Bird of the Week: White-crowned Sparrow

01-08 White-crowned Sparrow by Pete Arnold

White-crowned Sparrow. Photo by Pete Arnold.

Well studied across the continent and first formally described in 1772, this bird is easy to tell apart from other sparrows. In Wyoming it nests in alpine meadows. The male does almost all the singing and sings year round, having learned its only song before 3 months of age. Listen for its sweet notes as it joins the juncos under your sunflower feeder any week now.

Published Jan. 27, 2010, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle. Text by Barb Gorges, photo by Pete Arnold.

Bird of the Week: Pine Siskin

01-07 Pine Siskin by Pete Arnold

Pine Siskin. Photo by Pete Arnold.

This unpredictable winter visitor goes where the food is. One individual banded at one location one winter was recaptured half a continent away the next. Related to goldfinches, and sometimes hanging out with them, it looks for seeds from plants of the sunflower and grass families and gleans insects and spiders. It nests in open stands of conifers (spruce, fir and pine). A study showed that in southeastern Wyoming, small clear cuts were beneficial to them.

Published Jan. 20, 2010, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle. Text by Barb Gorges, photo by Pete Arnold.


Bird of the Week: Evening Grosbeak

01-06 Evening_Grosbeak by Elizabeth Boehm

Evening Grosbeaks. Photo by Elizabeth Boehm.

This species is seen rarely in Cheyenne, even in winter when flocks look for their favorite winter food source of fruits that have been de-fleshed by other bird species. They crack the seeds left behind. They are also fond of spruce bud worms, road salt, tree sap and flowers, and bird feeders. They hardly ever sing, singing being a territorial advertisement, because they are not territorial even during the breeding season. Sometimes they nest in a colony.

Published Jan. 13, 2010, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle. Text by Barb Gorges, photo by Elizabeth Boehm.

Bird of the Week: Townsend’s Solitaire

01-05 Townsend's Solitaire by Pete Arnold

Townsend’s Solitaire. Photo by Pete Arnold.

The plain grey bird you’ll see at the top of the juniper tree came down from the mountains for the winter and is defending a territory sized to provide a winter’s worth of juniper berries. Chances are it was the solitaire visiting last year and will be back to the same territory next year. While it has an elaborate song, in winter you’ll hear its fluted, one-note call.

Published Jan. 6, 2010, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle. Text by Barb Gorges, photo by Pete Arnold.

Bird of the Week: Horned Lark

01-04 Horned Lark by Pete Arnold

Horned Lark. Photo by Pete Arnold.

Though we see flocks year round in open country, especially grazed land, we probably see different subspecies in winter than summer. The 21 subspecies have differing amounts of white and yellow on the throat and eyebrow stripe. Those from drier climates have lighter brown backs, to match dry, local soil. As they fly they call “su-weet” to each other to keep the flock together.

Published Jan. 28, 2009, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle. Text by Barb Gorges, photo by Pete Arnold.

Bird of the Week: Rough-legged Hawk

01-03 Rough-legged Hawk by Pete Arnold

Rough-legged Hawk. Photo by Pete Arnold.

The large hawks we see in winter are sometimes this species, visiting from arctic nesting grounds. Our plains remind them of their summer home on the edge of the treeless tundra. While hovering, or perched on top of a utility pole, they are watching for small rodents to pounce on. Their “rough” legs are covered in feathers, right down to their feet, which is unusual for hawks.

Published Jan. 22, 2009, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle. Text by Barb Gorges, photo by Pete Arnold.

Bird of the Week: Common Goldeneye

01-02 Common Goldeneye by Pete Arnold

Common Goldeneye. Photo by Pete Arnold.

This sea duck breeds in northern boreal forests around the world, fighting over cavities in trees and rocks for nesting. However, it winters on coasts and inland water, including Sloan’s Lake at Lions Park. Watch for them diving in synchrony for small fish, fish eggs, crustaceans and mollusks. Spectacular courtship displays may start in the next few months.

Published Jan. 14, 2009, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle. Text by Barb Gorges, photo by Pete Arnold.

Birdwatching with a camera

Canon PowerShot SX50 HS

The Canon PowerShot SX50 HS is popular with birders. Photo by Barb Gorges.

Published Jan. 3, 2016, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “New camera technology can help birders get perfect shot.”

By Barb Gorges

I have often wished the view through my binoculars could be a photograph of that colorful warbler high in the tree, the distant hawk or the swimming phalarope.

