Wednesday, May 22, 2024

Birds in Video Games: California Games and Town & Country Surf Designs: Wood & Water Rage (NES)

I am old enough that I plated the original Nintendo Entertainment System (NES) when it was new. It ruled. We had our own console and games, but we also partook in the time-honored and must-missed pastime of shlepping to the video store to rent games.

Renting was a great system, because back in those days you could beat an entire video game in a night or a weekend, rather than spending hundreds of hours tweaking the length your avatar's moustache handles or whatever games are like now. Plus, you didn't feel bad about playing a crappy game because you were only out the cost of the rental.

Two of those crappy games were California Games and Town & Country Surf Designs: Wood & Water Rage. 

I remember them specifically as rentals because each had its own eye-catching box art that was hard to miss on the shelves. California Games, from 1987, featured a babe in a yellow bikini. The cover of Town & Country Surf Designs: Wood & Water Rage, from '88, was an absolute mess of shit including a surfing gorilla, a giant yin-yang, and some guy in like a tribal mask? It looks like hell, but I remember it clearly.

Both games looked to cash in on the late-80s popularity of skateboarding, surfing, and other "alternative" sports. Town and Country Surf Designs, aka T&C Surf Designs, is actually a surf shop in Hawaii, which is, having been to plenty of skate/snow/surf stores in my day and meeting the owners, quite a goddamn coup if you ask me. 

Anyway, California Games lets players choose between skateboarding, surfing, footbag, "flying disc," roller skating, and BMX. T&C Surf Designs has just surfing and skateboarding. Wikipedia tells me that California Games was a massive blockbuster, selling more than 500,000 copies. T&C Surf Designs was less of a blockbuster, and, in my experience as a player, sucked ass and was wicked hard.

But since they are both outdoor games they both have birds in them. Let's start with T&C Surf Designs.

Players, like this cat in a tuxedo (??), encounter a gull-like bird during the surfing stage. The bird flies in from stage left and tries to knock the player into the water. It's not a very well rendered bird. Logic would assume it's a gull, but there is nothing that black and white anywhere, and the bird is proportionally more like a goose with its big head. Frankly, I don't like it and don't want to talk about it any more.

There's a better-looking gull in California Games. 

This bird flies over the players head during the footbag stage, and the player can kick the sack up and cause the bird to flip out of control. It's a well-done gull! Gray wings with black tips and a yellow bill. The unmarked yellow bill makes this a pretty good fit for a Short-billed Gull (though the proportions and size are off), which can be found in the Bay Area in winter. The extremely revealing shorts that Alex is sporting in this screencap aren't maybe ideal for winter (though they are ideal for showing off those buns! Get it, Alex!), but there appears to be snow on the mountains in the background so who knows.

Tuesday, May 14, 2024

Birding the Azores in April

The first thing that made me want to visit the Azores was a computer game, Indiana Jones and the Fate of Atlantis. Indy and his friend visit the islands to try to track someone down or something ... I don't remember much except thinking "whoa that place looks pretty nice."

The second thing that made me want to visit the Azores was Google Street View Birding, where I'd digitally-explored the islands looking for the Azores Bullfinch. I never found the bird on Street View, but I found views beyond belief. Massive, verdant, rural hillsides leading down in every direction to glistening blue waters - what was this place?? 

The third thing was my family. I can't just "go on vacation" with my non-birding family in a place that has a bunch of new birds. I'd go insane. Every second taking selfies or touring the cheese factory or whatever while life birds flitted around outside, unseen, is pure panic. Can't do it. The Azores, with just a handful of endemics and just a couple dozen resident species, are a great compromise. I could do a little birding, but I wouldn't be worried about missing everything. 

Plus, a direct flight from Boston. We hit the road over my son's April vacation from school.

Island Background

The Azores are an archipelago of volcanic islands in the middle of the Atlantic. Culturally and politically the islands are Portuguese -- they are officially called the Autonomous Region of the Azores -- and the islands' villages showcase the narrow streets and white buildings of Portugal. It's really beautiful. There are nine main islands, and we traveled to the two most populous: Terceira and São Miguel.

Traveling around the Azores is very easy. We were able to rent an automatic car (I know, I know), and the roads are excellent around the island, though narrower than what's in the U.S. The islands we traveled to are very well set up for tourists, and most everyone speaks English. The currency is the Euro, but most everywhere (except for one or two places) takes debit cards. 

