2009 rarity review – my perspective

Apart I have changed the layout and the design of my blog, I started an annual review series of the rarities had occured in the country in the actual year. This is all about my perspective and not necessarily contains only mega rarities for the country. The desire of watching a rare or never seen bird species escorting my birding in the last 10 years. I can call myself a lucky birder as in the past few years I had a very few ocassion when I missed to find the rare bird.

As a contrary to the previous successes 2009 started so bad for me. In my region, more or less, I remained the only one who is interested in rare bird watching. That was one of the reasons to miss a real mega bird, an Iceland Gull on 28 January. My car was out of order that time and could not find a solution to travel to the otherwise not too far town along the Danube river despite the bird stayed there for three days.

On 7 February an American Wigeon appeared on the same site where it was first found in 2008 in the Kiskunság region. I didn’t force to visit the site as I could see, the most probably same, bird in March 2008.

The 2nd Pine Bunting for Hungary was recorded on 24 February in W Hungary. I could visit the site on the next day and the bird was luckily added to my home list.

Another great news, which was received on 15 March, was the first breeding attempt of Boreal Owl for Hungary and for many of us this species was never seen in the country. For me it would not have been a lifer but I wanted to add it to my Hungarian list. Due to the same reasons like above, I could not drive there. When I finally got my car back the pair disappeared from the forest as the nest was destroyed by a predator.

2009 was an extreme year for the Dalmatian Pelican influx. From 28 March birds in various places were recorded many times at the same time. I wanted to see this bird but due to my job I could not find a half a day to travel to any of the fix sites. On 4 April I was participating on a raptor watch near my home town when I spotted possibly two flying Dalmatian Pelicans. I could ID only one of them 100%.

On 11 April a Red-breasted Swallow was found over the Danube River at Vac. I had a lucky twitch for this species a few years back so did not forced to visit the scene.

A day later a Slender-billed Gull was reported from East Hungary. It looked like I wasn’t lucky with gulls this year as I had no chance to see it. For me it was the second chance for this species. Maybe next time…

On 6 May a slowly flying Egyptian Vulture was found in S Hungary which wasn’t twitchable. Luckily I saw it earlier in Hungary.

On 2 October a Pacific Golden Plover was found on the Hortbágy region but I didn’t travel there as I have it on my Hungarian list.

Finally after the lots of disappointment the sought after lifer, the Long-billed Dowitcher was successfully relocated by my team on SE Hungary on 25 October. I was so happy by this species and not only because it was a shorebird but was a lifer to me. On our way back home I could see a Dalmatian Pelican on a nearby fishpond (see the bad quality digiscoped image). It provided a much closer and better view than in April during the raptor watch.

On 12 November a Hume’s Leaf Warbler was photographed in E Hungary but wasn’t seen by others. The bird was relocated on 5 December on the same place. This species was well seen last year in S Hungary. I have it on my country list.

That was all about rarities in 2009. I know I have to be happy as being able to add two new to my Hungarian bird list and a lifer to my world list. I am not so happy by knowing that my country list could have been expanded by three more species. Luckily that doesn’t mean the end of the world to me. My Hungarian list is at 341 species to date. 2010 should be a way better year from birding point of view and hopefully I will be back in the field for photographing birds again.

Last but not least I wish to all my Dear Readers, a successful, healthy and lossless New Year. Thank you for following me through the year and thank you for supporting me in the hard times. I count on you in 2010.

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Changing life list without birding

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Rufous-bellied Seedsnipe in the High Andes, n Chile © Gyorgy Szimuly

I have been keeping life list since my first birding trip abroad. During this Holiday Season I started to recheck if every lifer has been added to my life list but suddenly recognized my list is scanty. Luckily I keep my birdwatching trip records in a separate file made it possible to crosscheck the lifers. The result astonished me in a good way.

Almost to all of my trip lists I had to add 2-5 ‘new’ species as I missed to include them earlier. All in all 26 species have been added which I had seen on my various trips. My life list now contains 2,040 species. This figure looks to be correct and up-to-date with the recent updates of the IOC checklist.

