Thursday, December 28, 2006

The Grand Canyon, Pennsylvania-style

Deb and I decided to plan a little holiday roadtrip to the Pennsylvania Grand Canyon near Wellsboro on Dec 28, when this post was written (but I couldn't load photos until today, Jan 2). Em came, and Deb's daughter came, but Kat's back was acting up so she had to stay home.

The drive up there was eventful because of (a) the fact that I'd never been that far north in PA, and (b) the lack of places to pull over to get coffee. We passed a sign for a Sheetz (a PA-area convenience store) but we never saw the place. We ended up stopping at this great little roadside cafe and loading up on coffee, PB and cheese crackers (a work staple for me, Niki, and Deb), and other assorted goodies. Then we finally made it to the West Rim of the Grand Canyon. The photo above is probably the best one I took of the canyon; the sky was overcast, with the muted sun flaring out the water in most of my photos.

We only went up to the West Rim; it was pretty cold that day, and the girls tired pretty quickly. There were no birds at all, anywhere, that I could see or hear. It was really quiet up there but for a stiff and gusty wind in the trees.

I took a few other photos. Some deer in pen, for some mysterious reason--pets? deer farm? I don't know. There were no signs; just some jailbirds (jaildeer?) looking pretty upset that we were taking their pictures but not offering any food.

A macro shot of a hemlock cone:

A little touch of Andy Goldsworthy, created by nature (or something really heavy):

A weird little lichen or moss or something--alien message?--growing on limestone:

A very disturbing vending machine:

I shudder at the thought that this machine has live fish in it, sitting there in little tanks I guess, waiting for someone to put a dollar in there and (ugh) dispense.

And finally a photo of the trees with the very light snowfall, the most snow I've seen all season so far:

Here's the setting sun that got us home again:

This new version of Blogger is okay, but for some reason I still don't see all the buttons (formatting, embedded links, etc.) at the top of the post window when I'm on my Mac. ? Also, instead of showing the actual photos in the edit mode, I only see the HTML. Perhaps I set a preference wrong? Probably. I'll have to check.

So I set the post time and date of this to occur on the night I originally wanted to post it--the night after we went on this trip. I don't know if Blogger will backdate it or not. We'll see.

Sunday, December 24, 2006

House finches galore

I was doing my feederwatch counts for this weekend and for some reason, every house finch in the area decided to hit the platform feeder today. The pine next to the feeder was crowded with mostly female house finches, waiting their turn at the seeds and nuts. Usually, I get about three-four of them, max. Today I saw nine at one time, both in the tree and on the feeder. There were only a couple of males in the bunch; the rest were tiny females.

I tried digiscoping but that little homemade adapter just isn't cutting it. These are the best photos I got--and they're terrible.
Obvious handshake. But the good thing was that I didn't see many finches with conjunctivitis today, at least I don't think so. They look okay to me. Any other opinions, based on this terrible photo?

In the golden light of the fast-setting sun, it was impossible for me to tell what kind of sparrow this is. Help?

Speaking of sun, we had another beautiful day here in Central PA--I think the high was close to 70! Here is a photo of the tamarack, almost bereft of its needles, and the marsh behind it, bathed in the bronze of a setting winter sun:

A not-so-white Christmas for 2006.

Saturday, December 23, 2006

Green Grove Road, Brush Valley

Note: I know it's a sin to post twice in one day, but that solstice post has been sitting around waiting for me to have time to do it. The following photos are fresh out of the camera, and I really wanted to show them to you.

On my way home from running errands, I took a little backroad to take some photos on this beautiful day. It's probably between 50 and 60 degrees, partly cloudly--an amazing day for winter in Central PA. It's been a strange fall/winter so far, with only one light dusting of snow, some night frosts, and decent amounts of sunshine.

I drove over Brush Mountain, the mountain that divides Penns Valley from the next valley over, Brush Valley. Here are some photos I took on Green Grove Road between 3 and 3:30pm today.

The sun was already making everything red, my favorite time of day. This is looking back toward my house; I'm just down the mountain and over to the left.

This was shot with the sun behind me, facing due west.

This is shot almost right into the sun, obviously. I love the way clouds look at sunset, when the light is too flat to shine through them so it makes them look dark and almost solid somehow.

