Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Be Like an Owl

This one falls in the category of a birding "life hack." I recently read an article about how owls have asymmetric ear placements that allow them to spatially locate sound in both horizontal and vertical planes. This got me to thinking ...

After hearing a bird call in the field, I often want to find it in the binoculars. I find that, though I can judge direction to some extent, I am clueless about elevation. I occurred to me that I might be able to alternate listening for the bird with my head upright and then with it cocked to the side and get the same effect as the owl.

Tonight, I tried it out as I was listening to a bird that I thought was 20 feet in front of me in the brush. I moved side to side and pinpointed the direction but no bird. I then tipped my head and discovered immediately that it was nearly overhead, not out in front of me. Combine the two "directions" and, poof, I had the bird spotted. The effect is less obvious as the bird gets further away but that example was pretty dramatic.

Saturday, April 25, 2015

Balcones Songbird Festival 2015

Today we attended the Balcones Songbird Festival. Same as last year, we took the Endangered Ones bird tour guided by Bill Reiner and John Chenoweth, with the goal of seeing the two Central Texas endangered birds, the Golden-cheeked Warbler and the Black-capped Vireo.

First stop was the "Victoria Bank Tract" on the SE corner of the refuge next to the airport. The morning was still very foggy as we walked along a path though the clearings between Ashe Juniper, Red Oak, and Live Oak, looking and listening for the warbler. We were able to see several as well as a Black and White Warbler. I was only able to get one photo this year.

Golden-cheeked Warbler taking flight

Our next stop was the "Doeskin Ranch" site. Though technically a bathroom break, this location always offers a large variety of species. The Ash-throated Flycatcher I had seen here before on my own. Note the pale yellow breast compared to other Myiarchus sp. and the rufous on the under tail that does not extend to the tips.

Ash-throated Flycatcher
Ash-throated Flycatcher

A pair of Scissor-tailed Flycatchers were near the bathroom. One of the few times I have seen one that was not perched on a power line. The tree branches make a much more aesthetic perch.

Scissor-tailed Flycatcher
At Mustang Island a few weeks ago, we had gotten a nice photo of a female Summer Tanager but not the male. Here I filled in the matched set.

Female Summer Tanager (Paradise Pond, Mustang Island)
Male Summer Tanager
The final stop was the "Shin Oak Observatory", closer to the north end of the refuge We eagerly anticipated seeing a Black-capped Vireo at this location. We had dipped on this bird last year and hoped to add it to our life list this time. The tour allows us to enter the site further than the public observing deck. The habit here is very different consisting of low clumps of Shin Oak with occasional trees.

We were lucky and saw three vireos. A male and a female just down from the deck and a second male a 100 yards down the trail. I was extraordinarily lucky to get a clear photo of that second male as it flitted up onto an exposed branch of a Hackberry tree.

Male Black-capped Vireo
Many thanks to our two tour leaders for a great job again this year.

Returning the next morning to Doeskin Ranch, I figured out that the pishing calls in the tall oak trees were foraging Blue-gray Gnatcatchers

Blue-gray Gnatcatcher
Two days of fun birding ... capped off with a hellacious case of chiggers. Must use more DEET next time.

All images Canon 7DII, EF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS II USM, 400mm, Tv 1/640s, ISO-400.

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Ecoxotic Out - Kessil In

After three years of fighting dealing with repeated failures of my Ecoxotic Panorama Pro lighting modules, I finally gave up. Less than nine months after I installed three panels of these lights, I began to see failures of the LED cells. All the cells in a module would dim over time, then individual cells on the module would burn out completely. The blue lights were especially vulnerable. Of the eighteen original modules, I ended up replacing thirty as well as four or five AC adapters. I had originally computed that I would recoup the cost of the system in five years from not having to purchase replacement bulbs and tubes. I only made it three years.

In fairness to Ecoxotic, they stood behind their product 100%. Requesting replacements was painless, even long past the 1 year warranty period. Unfortunately, this product itself did not measure up to the quality of the company.

After a number of positive reviews, I am giving Kessil a try. Per their sizing specs, I installed three of the A360W-E canisters - each one covers about a 24" x 24" surface area.

The hooks that I am using are not from Kessil. In fact, they are not even reef related. They are part of a bird feeder hanging system purchased at Wild Birds Unlimited. They work great because I can swivel them to the side if I need to.

My lux measurements with these lights mid tank is about twice the intensity of a panel of five Panorama Pro modules. While operating, the Kessil light canisters are completely cool to the touch - a good sign. I am using the Kessil controller to vary the intensity and color over the day from dim blue to bright white. The surface shimmer from having three point sources is much better than the panel light, similar to what the MH bulbs produced.

Saturday, April 18, 2015

Owlets at the Wildflower Center

Today, we took a trip down to the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center in south Austin to see the Great Horned Owl brood. The nest is in a planter integrated into the rock archway at the entrance to the center, right over all of the people going in and out. The dozy owlets did not seem very disturbed by their star status.

We did not see an adult, though it has been reported in the daytime in nearby trees. We did see three owlets of different sizes, all of which are pictured below. The one to the left of the sotol plant appeared to be the largest. The one to the far right, just poking its beak up, is the smallest. The middle owlet was the one visible the longest.

We enjoyed chatting with Vince, one of the volunteers and, later, showing off the owlets through binoculars to many of the visiting guests. Naked eye, they were hard to see clearly. Vince informed us that the nesting site has been used for the last 5 years. These started hatching around the end of March.

First three pictures with Canon 7DII, EF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L f/6.3, FEC -1.0, ISO-400; last picture Canon SX50 HS at 215mm, f/6.5, 1/640 sec., ISO-200.

Sunday, April 12, 2015

Camping Cappuccino

Nothing says roughing it at the campground like a frothy cappuccino.  Edward at Mustang Island SP with Nespresso machine and Breville milk frother. Hey, even the ISS is going to get one.

Mustang Island April Trip

Below is a slide show of birds from our April trip to Mustang Island and surrounding birding locations.

Pelican Kettles

On the drive back up from the coast this afternoon, we encountered a large migration of American White Pelican just north on Karnes, TX along Hwy 123. We initially saw several undulating V-formations crossing the road heading NNE. When we caught up with them shortly after, they had formed up into several large kettles and were gaining considerable elevation. We noticed many with the breeding "keels" on their bills.