Thursday, September 11, 2014

Vacation Birding sans Deracination: County Roots in Carolina

Automatic County Bird lists and the Top 100...two of eBird's greatest innovations in growing use and support for its admirable program. Every birder likes to watch his or her list grow (even if that's not the main goal), and some birders also like seeing their list grow in relation to other people's. There has always been that competitive element to birding. It's a very faint factor sometimes, and at others it is palpable. When one is birding with the local Audubon group there is seldom any Big Day-type competition. At the other side of the spectrum there is the World Series of Birding, Big Years, Big Day's, and Big Nerds, competitions over many timeframes and in many regions. EBird nicely keeps track of all of it for us. 

Gotta Catch 'em All!

Most birders have a life list, and many more keep national, state, and even county lists, in addition to yard or maybe work patch lists. The county listing is often the repast for very experienced birders, those who have seen just about everything they can in their state, or who do not travel very much outside of it. Seeing birds in one's home county, or every county in a state, provides new challenges with the same birds. EBird even solicits county moderators as the most local level of its information filtration. The longer you're in the birding circles, the more county listing seems to come up.

Truth be told, I never paid it much heed. There was still too much to do on the State and National level with the birdies (and yes, I realize this violates the sacred semi-libertarian principle of subsidiarity). In massive states like Texas it made more sense to me, but county lines seemed so arbitrary around Arizona I often found more annoyance than enjoyment in specified county listing. I had no county listing goals nor compared myself to other birders in Arizona. That being said, I kinda liked that eBird kept track of it for me anyway. This ambivalence changed for me this summer, when I spent a bit of time in Wayne County, one of 100 little boroughs in charming NC. 

As many other birders do before heading to a new area, I checked out the eBird data in this mid-state, coastal plain region. It was...unimpressive. In fact, it was paltry. There have been a total of 69 different eBirders in Wayne County, who submitted a total of 111 checklists. This is not a daily, monthly, nor even annual rate, as one might expect of counties in Arizona or California. Those are the All-Time totals. Wayne County NC (there are like 13 other Wayne Counties in the U.S.) has a total of 225 recorded species, with its All-Time leading eBirder standing at 96 species. To lend some perspective, a good day at the Tres Rios site in west Phoenix can yield over 100 species. There are hundreds of lists submitted in California and Arizona counties every day, and my home county, mid-state Maricopa, has over 400 recorded species. That being said, as mentioned in the comments below Wayne County does have some great birders and has played host to some great birds, but this doesn't carry over to a big presence on eBird.

I do not bring this up simply to dump on Wayne County. In fact, the relatively poor eBird numbers were not a deterrent whatsoever. It's not too far from the coast. There's plenty of water. There are some nice parks and plenty of forest, as well as farmlands and sewage ponds, lending some habitat variety even if there is little elevation. There are certainly birds in Wayne County, in fact probably not many fewer than in the heavily birded Research Triangle area around Raleigh/Durham. The stark reality is that very few people are eBirding in Wayne County (this is probably true, maybe even more so, for the identical counties around Wayne that have even smaller populations). Rather paradoxically, the very low eBirding done in Wayne County, the lack of recorded sightings and established information, as well as established feudal lords of the fief, was exciting for me. 
I've chased birds all over Arizona, but the county lists there seemed meaningless to me. There are so many people out birding every day, who have seen it all and seen it everywhere, so to speak. There wasn't many point in trying to compete or compare. But here in Wayne County I could be a pioneering eBirder again, I could accomplish something that was even relatively impressive for my low expectations. I could actually be a top county lister! I could be...NUMBER 1. In Wayne County NC, I could be the awesome guy on the far left, except with less bracelets!!!

This renewed enthusiasm was greatly helped by the fact that there were several possible lifers waiting in the vicinity, and bearing these things in mind I made sure to fit a few birding trips to the best-looking spots in the area. In early July and with limited time before returning to Phoenix, I knew the All-Time record was not yet in reach, but for the year..? 57 would win it. Since I would also be birding with birder-tolerant and bird-interested friends I could get away with the early mornings, but a visit to the local sewage pond was out. This meant that shorebirds, gruiformes, and their ilk would have to wait. The birds would have to come from the forest.

There are a couple of eBird hotspots listed in Wayne County, and seemingly the largest, most well-established is the Cliffs of the Neuse S.P. This sizable preserve has many different trails, paved roads, and even a small lake (with swimming kids, dogs, and almost no birds). I had the fortune of jogging here a few days before as a sort of preliminary scouting. Returning with all the birding gear, knew that the Spanish Moss trail would be the most productive, winding as it did through deciduous woodland, open grasslands, and recently flooded river banks. 
From the visitors center we scanned the lake for riparian birds and came up empty handed except for Kingfisher. We then walked to the less peopled, more overgrown section of the park, along the way recording chattering Titmice, Chickadees, picoides Woodpeckers, and hiccuping Summer Tanagers, one of which was uncharacteristically accomodating.

