Saturday, April 18, 2009

More Pictures of the Black Bee-eater!

I thought I would post a couple more digiscoped shots of the Black Bee-Eater (see last week's post on April 11, 2009: "How I Digiscoped the Black Bee-Eaters!"). All pictures of this bird were taken in Liberia (River Cess County) on January 5, 2007. The habitat was secondary forest edge bordering on "coastal savanna", 1 km southeast of the mouth of the Cess River.

The Black Bee-eater (Merops gularis) is found in the rain forest zone across equatorial Africa, but its status varies from scarce to locally common. An African migrant breeder, its numbers in Liberia are highest during the dry season (Nov-Apr). This first photo clearly shows the beautiful blue forehead and supercilium, characteristic of the nominate western race Merops gularis gularis which occurs from Sierra Leone to Nigeria. (The eastern race M. g. australis, from Cameroon to eastern Uganda, lacks this fieldmark.)

Many bee-eaters are gregarious, but the Black Bee-Eater is usually encountered only in pairs. In typical bee-eater style, however, it spends considerable time on the same prominent perch, watching for the occasional passing insect, which it then flies out to catch and (almost invariably) bring back to the same spot to consume! This rather predictable behavior (which tends to make any bee-eater a fairly good subject for digiscoping!) gave me lots of time to focus my scope and fumble with my camera settings, and then...

...when this Black Bee-eater flew off, I didn't have to change a thing! Only a moment later, it was back in my scope's field of view, ready for another shot!

One of my field guides says that the scarlet throat is sometimes hard to see in poor light! On this occasion I guess the light was more than adequate!
DIGISCOPING NOTE: There seems to be some slight "vignetting" in this shot, with the corners of the photo, especially toward the right, appearing darker. This problem can sometimes occur in digiscoping if the camera lens and telescope eyepiece are not the ideal distance apart and/or are not perfectly aligned. Considering my crude camera-to-scope adapter (made from a large plastic bottle cap!), I'm just glad the vignetting was not any worse!

Saturday, April 11, 2009

How I Digiscoped the Black Bee-Eaters!

In January of 2007, my wife Paula and I made a two-week visit back to Liberia to see how our friends were getting along after the civil war. We especially wanted to make a trip "down the coast" from Monrovia to Po River Beach in River Cess County, where we had taught high school during the 1980s. To get there from Monrovia was a two-day effort: 90 miles on an unimproved paved road, 60 miles on a very unimproved dirt road, and then 7 miles as a hike along a bush trail!
. Here we were at the town of River Cess on the Atlantic coast, waiting for "a lift" across the Cess River in the large fishing canoe that can be seen behind us! Note the powder-blue haze in the air, due to the Harmattan winds that reach the Liberian coast from the Sahara Desert each year in early January. Several Black Kites (Milvus migrans), also typical of dry season, could be seen overhead, patrolling the beach and silently waiting for a fish to be discarded from a fisherman's net.

It was already afternoon, but I was not in a hurry to continue our journey... while we waited, a seasonal specialty just might show up! [I could remember when, back in the 1980s, an Egyptian Plover (Pluvianus aegyptius) was spotted once or twice at low tide along this very stretch of sandy river bank!]

Eventually we got across the river. It was mid-afternoon and we still had a strong two-hour hike ahead of us (well, let's call that a very leisurely 6- or 7-hour unhurried walk, with lots of back-tracking if necessary, especially if there's a birder anywhere around who is thrilled to be back in familiar tropical territory!). Besides all the local birds we were sure to see along the trail (and for which just about any day of the year would have been a good day to see them), we might also be lucky enough today to spot a Rufous-crowned Roller (Coracias naevius). This was just the sort of dry-season weather that might have brought one in from the north in the last day or two. It might already be along the trail up ahead somewhere, perched quietly on the nearly leafless limb of some tall distant tree (as I had once seen it before!). I was getting excited! This could be a day of surprises--perhaps not surpise surprises, but just pleasant surprises--and indeed it was going to be!
Down the trail a turn or two, I knew we would break out of the low forest into a stretch of moist "coastal savanna", where (due to the very sandy soil) the forest gives way in many places to large stretches of open grassland. If my memory was serving me right, up ahead on the left, we should be able to find a pair of Black Bee-Eaters (Merops gularis) along the forest edge of this more open habitat. Sure enough, after only a little searching, there they were in an acacia tree just off the trail! (Of course, this was probably not the very same pair I remembered from this location more than a decade earlier, but they could easily have been their descendants!) The hour was late and there was still high forest down the trail for us to get through before dark; however, I was elated to have found these rather uncommon birds and vowed to take pictures of them when I returned.
Two days later (Jan 5, 2007), when I arrived back at the same spot, the sun was high in the hazy Harmattan sky--ideal conditions for bird photography! There the Black Bee-eaters were, in perfect pose on an open branch at the forest edge, as if they had made an appointment to sit for a family portrait! I fumbled to set up the Nikon Fieldscope and my small digital camera attached to it with a homemade rig using velcro and the plastic top from a laundry detergent bottle! I knew from experience that getting the focus precisely right with this primitive set-up was going to be simply hit-or-miss! To make matters even more difficult, I had no cable release, and so for each shot (in order to prevent camera movement) I had to reset the 3-second timer, push the shutter release, and hope that the birds would be looking the right direction (or would not have flown off!) when the camera took the picture! Digiscoping for me had never been so uncertain, yet so full of prospect! I took as many shots as my limited time schedule would permit. Here is one of those pictures (the one that I cropped for the blog header):
In bee-eaters, the sexes are similar. This pair proved to be totally cooperative, showing off in one picture almost every Black Bee-Eater plumage characteristic you would want to see! (This picture is not a "photoshopped" composite!) Though the birds themselves are rather small in this photo, they certainly look good here in the larger context of their tropical forest-edge habitat. I was also very fortunate to be shooting slightly downhill, so that the birds were not hopelessly silhouetted against the bright sky!
When I was thinking of starting a blog that would focus on my birding experiences in Liberia, my mind immediately went back to these Black Bee-Eaters, and it was not difficult to decide which African bird species should be featured in the header photo and blog title!