A Yemen Warbler in Billahmer, captured with my old Nikon P610

The day before flying to Jazan this past summer my Nikon P610 60X superzoom digital camera stopped charging. I suspect the charging port in the side of the camera got tweaked at some point and an internal connection was severed. As I had no external charger, I began to despair at the shit timing—this camera had served me well the past five years, capturing thousands of images, videos, and audio recordings during birding adventures on three different continents. I was resolute—there was no way I’d be going camera-less on my first visit to Jazan Province! All that was left was to run around Al Ahsa last minute looking for a replacement. I’d been considering an upgrade to the Nikon P900 but had figured I’d wait until we were back in the states to get one cheaper. Now I was desperate to find one the night before our flight in Al Ahsa, but the pickings were slim. I checked Jarir Bookstore, Extra, and Lulu Hypermarket and none carried the P900. I did find a Canon PowerShot for around 2000 SAR ($530), but I was set on the P900 and didn’t want to be forced into buying something else out of desperation. Yet I was desperate! Ultimately, I went with a Canon Powershot SX430 IS, a small but capable 45x superzoom bridge camera, for 985 SAR ($263), thinking that I could later sell it and get the P900. The SX430 worked well enough down in the southwest. With it I managed decent shots and video recordings of such southwest specialties as Helmeted Guineafowl, Red-eyed Dove, Abdim’s Stork, African Grey Hornbill, and Abyssinian Roller. The biggest downside of the camera though was its lack of a viewfinder. Under the glare of the late morning sun, it was killer trying to keep birds in view on the display screen. After struggling recently to record some crummy documentary images of what I thought might be a Sykes’s Warbler at Al Ahsa National Park, I decided not to wait until going home to get the P900.

Red-eyed Dove in Jazan province, captured at a distance of about 15 meters with the Canon PowerShot SX430 IS

At 85x, the P900 used to be the most powerful superzoom bridge camera on the market, that is, until Nikon came out with the P1000 with an eye-popping 125x zoom, more than twice the reach of my full-body spotting scope! At 2599 SAR ($693) and 4050 SAR ($1080) respectively on the Saudi market and with tepid reviews online, I went cold on Nikon. Ultimately, the 65x Canon Powershot SX70 HS offered the zoom and video capabilities I was looking for, had much better reviews all around, was lighter than the two Nikons, and, at 2250 SAR ($600), was cheaper too. I pulled the trigger and ordered the Sx70 HS through Amazon.

A Grey-headed Swamphen at Al Asfar Lake, captured with the Canon PowerShot SX70 HS

Eager to try it out in the field, I headed out early this morning to Al Asfar Lake, Al Ahsa’s premier birding hotspot. Thankfully I had a few stellar subjects to work with, who obliged with some interesting shooting opportunities. After unsuccessfully prowling around the quarry in the early morning fog for Pharaoh Eagle-Owl only, I discovered this fellow perched on a crossbeam of one of the tall pylons transecting the area just as the last of the fog burned off.

A Pharaoh Eagle-Owl at Al Asfar Lake, captured with the SX70

A Pharaoh Eagle-Owl at Al Asfar Lake, captured with the SX70

A Pharaoh Eagle-Owl at Al Asfar Lake, captured with the SX70

The SX70 zoomed and came into focus much quicker than my Nikon P610, but given relatively short distance and good light I was a little disappointed that the shots didn’t come out a little clearer. I circumambulated the base of the pylon, thinking it best to spook the owl to cover rather than risk it getting shot by a yahoo with an airgun, but it stayed put the entire time. Looking back towards the pylon a short time later, I found a Greater Spotted Eagle in its place, so perhaps it was chased away after all. The eagle offered the perfect chance to test the zoom on the SX70. The image below was taken at full zoom in good light, and the one that follows is a wide shot from the same position. I was impressed. However, image quality worsened at full zoom under harsher light coupled with heat distortion. That said, it was still producing better results than the Nikon P610—more definition and brighter colors. I was also shooting in full auto, so playing around with the camera settings might help.

A cropped screenshot from a video I shot of Saudi’s first record Pale Sand Martin out at Al Asfar Lake, captured with the full reach of the SX70’s 65x superzoom

The martin was associating with a flock of Barn and Bank Swallows over 100 meters from where I was standing

Water Rail were calling from several spots around the lake, so I thought I’d try to capture some audio by shooting video but the result here was worse than I had to come to expect from the P610. There was a noticeable droning hum running through the whole video and the sounds further in the background seemed possibly muted. The camera does feature a wind filtering option, which, according to the Canon website, may produce unnatural effects if used when there is no wind. Today, in fact, was quite calm. I have since switched off the wind filtering and audio recording has been fine and, in fact, there’s less lens noise than with the P610.

Lastly, the P610 was quite slow to zoom and focus, which meant I frequently passed on trying to shoot flying birds unless they were soaring. This morning I had a couple flyby surprises and the quick reach and snap focus of the SX70 was really satisfying although the images themselves seemed underexposed. Sports mode might have been a better option. Next time…

A Steppe Buzzard in Haradh, captured under some intense late morning sun with the SX70

For those of you who might be wondering why I don’t just cross the bridge and purchase a DSLR with a long lens. All I can say is that I consider myself more of a birder than a bird photographer. If I’m going to be lugging something around with me, I much prefer it to be my Vortex Razor HD 27-60x85mm spotting scope—a tough ID of a distant bird should be made in the field and not post post-processing. After squandering a chance to enjoy my only encounter with the Sri Lanka Blue-Magpie because I was too eager to get a shot with the last DSLR I owned, my mantra now is enjoy first, capture later. So I’d hate the pressure of a full-bodied camera.

Here’s the gear you’ll find me packing: