Wednesday, October 28, 2009

quick comparison

In the comments section of my last post I was asked why I prefer digiscoping. The crux of my explanation was that I'm a birder first and photographer second, but I also alluded to the differences between the two set ups particularly as it relates to magnification.

The image of the Red-headed Woodpecker above was digiscoped through the Leica APO Televid 82 mm spotting scope with the D-Lux 4 camera at the equivalent of near 1800 mm lens. (ISO 100, 1/160th sec, f/2.8, +0.3 stop)

This is the same image with a bit of photoshop magic applied. I've assumed 400 mm is the most common length lens for bird photography, with a 1.5x crop factor on the DSLR body. What this means in lay terms is that the sensor in many common DSLR bodies is smaller than a 35 mm film frame so the subsequent captured image is magnified a bit to reach the size of a 35 mm film frame. The net effect is that a camera lens that is rated as a 400 mm on a film body, will offer 1.5x the magnification, or the subsequent subject size will be comparable to that of a 600 mm lens shot on 35 mm film.

At any rate, 600 mm is 1/3 rd the size of my 1800 mm so in the image above I've reduced the size of the original image to 1/3rd the size of the original. Then utilizing cut & paste techniques filled in to create a uniform sky and extended the pole to offer a the illusion of an accurate comparison of subject size difference between my image and that of someone shooting with a 400 mm lens right next to me.

I took my image of the bird from across the road on top of a phone pole. The DSLR photographer could naturally move closer, but the perspective would change dramatically and the subsequent image would be staring straight up the bird's back or side to accomodate a closer distance.

Wilson's Plover digiscoped w/ Leica APO Televid 77 & C-Lux 2 camera

The image above was taken 2 years ago on the "beach photo safari" at the Florida Bird & FotoFest in St. Augustine, FL. The walk is designed for long lens photogs to get images of gulls, terns, and shorebirds in late evening light. They are driven out to a distant point of a barrier island where these birds concentrate. When they arrive, they target a specific bird or group of birds, then drop to their bellies and slowly crawl across the sand toward their subjects.

I went along to bird and see what was out there as this point would normally require a VERY long trudge through sand taking a couple hours. As the happy photogs were slowly inching toward their subjects I happily snapped a few shots from the truck over their heads not even bothering to crouch let alone belly crawl.

Then I continued birding recording over 30 species of birds including other gems like Snowy Plover, Lesser Black-backed Gull, Northern Gannet, Red Knot, and 6 species of terns. I was the only one in the group carrying binoculars let alone a scope. About an hour later one happy photog returned to the truck wet and cold, and proudly showed me his best image. He didn't know what it was but was thrilled with the result he'd gotten and asked me what it was. I explained it was a Wilson's Plover and pulled my point & shoot out of my pocket and showed him near the exact image as seen above. So in this instance at least it seemed that digiscoping produced near the same exact result with much less effort with a lot of time left over to appreciate the many bird species out there.

Granted, if a Peregrine had winged up the beach, I would not have gotten an image likely by digiscoping, but I'd still have enjoyed the view of the mighty bird streaking past. If one of the beach bound photographers had even noticed the bird going by and knelt or stood up they might have gotten the image, but would still not have the appreciation for the powerful flight with wingtips arcing smoothly up and then rolling downward like a wave while peering through their small viewfinders.

As I said at the outset, it's just a matter of preference and perspective and under varying conditions each style of photography will outperform the other. If you are more likely to tuck the binoculars away and do without a scope, and are willing to creep or sneak in on birds to get within 20-30', then the DSLR with telephoto is likely the way for you. For me though, I prefer to simply setup the scope, mount the camera and take the shot to not miss too much of the wildlife activities around me.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Alabama & odd sightings

adult Red-headed Woodpecker digiscoped @ Fairhope, AL 10/2009
I recently returned from Fairhope, Alabama where I attended the Alabama Coastal Birdfest. The event was great fun even though a backlog of work kept me from enjoying many of the field aspects here. None-the-less, even with extremely limited field time I managed to find things to enjoy! Red-headed Woodpeckers are always a treat to observe and these birds seemed particularly abundant in and around the town of Fairhope. The bird digiscoped above was found on Saturday evening just a block south of the college where we displayed!

Brown-headed Nuthatch digiscoped Fairhope, AL 10/2009
Brown-headed Nuthatches also seemed quite commonplace and it seemed I heard their "rubber ducky-esque" calls any time I was near conifers in and around Fairhope. Of course seeing them on the trunk of a pine is not unusual but seeing one on a power line is!
Brown-headed Nuthatch digiscoped through Leica APO Televid 82 with D-Lux 4 camera
The nuthatch digiscoped on a low power line above (at least in my experience) was the first odd sighting I enjoyed and was able to get an image of. I was muttering under my breath, "Stay.. stay.. stay.." as I quickly set my scope up and slid the camera on to capture proof of the event.
dramatic skies at sunset Fairhope, Alabama 10/10/09
Being my first visit to the area, I used the last bit of fading light on Saturday to explore. I pointed my vehicle west knowing eventually I would find Mobile Bay and maybe a bird or two. Not surprisingly I saw Red-headed Woodpeckers and Brown-headed Nuthatches along the waterfront in the hillside pines here, but I was too late to see or hear much. I turned my attention to the dramatic sunset instead.
digiscoped sunset, Fairhope, Alabama 10/10/09

As the sun sank below the horizon I was hoping for a green flash or similar when I had yet another unusual sighting.

