Friday, February 3, 2012

Digiscoping Florida! - 28 Jan 2012

Last Thursday Robin and I flew down to Orlando to visit her mom for the weekend.  Our plans were to spend the weekend in Lakeland, and hopefully get a day of birding in at the Circle B Bar Reserve, but first, we rented a car and drove down to West Palm Beach to visit the home of Pat and Joe Dews. 

Pat Dews is a nationally acclaimed artist and a signature member of the American Watercolor Society, the National Watercolor Society, the National Collage Society and the National Association of Women Artists.  She is wildly popular as an instructor, hosting many workshops across the country.  Robin attended one of her classes last spring, and we became fast friends.  Joe is enjoying retirement, and a birder himself, so even he was able to tolerate my presence.  We enjoyed their hospitality, sitting on their porch and listening to Barred Owls and Pileated Woodpeckers from the woods next to their home.  At one point Robin went out to the car and found a Cattle Egret sitting on the roof!  I'd only brought my digiscoping equipment, but had the opportunity to digiscope a very cooperative Northern Mockingbird from only 20' away in the parking lot of the Holiday Inn Express in Stuart.

Early Friday morning we drove back to Lakeland, taking the Florida Turnpike a good part of the way.  On our way down to West Palm I had the opportunity to scan dozens of Osprey, Black Vultures and Turkey Vultures from the car.  I even managed to see a Snail Kite hovering over a local reservoir near Port St. Lucie.  During our 2.5 hour trip back to Lakeland I managed to see 6 Crested Caracaras, several Red-tailed Hawks, and a Loggerhead Shrike

We arrived in Lakeland around noon, and spent the afternoon relaxing.  I walked over to the large pond in the Lakeland RV Park, and spent a half-hour or so digiscoping a somewhat cooperative Little Blue Heron and Great Egret.  A video of the Little Blue Heron was cut short by a phone call reminding me that the Friday nite Fish Fry was about to start.

Saturday morning Robin and I grabbed our gear and headed out to the Circle B Bar Reserve in Lakeland.  Skies were clear, and temps were going to be in the 70's, so I was looking forward to getting in some digiscoping.  A screeching Red-shouldered Hawk heralded our arrival, and I was able to locate it about 70 yds. out in the marsh.  Turkey Vultures, Black Vultures, and Wood Storks were kettling high over the marsh, while Sandhill Cranes, Limpkins, Black-bellied Whistling Ducks, and Boat-tailed Grackles could be heard from several locations all around us. 

We spotted a pair of Wild Turkey working the field to our right as we walked the Marsh Rabbit Run trail.  Palm Warblers and Blue-gray Gnatcatchers were chipping and buzzing in the trees above us, while Sedge Wrens and House Wrens were angrily chattering in the thickets at our feet.  Water levels were low, so Snowy Egrets, Cattle Egrets, White Ibis, and Glossy Ibis were constantly moving in small flocks.

The high-pitched whistles of the Black-bellied Whistling Ducks were emanating from the large pond to our left. We approached a large snag and found a half-dozen or so birds huddled 30' off the ground.  I spent a few minutes digiscoping them while Robin headed back to the car to do some drawing.  I rattled off a couple dozen images of the ducks as they perched, preened and sleptCommon Gallinules were actively foraging in the canal that separated us from the large pond, and several birds stayed put long enough for a photo or two.  Overhead a Red-bellied Woodpecker was excavating a cavity in one of the snags lining the bank. 

A small watering hole to my right attracted a number of herons, egrets, and whistling ducks.  One Snowy Egret was nearby and provided several nice portraits.  Try as I might, though, I could not find any bitterns.  A Northern Harrier (female type) was hovering over the fields on my right, and dropped down into the grass looking for prey.  As I set up the scope to try and digiscope it, an immature Red-shouldered Hawk appeared in the shrub nearby.  Unable to get clean shots of either bird I continued on to the end of the dike.

The north end of reserve, with its large ponds and hundreds of American Coot, Blue-winged Teal, Common Gallinules, Limpkins, Wood Storks, Anhingas, and Double-crested Cormorants provided many opportunities for photographers and digiscopers alike.  Everyone seemed to be carrying camera equipments and big lenses.  I talked with several birders/photographers who preferred this place to Ding Darling NWR.  One person had just spent the last 2 hours photographing a Sora, and directed me to an area along the shoreline just a few yards away.  There, I found a photographer photographing the bird just 2' away.  Try as I might though, I couldn't see it!  Talk about blending in to one's surroundings.

I finally spotted the Sora, and quickly began 'trying' to digiscope it.  Though it was out in the open, the tiny rail was frenetically foraging, so I had to time the press of the shutter of the Coolpix P6000 to capture a momentary pause.  At only 0.6 fps the P6000 is not good a capturing fast-moving subjects.  For the next half-hour I shot almost 200 frames, managing to get many sharp-focused images of the rail's backside, frontside, and sometimes even the head and eyes.  This was a time when I wished that I didn't have the 45X Wide Eyepiece on the Zeiss 85T*Fl, as I was trying to capture a fast-moving bird that completely filled my field-of-view from just 20' away.

Still, I managed to get many satisfying keepers, and even a short video.  Click on this link for a short slideshow!

Deciding that I had enough images, I started heading back to the car.  Along the way, however, I spotted an Anhinga with a freshly-speared catfish 'stuck' to its bill.  For about 10 minutes I watched as the Anhinga tried to bash the catfish unconscious on the boom so that it could swallow it without injuring itself.  Unfortunately for the bird, the fish became dislodged and plopped back into the water.  The Anhinga dove in after it, but came up empty-beaked.  Apparently the catfish, though wounded, managed to swim away.  Only time will tell whether it survives...

As I walked back along the Marsh Rabbit Run trail I spotted the immature Red-shouldered Hawk again.  This time, the bird was perched atop a short tree, so it provided some wonderful views and wonderful digiscoping opportunities. 

With the resident Bald Eagle soaring overhead, and a pair of Roseate Spoonbills heading directly toward me, I regretted (deeply) not having my D300s and 300/2.8 VRII.  It wasn't until they flew directly overhead did I remember that I could've tried to 'digi-bin' them using my binoculars and the Coolpix P6000.  I tried it on a nearby Cattle Egret, and got a very nice capture.  The system gives approximately the equivalent of a 400mm lens!

Returning to the car we left for home and some lunch.  We picked up a carry-out and drove over to the Lakeland Cancer Center, which has several ponds and a nice shady spot for watching the alligators, egrets, herons, and possibly Sandhill Cranes.  Sure enough, we spotted 3 Sandhill Cranes in the shade of the trees as we arrived.  Eating quickly, I grabbed the scope and tried to digiscope the two adults and one sub-adult crane from about 30' away. 

Digiscoping the birds in the shade was a challenge, but it soon became even more of a challenge as they began to approach me.  Soon they were only 15' away, quietly foraging in the grass and probably wondering if I had any food for them.  I returned to the car, only to have the three birds nonchalantly walk right past the driver side door only a few feet away.  We said our greetings, and headed back to the house!

What an outing!

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