Tuesday, February 5, 2019

On Bird Names

A recent proposal to the AOS to change the common name of McCown's Longspur has got people talking once again about some of our worst bird names.

I have specific thoughts, but also want to make an overarching point.

We need to become more comfortable with change. All of us, all kinds of change. Things need to change and we need to allow it. Climate change and a million other forms of human influence are destroying our planet, and in order to save the planet and save ourselves we need to change. Change a lot of big things that'll probably be a huge pain in the ass and really hard. But we need to do it, and we know we need to do it, but change is hard and we don't like it.

The common names of birds are by my rough count 1000000 times less consequential than climate change. They truly do not matter in any real sense. Scientists don't use them. They don't have any bearing on species management or protections. The birds don't know what their names are, so they won't care. Common names are just codes that non-scientist humans say to each other to talk about the same species. They mean nothing.

So we should change them! If we don't like one we should change it! And if we don't like the new name we should change that, too! If there's a bird named after some guy and it turns out that guy was a huge racist jerk, change the name! If there's a name that refers to a woodpecker's red belly or a duck's ringed neck and no one on earth has ever seen the red belly or the ringed neck, change the names! They're made up words that we made up! We can do whatever we want!

We need to embrace change, really embrace it. If we can't figure out how to change the code word for a bird because it's named after an evil racist how are we going to agree on changing the hard stuff? Change the names.


There's a parallel discussion going on about honorifics, about the whole practice of naming species after people. I like them and always have, and think we should keep them around. It's fun to honor people, and to add a sense of history to the whole thing, and I think they sound exotic. My least favorite kind of name is the ADJECTIVE-BODYPARTED BIRDTYPE, but I feel like that's what most people want. The new proposed names for the McCown's Longspur include Prairie Longspur (aren't they sorta all on prairies?), Banded Longspur (snoooooze), and Black-crowned Longspur (snoooooooooze). These are names that babies would give, like the families who get a black cat and name it Blackie.

I think some birders like descriptive names because they seem scientific, or at least strive to "make sense." Screw that. If you want to be a scientist use the scientific names. These jerks would change Bobolink to Yellow-capped Blackbird or Whip-poor-will to like Eastern Nightjar or some shit. Honorifics and other non-descriptive names (many/most of which are actually onomatopoeic, which is sort of descriptive but not really because they're interpretive and end up being unique words), aren't always super clear. They've got mystery, or backstory, or are open to interpretation. They're art, in other words, and birding needs some more of that.

If there are honorifics that honor someone inappropriate, change it! (See above.) There are plenty of worthy people out there, as I've written about before. We have the power to make things right.

Friday, January 25, 2019

Birding in Red Dead Redemption 2

My editors at Audubon let me write about birding and nature in Rockstar's new video game Red Dead Redemption 2. It's an incredible game, and by far the most naturalistic video game I've ever experienced. Read it here at Audubon.org or on The Guardian.

Tuesday, December 18, 2018

Heirloom Zeiss Turita Binoculars

This weekend I saw a friend presented with a pair of top-of-the-line Zeiss Victory 10x42 binoculars. I was impressed, and not a little bit jealous. However, at a family Christmas party the next day I was presented with my very own pair of top-of-the-line Zeiss binoculars, which happened to be just 90 years old.

My beloved Uncle Alfred gave me a small pair of binoculars in a leather case which belonged to my Great Grandfather, William P. Viles. His initials are on the front. The binoculars are 8x24 and are still in fantastic shape, with the original leather strap and the glass in perfect shape. The image very sharp, but these are Ziesses, after all.

I don't know much about the history of binoculars, so I did a bit of digging to find out more about these optics. The serial number on the front -- 1424360 -- places this pair, I believe, in the first year of Turita production, in 1927. It appears that this is the same model and year as those owned by Ernest Hemingway, which he carried with him about the Dorothea Dix on D-Day and also referenced in For Whom The Bell Tolls, The Green Hills of Africa, and other works. Very cool.

But there's more information on the binoculars. There's a mark on the front side of the pair which reads "E.B. Meyrowitz New York London Paris." The E.B. Meyrowitz store still stands in Manhattan,  on West 44th Street, and is proud to have served Teddy Roosevelt, Charles Lindbergh, and Amelia Earhart.

If these were bought in 1927, they may have been a gift to my Great Grandfather for his 20th birthday. William Viles was born in New Hampshire but spend most his life in the Augusta, Maine area, part of a long line of Viles involved in the logging industry in central and northern Maine. He was a successful businessman and an excellent golfer, and was active in many charitable causes. He still is, in a way. He died when I was just three years old, but I do have memories of him.

I don't know if I'll use these as much as I would a new pair of Victories, but I'll treasure them much more.

