Tuesday, January 11, 2022

Steller's Article for National Audubon

The vagrant Steller's Sea Eagle is still in Maine and still a sensation. National Audubon asked me to write a summary of the bird's incredible path to Maine, and here it is

It's been so fun to play such a weirdly visible role in this bird's journey, from first cajoling the NYT into the first major article on the bird, to all kinds of press around the eagle's appearance in Massachusetts, to helping organize the ongoing response from Maine Audubon helping people safely see the bird. What a fun ride.

In more depressing news, my wife and I had to pull out of the long-planned trip I was supposed to be on RIGHT NOW to Costa Rica with a cadre of birding friends due to COVID concerns. We couldn't risk leaving our young son with my mom. Turns out just today, the day we were supposed to have left, our son's preschool emailed us to say that he had a close contact somewhere at school and now needs to quarantine until Jan. 24. Awful. Birding trips with friends are my absolute favorite thing on Earth, and I've been working really hard over the past two years (on this and this and other announcements to come), and really wanted this break. I'm kinda taking it like a big baby but oh well, there'll be other trips. 

Saturday, January 1, 2022

Steller's Sea Eagle in MAINE

I was having a pretty crummy day. My wife had given me the green light to go birding on 12/30, but I was striking out on all my targets. I wanted one last Maine year bird but couldn't connect. I whiffed on American Pipits at Scarborough Marsh, and Iceland Gulls along the Portland waterfront, and Yellow-breasted Chat downtown. My last hope for a new bird was a Lark Sparrow reported a few days earlier with House Sparrows behind an auto mechanic shop. 

So I sat in my car in the muddy back lot of a Subaru mechanic and watched some dumb House Sparrows fart around in a small bush next to an old rusting Outback. No Lark Sparrow. I felt like a goddamn loser, but then I checked my email.

I'd hoped for a last minute eBird Needs Alert but instead I found something much more interesting. A comment moderation message from this very web-blog, alerting me that someone named Linda Tharp had posted a note to my post about the Steller's Sea Eagle in Massachusetts. It read, "It's in Five Islands ME today, 12/30."

That was it. No photos. No contact info. No exclamation marks. 

"Probably someone just looking at a juvenile Bald Eagle," I thought to myself. There are plenty of people who, when there's a rare bird in the news, come out with a story of seeing it at their backyard feeder a few weeks before or something. It happens. Still, I was sitting in a stupid parking lot feeling stupid, and may as well try to get some more info. I searched for the name Linda Tharp on Instagram and immediately found a woman whose bio mentioned Five Islands, Maine. Her DMs were open so I gave it a shot. This is six minutes after she posted the comment to the blog.

WHELP. WHEEEEELLLLLLP. That's a Steller's Sea Eagle. You can see that I sent the first message at 2:21. What you can't see is that she responded with her message and that cell phone pic at 2:22, almost instantly. It's not suitable for framing, perhaps, but it was pretty clear that the Steller's was in Maine. 

I left the parking lot, my squealing tires probably dousing the House Sparrow flock in mud. I went right home. The next moves were to a) Hopefully try to get a better image from Linda to confirm the bird (ie there's no yellow bill visible in that pic; b) Understand if it is publicly accessible, if it's still being seen, how long it's been around, and any other useful information before; c) Getting the word out to as many people as possible.

Linda was fantastic. She was responding to my questions, and I spoke with her on the phone while I was in the car. Yes, it had a huge yellow beak, she said. It was hanging around with Bald Eagles, she said, indicating she could differentiate between the two species. At 2:48 she sent two other cell phone photos, still distant but enough to confirm. She said I could try to view the bird from her back deck if I could get there before dark. What a wonderful interaction. 

I texted my friend and Maine Audubon colleague Doug Hitchcox and others on our small birder friends group text, first to get their confirmation that this bird was the Steller's and wasn't some other species that just wasn't ringing a bell. I didn't hear anything different, and we all went for our cars. I stopped at home and quickly typed up messages for the Maine Birds Listserv and the Maine Rare Birds FB group getting word out about the eagle and including Linda's photos. The FB post was made at 3:10 PM, less than an hour after first hearing from Linda. 

The rest is still-developing history. I and a handful of other birders cranked up to Five Islands that afternoon but didn't find the bird before darkness. It was refound on the morning of 12/31, however, and I saw it that day. It was seen again today, Jan. 1, and will hopefully linger for many birders to come. If you've found this website in pursuit of information about the eagle I'm sorry but I don't really have that, please check Maine Audubon's updating blog post here, and please please please be respectful of the locals at Five Islands and be at times aware of yourself and whether you (or your car) is some place that it shouldn't be. Thanks. 

