Friday, January 23, 2015

Google Street View Birding IV: Florida

It's easy to look down upon Google Street View Birding. "It's for lazy people," they say. "It's not real birding if you're just using a computer," they whine. "Get a goddamn life," they snort.

I don't care what anyone says, Street View Birding is not only hard work, but a worthwhile pursuit. It requires stamina (eye strain), commitment (boredom), and patience (boredom). It's birding on the frontiers of the information superhighway, and baby I've got my pedal to the metal.

This installment brings me to Florida.  I was in the Sunshine State over the holidays and was reminded what a fantastic place it is to bird.  There are birds in every pond.  There are birds at every feeder.  There are birds covering the beaches. I'd venture to guess that there are more birds per square inch in Florida than anywhere else in the states.

So it stands to reason that there would be birds in Google Street View.  I found some downtime and took a look.


For most of Street View's history, the images were all captured from cars.  This made Street View Birding quite the challenge because, like, how often to birds fly right next to cars, right? Telephone wires and bridges were really the only places to look.  Recently, more mapping is being done by folks on foot.  This was clearly a boon for SV Birding on Midway Atoll, still the best vicarious internet birding experience available.

And it's also come to Florida. Some folks have taken it upon themselves to strap on the ol' backpack and walk nearly the entire walkable coast of the state.  It was clearly a Herculean task, but it resulted in some better images of birds that I had found anywhere else.

Yup. Great Blue Heron. Can't remember what I got this screenshot.

Thursday, January 15, 2015

Upon The Discovery of the Semiplumbeous Hawk - A True Story

The year is 1848.  The place is the Columbian jungle, at the end of a long, hot day.  Two naturalists in khaki safari suits and pith helmets are sitting around a table, sorting through the bird specimens they collected that day. They pull a crow-sized raptor from the canvas gunny-sack and place it on the table.

Naturalist 1: "I say! My good man, a striking specimen we have here."
Naturalist 2: "Quite striking, yes! Accipitridae, would you agree?"
Naturalist 1: "Yes, my good man, I do believe it is Accipitridae or some genus thereabouts."
Naturalist 2: "Yes some genus thereabouts, but we'll let the chaps back in London sort through particulars, eh chap? Eh?"
Naturalist 1: "Ha! Indeed! 'Tis the life of the field for us! Striking creature, though, certainly."
Naturalist 2: "Indeed."
Naturalist 1: "Right, well, shall we commence with the description? Keen to take notes, ol chap?"
Naturalist 2: "Right, sir, dictate away, my good man."
Naturalist 1: "Right. Dictation commencing! Medium-size falcon, shot in these Columbian woods on this, the day of June the 5th, the year of our Lord 1848.  Got that?"
Naturalist 2: "Got it, dear chap, continue away."
Naturalist 1: "Commencing physical description of the specimen. The bird appears to be forty centimeters from beak to tail.  Snow white belly. Feet and beak of rich orange. Back and head of a stormy plumbeous."
Naturalist 2: "Hold up, butch."
Naturalist 1: "Yes? What's the trouble?"
Naturalist 2: "Plumbeous?"
Naturalist 1: "Yes, a head and back of plumbeous gray, what of it?"
Naturalist 2: "That's no plumbeous."
Naturalist 1: "What! Of course it's plumbeous. Look at it: the dull gray color of lead. Plumbeous."
Naturalist 2: "Not in the least, sir.  Too dark. It's castor gray, the color of wet muscovite."
Naturalist 1: "Wet muscovite! Are you mad? Has the damp air affected your vision? It's plumbeous or I'm the queen!"
Naturalist 2: "With all due respect, sir, I grew up with plumbeous. I had a plumbeous coat as a child. Our carpets were plumbeous. The soot from the factory in our neighborhood sent plumbeous plumes into the sky, and the soot settled on the houses in a thick plumbous snow. Growing up, I had a dog such the color of plumbeous that when we brought him home as a puppy the only name we could think of for him was Plumbeous.  I know plumbeous, sir, and this bird is no plumbeous!"
Naturalist 1: "Right, well, I didn't realize you had such a connection to the subject.  I do apologize."
Naturalist 2: "No need sir, really."
Naturalist 1: "Well then. Hmm. Listen, you do agree that there's at least a bit of plumbeous in this bird, eh?"
Naturalist 2: "Sure well of course it's a bit plumbeous. More plumbeous than cinereous, that's for certain!"
Naturalist 1: "Ha indeed. Well perhaps we could describe this bird in such a way as to reflect the fact that, while it's clearly not entirely plumbeous, it does indeed have a bit of the ol' plumbeous upon its plumage."
Naturalist 2: "Sure, I suppose describing this bird in such a manner as to reflect the true fact that its coloration - while not entirely plumbeous - does contain certain pigments that, on a sort of gradient scale from white to black could, with a few extra drops, eventually reach the pigment known as plumbeous."
Naturalist 1: "Excellent! It's settled then. Well negotiated, dear boy.  Now then! Take a look at this plover, what should we name him?"
Naturalist 2: "The Entirely-palmated Plover."

