Tuesday, February 28, 2006

Curse of the Were-Warbler!

(click on image for larger version)

Hey, don’t get me wrong here…I think it’s super cool having a backyard YELLOW-RUMPED WARBLER through the winter (I love it, as you can plainly tell). However, in the past several days its behavior has changed…just a little. The warbler is getting feisty and territorial toward other birds attempting access to the suet feeders. It almost makes me feel bad for the other small birds. Oh, it’s smart enough to leave the Red-bellied, Downy and Hairy Woodpeckers alone, but it still remains close by and watches their every move.

(click on image for larger version)

There is a thin branch just above the feeders the warbler likes to perch on…here it waits and watches. Sometimes it doesn’t even matter if the offending bird is clear on the other side of the maple - it’s chased completely out of the yard, sometimes even further. Any junco, finch or chickadee that gets too close is met with furious harassment and a barrage of chip-notes. I’ve seen warblers chase each other during spring migration, but this stakeout-like behavior is quite the spectacle. I wonder if it is guarding the food or if it is just a territorial instinct for the species this time of year? Perhaps its brethren to the south also closely guard a small territory over the winter months.

(click on image for larger version)

The warbler isn’t quite fast enough to give the Red-breasted Nuthatches much grief, and interestingly enough it doesn’t bother the Brown Creeper. But finches, juncos and chickadees represent a big problem that apparently must be met with a forceful reaction from the warbler. As much as I enjoy this bird, spring probably can’t come soon enough from the perspective of some of the other songbirds of our backyard.

All images © 2006 Mike McDowell

Friday, February 24, 2006

Curlew Caper Concludes

Someone I know emailed the secretary at TBRC concerning the Eskimo Curlew photographs and was intrigued by my evidence. The secretary said he thought the color shot was colorized by Bleitz’s foundation (now the Western Foundation of Vertebrate Zoology) that holds the copyright. He also wrote that Victor Emmanuel was present with Bleitz when the photographs were taken and the TBRC received them from Victor.

Don Bleitz died in 1986:


"Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County, Los Angeles, California 90007 US Donald Louis Bleitz, a Member of the A.O.U. since 1947 and an Elective Member since 1985, died 23 June 1986 in Los Angeles, California. Don Bleitz was born in Los Angeles, California, on 1 October 1915. As a professional photographer and inventor of numerous photographic devices and techniques, Don Bleitz revealed his considerable ability and deep interest in the photography of birds. During his lifetime he photographed more than 600 species of North American birds; one of his most outstanding contributions was obtaining the first good photographs ever, anywhere, of the Eskimo Curlew (J. V. Gollop 1986) in 1962. It was Don's life-long plan to publish a sumptuous, many-volumed work on the birds of North America, using his wealth of excellent colored photographs. This worthwhile project never came to fruition. He did, however, author numerous feature articles in the Saturday Evening Post, Reader's Digest, and Arizona Highways. A member of numerous scientific and civic organizations, Don Bleitz was a Life Member of the A.O.U., the Cooper Ornithological Society, and the Wilson Ornithological Club. He was a member of both the Western and the Eastern Bird Banding Associations. In 1952 he founded the Bleitz Wildlife Foundation, an organization devoted to wildlife preservation and study."

I believe the top three photographs are authentic, but I’m convinced the 4th shot (bottom picture) was assembled/manipulated from the top image. Reading this memoriam on Bleitz, perhaps we can glean some insight into Don’s motive (assuming it was him) for rendering the 4th image. He wanted to produce “a sumptuous, many-volumed work on the birds of North America, using his wealth of excellent colored photographs.” Perhaps all he wanted was a color image of an Eskimo Curlew and the only way to get one was to use one of his black-and-white images, make it appear to be a different bird and colorize it. This is pure conjecture on my part in an attempt to establish a motive, but I think it matches the evidence pretty well.

Case closed? I think so.

Wednesday, February 22, 2006

What the heck?

Ted Eubanks of Galveston, Texas recently posted to TEXBIRD that the World Birding Center and Houston Audubon intend to search for the ESKIMO CURLEW. This, itself, is pretty interesting news. But what presently interests me more is the link he provided to the only known color photograph of the species taken by Don Bleitz in 1961 or 1962.

