Category Archives: Digiscoping

Digiscoping is the act of connecting a camera to a spotting scope to take photos or videos of subjects that may be too distant for conventional camera lenses, or require getting so close to the subject that it ceases the behavior you want to capture.

A Common Cuckoo for California

Common Cuckoo

Common Cuckoo

When someone found a Common Cuckoo (Cuculus canorus) at Watsonville Slough, we knew we had to try for it. Common Cuckoo is an Old World species with a broad distribution in Europe and Asia, with some wintering in Africa. You’ll note though that none of those places include California! In fact, the species is regular if not annual on the islands of western Alaska. However, prior to the Watsonville bird, only one previous sighting in the lower 48 states existed. That bird graced Martha’s Vinyard more than 30 years ago. This Common Cuckoo may be common in Asia, but south of Canada, it’s decidedly uncommon. We anxiously watched the birding hotlines through Saturday. After the latest sighting in the afternoon, we decided to go for it. How do you resist a bird this good?!

Arriving in Watsonville

We arrived in Watsonville in the wee hours of the morning. We tried four different motels before finally secured lodgings for the little remaining night. Dawn came really early the next morning, and dragging ourselves out of bed was an act of will. But hey, we’re birders and Common Cuckoo is a killer bird so we did it. So did a lot of other people, as it turned out. Over 50 birders crowded Ramsay Park as we pulled up. And in something of an anti-climax, they already had the bird in view as we walked up. We decided we could live with that!

Sub-adult Common Cuckoo

Sub-adult Common Cuckoo

This Common Cuckoo may only have been an immature, but it was already a veteran when it came to positioning itself. The bird frequented willows on the western edge of Watsonville Slough. There it expertly selected perches that invariably placed it right in front of the sun from the only available vantage points. It also chose spots where there were always intervening branches and leaves in front of it. That confounded all auto-focusing. We took many obstructed photos. These are some of the shots that were a little less so. Note the lovely orange orbital ring and the gorgeous barring to the chest. These images were captured through a Kowa TSN-884 spotting scope equipped with 20-60x zoom eyepiece and a Nikon CoolPix P6000 camera attached using a Kowa TSN-DA-10 digiscoping adapter. We mounted the optics on a Manfrotto 701HDV,055CXV3 carbon fiber tripod with a digiscoping head.

Yellow-billed Magpie: Another Roadside Attraction

We were driving back from central California when we stopped at the rest stop near Camp Roberts on U.S. Route 101. We consistently find Yellow-billed Magpie at this particular rest stop and did on this visit as well. We had only been there for a few minutes when 4 or 5 of these handsome birds flew in and began feeding in the leaf litter under the large, spreading oaks.


Yellow-billed Magpie is endemic to California, meaning they live no place else on the planet besides here. Birders always prize endemics over those more widespread species.  They are big, beautiful and intelligent members of the family Corvidae, which includes all crows, ravens and jays worldwide. As such, they are often pretty skittish and seldom allow close approach. At this rest stop, however, they became habituated to being around people, which means they are easier to photograph. Even so, we chose to digiscope them from distance rather than approach closely. From farther away, the birds relax some and act naturally in our presence. This video was taken with a Nikon CoolPix P300 digital camera attached to a Kowa TSN-883 spotting scope.

Notice also how little yellow skin these magpies show around the face. The amount of yellow facial skin shown by a Yellow-billed Magpie varies with the individual. It may also vary with differing molt states. In our experience, the magpies at this particular site show more yellow than those in other places we’ve been.

 (If the video doesn’t load properly, try refreshing the screen and then retry. We’re seeing this a lot lately.)

YouTube video

Featherless Joy of Birding

Birdless Joys of Birding - Desert Bighorn Sheep near Zzyzx.

Desert Bighorn Sheep near Zzyzx.

The joy of birding doesn’t always include birds. We made a successful three hour drive to Baker, California to see a White Ibis. White-faced Ibis are the common species in California. Glossy Ibis is very rare. And this was the first White Ibis I’ve seen in the state in nearly 20 years of birding. We then decided to check some other local spots. We know of several in the area that can often be productive.

One of our favorite spots is the California State University Desert Studies Center at Zzyzx. Formerly a desert resort, this oasis has springs and accommodations that facilitate workshops of many kinds, and on a good day, can have lots of migrant birds refueling in the trees and ponds. Some desert residents even breed there. So, we drove in, parked, and walked around searching for some rare bird to tickle our fancy. We checked the ponds, the tamarisks, the palms, and the willows. We even scanned the rocky hillsides and the salt pan.

