I promised I’d try to keep up to date so here is today’s little adventure.
At this time of year, if the temperature drops and the winds have any north-westerly influence, then it is a good bet that birds will be moving. This movement may be hard to detect unless concentrated by geography, in this case Cape Island off Cape Sable Island (see map on tab). The beauty of the island is that it, in theory, limits the amount of cover available to hide birds and is, in practice, the last stop before open ocean.
I have resolved to visit Cape Island as often as is reasonable, well reasonable to a birder, and so had arranged the trusty Leslie Smith to ferry us over there at 08:30, us being Keith and Paolo. A debate as to where we could land, by preference I asked for the regular spot, was resolved by Leslie who put us were he wanted to, and he was right too. A short walk towards the lighthouse soon got us a good bird, Black-headed Gull. I don’t know how many of this species I have seen, probably it runs to six figures, but one for Nova Scotia elevated it to ‘quite interesting’. It later obliged by landing on a small pool, light side for us and posed.
First-winter, meaning that the coming winter would be its first, Black-headed Gull.
Moving on, we quickly found an American Golden Plover but no Buff-breasted Sandpipers – one of Keith and Paolo’s target birds. The sea was interesting as a vast flock of Northern Gannets had some fish pinned down, a Black-legged Kittiwake was amongst them too. Shortly after a pale form Parasitic Jaeger came past along with more Black Scoters – winter is coming!
Hawks were around, Merlins, Northern Harriers and a nice group of Sharp-shinned Hawks went right overhead. This bird is in tail moult meaning that the tail looks rounded, a trap for the unwary making it a Cooper’s pretender.
Every now and then we would see a bouncing flock of American Pipits (39) and we flushed a lost Cedar Waxwing. The Forest beckoned and this time was interesting, it can be very hit or miss. A showy Baltimore Oriole seemed oblivious to us, as did a Black-throated Green Warbler. Sparrows skulked as they often do, especially a Swamp Sparrow who came over all Marlene Dietrich on us, so we left it alone.
From a distance I saw a weird bird plunge into cover. I can normally put a name to a species from small samples but this, no idea. We sweated over to where it had been finding another Baltimore Oriole, a briefly viewed Clay-coloured Sparrow and something else, that promptly flew away – it was a day to have teams covering all the areas I think.
Leslie’ watch was bit slow for the pick-up but we had plenty of shorebirds to keep us busy including panicking Hudsonian Godwits, those pesky hawks were probably at it again.
The species count for the trip was over 40, ok not high by some standards but not bad. After Keith and Paolo set off back to Halifax. Keith with Parasitic Jaeger and a lifer, Paolo with Nelson’s Sparrow as same. Me, I was quite happy with my Black-headed Gull and set about getting ready for the next birding trip which won’t be until tomorrow!
I mentioned in the last post that I’d decided to adopt Daniel’s Head as my local patch. This idea of patch watching will be new to some people, many, well most will not understand the patch ethos, my eBook ‘My Patch will tell you all you need to know (excerpt below). I will post details of what the patch is later, Daniel’s Head will be my third serious local patch since I began birding, roughly at around the time that England won the soccer World Cup.
Confident that probably less than five people get this far down the blog when faced with so many words, here is an excerpt from ‘My Patch’. It is the section that deals with kit and yes, all my books are written in the same vein. There are many out there that would find this information useful but mostly it is just to entertain, enjoy:
Although this book is about patch watching it does no harm to reinforce how much good having the right birding kit does for you. Your optics are the most important thing that you will carry into the field (ok, prescribed medication is a given) and they need to be right. So, before we get to part one of being a patch watcher, finding a patch, we’ll take a look at your kit.
There are a great many books and articles out there that will tell you all about the kit you will need to go birding. Some offering good advice that will serve you well, others I recommend you take their pitch with a pinch of salt, their author may well have a big optic backer pulling their strings. Not every product is suitable for everyone, no matter what the manufacturers say. Each individual handles and looks through optics in a way that is comfortable for them; you have to get the basics right, otherwise your birding will be affected and that is serious.
Binoculars – don’t mess about here, bins are there to enhance your lousy eyesight, to make sure you get the optimum chance of seeing field marks and to show other birders that you are not a lightweight by virtue of what you are using. Some will call it optic snobbery but, in truth, the better quality your bins, the better you see the bird. It’s a no-brainer that cheap bins are rubbish, you get what you pay for although the top models are 50% too expensive. It is the price we pay for living in a commercially driven society.