AAAAAAAnnnndddd scene.

Wednesday, January 7, 2015

Contractually-obligated 2014 Wrap-Up Post

You've probably never read the Terms and Conditions section of Blogspot, have you? Yeah it's OK, most people haven't. I'm not most people, of course. I've read those things from top to bottom, check for updates twice a month, and have run it through Google Translate and read it in German to check for discrepancies.

When you're as familiar as I am with the particularities of this here ol' web logging service, you'll be acquainted with Section 10.4(g)(1). This nifty little provision states (and I'm putting it in layman's terms for you, no need to thank me) that every Blogspot-hosted birding-themed blog MUST (no uncertain terms here) have a post in the last two weeks of December or first two of January summarizing the prior year's birding efforts. The penalty for noncompliance is fifteen broken image links scattered through old posts and an additional year's worth of mysterious, unsolvable formatting errors.

Being the upstanding, law-abiding citizen that I am (Falmouth High School's Most Likely To Walk The Straight And Narrow 2001), please enjoy the following dump of information, images, maps and whatever else I can come up with about the glorious birding adventures I undertook in that already-half-remembered lurching spin 'round the Sun known to the kids searching Wikipedia as 2014 AD.

1. I Saw More ABA Species This Year Than Any Previous Year

Last year I ended at 399 goddamn birds, an annoying number that somehow lessened the whole thing, like a photograph with one person's eyes closed.  I panicked after dipping on the reliable (before and after) Black-headed Gull near Baltimore and floundered around for the last days of the year, unable to get over the hump.  The lesson learned was that such unsatisfying proximity would not be repeated.  I was determined to hit 400.  LONG STORY SHORT my girlfriend-now-fiancee (thank you) agreed to a road trip to Florida, one thing led to another, and I landed at 413.

[Quick funny story: Once I hit 400 I immediately did as birders do and took aim at my buddy Jake's record of 413.  I spend Dec. 31 in a frantic dash across southern Florida looking to pick up birds, succeeding at least to tie the record...that is until Jake told me his record was actually 423 not 413 and that I was an idiot.]

Anyway here's a chart of my now 10th full year of birding.  The blue bars show my year-end ABA number, and the orange line showing my cumulative ABA life list, now sitting at 639.

That's fun, right?

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Ranking the Bird Beers

There is a chain of stores in northern Virginia called Total Wine and More, and, if you haven't been there, the "More" part stands for "tons and tons of beers from everywhere." It's a goddamn paradise.

I was cheerfully strolling down the aisles of their Alexandria store the other week when my eyes, as they are wont to do, started finding beer labels adorned with our feathered friends. This may not come as a surprise, but there are a heck of a lot of beers that use birds in their names or labels. As a staunch supporter of avian-themed things, I applaud these beer companies in their thematic choices. But that doesn't help me much at the register. With so many bird-themed beers out there, what's a thirsty birder to choose? I am here to help.

Regular readers of this blog (are there those?) will know that I am a stickler for avian accuracy in my products. It's not enough for some company to just slap some winged thing onto the label (I'm looking at you, Akron RubberDucks), ornithological accuracy is important. At the same time, I don't want to drink something that tastes like crap. It could be called Coastal (Gray-Cheeked or Hepburn's) Gray-crowned Rosy-Finch Life Bird Ale, but if it tastes bad then it ain't worth it.

So to grade these things I am using a hybrid solution. To judge the quality of the suds I am using the BeerAdvocate Overall Score (BOS) from the famous Beer Advocate website. BOS scores on the site run from 0 (garbage) to 100 (world class). I am not taking the type of beer into consideration. To that number I will add another 0-100 score of my own subjective determination, judging the overall use and presentation of the bird at hand. Then I'll divide the number by 2 to get a final 0-100 score. Ya good?

Quick caveat: I'm going to miss probably a lot of beers. There are, conservatively, a trillion different beers in the world, and some of them are not forthright about their use of birds. If I didn't see it on the shelf, or can find it easily online or YOU DON'T LET ME KNOW OF THEM, then I can't rate them. Doing the best I can. Let's go.

