Thursday, August 31, 2006

New Camera

Thursday, August 31, 2006
If I'd had a video camera, you would be enjoying footage of the nighthawks that were flying across this sunset at Chautauqua.

When the Zickster and I were in Guatemala last spring, we watched in amazement as our pal Keith Hansen used his rather chunky video camera on a shoulder gunstock mount to get great footage of all the best birds, most notably the painted redstart, pink-headed warbler, and horned guan. The only one of these three I was able to digiscope was the guan, and kind of poorly at that. Though I knew nothing would ever replace my beloved digiscoping (except a REAL digital still camera rig, with a big lens and the time to use it) I was intrigued by the possibilities of getting video footage of birds.

When we got home I dug out and dusted off our old Hi-8 video camera. It no longer works for more than 30 seconds at a time. And it is the size of a lunch box. This would not work. I've spent the ensuing months casually considering video cameras, all the while missing great bird filming opps and watching the adorable things the kids did and said disappear, unrecorded, into the ether.

Yesterday I bought a new video camera. It's a digital video camera and unlike the high-profile, record-to-DVD cameras being marketed, my new camera records to TAPE! Why? Because we're Mac people, dude. And we wanted a camera that was plug-and-play with a Mac.

Oh we danced a long and flirty dance with the fancy-pants DVD cameras--even carefully considering a few cameras that record directly to an internal hard drive--no media required! I can now tell you with complete confidence that it's nearly impossible to get any helpful, straight dope from the young blokes who work at the big box electronics stores. We spent valuable time in a Circuit City and a Best Buy with young fellows who avoided eye contact and mumbled sentences only tangentially related to the questions we were asking. Grrrr. You're not getting my money, bro.

Furthermore, I think the big box stores may change the model numbers on the items they display and sell. Why do I think this? Because I printed out the Consumer Reports pages on all the digital video cameras they tested and NOT ONE on our list match with any of the 25 or so cameras at yesterday's Best Buy store in Columbus, Ohio. A few were close--maybe even the same camera, but how could we be sure? So, abandoned by Roger, our sales-slacker, once he realized we would not be an easy mark, we left.

I remembered seeing video cameras at The Apple Store in Columbus, so we called for more details. Then we went there. Got help from two different and helpful Appleonians, and bought the Canon ZR700 DV camera. All I needed to hear was "These are the only cameras we sell because we KNOW they work great with Macs." SOLD! It was about $350.

Now I have to learn how to use the dang thing.
"C'mon kids! Do something adorable!"

Wednesday, August 30, 2006

Signs of the Times

Wednesday, August 30, 2006
While driving through our fair city on Saturday, we chanced upon this sign.

I was initially elated for surely it meant that the seminal head-banging mockrock band Spinal Tap was reuniting. Sweet! I just hope Derek Smalls can get back all the bass guitars he sold on eBay.

Then I noticed that the sign was in front of a chiropractor's office, so I am assuming that this is some new fad procedure, like Botox or stomach stapling.

Whatever it is, I'm not interested. Flossing one's teeth is hard enough. But I'm left wondering: how do you get the floss between the vertebrae of your spine? Any insight is welcome...

Tuesday, August 29, 2006

Spawn of Dummies

Tuesday, August 29, 2006

Way back in 1997 I wrote a book called Bird Watching For Dummies and it sold pretty darn well. It's still in print and still selling all these years later. Two Dummies-themed spin-offs have come from it, the most recent being Bird Watching Basics For Dummies, created as part of a beginning bird watching kit from Leupold Optics.

This kit, which will retail for about $79, includes a pair of 8x25 waterproof Leupold binocs with strap and carrying case, the Bird Watching Basics For Dummies book, and brochure of feeder birds from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. The final kit will be available for sale soon.

I'm flattered that my writing is included in this nifty kit for beginning birders. Especially because I firmly believe that the world cannot have too many bird watchers.

Monday, August 28, 2006

Random Bird Pix: Botteri's Sparrow

Monday, August 28, 2006
It was a busy, hectic weekend with almost no bird watching, so I thought I'd reach back into the photo archives and share this image of a Botteri's sparrow (Aimophila botterii).