As soon as we approached the trailhead we were assaulted with the songs of Carolina Wrens and even more enjoyably, those of the Wood Thrush. This had been a 'heard-only' bird for me, and while the dense foliage and semi-cloudy skies didn't make for great photos ops, finally getting good looks at this bird was somewhat cathartic. Not Veery sighting cathartic, mind you, but still pretty good. 

True to the trail's name, the pine, cyprus, and oak woodlands were sufficiently overgrown with Spanish moss. Acadian Flycatchers and Northern Parulas maintained a formidable cacophony above the spooky paths, joined occasionally by inquisitive Yellow-billed Cuckoos and one very persistent, upset Red-shouldered Hawk. The Wayne County ticks were coming thick and fast; I was feeling I might have a place on the podium, when everything suddenly froze. Everything, that is, except for the larger, brownish and barred bird that flushed from near the trail. Finally...FINALLY...lifer Barred Owl was obtained. 
The Owl tarried but for a minute, allowing for the sort of blurry photo that would make Bigfoot proud before making direct eye contact, as if to say, "Alright, we're square," and departing.
Knees buckled, expletives were uttered, and there might have been excitement vomit too. Years of living in central Texas, birding in south Texas this summer, multiple attempts in Pennsylvania, and even a few days in Florida where these birds seem to grow on boardwalk trees...none had yielded the Barred Owl, none but for beloved Wayne County.

Hooded Warblers and Great-crested Flycatchers arrived just in time to stave off mosquito/tick-onset depression, and we emerged into a grassy clearing that provided Field Sparrow along with Indigo Bunting and Blue Grosbeak, always solid birds to find first time on a new site.
I had regressed well down from the point of specifically hoping or expecting to see Barred Owl--I just figured it would happen one day when I was 88 years old--and yet even this bird didn't quite steal the show. For Cliffs of the Neuse S.P. is itself a well-maintained park, but the Neuse River itself, or at least the Wayne County portion, well, it's flattered and appreciative when people only call it "icky."

Plenty of agri. and hog farm run-off, silt, and the normal gunk of lowland rivers all accumulate along its lazy, snaking course. It often floods its banks and leaves behind stinking mudflats pierced by mighty cyprus trees and their ambitious roots, with sagging willows bending obeisantly to gravity's demands in between. Yes Yes...pause to smooth the hair on the back of your neck--I must as well--for we have just traipsed through ideal Prothonotary Warbler habitat.
The bird that melted a thousand faces, the bird that undid Alger Hiss, the bird that convinced bananas to cease being green and turn to yellow...sing ye proud, Prothonotary Warbler.

This bird is "sweet sweet sweet sweet sweet"

I had seen one briefly--the original lifer--from across the closed gates of the Anahuac preserve in Texas (the aggravation of arriving here on a Tuesday and finding it closed shall not be mentioned in further detail, for sake of the children), and few more immature birds in Croatan N.F. on the inner banks. The earlier sightings were of an unsatisfactory nature at beautiful places. These Wayne County sightings were supremely satisfying, and took place along the banks of the gnarly Neuse River. The Prothonotary Warbler is a bird of supreme aesthetic, but it is not a snooty britches. 

Faces were cobbled back together and ice packs were applied. The Proths just did not care. They perched and sang like young Pavarottis. Absolutely no record, milestone, or other quantifiable goal was achieved by seeing this bird--it's expected and recorded in Wayne County already, by the way--but bar none it felt like the best bird of the day, even over the lifer BAOW, and one of the best birds of the trip.

Swinging through some larger-scale farmland produced Blackbirds, Meadowlarks, Grackles, and a few other list-buffers to round out the day. I finished my time in Wayne County on 57 species, the highest total at so far in 2014 with no waterfowl, herons, egrets, or shorebirds yet recorded. Perhaps this Christmas, and for sure by next summer, there will be a new (and only) birder in the Wayne County century club, and he will make T-shirts telling people about it. 
Does this fill me with an unwarranted, frankly embarassing sense of excitement and hubris? Yes.
Does this encourage down, dirty and thorough birding next time I'm in WCNC? Yes.
Is this county listing business outside of my own home state, with its much more heavily and skillfully birded counties (relative to Wayne County, not all Carolina Counties), a sign of insecurity and cowardice on my part? Yes.
Is this perhaps papering over an early-onset mid-life crisis? Yes.
Is all of that secondary because, Hell Yeah, Ima' be Number One at something birding-related? Yes.
Plus, I'll be bale to post up some useful eBird data for ornithologists and hobbyists alike to also use. The world must be eBirded!

*Please, any North Carolina birders reading this post, do not go wrack up crazy birds in Wayne County and ruin my dream. I have the eye of the tiger and the heart of the lion but they just couldn't take it. Incidentally, I am now forever banned from the San Diego Zoo, but that is another story...

Thursday, September 4, 2014

The Rhyme of the Nascent Mariner

I be a nascent Mariner,
On maiden voyage to the sea.
By lack of beard, and tan, and glittering eye,
Thou rightly judgeth me.

I leave a land of scalded plain,
Of mountains, forest grown;
For pelagics and for lifering I leave,
The land-locked state that I have known.