When I clicked to display a larger version, something about the picture didn’t look quite right to me. For one, the depth of field seemed a little odd – I noticed that the bush behind the bird seems to be in as good of focus as the bird itself. There is also something a little suspicious and unnatural looking about the contrast and lighting differential between the bird and the background.

I decided to google search on "Don Bleitz" and came up with a link that took me to the Texas Bird Record Committee website showing several black-and-white photographs of Eskimo Curlews (two birds?), including a black-and-white version of the above color image. After studying the images, something about the top and bottom pictures caught my eye, so I loaded both images into Photoshop to scrutinize them in detail.

I horizontally flipped the top image and resized the other image so the curlew was exactly the same pixel width in both images. Using the angle of one of the bird’s legs as a guide, I slightly rotated the bottom image clock-wise. Using the select tool, I cropped each image from the bird’s eye to what appears to be a stick near the ground or the bird’s hallux on the trailing leg. This rendered a very curious result to my eye – the birds in the two cropped images bear an uncanny resemblance. Look at the plumage patterns, lighting angle and how every mark matches perfectly.

I’ll concede there are some subtle differences, such as the curve of the bird’s bill, the leg width varies a little in places and the tail comes to more of a point in the bottom picture. I don’t know what kind of image manipulation technology was available in 1962, and I’m not questioning the authenticity of the top three images. But I am very curious about the bottom image, and additionally the colorized version of it.

The only thing I am certain of is that if they are indeed different pictures of the same bird (but what about that bill?), then one of them was flipped horizontally because there is undeniably no question in my mind that it is the same side of the bird upon close inspection of the plumage patterns.

Perhaps this is old news and the picture is known to be manipulated, but then what is it doing on a records committee website? Also, why fake an image for a records committee if you already have a couple other authentic ones? Unless for some peculiar reason it was necessary to put the curlew in the specific background we see in the bottom (and color) image.

What do you think? Am I completely off my rocker on this? Hmmm. Maybe you shouldn’t answer that.

Tuesday, February 21, 2006

GBBC Results

Den of the Citizen Scientist/Amateur Naturalist

I tallied the only YELLOW-RUMPED WARBLER in the state of Wisconsin on the Great Backyard Bird Count this past weekend. Though all counts might not yet be submitted, presently there are several other single species records on our state list:

Long-tailed Duck
Red-shouldered Hawk
Eastern Screech-Owl
Wilson's Snipe
Iceland Gull
Thayer's Gull
Varied Thrush
Yellow-rumped Warbler

If you have some time, check out "Explore the Results" on the GBBC website - pretty interesting to compare state data, previous year counts, maps and more. This is such a wonderful program for people to participate in and the data collected can be very helpful to identify various trends, population shifts, etc.

GBBC totals for my 3 hour count:

Cooper's Hawk - 1
Mourning Dove - 3
Red-bellied Woodpecker - 1
Downy Woodpecker - 1
Hairy Woodpecker - 1
Blue Jay - 4
American Crow - 3
Black-capped Chickadee - 2
Red-breasted Nuthatch - 3
Brown Creeper - 1
Yellow-rumped Warbler - 1 Confirmed
American Tree Sparrow - 2
Dark-eyed Junco - 7
Northern Cardinal - 6
House Finch - 1
American Goldfinch - 4
House Sparrow - 5

Den image © 2006 Mike McDowell

Sunday, February 19, 2006

Removing Purple Color Fringing

One of my blog readers emailed me this Snowy Owl picture and wrote:

"Can you give any advice on how to prevent the purple coloring on some of my photos? This picture of a Snowy Owl has it really bad. It was taken with Nikon Fieldscope III with 24x WA eyepiece."

(click on image for larger version)

Sadly, it cannot be prevented as it is an optical anomaly of the scope's glass and the lenses of the digital camera, but all hope is not lost. This purple color fringing, or chromatic aberration, is very common with the digiscoping technique. The purple glow comes from the inability of the lenses to focus all colors to the same point. It is especially noticeable in high contrast areas of an image, as this snowy photograph clearly shows where white is adjacent to a darker background, the purple glow on the left side of the owl is characteristic chromatic aberration.