This is a little copse of trees next to the road, thin and leafless now. I'll try to remember to take a picture once they've leafed out in the spring to compare.

This is a little path heading into a field, red with the setting sun.

Winter Solstice

I heard on NPR that "solstice" means "sun stands still" because on the solstice and for a few days afterward, the sun rises in the same spot, sets in the same spot each day--instead of moving left or right on the horizon as the earth continues its revolution around the sun.

I took some photos of the sunset with my Nokia camera phone, while driving at about 60mph down Hwy 220 from Bellefonte to State College; it was about 3:30pm (eastern time), and I was heading almost directly into the setting sun.

I love the winter solstice--knowing that the days will now get longer as we move through the winter into spring and summer. The gardener and birdwatcher in me love summer best because the days are so long that I can get home from work about 5:30 and still have hours of daylight left to work in the garden or watch birds. Also, there's just something in me that resents coming home in the dark.

Welcome to the longer days after winter solstice. Now that winter is officially here, perhaps we'll actually get some snow.

Friday, December 22, 2006

End-of-year meme

I saw a meme on Patrick Belardo's HawkOwl's Nest blog that basically requires you to enter just the first sentence of the first entry of each month of 2006. So--I started beginning to bird in June--

June: This web site is especially for people new to birding, like me.

July: This weekend, I saw a bobolink--during the Penn's Cave wildlife tour.

August: Well, it's happened. [here, the computer had blown up and I lost a lot of photos and files.]

September: I finally purchased a birding book written in this century: Stokes Field Guide to Birds, Eastern and Central Region.

October: What's this? [the monarch chrysalis I'd been watching for a MONTH had finally turned into a live monarch]

November: From Mike McDowell who got it from Nuthatch: [a meme about birding]

December: Today, the sun was blazing for the first time in a while, so I grabbed the Condor and the camera and set up a little station for myself. [my first really good digiscoping with a real scope]

Friday, December 15, 2006

Northern Harrier fly-by

This morning while waiting for my ride to work, I saw a raptor flying over the swamp. I grabbed the binocs and noted as much as I could about the silhouette--he/she was flying too high and the morning light was too dim for seeing anything but a dark form in the sky.

After checking a silhouette chart online, I'm confident that I've now seen a Northern Harrier. Another lifer!

I've spent most of my time studying songbirds and learning to ID them, but raptors are very cool. Usually when I see something, it turns out to be just a buzzard. Still, not a sighting goes by that I don't exclaim to Kat, "Look at those eagles, soaring majestically in a circle!" (heh--there's a lot of road- and field-kill to circle over out in the country, where we live.

I was pleased with my developing ability to note details (length of wings in relation to body, width of tail, length of head/neck, etc.). I've seen a few raptors flying around near the house, but my knowledge of them is limited. They are beautiful birds, however, and I hope to learn more about them. I'm just glad I've never seen one trying to hit the birds at my feeders--I know from my readings that this is a distinct possibility when you have a popular feeder in the backyard. I guess if it has to happen, I kinda hope I'm there, with scope and camera, to capture it. It'll be like watching Wild Kingdom or something, only minus Marlin Perkins.

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Holiday meme

This comes from LauraH in NJ:

1. Eggnog or hot chocolate? Eggnog never tastes as good as I imagine it will, so I’ll go with hot chocolate.
2. Does Santa wrap presents or just set them under the tree? He wraps the ones under the tree, but then he stuffs unwrapped things in our stockings.
3. Colored lights on tree/house or white? White.
4. Do you hang mistletoe? Nope.
5. When do you put your decorations up? Kat LOVES Christmas, so she starts decorating on Thanksgiving night, and not a moment before.
6. What is your favorite holiday dish (excluding dessert)? When I was a meat-eater, it was my mother’s turkey and stuffing. Now I’d have to say it’s Kat’s green bean casserole.
7. Favorite holiday memory as a child? Wow, just one? I still remember so many Christmases, sleeping near the tree and watching the lights as I fell asleep. I loved that.
8. When and how did you learn the truth about Santa? I’m with Laura—what do you mean, “truth”? Did he get lipo?
9. Do you open gifts Christmas Eve or Christmas morning? Usually late on Christmas eve—near midnight—or whenever we discover that Santa has already visited while we were napping.
10. How do you decorate your Christmas tree? With ornaments we’ve had in our families since we were young, and each year we all make new home-made ornaments.
11. Snow - Love it or dread it? I like it unless I have to dig the car out.
12. Can you ice skate? Not really—and the one time I went, I was too scared of falling (and breaking something) to enjoy it, so I ended up using this "walker" thing and skating behind it. But it was nerve-wracking. I couldn't just relax and enjoy it for fear I would fall and hurt my butt.
13. Do you remember your favorite gift? (as a child) Oh yes—my godmother gave me this “Coke Machine” that was a smaller plastic version of the old-fashioned Coke dispensers in drugstores, diners, etc.—and you would take a one-liter glass bottle of Coke, fit it under the big plastic box cover, put the top of the bottle into a rubber gasket-thingie, and then when you pressed the tap, Coke would come out!
14. What's the most exciting thing about the holidays for you? Being off work for a week!
15. What is your favorite holiday dessert? My mother’s desserts—refrigerator cookies (like sugar cookies with pecans in them—soooo tasty), homemade pumpkin and pecan pies—with lots of whipped cream!
16. What is your favorite holiday tradition? Every year, we would convince my parents to let us start opening gifts on Christmas Eve—every year, it would get earlier and earlier. And my sister Raquel would put on a fake mustache and beard (sometimes made of paper, sometimes cotton batting—whatever) and she would play “Santa the Clause” and distribute gifts. That was awesome.
17. What tops your tree? Kat has this quilted angel that goes on top of our tree.
18. Which do you prefer- giving or receiving? They’re both great—I guess I love the “exchanging.”
19. What is your favorite Christmas song? "O Holy Night"
20. Candy canes? Not that big a fan, but I’ll eat a piece or two. We have a wooden snowman who holds a long stick between his outstretched hands, and you hook candy canes onto it.

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

Not-so-clear moon

The moon was rising over a mountain at the edge of our valley this evening as I rode home. It was huge and yellow cresting the peak, looking like a sunrise but in the negative, in the darkness. As soon as I got home I grabbed the scopes and the camera, and I ran outside. By this point, the moon was over the hill, but I got a good view of it from the crazy uncle house.

I didn't get any clear images at all; I took about 75 shots. I tried different modes--first the regular mode, then night landscape, then macro. Nothing really gave me a good clear picture, but the scope--well, the scope was spectacular.

It's funny how sometimes I get so wrapped up in digiscoping that I almost forget to just look through the scope and enjoy the crystal clear view, the zoom lens, the ease of focus. But I remembered to look tonight, and I could see craters, ridges, atmospheric distortion. It was a beautiful moonrise.

Unfortunately, I just couldn't capture it. These are the best images I got:

The second one wasn't that great but note the atmospheric distortion of the disk on its bottom edge. At times, it looked as though there were huge gouges and peaks in the edges as the moon rose into the sky. This is the best example I got of that phenomenon.

I feel like there is still a lot of handshake in my photos--especially at night with the slower shutter speeds, and even in the day. Granted, I'm still using the little table-top tripod that came with the scope; it's not exactly equipped with a microfluid Bogen Manfrotto head or anything. Further, I still don't have an adapter ring to join the camera to the scope. The Condor came with a beautiful black metal eyepiece tube cap that is visible in this photo of my two scopes:
You can see it there to the right of the tripod; it looks almost like a 35mm film can. It's threaded and screws over the entire zooming eyepiece. I am going to use its measurements to create the adapter ring--maybe tonight, depending on what I have lying around in my workshop. I have a ton of PVC left over from my scope-building, but I don't know if the inner diameter of anything I have now is correct. We'll see.

Look at my scopes side by side. Oy vey. I'm so torn. I took my homemade scope outside with me as well, but I still need to fix the mounting screw, so it was too difficult to point at my subject. I might have had more patience, had it not been about 28 degrees outside, but as it was, my hands were starting to hurt by the time I'd taken my 75 or so shots through the Condor. Further, I think the length of the tube is great for distances about 100-150 feet max. It seemed I couldn't get it focused on the moon tonight, like the scope needed to be just a tad shorter to bring the distant moon into focus. It wasn't made for night sky viewing.