The food is so damn good, and relatively cheap (especially in grocery stores). Surprisingly, for its location, seafood plays second fiddle to locally-grown meat and cheese. Fine with me!

Bird Background

Centuries of human habitation have greatly changed the Azorean landscape. The majority of the islands have been cleared for agriculture -- much of it in the form of a, frankly, beautiful checkerboard of small cattle pastures bordered by walls of volcanic stone -- and very little native vegetation remains. What's left is mostly at high elevation or in inaccessible areas. There were likely multiple bird species endemic to the Azores before humans arrived -- here's evidence of at least one additional bullfinch -- but for now there are only three: the Azores Bullfinch, closely matching the plumage of a female Eurasian Bullfinch but limited to about 1,400 acres of native vegetation on the slopes of Pico de Vara mountain on São Miguel; the Azores Chaffinch, a widespread bird recently split from Common Chaffinch; and Monteiro's Storm-petrel, a close relative of the Band-rumped Storm-petrel that nests on a few islets off Graciosa island.

There are a host of subspecies on the islands as well, each with varying cases for full specieshood. Island subspecies include Azorean Common Buzzard; Yellow-legged Gull; several subspecies of Goldcrest; Blackcap; Quail; Blackbird; Starling; and more. 

True excitement, though, may be the vagrants. Situated as they are right in the middle of the Atlantic, the islands are a magnet for wayward migrants moving along both the North / South America and Europe / Africa flyways. Though I didn't plan it this way, my trip at the early stages of peak migration meant that vagrants could show up anywhere, and they certainly did. More on that later. Let's get into some specific spots.

Terceira - Paul do Cabo da Praia

Well, I told my family that this wasn't a birding trip but I'll be damned if I wasn't out with the bins at this spot about 15 minutes after getting off the plane. It's a former quarry off an industrial area that is renowned for attracting shorebird species from both sides of the Atlantic. It didn't disappoint. There were a ton of birds here, including my lifer Kentish Plover and Common Greenshank, alongside Red Knots, Curlew Sandpipers, a ton of Sanderlings, a Dunlin, Common Ringed Plovers, and even a vagrant and very out-of-place-looking Long-tailed Duck at the back. There were also apparently Semipalmated Plover and Whimbrel around, though I wasn't able to find them. I was only about to spend a half hour here before my family got eager to get on with the trip, but it was unforgettable. Here's the list

And we weren't even done! My wife and son were playing on a nearby seawall while I birded, and I took a peak over into the water when I went to meet them before heading out. Immediately I saw something I knew I shouldn't: a diving bird swimming in the water. There aren't cormorants or sea ducks or alcids on the Azores, and so I knew this was something good. Thankfully, the dagger bill and body posture were immediately recognizable: it was a Common Loon! Vagrants abound!

Terceira - General

After the quarry the plan was to just circumnavigate the island to see the sights. It's only a few kilometers around, so it doesn't take long. We slowly made our way around, stopping at various viewpoints and tourist type places.

I was immediately impressed at how birdy everything was. Everywhere we went there were birds flying around - out of and into fields, off rock walls, overhead. Most of these birds were birds introduced from Europe -- House Sparrows, European Starling, Eurasian Collard-Doves; Common Wood-Pigeon, etc. -- but also plentiful Azores Chaffinch, Island Canary (endemic to just these and some other Atlantic islands), and welcome birds like Eurasian Blackcap, Eurasian Robin, and Eurasian Blackbird. It was nice.

One especially nice stop was Miradouro da Ponta do Queimado, a lighthouse and overlook on the far west side of the island. We were just there for the views, but I noticed some birds riding high on wind above the cliffs. First, Barn Swallows (from the European "White-bellied" subspecies), a not-unexpected vagrant to the islands and a pleasant surprise. Then, something better: a large, dark swift. The only bird I'd ever seen like it were some Black Swifts back in Colorado, but I knew that this weren't them: this was either a Common or a Pallid swift, a much less common vagrant from Europe. Yeah! I stopped the car in the middle of the road and jumped out with my camera but only managed a single terrible photo before the bird disappeared. Still, not at all a bad first day in the Azores.