Conventional wisdom goes for an 8×40 type of binocular for general birding, especially in woodlands or a 10×40/50 for other uses. The thing is, how many pairs do you want to buy? I have been up and down the magnification tree and would say, if I had to shell out for one pair of bins, they would be 10×40. That little extra detail a good pair of 10x40s can give is worth a smaller field of view in the woods. Modern optics are so good with light that any arguments regarding 8x over 10x are moot.
This paragraph is mainly for the guys because they never read the instructions on anything but they might read this. Set your bins up properly. You’d be amazed how many birders out there have never actually done this; then they blame the bins for eye strain or headaches. It is basic but has to be done.
You should only see one, circular image when you look through your bins, if you are getting the ‘Hollywood view’, two circular images, then ‘break’ the bins until the view becomes one. Break means to adjust both eye-pieces via the center pivot, I’m sure you know what I mean.
Once you have a clean, single circle, cover the right eye view and focus on a close image, perhaps 20m away, maybe a post or some text on a sign. Chaps, don’t set your bins up by focusing on anything that might cause you to shake, such as somebodies bedroom window, a brewery or a Gyr Falcon. Girls, do not focus on anything Chocolate related.
Once the image is sharp, cover your other eye view and focus the individual eyepiece (diopter) on the SAME image. Provided you didn’t move, and used the same point to focus on you are set and the two sides of your bins are now going to focus together and give you the right view. You will want to note the position of the diopter, there is usually some sort of scale etched on the edge of the eyepiece. Make regular checks to see that you haven’t accidentally moved the thing, it happens.
Eye cups up or down? That is your choice and will depend on what eye decorations you enjoy. I don’t wear spectacles and so have the eyecups down so that I can get my eyes close to the lenses for maximum field of view, it is my preference.
I’ll say again, buy the best binoculars that you can possibly afford. Sure you will be gouged because that is what the optics companies do, but you want those bins to perform in all circumstances and for as long as possible so go the extra mile, sell a relative into slavery if you have to but go big. Just to clarify, it is illegal in most states and provinces to sell relatives into slavery, although the law is somewhat vague as to whether minimum wage qualifies as same.
Wear your bins properly. They should sit high on the chest but not on such a short strap that they knock a tooth out each time you lift them, you’ll soon run out of teeth. Don’t wear them on too long a strap either, you are begging for injuries to your nether regions if you do. Don’t wear the carry case around your neck with the bins in it, in fact toss the carry case in a drawer and only retrieve it when your bins are packed in your carry-on for a trip by plane and you will not need to grab them. Never leave your bins in the trunk; it will make the slewing off the road to check the bird on a wire thing a whole lot more complicated than it needs to be.
This might sound obvious but clean the lenses regularly. I know a birder who thought it had some sort of cachet to never clean the lenses of his bins, building up a crust of dust and food over a period of years. As his bins were not very good to start with, you have to wonder exactly how well he saw anything, ever. I don’t know whether he keeps those lenses spotless now, but I suspect that he might well do, as he appears to have stopped claiming weird sightings.
Your bins are not decorations but are there to be used, again obvious but it takes time for your first reflex on seeing a bird to be to use the bins. Practice with them, rapid focus, rapid bird location both static and flying. Practice panning to find the birds, then work on cutting down the amount of time it takes for the bins to go from hanging to focused; believe me it makes a big difference and developing the skill can get you enough of a bird to make an ID, sometimes.
Some people advocate going birding without bins. I would say fine, but not on your local patch. In fact I’d go further and say, don’t take any notice of the people who tell you how uplifting it is to go birding without bins. Ultimately, if you want to go birding without bins then that is your affair, but, if you do go birding routinely without optics, just make sure you note the self-imposed handicap on your eBird submission, so they can file it under ‘vague’. Incidentally, I will mention eBird frequently and all (well some) will be revealed about the program in a later chapter.
Spotting scope – if you can, buy a good one. Don’t go for the cheap end ones with super magnification, because heat haze and scope shake look exactly the same whether seen at 40x or 90x. What you need is something that will give you the salient details of that distant shorebird before the zoom reaches its zenith and becomes next to useless, they all become useless at some point but some are less useless significantly later in the magnification range than others. Whether to choose an angled or straight set up is down to you. At some point you will regret whichever choice you made so it makes no odds. My recent scopes have always been straight but my next will be angled.