I digiscoped this rare sparrow along the San Pedro River near Bisbee, Arizona in August 2004. Note the flat head, long bill and tail, and clear breast. If you check the range map for Botteri's sparrow in your field guide, you'll see that you can find this bird in the US only in the SE corner of Arizona and in a tiny area of Texas' southernmost gulf coast. One great way to add this species to your life list is to attend the Southwest Wings Birding Festival, held each August in Bisbee. It's a very fun (and incredibly birdy) event with excellent field trips and guides. Julie and I were speakers at the SWWBF the year we found this purty li'l fella.

Once you are in the appropriate part of the world, the best way to locate a Botteri's sparrow is by sound. Their song is fairly distinctive--as I recall, it is like the song of a field sparrow or olive sparrow, but sharper and more emphatic. It also rises slightly in pitch, rather than descending.

Matteo Botteri, for whom the species is named, was a Yugoslavian ornithologist who relocated to Mexico in the mid-1800s. He collected the first Botteri's sparrow in Mexico in 1857. And his surname is pronounced BOTT-er-eyes, according to most references. The Botteri's sparrow ranks among the birds with the most-often-mispronounced names, right up there with phainopepla, Xantus's hummingbird or murrelet, and pyrrhuloxia.

Saturday, August 26, 2006

Life Lessons

Saturday, August 26, 2006
Here is a real-life lesson I was recently able to teach my daughter. This is transcribed, verbatim, from a conversation we had while driving the streets of our fair city.

Phoebe: "Hey look at that man standing there without his shirt on. Gross!"
Me: "Yes, my darling daughter, but did you note that he is standing in front of a laundromat?"
Phoebe: "Yes, oh wise Father! But why?"
Me: "That man is washing his shirt, my girl. And when it's done, one hopes that he'll put it back on."
Phoebe: "Huzzah! Life is good!"

Thursday, August 24, 2006

One Bird I Missed

Thursday, August 24, 2006

It's dawn at The Weaver's Nest in Wakkerstroom, in northeastern South Africa, and Ystvan is telling me in his thickly accented English that there is a nesting pair of secretary birds in the trees on the hill above us. His excited words come out of his mouth and turn to smoke in the cold morning air. This is a bird I have always wanted to see. He and Tommy found these birds yesterday. Giant birds with long legs walking around on the ground looking for snakes.

I scan the trees and the ground around them. My eyes squint and water at the intense dawn sunlight striking my irises. Nothing. Just the antic screams of the hadeda ibises flying in from their nighttime roosts. I snap a photograph of the sun hitting the distant trees along the ridgetop. That's where I should be going--I can just feel it.

Sounds of bodies shuffling, gear clanking, and an engine starting. The dawn is opening up to day and our bus is loading to go. I cannot seek the secretary bird, though I know it is there, just a few miles away up the hill toward the rising sun. We must go elsewhere and I have no choice. Swallowing my frustration, I lurch aboard the combi van. We see many fabulous birds during our daytrip. But my mind is still set on seeing the secretary bird.

Later in the day, as the sun's light fades and the afternoon cools, we make a desperate attempt to find the birds, scanning from the road (once again lacking the time to hike the hills--really the only way to find them). I somehow know we won't find them and yet I know they are there. It's not meant to be now, not on this journey.

And I cannot be disappointed--having seen so many species and life birds and animals on this South Africa trip.

But I will return here again and seek this bird. And I will find it and rejoice in the finding. And in the journey between today-here and someday-there. Every day is a step closer to another wonder.

Wednesday, August 23, 2006

Recent Happenings

Wednesday, August 23, 2006

Our buddy Jason Larson came to visit us at Indigo Hill. But he got lost en route, and arrived so much later than expected that we made him stay overnight. For the record, he's a domestic wonder--does dishes AND shows up bearing gift bags of food and wine. In the photo above Jason is eating some smelly cheese that Julie has given him. And he is holding forth on being SE Ohio's most gifted birder named Jason. After dark he illuminated our brains on the visible consellations in the inky-black sky. Most cool, JL!

This was my heartfelt and scary tribute to Chet Baker. I missed my little black, four-legged son so much that each day he was gone I would hang another one of his stuffed animal victims on our driveway ash tree. I think I was hoping to conjure Chet back home. It worked. Chet is back home and completely recovered.

I now have a cable-TV show called "The Boston Terrier Whisperer." On the show I am referred to as Dr. Bill. My head is shaved bald and I have a cookie duster on my upper lip. Weeknights at 3 am.