Golden Wing Blonde Ale - Finch's Beer Co.

BOS score: 76
Birdist score: 50
Total score: 63

So, I can't really knock it because it's at least a real image of a bird. Like, it's not some anthropomorphic cartoon mess, it's an actually-proportioned bird.  But, it's a sparrow, not a finch.  A Harris' sparrow, I think.  It's not, say, a golden-winged warbler - which would make sense for the beer name - or a finch, which would make sense for the company name.  I can only do so much.

Beer review quote: "It has been a long time since I have had this beer. But from what I can remember this beer was ok. " Can't argue with that.

Cardinal Pale Ale - Nebraska Brewing Company

BOS score: 83
Birdist score: 25
Total score: 54

Cardinals have orange beaks, not yellow.  Cardinals have orange beaks, not yellow.  Cardinals have orange beaks, not yellow.  Cardinals have orange beaks, not yellow.  Cardinals have orange beaks, not yellow.  Cardinals have orange beaks, not yellow.  Cardinals have orange beaks, not yellow.

Beer review quote: "Drinkability was good, my can was gone quickly, and If I'd a had another, I woulda drank it."

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Thanks for Nothing, New York City

Hi friends.  I have a new post up on Slate, where I blame New York City for all the environmental ills of the nation.  Good times.

As a Birdist Bonus, I got to thinking about other famous invasive introduction sites.  Below is a map (click here if the points aren't showing up) showing, to the extent I could figure out, the spots around the country where exotic species were first introduced.  If you've got additions or suggestions, please let me know!

Friday, November 7, 2014

Interview with Ray Brown of Ray Brown's Talkin' Birds

I first started listening to Ray Brown's Talkin' Birds back in 2006, the early days of podcasting.  It was a wild west back then, with very little content available except The Ricky Gervais Show and some weirder stuff.  Searching through the iTunes options back then I had little hope of finding anything bird-related - but there was Ray Brown's Talkin' Birds.

The show was just the fix I needed.  Recorded in Boston by a dulcet-toned broadcasting vet, Ray Brown, the show captured a sort of DIY folksiness immediately recognizable in birders - you could sometimes even hear birds at the feeders outside the studio window.  Ray's passion for the topic was evident and infectious, and the show became a constant companion.

And it's still going strong.  Ray is set to record his 500th show, and to celebrate the milestone he's hitting the road and coming to DC, recording this Sunday, November 9, at the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History.  I'll be there, and you should be too.  I was able to ask Ray a few questions in preparation for this weekend's big event.

The Birdist: Five hundred shows!  Can you talk about the impetus for Talkin' Birds?  Was it a tough pitch to the station?

Ray Brown: The impetus (which led to a result after about ten years of sporadic rumination) came about when I was doing a weekend talk show on a Boston radio station (WBZ). Somehow, when we started talking about birds one day, we got bombarded with calls (and not from listeners demanding that we change the subject). Then and there I decided to create a radio show about birds and birding. But I didn't rush into it.

Yes, the first pitch was met with a pretty big dollop of skepticism, but then again so were most of the subsequent pitches. We've managed so far to convince 14 stations to carry the show (one required a modest financial sweetener), and so far, no station that's picked up the show has dropped it. (They wouldn't dare risk havi ng a bunch of crazed birders brandishing Swarovski scopes on big tripods doing protest marches in front of the studios.)

The Birdist: What was that first show like?

Ray Brown: To tell you the truth, I haven't dared listen to it. [ed note: the great Tumblr set up for the show only goes back as far as Episode 28, with Kenn Kaufman!]

The Birdist: Ha! Haven't listened to it! Has the format changed, though, since then?  What lessons do you think you've learned since that first day?

Ray Brown: After looking at the outline of the first show, I'm not sure how we filled the thirty minutes--must have used some extended musical interludes (to set the mood for avian contemplation). The centerpiece, though, was the Mystery Bird Contest, featuring clues and the song or call of a bird and the reward of a Droll Yankees bird feeder. We still do that contest every week, and have now reduced Droll Yankees' inventory by about 500 items. We like to think that we've made significant contributions to the nutritional needs of many, many birds (assuming that the winners of the feeders actually fill them up).