The most effective way to eliminate chromatic aberration is to post-process it out using Adobe Photoshop or other image processing software.

A quick way to reduce (but not entirely remove) purple fringing in an image is to DESATURATE the MAGENTA color channel, but I usually target just the offending area with a series of steps. Using this particular snowy owl image, here's how I cleaned it up.

With the image loaded into Photoshop, I used the LASSO TOOL to select the purple area and created a LAYER VIA COPY. This separates the purple area into a unique layer where we can effectively work with just the offending part of the image:

Next, I used DESATURATE to remove all color data from LAYER 1. This rendered a gray border along the left side of the owl. Keeping the focus on LAYER 1, I used the SELECTIVE COLOR function and change COLORS to "Neutrals" and adjusted the slide controls changing the color of the gray area until it matched the background colors perfectly. For this particular image, here were the final adjustments made:

Presto! The chromatic aberration is gone:

(click on image for larger version)

Additionally, I modified the LEVELS and SHARPENED the image. I also used the SPONGE TOOL set to DESATURATE to make the owl's white stand out (also took out some additional purple on the owl's body). Since the owl's eyes also had some purple, I used the LASSO TOOL and selected the eyes to create another layer to run SELECTIVE COLOR to bring them back to yellow. This last step utilized the same technique as above, but instead of matching the color to the background I simply made the eyes yellow with the slide controls.

There are many other ways to remove chromatic aberration from digiscoped images, but this is the technique that has yielded the best results for my work.

Saturday, February 18, 2006

A Tough Warbler

(Puffing up to keep warm!)

Last night it got colder than I thought…down to -15°F. This morning I got up before sunrise, bundled up and went outside to top off the feeders and put fresh suet out. Generally, I discard partially consumed suet cakes by wedging them in branches for squirrels to eat. Though wrapped up in several layers, only after 10 minutes I was very ready to get back inside.

(Yellow-rumped Warbler Range Map)

Perhaps it is merely my own paradoxical connotation of the word “warbler” when it comes to temperatures this cold – warblers mean spring. But I know the wintering range for the Yellow-rumped Warbler isn’t much further south and such records aren’t unusually rare for southern Wisconsin. However, last evening as I closed the garage door I couldn’t escape the thought of that little 12-gram wood warbler enduring the next 12 hours sleeping in such frigid temperatures. Where is it roosting?

Just after sunrise, I could barely contain my excitement to see the warbler zip across the yard to the suet feeders…it survived the night. It seemed to me that its chip-notes were an acknowledgement of its own heartiness and perseverance…as if calling out “I’m still here!” Nibbling on fresh suet, it seemed right at home with the Black-capped Chickadees, Red-breasted Nuthatches and Dark-eyed Juncos (no less marvels by their individual survival merits).

How do they do it? How does a bird that can fit in the palm of my hand keep from freezing rock-solid through the night? I decided to refresh my understanding and checked a few sources, and here is one excerpt from the Sibley Guide to Bird Life and Behavior:

"Many feathers (down, semiplumes and after-shafts) have significant insulating properties. In fact, feathers provide better insulation than mammalian hair. By fluffing out its contour feathers, a bird creates air pockets between the feathers and the skin that help retain heat. When resting, a bird can tuck is head or other body parts with exposed skin into its feathers to conserve heat."

Of course, there is much more technical information regarding temperature regulation and metabolism, but that’s the gist of it. It also helps that the Yellow-rumped Warbler is a generalist when it comes to its diet and habitat requirements. From Cornell’s Birds of North America on-line:

"Among warblers, this species is one of the most ecologically generalized. Although it is confined largely to coniferous breeding habitat, individuals forage in a broad range of microhabitats and employ a variety of foraging techniques, from fly-catching to foliage-gleaning for insects. During the nonbreeding season, this warbler is found in almost any habitat and expands its diet to include a substantial amount of fruit. Its ability to digest the waxes in bayberries (Myrica spp.) make it unique among warblers, and allows populations to winter in coastal areas as far north as Nova Scotia."

