Saturday, December 21, 2019

2019 Year in Review

My dear friends, we're rapidly hurtling towards the close of another calendar year (thanks Pope Gregory XIII, honestly the whole 'conduit to God' thing was impressive enough for me, inventing a whole new calendar seems like overkill...), and it seems like the perfect time to talk about some of the stuff I did.

2019 was a fun year (though not likely as fun for me as 1572 was for Cardinal Ugo Boncompagni, who was elected Pope and took the name Pope Gregory XIII). It wasn't my most productive, but I did a lot of different, enjoyable things. Let's take a look.

  • In early January I published a piece about birding in the video game Red Dead Redemption 2 at Audubon. I love that game, and played it for hours and hours this year, eventually achieving a nerdy 100% completion. I committed myself to the game, much like Pope Gregory XIII committed himself to putting into practice the recommendations of the Council of Trent. The piece was well-received, and was republished in the Guardian and got me an interview on German NPR

  • I raked some muck in 2019, some birdy muck. In late 2018 I made the papers here in Maine for discovering that our state doesn't actually have an official state bird species, but rather an ambiguous "chickadee" (we have both Black-capped and Boreal). A state legislator took up the issue and introduced a bill to clarify the situation, and I was eventually hauled up to Augusta to testify in front of a legislative subcommittee about why this was an important issue (it is) and what the new state bird should be (Boreal). I felt like a big shot, like when Cardinal Boncompagni was sent by Pope Pious IV to investigate the Cardinal of Toledo! I was again asked onto NPR, in America this time. I wasn't convincing enough, however, and the bill died in the committee in March. 

  • In April I spoke with Tim Kimmel, the Supervising Sound Editor on Game of Thrones, about how his team puts real thought into the birds singing in the background of that show, and I put together a field guide to the background birds of Westeros.  You know who else put thought into things? Pope Gregory XIII, who in 1580 commissioned artists, including Ignazio Danti, to complete works to decorate the Vatican and commissioned The Gallery of Maps.

  • I was honored to appear in THREE episodes of the incredible new web series from Rob Meyer and hosted by Jason Ward, Birds of North America. I had a blast taking Jason and his brother Jeffrey and the one and only Rosemary Mosco around during a chilly Christmas Bird Count, and then I debated feral cats, the Trump Duck, and other important topics with Jason, and finally was included in the last video of Jason and Jeffrey tallying lifers in Maine. So much fun. 

  • I was delighted in June to publish a fun article about fixing birdy pro sports logos in Deadspin, one of my favorite websites. Not the happiest of endings, though, as the website went belly-up thanks to disastrous mismanagement just a few months later, and I never got paid. I was disappointed, much like Pope Gregory XIII was disappointed when Thomas Stukeley joined his forces with those of King Sebastian of Portugal against Emperor Abdul Malik of Morocco after landing in Ireland to aid the Catholics against the Protestant plantations.

  • I went birding in Newfoundland in July! Holy cow was that fun. I was guided by the incredible Jared Clarke of Bird the Rock, and joined by Ted Floyd and Nate Swick of the ABA and Jason Ward of Birds of North America. Nate interviewed us all for a great ABA podcast episode, and I shouted out the amazing sea watching at Cape St. Mary's Ecological Reserve, where I had one of the absolute best birding experiences of my life. Most importantly, I finally got my lifer Thick-billed Murre, by 691st ABA bird! I was as excited as Pope Gregory XIII was in 1575 when he gave official status to the Congregation of the Oratory!

  • I got another ABA lifer (#692) in September, a Great Skua from the Maine Audubon Bar Harbor Pelagic!

  • The goofy insane Google Street View Birding group that I started on Facebook in Nov. 2018 has swelled to more than 2,700 members and are still out there finding new species in roadside images from all over the world. As of today we've collectively found 1,144 different species. That's a much larger number than the 34 cardinals in eight consistories Pope Gregory XIII created during his pontificate.