The feet will lose their balance,
Their souls ride above the wave.
And the birds be Gray, though no longer Jay
Where color meets its grave.

The elements will differ,
The birds will seldom sing,
Witness struggles, witness life and death
All transpiring on-the-wing

The pelagic promise draws me on,
To abandon my craggy home,
And drink deeply of my dramamine,
As I swap for sea from stone.

Intrepid with excitement,

Like a Nuthatch with a seed,

Go I now to expand my List,

And pursue the birder's creed.

But shudder yet, a frightful thought,
That robs me of my sleep.
Though blissful dreams should mine yet be,
Of Shearwaters diving in the deep.

So now embark to bird the waves,
Seek that landmark number from the hull.
So prayeth and yearn ABA 500,
Please be thy not a Western Gull!

Sunday, August 31, 2014

Local News: Birder Believes there is not enough Cheeky Wordplay in Birding Circles

In a recent interview with Butler's Birds: Local Edition, hobbyist birder and self-described "wordsmith" Norman Ecklebaum readily agreed that while the state of birding in North America is overall on the "up-and-up," there is not enough snickering wordplay with birding vernacular:

"Look, birding is more popular now than it has ever been before. My facebook groups are booming with pictures of cardinals on feeders; my photos are getting dozens and dozens of likes; I'm really impressing the gaggles of semi-centennial ladies on my Botanical Gardens is great. I even saw a Green Heron the other day."

Despite this reassurance, there was a noticeable expression of regret, of angst in Mr. Ecklebaum's face.

"It's just...I guess I'm a bit disappointed, or maybe unfulfillmared you know? There are so many bird names you can play around with, so many doubles you can entendre, so many puns you can really grab hold of and bash a guy over the head with. I know I'm no William Birdsworth : :: pause for audible chuckles:: : but there' plenty of Goldfinch rich material out there, and I don't feel like enough birders or bird bloggers are taking advantage of it. What's really tragic is that I feel like half of my jokes go right over people's heads."
"For example, just the other day for example I was hanging out at my local park, for example, and pointing out a Rosy-faced Lovebirds to literally everyone who was walking his or her dog. I said, "More like Rosy-faced Cutebird, huh," and most people just walked right by; only a few older ladies chuckled with me. I tried changing up my approach then, for example pointing out a White-winged Dove to people and making Stevie Nicks jokes. Again, I was met with little appreciation."
"It just speaks to the overall quality of birding. I hoped that with its increasing popularity there would be more clever people like me, for example people who get bird-related humor and pursue it relentlessly. But it's just lost on so many of them; they walk by or for example continue talking like they've heard all my jokes before, like there's some sort of cap, or tasteful limit with such things."

Mr. Ecklebaum was insistant that bird-related wordplay was not, in fact, a shallow reservoir, and the misfortunate, as well as the onus, was on those people he addressed who were unreceptive to his wit: 

"Look, for example there's a song called Tern, Tern, Tern and it's actually by a band called the Byrds! That's just the tip of the example iceberg too. For example, once in my scope I had : ::tee hee:: : a pair of Boobies, and another time for example I committed a...err hem...Cardinal sin by opening my kitchen door too near my feeders and flushing the Cardinals. This other time for example I was birding with a group in south Texas and it was a kinda lame day with not many birds. It was the perfect time to try out some new bird jokes on the other likeminded people, especially because we were all stuck in a group together and looking for birds was of secondary importance to me:"

"When is the best time to buy a bird? WHEN IT"S GOING CHEEP!"
"Anybody hear about crow on the telephone pole? IT'S MAKING A LONG DISTANCE CAW!"
"How does a bird with a broken wing still land? WITH ITS SPARROWCHUTE!"
"Why do Hummingbirds hum? BECAUSE THEY DON'T KNOW THE WORDS!"
"What's a Great Horned's favorite subject? OWLGEBRA!"
"Why'd the bird get in trouble at school? HE GOT CAUGHT PEEPING ON A TEST!"

"A couple of people chuckled at first, so I took this as invitation to continue practicing my wit, even while our guide said something about a Tropical Parula buzzing around. Then there was less and response, and by my last joke nobody was laughing, or even looking at me. They were focussed on something else. It was the worst day of birding ever."

The modern birder, his focus in the right place?

That's when I realized that these people couldn't have simply been focussed on the actual birds, the thing they travelled and paid money for. They must not have gotten my jokes. This led me to the belief that we need much wider education and spreading of bird-related humor. Starting with Audubon Societies and bird blogging. Because birds have wings; they use them. We won't always get to see what we want to see, but we can always chuckle and give each other attention, lots of attention, big irradiating piles of attention, in the mean time."