Still--maybe all my scope needs is a catchy name like "Condor." How about Talon? That sounds tough! But there's probably already a Talon out there. Maybe something reflective of its origins: HomeView? Clunky? Bob? Anyone have any suggestions?

Maybe I should go out and try again to get a photo that's actually in focus. I'll see what I get and add anything good.

I took some time and made a little adapter ring out of a piece of the caulking tube of Wet-Dry roof cement, some sticky-back cordoroy, and white craft felt. I knew I'd find something in my workshop.

First, both to protect my scope's eyepiece and as padding to make a tighter fit, I swaddled the eyepiece in white felt:
Once that was on, I lined the adapter on the inside with black sticky-back felt:
I don't know if you can read those ingredients, but they're pretty scary. Next, I slipped the tube over the swaddling and onto the scope, with enough length left over to accept the camera's lens once it comes out of its housing when I turn it on (without any zoom):

I couldn't really take a picture of the whole set-up, as that would've required the camera. . . I tried the phone-cam, but it was just blurry.

So--here are the results. By this point, the moon was higher in the sky (about 30 minutes had passed during the adapter-making).

First on the regular camera mode:

Wow. Really clear, but really needing a moon filter. Then I switched to night landscape:

A definite improvement, even if the adapter ring with its padding etc. doesn't really line the camera up perfectly with the eyepiece. The focus is much improved, though a moon filter would still help. Here are some more shots; you can judge for yourself whether this crazy little adapter I threw together makes a difference. The one thing I noticed is that I couldn't seem to get the whole disk in focus. So I just focused on an edge. Here are the best results:

Definitely a Carolina wren. Definitely.

Thanks to Bill of the Birds' latest post on the Carolina wrens at Indigo Hill, I am now certain that the bird I thought was a Carolina wren was indeed a Carolina wren. I'm learning!

Sunday, December 03, 2006

Two lifebirds in one day!

Today, the sun was blazing for the first time in a while, so I grabbed the Condor and the camera and set up a little station for myself. I sat in an Adirondack chair and put a little side table in front of me, on which I set the Condor on its table-top tripod.

The birds, probably just as happy as I was to see the sun, cooperated and took their places at the feeding stations. I set up to watch the platform feeder on the back fence with the scope, later moving it to watch the hanging feeder. I watched the suet feeder with my eyes and my binocs.

My first shot through the scope:
No, it wasn't night time. This is just that bad. There's a little sparrow in that blackness, sitting on the platform feeder.

Clearly, some adjustment was necessary.

I backed off the zoom on the scope (it goes 20-60X), backed off the zoom on the camera (the Nikon CP4800), and repositioned. Mr. Cardinal allowed this photograph of his somewhat moult-y form:
Does this fluff make me look fat?

Certainly an improvement, but the focus still wasn't too good. Also, vignetting was a big problem:

After some experimentation, I found that zooming the scope only a little bit cut the vignetting almost completely for my eye, but it only improved it somewhat for the camera. I think the problem lies in the camera lens, which is set back in the camera body. When I zoom, the barrel comes way out, and it seems the lens is even farther from the scope's eyepiece than before. So the camera was not zoomed at all for the rest of the photos; the scope was mainly on about 25-30X zoom. Further, I have no adapter, so I'm just holding the camera's lens to the scope with my left hand. Conditions were full sun, somewhat backlighting the subjects from directly behind and then slightly to the right but still behind as the sun travelled its in low winter arc across the sky.

I then heard a strange call and was stunned to see my first red-bellied woodpecker! I got a lot of blurry shots, but this is a fairly clear one:

Of course at first, I was so freaked out by this lifebird that I took a video, but I don't know how to load those onto Blogger and I dare not just try loading it like a photo on my dial-up connection! Let's move on:

I love the rumps of bluejays--so many shades of blue all together. Bluejays are mean and they tend to hog the feeder, but they're beautiful. At one point when I was just watching through the scope, the red-bellied was sitting on the platform and a jay tried to land, but the red-bellied opened his mouth and shooed the jay away--I didn't really hear a sound from the open mouth, but it was a clear "Hey, wait your turn!"

