Sunday, November 18, 2018

A Weekend of Non-Photographic Highlights - 18 Nov 2018

I managed to experience a number of neat yard highlights that happened so quick that I had no time to grab a camera. I'm trying to determine which one was my favorite.

A Fox Squirrel had jumped from the trees to the top of the Screech Owl box. It attempted to enter the box several times but the resident Screech Owl wanted nothing to do with it. I actually heard the owl screech several times from inside the house as the squirrel attempted to peer inside the hole. This prompted me to run out the door and through the brush to scare the squirrel away. Owl safe and sound.

A Fox Sparrow made another appearance yesterday afternoon for a few minutes.

This morning the owl box was visited by a half-dozen Eastern Bluebirds that took turns flying in to investigate the box as possible roosting sites. Each time one bird flew in it peered inside then quickly flew off, only to be followed by another bird. And so on.  They soon flew off. Owl safe and sound.

With a steady snowfall this morning the feeders were hopping! Approximately 2-dozen House Finches were at the sunflower feeder while another 2-dozen American Goldfinches swarmed the thistle feeder. Just as I grabbed the camera to photograph a pair of Pine Siskins that joined them a Cooper's Hawk flushed the entire crowd. I saw the hawk fly over the field out back.

An American Tree Sparrow visited the ground the below the feeders this evening.

And, a Red-breasted Nuthatch flew into the sunflower feeder a couple of times this evening and made for a great end to the day!

And not a single photo.

Tuesday, November 13, 2018

Fox Sparrows - 12 Nov 2018

I came home from work this afternoon and peered out the back window. Not one but three Fox Sparrows were foraging under the feeders out back of the house here at Brownton Abbey! Skies were overcast and dark, but I took the opportunity anyway to digiscope them from inside the house.

The birds were moving around quite a bit, and skittish, so the slightest disturbance would send them deep under the brush. Focus-peaking was difficult, but I managed a few nice portraits of the dark-colored birds.

I then took the opportunity to take some 4K and Slo-Motion videos of the foraging birds to compare the speed of their scratching.

Here's a Fox Sparrow scratching in the mulch at normal speed. The 4K video is captured at 30 fps.


Here's the Fox Sparrow scratching in the mulch at 120 fps. The action is slowed 4X normal speed.


Those little legs do move at a clip that is barely perceptible to the human eye. But, when slowed down they appear quite graceful!

I also had a brief appearance by my first American Tree Sparrow of the season. Winter is officially here. It did not stick around as the birds were flushed by a juvenile Cooper's Hawk that blasted through the yard. It scattered the 14 Dark-eyed Juncos that were also in the yard.

Just before dusk the Eastern Screech Owl stuck its head out of the box in preparation for his evening hunt. Snow is expected after midnight w/ 1-2" predicted (we'd get less than ½").

Saturday, November 10, 2018

Sony RM-VPR1 Remote - 10 Nov 2018

I picked up a Sony RM-VPR1 Remote Commander when I bought the Sony Alpha a7III Full-Frame camera. Plugged into the power port of the camera this remote allows me to trigger the camera without having to press the shutter button. This is most helpful when digiscoping as it allows me to hold the remote while panning the scope on the tripod. My left hand is free to focus the scope or camera lens (focus-peaking) and leads to improved capture ratios. Not only is vibration reduced on the scope with the remote, but it also allows me to react quicker to dynamic situations.

Added bonus with the remote is a number of controls it offers:
1. The shutter can be depressed and locked for Bulb functions
2. The toggle switch below the shutter button can be used to zoom motorized lenses
3. The Record button allows hands-free video recording and pausing without having to search for the button on the back of the camera (which is a better location than the side corner).
4. The camera can be turned ON/OFF w/ the side switch

Being new to the camera I found the remote a great help while trying to photograph a Spotted Redshank that had shown up in SE Michigan. With blowing wind and the bird 200' away focus-peaking was critical to capturing a sharp image of the North American rarity.

Incidentally, Brian Smith has a terrific blog post about recommended accessories for the Sony a7III.

Sony a7III and Greater Yellowlegs - 04 Nov 2018

With Michigan's 2nd Record Spotted Redshank entertaining birders just 45 minutes away I took the opportunity to give the Sony a7III its first field test. It performed beyond expectation. The redshank was distant and difficult to photograph, yet the a7III did a wonderful job producing sharp images despite the distance, cold and wind. 