Thursday, August 28, 2014

A Diamond (or some other Jewel) in the Rough

Late August is, at best, an interesting time to go birding in Arizona. In many ways, it is not ideal. Most of the summer breeders have concluded their business. Some have already left, and the majority of the remainder are coy and clandestine in their behavior. The allure of large-scale shorebird movement in a few weeks further contributes to the end of August seeming rather plain by regular birding standards. 
As is often the case, good birding is a question of knowing where to look, and then looking there for long enough (and also being a bit lucky). While most of Arizona's breeders have concluded by now there are a few species that are just gearing up, perfecting their beach bodies, their vocalizations, and their most enticing pheromones.
Magill Weber, an under-40 female ABA birding phenom with 730+ species, joined Butler's Birds for a foray into the Santa Rita grasslands to collect some nocturnal Year Birds and observe these better-late-than-never breeders in their brushy habitat, at their brushy best.  

Before the sun was up, driving Whitehouse Canyon and Proctor Road yielded Common Poorwill and Mexican Whip, as well as Elf Owls, though the Whiskered Screech near Kubo Lodge had vacated the premises. But the nocturne critters were only the appetizer. We had come to feast on passerines, little, loud, dull passerines.
Cassin's and Botteri's Sparrows both breed comparatively late in the year, waiting for the post-monsoon vegetative boom to start their mating songs. Once they start, these otherwise inconspicuous birds don't stop. We heard both at 5am, before sun up, and heard them all on the way out of the canyon again at high noon. Both birds score pretty solid points for their vocalizations, Cassin's all the more so for its flight displays. But my goodness is this Botteri's a crappy looking sparrow or what?

Truly, this bird was hit on the head--repeatedly--with the ugly stick. But hey they've found their niche and they fill it very well...or at least they will until the grasslands in the Santa Rita foothills are claimed by the ravenous mesquite. Despite my denigrations, these birds are still Sparrows and thus we must love them. It was a pleasure to see and hear so many, even if they were kinda turdy for photos.
Grassland birding is always a pleasure despite the species diversity being pretty low. This is largely because it's done half from the car, and because some of the other birds rubbing shoulders with the drab Sparrows are really, really ridiculously good looking, even if they avoid the camera more than Zoolander. How many Blue Grosbeaks do you see modeling?


After our early morning success with the sparrows, we returned to the famous Proctor Road turn off from the mouth of Madera Canyon. We had heard some of our Nightjars here earlier in the morning, but now were looking for Varied Buntings in the bosque and whatever else might be recuperating along the creek. The Buntings were not home but an interesting hummingbird added some intrigue to the little expedition.
The bird was entirely dark green on the breast and belly, which combined with the long bill to suggest Broad-billed was present. There was also some buffy, rufous tones on the tail primaries when this bird briefly hovered, which were also outlined in white. The tail characteristics combined with the gorget size and shape--which did not continue onto the forehead--to suggest Broad-tailed as the other piece of this puzzle. So, in the interest of science and labeling things, here is a possible Broad-Broad Hummingbird, also known as the General Hummingbird and the Side-to-Side Semi-Selasphorus.
Further input on this apparent hybrid's ID is appreciated. We named it Prius.

After trailing up and down Whitehouse Canyon Road and pretty much maximizing the Maderan lowlands, we decided next to head down along the dusty road towards Florida Canyon. We were not intending to gain altitude here nor to scrounge and scour for the resident Rufous-capped Warblers, but again were targeting the liminal grasslands and mesquite bosque, this time for a pair of Black-capped Gnatcatchers and Rufous-winged Sparrows.
The Gnatcatchers eluded us--no surprise at midday--but Rufous-winged sparrows, as always in this area, showed and sang very nicely. I was on the wrong side of the car/sun/bird/hemisphere to capture the birds this time around, so this shot is borrowed from an older post.

Magill called it early in the morning, and her premonitions were correct: Rufous-wings and Varied Buntings go wing-in-wing, err... hand in hand...really it's more like shrub-in-shrub. We had a few sightings of the VABUs throughout the morning but nothing great, nothing that did this plum pudding of a bird justice. There are not enough green birds in north america and there are also not enough purple birds in North America. Thank you, VABU, for bringing some royal colors to the continent (Purple Sandpiper and Purple Martin do their best).
This face-melting male was first perched high in a mesquite, quite near the road. When we came to a stop he ducked down lower into the tree, but in doing so actually offered better looks. For a moment he seemed crouched and poised for take off, ready to disappear into the drab, thorny wilderness and take his eximious colors with him.  

It's like a tye-dye Bobolink

Painted Bunting gets a lot of praise for its color palette, and with full justification. The boldness and the strength of its color-combo really is unrivaled in North America. And I'm not one to push against the conventional wisdom, not too much in birding, anyway, but man, a spiffy VABU can give the PABUs a run for their money. It still comes in second, I suppose, but there's an allure here in how the VABU tries to get every cents-worth from its single purple color spectrum, while the PABU just shamelessly raids several.
At any rate, there really isn't a species of bunting in North America that won't require maxillofacial surgery if gazed upon for more than ten seconds continuously. This post was written from a hospital recovery room. Scroll through the next few images quickly, or join me at St. Joe's.

