Category Archives: Birding

The Future of Voucher Specimens

Kannan, R. 2007. New bird descriptions without proper voucher specimens: reflections after the Bugun Liocichla case. Journal of the Bombay Natural History Society 104: 12-18.

This story begins with the discovery of the Bugun Liocichla, a spectacular but possibly rare bird discovered recently in India. The formal description of the bird stirred up a lot of controvery, as no type specimen was sent to a museum or examination, as is the formal procedure. Rather, the authors decided to take photographs and feather samples, as they believed that the species was too rare to allow for the taking of an individual. This raises some important questions about the current state of museum specimens, and whether they remain relevant in biology today, and if traditional practices are conservationally unadvised. Continue reading


Birding with Joanna and her Dad

Definitely the most frustrating part of Finals period is not necessarily the stress and the busyness, but the fact that I have to miss spring migration! Finally, I got a chance to head into the Crum this morning with Joanna and her dad, which was a nice treat. We headed out around 1030 am, which is a bit of a late start for me, but it didn’t matter as we found some great birds! Continue reading

Spring Migration Timing

Currently re-reading Scott Weidensaul’s Living on the Wind, a personal account of bird migration in the Americas, while studying how and why birds migrate, and what the future of migratory bird conversation looks like. In high school, it was one of my favorite books, as it combined both my scientific fascination of birds along with my more personal connection to birds and their environments. There’s a lot of really scientifically interesting stuff on the mechanisms of bird migration, but there’s also some really emotional stuff about the death of thousands of Swainson’s Hawks due to insecticides in Argentina, for instance.

Re-reading it now, it’s not quite as good as I remembered. The book doesn’t have a clear narrative arc, which I’m fine with, but it also doesn’t do the ‘sprawling New Yorker style’ that McPhee does so well, and that I’ve been reading so much of lately. Instead, there really doesn’t seem to be much of a structure at all, and feels like facts and stories haphazardly thrown together. There are probably better ways to structure this book.

Anyways, one small factoid caught my attention as I was reading the second chapter. It was mentioned that birds know when to migrate based primarily on two factors: genetic predisposition, and photoperiod (length of daylight). Continue reading

Well I Walked Out Onto the Jetty

After yesterday’s success with the Snail Kite, I had high hopes for the morning’s birding at Huntington Beach State Park, possibly my favorite birding location in the world. Both the quantity as well as the quality of birds that can be found at Huntington Beach are incredible, and I’ve never had a bad visit.

Which I suppose means that it was about time for one, and that’s just about what happened. This morning’s visit was a bit of a disappointment. I only got one life bird, a Wilson’s Plover on the beach at the south end of the jetty rockpile. That’s a great bird, one I’ve been seeking for a while, but usually I pick up many more new birds than that. Perhaps I’m just exhausting the park’s possibilities or something. It’s just that the last time I visited, I picked up Least Bittern, Piping Plover, and Common Ground-Dove, three absolutely fantastic birds that only Huntington Beach could have offered me, and today was just a disappointment in comparison.

Still though, a bad day at Huntington Beach is still better than the vast majority of birding walks I go on. The same beach where I found the Wilson’s Plover was also home to Ruddy Turnstones in breeding plumage, American Oystercatcher, Black Skimmers, a feeding Osprey, and a Least Tern nesting colony. The causeway was filled with Semipalmated Sandpipers, a few Greater Yellowlegs, Black-necked Stilts, and various herons and egrets flying around, as well as a few American Alligators to make things even more exciting.

And that was just about it. Sandpiper Pond was completely silent. I couldn’t rustle up any Painted Buntings anywhere in the park. The only birds on the walk to the jetty were Sanderlings. I really shouldn’t be disappointed, as it really was a great day by my usual standards, but I guess I’ve just come to expect more from Huntington Beach. Regardless, I will be back for sure.

This whole trip was made possible by ten hours total of solo driving, but that driving was made possible by the fact that I put together an mp3 cd to keep me sane on the road. In all, I fit seven albums onto one disc, and I really got to know those albums pretty well, if I didn’t already.

George Harrison – All Things Must Pass
I’m beginning to believe that I actually like this album more than any of the proper Beatles albums. Isn’t that amazing? I’m not even a huge fan of George’s output with the Beatles; Here Comes The Sun is probably his only composition that would make my best-of mix. Yet somehow, he was capable of crafting a double album that is completely unmatched in terms of consistent quality over its length. Starostin complained about the Apple Jam on the final third, but I actually really dig that stuff, it makes for great driving music. I guess Starostin just doesn’t know anything about driving now would he lol. Guy needs to update his site bigtime, by the way. But really, the only possible complaint I can think of it is that Phil Spector’s production is actually the real winner here, and lifts some relatively mediocre Harrison tunes into the transcendent realm. I sometimes start thinking that the album should be credited to both Harrison and Spector instead of just Harrison, as I think Spector’s production plays a completely crucial role in crafting the sound of this album, more so than the production on the vast majority of albums out there. Nevertheless, who cares about details like that, the end result is that this is one of the best albums ever. Period.

