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First Shots – Canon 90D

A new toy! My primary camera body for 6+ years now has been a Canon 70D. It’s been a great camera, but…it’s time for an upgrade. I’ve been waiting (not so patiently!!!) for either a Canon 90D or 7D Mark III to be announced, as I wanted an upgrade, but wanted to stay with APS-C and the crop factor (handy when birds are your primary target). It was the 90D that was announced a few weeks ago. It started shipping Thursday, and I got mine from B&H the next day (awesome service as always, B&H).

I was anxious to give the camera a whirl this weekend, and was able to get out for a little bit this morning. As always, I had birds on my mind, but with a very strong south wind and generally non-cooperative birds, I set my sights on other quarry. Just a few photos below if you’re interested in the 90D and what it can do. All were taken with the Canon 100-400mm II lens.

Before the pics, just a few notes on my impression of the 90D. In terms of the nuts and bolts of the body, it has a very similar layout and will feel familiar to any Canon 70D shooter. While both have the same rubbery-coating in key areas of the grip, the rest of the body on the 70D is smoother and feels more “metallic”. The 90D surface has a consistency that feels like powder-coated metal is and is more matte in appearance than shiny. I appreciate the joystick on the 90D, and the fully articulating screen is great. The screen swings out, but also rotates. You can position it with the screen locked and facing back towards the shooter, as if it were a 70D. It’s nice for taking a shot and quickly reviewing (again, as you would with a 70D). When you’re done for the day, you can rotate the screen so it’s “face-down” towards the camera, protecting it when not in use.

There’s little doubt auto-focus is better on the 90D. I was frustrated quite a bit trying to shoot birds in flight with my 70D, in that it often had trouble “holding on” to a target. In my limited shooting this morning, it seemed MUCH better. There were a number of Franklin’s Gulls flying over, and I tried locking onto a bird and shooting, and it did a good job maintaining focus as I tracked the bird in flight (using AI Servo mode).

Note I also did a bit of shooting with an old 1.4x Canon teleconverter I have. I think the newer Canon teleconverters have more capability than the 15-year old teleconverter I have(?). But even with my old 1.4, the 90D will autofocus with an (effective) f/8 lens, meaning I was able to use it with my EF 100-400mm IS II USM and maintain autofocus with the center point. That’s a capability the 70D doesn’t have (although the 80D does). There’s no doubt the images when using the 1.4x were a touch softer than those without, but I’ll have to do more testing to check the capabilities with the 1.4x.

10-frames a second on the 90D…damn. I usually don’t shoot in that mode, as it just means I’d typically end up having to filter through even more shots to settle on my “keepers”, but it’s a nice option and a big upgrade over the 70D.

Of course one big improvement is resolution, where I’m going from 20 MP in the 70D to 32.5 MP in the 90D. A lot of pixels, and a lot of detail. For a guy who shoots primarily birds and often has to crop, those extra pixels are most welcome.

A few shots from this morning are below. Note I am NOT a pixel-peeper who is going to analyze every single element here, nor am I really one to give you a rigorous test. No, what follows are basic shots from the camera, shot RAW, and processed through Canon’s Digital Photo Professional with default settings to produce the JPEGs below. Each are the full-res versions (click to see full-res file). Just a few for now, including some at low ISO and one at quite high ISO. My first subject for the day…a farm cat that was hunting in a grassy field! In all the years I’ve been shooting, that this is probably the first cat photo I’ve ever taken!

CLICK ON THE 800pixel version below to load the original full-res images

Canon 90D, EF100-400mm f/4.5-4.5L IS II USM, 1/320 sec, f/9, ISO 200
Canon 90D, EF100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS II USM, 1/8000 sec, f/9, ISO 8000
I wanted to take something at high ISO. Not exactly the world’s best test of high ISO, in such bright light, but I was pleased with the performance at ISO 8000. Note this again is default settings convert from Camera RAW, and the default is more aggressive at noise control at ISO 8000 than for the ISO200 shot above.
Canon 90D, EF100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS II USM, 1/200 sec, f/9, ISO 200
Canon 90D, EF100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS II USM, 1/320, f/8, ISO 200

Birding Nirvana – Canopy Rainforest Treehouses, Tarzali, Australia

I’m feeling a bit overwhelmed right now with the sheer volume of photos I took while in Australia, finding time to process them all, and then deciding what outlets (social media, blog, website) to publish them all. I’m still…weeks…from having all the photos themselves processed, but before I get too much further along I wanted to take the time to provide a review and summary of the place I thought was the highlight of our trip, hands down…the “Canopy Rainforest Treehouses” (or just Canopy Treehouses) near Tarzali, Australia.

In planning our trip, we knew we wanted to spend time in multiple locations, to experience some of the variety Australia has to offer. The Cairns/Port Douglas area in the northeastern part of the country was one area we targeted, given the unique opportunity for access to both tropical rainforest habitat, and the Great Barrier Reef. While researching that area, I also read about the adjacent Atherton Tablelands and some of the birding opportunities it offered. That’s when I stumbled across the website for the Canopy Treehouses, and we made the booking.

We stayed in four different locations during our 3-week vacation, but the Canopy Treehouses just stood out in terms of uniqueness, and for me, opportunities to view and photograph birds and wildlife. And this is despite the weather being rather miserable while we were there. We stayed three nights in the Treehouses, and the weather for that entire time was marked by cloudy, cool conditions (for them), with a steady drizzle and somewhat foggy conditions. Not great weather for getting out and hiking the trails in the area (including on the property of the Treehouses), but we quickly found we didn’t HAVE to leave the Treehouse itself to have some wonderful experiences.

Rather than bore you with a verbose description of our adventures at the Canopy Treehouses, here’s a summary of the accommodations and wildlife we encountered, told through photos of the area. Click for larger views for some of the photos below.

Canopy Treehouses near Tarzali, Australia - Inside overview
A panoramic of the interior of the main floor of the treehouse. Obviously distorted with the pano-shot from my iPhone, but it gives a good impression of the primary space. This isn’t just a simple treehouse! It’s VERY well appointed and comfortable, with gorgeous construction, hardwood floors, and all the amenities you could want. The main floor view here shows the living space and kitchen and view out onto the deck. What it doesn’t show is the main floor bedroom, and bathroom with a wonderful shower and sauna. You may tell your friends you stayed in a treehouse, and give them the impression you were “roughing it”, but this is more comfortable and lush than the vast majority of accommodations you come across.
Canopy Treehouses near Tarzali, Australia - Deck/outside overview
Another (distorted) iPhone panoramic, this time of that wonderful, incredible covered deck. We were there three days. I would have been VERY happy to simply sit on this deck for those entire three days. Most of the experiences you can have on the grounds of the Canopy Treehouses can be had right from this wonderful space! It’s completely covered, and despite the constant rain when we were there, it stayed mostly dry and comfortable, with the only wet part of the deck along the very outer edge. The deck serves as entry to the Treehouse, with the entire structure built on very large pilings, and stairs leading up to the deck and house entry. It has a table and chairs for you to use to enjoy the views of the surrounding rainforest (and river, just out of view here), as well as a gas grill for your use. There’s a full-sized washer and dryer below the main house in the parking area, very handy for travelers like us who had been on the road for 3 weeks. And despite being in the northeast “tropical” zone of Australia…this is at somewhat higher elevation on the Tablelands, and gets quite cool! A wood-burning fireplace and ample wood are provided…very nice for not only keeping warm at night, but for taking away that damp edge to the air and accommodations that simply unavoidable when you’re staying in the rainforest! There’s one more thing you might note from this photo if you zoom up…the deck has a number of birds on it. Which leads to my favorite part of the Treehouses…the wildlife.
Australian King-parrot (Alisterus scapularis)
Ah, the wildlife…where to begin!?!?! Let’s start with your most colorful visitors…the Australian King-parrots that will VERY quickly discover whether 1) the treehouse is occupied, and 2) if the occupants are offering fruit and seeds! The host is a wildlife lover (an understatement!) and does his best to enhance your experience. This includes providing fruit (bananas) and bird seed to attract birds to your treehouse. Birds started showing up immediately after we filled the tray feeder with seeds and banana slices, and that included flocks of big, bold, colorful, and absolutely delightful Australian King-parrots (Alisterus scapularis). This is a male perched in the foliage just off the deck. After my trip, I’ve been posting many photos on social media, and many folks told me they have a hard time getting close to this species. Not here! Not only will they come to the deck, they will SIT ON YOUR SHOULDER…your arms, your head…wherever they can, and gently accept seeds and other foods right from your hand. In the rain and somewhat dark conditions when we were there, these guys were just an incredible contrast of color and vibrancy.
Australian King-parrot (Alisterus scapularis)
Have your camera ready when you head on the deck, because you’ll get some of the closest wildlife encounters that you’ll ever have! Just be sure to have your camera in hand, as ANYTHING on the deck may be fair game as a perch for the Australian King-parrots and other critters. Here’s a quick iPhone shot…necessary when a parrot decides to use your main camera as a perch!!
Australian King-parrot (Alisterus scapularis)
Sorry, I can’t resist…one more Australian King-parrot. Extreme close up! Easy to do when the birds come right up to you, and in many cases, use you as a perch! For bird photograph you typically need a long lens in order to have a bird “fill the frame” of the photo. Not here!
Victoria's Riflebird (male) - Ptiloris victoriae
As a birder, even a birder from South Dakota in the United States, I was well aware of the famed courting displays of Riflebirds. I never thought I’d get such incredible close looks at one! Victoria’s Riflebirds were one of the most common visitors to our Treehouse, as they absolutely LOVED eating bits of banana that we offered. They were a touch more shy than the parrots…but JUST a touch. They wouldn’t use you as a perch, for example, but they WOULD let you get within a few feet, and on a few occasions, would take banana slices directly from my hand. Here’s a GORGEOUS male, showing some of those gorgeous colors. There were a couple of occasions when I witnessed some half-hearted courtship type displays, but I didn’t get any great captures of that behavior.
Macleay's Honeyeater (Xanthotis macleayanus)
Besides the parrots and riflebirds, honeyeaters were the most common visitors to the deck, with multiple species visiting. The most fun were Macleay’s Honeyeaters. They weren’t quite as bold as the parrots, but they weren’t shy! They too loved bits of banana, and would happily take offerings directly from your hand. It’s impossible for me to show all the birds we encountered here, but I can’t go any further without showing the highlight (next photos)
Southern Cassowary (Casuarius casuarius)
THIS IS A WILD SOUTHERN CASSOWARY!! Taken from the stairs of our treehouse!! If there were ONE bird species I wanted to see while in Australia, it was a Cassowary. We were fortunate in that we had two great encounters with Cassowary while visiting Daintree National Park prior to our stay at the Canopy Treehouses, but that can’t compare with the intimate views you can have here. Male Cassowaries raise the chicks, and the same male has brought back many broods over the years to this area to raise. When we were there, two “chicks” from the previous years were onsite, while the big male was out presumably nesting again (likely to return soon with the next batch). The two “chicks” though had the full adult plumage and were MASSIVE birds, although I think we were told they still were only 2/3rds of the size they’ll eventually be. Each of our three days, the cassowary pair visited the area around our Treehouse. What were they doing there? See the following photo:
Southern Cassowary (Casuarius casuarius)
How does a Cassowary drink? VERY CAREFULLY! This seemed to be why they liked to visit our treehouse area. They didn’t seem to be foraging for food, but every day they DID come to this small puddle at the base of one of the treehouse pilings, and use it to drink. The routine was the same each day. They’d have to sit their massive bodies down, extend their necks into the puddle, load up with as much water as possible, and then raise their heads and tilt it back to drink. SO much fun watching, and we could (safely!) observe this behavior from incredibly close range, on the stairs of our deck. Where else are you going to get such an intimate view of a living dinosaur? What a thrill, and a highlight of our entire trip. It wasn’t all about feathered critters though. What was that we heard going bump in the night??? Next photo…
Coppery Brushtail Possum (Trichosurus johnstonii)
From the descriptions of the Canopy Treehouses, we knew we were likely to have Coppery Brushtail Possums visit our deck each night. We weren’t disappointed! They’ve become accustomed to being fed!! And they absolutely LOOOOOOVE bananas (as well as cleaning up our bird feeder each night for the seeds). We had between 2 and 5 visit us each night…for the most part putting up with each other, but occasionally getting into a short tussle. They were as tame as the King Parrots, and if you let them, they would GLADLY sit on your lap while you fed them bananas. I admit we didn’t quite feel comfortable doing that, but I DID offer them bananas which they happily accepted directly from my hand. It was actually pretty sweet the way one small one would take each paw and hold onto my fingers while it gently consumed the banana slice. Wild critters, so always beware, but having these guys feed from my hand is something I will always remember.
Red-legged Pademelon (Thylogale stigmatica) and Australian Brushturkey (Thylogale stigmatica)
So many critters, so little time to post! One critter the hosts were clearly fond of were the Red-legged Pademelons, little Kangaroo/wallaby like creatures. I love the Wikipedia description of the species, saying they are “found in the rainforest but are rarely seen”. Well phooey to that…you WILL see them here! They were a bit shy, but you could often see them along the edges of the clearing below our deck, and at night in particular, there would always be one or two hanging around. Here’s one hanging out with another VERY common visitor to the Treehouses…an Australian Brush-Turkey. We were told the Brushturkeys would eat you out of house and home if you let them, consuming all your bird seed and food you put out in short order. They definitely weren’t shy, and would walk up the stairs onto the deck and eat everything in sight, if you let them!
Australian King-parrot (Alisterus scapularis)
I’ll leave this review where I started…with a photo of Australian King-parrots, lined up on the deck rail after I distributed a bit of seed so they weren’t all fighting over the same bird feeder. In case you can’t tell, I was just a wee bit fond of our stay at the Canopy Treehouses. If you’re a wildlife lover and are visiting the area…STAY HERE! It’s an unforgettable experience.