Canada Goose wrapped in reflected sunlight

The brilliant reddish-orange sunlight reflected off the water and framed Canada Geese sitting at the shore in a cool brilliant halo or aura. Unfortunately, I was not able to capture this as vividly as it appeared to my eye, perhaps due to the scope coatings designed to control stray or reflected light?!?... I don't know, but it was still neat to see and I couldn't ever remember seeing this effect so vividly.

Eastern Phoebe digiscoped with Leica APO Televid 82, Fairhope, AL 10/11/09
On Sunday evening, I was making my way toward the Mobile airport enjoying the numerous migrants that had come in on the NW winds. Yellow-rumped Warblers and Indigo Buntings were calling everywhere. I watched a tired Eastern Meadowlark and a Yellow-billed Cuckoo drop into the small waterfront park near lunch.
I decided I had time for one last stop on my way to the airport near 3 PM so pulled into the 5 Rivers Nature Center on the causeway back to Mobile. Eastern Phoebes and Bluebirds were en force here. I found my first Golden-crowned Kinglet of the fall and saw 2 different Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers here.
Eastern Phoebe, 5 Rivers Nature Center, AL 10/11/09

I'd been enjoying great photo ops all day and had been lucky/quick enough to capture 2 odd sightings in a row. I should have known my luck would soon change. After digiscoping yet another Eastern Phoebe and a male Pine Warbler, I laid my scope across the back seat and my trusty point & shoot on the passenger side floor. I continued down the main park road passing the canoe & kayak launch, viewing Northern Mockingbirds and Brown Thrashers teed up at roadside, eventually reaching the proverbial "end of the road".

It was near 4 PM and the road ahead went from pavement to gravel/shell and the sign here instructed that this was accessible by employees only. As I prepared to turn around I looked out the driver's side window. A bird perched on a low fence near 40 feet away, lifted off and flew directly away up a small slope. The lighting was perfect and I noted a pale gray back and contrastingly dark tail that was splayed out and slightly notched. The bird hung and wind hovered for a bit before dropping to the ground. The shape, and color pattern struck a familiar chord and I knew that bird wouldn't be likely here so I quickly glassed it.

I noted the relatively uniform light gray head and upper back, before it lifted off and flew directly back to perch on the short fence. My initial suspicions were confirmed as I saw the unmistakable peachy underparts of a Say's Phoebe! It was so close, I was certain it would spook if I stepped out. Instead, I turned and detached my scope from the tripod in the back seat and was beginning to attach it to the car window mount when my luck ran out. The bird lifted off and paralleled the river here. With a strong wind to its back, the bird quickly drifted further and further away... 100... 200 yards then it swept across a side channel and dropped out of sight behind a large white house.

It appeared the bird had landed but my view was blocked by the taller stream side vegetation here. I spent the next few minutes looking for lingering birders but only dog walkers and folks coming in for an evening meeting of sorts.... not a binocular in sight. I tried calling the few birder's numbers I had, leaving message after message but it was time to go. I reluctantly loaded up and headed back under the tunnel to catch my flight. A good bird seen but unfortunately not confirmed.

Worse yet I had been unable to share this rarity with any locals and with light fading and no one contacted it was unlikely anyone would even get a chance to find it until the following morning. It was neat seeing a bird like this far out of its normal range, but I'd seen Say's on both of last two trips to Monterey & Colorado respectively. I know from past experience what an exciting experience seeing this bird would have been to most in the local community.

C'est la vie! You win some, you lose some. The score this time was Birds 1, Birder zero. Still win or lose, I always enjoy playing the game and had a wonderful day on the shores of Mobile Bay!

Friday, October 23, 2009

Colorado digiscoping

Bill Schmoker @ Littleton, CO digiscoping seminar

Had a great time at the recent Colorado digiscoping seminar held in Littleton, CO. The hosts and guests were great, we had wonderful dealer support... Unfortunately, the weather was less than great. On the night prior to the event, the first winter storm rolled in and temps in the teens turned rain to snow! Too cold for this FL boy. Fortunately, the Littleton, CO crowd is a tough lot and many showed to learn a bit about digiscoping.

female American Kestrel, digiscoped during seminar w/ Leica APO Televid scope

After a classroom session, we made our way out toward duck blinds where participants practiced on the many Wigeon and other waterfowl that were obscured in the fog-covered water. The overcast gray hung with us all day making the images further dull unfortunately, but I think most got the idea of how the basics work and should be able to get better images when the sun returned.

immature Black-crowned Night-Heron digiscoped October 2009

The female American Kestrel at top was sitting on a wire just behind the nature center upon returning from the duck blind. A cold, young Black-crowned Night-Heron sat along a stream edge in the image above. This was taken during the second (cooler) afternoon walk after the wind had picked up making digiscoping even less enjoyable. The organizers did a great job with every aspect of the event, but I guess the weather was out of their control! :)

Black-billed Magpie digiscoped @ road-edge, Littleton, CO 10/2009

The following morning was still cold and gray but I managed to enjoy some of the local bird species just outside the hotel. Black-billed Magpies were very abundant and it was nice to be able to study plumage variation in Lesser Goldfinch as above. All that I saw in CO, appeared consistently different than those along the California coast from weeks earlier. I may have to look into some of the known subspecific variations.

Lesser Goldfinch digiscoped with Leica APO Televid & D-Lux 4 camera