Cameras for Amateurs

I have always used a bridge camera and likely will never be one of those folks with a DSLR and an armory full of high-dollar lenses. But I got a pretty significant upgrade to the mediocre thing I have been using for the last four years. I now have a Nikon Coolpix P600, which despite being named by a sixth-grader (my pix r coolr then urs!) has some pretty great features. I understand that the photo quality of cameras like this will never approach the professional-grade images that litter the blogosphere, but compared to what I was using before (an L810 with no manual controls whatsoever), the improvement is vast.

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Old Zoom

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New zoomin’ with Gadwall action!

Both of the above pictures are uncropped out of the cameras at full zoom. The top one is the old L810 with a 23x zoom and focal equivalent of 540mm, and the bottom one is the new P600. The zoom on it is 60x, which reaches an equivalent focal length of 1200mm. The difference is significant. Both shots were taken from roughly the same point at the terminal pond, but now I can discern Gadwall from even the 150+ yard distance across the water.

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Carolina Chickadee

The zoom is a very nice feature, but the thing that frustrated me most about my old camera was its awful focusing and shutter speed. With few interesting birds this weekend, I spent most of my time photo testing. Carolina Chickadee made for a good subject because they are small, move quickly, and like to hang out with twigs. The P600 was able to lock onto them and get pleasingly clear shots that the old L810 could never handle well.

The P600 is now two years old and has been replaced by a successor model in the P610 and the even more ridiculously long-ranged P900 with an 83x zoom. But if you are a birder foremost and a photographer second and have a budget of no more than about $300, then the P600 will serve you well.

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Cumulative February Route

Now that February has ended, I am at 53 species on the year with 163 miles biked/hiked. But even better than that, I am now properly equipped to document the birds that will be making their way north soon!

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Spontaneous Generation

In my high school biology class, I remember that we had textbooks that seemed to give condescending consideration to the other “theories” that I am sure some arcane law dictated that the publisher include with the chapter on the origins of life and evolution. After discussing sexual selection and evolutionary fitness at length, I distinctly remember the book talking about stuff like “intelligent design” with a not so subtle wink wink to the legislature while also introducing other cockamamie theories and giving them equal weight. Theories like the one where organelles and parts of animals were just kind of there and floating around in the soup and one day they combined together to make whole animals. Or the one that was our class favorite, “spontaneous generation.”

I am sure Wikipedia could correct me, but going purely on recall, I believe this is a mostly medieval theory that said provided the right conditions life would just kind of show up. For instance. Do you want to generate a hive of bees? Then hollow out on ox carcass and leave it in the sun for a few days. Mice? Put some old shirts in a root cellar.

Long story short, I was thinking about spontaneous generation on Saturday while out for a nice long bike ride. My goal was open country winter birds, and the subtle differences in field texture and vegetation at this time of year made me think of what could give rise to a host of different species. Wild Turkey? Put your corn stubble next to a woodlot. Snowy Owl? Make sure you have lots and lots of acres with a few high spots of ground. I did not see any birds as good as those, but I did get one new one for the green list in the habitat that generates it:

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Domain of the Horned Lark

Want to grow some Horned Larks? Then look for nothing. Seriously. Plowed-under dirt seems to be their favorite habitat. I didn’t think organisms could thrive on literally nothing, but it wouldn’t shock me if there were flocks of HOLAs flitting around in the vacuum of space.

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Horned Lark

There were plenty of birds out in those fields, but brown on brown doesn’t photograph well, so here is one that I saw while on a scouting mission for work earlier in the week when there was still snow on the ground.

HOLA is a bird I did not say hola to last year for the simple reason that I didn’t look for them. I had to go way out of my way, but it was an easy tick to give me a new green species that I didn’t have in 2015. Despite the energy for this bird, the ride was enjoyable. The wind was roaring the whole day which made for difficulty at times, but the headwind was more than made up for when I was blasting in high gear uphill because of the 30+ mile per hour wind at my back. I was almost keeping up with traffic on some of the country roads which made for one of the few times while birding that I actually felt like a badass to passers-by.

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Sandhill Cranes

The wind was wreaking havoc on all but the terrestrial birds (hence the lark party), but I did also manage my first Turkey Vulture of the year and a few flocks of Sandhill Cranes trying in vain to keep formation despite the gale.

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Pine Siskins

Once the wind was done, it replaced the balmy weather on Saturday with some colder temperatures on Sunday. But it also blew in some great birds in the form of a small flock of Pine Siskins hanging out in my back yard. New yard bird! I only managed one of the irruptive winter specialties last year with Red-breasted Nuthatch, so if these are the only ones I see this year I am still keeping on pace. Also: has anyone else ever noticed how much Pine Siskins and Northern Parulas sound alike?

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Cooper’s Hawk

My last green bird of the weekend was this Cooper’s Hawk. Is this some weird molt or more like this kind of situation?

Measuring Sticks

I figure one month into the year is as good a time as any to measure my progress for this year’s challenge. After taking several rides to put some more bulk on my list, I ended January at 45 green species, which is one less than double my January in 2015 with three new birds that were not ticked at all last year, the best being the pair of Red-shouldered hawks that Jaime and I saw screaming around the neighborhood on Saturday afternoon. 45 was also exactly as many as what I had in the first month of what I thought was going to be a full-blown state big year in 2013. Not bad.

I spent a lot of time looking for water fowl, which seem to be more plentiful this year than last. I think this has to do with the lack of a polar vortex to freeze over all of the good habitat.

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Canada Geese

Species diversity and numbers were good, but photo opportunities were less than ideal, at least for the capabilities of my point-and-shoot.

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Double-crested Cormorant (among others)

Most surprising was this apparently very early Double-crested Cormorant at the wastewater treatment ponds.

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January 2016 Cumulative Route

I use a cool program called Gmap Pedometer to track my routes. This shows my cumulative birding distance biking and hiking in the month of January, 77.6 miles (with a lot of overlap). The scribble in the southwest is Fox Island, just above that is Eagle Marsh, the loop in the middle is Foster Park, and the easternmost point is the wastewater ponds. The northern jog is my in-laws’ house plus Johnny Appleseed Park (where the man himself is buried). The aforementioned lack of bitterly cold weather has allowed me to cycle more often and further afield compared to early last year, but I think what has mostly changed is both my fitness level as well as what I psychologically consider to be a long ride. I plan to do at least one substantial (30+ miles one-way) ride this spring, so I will be interested to see how this map changes.