Monday 30 March 2009

Way To Go, Bell Tower Birder (quite literally)!!

The ultimate bird blog (getting better every day) 10,000 birds has reached the magic milestone of 1,000,000 visitors.

This is quite a milestone to reach for a bird blog.

So I quickly did my math and established that I'll be where they are now in no more than

114 years

Bell Tower Birding: It's all about keeping things in perspective!

Friday 27 March 2009

On Stereotypes, but not on Tilley Hats or Birding Vests

Last week, I was happy.
I am happy most of the time, but last week I was particularly happy as I was particularly lucky.
My job required me to spend two days of solitude in nature, a most valuable experience, roaming a natural area that’s out of bounds for pretty much everyone but me and having nothing else to do but check what neat animals might be around.
As this was my job, I am sworn to secrecy and cannot tell you of the wonderful things I saw, like the Crested Newts that were so numerous it made me dizzy counting them, the Eagle Owl perched on a fence whose calls accompanied me throughout the night while counting the Newts, the Eurasian Woodcock I flushed or the flock of Common Cranes that flew over at sunset.
Nope, you’ll never know about these things – ever.

But what I may tell you about is what I experienced at the hotel I was staying at, during breakfast.

As I was working mostly at night, I slept in each morning and had a long and extensive breakfast at the hotel before heading out again (after a short after-breakfast nap).
During the first day of my staying at the hotel, there was some sort of business meeting and the hotel was packed full with … well … stereotype business men and women in their shirts, suits, ties and costumes.
On the first morning (I sat alone at a small table facing the room) I watched two businessmen at the table next to me having breakfast.

Now, before I continue I need to stress that even though I thoroughly enjoy talking about or making fun of stereotypes I have enjoyed a humanistic education, consider myself quite tolerant and would never, ever judge any person by the stereotype I think they might belong to but solely by their actions towards others. That said, I had a great morning of stereotyping with even a good lesson learned on why stereotypes are crap and what they tell you about birding.

So, there were these two men having breakfast right next to me. For the sake of better understanding, let’s call one BM (big macho) and the other LW (little wimp).

These two couldn't have been more different:

BM was not fat but a strong and big man, a typical “beef-eater” type. He had strong arms and muscles showed through his shirt at his chest, a thick neck and a powerful built in general. Despite being German, he was probably of Mediterranean origin as he had thick black hair and his skin was rather dark.
LW was very tall but exceedingly thin, his arms appeared to be made of straw and his legs that barely filled his trousers would have made a Black-necked Stilt feel overweight. He was blond and pale.

BM was sitting with both elbows on the table (this is not considered particularly rude in Germany as opposed to the US), had his legs slightly spread and when he was not leaning over the table, he was leaning back in a relaxed yet manly posture.
LW was sitting straight, his knees pressed together under the table and bent at a 90° angle, his elbows were off the table but tightly against his ribs (the posture deemed well-behaved in Germany) and he never leaned forward or backward but his torso was always straight.

BM was wearing a light blue shirt with a dark blue tie, no jewellery of any kind.
LW was wearing a pink shirt and a tie with a delicate pattern of pink and light grey, he was wearing a small diamond (or crystal) earring in one ear.

BM had apparently used a razor (wet, with foam and a blade, not sure how to describe it in English as opposed to an electric shaver).
LW had apparently used an electric shaver.

Even though it had already been a stereotype feast so far, it even got better when they both grabbed their breakfast eggs at the same time [In Germany, we usually eat boiled eggs, not fried / scrambled for breakfast, and we “open” the boiled egg at the top and use a small spoon to eat the insides, with the yolk preferably still being slightly liquid at the core]:

LW (we’ll start with him this time) placed the egg in one hand upright, took his breakfast knife by the blade using the knife’s grip as a club and hammered it on the top side of the egg about 30 or more times in very quick succession but with very little force. He then put the knife back on the table besides his plate, keeping the egg as it was in the other hand, and then started to peel off the very small fragments of egg shell very thoroughly one by one and with high concentration, placing the loose pieces neatly on the rim of his plate.
BM took the egg, placed it laterally onto the table and beheaded the poor thing with one violent yet precise blow of his knife.

I barely managed to control and suppress a spontaneous outburst of laughter and thought to myself that despite being something to condemn, there was possibly even a grain of truth in stereotypes.

But then it happened:

LW was apparently full while BM was still hungry (so far, so good), so BM got up again and walked over to the breakfast buffet.

There, he took a small bowl and filled it neither with cornflakes nor with yogurt (both marginally so but still acceptable for the real men out there) but with MUESLI, yes, muesli!