Digi-binning through 90 year old binoculars

Thursday, December 13, 2018

ABA Podcast

Hey everyone. Had the honor of joining Nate Swick and the crew of the American Birding Association on their ABA Podcast this week. We talked about Birds at Large, Google Street View Birding, and more. Give a listen:


Sunday, November 25, 2018

Google Street View Birding Hits the Big Time

I've been looking for birds on Google Street View for more than five years. It's been a minor passion of mine, mostly picked at in the few minutes of down time between meetings. A fun diversion, and a personal one.

I had the idea two weeks ago to make it a bit less personal, and open Street View Birding up to office-bound birders everywhere. I don't know why I didn't think of it sooner. A Facebook Group seemed like the right venue, and so I set one up and invited folks via the Birding Memes group to help search for birds with me and post their findings. I figured a few would join, but a whole bunch did.

There are currently more than 700 birders in the Google Street View Birding Facebook Group, and we've collectively found more than ... wait for it ... more than ... this is a big number so sit down for this ... 500 different species by creeping along the roads and trails of this great world and zooming in on tiny pixelated specks in the distance. It's incredible.

I found a few good species in my pokings, but as a groups we've made some real discoveries. Two owls -- Burrowing in Florida and Buffy Fish-Owl in Singapore. We have about FORTY gull species, just about all that can be reasonable expected given GSV's scant coverage in China and the Middle East. Huge birds from Condors to tiny birds like Vermillion Flycatcher. And the beat goes on.

If you read this and would like to join the group, please do. We need all the weirdos we can get.

Javan Pond-Heron, Little Egret, and Asian Openbill, spotted in Thailand by Krit Adirek. Here's the link to Google Maps.

Sunday, October 21, 2018

Left DC; Now Back in Maine

Exciting news in the world of the Birdist: I've relocated to Maine to work for Maine Audubon. They're an incredible organization, based in my hometown, and I'm ecstatic to be in the fresh air working to promote and protect our state's wildlife.

It was difficult to leave DC, and my job at NPCA. I had a lot of great years and great friends there. Plus, great birds. The DC birding community threw me a nice going-away party, which was so kind, and thanks again to all who came. So many kind birders there: Paul, Gerry, Sharon, Dan R., Dan S., Taj, Hugh, Frank, Scott, and lots more.

I'm sad, too, to leave the DC Audubon Society, which I volunteered with for years. Leading monthly walks with the large group of birders was some of my most enjoyable times in the city. I'll miss a lot of those folks, especially Sara, Chris, Zach, Liz, Tom and Callie, Joel, Marissa, Dana, and others.

Let me do a quick recap of my top birds in the city. I left the city with a respectable 234 species. I'll break this down into birds I saw that others found, and self-found birds.

Top 5 DC Birds

5. Ash-throated Flycatcher - There are a lot of species I could put here at #5, this re-finding this Ash-throated Flycatcher at Kenilworth Park was a real highlight. I showed up and the bird hadn't been seen for a few hours and I was hanging out with some cool teen birders I'd never met before (Kevin Bennett, I think, and some others?), when one of the cool teens was just like "hey there it is," and there it was. Plus, uhhhh, I got some great pics.

4. Snowy Owl - The winter of 13/14 brought an incredible irruption of Snowy Owls to DC and elsewhere along the East Coast. In late January I ventured to McPherson Square - near the White House - to view a Snowy hanging out in the middle of this very urban park, and watching city residents walk almost directly under a Snowy Owl without seeing it was one of the most surreal DC moments I had, and led to this blog post.

3. Bell's Vireo - found by one of DC's best birders, Hugh McGuinness, in an odd little area of the National Arboretum. Tough to get a good look, but a great bird.

2. Black-throated Gray Warbler - another Hugh McGuinness find, this time on one of his daily walks around his suburban, not-at-all-rarity-expecting NW DC neighborhood. This western stunner spent a few days coming to a feeder and sapsucker tree, and gave me some brief but obliging looks on Dec. 20, 2016.

1. Prairie Falcon - This bird just kicked a bunch of ass. I never expected a Prairie Falcon to show up anywhere near DC, but this bird was found hanging out on the side of a huge old power plant in Alexandria, making dive-bomb murder soirees over the Potomac and into DC territory. It was about a 10 minute bike ride from my house, and I loved it.

Top 5 Self-found DC Birds

OK I'm crap at finding good birds on my own. I'm just crap at it. Here's what I did.

5. Lesser Black-backed Gull. Look, I said I am not that good at finding rare stuff, OK?

4. Black-billed Cuckoo - Look I know! I know. Big deal. But this was back in 2006, and I remember that I saw both this bird and a Blue Grosbeak in my binoculars at the same time, and that both were lifers for me. Two lifers in one binocular-life! Does life get any better??? I wish I had a pic of that.

