"For the Birds" Index

New! †Jim B has opened a message board dedicated to the sharing of information about wild birds and the hobby of bird watching. Birders of all levels of experience and any location are cheerfully invited to join in:


For The Birds (vol 3)


April 19, 2002 - For the Birds originally appeared as a series of posts on the Cape Ann Online message board. It was aimed at the audience who sees birds in their day to day life and is curious about them rather than the hardcore or even intermediate bird watcher.

Any word in blue can be clicked on for more info.

Whatís Happening

May is THE MONTH to watch birds around here. With the warmer weather I am going to ask that you actually DO a few things - nothing difficult mind you - birdwatching isnít work. It is fun.

Time to go shopping. Next time your at the market pick up a cheap hummingbird feeder, 5 lbs of white sugar, a bag of oranges, and a box of Borax (Boraxo) laundry detergent.


The big deal now is the family of birds know collectively as Wood Warblers
) are starting to migrate through the area. These birds are stuff most birdwatchers dreams are made of. They are small (most of the warbler species are around sparrow size), extremely colorful, and sing. Some sing such strong clear notes you wonít believe that sound comes from such a small bird. Others buzz like insects. Warblers rarely sit still so what invariably happens is you get quick little glimpses of brightly colored jewels flittering through the tree and brush.

Some warblers such as Yellow-rump Warblers are here year round but most are only passing through. When they come back in the fall they will have lost their breeding (alternate) plumage and will be much drabber. Telling the differences between the fall warblers is one of the most challenging aspects of birding but in the spring it is easier. These birds often migrate at night. Mixed flocks of hundreds, sometimes thousands, of them will suddenly drop out of the sky to rest. This is called a fallout. To watch the warblers make their way north see these radar images and predictions http://virtual.clemson.edu/groups/birdrad/

Yellow Warbler

There are over fifty different species of warblers but seeing over ten different types in one day is a good count. The best way to experience them is to go on one of the many walks open to the public run by the Brookline Bird Club http://www.massbird.org/bbc/.

The next best way is to go to one of two places, the Audubon Sanctuary on Marblehead Neck http://www.massaudubon.org/Nature_Connection/Sanctuaries/unstaffed_sanct/marblehead_neck.html

or Mount Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge http://www.virtualbirder.com/vbirder/onLoc/onLocDirs/BOSSPR/bg/mtauburn/Backgrounder.html?

Some of the best birding happens in cemeteries and Mount Auburn is a special treat for those who are into gardening Ė well worth the trip! Donít be afraid to introduce yourself as a newcomer to some of the birders there. Most folks are glad to share and will help you with I.D.s. If you ever thought of going on one of the organized bird walks, May is the time to do it.

If you are determined to go it alone and look closer to home, you will see more warblers on any of the points (Halibut, Andrews, Eastern) than inland. Bring your field guide. First watch the bird for as long as you can, memorizing field marks, then look it up in the book. If you try to look in the book and watch the bird at the same time you will end up doing neither.

Time for a Hummer

Hummingbirds are visitors that assure us there is a better place somewhere. Hummingbirds are back! See http://www.hummingbirds.net/ . It is very rare to see any hummingbird around here that is not a Ruby-throated Hummingbird. The males have the red throat, female white. The "red" throat feathers are actually iridescent so in the right light they may appear black. If you have a Hummingbird that is clearly not a Ruby- throated, then you have a rare bird for these parts.

I know, I know, white sugar is death. But if you had the metabolism of a hummingbird you could eat all the sugar you want too. Hang the feeder anywhere outside you want. Mine is on one of those "shepherd hangers" just five feet outside the window next to the computer. Try to put it somewhere you can see it. You have to be pretty close even with binoculars to see a Hummingbird tongue pick up nectar from the feeder. Just about any hummer feeder will work as long as it doesnít leak.