On day two we climbed Monte Brasil, a major volcano peninsula dominating the landscape above the largest city on the island, Angra do Heroísmo. Climbing Monte Brasil is a primary goal for tourists during the summer high season, I'm told, but it wasn't very crowded at all for us. The birds were just OK -- there were plenty of the regular blackbirds, blackcaps, greenfinches, goldfinches, and others -- but the highlight was seeing some nice low-soaring individuals from the Azorean race of Common Buzzard at the caldera. Here's the eBird list.

Terceira - Pelagic

The Azores are famous for whale-watching, with dozens of different marine mammals seen. Some are residents, like Sperm Whales and a few dolphin species. The islands are also a hotspot for migrating whales, including my absolute dream species: the Blue Whale. I booked two different whale watches during our trip -- the middle of the high season for baleen whale migration -- in hopes of catching up to a Blue Whale. 

It wasn't meant to be. Strong storms for the week before we arrived were just dissipating, and our trip was the first our tour company, OceanEmotion, had been able to run in several days. We did not get lucky. For whatever reason, most of the whale watch folks we spoke to said that the baleen whales had moved past already, even though most sources say that the season runs through June. I guess March is really a better time if you want to see a Blue Whale. 

The birding was, frankly, not very exciting. Though one would expect that these waters would support all kinds of seabird species there was only one around this time of year: the Cory's Shearwater. We saw them by the hundreds, and they were visible any time I could get bins on the ocean. I had some good looks, but after a while hoped for something different, even if it were a Scopoli's Cory's Shearwater from the Mediterranean. There are storm-petrels around, apparently, but I didn't see any, and the endemic Monteiro's Storm-petrel does not breed near Terceira. Still I got a couple of decent photos.

Terceira - Paul da Praia da Vitória

Our final stop on the third day was Paul da Praia da Vitória, a park and small wetland lake near the airport. Lots of different vagrant birds had been reported here. I didn't have a whole lot of time, and didn't really walk in the right direction, I think, (should have crossed the bridge on the side away from town), but did manage to see some Western Cattle Egrets, a Great Egret, and a Bank Swallow. There was more there, I think, but I missed it. Next time.

São Miguel - Lagoa das Sete Cidades

We left Terceira and flew to São Miguel. The largest of the Azorean islands, and the most populated. But, similar in all ways, including its beauty. Our first stop was the Lagoa das Sete Cidades, a beautiful set of lakes set inside a dormant volcano on the west side of the island. The views are extremely Instagrammable, and the hikes above the lake were the most touristy things we did during the trip. I can't imagine how much busier it must be during the summer - though the crowds petered out a lot just a few feet away from the main parking lots.

There weren't many birds to speak of on the top, but things picked up a little bit down by the lakeshore. Again, as with any freshwater water body on the islands, any type of vagrant water bird would be possible. I didn't see anything particularly great, though there were apparently some good birds on other parts of the lake. Family time overruled birding time, but I was after some good stuff in the morning. 

São Miguel - Azores Bullfinch

Aside from the recently-recognized Azores Chaffinch, the Azores Bullfinch is the only endemic passerine on the islands. I wonder if there were more before the arrival of humans, like Hawaii, or if science will recognize island subspecies as full species in the future. For now, though, the bullfinch, called the Priolo, is the major birding draw on the island.

It's pretty amazing the bird is still with us. The island's native forests have been decimated by agriculture and the takeover of invasive plant species like Japanese cedar. Only small areas of its preferred habitat, mostly Macronesian Holly, remains on the steep slopes of Pico de Vara on the island's west end. It's believed that the bird's entire range is barely more than 1,400 acres. 

Restoration efforts have helped bring the bird back from the brink, thankfully, from just 30-40 pairs in the 1970s to more than 700 pairs today. Still, that's not very many, and the bird is somewhat notoriously difficult to find despite its limited range. My understanding was that weather was a major factor in a successful chase, with the mountain's frequent rain, wind, and fog often thwarting hopeful birders. 

I watched the eBird reports in the weeks leading up to my trip and saw that there are basically three areas most people find the bird: the southern slopes, the northern slopes, and the eastern slopes / Interpretation Center of Priolo. We were staying the night in Furnas, on the southwest side of the mountains, but eBird convinced me to try the roads along the northern end. A major help were some reports from Maine young birder extraordinaire, Matthew Gilbert, who happened to be vacationing with his family just a week before my arrival. Matthew kindly shared some good advice about where to look for the bird, but his eBird checklist comment -- "Finally!" -- wasn't reassuring. Apparently he looked three separate times for the birds, all in foul weather, before finally hearing them at this spot. I only had one morning to search, and would have to take whatever weather I was given. 

