Saturday, December 18, 2010

Santa's (Partial) List for Birders

December brings many thoughts to a birder's mind: Sparrow ID. The Christmas Bird Count.

I hate shopping. Hate it, hate it, hate it. I hate mall crowds. I hate sacred music whose lyrics have been turned into commercial jingles. I hate the knowledge that most of American society judges people on the brands of clothes they wear rather than on any substantial features of intellect or character.

And yet, I love the holidays. I love the lights, cheesy decorations, and weirdly decorated foodstuffs. And strangely enough, I love getting gifts for those close to me whose tastes I know and understand (or who know me well enough to drop really large hints).

For me, the only fun part of holiday shopping is discovering something that I just know someone close to me will love. Extra fun comes from discovering said item is inexpensive. So as a service to the birding community, I've devised a short list of budget-friendly surprises for the birders on your list -- so you don't have to:

For the Completist Who Needs To Know the Root Causes of Everything:

We all know this guy -- and for some inexplicable reason, it's almost always a guy. He knows not only what specific birds eat (beginner stuff), but also the life cycle of whatever that food source is. He's memorized the annual arrival and departure dates of every migrant in his area for the past century, and is endlessly frustrated that nobody thought to document the fall arrival dates of, say, Magnolia Warblers in Alachua County, Florida, prior to 1885. He keeps track of every AOU attempt to re-classify birds and most likely has every bird book you think he'd like.

But chances are he doesn't yet own The Princeton Field Guide to Dinosaurs (Princeton Field Guides), and he definitely should. So he wants to know everything about birds going back to the beginning of time? Here, the roots of the avian family tree are magnified and illuminated in glorious detail. (Did you know that during the time of the first dinosaurs, the year was 385 days long and days themselves were only 22 hours and 45 minutes?) Meticulous colored illustrations of feathered dinos are accompanied by detailed accounts of their anatomy and life history. Think of a a bigger, blingier version of The Sibley Guide to Bird Life and Behavior, but with dinosaurs instead. If this doesn't make your nerdy friend (or his dinosaur-loving kid) want to jump into a time machine right this very minute, nothing will.

For the Birder with an Aural Fixation:

In every birding community, there's always one person who can hear a millisecond-long chirp a mile away and immediately ID the bird responsible. I'm not that person. But I've always wanted to be: I've loved and wondered about bird song long before I started birding formally, and since I'm pathologically nearsighted (the first words any new opthamologist says to me are "holy crap, are you myopic!"), learning to bird by ear has given me a leg up in the field. I may be always the last person to actually see an interesting bird on any given day, but I'm often among the first to figure out it's actually there.

Of course, the more one birds, the more one realizes how much more there is to know. Birds are so fascinating to watch (if you're lucky enough to see them) that the complexity of their vocalizations is often overlooked. For a birder who wants to know more about all those wonderful songs and calls, there's no better source than The Singing Life of Birds: The Art and Science of Listening to Birdsong.

I discovered this book after hearing its author, Donald Kroodsma, give a talk at a bird festival last year. Of course, the topic of his talk was bird vocalization, its origins, and its uses in bird life.

His book is every bit as warm and engaging, yet intellectually rigorous, as his speaking style. As a trained linguist, I appreciated how he approached both the acoustic and neurological aspects of bird vocalizations. His writing shifts seamlessly from detailed discussion of bird evolution and how it is reflected in different types of song acquisition in birds to deeply personal impressions of how it feels to sit alone outdoors in the predawn hours, waiting to record awakening birds.

Kroodsma's book is a multimedia experience: it comes with a CD of bird song snippets that one should ideally play while reading through the relevant parts of the book. It also contains lots of graphic information--mostly spectrograms (voice prints) of the bird songs on the CD. Enjoying all this as Kroodsma intended, however, can be inconvenient--when I had access to a CD player (e.g., in my car), I wasn't in a position to read the book, and when I was reading the book (in bed, for the most part), I didn't have a CD player nearby. (Yes, I could have downloaded the CD onto my iPod, but since when should reading a book require effort or thought?)

It occurred to me that this book was the reason why interactive readers such as the iPad were invented--I can picture this as a killer e-book, with hyperlinks to sound files (instead of CD track numbers in parentheses in the text) and animated spectrograms so readers could simultaneously hear a bird song and see its graphic representation. Just a thought, if the right person is reading this...

