Jim Williams has been watching birds and writing about their antics since before "Gilligan's Island" went into reruns. Join him for his unique insights, his everyday adventures and an open conversation about the birds in your back yard and beyond.

Posts about Birding equipment

Kids and the binocular trap

Posted by: Jim Williams Updated: September 14, 2014 - 5:25 PM

Kids:  The Binocular Trap
by Paul J. Baicich 


Why is it that when you share binoculars with an adult, perhaps a beginning bird watcher, you make sure that you share a solid, quality, even impressive, pair of binoculars, but when you go afield with a child, say, between 8 and 12 years of age, almost any pair of binoculars will do?


Worse yet, why is it that inexpensive and light "compact binoculars" are almost always ascribed to kid use?
It's a big mistake.

Too often, the very people whom many bird educators value the most, youngsters, are left with the worst in introductory binoculars.  Nothing will discourage continued bird-watching activity and learning in the field more than an initial experience with binoculars that are, essentially, junk. It's just no fun.

There are important optics features that need attention when dealing with youngsters. These may include the ability for the young folks to get their hands around the binoculars, access the focusing knob, and adjust the interpupillary distance (to match the closeness of the eyes among the youngest kids in the group). 


Finding the bird in the tree or bush is difficult enough for beginning birders — of any age — without having to deal with a narrow field of view or a high magnification that may have the image almost bouncing around.

Try a lower power — between 6X and8X — and definitely stick to a wide field of view.

Training and help — from a parent or other adult — is essential. Learning to bring the binoculars to your face, while constantly watching the bird, needs practice. (Focusing on a far-off sign — and reading simple text — is a fine way to learn locating the object and focusing properly.)  While practice makes perfect, that practice can be squandered if the binoculars are unserviceable.

Today there are many options for binoculars appropriate for youngsters. Relatively good quality binoculars can be secured for around $100 or even less. Some of these are porro-prism binoculars that can be outstanding. There are many options. (Editor’s note: Talk to a binocular expert at one of the National Camera stores in the Twin Cities.


A final point to be aware of is warranty.  Some manufacturers will offer a unconditional warranty, a relief when binoculars get dropped, slammed against a tree, or run over with a lawn mower. 
Don't sell the kids short. They usually arrive in the field eager to learn something new. Don't make it difficult for them at the very outset. Make it fun.

[Paul Baicich is a birding consultant. He is former editor of the American Birding Association's magazine, "Birding." Ben Lizdas, Tom Rusert, and Dave Watkins provided advice for this article]

Early morning find

Posted by: Jim Williams Updated: May 31, 2014 - 2:09 PM

This is what can be found, maybe, if you get up and out early in the morning. I took the shot at about 7:30 a.m. That is early for me. Birding was OK, this was better. The doe is looking at me, about 50 yards distant, already one shot in the camera, the loud click of the SLR mirror making her alert. Love the camera, hate the noise. SLR -- single-lens reflex, 35mm format, the image transferred to my eye for framing and focus by a mirror in front of the shutter. Hit the button, the mirror flops up (or down), the shutter moves, the image is caught, the mirror immediately returning to be ready for the next shot. The flop is noisy. 

The movements of an urban Snowy Owl

Posted by: Jim Williams Updated: March 27, 2014 - 5:06 PM

The Minnesota Snowy Owl that has been tracked by GPS signals since Jan. 26 has moved to a location west of Cosmos,  Minnesota. That is a shift 15 miles west-northwest from its previous site south of Hutchinson. It moved to Hutch from its long-time location in Ramsey, Minnesota, west of Anoka, where it was netted and given its transmitter. This bird is named Ramsey. It is one of 21 Snowy Owls equipped with transmitters by ProjectSNOWstorm, based in Pennsylvania. The project was initiated when the owls began being seen in the eastern U.S. by the hundreds earlier this winter. The owls and the technology came together as a unique opportunity to follow movement of these birds. You can track Ramsey and the other owls at www.projectSNOWstorm.org.

Below is an image (©ProjectSNOWstorm and Google) from the project website showing the movements of an owl located in urban Baltimore. The transmitter on this bird was set to record location every 30 seconds instead of 30 minutes. The illustration shows movements over a two-hour period.