While we waited for the bird to come closer a pair of Greater Yellowlegs posed in the afternoon sun just 30-40' away. This gave me the opportunity to play with the camera. 

A most memorable 1st-day out with the new camera. 

Sony Alpha a7III Digiscoping - 03 Nov 2018

I stopped by ProCam in Livonia last evening and picked up a new Sony Alpha a7III camera body. Thanks, Chris (and Robin) for helping to pick out the camera and accessories while I rudely caught up with Jerry Sadowski and Mark Byrnes...

The Sony a7III is a full-frame mirrorless camera that is considered an entry-level camera, but it is anything but. It has been so popular that it sold out within days of its initial offering, and its been 6 months before any new copies would be available to camera enthusiast. While waiting for it to become available there were plenty of reviews to enjoy.

After spending last evening and this morning setting up menus I had a chance to give it a play. Then, Robin and I took a quick run over to Oakwoods Metropark so that I could do a direct comparison with my current digiscoping camera, the Sony Alpha a6300.

The advantage of the full-frame a7III over its smaller cousin is both size of sensor, image quality and noise properties. To compare the two for myself I set both cameras to Aperture priority and ISO Auto between 100 - 6400. The Sony Alpha a7III was paired with my Sony 35mm f/2.8 Sonnar (EFL=35mm) while the Sony a6300 was paired with my Sigma 30mm f/2.8 DN (EFL=45mm).

The high-ISO improvement of the Sony a7III is obviously and expectedly better than the a6300 as you can see in the above images. Honestly, I was more surprised at just how good the a6300 is. Most of my digiscoping (shooting 1/1000 sec. at f/2.8) tends to push ISO's to these heights so I'm looking for the any improvement. The full-frame a7III produces cleaner and tinier noise pixels without chroma coloration that tends to show up in the a6300.

I took the above image to compare corner sharpness of the two lenses. The $800 Sonnar on the a7III produced significantly sharper corners compared to the Sigma DN under same shooting conditions. There was also less CA observed with the more expensive full-frame system at right.

In the above image of the log house the Sony a6300 chose 1/15 sec exposure at ISO 100 (left) while the a7III went with a faster shutter speed at the expense of doubling the ISO. This made for a significantly sharper image under auto-focusing conditions.

I then stepped inside the Nature Center and found a dark closet where a canoe was being store. This gave me a chance to test high-ISO conditions. The a7III's built-in camera stabilization helped out significantly by producing a sharper image compared to the smaller a6300. Also note the improved dynamic range of the a7III in the upper right corners of the full images; the a6300 washed out while the a7III resolved nicely the window glare.

So how does the Sony a7III work as a digiscoping camera? I put it to the test when I got home by attaching it to my Digidapter™ and mounting it to the scope. The camera is significantly heavier than the smaller a6300, and slightly beefier feeling, but fit just fine on the Digidapter™. My initial attempts came while trying to shoot the Northern Cardinals in the hedges about 20' away from my position on the deck. Focusing with the scope, then attaching the camera and using the magnification assist allowed me to capture some sharp images of both a female and male Northern Cardinal.

 At ISO 3200 the noise properties are seriously impressive. Being able to shoot 'silently' also allowed me to avoid disturbing the birds so I could fire away at 10 fps while slightly rolling focus to ensure that some frames would be tack-sharp.

Finally, a Blue Jay, an American Goldfinch, Dark-eyed Junco and Downy Woodpecker made quick appearances and allowed some photos to be taken.

The Sony a7III is a serious contender for 2018 Mirrorless Camera of the Year in many circles, and now becomes a serious contender for digiscoping camera of the year, as well!

Tomorrow I get to put it to serious use. A Spotted Redshank was discovered in Ann Arbor today and I hope to get a chance to see and digiscope it tomorrow morning...

Screech Owl Returns! - 30 Oct 2018

My little buddy is back in his box out back of the house! Eastern Screech Owl.

Excitement in the Yard - 07 Oct 2018

Heavy rains the past two days have not discouraged the visiting White-crowned and White-throated Sparrows from visiting the feeders. Despite low light conditions (1/60 sec at ISO 3200) I tried to digiscope the Chipmunks, Mourning Doves, and White-crowned Sparrows from inside the house.

When everything abruptly scattered it was only a fraction of a second before an immature Cooper's Hawk blasted through the yard. It landed in the low shrubs next door and stayed long enough to get a few digiscoped images. Needless to say it would be a quite a long time before the critters would return.