Avengers Endgame – Spoiler free review on the most important bird-related theme

A Common Loon, which evidently not only lives on Earth, but also on…whatever planet bad guy Thanos retired to after the end of the previous Avengers movie, Infinity War. Would “EndGame” show proper respect to the use of bird vocalizations in a movie?

What a great night from an entertainment perspective! My son and I went to see Avengers Endgame this evening. After 10 years or so and 22 movies, we were pretty invested in the storylines and characters, and the movie certainly delivered! Without giving anything away, it hit all the right notes and is definitely one of the best of the lot. That was followed by watching the newest episode of Game of Thrones. Wow…another satisfying and highly entertaining show.

But there’s one elephant in the room that I’m sure is on EVERYONE’s mind regarding the Marvel movies and the Avengers storyline. It all goes back to “Infinity War”. At the end of that movie, big baddie Thanos snaps his fingers, and BOOM, half of all sentient beings in the universe turn to dust…including many of our favorite Marvel characters. Thanos then retreats to an idyllic planet to “retire”.

The problem that was on EVERYONE’s mind after watching Infinity War…the audio that accompanied Thanos and his retirement. As the scene goes to this strange planet, what sound are we greeted with in the background? THE HAUNTING CRIES OF A COMMON LOON!!!! Now, Hollywood certainly is guilty of using the vocalizations of a few species in movies, particularly Common Loons, Red-tailed Hawks, and Kookaburra. But a Common Loon…ON AN ALIEN PLANET!?!? That was a new low.

When we got to the theater tonight, the lot was by FAR more full than I’d ever seen it. We got there 50 minutes early and still stood in a massive line to wait for our screen to open. While waiting, we overheard a theater working noting that the day before, they had 4,901 tickets sold, a record for one day. ONE THEATER, in a city of 180,000, and they had almost 5,000 people visit for this movie! And what was on EVERYBODY’S mind? That’s right…Was Marvel going to have a major bird-related faux pas again?!?!? So as the movie got going and we caught up with our favorite (surviving) characters, I, like everyone else in the theater, had my ears tuned to the sound track. Would we have a similar ridiculous audio misstep?

It was relatively early in the movie where I heard, yes…THE CALL OF A COMMON LOON!! AGAIN!!! But alas, THIS time Marvel got it right!! It was a stage in the movie where we visited Tony Stark and a home on a lake. It looked like what might be typical northern woods surrounding the lake, and yes, this was on Earth. A PERFECTLY normal place to potentially have a loon call!

WELL DONE MARVEL!! I hereby brand “Endgame” to be a total success, and at the end of the movie, everybody was clapping, which I’m SURE was also related to the proper use of a Loon call!

Wingspan! Great board game for birders, and board game enthusiasts

Wingspan Game - Review

We had a very nice relaxing day with the family at home today for Easter. A delicious meal of cheesy shrimp risotto, some coconut cream pie, and a day of games. Today was the day we broke out the new “Wingspan” game! The game has gotten incredible reviews and quickly sold out the first few printings. When I saw a new printing becoming available, I ordered right away.

I’m glad I did! The game is a 4-round strategy game, where you’re stockpiling birds on your “network of wildlife preserves”. There are 170 different birds, with cards for each detailing that species food needs, nesting capacity, habitat needs and “special abilities”. It’s a turn-based game, where a player chooses whether to:

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  • Gather food from the “feeder”, making sure to select food items that support the bird species in your preserves (if that food is available). The different categories of available food include “invertebrates”, “seeds”, “fish”, “fruit”, and “rodent”.
  • Select new bird cards, providing additional species options for placement in your preserves
  • Place a bird in your preserve, making sure that you have the proper food to support that bird. Birds require anywhere from 1 to 3 food resources, and you must have those food items in your possession to be able to place the bird.
  • Having an individual species in your preserve lay eggs
  • Carrying out any actions. Some species provide rewards as the game proceeds, depending upon the action the player takes that round.

The game itself is deceptively simple once you understand the rules. Your choices don’t go far beyond the options outlined above, but once you play it you realize the need for strategy right from the start. For example, the game is played in four rounds. Each round has a specific scoring goal. For example, Round 1 may focus on providing points to players who place the most wetland habitat birds in their preserve. Round 2 may focus on cavity-nesting birds that lay the most eggs. The priority for each round is chosen at the start of the game, so long-term strategy comes into play. You want to maximize your points for the current round, but if you don’t also set yourself up for scoring priorities in future rounds, you’ll likely do poorly.

By the end of the game, scoring is tallied as followed:

  • Individual round scoring. During each individual round (4 rounds total), you are ranked against your competitors. In the first round example given above, for example, the player who had the most birds in their preserve who used wetland habitats would have gotten the most points for that round. More points are awarded in later rounds than in the first round, so the fourth-round 1st place scorer gets more points than the first-round 1st place scorer.
  • Points from birds in your preserve. Different birds are worth different scores. For example, I placed a Bald Eagle in my preserve, which was worth a very healthy 9 points (the highest point total for a bird, I believe). Point values for each species are partially related to how difficult it is to place that bird in the preserve. For example, to be able to place that Bald Eagle in my preserve, I had to stock up on 2 fish resources and 1 rodent resource before I could place him on the board. Other, lower-point birds are easier to place, with some birds that are only worth two points only requiring one food resource for placement on the board.
  • Eggs – Players receive one point for every egg on their final board.
  • “Bonus” cards – During the game, each player collects unique bonus cards. Bonus cards include titles such as “photographer”, “prairie manager”, “wetland scientist”, “backyard birder”, and much more. Each card rewards points at the end of the game based on certain characteristics of the birds in your aviary. For example, there are four types of nests birds build in the game: 1) platform nests, 2) bowl nests, 3) cavity nests, and 4) ground nests. My bonus card provided +4 points for having four different birds who build platform nests in my preserve.
  • Food on bird cards – Some bird species “cache” food on their cards. For example, the American Kestrel can collect rodents! If you can use it during a turn, it can collect one or more rodent tokens that are placed on the species card. Each cached food item counts as a point for the final scoring.
  • Tucked” cards – Some birds can form flocks! For example, the American White Pelican can effectively form a flock, with other bird cards tucked behind the pelican card in your preserve. Each bird in a flock counts as a point.