Do you remember a young actor named Ronald Reagan hawking "Twenty Mule Team Borax" on the TV western? Youíre old. The Borax is the same product. The sugar water is going to attract ants. If put it close to the house, well, guess where the ants end up. Borax is the safest insecticide for you and the environment I have ever used. Just lay a line of the powder around the base of your stand, tree, or whatever your feeder hangs off of and ants will be no problem. Borax will kill the grass and plants if you put it right on them. For dual use you can always throw some into your laundry but the killer app (literally) for this stuff is laying a couple of lines down in out of the way places (under the kitchen sink, behind the refer) to kill cockroaches and other crawlies in the house.

Do not waste your money on "hummingbird nectar" or some such product. Avoid any hummingbird food that has red dye. Do this. Bring 4 cups of water to a boil and let it bubble away for a minute or two. Turn off the heat and stir in 1 cup of white sugar. Let it cool to room temperature and pour it into your feeder. You can store the left over sugar water in the refrigerator for up to two weeks. Change the water and clean the feeder at least once a week, more frequently in warmer weather or if the water gets cloudy.

Hummingbirds are attracted to the color red. If you want to make your feeder easier to find, tie a red ribbon on it or stick on a red bow left over from Christmas. There are so many hummingbirds out there and they are so hungry it has been estimated that there is not one cubic meter of the lower 48 States that is not checked out by a Humming bird each summer. If at first you donít succeed, donít be discouraged. Leave it up for a while as it may take some time to be found. I havenít had a hummer yet this year but Iím certain one will be along by mid May. A male will claim your feeder for his own and while he might share it with his mate, he will try to drive off any other males. Sometimes in August my backyard hosts a mini recreation of the WWI flying biplane battles complete with the Red Baron. These little suckers are fast.


Everybody sing now "Little girls have pretty curls, but I love or- i - oles." Ok, if you know the tune to the cookie ad, well, we already established how old you are. Baltimore Orioles http://www.mbr.nbs.gov/id/framlst/i5070id.html, the birds not the ball club, are beautiful orange and black birds that sing like nobodyís business. The oranges are for them.

Feeding oranges to orioles is really cool because there is almost no way to screw this up. Just cut the orange. Cut it in half, quarters, slice it, dice it, carve a bust of Nixon in it. It doesnít matter as long as you expose the orange flesh to the bird. Lay it out on a piece of board, throw it on your feeder, nail it to a tree branch, whatever blows your skirt up is just fine.

I keep my oranges in an old terra cotta tray that originally belonged under a flower pot. Nothing like a well organized orange I always say. The white line around the outside of the tray; more borax Ė ants love oranges. Some years I can entice a pair of orioles to nest nearby and other years I donít see any.

Earlier I called it a Baltimore Oriole. It is not always called that. Some years it is combined with the Bullocks Oriole and called the Northern Oriole. Let me explain this one. What constitutes a species? The question is a bit too technical to get into here. But ornithologists (bird scientists) argue about that all the time. Humans love to argue. You know how in politics we have democrats and republicans? In the birding world we have lumpers and splitters. Lumpers are always trying to combine two birds currently recognized as separate species into one. Splitters are always trying to get races within one species to be recognized as two different species. Drives listers crazy. Some folks have taken to listing sub species in hopes they will someday be split. The Bullock and Baltimore Orioles combined into Northern Oriole and split back out again is among the most famous (infamous) of these moves. Hopefully advances in DNA testing will help settle these matters.



The study of optics, light and related issues can be a lifeís work. Iíll try not to get too technical here so be ready for some bizarre analogies.

First a little optical trick as a reward for those of you who, like me, remember Twenty Mule Team Reagan and sang the Oreo Cookie song. Sometimes I find myself in a restaurant where I cannot quite read the menu because I left my reading glasses at home. Time for our first experiment. Go get something with small print on it that you can almost but not quite read. This trick does not work as well on computer monitors. The back of an aspirin bottle or one of those drug inserts that say something like, "warning if you take this medication with a class of drugs we are only going to give you the Latin name for, your liver will explode." Go ahead, get it. We will wait.

Youíre back! Good. Put the reading material down on some surface where you can almost read it. Now, with both hands touch the tips of your thumbs and index finger together like you were pinching something or making the "OK" sign. Bring your hands together so that your fingertips touch and your thumb tips touch -kissing "OK" signs. There should be a diamond shape space between your digit tips where they donít quite close. Place this diamond half way between your eyes and the reading material and read the words by looking through the diamond. The words are now legible. I used to know why this works but I have forgotten.