The Silver Jews – American Water
I didn’t like this album much on first listen. Random Rules is of course a near-perfect song, and the thunderous Smith and Jones Forever coupled with the fireworks of Night Society combines for one of the best opening salvos I’ve heard on an album, but after that I really wasn’t a fan of anything in the sequence. But now this record is growing on me more and more, and now I’m a huge fan of quite a bit of the thing. If I still have one complaint, it’s this: too much Malkmus. I know, if you’ve known me since high school, you’d know that the statement I just made would amount to heresy in my high school mind, but really it’s just the truth. His songwriting and singing contributions are just embarrassing next to Berman’s, and almost upset the mood of the record. Some of his guitar work is nice enough, but I think the Jews would be better off without him somehow.

Wilco – Being There
I think I’ve discussed this one enough already. See two posts previous.

Yo La Tengo – I Am Not Afraid of You and I Will Beat Your Ass
I still don’t know what to make of this. At times, I think it’s their best work since their masterpiece I Can Hear the Heart Beating As One, and it’s a brilliant way to get out of the corner they’d been painting themselves into. But there’s also times where I actually think it’s their poorest effort since, well, their debut Ride the Tiger. But I can’t really put my finger on why that is. Something about this album sounds…forced. Or fake. Like the band isn’t having fun anymore, and is just going through the motions of ‘being eclectic’. They pick a few styles to tackle, write a formulaic song-by-the-numbers in that style, and move on, instead of incorporating that style into their own unique world. Sometimes, it just really doesn’t sound like an inspired album to me. But then of course, I hear the guitars on Pass the Hatchet I Think I’m Goodkind and I’m all like, forget that, this album frickin rules. I’m completely undecided as to which viewpoint I best hold.

The Beatles – Let it Be
Garbage. Outside of two or three songs, I completely dislike this album, especially in comparison with the rest of their untouchable catalog. Seriously, I think I even prefer Please Please Me. It’s good that this isn’t really a proper Beatles album, because it’s abundantly clear that the thing is unfinished. With a little more time spent on it, I can see Let it Be becoming a sort of concise, poor man’s White Album. But as the abandoned project that it really is, I can’t take this album seriously as a true Beatles album.

Bob Dylan – The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan
Brilliant. It’s amazing what this guy can do with just an acoustic guitar and a harmonica, and his voice obv. I don’t understand why it’s taken me so long to get out of my indie rock cave and discover all this classic stuff, because it is so, so glorious.

The Court & Spark – Witch Season
Not enough people have heard this album. It deserves more. Great, great album. There is some really beautiful stuff on more that needs to be heard by more people. I can’t understand why their followup Hearts sucked so hard, when an album like this can express so much sensitivity and musicality. If you haven’t heard this album, please fix that, it really is a lost gem.

And there we go.

Searching for a Kite

The Carolinabirds email listserv has been on fire lately due to the incredible news that a Snail Kite (Rostrhamus sociabilis) has shown up near Lake Marion, South Carolina. This is the first record of a Snail Kite ever occurring north of Florida. The first ever. Needless to say, the Carolina birding community is really really excited, if that actually means anything at all, haha.

So I figured, hey, I have nothing better to do, why don’t I go seek out this creature? It sounds like it’s sticking around, and I don’t anticipate being in the Florida Everglades any time soon, and they’re rare there anyways, so why not give it a shot? I sketched out a quick itinerary, adding a second day to bring Huntington Beach State Park into the trip, and made the necessary preparations.

It was a long and grueling drive down, but after four hours I finally got off I-95 at the necessary exit. From there, I went further and further down unmarked rural roads. Every time I thought I’d gone too far and missed the unmarked turn, I spotted a noted landmark and knew I was on the right track. How in the world this bird was found in the first place, I will never know.

10 miles out from metaphorical Nowhere, I finally found myself at Elliott’s Crawfish Farm, where the bird had been spotted. Srsly, how the original discoverer or the Kite itself found this place is a complete mystery to me. I noted a lone birder standing by Pond #1, and after speaking with him, I learned that he’d been circling this pond for the past hour, and had not found the Kite. I helped him search for a few minutes before the eponymous Mrs. Elliott showed up with her toddler in a pickup trick, and gave us some tips on where it’d been seen that morning.

As we headed around, I suddenly noticed a dark bird flying low over Pond #2. Brought up the binoculars, and found myself looking at a slate-gray raptor, white base to the tail, and then the distinctive orange bill. Frickin’ Snail Kite, baby!!!

