Crows are watching your language, literally

Crows are watching your language, literally

This is one of the sites I follow regularly for my background research for Sol, Abner, Ava, and all the rest of the crows.

That crows can recognize humans faces (and other physical attributes) has been a staple of our experiences with them for thousands of years. It’s part of what has allowed them to take such a prominent place within our cultures, and it’s what keeps us refilling our pockets with peanuts or kibble, anxious for the chance to be recognized, to be seen by a wild animal. If, like me, you’ve been committed to such a relationship, you probably found yourself wondering about what it is they’re saying all the time. Although we still have more questions than answers, it’s not for lack of trying;in fact parsing crow “language” is still a hot topic in corvidology. But forall our efforts to understand what crows are so often going on about, have you ever thought much about what they make of what we’re saying?

DSC_1974 Calling American crow

Ask any crow feeder about…

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Tips to Better Birding

Tips to Better Birding

Common Gallinule, photo by Luke Safford

This post interviews Luke Safford, who works for the Tucson Audubon Society. On Wednesday mornings, pandemic permitting, Luke guides birders on a field trip around Tucson’s Sweetwater Wetlands. I wanted to speak to him and ask for tips on how to spot birds better.

Victoria: Hi, Luke! How long have you been guiding birding tours for the Tucson Audubon Society?

Luke: I moved to Tucson, Arizona in 2015. I started volunteering for the Tucson Audubon Society, and in 2016, I joined the staff. On Wednesday mornings I guide a group at the Sweetwater Wetlands. In the summer months we can spot forty or more different species of birds. In the winter months that goes up to about fifty, and sometimes as many as sixty, different species.

Luke Safford guiding at Sweetwater Wetlands. Photo by Cory Michael Kennedy

Editorial Note: the Sweetwater Wetlands, owned by the City of Tucson and managed by Tucson Water, is a water treatment facility, but it’s also an urban wildlife habitat and an outdoor classroom. However, because of Covid-19, participation in the guided tours sponsored by the Tucson Audubon Society is currently limited. You can also go on your own but you should be aware that some services, such as bathroom facilities, may not be available.

Victoria: How long have you been birding?

Luke: I started birding when I was six or seven with my grandparents.

Luke Safford in a tree at Sweetwater Wetlands. Photo by Dan Weisz.

Victoria: Have you always been good at spotting birds? Or is spotting birds a skill you can get better at?

Luke: To get good at birding, you need to practice. It’s like learning a new language. Even if you have the best equipment, such as great binoculars, you’re going to need to practice.

If you’re not with a guide, try going outside and sitting quietly for an hour. Listen as well as watch for movements. It’s great if you can be in a place like a deer blind, where you can see the birds but they can’t see you. Once in a deer blind I could see black-capped chickadees much closer than usual.

Black-capped Chickadee, Wikipedia Commons

Of course, I know the Sweetwater area so I know where to look. I know where the birds are and I know where they aren’t.

Victoria: Even when I see a bird, I often can’t figure out the species. Can you give some identification tips to help us frustrated birders?

Luke: New birders tend to look at the color of feathers, but that isn’t always enough for figuring out a bird’s species. For ducks, I look at the bill, both the shape and the color. For gulls, I look at the color of the legs. Size and shape are important, too. Are the raptor’s wings wide or narrow? What’s the shape of the tail?

Another thing to observe is the bird’s behavior. If it’s scratching the ground, it might be a thrasher or a towhee. If it’s a waterbird, does it go entirely into the water or does it just dip its head, like a mallard?

Another important indication of the species is the habitat. Certain species can be found at Sweetwater, which, as it sounds, has plenty of water and attracts birds that need more water. You’ll find completely different species at Tucson Audubon’s Mason Center, which is twenty acres of Sonoran desert.

Luke Safford guiding at Sweetwater. Photo by Cory Michael Kennedy

Even experienced birders don’t identify every bird. Sometimes you don’t see enough to make an identification. Don’t stress about it. Birding is supposed to be fun.

Victoria: What does the Tucson Audubon Society do?

Luke: The mission of the Tucson Audubon Society is to inspire people to protect and to enjoy birds. We are separate from the National Audubon Society but we cooperate with them.

