Rio Grande Valley Birding Festival

Pictured above is the current view from my desk at Eagle Optics. On Wednesday we got walloped with 18 inches of heavy snow. The Rio Grande Valley feels very far away as I turn around and look out my window these days.

This year's Rio Grande Valley Birding Festival was simply wonderful. Last November I was on a cruise in Costa Rica and Panama, forcing me to miss this great birding event for the first time in many years. Getting back down to the Valley this year reminded me why it remains one of my favorite birding destinations ever. Lots of my affinity for this event stems from the wonderful volunteers who run the show and their inexhaustible hospitality. It's been such a pleasure to work with those folks over the years. My love for the lower Rio Grande Valley isn't solely due to these fine people. The birds there have their own charismatic draw.

Northern Beardless-Tyrannulet

Great Kiskadee

Inca Dove

Harris's Hawk

Green Jay

Curve-billed Thrasher

Black Throated Sparrow


Digiscoping with a Digital SLR

The Concept

As a concept, digiscoping is as simple as it gets. Put your camera up to a spotting scope's eyepiece and take a picture of what the scope is focused on. However, we often find that in practice things are not as easy as they seem. It's been my experience that one of, if not the biggest challenge of digiscoping, is to get the right mix of scope, camera, and adapter that can easily and effectively be assembled as a complete, photography-ready unit. Why is this?

The Problem

I think the biggest hurdle here is the camera to adapter interface. In today's point-and-shoot camera market there is no uniformity in regards to shape, size, and features. It turns out that camera makers could care less about their products' suitability to digiscoping. As a result, the manufacturers of scopes and digiscoping adapters are forced to come up with intricate, highly adjustable, and often complex universal adapters to fit the plethora of cameras offered to consumers. I'm not interested in making digiscoping any more challenging than it already is. I'll always opt for the route that is fast, simple, and effective.

Pictured above are some of the "universal" digiscoping adapters. Large and mechanically intricate, they offer a less than optimal solution.

The Adapter Solution

The best hardware for digiscoping is that which requires the least amount of forethought or effort to put into use. In regards to camera adapters, the simple tube-style adapters on the market fit the bill perfectly. These tube adapters are simple, both in design and functionality. The premise is a hollow tube screwed onto the front of your camera lens that can slide over a scope's eyepiece, effortlessly centering both lenses at the proper depth. Not only are these adapters easy to deploy, they are compact and lightweight. Question: what's not to love about this type of setup? Answer: it doesn't work with a lot of cameras.

Pictured above are "tube" style adapters offered by Kowa, Vortex, and Swarovski

The Camera Solution

Very few point-and-shoot cameras have the functionality to attach adapters, filters, or boosters to the front lens. The absence of this feature is a design trend that seems to be picking up momentum, and as new models are introduced each year, fewer and fewer of them support filter thread attachments. Here is where a digital single-lens reflex camera (DSLR) fits the bill nicely. Almost all DSLR camera lenses are inherently designed with filter threads that easily adapt to those wonderful tube style adapters. Warning: not all DSLR lenses are suitable for digiscoping. The best lenses are the short focal length lenses. Both Canon and Nikon make 50mm f/1.8 lenses that are relatively inexpensive and perfect for digiscoping. If you're shooting with a Pentax DSLR, you will want the Pentax 40mm f/2.8 “pancake” lens. When using a DSLR for digiscoping, you will need to disable the auto-focus, put the camera on its full manual settings, and set the lens aperture wide open. You will also need to adjust the camera's shutter speed to obtain the proper image exposure.

An exploded view of a full DSLR digiscoping rig, minus a tripod.

Nothing's Perfect

Using a DSLR for digiscoping doesn't come without compromise. DSLR benefits include universal adaptability via a threaded lens and the ability to use, and compose images through, a viewfinder. The drawbacks to DSLR cameras are the inability to use the lens' auto-focus and working with a bigger, heavier camera body. Because of a DSLR's size, I would NOT recommend allowing the camera body and lens to hang unsupported from the spotting scope for any extended period of time.
My current digiscoping set up: Leica 82mm APO Televid with Swarovski DCA and Pentax DSLR

What Are Your Options?

