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

Birding as a contact sport

Posted by: Jim Williams Updated: February 12, 2014 - 5:33 AM

Jude and I were in Ramsey yesterday (11 Feb 14) afternoon, looking for the Snowy Owl being seen there, and hoping to see some of the photographers who are using mice to bait the owls into position for “hunting” photos. The owl was there. Two guys with stubby ice-fishing rods were there, fake mice tied to the end of the fishing line. Casting for owls. They were kneeling in the snow about 50 feet from the bird. I walked to within about of 20 feet of them, behind them, and began talking to them, to their backs, actually. 

I told them using mice is wrong. It stresses the bird. It’s unethical. The photos would be fakes, cheesy photos. Never one to under-emphasize, I said most of this at least twice. I invited them to cast a fake mouse so I could take a photo. They neither did so nor turned to face me.

The fake mouse on the fishing line is tossed toward the owl, then retrieved to lure the owl into attack. The owl, of course, gets nothing for its effort. It expends energy and wastes time. We have no way of knowing the cost to the bird of these fruitless hunting efforts. How many times in recent weeks have Twin Cities Snowy Owls wasted energy on cold days in pursuit of fake mice? This is being done at both the Ramsey site and in Dakota County along 180th Street, and perhaps elsewhere. It is an unfortunately common way that a handful of photographers use to scam owls.

After maybe 20 minutes in Ramsey, the two men with fishing rods left. There was a small older one and a large younger one. Walking past me to get to the parking lot, the larger fellow said to me, “Take my picture and I’ll break your f…ing nose.” To add insult to potential injury he said my camera was shitty. So there!! 

His comments weren’t unexpected. I certainly did push. But the reluctance of those two men to have their photos taken tells me that they understood perfectly well that their behavior was bad for the owl. These birds get stressed, heart rate elevated, stress hormones released. There is no way to know this by looking at the bird. I read of a comment by a photographer in Dakota County who said of an owl, “Look at him. He’s not stressed. He just sits there and watches us.” The bird should not be watching photographers. It should be hunting. 

Four other photographers were present in Ramsey, none armed with mice. Two of them came over to introduce themselves. One of them told me that if I had been “attacked” the four of them were ready to intervene. Can you believe this? Six birders wrestling in two feet of snow because one of them is desperate for a photo!  Half an hour later the big ornery guy returned. He walked past me to get onto the path into the owl field, saying in a very quiet polite voice as he passed, “I’m just going to look for something I lost, and then I’ll get out of your hair.” He almost sounded contrite. If so, good for him. What a day! 

Photos can be taken of the birds without harm. Keep your distance. Get in and out quickly. Leave if the bird seems to be paying attention to you.

I work with Nikon equipment.. The shot here was taken from about 100 feet with a 400mm lens. One picture is as it came from the camera, the other cropped in Photoshop to enlarge the image of the bird. (The photo would be better if I had a better camera.)





Photos of the Snowy Owl being seen in Ramsey

Posted by: Jim Williams Updated: February 9, 2014 - 10:38 PM

Photographer Michael Thompson spent about five hours Saturday watching for opportunities to photograph the Snowy Owl that has been seen for several days near the intersection of U.S. Highway 10 and 147th Avenue in Ramsey (which is about 10 miles east of Elk River). His cold fingers were rewarded with many excellent shots of the bird. These two show it approaching its landing point atop an evergreen tree at the edge of a public street. Thompson, shown in the third photo as he watched the owl, kindly agreed to share them.

There have been some problems with photographers and a Snowy Owl in Dakota County. Those particular photographers have been trespassing, and approaching the owl close enough to flush it. One day last week someone was seen tossing live mice to the bird as photographers waited for a" hunting" shot. (How happy or proud can you be of a photo that was faked?). All of this is photographic and birding behavior at its worst. Birds never should be disturbed. And feeding an owl is unethical, habituating the bird to humans, which can only lead to problems. 

The photographers at Ramsey, and there were five in addition to Thompson, kept their distance from the owl, waiting for it to give them photo opportunities. All were working with telephoto lenses. The bird was allowed to behave in a natural manner. Excellent photos obviously were available without cost to the bird. And Mr. Thompson obviously was equipped to wait as long as was necessary. 

Better portable sound for bird-call recordings

Posted by: Jim Williams Updated: October 17, 2013 - 3:19 PM

If you use recordings of bird calls on your iPhone or iPad or other such devices you're probably not getting the volume you might want. I'm not, not even when plugging in my old clam-shell speaker, small and handy, but lacking carrying power. Take a look at some new speakers highly recommended by David Pogue, the New York Times tech guy. Go to http://pogue.blogs.nytimes.com,"Terrific Sound in a Tiny Package."

Did you hear that?

Posted by: Jim Williams Updated: February 25, 2013 - 11:38 AM

A. Birds can hear well.

B. Many single-lens reflex digital cameras make a loud sound (noise) immediately after the shutter release is pushed.

C. See photos below.

The cardinal, a female, was sitting on a feeder post on our deck before prior to snow seed foraging. I was inside, a double pane of glass between us, like 10 feet. I took four or five photos, bird on the post, bird with seed. On shot number six the bird became very alert, crest upright, eyes snapped toward me. You can see what happened as I took photo seven.

This isn’t the first time this has happened to me. Hardly. I should have kept all the before/after pairs of photos. Before the bird heard the camera, looking at whatever kept its attention. After the bird heard me, saw me, and left me.

You probably know this: Single-lens reflex 35mm cameras allow you, the photographer, to see your subject with a mirror placed just behind the lens. The mirror shows you what the lens sees. When you press the shutter release, the mirror snaps up, allowing light to reach the digital sensor (i.e. film). And then the mirror returns to position with, in my case, a loud and annoying clack.

I work with a newer model Nikon digital camera that I considered expensive when I bought it. I knew about the clack. I was unwilling to spend twice as much or more for a high-high-end model that made far less noise. You’d think that camera manufacturers could find an inexpensive way to solve this problem.

Some birds either don’t hear the noise or don’t mind. This cardinal heard and cared. I was impressed. Small benefit: I really do like that snapped-to crest.





Not what you want to see at your feeders

Posted by: Jim Williams Updated: January 8, 2013 - 3:05 PM

 This cat came out of the swamp behind our house Monday morning, spending much of the day below our yard-based bird-feeding rig. I chased it back into the brush twice, but the cat came back. I think it's a feral animal. I've not see it around here before. It's gone feral or its owner lets it outside, a bad idea. Cats kill birds and other small animals. They also get eaten by coyotes and hit by cars. It's best for everyone if cats stay indoors. For a very graphic depiction of the damage cats do, take a look at what I found to be an entertaining and novel way of making the point. The address is http://theoatmeal.com/comics/cats_actually_kill

While in California over the holidays we came upon a woman who feeds 47 feral cats. I was polite, though doubtful when she said she fed her wards so well that they did not hunt. She told us the cats wander in to join the herd. She takes each newcomer, she said, to the vet for vacinations and neutering. That's a necessity if one is to feed feral cats, but hardly a solution for the killing they instinctively do, full tummies or not. All cats belong indoors. Having 47 indoors, however, is likely to get you in the newspaper sooner or later.

Here's the animal that has been pestering us.














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