January 23, 2014: In what is undoubtedly yet another sign of our advancing years, we’ve found ourselves becoming more interested in the wild creatures that frequent our yard, and by that we don’t mean the wayward neighborhood cats that treat the place as if it was their own little nature preserve. We are specifically talking about the flocks of birds that have been increasing in size and frequency during the past year, to the point where it is difficult not to notice their antics and want to better understand their behaviors.
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Perhaps the avian community has come to recognize Roni’s involvement with the Contra Costa Fish & Wildlife Committee and feels a sort of kinship with her — a desire to flock with others of a similar feather — or maybe (probably) it has to do with the fact that we dispense wild bird seed like a crack dealer providing free samples to his addicted customers. In either case, the birds seem to know they can find whatever it is they are looking for in our little yard, and as the normally cold weeks of winter have descended, the birdies regularly turn to us for food, water, shelter, and protection from predators.
Over time we have assembled a small collection of bird feeders in the area between Summer’s and Winter’s gardens, and whenever we fill ‘em up and turn on the water fountain, it’s like ringing the dinner bell. In a matter of minutes the crowd arrives, and all we have to do is kick back in our deck chairs or cozy up to the patio door to enjoy the show. Scrub jays, finches, sparrows, hummingbirds and others offer up endless entertainment — for our cats as well, who love to park themselves at the windows and chatter away as only cats can do in the presence of birds tantalizingly just out of their grasp. It was perhaps just a matter of time before our casual observations and frequent attempts to photograph the passing parade evolved into a desire for something more.
We had talked for several months about installing our own webcam that would give us the ability to not only get a closer peek at the action around the feeders, but also to take closeup photos without disturbing the easily spooked birds. Roni had been enjoying the streaming live cams that can commonly be found on the Internet nowadays and wanted one of our own. Glenn, being the gadget oriented person he is, had no problem with this. Besides, how hard could it be to attach a camera to the computer and send the signal out for any and all to enjoy? In a word, very.
Setting up a live webcam falls under the realm of home security equipment, which is a technical industry with a language all of its own. We quickly discovered that the ideal cameras — those that operate wirelessly and will allow users to pan, tilt and zoom (PTZ) — can cost upwards of $1,000 and in some cases have to be paired with other hardware or software that would easily push a little project like ours beyond the realm of affordability. The cheaper option, a computer store-variety web camera, would most likely have to be “tethered” to a computer via its cable and wouldn’t be suitable for outdoor use — or would it?
The webcam was at the top of Roni’s Christmas list, and Glenn checked into several systems before deciding it would require more research and settling for the old standby: an IOU note under the Christmas tree. But once the pressure of the holiday scramble to find the perfect gift was removed, we settled on our camera pretty quick: a Logitech C920 USB camera. We liked that it could shoot HD video and came recommended by other users. Most important, it is Macintosh compatible, and since we would have to plug it into Glenn’s big desktop machine to use it, that was a must.
The one huge disadvantage to our choice was the need to plug the camera into a USB port. Being that it only came with 6 feet of cable, that wasn’t going to get us outdoors into the feeder area by itself. No problem, we thought, we’ll just get a 50-foot extension cable and voila! This was before we learned that USB connections, by their nature, can’t be longer than 16 feet because anything longer than that results in signal loss. Fortunately a bit of poking around online produced a solution, and Glenn was able to order something called an “active repeater” extension cable that did the job perfectly. Now we could run a 56-foot cable between the computer and the camera. There was just one more little detail, which was how to get the cable from the computer indoors to the camera outdoors, and the only solution appeared to be drilling a 1-inch hole through our stucco wall.
Before racing out to the hardware store to invest in a masonry drill bit, Glenn came up with a less invasive workaround that involved routing the USB cable through the kitchen window and out to the garden alongside the house. It was a 12-foot detour that involved no new holes and left us with just enough cable to reach the feeder area. We were almost in business. We had purchased some items from the pet store to fashion an enclosure for the camera that would be cleverly disguised as a bird house. Roni got the idea from another birdcam she’d seen to put the camera on one end of a flat board and sprinkle the area with seed to attract the birds. That way we could better observe them as they perched along the board to eat. We fired up our EvoCam software, set the camera to take an image whenever it detected motion, and left it alone to do its thing.
