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

Sunday, May 19, 2019

Maine Voices Live -- June 4

For anyone in the southern Maine area who wants to come watch me and my Maine Audubon pal Doug Hitchcox talk about birding and birds and Maine and youth and travel and controversy and vagrants and whatever else we can come up with, please join us in Portland on June 4 for Maine Voices Live.

Thanks in large part to the interest of reporter Deirdre Fleming, the Portland Press Herald provides a ton of great content about birds in Maine. She's written about the state bird story I mucked up, covered the Great Black Hawk and lots of other vagrants (I'm trying to get them to stop using the "birders flock" headline cliche), and other cool bird stories that don't typically make major newspapers.

And now she's going to interview Doug and me about all this stuff, and more, on stage in front of a live audience. Buy your tickets and come join us!

Tuesday, May 14, 2019

Birding Game of Thrones

Wanted to make sure you all saw my recent post on birds seen and heard (mostly heard) in Game of Thrones. It was a lot of fun to write, especially because I was able to connect with the show's Supervising Sound Editor, Tim Kimmel.

As a cursed soul who spends more time than maybe anyone else thinking and getting upset over birds singing in the background of TV and movies (see Birds at Large), hearing from Kimmel about his process on the show was a revelation. 

A lot more effort and thinking goes into the background birds in Game of Thrones than it may seem. With so few people paying attention to those noises, it was easy for me to think that their inclusion and selection was a real afterthought for the production team. It certainly seems that way for other show and movies. Game of Thrones has always been different -- even though it's set in a fantasy world the birds are pretty good fits for the scenes: night birds singing at night, prairie birds singing in prairie habitat etc. 

Those things don't happen by accident, of course. Kimmel told me that he sits down with the show's producers and thinks about the setting and mood of a scene, and then finds background noise to match or enhance it. He'll do research on what birds should be where. When there isn't a noise that the producers feel fits, Kimmel will sometimes digitally alter sounds to create new bird songs. (That bit was amazing to me, and made be feel better about all the bird songs I couldn't recognize!) 

I enjoyed writing this piece, and have of course enjoyed watching Game of Thrones. It's set to end this weekend, but hopefully Tim Kimmel will move on to grace other productions with his birds!

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 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:

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