Another factor when looking at buying a scope is whether you can use it for digiscoping. It adds expense to your birding but it is also a very pleasing way to recount your birding trips and there is also the possibility of showing a rival a photo of a rarity they missed, purely as an aid to their education you understand, and not to rub salt into their festering, birdless wounds.
Tripod – again, don’t go cheap because cheap is junk. Carbon tripods are nice but expensive. Aluminum ones are heavier but cheaper, although the cost of stabling and feed for the donkey needed to carry them tends to even things out when compared to carbon.
The head is an important bit and you have a fair range to choose from. If you have five arms and the Circus lets you have time off, then by all means go for one with lots of little clamps and wheels. If you are of standard construction, then you want a single action fluid head type that locks, preferably on one twist of the handle but at a pinch a locking wheel. You also want one where the handle is not so long that you get garroted every time you lean forwards to look through the scope. Time spent in the trauma clinic is time out of the field.
The leg locking mechanism of your tripod is worth thinking about. Some will trap your fingers each time you snap them shut, if S & M is your thing then there you go. The ones that have collars that screw and unscrew to tighten have a limited life and will rapidly fall to bits with continuous use. Some tripods have little wing nuts and seem to be effective, I’ve never used one so can’t comment. What I will say is, when a bit breaks on your tripod; don’t expect anyone to sell you a replacement part. Manufacturers just don’t seem to offer any sort of service these days.
Many tripods that birders use are actually designed for photographers, you know, the ‘professional’ wildlife’ photographers who like to stand for hours by a roosting owl, squeaking at it until it looks up and then martyring themselves for having such patience. We have an old fridge makes similar noises but also keeps food cool, and it doesn’t continually deride you as ‘just a birder’ when you stop by for a look, as if their interest has a higher esoteric value. It doesn’t and, when it comes to the value of a squeaking entity, well which inanimate object do you think is more useful?
I don’t know what the ideal locking mechanism for a tripod leg would be, I’ve yet to see it, but I prefer the clip type and just suffer the nips and flushes.
Carrying the scope is an art form and there are several ways that this necessity can be done. You can sling it over your shoulder, set-up and with the scope attached. The scope will work loose eventually but you will look the part, for a while at least, and the scope should be insured for when it falls off. In truth, this is probably the most practical approach to carrying the scope, you have to be ready at all times and you can add straps to stop the scope taking advantage of gravity, so long as the straps are not a gaudy yellow or red.
Some will say that you should never carry the scope in this way; they are not birders like you and I, and probably carry cotton wool to wrap the scope up in and a dry sack in case it rains. You can also bet that they have never worn sneakers on a muddy track. The birding term for these people is ‘tart’ and we can only hope that they grow out of it.
You can sling a strap from the center column of the tripod to the head and carry it Commando style. This works ok, but you might get shot at in a political uprising situation, or just strolling through a field in Texas, when it gets mistaken for an AK47 or similar. I remember thinking that once when walking through Belfast in Northern Ireland while twitching a White-throated Sparrow. Belfast had been quite noisy at the time, but I saw the sparrow and managed to avoid life-threatening gun-shot injuries, so all was well.
You can buy something like a laundry basket that you carry on your back and that the scope slots into. It makes you look like some sort of transformer but without the intrigue, on the upside, with the scope in it you will look as tall as any bear that you are likely to meet. I don’t like them much, it takes too long to get the thing out and up, and I suspect that lightening is more likely to home in on you in a storm. From a practical point of view, they could be of use if you were required to carry an injured dwarf any distance or, if that is not very pc, an injured foal.
There is also a practical product called Scopac that straps the scope to your (or your manservants) back. Obviously it is useful for carrying a scope but there is a time-lag between divesting yourself of the scope and getting onto the now departing rarity.
Cameras – a camera is rapidly becoming an absolutely indispensable part of the kit and there are many to choose from. You can go the ‘big’ route and buy a bona-fide DSLR, complete with lens. There is an excellent Canon 100-400mm, known as the birder’s lens, but it costs an arm and, later through carrying it ten hours a day, a shoulder and may be a step too far. As the big digital market develops more options will arise but be warned, like patch watching, photography, even on a casual basis, can take over and you will spend more time trying to photograph something, rather than looking at it and learning about it.