Then digiscoping was invented—a digital version of trying to take a photo through a scope. The idea is that you don’t need a camera with a big lens if you can use your scope instead.

But who wants to carry around the heavy tripod and scope, plus a camera to attach to it? Not me.

But a couple years ago the Cheyenne Audubon chapter had members Greg Johnson and Robin Kepple give a talk on their birding trip to Australia. The bird photos were fabulous. What camera was used? Canon PowerShot SX50 HS.

The PowerShot series of cameras is really a collection of point and shoots—I have an early one, but it doesn’t zoom like the SX50. They all have lots of manual and partially manual ways to adjust speed, aperture and color. You can do a surprising number of things, including macro and video. Some will even connect to your smart phone to transmit photos.

The SX50 (and now there is an SX60 and rumors of an SX70, not to mention Nikon’s cameras in this class) is moderately priced, between $300 and $600. That price might get you another lens for a digital single lens reflex camera, the type the professionals use.

And the SX50 weighs only 1 pound 6 ounces, whereas my Brunton 8 x 42 binocs weigh 4 ounces more. A recent publication of the American Birding Association, “Birder’s Guide to Gear,” features four men who did a photographic Big Day. They could only count bird species they photographed. All of them carried multiple camera bodies and lenses. Imagine the weight.

Among our birding friends, my husband, Mark, was the first to follow Greg and Robin’s lead by buying an SX50 in the fall of 2014. By spring of 2015, there were three or four people carrying these cameras on a local field trip. Even our friend, ABA magazine editor Ted Floyd, has one now. It makes his Facebook posts even more entertaining.

Ted mentioned that young birders seem to be forsaking binoculars for these “compact ultra-zooms” as they’ve been referred to. They have one big advantage over binocs. If you snap a photo of an unusual bird, you can then show it to your birding companions using the 2.8-inch screen on the back, beginning a good half hour or more’s discussion of the finer points of feathers.

And it is really handy to have a photo when you submit your field trip checklist to the eBird database, where the experts want proof of the rare bird you saw.

Are Mark and his friends practicing the art of photography? I’m not sure. They all seem to be using the camera on the automatic setting. Their goal is to get the bird. They don’t worry about whether the background contrasts nicely.

Often the camera’s automatic setting determination is matched by the location’s lighting for a really nice shot. Fixing the framing of the subject can be accomplished back on the computer with cropping. Putting the camera on a tripod would probably improve the number of well-focused shots. Though these cameras come with image stabilization technology, it is sorely tested by flighty birds.

Mark has taken 7,500 photos so far. I asked him if he thought about bringing just the camera on birding trips, since it zooms farther than our scope. It’s kind of a pain carrying camera, scope and binocs.

No, he said, the camera lacks a wide field of view. It makes it difficult to re-find that speck of distant movement you saw with your naked eye.

With the steady advancement of technology in my lifetime alone, computers have gone from room-sized to hand-sized. Cameras have gone from the wooden box my grandmother used in 1916 to who-knows-what in the next 10 years.

Equally amazing is how birders take the latest technology and use it for learning more about birds. We’ve learned so much from eBird, for instance–all those observations from birdwatchers being sent in via Internet from all over the world.

And how about geolocators? Attached to birds, they allow scientists to track them during migration.

But let’s not forget the thrill of photography itself. Like artist John James Audubon, you can see the bird you shot today displayed for posterity on your computer screen.

Bird of the Week: Bufflehead

01-01 Bufflehead by Pete Arnold

Bufflehead. Photo by Pete Arnold.

Though categorized as a sea duck, not all spend the winter off the Atlantic or Pacific coasts. Look for one at Lions Park before they head back to the boreal forests of Canada and Alaska. They choose to nest in old Northern Flicker holes in trees. At 13.5 inches long and 13 ounces they are only one inch longer but three times heavier than those woodpeckers.

Published Jan. 8, 2009, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle. Text by Barb Gorges, photo by Pete Arnold.

Bird of the Week: Belted Kingfisher

12-09 Belted Kingfisher by Pete Arnold

Belted Kingfisher. Photo by Pete Arnold.

Found almost every year along Cheyenne’s creeks during the Christmas Bird Count, this bird depends on open water so it can dive after fish and other aquatic animals. It is solitary except during breeding season when a pair excavates a tunnel for its nest in the bank of a creek or pond. Listen for its distinctive, loud, “rattle” cry year round. The female has the extra, rufous-colored “belt” and sides.

Published Dec. 30, 2009, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle. Text by Barb Gorges, photo by Pete Arnold.