3. Surf Scoter - Scoters are pretty tough to come by in DC, but I was pretty lucky. I spied a Surfer from Tide Lock Park. Went back to the car to get my camera and when I returned it was gone.

2. White-winged Scoter - Another scoter on the Potomac, with a pic this time.

1. Lapland Longspur - There was a big snowstorm in on a Tuesday in mid-December 2013, and I left work (or work was let out? I can't remember) and hiked down to the Washington Monument to see if anything had been kicked out of the skies. Right there on the grass, with the Monument in front of me and the White House behind me, I found a nice flock of Horned Larks (rare in DC) and a couple of Lapland Longspurs. I didn't realize it at the time, but longspurs hadn't been seen in the District for more than 20 years! I got THE WORST digi-binned pics, but they were good enough.

Love you and miss you, DC. Stay gold.

Monday, September 3, 2018

Birds At Large: Battle Beasts

Toys in the 80s were frigging awesome, and I had a lot of them. GI Joes were my primary obsession, but I also had M.A.S.K. toys, DinoRiders (correct, these were soldiers that rode dinosaurs outfitted with lasers and missiles), Ghostbusters, Transformers, and more.

And I was just recently reminded about some things called Battle Beasts. These things sucked. They were little armored animals with no articulation and a little hologram sticker thing on their chests that was supposed to show an image when you warmed it up with your thumb but never worked and always just fell to the bottom of the toy chest.

They sucked, but they were around, and I've just stumbled onto a page showing all of them and I want to show you because there are bird ones and they're hilarious.

OK, so, these toys started in Japan in the early 80s and then were released by Hasbro in the United States in 1986, which is when I must have got them. The "story" behind these fighting animals is just pure batshit malarky. From Wikipedia:

The universe history of 2011 [what?] in the galaxy territory [whattt] of the Decepticon’s “Planet Beast.”
The intelligent race of animals called Beastformers lived in peace on Planet Beast. [LOL Planet Beast] However, the scheming evil hand of the Decepticon’s bent on domination of the entire universe to the peaceful Planet Beast was fast approaching.
To defeat the Lion Family that ruled the Planet Beast, Galvatron supplied Alligatron with weapons in order to overthrow the Lion family. Alligatron was given the Sharkticons, who were the military escorts of the Destrons to fight in the rebellion. This is how the Beastformer war began.
The Beast Star was suddenly engulfed in war. Before Alligatron the wielder of the Decepticon Power and his Decepticon Beast’s could capture the Cybertron Beasts, they were able to escape into the forest. In order to ask for help from the Transformers Cybertron Army, the Cybertron Beast’s strongest warrior Platinum Tiger had to make his way to the occupied communication room of the palace.
However, Alligatron planted a trap there called the "Holography Mirror." As soon as Platinum Tiger unwittingly set foot in the palace a sudden flash of light, trapped the strongest warrior in holography mirror.
Is Planet Beast going to remain under occupation? What about the fate of the Supreme Commander White Leo’s Cybertron Beasts? Can Platinum Tiger escape from the power of the Holography Mirror? Right now, the battle and mystery of the Beastformers is just beginning.
Holly shit whattt? The nineteen eighties were just the pinnacle of complete garbage. Anyway, look at these idiots:

AHAHAHHAA what is going onnnn it's a rubber ducky-ass armored fighting cyborg with ... a gun? A club? No idea what that is, and he's got one hand and one foot on the end of his arm? I can't even with  this thing. His "name" is Run Amok Duck.

This loser is "Colonel Bird" which is funny because he's just, like "a bird" where all the other figures were some more specific species. This is the equivalent of being like "Major Mammal" and it's just a brown furry blob with nipples. Colonel Bird was the only avian member of Battle Beast's 28-figure Series 1, which did include a guy named Crusty Crab...which I hope and pray was the inspiration for the restaurant in SpongeBob.

This is Knight Owl. Creepy that they all have human hands!

This is Harrier Hawk, the 70th figure in the toy lineup. I'm kind of surprised it took them so long to get to a badass bird like a hawk, considering animals included before Harrier Hawk were (no joke): Tanglin Pangolin, Cutthroat Cuttlefish, and Major Moose. Also dumb that harriers and hawks are two kinds of birds...I don't think they were thinking too deeply about it all.

Crooked Crow! This dude frigging rules! He's got a scythe! I bet this is the image Edgar Allen Poe had in mind when he was writing The Raven.

AHAHAHAH! Yoooo you can't have a flamingo. You can't have a battle flamingo. Look at this moron. He doesn't want to be here AT ALL. "Hey, doofus, get out of that pond. You're Frenzied Flamingo now. Take this, like bent-ass coathanger and go slap someone with it."

Annnnddd Pugnacious Penguin. 

These are THE WORST toys I've ever seen, and I want ALL of them. 

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