The Tucson Audubon Society has four main areas of activity. The first is Restoration for birds, which includes building nest boxes and removing invasive species.

The second is Conservation. This includes a lot of bird counts and bird surveys.

The third area of work is Advocacy, which means speaking out for birds and their habitats in Tucson and southeastern Arizona. The fourth area is Engagement, helping locals to get to know their birds, by doing activities such as leading walks at Sweetwater or Tucson Audubon’s Mason Center. We do other field trips, and these days, Zoom meetings.

Sweetwater Wetlands. Photo by Cory Michael Kennedy

Victoria: Here’s the link for the Tucson Audubon Society, where you can learn about the Sweetwater walks and the organization’s other activities. Of course, if you’re not near Tucson, check out your local chapter of the Audubon society.

Red-winged Blackbird. Photo by Dan Weisz

“Try, and again try, till you win or till you die,” Junkyard Abner, Hunters of the Feather

Hunting Photos of Feathered Friends

Hunting Photos of Feathered Friends

After admiring her photos, I asked Beth Waterbury, wildlife biologist – scroll to the end to read more about her and her profession – about how she manages to take such wonderful photographs. Here’s what she wrote. Thanks, Beth!

Keel-billed Toucan by Beth Waterbury. She writes: “This is a favorite because the presence of this rainbow-colored tropical bird seemed so incongruous with pine trees, which I associate with temperate and boreal forests of North America (my bias!).”

What sort of equipment do you need to take good pictures of wildlife?

A big question! Endless books and blogs have been written on this subject with wide-ranging opinions. I’ll give you my 2 cents, but I encourage you to read up on the many options. For starters, and stating the obvious, you’ll need a good digital camera and lens. But first, you’ll need to determine your price range and budget, as that will narrow down your camera choices.

Your next big decision will be choosing between: 1) a digital SLR (single-lens reflex) camera (DSLR); 2) a mirrorless camera (point-and-shoot); or 3) a “bridge” camera (hybrid of #1 and #2).   I have both DSLR and mirrorless cameras and I much prefer the DSLR. A DSLR camera has an optical viewfinder while the mirrorless camera has a digital display screen. I find it much easier to look through a viewfinder for both image clarity and to follow moving objects like birds. Often in daylight conditions, I find it hard to see a mirrorless camera screen, plus there is a “lag” or slower focus in the technology. And if you wear glasses, or need magnifiers for close work like I do, the DSLR viewfinder accommodates your “naked eye,” making it much more efficient and less frustrating than looking at a digital screen and juggling glasses while missing shots. Another important factor for me between DSLR and mirrorless is battery life. DSLR cameras have much better battery life than mirrorless cameras do. A DSLR will take up to 4,000 frames per charge to a mirrorless camera’s 350-400 frames per charge. If you’re out on a day’s adventure taking bird photos, you’re going to want that longer battery life.

Sandwich terns at Texas Gulf by Beth Waterbury. She writes: “I like the composition of this photo with the terns all pointing their yellow-tipped beaks out to sea. I also like the birds’ reflections in the wet sand beneath them and how their shaggy crests and postures give the impression that a stiff wind was blowing (it wasn’t).”

Other camera/lens considerations:

  • Autofocus (AF) – very important for bird/wildlife photography. Autofocus gets you efficiently focused in on a subject that isn’t going to sit there long! As a general rule, the more AF points a camera has, the better the Autofocus (but this adds to camera cost).
  • Low light performance – morning and sunset are some of the best times to view birds, but can mean challenging light situations. You’ll want a camera with a good image sensor (ISO). By increasing a camera’s ISO, photos become progressively brighter, helping you capture images in darker environments.
  • Lens compatibility – make sure your camera is compatible with different lenses. When photographing birds and nature, you will want to change out lenses for close-ups (macro) or distance (super telephoto). One reason of many why Nikon and Canon are my go-to cameras is because they carry so many compatible lenses (the ‘used’ selection is excellent as well).
  • Weight and size – important to consider if you’re frequently lugging a camera around! You want to be sure your camera is comfortable to use. DSLR’s are bigger, fatter, chunkier, more ‘grippable,’ and the settings are a bit larger so they’re easier to manipulate. Mirrorless are much smaller, lighter weight, but the controls are proportionally smaller, so it’s more difficult to change settings.
  • Fast shooting speeds – with birds, a lot can happen in one second! Opt for a camera that offers ‘high speed continuous shooting.’ Lower-priced DSLR’s can do 3 frames/second, but some of the better (nee expensive) cameras can shoot 10+ frames/second.
  • USB cable for charging – a portable, travel-friendly, and convenient method for recharging a camera battery. This is not a deal breaker, but I use the USB cable for charging all the time and not all cameras offer this option.
  • Warranty – it’s always helpful to know how long the warranty is effective and what it covers.
  • Lenses – arguably the most important part of your camera package. You want a lens that has adequate zoom (up to 300mm or higher), quality glass, and is durable. This takes a bit of research and $$$. Note that camera lenses are often sold separately from camera bodies.
  • Used equipment – consider buying a used camera and/or lenses (e.g., Nikon, Canon); this allows you to get more camera for your $$$. Also check out camera packages from Costco; they have some great deals on DSLR and point-and-shoot bundles that include 2 lenses, including a 75-300mm.

You might also want to invest in a sturdy tripod to mount your camera, especially when taking zoomed shots. It’s really tough getting crisp images when hand-holding a camera at full zoom.

Great Horned Owl by Beth Waterbury. She writes: “Example of a photo taken at last light in winter, giving the background mountains a dramatic purple hue. I think the photo works, even if the exposure on the owl is quite dark.”

Do you have any tips with respect to technique?

It’s hard to beat early mornings to maximize bird encounters; plus the lighting is lovely for photography. Sunset is also a good time; you get that flooded, angled light that can be so stunning. Try to shoot your subjects with the sun at your back, even on cloudy days.

When it comes to photographing birds and wildlife in general, closer is not always better. Too close and they will flush or become unduly stressed. Ethical bird photography is a thing:  first do no harm. Use distance to your advantage by using the background habitat to nicely compose your photos.

I don’t know if you have bird feeders in your yard (or if you have a yard!), but setting up a backyard feeding station is a very productive way to get great bird photos. Position your feeder(s) so your lighting comes from behind you. Set up a “blind” – in your house and shoot through an open, unscreened window, or set up a blind outdoors with a comfy chair and tripod. Position the feeder near natural perches with a good, level line-of-sight and a clean, uncluttered background (or adjust to a wide aperture so background is soft focus).

In the field, again be mindful of lighting making sure light is directly behind you when photographing birds. Find a spot to sit and observe quietly with minimal movement and patiently wait for some bird action. While walking along, keep your eyes scanning ahead of you for movement on the ground and the different layers of the canopy. When birds are spotted, approach slowly and quietly. Get to know some local areas that birds frequent at certain times of day, conceal yourself as best you can, and get your camera in hand ready for their arrival.

Green-tailed Towhee by Beth Waterbury. She writes: “This photo shows the subtle beauty of this bird’s plumage and how perfectly camouflaged it is in its native habitat. This towhee was nonplussed by my presence, which allowed me to approach for this ‘close up’.”

Key in on birdsong and approach songsters slowly and cautiously, stopping frequently with camera at-ready to photograph the bird. Taking video of birds in full-throated song is especially rewarding.

Here are some great tools & techniques for photographing birds from the Audubon website:

Is there a good time of day to try to get photos?

I think I addressed this above, but to reiterate, early morning (sunrise to ~9:00am) and the couple hours before sunset are hard to beat for dramatic lighting and background. These times are hands down the most productive times for encountering birds, as they are actively feeding in preparation for the day or night.

Black rosy finch by Beth Waterbury. She writes: “One of my favorites because it’s such a rare bird. I also like the soft pink pastels of the winter background and tree which complement the beautiful pink plumage of this bird.

Is there any bird that you have wanted to photograph but could not? The one that got away?

Ah, yes – there are a few. Varied Thrush, Montezuma Quail, and Varied Bunting. They all got away. There are many, many more I’ve snapped lousy photos of that I’d like a do-over.

Which bird were you most satisfied to photograph? (Here I’m talking about the bird, not the photo.)

