Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Spotted Towhee at Rosario Beach

Spotted Towhee at Rosario Beach
Spotted Towhee (Pipilo maculatus)
From Fidalgo Island Crossings, spring arrived for real on March 23rd.  In Deception Pass State Park, this Spotted Towhee caught my attention at Rosario Beach.  All by himself, he was joyfully singing, completely caught up in the moment.  After a long winter, I felt the same way on this beautiful, sunny day.

Saturday, March 26, 2011

BirdCam No. 2:  Photo Management

Chestnut-backed Chickadee
Chestnut-backed Chickadee (Poecile rufescens)

Having just installed a second BirdCam station, I am already getting activity.  I have also discovered some nifty software for managing and editing photos.  In BirdCam No.1, I am using an Eye-Fi SD card which transmits images to my laptop via Wi-Fi.  It works well, but also has some drawbacks.  For BirdCam No.2, I decided to go with a standard SD Class 6 card.  This meant I needed software that would download the images, sort them into subfolders by date and keep track of images already transferred.  I don't like the way Picassa and Windows Live Photo Gallery want to take over everything.  Sometimes I like to root around in my folders on my own and use the Windows Photo Viewer.  I also don't like the way WLPG will save changes without asking.

After some study, I settled on FastStone Photo Viewer now in version 4.3.  I am tickled to death with it and it's free to boot.  It is very fast and requires only a bit of orienting to get it working.  I know, I know, Photoshop.  Anybody who is anybody...  Frankly, I don't have the time.  My needs are simple and I want something I can open and run without requiring weeks of study.  FastStone ably meets that criteria, and it includes very intuitive photo editing tools as well.

FastStone Image Viewer

FastStone's date option for naming folders uses a year/year-month-day format which is actually better than Windows.  Putting the year first in the folder name keeps them all in true chronological order.  Grouping each year's folders is also a welcome option.  If desired, you can also download photos into any specified folder.

Not every BirdCam photo will be useful.  The first chore is to delete the bad ones, the blanks, blurs and butt shots.  Here, FastStone really shines.  You can quickly scroll through a new batch in full screen and delete the rejects.  While in full screen, touch the mouse pointer to the four edges of the image.  Quick menus will open.  To delete, you can use the delete button at the top of the screen or the Delete key on your keyboard.

Don't delete them all, however, since you may be able to fix the marginal shots with FastStone's editing tools.  Here is the original Chickadee photo as it came from the camera:


This was late in the day, the subject was in the shade and it was somewhat back-lit.  This shot could have ended up in the trash bin, but I decided to use it to experiment with FastStone's editing tools.  First, always make a copy for editing.  Never edit or alter the original photo.  Second, if you are looking for expertise in photo editing, this is not the place.  I think I was able to salvage the shot, however, on my first go-around with the tools.  Here is what I did:
  • I removed as much of the blue as possible
  • I added a smidgen of red and a smidgen of green
  • I boosted the contrast to make the Chickadee stand out more
  • I increased the saturation just a speck
  • I fussed a bit with highlights and shading
  • I sharpened the image just a little
Note that "fuss," "boost," "speck" and "smidgen" are technical photo terms.  The result was the first photo above.  If you don't like the results, you can undo them all or you can undo each element as you go.  When you edit a copy of the photo, you can easily compare it with the original to see if it really has been improved.

FastStone also has a tool for cropping photos:

Chestnut-backed Chickadee

One other trick is to add the species name or other information to the photo's file name.  This makes it easy to find specific birds or other categories of pictures.  You can also tag the best shots with FastStone and limit the photo browser to only the tagged ones.

Keeping up with two BirdCams will be a handful.  Using this new software, FastStone Image Viewer, should help get the job done.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Another Day, Another Birdcam

BirdCam Station No. 2

This may qualify me for the "Off-The-Deep-End" list, but I have installed a second BirdCam.  This one is sited at the edge of a canopy formed by large Douglas Firs, with an understory of smaller trees and garden plantings.  The so-called "edge effect habitat" is known to be ideal for wildlife diversity and sightings.  Hopefully this concept will also apply to backyard landscaping.