Birding in snow storm

This morning I went out with my friend, Laci, to the lake to count geese remained at the lake. The snow had been falling heavily for 18 hours and by the morning the wind turned stormy made our birding really unpleasant. The most of the lake is frozen and only a part of it free of ice where about 12,000 geese was roosting during the night.

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Greater White-fronted Geese in snow storm. © Gyorgy Szimuly

When the larger part of the geese took off I could spot a Red-breasted Goose while landing. Among the sleeping geese I found a non sleeping Lesser White-fronted Goose what Laci could also see. We could not estimate the ratio between Bean Geese and Greater White-fronted Geese but was more White-fronted at the lake.

In the coming days temperature will rise again which will result larger open water. This can bring the number geese up till the end of the year when there will be a heavy decrease due to the fireworks of the New Year’s Eve. That is not tolerated by birds.

At home I had some window birding where I found the first Redwings for this winter season. 4 birds were flying just by our house.

An interview with Alan Murphy

Is there anyone out there who knows nothing about one of North America’s most famous bird photographer, Alan Murphy? I have been following his work for a few years now and been stunned how perfectly transforms his view and knowledge on birds to the image sensor. Alan was kind to share some of his thoughts on bird photography to my audience online.

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Alan Murphy

Thank you Alan for being with us today. May I start with a simple question? Why birds?

I have been a bird watcher since I was a young boy growing up in England and Ireland. I spent thousands of hours in the field with birds and the relationship I had with that hobby became deeply important to me. When I moved to the USA in the mid 80,s, I was a little overwhelmed with the number of bird species, especially with so many bird species looking so alike. I borrowed a camera and 300mm zoom lens to take some images. I would use the slides to compare to the field guides for identification purpose. The birds were very small in the frame and usually not very sharp. I then got a bigger lens to get closer and bought a couple of books on photography. Next thing, I was hooked. I quickly realized that not only was bird photography the greatest way to bird watch, but you also came home with something to show for it. I love the challenge of how difficult it is and being a creative person, I also love that there is endless creative opportunities. Top that off with the challenge of having to make quick technical decisions with the equipment, and you have the makings of the perfect life endeavor for me.

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Painted Bunting. © Alan Murphy

We barely see your work out of North America. What is the reason behind this?

This is because I now make my living by selling and marketing images of North American birds. Probably more important is that I have many goals within my bird photography interest, and one of those is to photograph as many North American species as I can in my lifetime. Because I study the birds of N. America, I feel that I have a deeper connection with them. I went to Costa Rica twice to photograph birds, and although the birds were beautiful I was not as familiar with them as the ones here in the States. I actually get more excited going after a drab colored empidonax flycatcher than I would going after a Scarlet Macaw, solely because I have a deeper and more intimate connection with the birds I study.

I guess for you bird photography is not for making a good living and for that very reason it is less stressful. How do you see the market now? What does a photographer have to ponder when thinking about make a living from bird photography?

I am very lucky that I have another business that I have built for the past 20 years which is my main source of income. This allows me to approach my career in bird photography the way I choose to. I can shoot images the way I want to and if editors want to buy them than that’s great. I am not under pressure to have to shoot images the way editors want to see them (which I do not necessarily line up with). I also get to choose to do workshops with the locations that I feel are wonderful and not have to run all over the country where everyone else goes. I also don’t feel the pressure to have to have 10-12 people in the workshop. I mostly work with 3, sometimes 4.

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Cooper’s Hawk. © Alan Murphy

Sharing and teaching is very important to me and I really want to know that whoever spends time with me leaves with any expectations exceeded.

For those now wishing to go into bird photography as a career, I would encourage you to really try to have a niche or a unique style that is recognizable. With digital technology, there are now 1000’s of great photographers all competing. Just being a great photographer and having a style of your own still may not be enough. I fell that being successful in any creative business is 80% marketing and 20% skill. An average photographer who knows how to get his work out there, will be far more successful that the great photographer who waits for the sales to come to him. I can think of my top favorite 5 bird photographers and they are not making the most money. I can think of the 5 most successful bird photographers and they are not the best bird photographers.  I think having a good balance is key.

Your workshops are very successful and everyone wants to learn the famous Alan Murphy style of setting up. Do you remember your first workshop and your excitement about it?