Big(horn) Surprise

The place was virtually bird-less. But on our way out, we chanced upon this particular joy of birding, a flock of Desert Bighorn Sheep. These animals are very reclusive, so we stopped to get some photos and video. We shot some rewarding footage recording behavior that very few people get to see. I recorded the video with a Nikon CoolPix P6000 camera through a Kowa TSN-884 spotting scope.

YouTube video

We used digiscoping so that we could keep our distance and avoid spooking the sheep. Through digiscoping, we were able to record Desert Bighorn Sheep doing things that are not often seen. Be sure to follow along with the narration in the video. We point out such behavior as the ram asserting his dominance and insisting on submission from one of the younger males.

Black-throated Magpie-Jays

Black-throated Magpie-Jays

Black-throated Magpie-Jays

We spent part of Labor Day 2012 in extreme southern San Diego County, looking for a “mythical” Crested Caracara. Our search covered the sod farms and Dairy Mart Ponds. It even included Border Fields State Park right to the ocean. We checked out every Red-tailed, Red-shouldered and Cooper’s Hawk in view, but the National Bird of Mexico gave us the slip yet again. Instead, it another Mexican bird claimed our attention. We stopped at the community garden off Hollister and found a group of 3 or 4 Black-throated Magpie-Jays. What a striking bird!! At roughly 2 feet in length including the tail, Black-throated Magpie-Jays are huge! They show gorgeous azure plumage with a black chest, cheek and crest set off against white underparts.

A Gorgeous Exotic

These birds show many classic characteristics of the jay family including garrulous behavior and roguish personality. As it turns out, they share another annoying jay trait: the ability to avoid a camera most of the time! We saw one flock of at least 11 of these birds. The one pictured is probably a sub-adult. Note the white at the tips of the crest and the pale nape. It’s still evolving  the darker blue of an adult bird. The adults have a completely black crest and a nape that is the same blue as the back. We talked with other San Diego birders and heard things like “Oh, that?s a yard bird in my neighborhood.”

That suggests that the population of these jays is larger and less local than you might think. Jays are smart and adaptable birds. For now, experts treat Black-throated Magpie-Jay as an escapee or a released bird. But if juveniles and sub-adults begin showing up in numbers, they may be here to stay! The Black-throated Magpie-Jay was digiscoped with a Kowa TSN-883 spotting scope, a Sayegh Digidapter for Kowa TE-10Z and TE-11WZ, and a Kowa TE-11WZ 25-60x Zoom Eyepiece.

Westminster Park, San Diego

We attended the San Diego Bird Festival at the beginning of March, like we do pretty much every year. It’s always fun to see all those familiar folks and get in some good birding time too. Recently, San Diego Audubon took over organization of this birding festival. They did a great job of maintaining the excellence of this long-running festival.

One of the logical changes they made was to keep the vendor booths closed in the early mornings when all the festival participants are out on trips anyway, which meant that, after arriving early to set up the booth on the first day, we had extra time in the mornings, which we of course used to go birding! This allowed us to pursue some of the interesting birds that were over-wintering in the greater San Diego Area, such as the Grace’s Warbler at a nearby cemetery, the Thick-billed Kingbird, back for its second year in Chula Vista, and so on.

Summer Tanager in Westminster Park, San Diego

Summer Tanager in Westminster Park, San Diego

Local Celebrity Birds

We searched for a Palm Warbler reported at nearby Westminster Park. This little neighborhood pocket park nestles in the north end of the Point Loma Peninsula. We parked in the empty lot and walked out onto a lawn fringed with red-flowering eucalyptus and sycamores. It didn’t seem at all like Palm Warbler habitat at first glance. Evidently, the warbler was of the same mind since it apparently left.

The place was just crawling with warblers though, mostly Yellow-rumps and Orange-crowns, with the occasional Townsend’s mixed in for excitement. We started pishing from a strategic location and soon had a crowd of irritated birds and one house cat interested. Seriously – we actually pished in a cat – it didn’t jump up on the fence until we started making noise! Anyway, the next thing emerging from the trees was this handsome young male Summer Tanager. He frustrated us by always staying in the shadows whenever he perched, but we still managed to photo-document him adequately.

