Sunday, March 28, 2010

Vocal Ravens And Black Vultures In Flight

This is a view from the top of Great Hill. Looking across in the distant background is Sleeping Giant State Park. The park which got its name because the hills within the park supposedly look like a giant lying on its back when seen from a distance.
While hiking up Great Hill I was listening to Johnny Cash on my mp3. He was singing a song he wrote in 2002 titled: When The Man Comes Around . It seemed fitting that I was listening to a singer known as "The Man In Black" as the birds of black began a performance of their own. I spent the next two hours watching 4 Common Ravens displaying aerial maneuvers and communicating with each other using various vocalizations. Observers have counted them making up to 30 different vocalizations and they also have the ability to mimic a human voice. I think if a raven landed next to me and started talking I would be concerned that the altitude was causing a shortage of oxygen to my brain. There were also 2 Black Vultures and several Turkey Vultures sharing the same air space with the ravens. The tail of the Black Vulture appears short and stout compared to the tail of a Turkey Vulture. You can also see the silvery wingtips which are present on the Black Vulture but not the Turkey Vulture.
The silver wingtips are even more noticeable when you viewing them as they are flying directly over head.
click to play
You can hear some of the vocalizations and watch some of the flight maneuvers of the ravens on this video. Towards the end a Black Vulture also makes an appearance. Ravens are known to be both playful and intelligent. I was reading about the Common Raven on Wikipedia and was fascinated by some of the interesting things that they have been observed doing like sliding down snowbanks for fun and dropping stones on predators that wander too close to their nests. They were very uncommon in Connecticut up until just a few years ago. It's mice to have the opportunity to watch them so close to home.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Bird Watching At Local Nature Preserves

I celebrated the official start of the Spring season by visiting some local Nature preserves in our area. One of the places I visited was Smith Park which is located behind the Moody School in Middletown. I was walking along a path that circles around a small patch of woods when I saw a Red Fox standing beside a vernal pool. I was concealed behind some branches but the fox ran off when I reached for my camera. Immediately after the fox disappeared, a male Northern Cardinal landed on a branch directly in front of me. He looked me right in the eye and was so close enough to peck me on the nose if he wanted to. (click on his photo for larger view).
Another place that I visited this weekend was the Abe Tomkin Nature Preserve. The entrance to the trail is located within a residential neighborhood on Cedar Terrace in Portland. The sign for the entrance is partially obstructed by a small evergreen. I followed the trail down a steep ravine, crossed a stream by way of a small bridge, and then climbed back up the steep hill on the opposite side. I held onto some tree roots in a few spots because the leaves were slippery as I approached the top of the hill. There were several trees labeled with signs which denoted such species as Black Birch, Tulip, Sycamore, Pignut hickory, Yellow Birch, Northern Red Oak, Eastern Cottonwood, and American Hornbeam. The trees were labeled by Eagle Scout Drew Rusnak and Glastonbury resident Ed Richardson in 2003. At the top of the hill was a large open field used for hunting. I could See a hunting blind and deer stand at the edge of the field. I was at the edge of the field looking down into the woods when I saw this Pileated Woodpecker hammering away at a tree. You can tell from the photo that this a male. The crest is red all the way to the base of the bill and you can also see a bit of his red moustache. Females have a red crest which is black at the forehead and they have a black moustache.

I also witnessed some interesting bird behavior by two woodpeckers that were at the opposite end of the size spectrum from the pileated. Two male downies were clinging to base of a tree that was about 4" in diameter. They repeatedly peaked around the tree and stared at each other as they flicked their wings in an outward motion. They started scaling the tree and continued with this behavior as they ascended towards the top. They were moving their bodies from side to side at times. It is hard to describe every detail of this encounter but I watched them for quite a while before continuing on along the trail.

The stream turned into a swampy area at the end of the trail. I could hear many birds singing in the area but one song in particular had my attention. It that of a Winter Wren whose song is described by Peterson as follows: a rapid succession of high tinkling warbles and trills, prolonged, often ending on a very high, light trill. I've only had the chance to hear these birds sing a couple of times in Connecticut so this was an unexpected treat. On my way out, I was startled 5 deer suddenly springing up from a nearby patch and running off in leaps and bounds.
I visited Highland Pond Preserve on Sunday. it is located near Saw Mill Road in Middletown. I was a little disappointed when I first saw this place because I was expecting an area that would be a little more secluded. There were roads and houses all around it but I decided to follow the trail around the pond to have a closer look. The land surrounding the pond includes marsh, some wooded areas and a brook.
I was glad that I gave this place a chance or I might not have noticed it was a desirable place for Wood Ducks (above photo) and many other species of birds including: Red-bellied Woodpecker, Mute Swan, Canada Goose, Mallard, Yellow-bellied Sapsucker, Red-winged Blackbirds, Belted kingfisher, Eastern Phoebe (everywhere this weekend), White-throated Sparrows, and Yellow-rumped Warblers.

I've come to really appreciate areas of land that have been set aside for preservation. I've found that it's best not to have high expectations when visiting such areas. I like to discover what it is about each area that makes it special and then appreciate it for what it is. These areas which are often overlooked may offer a quiet place to observe birds and other wildlife.

We had fantastic weather in Connecticut this weekend. The sun was shining and the temperature reached highs near 70 both Saturday and Sunday. It was a great start to the Spring season and we've only just begun!
click to play Pileated Woodpecker video- (warning: shaky video).
Abe Tomkin and Highland Pond Preserve are both properties owned by: Middlesex Land Trust

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Which Superzoom Camera Is The Best?