If you've got a DSLR or point-and-shoot camera that uses filter threads, and you need a good digiscoping adapter, I would take a look at the Swarovski DCA, Vortex Razor Digital Adapter, and Kowa DA10 adapter. These three brand-specific adapters accept rings to accommodate various lens thread sizes. I have had some limited luck getting some of these adapters to work with other brands of scopes. For instance, I'm currently digiscoping with the Leica 82mm Televid and, much to my delight, found that the Swarovski DCA adapter fits nicely around the new Leica eyepiece. Be prepared to get creative; if you are going to try to mix and match brands of adapters and scopes, you might need to make your own bushings or modify the adapters in one way or another.


Fall Walk

This past weekend my dad turned 60. We have started a tradition of getting together for Grandpa Bill's birthday to walk among the woods and fields of Southern Wisconsin while enjoying the sights, sounds, and smells of fall. As you can see from the photo above, we have not quite reached our peak fall colors yet, though there are a couple hints of what's yet to come. Here in the southern part of the state, the color change isn't as dramatic as we see elsewhere. The Oak woodlands that make up most of the habitat tend to hold onto their foliage for a longer time and turn more of a brown/red color. As we go north into the Maple and Birch forests, we see more of the spectaular reds, yellows, and oranges that draw onlookers from all over the midwest.

This year we went to Lapham Peak State Park. The weather was gorgeous on Sunday and the park was full of visitors. I haven't seen a state park parking lot quite as full for a number of years. Maybe this was because the Green Bay Packers were only playing the lowly Detroit Lions??? Regardless, I was happy to break away from an afternoon of football to hang out with my family and take in some of the seasonal splendor.
One of our first finds along the trail was this beetle. I'm fortunate to have two daughters that don't shy away from the creepy crawlies. In fact, both girls will gladly come running to check out an unusual beetle, worm, spider, or snake. I came into work this morning and asked a coworker who knows his insects about this beetle. He looked at the picture and quickly identified the bug in question as a Blister Beetle. Following his ID of the bug, he added that it's best to not agitate them because the Blister Beetle emits a chemical that can burn or blister one's skin.

Here is Nya, getting a closer look at what I thought was just an innocent little beetle. Little did we both know that she was tempting fate here. Fortunately for all, the bug was lethargic and mellow. Not in a fighting mood, I guess. When I get home today I'll be sure to tell Nya more about the bug she was handling on Sunday and maybe use it as a lesson to identify such a critter before picking it up....
There was a hint of color in the trees and that wonderful smell of decaying leaves permeated the entire forest.

When we head outdoors we always take our binoculars. I recently got both kids new binoculars. We have a new 6.5x32 model that is particularly well suited for kids. With a wide field of view, narrow interpupilary distance, and bright optics, they are a no hassle piece of equipment that takes the technological challenges out of using binoculars. Especially for kids. They kept my two girls fully engaged for a few hours in the field.

Fall is a season of transition. We spent time with the kids talking about what plants and animals do in preparation for winter. A lot of time was spent looking at seeds and talking about why there are so many different types. Seeds that fly, seeds that bury themselves into the soil, seeds that stick to animals, and seeds that are eaten.

It's always a wonderful day when you get to bring generations together to enjoy and delight in the complexities of nature. I was able to convince the kids that it was a good idea to leave the beetles, leaves, and seeds at the park. To my delight, they did manage to bring home lots of questions. I see a 3rd graders presentation on seeds in my future....


E-Mail from Readers

So it's been a long summer without a whole lot of activity here at 600 Birds, but that sure hasn't slowed down the volume of inquiries I have gotten from regular readers.
Today we will spend a few moments answering your emails......

Chuck from Sheboygan, WI writes:
Great blog Ben! I've really been enjoying your bird photographs and the clever anecdotes that accompany them. My question to you is whether or not you have ever considered a career on television or in film?

Well Chuck, that's a timely question, as I've just wrapped up a short demonstration video of the
Swarovski UCA digiscoping adapter for the Eagle Optics website.

This could prove to be a big breakthrough for me as my agent is now in negotiations with a company who makes frozen dinners marketed toward digiscopers. I'll be sure to keep the updates coming here at 600 birds.

Speaking of digiscoping, Claire from Port Townsend, WA sent this inquiry:

Hey there Ben! I've been a long time reader
of your blog and was wondering when and if you are going to submit some of your photos to Swarovski's Digiscoper of the Year contest? I've heard that it's the place for digiscopers worldwide to show off their stuff!