I was up at dawn and driving up out of the caldera and around towards the north side of the island. The mountaintops were shrouded in fog when I left our apartment, but I continued along the island ring road until turning off on M1033 and heading up. Things were looking calm and clear. Perfect birding weather. I was feeling good. 

But, no birds at the first stop, including down the little side road that Matthew had heard his birds. The roads here are dirt but are wide and of good quality. It's a little unclear whose property things are, though the first set of buildings I parked at appeared to be owned by the government. There was no one around, and I had the gorgeous tropical mountainside morning all to myself. 

I headed further up and parked off the side where a couple of roads diverged, then began slowly walking up the road. With the weather so nice, I knew it was now just a matter of getting lucky and bumping into some birds. I strolled around a tight corner and spied a pair of chunky white birds flying across a field and into a group of bushes. I knew immediately I had found my birds. Here is the exact point

The pair (there was a third further down) fed in the bushes for about twenty minutes while I watched. It was perfect: me, alone on a stunning morning on a mountainside in the middle of the Atlantic with a pair of birds who beat the odds to survive. They didn't make a sound the whole time, just fed until they were full then popped up into a cedar, and then headed out back across the field. A perfect morning, and I was back at home before my family had finished breakfast. Here's the final checklist

São Miguel - Lagoa de Furnas

Furnas is a lovely little town in the mountains famous for its hot springs. There is an impressive collection of fumaroles downtown, and a really fancy hotel and grounds, the Terra Nostra, with a geothermal pool open to the public. I recommend it. 

We also took the short trip down to the nearby lake, which is bordered on one end by a geothermally-active field where local restaurants bury pots of meat and vegetables to cook their famous stew known as cozido das Furnas. We strolled along the lake sipping freshly-made rum and pineapple drinks and, what do you know it, like every body of fresh water in the Azores, there were rare birds around. Specifically, a spotted vagrant American birds, a Pied-billed Grebe and a Glossy Ibis against the sure. I'm sure there could be other birds if I had spent more time and looked over more of the lake. A fun visit. 

São Miguel - Pelagic

My family was reluctant to take another pelagic after our bouncy ride on the rubber boat on Terciera, but I can be very convincing. This would be our last chance to see a Blue Whale! We signed with Terra Azul, leaving from the port in Ponta Delgada, and left on board a real, actual boat with a top deck and seats and everything. We had a much smoother ride this time (because the seas had calmed in the intervening days, mostly), but didn't fare any better with pelagic birds. Got a Ring-billed Gull for the trip (there is really good gulling in the Port), but otherwise just the now-standard truckload of Cory's Shearwaters. I'm not complaining, but hoped for some more diversity. Same on the marine mammals side. We had some nice looks at the resident Sperm Whales and more Common Dolphins, but nothing with baleen. I'll have to return.

São Miguel - Boca de Ribeira 

I wanted to swim at some point, but swimming isn't super easy in the Azores. Lots of the coastline is sheer cliff, and the ocean is rough, cold, and unforgiving. Some towns have built public pools right at the edge of the sea that constantly refill with seawater washing in from the waves. It's pretty gnarly, and we found our way to one such pool in the northeast corner of the island, pretty much the closest spot in the Azores to Europe.

After descending a crazily-steep road we parked at the pool. There were only a few others around, it was a really nice scene. I took a very quick dip into the icy water and was pretty pleased with myself. Things got even better when I glanced up towards the high cliffs above us and along the nearby ravine. A bunch of birds were foraging right at the top -- Barn Swallows, Western House-Martin, and ... large swifts! Looking closely, there were both all-dark Common Swifts and the white-bellied Alpine Swifts, both rare visitors from Europe. Alpine Swifts had just a few records in eBird for all of the Azores. What a treat! I highly recommend a visit to this pool, and bet that it's a regular vagrant trap despite it not even being a hotspot in eBird.


Alright, that's what I've got. I had such a fun time with the family on the Azores. I didn't spend nearly as much time birding as I could in another part of the world, but it was thrilling to find so many vagrants and to see such a rare endemic. I highly recommend a visit to these beautiful islands.

