Monday, February 26, 2024

Recent Article and Appearances!

 Hello my dear friends. Here's a quick update with some things I've been doing recently.

WSKI appearance

I grew up snowboarding at Sugarloaf Mountain in Maine, and spent mornings there watching the tiny local TV station, WSKI. It's a delightful channel, footloose and unserious and joyous in all the best ways that a ski mountain vibe can be. I'm honored to now have been asked onto the channel a few times in the past year to talk about birds in the area. My latest appearance was last weekend, and as always I enjoyed the back-and-forth with host Greg Powers.

Birds and A.I. in Slate

Generative A.I. is the stupidest thing. I hate it, but it wasn't until it started getting personal that I took to Slate to complain to a wider audience.

The AOS Bird Name Change in Slate

I am really excited about the AOS' decision to rename eponymic bird names. It's going to be fun, but it's also going to be hard to settle on a name. I wrote about that challenge for Slate.

Rare Bird Stakeout Etiquette for National Audubon

Showing up to a rare bird stakeout is one of the most anxiety-inducing aspects of birding. You never know whether the bird will be there until you arrive, and it's easy to get frustrated if it doesn't show up. It helps to help each other, and so I wrote a quick Dos and Don'ts piece for Audubon about how to make the most of your time with a rare bird.

Nature and Video Games for Atmos

Finally, I'm quoted in this really interesting piece from Lewis Gordon writing for Atmos called From Pixels to Politics: How Video Games Can Inspire a Green New World. "As manufactured as it was, that sensation of abundance, the ‘everyday-ness’ of nature, the ever-presence of nature, is not something we feel in the same way anymore. Red Dead Redemption 2 gave me what felt like a glimpse of that.” 


Monday, December 4, 2023

Birds in Video Games: Grand Theft Auto 6 Trailer

The trailer for Grand Theft Auto 6, maybe the most-anticipated video game in history, leaked on social media last night. It looks pretty goddamn rad. The game returns to Vice City, a fictional town based heavily on Miami, and the trailer is set firmly in the nutso world of South Florida. 

Plus, there are a TON of birds.

Birds and other wildlife appear throughout the trailer, especially early on when the setting is being established. As I do, I wanted to take a close look -- going on the trailer and trailer alone -- and give my thoughts on how things look.

The very first image in the trailer includes some birds flapping and wheeling in the upper left. They are .. odd. They've got broad wings and are spinning in a kettle like Black Vultures would do, only they're flapping really quickly unlike any bird at all. Honestly they look like fruit bats. 

There are birds in very next scene, as well: some goose-looking birds flying over the barbed wire in the top left. The structure looks pretty good for geese, though they never fly in scattered flocks like this. Would be great to get the in a realistic formation, but they may not be geese at all.

The trailer kicks into gear (the Tom Petty soundtrack rules) with a flying shot over a beach, with a bunch of pelicans cruising past. They look pretty good for Brown Pelicans (I think the odd whiteness on their wings is just an artifact of the bright sunlight), which are the expected birds here. Not bad.

Check out this awesome shot of an airboat cranking through some Everglades-y landscape. Ducks are flushing from the grass, and they look pretty good for Mallards or other Anas. Getting South Louisiana vibes more than South Florida, but what do I know?

The moneyshot! Look at this goddamn image! This looks more like the Everglades, and has just a boatload of what look to be pretty accurate American Flamingos flying around. 

It's pretty funny. I know the summer of 2023 was a wild one for flamingos in the states, but they're much less common than many non-birders believe. As in, there's sometimes only a single known individual in all of Florida at any one time. A flock like this hasn't been seen anywhere in the U.S., not even South Florida, in centuries. Still, cool.

There are some other birds in this shot, too. There are some cranes on the left side that @ramone_rita pointed out on Twitter look okay for juvenile cranes, which have orange feathering up their necks, though the plumage isn't quite right for either Sandhill or Whooping.

There are also some ducks and/or geese on the right side, just over the back of a flamingo. 

