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Monday, October 31, 2011

Birding Shabbat

Getting your 20 Bird MDR is important, but what if you suffer from Bostick Syndrome?

In order to encourage birding-life balance, some folks may consider the value of taking a day off from the 20 Bird MDR as a birding shabbat.  Personally, I usually take Sundays off.  I still try to identify every bird I see, and I may even write them down, but I take a rest from the relentless birding drive for the daily 20.

LDS Temple in Lake Oswego, OR--nice to be able to get birds at a wedding, in this case Anna's Hummingbird, Song Sparrow, Northern Flicker, Black-capped Chickadee, Western Scrub-Jay, etc.

For example, on Friday I got my MDR in Camas, Washington while helping my sister and new brother in law tow a truck and on a walk with my brothers around my folks's neighborhood in Oregon (highlight a Merlin in a nearby subdivision where I used to deliver newspapers as a kid).  On Saturday, I got most of my 20 while standing around taking pictures at my sister's wedding.  Yesterday, I drove down to Dayton, OR to visit a cousin with my mom, and I just took it easy.  I still looked at birds, and noted the Eurasian Collared-Doves (still crazy to see these birds in Oregon, since I found the first accepted record over a decade ago while on a similar wedding trip home to visit the family).  But I didn't keep a list.

We all need balance.  The 20 Bird MDR is a tool to help you to keep birds in your life if you tend to get caught up in other things.  If you lean too far the other way, consider a birding shabbat.  You can still watch birds, but you don't have to go crazy. By all means bird, but bird responsibly!

Sunday, October 30, 2011

Birding is Fun!

I'm now part of the group blog Birding is Fun!  Check out my latest post there on Bostick Syndrome, A.K.A. Obsessive Compulsive Birding Disorder.

Monday, October 24, 2011

The Birds of New Jersey: Status and Distribution

I just moved to The Garden State, so William Boyle's The Birds of New Jersey: Status and Distribution (Princeton, 2011) has appeared just in time to help me get up to speed on the birds in my new home state!

The Birds of New Jersey is an annotated checklist to the 465 bird species recorded in New Jersey through mid-2010.  Each species account features a paragraph outlining the seasonal status and distribution of the bird within New Jersey.  For birds reported fewer than five times in the state, the account lists the locations and dates of occurrence.  A large color-coded seasonal distribution map (showing county boundaries) is included for each bird.  Rare birds on the New Jersey Bird Records Committee review list feature dots showing the location of every accepted record.  Finally, The Birds of New Jersey also showcases 200 photos of New Jersey birds, including documentation shots of rare birds.  All in all this is a great book, and since I'm new to the state, I find myself referring to it all the time.  Even when I'm more up to speed on local bird distribution here in NJ, I can see myself keeping it handy for quick and frequent reference.

A few more thoughts:
Species Accounts--Worth their weight in gold.  Short but detailed, with discussion timing and distribution of migration, breeding, and wintering birds.  The Birds of New Jersey tells you when and where each bird is to be expected.  It frequently provides numbers or trend data from statewide Christmas Bird Counts, as well as notes on historic change in range or status.  For rare bird fans, the discussion of accidentals is fun and juicy, often providing notes on individual birds including their behavior and how many hours they were observed--for instance you can read about NJ's first Green Violet-Ear, found on an August afternoon, and "present after dawn the next morning , to the joy of many observers, but departed before seven a.m., never to be seen again."  It is great to see the individual records listed for birds seen fewer than 5 times, but I would have loved to seen the full list of records for those found fewer than 10 times--but I'm just a rare bird data fan, so that's just me!  I'm always looking at these records and frequently thinking it must be about time for another one of these birds to show up.  I'm also finding lots of fun trivia--for instance I was surprised to read that the Brambling that showed up in 1958 just a few miles from where I'm now living was the first record of that bird for North America.

