ago, Corey. Please, this is a historic dimension I urge you - again - to respect! It was initially directed at the British ornithologists and only later evolved into the trans-Atlantic dimension we see today.

Back then, Christian Ludwig Brehm discovered that the Treecreeper of continental Europe shows not only sexual dimorphism in its plumage but that male and female Treecreepers also have distinct songs and vocalizations. Their reproduction strategy is comparable to e. g. the phalaropes in that the females also take a more active role in courtship. This difference in plumage and vocalizations is far less pronounced on the British Isles, likely as a result of genetic drift or other island-related factors.
Christian Ludwig Brehm immediately recognized the opportunity to use this against the British.

Well, I guess you'll need some historic background about the ornithological "community" of the Old World in the early 1800's to appreciate why he did this.

Back then, Germany was at the forefront of ornithological research worldwide. Those nations in the lead today, e. g. the British, were still largely in the hunter and gatherer state while the scientific standard in Germany was particularly high. Christian Ludwig Brehm for example was an "ordinary" man, not a professional scientist, yet he had the largest collection of bird skins in the world, numbering 15,000 specimens. More important still, those specimens were labelled and allowed for biogeographical and seasonal studies of birds and their variation. Most other collections of that time were simply very "showy", and no particular importance was given to the labelling. He also was the father of Alfred Edmund Brehm, who is to German ornithology what Audubon is to you and your hobby, and who must rate as one of the most popular and influential zoologists of his time worldwide.

I have now hopefully demonstrated to you how prestigious German ornithology was back then. In the first half of the 19th century however, the British ornithologists increased their knowledge and scientific expertise gradually and Brehm felt that the pioneering role of Germany was jeopardized by this development. Germany as a nation didn't exist back then, it was made up of numerous independent states, but a feeling of patriotism and unity was starting to emerge, and this patriotic trend (so to speak) made the newly arisen challenge of the British so unbearable to Brehm.

You have to understand all this, Corey, even if it might bore you at the moment.

So, thanks to the labelling of his specimens he discovered the sexual dimorphism in the Treecreeper and that this was less pronounced in Britain. To give German ornithology a permanent and unbreakable lead (to give them a "blocker" in modern twitching slang), he decided to "split" the Treecreeper and assign species rank to the two genders. More specifically, he scientifically described the female as the Short-toed Treecreeper and split it from the male, further stating that the "Short-toed Treecreeper" only occurs in western mainland Europe and not the British isles.

By doing this, he completely fooled the British. As the sexual dimorphism was far less pronounced on their territory, they had no means whatsoever to double-check his findings and thus had to accept the split as scientific fact without giving it too much consideration. Those British ornithologists who had the rare privilege of travelling through mainland Europe tried to investigate the situation but invariably failed to see through the "prank" as the differences are so subtle. Whenever a British ornithologist would notice that e.g. "Short-toed" and ordinary Treecreeper were attending to the same nest (as all bird parents are wont to do), a German ornithologist who was privy to the conspiracy would step in and state that individual variation was significant as well, that correct identification required substantial field experience which the British lacked due to there being only one form on their islands and that the Brit had therefore simply misidentified the birds.

As a consequence, the British got the clear impression that they weren't "advanced" enough yet to tackle such complex identification challenges and the superiority of German ornithology was saved and preserved for the time being.

During the course of the following decades, the "prank" gradually became more and more known in Germany and also amongst the British. This is not something you can cover up indefinitely, of course.

Then, however, things evolved miraculously. By the time the truth started to leak through, Britain had evolved into the Great British Empire and British pride and prejudice made it completely impossible for its ornithologists to acknowledge being fooled for so long. Therefore, the British became part of the conspiracy and promoted the "prank" further to the point we are at today: the "prank" is even maintained in the world's most modern and advanced field guide, written by a team of Irish, British and Swedish bird identification experts - who definitely knew what they were doing.

Of course, even today most birders in Europe and Britain aren't aware of the "prank" and readily identify and tick the two Treecreepers. Whenever I get a birding visitor from the USA or elsewhere, I always nonchalantly bring up the Treecreeper in a conversation. If the other birder is evidently not aware of the true situation, I'll always ask if they are missing one species. If that's the case, I'll either call the first Treecreeper we see their "lifer" or the one they already have - depending on whether they had bought me some decent beers the night before or not.

It is great, it is big fun, and even you, my dear Corey, fell for it easily when we met at the Baltic!

You might therefore reconsider your decision to uncover the "prank".This issue is bound to get very messy once discussed openly, a lot of high-profile birder careers are at stake and if the truth emerges, those - like you - who had been fooled so easily will look increasingly stupid.
And, Corey, this is not a threat but a warning: if you proceed further with this mad endeavour, you'll regret it. I know for a fact that influential US birders are involved, too. This means your birding career will definitely come to an end. Surely, you can still watch the House Sparrows and European Starlings at your Queens feeder and keep it all to yourself, but you will have no option whatsoever to proceed with a more open, public birder career - and you won't even have to bother ever reporting anything to a records committee.

You'll be deleted as a birder.

Therefore, I urge you even in your very own interest: do not post your article on the blog. You have been warned by a friend. "

He just wouldn't listen.