It's been an exhausting week (and it's only Wednesday night!) so Zick and I re-center ourselves each night by sitting out until dark. Here is JZ in her element with a nice Merlot (murr-lott), a cool evening breeze, lots of birds, and Chet lying across her feet. Perfection.

Here comes the bus! Phoebe and Liam await the first of several hundred dusty arrivals of bus 28 for this school year. The bus is driven by our dear friend Sue. Liam asked Sue if he could move away from the cuss words that some boy was saying in Row 5. Sue, the beacon of patience, said "Liam, honey, you can sit wherever you like!" We ALL love Sue. Especially Chet Baker, who leaps aboard the bus each morning to lick Sue's face.

Like I said, we ALL love Sue.

Tuesday, August 22, 2006

One Month Ago: Muzi Pan

Tuesday, August 22, 2006
BOTB birding Muzi Pan, late July 2006.

It's hard to believe that one month ago, at this time in the afternoon, I was scanning the shallow, hippo-rich waters of Muzi Pan, along South Africa's northeastern coast, for coursers and flamingos.

This afternoon, I am dodging in and out of meetings, editing copy, wrestling with a balky color printer, and trying to remember to stop by the grocery store on the way home.

Even though my trip to South Africa is just one month removed from today, it seems like a long time ago. Every so often I look back through some of my images form the trip and find I've already forgotten some details. They say that's the first sign of....uh....ummm......uhhhh....

Last night, I was a small part of a major victory. The St. Luke's Lutheran Church co-ed softball team crushed (in a very merciful, spiritual way) the team from Sand Hill Baptist Church in the championship game. Final score: 9 to 2. I did not hit too well but did play adequate defense at third base. Don't mess with the Lutherans.... I am going to miss playing--it's a long winter.

Tomorrow the kids start back to school (something I find hard to believe). Seems like only yesterday it was the start of spring migration. It will be Liam's first year to go all day every day to school. I think he's secretly looking forward to it as it will enhance his feeling of being a big boy. But the house is going to be mighty quiet during the day. Not sure how we'll handle that.

Ain't life grand?

Monday, August 21, 2006

Meanwhile, Out in the Meadow

Monday, August 21, 2006
House standing empty
hungry nestlings, now fledglings
katydids, Autumn.

Saturday, August 19, 2006

Sun Dogs and Perseids

Saturday, August 19, 2006
A close-up of a sun dog in the western sky over Indigo Hill.

Late August is such a delicious time to live in the country, at least here in SE Ohio. The insect sounds are at their peak. It's actually the best birding of the year with fall migration ramping up and all the newly fledged offspring. And near dusk, the common nighthawks are bulbatting their way across our sky, heading generally southward.

The afternoons are still hot, but the cool mornings and evenings are occurring with increasing frequency and each one is a blessing. We take the time to sit out morning and evening, to see what we can see.

And it's the season of sun dogs and Perseids.

Sun dogs are the little mini rainbows that are seen on the left and right of the sun, usually late in the day. We've had a run of sun dogs this week.

The Perseids are the annual autumnal meteor shower. We sat out on Wednesday night with our friend Margaret who came to dine with us, and watched toward the southern horizon. Each of us, in turn, saw several pieces of the Perseids meteoric offerings. It was no hard challenge to watch the night sky--the moon is new, so it's hiding from sight, and the Milky Way is at its brightest and milkiest. Even the satellites passing overhead were worth watching.

The Sun and its faithful sun dog, off to the right.

These are signs not only of the changing seasons, but they also portend great things for those of us laboring on this mortal coil. Watch the night sky for these signs, for they are trying to tell you something, too.
This sun dog took a ride on a mare's tail across the afternoon sky.

This afternoon we attended the lovely, enchanting wedding of Marilyn Wesel and Wil Hemker. Our hearty good wishes to the happy couple. May they enjoy the Perseids together for decades to come.
The sun kicks off its sun dogs and settles into bed, bringing on the end of another day on Indigo Hill.

Friday, August 18, 2006

A Fond Farewell

Friday, August 18, 2006

We received the sad news this morning that our dear friend Ora Anderson had died earlier this week. Ora was 94 and had lived an amazingly rich and productive life. He was a newspaper reporter and publisher. He was an elected official on the state level here in Ohio. He was a founder of The Dairy Barn, southeastern Ohio's premier venue for Appalachian art. He was an accomplished woodsman, author, speaker, and carver of birds. His conservation efforts in Ohio were acknowledged by the naming of a state nature preserve in Ora's honor.