My stereotype world already began to crumble and I thus continued to watch in horrified surprise, but the whole picture I had constructed of him finally and completely imploded when he also grabbed a piece of fresh fruit, a banana, pealed it, cut it into very thin slices, all of the same thickness to which he paid a good amount of attention, and mixed it under his muesli which he than began to eat slowly with a coffee spoon.

Stereotypes, I tells you, stereotypes. They just aren't what they used to be.

So, what does that tell you about birds and birding?

Two things.

First of all, birding is much more of a mindset than a hobby, it is about the way we see instead of look, are alert and under constant vigilance and always apply our keen and observing senses to the world around us. It is an addictive way of life, a path through the world that once taken will not allow you to stray even for one step and you can't help but observe always, everywhere and all the time.

This at least is the only way I have of explaining without loss of face why I spent so much time and energy watching two guys have breakfast.

But then, it also tells you something about birds.

When we identify birds, we have a firm and fixed image in mind, which is matching the image we see in a field guide.
This picture of a species however is not how each individual bird of a given species looks like, it is the grand average of all the birds of that species, the ... drum roll, trumpets ... stereotype image!

When we watch a single bird of a particular species, we can quickly check the important field marks and place it in a category, which is the species, sex or age the bird belongs to:
"This is a male adult ABC Warbler molting from non-breeding to breeding plumage"

The longer we watch this bird however, the more time we invest, the more details we will find in which this particular individual differs from the stereotype image, e.g. in subtle ways of its patterning or the progress of its moult.

In most cases, this will only lead to a more thorough understanding of variation within a species, but in some cases, the parting from a stereotype image is vital for the bird's identification.

A Common Redpoll not exactly matching the stereotype might end up being a sought-after Hoary/Arctic and the strange "ringtail" Montague's Harrier might actually turn out to be the vagrant Pallid we had hoped for so passionately. But if we just place each bird in a category according to the stereotype image that is dominating our mind after a quick glance and without ever giving it any more thought, these species will seemingly avoid our detection and be cursed as our Nemesis.

So there you have it: Stereotypes are crap and need to be eradicated in human interactions as well as birding.
It makes life better that way.

Wednesday 25 March 2009

Nice idea

Gunnar Engblom of Birding Peru came up with what I think is a neat idea, to write a book on the "1,000 birds to see before you die".
As the choice of species is a rather subjective matter, he's asking other birders to help him out by submitting their top 100 here.
What I find very interesting is Gunnar's intention of producing the book as a free e-book or to eventually use it to raise money for species in peril in cooperation with Birdlife International.

Sounds like it is not only a fun thing to do after all but something that might eventually make a difference.

Here is my top 100 list for those interested (no need to scroll down otherwise).
Frankly, choosing the top 100 from roughly 10,000 species was a bit hard since I sadly don't have field experiences with all the bird species in the world (working on it though). I also didn't have the time or literature to go through pictures of all the world's birds, so my choice is based on
a) what I have either seen already or at least know about from my travels or
b) on birds that are so prominent in one way or another that I have heard of them without specific search, sort of by simply being interested in birds, reading blogs, magazines, owning general birding books and other comparable coincidences.

Furthermore, I always tried to keep in mind the "see before you die" aspect, so I think the species must be very peculiar and unique. Therefore, I have not chosen a hummingbird, a trogon, a kiwi, a sunbird or any member of other flashy and colourful bird groups from the tropics (yes, I know the kiwis are neither colourful nor tropical, but it makes the sentence easier to read that way):
I think everyone ought to see at least one hummer and one species of kiwi before they leave for good, but which one they see seems less important from the perspective of mortality. So none of the species in the groups mentioned made the top 100, although each group as a whole surely would have achieved a very high ranking on my list.

Well, another little snag I hit:
I have two favourite birds, the Bearded Vulture as a firm and eternal No. 1 (yeah, pittas, even if I ever lay eyes on one of you ... not a chance, hear me, not - a - chance!) and the New Zealand Fantail a firm and eternal yet very close No. 2 (possibly along with other species of fantail if I ever get to see them).
For the rest of the top 100, the rating was done without giving it too much thought. A little thought was put in it, of course, or else the whole thing would be pointless. Still, any questions on why I rated species X three times higher than species Z is likely to remain unanswered if you expect more than a "just because" from me.

For the spoonbilled sandpiper and quite a few others on the list, the question should sadly be "rate the top 100 species you'd like to see before they die", but if this whole book idea does work out and money is raised for Birdlife International, we might still turn the tides.

