Tuesday, February 18, 2014

All Of The Things Wrong With The WGN.Tv "Article" About Sea Ducks

Man oh man oh man.  Oh man.  As tipped off by BirdChick on Twitter, an article about sea ducks and/or the Slaty-backed Gull has appeared on the website of the Chicago-area news channel WGN-TV today, and it's a doozy.

This article is an absolute wreck of journalism, managing to squeeze misinformation, factual errors, and spelling and grammar mistakes into its measly few sentences.  I can't let it pass.  I just can't.

So, in keeping with great online traditions, I am now jumping on my High Horse of Internet Ridicule and taking this article on, sentence by sentence, Fire Joe Morgan-style.

Firstly, because I suspect it may get taken down or edited, here is a screenshot of the article, in its entirety (click to enlarge):

Harsh Winter brings sea ducks to Chicago area

The hook!  Not a bad headline, actually, except for the bizarre capitalization of Harsh Winter.  We're talking about this winter season, correct?  And "harsh" is the adjective describing the severity of said season?  Maybe Harsh Winter is a thrash metal band that makes ends meet as an exotic bird importer.  As BirdChick pointed out, at least they avoided the "birders flock" cliche.

[photo of a mallard duck]

Splendid.  Just beautiful.  So much about what the general public knows about birds is summed up in this image.  You would think that even folks casually interested in nature would know that this is a bird they've seen before.  Isn't that the same kind of duck that I feed at the park? They might wonder.  Is this a sea duck?  Is this a rare bird?  No, dear readers, it is not.

Some rare birds are showing up in the Chicago area.

Nice first paragraph.  Factual.  Brief.  Is Hemingway writing for WGN-TV now?

Experts say many of the ducks have flown far from their usual habitats in search of food.  But some were grounded by recent snowstorms and unusually brutal weather conditions.

Who are these experts?  No time for introductions.  What kinds of ducks are we talking about?  Who cares. Did the storms "ground" the ducks in Chicago?  Well, I guess, but the better connection is that the weather has frozen most of the Great Lakes, forcing birds into the remaining open water.  Should these two sentences be combined into one, with a comma between "food" and "but"? Yeah.  Does the use of "some" here create confusion about whether it's referring to the ducks or the experts?  A little.

The Slaty Backed Gull is usually found near Japan and the Aleutian Island, but the duck was spotted a in Libertyville

Oh.  Wait what are we talking about?  Ducks?  For the record, the Slaty-backed Gull (note spelling) is usually found both in and near Japan and, less commonly, among the many islands that make up the Aleutian chain, but the gull (it says gull right there in the name, it's not a duck) was spotted in (removed the "a" typo) Libertyville

a couple days ago.

Woodward, to Deep Throat: I'm tired of playing these chickensh*t games, I need to know what you know!  Names, dates.  When exactly did this bugging go down?
Deep Throat: A couple days ago.
Woodward:  Good enough!  Print it!

In less harsh winters, many of the ducks would be farther out on the lake where few would see them. 

"Milder winter" might sound better, but OK.  An understandable, if debatable, conclusion.  Carry on.

Thursday, February 13, 2014

The New Orleans Pelicans Should Be The Official Team of Birders

As you may know, the exclusive club of sports teams named after birds got an unexpected new member this year, the New Orleans Pelicans of the NBA.  The oft-moved team had been called the Hornets (the only member of the club of teams named after insects!), but Charlotte, NC wanted that name back (it had been the original name of their NBA team, now called the Bobcats [sorry, mammalogists]), so New Orleans decided to change.

Surprise of surprises, they didn't go with something stupid, they went with Pelicans.

I've covered this ground before, discussing how pleased I am with choosing such a not-really-tough nickname and mascot.  But I think it's more than that.  I think the birding community should adopt the New Orleans Pelicans as our official sports team.

What does it mean to be the official sports team of birders?  I don't know, really, I'm doing this off the top of my head, but I don't think it's much different than any city's fanbase liking their team.  It's a rallying point, a vehicle for unification.  A method for the various subspecies of birder - listers, feeder-watchers, gull-dorks, banders, chasers, old cranks, bread-throwers, migratiphiles, radar-watchers, patch-listers, night-flight-nerds, photographers, pelagic seafarers, Sunday strollers, museum specimen perusers, shorebird geeks, subspecies maniacs, car birders and others - to come together and support a common cause.

It'll be a secret handshake.  See that guy in the park wearing a cool Pelicans hat?  We're nowhere near Louisiana, must be a birder.

Sunday, February 9, 2014

Book Review: Rare Birds of North America

I've never met Steve N. G. Howell, but if I had the opportunity I think I might be too intimidated, and beg off with a fake illness or a made-up death in the family.  You think you're a good birder?  Well, this guy wrote the book on molt.  He literally wrote a book about molt.

At a time when most field guide authors are aiming for the sweet-spot middle with general American bird guides, Howell has cast off ornithological (and financial?) conventions and found a niche taking on especially difficult or outlier birding topics: gulls; petrels; hummingbirds; molt.  He's a bird guide writer's bird guide writer, someone who seems to feel no need to dumb things down for new birders.  He's back at it with Rare Birds of North America, a guide to avian vagrants and vagrancy.

It's mouthwatering ground to cover.  Howell, along with coauthors Ian Lewington and Will Russell, cover 262 species of American vagrants, detailing their plumage and habits, of course, but more importantly the potential reasons behind their vagrancy patterns.  In fact, the "Migration and Vagrancy in Birds" chapter at the beginning is worth the sticker price all by itself.  For hardcore birders, it's the kind of book that makes you want to stop reading, and I mean that in a good way.

But it ain't perfect.  As with some of Howell's other titles, especially Gulls of the Americas, it's organized fairly unhelpfully.  [A quick note on Gulls of the Americas: can we please get a reworked and updated edition?  No group needs a comprehensive ID guide more than gulls, but GotA needs a lot of fixing.  My two cents: better photos (with illustrated plates for guidance), better organization, and drop the South American birds.] In Rare Birds, species are broken up into groups, such as Wading Birds or Aerial Landbirds, and then those groups are typically broken up again into those species originating in the Old World and the New World.  The effect of the New World/Old World split is disorienting - for example, there are sections of flycatchers separated by 58 pages of Old World robins, warblers and wagtails - without being useful.  Additionally, the book lacks usefulness as an identification guide because of its sparse treatment, both in plates and in print, of "similar species."

Rare Birds of North America continues Howell's brave exploration into areas of birding heretofore unknown in print.  Though this book is imperfect, and will likely become outdated as a reference as new records pile up, it's a bold examination of the science behind vagrancy, and will hopefully push some birders to find noteworthy additions of their own.

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