Oh I wish you did not ask this question 🙂 I do not think that I will ever forget the first day of my first workshop. First off, we were in the Texas Hill Country. A bad weather storm was heading our way. Before the storm there was many months of severe drought so the place looked dried up and barren (the place looked amazing when I originally booked the workshop) The day before the workshop began, I spilled my tea into my laptop which had all my slide shows on it. While walking up to greet the participants (I was shooting nearby when they arrived) my 600 mm lens and camera fell off my tripod onto the gravel path. To top it off, we had hail that evening and the roof was ripped off the car port from strong winds.

They say that the character of a person is defined in crisis. Well I was truly tested. My camera and lens was scratched up but was still usable (although the VR would only work in horizontal mode. if I turned the lens vertical it would chatter loudly) I had a backup laptop and was able to remote into my home computer and retrieve the slide shows. The weather changed things as far as birds coming to the feeders etc, so I had to improvise and bring my participants into the field to track down birds. It turned out to be a wonderful workshop where the participants loved the process of going out in the field to scout for birds, look for perches, choose a shooting location with the sun direction and background in mind, setting everything up and then bringing the bird in to land on their chosen perch. From that first workshop I had 100% repeat business, so I guess I pulled it off. Every workshop after that was an easy one.

Do you know how many participants have enjoyed your teaching so far?

2010 will be my 4th year doing workshops and I only do a few a year with 3-4 participants in each one, so I guess I have had around 60+ participants who have spent time with me in the field.

We see a growing number of people who consider themselves bird photographers even without basic knowledge about their subjects. How important do you think having a bird-watcher background is for being a good bird photographer?

This is a great question and one I am glad you are asking. I feel that the best Bird Photographers are the best birders. Those that study their subject, know the habitats and can know what birds are in a given area will have the most success. When I am shooting from a blind, I’d say that 60% of the birds I shoot are from the fact that I can hear them in the distance (I know the calls) and can call them in. Without that knowledge I would be missing so many great opportunities. A good birder can pick out the unusual species in a group of birds. He or she will know which subspecies they are shooting. They will know males from females, and will know which bird in a group is in full breeding plumage compared to the other birds of the same species. There are numerous reasons why being a better birder or bird watcher will improve your bird photography.

You presented here one of your favorite images. Why was this was selected?

It was tough to pick one image as a favorite, but I chose this image of a male Wilson’s Plover at his nest turning over one of his eggs with his foot. This was taken on Bolivar Flats on the Upper Texas Coast during April. I had found 5 different nests and this one was the most attractive. I was shooting with Greg Downing at the time and we both started way back slowly crawling closer on our bellies. We watched the male and female take turns at sitting on the eggs. As the light got lower and we got closer, the birds totally excepted us. Great light, great behavior and a great experience shared with a friend.

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Wilson’s Plover © Alan Murphy

In one of our earlier mailings about switching from Canon to Nikon you said ‘Welcome on the dark side’. How do you see that dark side now?

I actually don’t have any allegiance to any particular brand. I will shoot with the best equipment for the job. I am happy that Nikon now has VR in their lenses and that they have some of the best pro bodies in the business. The advancement of technology in digital cameras is making things very exciting and will continue to do so. Canon and Nikon leap-frogging each other is a good thing for all of us. I feel that whatever the equipment that you use, learn the equipment. It will only be as good as your ability to use it.

How important is it to have the latest technologies in your hand?

I think the latest technology in noise reduction is the most exciting thing happening for us as photographers that shoot action. Being able to shoot at such high shutter speeds and still have a clean image is opening up a whole new world for us. The 4th image of a Great Kiskadee was taken without any flash and just a shutter speed of 1/8000. I was able to focus on the bird as it came in to a feeder and with these insane shutter speeds, capture an image that would have never been possible back in the days of film.

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Great Kiskadee. © Alan Murphy

Where do you see bird photography developing in the future?

Looking at the changes in bird photography since film, I feel that we will see some amazing action and flight photography images in the future. If you have a vision in your head of some kind of bird behavior, then I feel that the technology will now if not soon be able to support us in capturing it. Look at all the great images coming out of the dark and wet rain forests. Something that was a real challenge for bird photographers just 5-8 years ago. It very exciting to be a bird photographer right now.