Friday, April 12, 2024

Announcing my new book: Dinosaurs to Chickens - How Evolution Works

Really proud to announce a new book from Workman Publishing called Dinosaurs to Chickens: How Evolution Works. 

This is a book I would have loved to have read as a kid. How did modern species evolve to look the way they do? How did bees evolve their stingers? How did Poison Dart Frogs evolve their poison? How did Giraffes get their long necks? I explore these and dozens more examples, reaching back through the fossil record and the tree of life. It's really fun, and I hope readers (everyone 10+!) enjoy it too.

The book is out in August 2024, but it's available for preorders now. Preorder here!

Monday, April 1, 2024

Cumberland County March Madness

March is usually the boring-est birding month. You've seen all the wintering birds, or they've left already, and (at least in Maine) spring migration is really only in its earliest stages. 

March is a slog of a month, and consequently one that, along with February, usually sees my lowest birding effort of the year.

I wanted to change that, for no real reason other than birding is fun. I challenged myself to see 100 species of birds in my home county, Cumberland County, Maine, in March 2024. I had seen just 47 in each of the previous two years, and a personal record of 58 during that first pandemic March in 2020 when there was nothing else to do than bird all day long.

Here's how it went:

March 1 - Clearwater Drive, Falmouth.

1. American Woodcock. 

I left a restaurant in Falmouth with my family and heard the distinctive PEENTing. An early record for sure, but in an area that I've seen woodcocks before. A good omen, and a great start to the month.

March 2 - Prout's Pond, Scarborough

2. Canada Goose

3. Gadwall

4. Mallard

5. American Black Duck

6. Ring-necked Duck

7. Hooded Merganser

8. Common Merganser

9. Mourning Dove

10. Herring Gull

11. Red-tailed Hawk

12. American Crow

13. Black-capped Chickadee

14. American Robin

15. Northern Cardinal

Some friends and I took a trip down to Kittery, in York County, to see the long-staying first state record Spotted Towhee that's been there all winter. We got good looks, then stopped at some spots on the way back home. 

March 2 - Spurwink River Crossing

16. Bufflehead

17. Turkey Vulture

The big push of TUVU into Maine doesn't start until later in the month, but there are some around all winter these days. 

March 2 - Route 1

18. Pileated Woodpecker

A flyover, but you never know when one's gonna show up otherwise.

March 2 - Dyer Point, Cape Elizabeth

19. Common Eider

20. Harlequin Duck

21. Surf Scoter

22. White-winged Scoter

23. Black Scoter

24. Long-tailed Duck

25. Common Goldeneye

26. Black Guillemot

27. Great Black-backed Gull

28. Common Loon

29. European Starling

30. Northern Mockingbird

31. House Sparrow

32. House Finch

33. Song Sparrow

March 2 - Kettle Cove, Cape Elizabeth

34. Brant

35. Horned Grebe

Brant are another easily miss-able species.

March 2 - Mill Creek Cove, Portland

36. Red-breasted Merganser

37. Ring-billed Gull

38. Glaucous Gull

White-winged gulls are really hit-and-miss, especially later in the winter, and so it was nice to see this bird which I think was the only one regularly reported in the county all month.

March 2 - My house, Cumberland

39. Eastern Bluebird

March 2 - Winslow Memorial Park, Freeport

40. Barrow's Goldeneye

41. Red-bellied Woodpecker

42. Blue Jay

43. Common Raven

44. Tufted Titmouse

The same day I was down in York County with pals I knew I needed to see some of the less-common species in the county before they left. Barrow's is at the top of the list, so I picked up my son from home and drove him up to this park where they're regular. We played football on the trail all the way up and back from where the ducks are.

March 3 - My house, Cumberland

45. Pine Siskin

Absent from my yard all year, but they hung out most days this March.

March 3 - Brunswick

46. Rock Pigeon

Got em!!!!!

March 3 - Wharton Point, Brunswick

47. Bald Eagle

March 3 - Broad Cove Reserve, Cumberland

48. Cooper's Hawk

49. Northern Harrier

Really luck to snag these two raptors here, though I'd see plenty over the rest of the month. Beat my previous two years' species counts by March 3.

