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 weather 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.

Autofocus
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


Summary
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.

Sunday, June 14, 2015

Panti Forest, 6-8th June

Myself and Richard White visited Panti Forest in Johor, Malaysia last weekend.

Our objective was simple: See a Rail-babbler!

Given that this was going to be a short trip, and that Rail-babbler has a reputation for being a hard-to-see skulker, we were realistic that our objective might be a bit ambitious, so as much as anything we considered this as a "recce" for future trips.

Logistics
I flew in to Singapore (where Richard lives) and we made the journey from the airport by bus to the border with Malaysia, crossing the border on bus number 170. Once on the Malaysian side of the border our bus dropped us at Johor Bahru bus station from where we took a taxi to the Avis car rental office. On reflection taking the bus across Singapore was probably rather a slow option (the MRT would probably be a faster option, getting off at Kranji station and taking a bus from there). The border itself was a bit of a headache as there were huge numbers of people crossing (it was a Saturday afternoon).

We collected our hire car (costing USD 100 for 48 hours) and then drove our hire car  directly to Panti. A map giving Panti's location can be found here. My flight landed in Singapore at 2pm and we arrived at Panti at about 5.30pm.

An alternative route might be to fly to Kuala Lumpur and then drive down to Panti (Googlemaps indicates drive time of 3 hours and 49 minutes). We did consider taking a hire car from Singapore's airport into Malaysia, but this seemed to be considerably more expensive than hiring in Malaysia itself.

We stayed at the Mayres Hotel in the town of Kota Tinggi (about 20km from Panti), booked through Agoda.com at a total cost of USD 66 for a twin room for two nights.

We were joined on Sunday by local birder Tan Win Sim ("Win") who's knowledge of the area was invaluable in helping us choose which trails to concentrate on.

Birding Panti Forest
Panti's famous "Bunker Trail" is marked by two large stone "bunkers" on either side of the road, with a signpost to "Panti Bird Sanctuary". All of our birding was done along the Bunker trail (a good quality dirt road, drivable in a normal car) and on several side trails going off the Bunker Trail.  The best seemed to a trail known as "Yellow" or "Temple", which was marked by a small yellow sign and ample parking at the trail head. This trail had quite a lot of bird activity and during our final hour's birding there on 8th June it rewarded us handsomely with a pair of Rail-babblers, a pair of Malaysian banded pittas and and a female Rufous-collared kingfisher with newly fledged chick!

We also spent both of the evenings we had at Panti doing some spotlighting, which was made worthwhile by connecting with a Leopard Cat and a fabulous Colugo (seen hanging from a tree, before gliding off into the night), plus we saw a pig spp and a civet spp.

Systematic list of birds:

Crested serpent eagle - one heard over forest

Changeable hawk eagle - one seen over road to Kota Tingii

White-bellied sea-eagle - one seen over road to Kota Tingii

Blue-crowned hanging-parrot - heard over Bunker trail multiple times

Drongo cuckoo - one newly fledged chick being fed by a a pair of Rufous-fronted babblers

Chestnut-bellied malkoha - seen two or three times

Chestnut-breasted malkoha - Seen twice on Bunker trail

Chestnut-breasted malkoha

Raffle's malkoha - two pairs seen

Malaysian eared-nightjar - one or two individuals heard calling over Bunker trail at dusk, with one seen distantly.  Another nightjar spp. seen eraly morning over oil palm plantation.

Silver-rumped spinetail - seen twice

Scarlet-rumped trogon - one pair and a single male seen

Scarlet-rumped Trogon

Red-naped trogon - one heard singing but not seen

Banded kingfisher - several heard but not seen

Rufous-collared kingfisher - adult female seen with newly fledged chick on the Temple Trail.

juv Rufous-collared Kingfisher

female Rufous-collared Kingfisher

Stork-billed kingfisher - one seen along the Bunker Trail

Red-bearded bee-eater - one seen along the Bunker Trail by RW

Red-crowned barbet - heard calling several times.  One individual seen well on the Temple Trail

Crimson-winged yellownape - one seen on the Temple Trail

Chequer-throated yellownape - pairs and small groups seen at least five times, seemingly the commonest woodpecker at Panti


Chequer-throated Yellownape

Banded yellownape - one sen on Bunker Trail

Grey-and-buff woodpecker - one seen on Bunker Trail

Rufous woodpecker - one pair seen on the Temple Trail

White-bellied woodpecker - one seen on the Bunker Trail, sharing a dead tree with a Banded Woodpecker

Buff-rumped woodpecker - one pair seen on Bunker Trail

Dusky broadbill - A pair seen on Bunker Trail and another heard (and ignored) on Temple Trail whilst we were closing in on Rail-babbler.