  • With only a few days left in the year and a few possibilities left (I am in VA for a few days), I am at 272 ABA species for the year, a very modest improvement over the 268 I ended at last year and a far cry from the 400+ I made in the pre-kid years. I haven't had a real birding trip in two years now (other than Newfoundland, which was incredible but wasn't a really high species count area), but that's changing in 2020. I've been asked to speak at the Laredo Birding Festival in February (please come see me! We can hang out!) and also just bought tickets for a week with buddies in Ecuador in March. Follow here or Twitter or wherever to follow along.

That's it! Love to you all. And, as Pope Gregory XIII said as he laid on his death bed in early April 585: "Thanks for reading my blog."

Friday, September 13, 2019

How to Draw Birds

  1.  Draw a Pac-Man ghost
  2.  Give it a beak
  3.  Done

  1. Draw a chair
  2. Make it into a sandpiper
  3. That's all

  1. Draw a floor lamp
  2. Make it look like a duck
  3. You're all done

  1. Draw a baby cradle
  2. Add some bird things
  3. Stop because you're done

  1. Draw a happy eel
  2. Turn it on its side
  3. Good job

Wednesday, July 31, 2019

Patch Birding: Foreside Estates

My little family moved back to Maine from DC in September 2018 and rented a two bedroom apartment in a complex in Falmouth while we looked for a permanent home. I was born and raised in Falmouth and knew about the apartment complex before we moved into it; called Foreside Estates, it had a reputation as sort of a way-station for families in transition. It's nickname was "Divorcide Estates."

I did not have huge hopes for many birds during my morning and evening dog walks, but things were actually pretty lively. I should have expected as such, considering Foreside Estates is on a pretty good piece of land.

That's the complex at the top, just to the left (north) of Route 1. To the south is Maine Audubon, my employer (oh man I'll miss that commute!), and to the left of them both is the mouth of the Presumpscot River, which drains from Sebago Lake into the sea, just on the other side of this peninsula to the right. The presence of this tidal river meant there were good numbers of birds flying over the Estates. However, there's no actual viewpoint of the water from anywhere on my dog walk except for one tiny, very important sliver, which I'll get to in a bit. 

Here is a closer map, with my usual dog-walking route in red. I wouldn't do the whole thing every day, but parts of it every day. 

In yellow are some numbers indicating good spots. Here's a little breakdown.

  1. A nondescript corner of the complex, between a couple of dumpsters, with a weedy edge and a small ash tree. I didn't give this area a second glance until one snowy morning in February when eight Common Redpolls were just hanging out at the base of the ash. Redpolls are pretty uncommon and hard to come by in Cumberland County, and so this was exciting. I spooked an American Woodcock out from under that ash a few months later. Good corner.

  2. Speaking of Woodcock, I was treated to an incredible mating display here out front of the tennis court on April 1. With the chain-link fence and parking lot in the background, and the whole scene lit by an orange street lamp, it was a pretty surreal scene. This is not where woodcocks are used to displaying. But, circumstances be dammed, these birds had work to do, and I respect them for it.

  3. Easily the best bird I ever saw from Foreside Estates I saw from here, Point 3. It's a fairly insane story, actually. So, this is a little road that goes down a hill to some sort of utility substation or something. It's not owned by the complex, and we're not actually allowed down there (the utility roped off the road, I think after some people were going down there to, like, smoke weed or make out or something teen-y). But it's the only place to get an actual look at the wetland marsh, and from certain vantages out onto the open water of the river. The woods on either side of the road down the hill were the thickest around, and good for migrant warblers in the right season. One of those seasons is spring, and in the thick of spring migration -- May 15 -- I did something I never do on these dog walks: brought by binoculars. So, I am walking around and there are a couple good things around, and I get to the top of the hill here above Point 3 and look out at the tiny sliver of shoreline visible across the bay. I put my binoculars up and look at a flock of gulls on the far shore. One of the gulls is huge. Is that a pelican?? I think it is! White Pelicans are super rare in Maine! I know that the bird will be much easier to see from Maine Audubon property down the way, so I turn around and hustle back to the house to drive over there. As I'm halfway back I get a text from Maine Audubon's ED Andy, it's a picture he's taken about 10 minutes before on the other side of the peninsula while he was on his morning kayak, and he says "Hey is this a pelican?" It was! He had spooked the bird up off an island and watched it fly into the bay, where I miraculously saw it! So, I cruise over to Audubon and march down to the river overlooks, but no bird. Bogus. BUT, a couple miles inland, my colleague Doug was leading a free bird walk at Evergreen Cemetery (like I said, it's spring migration) and his group looks up to see...a white pelican! Three Audubon staffers were pretty much the ONLY people in Maine to see this individual, and we saw it in three different locations. Good times.