 Birds aren't the only wildlife in the trailer. A bunch of gators make appearances (along with a pod of dolphins in one of the early overhead ocean shots), including one menacing its way into a convenience store. This image above, which appears to be from the social media account of some kind of in-game wildlife group, makes me think that there's probably a mechanic or side quest in the game for capturing troublesome wildlife. I bet there's a Green Anaconda round-up, or maybe some feral hog wrangling. We'll see.

Birds make a brief appearance in the very final image, too, flying by right above the guy's arm and behind the middle telephone line. Birds are all over this game, though my initial sense is that there's some work to do to make them as accurate as the rest of the South Floridian world playable in the game. We'll know more when the game comes out in 2025. 

Friday, November 24, 2023

Know Your Birdseed!

When I was a kid and we wanted to fill our bird feeder we reached for one thing: birdseed. It came in a big bag from the store and we used a scoop to dump it onto our feeder. What kind of seeds were in birdseed? We had no idea. Did some birds like some seeds more than others? The thought never crossed our minds. It was birdseed, and it was what the birds ate.

But it turns out that it pays to understand your birdseed. Different birds prefer different seeds, and so knowing exactly what you’re putting into your feeders can help you attract the birds you want. And maybe just as importantly, some companies fill out bird seed mixes with certain seeds birds don’t like, and count on consumers not knowing the difference.

A little knowledge can help both you and the birds in your backyard. Let’s get educated about the different seeds out there.

Black Oil Sunflower 

Black Oil Sunflower seeds have the broadest appeal for backyard birds. The combination of a large, nutritious seed with a thin, easy-to-crack shell means that they’re popular with everything from larger birds like Blue Jays and Mourning Doves to smaller species like Pine Siskins and nuthatches.

Tips: Birds prefer the all black Black Oil seeds to the similar-looking Striped Sunflower seeds, whose thicker shells make them better for people to snack on but are too tough for some birds. Also, sunflower seeds are sold both as regular seeds and with the outer shells already removed, known as “shelled” or “Sunflower Hearts.” Birds love both, but losing the shells means there’s less mess under your feeders.

Safflower Seeds

These white seeds are enjoyed by many of the same birds as those that eat Black Oil Sunflower, but Safflower seeds are perhaps more interesting for what doesn’t eat them. Their bitter taste makes them unappealing to squirrels, grackles, starlings, and other species that can sometimes take over feeders. 

Tips: Safflower seeds are not as common on grocery store shelves as Black Oil and some other seeds, and so shoppers may need to find a dedicated wild bird store or similar outlet. These seeds may need to be introduced gradually if using for the first time to help birds get accustomed.


Also known as White Proso Millet, this grass seed is a common component of many seed mixes. These small, round seeds may be white or red, and appeal to a number of smaller birds, like sparrows and finches.

Tips: All birdseed can get moldy when wet, and millet is particularly quick to ruin in the rain. It can be tempting to load backyard bird feeders up with seed, but it’s better to fill only a little bit at a time to avoid exposure to moisture.


This thin, black seed is the food of choice for small-billed finches like goldfinches, redpolls, and Pine Siskin. Though often referred to as “thistle,” and appearing similar to the seeds of those spiky plants, nyjer seeds actually come from African yellow daisies.

Tips: Nyjer seed is so lightweight that it will simply blow away if placed in a feeder with bigger, heavier seeds. This seed is best delivered in special feeders with smaller openings, or dumped into nylon “socks” with holes just the right size for prying finch beaks.


Milo, also known as Red Milo or sorghum, is a seed to be careful of. It looks for all the world like something that birds would love, but most of them don’t. Unless you’re especially trying to attract turkeys, quail, Mourning Doves, ducks, geese, and other large birds, you won’t want to put Milo in your backyard feeders.

Tips: Though few birds eat it, inexpensive Milo seed is often used as filler in bargain birdseed mixes. This Washington Post expose found that Milo made up to 75% of some mixes. Read the ingredients on the back of the package and buy something else if Milo is listed. Your money will be wasted on food that birds don’t eat, and the seed may rot when it's left in the feeder by uninterested birds.