Maps--Very detailed and useful, showing distribution at a very detailed scale--useful especially for birds with limited distribution in the state, and detailed enough to show, for example, the local boundaries between Black-capped Chickadee and Carolina Chickadee distributions.  As a geographer, I love the detail, but am a bit put off by the color scheme.  Having grown up with the old Golden Guide, I find the color scheme in The Birds of New Jersey to be somewhat counter-intuitive  Blue for winter and purple for year round distribution are familiar and make sense, but green for summer?  I'm still trying to get used to it.

Photos--Kevin Karlson served as the photo editor, and many of the shots of more common birds are his.  The photos are all fantastic, including a 14 page center spread of photos that showcase common as well as rare species.  For casual birders or even backyard birdwatchers, there are lots of beautiful photos of common birds.  For rare bird chasers, the photos of rare birds are simply there to stimulate birdlust!  Flipping through the book, it is hard not to stop and just stare at the photos (there is at least one on every open two-page spread)--I don't know how many times I've found myself staring at the Large-billed Tern photo (the first documented record for North America), or the Little Stints, or Yellow-nosed Albatross soaring over Reeds Beach.  But even the photos of common birds are delicious.

Basically, if you bird in New Jersey you should have this book. If you bird in a nearby state, you should have this book.  If you enjoy great bird photography and discussion of rare bird sightings, you should have this book.  The Birds of New Jersey is currently living on the nightstand near my bed and I expect it to live there for a long time to come!

(Disclosure: Review based on a review copy provided by Princeton University Press)

How I Get My 20

In order to make sure I get my 20 Bird Minimum Daily Requirement, I start each day by marking out 30 hash marks, in three columns of 10, on a small piece of paper.  That way, every time I see or hear a new bird for the day I can record it on my tally sheet using the standard 4 letter banding codes.  Since my tally is grouped in columns of 10, I can quickly see how many species I have for the day.

Here's my completed tally sheet for today:

I started the day kind of slow with a few Blue Jays, American Crows and White-throated Sparrows calling behind my house.  I was busy so I didn't go out and find anything else, but I did hear Song Sparrow and Black-capped Chickadees as I got into my car to run some errands.

Driving around town I got Turkey Vultures, Morning Doves, and European Starlings.  So far nothing to write home about.  So I decided to check out Assicong Marsh, a nearby spot I hadn't visited yet.

At the 24 acre marsh north of Flemington, I got Downy Woodpecker, Canada Goose, Yellow-rumped Warbler, Carolina Wren, Red-bellied Woodpecker, and Red-winged Blackbird.  I was hoping for some new ducks for my county list, and was happy to find Wood Ducks, American Black Ducks, and a pair of Gadwall with the Mallards.  By this point I only needed a couple more to reach my 20 Bird MDR, and I heard a Swamp Sparrow and saw a pair of Northern Cardinals as I walked back to my car.  Then I remembered I had also seen a Red-tailed Hawk back in town, so I really had a comfortable 21 species.

On the way home I stopped at the county Arboretum for a few minutes and picked up Cedar Waxwings, American Robins, Tufted Titmice, Black Vulture, and my FOS Hermit Thrush.

After getting home, I saw that I was just 4 species away from reaching 30 for the day, so I spent 10 minutes on my patio, netting Eastern Bluebird, Chipping Sparrow, Northern Mockingbird, Ruby-crowned Kinglet, Gray Catbird, and White-breasted Nuthatch.

With my tally sheet I was able to see where I was at with my tally at any point, and I could also record numbers and locations of birds seen.  Ideally, I will spend a few moments in the evening to submit my sightings to eBird--giving my sightings more value as they contribute to our greater knowledge of bird distribution.

So--what did I gain from playing the 20 Bird MDR game today?  Playing gave me a little more incentive to check out a new spot for me and led me to stop for another few minutes at the arboretum, where I noted two juvenile Cedar Waxwings among the 40 or so birds there that were about 80% young birds without red waxy wing feather tips.  When I enter those age rations into my eBird checklist, it will help track timing of molt and population dynamics of these wandering birds.  By playing the game I saw way more birds than I would have if I hadn't been playing or paying attention.  So no huge discoveries, but with 32 birds for the day I had fun, it flexed the birding muscles, and made for a nice addition to my day!