The mid-sized digital market is racing on at such a pace that it may well soon supersede the DSLR for anything other than semi-pro-level work, something that will suit many birders. At present there are several very good bridge cameras, some with superb zoom capabilities, but they all have a flaw when it comes to focusing on birds (especially those birds that sit still in full frame!) and they can be infuriating.
Earlier I mentioned digiscoping. Some scope manufacturers have embraced the culture and produce a custom kit for their scopes. They are a bit pricey, and usually require the scope manufacturer’s own camera to be used. There are also various universal type things and you can even get brackets for camera phones, so you have options. Digiscoping is quite a skill and anyone taking it up will need to spend time practicing, but since that means you’ll be in the field, no worries there, then.
How you carry a camera is up to you. I use a shoulder bag but there are various straps and clips and all sorts of clever things that you can adorn your body with to carry out the task. If you opt for one of those chest clips that get in the way of your bins, then you’re not really taking this birding thing seriously now, are you?
You may be wondering to yourself exactly why is a camera deemed to be so very indispensable? It is a two-fold answer, first the practical one.
Sometimes the bird action may be so frenetic that you will have little time to think. You may be overwhelmed by a hawk passage or be inundated by shorebirds moving through. You might have a grounded flock that you’d like to count but don’t have time or you might be one of those birders who photographs everything and identifies it later. If so then the bad news is that your life list just plunged down a level to include only those birds you identified in the field.
I often use my camera to photograph flocks. Not for any aesthetic purpose but so I can count the number of individuals present. Flock counting is a craft of its own and I won’t even go down that road here. Your camera can be a good friend and in the field and even a hastily snatched record shot can help you out when it comes to confirming what you identified at the time. It may also question a confident identification made by you, forcing you to backpedal, something you should always have the good grace to do, even (especially) at the expense of a tick.
The second compelling reason to carry a camera is that the birding world as we know it is more cynical than a lifetime politician filling in an expenses claim. If you see a rarity and your reputation is not spotless, or even if it is, then somewhere out there are little voices of doubt about your record. Voices like that often belonging to pasty-faced indoors folk, often firmly ensconced behind a computer screen it must be said but, thanks for social media they get listened by other pasty-faced idiots.
The little voices will pour scorn on your claim unless you can prove it by producing a photo, even a basic record shot can be enough. The doubters’ logic is that, unless you document a record with a photo, then there is no proof of what you claim you saw, and the record gets shunted towards the dreaded ‘hypothetical’ category. In the scheme of things, this sort of low-brow reaction would not bother you, but we are talking patch birds which, gram for gram, are worth their weight in gold. You want your claim of a rarity on the patch to make the cut and you want a photo anyway so, it is in you and your patch’s best interests to have a camera handy.
Before we move on it should be said that a photo of a rarity proves nothing and the insidious movement away from good field notes is not a good one. Unfortunately there are people out there who will make up records, called stringing in Europe, and they cannot be allowed to prosper. The very thought of a rarity being incorrectly included on a state or province list is abhorrent, almost cataclysmic, and so bleating that ‘no photo, no record’ is the way it is, must surely be correct.
Field guides – in North America we have quite a choice; the best is Sibley, next is the National Geographic, third is the Peterson guide, but in the end it is all down to personal preference and that is mine. You can mix and match with these three. There are many others available too and the rest will have something you can use in them, but it’s your choice in the end. You will probably end up with all three recommended guides plus some. And don’t stop at books, get the apps too.
You will also want some specialist titles and in that I don’t mean anything from ‘under the counter’. You will want books on flying hawks, gulls of all ages, shorebirds similarly attired and warblers from all angles – and don’t forget your sparrows book. There are some great bird and birding books out there and, while this might not be one of them, I do hope it contributes and entertains in equal measure.
In Europe the book to get is the Collins Bird Guide – nothing else comes close. North America might have a Collins guide equivalent one day and it would certainly be nice to think so, but it would need at least two volumes, as there are so many more birds on offer.
Clothing – Do I really need to tell you what to wear – dress dull, no bright anoraks. Such clothing might be great for finding your limp body after a bear attack, or when you are wedged in a ravine and contemplating chewing your arm off, but bright will scare birds away so get your priorities right.
I have to say here that some North American species seem to have become ‘unsuitable clothing’ tolerant through repeated exposure. In much the same way that the volume of a North American birder may be several decibels louder than their European counterpart, but with seemingly no ill-effect on the watching potential. We may be in the process of witnessing Darwin’s evolution theory in action, but until it is indisputably established that bright clothing does not act as a bird frightener, stick to something somber.