March 4 - Gilsland Farm Audubon Center, Falmouth

50. Wild Turkey

51. Downy Woodpecker

52. White-breasted Nuthatch

53. Cedar Waxwing

54. American Goldfinch

55. American Tree Sparrow

56. White-throated Sparrow

My office. A great birding spot. The friendly flock of turkeys has inspired thousands of kids to a love of nature, and it's probably the state's most reliable spot for American Tree Sparrows.

March 4 - Canco Woods, Portland

57. Eastern Screech-owl

The coolest bird. Screech-owls are slowly but surely expanding their presence in Maine, and this is the first reliable bird I'm aware of in Cumberland County. It's been nesting at a publicly-accessible area and been enjoyed by many birders. I waited until after dark and heard him trilling, but never got a glimpse. 

March 5 - My house, Cumberland

58. Dark-eyed Junco

March 6 - My house, Cumberland

59. Common Grackle

Broke my previous record by March 6!

March 10 - My house, Cumberland

60. Red-breasted Nuthatch

61. Carolina Wren

62. Fox Sparrow

63. Red-winged Blackbird

Singing Fox Sparrow in the yard! Nice!

March 13 - Pownal

64. Northern Saw-whet Owl

65. Barred Owl

What a fun night. We were hanging at my buddy Ian's house to drink some brews and help him plan for a quick trip to Arizona. The hangout spot is this little yurt he's got deep in the backyard, and on the soggy walk out we wondered if we could conjure any owls out of the woods. We played a quick Saw-whet owl call from one our phones (I know playing calls is controversial but it's really not a big deal if used sparingly for any one individual!), and a bird immediately began responding from the trees. I'd never actually heard the "saw-whet" toot toot toot call before. Magic. "Well, how about a Barred, too?" we thought. We played another call and stared into the darkness. Again, almost immediately, I could make out against the slightly-less-dark of the path ahead and distinct from the very-much-black nighttime trees around us a gigantic dragon flying directly at me. I ducked, and the dragon / Barred Owl wooshed right over our heads and into a nearby tree. So so so so awesome. 

March 14 - Gilsland Farm Audubon Center, Falmouth

66. Brown Creeper

March 14 - Scarborough Marsh, Pelreco Building

67. Great Egret

68. Green-winged Teal

The egrets were super early and tripped a filter on me. Later seen by a few others.

March 15 - My house, Cumberland

69. Red Crossbill.

Never a sure thing, but I've had several Red Crossbill sightings in my yard this winter.

March 18 - Yarmouth

70. Merlin

March 19 - Florida Lake, Freeport

71. Eastern Phoebe

The weather was really balmy in the middle of the month, and everyone was expecting an early spring. This phoebe was an absolute treat, unexpectedly early and a sure sign of warm weather on the way.

March 20 - Thornhurst Farm, Yarmouth

72. Killdeer

I'd dipped a couple times on Snow Goose at this spot near by house. Alas.

March 22 - Dyer Point, Cape Elizabeth

73. Great Cormorant

74. Red-throated Loon

March 22 - Prout's Pond, Scarborough

75. Mute Swan

Rare and unwelcome in Cumberland County.

March 22 - Grondin Pond, Scarborough

76. American Wigeon

77. Greater Scaup

March 22 - My house, Cumberland

78. Brown-headed Cowbird

March 24 - Portland

79. Northern Flicker

OK, here's where the ish hit the fan a little bit. After a few weeks of nice weather, Maine got absolutely slammed by a ice and snowstorm. Up north it was pure snow, so things were fine, but along the coast it was snow and then rain and it froze overnight. We woke up to no power and everything coated in ice. Thousands of trees and limbs were down across the state, and everywhere you go there are branches and things across the road. People are still cleaning up. I didn't have any way of making coffee, so I took off across multiple towns and eventually found a gas station by the Portland airport. But I saw a few birds along the way.

March 24 - Greely Rd., Cumberland

80. Wilson's Snipe

A bunch of early migrants were really put off by the snow and ice. I drove past a field that Killdeer love and found them all just standing there on the ice, not sure of what to do. A mile or so later I passed a little wetland that sometimes holds ducks and herons, and spotted this Wilson's Snipe -- a good bird for March -- flying around and standing on the shore. Good bird.

