Monthly Archives: March 2010

Nix Nature Center: Winter Birding

The James and Rosemary Nix Nature Center opened on St. Patrick’s Day in 2007. Oddly, it remains to this day, one of the better-kept secrets of Orange County open space. Conveniently located, this unit of the Laguna Canyon Wilderness Park is always well worth a visit. I have been stopping by periodically ever since it opened, often going for an hour or so before work during the week.

Although its official hours are 8:00 am to 4:00 pm, I often find it open earlier than that, which is really nice! I go mainly for the birds, of course, but anyone interested in hiking or relatively easy mountain bike trails will find something to their liking here. And in wet years, the wild flowers can be spectacular too. Just a piece of advice: if you plan to visit Nix Nature Center on a weekend, get there early. To keep the place from getting loved to death, parking is deliberately limited to four small lots.

Digiscoping at Nix Nature Center

Digiscoping at Nix Nature Center – White-crowned Sparrow

Digiscoping Birds

I was working on a review of the Leica D-LUX 4 digiscoping system. Happily, the Nix Nature Center is a great place for pictures. It was a gray overcast March morning when I stopped by. Phainopeplas were busy spreading mistletoe to every available sycamore branch. Small flocks of Zonotrichia sparrows (just Golden-crowned and White-crowned this year) sang and fed nervously in the open spaces around the parking lot.

This sub-adult White-crowned Sparrow teed up for me in a luxuriant laurel sumac. First I took a picture with just the camera. The sparrow is that white dot at the top of the bush. But with the Leica Apo-Televid 82 scope in line, the charms of this young bird become much more apparent. These photos were not cropped in any way, to make the magnification of the unit more apparent. Always check the sparrow flocks carefully in winter. I’ve seen Lincoln’s, Savannah, Chipping, and Brewer’s Sparrows mixed in with the White-crowns, and a Black-chinned Sparrow in early spring. Generally, they’re feeding right out in the open on the ground.

California Towhee at Nix Nature Center

California Towhee at Nix Nature Center

Local Residents

Generally, California Towhees feed near the parking lot, kicking the mulch and leaves with both feet as they root around. You can see the characteristic ‘pumpkin butt’ and hints of buff around the base of the heavy seed-eating bill. The canyons often echo with the loud “chink” calls of this common resident. A close cousin to the California Towhee and Spotted Towhees live here year-round. But I’m still searching for my first wintering Green-tailed Towhee there.

Western Bluebird, Nix Nature Center

Western Bluebird, Nix Nature Center

Willing to take advantage of a nest box hanging anywhere, Western Bluebirds usually feed from low perches. They even frequent the parking lots unless crowds of people have chased them into hiding. I found this female hunting from on a bare sycamore limb. As usual, she was too shy to permit close approach. But the extra “reach” of the digiscoping outfit easily brought her in close without the need to disturb her further.

Nix Nature Center Habitat

Nix Nature Center sits on typical scrub land, with patches of oak-sycamore community in the wetter areas. However, a short walk from Nix brings you to other habitats. The network of trails links up with the other 6600 acres of the Laguna Coast Wilderness Park. These include Dilley Preserve, Willow, Sycamore and Laurel Canyons, and farther away, Crystal Cove State Park. Walking under Laguna Canyon Road takes you to Barbara’s Lake, the only naturally occurring lake in Orange County. There you always find Pied-billed Grebes and herons. Occasionally, Least Bitterns nested there in past years. So when you get a chance, check out this wonderful little park, and see what you can find.

Digiscoping with the Leica D-Lux 4 System

We received a D-Lux 4 digital camera and several adapters from Leica to go along with the impressive Apo-Televid 82 scope (see scope review here) and have been happily field-testing it for several weeks now in preparation for a full review on the digiscoping outfit. This post is not a full review. Rather it gives people an idea of the capabilities of this adaptable and really easy-to-use outfit.

The rig consists of a D-Lux 4 digital camera, the digiscoping adapter and the Apo-Televid 82 scope and tripod. Given the weight of the scope, I opted for a full-sized carbon fiber tripod to counter-balance it. A carbon fiber tripod has the advantage of damping down vibrations. This is important when taking pictures, especially without a cable release. Unscrew the aluminum ring from the camera lens to reveal the adapter mounting threads. The adapter fits over the eyepiece (in this case, the 25-50x zoom eyepiece) and fixes in place with a set-screw. And that’s it! The whole operation takes about 30 seconds.

