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Monday, June 19, 2006

Why I blog about birds

While I'm convinced that some sort of addiction is at the root of why I bird, I think other brain chemicals like endogenous opioids may be responsible for why I blog about birds. When I was a kid, a large supportive birding community was one of the reasons I moved on to birds from an interest in reptiles and amphibians. Catching lizards gave me a physical rush, but was rather socially isolating in middle school. Birding, however, gave me a dopamine rush, as well as social support.

I've tried to remain a part of the birding community as I've gotten older, but it has gotten harder, rather than easier. For a long time, I was trying to bird almost every day, which made it hard to regularly bird with others who don't have the same schedule flexibility or intense birding drive. More recently, I've been busy with work and three kids. In some places I've lived, there hasn't been a strong and active birding community. And over the past 10 years, the internet has revolutionized the way that many birders interact. With birding listservs, it is far more common to know other birders by their email address and listserv posts, than by spending time with them in the field.

So, I started blogging about birds back in 2000...back before it was really called blogging. My initial bird blog was to post bird sightings from Hornsby Bend, the best birding spot in Austin, Texas. I was tired of tying up the TEXBIRDS email list with my daily sightings report, so I started up a website where I could write as much as I wanted. This served as something of a local rare bird alert, as well as a way to really talk about local bird distribution without annoying everyone else in Texas who didn't care about Hornsby Bend. Originally I coded these posts in HTML, and eventually started composing them with Netscape Navigator. You can take a look at some of those early proto-blog posts here, here, and here.

So, my initial blog was to help stimulate birding at my local patch, and to help build something of a birding community that I didn't find in Austin when I moved there. We had a local Audubon chapter, but it wasn't the active (some would say hyper-active) birding community that I craved. This first blog was an attempt at community building. And to further that end, eventually I discontinued it as a private blog, and set it up as more of a community bulletin board. It continues in that format today, as the Hornsby Bend Recent Bird Sightings page (see the sidebar there on the left).

I started my second blog--Urban Birdscapes--in January 2004 to promote urban bird conservation--the topic of my PhD research. This blog let me discuss issues I was interested in. It was also a way for me to keep up with media reports related to my research. I kept that blog going until I started working for National Audubon in late 2004. I'm still hoping to start an urban bird conservation blog on the National Audubon website, but that hasn't happened yet. And since I haven't finished the PhD yet, maybe I need to start up that blog again to help me get through the final writing stages.

At any rate, after I discontinued Urban Birdscapes, I started this current blog back in 2004 as I was preparing to make the move from Texas to Pennsylvania. I was finding myself with less time for birding, and really missing the dopamine rush. So, I tried to use this blog as another excuse to go birding. I reasoned that if I had to post something every day or two, then I'd have to go birding to get stuff to post about.

Well, that strategy hasn't always worked as my bird conservation work frequently keeps me busy. But, it has helped somewhat. I've taken more bird walks during the middle of my day, and taken some extra birding efforts here and there along the way. The blog has also given me another way to talk about some of the issues that I think are important. In particular, as avian influenza spread across the old world last year, and with increasing anxiety about it getting to the U.S., I've been able to use this blog to provide commentary on the latest media reports and scientific research related to the bird flu. I've also commented occasionally on the Ivory-billed Woodpecker search in Arkansas. And when there are interesting news articles or research about birds that catch my eye, its fun to talk about them here. Or to just ruminate, as in this post, about the whys behind it all.

I love birding, and when I can't be birding, I like to share my thoughts about birds and birding. It helps me feel like part of the birding community that nourished me as a young birder. And it allows me to explain my birding obsession to my non-birding family and friends.

Many bird bloggers also take photos of birds. I love that, but I have resisted photography for the past 25 years. I haven't wanted anything to take away from the buzz of the search for birds, and photography seemed to slow down the pace of the action. But I'm increasingly wishing I could share the actual birds I see, and their activities, with my blogging friends. S I'm starting to reconsider the time, energy, and money it takes to do some digiscoping or other bird photography. As long as it doesn't stand in the way of my getting a dopamine rush from birding, or cost me a fortune, then maybe I'm up for it. It may turn out that a desire to share bird photographs here become another example of this blog encouraging me to expand the scope of my birding activities.

I'm sure there are brain chemicals that lead us to seek social contact with others. A blog isn't the best way to get that kind of social contact or chemical buzz, but it helps a little. Since we can't all go birding together all the time, at least we can keep up with each other here in the blogosphere.

5 comments:

Mike said...

Rob, I feel the same way you do about birding and blogging. If I can help tempt you down the digital photo path, getting into photography has made my experience of birding and blogging both much richer. In particular, I've found that the desire to capture great shots of every species made me more interested in even the most common ones.

Laurie said...

Rob, I've recently started my own blog in Austin - http://lauriedays.blogspot.com/
Like you, blogging is helping me connect with other birders, and it is getting me out and looking more often. By the way, we met in Austin last year when you came for the Owl workshop at HBBO.
I really enjoy your blog - thanks for taking the time to post!
Laurie Foss
Austin, TX

Rob said...

Mike,
I haven't started looking at cameras or digiscoping setups. Any suggestions?

Laurie,
Thanks for stopping by and the kind words--that was a fun workshop, eh? Frequently wish I could get back to Austin more to see all my birding friends.

Mike said...

Rob, I can only tell you what works for me. I don't spend much time shooting shorebirds or other sedentary species. Also, I'm a very mobile birder who often has to carry his son for significant stretches of a walk. That ruled out digiscoping or any kind of lens that requires a tripod to be effective.

What I went with was a Canon Rebel 300D (entry level DSLR) and fancy image-stabilized 300mm prime lens. The lens is long enough to get most shots but not so long that I can't get around with it. Be advised that this is a pricy setup, particularly the lens, but if I'm careful, I could conceivably use it for decades. Anyway, any decent pics on my site can be entirely attributed to the quality of my gear.

Leigh said...

Great post Rob! Like Mike, I carry a cannon digital rebel with the 300mm lens, and I feel like it has enhanced my birding experiences, not drawn from them. I can now "capture" the things that I see in a safe way, share them with others via a blog post, and most importantly for me, take photos of birds, plants, or insects I don't recognize and bring them home with me for further analysis and identification. It's an educational tool and a pleasure to use. I still go out with my bins occasionally, but then it's much harder to blog about my walk and have it carry the same weight as one I can add photos in to compliment my writings =)

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