After spending much of the morning chasing little drab birds through the thorny scrub and abrasive, chigger-infested grass, getting a full frontal flash of VABU was a cathartic experience. Not only did the bird show well, but it gave a little concert of its varied vocal talents too after getting comfortable with the audience. These birds do not have rainfall-contingent breeding like the Sparrows, so it was surprising to see this bird singing out its territory a good 3 or 4 weeks after the normal breeding timeframe. Life may never be the same. To anyone in Arizona or Texas trying to escape the late summer doldrums, I highly recommend a heavy dose of this bird.
Only in birding is bunting really knocking it out of the park. YeAh I sAiD It!

Friday, August 22, 2014

Take a Deep Breath: Birding in the Great Smokeys

While dawdling in North Carolina I had the great fortune to spend a few days in Waynesville, which is only a delightful 30 minute drive from some excellent birding trails in the Great Smokey Mountains, and equidistant from Asheville NC, one of North America's weirdest and most entertaining places.  Leaving before sun up, there was the predictably thick layer of fog along the mountain road, but even after the sun had its say, the mountains seemed to continue producing their own as the thick trees transpired with the cool morning air. It was beyond lovely, and it felt almost vulgar to zoom my focus in from the scenery and look at the little, mortal things. 

Juncos and Indigo Buntings were among the first birds to great the dawn, as well as Cedar Waxwings and a resident Golden-crowned Kinglet--a bird it felt very strange to see in late June. Because I couldn't find the famous Art Loeb trailhead, which I had driven past, I spent the morning on Black Balsam. It didn't pass through as much pine as Art Loeb, but the habitat was still gorgeous and there was plenty of activity. Chips and squeeks issued forth from the many tangles, while little flashes of yellow were more tantalizing, dare I say titillating, than an all-you-can-eat Thai buffet. 
The Chestnut-sided Warblers, seen the day before on Clingman's Dome, were still present and vocal, and another colorful lover of the elevated brush popped into view as well.  

Almost every eastern Wood Warbler feels like a long-overdue lifer, even though my opportunities for seeing them have been few and far between. It must be the saturation, the fact that so many of these birds' images are used on bird books, posters, club and company insignias, event or festival signs, and so forth. It's very understandable that these colorful fellows are the poster-children for birding paraphernalia, but the side effect is that, for one such as myself, it's like I've been missing a big, obvious, existentially essential aspect of North American birding (and to that point, I guess I have). 
The Hooded Warbler, with its obvious cowl, tries to stay out of the spotlight. The hood also doubles as a veil of anonymity for these birds, who have very controversial stances on Capital Punishment. J.J. Audubon nicknamed them "The Cheerful Executioners."

The Black Balsam trail was also the site of another personal victory, though one with less clear photographic proof. Through the misty morning the simultaneously mournful and delightful call of the Veery echoed forth from the thickly vegetated hillsides, as it had done the day before. This is a common experience any time I've birded near thick woods in the east, but never before had I actually seen the bird. 
Many of them called far from the trail, and the dew-soaked grass had already made my trousers chilled and uncomfortably form-fitting. But one bird called out just close enough to the path, and after some thoroughly saturating bush-crashing and a not inconsiderably amount of pishing (which may have had no effect), I finally stole a glimpse and a poor photo, of this woodland operatic phantom.   

As I mentioned before, one of the main attractions in Carolina was being able to explore beautiful areas without any pressures from time, temperature, or the Border Patrol. Taking scenery shots that really capture the atmosphere and environment of an area is very difficult, unless you're Jen Sanford. It's funny that in retrospect, scene shots such as the one below are pretty ubiquitous for the area. An American Dipper or two on the creek rock would be the only possible improvement.

It was a bit disappointing to miss the higher, thicker pine forest due to my choice of trail, but the alpine meadows and liminal brush between them and the deciduous woods had plenty of good stuff. The birds mentioned earlier made for a wonderful opening, but the last lifer of the day stole the show. Even with the incredibly high standards set by the Wood Warblers, this bird is a real looker. The vast majority of their breeding habitat is far to the north in Canada, but plenty of these birds, like many other Warbler species, stray down from their more northern range and breed along the Appalachians. 

The yellow spectacles and prominent eye, plus the bird's quaint accent and charmingly good manners all make it a winner. But best of all, this bird comes with its own built-in carcanet, a dripping medalion that draws the eyes up to the pure yellow throat and simultaneously down to the breast. Many would-be femme fatales and even ambitious trophy-wives cannot pull off this look, this balance, so well as the scrub-loving Canada Warbler. It's aboot time someone did it right.

I will have another opportunity to bird in this area, on the Tennessee side, next June, but for sake of my sanity and living in the moment, etc., I should say nothing more than that I am looking forward to it tremendously. There was still some birding work to do in Carolina, even after returning from the mountains. A little chunk of territory, Wayne County, needed to get its eBird information on the map.

Thursday, August 14, 2014

Carolina Birding: Fun in the Sun and Green Glorious Mountains

Greeting Birders, Non-birders, and B.I.nocular-curious Bros who are sneakily reading here but if caught by your roommate Bradley would claim it's only because you were googling 'Boobies" and 'Breeding Great Tits' and not because you're a closet bird nerd. 
I have done woefully little birding in the last few weeks, what with school getting back in session and Butler's Birds taking the backseat to having a job and other considerations (bird blogging is predominantly a financial burden). But migrants will be coming south soon and we're lurching to another exciting time of year. Without more Arizona material though, it's back east we go.