The infamous American goldfinch in winter plumage showed up and offered this pose:

Look at his pretty little pink feet.

This little sparrow stopped in a for a bite:
I haven't heard the distinctive song sparrow call since the summertime, so I began to think they'd all flown south. However, after really trying to look at all the details in the photo and in Peterson's, I'm certain this is a song sparrow, though I never got to see his breast to look for the large central spot that Peterson points out. But the streaking on his sides, as well as the lack of white outer tail feathers (vesper sparrow), makes me sure this is a song sparrow. Not to make a big deal of a pretty simple ID, but I'm trying to learn to focus on key ID elements so I don't make as many mistakes with the more difficult IDs.

The sparrow was soon joined by a male house finch:

I tried to zoom in on the house finch to look for conjunctivitis, but if he had it, he had only a minor case. The photos on the Project Feederwatch site all look so severe--but the house finches I saw this morning looked okay. If you can see something I don't see, please let me know, so I can make a correct entry in my Feederwatch weekend report.

The white-breasted nuthatch came back a few times, stopping at both the hanging feeder and the suet block:

What an acrobat!

That's the extent of the decent photos. I also saw but didn't get even bad photos of the following:

1. some kind of wren, I think. This is the first time I've seen this bird; it was rusty-colored, with a flat tail that reflected sunlight in the most beautiful way. He had the nuthatch's style of creeping close to the tree trunks and fence posts, and he spent a good deal of time perusing the brush piles. Peterson says to look for the tail cocked up over the back, but I didn't see him do that at all. Still, he looked most like a Carolina wren as opposed to a house wren or long-billed marsh wren. I considered his very rusty color and distinctive white eye stripe, plus the lack of striping on the back. Further, Peterson describes this wren as prefering "tangles and brushy undergrowth--he definitely did that. Also he explored a small cavity in a fence post right near one of the brush piles:
Still, I'm not as certain about this ID, because of the lack of tail-cocking. Everything else, however, tells me it was a Carolina wren.

2. the downy woodpecker, who made his regular appearance at the suet feeder. In Peterson, it seems the only differences between the downy and the hairy are body size and bill length (hairy is bigger with longer beak). One thing Peterson doesn't do in his first edition is show the female downy or hairy; only the males with their red caps near the backs of their heads. However, I've seen a woody with no red spot, larger than the male downy I've seen. I noted a distinct white-and-black pattern (Fig 1 and 2) on her crown and nape (trying to use the right terms here). I thought at first, due to the larger size, that I might have a female hairy. I looked at some other photos and drawings, and I really can't tell which she is. Judging from the fact that she's bigger than the male downy I've seen, I'm going to offer a 50/50 guess that she is a hairy woodpecker. Any help, anyone?

3, 4, 5. several kinds of sparrows. I believe I ID'd white-throated (easy to tell), field (rusty cap, no stickpin marking on breast, no white eyebrow stripe--though I forgot to check color of beak), and swamp (rusty cap, white throat, grayish breast). Wish I had photos of all of them, but most of the time they were on the ground. I need to get that log feeder made so I can get a better view of the ground-feeders.

6. black-capped chickadee. I love their songs and calls.

7. northern mockingbird

8. eastern phoebe, though I only heard this bird--I've heard it a million times but only today did it finally click that the sound was indeed "fee-bee" and it was an eastern phoebe. I'm slow sometimes.

9. a very big raptor, who flew over the marsh a couple of times but never close enough or in good enough light (or rather too much light--he was backlit the whole time by a very bright sun). Peterson offers some silhouettes and views from below, but honestly--all I remember is that it was huge and brown. I've done a lot of work on learning about songbirds, but the raptors have pretty much eluded me, other than the red-tailed hawk whom I can identify pretty easily as long as I see him perched. On this bird, however, I just don't remember the width of the tail, and I didn't see any color other than brown on top and black (from the backlighting) on the bottom.

It was quite a morning overall, and I'm feeling pretty good right now. I'm learning how to take photos through this new scope, which I haven't decided whether I'll keep or not, and I saw two lifebirds. Pretty cool.