After four rounds, you add up the final scores using the 6-category scoring system. From what I’m seeing online, final scores for a winner are typically between 65-85 points.

At first it’s a bit confusing, but once we watched this short YouTube video on the rules of the game, it really is quite straightforward. Straightforward, but rather elegant! While the rules themselves may be straightforward, there’s definitely quite a bit of strategy involved! In the first game we played, the winner ended up with 65 points…on the low end of a winning score from what I’ve read. But now that we understand the rules and the strategy more, I’m sure our next game will be higher scoring.

Great game! It’s also very well put together. Materials are solid, and the artwork on the cards is absolutely beautiful. I love the “bird feeder”, a device you construct that allows you to roll dice that represent foods available in the feeder. A few times I caught myself just looking through the cards, as it’s fun not only to look at the beautiful artwork, but to see the special attributes and abilities the gamemakers assigned to each species. A really enjoyable game, and I can see a lot of replay value, given that each game’s goals and birds will be different.

Highly recommended, if you can get a copy! And hey, if my non-birding teenage son can get a kick out of it and ask to play again tomorrow, it’s a great indication that the audience for this game goes far behind just birders!

Wingspan Game - Closeup
A closeup of the game. Note the eggs on the gameboard here…did you know the Yellow-headed Blackbird laid such shiny eggs? Well, it WAS Easter Sunday! We did happen to have some candy “glimmer eggs” laying around! So we augmented the game with candy eggs, and some liberal rules about when a player could raid a nest and eat those eggs. ūüôā

Buying camera equipment? Cost concious? AVOID ABE’S OF “MAINE”

Canon 100-400mm L IS ii

My dream lens I tried to order from Abe’s of “Maine”. Note that not only is the same “Abe’s” of > 10 years ago (they went bankrupt), but the people who bought the company operate it out of New Jersey. They still retain the name “Abe’s of Maine” though…but that behavior is consistent with what’s evidently their entire business model, where all they do is lie and deceive.

I’ve been in a photographic funk. You can probably tell that by the lack of blog posts.¬† Part of the reason is the weather, as it’s been one hellaciously brutal winter. Not great for birds, or bird photography!¬† But part of it is that I just need something…new. Something to jump start the passion.

One thing we’re doing this summer will DEFINITELY jump start that passion…3 weeks in Australia!¬† We’re flying into Sydney and spending time there, but also have time near Coffs Harbor, Brisbane, and Port Douglas. The last is the most exciting to me, as we’ll be adjacent to both the Great Barrier Reef, and Daintree Forest, the only place on the planet where two World Heritage sites are adjacent to each other!¬† It’s going to be the trip of a lifetime for our little family who hasn’t been outside of the US, other than Canada. And from a birding standpoint, it should be spectacular.

To prepare for that trip, I wanted to get a new lens. Literally 99% of all photos of my website have been taken with the same lens…a Canon 400mm 5.6L.¬† It’s a wonderfully sharp lens! I’ve had it over 15 years and it’s served me VERY well.¬† But it has limitations. As a prime, I miss out on other wildlife situations when I’m out shooting, as it’s too long sometimes for bigger critters.¬† It also is one of the older Canon “L” professional lenses, and lacks Image Stabilization. For a relatively slow 5.6L max aperature and a lack of IS, you really need good light to have a great shot at sharp photos.

Before heading to Australia, I thus wanted to buy a Canon 100-400mm L IS ii lens. The 2nd version of this lens gets truly incredibly reviews, and with the broad zoom range and a wonderfully reviewed IS, it meets my needs. It’s a lot for me to spend though, with most places charging $2049. I was thus really excited when I saw one place offering it for an amazing $600 less than that!¬† I knew it was likely ‘grey market’ (imported directly, not eligible for a Canon warranty), but at that price, it would have been worth it.

The seller was Abe’s of Maine. I’d never used them, but I’d heard of them over the years. Note though it’s been many years since I’ve bought new equipment, so I didn’t know that in the last decade they’ve 1) gone bankrupt, and 2) had a new owner operate the name out of New Jersey. A new owner with a truly god-awful reputation.

I can attest that reputation is WELL deserved!¬† After I excitedly placed the order Sunday, today (Monday) I started getting phone calls and emails. “Ted” from Abe’s left a message, stating that he needed to confirm my order.¬† When I had time, I called. At first he was nice. At first. That didn’t last long. He asked about my equipment, then explained that the lens I ordered wasn’t the “retail version”, and didn’t include:

  1. Lens caps (!!!)
  2. Hood
  3. Case
  4. Tripod foot/shoe
  5. Tripod Collar

The last one was REALLY a shocker to me, because on this lens…THE TRIPOD COLLAR IS INTEGRATED INTO THE LENS AND ISN’T REMOVABLE!!! I audibly LAUGHED when he told me the last one and called BS on him.¬† He got very defensive and assured me that all of these items simply aren’t included with the lens, but for $1999 (A mere $550 above the website price!!) he could give me the lens with these “extras”.

Again, I called BS on him and asked if he was going to honor the offer online. He started going off again about the “retail” version, and I said CANCEL MY ORDER!! and hung up on good ol’ Ted.

And immediately I got a call (which I didn’t answer). Then another.¬† Then two emails.¬† In one email he said I hung up too early, and that he thinks he could offer the “retail version” for $1799.¬† There was NO way I was going to deal with this company after the bait-and-switch, so I emailed back three simple words.¬† CANCEL MY ORDER.¬† A little later I got another email. No, the order hadn’t been cancelled yet!¬† No, now suddenly he could offer it at $1699.¬† So again, I replied, this time stating CANCEL…THE DAMN…ORDER.

Awhile later, I did finally get an email that they cancelled the order. But this whole episode went on for the better part of a day. After that first call, I started reading the horror stories about Abe’s. One “feature” of their business is that they evidently often charge a 15% “restocking fee”, and not only for returned items, but sometimes for items that were cancelled before shipping!! When I read that, somewhere in between his 4th and 5th attempt to call me and his 4th email attempt, I called my credit card company and CANCELLED that card, ordering a new one. I was NOT going to give this crappy company a chance to charge ANY sort of fee, particularly not this bogus restocking fee.

