Birdchick – Castle Birding

A White Stork with a nest on a church in Trujillo photographed with Swarovski ATX 65mm scope, iPhone 7 and PhoneSkope adapter.

When birders get together and talk about their favorite places to go see birds you usually hear Costa Rica, Panama, Ecuador…but me? I like Europe. Don’t get me wrong, going south of the Equator has lots to offer but if you sometimes travel with a non-birding spouse who isn’t a huge fan of the outdoors, Europe can be a great compromise. And as cool as it is to be on top of a volcano after a five hour hike up uncountable switchbacks in high humidity to glimpse a guan or warbler, there’s something to be said about wandering centuries old streets where you can stop for a quick coffee and pastry watching Eurasian Kestrels and listening to the haunting song of a European Blackbird echo off of city walls. And all towns are full of rich history to add flavor to stories learned long ago in history classes.

The luck of the draw with some of my work commitments has put me in Europe twice this year. Some of my time was spent in Austria and some of it was in the fabulous Extremadura area of Spain.

While you’re birding around Hohenbregenz Castle make sure to take in the view of the town and Lake Constance. You might see some kites or buzzards.

Austria offers alpine birding as well as some great shorebird and marsh opportunities. I spent some time in Innsbruck and then headed over to Lake Constance. After we finished our meetings, the man who organized the trip knew that a few of us were birders and there was one particular European specialty we really wanted: a Wallcreeper! When you get into birding, you will scan field guides for birds you’d like to learn about and see. Some birds just pop out at you and you know in your gut you need to see one before you die. In American field guides these would be Indigo Buntings, Rose-breasted Grosbeak, Lazuli Bunting, Scarlet Tanager—you get the picture.

Check out those flashy pink wings of the Wallcreeper on Hohenbregenz Castle

In European field guides, it’s the Wallcreeper. Imagine a sleek looking nuthatch covered in silver with bright pink wings that likes to crawl up and down the sides of castles. I’ve tried for it more than once and every time failed. This time, our organizer knew a local bird guide who had a solid lead on a Wallcreeper spending the winter on a castle in Bregenz.

So on my final day in Austria, we found ourselves heading to Hohenbregenz Castle to look for the elusive bird. It took some time, but the Wallcreeper was found and put on quite a show on the castle walls. It started up high while foraging for insects and then worked it’s way down where we were all able to digiscope it. I even got some video and posted it to Facebook Live because really, there’s nothing quite like trolling your friends who are stuck in an office while you are watching one of the birds of your dream. Here’s a video of the Wallcreeper:

About a month later, I spent some time birding in Extremadura in central Spain. Most people think birding involves being up at 4am and trudging out all day. Things are much more relaxed in Spain. We would have a lovely breakfast and then head out to Monfragüe National Park to climb up to a castle to watch Griffon Vultures soar by.

After a leisurely hike up a mountain, you can rest at Monfragüe Castle and watch Griffon and Black Vultures rise up with the thermals. There’s also a coffee stand nearby to keep you alert for photos.

Griffon Vulture nest.

It’s not a bad uphill climb and you can take your time to see other species like European Serin and Great Tits as you go. Once at the top you get a gorgeous view of the landscape and vultures and there is a little coffee cart ready to caffeinate you while you take vulture photos in perfect sun. The birds show up late morning because they need the sun to warm up the ground to create warm currents of air they can soar on to get their large bodies floating high in the sky, on the look out for carrion. As a bonus perk, there’s a tiny cafe where you purchase snacks, coffee and a beer to fortify yourself as you spend the day photographing the birds and gorgeous landscape around you. There are plenty of other areas to explore in and it’s a great opportunity to view Spanish Imperial Eagle and find Griffon Vultures on nests.

Towards the end of my trip we spent time in Trujillo. The fortified castle in that town is supposed to be part of the set in an upcoming episode of Game of Thrones. When you’re at the top, you can see so much of the untouched countryside. The town dates back to 600 B.C. and includes stunning residents built by Spanish Conquistadors using their newfound wealth after returning from their colonization quests. We were on a history tour and I brought along my spotting scope and PhoneSkope kit. Every time I take along my kit and a guide says, “You won’t need that,” my response is, “I always regret when I don’t have my digiscoping set up, never when I do have it.”

Besides birds, you can use your scope to study the art and architecture of the buildings.

And even if birds aren’t part of the official agenda, I like to use the scope to focus in on architectural details. Sometimes you find great scary faces carved in homes or in some cases a sneaky restoration professional will incorporate their favorite football team’s logo. But time in towns with a scope might also allow me a chance to get a great shot of a bird that is very common for a person who lives there but new and special for me. For years I’ve wanted a photo of a stork nest but the birding trips I’m on rarely get me to where they are nesting in good light. And as luck would have it, as we were walking around Trujillo we found a beautiful stork nest from the castle walls and I was able to get photos and video.

