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.
Our heated bird bath is soaking in bleach right now. It will be on the deck within the hour. The birds that were on the sunny edge of our pond yesterday morning are back. They found melt water there yesterday in early afternoon. Today, we'll see how long it takes them to find our open water. We have a simple metal pan, heated electrically from beneath, mounted in a rough wooden frame. We tend to avoid fancy. Birds have never complained.
Watching our muskrats this morning I noticed bird activity on the far side of our pond, where the morning sun had hit. The birds were at the pond edge, pecking at the ice. They were looking for water. I had cardinals, chickadees, nuthatches, goldfinches, House Finches, and one Downy Woodpecker. Eventually, one observant goldfinch found open water at the muskrat lodge near that shore. The mammal had an entry hole in the half-inch-thick ice. Soon, chickadees were drinking there, too. It's very dry everywhere -- no rain, no snow, ponds iced over. Birds can't find water. This is a good time to put your heated bird bath to work, or to buy one. You'll need an outdoor electric outlet. Water is almost better for attracting birds in the winter than food is. Natural food always is available, but water can be difficult to find at best. Snow will help when it arrives. There's almost always a bit of melting snow and drops of water somewhere. That won't lessen the attraction of an open bowl of water in your yard. Below, a chickadee at the muskrat lodge opening. By the way, this is not the traditional cattail lodge often seen in marshes. This muskrat built with sticks and clumps of muddy leaves, all of it speckled with duck weed.
Enough already. Sony will release in November birding binoculars that film video in HD as well as taking 7-megapixel photographs of the bird you're looking at. If you can't identify the bird when you see it, you can look at your photos when you get home.
This is another case of doing something because it can be done, not because it should be done.
What is termed "birder-friendly features" include magnification up to 20x, electronic as well as manual focus, image stabilization not only for the photos but also for binocular use, optional 3-D shooting, and integrated geotagging (via your GPS unit). All this for from $1,400 to $2,000.
Next up: drone birding binoculars, optics mounted on your very own drone, a machine you guide from the comfort of your couch. It will hover with the hummingbirds and hang with the hawks. It'll have software that IDs the bird for you, sending you a text message or a Twitter or posting to your Facebook account.
No more wind or rain or sun in your eyes. No more brambles or bugs or wet feet.
No more near misses. No more hope for another sighting that brings you into the field again. No more losses to flavor the wins.
No thanks. Give me good basic binoculars and a pair of comfortable shoes.
Binoculars are THE essential piece of equipment for bird watching. Comfortable shoes and a good identification book are good ideas, but you must have binoculars. You want the best you can afford, and you want to buy them from someone who can visit intelligently with you about your particular needs, and then help you make a good choice.
You can buy binoculars in many places, in sporting good stores, in stores specializing in hunting equipment, from catalogs and on the Internet. I wouldn’t choose any of those sources. I want to buy from someone who understands what I need, and can help me choose binoculars that fit my activity, my hands, and my budget.
Optics have improved much in recent years, and prices have come down as quality went up. You can spend $2,000 for super binoculars. You can get good ones that will serve a casual birder well for years for a few hundred dollars, perhaps as little as $200.
Again, it’s important to buy from a vendor that understands optics and a birder's particular needs.
Magnification is important, obviously, but so is the ability of the glass to gather light and to present it to you without color distortion. Weight is a factor; I think lighter is better. Binoculars hanging from your neck can become heavy pretty quickly. And the binoculars should fit your hands.
If someone were to ask me, as that reader did, where to go for good service and good equipment, I’d say National Camera, which has several stores in the Twin Cities. I use the Golden Valley store, and have for years. My binoculars and all of my camera equipment have come from there. They are knowledgeable about what they sell. You have a 30-day return period. It's a good place, with a wide selection of equipment from many manufacturers.
Binoculars come with two numbers. My Swarovski bins, for instance, are 10x32s. My two pair of Bausch and Lomb Elites are 8x42s. The first number – 8 or 10 – refers to magnification. The larger the number, the greater the magnification. Also magnified is any motion while you have the glass to your eyes. Some people have an unsteady grip, and find a wavering image a problem. At my age, this could be a problem. It isn’t.
The second number – 32 or 42 – refers to the light-capturing quality of the lenses. A higher number means the lens gathers more light. This makes the image brighter. Details, particular in shade, are easier to see. Think of a thrush beneath a bush.
The Bausch and Lomb bins are heavy compared to the Swarovski. The Swarovski pair is smaller, fitting my hands well.