I’m 52 years old. I should have known it was too good to be true, but I couldn’t resist that price. There are PLENTY of bad reviews for the “new” Abe’s…take them to heart. Also note they clearly spam the review sites with their own, perfect reviews…don’t believe it.¬† As one reviewer noted, Abe’s is the ONLY place he knows of where “if you buy a TV, they’ll charge you, then call you back and ask if you want to pay extra for the remote“.

Here’s another warning:

https://www.cpricewatch.com/blog/2014/05/warning-avoid-abes-of-maine-and-other-bait-switch-retailers/#comment-36400

 

 

Small minds, and POOF, a S.Dakota science institution is gone

South Dakota State University - Geospatial Sciences Center of ExcellenceSmall minds, insular thinking.¬† It’s an infection that’s spread across the United States in the last several years, and one victim of the “disease” is the death of one of the most successful science programs of its kind in the entire world.

In 2016, Barry Dunn became president of South Dakota State University. One thing he did when arriving was review the state of the “Geospatial Sciences Center of Excellence” (GSCE)…a truly WORLD-renown science center established in 2005 to develop and apply remote sensing and other geospatial data for research and education purposes. Some of the biggest names in the field were lured to South Dakota State.¬† In the last 13 years, Mike Wimberly…Matt Hansen…David Roy…Geoffrey Hennebry…Mark Cochrane…all were key parts of GSCE and its development.¬† Over the last 13 years, they’ve had a massive impact on the field, applying remote sensing data and analysis techniques to applications that include understanding disease vectors and risks of West Nile virus…helping to establish and use the next generation of satellite sensors…mapping fire extent and severity…mapping changes in our ever-declining grassland ecosystems…and many, many more.

Students from all over the world moved to South Dakota, of all places, to work with such a wonderful collection of researchers.  The research impact has been enormous.  The reputation is sterling.  The senior scientists at GSCE brought in huge amounts of external research dollars. It has been, by all logical measures, a raging success.

It’s now decimated. During his review process, Barry Dunn in his infinite wisdom decreed SDSU GSCE wasn’t of any benefit to South Dakota, partially because 1) it didn’t do all its work IN South Dakota, and 2) it didn’t have enough South Dakota students. So, they cut $1 million in core funding. They effectively gave the research leads a 25% pay cut.¬† The result of the drop of support?¬† For the next semester that starts in a few weeks, literally NONE of the GSCE Senior Scientists will remain.¬† That’s right…ALL have decided enough is enough, and all are moving on to greener pastures. A science center like no other, one South Dakota could put up against ANY similar science center in the world…and it’s gone belly up, thanks to new “leadership” at South Dakota State.

Small minds, insular thinking…what the hell has happened in this country? Doing work that’s WORLD-renown and applied in all continents is deemed a NEGATIVE, because they didn’t do all their work in South Dakota? Too many foreign students is a “problem”?¬† It’s a problem that’s certainly not limited to SDSU, GSCE, or South Dakota.¬† To me it all falls under the same kind of anti-intellectualism, anti-“expert”, anti-SCIENCE paradigm that seems to have infected America.

A South Dakota institution is gone after far too short a time, all thanks to tiny little minds with a lack of vision and appreciation for the bigger picture.

Free at least! GOODBYE, StartLogic…

Statistics on Domains Served - StartLogic

From webhostinggeeks.com, a graph of how many domains StartLogic has served over the years. I think I sense a slight downward trend!! Given my recent interactions with them, you can now also add my site to this declining trend. GOODBYE, StartLogic.

HOLY.¬† COW. I’ve had my main website, sdakotabirds.com, for nearly 20 years now. It’s a massive, sprawling, out-of-control website with literally thousands of photographs, and hundreds of pages of information on birds of the United States.¬† It’s been a labor of love over the years as I slowly add to it, but I’m not exactly a web programming wizard.¬† I still rely on some basic, simple tools to make my website (primarily Microsoft’s Expression Web, so old it’s now freeware), and over the years have struggled to keep up with new web standards.¬† But despite my lack of technical expertise and lack of any direct “help” on my website, I’ve managed to maintain my site in good working order.

Over the 20 years, I’ve only had two web hosting providers. The first was “Tripod”, back in the days when things were quite a bit a bit simpler.¬† I don’t remember the exact reason I switched from Tripod, but know I had outgrown what they were providing, and I wasn’t happy with the technical support.¬† For someone like me with no real training in website or blog development, I NEED that technical support!¬† So about 12 years, I switched to StartLogic.

For many years, StartLogic was…OK. That’s about as high a compliment as I can give them, because I’ve always had occasional issues with their support of my website.¬† Over the last few years, that “support” has become worse and worse.¬† Three or so years ago, someone somehow hacked into my website, and inserted a ton of malicious code that was forwarding my traffic to seedy locations, particularly from my blog.¬† StartLogic couldn’t have been LESS helpful during that time, to the point that the only way they said I could “save” my site was to permanently delete much of the content!! In the end, I ended up deleting my blog and starting fresh with the new blog you see here.But I stayed with StartLogic, as the technical challenges of changing hosts was more than I wanted to tackle.

Things just went downhill from there.¬† Issues with my website were incredibly difficult to resolve through StartLogic. Online tech support was weak or non-existent, and often DAYS would pass between communications attempting to resolve problems.¬† This past week was the last straw.¬† Over the past 8 years or so, I’ve used a specific piece of software to “crawl” my site and automatically generate a sitemap. That sitemap helps Google and other search engines to map and index my site.¬† I’ve always used the same piece of software, and hadn’t run into any problems, until this past week.¬† I updated a number of pages on my website last week, and wanted to re-run the sitemap generator to get a fresh sitemap.¬† The sitemap generator ran for about half an hour, pinging pages on my website as it generated the sitemap. It finished, and I uploaded the fresh sitemap to my online site.

And then the fun began!¬† Within minutes I got an email from StartLogic, notifying me that they had shut down my site!¬† They cited “resource abuse”, noting I was on a shared server, and that “abnormally heavy traffic” on my site resulted in some automatic bot flagging my site as “abusing” those shared resources.¬† StartLogic told me to inform them when the problem was corrected, and that they’d then review my site and consider restoring access.

I knew this wasn’t going to be easy, given the horrible support offered by StartLogic over the last several years. I responded in their online support “ticket”, telling them that the “problem” was undoubtedly the sitemap crawler I had just run.¬† I told them I’d run the crawler countless times in the past without any issue, but begrudgingly ALSO told them that in the interests of avoiding such a site shutdown in the future, I would stop using that sitemap crawler.