Wild Parrots

Red-masked Parakeet in Westminster Park, San Diego

Red-masked Parakeet in Westminster Park, San Diego

The next thing to arrive was a noisy flock of Aratinga parakeets. Small flocks of these birds roam all over Point Loma Peninsula. We’ve seen them in several other locations there. They seem to really like the red-flowering eucalyptus trees, as evidenced by this shot.

We identified these birds as Red-masked Parakeets, also known as Cherry-headed Conures. A book about the wild parrots on Telegraph Hill in San Francisco made this species made famous. Separate them from the similar Mitred Parakeet by the more extensive red on the head, crown and face. They also show more red in the leading edge of the wing, particularly in the wrist. It surprised us as always how well they blended into the trees once they made their typically loud entrance. They were actually hard to pick out in the scope even when rustling around right in front of us.

These pictures were all taken with a Nikon CoolPix P300 digital camera, attached to a Kowa TSN-883 spotting scope with a Kowa TE-11WZ 25-60x Zoom Eyepiece using  Sayegh Digidapter for Kowa TE-10Z and TE-11WZ.

Arctic Loon-acy

In January of 2012, birders at the Morro Bay Birding Festival discovered an Arctic Loon in San Simeon. Instantly, we knew we needed to chase it. You just cannot pass up a bird this good! So we started planning. We would leave before dawn, travel light, and take in a bunch of other spots on the way back… Which is why three of us met at 4 am on a Sunday morning. We stuffed a bunch of scopes and other gear into the back of an SUV and took off. Staying awake on the way there wasn’t hard. Rarity chases get the blood flowing! Hopes run high (this was a life bird for two of us) and the conversation never lags.

Arctic Loon, basic plumage

Arctic Loon in basic plumage

Arctic Loon!

When we got to the spot at 8:15 am, two of California’s best-known birders greeted us warmly: “What took you so long?!” The loon sat there right in front of us at close range, a total anticlimax! It fished in the same small lagoon at the mouth of San Simeon Creek. There it rubbed shoulders with the gulls, coots, cormorants and grebes, pretty much slumming it. This Arctic Loon was not at all shy, swimming about and preening unconcernedly while allowing close approach of multiple birders with their scopes, tripods and cameras with big lenses. We got stunning looks and took tons of pictures, some of which even came out!

Blinking Arctic Loon

Blinking Arctic Loon

These shots were all taken with a Nikon CoolPix P300 camera, attached with a Sayegh Digidapter for Kowa TE-10Z and TE-11WZ to a Kowa TSN-883 spotting scope equipped with a Kowa TE-11WZ 25-60x Zoom Eyepiece. That’s it. Just point and shoot. The loon did make things challenging occasionally by diving – loon watching is frequently an intermittent occupation. With the bird as close as this, sometimes it was hard to actually keep it in frame, but who’s complaining?! And of course sometimes there’s a bit of luck involved. Here, the camera accidentally caught the bird blinking the nictitating membrane after coming up from a dive. The only difficulty here was in picking which of the hundred photographs to use for this post!

Yellow-billed Magpie

Yellow-billed Magpie

Other Local Attractions

You would think it would be all downhill from there. However, on this fabulous whirlwind birding trip, hits just kept coming. Chestnut-backed Chickadee – probably a dirt-bird to the locals, but we don’t get to see those very often in Orange County. In the day, we saw 4 of the world’s 5 loon species, all three scoters and 6 of our 7 grebe species.

Tracking inland from there and making our way back south, we saw a pair of Golden Eagles and a brilliant male Lapland Longspur in the company of about a hundred Horned Larks. We also saw one of California’s two endemic bird species: Yellow-billed Magpies. This provided a showcase for what digiscoping can do by way of photo-documentation. This magpie was easily 75 yards distant and crawling through obscuring grass on a hillside beneath live oaks, yet the camera still did a passable job with it. In the end though, the best bird of the day was still that magnificent loon.

San Jacinto Wildlife Area, Winter 2012

Burrowing Owl in San Jacinto Wildlife Area

Burrowing Owl in San Jacinto Wildlife Area

We went out to San Jacinto Wildlife Area looking for the Gyrfalcon… again. We went prepared with hot drinks, hats and gloves to keep from freezing. In that, we were mostly successful, but in finding the jeer-falcon, not so much. The greater San Jacinto Wildlife Area has had a fabulous winter for raptors. In addition to the ‘mythical’ Gyrfalcon, the four basic falcons, American Kestrel, Merlin, Prairie and Peregrine were all present. Everywhere we looked,we found either a Northern Harrier or a White-tailed Kite. Red-tails seemingly outnumbered even American Crows.