Now letís look at light. Later on when we all go out at night to test our binoculars maybe some of you would like to try looking at a duck or something in the dark. You wonít see them even though theyíre right there. When you look at a bird through binoculars what you are really looking at is light.

Think of light as water and the tubes of your binoculars as pipes. The bigger the pipe, the more water can flow through. The bigger the objective lens (the end you point at the bird) the more light can flow through. Whenever you see binoculars described you will see some numbers like 8 x 42. The second number is the size of the objective lens in millimeters. Bigger is better, especially in low light situations. All things being equal the bigger the objective lens the more detail you will see on a bird at dawn, dusk, or in shadows.

The problem is all things are not equal. Glass quality, coatings, internal baffling, and other factors affect the quality of your view. Hereís a quick take-my-word-on-it little piece of advice. Never buy zoom or auto focus binoculars.

Light enters through the objective lens, goes down the tube, through a prism, turns inside out, and out through a curved lens in the eyepiece. This is called the light path. Binoculars come in two major styles. In porro prism binoculars the tubes are "Z shaped. Roof prism binoculars have straight tubes. Go with whichever feels best in your hands.

Letís switch analogies here and think of light particles as vibrations or sine waves or oscillations, whatever works for you. The speed of the vibrations determines what color we see. The visible range of light is nestled between ultraviolet and infrared. (Aside: Some studies indicate that some species of birds can see into the infrared spectrum. Individual birds are very differently marked in infrared. Thus one starling looks pretty much the same as any other to you and me, but to each other they appear quite different.) Notice the word prism in both types and the fact that there are two lenses. Whenever light goes through glass it slows down. Not enough to upset relativity and all that but enough to change colors. Most folks have seen the pyramid prisms and "light" catchers used as decorations to create rainbows. This is how they work. Light with the shorter path through the glass is not slowed down as much as light with the longer path. A smooth graduation in glass thickness gives off light at smooth graduation of color. While amusing on the wall this is a terrible thing to happen in your binoculars, spotting scope, telescope, or camera etc. If you see a gull with a purple halo or the Moon with a green edge you are seeing this phenomena. It is called chromatic aberration. Careful lens grinding and special (expensive) glass to prevent chromatic aberration is one of the things you are paying for when laying out for good binoculars.

Another problem is reflection. If youíre reading this at night, look out the window and wave at your reflection. You look marvelous. One place you donít want this going on is inside your binoculars. You want to see one bird if that is all there is Ė not six. Manufacturers use coatings to cut down on reflection. Almost all coatings work to do that but cheap coatings block light transmission. Coatings that stop reflection AND have high light throughput are, again, expensive. The bottom line to all this is, like a lot of things in life, in binoculars, you get what you pay for.

Before we get into our little night test of our binos, letís get this diopter business straight. If you are near or far sighted binoculars will compensate and you do not have to wear your glasses. If the optometrist laid some heavy numbers on you like 20/ 200 you may need to keep your glasses on and eye relief (the distance between your eye and the eyepiece) is one of your primary considerations in binocular selection.

No matter the condition of your eyes, everyone should do this. Look at a street sign or the back of a boat, anywhere there is print you can read with your binoculars. Close your right eye and focus your binos in the normal manner until you have the sharpest possible reading of the print. Open your right eye and close your left. Do not touch the focus. Turn the right eyepiece (you should see a numbered scale outside the right eyepiece) until the print is in the best focus. Look with both eyes. Everything look better? Good. Look at the scale. A small line should line up with a number such as -2 or + 3 etc. Remember that number and just twist the eyepiece back to it if it moves after some time. Do this with any binocular you may use (especially trying them out in stores), -2 on one might not equal -2 on another.