I bought my first and only camera, the Canon S2IS about five years ago. It has served me well but it does have its limitations. One of the first things I noticed about the camera is that it doesn't work well in low lighting situations. On overcast days, I am hesitant to attempt taking photos of birds. One exception would be large, white birds which I seem to have more success with on cloudy days than I do on bright, sunny days.
Taking photos of snow scenery also seems to work well on days with poor lighting. This photo was taken at Wadsworth Park in February. I resorted to taking photos of snow when my attempts at photographing birds didn't work out.
This is a photo of ice damming up along the Connecticut River in Portland taken in the month of February. My hope is that my next camera will perform better in low light situations so that I'm not forced to resort to taking photos of big white objects whenever the lighting is poor. I've tried adjusting the settings but it doesn't seem to help the end result much.
Another option I would like to see on my new camera is a manual focus ring so that I can zero in on birds in the bush. The manual focus on my current camera is too much trouble to bother with. I tried to used auto focus to capture a photo of this bluebird one cloudy day. The autofocus targets the bush, not the bird resulting in a drab, out- of-focus picture of a bluebird.

So the question is, which is the best new super zoom camera for taking photos of birds? I've been reading comments from birders in the photography section of Birdforum, and reviews on sites like, camera labs, and dp preview hoping to find some answers. I know very little about cameras but here are a few things that I've learned from reading these various websites:

  • Dslr cameras have bigger sensors than the superzooms which one of the reasons the dslr's procuce better picture images.

  • Bigger numbers don't always mean better images. 30x optical zoom does not mean you can take a photo of a bird from twice the distance of a 15x optical zoom camera. I'm not exactly how the whole zoom thing works but the numbers are misleading. I've also read that more megapixels does not necessarily mean better quality photos.

What I'm really looking for is a camera that is very similar to a dslr camera but has a fixed superzoom lens. The most popular superzoom cameras used by birders seems to be the Canon superzooms followed by the Panasonic Lumix Series of cameras but there are many others brands on the market.

Here are a few cameras that I have been considering.

  • Canon Powershot sx20-This should be an improvement over my camera. It has HD video, 20x optical zoom and 12.1 megapixels. From what I've seen, it still doesn't perform very well in low light.

  • Panasonic DMC-FZ35-This is has 18x optical zoom but it uses a Leica lens. Some say that this camera produces sharper images and works better in low light than the Canon does.

  • Panasonic DMC FZ50 -It is the opinion of some that this is still the best superzoom avaiolable. It has a manual focus ring just like the dslr's do. This particular model came out in 2006 but for some reason the retail price on this camera has increased instead of decreased. It has 12x optical zoom versus the 20x or 30x that the other superzooms come with these days.

  • Fujifilm Finepix HS-10 -This is due to be released in April. It has a lot of promising features but can it deliver on those promises? : 30x, "superior low light performance ", high speed shooting capability, manual focus ring, and twist-barrel manual zoom are just a few of the advertised features. If this camera lives up to its claims it might be the one I'm looking for.

I plan on purchasing the camera soon but I'm holding off a bit due to a past experience. Some time ago, I bought a 36" Sony television. It is so heavy that the glass doors on the stand upon which it sat shattered from the pressure caused by the weight of the television. If I had held off for one more year , I could have purchased a high definition flatscreen television for the same price. That is why I have been taking the wait and see approach with the cameras.

For those of you who currently use a superzoom camera-Are you pleased with the performance of your camera? What do you like or not like about it?

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Bird & Environment Related Information Links

I sometimes receive information about blogs, birds, and the environment by way of e-mail. Much of the information is interesting enough that I hesitate to delete it even though I may not follow through with whatever it is that is requested of me. Here are some links to information for anyone that is interested:

I've left the comments off for this since it is just FYI

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Stuck In Marsh & Hairy Woodpecker Video

The marsh area seen in this photo borders Pecausett Pond , a tidal cove which is connected to the Connecticut River by way of a small stream. The cove is popular among fishermen, especially for ice fishing during the winter months. I accessed the area from Grove Street in Portland. There was no established trail so I had to fight my way through prickers and flooded woodlands to reach the marsh. I saw a few interesting birds. There was a Sharp-shinned Hawk picking at some food source on the ground , 2 sub-adult Bald Eagles perched in trees at the edge of the pond, Turkey Vultures circling overhead, and a few Eastern Bluebirds moving about in the area. I walked slowly across the marsh towards the edge of the pond hoping I could get close enough to take some pictures of some of the birds I mentioned. The dead vegetation may look dry but about half way across I sunk down into the mud up to my knees. After that, all I was worried about was getting back to my truck safely. It took some time but I eventually found my way back out. I noticed that the Middlesex Land Trust bought some of the surrounding land. This would make a nice place make an early morning visit if a boardwalk could be built for improved access to the area.

I've been using Google Earth trying to find new areas to explore along the Connecticut River. It's given me some ideas for places to explore but sometimes they're not what I expected when I get there. This male Northern Flicker has been showing up at our suet feeder throughout the winter. My wife is always happy when it shows up for a visit. I thought that I would post his picture before Spring officially arrives (click on the photo for greater detail).

Here is a video of a Hairy Woodpecker that I encountered while walking along a trail in Meshomasic State Forest. Hairy Woodpeckers are larger than downies but their size seems to vary among individuals. In field guides the Hairy Woodpecker's bill length is described as being almost the same length as their head but the bill length seems to vary too. When you see a hairy side by side with a downy the difference in size and bill length really stands out. The female in this video was repeatedly making her loud peek! call while excavating a hole in a tree. It's usually this call that helps me locate Hairy Woodpeckers. I also saw 3 Brown Creepers and my first Chipping Sparrow of the year in the same stretch of woods.