Along Gilman Springs Road was an overwintering dark-phase Swainson’s Hawk that was rather shy. The fields around Alessandro and Davis Roads harbored many Ferruginous Hawks, including several dark-phase birds. We saw quite a few along with both Bald and Golden Eagles. At least two Rough-legged Hawks wintered there that year. Even a Harlan’s Hawk (not a common morph in California) regularly hung out there. Both Cooper’s and Sharp-shinned Hawks were also present, and if you hung around until evening, it wasn’t hard to find 3-4 Short-eared Owls flying over the marshes along Bridge Street. Other birders alerted us this Burrowing Owl hunkered down right next to the levy road. Evidently, it did not want to see us!

Mountain Bluebird at San Jacinto Wildlife Area

Mountain Bluebird at San Jacinto Wildlife Area

San Jacinto Wildlife Area Regulars

After two or three hours of watching, we packed it in to go look for other birds. Down by San Jacinto Creek, we found a small flock of Mountain Bluebirds. Not a rare bird here, but certainly a pretty one. Further up Davis Road in an area of dry grasslands and sage chaparral, we found hundreds of sparrows. These included many White-crowned Sparrow, a few bright Savannah Sparrows and the occasional Vesper Sparrow mixed in. Canyon and Rock Wrens were both singing from the tops of boulders along Davis Road and a distant Greater Roadrunner was moaning out his love song from further away.

Sage Thrasher at San Jacinto Wildlife Area

Sage Thrasher at San Jacinto Wildlife Area

Dozens of Sage Thrashers

The real star of the show up there was the Sage Thrashers. When we first heard reports of upwards of 30 thrashers in that location, it didn’t sound real. But there they were! Everywhere! For a while, we had half a dozen sitting on fence posts like meadowlarks. Others ran around like robins in the grass behind them. We watched more than a dozen right in front of us. Meanwhile others sang from perches in the sage behind us. It was really spectacular!

We took these photos with a Nikon CoolPix P300 digital camera attached to a Kowa TSN-883 spotting scope, using a Vortex PS-100 adapter attached to a Kowa TSN-DA10

Unusual Birds for San Joaquin Wildlife Sanctuary

Lesser Yellowlegs at San Joaquin Wildlife Sanctuary

Lesser Yellowlegs at San Joaquin Wildlife Sanctuary

We visited San Joaquin Wildlife Sanctuary in Irvine to participate in the Southern California Audubon Coordinating Council meeting. Sea and Sage Audubon graciously hosted this event. At a location like that, arriving early allows you to go birding before the meeting starts. Naturally, we did! With winter giving way to spring, and many birds molting into their nuptial plumage, a lot of the species look really beautiful. The American Avocets all sported their peach-colored heads.

There were many Tree Swallows hawking insects overhead, with the occasional Northern Rough-winged to keep us honest. Incidentally, San Joaquin Wildlife Sanctuary hosts the southernmost breeding colony of Tree Swallows in the western U.S. Marsh Wrens and Common Yellowthroats were yelling at us from the sedge beds. And as it turned out, several unusual birds provided happy surprises. A dainty little Lesser Yellowlegs gave us great looks here. It fed with characteristic rapidity in the shallows of Pond D. Consequently, we ran into problems photographing it: it kept sprinting out of the frame! Notice the delicate beak, whose length is less than 1.5x that of the head.

Common Teal at San Joaquin Wildlife Sanctuary

Common Teal at San Joaquin Wildlife Sanctuary

Common Teal

On Pond C, we found the one unusual visitor to the marsh that we knew from previous visits: Common Teal. Formerly recognized as a distinct and unique species, this Eurasian sub-species of Green-winged Teal visits us occasionally. Readily recognizable males lack the vertical white bar on the anterior portion of its flanks. Instead they sport a horizontal white bar on the scapulars that ours lacks. Another more subtle identifying feature of the drake Common Teal is the more prominent white striping in the face. Conversely, male Green-winged Teal lack this altogether, or show only a little bit. Thus, birders should watch this space for future developments. The International Ornithological Union already re-split Common Teal out from the Green-winged Teal. Hence, when the American Ornithological Union may follow suit. Either way, it’s a snazzy looking bird!

All pictures were taken with a Nikon CoolPix P300 digital camera attached to a Kowa TE-11WZ 25-60x Zoom Eyepiece and Kowa TSN-883 spotting scope, using a Sayegh Digidapter for Kowa TE-10Z and TE-11WZ.