One of the best ways to test binoculars is to look at stars. This is going to be fun. Grab your binos, turn off the lights in and out of your house and head outside on the next clear night. When you first get outside, just listen see if you hear any wildlife. Look with your naked eyes up at the stars just to be sure you are in a dark enough area to see them. The darker the better. Try behind the garage, under a tree where ever you can get out of the glare of the city. Try the little finger diamond trick on the stars to see if it works. Generally waste a total of ten to fifteen minutes any way you want just be damn quiet about it. We donít want the neighbors turning on more lights. What you are doing is letting your eyes adapt to the dark and your binos adapt to the temperature change. Warm air swirling around inside the tubes on a cool night will degrade your image.

So we are all on the same trip letís all look at the same star. I hope everyone knows what the big dipper looks like. Look at the second star in from the end of the handle with your naked eye. Now look at it with your binos and focus in until the star is a bright pinpoint. You may want to look back and forth a few times until your mind accepts that what appears to be a star to the eye is really two separate stars in the binos. This is called a visual double (as opposed to two stars that really revolve around each other Ė a double star).

Stick with this star for a while. Notice how the binos make the sky seem darker and the star brighter. This is contrast - the better the binos , the better the contrast.

Pick out one star and hold it in the center of your vision. Try to hold it for one whole minute. Can you keep the star centered or does it jump around? The higher the power of your binos, the more it will jump around. This is why 10x does not always give you as much detail on a bird as 8x. Handshake ruins views. Try bringing your arms in against your body, control breathing, change grips etc. Use the star centering trick to find the best way for you to hold your binos. If all else fails brace the binos on a trellis, fence etc.

Notice that although your binos are 8x or 10x the stars look to be about the same size as to the eye. Here we learn that 8x or 10x is not really magnification, It is like being 8 or 10 times closer to the object. A bird at 80 feet will appear as if it is 8 feet away in 10x binos. Getting 10 times closer to a star is still a hell of a long way off and the star does not appear bigger. This is not true for planets. Find Jupiter (look west) you should be able to see three or four of Jupiterís moons depending on when you look. Saturn will look like an ellipse. You will not see the rings. To the northeast in and around the constellation Lyra are some real double stars. If youíre out just after dark, look west in Orion to the Orionís sword. Through binoculars you should be able to see what appears to be a star cloud. Thatís the Orion Nebula. Nebulas are collection of gases. Every now and then the gases violently condense and form stars. The universe is a scary place. Get back inside. If anyone is interested we could do another thread on binocular astronomy.

The best way to choose a binocular is to try them out. See what fits your hands and feels comfortable. The only two local places I know of that carry good binoculars are Hunt < > and Bird Watcher's Supply & Gift on the Rte 1 circle in Newburyport. Online

I use Eagle Optics www.eagleoptics.com/index.asp?AID=1484426&PID=250060

They are great to business with and have a liberal return policy.

By now Iíve written the "you get what you pay for" bit enough, right? Here are my recommendations for binoculars at various price points. Keep in mind that only binoculars I have actually used are in this list. There are plenty of other fine products out there. There is also a helluva a lot of junk. This is the good stuff.

Swift Ultra Lite 8x42 - Price: $208.00 - a nice all-round binocular. Rated "Best Buy" in full sized binoculars by Better View Desired

Swift Ultra Lite 10x42 - Price: $218.00- these were my main binocular for three years. Rated "Best Buy" in high power binoculars by Better View Desired. Keep either of these Swifts dry

Swift Audubon 8.5 X 44 - Price: $268.00- may well be the most popular entry level bino. Rated "Product of Special Merit" in full sized binoculars by Better View Desired

Audubon 8.5x44 ED Price: $378.00 Same as the last ones above but with superior glass for greater color fidelity.

Ranger 8x32 Platinum Class - Price: $358.00 absolutely bullet proof with a great view. These two Eagle Optics Rangers are really the store brand made by Minox. Many serious birders use these.

Ranger 8x42 Platinum Class - Price: $378.00 same as above with 42mm objectives

Nikon 10X42 Superior E Ė Price: $ 799.00 The best of the porro prisms Ė outstanding views

Swarovski EL 8.5 x 42 Ė Price 1,298.00 Like buying the "superpower" of outstanding vision. Waterproof to 13 feet (count fish with Damon).


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"For the Birds" Index