I was glad to play a tiny role in this bird being enjoyed by so many. I don't know how Linda found my blog -- she must have been aware of the bird somehow already in order to search the internet for a place to comment about it, right? -- but I'm glad she did. 

This Steller's Sea Eagle is such an incredible individual, I'm so glad I've now seen it in two states, including my home state. No one knows what the future holds for this bird but I'm excited to see what happens next.

Monday, December 20, 2021

Steller's Sea Eagle in Massachusetts

5:45 AM - I left my house in Cumberland, Maine and drove an hour south to York, to meet other birders for the York County Christmas Bird Count.

7:40 AM - We were counting! Things were going pretty well. We'd just seen a Northern Flicker, apparently the first one ever on the York count, and now we were walking through the cold and quiet but beautiful Highland Farm. Here's that.

Then I got a text from Doug Hitchcox: "Steller's was just found."

He was referring to the Steller's Sea Eagle. The species had never before been seen in North America outside of western Alaska, but one individual had been spotted in interior Alaska in August of 2020 has been disappearing and appearing all over North America since then. It was photographed in southern Texas in the spring -- a baffling sighting that was initially chalked up as an escaped bird or a hoax -- when all the way up in Quebec, New Brunswick, and Nova Scotia in the summer and into November, when it disappeared again. I spoke to the New York Times about the bird in mid-November after it had just gone missing again, and I told them I hoped it would fly to Maine. Apparently it did - but we all missed it. 

We learned yesterday, Dec. 19, that a photographer in Massachusetts had photographed the bird a week earlier, on Dec. 12. Not sure why word hadn't gotten out but the Taunton River area was searched yesterday without luck. This morning they had luck, and I got a text in York County.

8:48 AM - I abandoned the Christmas Bird Count. Sorry, York County, but there's a goddamn Steller's Sea Eagle two hours away. They had enough counters without me and I heard later that things went great. Doug and Fyn also paused their seawatch from Nubble Light. I picked up a Horned Lark (a year bird for Maine) along Short Sands Beach while we waited for Ed to come down from the Portland area.

10:32 AM - We are barreling through southern Massachusetts. I forced everyone listen to the Adam Sandler "Toll Booth Willie" skit after we passed the turn to Worcester and it was even dirtier than I remember. We were all shot up and boosted and wore masks in the car.

11:02 - We pull up to the tiny, private beach where the bird was last seen to the dreaded "you just missed it!" A birder's nightmare. It flew upriver somewhere and no one knows where it is. My gas light is on with 22 miles left until empty. We follow the roads upriver.

11:37 AM - We get word that the bird is being seen from Dighton Rock State Park. We go, park haphazardly, and there it is, across the river with a bunch of Bald Eagles. Holy shit. We're screaming.

We're not particularly close to the bird, but it sits still and gives great views through the scope. The orange bill is visible with the naked eye. The size stands out -- a pair of juvenile Bald Eagles perch just above it but are dwarfed by the Steller's. An absolute dream to be all of a sudden standing in this random park in southern Massachusetts looking at a wild, rare Russian monster. There are about 200 birders there by noon. We leave.

2:23 PM - Obligatory stop at the New Hampshire State Liquor Store to buy some vodka to commemorate our new comrade. I am home in plenty of time to pick up my son.

An amazing day. I never in my life thought I'd see a wild Steller's Sea Eagle, and may never again. This bird is my 699th ABA Continental species. It appeared healthy and was seen eating earlier in the day, and so hopefully it'll stick around to entertain many more birders.

9:25 PM - I sit down to write this blog and hit publish at, let's see, 10:57 PM, which is righhhhhhhhtttttt now.

Sunday, October 10, 2021

Interview with Birder / Pro Skateboarder Dave Mull

Skateboarding is the best thing in part because I don't know what kind of thing it is. A sport? Not really. A hobby? Doesn't seem strong enough. A ... thing?

Whatever it is, it's the best. It's athletic, but not competitive. It's as technical as gymnastics and as dangerous as football, but isn't full of meatheads. It's artistic, in that there are different ways to execute the same thing and each skater has his own style, or take on the same trick. Plus, as artists do, skaters look at the world differently than the rest of us - seeing the inescapable built environment as things to slide down or jump over or whatever. I just love it.