What is your future in bird photography?

My goal is still to add new species to my files, so that means a lot of travel. I have a very busy 2010 in front of me and looking forward to every minute of it. I will continue to do selective workshops and will probably start working on my Advanced guide to bird photography. I also have a bunch of speaking engagements next year that I like doing.

Do you have dream species you still would like to photograph?

I have put in hundreds of hours at a drip pond on the Upper Texas Coast in hopes of getting Black-billed Cuckoo. Maybe next Spring will be my year. I will be photographing Puffin’s among many other species when I lead a workshop to the Pribilof Island in Alaska in 2010. That is a bird I can’t wait to meet.

And finally a returning closing question. What is your advice for beginner bird photographers?

  • When the weather is not good for photography, go birding with some good birders.
  • Go on a workshop.
  • Get involved with online Bird photography forums like Naturescapes.net, Naturephotographers.net and Birdphotographers.net.
  • Network, so you know people around the country and the world.
  • Try to develop a style that is your own.
  • Don’t be discouraged. Bird photography is hard. Birds can fly away and they do all the time. I too take lots of bad images. I just don’t show them to anyone. 🙂

Find out more of Alan’s incredible work and learn more about his workshops at his photography website: www.alanmurphyphotography.com.

Pelagic birding destinations on Google Map

I guess this topic is worth a whole book. Pelagic is something what birdwatchers is always longing for. Which keen birdwatcher is not dreaming about an Antarctic birding what you most probably reach by a cruise. Traveling the oceans can produce a tons of special birds have very little chance to see from the mainland. My first try for a pelagic trip was in South Africa which finally was cancelled so I had to wait a year and a half to have another try.

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Black-browed Albatross on the Pacific Ocean off C Chile. © Gyorgy Szimuly

The Chile boating produced a nice birding despite I felt really terrible due a sunstroke got a day prior to the pelagic trip. Since then I have been browsing the web for nice pelagic images and I am impressed how diverse the sea-bird-life is. A few days ago I have started to prepare a trip to Cape Town again and listed all the potential species I can get there but at the same time I was interested in an interactive map where all the birding pelagic destinations are marked. I could not find any what is not a surprise since I am the worst Googler on Earth.

View World Pelagic Departure Cities in a larger map

I finally started to complete a Google map with the known departure cities and where I have knowledge the exact locations (harbors) marked. My plan is to add all the known cities and at a later phase to draw the trip routing on the map. Should you know about more cities to add please feel free to comment here and I add to the map.

In the future detailed information will be added to each of the placemark about the potential birds and other sea attractions.

The pink placemarks represent non-classic pelagic possibilities such as commercial ferry crossings etc.

Lake-side birding

In the last few years weather didn’t allowed much outdoor activity due to dense fog and some rain. We took the opportunity to take the stroller and to go out with Kea this afternoon. Fog was almost gone but still distance ID was not possible so I concentrated to woodland birds along the lake shore.

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Eurasian Tree Sparrow. © Gyorgy Szimuly

The forest is full of fast feeding tit species. I saw Great, European Blue and Marsh Tits with many Eurasian Tree Sparrows. An unusually small sized Great Spotted Woodpecker was feeding just 2 meters from us providing a very nice view without binocular. There were three more feeding individuals at the same place.

Surprisingly I saw and heard and overflying Snow Bunting above the largest Grill Restaurant. 7-8 years ago I saw a flying and calling Snow Bunting over almost the same place. It is a very rare bird here.

At the dense forest edge on the southern part of the lake we imitated the call of a Grey-headed Woodpecker. It was responding continuously and closed us but was too skittish to come down from the canopy. I like this beautiful bird. From a distance another birds called and it flew away. Almost the same place a Green Woodpecker showed up.

On the lake almost anything was visible. The only species I could see well was the Western Great Egret. I counted 98 birds feeding along the stream and the shallow water of the lake. I hope there will be a bit nicer weather over the weekend for some more productive birding however I can’t complain for the result of this short walk.