Monday, 14 February 2011

Amazing optics

My eye caught a movement in the semi-darkness. I could just make out in the dusk that something had landed at the base of a bush, halfway up the cliffside. As I lifted the binoculars to my eyes, my assumption was immediately confirmed. Thanks to an image brighter than my own eyesight and with the magnification offered, I had found the bird that we had been waiting for. Although well past sunset, its shape and cryptic plumage was readily visible. Straightaway I called out "Eagle Owl" and the rest of the group followed my directions to find it. Normally when one considers binoculars for very low-light conditions one looks for as low a magnification as possible, generally seven times (7x). However, the binoculars I was handling were 12x. Now if you ask most experienced birdwatchers what they think of 12x binoculars, hands raise in horror at memories of massive pieces of equipment, barely possible to raise to one's eyes, let alone keep steady, purchased by ill-advised novices who believe that size matters. That would have been my knee-jerk response too. Well, here I was, lucky enough to be taking part in the international launch of Swarovski's new generation of Swarovision binoculars, the amazing EL50 range. For three days some of the world's most influential birders were given the chance to test these new top-quality optics in the field, including the world's two top raptor identification experts: Dick Forsman from Finland and William Clark from the USA, the co-founder of the British Birdfair Tim Appleton and the founder of the World Series of Birding, Peter Dunne. My good friend Godfried Schreur, a guide like me based in Extremadura, and I were responsible for taking the group (see Godfried's photo attached) to a range of different habitats, offering opportunities to test the new binoculars under varying conditions, with a particular (but not exclusive) focus on birds of prey. The birds did not let us down....the white-leading edge of the wing of Spanish Imperial Eagle gleaming in the sun, thousands of Pintail, Shoveler and Common Crane, a hunting Merlin, the spring's first Garganey, both species of sandgrouse feeding in a field, Great Bustards flying low over our heads, a Great Spotted Cuckoo that simply got closer and closer, three Golden Eagles soaring together over the village of Monroy, Lesser Kestrels in glorious evening light in Trujillo.

As for the EL50 binoculars, well simply extraordinary: both the 10x and 12x surpassed our expectations. I could not believe that I was using 12x optics, they were as steady as my own pair of 10 x 42, with an image quality that was truly remarkable...Swarovski have achieved the impossible, again!

Thursday, 3 February 2011

Unashamedly anthropomorphic

Sometimes it is impossible to resist being anthropomorphic...describing animal behaviour in terms of human attitudes and motives. Two incidents last week on the same day, at the same place (indeed minutes of each other) prompted such a lapse! I was with a group of four people, David and Kath from the north of England and Liz and Brian from Wales and we were at the wonderful Portilla del Tiétar viewpoint in the Monfragüe National Park. It is the sort of place where one can easily spend hours, just waiting for birds to arrive, enjoying the magnificent scenery and other wildlife. Angel Tear's Narcissus was coming out into flower near where we stood and an Eagle Owl sat incubating her eggs. We spotted an Otter swimming to a rocky bay with a catfish in its mouth and watched as it clambered up onto a rock to eat it. Then it swam out again to catch another. This caught the attention of a Grey Heron which flew in to stand beside the bay. The Otter returned to the bay and ate its fish whilst the heron watched. Out it swam again. This time the heron was ready for it. As the Otter returned with yet another fish the heron positioned itself at the spot where the Otter was coming up. The heron got ready, crest raised. The Otter appeared, fish in mouth, and took one look at the heron as it to say "look what I've got!", It then deliberately turned its back to the heron and sat there eating its could imagine the heron scowling. Off the Otter went again and soon returned with another fish. This time the heron was more aggressive and stood above the Otter lunging at it with its long bill. The Otter, fish in mouth, stayed in the water, popping up and down as the heron lunged "you can't get me!". The fishy commotion attracted another piscivore as a Kingfisher arrived and sat on a twig surveying the Otter and heron from above. All three were in the same field of view of the telescope...a chamber of horrors if one was a fish!

As we were enjoying this scene a Raven called and approached the cliff above us. I love Ravens..they have real personality and this one certainly had attitude! It landed barking at a Griffon Vulture, standing several times bigger than the Raven. The cheeky chappy Raven looked up at the vulture and the vulture peered down at the Raven. The Raven shifted from one foot to another, looking at the vulture and calling as if to say "Who are you looking at? Want to do something about it?" It was easy to imagine the huge Griffon Vulture sighing as it looked down.."you and whose army?"