March 24 - My house, Cumberland

81. Dickcissel

The bird of the month. The feeders in my backyard were bumping that Sunday, as is typical after a big snowfall when all the other food is covered up. I was stocking lots of seed and mealworms, and took a few minutes to stand in the frame of my back garage door to enjoy the flock. I happened to glance up into the top of this Alder Buckthorn at the side of my yard and saw a yellow and black bird sitting toward the back. A Dickcissel! Yard bird! Completely unexpected, and I wouldn't have seen it at all if I hadn't been standing exactly where I was - a place I never stand. I couldn't have seen it from inside, I don't think. I had my camera with me because I was shooting the flock, and so managed a couple of terrible, obscured photos. The bird left after just a few seconds. It never came to the feeders at all that I could tell, and I never saw it again. 

March 25 - My house, Cumberland

82. Hairy Woodpecker

March 25 - Higgins Beach, Scarborough

83. Piping Plover

It's always amazing to me that Piping Plovers return in March. 

March 25 - Portland

84. Fish Crow

I was at Dick's Sporting Goods getting something for my son's birthday and heard this bird calling from the corner of a building.

March 30 - Gray

85. Horned Lark

I sped up to Gray quickly to try to see a pair of Sandhill Cranes that had been hanging out for a few days. I pulled up to see my friend Michael's truck pulled over to the side of the road! He was also looking! The goddamn cranes weren't there! Dang! But we got some Horned Larks.

March 30 - North Yarmouth

86. Bohemian Waxwings

On the way home from the crane dip I saw a flock of Bohemian Waxwings at the side of some random road! I slammed on the breaks and pulled over in front of some house to confirm the ID!

March 30 - Highland Rd. Brunswick

87. Northern Pintail

88. American Kestrel

March 30 is crunch time. I had a bunch of birds left to get to 100 and no time to get them. I emailed a friend in Brunswick, Gordon Smith, and he sent me a bunch of good recommendations for his area for some final birds. These two were good pulls just a few hundred yards from each other.

March 30 - Brunswick Executive Airport

89. Eastern Meadowlark

March 31 - Dyer Point, Cape Elizabeth

90. Red-necked Grebe

91. Double-crested Cormorant

The last day of the month and 11 birds to go. My birthday. My wife let me take the entire day off, and friends agreed to join me to help me get the remaining species, if we could. 11 is a LOT for one day this late in the month, and we were really hoping that some migrants had come in overnight. Ed and I started in Cape Elizabeth at 6:30am, and got these two birds. The hunt was on.

March 31 - Trundy Point, Cape Elizabeth

92. Purple Sandpiper

Dipped on these birds several times this month, but finally caught up to this flock at a lovely spot I'd never been to before. 

March 31 - Kettle Cove, Cape Elizabeth

93. Golden-crowned Kinglet

94. Great Blue Heron

March 31 - Black Point Rd., Scarborough

95. Belted Kingfisher

March 31 - Scarborough Marsh

96. Savannah Sparrow

97. Glossy Ibis

98. Tree Swallow

The sparrow and the ibis were great spots by Ed. Wind was picking up at this point and birds were slow, but these were huge to get us to 98. Striking distance, but few reliable options left. Northern Shoveler? Not reported in days. Peregrine Falcon? No good single spot. Purple Finches? Absent this winter. Pine and Yellow-rumped Wablers? Still a few days away. We decided to drive up into Falmouth for a reliable Wood Duck spot and hoped to get lucky on a final species.

March 31 - River Point Conservation Area - Falmouth

99. Wood Duck
100. Sharp-shinned Hawk

I showed up to River Point after than Ed and Michael because I'd stopped in Cape Elizabeth on a fruitless search for Ruddy Ducks. As I was walking down to meet them a Wood Duck buzzed overhead. Number 99, and one that only I saw. We were close, but had few ideas. We poked around for Winter Wren, Yellow-bellied Sapsucker, and Hermit Thrush. Nothing. We were exhausted and wanted to go take naps. I was searching eBird and considered heading out to check out a Red-shouldered Hawk report in some random yard in Yarmouth. We paused on the bridge over the railroad and scanned the skies. All day we'd been looking for migrating raptors, but the wind picked up from the north and seemed to quiet the skies. But then there it was - an accipter in the distance. It looked small, small-headed, and flappy. We agreed: Sharp-shinned. Number 100! We'd done it! We celebrated and went home to relax for a few minutes before all joining again for a birthday dinner. What a fun day to cap a fun month.

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.

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