Birds in Wildcat Canyon: April Edition

Spring has sprung! Birds are singing, flowers are blooming, the poison oak is nice and juicy. Pop a Claratin and get out there! Lots of birds to feature in this update.

 

**As always in our new normal, please check with local agencies regarding safety alerts and closures. **

 

Lazuli Bunting, Wildcat Canyon

NEW ARRIVALS: Who’s new to the neighborhood? As the vegetation on the hillsides matures, we’ll get some fresh birds in the open areas before the month is out. There should already be lots of red-winged blackbirds making homes of the taller weed patches, but look and listen for a couple of other species. First is a small finch-like bird called the Lazuli Bunting singing from the edge of fields or the middle of mustard thickets. Male Lazuli Bunting have coloration reminiscent of a bluebird with the saturation slider cranked up to 11, electric blue head and back with a rusty swatch on the sides and breast. They repeat their cheerful song frequently – it bouncing quickly along in a series of notes that can be repeated in pairs. These are definitely one of my favorites here in the canyon!

 

Grasshopper Sparrow, Wildcat Canyon

The other grassland bird I’ll highlight here, the Grasshopper Sparrow, often falls into the ‘seen but not heard’ category. If you are hiking in the open areas of the park, for example above the Belgum grove or along the lower reaches of the Mezue Trail, listen carefully for a long, even, insect-like buzzy trill emanating from the slopes. The sparrows themselves tend to be hard to localize and spot. My best advice is to check distant shrubs for little brown birds on top. The pretty patterning won’t be visible unless you get a close look.

 

Black-headed Grosbeaks, female (l) and male (r). At feeder in Richmond, CA

We also welcome back a colorful bird that might be familiar to those of you with backyard bird feeders, the Black-headed Grosbeak. These stout-billed relatives of tanagers and buntings are striking to look at, with bold blocks of black, white, orange and yellow in males and broad stripes on the head for the females. Their song resembles a loud robin song, swinging up and down in pitch through variable phrases, but with notes that are more staccato and more impatient rhythm. Listen for them in the tree tops in the canyon and your neighborhood.

 

Ash-throated Flycatcher, Wildcat Canyon

With Spring comes more insects, and with those come more insectivorous birds. Flycatchers are one such type, they comprise a sprawling collection of species that mostly share a hunting style – making short flights from perches to catch insects on the wing. We have resident species (Black Phoebe) and wintering species (Say’s Phoebe) but most of the flycatchers we meet here are migratory birds who show up to have their families here. The Ash-throated Flycatcher are Personality Plus, loudly announcing their presence with “BrrrReeeeep” calls and sporting a punk hairdo. Ash-throated Flycatchers nest in boxes or tree cavities much like bluebirds and you often find them along fences, scrub, and forest edges.

Pacific Slope Flycatcher, Wildcat Canyon

At the tinier end of the spectrum is the Pacific Slope Flycatcher. Pac-slopes are not much bigger than a warbler. You may see these in the forest, perched on a branch bobbing their tails and broadcasting their abrupt “Ptik” call. Look for their teardrop-shaped eye ring that’s slightly wider towards the back of their head than towards their beak. Pacific Slope Flycatchers are members of the genus Empidonax which are notoriously hard to identify even for seasoned birders. They are the only one we commonly see here in this close to the Bay, but several other species are possible especially during migration. Telling them apart requires a good look at their shape, color, behavior, and ideally, a description of their call.

 

WINTER BIRDS ON THE MOVE: Time to say goodbye to more of our friends. Most of our wintering sparrows will head out this month, led by our Sooty Fox Sparrows, followed by White-crowned and Golden Crowned Sparrows. The Golden-crowneds all breed in western Canada and Alaska. The White-crowneds make a much more complicated patchwork of resident and migratory populations with California migrants traveling to the Sierras or up the coast and even all the way up to northern Alaska. We are just on the edge of the range for some of the resident populations (apparently there are some in the scrubby areas of Hillside Park in El Cerrito, along with some spots closer to the bay and coast), so it’s not completely out of the ordinary to find one here in the spring or summer but for most of us in this part of the bay we won’t see them until the migrants return it the fall. For now, just enjoy their last days here as they sport their fresh breeding plumage and zip around full of vim and vigor.

 

Other woodland birds heading out soon include the tiny Ruby-crowned Kinglet and the Hermit Thrush. As the Hermit Thrushes leave, their cousin the Swainson’s Thrush will arrive from the south, but that is a story for next month…

 

OUTSIDE THE PARK: There is no bad place to bird right now! As I mentioned in the March update, this is the perfect time of year to check out parks and trails in the interior East Bay.

 

Need an excuse to get out? April 10th is the San Francisco Bay Bird Observatory’s Photo Big Day. This is a fundraiser for a bird research and conservation organization on the Peninsula. The special theme for this event is “color”, either pictures of colorful birds or birds with a colorful background. For more information visit https://www.flipcause.com/secure/cause_pdetails/MTEwNjMx

 

Stuck at home? Golden Gate Audubon Society, one our local chapters, has some classes and virtual field trips. Many of these are also important fundraisers as part of the GGAS Bird-a-thon. Visit https://goldengateaudubon.org.

 

More Wildcat Canyon images available at alankrakauerphotography.com

(This essay was originally posted on NextDoor)

General Thoughts on Cameras for Birding and Wildlife (2021)

As someone who shares a lot of bird photography, I often get the question “What kind of camera should I get?” There are now a lot of great options so it’s important to think about how you plan to use the hardware. But first let me introduce the two general categories of cameras.