Siting a BirdCam station is similar to locating feeders, with a couple of extra considerations:
  • Close to cover and escape routes so the birds will feel safe
  • Straightforward access for both birds and people
  • Convenient to the house to make it easy to replenish feeders and to inspect and maintain the BirdCam
  • Away from predators such as cats (our local coyotes take care of that)
  • Away from nest boxes; feeder traffic may discourage use of nearby nest boxes
  • Good lighting for photos as with any camera; the BirdCam tends to produce blurry or poor quality images in low light
  • Sheltered from wind which might jiggle the BirdCam
  • Locate where there is an appealing background for bird photos; avoid too much clutter to keep the birds the primary subjects
Another spot I am considering for a BirdCam station is at the koi pond waterfall.  This is an active location where the birds come to bathe and get a drink.  Species I never see at the feeders, including Varied Thrushes, Robins and Cedar Waxwings, come here regularly.  I just haven't figured out a good way to mount the camera for the best advantage at this site.

I set up the suet feeder a few days ago before the BirdCam arrived.  While I was installing the camera, a Red-breasted Nuthatch came for breakfast.  As I attached the mounting arm, he took his snack within two feet of me.  I have had the same experience with Chickadees and Wrens.  I expect to see more of all of these species in this location, along with Flickers and maybe even a Pileated Woodpecker.  Seeing a Pileated at the old suet feeder was the inspiration for acquiring the first BirdCam.  Catching a photo of these beautiful birds remains my ongoing quest.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Pine Siskin: First Look

Pine Siskin

After changing seed to black sunflower, another species has debuted at the BirdCam station.  Here are the first images caught of a Pine Siskin (Carduelis pinus) since installing the camera last fall.  These finches are said to be year-around residents in our area, but I see them only rarely.  They resemble American Goldfinches in winter plumage, except they have a lot of brown streaking the Goldfinch lacks.  The name "Carduelis" implies they are also fond of thistle seed (carduus is a thistle).  Later this spring, I'll be putting up a thistle feeder to what that will attract.

Pine Siskin

According to BirdWeb, my yard provides their desired habitat, "semi-open areas, including forest edges and weedy fields."  Well, let's hope not too weedy.  They nest on horizontal branches of large conifers which I also furnish, so perhaps I'll have a nesting pair or two.

The BirdCam station is currently in a fairly open area of the yard, and near the house.  I have ordered a second BirdCam to set up in a more secluded spot with more cover.  It will be interesting to see if this makes a difference in the birds attracted.  Meanwhile, I hope to catch some better photos of Pine Siskins as well as other birds arriving for spring.

Friday, March 18, 2011

Song Sparrow

Song Sparrow

The Song Sparrow (Melospiza melodia) is one of our year-around residents on South Fidalgo.  They are identified by a gray and brown striped face, buff malar stripe, light chin and a light median stripe over the crown of the head.  The local Pacific Northwest morphna race tends to be darker and redder than in other locations.  Don't confuse them with Fox Sparrows which have solid brown heads and backs with a bit of shading, but no stripes.  Savannah and Lincoln's Sparrows are smaller and paler.

Song Sparrow

Song Sparrows are among the most frequently seen birds at the feeders.  These ground foragers are not fussy eaters, relishing black sunflower, suet and safflower seed.  In coastal areas, they also eat shellfish.  They will come to feeders where there is some cover nearby.  Their preferred habitat is forest edges, thickets and marshes with open grassy feeding areas.  This includes the undergrowth of gardens and city parks according to iBird.  Their edge habitat has actually increased due to logging and suburban sprawl.  At one time or another, they can be seen almost everywhere in North America.

Song Sparrow

I can always count on a couple of Song Sparrow nests deep inside of my Tanyosho Pines.  True to their name, they have a complex, melodic song that other birds have trouble imitating.  iBird describes it as "Madge-Madge-Madge, put-on-your-tea-kettle-ettle-ettle."  Appropriately, a group of Song Sparrows is called a "choir" or "chorus."

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Hitting the Spot

Pipilo maculatus curtatus

The previous post introduced an atypical Spotted Towhee (Pipilo maculatus) visiting the BirdCam station.  While the leopard may not be able to change its spots, the Spotted Towhee can.  Our local oregonus variants have relatively few spots.  Those to the east and south, including eastern Washington birds, are markedly spottier.  This bird appears to be one of those which has wandered into our area.