After tomorrow we’re looking at a warming trend running through next week. Now that March is just around the corner, I think this Yellow-rumped Warbler may be in the clear.

Yellow-rumped Warbler image © 2006 Mike McDowell

Friday, February 17, 2006

The Calm after the Storm

A waning gibbous Moon set in the west and Venus was the morning star as I brushed snow off our bird feeders early this morning. The garage windows were adorned with feathery, fractal-like ice patterns. During yesterday's big blizzard that dumped over 10 inches of snow, the birds were very active in our backyard:

Cooper's Hawk (1)
Red-bellied Woodpecker (1)
Downy Woodpecker (1)
Hairy Woodpecker (2)
Morning Dove (3)
Brown Creeper (1)
Red-breasted Nuthatch (3)
Black-capped Chickadee (5)
Northern Cardinal (10+)
Blue Jay (7)
American Crow (4)
Dark-eyed Junco (3)
American Goldfinch (10+)
House Finch (30+)
House Sparrow (1)

In a way, I wasn't surprised the Yellow-rumped Warbler was a no-show and the temperature is only going to get colder...dropping to -10°F by tomorrow morning. I wonder if the warbler will endure? There is plenty for it to eat and they're hearty birds, so I'll continue to listen for that familiar chip-note on Saturday and Sunday.

Update - 5 minutes later:

Ha! Just minutes after writing this I went upstairs and looked out the window, and at one of the suet cakes was the energetic Yellow-rumped Warbler having some breakfast.

All images © 2006 Mike McDowell

Wednesday, February 15, 2006

Changes - for the better?

Sometimes the reality of incremental changes can strike you in a very perceptible way. Today I birded the entire stream corridor of Pheasant Branch Conservancy in hopes of finding a Barred Owl. Along the way I explored some areas I haven't visited in a while, including the new trail system that fragments the decayed woodland where a Barred Owl pair used to nest. I monitored the pair for several years and finding them was always a highlight of my visits to the conservancy. It wasn't always easy to get that far back into the woods as there were no developed trails and it could get a bit swampy at times, but I always managed to find the right spot and enjoyed watching the owls.

I could find them without leaves...

And with leaves...

But today I wasn't able to find them at all, and here's what the same area looks like now:

I included myself (6'2") in the picture for scale to show the width of this boardwalk. It's 10 feet wide and in some places they clear-cut another 10 to 15 feet on each side of it, creating a 20 to 25 foot wide swath through the woods. You see...it had to be a boardwalk because the woodland was classified as a veritable wetland, and goodness knows we all need easy access through wet woodlands.

And down a little further...this thing is just huge:

How about another example? The overlook parking area used to be a grand place, especially as the sun lowered in the sky. Brilliant rays of light would filter through leaves and speckle the hillside. Here's what it looked like on such a day over a decade ago:

But at some point, the tree in the center had to be cut down for what must have been a good reason, I guess. Some very useful interpretive nature kiosks were installed but all the trees on the other side of Pheasant Branch Road had to be taken out for a housing development. They erected a sign to let everyone know this is an entrance into the conservancy. And here's how it looks today:

I know it's hard to tell but take my word on it that these two pictures were taken a decade apart from the exact same spot, facing in the same direction. If you look closely on the left you can actually see the same evergreen tree. Sure, there are lighting and seasonal differences in these photographs...but I sincerely doubt it would matter.

From my main website page:

"Here is a community, said to be the richest and most enlightened in America, which yet allows its finest scenes of natural beauty to be destroyed one by one, regardless of the fact that the great city of the future which is to fill this land would certainly prize every such scene exceedingly, and would gladly help to pay the cost of preserving them today."

