Thursday, October 27, 2011

Predicting Vagrants: Ross' Gull

The 1975 Ross' Gull was a thing of legend. It made the cover of the New York Times and got three minutes of coverage on the NBC Nightly News. However, since then there has been quiet a few records of this high arctic breeder reaching some southern clims.

In 1985, Anthony H. Bledsoe and David Sibley wrote "Patterns of vagrancy of Ross' Gull" for American Birds where they compiled subarctic records and (on pg 223) charted them in half-month intervals. Since then, there have been at least 34 additional records which hint at when these birds are likely to occur.

Kinda looks like there are two movements of these gulls that send them to the lower 48. So now that we are entering the first wave, keep an eye out for any gulls with gray underwings and wedge tails!

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Birds in Video Games: Adventure Island II for the NES

The bird is just numb to it at this point. At first he was angry; screaming questions into the bright tropical sky. How did I get here? Who made me like this? A giant tubular beak for eating...what? There is no food on this island. Sharply hooked, footless legs...why? For what? There is nothing here to cling to.

Endless flying. Circling without stop. Anger led to depression. How could it end? Please let it end. Depression led to insanity, and now the bird can't even recognize the baseball-capped, hula-skirted savior under its beak. One well-timed jump from this shirtless, noseless man could end the nightmare. But the bird, eyes not focused but staring still through half-drooped eyelids, flies on.

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Random Observations on The Big Year Movie

First, and most importantly, I enjoyed it. Here are some observations:

  • Like Moneyball, another adapted screenplay currently in theaters, The Big Year suffers from the constraints of having to stuff the story into two hours. A lot of the fun and interest derived from being able to roll around in the details and history of birding (or baseball statistics) is lost when you have to rush a story out.
  • I'd like to see Owen Wilson's "sprint around with your binoculars held to your eyes" style in practice.
  • 10,000 Birds said they sent some products to the filmmakers in hopes that they'd appear in the movie. I didn't see anything from them...but there's a Two-Fisted Birdwatcher mug beside Jack Black's bed at one point.
  • No Pink-footed Goose records anywhere near Colorado, nor any Great Spotted Woodpecker records in the Pacific Northwest (other than AK).
  • There's very little in the movie about identification issues, which I think is what birding is mostly about. Birders in the movie raise their binoculars and see the bird, without any discussion of what differentiates one species for another or that it is that ability to differentiate - in addition to the difficulty of getting to the birds in the first place - that IS birding.
  • The soundtrack is made up of bird-related songs: a nice "Blackbird" cover, "Bird is the Word," and an old, nearly-forgotten favorite of mine from my pre-birding days, the Eels' "I Like Birds."
  • I have been to Al Levantin's home in Colorado, and I gotta say the movie captures it pretty well, right down to the remote-controlled gate.
  • Lots of great "that guy" actors: Brian Dennehy! That guy from The Big Bang Theory! Joel McHale! Kevin Pollack! Anthony Anderson! Dianne Wiest! Tim Blake Nelson! Steven Weber! Well done.
I'm glad I saw it, I'm glad it happened, and I'm glad I can get back to thinking about real life birds.

Friday, October 14, 2011

How To Talk About Inaccuracies in Movies Like The Big Year

The Big Year is coming out and birders are wondering how upset they should get at the mistakes it makes. Some birders instinctively roll their eyes and shake their heads when things are out of place. Others say "let it go, it's just a movie!"

Chuck Klosterman once gave an interview (I think it was on Bill Simmons' podcast) about the TV show The Wire where he spoke about how he bought into the reality of the show. The lives of policemen and drug dealers presented in the show were so convincing that Klosterman - who had never been a policeman or a drug dealer - believed that they must be an accurate reflection of those real lives. He was convinced of this realism until the final season of The Wire, when the show took on a topic that Klosterman had a lot of experience in: newspaper journalism. Klosterman found that the "reality" of being a newspaperman presented in the show was so inaccurate, so far from his own experience, that he was forced by logic to retroactively call into question the realism of the previous seasons' depictions of police and drug dealers.

I think about this when I see errors related to birding, that thing I have experience in. If the birds are wrong, what else is wrong? What other corners are being cut?

I've recently caved to peer pressure and began watching Breaking Bad. In the pilot episode the main character has a reflective moment sitting by his pool in New Mexico. Blue Jays and Eastern Towhees - birds not found in New Mexico - sing clearly in the background. Not only can I not ignore these sounds, but, like Klosterman, I'm forced to reconsider the rest of the world presented to me by the show.

When I watch The Big Year (tomorrow, I think), I'll be looking for mistakes. Not because I'm a debbie-downer or a cynic, but because it's almost insane to me that there could be bird-related mistakes in a movie about birding. It's not that difficult, and they knew we would be watching closely, so the number of errors will simply be direct evidence of editorial laziness. Or something else? I don't really know. Either way, I encourage birders to see the movie and to leave comments or email me with inaccuracies they find.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Learning Bird Flight Through .GIFs

I saw lots of Wilson's Storm-petrels before I ever saw a Leach's. In the Gulf of Maine, though, a Leach's was always a possibility. In those summers a couple years ago I would ride a $45 Odyssey Whale Watch out of Portland about once every two weeks, always keeping a close eye on storm-petrels. After taking many trips without seeing a Leach's, that fear began to haunt me: were they out there and I was just missing them?