My attempt to identify this bird among the 21 listed subspecies was frustrating.  Based on descriptions I found, I took a guess that he was a montanus variant, and admitted it was a guess.  I noted that in Pacific NW Birder, Greg Gillson was also visited by such birds in Beaverton, Oregon.  He identified them as curtatus, or Nevada Towhees.  In a comment to my post, he has kindly provided more information:

"I think you are correct that this towhee with white outer tail feathers is one of the inland group. I wish we knew what one!

Going only by published ranges in "The A.O.U. Check-list of North American Birds" (1957, the last time subspecies were included), gives these three possibilities:

curtatus: from s.c. BC and n. ID south, east of the Cascades to n. CA and w. NV.

arcticus: from c. AB n. ND south, east of the Rocky Mountains to n.e. CO. Casual w. to UT.

montanus: central e. CA, central e. Nevada, n. UT n.w. CO south.

Thus, we know curtatus breeds in eastern Washington.

arcticus breeds north and east of Washington and could occur in winter (even though no records up to the last 20 years, anyway).

And montanus apparently gets no closer than central eastern California, so seems least likely to winter in NW Washington."
So there you have it.  I agree that based on this information our visitors are likely to be curtatus variants.  Sibley provides more information about the Spotted Towhee problem:

"Geographic variation in voice and plumage is complex and poorly understood.  There are two distinct call types but less distinct differences in song and plumage.  More study is needed.  Great Plains is palest, with most extensive white markings; Pacific Northwest is darkest.  Great Plains females are gray-brown; other females are very dark, similar to males."
In Towhees, rather subtle differences have defined separate species, Spotteds vs. Easterns.  The Spotteds are further broken down based on the character and number of spots.  Now consider the case of the Dark-eyed Junco (Junco hyemalis).  They exhibit large differences in colors, patterns and markings; regional variants don't look anything alike.  Yet these are all considered the same species.  Is it possible the Dark-eyed Junco needs a little more categorizing and the Spotted Towhee a little less?

Those of us who grew up with the likes of Marlin Perkins, Marty Stouffer, David Attenborough, Jacques Cousteau and David Suzuki have been endowed with a special curiosity about nature.  Making these little discoveries in our own backyards is a pleasure beyond description.  Lets hope the curiosity never leaves us.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Spot Check

Spotted Towhee
Spotted Towhee (Pipilo maculatus)

Among Spotted Towhees (Pipilo maculatus), our local oregonus race is the least spotted.  Now, however, this bird has appeared at the BirdCam station over the last couple of days.  His spottiness immediately caught my eye.  I decided to shine a spotlight on this unusual visitor.

These large Sparrows were formerly classified Rufous-sided Towhees (Pipilo erythrophthalmus).  Erythrophthalmus literally means "red eye."  In 1995, the birds were divided into two species, Eastern Towhee (P. erythrophthalmus) which have no spots and the Spotted Towhee (P. maculatus), maculatus meaning "spotted."  Got it?  You might know the word "immaculate" which means "without spots," but I digress.  Word etymology is one of my arcane interests.

Spotted Towhee
Oregonus Male

This is a photo of a typical oregonus Spotted Towhee of the Northwest Coast.  Spot-checking reveals how different this bird is from the one in the first photo.  According to BirdWeb, the Spotteds of eastern Washington are spottier than those west of the Cascade Mountains.  My ID skills are spotty at best, but I will hazard a guess that the eastern Washington birds are montanus variants of the Rocky Mountains and Great Basin.  Our Mr. Spotty in the first photo may be a wanderer from those regions.  This oregonus female Spotted Towhee with brown hood and back instead of black is relatively spotless:

Spotted Towhee
Oregonus Female

I found one website that listed 21 subspecies.  It's enough to cause a case of spotted fever.  Another Northwest birder, Greg Gillson has had an experience similar to mine in Beaverton, Oregon.  He has classified his super spotties Nevada Towhees (P. m. curtatus).  Of particular interest is that both his and mine have appeared at roughly the same time.  Now is when many birds are on the move to their summer nesting sites.  This could explain the appearance of these vagabonds.

First Yellow-shafted Northern Flickers, now this.  I think I am seeing spots.  I believe the lesson is perhaps we may be working too hard attempting to classify, categorize and localize every little detail.  Birds of a feather often inhabit specific locales and we humans like to pigeon-hole things.  But birds, in particular, also have the ability to move great distances.  Seeking mates and exploiting food sources are possible reasons.  Perhaps we should expect the unexpected and not be surprised when it occurs.