But most of all he was a gentle and lovely person.

Ora grew up on a hillside farm in Kentucky but moved to Ohio during the Great Depression, and to the Athens, Ohio area in the 1950s. During his early years in the state, as a young newspaper reporter, he wrote stories on the creation of the Wayne National Forest. In those days, most of southeastern and southern Ohio was so denuded of trees that it looked like a moonscape. In the award-winning documentary film "A Forest Returns" by Jean Andrews, Ora's memories and experiences of The Wayne's creation and the amazing recovery of the woodlands were the focal point. Imagine watching a landscape renew itself from degraded clear cut to deep, climax woods in your own lifetime. [You can see a video excerpt of Ora from the documentary by clicking on the "A Forest Returns" link above].

Over the years, Ora wrote many articles for Bird Watcher's Digest. Last winter, Jean Andrews approached BWD about compiling Ora's many essays and poems into a book. We loved the idea and proceeded to make arrangements with Ohio University Press to publish Ora's book, Out of the Woods: A Bird Watcher's Year. BWD's Managing Editor Deborah Griffith to the lead in selecting and editing the material. Julie Zickefoose donated her artwork. Jean kept all wheels moving on the project with the good folks at OU Press. It's going to be a delightful book to read and to savor.

The book will be published next spring. It's such a shame that Ora will not be here to enjoy its publication. However it will serve as a tribute to this fine man and his lifetime of living close to the Ohio landscape.

Here is one of Ora's poems which will appear in his forthcoming book.

Prayer is like the whisper of dry leaves
On the forest floor, accepting the passer by,
The dance of sun shadow,
The bird song in the towering oak.

Its answer is a sudden quickening of the heart,
A catch of breath
Exhaled like mist in the forest dawn.
The soaring hawk, riding a thermal,
Carries my plea skyward.
At my feet
The wind hurries the dry leaves homeward

Like letters borne by angels.

--Ora Anderson


A few days ago, Julie answered a knock at our front door. It was a man representing a logging company wanting to tell us that we could make good money for our standing timber. He told her he was logging on all of our neighbors' properties and we'd be foolish to let the good timber go to waste. Julie very politely told him no, we like our trees just the way they are. And besides, now that all the woods around us were being timbered, where will the tanagers and vireos and wood thrushes and worm-eating warblers go next spring to nest? We'll keep our place intact for them.

How ironic it is on this cool, early Autumn morning, to hear the whining chainsaws and roaring log haulers all around while our thoughts are on our dear friend, Ora. A man who loved these Ohio woods like no one else.

Thursday, August 17, 2006

The Song in My Head

Thursday, August 17, 2006
Next To You
by Tim Easton
from his album "Ammunition"
on New West Records

I love this song. And it's captured the radio station in my head and is controlling the broadcast!
This song comes from a CD of music that comes with my subscription to (the higly recommended) Paste magazine.

Tim Easton hails from Cleveland, OH home of good music, the Rock&Roll Hall of Fame, and great birding. The martins above are from Chautauqua where our family just enjoyed a lovely, peaceful week.

"Next To You" is smooth and features easy acoustic guitar, drums (with brushes) and harmonica. The same instrumentation that made Neil Young's Harvest album so wonderful.

And the lyrics are as evocative as the arrangement is simple. This song is a balm for a day when my seas are roiled. Might have to add this one to the Orangutangs' playlist.

Let me be next to you
I want to understand

Let me be next to you
then we can watch the band

Let me be next to you
under your ceiling fan

I can hear every note better
when I'm next to you.

Wednesday, August 16, 2006

August Meadow

Wednesday, August 16, 2006
Paths untrod since dusk
yellow tinge of goldenrod
meadow awakens.

Starting the Day Right

Squadrons of young robins in their fieldfare-like plumage came through Indigo Hill today.

Jules and I started the day off right this morning with an hour-plus of bird watching from the deck on the southwest corner of our house. Between 7:30 and 8:45 am we saw (or heard) 32 species and I digiscoped a couple of birds.

