Saturday, September 19, 2015

Quality migrants

Burmese Shrike
Suan Rotfai 0615-0930 hrs produced  a good number of migrants, some of those that were present were of considerable quality.  These included only my second Burmese Shrike for the local patch, my earliest Thick-billed Warbler by a long way (my previous earliest was 6th October), the first Crow-billed Drongo I have seen on the patch for a couple of years (probably reflecting my long absences in September for the last couple of years), two Amur Paradise Flycatchers, my second Japanese Sparrowhawk for the patch (an adult female),  and my earliest Pale-legged/Sakhalin Leaf Warbler.  Other common migrants included a single Arctic Warbler, 10+ Brown Shrike and two Yellow-rumped Flycatchers.

1CY Amur Paradise Flycatcher

Arctic Warbler

Asian Barred Owlet

Black-crowned Night Heron

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Forest Wag

I checked The Ramble at the north end of Suan Rotfai before work this morning.  My short visit was rewarded with a single Forest Wagtail and a pair of Yellow-rumped Flycatchers.

male Yellow-rumped Flycatcher

Chinese Pond Heron (note remnants of maroon on shoulder)

juv Little Heron

Monday, September 14, 2015

BB King

I was stuck at home all on Saturday with builders doing some repairs to our house, so I was none too pleased when photos started appearing on my Facebook news feed of a Black-backed Kingfisher that had been found on my local patch. There have been a couple of other records of this stonking little Kingfisher on my patch, the others that I am aware of also falling in mid-September and concerned one-day birds.

Needless to say, first light on Sunday morning found me checking out the area where "BB King" had been seen, but without success.  I'm always torn in these situations about how much I actually care about seeing "somebody else's bird", so after my initial search I headed off to other areas of the park to see what I could find.  Things were initially slow but then took a turn for the better when I found a male Siberian Blue Robin (my earliest autumn record by six days) which was followed by five Brown Shrikes scattered throughout the park, a pair of Arctic Warblers and a three Yellow-rumped Flycatchers - not a bad tally, autumn has officially arrived!

My return journey to the car park took me past the area where the Black-backed Kingfisher had been and I met a couple of photographers who had seen it within the last 20 minutes.  A little bit of patient scanning and a few minutes later I relocated it  - WHAT A BIRD!

Black-backed Kingfisher

OK, so the photo will not win any prizes, but the light was awful and I had other commitments that meant I could not dedicate as much time to getting better images. But, I think this picture pretty much does it justice as an outrageously gorgeous migrant to get on your patch, though you can't really see the ludicrous neon lilac rump and edges to the rear crown.

I went back to the park in the early evening to take my 7 year old god daughter biking. Whilst taking a break in an open area I saw a flock of circa 10 small "grey" starlings fly low over the park - presumably Purple-backed Starlings, but seen without binoculars...

Brown Shrike


Sunday, September 6, 2015

Autumn passage in slo-mo

I did Suan Rot Fai yesterday morning, for the first time this autumn.

Rewards were thin on the ground, with just a single Arctic Warbler, a male Yellow-rumped Flycatcher, two small parties of Blue-tailed Bee-eaters and a migrant Common Kingfisher.

I checked the Ministry of Public Relations this morning, but it was completely devoid of migrants (as it was last weekend).  Thailand has experienced a very rainless wet season, so I'm wondering if this is having an impact on the volume of birds moving south.  I also read a report yesterday saying that there has been a very hot summer in the Russian far east, so wonder if that means that birds in the Russian Far East have had a poor breeding season?

Monday, August 31, 2015

Dowitchers & Godwits

Last Tuesday (25th August) I bunked off work for the afternoon to catch the high tide roost at Khok Kham.

I found concentrations of waders in various places, with one dried out salt pan holding up to 1,000 sandplovers, whilst another area held approximately 2,000 Black-tailed Godwits.

Amongst these big concentrations were about 20 Asian Dowitchers including at least two gloriously fresh juveniles,  three Great Knot, two Red Knot, three Broad-billed Sandpipers and a single Sanderling.

Over all the tally looked something like this:

Asian Dowitcher c. 20
Black-tailed Godwit 2,000+
Bar-tailed Godwit 11
Sanderling 1
Red-necked Stint c. 50
Broad-billed Sandpiper 3
Curlew Sandpiper 100-200
Common Greenshank 7
Common Redshank 200+
Wood Sandpiper 8
Marsh Sandpiper 4
Common Sandpiper 3
Red Knot 2
Great Knot 3
Turnstone 3
Sandplovers 750-1,000 ( of which c. 95% Lessers)

Wood Sandpipers

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Review: Nikon 300mm f4 PF lens

The last two years have seen birders presented with a new generation of "affordable" camera lenses to choose from, with the release of three different 150-600mm zooms from Tamron and Sigma, Canon's updated 100-400mm zoom and Nikon's updates of the 80-400mm and more recently the 300mm f4.

I've seen enough of my friends struggling under the weight and ungainly dimensions of the "big whites" to know that I never wanted to own one, but I do want to ensure that I can have the best performing lens that meets my personal needs.  As such I spent much of these last two years in a form of existential crisis: trying to decided whether or not to update my existing lens (a Nikon 300mm f4 bought in 2007), following the reviews and published on-line images and becoming somewhat frustrated buy the long lag times between announcements and appearance in the marketplace of some lenses.  The big question for me was whether to dump Nikon and move to Canon with the new 100-400 lens which seemed to have glowing reviews, but would have cost a whole lot of USD/GBP/Thai baht as I would have to get a new body as well as a new lens.

For me size and weight was as much of a consideration as price because I'm very much in the camp of "birder who takes photos" rather than primarily being a "Bird Photographer", and I kept thinking back to my trip to Sumatra a couple of years ago where I was lugging my camera up and down the steep, muddy slopes of Mount Kerichi everyday - if my camera kit had been any bigger and heavier than it was it would have stayed at home!

This meant that Nikon's announcement of the update to my existing lens was very interesting - the "Nikkor 300mm f4E PF ED VR" seemed to have it all - vibration reduction and a new "nano crystal" coating, but more importantly a very significant reduction in size and weight (the weight dropped by almost 50 percent, from 1.44 kg to just 755grams!). These reductions have come along thanks to the use of a Phase Fresnel lens (similar technology to Canon's "diffractive optics") and the use of plastic instead of metal for the body of the lens.

After a couple of months of reviews I came to the conclusion that Nikon's offering was the way forward for me (particularly as the results with the 1.7x and 2x teleconverters suggest that image quality can be pretty solid), and so it was that just before taking a family holiday to the US in late June I traded in my old 300mm for the new PF version. In Bangkok the price was much lower than quoted in either the US or UK (I paid TBH 59,900 and got a Nikon Worldwide warranty) and the lens was readily available from my favoured supplier.

I used the lens whilst on holiday in Colorado, and below I share my thoughts and some images taken so far:

In the hand
Physically the lens really is a revelation!  When I hold my D7100 up to take a photo with this lens attached it is so small and so light that it seems impossible that I'm holding a 300mm prime lens.  Long gone are the days when I might need to consider whether or not I want to carry the camera with me whilst out birding all day because of the weight on my shoulder.  For me, this is the most obvious improvement and advantage of this lens as I spend most of my birding hours walking around stinking hot parkland in the middle of Bangkok where the idea of lugging a big camera is a non-starter!

I'm a bit reticent about the body of the lens being made of plastic rather than metal, but I guess this is one way in which weight has been saved and only the test of time will prove if this was a sensible move on the part of Nikon.  That said, the plastic appears to be high quality.

The autofocus seems to be an improvement on the previous lens.  It is faster, more accurate and quieter. There is notably less hunting, even when the subject bird is distant and only covered by a single focus point. The M/A setting on the lens ensures that you have full time manual override available.

Cliff Swallow, 21 point dynamic AF-C, cropped & sharpened

Kildeer, 21 point dynamic AF-C, cropped & sharpened

Vibration Reduction 
This is the first lens that I have owned which has VR, so it is hard for me to make any useful comment compared with other image-stabilised lenses. However  the VR seems to be very solid (Nikon claims four and a half stops of stabiliastion) and has two modes a "normal" and  "sport", the latter being recommended for birds in flight (and seems to work very well for this purpose).  How useful the VR system proves to be in poorly lit rainforest remains to be seen. There has apparently been a problem with the VR system on some Nikon cameras (such as the D810) but I have not experienced any problem on my D7100, and I understand Nikon have a firmware update that eliminates this problem.

Image quality
This is a prime lens with a nano crystal coating, so it should come as no surprise that it allows pretty tight crops whilst maintaining image quality. I have  not been able to test side-by-side with my old lens but my feeling is that I have more ability to crop as a result of better resolution.  I have not attempted any micro-adjustment of the lens, which may or may not improve the resolution. The bokeh seems to be nice and creamy - just like its predecessor.

These were some of the first shots with the 300mm PF

these tigers where at a rescue centre, allowing close-up work

this California Gull is quite a tight crop, but image quality seems reasonable.

Effects of using a 1.4 teleconverter
I am using this lens with Nikon's Mk II 1.4x TC.  So far the AF seems to be unaffected and the image quality seems to be unaffected.  On the old lens I found that the lens felt a lot heavier when carried on my shoulder, probably because the heavy objective lens was further from my body.  This is definitely not a problem with the new lens because it is so light and short.  In fact I picked the camera and lens up a couple of days ago thinking that it did not have the TC on but only later realised that it was in fact on the camera as well.

above and below: 300mm PF with 1.4 TC

Overall I can say that so far I am well-pleased with this lens.  Its incredibly small size and light weight make it ideal as a travel lens, or for anybody who doesn't want to lug a massive camera lens around all day.  I guess its closest rival for attention from birders could be said to be Canon's 400mm f5.6 - a lens with a well established pedigree which I was told a few months ago is expected to be updated (presumably with image stabilisation) towards the end of 2015.  I wonder if Canon will do the sensible thing and put diffracted optics in it?

I have not yet tested the 300mm PF on my Nikon V1, but will do so in the next week or so, and I will post my thoughts on how well they work together.

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Burmese border babblers

Working in Mae Sot the last couple of days allowed me to get out to the fields between the airport and Mae Tao village this morning for an hour.  The main highlight was encountering both Chestnut-capped and and Yellow-eyed babblers (a single of the former, and about five of the latter) as well as at least three Red avadavats, two Bright-headed cisticolas, a Blck-winged kite and flock of 15+ Little Bee-eaters.