After the Great Texas Birding Adventure it would have been such a fizzle-out, such a quiet goodnight, to merely head back to Phoenix and enter a state of torpor for the rest of the summer. The Texas trip was tremendously birdy and successful by my less-than-expert standards, but it was also pretty exhausting, perhaps by anyone's standards. Sometimes one has to vacation from a vacation, and in that pursuit I went to spend time in the Piedmont region of North Carolina. Of course, one doesn't go to Carolina and visit neither the coast nor the mountains. In fact, I was fortunate to see both. 
The gorgeous ranges to the west promised plenty of resident lifers, beautiful birds I could see, or not, on leisurely hikes through alpine meadows and semi-rainforest, quite the contrast to the time-budget, smash-and-grab (careful around Endangered Species) birding in Texas. 

: :: ack. swoon :: :

But first, a little demonstration of uncommonly seen bird behavior: sunning. North Carolina is fraught with Eastern Wood-Pewees. These are way better than Western Wood-Pewees because they vocalize loudly and humorously, while also being generally more accommodating. 
One such EAWP was getting the ol' preening gland fired up for some vitamin D-fueled, anti-parasitic hygiene. Or, according to some, this bird was playing dead as part of an elaborate reuse to lure in morbidly curious prey like House Finches, a demonstration of predatory thanatosis otherwise known to occur predominantly in species of ciclid fish...

(No finches, or even flies, came to investigate the carcass)

Can you imagine if we regulated our hygiene this way, sticking our faces into an oily gland (it'd have to be the armpit) and then a rubbin' it all over our bodies? Actually...I take it back. That sounds nice.

"Yeah! Fresh!! Deodorant is for chumps!"

One of the first spots I visited for recreational hiking was Clingman's Dome, named of course after Sir Reginald B. Clingman, who was well noted for the size of his kopf. The Dome features a 1/2 mile walk up a busy paved path that takes one to a lookout near the Carolina/Tennessee border, a pulchritudinous and panoramic view to be sure. Even better, the Dome trail intersects with a 1 mile stretch of the Great Appalachian Trail, the really big one some people take from Georgia or wherever up to Maine. Following this wilder trail I could hobble my ol' bones into the thick forest that carpets the Great Smokies. I felt like the Last of the Mohicans--except less agile and with a camera--exploring the dense woods. Of course where there's vegetation and water, and even some cooler temps, there are birds.
And darn it all, if I must come out of vacation to do scrutinize them, then so be it. The Eastern Towhee mirrors its western cousin well with its ever present pillaging and calling from the understory, a credit to whatever the hell a towhee actually is (it's a pneumonic name, for their calls?).

It's not often I get to sample flavors of non Oregon-race Dark-eyed Junco. In fact, Baskin Robbins doesn't even carry it anymore. Slate-colored is probably the most common, or at least the most widespread in North America, but it's still a change for a Phoenician. Turns out immature DEJUs look like an emo subspecies of Pine Siskin. Maybe we all are a little Emo Siskin in our immature, angsty days. Shoot, if the corners of my mouth were yellow and droopy too I'd be a party defecator (actually this guy was pretty chipper).

Where the trail was thick and overgrown the sounds seemed as muffled as the light, and this added to a very primordial feel in these old mountains. But where there were openings the light and sound reverberated (ok, light doesn't reverberate, leave me alone). The excitement of hearing a new bird call is  a recognized and yet still under-appreciated buzz. Several new calls still belonged to birds I had seen before, though not recently, but some were new entirely. One such squeaky serenade belonged to the Chestnut-sided Warbler, a much wanted and long waited Warbler species predominantly of the east. This bird's cheery song was a new one, but one with which I quickly became familiar.

The first couple of birds I picked out were distant and backlit with the overcast weather, but this warbler, even being somewhat mildly colored compared to its cousins, is still done justice with the saturated colors. Pretty but professional...this is a Warbler you can take home to your parents!

I'm trying to talk about this all cool, like it was no big thing, but truth be told I was fairly beside myself. Wood Warblers are not a group we see much of in Arizona. These colors and these songs are a rare thing indeed in the southwest. The vagrants we pick up are usually young or in bad shape, so I had long been yearning for some real, East Coast Warbler exposure. The more I stared, the more I ogled and frothed at the mouth, the more I muttered expletives and incomprehensibles, the more the intricacies  of this bird affected me. Close up Warbler require medication soon afterwards.    

It was cathartic. I was finally in the beautiful green country, the overgrown, rolling mountains with Warblers buzzing around, and I was comfortable. There was no sweat nor were there thorns, just soft and lovely nature stuff in which I had all day to wallow. I didn't realize, until that moment, how much I had really been yearning for the experience. I don't precisely recall, but I'm pretty the entirety of my being melted into a large, pulpy puddle. Fortunately, I was on a decline and the puddle must have seeped downhill. I regained consciousness near the car, and quickly made plans to get back up into the mountains the next day. 