Here's the list: cedar waxwing, red-eyed vireo, white-eyed vireo, blue-gray gnatcatcher, northern cardinal, Carolina chickadee, Carolina wren, tufted titmouse, mourning dove, American crow, eastern bluebird, red-bellied woodpecker, downy woodpecker, American robin, blue-winged warbler, barn swallow, European starling, field sparrow, common yellowthroat, white-breasted nuthatch, summer tanager, eastern wood-pewee, American goldfinch, wood thrush, scarlet tanager, Baltimore oriole, yellow-throated warbler, yellow-billed cuckoo, blue jay, indigo bunting, pileated woodpecker, and eastern towhee.

Of special note was the summer tanager juvenile female that killed, processed, and ate a giant cicada on the lawn. Summer tanagers are a red-letter bird for our farm. Also notable was the adult yellow-throated warbler that spent about 20 minutes foraging and anting in our sycamore and birch trees. Frustratingly hard to digiscope, the bird would not sit still long enough for me to get a really good shot. But as you know, that never stops me from taking pix and sharing them here in BOTB.

We get yellow-throated warblers visiting our hilltop each fall. This one is appropriately perched in a sycamore, since the species was formerly known as the sycamore warbler.

Here's the yellow-throated warbler anting in our birch tree. He/she crushed ants and wiped them into the wings and body feathers.

A big honking bill helps the summer tanager capture and kill big honking insects, like cicadas, wasps, and hornets.

It took the tanager at least 15 minutes to consume this cicada. Note the large bill and overall uniform ochre coloration. These help to tell this species from the more common (here in SE Ohio) scarlet tanager.

Monday, August 14, 2006

Back to Birds

Monday, August 14, 2006
Not sure if I should apologize for the recent lack of bird-related posts here on BOTB. You'll have to let me know. I realize that this forum has become more general in its focus than simply the things with feathers (other than hope). So I will wait to hear from some of you as to whether the non-birdy posts are enjoyable or not. Comments, suggestions, jibes, rejoinders, retorts, and snarky asides welcome.

Mind you, I don't promise I'll listen to your suggestions. Years of getting letters from magazine readers has made me consider content issues as carefully--strike that--more carefully than our Supreme Court justices. And I do have a thick skin (plus I've learned how to scream into my pillow) so let me hear ya holla.

Yesterday morning was perfect for digiscoping. And if I'd had my act together earlier, I might have scored some very nice shots. Instead, I was content to stand on our deck shooting and watching whatever came near enough. Here are a couple of the least awful shots.

This is the male eastern towhee we call Metallica for his metallic, very dickcissel-like call.
A recently fledged common yellowthroat stubbornly refusing to perch in the colorful TOP portion of an ironweed stalk.

The tall (not NY) ironweed is bursting out all over our meadow, along with the Joe Pye weed and goldenrod.

Saturday, August 12, 2006

Know When to Hold 'em

Saturday, August 12, 2006
I had a perfect view of the stage until Napoleon Dynamite sat in front of me.

Perhaps the pop culture highlight of our Chautauqua trip was the concert by Kenny Rogers. First let me be nice and say that he is STILL quite a showman. Great patter between songs and a show that is so perfectly scripted for audience participation and max impact that, we'll I'll bet he does this same show 250 times a year. It was impressive.

Not so impressive was his voice. I am afraid that The Gambler now joins the ranks of Gordon Lightfoot, Joni Mitchell, and Tony Rice as people who, sadly, are no longer in peak vocal form. I was never much of a Kenny Rogers fan, but the dude sold-out the Chautauqua amphitheater--no small feat.

Final comment on this Mr. Rogers. He should punch his plastic surgeon. The face lift is WAY too tight and makes The Gambler look squintier than he should. It looked like he could barely move his mouth to sing.

We saw Kenny's tour bus pull up on the morning of the show, and there was water dripping from the bottom of the bus (condensation from the air conditioning I would guess). Phoebe, fascinated that a person she'd seen on American Idol was so close, was full of questions.

Phoebe: "Daddy, what's that dripping from the bottom of Kenny Rogers' bus?"
Me: "That's sweat, honey. Kenny is probably working out on the treadmill in there."
Phoebe: "Why does he sweat so much?"
Me: "First of all, he's The Gambler, and that's nervous work. Secondly, he eats lots and lots of fried chicken from his chain of chicken restaurants. Third, well, baby, he's in show biz, and there ain't no business like show business..."
Phoebe: "Is that why he got a face lift?"
Me: "No, that was so he'd have a better "poker" face."

