Tuesday, January 29, 2008

I Can See Clearly Now

Last Wednesday (23 January), on my way out of Ithaca, I made a last minute decision to try and glimpse the Slaty-backed Gull again. Previous observations of other gulls showed the birds typically forage among Cornell's compost piles, where the Slaty-backed was initially discovered, then roost on the ice off of Stewart Park at the south end of Cayuga Lake until morning. The Slaty-backed followed this pattern. This would be perhaps my last chance to see it since I wouldn't be in Ithaca until after the weekend. Who knew if the bird would stick around?

My first encounter, Tuesday morning when it was discovered by Jay McGowan, was exciting, but the looks at the bird were unsatisfying. I didn't see some field marks, the bird essentially slept for the 20-or-so minutes I was there. Also, I wanted to meet the challenge of finding the bird without being pointed to a scope that was already trained on the bird -- not that I'm looking a gift horse in the mouth or anywhere else, I really appreciate the camaraderie birders exhibit.

So, last Wednesday I noticed two things while driving down the hill into Ithaca, overlooking the lake: there were a lot of gulls on the ice, and there was a small group of people on the ice with them. Birders, no doubt, but that didn't mean the gull was there. I figured I'd give it a go and made the detour into Stewart Park.

A mixed flock of gulls, including Herring, Ring-billed, Great-black
Backed, and a single Slaty-backed Gull. It's in there, I swear!

I made the mistake of first scoping out the birders, subconsciously noting which direction their scopes were pointing, cuing me to the likely direction of the bird. (Updated to add: among the birders is Nick Sly of Biological Ramblings; check out his encounter with the "Bird of the Day" - it includes much nicer photos!). Sure enough, within a few minutes, I had found the Slaty-backed, and mostly on my own. It'd be a lie of omission if I didn't say the hint provided by the unknowing birders was appreciated.

A group of Cornell students getting a better look at the
Slaty-backed (the gull in the foreground is a Ring-billed).
Ah, to be young and invincible again.

Unfortunately for me, this was about the time I discovered the status of our old Nikon Coolpix, the camera I use for digiscoping. I'm sorry to report that the status was, in hospital lingo, critical, the prognosis, negative. The batteries were charged, but the camera's controls are essentially shot. I could only choose aperture or shutter-speed priority (or auto, but that never works for digiscoping), but I couldn't actually change the settings. I had to shoot with the default settings. If you didn't notice from the above images, they were a bit "off." So, I present here, possibly the worst picture of a great bird you'll ever see, and hopefully that I'll ever take.

It's like one of those 3-D art posters, isn't it? Stare past the picture,
unfocus your eyes (or do you have to deeply focus?),
and that standing bird should turn into a Slaty-backed.

Though not captured on film, I did get to study the field marks I missed before: deep pink leg color, deeper than the Great-black Backeds; large head with more brown streaking that is concentrated around the eye; pale yellow iris; stout bill with dark smudging along the commissure. I could finally see them all clearly.

Now I need a new camera to capture what I saw. I'm open to suggestions - what do you all use for hand-held digiscoping?


Nate said...

This pic isn't all bad. It's clearly darker than Herring and it looks to have pink legs so it's not Lesser BB Gull. I'd accept it. : )

I got this camera a few months ago and I'm very happy with it. I don't have a real digiscope rig, just hold up and shoot for me. Seems to work pretty well once I've gotten the handle on it.

slybird said...

Hey! That's me on the left! You should've come on out on the ice, it was fun.

Here's my post on the bird (mostly reposting Tom Johnson's studies):


noflickster said...

n8 - the pic looks better on my work machine, guess I'll need to upgrade my home monitor. Glad you could pick out the darker hue to the back and some leg color - I almost mentioned it, but figured that'd be "leading the witness." Or I'd open the door of "are you nuts?" questioning, a direction I'd like to leave alone, if possible.

Nick - thanks for letting me know you were in there. Now, what are your terms and agreements? I don't pay models very well, mostly in sunflower seed or suet. I updated the post to reference your encounter. Next time I'll bring my skates to venture out on the ice!

Camera-wise, thanks for the link! I've never progressed to a "rig" for digiscoping; like you (n8) I simply hold it up and shoot. I'll eventually use some of my digiscopes in some posts, I'm pretty happy with some of them. So long, ol' Coolpix 995, we hardly knew ye . . . .

birdchaser said...

Man, what I wouldn't have done for even that blurry of a look at the SBGU with you the other day! Thanks again for letting me commandeer your scope in my vain attempt to spot that Sibe out on the jetty.

noflickster said...

Rob - glad someone could use the scope while I tried to get my bins the Little Gulls! Hopefully next time you're up I'll get a chance to officially meet you (I used to be on eBird, now in Conservation Science).

Good luck with the GBBC!
- Mike

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