That’s a tough question, as there have been many that were fun, exciting, challenging, and/or satisfying to photograph. If I had to pick one, I think it would be the Bobolink. The combination of the male’s loud, bubbling song, its striking “reverse tuxedo” plumage, and the vibrant green of its meadow habitat have made for some extraordinary photography sessions.

Long-eared owl by Beth Waterbury. She writes: “In this photo, I felt lucky, first of all to spot this cryptic species; second, to get the owl in focus among all the vegetation. I like how the angle of the Clematis vines replicate the posture of this slender owl.

Your bio says you’re a wildlife biologist. What does that mean exactly? What do you do?

A ‘wildlife biologist’ collects and analyzes data about  animals (plants too) in their native environment, typically through fieldwork. This may include designing and conducting surveys or research; investigating the ecology, physiology, genetics, or behavior of a wildlife species; assessing the state of wildlife habitats; addressing human-wildlife interactions; making decisions and recommendations regarding wildlife management and policies; and communicating with different constituencies about nature conservation.   

The duties of wildlife biologists will vary widely depending on employer. Wildlife biologists are hired by federal agencies (U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, U.S. Forest Service, National Parks, Bureau of Land Mgmt., etc.), state agencies (e.g., Idaho Dept. of Fish & Game, Missouri Dept. of Conservation), municipal agencies (e.g., Parks & Recs, urban biologist), academia (e.g., research co-ops, professors), private industry (e.g., environmental consulting firms, energy industry), and NGOs (e.g., The Nature Conservancy, Audubon, Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation). Many of the wildlife bio’s in the federal agencies and private industry are what I call “mitigation biologists” – they basically write biological assessments on effects to wildlife from land management actions (often adverse to the species), such as timber harvest, livestock grazing, mining, fracking, utility installation, etc. Some of the key skills for this profession are communications, organization, writing skills, observation, data gathering, analysis, and use of the scientific method.

Common Nighthawk by Beth Waterbury. She writes: “I love the lighting and dark background of this photo, and, of course, the detail of the beautifully patterned plumage of this bird.”

I am recently retired but I spent my entire 33-yr. career working for the state fish & wildlife agencies of California, Oregon, and Idaho. In northern California I worked on mule deer research, collaring and tracking mule deer from winter ranges to summer ranges and restoring deer winter range habitat. In Oregon, I worked as a regional wildlife biologist focusing on wildlife habitat restoration, then managed a statewide habitat program to incentivize wildlife management on private lands. For Idaho, I worked 16 years as the ‘wildlife diversity biologist’ for the Salmon Region in east-central Idaho. This entailed surveys, studies, and management of wildlife species designated as ‘Species of Greatest Conservation Need’ – so think endangered, threatened, sensitive, and wildlife species for which little data exists. The critters in my purview were birds, amphibians, reptiles, invertebrates, bats, and rare carnivores like fisher and wolverine. I would typically conduct one or two new surveys each year (say for wetland birds, or a winter survey for wolverine) on top of annual monitoring of breeding bald eagles, ospreys, and peregrine falcons. All the time in between involved annual surveys for big game species (elk, deer, bighorn sheep, mountain goat, pronghorn), conservation education projects with various partners (interpretive signs, school programs, articles for blogs & newsletters), and the ‘mitigation’ duties I mentioned previously. By far, my favorite job was with Idaho where I felt I made a difference for at-risk wildlife, partners, and the public. A couple of the projects that gave me the greatest sense of accomplishment were being lead on the Management Plan for the Conservation of Wolverine in Idaho, rediscovering a rare grasshopper species thought to be extinct, and leading a statewide survey for monarch butterflies and milkweeds in Idaho. My research on monarchs/milkweeds led me to serve as the editor of the Western Monarch Butterfly Conservation Plan after I retired. Anyway, this gives you a flavor of how diverse the title of ‘wildlife biologist’ can be.

Common Yellowthroat by Beth Waterbury. She writes: “This is a good example of a blurred background, which accentuates the little warbler at the center.”

Thanks, Beth, for sharing some time with us! I certainly learned a lot. Note if anyone reading this wants to contact Beth Waterbury, contact me (Victoria Grossack) via the Contact page (see the menu above) and I will forward your message to her.

“Try, and again try, till you win or till you die.” — Junkyard Abner, in Hunters of the Feather.