Catch-and-Release Birding

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Editor’s Note: Tom Hallett of Wisconsin, director of birding for Alpen Optics, has been birding since his early twenties, when he went hiking with his aunt and uncle, who were serious birders. "While we were hiking, my aunt and uncle named all the birds they saw and heard," Hallett remembers. "Because I was fascinated with their knowledge of birds, I bought a birding book and a pair of binoculars, and I've been a bird watcher ever since."

Question: Tom, what's catch-and-release birding?

Hallett:There are quite a few birders who really enjoy not only keeping a life list, but also shooting photographs of the birds they see and capturing these birds with digital photography. Some people try to capture as many birds as they can with their cameras. This is a great hobby and pastime, and a good way to show your friends and other birders the birds you've seen and captured in their natural habitat. One of the things I've learned by photographing birds is that through the lens of the camera, you really can study and learn the bird and all the finer points of identifying birds because you're looking more intently at the bird. Some people ask me how I get good, sharp pictures of birds with my camera. If the eye of the bird is in focus, the entire bird will be in focus.

Question: What size lens do you use when you go birding?

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Hallett: I use a 500mm lens for my bird pictures. However, there's a new term in bird photography - digiscoping. Digiscoping works by hooking your Alpen spotting scope up to a tripod and putting the digiscoping data into the digital camera. So, you're actually photographing through the spotting scope, giving you much-more magnification and clarity than you'll get with a camera lens. Using this system, you can get a digital picture of the bird through the magnification of the spotting scope. Alpen has a universal adapter, which doesn't work on a SLR camera, but does work on all small digital cameras. Even with an inexpensive digital camera, if you have a good quality Alpen Spotting Scope and the adapter, you can photograph birds like the pros. The good news about this adapter is that it doesn't matter what brand of camera you use, the Alpen adapter and the Alpen spotting scope will enable you to get quality pictures at long ranges, and the birds never will know you're there. This adapter is so universal that you also can use any spotting scope with it. Regardless of what type of spotting scope or digital camera you use, with the Alpen adapter, you can get high-magnification photos. You also can use your spotting scope and adapter to photograph other wildlife besides birds, like deer, turkeys, squirrels, rabbits and any other form of wildlife you want to photograph from long distances. For the serious photographer who prefers to use big lenses, I recommend the 500mm.

Question: Are you using a tripod with that 500mm lens?

Hallett:A tripod definitely will help you get sharper, crisper pictures. However, most of the time, when I'm in the woods photographing birds, I'm hand-holding my camera. Many times, you can brace that camera against a tree or a limb to help you be more stable. Remember, the key to all photography is to get the shot. I'd much rather have blurry pictures of a really-rare bird than no picture at all. With today's digital cameras, you can shoot continuously, and one of the shots will usually be pretty good.

Question: What's been your greatest thrill in birding and with bird photography?

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Hallett: I finally saw a Northern Beardless Tyrannulet, and I was able to photograph that bird coming into the nest. The nest of this bird looks like a ball hanging in the tree. When the female lands on the nest, the nest sways. To prevent blur, I had to shoot the picture at the very point where the nest stopped in-between swaying backwards and forward. I finally got the shot. That was one of the most-exciting photos I ever took of one of the rarest birds I've ever tried to photograph.

Question: What about another shot you're really proud of taking?

Hallett:In Duluth, Minnesota, I spotted a Black-legged Kittiwake, a bird that's not normally found in Minnesota. It's a very-unusual bird. Someone told me where the bird was located, so I went to the spot and found the bird. Kittiwakes are difficult to identify, and when this bird flew away, I was disappointed. But the bird turned around and came back, flying at full speed. Since I had a 500mm lens on my camera, as the bird came by, I tracked him with my lens like a duck hunter tracks a duck with his shotgun. I shot about six pictures of it, not knowing if I got a good photograph or not. Because large lenses require a lot of light to get really-good photography, and because swinging a lens on a moving bird rarely produces a sharp photo, I didn't know what I'd gotten until I looked at the pictures. When I studied my picture closely, I realized that I was able to capture all the field marks, and that photo is now the official record for the State of Minnesota for the second sighting ever in this state of a Black-legged Kittiwake. It's not only the record for the second sighting of the bird in Minnesota, but for capturing it in a photograph.

Question: When's the best time to go birding?

Hallett:That's a really-loaded question that depends on where you live. For instance, in Wisconsin, where I live, early May is the best time because of the spring migration. At that time, the birds are migrating from their wintering grounds to their summer-breeding grounds. Many of these birds are traveling from Alaska to the continental U.S. The warblers, the most-colorful birds, will come through Wisconsin in early May. When the birds come through in May, the males are in their mating plumage, which is when they put on all the beautiful coloration to attract the females. This is when the birds are the most colorful and the most distinctive. In August and September, the birds will come back through Wisconsin, heading toward their fall homes in the South. The shorebirds will come earlier in July because they have further to travel. Some of those birds will be headed to South America. Some of the birds we see will travel over 20,000 miles during their breeding cycle, so learning when and what type of birds can be seen in the area where you live, or where you're traveling is really fun. During the fall, birding can get complicated, because the first year or juvenile birds will be there, and many of the male birds haven't developed distinctive coloring, yet. In their fall non-breeding plumage, their colors are often very dull and washed-out. To really be an on-target birder, you have to learn what the male bird looks like, what the female looks like, and what the immature or juvenile bird looks like in its fall and spring plumages. We call the birds of fall "confusing fall warblers."

Question: Which birds travel the furthest?

Hallett:Typically, shorebirds do. These birds are in different states, during various times of the year. Hummingbirds are also interesting. The ruby-throated hummingbird, seen in Wisconsin, flies all the way to South America. Hummingbirds are really unusual, because they fly across the Gulf of Mexico. According to computer models, a bird that size can't store enough energy to fly that far. But those hummingbirds do it every year. There are many interesting and wonderful things to learn about birding, and many birds to see and get to know with Alpen binoculars and/or Alpen spotting scopes.