Friday, August 8, 2014

Bro, Do You Even Pish???

Even though they all have one terrifying thing in common, bird nerds are a pretty diverse bunch. There are the retiree birders, the hardcore listers, the young upstarts, the field biologists, the feeder watchers, and various other tendrils of the kraken. And like the birds themselves, there are many possible hybrids between these different species of nerd. Bird populations fluctuate. Ranges expand and contract. Some species thrive while others fade away, often replaced by adaptive, aggressive, or more versatile species. The same could be said of many breeds of birder. 
A recent, widely, and rightly mocked article on Esquire bemoaned the changing social scene of the birding community. With great trepidation it pointed to the increasing popularity of birding--even as a mild past time--not only in the mainstream, but in more stereotypical groups such as the "emo type" and the "frat-boy" birder. The author wanted to keep birding a small, esoteric hobby for himself, like a high schooler who just discovered a new Indie band and who doesn't want anyone else to know about it. The author is a jealous birder, even protective, but not a conservationist. Alas that none of the his revelatory, insecure premonitions seem to be transpiring. The number of "emo type" birders in North America is the same as the number of Piping Plovers breeding in Florida.
Nevertheless, the times they are a changin', and not necessarily for the better. Habitat loss and roving gangs of windmills are wreaking havoc on North American bird populations, many of which are in sharp decline. Esquire not withstanding, most people agree that awareness of birds and the need to protect their habitat needs to be expanded. 

There are initiatives underway to increase urban birding, and with that, diversify birder demographics. Qualifying species as 'endangered' can help with protection, but the political backlash here sometimes causes more harm than good. Whatever the other helpful solutions may be, birding also needs to become more popular with the mainstream. The endeavor itself and what it stands for (conservation) needs to become a commonly understood value, something vaunted and publicized in ways that might make the more timorous bird nerds flush for cover. 
To whom do do we turn? Who can bring birding into the mainstream? Who can infuse it with energy and money? Who can make it infectious even for those who'd prefer to mock it ironically from the sidelines? Without further adieu, I present to you a very special species. I present to you, the redeemer of North American birding.

The ill-fitting tank top, the crew socks with loafers, the sideways cap, the dangling lanyard, the vacant, empty-heaed expression...yes, yes you know who I'm talking about, and I realize what a radical proposition this is but I shall endeavor to justify. The salvation of birding, or rather of birds, lies with the Bros. End the brohibition!
They have the social capital. They have the energy. They have money. They tend to have wealthy parents. They get really, really excited (stoked) about stuff that they think is cool, and then they devote considerable time to it. 
Beer with me here; think about this for a minute. If we as bird nerds could get Bros to devote the same amount of time towards birding, and the conservation of bird habitat, as they devote to the muscle factory, bird-dogging chicks, and fussing with their facade, we would be knee-deep in Whimbrels (the very best depth of Whimbrels). This thing, it aint' pretty, but it's loud and really friggin' zestful. Get enough of them together and you've got a social force, one that is tech and media savvy. Let's put this creature to work for the birds:

Now grant me a little time here for specific exposition and specification. For you see, there are a couple different breeds of Bro, and we need to identify their positive, useful attributes first and then examine ways in which we can bring them into the fold, even if this will make the fold stink like Axe body spray and lavoris. I am willing to step in here, despite the perdition into which it may drag my soul, and aid in some Bro identification. After all, I attended an all-boys high school that literally had 'Bro' in its name, and can consider myself an experienced expert in Bro field studies. 
Real quick, here's an Elf Owl, before the lack of birds drives you away.

First, we'll start with the genera. There are two genera of Bro in the western world, with distribution concentrated primarily on the coasts including the Gulf, and also Syracuse, New York. We'll examine the first genus is more specific detail because it can be harder to identify, with its more subtle plumage and sociable behavior. Identify we must if we are to tag and drag such a specimen into the world of birding. We must understand it and approach it with caution, for it is insecure and easily startled. 
There are various species within this genera, distinguishable by voice and subtleties in plumage as well as range (east coats vs. west coast) and choice in footwear. This is the pampered Bro, genus Broticus Casanovicus, which includes the more localized East Coast species Prepicus Topsiderii, and we need all of them. Yes, I know it's more disgusting than a juvenile Mockingbird, but look nonetheless! 

See that douchebag? We need him. We need him because he has money and his dad has money and his Uncle Jim in Cape Cod has money. He has a yacht, and at night he parks his yacht inside the floating garage of his dad's yacht. This birder has capital, and this birder has clout. Not only that, but unlike some lawmakers or radical political friends, this target demographic is gettable. Why? Because even though this studmuffin has two collared shirts, both collars popped obviously and a puka shell necklace, he is incredibly insecure. I know he talks and swaggers big, but trust me. I have lived near this species of Bro before. I have studied it in the wild. This is its morning routine: 

"Alright you scrawny bastard. Everyone is watching. Everyone cares a lot, a real lot, about what you do and how you do it and how good you look while doing it. Don't mess this up and hate yourself forever. Are you ready??"