Why do I have three pairs of good bins? Before my first real birding trip, with a tour group heading for Arizona, I bought the first pair of B&Ls. The binoculars I had been using were so maladjusted, so out of alignment that the eyestrain was palpable. I used them for a long time because, I guess, I didn’t know any better. A few years later, B&L discontinued the model I had purchased, and National Camera was selling them for half price. I bought another pair for “just in case.”
When I held and looked through the Swarovski bins about 10 years later, I had no problem deciding to take them home. To me, they’re worth every dollar they cost.
I’m certain there are other retailers who are knowledgeable about binoculars, and who give good service. One thing I wouldn’t do is buy via the Internet from a dealer out of town. Prices might be better on some Web sites. Post-purchase service can be another thing.
My iPod holds a few Willie Nelson songs, some Mozart, and the songs and calls of hundreds of North American bird species. The bird songs are what I consider most important. I use them to refresh my memory of who sings what. I use them to check on a heard song or call, to put a name to that. And I have used them to pull birds into sight. The iPod, with an attached set of small, inexpensive Radio Shack speakers, is perfect for the job. You can even set the iPod to loop that particular sound cut, to play it over and over and over.
The use of recordings is not uncommon among active birders. It works best in the spring, when birds are singing and territorial boundaries established. You hear the bird. You can’t see it because it’s in the middle of a thicket or way up there in the tree canopy. If you play its song, however, there’s a chance that it will perceive your iPod as a rival, and fly in to investigate. That can give you the look you want.
This is a debated practice. Once upon a time a birder had to carry a bulky tape machine and a pocket full of tapes. Finding the song you wanted could involve a lot button work – running the tape forward and backward to get on target. It was clumsy and time-consuming work. Some serious birders did this, including guides who had a financial commitment to find certain birds for clients.
It was understood that you could over-tape a bird. You could get to the point where the bird ignored the repeated call. Or, could so stress this territorial creature that it would leave to try again elsewhere. These possibilities were known and accepted in what then was a rather small and tight birding community. Abuse was at a minimum.
Two things have changed this scene. First, there are more of us, more birders in the field, which is wonderful. Broadening participation, however, has not always been accompanied by broadening knowledge of do’s and don’t’s. Second is the convenient iPod or its cousins, and the ease with which you can find recorded bird songs and load them into the machine. The growing popularity of bird photography is another factor. You can’t photograph the bird if you can’t see it.
All of this has increased the volume on a log-running argument about the ethics of taping. Does it stress the bird? Does playing a song only once stress the bird, or does it take significant repetition? Is this stress meaningful? Does it harm the bird? There are advocates who answer those questions both yes and no.
A recent article in “The Seattle Times” addressed these questions. The article, by reporter Sandy Doughton, included comments by the director emeritus of the Slater Museum of Natural History in Tacoma. He is a birder. He has an iPod and a set of pocket-sized speakers. For the purposes of the interview he went into his backyard and called to the fore a chickadee. The bird responded with its own call once. Getting no response from this phantom rival, it went back to its own business.
Dr. Slater said to the departing bird, “I promise that I’ll never do this to you again.” He says he believes the use of recordings does stress the birds, but calls it “a very, very short-term stress.” He uses recordings rarely, and only when he believes that the bird will never again encounter recorded song.
Other Seattle birders took different positions. The president of the Washington Ornithological Society said he will use a “snippet” of song from a recording, but strongly disfavors over use. The director of the University of Washington’s Center for Conservation Biology said response to recordings can include anxiety, exposure to predators, and an unguarded nest and mate. A wildlife-recording expert quoted in the article said she is “dead set against” use of recordings. She says you can hear the stress in the voice of a responding bird.
A biologist found that birds confronted with recorded song had testosterone levels 10 times normal, levels that maintained themselves for as long as two days. His field research has caused him to quit using recordings during recreational birding.
Birders will find parks or refuges where use of recordings is regulated. In national wildlife refuges, for example, the use of recordings to attracting birds is not forbidden, but birders are expected to use discretion and good judgement if doing so. Any time refuge enforcement personnel believe someone is using recordings to the point of harassment, they have the authority to stop them.
Obviously, opinions differ. If there’s a bottom line for this it might be judicious use if use at all. For certain, don’t step out of your car with iPod in hand, song at the ready, consequences ignored. Understand what you’re doing if you’re going to do it. And think twice about the bird. The bird is more important than seeing it.
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