Tuesday, May 11, 2021

In Memory of John Beetham

John Beetham, author of the longtime bird blog Dendroica (formerly A DC Birding Blog), passed away this week, just a day or so after competing in the World Series of Birding. I can't say I knew John -- I think I met him only once, in DC back in probably early 2006 -- but he was a good online friend, a pioneering bird writer and journalist, and by all accounts a nice man.

When I moved to DC in late 2005 I had the birding itch and was stuck in an office all day at a low-pressure internship. I couldn't leave the office to bird, but I could write about birding, and so I wanted to start a blog. Blogging, and birding blogs, were sort of new at that point. There were a lot of them, mostly all unread, and, as I recall, all pretty boring. Most had some boring title like "Backyard Musings" or something and every post was like "I went out this afternoon and saw a cardinal. Here, look at this awful picture I took." But the beautiful thing was that there was possibility in a blog - you could write about whatever you wanted with no editors and no filters. Some birding blogs weren't boring.

John's A DC Birding Blog (now Dendroica) was one of them. (10,000 Birds -- still going strong -- was another.) John posted A LOT in those days -- 528 separate posts in 2006!!! -- and didn't just post birds he's identified but wrote about history and advocacy issues and ephemera. Fun stuff, interesting stuff. He also played an important role as an aggregator of information - links, news stories - which he collected into his mentromically regular Loose Feathers column. This type of aggregation was the most useful way in those days for a writer to get noticed, or for like-minded blogs to find one another. Seeing one of my crummy little posts show up in John's Loose Feathers collection was such a thrill and an honor in those early days, the first taste of recognition. Fittingly, the last post that John ever published was the 800th edition of Loose Feathers.

The first time I ever corresponded with John was when on March 1, 2006, when I told him that I was starting my own blog, titled BirdDC. I don't know why I titled my blog something so close to the title of his ... I think people just used local geography in their blogs back then? Kinda rude of me, in any case. But, at least I owned it I guess, and I wrote to John:

Hello John- I just wanted to let you know that I have recently (still working out the HTML kinks) begun a blog called birdDC (http://birdDC.blogspot.com).  It's quite similar to your site, which I like very much, and for that I apologize, but I live in DC and love birding so what can ya do.  I just thought I would give you a heads-up about cramping your style rather than having you stumble upon it. Best, Nick

John wrote back the kindest response. Instead of saying, like, "Oh, good for you" or "Nice why didn't you call it something else you hack?" he wrote:

Nick - Thanks for sending me the link. It looks like your blog is off to a good start. Don't worry about cramping my style. There is plenty of room for additional voices among bird bloggers. When I started my blog I originally patterned it after several bird bloggers that I read and liked, and then eventually developed my own voice and style.

Then he offered to connect me to a blog carnival (these were early, curated collections of blog posts hosted on a rotating blog roll) that he was managing. I mean, just the nicest guy and the kindest response. 

We supported each other and kept reading each other after that. I followed his advice and went to good birding spots. I learned about the issues from him. I "interviewed" John in 2006 as part of my very-lame-in-retrospect Birder Profile series. Maybe our biggest shared thrill was when John and I debated the question of what percentage of rare birds get found (I was on the Birdist site then), and we were directly refuted by David Sibley himself! David Sibley read our dumb little thing and thought we were so wrong he put down his paintbrush to (very kindly) join the conversation! A badge of honor.

But to be honest the Sibley issue illustrates perfectly the excitement of those early blogging years. Two non-experts could write about whatever popped into our heads, post it online, and have the biggest minds in birding read it and respond. There was no gate-keeping or approvals, no one to tell us what to post or what not to post, and genuine freedom to let writers develop their interests and reach viewers with minimal road blocks. Everything I've written and published is due to the freedom I had in those early bird blogging days and to the support of John Beetham and people like him (but mostly just him).

I didn't "know" John, and never birded with him, but I don't want his small but important place in birding history to be forgotten. He was a great writer and by all accounts a good person and good birder. I want to thank him for his friendship and support, and I extend my deepest sympathies to his family and friends. 

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