With the right approach, with some wheedling and cajoling and coddling and well-veiled ironic compliments, we can turn the morning routine of the Cash-Loafer Bro into:

"Hey there you magnificent bastard! Are you going to go find a MEGA today and then tweet it to your 700,000 followers!? You bet you are! And then you're going to put away more Jack Daniels and Coke than a graveyard shift liquor store shelf stocker!"

While most species of the Broticus Casanovicus genus are more localized, they have a considerable social weight across the continent relative to other groups. Their clout and capital influences advertisers. It makes politicians take notice. Species in this genera may seem insecure, but they tend to work at financial firms, at investment brokerages and software development companies while also taking classes in business management. Of course, not all Bros are bursting at the seams with Benjamins, but compared to other associations Bros tend to flash their cash and find outlets for their enthusiasm more so than many others. If we could harness their burgeoning financial power as well as their raw enthusiasm directed towards hair configuration, we could probably create infinitely renewable energy. At the very least, we would gain a privileged and powerful ally in the conservation of birds and their habitat. But how do we get its attention? First, let's look at field identification This photo was taken when the wild Bro species thought that Calvin Klein might have been looking.


Although there is some considerable variation by species, there are some commonalities across the genus that we will discuss here. The sunglasses are often resting atop the crown but seldom warn. There is always at least one and sometimes upwards of six adornments on the wrists, neck, and/or ankles, which often involve the shells of small mollusks, hemp, or hardened leather. This is a species of Double-Collar Popped Bro, and while no other species of Bro shows two popped collars, one is typical of many species in this genus. 
Expression is also key when identifying Bros. If no one else is paying attention to the Bro, it will often assume stank-face pose, undergo a brief, 7-second existential crisis (the longest recorded attention span of a Bro) and go change its shirt, or simply remove its shirt. Luckily that was not the case with this specimen, which was tamer than some. 


How can birding appeal to Bros? Well, starting off with a treatise on the ecological value of American Dippers is not the best angle. In fact, you'll probably get called a crass name like 'queer-mo'. 

A cool bird, but not of intrinsic value to a Bro, not like 14 Bald Eagles all in a pile. American birding cannot move forward without piles of Eagles!

Take the competitive angle. In your workplace or at family get-togethers, around your apartment complex and at your local pub, don't try to avoid the Chest-bumping Sidehat or the Oakleys-at-Night Owl. Most Bros are collegiate, and you'll find them concentrated on college campuses. Just think of how many are at U of A, a stone's throw away from Madera Canyon--and many have to take an environmental science class anyway! Words like 'face-melting' and 'crush' go a long way to setting the tone, but once you get a couple of Bros checking out the eBird Top 100 lists for their state or county, their high-adrenaline machismo drive, which is closely linked in the brain to the desire to feel popular and respected, will take over. This is not hypothetical. I have personal experience in getting Bro acquaintances involved with various hobbies they first thought were lame. Pretty soon they were so obsessed and one-track about the whole thing, sending constant phone calls and invitations and buying all kinds of products, that I was overwhelmed and driven away.
On a related note, it's true that greater Bro involvement in birding might seem unsavory to some birders, especially birders who are big fans of Esquire and quiet walks in the park. Increases in Bro birding would also bring some other repugnant behaviors as well, and it's fair to assume that the number of Natural Light cans along Antelope Island  or Lake Merritt would increase. Even so, it's a cost/benefit analysis that favors the Dudes. Though it seems like sacrilege to see a Bro with a Sibley's sticking out of his trousers, do not shun the blasphemer...continue the conversion.

I realize how iconoclastic this perspective is, how seemingly antithetical the involvement of Bros is to the values we draw from spending time in nature and with birds. Whether the Bro is a more refined East Coast specimen or the lower-middle class apartment type picture below, what force can they really bring? Remember, in the case of publicizing birding, any press is good press, and some of their worst character flaws can be great attributes. Combine the capital of Brotics Casanovicus with the raw energy and drive of the more common Broticus Slovenicus, the sort of fellow who will unabashedly lifer-dance in an apartment complex, and even in smaller numbers you have a dynamic force.


Don't believe me? How many Bros did it take to destroy the Aztec Empire, an excursion widely believed to have taken place simply because they made a wrong turn on a cerveza run?? So when Pledge to Fledge and other birder involvement initiatives come around, I challenge you to really make a sacrifice for the birds. Don't try to lure your grandmother or your little brother or the co-worker or friend whom you kind of want to flirt with but are nervous about directly addressing in a 1-on-1. These people will already be sympathetic to your causes. 
Try to get a Bro out birding. Tell him he might find a new species and get to name it. Tell him he could be number 1. Tell him there are lots and lots of available chicks in the birding scene. Prevaricate like no other; he won't even remember what you said. Whatever it takes to get 'em outside, a couple of flashy birds and a competitive edge will take care of the rest and give many the national park a much needed bolstering.
Next spring break? Yosemite baby!  

*No Bros were harmed in the making of this post, although someone other people might have been.