Friday, December 18, 2009

Missing Peregrine!

Ahhh... Bosque Del Apache... for anyone who has experienced birding here it brings to mind visions of fall and winter magic! This gem of the National Wildlife Refuge system here in the US, offers unbelievably wondrous natural spectacles. Many come to view the spectacle of the crane and waterfowl migration which is indeed amazing, but there is SOOO much more to appreciate as well.

adult Prairie Falcon, digiscoped Bosque Del Apache, NWR, NM 11/19/09

The morning of November 19th started like most other fall mornings at Bosque, enjoying the lift-off of Sandhill Cranes and Snow Geese just before first light. Shortly thereafter, I was forunate to encounter an adult Prairie Falcon perched at roadside very near the visitor's center. In the early morning light, the bird was washed in a wonderful pink glow. The sun was just on the horizon at this point and it looked to be another fabulous day! The remains of a freshly plucked "Red-shafted" (Northern) Flicker lay beneath this perch. It was obvious this bird hadn't recently eaten a Flicker, as it's crop would have been bulging if it had. Clearly, someone had eaten this bird here though and an adult Prairie Falcon would certainly be a good candidate. Maybe that was last night's dinner!?!...

American Kestrel, male digiscoped with Leica APO Televid 65 mm scope & D-Lux 4 camera

American Kestrels are another common falcon species, and we saw many on this day. The male above sat on Route 1 just before entering the refuge from the North. I watched him hunting over 3 days with his bum foot. Even though he had no use of it, he seemed to be faring well. Both he and his tolerent mate (shown below) were camera hogs. They'd obviously taken up residence here knowing how many photographers visit and were hoping for extra photos! ;p
OK - maybe not, but they were remarkably tolerent by Kestrel standards and allowed me to park my vehicle close enough to get some very nice images!
female American Kestrel, digiscped near Bosque del Apache NWR entrance, 11/19/09
Upon breaking for lunch I spotted my third falcon species of the day again just outside the refuge entrance on route 1. A distant Merlin was perched on a phone pole in harsh backlight. The photo below normally would be deleted but it helps to tell the story. Hmmm... 3 falcon species by mid day and I knew of two others being reported near daily in and around the refuge.
falcon species #3 a distant, backlit Merlin in harsh light!

Near sunset, there was time for a short trek around a portion of the loop on the refuge. I was really hoping to run into the gorgeous young Aplomado Falcon that was being reported, and in the late evening light I was fortunate enough to find it. It was amazingly cooperative again and I was able to get a number of nice photos in the warm evening light. Since, I was digiscoping, I had the advantage of incredible magnification so did not have to get too close to the bird!

immature Aplomado Falcon digiscoped through Leica APO Televid 65 mm 11/19/09

Whoa, four falcon species on the same day and the same place. With all of the prey species there where clearly a Peregrine Falcon around somewhere. I scanned the horizon in vain as the light faded. I was hoping for 5 species of falcon in one day in the US. This is a very difficult task to pull off. Sadly my Peregrine didn't show so I had to "settle" for merely enjoying 4 species (although I had 5 for the trip). Clearly though I have no room to complain it was a spectacular day with stunning views of fabulous birds.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Will the smaller 65mm scope fit my needs?...

One of the big questions spotting scope consumers have to answer is, "which size scope should I buy?" Like most manufacturers, Leica offers two different scope sizes: a larger 82 mm model (bottom) and a more compact 65 mm model (at top). The mm listing is the physical diameter of the objective lens which is opposite the smaller eyepiece. A larger objective lens allows more light to enter the optical system, meaning there is a larger circle of light entering your eye (or camera if digiscoping).

Consumers have to balance absolute optical performance with portability, and ease of use in the same way they do with binoculars. Obviously, this is a very personal decision and one that each individual has to make for themselves. To answer this fully one has to consider their individual habits to include: 'will I be using the scope at last light or first light or in very dark conditions?' (tropical rain forests for example), and 'will I tend to not carry a heavier scope?' I suspect the latter question is most important actually because if the size and weight will preclude or dissuade you from using the scope then clearly the more compact, lightweight option is for you!

left to right Kenn Kaufman, Bill Thompson, III, and Pete Dunne at Asa Wright Nature Centre
Along that line, while I certainly feel the APO Televid 82 mm represents the pinnacle of optical performance, I would never discourage anyone from looking toward the smaller APO Televid 65 mm spotting scope either. I think it is superb and it definitely outperforms its predecessor and rivals the performance of our older 77 mm models. Naturally, being an employee of Leica, I'd suspect people will find my commentary suspect, so I'd also like to offer some thoughts from other unbiased individuals.

Bill Thompson III of Bird Watcher's Digest magazine made the following comments regarding the new Televids after trying both on a recent trip to Asa Wright in Trinidad and Blue Water's Inn, Tobago, '...I used the 82 & 65 and loved them both, but where portability and weight were a factor, I preferred the 65 mm. Even in digiscoping where light is crucial, I feel I only missed the light gathering of the 82 mm when I was digiscoping Oilbirds in near complete darkness...'

Read more of Bill's exploits in Trinidad & Tobago here:
and particularly about digiscoping at Asa Wright Nature Centre here:

Of course, while commentary like mine and Bill's (and others) is clearly helpful, these are still opinions and as I already pointed out scope selection is a very personal endeavor. As such, I feel that often images can speak louder than words. While I've carried the 65 mm Televid scope around, I hadn't really run it through its paces properly so I decided to use it solely at the recent "Festival of the Cranes" at Bosque Del Apache NWR last month.