There are lots of other great things to feed your backyard birds – suet, cracked corn, peanuts, fruit, native berries – but birdseed is still the most popular item on the menu. I hope now you have little more info to help you give your birds the feast they deserve.

Sunday, July 23, 2023

Shearwaters in the Gulf of Maine

There are four regularly-occurring shearwaters in the Gulf of Maine: Great (the most numerous), Cory's, Sooty, and Manx. Telling them from one another can be tricky, especially when the boat is rocking and/or you're actively barfing. I took a whale watch boat out of Boothbay Harbor this week and got pretty good looks at all four species, and so wanted to take a moment to compare them for you. 

Shearwaters are encountered offshore, usually seen resting on the water, skittering awkwardly out of the way of your tour boat, or flying incredibly gracefully low over the water. I think it was that old philosopher, Wikipedia, who said it best: "These tubenose birds fly with stiff wings and use a "shearing" flight technique (flying very close to the water and seemingly cutting or "shearing" the tips of waves) to move across wave fronts with the minimum of active flight." 

Sooty Shearwater

These guys are the easiest so I'm getting them out of the way first. Sooty Shearwaters are all brown. They're the only all brown ones. Their underwings are flashy silver, which may help in certain lighting conditions or when you see one far away, but their all-brownness is the thing. They're about the same size as Greats.

Great Shearwater

The Great (not Greater!) Shearwater is the most common shearwater seen in the Gulf of Maine, oftentimes by a factor of 20 or so to 1. It's the default species, and so getting a good mental image of their size, plumage, and structure is important to use as a baseline to compare other species.

The most notable field mark, I've found, is the white on their head. Both in flight and on the water, Greats have white feathering that wraps most of the way around their neck, giving them a capped appearance. For me, that cap is the first thing I look for when seeing a shearwater: if it's got a cap, it's a Great. 

Cory's Shearwater

These shearwaters are bulkier than Greats, without a capped appearance and all-brown on top. Their yellow bill, if you can see it, is a cherry on top. On our recent trips these birds numerous, and for some stretches about equalling the number of Greats. 

There are two subspecies of Cory's in the Atlantic: the borealis subspecies (the expected on in the Gulf of Maine), and the diomedea subspecies, known as Scopoli's Shearwater. The easiest way to separate the two is by the amount of white in the underwings, with Scopoli's showing more white in the primary feathers near the tip of the underwing. 

Manx Shearwater

Manx Shearwaters are the smallest regular shearwater in the Gulf. They are, oh I dunno, 2/3 the size of a Great? That feels about right. Though they have white on the face, it's much more limited than on a Great, and doesn't really give them a capped appearance in flight (thought it does on the water a little bit). They're a darker brown, close to black. The bottom photo shows a Manx taking off above a Great, making for a helpful comparison. 

Tuesday, February 21, 2023

Birds at Large: The Birds of Elden Ring

I know I'm about a year late on this but who cares. Elden Ring is a video game, and it rules. It's the latest in a series of games from a company called FromSoftware where the player travels some forsaken countryside killing monsters and knights and ghouls and all kinds of other what-have-yous. It's the first game in the series that I've ever played, but I've been obsessed with it for the past bunch of months.

Not everything in the Elden Ring universe is, like, a murderous skeleton or a blood-spewing demigod. There's also wildlife! They're just hanging around and living their little lives in the middle of an insane world of death and despair. There are deer and sheep and bears and pigs. And birds. Let's talk about the birds.


The first bird you encounter in Elden Ring are these eagle-looking birds, just hanging out on cliff edges. They're vaguely Golden Eagle-looking, though aren't exactly that. They make a sort of chirping noise that I can't really place, and they fly when you get close. Maybe the most numerous bird in the game. 