Changes have included the addition of other regular features, including our Let's Ask Mike segment, in which Mike O'Connor, the witty and knowledgeable owner of  Cape Cod's Birdwatcher's General Store, and author of two very successful bird books, answers questions like "Why are there no birds at my feeders?" every week. We've also added the unfortunately-titled "Featured Feathered Friend" segment, which attempts to showcase interesting attributes of a different bird each week, often using some well-disguised humor. Other rotating segments include "Science Corner," "Birds in the News," and the "Bird Word of the Week," in which our resident professor, Dr. Rufus Towhee, corrects my misinterpretations of avian anatomical terms. ("No, 'after-shaft' is not another term for 'downsizing,'" for example.) And more guests.

One thing I've learned is that, even for a short show of 30 minutes length, it's important to have enough material to cover the time. "Wanna hear that again?" can only go so far.

The Birdist: What's the planning or writing process like before a show goes on?

Ray Brown: Someone asked me the other day if I pre-plan the show or just "wing it." I don't think he was offering an intentional pun, and I don't think he believed me when I said I spend about 15 hours preparing each program. But he doesn't know that I'm a slow worker. Anyway, I write an "opening comments" section each week that runs seven or eight minutes; put scripts together for a produced featured bird segment for each show, along with a couple of other features; record a brief weekly interview with our bird feeding expert; and set up interviews for future shows. I know, it shouldn't take so long.

The Birdist: How much do you get out to bird, and where?

Ray Brown:  I stop by the marshes and ponds on the way to work most days, and hook up occasionally with local bird clubs so I can figure out what I saw when I had only a field guide (and 5 birding apps) to help me. My office has a nice view of Boston Harbor -- I have a telescope at the window and in the winter I manage to rack up a fair number of duck species without leaving my desk. (That may partly explain why it takes me so long to produce the show.) I used to keep a life list but gave it up when I realized I'd never be featured in one of Birding Magazine's milestone reports.

The Birdist: Well, I think 500 shows is a milestone worthy of Birding Magazine...any surprises in store for the next 500?

Ray Brown: I guess it's not a surprise if I reveal it, but I can say that we'll soon have a prestigious new show contributor. (His name rhymes with Mavid Fibley.)


Mavid Fibley, huh?  I wonder who he could be talking about?  Ravid Gibley?  Pavid Libley?  I'm stumped, so I guess if we want to find out, we'll have to stay tuned: click here to listen to Ray Brown's Talkin' Birds online.

Thursday, October 30, 2014

Do's and Don'ts of Leading A Good Bird Walk

I'm not saying I'm an expert, alright?  Let's just get that out of the way now.  But I have led my fair share of bird walks, and I am developing some thoughts about how they should - and should not - be done.  Let's just get right to it.

DO remember who your audience is.  With rare exceptions, bird walks are made up of novice birders, maybe even first-timers.  They're up early, probably on a weekend.  They're skeptical of this weird activity.  As the expert in the group, your most important responsibility it not to just identify a bunch of birds, it's to introduce them to the world of birding.  Set the stage a little bit! 

Why are we here? "Believe it or not, because they all pretty much look the same, there are hundreds of different types of birds around here.  We're here to try to tell them apart."  Why is this fun?  "Birding is basically a scavenger hunt that you'll be playing non-stop from now until the end of your life.  You'll never look at the world the same way again."  Go big, you gotta impress these people.

DON'T just start identifying birds.  If you've got birders in your group who know what they're doing, they don't need you for much except as another set of eyes.  If you're with novice birders you can't just identify birds, people no one over there has any context.  It'd be like me going to a, uh, computer store and the guy going "Woah look at this one, it's got a 44 gHz processor with a 7.4 magnified superscreen!"  I can't get genuinely excited about that because I have no idea what that means.  It's the same as telling a newbie birder "Hey that's a Ruby-crowned Kinglet, I know because even though it doesn't have a ruby crown really it is smaller than a warbler and sorta blah blah blah."

DO focus on the big picture.  Talk a lot about evolution.  Talk a lot about migration.  Talk about what makes some species do some things and some species do others.  Why some are on the ground and some are on top of trees.  What they eat.  People need to get interested in birds as pieces of wildlife that are tangible and nearby, the identification will follow. 

DON'T lose people.  Look, you have a group.  Some people will wander off, and that's fine, but be mindful.  Make time for people.  Try to get some one-on-one time, it encourages people and challenges them.  Don't forget that birding in a group can be intimidating for people, they might not want to speak up if they see a bird, but it helps if you can steal a moment with them. 

DO have fun.  Enjoy yourself!  Get excited about birds you see.  High five people.  Let people know that this isn't just a boring activity.  Leave them wanting more, and next time you see them they'll be out birding on their own.  Success.

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