White-faced Ibis, digiscoped with Leica D-Lux 4 system

White-faced Ibis, digiscoped with Leica D-Lux 4 system


The first question most folks want to ask is: what kind of pictures can you take with this rig? Well, as it turns out, pretty good ones! For example, take a look at the detail in this basic-plumaged White-faced Ibis from San Joaquin Marsh Sanctuary. In winter, White-faced Ibis lack the white facial skin that gives them their name. Also, mottling appears on the head and upper neck. Note the pinkish tint to the tip of the long decurved bill, and the facial skin. The appearance of the back and wings suggests this bird undergoing pre-alternate molt. Highly iridescent green feathers replaced some of the dull older feathers on the head, belly and neck. While shooting, this bird got too close for photography, and to take these pictures I had to move back!

Whimbrel at rest

Whimbrel at rest

Image Richness

Another question is whether the image richness is sufficient to support really fine details of plumage and pattern. These resting shorebirds provided a good example proving it does. It also shows that the subtle plumage details stand out against a bright background.

Look at the feather detail in this Whimbrel. Note the pale buffy fringes of the wings and back and the warmer cinnamon tones of the breast. The rufous crown stripes stand out. The white eye ring pops, and the lower mandible is pink, while the legs are bluish gray. Even the rippling reflection below is rich with detail. The preening Long-billed Dowitcher is just a bit too far in front to be fully in focus. Still, some great feather details are visible in it too. Look at the dark-centered, pale-edged wing coverts to the dark chevrons on the sides of the belly. So, even in challenging light, surprising image detail is available.

Perched Vesper Sparrow

Perched Vesper Sparrow


How cumbersome and slow is the Leica D-Lux 4 digiscoping unit? Well, it’s really not. In fact, using this unit, I can often capture sharp images of small and rapidly moving birds. This group of Savannah Sparrows kept hopping up onto a barbed wire fence and alighting for a few seconds before spooking and dropping back down into the grass. But with a bit of luck and timing, the D-Lux 4 still caught this Vesper Sparrow, an uncommon bird in Orange County, among them. Note the characteristic white outer tail rectrices and black inner ones. The wind ruffled its head feathers, giving it a ‘punkish’ look, but the thin white eye ring is visible around the black eye. The depth of field is fairly good here too. We took this photo in 16:9 ratio mode, which yields a broader shot.

Lesser Goldfinch feeding

Lesser Goldfinch feeding

This feeding male Lesser Goldfinch provides another example. This bird was only about 25 feet away when I took these shots. But he kept hopping from plant to plant in search of more succulent bits to munch. You can see a piece of his meal clinging to the edge of his beak. Our west coast LEGOs have greenish backs with black streaking. Whereas those of the interior sometimes show completely black-backs. And of course, the Danish LEGOs come in many colors and can be used to build amazing things? The camera and scope picked up the subtle markings of the bird along with details in his claws along with the brilliant orange hues of the flowers and their green foliage.


So that should answer your questions. Digiscoping with the Leica D-Lux 4 camera and Apo-Televid 82 scope is incredibly easy. Additionally, it’s a lot of fun. If you don’t hear from me for a while, it’s because I stole this unit and went on the lam!

San Diego Bird Festival Pelagic Trip

Black-footed Albatross - San Diego Bird Festival pelagic

Black-footed Albatross – San Diego Bird Festival pelagic

Recently, Optics4Birding participated as a vender in the annual San Diego Bird Festival. After three days of talking with people about optics, it felt great to revert to merely being a birder. At the gracious invitation of Swarovski, I joined the Islas Coronados Pelagic Trip. I have been on a few of these festival pelagics before, but this was my first in some time. Over the years, the trip underwent some important changes. While it was always good, I am happy to report it is even better now!

Trip Details

Years ago, it was just a 4-hour jaunt to the Coronado Islands of Mexico with the major target being Brown Booby, which occasionally roosted on the cliffs of Middle Island. On a good day, you maybe saw two of them. Recently, the festival switched operators, and SoCal Birding now runs the boats. In addition to the Coronado Islands trip, there is an 8-hour venture to the 9-Mile Bank. This vast underwater seamount features deeper, colder, nutrient-rich waters that lure in a host of pelagic life forms to this point just 14 miles offshore. It is worth noting that the leadership on these trips is truly world class. Some of them literally wrote the book; others just know enough that they could have! Kudos also goes to Swarovski Optik, who generously subsidizes the trip. That holds down the cost so participants can get a great trip at an amazing price.

As the bus left Marina Village where they hold the festival, rain streaked the windows. But excitement kept the mood upbeat as we boarded the boat during a dry spell. As usual, Swarovski, was loaning binoculars to anyone bold enough to take them. I brought a pair of 10×42 EL Swarovision binoculars from Optics4Birding so on my way onto the boat, I clarified with them the important difference between loaned (theirs) and “stolen” (ours!). Conventional wisdom says you don’t take 10x bins onto a boat since they’re harder to hold steady. And frankly there are enough impediments to steadiness on a pelagic trip. You wouldn’t know it by me! The waters were calm, with the waves seldom exceeding 5 feet with only minimal wind. I had cracking views all day, and the extra magnification was very useful on the more distant birds and mammals.