One thing I did learn from the concert: I now know when to hold 'em and when to fold 'em.

Breathing with the Moon


Moonlight on water
stripe of color glimmering
breathe in, breathe out, smile

Thursday, August 10, 2006

Morning Fog, Lake Chautauqua

Thursday, August 10, 2006
Two ships, morning fog
lost to all the world beyond.
Face into the wind.

Popsicle Time!

Liam: "Hey Dad! Do you know what time it is?"
Me: "What time, Liam?"
Liam: "No, Dad! [holding fingers up to represent quotation marks] Do you know what TIME it is?"
Me: "I give up, what time is it?"
Me: "That's weird! That's EXACTLY what my watch says! The big hand is on POP and the little hand is on SICLE!"
Liam: "Yesss! Hey Phoebe, guess what? I tricked Dad into giving us popsicles!"

Wednesday, August 9, 2006

Chautauqua Scenes Recalled

Wednesday, August 9, 2006
The full moon rises over Lake Chautauqua like a giant pumpkin.

Recently, we spent a week at The Chautauqua Institution where we seem to go annually to give talks and teach bird-related courses. It's a lovely setting. And stimulating to mind and body, especially since you must walk or bike everywhere on the quaint Chautauqua grounds.

If you've never been, consider going. It's like nothing else I've experienced. The goal for any visitor is to renew mind, body, and spirit. A worthy goal in these troubled times we're living in, no?

There is a thriving colony of purple martins at Chautauqua. Even total non-birders know the martins.

I took my first solo sail on Lake Chautauqua. It was blissful to the nth degree.

Early morning mist rising off the lake. I walked the waterfront at dawn, singing songs to myself.

Tuesday, August 8, 2006

When in Frankfurt...

Tuesday, August 8, 2006
On my long journey back from South Africa, I had a long layover (from 5 am to 11 am local time) in the Frankfurt, Germany airport. This airport is HUGE and designed with a very Schprockets-like German sensibility.

So what does one DO when in Frankfurt? Well, you MUST have ein bier bitte. And you MUST have, yes, frankfurters.
Yum! Ein gut frankfurter, ja! And yes, I was birding, too.

Sunday, August 6, 2006

South Africa Image Gallery

Sunday, August 6, 2006
Dear BOTB Readers:

The gallery of my digiscoped bird images from South Africa is now live on the BWD website. You may access the gallery (and others in our Galaxy of Galleries) from the BWD homepage or merely by clicking on these words here.

Hope you enjoy them! Special shout-out of thanks to Katherine Koch and Amy Wells for their work in getting the galleries redesigned and relaunched. We have more galleries coming soon!


Another Journey


Restless feet must move
along the curving roadway.
Encounters unknown.

Saturday, August 5, 2006

Life is Interdisciplinary

Saturday, August 5, 2006

On the mini-diploma that I got from my alma mater, it says I graduated from Miami University of Ohio with a Bachelor of Philosophy degree. But in reality I went to The School of Interdisciplinary Studies/Western College Program. I was there for three years and overseas studying in London for my junior year. I took a handful of classes on the main campus of Miami U., but always felt like I was a Western College student. To this day I never refer to myself as a Miami alumnus, but as a Westerner. And I don't carry my mini-diploma.

I stumbled upon the Western College Program, literally. I was in Oxford, taking the orientation tour with my dad and I spotted the older brother of a high school friend. Greg Russi was a Western senior-to-be and he immediately took us to Peabody Hall for an impromptu tour. Peabody was an amazing building--very old and funky. Greg knocked on a door and said "Hey Curt! Are you here?" A man looking like a Civil War general came to the door. It was Curt Ellison, Western's dean. Greg introduced me as a potential student and Curt and I spent the next hour talking books, baseball, and Civil War history. I knew Western was where I wanted to be.

My first night on campus, the entire Western community gathered on the lawn near our cafeteria. We formed a giant circle and holding hands, we sang "The Circle Game" written by Joni Mitchell. This may sound odd, but it set the seed for me of a lifelong sense of community and love for what Western stands for.