The cliffside eagles aren't hostile, but there are some other eagle-type birds that do come after you and they're a real pain in the ass. Warhawks have blades attached to their legs (some of them also have falconry hoods), and they're massively annoying when they come attack you. Players just getting started through Stormveil Castle know what I'm talking about, but they're not any easier later in the game, like a nasty gauntlet of them in Crumbling Farum Azula, which you have to run through while also dodging a lightning-casting dragon. Ugh. 

Here I am about to get chonked in the back by this jerk in Stormveil Castle. 


These alcids are fairly common on the oceanside cliffs and beaches in the southern part of the map. Fitting with the UK bent of the wildlife in this game, this bird is what we in the states would call a Common Murre (EDIT: or, perhaps more likely, a Thick-billed Murre). The Guillemots in the game call when you're close to them, but it doesn't sound like the sound of real Common Murres, not sure what it is.

Here I am sneaking up on some of these MFers on a beach. So confiding! Maybe they're sick, from all the death. 


The least common of the cliffside birds, in my playing experience, is this owl. It's clearly a Northern Hawk Owl, but it sits on cliffs rather than on the tops of trees like real hawk owls. The Elden Ring owls make a soft hooting noise instead of the undulating sounds of a hawk owl. A missed opportunity if you ask me. 

A Bunch of Birds That Swirl Around 

If you climb up near the top of Mt. Gelmir, real close to where you have to fight that big rock bull guy, there are all these birds flying around. They sound like crows, but they're barely rendered and look more like swallows or something. I dunno. They're birds. 

Here's my dude climbing up the ladder and you can see some of the birds in the background. This isn't a funny post or anything these are literally just the birds from this video game.

Oh god no those Giant Crows

Some of the game's scariest and toughest non-boss enemies are these nightmares found around Caelid and Mohgwyn Palace. The Mohgwyn ones are covered in disgusting bloody sores, for good measure. I hate these shits and never want to see them again.


There are four of these "field bosses" that appear at night in certain areas of the map. They're birds, I guess, in that they have "bird" in their name and they have, like, the skull of a giant baby owl. But they also have wings and arms, and are just generally not very birdlike. They're skeletons for chrissakes. Plus each and every one of them kicked my ass multiple times before I could find the right cliff to stand on to smoke them with arrows from a mile away.

Thanks that's all! Great to see you all!

Monday, January 23, 2023

Sugarloaf Bird Man

Ugh sorry no blogs for so long MY FAN(S) IS/ARE FURIOUS! I've been doing a lot of writing recently, just not on here. Will have some more info to come when I can.

But I did want to share a recent appearance of mine on WSKI, a local access channel in Carrabassett Valley, Maine, home of the Sugarloaf ski area. I've been going to Sugarloaf my whole life and watching the low-budget-but-high-spirits WSKI for that whole time. It was a true pleasure to join the crew for a morning in December. Check it out!

Tuesday, June 7, 2022

Mississippi Big Day Attempt

I spent just a single year living in Mississippi but the impact has been much greater. My largest continuing connection is through a group called Delta Wind Birds, a non-profit started by friends that works to protect shorebird habitat in the floodplains of west Mississippi. It's been a real pleasure to see the group go from its kitchen-table beginnings to helping protect hundreds of acres in this under-conserved region. (Plus they released an awesome collection with my favorites at Bird Collective.)

For the past several years, Delta Wind Birds has tried to raise funds by attempting to break the Mississippi Big Day record. I joined them in 2017 where we fell just short of breaking the then-record of 175 species. They tried again the next year without me (look, it's fine), and succeeded in setting a new record of 179 species. They continued to refine the route, but COVID threw things off a bit, but in 2022 they were back, and once again invited me along.

I love everything about these Big Days. I love being in Mississippi; the landscape is so open and beautiful and different from what I'm used to. I love the atmosphere down south and the food. I love the dudes I'm birding with -- Jason Hoeksema, JR Rigby, Hal Mitchell, and Andy Bell -- who are all much better than I am but also all funny as hell and don't ever let things get too intense or serious. 

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