Banded broadbill - common by voice.  One seen on Elephant Trail

Malaysian banded pitta - one heard on Bunker Trail from the car. One pair seen in forest at the junction of Bunker and Temple Trails

Large woodshrike - one seen on Bunker Trail

Lesser cuckooshrike - one seen on Bunker Trail

Black-winged flycatcher-shrike - one seen on Bunker Trail

Scarlet minivet - two pairs seen on Bunker Trail

Asian glossy starling - large numbers roosting in the multi-story car park of our hotel in Kota Tinggi

Greater racquet-tailed drongo - seen several times

Black-naped oriole - one seen over oil palm plantations on the road to Singapore

Dark-throated oriole - seen three times on Bunker/Temple trails

Black-naped monarch - one seen by RW and Win on Bunker Trail

Green iora - two seen on Bunker Trail

Pacific swallow - large numbers roosting in the multi-story car park of our hotel in Kota Tinggi

Grey-bellied bulbul - one seen on Bunker Trail

Puff-backed bulbul - one seen on Temple Trail

Olive-winged bulbul - one seen on Bunker Trail

Cream-vented bulbul - regularly seen on Bunker Trail

Red-eyed bulbul - seen on Bunker Trail at least twice   

Spectacled bulbul - one seen by RW and Win on Bunker Trail

Yellow-bellied bulbul - regularly seen on Bunker Trail  

Hairy-backed bulbul - regularly seen on Bunker Trail

Rufous-fronted babbler - encountered twice.  Once a pair seen feeding a fledgeling Drongo Cuckoo.

Chestnut-winged babbler - encountered twice

Grey-headed babbler - one of these impressive babblers was seen on Bunker Trail

Black-capped babbler - encountered twice on Temple Trail and once on Elephant Trail

Short-tailed babbler - encountered once on a small side trail

Rail-babbler - heard in three different locations on 7th, but none seemingly close enough to follow (one attempt failed).  On 8th one heard singing at the start of Temple Trail, walking down the trail and using playback we eventually determined the best location to go off trail and try to pull the bird in.  About 50m off the trail we found a small rise where we decided to station ourselves and see if the bird would come in. Fairly quickly RW spotted it at about 15 metres range, walking along a log and giving us good, if rather brief views.  We saw it again at least twice, and on the second of these occasions I actually saw that there were two birds walking side-by-side across the forest floor.  We found the song to be difficult to interpret in terms of a) the distance between us and the bird - it was actually a lot closer than we had expected as the call is quite soft, and b) the difficulty in determining the direction from which the song was coming from - it seemed difficult to triangulate due to the monotone nature of the whistle.

Striped tit-babbler - seen several times in bird waves

Streaked wren-babbler - heard on the Bunker Trail

White-bellied erpornis - seen several times in bird waves

Common tailorbird - seen several times 

Rufous-tailed tailorbird - seen at least four times along Bunker Trail

Hill myna - one pair seen

Javan myna - seen in Kota Tinggi

Velvet-fronted nuthatch - one pair seen along Bunker Trail

Oriental magpie-robin - seen on the Bunker Trail

White-rumped shama -  several seen

Asian fairy-bluebird  - encountered at least three times

Lesser green leafbird - one seen by RW and Win

Blue-winged leafbird - seen in several bird waves

Crimson-breasted flowerpecker - encountered on at least three occasions

Crimson-breasted flowerpecker

Yellow-breasted flowerpecker - seemingly common

Orange-bellied flowerpecker - seemingly common

Ruby-cheeked sunbird - seen once by RW and Win

Purple-naped sunbird - seen twice

Red-throated sunbird - seen once

Spectacled spiderhunter - seen once by RW and Win

Grey-breasted spiderhunter - at least two seen in bird waves


Sunday, May 10, 2015

Five broadbills in five hours


Silver-breasted Broadbill

I spent this morning birding at Kaeng Krachan National Park, focusing on the "three streams" area  beyond Bang Krang camp. Being a weekend in the middle of nesting season this area was very very popular with bird phtographers, but I still managed to get away from the crowds to find my own birds.

As I dove through the National Park soon after first light I picked up three Blue-winged Pittas calling to one another, and stopped the car to attempt to get views. I saw one fly across the road but the other two were in dense cover and unwilling to show.  I had another B-w Pitta calling near the camp site.

Once at the three streams area I managed to see lots of great birds with little effort: Silver-breasted Broadbills were nesting out in the open, and I found a small flock made up of Silver-breasted and Long-tailed Broadbills associating with a male Orange-breasted Trogon!  This was soon followed by a party of Rusty-cheeked Hornbills putting on a show, then I had a large game bird (probably a female Kalij Pheasant) flush across the track, and a Bittern spp fly past me at Stream 3.

adult Rusty-cheeked Hornbill

juv Rusty-cheeked Hornbill

Walking back from Stream 3 I located a family party of Dusky Broadbills, and heard both Banded and Black-and yellow Broadbills singing. A quick stop at Stream 2 to join the throng treated me to brief by very nice views of an Oriental Dwarf Kingfisher bringing food to a nest.