My brother, Alex, is a great skateboarder. Always has been. I am not, because I have no balance. But we've always enjoyed skateboarding together, and he regularly sends me videos and clips to watch to keep my appraised of the latest. A couple of years ago he started sending me clips from a company called Worble, who was putting out videos based around a dude named Manramp: an anonymous guy in overalls who carried around a piece of plywood to act as a moving feature. A man ramp. They videos ruled, and had a great soundtrack, and featured a long-haired skater named Dave Mull.

Alex sent me a couple more Worble videos and Dave Mull clips and I kept noticing something: there are, like, a bunch of birds in here. There was that Manramp intro where he's got a hawk on his arm. There was an Acorn Woodpecker in the stump jump B-side video, there was a young Red-tail ... I am used to seeing 0 birds in skate videos but now I am seeing birds. Then, Alex send a 2018 interview Mull did with Thrasher (uh, the skate magazine, not the Mimidae), and my suspicions were confirmed: Dave Mull is a birder.

I immediately knew I needed to interview him for Audubon, as I firmly believe in the mission of frantically pointing and waving when I find a birder who is outside whatever you want to think the traditional stereotype of a "birder" is. Dave Mull, pro skateboarder, is certainly outside it. I really enjoyed interviewing him for the National Audubon website.

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Friday, August 6, 2021

Birds at Large: The Bourne Identity (2002)

I don't know why this clip was recommended to me on YouTube. I have never seen the Bourne Identity and have never searched for clips of it, and don't care much for Matt Damon, and uhhh I just don't know. But I saw that there were birds in the thumbnail so I gave it a watch. You should too, for the purposes of this blog post!

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OK so this dude shoots some barrels and they explode immediately. I don't know if that's actually something that can happen (Mythbusters in 2005 apparently found that "It has already been proven that when shot by a normal bullet, a gasoline tank will not explode. However, if a gasoline tank is shot by a tracer round from a great enough distance so that the round can ignite with air friction, it will cause the gasoline to catch fire. By the time this happened, the tank was so riddled with bullets [from previous tracers that were fired too close to ignite], there was no contained pressure, but the MythBusters surmised that had the tank been properly enclosed, it might have exploded." Great!), but (still with me?) the thing I took from that explosion shot is "this movie is not set in the United States." Those are Europe homes!

So, I thought to myself, inner monologueingly, it seems likely that if there are any birds singing in the vicinity (if they haven't fled in terror from the massive explosion) they are likely to be ones that I cannot identify. I don't know the vocalizations of European birds, dear friends! I believed myself to be up the proverbial creek SANS paddle! 

Imagine my surprise then, when just a few moments later, the perfectly enunciated song of an Eastern Wood-Pewee bounded through my ear drums or canal or however it works. Surely I must be imagining things, I monologued to myself, innerly! An Eastern Wood-Pewee, in the snow, in Europe? There must be some mistake! I took off my headphones to check if there was some poor, lost Eastern Wood-Pewee stuck somehow in my basement office, but no. This was IN THE FILM. 

Look, I continued internally monologuing, everyone makes mistakes. It's OK! The wrong bird sound just slipped in there! It's the audio equivalent of a typo. Nothing to make a big deal out of!

But then in rapid succession came the vocalizations of Blue Jay, American Crow, and Black-capped Chickadee! Ain't none of these birds in France unless there was some kind of avian class trip? They were on a passing bus on the way to Normandy? No, no, no ("my inner monologue is arguing with itself now," I thought in an inner aside, a kind of even deeper, even inner-er monologue), birds don't take class trips. This was just a shitty job from the sound guy or gal.

Then Matt Damon goes over and shoots into the air and a ton of birds take off from the field. What the shit was that. Why didn't those birds flee during the earlier massive gas explosions and/or gunshots? What even were those things? Too skinny to be doves but does France have huge winter fields filled with snipe? 

This clip sucks and the movie looks like shit and if Matt Damon's character is supposed to be so smart why doesn't he know a single bird call? GOODBYE.

Tuesday, June 8, 2021

A quick post about Pat Hentgen, Major League Baseball player

As longtime readers (?) of this interblogsite know, I like to think about sports teams named after birds. Good times fun times all is well. But one angle I've never considered in all of this how the players feel about playing for a team named after a bird. 

And I still don't know that and can't really pursue it because I'm too busy and too lazy at the same time.