Apps – there are some great ones on the market for your electronic devices that are changing the way we bird. An iPod-type thing is essential. You can load the field guides onto it, so no more sneaking a peek at the guide when you think nobody is looking, with the app they won’t know, you could be calling your mom or face-timing a friend (whatever that is!).
You can load your iPod up with helpful apps for recognizing the sounds and, more importantly, playing those sounds back to the birds to get them respond and show. It is the same principle employed in the cage bird trade whereby Budgerigars have been tortured by mirrors for years to make them sing. They think it is another bird and are looking to either beat the crap out of it or to get a date, all with minimal preamble but maximum volume.
There are also apps out there that will identify the bird for you. Perhaps this is a bad time to tell you that there are no refunds on this book, because, if you need an app to identify a bird for you, then you are actually playing a virtual birding game and not a real field birder. My advice would be to log off, get out, and learn those birds properly, yourself.
I’ll list the current apps later, but they will date very quickly. I can also list recommended bins, scopes and tripods although that information may too become dated. Manufacturers please note, I can be bribed within reason, that reason being that your product must be decent and not just an expensive door stop.
A useful bit of birding kit is a compass – why? So that you know which way the birds are flying, which way you are facing, which way the wind is blowing. They also make you look intelligent when other site visitors see you consulting it in the field; for some, every little helps.
All birders should have a notebook and not just a fancy hand-held computer, those electronic recording devices are best regarded as supplementary and, even when we get to the point of being able to dictate sightings into a machine that will download everything into the computer, and they will still not be as good as the real thing. Some will still say that the electronic recording devices have taken over and, if you have more Cheerios in your breakfast bowl than brain cells, then fine, but an electronic device will not serve you in the same way that a notebook will. Ignore my Sage advice if you like; just don’t give me the chance to say I told you so, because I will.
Get a bound notebook and a writing facilitator (pen or pencil!) and write down the relevant details of your birding. The date, the place, the time, the weather as experienced and not off ‘The Weather Network’! Write down who you were with too because, believe me – in thirty years-time, when you struggle to remember what day it is, you will be glad of that information, because the notebook will contain your birding life if you take the time to use it.
So, from the off, use a notebook and, if used properly, it will become more important than your first born (think 16 year old, eh?). It is your only real birding friend and you will spend hours reading and re-reading it for many years to come, really you will.
Now write stuff in it, what you saw, how many, and what were they doing, although with ducks you don’t need to write ‘bobbing’ or ‘diving’ every time. What you see is important, and not only to you. Our birds are up against it, they are being systematically wiped out by a ferocious and pitiless animal that devours their habitats, kills them with their glass windows, wind turbines, power lines, guns and machines, and then gets less than endemic hunters to finish the job, if any survive. That would be you and me, our civilized society and our loving but ruthless pets. Put your records to good use and enter them into eBird – details later. That way, when the birds are all gone, our descendants will know where they used to be and can put up a plaque or, if you use the camera to include photos of your sightings, argue over a pixilated and inconclusive photo of some woodpecker.
Populating a notebook is no easy thing, it can be a lot of writing but there are shortcuts you can use. Take the weather for example. Noting the weather means that you have a point of reference when it comes to figuring out what the birds are doing now and what they might be doing the next time you hit a similar weather pattern. As a patch watcher, the weather will be your great friend when she is being feisty. When she dozes, your patch watching will doze too, so bring on those autumn storms, chilling northerlies and brisk south-westerlies and, if we have to have a slack spell, then please site the jet-stream somewhere that it might collect a hitchhiker.
If you go out and, having already orientated your position on the site, you deem the weather to be cloudy, cool, with a strong north-westerly wind, you can put something like, O/C for overcast or just C for cloudy. Guess the temperature or, better still, have a thermometer somewhere. Now we have, as our notebook entry C, 10°C now we need to add the wind direction, N/W but what about the force? To guestimate wind speed we can use a standard called the Beaufort Scale. At the rear of the book I’ve included my own interpretation of the scale, something a little more relevant to the patch watcher. Also please note, the wind only ever blows in miles per hour.
Now, we have to move on to the single most important thing you will do as a proto-patch watcher, find a patch. It is not always that easy to find a patch that suits you or your birding style. To help a little, I’ve described the perfect patch (for me). Yours, when you find it, will almost certainly be a compromise, I’m afraid