The concept of the Western Program was to give students a broad-based liberal arts education. It stressed the concept of classes and topics and learning being "interdisciplinary" or interwoven. Classes were kept small and informal. There were lectures and seminars and hours of discussions, often spilling over outside of class and lasting until the wee hours. We wrote papers, debated, and performed--never did we "take a test." some of our professors lived in Peabody Hall with us and most of our classes in the three core courses (Creativity & Culture, Social Systems, Natural Systems) were also held in Peabody, or elsewhere on Western's wooded campus. One part of one semester, all freshmen and sophomores studied Melville's "Moby Dick" very intensely from the different perspectives of our core courses. It was fascinating. My brain exploded with ideas.

After two years at Western, we were asked to design our own program of study toward a Senior Project. Then we built a course schedule, proposed a topic for our Senior Project and worked with an advisor to make it all happen. This academic path was not for everyone. Many of my fellow students could not handle all the freedom of having to chart their own academic course, or think about what they wanted to do, or even to write papers that were due "sometime next week." And many did not make it through the Senior Project phase, which was very similar to a mini-masters program. When you presented your Senior Project, you got a thumbs up or down (though they also assigned grades to satisfy Miami's need for numeric grade point averages). My Senior Project was on the role of the national newspaper press in the American environmental movement from the late 1960s through the late 1970s. I passed.

I learned so much at Western, and not just in class. The papers--hundreds of pages of them--helped me hone my writing. The interdisciplinary approach in the classroom also had application in life. And to this day, I find that problem solving is much easier when you look at the problem from a variety of angles. Our professors at Western challenged us to think rather than merely to memorize information to regurgitate on a test.

The students on Main Campus Miami called us "hippies" and laughed that we "talked to trees over there at Western." [It was the start of the Reagan years when I was at Western]. And it's true, we DID talk to trees, and to birds, and to butterflies, and most importantly, to each other. The Western students and faculty got together every Monday night for "Community Dinner" at the cafeteria. We were different and we were proud to be apart from the mainstream.

I credit my Western experience with landing my first real job at a New York advertising/public relations agency. When, during my interview, I was asked by the president of the company if I could write, I could state with complete confidence that I could, and that I really enjoyed writing. I think what I actually said was: "I wrote so many papers during college that I'm pretty sure I could write anything you asked me to right now." Pretty cocky for someone who'd spent the last year playing music in rock bands and burning people's dinners in a restaurant. She hired me on the spot.

Western College is my real alma mater. So I was much dismayed to see that Miami's outgoing president had presided over the killing-off of the Western College program. I won't rant here except to say that it's perfectly in keeping with the-bottom-line-is-all-that-matters philosophy that seems to be so much in vogue these days, especially in the U.S. Miami is a state school. Ohio, like much of the rest of the country, has been having a hard time economically, so I am sure, rather than fund a special (and tiny) learning environment, Miami's board of trustees decided to save the money. It's a shame.

Miami will be a lot poorer academically with the elimination of Western, and the university community will lose one of its most vibrant segments. I sent money to Western when I could and I recommended the Western Program to lots of students whom I thought would fit well into the non-traditional learning environment. Miami will have to figure out a way to continue without my financial support (which must have them trembling in their wingtips).

We western alums will still continue to hold our all-classes reunions once every five years. But over the coming years, no more Western graduates will join our ranks and so our numbers will dwindle with time, like the last living veterans of some long-past war. We won't ever have a parade, but I'm sure we'll form the circle one more time. We'll hold hands and sing "The Circle Game" together. That's the song of MY alma mater.

Friday, August 4, 2006

My Digiscoping Set-Up

Friday, August 4, 2006
My first digiscoping shot. A snowy owl that the entire BWD staff got to see along the Ohio River in WV in 1999.

I took my first digiscoping shot in 1999. The subject was a snowy owl in winter along some railroad tracks in West Virginia. I held the camera (an early Nikon CoolPix) up to the lens of my spotting scope (a Swarovski AT 80 HD, angled) and snapped away. I liked the results but little did I know I had gotten extremely lucky. A still, cooperative bird, easy to find in the scope, up close, no heat haze, perfect light...