The first few days our cam was in operation we couldn’t resist checking in on it every few minutes to report back on the latest photos. We moved its location several times before we were satisfied that it wasn’t facing the sun or getting shots of windblown plants instead of birds on the wing. It’s still a work in progress, but so far we’ve been impressed with the results. We’ve enjoyed seeing the comings and goings of the mourning doves, watching sparrows jockey for position on the feeders, and the occasional appearance of unexpected visitors. We’ve recently been discovered by a flock of about 20 blackbirds, and one Saturday the camera captured the arrival of a red-shouldered hawk as it came to land on the side yard fence. The Siamese cat that comes around most mornings has also been photographed as he waits — hopefully — for a distracted bird to pounce on.
But our favorite find so far has been the opossum that sneaks in nightly under cover of darkness to feast on our offering of peanuts, cranberries and dried fruit. We’d noticed after putting those treats out late one evening that they had all vanished well before the first birds arrived at dawn, so we decided to set up a light in the feeder area to allow the camera to take pictures throughout the night (it doesn’t have infrared capability, so it otherwise shuts down when it gets dark.) Around 1:30 a.m. we caught a great series of photos of the opossum crawling up onto the feeder board and wolfing down the cranberries before leaving. It returned a few hours later to finish off the peanuts that we had intended for the jays to eat.
Next up, we hope to figure out a way to stream the camera’s live signal online. There are some technical hurdles we’ll have to overcome to make that work, but in the meantime we’re having a ball anticipating what our Wandering Webcam will show us next.
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CAMERAS HAVE BEEN on our minds a lot this past year, as Roni has had more than her share of trouble with them. Over the summer she lost her compact Canon model to a fall she took in the rice field at Jersey Island. While the camera still worked, it was never quite the same after getting wet, so she replaced it in late August with a little Nikon Coolpix that took great photos and seemed to be all she wanted in a point-and-shoot. That is, it was until she suddenly began having problems focusing on things. At first she thought it had something to do with the battery, as changing it out with another battery seemed to clear up the issues for a time. But as the weeks went by the problem grew worse, until by the end of December she wasn’t able to focus on anything at all.
With the camera well past Best Buy’s return window, Roni called Nikon to find out about getting the camera replaced. She explained the problem and they told her it was probably caused by a bad memory card that had somehow damaged the camera. She would have to send it in to be assessed, so they gave her a return authorization number and instructions on how to mail it back. We didn’t believe that the memory card was the issue, but if it was then we had an issue with Best Buy, because they sold us the card with the camera as part of a package deal, so it was off to Best Buy to chat with their Geek Squad about the problem.
The Geek Squad guy we talked with had never heard of the memory card thing either, but he offered to handle the transaction with Nikon for us so that we wouldn’t have to deal with the hassle and expense of mailing the camera back. He said he would be curious to see what Nikon had to say about the repair. Turned out that Nikon had nothing to say about it, except that the problem wasn’t worth fixing. For that, Best Buy gave us a store credit for the original purchase price, and Roni decided to instead get a Canon PowerShot SX280HS. Not only did it have more features than the Nikon, but it was also cheaper by about $80. Seemed like a good trade.
We broke in the new camera the way we’ve done with so many cameras we’ve owned, by taking a walk out to the Big Break Regional Shoreline to grab photos of birds and the placid waters of the Delta. Roni’s happy with the camera so far, so we’ll hope this one lasts her awhile.
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RONI WAS STILL missing her point-and-shoot the day we drove out to the Central Valley to look for Sandhill cranes at the Cosumnes River Preserve near Lodi. We’ve been making this trek for the past couple of years in the hope of seeing the cranes, which spend the late fall and early winter months in our area on their migration route. We haven’t had much rain this year, so we worried that the spots we usually go to watch them would be a bust, but Cosumnes didn’t let us down.
We arrived there Sunday, Jan. 5, on what turned out to be a great day for birding. A group called Ducks In Scopes was just setting up for one of its monthly interpretive events, bringing along a half-dozen field scopes for visitors to use to get a closeup look at the ducks and other waterfowl that frequent the wetlands. During the summer months the area is little more than a bone-dry field, but in the rain season it becomes a vast lake where you can venture out along a boardwalk trail to look for wildlife. You and dozens of other people. We aren’t sure if it was because of the Ducks In Scopes event or the fact that it was a Sunday morning, but the place was busier than we had ever seen it. Still, we had a fun time watching the ducks, geese, coots, plovers and other birds that were in plentiful supply.