  4. Uhh ok phew no really good stories here, but this is where I got good looks at Cape May Warbler in migration. That's it.

  5. And uhh this is where there are woods for like Ovenbird, and Black-throated Green Warbler etc. 
That's about all! In the 10 months I lived there, I saw 92 species. Not bad. That's for the memories, Foreside Estates, but I've already started my new list here in Cumberland.

Friday, June 28, 2019

Deadspin logo piece - Responses

I published a fun piece on this week about fixing the birds pro sports logos. I worked with Ashley Anderson of Hidden Stash Art on the artwork, and she did a fantastic job.

There's been a pretty good reception for the piece so far (as a longtime Deadspin reader I know it's a tough crowd), but there have been a few recurring comments on the article and social that I want to address here.

1. The Falcons logo making an F

There's a long and delightful tradition of sports logos sneakily incorporating letters into the design. The all-time best example was the logo for the Milwaukee Brewers, which used an "m" and a "b" to make a baseball glove. I am all for secret letters. Except when they don't make any sense. 

Part of the problem I have with the Falcons logo is that there's that weird leg sticking out in front. It's unnatural and unnecessary. A bunch of people said it was there because it turns the logo into an F. Here's the best illustration of that effect I could find on the internet, from SB Nation:

Image result for atlanta falcons logo F

Uh I guess? I guess that's an F? It's sort of a long stick with two things moving off to the right in a general F pattern? So, OK, the body makes an F, but please grant me that it is a terrible F. 

But here's the thing: You don't need to make an F when you are showing a falcon. It's a picture of a Falcon. This isn't a children's book. If you want to incorporate a letter, incorporate an A, for Atlanta! If there was a team called the Oklahoma Zebras, you wouldn't have a picture of a zebra with a hidden's already a zebra! You know what it is! This whole thing sucks, please fix it.

2. The Falcon logo has its foot out because they have their feet out when pouncing on prey

A bunch of people said that it was normal for a falcon to have its foot out because that's how they attack prey. Yeah, sure, falcons use their feet to attack prey...but not with their wings down! Falcons sweep their wings back to extend their feet when they attack. The bird in the logo is sweeping its wings down. Completely unnatural.

Image result for falcon attack

3. The Arizona Cardinals Should Be The Arizona Pyrrhuloxias Instead

Hell yes, hell yes they should. I don't care that no one would be able to pronounce it.

4. I Should Have Included the Toronto Raptors Because Dinosaurs Are Birds

Congrats to the 2018-19 NBA World Champs! I hope Kawhi stays! Anyway, yeah birds are dinosaurs, but dinosaurs aren't birds. Thanks.

Okay that's about all thanks for reading stay in school don't do drugs vote! support your local library and give to environmental causes bye. 

Saturday, June 15, 2019

Splits and Lumps in the ABA Podcast

The American Birding Association released their annual AOS Classification Committee roundup podcast this week, my favorite annual episode. As always, host Nate Swick talks with Stonehill College professor Dr. Nick Block about this years' proposals to the Committee, and which ones might or might not pass.

It's great fun to hear about how our checklists might change based on the latest science, and this one was another great episode. I enjoyed the early discussion about possible White-winged Scoter splits and an unlikely Harlan's Hawk split, as well as the other scientific discussion.

However, when the conversation got to the part about possible changes to some common names, I had some qualms. QUALM ALERT. 

Not being a scientist, I have no opinion on the scientific lumps and splits stuff. Being a regular birder, though, I do have some strong opinions on common names. In the episode, Swick and Block discussed two possible name changes before the Classification Committee -- regarding McCown's Longspur and Blue-throated Hummingbird -- and I had some problems with each. 