-- Harvard Professor Charles Eliot (1891)

All images © 2006 Mike McDowell

The Great Backyard Bird Count

Hey! Don't forget this weekend is the Great Backyard Bird Count and everyone is welcome to participate. Regardless of your birding skill level, sightings you report will help contribute to a continentwide snapshot of this winter's birds. This winter has been unusually warm and it will be interesting to see how 2006 compares to other years - I've certainly noticed difference in bird species. Hopefully, I'll be reporting a backyard Yellow-rumped Warbler this weekend. It was still there yesterday, so I'm pretty confident it will remain for the count.

Link: The Great Backyard Bird Count

Red-breasted Nuthatch image © 2006 Mike McDowell

Tuesday, February 14, 2006

Speaking of shorebirds...POP QUIZ!

They'll soon be back, so let's practice. Identify all three shorebirds in this picture:

(click on image for larger version)

UPDATE 02/16/06:

Take a look at this picture of the same two back birds. What do you think now?

Image © 2006 Mike McDowell

Monday, February 13, 2006

Nine Springs Owling

I was on the early shift today so I decided to head out to Nine Springs after work to see if I could glimpse a Short-eared Owl that was sighted last Tuesday. It's been a few years since I've gotten a good look at this species so I was pretty hopeful of my chances. Nine Springs is a regular birding haunt during spring and fall migration, especially for shorebirds, but it looks so desolate this time of year - the ponds are frozen and all the vegetation is dead brown. But hey, after being stuck inside for over two weeks from that blasted flu virus, I'll take what I can get.

Walking down the main path there were Dark-eyed Juncos, American Tree Sparrows and a few Song Sparrows picking through gravel. Flocks of Canada Geese seemed to be headed in every direction - there must have been several hundred, maybe even thousands. The majority of them were east of my location, over by Lake Waubesa. I scanned each flock for other goose species, but no luck. I spotted a Northern Harrier struggling with prey on the ground - it eventually flew off with a medium-sized rodent in its talons.

There were several Red-winged Blackbirds at the back part of the marsh. Though this is the earliest I've seen them in back in Wisconsin, they're usually counted on the annual CBC. While scanning the horizon I also spotted a Great-horned Owl sitting on a nest.

Checking behind me, I saw someone heading in my direction and wondered what sort of crazy person would be coming out to the settling ponds in mid February at dusk? Alas, it was another birder! Quentin Yoerger, a birder from Evansville, said he was also looking for the Short-eared Owl. But when he told me this was his fourth attempt to see the owl without luck, my hope began to fade. Just minutes after telling me he had seen a River Otter a few days ago, we spotted one just a few yards away walking on the ice edge along the stream next to the path.

Past dusk, visibility was quickly becoming a problem and still there was no sign of the Short-eared Owl, so I decided to call it and headed home. It was satisfying just to be outside for a change. By the time I walked back to my car it was too dark to even scan the field with my binoculars.

I don't like to leave my optics in the car for any reason, for any length of time on account of all the horror stories I hear at work about stolen binoculars and scopes. However, wearing them into a convenience store can also be a little risky. I was pretty chilled, so on my way home I stopped at a quick-mart type place for some hot coffee. Right when I walked in some guy came up to me, pointed at my binoculars and said, "Hey, those look, like, really expensive. Can I, like, try them, dude?" I mean...it was dark outside and we were inside a convenience store...what could he possibly want look at? Donuts? Magazines? Softdrinks? Thinking fast, I told the guy it was too difficult to remove the harness strap they were connected to. He asked two more times to look through them but I finally convinced him that the binocular and I were one (OK, maybe that wasn't so smart). Next he asked why I had the binoculars on, so truthfully I replied I had been looking for owls nearby. Then he said, "Hey, remember when you were, like, little and owls were, like, really scary looking? And now they're, like, totally cool, right?" Honestly, I felt obliged to be agreeable to his sentiment, paid for my coffee and left.

All images © 2006 Mike McDowell

Friday, February 10, 2006

Not much birding!

A fresh blanket of snow covers the ground this morning with light flurries still falling, but it’s melting pretty fast. I decided to take the scenic route to work and see what birds I might find. On my way out of Waunakee there was a perched Cooper’s Hawk near Jesse Peterson’s house. I found a few Horned Larks along Woodland Road and a Northern Harrier working the fields north of Meffert Road. A Northern Shrike remains the hunter of the prairie restoration area of Pheasant Branch Conservancy, though the most interesting observation came earlier in the week - a flock of around 100 American Robins spotted near the small springs.