I did not take another digiscoped image until I was in Florida three months later (to see my beloved Pittsburgh Pirates play the hated Cincinnati Reds in a spring training game.) My second subject was a tired migrant prothonotary warbler male in the grass at Fort DeSoto. On this day I took many digiscoped bird images--nearly all of them bad. I could not get the camera lined up properly with the spotting scope eyepiece, so I got black vignetting around the edges of my images.
Male prothonotary warbler taken at Fort DeSoto State Park along Florida's Gulf Coast.

A bit of research on the Internet gave me a solution to the vignetting (digiscoping was catching on worldwide): two plumbing rings, one fit onto the camera lens ring, one set inside the scope's eyepiece and the camera was centered every time. The down side of the plumbing rings was that the one resting loosely inside the scope's eyepiece would cooperatively fall out every time I hoisted the scope onto my shoulder. I lost at least a dozen rings this way.

For the next several years I committed the cardinal sin of zooming up too far with my digital camera, or with the scope's 20x to 60x eyepiece. In both cases I thought I'd get better images with the birds larger in the frame. I got larger birds all right, but they were as blurry as a Jim Morrison LSD flashback. I was doing something wrong.
Zooming in too far is one of the pitfalls of the inexperienced digiscoper. Yes the subject is larger, but it's almost always blurry.

Fast forward to 2005. I'm headed to Guatemala and I really want to digiscope some birds. I consult Clay Taylor at Swarovski Optik, North America for his recommendations. Clay is a digiscoping veteran and has tried nearly every combination of adapter, camera, and spotting scope known to birding humanity. He made a few suggestions then e-mailed me a list of cameras that were good for digiscoping and what you'd need to make them work with most spotting scopes. I was now using a Swarovski ATS 65 HD (still an angled eyepiece version--my preference). At Clay's suggestion I bought a Canon PowerShot A520 (about $185 at at the time I purchased it). This camera shoots at 4.0 megapixels (plenty for my purposes) and accepts threaded adapters--this is critical for effective digiscoping.

I also purchased from Canon via a Canon LA-DC52F camera adapter which "bayonets" onto the camera after a small ring surrounding the lens is removed. This is where the DC52F adapter slots into place.
The Canon DC52F (M52) extender (right) and the threaded half of the Swarovski DCA (left).

Removing the camera's ring exposed the bayonet threads to attach the DC52F extender.

With the Canon extender in place, the DCA is threaded on. I leave the DC52F and DCA connected at all times.

The two main components of the Swarovski DCA, the threaded extender (left) and the pressure-fit ring for the scope's eyepiece (right).

From Swarovski I ordered a DCA (for Digital Camera Adapter) unit (part #49206). The DCA performs tow important functions. It threads onto the Canon DC52F and it clamps securely around the eyepiece of the spotting scope (in my case a newer 20x to 60x zoom eyepiece). This creates a very stable set-up for the camera (with adapter in place) to nest on top of the spotting scope eyepiece. With one motion I am ready to digiscope any bird I have in the scope's field of view.

The Swarovski DCA's "inner" portion is a pressure-fit ring that enclosed the eyepiece. Tightened just right, it does not slip, but still permits the zoom eyepiece to be turned as needed. A plastic inner ring protects the eyepiece from being scratched. Note, eyecup assembly is removed.

The DCA inner piece in place and the eyecup assembly is screwed back onto the eyepiece.

Attaching the DC52F/DCA combo to the camera. With a twist it locks into place.

With my new, smaller (65mm) spotting scope and a new carbon-fiber tripod from Bogen Manfrotto, I was travelling much lighter and digiscoping much more efficiently than in the "olde" days. Of course this did not guarantee that I would take perfect images every time. I still had a LOT to learn about that.

I had to unscrew the eyecup assembly to put the inner portion of the DCA onto my scope's eyepiece.

The camera with adapter slots perfectly onto the scope's eyepiece.

I do not tighten the knob on the adapters to hold the camera in place. Instead I remove the camera and carry it in a hip pouch.

I will cover some of the techniques, tips, and pitfalls I've learned in my recent digiscoping resurgence in a future post. If you are impatient, hop on over to Mike McDowell's Digiscoping Blog where the digiscoping truth will set you free. In the meantime, here are images of my digiscoping rig. Special thanks to Phoebe Thompson, hand model, and to Clay Taylor of Swarovski Optik for his early and ongoing advice.
On my recent digiscoping trip to South Africa, I learned a lot more about the craft of digiscoping from some other digi-vets. I promise to share it all with you here at BOTB soon.