But if I were to talk to anyone I'd talk to Pat Hentgen, a Cy Young Award winner and three-time all-star pitcher who played between 1991 and 2004. He was a really good player and, for our purposes, has the unique status in major league baseball history as being the ONLY player to play for all three teams named after a bird (the Toronto Blue Jays, Baltimore Orioles, and St. Louis Cardinals), and ONLY those teams.

Every time Pat Hentgen put on a major league uniform there was a bird on it somewhere. Pretty cool.


Tuesday, May 11, 2021

In Memory of John Beetham

John Beetham, author of the longtime bird blog Dendroica (formerly A DC Birding Blog), passed away this week, just a day or so after competing in the World Series of Birding. I can't say I knew John -- I think I met him only once, in DC back in probably early 2006 -- but he was a good online friend, a pioneering bird writer and journalist, and by all accounts a nice man.

When I moved to DC in late 2005 I had the birding itch and was stuck in an office all day at a low-pressure internship. I couldn't leave the office to bird, but I could write about birding, and so I wanted to start a blog. Blogging, and birding blogs, were sort of new at that point. There were a lot of them, mostly all unread, and, as I recall, all pretty boring. Most had some boring title like "Backyard Musings" or something and every post was like "I went out this afternoon and saw a cardinal. Here, look at this awful picture I took." But the beautiful thing was that there was possibility in a blog - you could write about whatever you wanted with no editors and no filters. Some birding blogs weren't boring.

John's A DC Birding Blog (now Dendroica) was one of them. (10,000 Birds -- still going strong -- was another.) John posted A LOT in those days -- 528 separate posts in 2006!!! -- and didn't just post birds he's identified but wrote about history and advocacy issues and ephemera. Fun stuff, interesting stuff. He also played an important role as an aggregator of information - links, news stories - which he collected into his mentromically regular Loose Feathers column. This type of aggregation was the most useful way in those days for a writer to get noticed, or for like-minded blogs to find one another. Seeing one of my crummy little posts show up in John's Loose Feathers collection was such a thrill and an honor in those early days, the first taste of recognition. Fittingly, the last post that John ever published was the 800th edition of Loose Feathers.

The first time I ever corresponded with John was when on March 1, 2006, when I told him that I was starting my own blog, titled BirdDC. I don't know why I titled my blog something so close to the title of his ... I think people just used local geography in their blogs back then? Kinda rude of me, in any case. But, at least I owned it I guess, and I wrote to John:

Hello John- I just wanted to let you know that I have recently (still working out the HTML kinks) begun a blog called birdDC (http://birdDC.blogspot.com).  It's quite similar to your site, which I like very much, and for that I apologize, but I live in DC and love birding so what can ya do.  I just thought I would give you a heads-up about cramping your style rather than having you stumble upon it. Best, Nick

John wrote back the kindest response. Instead of saying, like, "Oh, good for you" or "Nice why didn't you call it something else you hack?" he wrote:

Nick - Thanks for sending me the link. It looks like your blog is off to a good start. Don't worry about cramping my style. There is plenty of room for additional voices among bird bloggers. When I started my blog I originally patterned it after several bird bloggers that I read and liked, and then eventually developed my own voice and style.

Then he offered to connect me to a blog carnival (these were early, curated collections of blog posts hosted on a rotating blog roll) that he was managing. I mean, just the nicest guy and the kindest response. 

We supported each other and kept reading each other after that. I followed his advice and went to good birding spots. I learned about the issues from him. I "interviewed" John in 2006 as part of my very-lame-in-retrospect Birder Profile series. Maybe our biggest shared thrill was when John and I debated the question of what percentage of rare birds get found (I was on the Birdist site then), and we were directly refuted by David Sibley himself! David Sibley read our dumb little thing and thought we were so wrong he put down his paintbrush to (very kindly) join the conversation! A badge of honor.

But to be honest the Sibley issue illustrates perfectly the excitement of those early blogging years. Two non-experts could write about whatever popped into our heads, post it online, and have the biggest minds in birding read it and respond. There was no gate-keeping or approvals, no one to tell us what to post or what not to post, and genuine freedom to let writers develop their interests and reach viewers with minimal road blocks. Everything I've written and published is due to the freedom I had in those early bird blogging days and to the support of John Beetham and people like him (but mostly just him).

I didn't "know" John, and never birded with him, but I don't want his small but important place in birding history to be forgotten. He was a great writer and by all accounts a good person and good birder. I want to thank him for his friendship and support, and I extend my deepest sympathies to his family and friends. 

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