Anyway, that's the way the cooky crumbles and here's the list. Species in red are the ones I have already seen (adding that little showing-off element to the whole business of rating your top 100), species in black would be very nice lifers.

100 Bearded Vulture Gypaetus barbatus
99 New Zealand Fantail Rhipidura fuliginosa

98 Great Grey Owl Strix nebulosa
97 Wandering Albatross Diomedea exulans
96 Red-breasted Goose Branta ruficollis

95 Ivory Gull Pagophila eburnea
94 Spoon-billed Sandpiper Eurynorhynchus pygmeus
93 Northern Raven Corvus corax
92 Ross’s Gull Rhodostethia rosea
91 White-throated Sparrow Zonotrichia albicollis
90 Resplendent Quetzal Pharomachrus mocinno
89 Ostrich Struthio camelus
88 King Eider Somateria spectabilis

87 Andean Condor Vultur gryphus
86 Snowy Owl Bubo scandiacus
85 Philippine Eagle Pithecophaga jefferyi
84 Harpy Eagle Harpia harpyja
83 Ibisbill Ibidorhyncha struthersii
82 Dalmatian Pelican Pelecanus crispus

81 Spinifex Pigeon Geophaps plumifera
80 Gurney's Pitta Pitta gurneyi
79 Mandarin Duck Aix galericulata
78 Shoebill Balaeniceps rex
77 Ruff Philomachus pugnax
76 Scarlet Ibis Eudocimus ruber
75 Smew Mergellus albellus
74 Atlantic Puffin Fratercula arctica

73 Wallcreeper Tichodroma muraria
72 Harlequin Duck Histrionicus histrionicus
71 Kea Nestor notabilis
70 Blue Jay Cyanocitta cristata
69 Superb Fairywren Malurus cyaneus
68 Dupont's Lark Chersophilus duponti
67 Azure Tit Cyanistes cyanus
66 Firecrest Regulus ignicapilla
65 Eurasian Bullfinch Pyrrhula pyrrhula
64 Green Jay Cyanocorax yncas
63 Crimson-breasted Shrike Laniarius atrococcineus
62 Ocellated Turkey Meleagris ocellata
61 Yellowhammer Emberiza citrinella
60 Broad-tailed Paradise Whydah Vidua obtusa
59 Evening Grosbeak Coccothraustes vespertinus
58 Black Bee-eater Merops gularis
57 Blackburnian Warbler Dendroica fusca
56 Egyptian Plover Pluvianus aegyptius
55 Black Lark Melanocorypha yeltoniensis
54 Mute Swan Cygnus olor
53 Kagu Rhynochetos jubatus
52 Hoatzin Opisthocomus hoazin
51 Eurasian Hoopoe Upupa epops
50 Wrybill Anarhynchus frontalis
49 Northern Lapwing Vanellus vanellus

48 White Tern Gygis alba
47 Pin-tailed Sandgrouse Pterocles alchata
46 European Goldfinch Carduelis carduelis
45 Yellow-billed Loon Gavia adamsii
44 Mountain Bluebird Sialia currucoides
43 Greater Painted Snipe Rostratula benghalensis
42 Varied Thrush Ixoreus naevius
41 Gyrfalcon Falco rusticolus
40 Connecticut Warbler Oporornis agilis
39 Kentucky Warbler Oporornis formosus
38 African Skimmer Rynchops flavirostris
37 Steller's Sea Eagle Haliaeetus pelagicus
36 Lyre-tailed Nightjar Uropsalis lyra
35 Sunbittern Eurypyga helias
34 Marabou Stork Leptoptilos crumeniferus
33 Superb Lyrebird Menura novaehollandiae
32 Black Grouse Tetrao tetrix
31 Secretarybird Sagittarius serpentarius
30 Ovenbird Seiurus aurocapilla
29 Pied Thrush Zoothera wardii
28 Painted Bunting Passerina ciris
27 Blue Crane Athropoides paradiseus
26 Black Heron Egretta ardesiaca
25 Golden-winged Warbler Vermivora chrysoptera
24 Northern Parula Parula americana
23 Black-throated Blue Warbler Dendroica caerulescens
22 Black-and-white Warbler Mniotilta varia
21 African Finfoot Podica senegalensis
20 Flightless Cormorant Phalacrocorax harrisi
19 Violet-backed Starling Cinnyricinclus leucogaster
18 House Sparrow Passer domesticus
17 Locust Finch Paludipasser locustella
16 Scarlet Tanager Piranga olivacea
15 Bohemian Waxwing Bombycilla garrulus
14 Royal Spoonbill Platelea regia
13 Great Bustard Otis tarda
12 Pied Avocet Recurvirostra avosetta
11 Grey-necked Rockfowl Picathartes oreas
10 Bluethroat Luscinia svecica
9 Sage Grouse Centrocercus urophasianus
8 Beautiful Nuthatch Sitta formosa
7 Blue Swallow Hirundo atrocaerulea
6 Gray's Lark Ammomanopsis grayi
5 Olive-sided Flycatcher Contopus cooperi
4 Budgerigar Melopsittacus undulatus
3 White-winged Flufftail Sarothrura ayresi
2 Black Harrier Circus maurus
1 Christmas Frigatebird Fregata andrewsi