The following images were all shot through the Leica APO Televid 65 mm spotting scope using the Leica D-Lux 4 camera and matched digital adapter at the festival. I'll let the images speak for themselves and leave it to you to judge your thoughts on performance!

No crane fest would be complete without cranes,
so here are two Sandhill Cranes dropping in from on high.

Townsend's Solitaires were common in Juniper habitats
in the foothills of the nearby mountains.

Greater Sandhill Cranes probe in mud for small invertebrates!

fresh plumaged Red-winged Blackbird males show
tawny-golden feather edges on their backs.

the bird above shows these feather edgings on its crown as well.

an adult Prairie Falcon is washed in pink early morning light as the sun just rises!

an adult female Northern Harrier (Hen Harrier in Europe...) cranes its neck

an "Oregon" race Dark-eyed Junco feeds on seed heads

immature Aplomado Falcon perched up at sunset

Bald Eagle pair sillhouetted at sunrise

male American Kestrel perches on a wire near noon!

Thursday, December 10, 2009

The Magic of Cape May

Recently, through the glamorous life of travel, I returned to Florida from Newark, NJ. The interesting thing was this was following the annual Cape May Bird Observatory (NJ Audubon) fall bird show. So with a left side window I was able to enjoy the scenery as a southbound hawk might see it (even though I was considerably higher)!

The first landmark I recognized was the north pointing peninsula, Sandy Hook. A fair hawk watching spot in its own right. North bound spring migrants use this spit of land to get halfway across to Long Island and other points north.

New Jersey has always gotten a bad rap for the human congestion in the northern portion of the state, but heading south from Sandy Hook, most of the coast is a giant system of contiguous salt marshes and waterways! If you blow this image up you can just make out the only real heavy human congestion in this whole area. Note the skyscrapers of Atlantic City near the center of the image on the coast.

Continuing south from here was that magical south facing peninsula itself. Like a giant avian funnel the Delaware Bay and Atlantic Ocean conspire to offer birders unimagineable concentrations of all types of migrant birds at the very southern tip of this land mass.

famed Cape May lighthouse and convent photographed D-Lux 4 camera, Oct 2009
This magical spot is of course, Cape May, New Jersey. A mecca for birders worldwide who descend on this community by the thousands each weekend in September & October. One of the crowned jewels of this fabled town sits literally in the shadow of the Cape May Point lighthouse in the state park here. The Cape May Hawk Watch has been run every year for... well... err.. a long time. I hate to stop and do the math actually because when I do, it reminds me of just how much further from young I get every day. It was actually 22 years ago when I first conducted this hawkwatch. Every day from sunise to sundown beginning in mid August and wrapping up near early December, I'd sit on a smaller platform that sat on this very site and count each and every hawk I saw.

But the Cape May Hawk Watch had already been a staple in the birding community long before I was invited to take the prestigious post and earn my official membership to "National Brotherhood of Professional Hawkwatchers". I'd guess the official hawkwatch dated back at least 12 years before this, and the stories of shooters lining the streets to hunt hawks here are infamous dating well back toward the turn of the century. The famed father of American birding hiself, Roger Tory Peterson, hitch hiked to Cape May as a very young man to witness the amazing migration spectacle here and was taken in by a local family. For dinner they served (what else?!?...) Sharp-shinned Hawk. Later in life at a talk I remember Roger recalling this and suggesting that it actually tasted a lot like chicken!

On some days, particularly in late October as the migration tapers off a bit, the platform can be a bit slow...

but when the winds turn to from the NorthWest people and hawks will come out of the woodwork. On these days it is nothing to see thousands of hawks and if you don't want to work to hard at it, never fear there will always be nice close views. Often Shrp-shinned & Cooper's Hawks will swing by at or below eye level hugging the contours of the brush as Accipiters are prone to do. Falcons like Peregrines, Merlins, and Kestrels will buzz low overhead offering fabulous views, while Northern Harriers (or Hen Harriers to our friends on the other side of the Atlantic) will course low over the marshes just in front of the watch. The official hawk counter is responsible for trying to spot and count them all but the rest of us (including the helpful interns looking the wrong way above) are free to just enjoy the views of the closer birds if we choose.
On Friday night during the festival a cold front passed and the winds turned Northwest at 10-20 mph! Knowing every birder in the point would make their way to the hawkwatch I set up my extra binoculars and spotting scopes on the hawkwatch and was sharing these with any who cared to borrow a pair to view the fantastic natural phenomenon that was unfolding right above our heads. There were hawks migrating everywhere and the views were phenomenal!

As the crowds broke in the evening I put my extra binoculars away but stayed on long after everyone else had left. I continued scanning even though the birds had mostly settled in and the flight was done for the day. I was hoping perhaps for a Short-eared Owl or some other late surprise and candidly feeling a bit nostalgic as I stood alone on the platform with my thoughts. As the final rays of light faded, an American Bittern flapped purposefully across the marsh out front and dissappeared behind a thick section of reeds. I spotted a Peregrine Falcon as it labored across the cloud-strewn sky, coming from offshore carrying some unidentified prey that had made the ultimate sacrifice on this treacherous journey south.
After surrendering the Peregrine to the darkening sky, I hoisted my scope & tripod and slowly retired for the evening. Still enjoying the rush from the spectacle I'd enjoyed!