Well Claire, your e-mail is timely indeed. It turns out I have not submitted any photos to the contest yet and the October 31st deadline is fast approaching! The good news is that I still have time to enter AND I can even submit digiscoped images that I've taken with my new Leica 82mm scope, such as this image of Surfbirds congregating on the rocky shores of Homer, Alaska:

If you have a moment, check out my entire gallery of images here, and give me feedback on any shots you think I should enter in Swarovski's Digiscoper of the Year contest.


New Photo Gallery

Greetings and Happy Friday to all the thousands of readers out there in cyberland . Thanks for once again tuning into the 600 Birds Blog.
I've got a few updates to share with you.
First off, I've moved my gallery of digiscoped photos here. This new space is easier to upload photos to and also more convenient for re-sizing and tweaking them. You'll find more images here than I had on the old Flickr site and it will be updated more regularly.

On a separate note, iconic blogger and fellow Eagle Optics employee Mike McDowell will now be bringing his wonderful insights and photographs to the Eagle Optics Blog. Follow that link to some great footage that Mike recently captured of a Barred Owl tranquilly sipping water from a puddle. The cool thing about that footage is that it was shot through a pair of 8x32 Swarovski EL binoculars.


Harlequin Duck

I was sorting out photos today (lots of them) and came across this nice photo of a Harlequin Duck that I took in Alaska this spring. Here in Wisconsin, we can occasionally see these birds way off in the distance, bobbing among the waves of Lake Michigan. On some of Alaska's inland streams, one is able to get nice close up looks of this spectacular bird.


Midwest Birding Symposium...you really should attend.

Follow this link for a quick 22 reasons why you should be in Ohio this September. I've even managed to convince my wife to attend this event, which happens to fall on our 10-year anniversary. Like I told her, it will be fun AND romantic!

Digiscoping VS DSLR

Wow, I've been absent from this space for awhile and for those 3 or 4 readers that may still be following 600 Birds, thanks for hanging in there. For parents in particular, summers tend to be time vacuums filled with lazy days at the local pool, camping trips, canoe trips, family reunions, soccer leagues, etc, etc... (notice that I didn't mention blogging in the aforementioned activities))

Even though I have been slacking as of late, many of the other birding bloggers out there have stayed the course and are producing insightful and regular postings, most of which I check in on daily. Some of them even have kids.

One of those bloggers who seems to be able to pull off amazing feats of travel, publishing, blogging, business running, kid parenting, bird festival organizing, keynote speaking, music playing, etc..etc...etc... is Bill Thompson. This brings me to the point of this post. Bill recently got back from a trip to Trinidad and recently blogged about his experience digiscoping with the new Leica Televid spotting scopes, and how that rig performed compared to his DSLR. For the full scoop, I recommend you check out the latest post at Bill of the Birds.

I've also been digiscoping with one of these new Leica spotting scopes and they are truely superb. I haven't gotten around to editing newer shots, post-processing, cropping, etc... but when I do, rest assured you can see more here. For now though, I've got to get the kids to horse camp.


New Leica Birding Blog

Jeff Bouton with Leica Sport Optics has started a new blog here. If it wasn't for Jeff, my list of North American Birds seen would probably be around 400 species or so, rather than 597. That guy is a seriously talented birder. He also happens to be a lot of fun to hang out with, so I consider myself fortunate to be able to go birding with him on a regular basis.

The shot above was taken this year in Homer, Alaska, shortly after we saw a Bar-tailed Godwit(below).


Eagles in Alaska

For the past few years, I have been fortunate enough to travel to Homer Alaska in early May to attend the Kachemak Bay Shorebird Festival. While the main attraction is of course, shorebirds, I always associate Homer with eagles. These large fish and carrion eaters are abundant and very approachable almost anywhere on Alaska's Kenai peninsula. Their abundance and commonality reminds me of our Robins here in Wisconsin. Like everything else in Alaska though, these yard-birds are bigger.

Is it a coincidence that the Bald Eagle's plumage mimics one of the fundamental backdrops of the Alaskan landscape, the snow-caped mountain?


San Diego Birding

Here are some of the digiscoping and birding highlights from my last San Diego trip. The San Diego area has some of the most diverse habitat and thus, ample birding opportunities. One of the more common birds in the area is the Western Bluebird, pictured above. I never tire of watching or photographing this species when the chance presents itself.