Monday 23 March 2009

In the News: Well-known Blogger botches up and misses his chance to rake in US $ 50,000

Okay, these things can easily happen. It's happened to me a few times, and if you are a birder, it has more than likely happened to you as well:
We miss out on a grand once-in-a-lifetime birding chance, or rather: we mess up bird-wise despite being at the right place at the right time.
Most of the time, we won't notice, e.g. we simply don't see our ultimate nemesis bird sitting right behind us out in the open while we are fully concentrated on scanning the landscape in front of us for said nemesis bird. So the frustration is limited to having just had another fruitless attempt at getting a nemesis as we will never know just how incredibly close we actually were.
Sometimes however, and more and more frequently in an age of endless photographic possibilities, we learn afterwards what we had missed out in the field and the disappointment is heart-breaking.
Yes, I see you need an example to understand what I mean.
Surely many of us will recognize this situation:
You show some slides (wait, make that a power point presentation) from your last birding holiday to a few birding pals of yours and all they do is constantly point out birds in the background of your pictures, birds you hadn't noticed out in the field when photographing the bird in front. This in itself is nice, but it will downright kill you if these background birds are the lifers you wanted to get so desperately on that holiday but had missed - so you thought.
The knowledge of having missed those birds through sheer ... well ... not-being-focussedness, through a birding mistake instead of just never having actually been close to one, is one of the most frustrating emotions I have ever experienced in birding.
Luckily though, I was the guy who pointed out the birds, so I have experienced it passively, so to speak.
[This has really happened to me: I showed my friend two "missed lifers" on his holiday slides, Citrine Wagtail while he took pics of a Reef Heron and Spanish Sparrow in his picture of a White Stork's nest. I can't say I enjoyed it, but it was a noteworthy evening].
Aaaanyway. So this can be extremely frustrating. But what would you say and feel if you not only messed up a chance to get a lifer but if this lifer was worth US $ 50,000?

I don't know.
You surely also won't know.

But hey, I know someone we can ask:

Hello Nate, my friend!
Are you with us tonight?


So, there you were in the Carolinas (crowd holds breath),
in March (part of the crowd starts murmuring),
in a swamp forest (murmuring gets considerably louder)
and you took this photograph [reproduced here with your kind permission] ...

... without noticing that you had just flushed a large black-and-white woodpecker off the far site of a trunk?
(crowd explodes!)

Look closely, my friend:

See that black body?

The largely white underwing pattern?

The black wing tip?

Haven't you seen something like this before, somewhere on the internet?

And isn't there a US $ 50,000 reward for a conclusive picture?

So tell our valued readers, Nate, how does it feel?

Tuesday 3 March 2009

The Post that didn't make it

This collection of random thoughts was meant to not appear here but on Sharon Stiteler's birdchick page, as the winning entry of her Swarovski contest that would earn me the pair of binoculars needed so urgently to turn my non-birding wife into what everyone ought to be:
a bird enthusiast.

Apparently, the post got lost on the internet somehow when I sent it to her and therefore didn't even make the top 10. Yes, these things happen all the time.
The post is all about the role names play in birding, a subject I touched before and might even look at again:

Democracy is the little brother of Evolution. Really, it is. A lot of democracy’s greatness comes from the fact that it is surprisingly darwinistic, and their affectionate relationship is being much appreciated this year, the year we celebrated Darwin’s 200th birthday and witnessed the peaceful shift of power from one hand on to the next. Democracy – like evolution - is all about the survival of the fittest and in this case strength or fitness lies in numbers, or majority of votes. The majority principle also applies to the social aspects of life and the values and criteria we apply to judge our fellow citizens. This is where democracy really hits the homes of birders: the majority of the people around us see us – the birders - as geeks, and as they are many, they must be right. There can be no denying it: the firm association of birding with geekness is rooted so deeply in society it almost got manifested in the United States Declaration of Independence, the product of one of democracy’s finer hours. An early draft version, which read as follows

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all birders are created geeky”

was only changed to what it is today after the influential naturalist and early birder William Bartram convinced Thomas Jefferson over a tea or two that he was only in it for fame and fortunes. Good man, that Bartram, so never mind that King Vulture incident. This close shave with eternal embarrassment clearly demonstrates that we, as birders, may disagree all we want yet the fact remains: in the eyes of the world, birders are not placed right in the centre of the curve that depicts the Gaussian distribution of normality in a given population.
We may indeed hold a position closer to the curve’s periphery.
Heck, we might not even make the curve at all.