 

Quick note: I will not be discussing video recording. All cameras will be capable of some video recording, but since there’s less uniformity in what people want out of video, I’m not even going to open that can of worms.

 

Superzoom/Bridge (Point and Shoot) cameras. These are all-in-one cameras that have a permanently-attached zoom lens. These rank highly on convenience in that they are relatively small and lightweight for the amount of magnification they provide. Also, since their lenses cover a range of focal lengths, you can jump from taking a picture of a distant bird to a portrait of your friend to a wide shot of the sunset without reaching into your camera bag to change glass. Cost is on the lower end as well. The downsides to the smaller size are that the image sensor is smaller and you won’t have the highest quality lens elements. Not all models make manual adjustment of settings or manual focus convenient, so if these are important to you then make sure to study the camera specifications carefully.

 

Interchangeable Lens Cameras. These are camera bodies that come with separate detachable lenses. They tend to be heavier than the point and shoot cameras, but with larger and better image sensors and typically better responsiveness and controls for advanced shooting. The quality of the image will also depend on the quality of the lenses used, and here there’s a much higher ceiling for price and quality. More on these in a bit.

 

Which of these types of cameras should I be looking at? Think carefully about the pictures you want to be taking. Here are a few questions that might guide your self-reflection.

 

  1. Is it important to get the most difficult photos of birds and other wildlife, such as in low light conditions, birds in flight, etc? (In contrast, will you mainly use your camera for birds at your feeder, birds you see on hikes, waders and waterfowl at the park, perched hawks, etc).
  2. Are you the kind of person who compares your photos to those you see online from experienced photographers on nature websites, birding groups on social media, etc.? (In contrast, are the photos primarily for you as a record and reminder of nature experiences, to help document and identify birds, etc.?)
  3. Do you want to do a lot of printing, especially larger prints? (In contrast, will you primarily share small or medium sized photos over email or on social media?)

 

If you answered NO to all of these questions, then the bridge/superzoom camera may be a good choice for you. These will always be at the ready and can make excellent photos. You can check places like Digital Photography Review to compare the current offerings and find something in your price and feature range.

 

However, if you answered strongly in the affirmative to any of these, you may be looking for a camera with more responsiveness and potential for better image quality than the point and shoot models can provide.

 

Mirrorless or DSLR? These are the two common types of modern cameras with interchangeable lenses. DSLR are digital versions of the SLR (Single Lens Reflex) that in normal operation use a mirror to either bounces light up to the eyepiece or to the image-making sensor. In contrast, mirrorless cameras use the imaging sensor for everything – autofocus, showing you the preview on the rear screen or, if present, small screen in an eyepiece, and capturing the image.

 

In my opinion, there is broad enough overlap between DSLR and mirrorless in size, price, and features that we shouldn’t look at them as completely separate categories. I use a DSLR (Canon brand). Eventually sensors and eyepieces will continue to advance to the point where mirrorless technology has a clear advantage over the (mostly) non-electronic eyepieces and mirrors of DSLRs, and we may already be there with the top-of-the-line models, but at this point both techs offer excellent options for most consumers. That’s not to say there are not differences, but I’m not going to get into them here.

 

The bigger challenge is to get the most bang for your buck at a given price point, and that is going to mean thinking about both the camera body and the lens. You could have the best camera body in the world but if the glass that passes light from the outside world to the sensor is not of very good quality, then the image will suffer. The goal is to get the brightest, longest lens you can afford and carry around with you. A rough breakdown of telephoto lenses would be:

  • 200-300mm: Get your foot in the door. Usually lighter and smaller than the longer options. Especially for small and distant birds, this may not feel like quite enough reach, but is often a good choice if you don’t do a lot of wildlife photography or are starting with a limited budget before you invest more.
  • 400mm: This can be a good compromise between portability and reach, although there will be a jump in price from the entry level zooms.
  • 600mm: These are now higher quality and cheaper than ever before. The added reach comes with a cost though – they are big (hand-holdable for some but not for all). Great choice if you don’t often stray far from the car or don’t mind lugging around a larger lens.

Here are a few examples of kits to you give a sense of what you might be able to get with your money. Feel free to ask if you have specific questions.

 

  • Budget: ~$600 –  This is towards the low end of the possible price scale. Look for either entry model kit (possibly used) with the entry level telephoto zoom lens. Example: Canon T7 + 55-250mm or 75-300mm lens
  • Budget: ~$1200 – This opens up a few more options, either to jump in at a higher tier of camera body with an entry level lens, or a slightly older camera body with a lens upgrade (either quality or length). Examples: New Canon T8i + Canon 70-300 IS II; Used Canon 70D + used Tamron 150-600mm G1 or used Canon 300mm f4/L
  • Budget: ~$2500+ – Top of the line pro-sumer options, you’ll be able to get the highest grade lenses and very capable body behind it. Large option: Sigma 150-600mm sport, more mobile option Canon 100-400mm mk2 plus Canon 90D or Canon 7D mkii

Buying Used. It is natural to hold some hesitancy about purchasing used equipment. Will it work? Is it stolen? Buying pre-owned can be a great way to stretch your camera dollars. Refurbished items are ones that have been serviced by the manufacturer or authorized technician, and will offer a small discount along with a warranty. There are also reputable used dealers such as MPB.com, KEH.com, or used sections of B&H or Adorama, and of course there’s your local camera store like LookingGlass Photo in Berkeley. These outlets may not match the savings from a rando on Craigslist but they should offer safety and no-hassle returns if the item is not as advertised. Overall they tend to rate the condition fairly conservatively so even if it is not pristine it will likely function perfectly well. And don’t forget to take advantage of these outlets should you want to sell your gear in the process of upgrading your camera kit!