Don’t forget that while you are birding in a city, there are plenty of ways to celebrate from coffees, cheeses or beers.

Celebrating European life birds with a beer from Budvar, the original and more flavorful Budweiser made in the Czech Republic.

The Birdchick – Digiscoping Tips for Beginners

Digiscoping Tips
Sharon Stiteler

One of the big complaints I hear from people about digiscoping is how awful their photos look. My first question is always, “How many photos have you taken?”

“Oh, maybe sixteen or twenty,” is the usual answer.

That’s not nearly enough. For every great photo you see online or in print, there are anywhere from 20 to 500 terrible photos that came before it. As a matter of fact, the more bad photos you take, the closer you are to being a pro!

As easy as digiscoping with a smartphone can be, there are some tried and true photography tips that come into play and those tips are what lead to the fantastic photos you see on Digiscoping Gurus or Worldwide Digiscopers pages on Facebook.

Practice, Practice, Practice

Take a day and take as many craptastic photos as you can. It’s very easy to delete them, but use that time to see what works and what does not. Find a bird feeder either in your yard, a friend’s yard or nature center. Pour yourself a cup of coffee or soda and just allow yourself a few hours of time to get to know your setup.

Figure out which feeder gets the most activity, aim your kit at that feeder and practice focusing. Even if a bird isn’t there, just focus on the feeder and take a few shots. As you focus on the feeder, inevitably a bird will fly in and you’ll mostly be in focus at that point.

Bird feeders are a great way to practice using your equipment. As you watch the birds move, you’ll notice that some like the White-necked Jacobin may perch on a nearby branch while not feeding you can try to get “natural” shots. Photo by The Birdchick.

If you want to try and get shots of birds that come to the feeder but don’t want the feeder in the shot, consider placing branches nearby. The birds will often sit on those branches before coming into the feeder and if you aim your setup at that you can get some “natural” looking shots.

Keep Sun In Mind

On an overcast day you don’t have to worry about sun angle so much. But when it’s out, it can affect your shots. Many photographers like the golden hour of just after sunrise or just before sunset when the birds are in a lovely golden light that brings out their colors. The harsh glare of the noon day sun can really wipe out colors and bring on heat shimmer that will make it impossible to get a sharp photo.

When the sun is out, try to keep it behind you so you are using its brightness to light up the bird. Keep this in mind when you’re looking for places to digiscope birds. This can save you a lot of time in the field when you’re planning on going out. Photography blinds at lakes and wetlands can be fun, but they’re useless to you if the sun is facing the blind when you go. A very handy app for planning your outing and thinking about sun is the The Photographer’s Ephemeris available for both iPhone and Android.

If you are setting up feeders in your yard so you can digiscope birds, try to keep sun angle in mind to make getting shots easier.

Get Closer To The Bird

The advantage of using a spotting scope and smart phone to take pictures of birds is that you can give the bird a comfortable distance. However, that doesn’t mean that eagle nest that is two miles away is going to be a great picture. Yes, you can see it in the scope and depending on the quality of your scope have a great view, but a warm day will give you lots of heat shimmer making a tack sharp photo impossible. The closer you get to your subject, the less atmosphere you will have to deal with while taking the photo.

Here’s a series of photos showing you the difference in quality from distant bird shots to those that are much closer.


This is an ok shot of a Turkey Vulture that was very far away. To get better photos, try to get closer with scaring the bird and get it in a more colorful background than the sky. Photo by The Birdchick.


Note the Turkey Vulture is on the ground with grasses and daisies behind it. This colorful background enhances the colors of the vulture’s head and feathers. Photo by The Birdchick.


This is the same turkey vulture but a little closer. I waited until the bird was preening its feathers and took twenty steps closer and got a head shot. I dared no closer, vultures vomit in self defense. Photo by The Birdchick.


PhoneSkoping the endangered Kirtland’s Warbler

Kirtland’s Warbler is on the top of every birder’s most wanted list. It is federally endangered and breeds locally in young Jack Pine forests in Wisconsin and Michigan. Fortunately, my friend, Craig Miller, had a chance to visit a breeding location last week and coincidentally, he purchased a Phone Skope adapter right before he left! Craig was able to see and digiscope at least one Kirtland’s Warbler in Michigan! Here’s one of his favorite shots:

Kirtland's Warbler in Michigan. Digiscoped with a Samsung Galaxy S3 + Swarovski ATX Spotting Scope & Phone Skope Adapter. Photo by Craig Miller - used with permission.

Kirtland’s Warbler in Michigan. Digiscoped with a Samsung Galaxy S3 + Swarovski ATX Spotting Scope & Phone Skope Adapter. Photo by Craig Miller – used with permission.

Find out more about the Kirtland’s Warbler at this link.