First, I am on record as being a strong supporter of changing the name of the McCown's Longspur, which is being proposed because it turns out that John P. McCown was a general in the Confederate Army during the Civil War. Oops. I love honorific names, but also strongly support changing them if we think the honored person is no longer worthy. We have the power, let's use it!

I was surprised, then, to hear Nate hesitate on this rename, citing the ol' slippery slope argument by saying, "where do you stop once you start going down this path?" I just hate slippery slope arguments, which have been used to justify not doing all kinds of good things worth doing, because they're so often posed as a rhetorical question without an answer. Instead, slipper slope questions always have an answer, and for the question of "where do we stop once we start going down the path" of renaming birds named after unworthy people, there are two pretty clear answers. The first answer, the one that applies to all slippery slope questions, is: "We stop wherever we decide too." No decision obligates us to any other decision, and with debate and thought smart people put limits on things all the time. It's not a big deal. The second answer, the more specific one for this renaming question, is: "We stop somewhere on the other side of honoring a guy who took up arms against his countrymen so that he could keep other human beings as slaves." I hope the Committee passes this rename, and I look forward to additional reconsiderations of avian honorees.

My second qualm was about the discussion of the proposed renaming of Blue-throated Hummingbird to Blue-throated Mountaingem (Mountain-gem?). I'm no expert on Central American hummingbirds (one day I hope!), but do know a single species of the Lampornis genus from Arizona: the Blue-throated Hummingbird. Apparently, all the other species in this genus are called Mountangems, not Hummingbird, and this proposal would extend that name to the Blue-throat. Sounds cool, and Mountaingem is a hell of a word. I support it.

I furrowed my brows a bit about how Nate and Dr. Block discussed the proposal, though. There was some eye-rolling in the beginning of the episode about how the Classification Committee lacks consistency in making decisions, but I thought the support of this change was inconsistent with what the two were discussing earlier. In their talk about honorifics, Dr. Block said he preferred descriptive names (well, except for ones that are poorly descriptive, like Ring-necked Duck)...but isn't getting rid of "Hummingbird" in this species' name a step away from description and towards obfuscation? Everyone knows what a hummingbird is, but what the heck is a mountaingem? Dr. Block said that he favored the name change in part because it "reduces confusion" -- meaning that all the species in Lampornis would now share the Mountaingem name -- and I suppose that's true, but only for those birders who are familiar with the entire genus. I'd say for the rest of us, for the majority of American birders, the change would instead cause confusion!

It's a matter of perspective. To ornithologists like Dr. Block, changing the name to Mountaingem would align them with their related species elsewhere on the continent. But to American non-ornithologists, those hordes of regular birders who, like me, have enough to remember with just my Sibley, the name change would be something new and different. The Classification Committee, I suspect, will take the ornithologist view. A cursory check tells me that every member of the Committee except Jon Dunn has a Ph.D. (and he probably deserves one). These are not regular birders. But the decision to change the common name of a species is not based in science. Unlike all the other lump/split decisions made by this Committee, for which I am grateful they are the top scientists in the field, common names live with us, the commoners. Do we get a say in how common names are chosen? I hope Jon Dunn carries our water, and at least reminds the Committee of the other perspectives involved. 

Sunday, May 26, 2019

Birds of North America -- DEBATE!

We filmed more than just the one episode when Jason and Jeffrey Ward were in town. Director Rob Meyer also made Jason and I face off for a debate on birding's hottest topics!

What do we do about cats?

What insults can we hurl at the Mandarin Duck?

What should we do about rare owl sightings?


Monday, May 20, 2019

Birds of North America -- Christmas Bird Count

I'm honored and thrilled to be included in a new episode of Jason Ward's Birds of North America web series on! Jason, his brother Jeffrey, artist and icon Rosemary Mosco, and A Birder's Guide to Everything director Rob Meyer came up to Maine this past December to do some filming with me and Maine Audubon. 

This episode captures our day in Maine Audubon's Scarborough Marsh Sanctuary for the Christmas Bird Count. We all had a really great time walking Eastern Trail, skating on the thick ice, and narrowly avoiding a guy with a shotgun. The episode came out so wonderfully, I'm pleased to share it with you.

I think I'll be in another upcoming episode, so stay tuned. Watch all the other episodes here

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