For the Eastern Birder Who's Okay With Delayed Gratification, or Knows You're a Procrastinating Flake:

A dumb argument that tends to come up among birders is the debate over which bird guide is the best: Kaufman, with its user-friendly organization and carefully doctored photos or Sibley, with its wonderfully detailed drawings? Or is the best the National Geographic guide or the Stokes guide?

One reason this is a dumb argument is that different birders have different preferences and priorities; some may find one guide more comfortable to use than another. Another reason is that a serious birder really can't rely on just one guide: there is just too much variation in how a species can appear for any one guide to reflect accurately. And a field guide that's compact enough to be usable won't have absolutely all the information one might want on a given species. Different authors have different interests, and I find that having several guides means having several sources of complementary -- rather than redundant --information.

So I was happy to learn of another guide that may soon to added to my arsenal: The Crossley ID Guide: Eastern Birds Like the Stokes and Kaufman guides, it's illustrated with photos --but the photos and lively and distinctive. Here's an example of one of my favorite winter birds, the Cedar Waxwing:

All this is well and good, but there's a catch: the book will not be available until January 1. But if you have a patient birding pal who wouldn't mind an IOU in his or her stocking, this could be a memorable choice.

For Relatives from Outside the Americas Who Go Crazy Whenever They See Hummingbirds:

This isn't just a hypothetical scenario. A few years ago, when I still lived in California, my South African nephews came to visit and were bowled over by the whole concept of hummingbirds. (And these were kids who grew up in a place where baboons and hippos occur in the wild!) Watching their fascination with hummers reminded me of how amazing those little birds really are.

It was only about a year after their visit that I discovered this. If only I had it around as a local present for them to enjoy during their stay here! Yes, it's more pricey than anything else on my little gift list, but it's still cheaper than taking the whole bunch of them to Disneyland.

Saturday, December 4, 2010

Down the River

A scene from the St. Johns River, near DeLand.

Fresh-Squeezed Florida is one of my favorite non-birding blogs. Its owner—who blogs under the name Gainesville365—is, like me, a transplanted Californian in Gainesville trying to make sense of this place. So far, she's done a much better job of it than I have--in her two years here, she has explored and blogged about every interesting nook and cranny in north Florida.

So I was delighted to receive an e-mail from her inviting me to join her on a boat tour of the St. Johns River near DeLand. She had gone on the tour there a few weeks before, she wrote, and found it truly special. But Blue Heron River Tours, the young company sponsoring the tours, needed help getting its name and mission known to the public -- would I be interested in joining her, The Florida Blogger, and possibly a third local blogger on one of their tours?

Of course I said yes. We arranged to carpool out to DeLand together and stop at one of her favorite places nearby for a late lunch on the way back. I was thrilled at the opportunity to meet her and talk to her in person, and to see a part of Florida I hadn't yet visited.

But I got a sad e-mail from her shortly before the trip: she had fallen ill, and would not be able to join us. But two other local bloggers I followed would be there and the trip was still on.

Blue Heron River Tours is based at Hontoon Landing Resort and Marina, just down the road from Hontoon Island State Park. The river front resort was pretty and quiet, as was the stretch of the St. Johns River that we explored on our tour.

Our tour boat moved slowly, by design -- both so we could have time to look for birds and animals on the shore, and to protect any wintering manatees in the area from possible collisions. We didn't see any manatees, but birds were plentiful and cooperative. My favorite bird sighting was a pair of Purple Gallinules, which don't occur in Gainesville during the winter--but seemed perfectly happy wintering only two hours away. Here's one of them, just coming into its adult plumage:

Anhingas were everywhere, posing dramatically.

Our guide and captain, Gary Randlett, clearly loved the river and was deeply knowledgeable about its natural history and role in human history. He took us off the main river and down a narrow canal, which he explained had been excavated by loggers in the 19th century. Now it looked utterly natural, as if it had been there forever. Something about that canal struck me as deeply romantic, despite the fact that it existed just so people could find trees to cut down. And I wasn't the only one who thought so: the trees lining the canal's banks -- so close we could touch them -- were filled with colorful painted birdhouses, all put up by locals as memorials or tributes to loved ones:

Towards the end of the tour, we saw an Osprey dining delicately on a fish...

...and a deer grazing close to shore.

Only an hour from us, no doubt dozens of tourists were on a boat trip at Disney World, listening to a canned spiel from a "cast member" and oohing and aahing at mechanized animals and birds. Meanwhile, the real Florida, in all its glory, waited nearly undiscovered for its fans.