"They fly like nighthawks," people said. "They bound. You can't miss them." Can't miss them? I knew their wings are longer, but would it be obvious? I understood that they flew differently, but would I be ready to see that when presented with it?

The trouble with identifying birds by their flight pattern is that it's difficult to study ahead of time. You can say the words or put a dotted line behind a drawing in a field guide, but you need to see the flight to understand.

GIFs, those ubiquitous, ridiculous tools of meme culture, may help. GIFs (Graphics Interchange Format) aren't movies, really, but electronic flipbooks: a bunch of images in a row that make an animation while taking up much less file space than movie files. Many of them loop, creating an endless repetition that might just be really handy for studying.

Below are some storm-petrel GIFs that I created using videos from YouTube. Wilson's, Leach's and Band-rumped are represented, each showing (to the limited extent that I could - and I'll talk about that in a minute) each species flight characteristics.

A quick disclaimer: I am still a GIF newbie. They tend to play much more quickly than they should, and I don't know what to do about it. Yet.

Wilson's Storm-petrel. This bird is picking along the surface of the water, as WISP often do. This image is helpful in showing the relationship of the wing size to the rest of the bird.

Leach's Storm-petrel. The wings are clearly longer, and the bird is flying steadily, if erratically, above the water, unlike the Wilson's.

Band-rumped Storm-petrel. This image shows the Leach's-sized wings, but the more casual, shearwater-like flap-and-glide.

Many identification issues could be helped by GIFs, from sparrows to finches to woodpeckers to raptors.

The difficulty is getting the videos to make GIFs from. YouTube really lacks for good quality bird videos, especially birds in flight. Once those videos can be obtained, then making GIFs and sharing them among novice birders is a snap.

By the way, I finally saw my first Leach's Storm-petrel on a pelagic out of Bar Harbor, Maine, in August of 2010. It was pretty obvious once I saw it...

Saturday, October 8, 2011

Birds in Video Games #1: True Lies for the Super Nintendo


Deah Califownia buhdurs - I spent two houuhs at da L.A. whuf dis aftuhnoon on beesnis. Deah wuh TWO MAHSKED BOOBIES. De fuhst buhd was flying ovah a crate neah a guy with a bazooka. De second was sitting on da whuf neah a Chinese blowtoach guy and anuthuh guy with a macheen gun. All de guys are dead now. Access to dis site may be limited due to da poleece and all de blood and unexplowded nucleah bombs, but eBuhd says dat dese ah some of da few recohds foah dis county, so get down deah!

Good buhding-

Monday, October 3, 2011

A Birder's Apprehension to The Big Year

I am a little bit protective of The Big Year. I picked up the book randomly in an airport in 2004 and it was my first introduction to the sport of birding. 6 months later, after buying an old Peterson guide in a used bookstore in Fort Wayne, Indiana, the flip was switched and I have been birding every single day since. I credit the book with introducing me to what would become a life's passion.

So I should be beyond thrilled that the movie version of The Big Year will be coming to theaters in just a couple weeks. A movie about birding! With a great cast! So why am I - and, if I'm judging the temperature of the birding community correctly, most everyone else - so apprehensive about the film?

Cups out!  For birders, the devil may be in the details.
Well there are a couple reasons.

1. We don't want to look like idiots. Let's face it, birders are ripe targets for parody. We're an eccentric bunch, and many of us regularly tuck our pants into our socks. Hollywood loves an easy target, and we birders are afraid that the movie will skip over trying to legitimize our passion and just skip straight to calling us dweebs. The book, for its part, did a great job respecting's hoping the movie does too.

2. They're going to get a bunch of stuff wrong. Being a birder makes you watch movies differently. A cowboy in the American West sits sketching a passing Augur Buzzard - a bird native to Africa. Bobwhites sing in South Africa. We've learned to tolerate the "regular" world's ignorance of bird ranges (though I still think it's hilarious), but can we put up with it in The Big Year? Birders are already grumbling that a Swainson's Hawk appears on a snowy mountainside in the trailer. Jack Black's eye cups aren't out in the poster image, shown above. Birders may fall victim to their own expertise and end up being distracted by the very movie that they should enjoy.

3. Big Year Bump? The Navy said that enlistment went up 500% after Top Gun came out. Thousands of kids took up martial arts lessons after watching Karate Kid (I was among them). Is the same thing going to happen to folks who see The Big Year? It's an interesting question. On the one hand, it'll be great for the sport to get more interest and exposure. On the other - and I'll be totally honest here - I feel a little bit of that same resentment that music fans feel when a band they've been into for years suddenly hits it big and gains a wider fan base. I'll be cranky if parking lots are clogged or trips are filled. It's illogical and it's counterproductive, but it's a real feeling.

I'm excited for this movie, especially after the release of the most recent clip narrated by John Cleese. For better or for worse, birding is about to get a moment in the sun. Let's hope my apprehension is unwarranted.

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