There weren’t so many cranes, but the ones we did see didn’t disappoint. We of course photographed them with all the gear at our disposal, including our cellphones and our Nikon D5100 SLR with its 300mm lens. Roni lamented not having her malfunctioning Nikon point-and-shoot, as she was sure it would have gotten great pictures — if it had been able to focus properly. The digital zoom function on Glenn’s Canon SX50HS achieved the closest photos we got, but the image quality at that resolution is so poor, they’ll never be anything more than screen savers for fun at home.
It was after Cosumnes that we drove a bit farther south to the Isenberg Crane Reserve, also known as the Woodbridge Ecological Reserve. We’d had success there in the past finding cranes, and while there were a few out there in the flooded farm fields this day, most of the flock seemed to have already moved on. We finished with our photo shoot and then went to lunch in Lodi at a place called Phillip Farms Restaurant, located inside the Michael-David Winery on Highway 12.
All of this was a way of killing time on a lazy Sunday before having to drive into Sacramento. It was the last day of the semiannual SacAnime convention, and Ben had spent the weekend there with his friend Aaron as they’ve done for the past couple of years. Ben had really wanted to go this year, but he feared he wouldn’t have the money before we bought him the hotel room as one of his Christmas presents. The gift technically didn’t include chauffeur service to and from the convention hall, but it made sense for us to pick the guys up since we were enjoying spending the day out and about anyway. Through some deft traffic maneuvering and texting, we managed to get the guys into the car at the hotel loading zone and avoided having to fork over the $10 fee for parking in one of the nearby day lots.
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BEN WOULD PROBABLY be the first to tell you that the SacAnime trip was the best present he had waiting for him under the tree this year. In fact, it was probably the best present any of us had under the tree this year, consumed as we were by a holiday season work schedule that left little time for Christmas shopping, decorating or anything else. It was quite unusual for us.
Roni’s principal task during December was completing the Delta Science Center’s annual Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta Educational Resource Calendar, which we have designed and printed the past four years. This year’s production schedule ran considerably later than in the past, however, and we found ourselves still designing less than a week before Christmas, when the calendar normally should have already been back from the printer. Still, we soldiered on and wrapped up the project and shipped it off to be printed — or so we thought.
On Dec. 23, we got the unwanted news from the prepress department that there were issues with our files and the job could not be printed as planned. Their quality control folks said some of the photos were low-resolution and would not look good when printed. So on Christmas Eve we stayed up until after 5 a.m. going through every page and changing out the supposed problem graphics so as not to lose any more time on the printing. Bleary-eyed, we sent off the new files to the printer as the sun began to rise, discovering only later that we wouldn’t be able to get the printed calendars back until the middle of January! Because kids would be back to school the first week of the new year, we did everything possible to speed up the turnaround time, and in the end we were promised a delivery date of Jan. 8.
Our passenger cars don’t have enough hauling capacity to carry 6,500 calendars, so we had to rent a pickup truck from U-Haul on a Wednesday morning to make a quick trip to Oakland before Glenn had to be a work. That worked out well, because Roni also had a newsletter job to collect from the same print shop, so we collected close to 80 boxes by the time we hit the road back to Oakley. The bed of the pickup was stuffed. At least we had Ben waiting back home to help us get everything unloaded.
The calendars look great, despite the fact that we had to change photos we later decided would have printed just fine, and Roni and her volunteers from DSC have been hustling this month to put them in the hands of fifth-graders throughout eastern Contra Costa County and up along the Highway 160 corridor.
As for Christmas, we finally were able to start enjoying ourselves late on Dec. 24, once the wrapping was mostly finished and the baking started. Glenn of course made his traditional sweet Christmas bread, and Roni prepared a wonderful breakfast and lamb riblets for dinner. There were fewer presents under the tree, but that had much to do with the fact that none of us really knew what we wanted this year, nor did we find time to go out and buy it. Roni of course got her birdcam a couple of weeks later, and Ben scored a new drawing tablet to use with his computer, although he was less enthused by the new clothes we also bought for him. Glenn was happy to receive some new RAM for his computer as well as the usual assortment of desk and wall calendars.
But for Glenn, his favorite present came the following weekend when he won his annual football picks contest with his brother, Sean. It was the first time he’d won since the 2010 season, and it meant that he would finally get to retrieve the so-called “Surfy” Trophy his brother had had in his possession the past two seasons. The trophy actually changed hands Jan. 18, in a small ceremony conducted at Sean’s house in Hayward, where the new champion was crowned to the tune of “On Top of the World” by the Imagine Dragons.
Being on top of the world is a good way to start a new year, and we hope that it continues to bring good things to your life as it has so far in ours. We’ll be back with more news and views in February.