I’m relieved it’s Friday with a two-day weekend to rest up. I’m still recovering from my recent illness and it has settled to my lungs – I’ve felt pretty unmotivated to do much of anything outside beyond driving to and from work this past week. I doubt I’ll do any birding over the weekend, restricting my observations to backyard birds.

The top picture is a shot of the southern stream corridor of Pheasant Branch from a few weeks ago, post-processed in Adobe Photoshop using the Orton Imagery technique. I hadn’t heard of this technique until reading about it on Cindy Mead’s blog. I’ve often wondered how she achieved such softness while retaining detail in her images. It’s a pretty easy process that works especially well for landscapes and scenery images. Who says you can’t teach an old Photoshop dog a new trick?

All images © 2006 Mike McDowell

Tuesday, February 7, 2006

New species found in Papua 'Eden'

An international team of scientists says it has found a "lost world" in the Indonesian jungle that is home to dozens of new animal and plant species.

"It's as close to the Garden of Eden as you're going to find on Earth," said Bruce Beehler, co-leader of the group.

The team recorded new butterflies, frogs, and a series of remarkable plants that included five new palms and a giant rhododendron flower. The survey also found a honeyeater bird that was previously unknown to science.

Link: Full Article from BBC News

Link: More info and images from Conservation International

Sunday, February 5, 2006


There hasn’t been very much bird news to share, as I’m still recovering from a wicked flu virus. A fresh snowfall brought an increase in activity to our backyard feeders yesterday, including a party of 14 Northern Cardinals. I don’t recall seeing so many in such a small area – the males have been singing for the past few weeks.

A Brown Creeper made a brief appearance and sampled some suet. Three Red-breasted Nuthatches took turns at the peanut feeder and a Red-bellied Woodpecker rested on a branch in our maple tree. No sign of the Yellow-rumped Warbler, but since it forages primarily at the treetops I could have easily missed it from inside.

Other birds included Black-capped Chickadees, Dark-eyed Juncos, House Finches, American Goldfinches, Downy Woodpecker, Hairy Woodpecker and a couple of Blue Jays. Backyard birds are always fun to watch and it’s enough to satisfy for a birding fix in until I’m back in the field.

Update - 2:30 p.m.

Hey, I was right - the Yellow-rumped Warbler is still here and this time it was eating suet. I went outside to try and get a picture, but it retreated to the branches above. This shot is the best I could do.

I'll tell you what...Brown Creepers are tough photographic subjects. Just when you think you've got them framed, they scoot up...and up...it's frustrating. This creeper stopped to pick up a bit of suet that had fallen to the ground and then proceded to carry it up the tree.

(click on image for larger version)

While sitting on the patio waiting for something else to happen...a soaring raptor caught my eye - it was a Bald Eagle. That's 16 species right from my patio...doubtful I would have done much better had I gone to Pheasant Branch.

All images © 2006 Mike McDowell

Friday, February 3, 2006

Wind farm causes eagle deaths

© Photos.com

"Wind turbines have caused a number of deaths of Europe's largest eagle species, on isolated islands off the Norwegian coast. The discovery of four dead White-tailed Eagles, and the failure of almost 30 others to return to nesting sites within the wind farm area, has increased fears that wind farms elsewhere could take a similar toll on native and migrating wild birds."

Link: Full Article from BirdLife International

Thursday, February 2, 2006

City Adopts Guidelines to Prevent Bird Collisions with Buildings

"TORONTO, Feb. 1 (PRNewswire) - City Council unanimously adopted a resolution on January 31 that will protect migratory birds through controlling light from buildings, public education, and bird rescue. For all new buildings in Toronto, the resolution specifies 'that the needs of migratory birds be incorporated into the Site Plan Review process with respect to facilities for lighting, including floodlighting, glass and other bird-friendly design features.'"

Link: Full Article from Yahoo

Blue-winged Warbler image © 2006 Mike McDowell