With the help of some friends, I was able to track down a number of missing species from my bird life list, including the Mountain Plover (above) that we found foraging in agricultural fields near the Salton Sea. Another target bird that we tracked down in the same area is the eye-popping Grey Flycatcher (pictured below). This is a bird that is drab even by Empidonax standards.

The bird pictured above is a California Gnatcatcher. Federally endangered, this species is most easily distinguishable from the Black-tailed Gnatcatcher by the almost entirely black underside of its tail.
California Gnatcatcher, perched on barb wire.
I've got some serious catching up to do here at 600 Birds. Since my last post I've been to Corpus Christi for the American Birding Association convention and shortly after that, I flew to Homer, Alaska for the Kachemak Bay Shorebird Festival. After those two trips, I now find myself sitting at 597 birds. Looking ahead to my travels in the fall, I'm wondering where I'm going to find those next 3 birds.

In the meantime, summer is here and I'll be tending to our gardens and hanging out with my kids, who all of a sudden have a lot more free time on their hands. That won't stop me from daydreaming about that Black-billed Cuckoo that I still need to cross paths with.


Eagle Optics at the Great Texas Birding Classic

On Sunday, I participated in the Great Texas Birding Classic's Bit Sit competition. If you are wondering what exactly is a "big sit", I recommend you check out this YouTube video by Bill Thompson and Eagle Optics.

Our Big Sit site was at the South Padre Island Convention Center. It was a windy day with few migrants but we had a fantastic time, spoke with lots of birders, and saw quite a few birds in the process.

Team member Michael O'Brien scouts for shorebirds from a ladder perched against our modest shelter for the day. Michael literally wrote the book on shorebirds, so if anyone was up to the task it was him. Fellow shorebird author Richard Crossley also joined us for a bit, so I felt we were in exceptionally good hands.

Here is an overview of our site. We had excellent views of multiple habitats from this spot. The ladder, contributed by Rio Grande Valley Birding Festival President Danny Hoehne, allowed us to get some long views that added significant numbers of species to our list for the day.

Here's a team photo (left to right): me, Terry Fuller, Marci Fuller, Susan Hoehne, Danny Hoehne, Micheal O'Brien, and Louise Zemaitis. Louise is another amazing birder and bird artist. I feel so grateful to have been part of such a collective wealth of talent on this team.
We ended the day with a respectable 98 species on our list. Very well considering the windy conditions which blew most all the smaller migrants right past the island on their way north.
This Blackpoll Warbler was one of 4 warblers we had on Sunday.

The boardwalk at the convention center allowed excellent close-up looks at rails, waders, and shorebirds, including this Short-billed Dowitcher.

Wind-blown, Tri-colored Heron.

Yellow Warbler.


It's Not Always About Birds

So when I'm not birding, digiscoping, selling binoculars, blogging, or spending time with friends and family, you can often find me in the garage/workshop behind my house, tinkering around on a number of different diversions. Most often, I'm engaged in a furniture making project of some type.
This is the shop. I find woodworking a great way to break from my usual routines. It allows me to spend time in a space all of my own, full of sawdust, lumber, motorcycles, tools, and skateboards. These are some of my favorite things that I don't get to keep in my house. I also get to listen to whatever music I like at whatever volume appeals to me at the moment.
Another aspect of furniture making that appeals to me is that I get to work with my hands to build something. That's a sensation near and dear to me, which is generally absent from my usual work obligations.
This current project is a cabinet that will be in my living room, housing our stereo system and other A/V related goods. Probably a few books as well. It's made from Quarter-Sawn White Oak.

This particular wood was harvested from an old tree that was taken down at a park not far from my house. It's a wonderful feeling to look at a piece of furniture I made and be able to recall the tree that it used to be. In this case, it was an ancient tree that I often watched Blue Jays harvest acorns from while my kids played at the local swimming pool. I'll miss it as a tree but am grateful to have been able to get the bulk of the trunk for some furniture projects.

Here are the sliding doors, sitting on top of the cabinet, waiting to be installed.

It looks kind of like a coffin, sitting on the bench.

The shop attracts other wayward men from the neighborhood, such as the fellow pictured above. These individuals, often looking for respite from their day-to-day lives, are drawn to the power tools, obnoxious music, and motorcycles. I guess it's a brotherhood of sorts.