By the time we got to Pond #2, it had flown again and perched itself on a low overhanging branch in plain sight of our vantage point. Beautiful, beautiful bird. We got great binocular views, and it filled a scope view as well. I watched the Snail Kite for a full hour, as it flew to various perches around the pond, and unsuccessfully dove for crawfish several times. I hope this guy makes it okay; the theory regarding why he’s up here is that the drought and wildfires down in Florida have driven him desperate and up into this unfamiliar territory, eating crawfish instead of the usual Apple Snails. All indications are that he’ll stick around, but hopefully the crawfish diet will suit him just fine. I wanted to get to my hotel in Myrtle Beach in time for a dinner, so I bid farewell to the two newly-arrived birders who had joined the Kite’s entourage, caught one last glimpse of the Kite soaring to another perch, and headed back on the road.

Other birds noted: A cooperative Yellow-crowned Night-Heron at Pond #2, replete with long breeding-plumage head plumes, first time I’ve seen them with those plumes, cool stuff. Also, a soaring Wood Stork on the drive to Myrtle Beach. At first, my heart skipped a beat as I thought it might be a Swallow-tailed Kite, but no such luck. Of all my remaining Nemesis Birds, the Swallow-tailed Kite is the most beautiful, alluring siren of them all…someday, you will be mine…wow that sounds a little creepy, haha.

Photos from Royal National Park

An hour’s train ride south of Sydney
Hiked 10 km on the famous Coast Track
Probably one of the most beautiful parks I’ve ever visited

I believe those flowers are Heath Banksia (Banksia ericifolia), though I could definitely be wrong.

Anyways, it was just a fantastic walk. Coming to visit this park again may have actually become the #1 reason I would want to come back to Australia, overshadowing anything in Sydney or tropical north Queensland. Actually, the Great Barrier Reef comes close as well, but who knows how long that’ll be around. But yeah, my walk covered only the tiniest sliver of the park’s territory, and there’s some really different habitats in the other corners that I’d love to see someday. Just a great park in general, it gets my highest recommendation.

As for Sydney, I browsed through a Sydney Food Guide in the bookstore, and have now singled out some completely clutch hole-in-the-wall restaurants in the labyrinth commonly known as Sydney Chinatown. For dinner today, I walked into what looked like one of those apartment/business building complexes that nobody actually uses, went up one floor, and suddenly found the best Japanese ramen noodles I’ve ever had, for five dollars total. Swish.

But I’m also leaving for home on Sunday. Honestly, my fond memories of the program are much less intense these days, so it feels like the right time to head home. I had a great time on this mini-vacation, but it’s definitely time for me to dive back into the real world. See you there!

The Big Twitch

Just finished reading The Big Twitch, by Sean Dooley. Mr. Dooley is a comedy writer for TV shows by day, and a fanatical birder…also by day. I think he just sleeps by night, like most people.

Anyways, The Big Twitch is the story of how Sean Dooley spent one year trying to break the record for most birds seen in Australia in one year, an event creatively known in the birding community as a Big Year. But more than break the record, Mr. Dooley wanted to completely smash the record by reaching the previously untouchable level of 700 species in one year. The previous record was 634 or something. It was an ambitious goal, but Mr. Dooley felt that he had a reasonable chance of accomplishing his goal.

He does a pretty good job of keeping both birders and non-birders interested in his story, mixing in his tales of chasing down rare birds with his absurd adventures on the road. Another major theme of the book is his terrible luck at finding a steady girlfriend, as a fanatical birder, and how this Big Year attempt probably won’t help things any. Not only do the chapter headings give an update on how many species he’s seen thus far, but also how many girlfriends he’s gone through, a number which pretty much stays at zero all the way through the book. Ah, life as a birder, that’s the life I love.

Halfway through, it sorta became apparent that he’d break the record. Why else would he write the book? So then I started to wonder: is this a storybook ending where he gets a girl too? And that’s when I realized: oh no. This is like a romantic comedy! I’ve been tricked! Those scoundrels! I was lured in with the promise of rare birds, and got suckered into reading a romantic comedy! Kinda reminds me of a movie that came out many years back, I think it was called Forget Paris? It starred Billy Crystal as an NBA referee, and all I noticed during the previews was footage of guys like Reggie Miller and Charles Barkley draining jumpshots and making fun of Billy Crystal’s hair, and I almost went to see it until my dad rescued me from the abyss by mentioning that it was actually a romantic comedy, probably advertised as a sports movie to sucker boyfriends and husbands into seeing it with their giddy girlfriends and wives.