It’s not all bad and lost though as some birders have optimistically set out to set the record straight and give birds and birding the place they deserve, at the heart of today’s society. The first step of foremost importance for those intrepid birders thriving to change the geek image is surely to identify the cause for this awkward misconception. And in deep sympathy and support of their quest I offer my fair share of thoughts in the following paragraphs.
This is how I see it:

Some of the reasons why birders cause fellow citizens to raise an eyebrow or two in suspicion may pertain to their maintaining an interest in small brown birds despite being consistently informed by the concerned passer-by that there are Bald Eagles around.
Other factors may vaguely be connected to the preference for Tilley hats, the wearing of multifunctional poly-pocket birder’s vests, and wrapping one’s shoes in neon duct tape during excursions.
However, while all this may be part of the problem the real culprit has nothing to do with the things a birder looks at or uses to dress up with. It’s the birder’s vocabulary or rather their vocalisations that frequently causes distress to those non-birders caught unexpectedly in a conversation on birds.
Seriously, nothing will increase your geek score like throwing in a few decent bird names during a casual conversation on past time activities. Admittedly some bird names aren’t all that bad and reach a certain level of social acceptance. Casually mentioning Ivory Gull, Lucifer Hummingbird or Gyrfalcon during a conversation may even leave a lasting impression on those around you.
Sadly we don’t get to use those names all that often.
Most bird names however are just pathetic. Northern Beardless Tyrannulet springs to mind immediately – the poor creature. Others – like Phainopepla - will likely get you an appointment with your personal rehabber if you try to say them three times in a row real fast, so you had better not come across a small flock of these. Other bird names are even downright dangerous and may get you in serious trouble. Yes, they do! Have you ever tried to have a conversation on the Bridled Titmouse amongst a group of minors when some of their parents were around? This is something I really do not recommend.
Apparently, the frustration amongst birders about frequently having to use lingual lapses of reason as names to describe what they feel passionate about has led to another communication breakdown that may be seen by those outside the birdwatching community as … shall we say peculiar? Birders just try to avoid names to such extend that they never use their own or other birder’s names in direct conversation. They just don’t. It doesn’t happen.
“Hi! Seen anything?” is the phrase commonly used at birding hotspots as an introducing ceremony amongst birders while “Is the [insert name of rare bird] still being seen?” or less politely “Where is the [insert name of rare bird]!?” is all you get at sites where a rarity has been sighted previously and is being “chased”.
Obviously, birders are so much focussed on their target that a simple addendum in the form of “Hi, my name is…” is simply too much distraction and a plain waste of birding time.
Of course there are instances when we as birders have to get conversationally more specific about certain persons birding with us or around us. In this case, the clever approach is to combine the person in question with the birds they have seen. This worked quite fine for me during one memorable day at Ontario’s Point Pelee. I had reported a Clay-coloured Sparrow, not a shabby bird at all for the park and a bird others were trying to relocate. So for the rest of the day and wherever I went, I was “The guy who found the Clay-coloured”.
In order to fully appreciate this effect however, one needs to choose their rarity carefully. “Oh look, there’s the guy who found the Bachman’s Warbler” may be something we’d enjoy hearing for a day or two.
On the other hand, it may not raise our spirits quite as much to overhear others saying “Oh look, there’s the guy who discovered the Phaino… Philo… Philha…, you know that black Arizona bird? White in the wings, with reddish eye? That Philanthro, Piano, Picassothingy, you know? Oh forget it, never mind. It probably wasn’t him anyway. - Hey, what’s that bird over there?“

Actually, birders were shown quite clearly how things are done properly in the world of personal introductions not that long ago by a decent man and friend of the birds who also happened to be an acquainted author. Who knows, maybe it was not only the name that he borrowed from a birder for his most famous fictional character. Maybe it was this particular birder’s manners as well.
This is who I am talking about and how I feel things should be handled amongst birders in the future. So next time we meet out in the field:

The name is Clay-coloured. The-guy-who-found-the Clay-coloured.