I waited. StartLogic responded a day later, saying they were temporarily restoring website access while they reviewed the case.  Indeed, for one day, things seemed back to normal. But less than a day later, when trying to access my own website from my home computer, it showed the site was down.  I tried different browsers. I tried logging on from my desktop, laptop, my iPhone, and my iPad, to no avail. I could not access my site from my home WiFi and IP address. I COULD, however, access my website from my work computer.  Clearly StartLogic had blocked access TO MY OWN SITE from MY OWN IP ADDRESS.

I again went to their online help.¬† FOUR TIMES over the course of a week, I initiated an online chat with a “help” representative.¬† The “help” is in quotations, because StartLogic’s online support had been degrading for years to anything OTHER than real support. I explained the situation to the online chat support.¬† Four different times, I explained the sitemap crawler, and that in the interests of avoiding future issues, that I would no longer use it. Four different times, the FUCKING CLUELESS StartLogic “support” said they’d forward my issues to…whatever higher-up authority that could actually do something about it.

Meanwhile, DAYS had passed where I could not access my OWN FUCKING WEBSITE from MY OWN COMPUTER. In addition to initiating online chats four times, I updated the online “support ticket” several times.¬† Finally, two days ago, I received an email. It simply said that StartLogic had flagged my IP address as a “security risk”. They said that once something had been flagged, they had no mechanism to remove the block of that IP address.¬† Their “solution” they proposed?

They laughingly told me the only way I’d ever be able to see my OWN SITE from my OWN HOME HARDWARE would be if I went to my internet service provider, and had THEM change my home IP address!!¬† In other words, instead of simply removing the IP block on THEIR end, something THEY initiated in response to a “problem” i said would never happen again, they washed their hands of the issue.¬† One more interaction with them on a chat, and they said sorry, they just cannot remove any security block once it had taken effect.

GOOD…FUCKING…BYE, StartLogic!!¬† Given my lack of technical expertise, I dreaded moving to another hosting provider, but enough is enough.¬† With just a bit of online research as to a reputable and reliable hosting provider, I purchased the services of InMotionhosting.¬† I was prepared for a struggle in trying to move my site over to InMotion, and was particularly apprehensive that it wouldn’t be possible to transfer my blog (and long blog history) over to the new provider.¬† However, I was easily able to figure out how to transfer most of my site, and for a very small fee, InMotionHosting very quickly (less than a day) backed up my blog databases from StartLogic and successfully transferred them to the new host.

A hosting provider that actually provided wonderful, FAST, and efficient service!! After struggling with StartLogic for so long, I had no idea such service was even possible!¬† I’m now happy to say ALL content from StartLogic has been successfully transported to the new host. The main website content, the blog, and even security components like SSL and the like….all transferred quickly and painlessly, and the site is working just as it should.¬† And may I say, much FASTER than it ever performed when hosted by StartLogic.

In a rather funny conclusion to the story…despite StartLogic saying that security policy made it impossible to unblock my home IP address…within HALF AN HOUR after going out to their online support one last time and basically telling them (more nicely than they deserved!) that I was DROPPING their wretched service….they suddenly unblocked my home IP address!¬† Followed up with a pathetic email stating the issue had been “resolved”!!

Given my level of “dissatisfaction” (to put it kindly) with StartLogic, I’ve also taken the opportunity to provide reviews of their services to several online web-hosting review sites.¬† One of those, webhostinggeeks.com, provide a summary of recent reviews, and also provided a graph of how many domains StartLogic has serviced over the years. Not surprisingly, the number of websites using StartLogic has been declining for years.¬† If by chance you’re reading this and happen to still be using their services…stop. Just stop. You can do better…

And my first NON-endorsement…Avoid PrairieSons Inc.

PrairieSons Inc.

Evidently we’re all going to “suffer” and the “worst is yet to come”. This is the cheery message received from the local PrairieSons company when I got the (ridiculously high) bill for looking at our furnace. But hey, at least they’re helpful about it, pointing to a website where I can “Repent”…or Perish. ¬†Click for a larger view. DO IT…CLICK AND READ IT!! ¬†OR PERISH!!! ¬†ūüôā

Just two days ago in my last post, I gave my first ever endorsement for a product or service of any kind. ¬†Two days later…I’m giving my first “un-endorsement”. ¬†What a historic week!!!

We went to Lincoln, Nebraska to visit family and celebrate Christmas, the weekend before actual Christmas. ¬†We got back to our home late that Sunday, December 18th, and it was 48 degrees in the house! ¬†The furnace had stopped working at some point that weekend. ¬†Knowing it was a Sunday and nobody was likely to come out, we looked in the phone book and thought we’d try somebody new (for us)…”PrairieSons Inc.” in Brandon. ¬†They said they’d be out the next day. We turned the fireplace on, kept reasonably warm through the night, and waited for them to come the next day. ¬†They arrived, and couldn’t find anything physically wrong with the furnace. ¬†They hit a reset switch (the “roll out switch, that ¬†had tripped), the furnace was running, and they said to just keep an eye on it.

6 days later, we wake up on Christmas Eve morning (Saturday) and it’s not working. ¬†We call. They’re working that day, so they come out, and again, find nothing wrong after doing a diagnostic. ¬†Again, the roll-out switch was flipped, and it runs again. ¬†The guy basically said “it happens”, but didn’t recommend changing out the roll-out switch or anything, so there wasn’t anything new installed, nothing replaced. I got the bill today. ¬†Here’s everything the bill “description” said. The bill didn’t even refer to 2 visits, just the one visit on the 19th:

  • Customer called with no heat
  • Found the roll-out switch had tripped. ¬†Fire unit and it started up and shut down correctly. ¬†Checked intake to exhaust for any obstructions. Found none. ¬†Checked temp rise and filter.

For that…$270, plus $17.55 in taxes.

It’s a rip off. ¬†It’s a ridiculous fee for a very small amount of labor. ¬†I would NEVER use this business again, just for that reason. ¬†But to make it worse, when we got the bill a few weeks later? A small card with a rambling message on the back. ¬†It turns out PrairieSons Inc. has a very religious owner, by the looks of the enclosed card (photo of it shown above). ¬†It’s quite the ramble, moving from topic to topic! ¬†It all ends with a cheery “Godly people are basically guaranteed to suffer” and “The worst is yet to come”.

CHEERY!  Thanks for the sermon, PrairieSons Inc.!  Not that I asked for it.

I contacted the owner and complained about the bill, saying it was a rather ridiculous fee for providing no parts, and simply hitting a reset switch. I also complained about getting a religious message with my bill.  The response?

I am sure there is more to the work we did than hit a reset for the fee that was assessed Terry. I will have Bruce in our office look this up Monday for more clarification and get back to you. In regards to the Bible tract, we send that out with the bill to every new customer. We are sorry you took offense to it. That is a staple of who we are and what we stand for. It may not fit you and that is fine. Everyone will stand before him on the last day and need to make an account of their own life. That is a decision that only you can answer.