ProjectSNOWstorm will follow the birds as they move back north to breeding grounds. Information is sent to project headquarters via cell-phone technology. The data is downloaded whenever the birds are within range of a cell-phone tower. Yes, there are few if any cell towers in Arctic Canda, but the transmitters can collect and store thousands of pieces of location data for transmission when possible.

You also can use the website to make a contribution to help with financing of the project.

Wildlife photography code of ethics

Posted by: Jim Williams Updated: February 20, 2014 - 11:21 AM

There are codes of ethics for people who photograph wildlife. These codes and guidelines easily can be found on the Internet by Googling “wildlife photography ethics.”

There is an ongoing clash locally involving behavior of some of the photographers taking photos of Snowy Owls. Not all photographers; let me be clear on that. There are many photographers who understand and follow appropriate behaviors. And there are those few who do not.

Perhaps you saw the WCCO-TV (Channel 4) story two nights ago on the 5 p.m local news. It illustrated and discussed the issue of baiting owls. Baiting involves either offering an owl a live mouse to lure the bird into close photo range, or casting fake mice toward the bird for the same purpose. These photographers have been particularly present at a site in Dakota County and at another location in the City of Ramsey, a northern suburb. There, you might see them in action between Armstrong Boulevard and Ferret Street along 147th Avenue. Watch for the ice-fishing rods and reels used for casting dummy mice.

The Ramsey owl, unfortunately cooperative, has been harassed in such a fashion for days, maybe weeks. The same photographers appear, with the same fake or store-bought mice. These men have been told by other photographers on site that such behavior is unethical, and bad for the bird. Those comments have been met with laughter and threats, or the people urging appropriate behavior are simply ignored.

It seems that none of the the photographers who need to bait owls to get the photos, photos they must desperately want, know anything about ethics. They seem ignorant of the numerous wildlife photography clubs and national associations that have very specific codes of conduct. These codes pointedly say baiting is unethical and should never be used to bring a bird close for photos. 

So, our bozo photographers either are so uninformed about their own hobby that they don’t know behavior codes exist, or they just don’t care. 

Our DNR and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service are looking into interpretation of existing laws concerning harassment of birds. The debate is whether baiting is or isn’t harassment. Well, according to many wildlife photography groups baiting, illegal or not, is unethical. If you are a photographer who would represent your hobby in an acceptable way, baiting or use of lures to bring birds closer to the camera should not be done.

Here are excerpts from two photography codes:

Nature Photographers Network — “Do not entice a wild animals with food (baiting) in order to get the photo.” 

digicamhelp.com: “Never force an action.” “Never feed or leave food (baiting) for wildlife.”

North American Nature Photography Association: “… use good judgement: treat wildlife, plants, and places as if you were their guest.”


britishbirds.co.uk: “Be honest in declaring the circumstances in which a picture was taken.” I include this because I wonder how many of our baiters are explaining their methods when showing off their photos. It’s not hard to find these photos on Facebook and other photo-posting sites. If you go to look, pay attention to explanations, if any, on how the photo was obtained -- with true skill and care or faked with baiting. In my experience as a wildlife photographer the chances of a raptor attempting or making a capture or kill directly in front of you, at close range, is nearly impossible. Such photos are almost always faked. How can a person be proud of or brag about a faked photo?

Ottawa Field-Naturalists Bird Committee: “Keep a good distance away and do not linger.”

International Association of Wildlife Photographers: “In the field, security and lack of disturbance of the animal must be put before all other things.”

In conversation this week with another photographer at the Ramsey location I was told that a local nature photographers club met recently and discussed the ethics of baiting. I was told club members broke about 50/50 on whether or not baiting was acceptable. I hope that’s not true. I hope someone misunderstood. I hope photo clubs here have clear ethical standards. I hope the clubs are not endorsing behavior that wildlife photographers world-wide find unacceptable. 

Binocular purchase guideline

Posted by: Jim Williams Updated: February 18, 2014 - 3:31 PM

How much should you spend on a pair of binoculars? This question has been followed for several days on the birding email network BirdChat. Today, this piece of advice: Spend as much on your binoculars as you would on one month of rent or one monthly house payment.

This comes from a book by Jack Connor, "The Complete Birder." I don't know when it was published, but I'd guess rent and house payments were lower than. I'm not sure you could find binoculars priced high enough today to match many current monthly rent/mortgage payments.


Connect with twitterConnect with facebookConnect with Google+Connect with PinterestConnect with PinterestConnect with RssfeedConnect with email newsletters