American Birding Podcast



Let’s zoom in, shall we?

I think that most readers of this blog are aware of the potential power of digiscoping, but I’d like to illustrate another example of the technique’s utility from the Boulder Christmas Bird Count (which I compile) last 16 Dec.  In the weeks leading up to the count, a group of Tundra Swans had been seen in the count circle, frequenting a few area lakes.  This is a rare species on the count, only recorded 6 times on 70 prior counts.  A few of my trusty scouts tried to pin the birds down in the count-week days leading up to the event but dipped- the birds seemed to have moved on.  But on the morning of the count I got a text from Bill Kaempfer reporting them on Valmont Reservoir.  Nice!!

By mid-afternoon I had finished my territory and had time to swing over to the mighty Valmont to have a gander for myself.  While this power plant-heated triple reservoir complex is a winter waterbird haven, the views from public overlooks range from far at best to recedingly distant most of the time.  The count territory team had permission to enter the complex for better viewing but I was going to settle for some long scope looks.  Still, the swans were great to see in the day’s last sloping sunlight, cruising in the windy waters.  I put my Panasonic DMC-G5 rig (with a digiscoping-friendly Olympus M.Zuiko Digital ED 14-42mm f/3.5-5.6 II R Lens) to my Nikon EDG 64mm scope and shot this video:

Notice anything different about one of the birds?  Indeed, one of them is sporting a neck collar.  Now, in full disclosure, I didn’t make this discovery.  The neck collared-bird had been well documented in the weeks leading up to the count, and my buddy Christian Nunes had previously submitted the collar number to the USGS Patuxent Bird Banding Lab.  Still, it was my first encounter with the banded bird so I thought I’d try to read the collar at this new location and date.  Frustratingly, I was having trouble confirming the digits on the distant bird (eye fatigue from a long day’s birding and wind shake didn’t help either), so I snapped a series of digiscoped stills to see if I could pull out the code.

At this level, I think we can confirm the ID as Tundra Swans through traits such as the variable yellow lores and document the rarity well for our state’s Christmas Bird Count reviewer.  But I still don’t think I can read the neck collar.

By cranking both the scope and camera lens zoom up to nearly maximum levels, cropping the image, and applying some sharpening, the code reveals itself: U856, yellow horizontal numerals on blue (click to enlarge the pic if you can’t read the collar.)

While I wasn’t the first to crack the bird’s code, it was gratifying to confirm that it was the same bird found weeks earlier and to contribute another data point in the bird’s known history.  The USGS has gotten very streamlined in their responses to band reports, and I was emailed this certificate within a few days of submitting the collar code:


Pretty cool to know the bird was banded as an adult on the marshy flats east of Kotzebue Sound near the Bering Strait in NW Alaksa in the summer of 2010.  The banding site is about 2800 straight-line miles away from Valmont Reservoir!


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