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Focus on Diversity Birding Conference Video

Yesterday I got to spend the day with some quality folks at John Heinz NWR as we discussed how to promote birding among traditionally non-birding ethnic groups in the U.S.  It was a great event, and I've got more to say on this later.  But you can enjoy the event yourself right here on this blog, since the USFWS filmed the whole thing!

(BTW, I show up briefly on camera at 23:43 in the first video, warning panelist Paul Baicich on the left that his chair is about to topple off the stage!)

Morning Session

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Afternoon Breakout

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Second Afternoon Breakout

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Afternoon Wrap-Up

Watch live streaming video from r5broadcasts at

At the very end of the last video I make a final brief appearance at 1:00:47 at the back of the room, walking to the right.  Since I'm stealthy and hard to spot, here's a screen shot!

While I've been promoting birding in Hispanic and African-American populations since at least 1998 starting with my work out at Hornsby Bend, I was here mostly just to listen.  And there was a lot of great stuff to hear.  Thanks to Dave Magpiong and The Fledging Birders Institute for putting this on, and John Heinz NWR for hosting us.

Friday, October 21, 2011

The Big Year Movie Top 10

Fox really dropped the ball on marketing The Big Year, and it tanked at the box office opening weekend.  This is a shame, as The Big Year is an engaging and fun look at the world of birds and birding.  I watched it with my kids and they loved it.  We laughed, we cried.  I've seen hundreds of movies that left me shrugging with a meh? But this one was a winner.  

You can go to IMDB or Rotten Tomatoes for plot summaries and more reviews.  Some reviewers got it, some complained.  Here's my Top 10 reasons why I think this is a worthy film that I plan to see again in the theater and own when it comes out on DVD (SPOILER ALERT: I am going to talk about specific plot elements here):

1) Magical birds.  Some folks complained about the cg bird closeups--but to me they added a sense of magical realism to the film, which I thought was a great way to depict that magical moment when you connect with a bird.  Steve Martin connecting with the Xantus's Hummingbird in British Columbia, Owen Wilson and Tim Blake Nelson connecting to the Great Spotted Woodpecker.  Jack Black and Brian Dennehy connecting to each other and the Great Gray Owl.  No, this isn't photo realism.  This is magic!

2) Obsessive Compulsive Birding Disorder (OCBD).  Owen Wilson's character is something we've not really seen depicted in film before--a birder so obsessed with his bird chasing quest that it destroys his marriages.  This is powerful.  I'll admit to my heart breaking when he throws his wife down on the leave and chase a bird.  I was a wreck when he left his wife in a hospital gown at the fertility clinic when to chase another bird. While some may complain that this is over the top, it was a fitting characterization of something many of us birders are afflicted with perhaps on a less disastrous level.  If you are a birder, and you don't think you suffer from this, take your nonbirding friends and relatives to a screening and see what they have to say about your own OCBD!

3) Family First.  I love that Steve Martin started his own Big Year, not by leaving his family to chase the latest rarity, but by spending New Year's day skiing and being with his family.  Ultimately, as with director David Frankel's other films The Devil Wears Prada and Marley and Me, the message of The Big Year is all about how our wants and desires can enhance or damage our personal relationships.  

4) Attu.  I never made it to Attu.  I paid my deposit one year when I was planning my own North American big year as a starving Jack Black type of birder right out of college, but I had to let it go when I couldn't come up with the cash for the most expensive trip in North American birding.  So watching a depiction of the legendary Attour style birding on Attu was amazing!  Birders may complain about some of the birds referenced on the island, but that is missing the point.  Attu is magical, pulsing with the possibility of rare birds.  You may never make it to Attu either, and the old tradition of staying together in quonset huts is no more.  So enjoy that birding tradition by proxy.