Oriental Dwarf Kingfisher

Dusky Broadbill

White-handed Gibbon


Saturday, May 9, 2015

Friday 8th May - Final day of spring patchwork

Today really was the last chance for finding spring migrants in Suan Rot Fai.  I am birding elsewhere over the weekend and then busy all of next week, so by the time I get a chance to do the patch again it will be devoid of migrants.

This morning was, for the time of year typically hard work, with temperatures of 37 celcius by the time I finished at 8.30am and exceptional humidity. The only notables were the Indian Cuckoo seen a few days ago, a late Asian Brown Flycatcher and a Stork-billed Kingfisher. I also had poor views of a distant flycatcher, perching high in bar branches, which I suppose was a dark-sided, but there was no way to clinch the ID. About five Chinese Pond Herons were still hanging around - it will be interesting to see if any over summer as has happened in the last two years.

Tuesday, May 5, 2015

Pallas's Gropper

Today was a public holiday, so I determined that the first few hours of daylight would see me thrashing the patch in what might be the last gasp of spring migration birding.

Typically the number of migrants to be picked up this late was small, but it is always quality over quantity that counts this late in spring passage.  A look at lotus lake revealed no sign of either of the recent Indian Pond Herons - just a few Javans.

Once again the Ramble offered nothing - it seems that all of the trees in half of this area have died - they have no foliage on them and I suspect that some change in the water table has killed their root systems. The other half od the ramble is now filled with thick, damp scrub which should host some quality sculkers, but never seems to deliver.

Whilst walking towards "The Edge" I noted that an old bunker in the middle of a fairway (from the days when the park was a golf course) has now filled with a reasonable amount of cover.  It is an area I walk past regularly, but never bother looking at.  This morning however I took one look at it, and thought to myself - "If that was on Portland Bill, it would eventually host a White-throated Robin" ie. it's worth a quick check! No sooner had I got to the end of the bunker than I saw a brown passerine flick low across a gap in the vegetation.  I had no idea what it was - the view had been in my peripheral vision - but it "felt" interesting, and the word "locustella" immediately crossed my mind.  I sat down and waited...and nothing appeared.  If it was something unexceptional it would be Plain Prinia, and it would be out of that tiny patch of cover or would start calling, within couple of minutes.  The fact that nothing came out made me suspicious that what ever it was was an interesting skulker. After waiting a few more minutes of nothing I decided to use my Audubon bird call to squeak it out, and as soon as I stopped squeaking I saw a bird flick at the back of the bunker - it looked big, possibly Rubythroat-sized, and my mind momentarily considered that possibility before the bird broke cover  did a couple of panicked  mid-air circuits looking for an escape route.  I only saw it with the naked eye but it was clearly a large warbler with a rounded tail and some streaking - presumably a "PG Tips".  The bird headed away and I lost it against a line of trees, but I figured it would return to the same area if given some space, so I made a wide circuite of the trees where i had lost it, heading back to the bunker via two other small areas of cover just in case it had gone for those.  Once back at the bunker I picked up a soft tacking call and then the bird flew out again, this time giving better, more prolonged flight views through binoculars, confirming the ID as a Pallas's Grasshopper Warbler.

Further on I picked up two separate Dark-sided Flycatchers, a new Indian Cuckoo (the second, or possibly third of the spring), a group of approximately 10 Chinese Pond Herons (presumably north bound migrants) and an elusive Pale-legged/Sakhalin Leaf Warbler that refused to respond to playback.

Dark-sided Flycatcher - bird 1

Dark-sided Flycatcher - bird 2

Indian Cuckoo



Sunday, May 3, 2015

Indian Pond Heron(s?)

A visit to Suan Rot Fai yesterday produced a few migrants including single Dark-sided Flycatcher and Forest Wagtail, plus two Thick-billed Warblers.

Pride of place however went to an Indian Pond Heron which was present in the same place as the previous weekend's bird.  When reviewing photos in the field I had a suspicion that it may be a different individual even though it was feeding in exactly the same place, however initial examination of the images once I got home made me think that these was just one bird involved.   Now though, after spending a bit more time looking at the images I rather think that two birds are indeed involved.


2nd May
25th April
Allowing for the very different photographic conditions, lighting, distance from the bird and consequent quality of the images, there is a significant difference in the colour of the forewing. My initial thinking was that this was due simply to the position of the feathers, but perhaps it is actually due to the degree of growth of the scapulars? If so, I don't think the scapulars could grow so much in just one week, though I stand to be corrected...

2nd May - not grey at top of mantle
25th April - no grey at top of manlte

More interestingly perhaps, from the rear view I interpret that the 25th April bird is more advanced in attaining breeding plumage due to the lack of grey at the top of the mantle (Indian PH has a wholly maroon mantle in full breeding plumage).

Either way, securing these new images means that I have good quality shots of all three Pond Heron species from the patch, in breeding plumage:

Chinese Pond Heron

Javan Pond Heron

Javan Pond Heron
Indian Pond Heron
variant Javan, or possible hybrid...