Uh…NO, PrairieSons, what I told you was 100% accurate. ¬†You came out, found nothing wrong, reset the “roll out switch” to flip it back on, and…that’s it. ¬†Two times, yes, and if you charge $270 for less than an hour’s worth of work? I guess that’s your prerogative. It’s also my prerogative to complain about your ridiculously high prices.

As for getting ANOTHER sermon, after I complained about the first one? ¬†TERRIFIC customer service, PrairieSons! ¬†What is your business model? ¬†To TRY to piss off your customers? ¬†That’s what it seems like. ¬†Telling your customers they’re basically going to hell isn’t the type of message you typically expect to hear when you’re getting home appliances repaired!

Quick perusal online and I see others have complained about PrairieSons, both in terms of getting ripped off, and in terms of the religious messages. ¬†Save yourself the bother. ¬†Is your furnace out? Air conditioner out? ¬†Live in the Brandon/Sioux Falls area? There are PLENTY of repair places in the area, so unless you skipped church and REALLY, REALLY want a sermon along with your repair…pass on PrairieSons and go with another company.

My first ever endorsement of, well…anything

Scleral Contact Lens

A cross-section that demonstrates the idea of a scleral contact lens. The edge of the lens rests on the sclera, the white of your eye, while the lens “vaults” over the cornea and maintains a thin liquid bath against your cornea. For a dry eye sufferer? It’s heaven-sent.

I had a visit to¬†my ophthalmologist this morning…not exactly earth-shattering news for most people. ¬†Even for me it’s been almost a year since I last visited the eye doctor. The reason today’s visit was notable is because of the contrast of where I was one year ago compared to today.¬† With Sjogren’s Syndrome, I have incredibly dry eyes. ¬†It goes well beyond simple irritation and the need to periodically use eye drops. ¬†The discomfort is often unbearable, but even worse, the dryness impacts my vision. I have about half an hour after waking in the morning before I start to see double. ¬†I can’t see well enough to participate in my hobbies of photography and drawing, but even worse, I can’t read or work on a computer. ¬†Sjogren’s Syndrome and my dry eyes were strongly impacting my ability to do my job, or participate in what makes life “fun” for me.

A little over a year ago, I started working with a local ophthalmologist. My experience is documented in this very long blog post from last October, and I won’t repeat the entire story here. My eye doctor fit me with scleral contact lenses, a special class of “hard”, gas permeable contact lenses. ¬†They are larger than normal contacts, “vaulting” over the cornea with the edges resting on the whites of your eye. ¬†That vault is designed to provide a tiny gap between your cornea and the lens itself. ¬†When you put the scleral contact lenses in, you look straight down into a mirror, hold the contacts upside down, and fill the bowl of the contact with saline solution. ¬†When the lens is placed in your eye, it effectively seals around the white of your eye, leaving a thin cushion of fluid between your eye and the lens.

As the October post details, it was a long process getting the lenses to fit. Given the extreme astigmatism I have and the odd shape of my eyes, my ophthalmologist said there’s little doubt I’ve been he’s most challenging case (in terms of fitting scleral lenses). ¬†And that’s aside from my Sjogren’s! Checking in a year later, it’s made me realize how much I’ve come to take the scleral lenses for granted. ¬†Perhaps it was just the passage of time and going back to the place I spent so much time a year ago. Perhaps it was having my scleral lenses out for an hour this morning while I was poked and prodded and tested (I am miserable¬†without them). ¬†No matter the reason, today I’m feeling incredibly grateful that at the very moment my happiness and well-being depended upon a solution to my¬†dry eyes, a company just happened to be introducing a new product that was a perfect solution for my difficult case.

I’ve never mentioned the company or the product itself on any social media. Given how it’s changed my life, and given the possibility that other people could potentially be helped, I do want give a shout out to company and product. ¬†The company itself is called “Art Optical“. ¬†They’ve been around since 1931, and have focused exclusively on contact lenses for the past 30 years. ¬†The product that I use is called “Ampleye“. ¬†It’s a product that allows for a lot of specialization…perfect for a guy like me with screwball, weirdly shaped eyes. A few tries with more traditional scleral lenses didn’t go well, while Ampleye was able to provide a good fit. ¬†I wore glasses for 43 years prior to trying scleral lenses, and was worried about comfort. However, once we obtained a proper fit, the contacts were so comfortable that I simply am not aware of their presence. ¬†Given how miserable I am without them, I wear them from dawn to dusk, with little issue. ¬†They do start to get a film on them over the course of the day, and sometimes in the late afternoon or early evening, I’ll take them out and give them a quick cleaning. ¬†Other than that, maintenance is simple, with traditional cleaning and storage as is done with other gas permeable lenses.

Other than the dry eye, my other major concern was my vision. ¬†With such extreme astigmatism, I’m functionally blind without correction. ¬†About 15 years ago, I tried traditional contact lenses, but they wouldn’t work. ¬†It was impossible to keep them in the correct rotation, and with such extreme astigmatism, a rotation of just a few degrees meant that my astigmatism wasn’t properly corrected, and I couldn’t see. ¬†With the Ampleye lenses, they fit “like a pringle chip” (my wonderful eye doctor’s term!). ¬†Because of their shape, they REALLY lock into position, and after I put them in in the morning, they don’t budge all day long. ¬†My horrible vision corrects to BETTER than 20/20, and I’m seeing with a sharpness I never got in wearing glasses for 43 years.

Why am I pushing this out on my blog? ¬†Ever since I started down this path, I’ve come across other people with Sjogren’s Syndrome, and people with dry eyes. ¬†Many have struggled to find relief. Eye drops, protective glasses, prescriptions to stimulate tear production…nothing has worked. ¬†I want to let people know that there IS a potential solution to their dry eyes. If they can find a solution for my dry, screwy eyes, they can help anyone!

One other issue that’s come up with people I’ve talked to is cost. ¬†First of all, note that I was VERY pleasantly surprised at the total cost. ¬†For me, given how many times I had to revisit to get a correct fit, the price was an incredible bargain. Secondly, don’t give up on insurance potentially covering some or all of the cost! ¬†For someone like me, Sjogren’s Syndrome is a disease, a disease with a systematic impact on the health of my eyes. ¬†Dry eye in general is a health issue. ¬†An issue of eye disease. ¬†As my ophthalmologist this morning stated, insurance companies are increasingly recognizing the benefits of scleral lenses and are covering costs. ¬†DON’T let a balky insurance company discourage you! ¬†Fight it!! ¬†And even should an insurance option fail, costs are quite reasonable for what I’ve found to be a incredibly durable, stable product. ¬†As weird as my eyes are and as expensive as it is for me to get regular glasses, the Ampleye costs weren’t substantially higher.

After one year, my ophthalmologist said I didn’t really even need new scleral lenses today. My prescription hasn’t changed, my eye health is good (thanks to these lenses), and other than a couple of tiny scratches that are imperceptible to me, my year-old¬†lenses are rock solid and good to go for quite a while longer! ¬†Today however I did go ahead and order another pair, not because of durability, but because 1) I’m completely sold on the product, and 2) I’m so dependent upon these lenses that I want 2 pairs on hand for “back up”.

Any dry eye sufferers out there who’d like more information, feel free to drop me a line! ¬†I’m NOT being paid or anything to endorse this product! ¬†There’s absolutely nothing I’m personally benefiting from by writing this blog post. I truly just want to share my story, let people know about this product, and let people know that help may be out there for you.

Trying to stump “Merlin”

Cassin's Sparrow - Peucaea cassinii

A Cassin’s Sparrow, a rather plain, non-descript sparrow found in parts of the southern Great Plains and Southwest. Merlin was able to easily ID all of the “little brown job” sparrow species I tried, including Cassin’s, Vesper’s, Rufous-winged, Rufous-crowned, Black-throated, Black-chinned, and other sparrow species.

I’ve been birding 15 years now, and there aren’t really many occasions any more where I’m stumped on a bird ID. ¬†The only occasions I have any difficulty are with species that are inherently damned hard to tell apart by sight, things like the Empidonax flycatchers or others where hearing a song/call or other audio clue might be needed to make a positive ID. I rarely ever even have a field guide with me when I’m out birding. ¬†I do love field guides in general, and they certainly were a godsend when I first started birding, I hate to say it, but they’re a bit obsolete now, when you can put the equivalent of every major field guide directly on your cell phone. ¬†I DO nearly always have my cell phone with me, and while I don’t use it much for visual ID issues in the field, it is handy for trying to figure out what call or song I heard.

I knew Cornell’s “Merlin” app has been out a little while, but hadn’t downloaded or tested it. ¬†Merlin is an app for IOS or Android that allows you to identify birds in two ways. ¬†If you see a bird but are stumped on an ID, you can enter the location, size, colors and other characteristics, etc., and Merlin will spit out the likely species. ¬†More intriguing to me is the photo ID option. ¬†You can simply choose any photo on your device, or take a photo, and have Merlin try to identify the species. ¬†The “Take a Photo” option isn’t very useful, as your iPhone or Android phone just aren’t going to be able to get good bird photos unless ¬†you’re at a feeder or other setting where birds are extremely close. However, I was intrigued by the option to identify the species from an existing photo, so I gave it a spin.

I have a huge number of bird photos, but most are on my desktop computer’s hard drives. The only ones I actually had on my phone were ones I processed on my iPad that got integrated with my photostream, from a trip to Arizona. ¬†Still, I did have photos from quite a few species. ¬†Some were quite clear and distinctive, photos that should be easy identifications. Others weren’t so clear, and I also had photos of several species that just aren’t that common in the U.S. How would Merlin do in identifying my Arizona bird photos?

Black-tailed Gnatcatcher - Polioptila melanura

OK, I probably wasn’t being fair to Merlin with this one, but I tried photos of a female Black-tailed Gnatcatcher. Both photos are of the same bird, but different angles and postures. For the first, Merlin mis-identified it as a Blue-gray Gnatcatcher, without giving the option of Black-tailed, even when I told it the photo location. The second photo it handled without problem, likely because in that photo, you can see the distinctive darker coloring on the underside of the tail. Even there though…Merlin was impressive! The tail underside is shaded and not all that distinguishable, but Merlin handled it.

In short…pretty damned good! ¬†It took me a while before I was able to stump Merlin. ¬†I started with some easier ID’s. I had been to Madera Canyon south of Tucson, and had a number of hummingbird species at the feeders there. ¬†Merlin easily handled all the male hummingbird photos, and to my surprise, did a good job on identifying female and immature hummingbirds as well. ¬†I was fortunate to see and get decent, but not great, photos of an Elegant Trogon in Florida Canyon. ¬†Merlin handled the rarity without issue (OK, that one SHOULD be easy to identify!!). ¬†Lawrence’s Goldfinch, partially obscured by a weed? ¬†No problem, although it did give me “alternative” answers other than the primary choice of Lawrence’s Goldfinch. ¬†Multiple different sparrow species with sometimes not so obvious plumage differences? ¬†No problem. ¬†Birds in flight? ¬†Did just fine on White-tailed Kites, a Gyrfalcon flight shot I happened to have on my phone, and other flight shots. ¬†I quickly went through about 35¬†species, and Merlin handled them all flawlessly (although like the Lawrence’s Goldfinch example, there were a some cases where “alternative” ID’s were provided in addition to the primary ID).

I was thinking Merlin was infallible! ¬†It is awfully good, but it has trouble with some of the same species I might have trouble with in an ID. ¬†I tried two photos of a Black-tailed Gnatcatcher, one of which was at an angle that was “unfair”, in that you really couldn’t see the tail characteristics that might distinguish it from a Blue-gray Gnatcatcher. ¬†It missed the ID in that photo, but was able to correctly ID the same bird in a photo from a different angle. ¬†Another it had trouble with is one that I myself would definitely have trouble identifying. ¬†I had a photo of a Gray Flycatcher¬†(one of those nasty, hard to ID Empidonax flycatchers), and Merlin whiffed. It was a clear photo, and I even entered the photo location, but that was the one case where Merlin didn’t find a single “match”.

Merlin is a really nice piece of software, and it’s an app I’ll keep on my phone. ¬†In the real world though…it’s an app that’s going to be most useful to new or casual birders. ¬†For an experienced birder, Merlin is going to have the same identification troubles that we may have. Feed it a bad photo, or a photo of species that are just difficult to visually identify, and Merlin will struggle just as a birder might struggle. There’s also the issue of actually getting a photo to the app to be identified. ¬†As I said previously, people just aren’t likely to take good, identifiable bird photos with their cell phones, so Merlin is likely most useful for photos taken on a DSLR or other camera body. ¬†For me and my Canon 70D, it’s always an adventure trying to get photos transferred from my camera body to my iPad or iPhone, with a wireless app that is balky even on its best days. ¬†For that reason alone, even if I were a beginning birder, Merlin might be less useful to me (through no fault of Merlin itself). ¬†Merlin also might be less useful for rarities, as it seems to cover most native/common birds in the U.S. and Canada, but misses some of the rarer or exotic ones.

Overall though, very cool piece of software, and one that I do wish I had when I had started birding 15+ years ago.

 

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