5) Pelagic Birding.  One of birding's greatest traditions, depicted here in all its glory--including the seasickness and excitement of pitching to and fro on the waves in hopes of albatross, shearwaters, and petrels.  If you haven't been on a pelagic trip, this will push you to sign up.  If your family wonders why in the world you might do such a thing, take them to the film and let them see for themselves.  

6) Other birders.  Not all birding characters are as obsessed as Jack Black, Owen Wilson, and Steve Martin.  We are treated to seeing (albeit mostly in the background) dozens of other birders--including an African-American birder.  These birders might look a little goofy to nonbirders, but to be honest, they aren't nearly as goofy-looking as real life birders!  If The Big Year doesn't make birding cool, it at least makes it look more normal than possibly we deserve!

7) Ruby Mountain Snowcocks.  My kids and I laughed the hardest during this scene where Jack Black and Steve Martin chase Siberian Snowcocks by helicopter over the Ruby Mountains in Nevada.  People really do this, and it shows how crazy dedicated birders can really be.  

8) Apologies.  The scene where Steve Martin apologizes to Jack Black for not telling him that he is also doing a big year was one of the most honest depictions of an apology I've ever seen on film.  Think about it, when was the last time you saw a character in a film apologize this honestly?  A wonderful moment of film.

9) Buddies.  By the end of the film, the chemistry between Jack Black and Steve Martin is wonderful.  As a birder who spends too much time birding alone, I really appreciated how these two characters connected through birding.  

10) Music.  While there could have been much more bird music--or even characters engaging in the venerable birding tradition of creating their own bird-inspired lyrics to popular tunes--there were some great uses of music to highlight appropriate moments of the film.  Will have to get the soundtrack.

Final Thoughts: While this is a movie that birders can really enjoy, it is actually probably a better movie for non-birders.  While Fox obviously didn't know how to market a film about birds and birding to nonbirders, I think this light and heartfelt comedy is actually good entertainment.  Are there better movies out there?  Sure.  But there are also many more movies out there that will make much less of a lasting impression. It is a movie for birders to celebrate and share with their nonbirding spouses, family, and friends.  For nonbirders, it is a decent film with engaging characters providing insights into a unique subculture, as well as the ups and downs of following your bliss.

20 Bird Minimum Daily Requirement

The former Bird RDA is now the 20 Bird Minimum Daily Requirement.  This new designation more clearly states the purpose of the distinction--that birders need to see a minimum number of species each day in order to stay sharp.

The 20 Bird Minimum Daily Requirement is useful as a prescription--say you are a bit glum, feeling isolated from the natural world--nothing like a month of making sure to get your 20 Bird Minimum Daily Requirement to boost your spirits.

The 20 Bird Minimum Daily Requirement also helps you better get to know the birds and bird distribution in your local area.  In order to get your 20 Bird MDR on your most busy days, you will have to know where to quickly pick up the most common birds in your area.

An effort to get your 20 Bird MDR will also encourage you to more frequently bird your local patch, and even birdy but not spectacular birding spots that are convenient to your home, work, or along your daily commute.  With more time in the field, even if just for a short time to get your 20 Bird MDR, your chances of finding unusual or rare birds is increased.

The 20 Bird MDR will also help you better identify the most common birds in your area, as you learn to identify them at 65 mph on the freeway, or by their various calls or songs as you sit in traffic or on your back porch.

If you would like to promote the 20 Bird MDR for birding health, feel free to steal the official 20 Bird MDR image, either in the full or this smaller size, and post them on your blog or other social media site.  This is your prescription for more consistent fun and better birding!  Enjoy!

You can also like the Facebook 20 Bird Minimum Daily Requirement page.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Like Mozart? Really?

In one of my favorite scenes from The Big Year, Owen Wilson's character, competitive top birding lister Kenny Bostick explains his birding compulsion to his frustrated wife by declaring that he is "like Mozart". 