Brown pelican in flight

Brown pelican in flight

Leaving the Harbor

On our way out of the harbor, we saw all the expected species, starting with Double-crested and Brandt’s Cormorants. A number of dark-bellied Brant swam by, and a Herring Gull mixed in with the common Western and Heermann’s Gulls. A wintering Long-tailed Duck among the Surf Scoters and a young Glaucous-winged Gull added spice to the mix. A frightful crush of cormorants, herons, egrets and pelicans sat on the bait barge. But several Black Turnstones lent the place a bit more dignity.

Common, Pacific and Red-throated Loons were all present in the channel as we headed out to the 9-Mile Bank. A Parasitic Jaeger was chasing gulls and terns at the tip of the headland. Shortly thereafter, the first Rhinoceros Auklets appeared, looking like stubby shoeboxes with wings. Rhinos are probably closer to puffins than other auklets, and this was evident in those that allowed us closer approach. Soon Cassin’s Auklets, barely 1/5 the size of the Rhinos, were zinging away at our approach. They looked like little gray tennis balls in flight. Our last alcid of the day was Xantus’ Murrelet, which almost invariably appeared in pairs. These were birds of the locally-breeding scrippsi sub-species. They show prominent white eye crescents, but lack the white cheek patch of the northerly-breeding hypoleucos sub-species.

Common Dolphin porpoising

Common Dolphin porpoising, San Diego Bird Festival

Marine Mammals

No less exciting than the birds were the mammals. We saw several pods of Risso’s Dolphins with their characteristic scarring of the upper body and their large dorsal fins. Risso’s Dolphins feed primarily on squid, who take vigorous exception to the process. These dolphins also use their teeth on each other to communicate. Thus, these dolphins often look like Jackson Pollack art. The trip also yielded some close encounters with multiple Finback Whales. California Sea Lions were everywhere, and on the rocks of the Coronados, we saw Harbor and Southern Elephant Seals. The last two mammals were Pacific White-sided Dolphins and Short-beaked Common Dolphins. Experts recently separated them from the Long-beaked species. Evidently, the splitters hold sway among the mammologists too!

We also saw scattered tubenoses, beginning with another local breeder, Black-vented Shearwater. Their small size and rapid wingbeats made them fairly easy to distinguish from the larger shearwaters we would see. By contrast, the much larger Pink-footed Shearwaters have a more languid wingbeat and frequently glide for long distances. Intermediate between them was a single Sooty Shearwater, unique among these three species in having an all-dark belly. Their silvery underwing linings (rather than clearly white) are a distinguishing field mark . Much discussion raged around a putative Short-tailed Shearwater. But the best was still to come.

Black-footed Albatross - takeoff

Black-footed Albatross – takeoff

Great Tubenoses

First, a Black-footed Albatross was found and lured to the crowd of gulls among the chum at the back. A constant dribble of cod liver oil kept it following us for quite some time. So everyone got great looks at this spectacular ocean wanderer. Then a Northern Fulmar brought everyone to the railing. This bird showed its classic blunt, bull-headed look, emphasized by the steep forehead. Right on its tail came the unexpected gem of the trip: a gorgeous Laysan Albatross. This bird nearly caused participants to capsize the boat when it cut sharply across the bow, and everyone raced to that side. Okay, not really, but the pandemonium was impressive!

Flying Brown Booby

Flying Brown Booby

Visiting the Coronado Islands

When we got closer to the Coronados, we began seeing Brown Boobies in flight. Soon we were at the nesting/roosting cliffs at Middle Island. We saw them in great numbers, logging between 25 and 30 individuals. Our trip around the South Island netted us a Wandering Tattler or two, a few Black Oystercatchers, and then a very interesting American x Black Oystercatcher hybrid. We see such birds fairly frequently in southern California, but this one was particularly pretty. Eventually, we headed north to return to San Diego. A Black-footed albatross taunted us on the way, coming in behind the boat and hanging with us for quite a while before veering away west and out of sight within a half mile of the U.S. border. But then it, or another like it, returned shortly after we crossed the border, followed by a second individual.

Double-cresting Cormorant in full alternate plumage

Double-cresting Cormorant in full alternate plumage

Not to be outdone, a Brown Booby showed up in flight fairly close to the channel mouth. Immediately after that, a Parasitic Jaeger was seen hounding an Elegant Tern. While we were docking, this fantastic Double-crested Cormorant showed up in all his nuptial splendor. You seldom get to see them looking this fine, a fitting end to a great trip!

Vortex Razor Spotting Scope: Digiscoping

Example of what you see without the Vortex Spotting Scope

Example of what you see without the Vortex Spotting Scope

Many spotting scopes these days provide the attachment options for digiscoping. Consequently, this offers the ability to attach a digital camera and use the scope as a telephoto lens to take photos. Digital photo adapters vary widely in their design, ease of use, and speed to deploy. They also range in their compatibility with respect to the cameras they can accommodate. The Vortex Razor Spotting Scope is a relatively recent entry in the spotting scope market, providing high-quality optical performance at a very reasonable price (see Vortex Razor Scope Review). Vortex offers a digiscoping adapter for use with the Vortex Razor Spotting, so I took it out in the field to give it a try.

Digiscoping with the Vortex Razor Spotting Scope

Photo taken with Vortex Razor Spotting Scope

Digiscoped with Vortex Razor Spotting Scope

I went out this past Sunday to Laguna Niguel Regional Park with the Razor scope equipped with its 20-60x zoom eyepiece, the Vortex Razor Digital Adapter, and my Canon 40D camera with a 50-mm lens. This was my first attempt to digiscope with this equipment combination, so the pictures here are mostly to show what is possible and do not represent fully optimized photography with this rig.

An Osprey eating lunch at the park provided an interesting and challenging subject for this demonstration. The bird was sitting in a eucalyptus tree in rather unfavorable lighting. So as an illustration, we first took the photo (above) with the camera only. This is to show the level of zoom with and without the scope in line.

Next, we zoomed the eyepiece on the scope to about 40x and took the same photo (right) through the scope. As a result these photos give a good comparison of what a dramatic difference shooting through a spotting scope makes. This camera/scope combination at this magnification is equivalent to about a 3200-mm lens. This will vary from 2000 to 4000 mm at this level of zoom depending on the type of camera. We have not cropped these photos in any way. They are full-frame shots. We have only resized them to fit the pages here.



Golden Eagle at El Toro Marine Corps AS

A Stop Before Work

I made a quick stop coming into work this morning by the El Toro Marine Base. Flying overhead was the Golden Eagle that I have heard has been in the area recently. It appeared that there was some rather small bird chasing it. This seemed a bit unusual so I thought I’d watch what happened. I got out my camera to take a couple photos. So maybe I could figure out later what the smaller bird was that was chasing the eagle.

Smaller bird chasing Golden Eagle

My first looks at the smaller bird chasing the Golden Eagle

The Realization

As I watched the smaller bird chasing the eagle it began to dawn on me what that small bird was. That was no small bird. The small bird was a Red-tailed Hawk! Furthermore, he has a 4+ foot wing span. Seeing these two birds next to each other in flight really makes it clear how big that eagle is.

Golden Eagle being chased by Red-tailed Hawk

At a closer look the smaller bird is a Red-tailed Hawk!

Getting Close

As I continued to watch, the hawk was getting closer and closer to the eagle. Pretty soon, wow, he is right behind the eagle. Now I am beginning to wonder what is going on here. Wow, he is getting close!

Eagle chased by Red-tailed Hawk

The Red-tailed Hawk is getting very close.

The Attack

Now the excitement really escalates. So to my amazement and mid-air… ATTACK! The Red-tailed Hawk finally attacks the Golden Eagle. This is probably 100+ feet overhead. The eagle flips upside down and both raptors go at each other with talons extended.

Twice I watch this until the two raptors are out of view. This is not because they far away but because they are dropping in altitude and I loose sighting of them with a nearby low hill and obstructions. What a sight!!! It was also a stroke of luck that I decided to take a picture.

aerial attack on a Golden Eagle by a Red-tailed Hawk

Red-tailed Hawk attacks the Golden Eagle in an incredible aerial display!



Digibinning – A First Attempt

On Sunday 2/28/2010, I went out to try some digibinning – taking photographs with a digital camera through a binocular. Armed with a pair of Swarovski EL 8.5×42 Swarovision binoculars and snapshot adapter to supplement our review of the Swarovisions, and a Nikon CoolPix P6000, I went to look for a Great Horned Owl that was reported in a local park. We easily found the owl with the aid of a bypasser.

My Process

Swarovision digibinningSince this was an exercise in trying out digibinning, I took some photos without the binocular for comparison. The image on the left shows the comparison between a photo taken with just the digital camera (on left) and then one taken through the binoculars with the digital camera (on right).

These are full frame photos. I resized the photos and combined them into a single image, but I did not crop them. For this comparison, to see what you get shooting through the binoculars, it is only valid if we maintain full frame photos.

There is definitely a learning curve here in aiming the camera and binocular. The difference was really quite astounding and the possibilities are great. We will certainly have to try this a bit more.