Thursday, March 26, 2015

Birds at Large: The Maine Sportsman

My grandfather and dad are the editors of a newspaper called the Maine Sportsman. It's a fantastic publication, covering outdoor issues all over the state. Want to know which lakes near Sebago are good for smallmouth? Want to learn about riding snowmobiles in Aroostook County? Where to find the best spots for stripers? It's all in the Sportsman.

It's a labor of love for them, and I know my family and the rest of the staff bust their butts all month putting together each issue. As careful as they are, though, mistakes are sometimes made. It's that way in every publication. However, looking through the Sportsman's April issue, which arrived in my inbox today, I found a mistake that is, frankly, inexcusable. It came in the "Maine Wildlife Quiz" section, purportedly about Maine's state bird, the black-capped chickadee.

Do you see it?  The photo accompanying the article isn't a black-capped chickadee at all, but a European great tit.

My own flesh and blood! What betrayal!

Of course I immediately called my dad to express my outrage. He hemmed and hawed and eventually said that it was part of an elaborate April Fool's plan to get the two of us to have a conversation about great tits. Well, as an ad-lib that's pretty funny, but it's also a sign of great disrespect of one of Maine's iconic symbols. If I can't win a battle for State Bird respect against my own family, who can I win it against?

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Cracking the Nut

I'm fascinated by the story of the chestnut blight, which killed an estimated four billion American chestnut trees in the first half of the 20th century.  Four billion!  Thousands and thousands of trees dying across the landscape each day. This disease had a transformative effect upon the American landscape, but it's largely forgotten today.

I wrote about the chestnut blight, and some inspiring efforts to replant blight-resistant trees at Flight 93 National Memorial in western Pennsylvania, for the magazine of the National Parks Conservation Association.  Here's a link if you'd like to take a look.

Thursday, March 12, 2015

All The Times My eBird Observations Have Been Questioned by Reviewers

Misidentification is a sensitive topic for birders. Birding is a hobby with a heavy reliance on people's word, and if your word is wrong - or if you gain a reputation as someone whose word is wrong - it's not much fun.

But bird identification is hard! All these goddamn things look exactly alike, and they don't usually just sit there and let you look at them.  At the same time, thanks to online listservs, eBird and BirdLog, submitting sightings is easier than ever.  Beginning birders who could once work through their identifications at home in their own notebooks are now tempted with going "public" with their sightings, perhaps earlier than they should.

Birders are confronted with their own misidentifications most commonly through the dreaded "Question about your" emails from eBird reviewers. You hate to see one of these in your inbox. These'll come after you submit an atypical record to eBird but don't provide enough documentation (photos or notes) in the observation to satisfy the reviewer that you had the ID correct. It's not confrontational, but the burden is back on you to convince the person that you saw what you saw.

It's not pleasant when someone tells you that you're wrong. Some birders, I've heard, respond quite negatively to the idea - just the idea - that they were mistaken. We've all got reputations to maintain and self-confidence to massage.

But birders shouldn't be offended by eBird review emails. It's OK to be wrong, and you're not an idiot for misidentifying something. To try to help remove the stigma here, I want to show the world the lots of eBird review emails I've received, letting you know that even a birder who writes on THE INTERNET makes mistakes.

My Report: 3 Cassin's Finches, Lane, Oregon - Feb. 27, 2009
The Problem?: Birders need to be extra careful when they're traveling. I was in Oregon for the first time, and just assumed that all the reddish finches would be Cassin's, because I thought of them as the "Western" finch. I didn't look closely enough, and didn't realize that Cassin's were "exceptionally rare" (reviewer's words) at the elevation I was at.
Was I wrong?: Yeah probably.

My Report: 1 Nashville Warbler, Violette's Lock, MD, April 23, 2006
The Problem: April 23 is a pretty early date for Nashvilles on the East Coast, but I didn't know that, and didn't take any field notes.
Was I wrong?: I don't know

My Report: 1 Say's Phoebe, Lane, Oregon - Feb. 28, 2009
The Problem?: Another example of not being aware of the particulars in a new spot. This is an early date for Say's at this location. However, this was I think my first Say's, and I remember looking carefully. The reviewer said it's not too uncommon to have early birds here, and I think the observation was accepted.
Was I wrong?: No, I don't think so

My Report: 2 Black Vultures, Washington, Illinois - April 9, 2011
The Problem?: It helps to bird with other birders. These birds were not particularly rare at this location, and we both remembered seeing them clearly.
Was I wrong?: Nah.

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Honored to Have Been Featured in the ABA Milestones Column This Month

Wednesday, March 4, 2015

The Time My Scientist Cousin Randomly Texted Me A First State Record

I live somewhat vicariously through my cousin, who had the good sense to pursue ornithology.  I'll be  sitting at my dumb desk on some sunny day, feeling myself get old and fat, and then she'll post some pictures of herself out in the field banding birds and smiling and, man, I tell ya, it's really just enough to make a guy go crazy.

Anyway, she's been working in Mississippi for the past couple of years but she's coming to DC and we've made plans to hang out. We were texting back and forth about it and she - impromptu of nothing other than a shared love of birds - sent me a picture of a yellow-rumped warbler. But not just any yellow-rumped warbler:

Tuesday, March 3, 2015

Long Live #WeaselPecker

I've got a new post up at Slate today about the PHENOMENON known as WeaselPecker.

One million thanks yous to the photographer, Martin Le-May, who graciously and quickly responded to my inquiries, and who provided crucial back-up photos when the original came under question as a photoshop job (you can't be too careful these days).  I hope he's enjoying his moment of viral insanity!

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