Fortunately though, Dooley gets one satisfaction but not the other: he gets the record, but on his first date of the next year, the girl, “with eyes like a Rainbow Pitta’s wings…” thinks he’s crazy and doesn’t follow up with a second date. Sorry Dooley old buddy, that does sorta suck for you, but c’mon, you got to see a Red-capped Flowerpecker! Doesn’t that make it totally worthwhile?! Sad thing is, some would argue that yes, yes that’s totally worth it. Hah.

The unromantic fanaticism of these guys really is quite amazing. Dooley is tortured by the constant struggle of how one can possibly nurture a relationship when an Eyrean Grasswren has just showed up six hours away. But there’s no way he can compromise and bring the two together either; you just can’t drag a girlfriend into a ten-mile hike through odious swamps just to see a small brown bird to add to the year’s list.

That’s the tension that makes the book work so well, the push-and-pull between the birding world and the normal world. The other two Big Year accounts I’ve read (Kingbird Highway by Kenn Kaufman, a great book, and Wild America by Roger Tory Peterson and James Fisher, historically important but not as good of a read) probably appeal only to birders; by the end they start reading like a laundry list of birds seen or missed. By contrast, The Big Twitch is a very accessible read that a non-birder could certainly appreciate, and a birder would also approve of. Well done Dooley, best of luck with the birds and the chicks, mate.

Edit: Just noticed something really weird. In the cover photo above, both birds are Red-browed Finches. On the copy I borrowed, the guy is holding what I think is a Rose Robin, and peering off to the right is a Regent Honeyeater or something, I haven’t checked the guide to ID either of them. I wonder if different copies have different birds on the cover? That’d be pretty cool.


So now I’ve moved on to Don DeLillo’s Underworld. The New York Times surveyed a vast array of American literature critics to compile a list of the Best American Novels of the past 25 years, and Underworld clocked in impressively at Number Two, just behind Toni Morrison’s Beloved. I’m a hundred pages in, and I’ve already been taken to the verge of tears. What was the reason, you might ask? Of course: sports. Baseball. The account of Bobby Thomson’s Shot Heard ‘Round the World. The joyous players, the ecstatic fans, a city rising together, that kind of stuff just kills me every time. Great book so far. But back to sports: as much as I love those sorts of miraculous moments in sports, I absolutely cannot stand sports movies. Actually, I can’t think of a single one that I actually enjoy. As a kid, I really loved Rookie of the Year and Angels in the Outfield, but I’m way past that point now. Well, in hindsight, those movies were sort of ridiculous, and would probably be entertaining for camp value. Can somebody arrange a viewing? But in general, I don’t like sport movies, because you know what’s going to happen. It’s the unpredictable and unscriptable stuff in the real world that gets to me. Remember the Music City Miracle? Holy cow, I’m tearing up just thinking about that thing. Sports are so great. Tar Heels, don’t let me down.


np: The Smashing Pumpkins – ‘Bullet With Butterfly Wings’. These are among the most awkward lyrics I’ve ever heard, they’re just laughably horrendous. The music though, woah. The hook in the chorus is incredible. I start air-guitaring and screaming along to it, but then the lyrics I’m singing just crack me up and I burst out laughing. How frustrating is that. This song could’ve been Song of All-Time, but silly Billy Corgan had to slap on angsty goth-poetry that doesn’t even make any sense. The opening line: “The world is a vampire…” and you’re already down for the count, pounding the floor in laughter. Endless lols. I wish I could listen to this song with alternate, better lyrics. Oh man, what if Dan Bejar wrote the lyrics for ‘Bullet With Butterfly Wings’. Best song ever, or, best song of all-time? Tough question.

Also, I saw that the new Rosebuds albums leaked, haha. Listened to the first song, and was really disappointed it. Shucks, what happened to these guys? They were Raleigh’s great shining hope for indie rock salvation, and after the brilliance of The Rosebuds Make Out, they just haven’t gone anywhere. There were a handful of nice songs on the Unwind EP and Birds Make Good Neighbors, but it doesn’t look like this new one’s going anywhere. In general, 2007 has been a bit of a disappointment, though clearly I’m missing out on a lot by being abroad with very little internet. Can people give some 2007 recommendations, including stuff I’ve already heard but may need to revisit? Much appreciation.


More Australia photos:

A little baby Stinging Tree!!! Adorable.

Whiting’s Fragment, which is the world’s smallest fragment of type 5b ‘Mabi’ forest left in the entire world. My partner and I did some surveys of frog populations in this fragment, and believe it or not, both of us actually got lost in there. It’s some of the densest forest I’ve ever encountered, and blindly hacking through it at night didn’t help. Somehow, we managed to get hopelessly lost.

Whale Rock, at Granite Gorge.

Green ants. That’s the queen in the center. They’re actually edible, and delicious: they have a sharp citrus taste. Unreal.