Bird Talk with Photographer Mike McDowell

Mike McDowell uses digiscoping to get intimate shots of Wisconsin birds.

Migratory Birds

See some of the unique birds found in Wisconsin.

By Cate Harrington

Photographer Mike McDowell gets up close and personal with Wisconsin birds using a method called digiscoping to take some of the most intimate birds photos you’ll ever see.

For more than five years, Mike has generously donated use of his bird images to The Nature Conservancy. He recently took a little time to talk with the Conservancy about birding, digiscoping and bird conservation.


How did you get interested in birds?

Mike McDowell:

It all started at Pheasant Branch Conservancy, near my home in Middleton, in the late 1980s. I used to go there to read or play my guitar. One day, I saw a little black, orange and white bird and wondered what it was. I bought a field guide and a cheap pair of binoculars and began watching birds during my visits to Pheasant Branch. I was hooked! I later learned the little bird that sparked my curiosity was an American redstart.


Did the bird photography come later?

Mike McDowell:

Yes. I started out taking photos of stars and other objects in space through a telescope. Then I discovered digiscoping on the Web in 2002, which involves taking photos with a digital camera through a bird spotting scope. I use a Nikon camera and a Swarovski spotting scope. This method gives you a 1,000 mm focal length, which is great for those close-up shots, but you need to shoot in bright light.


How did you get involved with The Nature Conservancy?

Mike McDowell:

The Conservancy has some great preserves for birding, including Baxter’s Hollow and Spring Green Prairie in Sauk County. I’d been birding at Conservancy preserves for awhile before I noticed their logo on a sign. I was curious and looked them up on the Web. My first thought was: Wow, this is a group that really resonates with my ideas about nature. They use the dollars that people contribute to buy land, which is what the birds need. So, when the Conservancy asked me to donate the use of my dickcissel photo for a new sign they were putting up at Thomson Prairie Preserve in Iowa County, I was happy to do it.


Why is it important to support conservation groups like The Nature Conservancy?

Mike McDowell:

Ornithologists aren’t the only ones seeing fewer and fewer birds each year. Veteran birders who participate in the Christmas bird count and other bird surveys are also seeing declines. Some of them reminisce about the old days when entire lakeshores would be dripping with warblers during migration. If we want to protect our remaining bird species, we need to help groups like the Conservancy protect their habitat.


What’s the coolest birding moment you’ve ever experienced?

Mike McDowell:

I was birding with friends one day when we noticed a male black-throated blue warbler bouncing up and down on a twig. At first we thought it might be snagged on the twig somehow. On closer inspection through our binoculars, however, we discovered that the warbler was bouncing up and down on the twig to reach a spider web above its head. It was systematically clipping the web with its beak until it was able to reel it in and eat the cache of insects caught in the web by a spider. It was one of the best bird moments of my life!


How can people see your photography and learn more about digiscoping?

Mike McDowell:

I have a Web site that includes a gallery of my photos and information about digiscoping. I also have a blog on the site where I share bird news, especially during migration. Another resource is Yahoo’s digiscopingbirds Web site.


Any tips for beginning bird photographers?

Mike McDowell:

It helps to practice on backyard birds at feeders. Be patient, don’t frighten the birds and practice, practice, practice!

Cate Harrington is a senior conservation writer for The Nature Conservancy.


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