What might that mean?  I find a lot of richness in that claim.  For one thing, it speaks of having a driving passion.  But for me, it also speaks to birding as a performance art.

Back in 1996, I worked with Texas Parks and Wildlife to start up the Great Texas Birding Classic.  I put together the organizing committee and the first proposal for the competition.  As part of my research, I looked at golf and bass fishing tournaments.  I made the claim to the committee that we needed to have real prize money at stake, in order to generate the media attention we would need to take birding competitions to the next level of fundraising possibility.  As part of this way of packaging the competition, we needed to turn birding into a spectator sport to generate a media audience.  My proposal was quickly voted down by the leaders of the Texas birding community.  They said it would ruin birding.  One said that the day he had to bird with a television crew following him around would be the last day he ever birded.

Fast forward 15 years and birding has increasingly become a spectator sport.  While we have limited televised birding, the Internet has spawned a host of online birding personalities--bird bloggers and Facebook friends whose birding exploits we follow daily.  Used to be you could just head out by yourself with your binoculars and scope for a nice day of birding.  Now, unless you take pictures and post them somewhere, you aren't really birding.

In The Big Year, Kenny Bostick regales Attu birders with his birding exploits.  Here online, we all do that every day.  Birding is a spectator sport.  A performance art.

Maybe we don't offer anything as profound or lasting as Mozart.  But here we are.  Watching birds.  Taking pictures.  For all the world to see.  

Were those Texas birders right back in '96?  Has it ruined birding?

Monday, October 17, 2011

Kids review The Big Year

For family night the kids and I went to see The Big Year.  We had a great time and all the kids liked it.  My 10 year old "loved it" and gave it 5/5 stars.  My 14 year old gave it 3.5 stars, and my 7 year old gave it 4 stars.  While it was rated PG, my kids thought maybe it should be almost PG-13 for the mild language and a few sexual situations.  But they especially liked Jack Black, and he did a great job as a birder contending to see the most birds in North America, competing against Steve Martin and Owen Wilson.  My 10 year old thought the first part was the best and funniest, and the second half was more serious--as the costs of hard-core birding take their toll on the characters.  The kids were sad how much one of the characters in particular was willing to give up in his single-minded pursuit of birds.

I was happy that the kids enjoyed the funny parts, but also responded to the more serious side of the film.  We all laughed hard during Jack Black and Steve Martin's were crazy helicopter ride chasing Himalayan Snowcocks over the Ruby Mountains of Nevada, but our hearts also warmed when Jack Black and Brian Dennehey go owling in the snow and several other tender family moments.  All in all The Big Year has a very pro-family message that nothing is more important than our loving relationships and family.

So my oldest now wants to go to Attu (better start saving those pennies--it's not an inexpensive trip!).  My ten year old thinks a big year would be fun.  My youngest not so much--"all that searching!" seems like too much for her.

I'll write my own review later, but it was great for me to be able to share this with my kids.  There were only three other people in the theater with us, so sadly this may not be a film to last long in the theaters.  As others have said, it isn't Citizen Kane--but it does have a number of touching and even subtly profound moments.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Birdchaser at Huntington-Oyster Bay Audubon

Tomorrow night I'm giving a talk on The Personality of Birds at the Huntington-Oyster Bay Audubon meeting in Northern Oyster Bay and Huntington Townships out on Long Island, NY.  

Early 20th Century naturalists were quick to describe birds in human terms, including characteristics such as shyness and mischievousness that we would consider aspects of personality. Was this merely anthropomorphism, the misplaced attribution of human characteristics to birds or animals, or do birds actually have personality? While we should rightfully avoid anthropomorphism, the latest research suggests that birds and other animals do indeed have personality--including many of the same characteristics shared by people. By reviewing the findings of the latest research, and showing how you can explore bird personality on your own, this program opens a door into this exciting inner life of birds.

So if you are in the NYC area tomorrow, come join me for a wild ride into the inner life of birds!
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