A New Bird Species for San Joaquin WS

imagehawkOn a routine weekend in late November, we went to look at a Harris’s Hawk reported recently at San Joaquin Wildlife Sanctuary in Irvine, California. The Orange County Bird Records Committee is unlikely to accept this bird due to questionable origins. Even so, you just can’t miss a bird that cool in a location like this. We arrived at about 8:45 on a sunny Saturday morning. At least 200 Cedar Waxwings were calling from the parking lot as we set up and headed out. We walked to the end of the boardwalk, and there was the hawk, sitting regally in a bare branched tree.

After taking numerous photos of him, we headed back towards the main pond area. A nice male Sharp-shinned Hawk interrupted our walk. It posed obligingly in a sycamore some 200 feet away. Next up was at least 7-8 Blue-gray Gnatcatchers, all fussing away like tiny, angry felines. As we got back to Pond D, one of the birders with us asked “Isn’t that the Vermilion Flycatcher?” He was right! It was, and a nice bright male at that.


Unexpected BlackbirdBlackbird-Rusty-2011-11-26-012

While we photographed that bird, one of us noticed what appeared to be a Brewer’s Blackbird, walking along the shore of Pond D. Upon closer examination we noticed that this bird had cinnamon plumage on the crown, nape and saddle. It also had a bright pale supercilium extending well behind the pale yellowish eye, and pale gray between the wings and on the rump. This was an apparent female Rusty Blackbird. It was a first for San Joaquin Wildlife Sanctuary and only the third for Orange County. As we observed further we noticed the handsome rufous edging to the flight feathers contrasting with the shiny black wings. The bird showed a paler brownish gray chest with faint, short vertical streaking across the chest and belly, all consistent with a female Rusty Blackbird.

Rusty Blackbird is a species of special concern in the United States at large. Its population has been in precipitous decline in recent years.

Blackbird-Rusty-2011-11-26-042All images were taken with a Kowa TSN-884 spotting scope with 25-60x zoom eyepiece and a Nikon CoolPix P6000 camera attached using a Kowa TSN-DA-10 digiscoping adapter. The optics were mounted on a Manfrotto MT055CXPRO3 carbon fiber tripod with a MVH500AH pro fluid digiscoping head. The Rusty Blackbird photos are of the same bird. One is in direct sun at 160 feet. The other is in shade at about 40 feet. The difference in these two photos illustrates how much lighting can alter the appearance of a subject.

Yellow-bellied Sapsucker

It’s fall in southern California, so birders keep busy looking for the odd vagrants that show up in pocket parks. Some might stay long enough to become Christmas (count) presents. Fall is the time to look for sapsuckers here. In Orange County, CA, it’s possible to see all four species of sapsucker. Red-breasted Sapsuckers predominate here; locating a Williamson’s presents a challenge. We found an unreported juvenile Yellow-bellied Sapsucker in Canyon Park on Saturday, 20-NOV-11.

Yellow-bellied Sapsucker versus Red-naped: the Difficult Species Pair

Yellow-bellied and Red-naped Sapsuckers resemble each other in appearance for much of the year. Typically in fall, a juvenile Yellow-bellied Sapsucker stand out, due to a major difference in molt patterns between the two species. Juvenile Red-naped Sapsuckers molt into their first basic plumage prior to migrating while young Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers retain their juvenile feathering all winter, not beginning to look like adults until late March or even April. Thus, any primarily brown sapsucker in winter is likely a Yellow-bellied Sapsucker. Still, you might want to take a close look at it just in case. If it has a paler brown head, or no prominent white wing coverts, it might be a female Williamson’s Sapsucker.

Juvenile Yellow-bellied Sapsucker

Juvenile Yellow-bellied Sapsucker

Veteran’s Park

We drove up to Veteran’s Park in Sylmar to look for a male Williamson’s reported there. After a long search, we found many trees bearing obvious evidence of sapsucker workings, but only two birds. A shy Red-breasted kept company with another unreported juvenile Yellow-bellied. This bird shows the characteristic stiff tail feathers that help the bird perch more stably on the trunk. The pale red fringe on the crown is not a photographic artifact. This bird hid red buried in the crown feathers, hints of color it will show more boldly later. We took this photo with a Canon S95 digital camera on a Kowa TSN-883 spotting scope using a DA-10 adaptor.